The wheels of the plane have barely hit the tarmac when Tony starts to wish he could turn back around. He drums his fingers against his leg while he waits for his phone to turn back on, and the text he writes to Pepper has just sent by the time he’s stepping out into the airport terminal.
Flight just landed. See you on the other side of hell.
Her answer comes while he’s retrieving his suitcase from the baggage claim, and her lack of sympathy is almost reassuring. Don’t be so dramatic .
His eyes scan the pick up area for the one thing he’s actually looking forward to seeing, and he grins when he sees it.
Rhodey looks the same as the last time they saw each other, just over a year and a half ago in Los Angeles. His shoulders are military broad and held back, and his sweatshirt is one that Tony can remember him wearing that one and only time they went camping together. His hair is the same short buzz cut, his eyes the same familiar warm brown, and his arms open when Tony jogs toward him just like they always do.
“Did you get shorter?” Rhodey teases as he wraps him in a hug, and Tony laughs.
“Don’t start this already,” he says, swatting Rhodey’s arm. “I’ll get right back on that plane.”
Rhodey pulls back just enough to look at him, and his eyes shine bright with happiness that Tony knows is reflected in his own. He has the fleeting thought that he should come back more often, but he knows exactly why he doesn’t. There’s too many memories in this town, too many people here to remind him of who he isn’t anymore.
Rhodey is the exception. Their relationship is simple in the way things can pick up like nothing’s changed and in the way they don’t have to talk about the things that did.
“Come on,” Rhodey says, slinging his arm over Tony’s shoulders to guide him out of the airport. “Pretty sure I parked illegally.”
Tony laughs for the second time in a minute, and it feels amazing.
In the car, Rhodey gives him the updates on his family, and Tony wishes they were in town this year. But Rhodey’s mom moved to Denver when his sister did, and he’s lucky to even have Rhodey at all this year. He normally doesn’t get that much.
“So,” Rhodey says near the end of the drive, when highways have turned to backroads and skyscrapers have turned to pine trees. “Are you ready to see him again?”
Tony bites his lip, looking at the blur of green and gray out the window. “Who says I’m going to see him again?”
“It’s a small town, Tones. It’s inevitable, don’t you think?”
Tony shrugs to feign indifference. “I just won’t go to the places he goes.”
“You don’t know the places he goes,” Rhodey reminds him, and it stings for reasons Tony can’t begin to explain.
“I know that.”
Rhodey hums noncommittally, but there’s about fifteen layers of meaning hidden beneath. “Well, it’s kind of hard to avoid the places he goes when he’s pretty much everywhere, anyway. Either him or his friends. If you’re avoiding everyone, you’re never leaving the house.”
“Great, sounds like a plan.”
Tony reaches out to change the radio station as a distraction, but Rhodey slaps his hand out of the air and back into his lap. “Nope, because we’re going out tonight. It’s been ten years, and people want to see you again.”
Tony grimaces, and Rhodey softens his voice as he adds, “They ask about you all the time, you know. Never him, but they always ask where he can listen to the answer.”
“If they want to know, they can pick up a magazine.”
“Yeah, sure, but none that’s real, is it? I mean, come on, you and I both know you’re not in a relationship with that actress you did your last movie with or any actress for that matter. And they can’t hear from anyone else about the time you hooked up with that guy from Twilight in the bathroom at an awards show.”
Tony gapes, “You did not tell them that.”
“No, of course not,” Rhodey laughs. “But thanks for confirming that it really did happen, because you were pretty vague about it when you mentioned it.”
“What have you told them, then?”
“Not much,” he shrugs. “They ask how you are, I tell them whatever good story I last heard from you, and Steve pretends not to be listening when everyone knows he is. I figure the bad parts aren’t mine to tell, and the good ones are pretty public, anyway, if you’re looking.”
Rhodey turns the car down the main downtown street. They pass by all the places Tony used to spend his days, and a wave of nostalgia washes over him. The diner on the corner is where he and his friends used to spend their Friday nights, replaying the same three songs on the vintage jukebox and driving everyone else crazy with the number of times they heard them. Steve kissed him there for the first time, nearly twelve years ago now. Tony still remembers the way his lips tasted like his strawberry milkshake, a little sticky and cold.
The used bookstore next to the diner looks much the same, with its faded sign. Steve kissed him there, too, a few times, in between bookshelves when no one was looking. Next to the bookstore is the record store, and Tony can see Steve behind the counter at sixteen, swaying slightly to whatever new album just came in. He remembers walking in just before closing a hundred times to absentmindedly flick through the used record section while Steve cleaned up. Sometimes they’d end up back at Steve’s place after that, other times they’d just sit in his car to talk about nothing at all while daylight turned to dusk.
Except the record store is gone now, and so is the bakery that once stood next to it. Tony frowns at the sight of the boutique and sandwich shop that have taken their places.
“A lot’s changed,” Rhodey comments, and Tony turns to look at him. Their old high school appears through Rhodey’s window, and it’s one memory after another in those halls. Tony doesn’t want to think about those, though.
“Yeah,” Tony sighs, pushing a hand through his hair. “I can see that.”
Rhodey is quiet for a beat while he turns down another road that will take them to his house. “He owns that orchard with Barnes now. Bought it from Clint’s grandparents when they retired. I’ve only been a few times myself, but I know Sharon and Nat are there a lot.”
“If I wanted to know what he was doing and who he was doing it with, don’t you think I would have asked?”
“No,” Rhodey says simply. He pulls the car into the driveway and shifts it into park. “You wouldn’t have.”
With one last overly meaningful look cast Tony’s way, he gets out of the car and opens the trunk to retrieve Tony’s bag for him. Tony follows him into the house, noting the way it’s changed, too, since Rhodey bought it from his mom years ago. The once chipped gray siding has been painted blue. The big tree in the back that always looked like one strong breeze could knock it over has been taken out, and grass covers where the roots used to be.
Inside is a little different, too. The coffee table with its sharp corners that he used to bang his shins on all the time is gone, and the shelves have different sets of photographs and trinkets. There’s one of the two of them in middle school, grinning with arms around each other’s shoulders, that makes Tony smile. Then a recent one of Rhodey with the friends they used to share wipes it away. He takes a step toward it, reaching from the frame.
He doesn’t recognize the background, but it seems to be one of the bars he was too young for the last time he was here. Rhodey is off to one side, arm around a well-aged Bucky Barnes. To Bucky’s right is Sharon, whose hair is no longer the wild colors she dyed it in high school, and then Natasha, who looks the same as he remembers. His eyes get stuck on Steve.
Steve looks both exactly the same and completely different. His shoulders are a bit broader, hair a little darker than the golden blonde it used to be. His eyes are bright and his smile is wide, and there’s a pain in Tony’s chest when he has the thought that he has nothing to do with it. Because he can remember the last time he saw Steve smile, on one of those last mornings before Tony left town and never came back, and he can remember each one before that, too. He wonders if he’s imagining that Steve looks happier here than he ever did then.
“Sharon’s birthday last year,” Rhodey says, and Tony almost drops the picture frame when he startles. He turns around, gripping it tighter in his hand as Rhodey continues, “Barton took over running the bar after his dad passed a couple years ago. It’s where we’re going tonight.”
Tony raises his eyebrows, hoping his face doesn’t betray his anxiety at the thought, and lifts the picture higher. “Everyone’s going to be there?”
Rhodey shrugs, “I didn’t explicitly invite anyone, but it’s a Friday night.”
“Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
Rhodey’s smile is bittersweet. “It sort of became the place to be once everyone was old enough. I don’t think any of us have spent a Friday night at that diner in years.”
Tony takes a deep breath, and he wonders if this trip is going to continue to be one punch to the gut right after the other. He knew it would be hard, because ten years is a long time to leave and expect to come back to everything the same, but he didn’t know how it would feel to fully realize that life really did move on without him. He considers the picture again, the way everyone has their place at the table. Everyone has the spot that’s theirs, and there isn’t a single empty chair. No one seems to be missing at all.
He wonders how long it took before they stopped leaving a space for him. Was it any time at all?
“Did Sharon and Bucky ever get together like we all used to think?”
“Yeah, for a minute before Sharon discovered Bucky isn’t exactly her type,” Rhodey laughs, and Tony feels like he isn’t in on the joke. He must see the confusion on Tony’s face, because he explains, “She’s been with Nat for a few years now.”
“Oh, shit. I didn’t see that coming.”
“No one did,” Rhodey says, shaking his head with a smile. “We were all surprised by that one, trust me.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about it?” Tony asks without accusation, and now that he’s looking for it, he can see the familiarity in Nat and Sharon’s body language in the picture that doesn’t come from friendship.
Rhodey cocks an eyebrow, saying so much with that alone. “Is that a real question? Because I think we both know the answer to it.”
“I never said not to tell me anything.”
“You also shut down conversations whenever Steve’s name came up,” Rhodey says, and Tony can admit to himself that it’s true. It was hard when he first left, because while he knew it was for the best, he constantly fought with himself not to turn right back around and stay forever. Hearing Steve’s name was too much temptation, too vivid a reminder of the ache in his chest that never quite left.
“Eventually,” Rhodey continues, “I just stopped bringing up anyone and anything that could even remotely relate to him, and you never asked.”
“Schrödinger's friend group,” Tony smiles wryly. “If you know nothing about it, they’re simultaneously doing amazing and doing terrible. They both miss you and don’t give a shit that you ever left.”
“Steve is both hopelessly pining and moved on to someone else?”
Rhodey gives him a knowing look, and Tony averts his gaze back to the picture. He should really put it back down.
“Did he move on?” Tony asks hesitantly.
Tony huffs a laugh, “Question with a question, really?”
Rhodey steps forward, taking the picture from his hand and putting it back on the shelf. “Why don’t you ask him about it yourself when we go to the bar in twenty minutes?”
“Twenty minutes?” Tony repeats. “No, that’s - no. I’m not ready for that.”
Rhodey crosses his arms over his chest. “Then why did you come here? Ten years with no visits despite me asking every year. Why now if you didn’t want to see anyone?”
“I - I don’t know,” he stammers. He hates the way Rhodey can see through him as if his walls are completely transparent.
“Sure you don’t.” Rhodey rolls his eyes and puts his hands on Tony’s shoulders, spinning him around to face the stairs. “Now go change your clothes or whatever you need to do to get ready so we can go.”
Tony can’t remember the last time he was this nervous. Maybe his first television interview or red carpet, when he first learned what it was like to have a thousand eyes on him at once. Those things seem to pale in comparison to seeing the friends he hasn’t talked to in a decade. At least on the red carpet he knows what to expect.
He scans the bar for them the second he walks in, but it’s apparently too early for them to be here. Rhodey directs them towards the bar, where he orders them both a beer from a man that looks incredibly familiar, but Tony can’t place him. Not until he looks directly at Tony, and Tony almost drops the pint glass he’s just been handed.
“Holy shit, Clint?”
Clint grins, “I’m hoping that’s a good ‘holy shit’ and not ‘holy shit, you got old and ugly.’”
“Yeah, it’s a good one,” Tony laughs. They were never all that close back in high school, but in Tony’s memory, Clint was the shortest of them all after Steve hit his growth spurt in sophomore year, and he was on the scrawny side. “You got taller. And buff.”
Clint eyes him and smirks, “You didn’t.”
Tony makes a shocked noise, followed immediately by a bubble of laughter that comes from somewhere deep within him. The kind of laugh he isn’t sure he’s had in a long, long time. “I’ll have you know that I made five magazines’ lists for sexiest men alive last year,” he says. All of the haughtiness about it is fake, and Clint knows it.
“Well, they didn’t see you in middle school after you fell into that creek behind Nat’s house,” Clint says, grin growing wider. “It’s hard to recover once you’ve been seen trying to get a fish out of your underwear.”
Tony laughs again, “Oh, God. I forgot about that.”
Clint hums, and there’s a hint of accusation beneath it when he says, “Yeah, you seem to have forgotten a lot of things.” Rhodey gives him a look, and Clint raises his hand in surrender. “I’m just saying.”
Rhodey starts to speak, but Tony knows it will be in his defense, so he cuts him off. “No, it’s fine. Can’t say I don’t deserve that, and I can’t say I wasn’t expecting it, either.”
Clint looks at him for a long while with narrowed eyes, and Tony doesn’t have a clue what he’s looking for, but eventually he breaks the gaze and asks, “How long are you staying for?”
“Just the weekend.”
Clint nods, bottom lip between his teeth while he reaches for a rag that’s seen better days to wipe down the counter. He watches the circular motion during his follow up question. “Got somewhere better to be after that?”
Tony opens his mouth, and he doesn’t know his answer until he’s already saying it, “No, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to go.”
‘Better’ isn’t at all accurate, and he doesn’t think it ever was. Different, sure, from the life he had here. Free of the things that used to make him feel trapped, like he was slowly sinking into quicksand and Los Angeles was the only branch he could reach to drag himself out.
Clint looks up at the sound of the door opening, and Tony follows his gaze. Bucky catches his eye almost immediately, but he doesn’t keep Tony’s attention for very long. Not with Steve standing right behind, looking like all of Tony’s favorite dreams. It’s a good thing his glass is already on the bar counter, because he would have dropped it with the way everything goes numb. He can distantly feel Rhodey’s hand on his shoulder, but it isn’t enough to shake him from the haze he’s sitting in.
Steve doesn’t notice him there at first, and it gives Tony a chance to just look at him for the first time in ten years. The photograph really doesn’t do him justice. It couldn’t possibly capture the radiance of him, the way light seems to catch on his skin and pour back out of him. It missed the way he walks, too, with a confidence he never had before.
Time seems to stop when Steve finally meets his stare, and Tony has the distant thought that it’s such a cliche before all he can think about is that last day. Tony remembers it too well, that look on Steve’s face when he told him that he had to go. If it wasn’t then, it would have been never, and never felt like a vice around his throat at the time. Steve was understanding of it, and he never once asked him to stay, like he knew asking would only make everything hurt even worse for both of them when Tony said no.
Now, though, standing in front of the only person that’s ever known him inside and out, he wonders if staying would have been so bad. He can almost see it playing out in his head, the life they could have had if he had stayed. Days spent in the orchard, and nights tangled with each other. Weekends spent lazily in bed, and they would know each other so well that they wouldn’t even need to speak anymore. Just one look could say it all.
Although, he thinks, Steve still might know him like that somehow, even with all these years in between. Because Steve gives him that same smile that used to make his heart skip beats in the back of his car, and he walks toward him with that same fondness in his eyes that he used to see everyday when Steve would meet him on the bleachers at lunch.
It doesn’t feel at all like he thought it would to see him again. He expected the lurching of his heart, of course, but it doesn’t come with the pain. It’s more like a wave of relief, like coming back home after being gone for so long and finding everything just as it should be.
Rhodey’s hand falls from his shoulder, and he’s left alone with Steve just a foot away a moment later.
Neither of them speak for what could be forever or just a few seconds. Steve’s eyes drift over his face like he’s cataloguing every change, while Tony can’t tear his away from Steve’s own.
“I thought Buck was lying when he said you were coming,” Steve finally says, and his voice is so quiet Tony almost doesn’t catch it amongst the background noise of the bar, but damn if it isn’t still his favorite sound.
“Not a lie,” Tony says, the corner of his mouth lifting into a fragile smile.
The fear is creeping in now. The possibility of being turned away, of Steve telling him he doesn’t have a place here anymore. The worry that he won’t recognize this older version of Steve, or that he’s different enough that Steve won’t recognize him anymore. For some reason, he finds himself wondering if Steve still prefers pancakes on Saturdays and waffles on Sundays. If he still sings just a tad off-key to the radio and doesn’t care who hears it. If he still knows exactly what to do with his hands to make Tony fall apart, because no one else has ever been able to replicate it.
“How long are you here for?” Steve asks, and Tony’s answer is the same he gave to Clint. Steve’s smile wavers a bit in what seems like disappointment. “Not long at all, then.”
Tony shakes his head as the ache in his chest burrows in deeper. “I have to be in London in January.”
Steve nods slowly, “But I have you for the weekend.”
It’s strange, Tony thinks, the way something like that should be odd but it isn’t. The way Steve just knows that Tony is his, even if it’s temporary. The way they really don’t have to talk about it at all, because he was right about Steve still knowing him through and through.
“I’m all yours,” Tony says, and he thinks that Steve understands what he’s really saying. I’m always yours, even when I’m not here.
Steve’s smile turns softer, and he tilts his head toward the empty set of bar stools at the very end, curved away from the others. “Sit with me?”
“Shouldn’t I see the others, too?” Tony asks, and he turns his head to where Rhodey and Bucky have gone. At some point, Natasha and Sharon have joined them, and all of them scramble to pretend they weren’t watching when Tony looks at them. He grins at them, but the reality is he has no desire to join them. Steve knows that.
“No,” he says. “You should come sit with me.”
Tony grabs his beer from the bar and uses it to gesture to the stools. “Lead the way, then.”
Steve takes his hand, and it feels a little different now than it did before. It still dwarfs his own, but it’s no longer as smooth as it once was. They’re roughened from work Tony knows nothing about, and his face heats when his first thought is that they would feel different on the rest of his body now, too.
When they sit, Steve’s thigh comes to rest against his own, and Tony doesn’t dare move away from it for fear of never getting it back. Clint wordlessly places a beer in front of Steve, then goes as far from them as he can.
“I never thought I’d get to see you in this place,” Steve says, absentmindedly trailing his finger along the rim of his glass.
“Thought I’d stay away forever?”
“No, that’s not you,” Steve shakes his head. Steve looks over at him, and Tony wonders what he sees. If he notices the small scar on his forehead from a stunt on a film set or the closed over hole in his earlobe from a failed experiment with a piercing. “I guess I just never let myself think about it. Seeing you here.”
Tony releases his breath in a long exhale. “I thought about coming back sooner, but…”
“You wanted a clean break,” Steve finishes his thought. “I know.”
“I never wanted it from you,” Tony whispers.
Steve smiles, a delicate thing, “I know that, too.”
“I just - I couldn’t stay here.”
“Tony,” Steve says, and his name feels as right coming out of Steve’s mouth as it always has. “I know why you left, and I know why you didn’t come back. I know that you were meant for more than anything you could have gotten here, and I know that it still hurt you to leave, anyway, just as badly as it hurt me. It’s not -” Steve breaks off, swallowing hard. “It’s not anyone’s fault.”
“You’ve thought about it a lot, have you?” Tony says, a light teasing to his tone that he isn’t sure he’s allowed.
Steve laughs, “Yeah, well, I’ve had a lot of time to see it for what it was.”
“And what was it?”
“A no-win situation,” Steve says, a bittersweet kind of smile on his face. “The kind where we either lost each other or you lost everything that made you the person I’ve always been in love with.”
Tony leans in a little closer and asks the question that’s been on his mind for years, “Was there never an option where you came with me?”
Steve takes a shuddering breath, and Tony doesn’t miss the flash of pain in his eyes. “I thought about visiting, you know. Went to the airport and everything. Just never got on the plane.”
“Because just like you weren’t made for here, I wasn’t made for there.”
Tony thinks, but you never tried , and bites his tongue to keep it in. He didn’t come back to rehash the past or to place blame anywhere, not when Steve is right about the fault lying with no one.
Instead, he says, “Tell me about your life now. Rhodey says you and Bucky bought the orchard.”
“Yeah,” Steve grins. “A couple years back. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing at first, but we think we’ve got it figured out now.”
“What are your days like?” Tony asks, and he holds his chin in his hand while Steve tells him everything. It flows from one thing to the next, starting with what the Christmas season is like on the orchard and moving into the story of his first time learning how to press cider. He talks about the simple things like they’re magic, and Tony gets what he means about never belonging in LA with him. He would’ve hated everything about it. The traffic and bright lights. The noise and how Tony doesn’t seem to get a minute alone to just breathe these days. Steve likes the quiet of the night and the way the sun sets over the trees, while Tony isn’t sure he’s actually been able to see the stars in years.
Steve tells him about their friends, too, and everything they’ve done over the years. Sharon finished her teaching degree and works in the school they spent years of their lives in. Clint is getting married in a year, and Bucky’s been dating the same guy he had an ongoing feud with when they were kids. Natasha played matchmaker for both of them.
Tony laughs at the tail end of Steve’s story about Clint’s near disastrous proposal, but it dies away when Steve asks, “What about you? Tell me about your life. The things I can’t read in some tabloid or hear from Rhodey. Is it everything you thought it would be?”
“Sometimes it is. Most of the time it isn’t,” Tony sighs, swirling around the last dregs of his beer and watching the amber liquid turn. “I like my job, and I like all the people I get to meet. The people that tell me that some part I played affected them in some way. I like knowing I was part of that.”
“And what don’t you like?”
Tony bites his lip, “I don’t like not knowing who I can and can’t trust. I don’t like that it took me almost eight years to find new friends that don’t sell me out every chance they get. And I hate the fact that I’ve been made to feel like I’m not allowed to hate anything about my life. Like I’m not allowed to say that sometimes it sucks that people like to take pictures of me when I’m at my lowest, because then I sound ungrateful for everything I have.”
Steve is quiet for a while, and Tony worries he’s said too much in the silence. But then Steve says, “Well, there’s no one like that here, is there?”
Tony looks around at the bar, and he’s so used to feeling eyes on him all the time that he doesn’t even notice when they aren’t there, but no one is looking their way. He smiles, “No, there isn’t.”
“Only person who might take your picture here is me,” Steve says, leaning into him. He reaches a hand up to brush back Tony’s hair from his forehead, and his voice drops lower. “But that’s just because I think you’re beautiful.”
It shouldn’t make him feel so warm to hear that, but it does. He’s heard it all a million times from hundreds of people, yet Steve’s is the only opinion he’s ever really cared for. He’s the only one Tony’s ever cared to impress.
“Steve,” Tony says softly. “I really think you should take me home.”
Tony curls into Steve’s heated skin, trying to catch his breath. Steve cards a gentle hand through his hair, and Tony sinks deeper into his hold. He does, in fact, still know how to play his body like an instrument, and he’s spent the better part of an hour proving it.
“I missed you,” Steve whispers. “I know it goes without saying, but I need you to know that I’ve never once stopped thinking about you. Not even for a day.”
“I never stopped either. I was always wondering what you were thinking about me. If you were thinking about me at all, that is. If you were happy.”
“I’m happy,” Steve says. “But I think it’s in the same way you are. Like there’s something missing, but if you just don’t think about it too hard, you can pretend that nothing’s out of place. That there shouldn’t be one more chair at the table, and there aren’t stories that you can’t tell anymore because they hurt too much.”
“I’ve gotten really good at pretending,” Tony admits. He traces his fingertip along the hardened muscles of Steve’s chest, marveling at the way his body is both familiar and unfamiliar all at once.
“So have I.”
Tony leans up on one elbow, looking at Steve’s face in the fading light of Steve’s bedroom. It’s not the same as when they were younger, not even the same house, but he can see Steve in every inch of it. “Wanna keep pretending with me? Imagine just for the weekend that this is real? That we can have this.”
Steve takes Tony’s cheek into his palm, thumb ghosting across his cheekbone. “I think I was already doing that.”
“I don’t want to talk about my life there, either. I don’t want to talk about anything that isn’t here.”
Steve nods, and his hand slides lower to trace over Tony’s bottom lip. “We can do that. Whatever you’d like, sweetheart.”
Tony closes his eyes, falling back into the warmth of Steve’s embrace, and it’s the easiest thing he’s ever done. He never wants to leave this bed again, and though it’s unsustainable, for the next two days he’ll let himself pretend he never has to.
They spend most of Saturday in Steve’s bedroom, just because they can. He wears Steve’s clothes and drinks his morning coffee from the same mug he used to drink hot chocolate from as a kid, while Steve holds him close and calls him all sorts of endearments that he never could stand to hear coming from anyone else.
He sends Rhodey a text to apologize for leaving him, and his answer says that he knew this would happen all along. Tony wonders if that’s why he insisted so strongly this year for him to come home, but then he decides that he doesn’t care either way. He’s happy right now, so he turns off his phone and ditches it on the nightstand before throwing himself back into Steve’s waiting arms.
“Do you remember our first date?” Tony asks as they tangled together on the couch that night. The fireplace casts the room in an orange glow, and Steve’s sweater sleeves are long enough to cover his hands completely.
“Is this a trick question?” Steve asks, and Tony smiles.
“No, I just want to know what you remember from it.”
Steve hums, and his arms tighten a bit around Tony’s body. “I remember that you were really nervous. You tripped over your own feet, and I had to catch you.”
“How do you know that wasn’t on purpose, huh? A ruse designed to get you to hold me?”
Steve grins, “Was it?”
“No, I wasn’t that smooth back then,” Tony replies, making Steve laugh. “But that can’t be the first thing you think about when you think about our first date.”
“Why not? I liked that you were nervous, because I was, too. Made me feel better about the fact that I had no clue what I was doing. Plus you’re really cute when you blush.”
“You were nervous? It didn’t seem like it.”
“I’d been in love with you since the seventh grade, sweetheart. Of course I was nervous.”
Tony shifts to look at him. “Since the seventh grade? There’s no way that’s true. I was weird and awkward in the seventh grade, and I wasn’t even cute.”
“Ignoring the fact that you have never not been cute, do you remember when we got partnered together in science class and you completely ignored the instructions every time?”
Tony smiles as the memories come back to him. Playing around with reactants in all the wrong quantities while Steve nervously watched and half-heartedly tried to convince him to stop turning normal activities into dangerous ones. “Of course I do, but why would that make you love me?”
“Well, part of it was just because I got to know you better when we sat together. But the main reason is because of that one time you took it too far and singed off part of your hair and caught our worksheet on fire.”
Tony covers his face with his hands, laughing into the cable knit sleeves. “Oh, no, that’s the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done, and I refuse to believe that’s what started this. Make up something else, I can’t live with this.”
Steve joins him in laughter, pressing his nose into the crook of Tony’s neck. “I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. I realized I was in love with you while you were sporting a bald spot because you’re the dumbest genius I’ve ever met. You know I don’t lie to you, babe.”
“No, you don’t,” Tony hums, twisting in Steve’s hold to face him. “Which means you’re finally going to tell me who it was that broke my polaroid camera on the last day of high school.”
Steve sputters soundlessly, and Tony grins, “Come on, you can’t make yourself a liar right after you just told me you don’t lie to me.”
“Why can’t you let that one go? It’s been ten years, honey, please just accept what we all said happened to it.”
“That it fell from the middle of the table onto the floor all on its own? I don’t think so, honey ,” Tony replies, poking Steve in the ribs. “Tell me who did it so I can be spiteful about it for the rest of my life.”
Steve groans, his forehead falling to Tony’s shoulder. “It was technically all of us.”
“How was it technically all of you?” Tony asks with a laugh. He threads his fingers in Steve’s hair, unable to resist the urge to be touching as much of him as possible at all times.
“We were taking pictures while you were gone, and it turned into a competition of who could take the funniest one, and, well, things got out of hand pretty quickly. Pretty sure Sharon and Bucky were fighting for it when it broke.”
“And you just let this happen, Steven? How could you?” Tony questions, faux-serious.
Steve lifts his head, lips brushing against the sensitive skin of Tony’s throat. His hand pushes under the sweater to slide up Tony’s back and pull him in closer until every inch of them is pressed together. Against Tony’s jaw, he murmurs, “I guess I’ll just have to make it up to you.”
“Might take a couple of times,” Tony says, tilting his head to the side and biting his lip to hold back the gasp he almost makes when Steve’s mouth does something particularly good to his neck. “I’ve got a decade’s worth of grudges over it.”
Steve rolls them to hover above Tony, hands on the cushions on either side of Tony’s head. His hair flops over his forehead like this, and coupled with the grin on his face, he looks like he might as well be eighteen again. Like nothing ever changed at all, not even them.
Tony takes a handful of Steve’s sweatshirt and pulls him down to his mouth.
Sunday takes on a more melancholy feeling, despite their best efforts to keep pretending. Steve holds him while they watch the sunrise out the bedroom window, mugs of coffee steaming in their hands. Tony desperately tries not to cry when he thinks about how this is the last morning he’ll ever get like this. His last morning of the kind of happiness he only finds in Steve.
He abandons his full mug on the nightstand and turns to bury his face into Steve’s chest. His grip on Steve’s shirt turns his knuckles white, and Steve puts his own mug down to hold him just as tight.
They don’t talk about it, but he knows Steve’s mind is on the same track as his. It always is, even when they’re worlds away.
Instead, Steve says, “I learned how to make my mom’s Christmas cookies.”
Tony smiles a little into Steve’s t-shirt. “You did, huh? Do they taste the same?”
“Sort of,” Steve shrugs. “They don’t look the same, that’s for sure. But the flavor was almost right the last time I tried.”
“Well, I think I’m going to need a demonstration, then.”
Tony watches from his spot perched on the counter while Steve mixes together eggs and brown sugar by hand. He whisks them fast, bicep flexing with the movement in a way that Tony wants to make a dirty comment about, but refrains from doing. The moment is sweet and reminds him of Christmas breaks spent in his friends’ houses when he was younger and his own parents were off doing other things, and Tony wants to keep it that way. So he continues to watch with a soft smile on his face, laughing when Steve makes a mess of things and gets flour all over his t-shirt.
Steve gives the dough one last stir, then scoops up some of it with his finger to put in his mouth. He does it again and holds it up to Tony, who can’t quite resist the temptation this time to make it slightly dirty when he licks it off. The moan that Tony makes when he tastes it, though, is entirely involuntary. It isn’t quite right, but it’s still pretty good.
“That is almost as good I remember,” Tony says, grinning at the way Steve’s cheeks have pinkened.
“I think it’s missing something,” Steve says. He grabs the recipe book from the counter and brings it over to lean against the counter between Tony’s legs. Tony wraps his arms and legs around him, resting his head on Steve’s shoulder to read it with him. It’s in his mom’s looping cursive, elegant and a little difficult to read for unpracticed eyes. Tony tries to ignore the dull ache in his chest at the thought that it’s been eleven years now since the last time he saw her.
“I watched you do all of these things, so I don’t think so,” Tony says, running through the list.
“No, I think there was something she didn’t write down. She never really followed these. Not after the first time, anyway.”
“So it could be literally anything is what you’re saying?”
Steve sighs, and he tilts his head to lean against Tony’s. “Yeah, you should’ve been here when I tried to replicate her meatloaf recipe. None of it was the same.”
Tony laughs, “I don’t think it ever tasted the same twice when she made it herself. She always went far off the recipe.”
“Doesn’t help that I don’t know how to cook at all, but she was an expert,” Steve says. “Wish I would’ve paid more attention when she tried to teach me.”
“Well, luckily for you, I mostly did. I make her chicken parmesan recipe all the time.”
Steve twists in his arms, eyes a little wider than before. “You do?”
Tony nods, and he kisses Steve’s cheek. “It’s maybe not exactly perfect, but I can make it for you, if you’d like.”
Steve grins, and a trip to the grocery store later, they’re standing at the counter together chopping ingredients for the pasta sauce Tony’s made hundreds of times throughout the years. It’s domestic and comforting, and Tony knows he’ll be leaving a part of himself right here in this kitchen when he leaves.
“I tried to make this a while back, and I burnt everything,” Steve says.
Tony smiles, “I’ll write it down for you before I go.”
It’s the first time either of them has actually brought up the reality that Tony will be gone by this time tomorrow, and they both realize it at the same time. Tony bites his lip, and Steve’s hand freezes part way through a slice through an onion.
“Yeah,” Steve says after a moment, his voice cracking around the word. He clears his throat and sounds almost normal as he continues, “You’ll have to do that.”
“Steve,” Tony starts, but Steve shakes his head.
“We don’t have to talk about it.”
“Shouldn’t we, though?” Tony asks quietly into the otherwise silent kitchen. He sets down his knife and turns, leaning on his hip against the counter.
Sighing, Steve sets his knife down as well to face him. His face has a sadness to it that Tony hasn’t seen since that first time he left, and Tony hates everything about it. He hates being the cause of it, and that it still feels like there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
Steve reaches out, hand on Tony’s waist, and pulls him closer. His lips are warm on Tony’s forehead and then on his cheek. Against Tony’s skin he says, “Later, okay? I just - I can’t think about you leaving right now. Not when there’s still time.”
Tony nods, and Steve kisses him softly. He lets himself get lost in it for a while, in the feeling of Steve. He’s hardly aware of the moisture on his cheeks until Steve is wiping it away with gentle hands.
“I don’t want to go,” Tony whispers into the crook of Steve’s neck, hiding his face there when their lips part. It’s too soft for Steve to hear, but it wasn’t really for him, anyway. It’s an admission to himself, one that shakes him to his very core and makes him question everything. He thought leaving again would be easy, but he also thought he would spend his weekend avoiding Steve instead of practically living in his arms.
He was wrong about a lot of things, it seems.
Steve holds him like that for a while longer, until Tony feels okay to move again. They go back to cooking, and Steve goes back to making him laugh until his sides hurt with it. Tony watches him stare at measuring spoons while he tries to figure out which one of them the teaspoon is and comes to realization when he grabs the tablespoon instead.
“Oh, God, you’ve been using the wrong measuring spoon this whole time haven’t you?” Tony asks, trying to keep his laughter in by biting his lip. He doesn’t want to laugh at him, but at the same time it’s just the perfectly Steve thing to do.
“What?” Steve frowns down at the spoon he was about to use to measure salt. “No, this is - oh, shit.”
“Well, mystery solved,” Tony says, giving into the laughter as Steve’s face shifts through all the stages of grief at once.
“This is partially your fault,” Steve declares.
Steve nods, mock serious but his grin is wide, “Yeah, because you watched me make those cookies and said nothing. You let this happen to me.”
“Truly my bad for assuming you knew what a teaspoon looked like at the age of twenty eight,” Tony says sarcastically, wrapping his arms around Steve’s waist from behind to point to the spoons still in his hand. “For the record, it’s this one that’s the teaspoon and that one for the tablespoon. You tripled everything by using the tablespoon, by the way.”
“I thought they were kind of salty.”
“I just thought that was what you were going for,” Tony shrugs, and Steve laughs.
Tony takes over any measuring duties after that, and Steve mostly watches while Tony finds the familiar flow of making the recipe. He looks up while breading the chicken to find Steve staring at him with a soft smile on his face, and all he can think is God, I love you.
He doesn’t have to ask to know Steve is thinking something similar.
“It should be weirder, shouldn’t it?” Tony asks, focusing his eyes back on his own hands and the muscle memory action of cooking.
“What should be weird?”
“This,” Tony says. “Us, being here. It should be, I don’t know, awkward or something. It should feel different than it used to.”
Tony smiles, “Are you going to answer all my questions with questions?”
He feels Steve’s lips on the nape of his neck, and Steve’s hands box him in on either side of the counter. “It probably should feel weird,” Steve murmurs. “We probably should have grown apart. I probably shouldn’t remember all of your favorite things anymore, and you shouldn’t remember mine. We should be different people now, theoretically, but I don’t think that either one of us changed enough to make us unrecognizable to each other, did we? Did you?”
Tony shakes his head, “No, I just - I guess I thought if I ever came back, it would feel like closure. Like proof it wouldn’t have worked out anyway, and then I could go back to LA and move on again like it didn’t even happen. But then I talked to you for all of two minutes and I knew that wouldn’t be the case.”
“And is that better or worse?
“I don’t know,” Tony says honestly. He swallows hard and goes back to preparing the chicken. “But we’re not talking about it. We said we weren’t.”
Steve pauses for a long moment, then says quietly, “Just let me know when you figure it out, okay?”
Tony nods, breathing in deep. “Okay.”
They don’t talk about it for the rest of the evening, and Tony tries not to think about it, either. He focuses only on the way everything feels, but this time really might be it for them. It would be unfair to expect Steve to wait for him to come back in another year or ten, and he isn’t foolish enough to believe that Steve wouldn’t have moved on by then.
Steve takes things slow for tonight. He strips Tony of the clothing that really belongs to him and touches him with delicate care. His lips map out of the contours of his body, teasing and sweet all at once until Tony feels like he’s floating amongst the clouds. He gives himself over to Steve so easily, always has.
After, he lies with his head on Steve’s chest and listens to his heartbeat beneath his ear. He wills himself to stay awake for as long as he can to draw this out. His flight is tomorrow afternoon and every second counts.
“Tell me something else you remember from before,” Tony says. “Your favorite memory of us.”
“My favorite, huh? I don’t know if I can pick just one of them.”
“Then tell me all of them.” He wants to fall asleep to the sound of Steve’s voice with a head full of memories. He likes knowing them from Steve’s side, how different they are from his own with what specifics stuck out the most.
Steve shifts a little to give them even more contact, and his hand draws patterns into the bare skin of Tony’s back. “Do you remember that night after the homecoming game junior year?”
“You mean the night when you accidentally told me you loved me?” Tony smiles, and he can see it all behind his eyelids. Steve’s wide eyes when he realized what he said, followed by what’s still one of the best kisses of his life. “Can’t say that I do. You’ll have to remind me.”
Steve laughs, “I had a heart attack when you froze like that. Wouldn’t have even noticed I said it if you hadn’t had that look on your face. Guess it just felt natural to say it, because it was always true.”
“I was happy you said it first, otherwise I would’ve blurted it myself one of those times.”
“I was mad at myself for not making it more special. I mean, under the bleachers when I was covered in sweat and dirt wasn’t really the way I wanted to do it.”
“No, I liked it,” Tony says. “I wouldn’t change a thing about that night, except maybe the fact that your mom caught us in your car.”
“Oh, God,” Steve groans. “That was horrifying. She couldn’t look at me for days, I swear.”
Tony grins, “I think it took her two weeks before I was even allowed in the house again. Another one after that before she said more than two words to me at a time.”
“She left a box of condoms on my bed the next day.”
Tony lets out a startled laugh. “Oh, no, you never told me that.”
“Well, we never exactly used them, did we?”
“No point when you were the only one,” Tony smiles, then bites his lip. “You were the only one for a really long time, you know.”
“Yeah. It felt too weird with anyone else.”
Steve’s lips press against the top of his head. “I know what you mean. It feels kind of like I’m lying when it’s someone else.”
It’s only his own fear of the answer that keeps him from asking exactly who these someone else’s Steve has been with before this weekend. He doesn’t want to know who got to share moments like this with him while Tony was off trying to forget in his own way.
“I feel like I should tell you that almost all of those rumors about me and all those other people were false.”
“I thought we weren’t talking about it,” Steve says, a little teasing, but Tony can still hear the hint of relief in it.
Tony shrugs, “I made the rule, I can break it when I want.”
“Which ones weren’t false?” Steve asks. “You said ‘almost all.’”
“Well, all of the women were false, if that wasn’t obvious.”
He can hear the smile in Steve’s voice as he says, “It was pretty obvious, yeah. Although, some of them had some pretty convincing pictures.”
“How much were you looking?” Tony asks, and he means for his tone to sound joking, but he misses the mark in his genuine need to know.
“For a while I never looked. I thought it was easier if I just pretended you didn’t exist, but one night I just thought that one google search couldn’t hurt.”
“Take it from me, it definitely does,” Tony says, a touch bitter. “I learned the hard way it’s better not to know what anyone’s saying about you.”
Steve’s hand tightens on his hip protectively. “It was strange, the way they talked about you. Talk, I guess, because they still do it. I could tell so easily what wasn’t real, but then I started wondering if I just wanted to believe I still knew you when I didn’t anymore.”
“But you do,” Tony says, tilting his chin to catch a glimpse of Steve’s face. “You still know me better than anyone does.”
“Why Rhodey?” Steve asks abruptly, and Tony frowns in confusion. “Why was he the only one you kept in contact with? I never - I’m not upset about it. I know why it wasn’t me, but I guess I never quite understood why it was only him.”
Tony sighs, wishing there was a simple explanation for it, but he strips it down as much as he can, “All of our other friends were your friends first. You got them in the break up.”
“That’s - Tony, I never wanted that.”
“I know,” Tony says quickly, because Steve sounds like he’s working himself up to a guilty spiral. “I just thought that it wouldn’t have been fair to anyone. Like I was trying to be here but not be here and trapping them in the middle of it. I couldn’t do that. Not when you needed them, and I knew I could learn to be okay without them.”
Steve is quiet for a moment, then he says, “You know, I used to think it was easy for you to leave. Not that it didn’t hurt you, because I know it did, but you always made it seem like the choice was inevitable. Like it was always going to be the conclusion no matter what happened. But it wasn’t, was it? You didn’t want to make it.”
Tony has to take a few seconds just to breathe, holding back the waves of old emotion that he last felt in those few weeks before he made the choice to go.
“What I really wanted was an impossible world where I could have both,” Tony confesses. “I wanted to be here and there, but if I couldn’t have that, starting over seemed better than feeling stuck.”
“You would’ve felt stuck with me?”
“Not with you,” Tony amends softly. “More like stuck in the life my parents left for me when they died. Like I was just stepping right into my father’s shoes and becoming him. All those expectations felt like they were going to drown me one day.”
In silence, Tony makes one more confession. “I wasn’t really made for there, either, you know,” he says. “You said I wasn’t made for here, and you weren’t made for there, but I’m not sure I was made for either one.”
Steve shifts, sliding beneath him until they’re face to face and lying on their sides, still entwined. He reaches out, and his fingertips trace along the edge of Tony’s jaw. “You could have both now, couldn’t you?”
“Are you offering to move to LA?” Tony asks wryly.
The corner of Steve’s mouth quirks up. “I’m saying you could live here, and go there when you need to. You could have the job you like and leave behind all the things you hate when you’re done with the work. People do it all the time don’t they? You’re not trying to make it anymore, so why do you have to be there like you are?”
Steve makes it sound so simple, and Tony wonders if it really could be. He also wonders why he never considered it as an option, but only briefly because he knows why. He took the option of both off the table a long time ago and pushed it so far out of his mind that it could never come back again.
But Steve is right. Why is he still living like he’s trying to make it? Why is he living like he has to prove himself or fit into one small box?
“I -” Tony starts only to break off, swallowing around the lump in his throat. He’s torn between hope and not wanting to get attached to the idea, just in case it doesn’t work for him.
“Go to London next week,” Steve says softly, cupping Tony’s cheek in his hand and caressing him with his thumb. “Go do what you need to do there, and then come back to me. And in the future, you can leave when you need to, for however long you need to, just as long as you always come back.”
“I can’t ask you to wait for me like that,” Tony says, voice hoarse, and it’s too hard to meet Steve’s eyes.
“You’re not asking. I’m telling you that I want this. I want whatever pieces of you I can have, because I really hated having none of them for ten years and I can’t go back to that. Not when I know what’s like to have you again.”
“And what if it’s not enough?” Tony asks, vision blurring. “What if the pieces aren’t enough for you?”
“They will be,” Steve says, and he’s so confident in it that Tony wants desperately to believe it. “Because it’s still us, and I’m really bad at moving on from us. Please don’t make me try to do it again.”
Tony smiles fragilely, covering Steve’s hand on his cheek with his own. The idea of leaving doesn’t seem as terrible when it’s coupled with the idea of coming back. It’s not wrenching his heart out as much as it’s leaving a small part behind to be picked up again soon. Steve will keep it safe, he thinks. He always does.
“So are you asking me to move in with you?”
“Are you saying yes if I am?” Steve asks back, and a smile is threatening to split his face in two any second now.
“Well, someone’s gotta be around to keep you from poisoning yourself with your cooking,” Tony says. He moves a little closer to Steve, hands coasting over his skin.
Steve grips his hip more firmly, drawing him the rest of the way in. “That’s true. Think you’re up for the job?”
Tony hums like he’s considering it. “I don’t know, does it come with benefits?”
“I’m sure I can think of a few,” Steve grins, and he moves his hand lower on Tony’s body. His breath is warm on Tony’s neck when he kisses him there. “More weekends in bed, for one.”
“Oh, I see,” Tony says, hiding his own smile in Steve’s hair. “You only want me for the sex. I’m just a body for you, huh?”
Steve laughs into the hollow of Tony’s throat. “A very nice body, though. Nicest one I’ve ever seen.”
Tony threads his fingers through Steve’s hair and pulls him back up to his mouth to kiss him. It’s messy with smiles that just won’t fade and laughter spilling through, but it’s completely perfect.
This one, Tony thinks, will be his favorite memory of them.
Three Years Later
Tony is out of his seat almost the second the plane touches the ground and the seatbelt light goes off. His phone comes off airplane mode, and he hits send on the text he already had typed out to Pepper. Flight just landed. See you next year.
He reads her reply as he maneuvers through the airport toward the baggage claim. Enjoy your time off. Miss you in LA.
Miss you too, he writes back while reaching for his bag. He’s just hit send when he hears his name in a familiar voice. His head jerks up, and it’s everything in him not to sprint toward the best sight he’s seen in three months.
Steve loses his breath with the force of Tony’s launch into his arms, but recovers it to laugh when Tony wraps himself tightly around him. Tony kisses him a little too deeply for a public place, then asks, “What are you doing here? You said you couldn’t make it to pick me up.”
Steve smiles, “I asked Bucky to cover for me because I wanted to surprise you.”
“Well, consider me surprised,” Tony grins, and he leans in for one more kiss before unwrapping his limbs from him.
Steve loosens his hold on Tony to take his bag from him with one hand and takes Tony’s with the other. Tony can feel the sets of eyes on them while they walk through the airport, takes notice of the few that snap pictures to post online later, but he can’t bring himself to care.
“But,” Tony says as they make their way out to Steve’s car, “I now feel the need to one up your surprise with one of my own.”
Steve raises an eyebrow, amusement clear in his eyes. “You’ve got a surprise just locked and loaded, huh?”
“Of course I do,” Tony scoffs. “Don’t you know me?”
Smiling, Steve shakes his head, “Right, of course. I was a fool to think I could win a battle of surprises, anyway.”
“But your effort has been noted.”
Steve laughs, and he lifts their joined hands to kiss the silver band on his finger. “So do I get this surprise now or later?”
“Technically, there’s multiple surprises, because there is something in my bag that you’re very much going to like on me later, if you catch my drift,” Tony winks, and Steve’s cheeks turn a shade of pink. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been together - Steve will always blush at the vague mention of sex, and Tony will always abuse the hell out of it. “But the other one you can have now.”
There’s a light dusting of snow on the ground as they walk out of the airport, and Tony shivers in the cold. Steve drops his hand to put an arm around his waist, holding him close, and asks, “So what is it?”
“Ask me how long I’m staying this time.”
Steve’s brows knit together. “But I already know how long you’re staying. I have you until February.”
“Ask me anyway.”
Steve smiles, a little hesitant and hopeful, “I get you longer than that?”
“I don’t know, you’ll have to ask,” Tony grins back.
Steve rolls his eyes, but it’s belied by his quickly growing smile. “How long do I have you for? Please tell me it’s at least until after Valentine’s Day now.”
“It’s definitely after Valentine’s Day.”
They’ve reached the car now, and Steve puts his bag in the trunk as he asks, “Two full months, then?”
“Think a little higher.”
“Three?” Steve closes the trunk, pulling Tony in by the waist and leaning down to kiss his cheek. His lips linger there as he says, “Three months would be really nice.”
“They will be, I’m sure,” Tony agrees. “But the fourth is going to be nice, too. The fifth has potential, but you might be sick of me by then.”
Steve pulls back with wide eyes, “I get you for five months?”
Tony laughs, and he can’t resist drawing it out a little more, because Steve’s excitement is fueling his own. “Still too low.”
Steve looks at him with disbelief, which is fair considering his longest straight break before this only lasted two and a half months. “Seven?”
Tony shakes his head.
“You know, you told me I just had to ask, and you’d tell me.”
“Hm, I did say that.”
Steve dips his head back down, and the tip of his nose is cold against Tony’s skin as he murmurs in his ear, “Tell me, please. How long do I have you?”
Tony wraps his arms around Steve’s shoulders, looking back on the airport he won’t have to see again for quite a while. “Technically, February is still accurate, if you just add another year to it.”
Steve makes a sound like his breath is caught in his throat, and his arms tighten around Tony to lift him off the ground. “Are you serious?”
Tony grins, nodding, “That makes it thirteen months off, actually. A slight improvement from the one you were expecting.”
Steve laughs, and his smile makes the rejection of a variety of projects to clear his schedule completely worth it. He already thinks it’s a sacrifice he’ll be making more in the future, because it hardly even feels like a sacrifice at all in this moment.
He kisses Steve soundly, drowning for a while in the feeling of being back in his arms, then pulls away just enough to say, “I think you should take me home now. Show me some of those benefits I was promised forever ago.”
Steve brings their lips together one more time. “Weekend in bed it is.”