“I’m so sorry, Tony.”
He says it after a comfortable pause, when Tony’s still smiling over their recent hair band debate. Tony glances at him, chuckles once, then looks again.
His tumbler has settled on his thigh, and his brows are pinched in amusement. Steve looks, and reminds himself he has to stop looking. But then another moment passes, and Tony leans forward, all humor erased. “Steve.”
He’s no longer certain this will tear them apart. But now that the moment’s here, it’s very hard to shape the words. Steve rubs his thighs and gathers his fortitude from the floorboards. “For coming after you when she told me to.”
Tony doesn’t answer. Steve eyes the neat grain of the wood flooring. Expensive, like everything else in the penthouse, but not as costly as the bonds he has gone and wrapped around himself.
He can’t help it. The more he’s around Tony, the harder it is to remember his reservations.
“You’re talking about.” Tony draws a breath, as though surprised by it. “Ultron.”
He handles the word like it’s a canker.
“She was wrong about you.” No disclaimers, no caveats. He promised himself. He shakes his shoulders, trying to shed it. “I attacked you anyway.”
Tony makes a sound very like a laugh and drinks the rest of his bourbon in one swallow. “With what you had to go on? I would have attacked me.”
“No.” Steve takes Tony’s hand without thinking, and then just keeps going. “You were right about JARVIS. You knew JARVIS. I don’t always like your methods. But your reasoning isn’t unsound.”
“Unsound.” Tony contemplates his empty tumbler. “Very complimentary.”
“I’m the one who needs to apologize. And I am. Sorry. I’m sorry for not playing on the team.” He draws another deep breath and Steve realizes to dawning horror that Tony’s trying not to cry. “I’m sorry for fucking up and for killing so many people.”
“Ultron killed those people.”
“I made Ultron.”
“You and Bruce created Ultron,” Steve says, firm. He hates, hates, that he still has to remind himself of Bruce’s role. “And then Ultron made himself.”
Tony looks at him as though he’s staring through a fog. There’s something fervent and old in his eyes, and it wrenches at Steve’s chest. He has to look away, and then despises himself for succumbing.
It was, for an instant, exactly what he has been longing for months to see in Tony’s face.
“I, on the other hand,” he says, “attacked my friend on the suggestion of a person who, five minutes earlier, was trying to kill us all.” It always sounds so flat out in the open, and it always twists in deeper.
Tony opens his mouth, then leans back again. “I don’t know what to say to that.”
“There’s nothing to say. I’m not proud of it.” Understatement of the year. But so far, Tony doesn’t loathe him for it, not the way Steve loathes himself.
“Well.” Tony’s hands curl over his knees. Nimble fingers and thumbs, a creator’s hands. “If I hadn’t been such an arrogant ass, you wouldn’t have felt like you needed to belt me in the head with the shield. I screwed the pooch, you fought back. My fault.”
“I’m pretty sure I had a hand in it. If we weren’t always arguing in the first place—”
“From a Euclidean standpoint, you reacted just like I’d expect.” Tony shrugs it away, and it physically hurts to watch. “We’re just larger than life, so instead of slapping some smarts into me, you have to full on bash it in with vibranium. Makes proportional sense, don’t torture yourself.”
“It’s not the bashing part I have a problem with, Tony,” Steve says, exasperated, and, well, there goes his promise. He struggles past the frustration, looking Tony in the eye. “I didn’t just not ask you for your side of the story. I decided not to. Because I was mad—” at myself “—at you and I didn’t want to look at anything else too closely.” He sighs, tired. “It was easier not to let anything dissolve the anger.”
He’ll never be ready to admit to the rest of it: that attacking Tony that day was attacking the part of himself he couldn’t reconcile, the part that disgusted him, that has since slunk through the rest of him and shamed him for treating it with such repulsion. He wishes he could merely respect Tony now, but he’s so far beyond that, it makes him ache.
He’s already begun and he still doesn’t know if he can do this. The minutes stretch out before him.
“You died in front of me.”
Steve looks up, baffled. “I never—”
Tony waves his hand, fast like he’s mad. “That’s what she put in my head. I held back, and you died, you all died, and then the world died too, but it especially hurt with you, because…” His mouth works, then he frowns and lifts his chin. “Because you stayed alive long enough to remind me just how useless I am.”
“The last thing you are is useless,” Steve growls, but Tony again cuts him off.
“You ever know something, to your bones, and still never seem to believe it? It doesn’t matter how much I do; I don’t do enough.”
Steve’s still back at the part where he hates Wanda again. Is he never going to be able to give her a clean slate? Does she deserve a clean slate? What the hell kind of person shows someone his dead and dying friends, and then convinces that person he’s the reason for it? If there’s anything Steve has learned in his years of warfare, it’s that there is no hive mind, and no predestination. Every soldier has independent thought and therefore the potential to make or break a moment. Put all together, there is no way one man can control everything.
Tony is still talking. “If I can’t do better, I go bigger. If not stronger, then smarter.” He contemplates his tumbler again for a long, dreadful moment. “Well, I finally made something that was smarter than me, and it nearly gift-wrapped our planet in that infamous handbasket. I try to think outside the box, but I never, ever notice a big enough picture. There are always casualties. I don’t even have to try and I cause them. I create screwed up people who in turn screw up other people.” He laughs a little. “You know, I really need to stop thinking I know better than everyone else, because it’s clear that all I really know better is how to destroy lives.”
“Tony, I dumped my best friend in the world into a chasm in the name of the greater good,” Steve bites out in an angry rush, and then there is another silence he has to break. He does it, unable to look Tony in the eye. “Afterward, there were whole weeks when I convinced myself that his death was a necessary evil, because we beat the bigger bad. I told myself that even though he died, it meant something. It meant people lived.” He takes a difficult breath. “And then I find out we didn’t beat the bigger bad at all. It just curled up and metastasized in a corner, in the dark, and it didn’t make a damned bit of difference that my friend died, because whether we won or not, he was still gone.”
Hydra’s triumphant return had created a knot in him that wouldn’t fully unravel, even months after the full understanding of what seven decades had wrought. He studies his hands, vaguely disgusted. And isn’t that a familiar feeling? “Now the only thing I know is that I had no business ever measuring his life or his worth against the bigger picture. What I wouldn’t give to reverse that day. To give him back the life he didn’t have. It doesn’t matter that he’s not actually dead, or that we won or lost. There is no way to make him dying feel worthwhile.”
He stares at Tony then, and thinks, How do I explain to you that what Wanda put in my head was the true breadth of transience? That everything disappears? That I am one man, one abnormally powerful man, who can’t even keep the people I love most from slipping away?
“So.” He clears his throat, and nearly gets lost in the fact that Tony is looking right back at him, unguarded. As though Steve has gotten to the universal center of something and opened him up at the deepest layer. “So if that’s what you were trying to do, to… measure me against—against the world. Then thank you. For deciding I meant so much. And for…”
For acting upon it. But he can’t say that out loud. He can’t. He stands behind his gratitude, but the words themselves won’t crawl past his tongue because of all the horror that spawned from Tony’s actions. Horror that Tony could not have prevented anyway because Ultron was Ultron was Ultron, and nothing would have changed that.
For a blinding instant, he wants to be loved like that. To one person, he wants to be the fulcrum on which the fate of the universe rests. He doesn’t want to care about right or wrong, about sacrifice and morality and fairness. He just wants to matter so much that Tony would burn the world to keep him safe.
The hardest thing is that Tony doesn’t argue that it wasn’t in fact the entire team he was trying to save. The world, for that matter. He lets it be Steve alone. Steve feels like he’s been struck by something heavy and hot, right in the sternum. He knows what he just implied to Tony, about them, but he can’t believe he had the nerve.
But Tony’s lost in his new drink, eyes unfixed and hovering somewhere around the far wall. There’s a rigidity to his posture that Steve can’t read. Then again, he’s feeling a little fried right now. Not sure he could read any body language.
“You know what I’m sorry for?” Tony says, so suddenly that Steve jumps.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.” The way he looks at Steve then makes him think of that dichotomy again: ‘you,’ Steve. Not ‘you’ the team. “That I didn’t—My vision wasn’t just me, it was about you, too, but… I don’t know why I did that.”
Steve wants to flay the things that made Tony think he can’t do anything but go it alone. Because that’s how Tony operates, and it doesn’t take a genius to see it. It takes a friend, a leader and a teammate, someone who isn’t absorbed in his own petty issues all the time. Maybe if Steve opened his eyes more, he would have unconsciously opened a door, too, and Tony would have seen that he could walk through it. But Tony Stark … Steve sighs. If Tony had ever waited for someone to help, he’d have died at least ten times already. And the one time he reached out and drew a friend into the fold, shared his dream, they birthed a monster that tried to demolish the world.
It’s no wonder Tony left the Avengers, went back to the tried and true.
“I’m sorry I was no leader,” Steve croaks.
Tony takes his hand so easily that he doesn’t have time to be nervous. He stares down at Tony’s fingers squeezing his. Giving him a firm shake.
“I’m sorry I refused to follow.” Tony sounds as hoarse as Steve does.
Tony’s hand in his… Steve swallows. Looks down and regrips Tony’s fingers. It feels better there, and better than any other hand Steve has held, as good as Peggy’s. And his body is well aware whose hand he’s holding. It curls hot in his belly and cool down the backs of his thighs, tight and sore in his pelvis. A last, tiny flicker of disquiet sends a shiver into his fingers that Tony must feel.
He’s a man, something bleats weakly within. He’s a man and you want him.
But how, Steve wonders desperately, now that he’s allowed himself to understand: how could anyone not want Tony?
Tony gives him another squeeze. The smile he shoots Steve is watery, truer than Steve can remember, and unsuspecting. It’s trusting; it’s the smile of a friend. In his chest, Steve’s heart cracks. He smiles back.
It’s okay. He can be this man’s friend. And if he never slakes his true thirst, he’s not going to fool himself: it won’t be fine. But he’ll manage.
“Not so fast.” Steve throws his shield, deflecting the beam meant for Wanda and heading it off into the wall where it is absorbed. The target drone, having offered its volley, folds up and retreats. “Take advantage of any extra time your opponent gives you, because they won’t always. Again.”
Wanda braces her feet, eyes fixed on the place where the drone vanished. She’s game, but she’s also tired, had been when she walked in. Has been all week, if he’s any judge.
So much the better. He punches start and readies his shield, but when the drone finally appears, firing off a decoy beam, she’s ready for the shot that comes directly after. The laser buzzes past her, missing by a hairsbreadth as she lunges. She feints right and darts left, grabbing the drone as it spins the wrong way and hurling it at the wall. The drone strikes hard; she picks it up immediately and bashes it into halves with another blow.
Her face is sweaty as she drops the pieces, relief loose in her smile. Pride trickles through; Steve shuts the program down and checks the readouts. “Alright, that’s enough for the day. You ran four miles total. Make sure you cool down.”
“How…” He hears her draw a deep breath. “How did I do?”
“Ninety-two over a hundred. Seven up from last week.” He grabs his towel and wipes his nape. He’ll need a stretch, and he wants to do it alone, where he can collect his thoughts. She’ll need her simulation reprogrammed tonight. Getting too fast on her feet for this batch, too strong, and he knows she can go faster. Be stronger, and do it without counting on her magic.
“I’ll try again tomorrow,” she says.
“No. You’ve gone four days in a row. You need a break or you’ll cause an injury.”
“Target practice, then. I’ll ask Rhodey to work with me on distance.”
“Take a break, Wanda.”
She doesn’t respond, so he heads for the door, already thinking about a call to Tony for coding updates.
“I’m sorry,” she chokes out.
The wreckage of her voice freezes him. Before he can move, she says it again. Pleads it. “I’m so sorry.”
He turns around. “Wanda.”
She stands there, hands hanging at her sides and her hair in her face, shoulders shaking with silent, uncontrolled sobs. “I don’t know what else to say,” she gasps between heaves. “I don’t know how to make up for what I did. I try, I do—anything I can, I, but I don’t know what else to do.”
It’s getting out of control; he can see the panic attack gathering. Remorse floods. He knows to his bones how that feels, can’t just stand by while it happens to her. He’s approaching her before he realizes. “Wanda.”
She twists her hands together, fingers white. A moment ago, she’d been calm, proud of her efforts, and now she’s shaking like he’s struck her. “I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry. I don’t know how to convince you to stop hating me.”
He stares at her, his heart pounding. Never before has he seen so clearly how young she is. “I don’t hate you.”
“You do.” She nods her head. Tears stream down her cheeks. “You do. I don’t blame you for it. I tried to kill you.”
“But you didn’t.” Is he defending her actions, to her? He is. He reaches out, drops his hand, then reaches again as she stumbles. He steadies her by one arm. Isn’t sure if he should touch her further.
“I don’t have anyone else,” she manages brokenly. “I want to help you. I want—this.” Her gesture takes in the training room and everything beyond. “Please. I know you don’t trust me. Tell me what else I can do so that you... Anything. Anything else. I don’t want…”
She doesn’t finish, but he can imagine. God, she is just a kid. A kid with overwhelming powers and a lot of anger. A kid whose brother died. Steve takes a deep breath, forcing himself to relax his grip. “Come,” he tries, and clears his throat. “Come here, sit… sit down for a second.”
She moves the few steps to the mat before sinking down next to him. Her hair hangs in curtains, and her shoulders jump as she continues to cry quietly. She wipes her face with the back of her hand.
Steve thinks about losing Bucky, the only brother he’s ever known. “I’m sorry about Pietro,” he says softly. He’s never said it to her. He knows the others have not been so silent. She is a part of the team, and she has corrected her wrongs. Joined their side. He had taken a good long look, and thought he’d made himself thaw, unstiffening as best he could.
Clearly not enough.
“We should never have listened to him,” she mumbles.
“I just… I wanted Stark to feel what we felt. It was all I wanted.” She lets out something that might be a laugh were it not so clogged. “I can’t even imagine that now. How it was. Everything is so different.”
Steve remains silent. Half of him wants to comfort; half of him wants to rail. If he opens his mouth, he might shatter this fragile… whatever it is.
“What he did killed my family,” she says, so ragged.
“And what Hydra did killed his.”
She nods again miserably. “I know. I know that.”
Steve rubs his face with both hands, sighing into his palms. He’d been an angry kid once, parentless, brotherless, eventually friendless. He’d told Tony he was sorry for not being a leader. Here he is, being no fit leader again. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t want to lead her; she wants to follow. She is trying, to make amends for the damage she caused, just as Tony tries again and again to atone for the same.
“I’m sorry, too.” He feels the shame twist in his gut. “I know I haven’t been welcoming.”
“Why should you be?”
“Because you’re one of us now,” he says immediately, and she looks up. He wonders, studying her face, if she really thought that herself before now. “You are part of my team and… and we’ve all done things we’re not proud of. Things maybe we shouldn’t be forgiven for. But people forgive us anyway.”
“I haven’t looked,” she says after a moment. “You know.” She points at his head, hers, then lets her hand drop back to her lap. “I swear I haven’t.”
“I know.” He doesn’t know. But he makes the decision right there to trust her word.
She takes an unsteady breath. “I don’t want to leave here. It’s so painful out there, and here, I think maybe I could…” Again she lets the sentence drop. Her face flushes from the throat. Steve looks away.
“You’re welcome here,” he says. Thinks about saying it to Tony. Wonders if it would get him what he wanted or if Tony would choose to remain separate, and leave Steve yearning mutely in a friendship he nearly threw away. “Don’t let anyone tell you different. Not even me.”
She smiles at him. It’s weak. After a moment, he smiles back.
He spends time in the gym, working out his self-disgust at how far he let things go with Wanda. In all honesty, he’d thought he was opening up to her, but it’s obvious now, looking back on the way she so intently watched him during team training, asked for the one-on-one sessions, offered up ideas and agreement and fervent interest. Always, always attempts to make things flow smoothly. He doesn’t think he ever shut her down out of hand, but now he’s not certain of anything.
When he can’t beat himself up anymore, he takes it out on the team: parks himself in the observation lounge with a tablet and a continuous stream of battle footage. With the impartiality of a robot, he picks apart what he’s doing wrong, then combs through everyone else’s foibles. He has a battle on the wharf paused when the door opens behind him. Whoever it is lingers on the threshold, and when Steve finally finishes his note, he finds Clint swaying, clutching a stack of photographs.
Clint doesn’t say anything. He stares at Steve like he’s seeing right through him, and Steve notices how pale he is. He gets to his feet in a hurry, shoving his chair back. The scrape galvanizes Clint, propelling him toward the table. As soon as he’s close enough, he tosses the handful of photos. They slide across the tabletop, fanning out like leaves. Steve moves closer, but Clint speaks first.
“Who?” But he has already stilled, staring in disbelief at Agent Phil Coulson in vivid color, amidst the rush and crowd of running people, a city that was attacked last week. Not two years ago. Days. Days earlier, Phil stood on that spot, living and breathing, and saving. “Son of a bitch,” he says, dazed.
Clint laughs. It’s not a happy sound.
“Where did you find these?”
“He lost his hand,” Clint says, then laughs again and puts his hand to his eyes. “Lost his fucking hand.”
Clint lists alarmingly to the side. It’s the second time today that Steve has caught a teammate. “Sit down, Clint, sit—” He gets Clint to a chair, but Clint pulls out of his grip before he can urge him into it.
“I’m going after him.” Clint speaks with none of the unsteadiness Steve is feeling, none of the white hot shock or dreamy fog.
“It’s been almost two years,” Steve murmurs, mostly to himself. He turns the photos over, finds Phil with a dark-haired woman he thinks he recognizes and another he doesn’t, with Agent Morse, with a guy built like a brick house. There are notes, too, but they blur when Steve tries to read them. He pushes them away and splays his hand over them, glad he can sit down again when his knees begin to shake. “Two years.”
“They brought him back,” Clint says dully. “Some Level Seven program.”
“Did you tell the others?” He knows if he starts probing at that gap between Phil’s death and resurrection, he’ll probably find Fury. Spies and lies, and another nail in the coffin of his relationship with SHIELD. Which isn’t buried yet but— “Son of a bitch."
He looks at Clint and stops. Can’t tear his eyes from the expression on Clint’s face. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen the man so perfectly calm. The tension has drained away, smoothing lines Steve hadn’t even been aware of. He looks younger, more at peace, than he did even during the days on the farm.
“You have to know I love him.”
“You love him,” Steve repeats. He touches the edge of one of the photos, of Phil shading his eyes with what looks like a black gloved prosthetic. “As in—”
“I’m in love with him,” Clint says. It’s so matter-of-fact it makes Steve’s gut twist. “Have been for years.”
Steve has no idea what he’s supposed to say. He thinks about Laura, the two—no, three kids, the home Clint revealed in an effort to save them all. He feels a little ill. “Clint.”
“I never told him.” Clint might as well be talking to himself for all he’s acknowledging Steve. And then suddenly his eyes are fierce and fixed, a frown turning him almost regal. “I didn’t know what I was feeling at first. You can’t love two people at once, not like that. That’s what I knew. When I got used to it, it was just there, and I never meant anything to come of it. And then he died, and I didn’t like that about myself, but it was done, you know? I couldn’t change it. Just had to live with it, and my part in it.
“And now.” Clint stops. Stares at nothing, and in that moment, he looks utterly beaten down. He looks like Steve felt when he found out what had really happened to Bucky.
“Are you alright?” Steve asks quietly.
“I’m happy, Steve. I’m so happy. And I’m terrified. Now I have to know things I didn’t think I’d ever have to know about myself.” He picks up a photograph from the pile and runs his fingers over the surface. It’s a lover’s touch, intimate and tender and not meant for mixed company. Steve glances away uncomfortably. Clint puts the photo back down and faces him again. “I love my wife. She’s my whole life, Steve, I can’t imagine this world without her in it. I don’t know who I’d be, or what I’d do. Or not do. I’m afraid I’d be a terrible person without her. The kind of person we take down.”
“You wouldn’t be,” Steve says, because he knows Clint. He knows who he is, and he knows Clint is wrong about this. It’s as though he’s speaking without filter, just knowing truths and spilling them out like the spilled photographs.
He looks over the pictures, the proof of Phil. He thinks of conversations on empty helicarrier catwalks. He thinks of grief, and of how ridiculously hard it was to let go of a man he barely knew. Everything feels very fatalistic, like they’re all being pushed by an unseen hand. “What happens next?”
Clint smiles, half helpless, half manic. “I don’t know.” His hands uncurl, then fist back up again. “I feel like something fell down inside me. It’s just lying there. Can’t get back up.”
“You should call Laura.” It rasps from Steve’s throat.
“I did. It was the first thing I did, Steve. I had to make sense of it. I had to…”
Cry, if the redness around his eyes is any indication. Steve’s heart seizes the way it used to when he thought of Peggy. If he had the chance to have her back again, as she had been, as he had been—
“I’m going to tell him,” Clint says.
“What good will that do?” It panics Steve, he can’t help himself. Clint is married, he has a family, people he’s committed to. He’s clearly not looking to change that. And yet, he’s going to seek out trouble, let it right in the front door.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Clint says, suddenly the soothing one. He shakes his head and finally smiles a real smile. “It won’t be like that. I don’t know how it will be, but Steve, the thing I regret most is him dying and not knowing how I felt before he went. That was a feeling that I… I have no words for it. It was like he’d died twice, and it was like hammering my fists into a wall that would never come down. It was like going mad. After New York, I went home and I made sure Laura knew that I loved her. I couldn’t tell her or show her enough, because it could have been her. Who never knew.”
Clint steps closer, through the thickening silence of the room. “I want Phil to know he is loved. That I love him. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t love me back. If nothing will ever come of it. Him knowing will always, always be better than him going to the grave without it.”
Steve’s heartbeat roars in his ears, a future he isn’t ready for swinging up like a juggernaut. He finds he is crumpling one of the photos in his fist and drops it, pressing it flat. His fingers tremble, because Clint is the one who knows about Tony, and Clint…
Clint has never sounded so sure.
“I wanted you to know,” Clint adds softly. He touches one of the pictures again, eyes on the image of Phil’s face. “I think you need to hear it. I don’t think you should experience what I experienced for yourself. Not that. I just wanted you to know.”
He has no words. Clint leaves the photos, squeezes Steve’s shoulder and stays there for much longer than should be comfortable or appropriate for them, but Steve is loath to lose that contact. Clint’s hand is warm and solid. When he finally does leave, the observation lounge feels very empty.
Turns out it doesn’t matter how long he sits there afterward. The sun has almost set when Steve gets to his feet, shaking, knowing the decision he’s been brushing aside for months has already been made without him.