“Tony Stark,” Tony says and holds out a hand because holy shit he’s standing in front of Captain America.
In a way, it’s a bit like the one and only time his father took him to the memorial. Steve Rogers doesn’t tower over him like the image of him etched in stone had and his cowl is pulled down, left to hang over his shoulder and the back of his neck to display once and for all what the world had long forgotten. If Tony blinks too hard he can see himself crouched in front of an old open briefcase, flicking at the pages of an even older comic book, or standing in his workshop feeling too far from the ground, dying from the inside out as he clutched a flimsy replica of a shield once carried by a hero. But as he stands there, hand outstretched and waiting, he knows almost instantly that Steve is not that hero.
There are over a hundred comic books, Tony knows, he has them all, and not one panel mentions the name Steve Rogers.
For a long moment Steve just stares at him and Tony holds his breath as he waits.
Steve’s eyes rake over him and Tony lets himself be flattered for a heartbeat before he realizes that that’s not why Steve is looking at him like that. His blue eyes are narrowed just slightly, the uttered “Mr. Stark” a horse, breathless, almost questioning sound and Tony withdraws his hand and tries not to flinch away.
Except that even as he takes half a step back, Steve’s eyes are still on him, still searching for something. He traces the lines in the corners of Tony’s eyes with his own, follows the path of them to his hair and his neck and his mouth, searching, searching, searching, and Tony knows what he’s looking for.
He almost wants to let him find it, too, to let him grasp on to the threads of Howard Stark that are lurking in the cracks of Tony’s heart. He might smile at the way Tony tilts his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose when he gives something his full attention, or chuckle at the sharp stinging comments that flow so easily from Tony’s mouth, thinking they were inherited rather than learned from a life in the limelight. But Tony won’t let him.
The last man he’s ever, ever wanted to be is his father.
And even now he can see it, the memorial standing over him carved tall into sunlit stone and he remembers the word spoken in front of an empty grave, his father’s posture as he raised an open hand to his forehead in one final salute.
It slips out before Tony can stop it and he stays where he is, previously welcoming hand fallen to clench at his side as Steve’s eyes widen.
“No offense,” He grits out when an uncomfortable silence settles over the room, “but I don’t play well with others.”
And that’s it.
Steve’s gaze hardens and they move, oddly in synch as they circle each other like two tigers waiting for their opponent to strike. No one breathes.
“I’ve seen your movies,” Tony quips, a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes crossing his face. “Bit old school for my tastes.”
Steve stiffens, not missing the poorly disguised insult, and his gaze rakes over Tony’s whole body again. This time it’s not questioning, not searching, and rather rips at Tony worse than any tiger’s claws ever could. It’s judging, it’s cruel, and Tony waits to see what words Steve will lash out with to add on to it. “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away and what are you?”
Tony grins, “Uh, a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist?” Even as the retort falls out of his mouth his mind whispers, “But isn’t that just armor too?” He holds that last part inside, tucks it away under the pulsing glow of the arc reactor and pretends he never thought it.
For a moment Steve says nothing and he’s too close, too close. They’re breathing each other’s air, teeth gritted and shoulders shaking with bottled up anger that slowly seeps out the longer they stand there. Tony takes the time to study the man, the legend in front of him. Blond hair, blue eyes, a few inches taller than Tony is, well built and broad shouldered. But under it all there’s something else, a flicker in blue depths that shrieks of unspoken grief and lost time slipping through unknowing fingers. Has anyone even asked him, Tony wonders, if he’s okay?
He himself remembers crawling out of the sand, burned and broken and gasping in the fresh air of a world he wasn’t sure remembered a lost and arrogant billionaire, let alone cared. That had been after four months. Steve had lost seventy years.
Tony raises a hand and watches as Steve doesn’t flinch back at the movement, doesn’t even budge as Tony sticks out his pointer finger and jabs it into the left side of Steve’s chest. “Big man full of super serum. Take that away and what are you?” He jabs again, digging his finger into the azure material of the Captain America suit near the corner of the five pointed white star. Just over Steve’s heart.
“What are you?” He repeats and Steve says nothing.
Steve loves Tony’s workshop, loves the cars of various styles and makes, some with many years on them and some that still breath that new car smell, all so carefully maintained and pristine. He dances his fingers over the hoods of each and pretends he knows what Tony’s talking about when he lifts props them open and starts rattling on about engine maintenance.
He’s a bit bemused by the blue light projections, layouts and blueprints of a jet Tony’s working on. If Steve touches them the pieces spin away and separate, little bundles of light ready to be picked apart and put back together again.
“Hey, pal, come here and hold this,” Tony calls to him, holding up a wrench. He has another in the opposite hand and some sort of screwdriver clenched between his teeth.
Steve takes it and tries not to remember, tries not to see the silhouette of a man who’s six feet under in the way Tony hovers over his latest project.
“Whatever you want, pal.”
He’s never asked, doesn’t dare ask about those he left behind because he fears that if he knows the truth, lets himself completely accept that it's been seventy years, he’ll never be able to move again.
“I had a date,” he’d said and that was the last he’d spoken of Peggy Carter.
He keeps the memories wrapped up like Christmas presents under the tree, not to be touched until tomorrow. Tomorrow never comes.
He doesn’t let himself remember Peggy’s smile, the quirk of her lips when he’d done something that somehow surprised her. He doesn’t let himself remember Howard’s hands, the way they moved over the metal of his shield as they discussed colors the day they’d painted it, hands worn far beyond their years. He doesn’t let himself remember Bucky because Bucky had fallen long before he had, had disappeared into the ice and snow and wind just inches away from him and down down down.
“Me? I concentrate on work.”
It’s only when Steve lets himself remember, recall passing words like that that he sees past the ghost of Howard Stark to the man who’s really standing before him. Where Howard’s hands had been permanently stained with grease smudges and calluses, little burns from sparking machinery and cuts from thinly cut slices of metal, Tony’s are somehow naked in comparison.
Steve takes the wrench and lets his fingers graze Tony’s open palm as he does so, following the lifeline he finds there. Tony’s hands hold a different kind of mark, calluses earned from overlapping metal panels against skin in a suit of armor. The burns speak of explosions rather than blow torches and the oil smears with something other than weaponry.
He realizes he’s lingered too long when he feels Tony’s eyes on him.
“Looking for something?” Tony smirks and Steve’s heart flutters a little in his chest, whether from wariness, overwhelming curiosity, or something else, he doesn’t know.
“You,” he says softly and it’s not just some weird sentimental statement so much as it is the honest truth. He’s been slowly picking at the layers of the past since he’s woken up, peeling them back and tearing them apart until he can clearly see what he’s left with and what has strode into his life brand new. He’s still trying to find the little gives in the paper where he can pull back the layers to reveal Tony Stark, but he’s getting there.
Tony notices it gradually, the gentle shifting of air between them until suddenly it’s easier to breath. There’s no longer this tension settled around them, no constant urge to charge at each other fists first with sharp words dripping off their tongues. He sits on the kitchen counter as he contemplates this change, spoon hanging out of his mouth and a bowl of fruit loops in his hands even though it’s well past midnight.
When Steve wanders in, freshly showered after an evening spent in the gym abusing all of Tony’s punching bags Tony almost asks. Almost. He swallows the question down and takes another bite of cereal. What would he have asked, anyways?
When did you stop looking for my father when you looked at me? When did you separate the past from the present? When did I become good enough for you to pick them apart and care enough to see me at all?
He doesn’t ask any of these things. Asking questions has only ever led him into bad places. “Do you ever think about that night?” He’d teased Pepper once only to receive stinging honesty in return. He’d rather hold onto fantasies of what people think of him that have the truth thrown in his face.
Suddenly, Steve’s standing right in front of him with the carton of milk in one hand and Tony knows he’s been drinking straight from it, should reprimand him simply on the principal of being a dick when he wants to be, but he lets it slide.
“You shouldn’t eat those,” Steve says, setting the cartoon on the counter to Tony’s right. His hand lingers there, the other following suit so that he’s braced himself against the granite on either side of Tony’s hips. “They’re so bad for you, Tony. They’re practically vegetable dyed sugar cubes.”
“I heard the word vegetable,” Tony sing songs, “That means it’s healthy and you’re full of crap.”
Steve rolls his eyes and takes the bowl from Tony before he can protest, though Tony does manage to shove one last spoonful in his mouth. He smiles then as he gently tugs the spoon out of Tony’s mouth and there they are again, breathing in each other’s air only this time, this time there’s no malice to it.
And then Tony panics. Absolutely panics. It’s not the sort of flailing, twitching panic most people go through but rather a race of thoughts inside his head as he tries to find something, anything to say that will end this moment because no matter how many layers Steve has pulled back to see the Tony Stark underneath the armor and underneath the genius billionaire, Tony doesn’t want him to see.
“He never stopped looking for you,” rushes out before he even thinks about the words he’s saying.
Steve blinks at him and steps back and Tony thinks he’d be reeling if he was any less than what he is.
“My father, I mean,” Tony goes on and oh god it’s all rushing out, everything he never wanted to say about Howard Stark. “He sent out expeditions to search for you twice a year. Went with on a lot of them.” He clenches his hands against his knees and struggles to breath because he can feel Steve’s eyes on him, studying him just like he had on the first day but this time it’s different. This time he’s looking for Tony beneath the tales of Howard.
“He left that often?” Steve says that Tony pushes himself off the counter because of course, of course Steve had heard the loneliness, the borderline resentment underneath it all.
“His work was his life,” Tony replies, words he’s said in speeches given about what a “great and wise man” his father had been, “And you were part of his work.”
Faced with Steve, the words “My greatest creation was you,” lose their luster because how, how could Tony ever stand on the same pedestal Steve had held in Howard’s mind? Steve had been the one Howard had searched for long after everyone else had stopped looking. Tony had merely been the child left behind while his father called out a dead man’s name over the ice and snow.
Tony pulls away when Steve puts a hand on his shoulder and grits out a harsh, “Don’t touch me,” before he retreats back down to his workshop alone. Steve doesn’t follow.
Steve thinks, sometimes, that life would have been simpler if he’d never woken up. He’d died a hero, hadn’t he? He’d died with promises of a dance on his lips all the while knowing they were promises he couldn’t keep and still that had been enough. He’d died knowing he loved and was loved in return, never realizing that what legacy would survive would be in image rather than name. Steve Rogers was wiped from the pages of history and a stone statue of Captain America was raised in his place.
He sorts through sagging boxes of memorabilia, plastic action figures and still packaged comic books by the dozens. Howard had been a bit of a collector, Tony explained when he let Steve into the storage room. Collector was an understatement.
A couple of times he stops to flip through the pages of the comics, ripping them out of their wrappers without any heed for their value. He laughs at the representation of Bucky, a skinny little boy that Captain America towers over. If he were here now, Steve thinks Bucky would burn the comics for their inaccuracy. He tries not to think about it too much.
Thinking about things like that is like picking at a scab, the more you do it the deeper it will scar.
He arranges the action figures in front of him on the floor, over thirty different ones in all, and studies their faces and features hidden under blue cowls. They’re just as stiff and lifeless as the now useless memorial, just false representations, and the more Steve looks at them the more he hates them.
So he takes them apart.
One by one he dismantles them, leaving them in piles of arms and legs on the floor until there isn’t a single whole one left. It’s better this way, he decides as he stares at what he’s done, for them to be in pieces.
Because somewhere deep inside he’s still in pieces too.
“Feel better?” comes a voice from the doorway and Steve starts, eyes flickering up to see Tony standing there. Without asking, Steve knows he’s been there awhile, knows he’s seen what Steve has done to his father’s collection.
“Sor-” he starts but Tony shushes him with a nonchalant wave of his hand as he moves into the room. He sits, back to back with Steve, and Steve sighs.
They say nothing for a long time, Tony’s head tipped back against Steve’s shoulder and Steve hunched over the mangled toys with his chin in his hands. He can feel Tony’s heartbeat through his back, a steady pounding of life that overshadows the almost inaudible hum of the arc reactor. It’s comforting, somehow.
“I’m from Brooklyn,” he says after awhile and Tony shifts, tilts his head back a little further as if he’s trying to catch sight of Steve’s expression. Even without turning to look at him Steve can feel the question in his gaze. “You once asked what I was, if you took everything away. I’m from Brooklyn.”
Tony sits very still for a moment, the warmth against Steve’s back and the beat of life he can feel through it the only reason Steve knows he’s there at all.
“I’m lonely,” Tony whispers and it comes out so softly and so broken that Steve has nothing to say in return. He’s peeled away the armor and the carefully molded image beneath and he’s not sure what to do with what he’s found.
They still fight. One wrong word and they’re at each other’s throats with no warning, nothing but utter contempt and malice in the air. Tony tries not to start it, tries not to instigate it, but somehow the hurtful words always slip out before he can stop them.
Sometimes, he fears it will be the death of them.
He dreams of it, sometimes, dark nightmares where he holds his helmet in his hands and stares down at Steve’s broken, blood stained body and knows, knows deep in his heart that he was the one that put it there. When he wakes it’s always a mad scramble to the bathroom before the image burns so harshly into his mind that he throws up.
It would hurt less, he decides, if he could push Steve away. There would be less fighting, less pain, less nightmares. But Steve always, somehow, pulls him back in. With smiles, with laughter, with quiet afternoons where he watches Tony work and Tony tries to teach him a thing or two about modern technology and surprisingly succeeds more times than he fails.
He gets hurt more times than he can count. Tony can feel the self control slipping through his fingers, like smoke, like water, like time, and he’s trying to be the self sacrificing hero again. He flies into crumbling buildings, beats back gunfire, jumps in front of the bullet one too many times as if pushing how far his luck will run before he bites the big one.
“You need to stop being such a goddamn big hero!” Steve shouts one night while Tony’s sitting on the side of his bed, stitching up a rather deep cut under his own ribs. He refuses to go to the doctor despite Steve’s threats to drag him to one. “One of these days you’re going to get yourself killed!”
“So?” Tony taunts, eyes raising to meet furious blue. He cuts the thread at the end of the last stitch and begins packing up his first aid kit, counting down the seconds in his head.
Five, four, three, two …
“Captain,” Tony snaps in return and just like that there they are again on the day they met, seconds away from ripping each other apart. Tony refrains from rolling his eyes as Steve stalks towards him and turns to slide the first aid kit under his bed, ready to rise to whatever bait Steve will throw at him and then in turn throw Steve right out of his room because he’s just too tired for this bullshit tonight.
But when he looks up Steve is leaning over him, too close, and he drops his hands to either side of Tony’s hips on the mattress. Tony inhales sharply, surprised and a little bit alarmed, but he doesn’t move otherwise.
“Some of us, shockingly, do give a crap about you,” Steve hisses and under the rage in his eyes there’s something else. Worry, maybe, concern. Tony swallows.
“It amazes me,” he says slowly, “That you somehow think I don’t.” Steve narrows his eyes and Tony goes on, “Have you ever stopped to consider that no matter how much I reinforce your suit that someone, somewhere out there is going to find a bullet that can pierce it.” He jabs a finger into the left side of Steve’s chest. “Even super soldiers aren’t bulletproof.”
“And neither are you,” Steve growls, eyes flickering to the wound Tony had just patched up.
Tony wants to punch him. He wants to knock him back seventy years until Steve’s no longer leaning over him and breathing his air but when he lifts his hand he curls his fingers around the back of Steve’s neck instead.
“You could have said the armor wasn’t bulletproof,” he whispers in the too small space left between them. “But you said I wasn’t.”
“Isn’t that kind of the whole point?” Steve asks, honestly confused.
It really, really was. “I am Iron man,” he’d said to the press. “The suit and I are one,” he’d told the government. And here Steve was peeling back the armor bit by bit until the man underneath was all that was left.
Tony drags Steve to him then, closing the last inch between them. It’s not the best kiss, it’s harsh and just a little bit unsure, built on too many coarse words and a long day of fighting both the enemy and each other. Steve leans into it, though, and Tony sighs before pulling him down, tumbling them both over onto the mattress.
When the first rays of dawn start to peek in through the curtains and the sweat has long cooled on their bodies, Steve a warm presence curled around Tony as he slowly drifts back to reality, Tony realizes that for the first time in a long time he didn’t dream of blood.