In the beginning, there is a victory won, albeit a bittersweet one. There is a victory, and then a seemingly endless cleanup; after a big victory, the world tends to need some care. That's the beginning, even though some might call it the end. But this is, after all, just a matter of semantics. One thing needs to end so that something new can start.
In the beginning – this new beginning – there is a bit of a celebration and a bit of mourning, all wrapped into one; there are friends reunited, and there are reconciliations; hands shaken, hugs exchanged, glasses clinking against glasses. There are even some speeches. As the evening progresses, these get less boring, albeit a bit slurred. Because, in this instant that is a beginning and also an end, there is a big party taking place at the Avengers Compound.
In any case, that is the beginning of the story.
But we don't start at the beginning. Middles tend to be way more interesting.
Tomorrow morning, Tony wakes up with a killer headache and congealed eyes. He also wakes up alone. He should be relieved – it's best this way, really; still, he isn't sure if the black pit opening in his stomach is due to the hangover or to his empty bed.
"Friday. When did Captain Rogers leave?"
"About an hour ago. Boss, according to your readings, you should try and rehydrate."
He oozes out of bed and grabs a bottle of water. Either it tastes like shit or it's the tongue itself. Small sips. It's ages since he'd drunk enough to actually be hung-over.
He shouldn't have. But then again, if he hadn't, he wouldn't have had Steve.
Well, he still doesn't have Steve, so what does it matter? This is exactly what Tony wanted, though, isn't it? This is exactly the way he planned it.
Tony rubs at his eyes. There is still a chance Steve simply went over to his room. Isn't there?
But that would only complicate things. If that's the case, Tony should just lie low until Steve is out of here. That would be easiest. What a pity Tony never liked easy, really.
"Did he leave the building?"
"Yes, boss." Then, without prompting: "He went out without going to his guest room first. His luggage is still there."
Oh, right. Guest room. Tony supposes that's accurate. Steve hasn't come to stay.
Tony didn't want him to, either. It's absolutely best for all that he's accepted the position as the leader of the newly founded West Coast Avengers. He has a plane ticket for tonight and everything. The party was just a short stop on his way.
Still. Tony had kept that room the way it had been when Steve left for Peggy's funeral, all those years ago. He'd ignored it's existence, he'd contemplated turning it into a sewing room or painting the walls dark purple or something else petty and ridiculous, but in the end he never touched it. Never went in either. And now it's all packed, and it's officially just a guest room. He should be relieved.
So, why does that feeling taste of pickles and betrayal?
Tony drags himself along, and into the shower, and he downs a painkiller, and after that he starts feeling like he's worthy of rejoining the human race.
He didn't even drink all that much, to be honest. They say you should multiply the glasses you've had with the number of gray hairs on your head.
"So, do we, ah, do we know where he went?"
"Do you want me to track his phone for you, boss?"
No. That's excessive. Tony may be a bit of a stalker, at heart, but not that much.
Steve probably went for a run. A creature of habit, our Captain.
Tony used to be angry at Steve for what happened between them, in Germany, in Siberia. He's not any longer. Now he's just... resigned to the fact that Steve doesn't care one bit. That's what used to hurt the most, before Tony made his peace with it. It doesn't, any longer.
Only, that's not really true, is it? It's not true that Steve doesn't care, either, and Tony doesn't know how to feel about these new revelations. (The old him would have gloated a bit, but that would have been just another lie he told himself, anyway. And now it's high time to eradicate all the lies; like lice.)
I love you, Steve said last night, out of the blue, just like that. At which point Tony practically threw him out of the room.
No, that's not right either. Tony just stood there like a log. Now he wishes he'd said something – anything – else instead, and not what the fuck, Steve?
That's not a way to respond to 'I love you', whatever you might feel yourself. That's just not any way to treat friends.
Is that what the two of them are, though? Were they, ever?
Tony had frozen at hearing the words. He was an ice statue. His excitement had withered in an instant, so he just stood there, limp and shocky.
Why are you doing this to me? What the fuck, Steve? This was clearly supposed to be a one night stand.
Steve had given him a Look. That look made Tony feel tiny; lower than the lowest of all the despicable politicians.
That Look. Also, a dry comment that still couldn't mask the hurt in Steve's eyes. And then Steve up and left.
He came back later, but it was different, then.
The party is the first time, after their falling-out, that he sees Steve without the world about to crash down around their ears. For Tony, suddenly, it's as if other people aren't even there.
Tony flirts shamelessly. He flirts using his eyes – bedroom eyes, that he makes at Steve, soft and heavy-lidded and suggestive. He flirts using his eyebrows. He flirts using his hands, touching Steve unnecessarily while they talk. A hand over Steve's own as Tony hands him a glass. A palm on his waist as they walk past someone. He goes as far as to idly sketch something with his forefinger, right there on Steve's chest, as they chat. As if Steve was his. As if Tony had the right.
It's blatant and over the top and very much calculated. Steve knows this, obviously; he glares at Tony. And blushes. And doesn't run away screaming, somehow. Tony wanders what that all's about.
And then, as the drink warms his stomach with that old sense of comfort, Tony's laughter becomes more genuine, bit by bit, and he forgets he's deliberately seducing Steve, or mock-seducing Steve, or whatever the hell he is doing. (What is he doing, again?) He's just having fun, and his head is spinning with excitement; and it's Steve, his Steve, Steve that he's missed so much. Tony wants to say goodbye properly, to Steve and to all that he's felt for Steve over the years.
Steve is not so flustered any longer, either. His laugh gets warmer, sonorous, unrestrained. He's not a stranger to innuendo, himself. Thor's mead must be getting to his head. Both Tony and Steve are tipsy, and every look, every touch feels so natural.
Tony monopolizes Steve all evening.
And Steve lets him. There is no other explanation.
Tony leaves and goes to his room, still cradling a glass. Steve follows soon after; he probably imagines he's discreet about it.
What's a hot fuck between friends, right? Right? Only, Tony is very much not sure that's what they are at all.
Coming to Tony's bedroom, Steve must know what he's doing. Tony is skeptical about that, but Steve wastes no time. He takes Tony in his arms, unstoppable as a summer storm. And Tony's muscles turn to liquid as Steve holds him firmly, pinning him against the wall, laughing softly from time to time without an obvious reason. Weirdly enough, it's one of the sexiest sounds Tony has ever heard. His tendons are dissolving and thoughts are being wiped from his brain like words from a blackboard. He's desperately hard; Steve is harder. Tony manages to unbutton Steve's shirt and peppers his chest with tiny kisses. Steve's heart is loud in his chest; Tony feels it's tattoo under his lips; and his hands sneak around Steve's ribcage, under the shirt that still hangs open on his shoulders. And he rests his cheek, his ear, against Steve's solid chest, just for a nanosecond. And he listens to the steady heartbeat like an exquisite musical piece.
It feels so good. So warm and safe, and a part of him knows he should move on – get on his knees and make Steve happy – something – because this is not what you do on a one night stand, this is not...
Just a nanosecond longer, then...
Only, the nanosecond is probably not a nanosecond. Because Steve is then holding Tony against his chest, just as firmly as Tony is holding him, and to Tony's brain, at that moment in time, there's nothing more natural in the world.
This is when Steve whispers his 'I love you'.
And Tony's world freezes over.
This isn't happening, is all he can think. And: I can't do this. Maybe at some point I could have, but not now. And: I'm too old for this shit. Why can't you people just leave me alone? It's unclear which people he is referring to.
His excitement, gone in seconds. He needs to be out of here. Right now. No; he needs to never have been here.
He can't do this. All the emotions he's had on the subject are long gone, deliberately burned out, cauterized; they've been stomped into the ground, and the ground salted, so that nothing would dare to grow there ever again.
He can't do this. This was supposed to be just for one night....
"Why are you doing this to me? What the fuck, Steve? This was clearly supposed to be a one night stand."
His own voice is clearly controlled by some other entity. He himself can't even think coherently right now, let alone form sentences.
Steve looks at him. Tony can't interpret that look. Because, if he could, he'd have to admit Steve's eyes look raw and wounded, and that was never his intention. He never wanted to hurt Steve. It wasn't supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be lighthearted and fun; they would have shared something nice, and then they'd have said goodbye.
"So, is this how you are with all your conquests? You just hug them and hold them tight and refuse to let go? Because it does send a wrong message." Steve's voice is factual, and dry. Tony's never heard it so acerbic before.
Tony just shakes his head, unable to look at him.
And then Steve leaves.
He comes back about an hour later. "You still interested in that one night stand?" he asks. And he's changed. His voice is light. It's as if he doesn't have a care in the world. It's a big fat lie, obviously; they both know it.
Letting Steve go the second time is beyond Tony.
As for Steve's question, all Tony can do is nod.
"Boss, if you are going out, take an umbrella."
It's raining like crazy. The skies are low and gray, fittingly enough, and the whole world feels claustrophobic because of it.
Thinking he can guess Steve's preferred route is probably pure arrogance on Tony's part. But if he knows Steve at all – does he? – he's gone out in order to clear his head, and he's gone down his favorite route, out of the Compound and down the country road to the nearby town.
When Tony is fucked up, he closes himself in. In his workshop, his ice fortress, completely alone, underground. For days.
Steve likes to be alone in a crowd, Tony knows. He likes to go and look at people, watch life take place around him.
We all have our own fucked up ways of dealing with depression.
He has no idea what he's going to say to Steve if he finds him. Still, finding him, talking to him is crucial.
Last night, during sex, Tony didn't say a word. He can't let the last thing he said to Steve be: Why are you doing this to me? What the fuck, Steve? This was clearly supposed to be a one night stand.
It's not a happy fuck.
It's almost businesslike in its perfection. This is a fuck Tony would have dreamed of, if it were with someone else – a beautiful, faceless stranger he met one night in a bar. It's just a little too impersonal, just a little too fierce. Steve lets Tony feel his strength without being truly rough. But he's moving Tony's body around like a paper doll. He kisses him against the wall, almost immobilizing him. He lifts him in his arms with no unnecessary tenderness and deposits him on the bed.
And it's HOT. It would have been perfect if only nothing happened between them, before. If only Tony didn't keep thinking of that soft laugh and warmth in Steve's expression, now completely absent; if only Steve's eyes weren't so distant.
It lasts for a long time, maybe even a tad too long, but just as Tony is growing really tired, Steve lets him have his release. He himself is done in minutes after that.
The kiss he places on Tony's lips is the softest; it belies the whole farce of impersonality. It's fleeting, like a summer breeze. And it hurts, it hurts like hell, because it's reminiscent of what could have been if only Tony didn't fuck it all up.
I love you, Steve had said. There are a million things you can say in response to that, and there are even some that wouldn't make you look like a total jerkface. You don't have to say 'I love you' back. Even if, at some point, back in time, you would have said it happily; and that's what's making it more tragic.
The slant of Steve's shoulders, when Tony finds him, spells quiet despondency. His limp hair is plastered to his head. The rain is streaking into his neckline. It's almost over the top, the way the weather fits his apparent mood. (Hey nature, your penchant for drama impresses no one.) His tee is soaked through. It's pure white, and not what Steve had on last night. Tony thinks it must be his own t-shirt Steve found in Tony's bedroom this morning. It's too small for him, obviously, but he's never learned his own size, anyway.
Steve is sitting on the bridge that leads to the town. He's climbed over the wooden railing, and now he's sitting on the stone blocks at the very edge of the bridge, staring into the waters below.
Tony's feet are boots made of lead. These last few steps take eons. He leans against the railing behind Steve and a bit to the left. For a minute, he watches him get rained upon. Then he moves his umbrella so that it shelters Steve as well.
At this, Steve turns his head and looks up. Looks back down. Says nothing.
On the way, Tony has gone over a million scenarios. What is he going to say to Steve? What could he, what should he say? He's an eloquent guy. He should be able to put his thoughts into words.
All he manages now is: "I'm an asshole."
Steve says nothing. It would be nice if he expressed some sort of disagreement, but whatever, Tony probably should have thought about that before he started turning everything he touched to shit.
"I'm sorry about last night," he manages to say because on the way here he rehearsed it. He figured, if he got to say anything at all to Steve, he had to say that one sentence.
The results are distinctly underwhelming.
Steve shrugs. "It's fine. It's..." He doesn't finish, just waves his hand downwards, vaguely.
The last thing Steve said to Tony, last night, was: You still interested in that one night stand? It sounded breezy, with an undercurrent of steel; it felt like an open wound. And now he can't even be bothered to say water under the bridge; he points instead.
Despite Tony's attempts to distance himself, his insides are a dark sea, and he feels lost there, clinging to a piece of driftwood, and he can't even find himself, he's so small; if Steve doesn't look at him at least one more time, Tony will surely disappear.
"It's not your fault," Steve says, obviously seeing his semi-words weren't enough, but despite his best efforts, he sounds half-assed. "We got our signals crossed. It's not... I'm not mad at you."
You're just sad, Tony tells him in his head. And: I'll miss you. He thinks of Steve saying those same words to him, years ago, and how good it had felt to hear them, and how desperately Tony hid from them. He could have spent more time with Steve, had he tried. He could have talked to him more. It surely would have made a difference.
"We always managed to somehow evade each other. We were too good at it."
Steve now turns and looks up at him again, and blinks. It's as if he didn't expect Tony to continue the conversation. He doesn't seem entirely displeased, though.
Did you think I was just going to apologize – get it over with, and then bolt? Tony thinks. Honestly, he was just about toying with the idea. Now he's decided to stay, if only to prove Steve wrong.
Or, well, for those other reasons too, perhaps.
Saying sorry is like lead around his neck, but saying goodbye seems undoable. They've had too many goodbyes, between them. They've reached the upper limit of goodbyes for life, and now they'll have to endure each other's presence for ever and ever.
If only, eh.
"What do you mean?" Steve asks. He's staring forward again, but at least he's talking to Tony. He isn't showing any intention of getting up, and as much as Tony would like to get over the railing and sit next to him, he feels like he would be intruding.
"I mean," he says, "that we were on the team together for like two seconds, all in all, years ago. And then I left, and then you left, and then, with Thanos, we were mostly on different sides of the world, or worlds. Bad timing, I don't know. I just..."
I never got to have you to myself, not even as a friend. I thought you didn't want that, and now I think that maybe you did, but it's too late.
"I always miss you, Tony," Steve says, and there, see, that's how it's done; it's possible to put that into words. Steve's tongue certainly didn't fall off.
I miss you too; like crazy.
"We never were friends," Tony says instead, thoughtfully. "Not really, you know." It comes out wrong. Well, of course it does.
Steve gives him a look that would have been hurt, if not for all the resignation that suffuses it. "Have it your way, Tony. I considered you a friend."
"I considered you a friend as well, you ass. That's not what I'm saying."
"So, what are you saying?"
"We never did friend things."
"True. We never did."
"We never hung out, just the two of us. You know. Movies. Games. Meeting for lunch. Whatever." And now that Tony can't have those things, because it's too late – he wants them more than anything. "Hell, Steve, we never even talked on the phone unless it was work."
"You think I don't know that? So what?" Steve is showing a bit of a temper, now, and compared to his expressionless eyes, the way they were at the start of this convo – this is a balm for Tony's heart. Well, almost. "I mean, if you, in your own heart, considered me a friend, and I considered you a friend, then..."
He falls silent, takes an audible breath, but doesn't go on.
"I know what you mean," Tony says quickly. He hasn't looked at it that way, and also, he's desperate not to let the conversation die. "If one person is in love with another, but says nothing. And that other person is in love with the first person, and also says nothing..." He wants to hit himself on the head, because his words are falling out of his mouth without his consent and, especially, without thinking.
Steve frowns up at him. "That's not what I was talking about."
"I was making an... inappropriate analogy, apparently. Ignore me," Tony says quickly.
"Yeah," Steve says. "Well, you know, maybe it's like that, even if we're talking about friendship. And I was talking about friendship," he points out firmly. If you could erase that ’I love you’ you said last night, you would, Tony thinks. You would, a million times over. You'd give anything to not have said it. But I was there to hear it, and now it's mine, and you can't take it away from me, whatever happens next. "Let's say they never tell each other," Steve goes on, doggedly. "You think that doesn't count? You wouldn't say they love each other?"
Emotions hit unexpectedly. Tony swallows them. "It counts," he concedes quietly. His voice is thick. He'd think it was a dead giveaway, but Steve just goes on, too fired up to notice, perhaps.
"I'm just asking: why would it be different, with friendship? Does it need to be... actualized in some way?"
Steve sounds so vehement that Tony thinks about his answer for a moment. Tries to be as honest as possible. That's all they have left, after all. "Maybe it needs to be actualized in order to work," he says slowly. And: "I don't think ours did." It cuts like a knife, but it's the truth.
"No." Steve's shoulder sag a bit. "Neither do I."
And this is how it ends, Tony thinks. In a few hours, Steve leaves for the West Coast. As the leaders of two Avenger groups, they will have to work together; who knows, maybe their little night together and this subsequent talk will help keep their professional relationship on a decent level. Maybe they needed to vent all that UST. Maybe they needed to air out some of their issues too. But now Steve will leave, and Tony will stay, and the world will be grayer for it, just like the skies, and Tony's life will lose yet another bit of warmth and color and...
"And friends don't do what we did last night," Steve adds.
"Some friends do," Tony says more out of a desire to be contrary than anything else. In any case, it's half-hearted.
Tony's forearm is resting on the bridge railing; spoiler alert: the wood is wet. Tony raises the arm, tries to shake some of the water away; gives up. His elbow back on the railing, he lets his face sink into his hand, pressing his thumb and forefinger against the eyelids, hard. He's not crying. All his emotions are spent, and now there's only void.
Only, that's just another lie, isn't it?
Tony doesn't open his eyes after his orgasm and the kiss. He pretends to fall asleep instantly, there, under Steve. Because Steve is going to walk out now, he's going to leave, and Tony doesn't have the stomach to watch him go. He doesn't have the guts to say goodbye or not say goodbye, whichever.
What is surprising in all this is that Steve falls asleep at once too. Sure, he must be exhausted after that marathon, but still. He collapses on the bed next to Tony, unceremoniously, and he's off to the dream country within seconds.
As he lies awake, Tony wonders if Steve, too, is pretending to be asleep. So that he could stay a while longer, perhaps? Because, after what he said... it's not impossible, is it?
There is no way to know.
After a believable chunk of time, still pretending to be asleep, Tony kind of cuddles up to Steve. It's badly done; he knows that. He's hurt Steve, and now he's using him to quieten his own raging black despair. But lying next to him dampens Tony's darkness a bit and he can keep his eyes closed and let himself be semi-soothed by Steve's warmth, his skin, his presence most of all - just for a minute or two.
It's not just a minute or two.
Well, so what? Steve is obviously asleep – he must be – so where's the harm in it?
Steve throws an arm over Tony, drowsily, unaware of what he's doing; and Tony can pretend, for a short time, that this is what they really are to each other, that this is what they do, this is how they sleep.
It hits him, then.
He had no idea he still wanted this so badly, with Steve. He thought he'd cured himself of those notions. He's been lying to himself so well, apparently, that he let himself imagine having sex with Steve this one time would offer some closure. He's been deluding himself it could somehow be a good idea.
Before he can get any further with these thoughts, sleep claims him.
He wakes up distinctly Steveless. It's unbearable.
Tony's face is resting in his wet palm and he's leaning on the bridge railing. Pressing his thumb and forefinger against his eyelids, he breathes. And breathes.
"I tried so hard not to love you."
He's kind of surprised to hear his own voice. It was just a thought, but apparently it's decided to come into the open. Well. He isn't even sorry. It's not as if Steve didn't figure out how Tony felt about him as soon as Tony touched him last night, pretty much. He figured it out even before Tony himself did.
There. It's out now.
He hears shifting, and splashing, and the rail shakes for a second, and then Tony opens his eyes and Steve is on Tony's side of it. He's not touching Tony, but he's looking at him – Tony can't read that look, but just looking into Steve's eyes makes his heart jump into his throat. He wishes he were better at reading Steve. The water from the umbrella is dripping directly onto Steve's head, but Steve seems not to notice.
"I wish you failed," Steve says, and his smile is small and sad. What did Tony expect? Romantic music on cue? An impromptu proposal? What? They've both messed up too much, and Tony's final screw-up was the glorious culmination of it all, and it's too late for them... Just look at the downcast look in Steve's eyes. Even though he can't seem to look away from Tony's face. Even though...
Pieces of the conversation come back to Tony, and they fall together, and he realizes he's been using past tense too much. I considered you a friend. I tried not to love you. That's what Steve is hearing, isn't it?
Suddenly, he's scared. What he's about to do is turn past tense into present tense, and it's impulsive, and it's fucking scary.
"Steve?" Tony almost chickens out, but he feels it's now or never. There's nothing left to lose. "I did fail. I'm still failing. Big time. Maybe I should stop trying, altogether."
Steve takes a moment to untangle what Tony is saying. Mostly because he can't believe it, Tony figures. He frowns. "You are failing at... not loving me."
Tony is strangely detached from his words. Love confessions shouldn't be like this. They should be all hearts and sunflowers and chocolate strawberries and things. Or they should be heartbreaking and tragic. Not this... prosaic. But he's analyzed and overanalyzed his feelings for Steve, back and forth, over the years, he's dissected them too often, and maybe at some point he forgot to put them back together.
He should say I love you. Maybe that would break the spell.
Steve doesn't seem any closer to believing him either. "But last night you..."
"I panicked," Tony cuts him off. "It was too... It hurts too much, and that was... last night was supposed to be good-bye, and it got out of hand, so I panicked and I lied. By omission or something, I mean, but still. Panicked; lied."
Rain is leaking into his eyes, dripping down his beard. Streaming down his hair into his ears. He remembers the umbrella. He remembers you are supposed to hold umbrellas upright. Over your head. Not hanging over your shoulder, as if you were a young woman on a Monet painting, absentmindedly spinning it one way and then the other.
Tony doesn't give a shit about the umbrella.
Steve is standing still, like a figure chiseled in stone. Water is coursing down his face. Tony could believe he could go on standing like that for generations, enduring weather. Maybe he's really turned to stone? "So... where does that leave us?" Steve asks. He's not moving one inch closer to Tony.
Where do you want it to leave us? Tony wants to ask, but it's not a fair question. He needs to give something. Needs to do anything to change this peculiar impasse.
"Do you really have to go to the West Coast?" He says it without thinking.
This is dangerous ground. No, screw that. It's quicksand inside a smoking volcano during an earthquake.
I made a commitment, Tony, Steve is going to say in that reproachful tone of his. I have a team to lead.
I don't think this can work, Tony. It's too late.
Stay here? With you as a leader? I don't think so. (That one stings more than it should.)
Or, worst of all.
I have to go. But maybe we should talk. Maybe we should go on talking. See what happens. (Because it would almost be better to just let Steve go altogether than to have yet another relationship with a failed start after failed start, dragging into infinity. And still he couldn't say no if Steve asked.)
What Steve says is: "If you actually want me here, I don't give a shit about the West Coast." His voice is unexpectedly fierce. And then: "Do you? Want me here."
And this is the one option Tony didn't exactly dare to hope for, and now that it's in play, he's frozen with terror.
"Tony?" Steve is looking at him expectantly. Still not moving, still not bridging that gap between them. Tony needs Steve to take him in his arms, inexorably, like last night, with Steve's hands all over him, with Steve's body solid against him. Steve doesn't. And Tony can't speak.
"If... you are not sure..." Steve falters for the first time. He's been so level-headed and matter-of-fact ever since Tony found him. In him it spells contained desperation, Tony thinks, but he isn't sure. He can't read him. He needs to learn to. Then Steve gets his act together again and in a very controlled voice he says: "If you don't, I need you to tell me now. If you need to think, do. But please don't say yes and then..."
"Change my mind?"
Steve doesn't nod. He doesn't need to.
Stay, he wants to say, but somehow that doesn't seem like enough.
Please stay, is exactly the same, just a little more desperate.
We need to work out, like, a million issues, but I want to. With you, I want to, isn't so shabby, but it's for later.
Eventually, words are failing him, but his legs still work, so he takes a step forward. A gust of wind tears the umbrella from his hand, but Tony barely notices. Steve's lips are wet with rain. At first they are hard and unrelenting, but then, suddenly, something gives. Last night Steve was all smiles under Tony's lips, before things went to shit. This kiss is different. It's a seal of trust. At first it's solid, and then desperate, and then, slowly, Tony turns it gentle, and finally, finally, Steve melts against him, and Tony holds his face in his hands and it's unbearable to ever let go.
"Okay," Steve whispers, understanding. "Okay, then."
And Tony could get away with it now, he knows, he could get away with saying nothing right this instant, and maybe they could learn to understand each other without too many words and maybe, at some point... maybe they would be so completely attuned to each other they could function real well like that.
Tony is sick of maybes.
"I love you," he says, still drunk from the kiss, and it's like a crack in a dam, and a trickle turns into a flood, and then it's unstoppable. "I love you, and oh god, we're so fucked up, and I have no idea if we can work it all out or not, and I've no idea how, but Steve, I love you. You are my heart. I'm not even kidding. Sucky and tired and useless and not working properly – that's my heart for you – but it is what it is. And you're it. And that's all I got."
He stops, breathing hard. Opens his mouth to say something else, but instead he tastes rain on his tongue and waits.
"We'll figure it out," Steve says softly. "I promise." And then he reaches out, and touches Tony's chest right next to the arc reactor. That's the spot that often goes numb, that still hurts when the weather is about to change. It's not numb now. And Steve splays his fingers and rests his palm against it, gently. "I know it's tired," he says. "But it's really not sucky."
"So, you'll stay?"
"So I'll stay."
In the end, there is one plane ticket that goes to waste. There is one plane seat that remains vacant to the last minute, to the joy of an elderly woman whose daughter is about to give birth on the other side of the continent. In the end, there is a team of heroes on the West Coast, lead by one Clint Barton who isn't sure he was born to be a leader, but does unexpectedly well. There is, in the end, also one attempt to buy a small local bridge from the NY Department of Transportation that owns it, but the bridge is unfortunately not for sale. Also, there are better ways to spend your money, as some would point out, even if you have a lot of it; even if you secretly are a sentimental sap, despite pretending otherwise. Still, as the locals know well, the two rich dudes from the fancy compound nearby tend to have a picnic on that bridge once a year; they climb over the wooden railing – which is prohibited – and sit on the stone blocks at the edge of the bridge, and talk; mostly, everyone likes them too well to disturb them.