S.H.I.E.L.D. as a whole wasn't much for remembrance ceremonies. Usually they were too busy preventing the next catastrophe to mourn the victims of the last one. It was harsh, but that was the way things had to be. They found time where they could, when they could, and mourned when it fit their schedule.
Tony didn't have the patience for that. He just shut off his S.H.I.E.L.D. communicator and chartered a flight to DC.
He turned up the collar of his coat against the cold drizzle that slid down the back of his neck, counting the rows as he passed them. There were too many, acres and acres of the goddamned things, and it made his throat burn, made his hands clench into fists deep in the pockets of his coat.
Row seventeen. He turned and walked along the row. They weren't all together, but they were all in this row. This hundred-yard row of gravestones.
Ramirez was the first. He stared at the chiseled dates. Twenty-three years old. Christ.
He sighed. "Well, uh, this sucks. A lot, actually. I guess I should apologize--four years is kind of a long time to go without ever visiting. I have excuses, a couple of great ones in fact, but none of them really cut it. I could have made time for this, and I didn't.
"I don't even know what to say. It was my fault. None of you poor bastards made it out of there alive, and all because you had the shitty luck to be riding in the Humvee that had me in it. It's so incredibly unfair there aren't even words for it."
He scrubbed a hand through his hair, shaking off droplets of rain. "Anyway, I'm sorry. You died because of me, and because of the weapons I made, and...I'm sorry."
It wasn't enough, but it was never going to be enough. He'd done what he came to do, and that was it. He made sure he passed each one of them--Ramirez, Pratt, and Sanderson, who never got his damned picture. He left a pebble balanced neatly on top of each headstone.
When he reached the end of the row, instead of going back to the car, he turned and kept walking, away from the brand-new graves where the dirt had hardly settled, back towards the dead of earlier wars.
Arlington was more crowded today than any other day of the year, but as he walked farther on--farther back in time--the visitors began to thin out. There were still plenty of flowers and flags marking the soldiers' graves, but people didn't stay as long here. The loss, for the most part, was an old wound.
But not for everyone.
He was standing in his dress uniform with his hands behind his back, in perfect parade rest in the middle of a long row of graves, their white marble worn by seventy years of wind and rain.
Tony didn't know how Steve had gotten here. He'd sent him a text message the day before, offering a ride if he wanted it, but Steve hadn't answered and Tony didn't press the issue.
He wouldn't stay long; he just needed to make sure that Steve was doing all right, on his first Veterans' Day since the ice.
"You don't have to hide back there," Steve said. His voice carried in the quiet.
Tony made his way down the row. "I wasn't hiding. I mean, I...just wanted to make sure you were okay."
The corner of Steve's mouth twitched up in a halfhearted attempt at a smile. "I'm fine. I visited all the others already, but...I wasn't sure I could do this. I kept putting it off."
Tony knew what he was going to see before he looked down at the grave marker. James Buchanan Barnes, 1918-1944.
Steve drew in a deep, shaky breath. "It was sixty-eight years ago. But it doesn't feel like that."
"No, it wouldn't."
"It was my fault."
Hearing his own words in Steve's voice chilled him, but Tony shook his head. "No."
"Yes. He would never have gone back to the front if it wasn't for me."
"He'd never have left that HYDRA base if it wasn't for you," Tony countered. "You didn't force him to go back out there. He volunteered. And speaking as someone who also volunteered to fight with you, I've never regretted it."
Steve sighed, finally shifting out of parade rest. His hands dropped to his sides, the knuckles of one hand brushing against the back of Tony's palm. Tony hadn't realized they were standing so close together.
Steve frowned. "Your hands are cold."
"Yeah, well. It is November."
"Don't you own a pair of gloves?"
Tony shrugged, and Steve curled one warm hand over Tony's.
They stood there for a few more minutes. Steve's thoughts were decades away; Tony stayed with him, knowing that this was something that, for all his genius, he couldn't fix.
Finally Steve took a deep breath. "Okay," he said, and Tony wasn't quite sure Steve was talking to him until he turned. His eyes were too bright, but his smile was steadier how. He squeezed Tony's hand gently.
"Let's go home."