It comes on him when he least expects it. One moment, he's putting milk into his basket, looking for bread, and the next he's standing in an aisle and doesn't know where he is, doesn't know what any of this is, and he can't breathe.
He feels as small as he used to be, feels like he's gone somewhere or said something he shouldn't have, like he's been hit and he's bleeding. The future is standing over him, and he can't get away, and Christ, now's when Bucky should be walking in. When Bucky should be landing the punch Steve can't, throwing his arm around Steve, and everything should be okay. But it's not. It's not.
He's so alone.
It's not the first time it's happened, not even the second or the third. Knowing the feeling in his chest like he can't get any air doesn't help him, though. It doesn't make the panic feel any less real. He sets his basket down and manages to stagger to the end of an aisle, near the swinging doors. He ducks inside, and he's Captain America, damn it. He can infiltrate the back room of a grocery store. He can buy milk and bread. Only he can't. He can't.
Somehow or other, he shoves himself into a crevice in the back of a storeroom, and this is fine. He puts his back to a shelf and draws his knees up, puts his forehead tight to them and wraps his arms around himself. All he has to do is breathe. This will all be over soon and then—
The jolt of remembrance hits him, sudden and aching and awful.
It won't be over. Not soon. Not ever.
And nothing reminds him of that more than the sudden sound of guitars in the empty space.
Fumbling, Steve reaches into his pocket and pulls out the little telephone Tony insists he carry with him everywhere. Sure enough, the picture on the screen is one of Tony throwing up a peace sign, and Steve doesn't need this. Can't take this. Can't…
He curls his free hand into a fist and takes three shuddering not-quite-breaths.
He can do this. Of course he can.
He slides his thumb across the screen the way Tony told him to and rakes his fingers through his hair. "Hello?"
"Cap, listen, I was—"
"Tony. This…Is it something important?"
There's a split second of silence. When he speaks again, Tony's tone has changed entirely. "Steve? You okay?"
Steve's not. He's jittery and shaky and exhausted, shirt damp with sweat, but there's something about Tony calling him Steve. He lets out a deep sigh, and it doesn't rattle as much in his chest. It lets him pull some air in, and that feels better.
"Yeah," Steve croaks. "Yeah. Just…it's not the best time."
"You don't sound okay."
"It'll be all right."
Another pause, and pauses aren't things that happen with Tony. "Where are you, Steve?"
Tony's eye roll is almost audible. "Super helpful, there. I'm guessing you're not at the tower or SHIELD?"
"No. I, er, I went to the grocery store."
"Have you done that before?"
"Yeah—" But, actually… "No, not like this. Little corner market, sure, but this is…"
"A little different from the forties, huh, old-timer?"
Steve rubs his hand over his eyes, hard. "Listen, Stark, if you're just going to make fun of me—"
"Hey, no fun. I mean, I am fun, but I'm not making fun. Who's making fun? Definitely not me. I'm just saying. Things change."
The way Tony says it this time, it's different. Like things really do change and like he understands, or at least as if he's trying to. It's…nice. This voice in his ear, one he doesn't entirely understand but that's familiar. Right now, he'll latch onto that. Latch onto it and hold on.
"Can you just…" Steve winces and drags his palm over his face again. His breathing is steadier now. He isn't shaking. "You called for a reason, right?"
"Sure. Of course. I—"
Steve can hear the offense in Tony's voice, and he groans. "Not trying to get rid of you." Quite the opposite in fact. "Just, can you…talk? About something?"
"Wait. You want me to talk?"
Tony clears his throat. And then he launches into a discussion about Steve's uniform. Somewhere in the litany of measurements and materials and benchmarks, Steve pieces together that Tony called to ask him if he had a preference for shades of blue, but Tony seems to have decided what the best one is all by himself now. Steve lets him talk, lets the drone of his babble wash over him. Anchor him.
Everything in him eases, and he gets a really deep, full breath this time. When Tony pauses, Steve breathes out. "Tony?"
And there's no sassy reply, no continuation of the diatribe. Instead, there's just Tony's voice, infused this time with warmth.
Later on, Steve runs into Tony at SHIELD. Tony's perched on someone's desk, fiddling with something on his tablet. He looks up at Steve with a gaze that seems to peer right through him.
Steve's not feeling so thin, though, not so fragile. He's steady. He's fine. He tilts his chin up and fits into his own skin, straightening his spine and throwing back his shoulders.
Their gazes connect. Tony gives one jerky nod of his head, then looks back down.
And that's all there is to it. No words are said, no acknowledgment of the fact that Tony seems to know.
It's not even an interaction, not really, and Steve still isn't sure what to make of Tony. If anything, he's even less sure now. But somehow, he feels just a little bit less alone. Like there's a little less weight he has to bear all on his own.
Three days later, when Tony trades Steve's phone out for a new one, Steve doesn't think anything of it.
The next time it happens, Steve's in his apartment in Brooklyn. Sitting at his desk, he opens a piece of fan mail just to have a photograph fall out from the among hand-written pages. It's black and white, and he only has to glance at it to feel his heart rise to his throat, to feel the cold sweat and the tightness in his chest. His hands go numb.
He sinks to the floor and tries to breathe and can't and stares.
Even though his vision's tunneled, he manages to get the gist of the letter. It's from the granddaughter of one of the men he freed in Austria; the picture is of him and Steve and Bucky from after they got back to the encampment. The soldier looks so young, and he's dead now. He's gone.
Everyone is gone. And Steve's still here, wandering. Like a ghost.
And he doesn't know why.
They all looked so young.
He's still sitting there, the photo clasped against his chest and the letter wrinkled from how he's gripping it, his back to the wall and his eyes wet, when his phone rings. His lungs hurt, but he answers all the same.
"So I was thinking."
It's Tony's voice, and Steve breathes out, longer and deeper than he's managed to since he opened the letter.
"Yeah, um, you know me, always thinking, kind of wish I could stop sometimes, actually. But. Yeah."
There's a little pause, just like the last time. Steve hears it like an opening, like a chance for him to stop Tony or to talk to him or…whatever. Instead he just says, "Okay?"
What he means is, Please keep talking. Just talk to me. I need someone to talk to me.
Tony lets out a chuckling sigh, like he hears everything Steve's not saying aloud. "Yeah. So, specifically, though, I was thinking…"
He rambles on about something involving the aerodynamics of the shield and the ways it shouldn't be able to rebound so spectacularly, but he has a theory on that, and he explains it in detail. Explains how it was made and from what.
It's the closest he's ever come to talking about his dad, at least to Steve.
Steve settles in, clutching the phone to his ear and relaxing his grip on everything else—on the photo, on his ribs. On himself.
By the time Tony stops, Steve's breathing fine again. He's still a little shaky, his skin prickling with cooling sweat, but it's under control.
"So," Tony says. "Just thought you might be interested."
"I—I am. It's…interesting." What he means is he's okay. "Thank you."
"Not a problem." A beat of hesitation. "You can always call me, you know. If you ever…want to talk. About your shield or your uniform or. Anything."
"Okay, Tony. Okay."
"Promise you will?"
"Maybe," he hedges.
"Just, you know. Offer's out there."
Tony hangs up shortly after. Steve stays there, sitting on the ground and reading the letter with eyes that are clear. It still hurts his heart, but it's good, too. He did important things with his life, he's doing important things still. People need him.
He gets up, gets into his chair.
And he writes a letter, telling a young woman what he remembers about her granddad.
There's a third time and a fourth time and a fifth time. Like clockwork, as soon as the panic starts to overwhelm him, as soon as his throat starts to close, there's the sound of raging guitars. There's the sound of Tony's voice.
Tony talks about nothing and everything, and it grounds Steve in a way he doesn't want to look too closely at.
After about the tenth time, Steve starts to anticipate the call, and that alone helps ease the tightness in his chest. As often as not, just thinking about Tony talking in his ear helps Steve get himself under control. So the attacks come less often, and so do the calls.
And Steve…misses them. Not the panic, but the voice and the words and the feeling that he's not alone.
One night, sitting alone in his apartment, he stares at his phone, idly wishing it would ring. The solitude is pressing in on him. It's not the gasping, grasping panic that Tony always seems to know about, but it's there all the same, heavy and hard. To not be alone…to just have somebody to talk to… It would be such a relief.
He reaches for the phone, then pulls his fingers back before he can pick it up. He clenches them tight into a fist. It's stupid, to bother Tony. But Tony did offer...
Before he can stop himself, Steve grabs the phone and wakes it up and scrolls through the contacts list to the picture of Tony. He hasn't entirely decided to make the call, but he absently strokes his thumb over the picture, and the screen changes. It brings up the dialing screen, and oh, it's dialing, and. Oh.
Swallowing hard, Steve brings the phone up to his ear. It rings and rings, and he second-guesses himself about a hundred times in the space of each breath. He's almost resolved to end the call when it picks up, and there's Tony's voice.
"Steve? You okay? Something wrong?" He sounds terribly worried, and Steve immediately feels bad.
"No." Steve shakes his head. "No, I'm fine. I just." Damn. This was a bad idea. Something bitter creeps into the back of his throat. "Sorry. I shouldn't have bothered you."
There a curiosity to Tony's tone. "Did you—did you call to just say 'hi'?"
"Maybe?" It comes out defensive, and maybe Steve is, a little. "You said I could."
"I didn't think you'd actually take me up on it."
Oh. And that kind of hurts. A little strangled noise he does not intend to make sneaks out, and he takes a deep breath, about to say goodbye, but then Tony's talking again.
"No, no, I'm an asshole, that's a good thing. It's a good thing that you called. I just thought you. Wouldn't. You're just full of surprises, aren't you?"
"That's me," Steve says weakly. Is he ever going to get his feet underneath him with this guy?
"So what's up?"
Okay, they're really doing this. Steve slumps back into the couch and wipes a hand across his eyes. "Not much." He hesitates for a second. "I'm not interrupting anything?"
"Nah, just reworking some of the wiring in the repulsors for the new suit."
The suit. Steve can talk about that. "Looked like the left gauntlet tapped out on you in training yesterday?"
Tony makes a little snickering sound. "You could say that. If Widow performing a surgical strike on it with a hairpin while distracting me with a kick to the head counts as 'it tapping out'."
"Have I said recently that I'm glad she's on our side?"
"And you haven't even had her jam a hypodermic needle in your neck."
"Didn't I ever tell you about that time?" Tony starts going on about how he met Natasha, and Steve cradles the phone closer to his face, relaxing for what feels like the first time in weeks.
They go back and forth for a while, exchanging the modern equivalent of war stories (and in Steve's case, actual war stories). They get derailed every now and then when Tony throws in a reference that goes right over Steve's head and Steve actually bothers to call him on it and ask him what he's talking about.
"Wait, wait," Tony says at one point. "Star Wars? No one's bothered to make you watch Star Wars yet? What a bunch of…" His voice goes a little distant. "JARVIS, when's the next time I have, like, nine hours free in my schedule? An emergency just came up, and we need to have a movie marathon."
JARVIS's smooth, wry voice rings out in the background. "Nine hours, sir? I may be able to pencil something in for 2018."
"Hahaha, very funny," Tony says, and then he sounds closer again. "I'll shuffle something around—"
Steve interrupts him. "You don't have to make time to watch old movies with me." Steve's kind of grateful Tony's even made this much time for him. "What did you say the name was again? I can probably download it on—" What was the name of that thing Darcy put on his computer? "—eTunes?"
"iTunes? You know about iTunes?"
"I'm not completely clueless." Even if he feels it, sometimes.
"Never said you were," Tony says without missing a beat. "Anyway, whatever, fuck it. Go put on one of your sexy old man sweaters and come over to the tower. I probably don't have anything important in the morning. We'll make a night of it. Order pizza. You like pizza, right?"
Steve blinks. "Pizza is good."
"Good, great, get your spangly ass over here."
It's more an order and less an invitation, and maybe that's why Steve doesn't overthink it too much. Feeling a little dazed, he says, "Give me half an hour."
"Perfect, JARVIS will let you in. See you."
And then there's just a bit of shuffling, and his screen flashes, telling him the call disconnected. For about a minute, Steve stares at the phone. Then he remembers he just gave himself only half an hour to get all the way across town.
Somehow, he manages it, and twenty-nine minutes later, dressed in a button-down that looks neat and pressed and not…old-man-ish, he hopes, he's whisked up to the top of the tower and let out on the penthouse floor.
He's been here once or twice before for team functions, but the slick, futuristic look of it still takes him by surprise. He steps off the elevator and peeks around the corner. "Tony?"
The voice is coming from down the hall, so Steve takes another step inside, only to see Tony approaching. It's ridiculous, how good it is to see him. For a second, Steve has to actively stop himself from reaching out and touching him.
He shoves his hands into his pockets, directs his eyes down and smiles. "So. Here I am."
"Yeah, you are." Tony doesn't have the same restraint Steve does, but then he's also probably not suppressing quite the same urges. He slaps Steve on the shoulder as he's walking by, but that's not all. The touch lingers, dragging down Steve's arm, warm even through his shirt. "Good look, you're rocking there. Only middle-aged man instead of old man."
Ouch. "Glad to hear I'm improving?"
"Like fine wine." Tony flashes one hell of a smile. "You know how much a bottle from 1917 would go for now? 1917, right?"
"Doesn't matter." Another quick pat to his elbow before Tony's wandering off, one long, slender arm extending to point toward the couch. "Make yourself at home. Pizza should be here soon. JARVIS? Queue up Episode IV."
"Episode four?" Does it really make sense to skip the…first three?
"Believe me, it's better this way." Tony waves again toward the couch. "Sit. Seriously." He yanks open the refrigerator. "Want something to drink?"
Tony rattles off way too many options, and Steve cuts him off, insisting whatever Tony is having is fine. Still talking, Tony pours and approaches, holding out a glass of whiskey and soda. Once Steve accepts it, Tony offers up his glass to clink.
And it burns a little, remembering sitting around tables, toasting with his soldiers, but it's okay. It's the kind of burn he can live with, because he has this now. Not a replacement, but something that eases the hole in his chest.
He manages a smile as he takes a sip. "That's good."
"Only the best."
With that, Tony plunks himself down beside Steve, way too close. Their arms brush, and it's electrifying and tempting. Way too tempting. Steve sucks in a breath through his teeth.
"Hey," Tony says, fingers stroking the back of Steve's neck, making it so much better and so much worse. Steve's not used to this kind of casual touching anymore. It feels unreasonably good. "Relax."
And there's real worry there, beneath the quiet urgings to be calm. Steve's inability to get himself to settle is what started this unlikely friendship in the first place after all. It's what made Tony finally drop his guard—when he happened upon Steve while Steve was utterly stripped of his.
He wonders about that, sometimes. How Tony knew just what to do.
Steve takes a deep breath and sends it all the way to his toes. He lets the warmth of Tony's touch seep through until something inside of him uncoils.
He nods at Tony, and Tony gives a softer kind of smile. He lets go of Steve's neck, but he doesn't shift any farther down the couch, and that's fine. It's good. It's not everything Steve might secretly wish for, but it's more than he had when he awoke to this strange new world.
With Tony warm against his side, he focuses on the movie and on the quiet companionship.
And it's incredible, really. He knew that talking to Tony made him feel better; Tony's taken him from panic to okay so many times. But he didn't know that if he started out all right, being with Tony could make him…happy.
He didn't know he could ever be happy again.
As the intro to the movie plays, Steve shifts a little closer into Tony. Tony doesn't pull away.
They settle into a rhythm after that. Once a week or so, Steve calls Tony just to talk, and Tony never seems annoyed by it. Occasionally, he has to call Steve back when he has more time, but that's just to be expected with someone as busy as Tony is, and it makes Steve feel warm when he does hear back.
And if he also feels other things, well…it's not like anybody else needs to know.
Tony calls him of his own accord at random times. At weird hours of the night and in the middle of the day, and it's often just for a minute or two, because he thought of something Steve might find funny or familiar, or if he has a sudden question about the forties, or if he's remembered some other bit of popular culture Steve needs to introduced to, this instant. Those last calls usually end with Steve putting aside whatever he'd been doing and heading to the tower and sitting next to Tony, close enough to touch, his hands jammed under his thighs to keep from reaching out as they watch a movie or a television show or listen to music. Together. And it's good.
The anxiety gets easier and easier to control. Still, every time it starts to get out of hand, when his pulse starts to skyrockets and his throat starts to close…every time, Tony calls.
Right up until he doesn't.
Steve hunches in on himself, clutching his chest as he slides the bolt home, locking himself inside the stall of a restroom. He'd forced himself to go for a run, and somehow someone had figured out his rout, and a man with a camera had ambushed him in the middle of the park. He'd been fine, staring owlishly into the lens before remembering himself and saying 'no comment' and walking away, but as he'd hit the boundary of the park, he'd started seeing cameras everywhere. There had been cameras everywhere, kids with cellphones and tourists, and how had he not noticed them before? They were all staring at him, and he was sweaty and dressed in workout clothes, and he couldn't get away.
He'd never be able to get away.
Needing to be off the street, he'd barreled into a fast food restaurant and headed to the bathroom, and now he's pressed up against the wall of the stall, and he doesn't know how he's ever going to be able to talk himself into heading back out.
His hand is at his pocket, fingers twitching as he waits for the phone to buzz to life, because he'd freaking out here, and Tony will know what to say. Tony always knows what to say, and he always knows when to call, and Steve gets that it's probably just another layer of surveillance, some kind of sensor Tony built into his phone or something. That should bother him, considering he's losing it over the idea of constantly being in the public eye, but it doesn't. It makes him feel safer, knowing someone he cares about is watching out for him. But it still doesn't stop the hammering of his heart. It doesn't shake away the paranoia. And his phone doesn't ring.
He stands there, rocking and trying to make himself smaller and twitching at the entry and exit of other patrons as they move around the space he's occupying. Probably waiting for him to come out so they can take a picture of him pissing, and, damn. Damn, damn, damn. But his phone still doesn't ring, and he'd counted on Tony. Tony has always come through for him, and if he's lost another person…
Oh, God. He can't lose another person. His nails bite into his palm, and his thoughts circle even faster and more panicky-fast, before the first little bit of clarity parts the fog.
Tony isn't calling him. Tony always calls him.
That's all Steve needs to pull himself out of his downward spiral. He straightens himself out, still trembling a little, but he has the presence of mind to pull his phone from his pocket and bring it to life. There are no little pictures telling him about a missed call, no voicemails. He glances at the little bars. He has reception. His ringer is on.
Something is wrong.
The trembling changes shape entirely, the panic ebbing to a sharp, stark fear. He closes his eyes and takes three deep breaths, reminding himself he has a job to do with every one. Tony needs him. Tony's taken such good care of him, and now it's time for him to do whatever he has to. He has to make sure Tony's safe.
One last inhale that he lets out over a count of ten, and then he's moving. He slides the bolt open and steps out of the stall into an empty bathroom, where he stops only long enough to wash his hands and splash cold water on his face. He looks at himself in the mirror and schools his expression, letting Captain America be strong where Steve Rogers is still so fallible and lost and scared.
Vision forward, he stalks out of the bathroom and through the restaurant, not making eye contact and not letting himself think about who might be recognizing him or observing him, about the headlines he might face tomorrow, calling Captain America out for locking himself in a bathroom, shaking, for half an hour. He has a job to do. He has to be strong.
Out on the street, he starts dialing even as he's walking, stride purposeful and strong, feet taking him toward the tower without his really thinking about it. He should be running, there's no time to lose, but a weakness lingers in his limbs, and he needs his breath and his concentration to make these calls. The first number he pulls up is Tony's, and there's a litany in his mind with every pulse of the ringtone, please pick up, please pick up, please be all right. It clicks over to voicemail, and the knot in his chest gets tighter.
Tony's in a meeting. Maybe there's something important, more important than Steve's well-being—it's not Tony's job to babysit him. Tony's never made it feel like babysitting, though. He's never made it out to be a burden.
Steve quickens his pace as he looks up a number he's never had to use before, but he has to, now.
The phone rings twice, and then there's a crisply efficient, if wondering, "Hello?"
"Ms.—Ms. Potts?" he asks.
"Yes? Is this—"
"This is Captain Steve Rogers, ma'am."
He doesn't get any more out before she's interrupting, her voice quickly rising in both volume and pitch. "What happened? Is Tony all right?"
Oh, God. She's not with Tony, then. Steve keeps his tone level. "I'm actually trying to locate him, ma'am. He's not picking up his phone."
"Oh." There's a moment's hesitation. "Is that all? That's pretty standard behavior."
Except it's not. Tony's only failed to answer a call a couple of times, and he's always had a good reason. He's never left Steve waiting long.
"He—" And how does Steve tell her this? "I'd been expecting him to contact me. In addition to being unable to reach him…" I'm going out of my mind.
"Let me just…" A clacking of keys, and then, "He's not scheduled to be in a meeting at the moment. Have you tried the tower?"
"On my way right now." His walking pace, as quick as it had been, gives way to a jog. Tony might be hurt, could have been attacked or kidnapped, or… Steve's heart pounds, and he can't do this right now, but all he can see is Bucky falling away from him, spinning out until he's a speck against the snow and Steve is clinging to a train, like he's lost everything in his life that kept him grounded to himself.
No. No. He's right here, in the city, and that's all decades and lifetimes away. He has to keep it together. He has to relax his grip before his phone shatters in his hand. "I'm still here." He breathes deeply. "You don't have any other insights into where he might be? He hasn't said anything?"
And it hurts to even ask. There's a reason why he hasn't ever spoken to Ms. Potts. Reasons he keeps close to his chest, bone-deep jealousy that has no place here.
She makes a wry little laughing sound. "Tony and I don't actually talk very often."
Steve's heart feels like it skips a beat. "But. I thought."
"Captain. He hasn't—" She huffs in his ear. "You don't watch the news much, do you?"
He does, all the time, he does, but…He's reminded of the kind of tabloid journalism that drove him into a McDonald's bathroom in the first place. "Depends what kind of 'news' you mean, I suppose."
Her voice goes softer. "Tony and broke up over a month ago."
Oh. Oh. "I'm sorry." The words sound strangled, but why wouldn't Tony have mentioned that?
Then again, Tony's never exactly mentioned anything about her, either. Steve had taken that for a kindness and remained quietly grateful about it, even as he'd kept his envy to himself.
"Don't be," she says, long and drawn out. "It's for the best. Listen, I'll see if I can find him, and I'll let you know if I hear anything. I'm—I'm sure it's nothing. He's probably just lost in one of his projects. Tinkering." And there, the wryness drops to something more bitter. As if the amazing things Tony builds are somehow something she finds personally offensive to her.
Suddenly, Steve really wants to be off the phone with her.
"All right. Thank you."
They say their goodbyes and he hangs up. He's only a block or two from the tower now, so he puts his phone away and jogs forward. When he gets there, he strides across the lobby like he belongs there and heads to the private elevator Tony's always directed him to in the past. He presses the button, startling when the doors slide open immediately. He steps inside and puffs out his chest.
"JARVIS?" he starts, and he's ready to launch into an explanation of why he needs to get up to the penthouse right away.
Only JARVIS doesn't question him at all. "The penthouse, I presume, Captain?"
"Um. Yes. Please?"
The doors slide closed, and Steve catches the rail to keep his balance as the car rockets upward. It's a relief and it's confusing, and maybe he shouldn't question it, only…
"JARVIS? You—you don't let just anybody go up there, do you?"
"Sir has precise instructions about who is allowed access to which sections of the tower and when."
"Oh." And Steve's apparently allowed up whenever he wants? That's…really something—something he'll have to look at later. "Is Mr. Stark at home right now?"
He doesn't imagine an AI can really hesitate, but JARVIS does, just for a fraction of a second. "He is, Captain."
Thank God. Steve can't keep the relief from his voice. "And is he all right?"
"He is unharmed, I assure you."
And that's…not quite a yes. Tension leaks back into Steve, but there isn't time to let the web of possible scenarios spin out in front of him. The doors whoosh open, and Steve spills out into the apartment he's been to enough times by now.
Before he can ask where Tony is, JARVIS informs him, "Mr. Stark is in his bedroom, Captain."
Steve's never been there before.
He makes his footsteps quiet as he moves through the space, keeping close to the wall, one fingertip trailing along the plaster. He looks into the open doors of a couple empty rooms before he finds one that is a whirlwind, is a mess of wrinkled shirts and tools and one or two discarded bits of armor. The sheets are in a pile, the bed unmade, and it smells like Tony and it smells like desperation.
And yet Steve's not ready, he's not, for the sight of Tony, who has always been so strong…he's not ready to see Tony curled up in a ball in the corner of the room with his head in his hands.
A strangled sound escapes Steve's throat, and Tony's head jerks up. Tony's eyes are glassy and wide, his hair a mess, and Steve has to swallow hard to keep himself in check.
"What the fuck are you doing here?" Tony's sounds bewildered and angry, and his hands are fists, his knuckles white. His eyes aren't quite tracking, the pupils unfocused even though Tony is staring right at Steve.
Steve hasn't felt this transparent or this paper-thin in a long, long time.
"I—" He doesn't know what to say or how to explain himself. He's not sure if he should have to do either. "You—"
Then Tony sucks in a ragged breath, and it sounds like a sob. He's curling back into himself. The line of his spine is jagged and sharp, and it looks like pain. "I'm sorry," he gasps. "I. I'm. You should go, I'm sorry, I don't—"
And there's this long, lilting moment of vertigo. Because Steve's heard these sounds before. He's heard them spilling from his own ragged lungs.
Suddenly, he understands everything Tony has done for him.
"Tony…" Steve puts his hands in front of himself, heart dropping when Tony flinches. It's a violent thing, all bristling and broken, and Steve is positively aching to make it better. He takes a step forward only to watch Tony push his back into the wall and gasp for air, and Steve knows that sound.
And he doesn't care. He doesn't care if it's weird or if he's overstepping or if Tony's going to see too much. Ignoring Tony's defensiveness and his own fear, he staggers across the room until he's only a foot away. He reaches out, each movement painfully slow. "It's okay," he murmurs, all soothing tones. "Breathe. It's okay. Breathe."
His hand is shaking before he lets it settle, precarious and light on Tony's shoulder. A full-body shudder wracks Tony's frame, and he's pulling away and somehow pushing up into the touch all at the same time. Steve's chest feels like it's cracking open as he keeps his hand there, steadying and quietly loving and trying to give Tony back even a fraction of what Tony's given him.
He mumbles vague assurances and keeps his breathing steady and slow. When the shaking subsides into something that doesn't seem as like as not to rip Tony apart, Steve edges closer, and Tony doesn't push him away. Steve steels himself, and then does what he's been wanting to for so long now.
He takes Tony into his arms, a loose embrace that Tony can break any time he wants to—the last thing he wants is to make Tony feel trapped. Tony's reaction is all over the place again, little twitches and shivering breaths, but then he drops his head onto Steve's shoulder, and it's enough. It's helping.
Steve strokes up and down Tony's spine, soaking up the warmth even as he tries to make this all about Tony. Truth is, though, he had an episode of his own less than an hour ago, and this is exactly what he'd wanted then. This kind of contact is what he'd needed. Tony is what he'd needed. What he always needs.
Tony stiffens in his arms. "I'm sorry," he croaks.
Steve chuckles, the sound hurting in his throat, and just pulls Tony closer. "What for?"
Shaking his head, Tony shudders. "Didn't protect you. Couldn't. Didn't." He's pointing, and Steve twists to see Tony's phone on the ground beside him.
"It's okay," Steve promises. This is as close to an admission as Tony's ever come, as close as he's been to saying that he watches out for Steve this way. "I'm fine. You don't have to—"
"I do." Tony's shaking his head with a ferocity even as he's clinging to Steve. "It's what I do. Take care of—fight—what good am I if—" And it's babbling, and it's nonsense, and Steve understands every word.
They're heroes, the both of them. They try to be.
Only, sometimes, the biggest threats aren't aliens or wrathful gods or monsters or Nazis. Sometimes, they're inside, and those are the hardest battles of them all. They're the ones you have to fight alone.
Only maybe you don't. Maybe you can fight them with someone. Someone who cares and who you care about so much. Someone who's going through more than you ever knew.
Trembling, mouth dry, Steve twists his head to the side, and he presses parted lips to Tony's temple, closing his eyes. The skin is sweaty and warm, but there's a pulse there. There's all the evidence Steve needs that Tony is here and vital and alive. He places one more kiss there, then bends forward to lean his brow against Tony's hair. "My turn to protect you," he says.
He half-expects a fight over that, but Tony just gives one last shudder, and then he's turning into Steve. Steve relaxes, shifting his grip until they're more fully in each other's arms, their hold reciprocal, equal. He eases them both down, so their sides are resting against the wall, and they're supporting each other.
Just the way it's supposed to be.
Feeling really, truly safe and at home for the first time since the ice, Steve closes his eyes.
Steve doesn't mean to drift off, but he's so wrung out, and it's so relaxing, holding Tony and being held by him. He doesn't even realize he's done it until he starts awake when his head slips against the wall.
When he opens his eyes, it's to find bright, deep ones staring back at him. He and Tony are still entwined, arms wrapped around each other, legs tangled as they perch in a graceless heap on the floor, and for a minute he's struck dumb. As close as they have grown over the past few months, this is a level of intimacy they’ve never shared before.
Tony Stark doesn't let people get this near to him. He doesn't let them in, and Steve is dangerously far behind the walls.
It shows, too, in the uncertain smile on Tony's face, in the twist to his voice when he says, as if they're picking up right in the middle of a conversation, "It's not usually that bad."
Steve blinks. "No?"
"Hardly ever." Tony shakes his head, and they're still so close that Steve feels the movement in his bones. "I'd had it under control. Before she—Before Pepper—" A broken noise falls out of his throat, and it makes Steve ache for so many reasons. "Usually snap right out of it, but this time…"
Tony's eyes track off into some middle distance, and Steve twists to follow his gaze into…nothingness. His neck is stiff from the position he's had it in, and he turns to face forward again. He's about to unwind an arm from around Tony, but then Tony's hand is touching his skin, kneading into the muscle where Steve's neck and shoulder meet.
Steve bites back a groan, it feels so good. He lets out a little sound and leans in closer. He's making himself vulnerable like this, letting down his own shields.
And maybe that's exactly what Tony needs. "I was in my workshop," he says, quiet as can be. "Trying to work on a zero-atmosphere suit again, and kept having to go over the data from the…from the wormhole. Over New York. Got to me."
There's no point denying what he's talking about. Still, Steve chooses his words carefully. "Is that what usually sets you off?"
"Yeah." Tony takes a stuttering inhale. "New York. The portal. Not feeling safe, not feeling like I can do this." His voice drops even lower. "Not being able to protect the people I love."
Oh, and that word lodges itself right between Steve's ribs. "You—" He doesn't know where he's going with the thought, but it doesn't matter.
Tony cuts him off. "Couldn't protect Pepper. Not from myself, my suits, my demons. Couldn't catch her." His throat clicks with the words, and he isn't massaging Steve's neck now; he's just gripping it hard, like it's all that's keeping him to this world. "Couldn't protect you either, from when you were—"
There's a pause. Steve supplies, "Quietly falling apart?"
Tony's laughter sounds pained. "Not that it mattered. I try so hard, but I'm the weak link. The people I try to save keep saving me."
"We save each other." Steve wants to wince. The words are dripping with a kind of honesty he didn't know he was ready for, but there it is, hanging in the air between them.
Tony's gaze loses its focus again. "She left me alone once. Had an attack, a nightmare, and called the suit in my sleep. Scared her. It did. I did. I don't even know. She walked away." Tony looks up, his expression utterly lost.
And Steve's chest feels like it's twice its normal size. "I have never, ever walked away from a fight."
"It's not your fight, Rogers."
"That's never stopped me before, either." Steve reaches up and rests his hand over Tony's, stilling his fingers and holding on tight. Confession wells in his lungs. "For me, when it happens to me…it's about being lost. Irrelevant. Being lost in this time. Having lost everyone and everything. Everyone I—"
"Love?" Tony asks, and it's an ugly sound, far uglier than that word should ever be.
Steve's breath catches. He's picking his words, like any one of them could shatter. Careful and slow. "Everyone I used to love."
Steve looks at him, scarcely able to breathe. Can Tony not know? How is it possible he doesn’t know? Steve squeezes Tony's fingers tighter. Pulls their hands down so they're resting against Steve's heart. He presses their foreheads together and closes his eyes. He can hardly breathe, but it's different this time. It's not spiraling downward—it's standing on the edge of a cliff.
And he can't back away now.
He huddles Tony closer, tasting his air and wanting so much more. Voice soft, he asks, "Are we really going to dance around this?"
Steve holds his breath, because this is the moment. He was never going to say anything, but he can't, can't, can't let Tony think he isn't loved.
Tony laughs and touches Steve's face. "Didn't want to presume."
And he's not pulling away.
Something warm and tentative inside of Steve is unfurling as he lets the air seep from his lungs. "And here I thought you were a genius."
Stroking a thumb beneath Steve's eye, Tony looses a flood of words. "Pepper left because I was still a mess. Even after the suits, even after…" He pulls his hand away to tap the center of his chest. The place where there used to be light, but now there's only Tony. Only his heart.
And Steve marvels that Tony ever could have thought that that could be less than enough.
The relief is suddenly too much, because this is Tony closing a deal, setting out the terms and conditions and making Steve sign away his liabilities. Steve's aware of the risk, and he'll take it, every time.
He laughs against Tony's mouth, breathing soft against his lips. "That'd make me one heck of a hypocrite, if being a mess scared me off, don’t you think?"
And Tony's still talking, he's always talking, but the words are just noise, just the pulse of Tony's heart and the sign that he's alive. The evidence that Steve is still alive, and he's lost, but he's also gained. He's gained so much.
Steve can't hear any of it over the roar. Their lips catch, words fading into kisses, the drag of too-dry skin on skin, and then Steve is cradling Tony's face. Parting his mouth and darting his tongue out, making the kiss wet. Tony tilts his head to the side and sucks gently at Steve's bottom lip, and it's perfect.
He feels so loved.
He feels like he belongs.
And all his anxiety melts away.