He meets Steve for the first time on the Helicarrier.
It’s also the first time the world around him bursts into colour, aflame with brilliance and light and beauty.
Tony’s never truly been breathless before, but he is now.
He looks into clear blue eyes (eyes that belonged to Captain America, of all people,) and feels his heart race, his palms going clammy with sweat. He thinks about his father.
“You’re not good enough,” Howard had spat at Tony. “You never will be.”
“Steve Rogers was worth a thousand times more than you could ever be.”
They say soulmates are forever, but Tony refuses to believe in that.
His life is what he makes of it. He’s spent his life escaping the norm, refusing the mould society had tried to fit on him. So why should he stop now?
(He might not be a good man, but this is something he can fix. If not for Steve’s sake, then for his own.
He fixes things. That’s what he does.
Too bad he’s never managed to fix himself.)
The colours surrounding him are breathtakingly beautiful, all vividly bright and enticingly dizzy in their intensity.
So is the man before him.
Steve doesn't think any one person could be more beautiful, but of course no one could be, at least not in his eyes -- this man is, after all, his soulmate.
(They say having a soulmate is something to be cherished, something to be grateful for. The kind of love you found in fairy tales, Sarah had whispered to him one night.
Only 2% of the population have soulmates, Steve. Take care of yours.
His mother had always known.)
Steve thinks he's in love, and that can't be -- not even a soulbond could throw all rational thought out the window like that, could it?
He's a man, and he's not supposed to love another man, because-- because that just wasn't right. It wasn't right in his time, and surely that couldn't have changed much, could it?
The man before him blinks, long dark lashes sweeping over defined cheekbones and pale skin. His eyes, when they open, are a stunning mix of green and brown, decidedly hazel in colour.
The world is no longer black and white.
Steve leans down, against all sense and rational thought, and gently kisses soft, pink lips.
It’s the first step to his destruction.
Tony doesn't want this.
He fights against their bond, just like he can tell Steve is, too.
Neither of them want this; Tony for his fear of commitment and Steve for his old man sensibilities.
(Tony's surprised he can still afford a sense of humour, especially when his world is constantly being tossed upside down, the way it is now. Distantly, Tony thinks he laughs.
It doesn't matter.)
But the want-- the want is still there, and it always is.
Days pass, and they try to avoid each other, they try to ignore the fact that their bond isn't platonic, despite how much they want it to be. They try to ignore the way their hearts throb in agony whenever they move too far apart from each other, or when they've been separated for too long. They ignore the way their hands twitch towards each other’s on the couch, the way they unconsciously lean into each other’s personal space.
They try to ignore it all.
(Of course it doesn’t work.)
They fall into bed with each other, every single night, and tell themselves that it'll just be a one-time thing; that it’ll never happen again.
They do the same, the next night.
Steve realises he might be in love, the morning of Christmas Eve.
The sky is brightening, snowflakes dotting the horizon and the sidewalk outside the Tower.
It's beautiful, but Steve can't keep his eyes off Tony; Tony, who’s curled up under a pile of blankets, Tony, whose hair is gorgeously messed up, and Tony, whose lips are as pink as petals and whose cheeks are flushed adorably, red from the cold.
Tony, who's cocooned in an oversized sweater and looks agonizingly handsome, even sleep-mussed and unconscious.
Steve knows he's well and truly fucked, because he reaches over and smooths dark curls from Tony's forehead, even though alarm bells are blaring in his head. He knows, because his heart stops when Tony leans into his palm and presses his lips against Steve's skin with just the barest hint of tongue.
He knows, and yet his heart continues to yearn, liquid warmth and inexplicable love filling his every pore.
He loves this man, and even though years of suppression and discrimination will never allow him to express his love for Tony in the same way most people do, he knows that at the very least, he can't deny his feelings any longer.
He resists the urge to kiss Tony, and shuts himself in his room, pretending he doesn't spend the next few hours sketching endless images of Tony in various states; half-dressed, in the workshop, in the armour, naked under the sheets, in the showers, by the pool, in a business suit, at a conference table.
Tony is what gives his world colour, and he isn't afraid anymore.
When he spreads red and gold over the paper in watercolour, filling in the hard edges and lines of the Iron Man armour, he realises that it's now or never -- living the life they do, it's unlikely they'll live till they're old and grey.
(But Steve doesn’t know, yet, how true that will turn out to be.)
He knows what he has to do.
The next day, on Christmas, Steve binds all of the drawings together with a blue ribbon and writes a note on the very last page.
It's three words long, but it sums up everything he's feeling perfectly.
(I love you.)
He gives it to Tony, and then leans down to press a kiss on Tony’s right eyelid. He tells Tony that he loves him, that he wants something more.
That he hopes Tony'll give them a try.
"No," Tony says, and presses the drawings back into Steve's hands. He smiles, sadly, before he turns and whispers, "You know why."
Tony walks out of the room and out of Steve's life.
Steve doesn’t go after him.
Nobody wants to be stuck with damaged goods, Tony tells himself.
Somehow, Steve makes that seem less and less like the truth everyday.
Steve sees Tony, over the course of the next few months, flirting and schmoozing with various socialites and celebrities, with people a thousand times more capable, more successful, and more intelligent than he could ever hope to be.
He knows Tony doesn't want commitment, but he can't help feeling hurt and angry anyway.
He thought he was different, that maybe he meant something to Tony, but apparently he thought wrong.
He knows he isn't good enough for Tony, for the blinding spark of brilliance that emcompasses everything Tony stands for, but he hopes that he will be, one day.
For now, Steve knows that he'll only serve to extinguish that spark.
“I love you too, you know,” Tony mumbles one night, voice slurred with alcohol and words muffled by the fabric of Steve’s shirt.
“I always have, from the start. Before I even met you.” Tony looks up at Steve, eyes wet with tears and wide with vulnerability. “I just--”
Tony’s fingers grip at Steve’s bicep, and even through his stupor, Steve can feel those fingers trembling.
“I’m not good enough. I’m never good enough.”
And then Tony cries, sobs heart-wrenchingly broken, his body shaking with them.
Steve wraps Tony up in blankets and all of his love, and holds Tony in his arms until he falls asleep. He whispers that Tony will always be more than enough for Steve, and prays that Tony will remember it in the morning.
Tony spends long nights in the workshop, nightmares and insomnia forcing him awake.
Steve dreams about the ice, about losing everyone he’s ever known. About losing his world.
Tony remembers Stane, remembers Afghanistan and remembers bleeding out in a cave. He remembers Howard’s words, Maria’s fear, and his own unquenched desperation for approval.
Steve remembers being lost, and being so, so terrified of the new world he was trapped in. He remembers feeling the vice-like grip of helplessness around his heart.
They find each other every time, to battle their demons and to seek solace, together.
Their inhibitions slowly faded away.
They kept each other strong.
(But it wasn’t enough, was it?)
And just like that, Tony had blazed his way back into Steve’s life.
Steve still wonders, sometimes, if that was a good thing.
The first time Tony smiles at Steve, wide, genuine and unbridled, Steve had left a series of notes in his workshop, all cringingly cheesy and sappy and--
“Perfect. They were perfect. You are perfect.” Tony had grinned up at him and waved a note in his direction.
“‘I love the colour of your eyes’, really, Steve?” Tony had laughed, and then rolled his eyes. “You’re such a dork.”
When Steve walked over and carded his fingers through Tony’s hair, Tony only leaned into his touch, eyes almost feverishly bright, filled with unspoken happiness and with so much love.
When Steve leaned in, Tony didn’t back away.
Their lips met with something resembling bittersweet joy -- full of regret and unsaid promises.
Steve’s too far in to back out now, and he finds that he doesn’t really want to.
(It was a mistake.)
Tony lies in bed sometimes, and like a lovesick teenager, he almost obsessively re-reads the words on the little red paper hearts Steve had scattered in his workshop for him to find, several days prior.
He-- He doesn’t know what to do.
He’s tried so hard, and for so long, to avoid this day, and yet, even though it’s arrived, he doesn’t feel anything but gleeful and quite possibly a little too giggly.
He might be in love.
He leans back and stares at the beautiful, flowing script on the paper hearts in his hands.
You’re gorgeous, Tony.
You have the most stunning smile.
Your laugh is my favourite sound in the world.
I love it when you go into one of your inventive frenzies -- it’s amazing to be surrounded by all that genius in action.
Steve even added a little winky face at the end of the latter note.
Tony’s cheeks are sore from trying not to smile. Maybe this could work out.
They should have known.
Steve’s world goes black and white the day Tony takes his last breath.
He had watched, helplessly, as Tony fell from the sky, in the armour from which he had sought his freedom, useless from the EMP strike.
It was ironic how something that had granted Tony so much of his freedom and joy was also something that had ultimately trapped him.
Steve yells into the communication lines, pleading for someone to catch him mid-air. But the Hulk was out of commission, and Thor was on Asgard.
Steve tries SHIELD, and learns that their estimated time of arrival is 2 minutes. But there’s no time.
There’s no time at all.
“Steve,” and then Steve hears Tony’s voice on the line, trembling and raspy. “It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m okay.”
“Tony!” Steve cries as he watches Tony’s descent.
“I love you, Steve. I love you, okay, don’t ever forget that.” Steve can hear the watery smile in Tony’s voice.
“I love you too, Tony.” Steve whispers.
“I know, sweetheart, I know. And I’m so sorry.”
Then the armour crashes.
Steve tries, desperately, for what seems like ages, to pry open the armour as the edges of his world bleeds out its colours.
The vibrant hues of red and flashy gold start to fade, and Steve thinks he’s crying.
When Steve manages to get the faceplate off, his world has gone completely black and white.
“I’m so sorry, Tony,” Steve sobs over the body of the man he was supposed to protect, but had failed to.
Take care of yours, Sarah Rogers had said.
Steve had failed.
It was time.
“Steve, don’t do this.” Natasha’s voice is trembling, but it’s barely noticeable. It’s obvious that she’s trying to stay calm for his sake, and for a moment, Steve feels blinding affection for her.
“Steve.” Clint’s voice, now.
Steve is on the rooftop of what used to be Avengers Tower, right at the edge, overlooking the city. The sun is setting, and he thinks he can see the barest hints of snow starting to fall from the sky.
It’s going to be Christmas again.
Steve thinks of Tony, and his heart shatters just a little bit more.
A failure, Rogers, he reminds himself. That’s all you are. You couldn’t even save Tony.
You deserved to lose everyone you cared about.
“I’m sorry, Nat. Clint.” Steve looks back, one last time, at the faces of his teammates, teammates who had gone through nearly everything he’d experienced in the modern world with him. He owed them a goodbye, at the very least.
“Steve.” Natasha’s voice cracks, and she edges closer. “Tony wouldn’t want you to do this.”
Steve smiles, and chuckles sadly. “No, he wouldn’t. But he’s not here anymore.”
He takes a deep breath, pretends that he can’t see the images of Tony’s blood-streaked face and cold, pale skin flashing across his mind.
“And that’s my fault.”
Steve lets himself tip over the edge.
He’s about 500 metres from hitting the ground when he hears the familiar sound of repulsor blasts and jet boots.
He thinks his heart stops beating completely.
When he’s around 300 metres away from finally getting the end he deserves, he feels cool metal arms circle his waist tightly. Mechanical fingers grip his wrists, and Steve stops falling.
Steve looks up then, shakily, into the emotionless, black and white faceplate of Iron Man, and thinks vehemently, impossible.
He asks quietly, afraid that maybe if he speaks too loud, all of this will disappear into the foggy sunset. “Tony?”
And then he hears it.
“Hey, Steve. It’s Tony. I kind of knew this day would come. Not all of us can live forever, am I right?” A burst of static, and then a bout of awkward chuckling. “This is a recording. I just thought I should leave a little memento behind just in case... Something happens to me in combat.” Steve can hear the sad smile in Tony’s voice. “If you’re listening to this, it probably means that that something happened. Or, that JARVIS is malfunctioning.” Tony laughs. Steve’s heart throbs along with it. “But I doubt that happened. I love you, Steve. I don’t say this nearly enough, and I know I should have more, while I was still alive. You mean a lot to me, so much more than nearly everyone else on this planet. That’s why I can’t lose you. I programmed this particular suit to… ahem, catch you, should you ever need aerial assistance.” The hidden meaning behind his words is not lost on Steve, and Steve’s torn between feeling unbelievable guilt and incredible love for this man. Tony knows him so well it makes his chest hurt. “Please, please take care of yourself, Steve. If not for yourself, then for me.” Tony’s tone is firm, and Steve knows then that he’ll never be able to try this again. If not for himself, then for Tony. He could do this. For Tony. “You should move on. Go find someone new, someone who’s not quite as fucked up as I am. Someone normal. Lead a happy life, buy a house. All that. It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay, trust me, okay? Now go on and save the world, like the patriotic, virtuous superhero I know you are. Kick all the bad guys’ asses for me. I love you.”
When the suit finally puts him down on solid ground, Steve crumples to the floor and cries his heart out.
Several sleepless nights later, just before Steve decides to turn in for the day, he sees a blur of glinting black and white zip across the sky. His heart leaps when he realises it’s the Iron Man suit, and Steve quickly pulls back the curtains to get a closer look.
‘Merry Christmas, Steve. Love, Tony.’ is spelt out across the night sky, against the background of twinkling stars in fading grey smoke.
Steve closes his eyes and smiles as he feels his eyes sting with tears.