It wasn’t like Tony has given much thought to what his first words to Steve after the whole… mess, to put it mildly, in Siberia would have been.
Something sarcastic, most likely, considering he wasn’t the kind of a person to go for haughty dismissal. Or easy forgiveness, as the case might be.
But even if Tony had tried, “What the hell have you done to yourself, Rogers?” wouldn’t have been among Tony’s first ten - or twenty, or thirty, or even hundred - guesses.
The frown on Steve’s face was that of confusion not annoyance as he gazed down at himself, than back at Tony.
“I’m- I’m trying to be inconspicuous,” Steve said, shrugging a little. And wow, it was strange to hear his voice again. Especially sounding so hesitant. Tony wasn’t entirely certain was it a strange-good or a strange bad-feeling. Maybe it was just strange-unexpected. Steve’s choice of wardrobe - where did he get that coat, Salvation Army? - didn’t help in the least. Tony made it a point not to look at the bouquet of roses in Steve’s right hand. He wasn’t yet ready to deal with the implications of that particular detail. Or that fleeting half-smile that tugged Steve’s mouth up. “Am I succeeding?”
Tony swallowed a snort, still caught in some weird dazed state where he couldn’t actually think through his responses just go along with them. It was like his thoughts were wading through molasses; slow and sluggish. “Points for effort,” he said, something like hysteria seeping into his voice. It was embarrassing, but also unavoidable in the present circumstances. Reality of which Tony was still debating internally. Maybe this was a dream. A particularly not-funny and poetically ironic sort of a dream. God, he hoped it was a dream. “If you were going for a creepy stalker routine, but I was actually referring to that… thing on your face.”
Steve blinked. Then he brought his left hand up, rubbing at his jaw. For a brief moment, amusement flickered in his eyes. It disappeared almost instantly. “I believe the word you were looking for is beard, Tony.”
“I know what it is, Rogers,” Tony said, indignant. This entire situation was ridiculous and steadily edging into bizarre. The last time he and Steve had been together, they had fought, vicious and angry. After the fight, after Steve had left… well, Iron Man’s arc reactor wasn’t the only thing that had ended up shattered in that bunker in Siberia. And now, a year later, here they were; Tony sitting on the ground and leaning against his mother’s headstone while Steve stood a couple of feet away, and, app. “What is it doing on your face?”
“You don’t actually own the rights for growing facial hair, Tony,” Steve said, arching an eyebrow. Tony stared at him, the corner of his mouth curving into a grin. It was like looking through time, to an echo of past times, when things haven’t gone to hell between them. It was a lie.
But if this was a dream… it didn’t have to be a bad dream. Right?
“I make it look good,” Tony pointed out. “You look like a cliché from a bad detective movie.”
It startled a huff of laughter from Steve; a soft and easy sound. He shifted on his feet, just looking down at Tony and smiling. Tony felt a small shift in the hollow of his chest, something brittle and aching. “I’ve missed you, Tony,” he said, whispered really, and just like that, the spell was broken.
This wasn’t a dream. Tony wasn’t dreaming this entire thing up. It was real, and so very, very wrong.
And it needed to end.
Shutting his eyes, Tony allowed his head to fall against the headstone. “You shouldn’t have,” he said, curtly, a touch of bitterness lacing his words. “And you shouldn’t be here.”
Steve was obviously working through something that made sense to him. Which, evidently, included playing with his freedom. But the part that really mattered - the only part that mattered - was that his presence was compromising Tony. Hell, Tony already had the suit on. There was absolutely no reason for him not to try and arrest a wanted criminal. Actually, it was his duty to do it. The thought made Tony’s stomach twist with dread and anger in equal measure.
Steve should have known better than to come here, out in the open. Growing a beard and donning a fucking trench coat was hardly a foolproof disguise. Wasn’t he supposed to be a brilliant tactician?
Yeah, Tony thought wryly, but aren’t you forgetting the stubborn bastard part?
Tony didn’t open his eyes, faintly hoping that Steve would get the message and do them both a favour and leave.
His, however feeble, hope vanished with a rustle of clothing and the sound of footsteps moving closer to where he was sitting.
Tony swallowed a noise of frustration, ignoring the urge to bang his head against the tombstone. Briefly, he entertained the idea of leaving. He could do that. Get up and fly away.
A simple solution. With two major downsides. First, Tony had exactly zero desire to allow Steve fucking Rogers to chase him off his own mother’s grave. And second, if Steve has come all the way here to… well, to do whatever the hell he thought needed to be done, Tony was fairly certain Steve would take Tony’s refusal to participate as a challenge not a detriment.
Tony brought his hand up to his forehead, the metal of the gauntlet cool against his skin, and rubbed gently. Heaving a sigh, he opened his eyes, his gaze catching on the unopened bottle of scotch laid on the ground next to him.
Tony eyed the bottle for a second before he tore his gaze away, just in time to see Steve place the flowers next to the headstone, the grimness of his expression accentuated by his
Something in his brain must have short-circuited briefly, because all Tony could see for a second was a cloud of red, and all he could hear was an echo of his own heartbeat.
Tony had snapped back out of his daze with a shaky exhale to the sight of Steve Rogers leaning down, his right hand reaching after Tony.
“Don’t,” Tony hissed, raising his right hand in warning.
Steve froze, the expression on his face shifting from concern to utter blankness in the span of a heartbeat.
Slowly, Steve straightened, holding up both hands in a gesture of surrender. “I didn’t come here to fight you, Tony,” Steve said, voice almost perfectly matching his expression were it not for the slightest hitch there at the end. He didn’t need to expand on that statement with but I will if I have to. It went without saying.
A moment passed, then another, and another, and Steve still kept his hands up, doing his best to appear non-threatening.
Tony frowned, annoyance sparking in the place behind his ribs where anger blazed only moments ago. “What are- oh,” Tony began, but cut himself off when Steve’s gaze darted toward his still raised right hand. His very much armored and lethal right hand.
Pressing his mouth into a tight line, Tony lowered his hand. He swallowed the apology that rose up in his throat and glared up at Steve. “Why are you here, Rogers?”
Something flickered across Steve’s face far too quickly for Tony to give it its proper name. It might have been guilt. It might have been nervousness. Hell, it might have been bad indigestion. It wasn’t like Tony had any special insight into the workings of Steve Rogers’ mind.
Especially these days.
Steve shifted on his feet, lowering his hands slowly. His posture relaxed, but only by a small measure. Considering their last time alone, Tony could hardly hold it against him.
“You didn’t call,” Steve said, quietly. But his eyes were fixed unwaveringly on Tony’s.
“And you interpreted that as an invitation to come back?” Tony said, dryly. He swallowed a noise of frustration, and got up to his feet. It wasn’t nearly as graceful as he would have liked it. “Do words ‘wanted fugitive’ and ‘arrest on sight’ mean anything to you?”
Steve did not so much as flinch. But his eyes went colder, harder. “I am aware of my current status, yes.”
Tony ground his teeth against and who do you have to thank for that, huh? He should have known Steve would object to the Accords. Okay, he had known it. But he’d also believed - stupidly, arrogantly, pathetically - that he would find a way to make Steve see the necessity of the Avengers having oversight.
Yeah, Stark, you’ve done a marvelous job with that, haven’t you?
But that was out of Tony’s hands now. Decisions have been made, actions have been taken, and now all they have been left with were the consequences.
Although, there were two sets of consequences where he and Steve were concerned, and Tony knew Steve wasn’t here to talk politics.
Yeah, well, Tony didn’t want to talk to Steve at all. Not yet. In a year or two, maybe. He was no longer angry - okay, he was no longer murderously, blindingly angry - but the hurt remained. And the knowledge that were he’d been in Steve’s position Tony would have done the same didn’t help in the fucking least.
Tony knew exactly who he was. But Steve was supposed to be better, wasn’t he?
“Then you also know my current status,” Tony stated levelly. He didn’t intend it to be a threat. The way Steve went perfectly still, his shoulders tensing meant Tony didn’t quite succeed in conveying that particular fact.
Steve stands up straighter. “Are you going to arrest me, Tony?” It was not a taunt, nor was it an angry snarl… it was a question. Nothing more, nothing less.
Tony swallowed, thickly. The bitterness still remained in the back of his throat. “If you have to ask,” Tony snapped, wishing that the harshness of his voice is all anger, “then you really shouldn’t have come here.”
Steve nodded, but he remained silent. Tony’s eyes, once again, went toward the bottle of scotch. He really would like a drink now. But he settled for a heavy sigh. “For someone who went through all this trouble to talk to me, you’re not especially talkative, Rogers.”
Steve looked down for a second. He turned his hands palms up, then allowed them to fall back to his sides. When he looked up, his mouth was twisted into a faint smile. It didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m not sure what to say,” he said, quietly. Tony stared at him. This was a first. Usually, Steve was like a vending machine: insert a coin, get a rousing speech in return, insert two if you’re in need of a lecture. “I thought I knew. Before. But now--” Steve trailed off, shrugged. It looked almost helpless.
“How did you know where to find me?”
Steve looked startled for a second. Like he didn’t really expect Tony to participate. He wasn’t the only one.
“You told me,” Steve said.
“I told you,” Tony repeated, blankly. Steve gave him a confused look.
“Three years ago,” Steve said. He took a step closer, then stopped. A shadow crossed his face. It looked like longing. Maybe even guilt. Tony decided it had to be because of the whole desolate-and-done-with-the-world shiny new look. “You were staying at the compound. Two weeks, I think. There was a party. We-- we were the last ones to stay awake. We talked.”
Tony looked away as something sharp and aching rose up in the hollow of his chest. He clamped down on it. Hard.
“What exactly did I tell you?” Tony asked, and thankfully, his voice didn’t waver. He recalled that party. Even if his memory of it included a few holes and blurry spots.
And one moment of perfect clarity.
Tony had been the instigator of the whole thing, the one who’d ordered pizza and drinks. No one had protested. Not even Steve. It had been a good day. And most of the night.
Rhodey and Sam had decided to stage their own performance of Eye of the Tiger. One thing had led to another, ending with Wanda teaching Vision to dance, which had given Tony the idea to ask Steve for a dance.
It should have been a joke. At Steve’s expense. And yeah, Tony really should have known better. He still recalled that moment of pure shock when Steve had taken his hand between his fingers and stood up, grinning. But the shock had quickly turned into amusement when Steve had winked at him and dragged him close, placing his hands on Tony’s hips, taking complete control of the dance which, pretty much, had amounted to the two of them swaying slowly to a beat only Steve could hear, considering that, at the time, Back in Black had been blaring from the speakers.
In the end, it had been a joke, their dance. Rhodey and Sam had spent the entire time making loud kissing noises at them, and Wanda had made a heart out of popcorn hover over their heads. It had been silly, uncomplicated, and damn it to hell, Tony had loved every moment of it.
It had also been only their first dance. Tony didn’t allow himself to think about the second one.
Sometimes, though, he couldn’t stop himself.
Steve frowned, staring at Tony’s face as if searching for something. “You really don’t remember?”
The thing was, Tony was an asshole. And a liar. And a whole lot of not so nice things. And he really, really wanted Steve to not be here.
“I remember Rhodey and Sam massacring Eye of the Tiger,” Tony lied. He didn’t even blink. “I think I might have even danced with you?” Pausing, Tony shrugged. “I was pretty drunk at the time.”
Steve’s frown deepened. “You didn’t seem that drunk to me,” he said, holding Tony’s gaze unblinkingly.
Tony waved his hands impatiently, narrowing his eyes at Steve. “Honestly, Rogers, I have no idea what you want me to say,” Tony said. There was a sharp stab of pain in the middle of chest, and a panicked voice yelling at him from the outskirts of his mind, calling him a fool. Calling him a coward. Tony ignored both.
For the first time since his arrival, Steve’s jaw twitched faintly, his lips pressing into a tight line. “How about the truth?”
Tony could feel his lips curl over his teeth. “That’s funny, Rogers,” Tony bit out. His throat was burning, tight with fury and hurt, and Tony wasn’t even certain how much of it was Steve’s doing and how much his. “A year ago it would have been even funnier.”
Steve flinched, his face contorting into a pained grimace. But he didn’t relent. “I know I’ve made a mistake, Tony. I know what I’ve done,” he said, low and hoarse. Tony watched, transfixed, as his Adam’s apple moved as he swallowed heavily. But he didn’t look away from Tony’s face. “And I know you’re lying to me now. What I don’t know is why.”
Tony’s mind flashed back to Siberia. There had been more space between them then, and Steve had been holding him back, stopping him from going after Barnes, but those were small details, random facts that, in the end, meant nothing.
What really mattered was the same; a demand for an answer that would bring down a bridge they haven’t even reached yet.
It was somewhat ironic - don’t you mean fitting, Stark? - that Steve had made the first blow to it by telling the truth.
And now Tony was about to finish the job by lying.
Exhaling deeply, Tony brought his hands up, remembering not to point repulsors at Steve this time. “Look, Rogers,” Tony said, careful to keep his voice calm. Steve blinked, confusion and wariness flickering to life in his eyes. “I have no idea why you’re so stuck on this, but I’m telling you the truth. I was drunk for the majority of the time.” Tony paused. He still had time not to do this. He could let Steve talk, hear why--
And what if it is what you’re hoping for? What if your pathetic crush is requited? It wouldn’t change a fucking thing. Or have you learned nothing from last year?
Tony watched the play of emotions across Steve’s face. Watched as uncertainty grew stronger, watched as Steve’s brow creased with something Tony didn’t want to recognize.
Time for the twist of a knife, Stark.
Tony let out a frustrated sound. He spread his hands wide. “For fuck’s sake, Steve, did I do something you want me to apologize for? I’ll even do it, if that’s what it takes for you to finally drop this.”
Looking at Steve’s face was looking at a building caving in on itself. Tony forced himself to watch every second. The hollow throb that echoed beneath his breastbone felt nothing like victory.
“No. You didn’t do anything,” Steve said, finally. His voice held no inflection at all. He shook his head, as if trying to clear it of unwanted thoughts. He bowed his head, his mouth twisting into an echo of a smile. “I- I made a mistake.”
Tony could feel his mouth stretch into a wry smile. An automatic reaction born from years and years of practice. “That’s what I’ve been telling you from the moment you got here,” Tony remarked. His throat ached, but his voice didn’t shake. “I’m glad we’re finally on the same page.”
Steve’s head snapped up. Tony had no idea how someone could appear ready to take on the world alone while looking bone-weary, but Steve managed to pull it off. “No,” Steve said, quietly, but Tony wasn’t fooled by it. He’d seen before that particular set of Steve’s jaw, he knew what it meant. “I don’t think we are. Not yet.”
“Fine, then,” Tony snapped. He crossed his arms over his chest. It must have looked ridiculous in the armour, but Tony didn’t care. “You have ten minutes. Explain away.”
Steve hesitated only a moment. Then, he straightened, his eyes set on Tony’s. “I’m sorry,” he said. He didn’t elaborate further. He didn’t need to.
“That’s it? That’s what you came here to say?” Tony said when it became apparent Steve had no follow up to his apology. “You risked your freedom for I’m sorry?”
“There was more. It-- it doesn’t matter now,” Steve admitted, reluctantly. A small, rueful smile flickered across his face; there and gone in an instant, Steve’s face smoothing into a solemn expression. “Besides, there aren’t many things more worthy of risking incarceration than giving my best to fix my mistake.”
Tony managed not to flinch, but only barely. He wished he was still angry with Steve. He wished he’d never cared enough to be angry in the first place.
Mostly though, Tony wished he wasn’t a liar and a coward.
But he was. He wondered, faintly, was this how Steve had felt; like there was a shard of glass wedged inside his throat that only truth could remove.
Yeah, and who do you have to thank for that, genius?
“You did send me a phone, Rogers,” Tony pointed out, lowering his hands by his sides. He ignored that irritating voice, until it was no longer an angry and desperate cry but a weak and broken plea. Now really wasn’t the best time to develop his very own Jiminy Cricket. The kind with a crush on Steve Rogers. He forced his mouth into a grin. “A crappy flip phone, to be precise. Why not try that?”
“I wasn’t certain you still had it,” Steve confessed.
Tony’s eyes went wide. That… that wasn’t what he’d expected to hear. He inhaled sharply. It was like breathing in poison; it burned inside his lungs, bitter and sharp. Tony stared at Steve, then looked away. He didn’t need this. Not now, not yet. Not while there was still a part of him that wanted something he shouldn’t want.
Something that might not be as far out of his reach as he’d previously believed.
“You could have tried calling, Rogers,” Tony said, without looking up. “Usually, you’re not this careless when you don’t have to be.”
There was a short pause, then, “Maybe I just wanted to see you, Tony.”
Tony snapped his head up, met Steve’s eye; open, unblinking, even vulnerable in their honesty.
Time seemed to slow down along with Tony’s heartbeat which was no more than a distant echo in his ears, nothing like the blazing inferno raging inside the hollow of his chest as he stared at Steve and Steve stared back.
Tony knew, with a certainty that wasn’t rooted in numbers and equations but in that immeasurable quantity that was his soul that this was the moment to tell the truth. To bare his heart and reach after what he just might get.
Tony wanted to, so, so fucking much it verged on need. Three years ago, he would have seized this chance with both hands. He would not have stopped to think, to question, to analyse.
Well, three years ago he would have trusted Steve Rogers with his heart.
These days, not so much.
Tony let out a soft, humourless chuckle. “There is a mile long list of reasons why that’s not a good idea. Or a smart one. And your chosen location,” Tony inclined his head toward his mother’s grave, “is just one of them.”
Steve’s face twisted into a grimace. The sight of his haggard, unkempt face was still jarring, and it made Tony’s mind try and superimpose another image over it. A more familiar image, but it was a futile effort.
Whatever memory - good or bad or ugly - Tony’s mind tried to paste over Steve’s face, it flickered and faded, leaving only this unfamiliar weary version of Steve Rogers.
Distantly, Tony wondered what Steve saw when he looked at Tony now. Probably not the same man he’d left lying on the floor of a bunker in Siberia. If that were the case, Steve wouldn’t - couldn’t - be here.
Tony tensed, instinctively, when Steve walked over to his side. He threw a quick glance at Tony before leaning down to pick up the bottle of scotch. He turned it over in his hands, a faint smile forming in the corner of his mouth.
“You’re right, and I’m sorry--”
“Of course you would say it when there’s no one to hear it,” Tony said, shaking his head. Steve ignored the interruption.
“-- but I knew this is where you would be today.” Looking away from the bottle, Steve settled his gaze on Tony’s face. “And it was easier to come here than it would have been be to break into the compound.”
“Easier?” Tony repeated slowly, tilting his head to the side. Steve held his gaze unblinkingly. Tony could feel his lips curve into a smirk. “I think the word you should’ve used is impossible. You’re good Rogers, but not that good.”
Steve’s mouth twitched faintly, a spark of amusement flickering in his eyes. For just a second, there were no ghosts, no lies, no anger between them. Just the two of them. It felt… good.
Steve flicked a glance at the bottle in his hand, then back at Tony. “You never told me the full story,” Steve said. He held up the bottle. “You never told me why.”
Memory surged from the outskirts of Tony’s mind. The feel of cotton against his cheek, a soft drag of fingers through his hair, the taste of scotch on his tongue and something--
Tony slammed the door on that memory before it could fully develop. “But I did tell you.” The words fell from his mouth without his conscious decision. Turning abruptly, he reached toward his mother’s headstone, but stopped his hand before it could reach it. He smiled. It probably wasn’t an especially happy smile. “Obviously.”
Tony might be a lying liar who lies, but what he’d said to Steve about that night wasn’t a complete lie. About ten percent of it was truth. After he’d-- well, he remembered most of how he ended up on the roof of the Tower, draped over Steve, but exactly how much had come out of his mouth that night, he wasn’t entirely certain.
Apparently, a whole lot more than he’d been aware. Usually, he was better at keeping secrets.
You’ve really made a fool of yourself that night, haven’t you?
And yet. All this time, and Steve had never mentioned a word. About any of it. Tony did have a theory as to why that was the case, but he was beginning to suspect that he was very, very wrong.
Slowly, Tony pulled his hand away, the metal creaking softly as he squeezed his gauntleted fingers into fist.
“You want to hear the rest of the story?” Tony asked without turning around. He had no idea why he’d offered. Momentary insanity, possibly. It wasn’t like there was anything sane about this entire situation. Maybe his initial assessment was right and this was a dream; a really vivid dream.
There was a rustle of clothing behind him. It wasn’t followed by the sound of footsteps.
“Yes,” Steve said after a long moment. His voice wasn’t as steady as it usually were. “If you’re willing to tell me.”
“I know it’s hard to believe now, but I was a wild youth.” Tony paused, mouth pressing into a hard line. He’d been a mess then. That part of his life was a blur of alcohol, sex and endless stream of numbers running inside his mind. “Four years after--” Tony cut himself off, the word accident a jagged shard wedged inside throat.
But it wasn’t an accident, was it? It was a hit.
Tony grit his teeth and squeezed his fingers tighter. He swallowed around the tightness in his throat. “You know what day is today. You know why I’m here. Sober, I might add. That wasn’t always the case.” Tony’s eyes drifted shut. He didn’t think revisited the memory he was about to share in a long, long while. But it was there, inside Tony’s mind, as clear as it had happened yesterday. “I never visited their graves. I was too busy--” being pissed off and terrified and trying to see just how much my liver could take, “being myself. Except I made a promise. And then I broke it.” A harsh bark of laughter tumbled out of Tony’s mouth. He snapped his eyes open, his gaze darting toward the letters of his mother’s name. “I mean, you have to be a particular sort of an asshole to forget your own mother’s birthday.”
Tony took a deep breath, then released it slowly before turning around. “I got drunk, or maybe I’d already been, can’t remember that part, and I drove all the way here. Then I drunk some more until I passed out. On my mother’s grave.”
Tony watched Steve’s face, expecting to see disappointment or disapproval. He found shocked, grim stillness instead. “Not a fun story, I know. Anyway.” Tony shrugged. “Obie found me. Brought me home. Talked a lot about Stark Legacy, and I mean it with a capital L, about how smart and talented I was, how there were better ways to handle my grief… I guess I bought it, because the next day I designed my very first landmine.” Tony shook his head, snorted. “Of course, it turned out Obie had been selling the weapons I designed to terrorists who he’d paid to kill me but that had been the first and the last time I’ve been drunk here. So, there’s that.”
In the heavy silence that ensued, Tony could hear his breaths, loud and harsh, but not nearly as loud as his heartbeat. He still had no idea why he’d shared this with Steve, laid bare a piece of his soul - an ugly, damaged piece - for a man who, for all intents and purposes, was little more than a stranger now.
A moment of silence turned into two turned into three. It wasn’t a comfortable silence between friends, it was a silence that screamed. Tony, who could talk and talk and talk, now found himself unable to utter a single word to break it. Maybe that was for the best. He’d already said too much.
Both truth and lies.
Steve seemed to share Tony’s inability or reluctance to say something. He lowered himself into a crouch, and set the bottle down on the ground, bowing his head. He remained like that for one long moment. When he stood up, it was with a stilted movement that held nothing of Steve’s usual grace.
“I’m sorry, Tony,” Steve said, quietly.
Tony brought his hand up to his forehead, sighing heavily. He held it there a moment, before letting it fall back by his side.
“You’ve said it already, Steve.” Tony wasn’t angry. Frustrated, maybe. Mostly, he was tired. This has been a very, very long day. Far too many memories Tony had wanted to remain buried, have been dragged to the fore of his mind. He didn’t want to deal with this. He had to deal with this. “Quality definitely trumps quantity in this particular case.”
Tony stared at Steve. Steve stared back. A wave of weary and exasperated fondness surged inside Tony’s chest. Steve - the stubborn, inflexible idiot - looked as a man awaiting execution but willing to fight anyone who’d be stupid enough to try and drag him away.
“As someone who’s made a lot of mistakes in his life, let me tell you something,” Tony said, swallowing a snort. He was giving a lecture to Steve Rogers. Like that had ever worked for him. “Saying sorry means nothing if, given a chance, you would repeat the same fucking thing you’re apologizing for.”
Steve’s face contorted into a pained grimace, his eyes drifting shut. “I wouldn’t,” Steve whispered, opened his eyes. They gleamed with an almost feverish light. “I wouldn’t lie to you again. I never wanted to lie to you to begin with.”
Tony chuckled, a low and harsh sound. “Technically, you never lied to me,” Tony pointed out. “You simply kept this tiny detail concerning my parents’ death a secret.”
Steve didn’t flinch. Didn’t look away. But he also made no attempt at hiding the raw, naked misery that was tattooed across his face. “I wanted to tell you,” Steve said, voice low and hoarse. “I was going to tell you.” He dragged his fingers across his face; they were shaking. “Once I found Bucky, I would have told you everything.”
“And then Zemo happened.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, the twist of his mouth a faint echo of a smile. “Then Zemo happened.” Tony watched, transfixed, as Steve’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “That was my fault. He wouldn’t have had a weapon to use against us, if I hadn’t given him one.”
“Not entirely true,” Tony remarked, wryly. A cold and leaden weight pulled at his heart. It wasn’t exactly guilt, but it cut close. “I do appreciate the sentiment, though.”
Steve frowned. “What?”
“Zemo wanted us to fight each other. Preferably kill each other,” Tony said, noting the way Steve winced at the word kill. Tony knew this conversation was bound to happen someday. He never thought it would be here of all places. Or so soon. Obviously, he sucked at predicting future when Steve was one of the variables. “I didn’t want to fight you, Rogers. I wanted Barnes. You got in the way.” Tony smiled. He very much doubted it was a nice smile. “You would have always gotten in the way. Always.”
Steve blinked, frowning in confusion. Then the realization hit and his face hardened instantly, his entire body going rigid.
“It wasn’t him,” Steve grit out. He balled his hands into fists and lifted his chin. His eyes were gleaming with a fire that went beyond mere anger. Tony felt like he wanted to laugh. Or scream. But he did neither, he stood still and silent, feeling like there was a barbed wire wrapped around his heart, tightening with each beat. “It was HYDRA. They took a good man and they tortured and brainwashed him into--”
Steve cut himself off, turning his back to Tony.
Tony watched as Steve’s shoulders shook faintly, his harsh breaths loud in the sudden silence. There were so many things he could say now. Vicious or spiteful or accusing. Everything that had been howling inside his mind in those first days after Siberia, clawing at his insides. But that was then. Besides, he’d already lied once today, and the taste of it still clung bitter and stale in the back of his throat.
Well, Tony thought wryly, let’s see just how liberating truth can be.
“I know,” Tony said, calm and controlled. He wasn’t especially surprised when Steve spun around, a deep crease marring his forehead. It was almost comforting, to be on the other side of that familiar glare once again. In the old days, he would have rolled his eyes or smirked, but now, Tony merely sighed, spreading his arms. “For someone who’d risked incarceration coming here, you really don’t trust me much.”
“I do trust you,” Steve said without a moment’s hesitation. He took a step forward, then stopped. There was something new in his eyes; like a flicker of light breaking through the clouds. It made something in Tony’s chest lurch violently. Steve brought his hand up to his face, lowered it. A beginning of a smile curved the corner of his mouth. “But after what happened in Siberia, I didn’t expect you would understand that Bucky is innocent.”
Tony glanced down at his hands. Watched as metal flexed dutifully as he curled and uncurled his fingers.
“I understand, yeah,” Tony said. His voice didn’t waver. It didn’t rise above a whisper, too. Tony kept his gaze trained on his hands. Steve wouldn’t have done that. He would have looked Tony in the eyes. “That doesn’t imply I have forgotten.”
There was a moment of silence. Tony knew it wouldn’t last.
“I know what I said,” Tony cut Steve off. He snapped his gaze up, met Steve’s. And yeah, anger was gleaming in Steve’s eyes. But there was also hurt there. Steve made no attempt at hiding it. Tony ignored both. He held Steve’s gaze and pressed on. “I read about the procedure. I am familiar with every gruesome detail, and I cannot even begin to imagine how Barnes had managed to live through all that.” Tony’s voice caught on the last word. He exhaled a shaky breath. Barnes was a victim too. Tony knew this. But the knowledge didn’t erase the image of a hand closing around his mother’s throat and squeezing and squeezing and squeezing. Tony spread his hands, his chest clenching painfully. “But I can’t forget what I saw. I tried. I can’t.”
Steve regarded Tony silently. The muscle in his jaw twitched. “So nothing has changed.”
“Your opinion of me sure as hell hasn’t,” Tony snapped without actually meaning to.
Steve’s mouth went tight. “No, it hasn’t, but you are doing your best to change it.”
Red dots flared on the edges of Tony’s vision. “There you are, Rogers,” Tony said, mouth curling over his teeth. “I was beginning to think you’ve been replaced by an alien.”
Steve let out a noise of frustration, throwing up his hands. “Why must--” Steve broke off, visibly fighting for control. “I didn’t come to fight with you. I came to try and fix things between us.”
“You said that already. You didn’t say why.” Tony was aware how petulant he sounded. It was infinitely better than how he felt; angry, hurt, tired. Ashamed.
Steve opened his mouth. Clicked it shut. He looked away and scrubbed a hand across his face. When he looked back, anger has drained away from his eyes. It made the knot in Tony’s chest tighten further. “Because I--” Steve swallowed the rest of that sentence. He shrugged, helplessly. “I don’t want you to hate me, Tony.”
Tony breathed out a heavy sigh. God, he needed a drink. “I don’t hate you, Rogers. I still want to punch you, but I don’t hate you.” Telling the truth didn’t come with a flash of bright light and the sound of bells. It didn’t miraculously mend what they broke. But it did make breathing somewhat easier. “You’re a stubborn, self-righteous pain in the ass, Rogers, but you’re a good man.”
Better man than I am.
Steve blinked, frowned, but Tony didn’t give him a chance to say something.
“I’m not going after Barnes,” Tony blurted out. He ignored the play of emotions on Steve’s face, pressed on. He needed to get this off his chest, and do it fast. “Not today, not tomorrow. Not ever. He’s all yours, Rogers, so do me a favour and keep him in line.”
Steve hesitated one moment, wariness clear in his gaze. Then, he straightened, his expression going carefully blank. “Bucky is no threat. To anyone.”
“I wasn’t asking for reassurance.”
“Bucky had made certain of that,” Steve added, firmly. He straightened even as a shadow passed across his features. It looked like sorrow and regret. “He made certain he wouldn’t harm anyone.”
Tony went very, very still. He felt like his chest was encased in ice. “He killed my parents and I tried to kill him,” Tony said. His voice was flat, cold. Almost mechanical. Steve blinked, his face drawing into a frown. But he remained silent. “I’m not asking for absolution or understanding, Rogers. If it ever becomes an issue… well, that is something between myself and Barnes. Not you.”
Steve looked ready to argue, but in the end he merely nodded. He didn’t looked particularly happy about it.
Tony wanted to laugh. Talk about how much they had fucked up things between them when this conversation actually meant progress.
But now was the high time it ended. Tony needed Steve not to be here, and he needed not to think and feel for a few hours. And he needed a drink.
“You need to go now, Rogers,” Tony said. He felt his lips press into a thin line of frustration. “If you don’t give a fuck about your freedom, that’s your problem. Don’t make it mine.”
“You’re right, I should go,” Steve said, but didn’t actually make a move to leave. He shifted on his feet, suddenly looking uncomfortable. “I-- I saw the press conference.”
Tony blinked, confused at the sudden non sequitur. “What press conference?”
Steve looked, somehow, even more uncomfortable. “The one in the rebuilt compound,” Steve clarified. He kept his eyes fixed on Tony’s as if he was searching for something. It was, to put it mildly, freaking the fuck out of Tony. He forced himself to stand still and not look away. It wasn’t an easy task. “You know-- with Pepper and Happy? Their engagement?”
Tony felt a smile tug at the corner of his mouth. “Yeah, it was supposed to have been--” Tony broke off, frowned. Peter’s failed recruitment was Avengers’ business. Steve no longer counted as one. “Doesn’t really matter. What about it?”
Steve was still staring at Tony like he was trying to read his mind. Then, he sighed, his gaze losing some of its intensity, but not moving away from Tony’s face. “I’m happy you’re leading the Avengers now.”
Half a year ago, Steve’s words would have made Tony’s blood boil. Today, only a hollow ache in the hollow of his chest throbbed in response.
“There is no Avengers.” Tony heard himself say. He sounded bitter. He sounded resigned. He sounded sad. And he couldn’t care less.
Steve winced. “That is not--”
“I can do my part, and I will do it. As long as it takes,” Tony interrupted, ignoring the narrowing of Steve’ eyes and the flex of his fingers as they curled into fists. “It's not even a matter of numbers, although that is a large issue. No, it's-- the Avengers are all about you. They always have been. You are what makes Avengers a team.”
Steve’s eyes went granite hard. “I am not apologizing for not signing away my free will and conscience, Tony.”
Tony’s mouth twisted into a small smile. “I’m not asking you to.” Tony shrugged. “I thought I could get you to agree with the Accords,” I thought we could work together, “I really did. We all saw how wrong I was. But that doesn’t matter anymore. It’s out of my hands now. We've made our choices. Now we have to live with the consequences.”
“I don’t have much, Tony. Never did. Even less, these days,” Steve said, voice thick something that might have been resignation or sorrow, or both; Tony couldn’t tell. His mouth twisted bitterly. “But at least I can look at myself in the mirror.”
Tony didn’t flinch. Maybe it was an insult. Or maybe a simple statement of fact. “Was it worth it?”
Steve’s face contorted into a grimace. He let out a low, humourless sound. “To be honest, I’m not entirely sure.”
“But you wouldn’t change your mind,” Tony said. He didn’t make it a question. He didn’t need to.
Steve held his gaze unblinkingly. “I would change one thing,” Steve said. Tony didn't need to ask which one. Nor did he doubt Steve. And the absolute worst thing? It wouldn't make a difference, in the end.
They would still end up on different sides.
Tony felt a prickle of heat in the corners of his eyes. He swallowed, thickly, and took a step back. “Leave. Now,” Tony forced out. His chest rose and fell, but he felt like there was not enough air in his lungs. Not enough air in the whole fucking world. “Or I will.”
Tony had no idea how he looked, but it must have been bad enough for Steve to obey.
“Take care of yourself, Tony,” Steve said, his voice hitching on Tony’s name. He moved as if to come closer to Tony, but stopped himself. Then, without another word, he turned on his heel, walking away.
But he made only two steps before he stopped.
Steve remained still one long moment. Tony stared at the tense line of his shoulders, wondering what would have happened if he walked forward and touched him. He swallowed a snort. Nothing good, probably.
“Do you still have the phone?” Steve asked without turning around. He sounded hopeful and afraid at the same time. Tony has never heard him sound like that.
Tony opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He remained like that a few moments, struggling to get his mouth to work. Then, he swallowed a curse and simply gave up. “Yeah, I do.”
Tony couldn’t decide whether admitting it was defeat or victory. Couldn't be certain whether that small gasp that had left Steve's mouth was shaped like Tony's name or not. Couldn't stop his heart from clenching painfully when Steve straightened, balled his hands into fists, and left.
As he watched Steve walk away, Tony let his mind wander back to that night three years ago and their second dance on the roof of the Tower.
Smile and laughter and gentle fingers caressing his back… and then a soft gasp and sudden stillness as their mouths came together.
When Steve was no longer visible, Tony shut his eyes. He was a damned good liar, but not even he could convince himself the wetness sliding down his cheeks was anything but what it truly was.