There are people waiting for them in the hangar as they climb down from the copter.
There are three of them, a woman in sensible heels and a pencil skirt, a young man with a crooked tie wearing a suit so new he can’t have worn it more than once, and an older guy in shirtsleeves with a kind face and soft eyes. They are all carrying clipboards.
Beside him, Clint is muttering under his breath. Steve ignores him. Clint’s feelings about SHIELD paper pushers are well-known.
The woman steps forward to meet them. “Agent Stephan Rogers?”
“Steve,” he corrects her. He pauses to push his hair out of his face. He’s been needing a trim for a while now, and after three weeks on a top secret op in Central America, he’s officially crossed the line into shaggy. Fury had called him a hippie the last time they’d checked in by video conference. “Can I help you, ma’am?”
“I’m Lydia Roane,” she said, offering him a hand to shake. “I’m with Human Resources. Could we speak privately for a moment?”
“Of course,” Steve says, dropping his duty bag on Clint’s foot to make him stop muttering, “but I’m just coming off a mission. I have a debrief that I’m supposed to be on my way to right now.”
“Agent Hill has been informed of the circumstances,” Ms. Roane says. “There’s a room just over here, Agent. If you would?” She gestures for him to proceed him and he does, shooting glance at Natasha and Clint. They’re both watching him with matching expressions of bemusement. Clint is probably just gloating that someone besides him is in trouble with HR for once. Natasha has a publicly stated opinion that anyone who can’t avoid HR deserves to have to deal with them. Steve’s heard rumors that they’ve been trying to get her to come in and update her W-9 since 2007.
He follows her to a room just off the hangar, the younger guy darting ahead to open the door for them. It’s not much more than a storage room, but it’s well-lit and there’s a table and a couple of chairs. Lydia gestures for him to take one, and she takes the other, smoothing her skirt with one hand as she sits. Her companions stand off to the side, obviously taking care not to make Steve feel penned in.
Lydia offers him a restrained smile. “Allow me to introduce Timothy Cole and Keith Berenski.” Her associates return Steve’s nod of acknowledgment but make no move to speak up. “Mr. Berenski is a grief counselor,” she adds, and then those soft eyes are fixed on him with a grim sort of sympathy that Steve has seen before.
Something cold and hard is lodged in his chest. “Ms. Roane?”
She sets her clipboard down on her lap and folds her hands over it. “I am very sorry for your loss, Agent Rogers.”
He feels numb and cold. He licks his lips and feels nothing. When he speaks, he’s surprised that he can wrap them around the words. “Who? Who is it?”
“Your husband. I’m very sorry.”
Tony. Tony. Ice spreads through his chest, like breathing in water in the Arctic. His blood is cold in his veins, and ice slides over his eyes, until the room blurs. He closes his eyes against it and tries to drag air into frozen lungs. Each breath stings. “How?” he asks after several long moments have passed.
“A car accident.” Lydia Roane’s voice comes to him from far away, muffled by the ice that wraps itself around Steve’s head, slowly, inexorably swallowing him whole.
He doesn’t want to move. If he sits here and is still for a moment, maybe it will pull him back into that unknowing place he’d been for seventy years before Tony had pulled him out of it.
Tony. Oh god.
He curls his fingers into fists, presses them against his thighs. The last time he saw Tony was three weeks ago, before Steve had left on his mission. Tony had been stretched out on the couch with his feet in Carol’s lap, doing something on his tablet while Carol and Jess Drew played Mario Kart. He’d smiled when Steve leaned over him to say goodbye, and he’d curled his fingers into Steve’s hair while they lazily kissed goodbye. “Be safe,” he’d said before squeezing Steve’s hand.
Tony’s parents had died in a car accident late at night. Howard had been drinking, Tony told him once, and the roads had been slippery from the rain. No one really knew which had been more to blame.
His eyes burn and he clenches them tight. “When did – when did the accident happen?”
“Shortly after you left.” Lydia is speaking softly, he can barely hear her through the ice now.
He can hear the ice though, the crackle and creak of it as it creeps down his throat, curls around his legs. Sometimes he can hear it in his dreams and the only thing that drives it off is the sound of Tony breathing quietly in the bed beside him.
“I need to go home,” he says. He sucks in one deep breath, then another. “I have to get home.” The team – he needed to see the team, to know no one else was hurt. He needed to see Pepper and Rhdoey and Jarvis. He needed Sam to tell him it was going to be okay.
He wanted Bucky with a desperation he hadn’t felt since they told him his mother was dead.
“Of course. Timothy is a SHIELD driver, he’s here to drive you wherever you need to go. Do you have quarters on base, Agent? Would you like us to help you gather any personal belongings?”
“No,” Steve said. He flexes his hands a few times. He can’t feel anything, but he can still move. It’s enough to get him home. “I don’t need a driver.”
“Agent.” The voice is a new one and Steve opens his eyes to see Keith Berenski standing just a few feet away. “Let Timothy drive you home. Would you like me to come with you?”
“No.” He doesn’t have the energy to worry that he’s being rude. The idea of sitting in the back of a SHIELD unmarked, trying to listen to a stranger explain how he should mourn his husband when all he wants is to hit something until he can feel again, it’s almost repulsive.
Tony gave him a home. Tony invited him into the Avengers, decorated a room for him in the Mansion, became his first real friend since 1945. He’d stood at Steve’s back in battle, faced death at his side, and made him laugh when he thought the loneliness would swallow him alive.
All that long before the tentative romance that had bloomed into a love that had filled every moment of Steve’s life with a sense of home and happiness that he hadn’t known since he was a child.
He didn’t have a home anymore. Steve shook his head at Keith, ignored the comforting words the man was offering, and tried to breathe past the sudden clench in his throat. He didn’t have a home anymore. Tony had been his home and his comfort, his lover and his partner.
Tony was dead. And Steve was back in the ice.
Berenski comes along anyway, but he sits in the backseat and respects Steve’s request for quiet. Neither of them speak as Cole navigates the nighttime streets. Steve’s communicator beeps, but he turns it off.
They leave him at the gates of Avengers Mansion. He doesn’t have anything with him, he’d left his duty bag and shield with Clint and Tasha and now he feels strangely bereft. Coming home empty-handed. He feels, absurdly, as if he should have made them stop so he could buy flowers.
The thought hits him like a punch to the gut and he chokes on a sharp breath of air.
The palm scanner at the front door flares bright red for an instant, then the door unlocks for him. Steve lets himself in quietly. The mansion is dark and still, and he doesn’t want to wake anyone. He doesn’t want to see anyone. The ice is crawling down the back of his throat and he doesn’t think he could speak to anyone if he wanted to.
There is a light on in the big kitchen at the back of the house. Steve can hear the distant murmur of voices and the sound of someone’s laugh.
It burns, unreasonably hot. He clenches his teeth and swallows the anger that wants to claw its way out of his mouth.
He goes the long way around to the elevator, just so he won’t have to walk past that laughter and hate them for it. It wouldn’t be fair.
The upstairs is dark and silent. The door to the master bedroom that he’s shared with Tony for almost six years now is closed. Steve almost turns around. There are a half dozen guest rooms in the mansion, at least one of them has to be free and they won’t be full of Tony’s things or have Tony’s scent on the sheets.
But that’s all he has left. So he opens the door and slips inside.
He undresses methodically, tosses his gloves onto the dresser, toes off his boots, strips out of the generic blue and white SHIELD suit he’d worn for the mission. He scrubs a hand across his face and thinks of showering, but all he wants to do is close his eyes and stop thinking, stop feeling, stop existing with the knowledge that Tony is gone.
He wants to sleep and wake up when this is over.
The curtains are drawn and the room is in heavy darkness. Steve stops on his way to the bed and pulls the curtains open just enough to let some of the light from the stars and the streetlights seep in.
There’s a sound behind him, the soft sound of fabric against skin. And in the glass Steve sees the reflection of blue-white light.
For a long minute he can’t move, frozen in place, the ice anchoring his feet to the floor. His heart is pounding against his ribs and there’s a pounding in his head, something hot and heavy pressing against the back of his eyes until he thinks he’ll explode.
Then he turns. His hands are shaking and his knees are weak.
Tony is in their bed.
He’s squirming against the sheets a little, and the comforter slips even lower down his chest as Steve watches. The arc reactor is glowing bright and steady in the darkness of the room. Tony yawns and grumbles under his breath as he blinks himself awake. “Steve?”
“Tony.” Steve’s lips move without any conscious thought on his behalf. He sounds dull and tired. He’s dreaming, he thinks suddenly. He’d dreamed in the ice – disjointed things mostly, but sometimes he’d dreamed of his mother or Peggy or Bucky. He’d dreamed that he’d seen Peggy in her wedding dress, stood at the altar as Bucky’s best man, walked his mother up the steps to the beautiful new house he’d bought her. This was no crueler than any other trick his mind had played on him. His heart could only break so much.
Tony hums and yawns again. “You’re back early.” He props himself up on one elbow and the arc reactor lights up his smile, reflects ever so slightly off his eyes. “I thought you wouldn’t be back for a couple more days yet.”
Steve had woken from dozens of nightmares over the years and reached for that light. He’d spread his fingers over it and watched the shadows it threw against the walls. He’d kissed it, let the light wash over him. He’d wake in the night and tug the sheets down so he could see it fully, a constant reminder that Tony was alive and safe and there with him.
Tony scratches at his chest and his hand temporarily blocks out the light. And it’s like a spell has broken. Steve makes a sound low in the back of his throat – something rough and wordless that later he might be embarrassed about – and flings himself at the bed.
He hits the edge with his knees, hard enough to shake the whole bed, hard enough that it’ll bruise, even on him. Tony startles a little and he jerks upright, fully awake now, just as Steve reaches across the bed and drags Tony into his arms.
He’s alive in Steve’s arms, warm and pliant and alive, with the light of the arc reactor pressing into Steve’s chest and Tony’s heartbeat echoing in his ribs. His skin is warm from sleep and starting to pebble from the cold. Steve presses his face against the top of Tony’s head and breaths in the scent of him.
Tony’s arms wrap around him, his hands warm and reassuring on Steve’s back. “Hey. Are you okay? Was anyone hurt?”
I am very sorry for your loss. He shakes his head and holds Tony a little closer until his husband is sprawled across his lap, chests pressed together. Steve wraps one hand around the back of Tony’s head and tangles his fingers in Tony’s hair the way Tony had done when they’d kissed goodbye.
He doesn’t know what’s happened. But Tony is here. Steve would know him anywhere, his scent, the cadence of his heartbeat, the way he’s stroking his hands down Steve’s back to soothe him. He’d know Tony anywhere and he’s here, in Steve’s arms, alive and safe.
The first sob wrestles its way out of him like a surprise, a harsh wracking thing that tears up the back of his throat and makes his chest ache. The second one is worse and he clings to Tony as he falls apart.
“Hey, hey.” Tony presses featherlight kisses against the side of Steve’s throat, strokes his hands up and down Steve’s spine. “Whatever’s wrong, it’ll be okay. You’re here, you’re home, you’re safe. You’re all right, honey, you’re safe, everything’s going to be okay.”
The storm passes quickly, leaving Steve overheated and exhausted, every muscle aching as if with a fever. He kisses the top of Tony’s head while he catches his breath. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” Tony squirms in Steve’s grip a little, just enough to turn his head and look up at him. “What happened? Did the mission go wrong?”
Steve drags in a deep breath, lets it out a little shakily. “The mission was fine. Widow and Hawkeye are fine.”
“Then-” Tony’s communicator chirps from the bedside table. “Ignore it. Steve, what happened? You looked – I thought you’d been hurt for a minute there.”
Hurt wasn’t even the right word to describe how Steve had been feeling. Hurt would have been a welcome distraction from what he’d felt. He ducks his head and kisses Tony’s temple, brushes his lips feather-light across Tony’s eyelids. “I – after we got back to base-”
From downstairs there’s a crash as someone kicks in the front door, then Clint’s voice is echoing up through the building at a full roar. “CAP!”
They both startle and Tony starts to pull away. Steve tightens his arms, holds Tony close against his chest. “Don’t leave,” he says before he can stop himself.
“What happened?” Tony demands. His eyes are focused on Steve with the same intensity he brings to combat and inventing. Tony can see straight through to the core of him and Steve has long since stopped trying to hide.
Then Clint is barreling through their bedroom door, all but tripping over himself. “Steve!” He stumbles to a halt, takes in the tableau on the bed. “Ah. Never mind, Tash!” he calls over his shoulder. “They seem to have worked it out for themselves!”
“Is anyone naked?” Natasha’s voice is dry, but just a bit breathless, as if she’d been running right behind Clint. “I’m not going in there if anyone’s naked.”
“Cap’s still got his tighty-whiteys on,” Clint said cheerfully. “I think Stark’s commando under the sheets though.”
Steve and Tony blink at each other and then both glance down to make sure Tony is still decently covered. He mostly is.
“Clint,” Tony says as he grabs a fistful of sheets and pulls them over his lap. “What the heck, huh?”
“It was another Agent Rogers,” Clint says, and Steve lets out a sharp breath like he’s been hit.
“Another who now?” Tony asks.
“When we returned from the mission, there were grief counselors waiting for us.” Natasha slips in past Clint and eyes them warily, as if she thought the degree of naked-ness had been exaggerated to trick her. In her defense, it was exactly the sort of thing Clint would do.
Steve kisses Tony’s hair. “They told me you were dead.”
“They-” The look on Tony’s face as he gazes up at Steve conveys perfectly how horrified he is. “Oh, God. I’m fine, Steve, nothing happened.”
Steve nods and strokes a finger down Tony’s cheek. “I know now.”
“Her name was Stephany Rogers,” Natasha says quietly. “Someone screwed up the forms and put her down as Stephan Y Rogers. That’s why they thought they were looking for a man.”
“She pronounced my name wrong.” Steve kissed Tony’s nose, pressed his mouth against Tony’s for a brief moment just to feel him breathing. “I didn’t think anything of it. And then they took me aside and told me how sorry they were that my husband had been killed in a car accident.” He breathes in and out slowly. “She never said your name, now that I think about it.”
“For what it’s worth, they’re all really sorry.” Clint hooks his thumbs through his belt loops. “I thought Roane was going to kill a dude when she figured out what went wrong with the forms, and Keith was really worried about you.”
“We tried to call you when we realized what happened,” Natasha says. “But you didn’t answer your communicator so we came here instead.”
“How did you figure it out?” Steve asks.
“You left without a word, looking like someone had shot your dog,” Clint says and Natasha smacks him on the back of the head. “We cornered Roane and made her tell us what had happened.”
“Clint freaked out,” Natasha says sweetly. “He loves you, Tony. He was going to cry, he was so upset.”
“Oh shut up,” Clint grumbles. “I thought you were going to break her face. It’s bad form killing the messenger, Nat.”
She shrugs, supremely unimpressed. “Anyway, Hill had come looking for us by then and she hadn’t heard anything about Tony being killed. So I hit the internet and there wasn’t anything. No way Stark here bites it without every news outlet in the world covering the story. After that it was easy to track down the mistake. We just had to get a hold of you.” She offers Steve an apologetic look. “We did try to get here as soon as possible.”
“Thank you,” Steve says. “I can’t imagine – if Tony had been out of town tonight, or-” Or on a mission, or even just downstairs in that bright happy kitchen with their friends, Steve wouldn’t have known. He’d have wrapped himself up in their bed and been sick with grief until morning at least. “Thank you.”
“You guys are aces. We owe you one.” Tony flashes them a smile. “Do you guys mind if Steve and I get a couple minutes alone?”
“Post-mission, thank-god-we’re-still-alive-sex,” Clint says mournfully. “It’s always the loudest.”
Natasha smacks him on the back of the head again. “Close the door and leave them alone. Steve, Maria says to report for your debrief tomorrow at noon. Get some rest.” She pulls Clint out of the room and shuts the door behind her with a quiet lick. From out in the hallway there is the murmur of voices, other Avengers woken by Clint’s shouts, but that’s nothing to worry about for now.
“I’m not-” Steve buries his face against the side of Tony’s throat. “I don’t really feel up to the whole life-affirming-sex thing right now, actually.”
“Yeah, I’m not really in the mood right now, either.” Tony breathes out slowly, his breath ruffling Steve’s hair. “Is it okay if I just hold you for a little while?”
He coaxes Steve into the middle of the bed, moving by inches because Steve can’t bring himself to let Tony go long enough to get settled. They curl up against the pillows, Steve’s head on Tony’s shoulder, Tony’s hand in Steve’s hair and Tony pulls the blankets up around them, stopping just short of covering the reactor. The room is quiet and still and Steve feels the warmth of Tony’s body slowly seep through the ice.
“I should feel sorry for that other Agent Rogers,” Steve says into that quietness. “But thank god it wasn’t you.”
Tony takes Steve’s hand with his free one, laces their fingers together over his stomach. “I’m not going anywhere, you know. Not without one hell of a fight. Nothing is going to convince me to leave you here alone.”
It’s not a promise he can really make but right then Steve doesn’t care. “Will you come back to the Helicarrier with me tomorrow so I can make my report?”
“I – I can’t let you go yet. Not-” I’m very sorry for your loss, Agent Rogers. “Just bear with me for a day or two, okay?”
“If it had been me,” Tony says, his voice whisper soft and hard as steel. “If they’d made me believe you were dead and I was lucky enough to have you in my arms again, I’d chain you to me and swallow the fucking key.”
Steve swallows a chuckle and kisses Tony’s chest. “Don’t give me any ideas.”
He can feel Tony’s body slowly going limp with sleep, he can hear the way his husband’s breaths are slowing, getting deeper. “When I thought I had lost you,” Steve says quietly, “all I could feel was the ice.”
Tony’s fingers tighten around him and his husband presses a fierce kiss to the top of Steve’s head. “Feel me,” Tony says quietly. “I’m here and I won’t let you go.”
Tony felt like warmth and comfort. Safety and acceptance. “You’re home,” Steve says into the quiet darkness of their room. “I’m safe.”
When Tony lifts their joined hands to his lips, presses soft kisses against each knuckle, the arc reactor light glints off his wedding ring, pale, blue and impossibly warm.
Steve closes his eyes, but the ice is gone.