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Like a Postcard Phrase

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Breathing in Wakandan air feels like cheating, somehow, like it’s unfair to know what it feels like entering your lungs and what it tastes like when you gasp after holding your breath for too long—that’s how clean it is. Steve has yet to see smog or puffs of sooty air during his stay here and most likely won’t; the nation’s mastered the science of utilizing renewable, clean power sources long before the outreach mission. T’Challa had spoken sadly of his father’s experience as a young king who’d tried to bring that knowledge to other countries, only to have it snatched and buried away by the schemes and power plays of oil companies and energy providers, unwilling to relinquish the hold they had on the world. Steve had gritted his teeth.

His first thought had been, A century later and things haven’t changed at all.

And his second thought, hushed and aching: I wonder if Tony knew about it.

Probably not. King T’Chaka had been young a long time ago, before Tony became who he is now and turned Stark Enterprises around. Tony wouldn’t have let it be. He would’ve at least said something about it, because even after what happened—Steve could still taste the biting sterile air as he slumped against concrete, watching Tony stand over Bucky’s prone form—he can still say Tony Stark is a man with a good heart. And he would’ve said something about it.

He would’ve been loud and witty about it, but now Steve’s in Wakanda and the lack of Tony’s chatter is heavy in the silence. He sits at the desk in his stately room, twisting a fountain pen between his fingers, marveling at its handle—blue, not black. The pen has never been held by a president of the United States, or put in a case held in Tony Stark’s hands, placed on a glass table as an olive branch.

I’d hate to break up the set, Steve had told him before leaving. Looking back, it sounds ridiculously ironic, considering what he went ahead and did afterwards. It’s not that he regrets what he did, because he doesn’t. He would do it again for Bucky; he would set the world on fire and walk through earthly hell for him. Steve knows that.

His room comes with a floor-to-ceiling window, from which Steve has a view of a river winding its way around boulders and making its way to the edge of a cliff, over which it tumbles in free-fall in the clean, clean air. Nothing like the smoke clearing after the battle in New York. Nothing like ash and heaps of rubble around them as he crouches down next to Iron Man, lying motionless on the ground. Nothing like the first time Steve had smiled at Tony when he’d said, please tell me nobody kissed me.

The terrible thing about it was that Steve hadn’t spared a single thought about what it would be like, after. In Siberia there was nothing but fear and desperation thick in the air, strong in his blood, and Steve didn’t think about how Tony would lift him in the air or have his back in a fight, because he’d only seen Bucky with his arm blown off, falling and not getting up; had not thought, only struggled. Now that it was over and the metaphorical dust had cleared, Steve finds himself opening a fridge and noticing that he never has to push around literal jugs of coffee to get to his food. He never hears weird facts about toasters or avocados or nuclear power plants.

And, the nights when he’s sleepless and exhausted, he never finds someone at the pantry cooking something ridiculous like peanut butter mac and cheese or microwave pizza with rice krispies, who turns around and goes, hey, Steve, guess I’m not the only one the Sandman skipped, and is just there for a while, his presence silent and comforting in a way Steve never thought Tony could be when they’d first met.

These encounters meant Steve had tasted too many absurd concoctions to count (some of them were even edible) and then he would sit there with Tony, both with their eyes closed, trying to sleep. They succeeded a few times. The other times, they’d talked about everything from rocket launchers to women’s perfume and laughed at unfunny jokes born from sleep deprivation until morning came and Tony had to go to a board meeting and it was time for Steve’s morning run.

Now he just sits at the desk and looks out at the stunning night sky, clear and freckled with white-point stars. Back in Manhattan, the view from Stark Tower showed him a dusky grey-blue expanse, bloated with artificial light leaking from every building, including the one he resided in.

About a week after Steve moved into Stark Tower, some time after the SHIELD/HYDRA fiasco that forced him to leave his apartment, Tony had come down to the pantry and he’d seen Steve staring outside with his hand on the glass.

Steve was suddenly conscious of the lights dimming down until they were completely off, of Tony’s pine and cedar eau de parfum wafting from the fabric of his suit. Steve hadn’t turned, but he’d looked at the image of Tony reflected on the glass, took in the lines next to his eyes as he half-smiled.

“Shame that it’s a little too late to save the stars,” he’d said. “Penny for your thoughts?”

Steve doesn’t actually remember what he’d been thinking about, only that he did end up sharing whatever it was. He never looked straight on at Tony the entire time, just sensed his proximity from the cadence and volume of his voice, daring himself to keep his eyes on Tony’s reflection for longer and longer stretches of time.

Then Tony had yawned, saying it was bedtime for him and Steve should probably try to get some sleep too.

“You, turning in early? Maybe I should keep an eye out for the oceans turning into blood.”

“Rogers,” Tony had said in the extremely serious tone that meant he wasn’t serious at all, “you must’ve been the most popular kid at Sunday school.”

Steve had chuckled. “Yeah, they were all lining up for the chance to beat me up whenever I opened my mouth.”

He hadn’t meant to say it. But he had said it, without thinking, and Steve was waiting for Tony to throw out a mildly hurtful quip. But Tony only said, “I hope they felt really stupid when you got famous and started kicking ass in the army… but that would be a little too nice.”

For a moment, Steve was speechless.

Then, Tony continued, “And if an alien wizard tried to kill the kids who used to beat you up now, you’d still swoop in to save them. You wouldn’t even do it out of spite. You’re a marvel, you know that, Steve? I hate it when my old man gets something right.”

He’d left after that, leaving Steve staring blankly into the darkness, standing in air tinged with pine and cedar. Those trees don’t grow in Wakanda, and here in the room the diffuser T’Challa provides him with spouts sweet frangipani-scented mist from the bedside table.

It would be easy, he thinks, if it was just the pen, the night sky and the fragrance drifting in the air, but it’s not so much that specific things remind him of Tony—rather, everything reminds him of Tony, because after SHIELD/HYDRA and all the Bucky leads had dried up and Sam had to lead a life of his own, Tony was everywhere, subtly and perhaps accidentally making a space for himself in Steve’s life.

He’d been so ever-present—a conversation first thing in the morning or last thing before turning in, or a rushed meal between errands, or the familiar sound of a blaster charging up behind Steve, the reliable feeling of steel against his back—that Steve never noticed how there he was.

And now, since Steve is a damn fool, he’s only starting to realize this because Tony’s absence is a presence of its own kind.

He flips open the phone, typing out a hesitant Tony before backspacing again. Four times. Four letters. Steve wonders whether Tony threw the phone away, or, if he didn’t, whether he would even answer.

How are you? he sends. If Tony doesn’t reply, Steve will go on with his day, wondering what the view is like over Manhattan.

They all have dinner together almost every day, unlike at the Tower, where most of them were usually too busy to make it. Usually, Steve had dinner with Wanda and Vision, who weren’t off ruling a planet, carrying out secret ops or trying to hide from the government. Now he looks around and sees all of them: Sam, Scott, Wanda, Clint. All present. No empty chairs. Steve ignores the dull hollowness he feels.

Wanda and Clint had spent the entire day in the capital—Wanda’s telling them about the fountains, the literal floating market, the rings she bought. She’s in the middle of showing them one: a silver crocodile curled around her pointer finger, its ridges deep and the details exquisite. Clint shows them a delicate filigree ring made up of criss-crossing thin silver veins, catching the tasteful lamplight like the dewdrops on a web. He catches Steve’s eye, lets him hold it and feel the latticework.

The burner phone buzzes in his pocket. Steve excuses himself to the bathroom.

Fine. Dandy. Still pining for the man who left me for my parents’ murderer. How’s exile?

Despite himself, he smiles when he hears Tony’s voice read the text aloud in his head. The ghost of imagination is pale and fleeting; he wonders when he’ll next get to refresh his memory, hear the real thing.

It’s great. The food’s out of this world and you can actually breathe oxygen around here, not just combustion fumes.

The next day he gets Wanda to take him to the place where she bought the rings. She gets starry-eyed all over again, and Steve eventually relents and buys a necklace with red glass beads for her. He wishes, suddenly, that her brother were here to share this with her. (But he isn’t, and Wanda makes do with what she has.)

He spends some time looking over the jewelry—gold and bronze and silver, crushed together in wooden boxes, cascading over blunt iron hooks and rippling in the sunlight. Eventually he settles on a ring with a wide band that looks like it was made of interlocking segments.

He thinks of the way Iron Man moves—not quite organically, the gestures of a man translated into a machine’s motion—and puts the ring in the leather pouch given to him. He pays. As they leave, Wanda looks at him curiously.

“What?” he asks her, smiling.

She grins.

“Nothing. You are what they call ‘a bit of a sap’, aren’t you?”

I defied the United Nations for my best friend, he thinks. I still think about dancing with Peggy. I wish Nat were here to tell me that she doesn’t want me to be alone.

An airborne speeder whizzes past them. Sam said something about wanting to have a race on those.

I wonder how Tony, Natasha, Vision and Rhodey are doing.

“Yeah,” he says.

“You know, I think about them too.” Wanda puts on her necklace, plays with one of the beads. When Steve looks at her, startled, she laughs.

“I’m not reading your mind. You just show everything you think on your face,” she says, gesturing with an open palm in front of her eyes.

“If you did read it, you’d probably see an image of last night’s dinner. You hungry?”

“Mm-hmm,” Wanda answers, then guides Steve in the direction of a restaurant she and Clint discovered the other day. It starts pouring out of nowhere; Wanda yelps and picks up the pace. When they get there her hair is all frizzed out, a nest for droplets. Her face is flushed from the running. Steve tells her that her cheeks match her necklace. She holds the beads up to her face and scowls.

Once he gets back to the compound T’Challa’s letting them stay in, he puts the leather pouch with the ring in it in his desk drawer. He sniffs a shirt Sam had bought him a week ago. Even his clothes smell like frangipani now. It’s a wonderful scent; Steve just wishes it didn’t feel so unfamiliar.

The phone buzzes again.

1) How dare you, I went Michelin on you ungrateful children. 2) Did I ever tell you about Stark Tower’s state-of-the-art air purification system? I did tell you about it. Multiple times. I’m sure you felt the difference every time you came home after running about outside doing whatever it is sad nonagenarians do. Also, isn’t this phone for emergencies? Why are you telling me about your extended vacation? Not that I’m complaining.

Came home.            

Steve doesn’t know how to answer Tony’s question, but he stumbles on the phrase came home. For an extremely brief period of time, Stark Tower had been home—and it felt that way, unlike Steve’s previous apartment, lonely and Bucky-free and filled with things that didn’t really feel like they were his.

In Stark Tower he had witnessed Vision and Wanda trying to learn how to use PayPal, caught Natasha eating an apple while watching a rerun of Legally Blonde, sat down with Tony and gave him advice when it came to Pepper because, according to Tony, “You’re the nice guy people say always finishes last, Steve, and Pepper is not ‘people’.”

He puts the phone back in his pocket, not quite ready to answer, and thinks about that instead: how Tony smiled at Pepper, how he always faced her whenever she entered the room like a sunflower turning towards the sun. He’d caught himself thinking, once, about what it would be like for Tony to look at him that way.

She saved me, Tony had said about her; Steve wondered when was the last time he was ever really able to save anyone like that, in mind and soul. Had he ever? He thinks of Bucky’s choice to put himself back in cryo; frost crawling up his body, ice crackling over his face. Bucky lay with his eyes closed behind glass, frozen, like the image of him in a memory.

The next day, he goes hiking. Sam offers to go with him, but Steve declines. He needs some time alone.

“You’ve already had a lot of time alone,” Sam says. Then, putting a hand on Steve’s shoulder, he adds, “I’m worried ‘bout you, Steve. I know nothing you did was easy on you. If you need to talk, I’m here.”

“I know,” he says gratefully.

When Steve first expressed his wish to explore the jungle, T’Challa had given him a tracker and an interactive map on a tablet so lightweight it would make Tony envious. He had also given Steve tranquilizer darts, smiling before telling him that the jungle is not a tamed one. Steve better take care not to let it damage him.

It’s dark here, the canopies and canopies of leaves blocking out the sunlight, only letting tiny beams pass through to paint bright circles on the floor-level plants. He trudges through leaves and steps very carefully over a line of ants, marching like soldiers; ducks under thick, solid vines and low-hanging branches. Everything smells like earth and dew and a little hint of manure; he can still taste the yesterday’s rain on his tongue.

He arrives, finally, at the clearing where the waterfall meets the ground and the river continues, onwards, to the west. The spray gets everywhere, sprinkling freshwater on Steve’s white t-shirt, drenching his hair and making it lie flat on his head. He ducks behind a boulder that shields him from the water and pulls out the phone.

Thought you might want to know how we’re all holding up. We’re doing okay, by the way. Wanda has a lot of fun buying jewelry for everyone. Don’t tell Vision she’s got something saved for him; it’s supposed to be a surprise. Clint’s at the shooting range almost daily, grumbling about sticking you to the target. Scott’s going through most of the coffee, which tastes much better than what you always made, by the way. Sam’s having the time of his life sampling the local cuisine and learning to cook it. Bucky’s back in cryo.

He deletes the last sentence. He sighs. He types it again and sends it. Maybe Tony won’t want to know what they’ve been up to, but this feels familiar, updating Tony on the team’s status. They won’t meet tonight to discuss everyone and how to fix the holes in their defenses next time they’re on a mission, but Steve can still carry out half of a whole thing.

Afterwards, Steve puts the phone and the tablet in the backpack he’s carrying. T’Challa had said that a few meters away from the falls there is a side of the cliff that he can use to get to the top. Steve scales the side, stepping cautiously on rock and keeping his hands in wall ridges. He’d left the compound at dawn; by the time he makes it to the top of the waterfall, the sun is high above his head, throwing light on the spray. A rainbow glows at the base of the falls above swirling water.

He’d had a Starkphone back in Manhattan. He didn’t remember when Natasha gave him the idea to do so, but Steve liked taking pictures of nice scenes in parks or completely random things—a churro, the fact on the bottom of a Snapple lid, a man outside a subway station playing the sax—and sending it to Tony when he knew Tony had a board meeting.

At first he had thought it would rile him up, but Tony never seemed bothered by it. He always had something to say about whatever Steve sent.

(The cart on the intersection after that makes better churros.

2 weeks kissing in a lifetime? That’s horrible. More like 5 yrs maybe, then we’re talking.

If he was playing careless whisper I’m taking that nuke back from outer space and unleashing it on him.)

Maybe Tony just liked being able to take his mind off the meetings for a few seconds.

The Starkphone isn’t with him now, but Steve has a sketchpad, a pencil and a set of watercolors Sam had bought for him. He wipes his sweaty hands on the backpack and sits, admiring the view: the sea of treetops, the water, the rainbow. Steve sits on a rock by the river and draws what he sees.

His backpack buzzes, but Steve doesn’t grab it right away. He’s painting the red-orange-yellow-green bands even as the light fades and the rainbow disappears; the golden haze over the trees, flitting over the rocks, tells him that it’s time to head back. Steve finishes up a glistening rock and puts the sketchpad and watercolors back in the bag. He gets up, breathes in the jungle air.

The journey back is over quickly. Steve walks on, his mind miles and miles away, trying to find its way back home, finding all the roads blocked.

That night he sits at the desk again and gazes at the same constellations. Flipping open the phone rewards him with three new messages, and Steve opens them in the order they were received.

You insult my food, my air, and my coffee. That’s it, Rogers. That’s three strikes.

Tony would’ve said this facing him head on, frowning exaggeratedly and holding up three fingers, one coming up after the other. Steve takes out his sketchpad and sketches exactly that, shading him like the morning light would’ve done. He adds a speech bubble and writes the text in it.

Have you ever seen an android powered by a magical alien stone pine? It’s sad. It’s like seeing a normal person pine, except he glows sometimes. I can’t believe I have to give the comforting talks now. That’s your job. I’m terrible at it. Rhodey is adjusting to the walking aid I built for him. By ‘adjusting’ I mean he can still kick my ass in hand-to-hand combat. So unfair. Is he that good or am I that bad? Don’t answer that. Natasha’s still missing. I’m 100% sure she’s doing better than any of us are.

And the last:

I hope it works out with him, whatever you two choose to do.

These, Steve doesn’t draw. He re-reads the second one twice, the third one thrice. He knows what the last text means: this is all Tony has to say about the matter, and he expects not to have to talk about it again. Bucky’s going to be the mine they’d both have to avoid long after this is over, long after they can see each other again.

He re-reads the older texts and draws those too in the same style as the first Tony sketch.

Tony tinkering with a machine, brow wrinkled in concentration and black grease smeared over his cheekbone, calling out, “Fine. Dandy. Still pining for the man who left me for my parents’ murderer. How’s exile?”

He wishes he had charcoal for the grease.

Tony with a half-full jug of coffee in his right hand and his left hand making a dismissive gesture, his glasses slightly skewed and his hair unruly, saying: “I’m sure you felt the difference every time you came home after running about outside doing whatever it is sad nonagenarians do.”

Steve closes the sketchpad, puts it back in his backpack. He grabs a clean t-shirt and sweatpants and takes a shower then brushes his teeth. Steve looks at himself in the mirror, at the skin that’s unmarred because the serum doesn’t let him keep his bruises even for the brief period of time other people get to have them. The bruises from their fight must still be fading from Tony’s skin now.

He goes to sleep.

In his dream, there is a memory, half-formed and indistinct through a cloud of anesthesia and smothered pain.

“How is he?” says one voice. Burnt golden afternoon light and autumn leaves swirl outside a window.

“He’ll live to do even dumber heroic things in the future.” A pinched exhale, sharp and abrupt. Muffled manic laughter. “I’m sorry.”

Gold, gold, gold.

The other voice says, softly, “Don’t be. I know it doesn’t mean you love me any less.”

How did I get here, he wonders, and is rewarded by a shifting of scenes: a wall of fire opening up in front of him, heat blooming and silent the way blasts can only be in dreams.

An explosion. Steve is thrown backwards, embers whirling all around as crumbling concrete entombs him, making way only for broken pipes spilling water. A voice calling his name. Light comes through and Steve’s hazily aware of cold metal against his skin, a chain of no no no no no—

The darkness takes him. In a doomed plane, Steve is engulfed by the icy sea so the cold wraps itself around him, makes itself his home. Steel gives from beneath him as he looks into an empty sky-blue abyss and he falls into a river, sinking slowly, watching a sluggish stream of red reach for the surface. In traps of metal and fathomless water, the darkness takes him every time.

He wakes up to sunlight. First thing he does is roll over, grab the phone, and reply.

I guess I do kind of miss your yogurt scrambled eggs, he says, because maybe he does. They tasted kind of good. He feels gross just admitting it to himself.

“Hey, Steve.” Steve finds Sam in the living room, drinking some fragrant Wakandan tea that T’Challa introduced him to—Sam hasn’t stopped drinking the stuff since. He’s got a stack of donuts in front of him. “How was the jungle?”

“See for yourself.”

Steve goes back to his room, digs out the sketchpad and opens it to the page with the view from the top of the falls. He hands it over and watches Sam’s eyes widen. He whistles softly, two short lilting notes, and Steve grins.

“Damn.” Sam says this so softly it kind of feels like he didn’t mean to let it slip out.

The first time Tony had seen him draw—a sketch of Sam holding a feather up—he’d stopped in his tracks and Steve had turned to see Tony looking at him, head cocked at the smallest angle to the side, an amused smile on his face. There had been something about the way he looked back then, something Steve couldn’t put his finger on: something private, like it was the smile Tony usually kept to himself.

“You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you,” he’d said in that snappy way of his, but there was nothing smug or showy about it that time. Oh, Steve had thought, unbidden. So this is what Rhodey and Pepper see.

Then Sam flips the page before Steve can stop him.

Damn,” he says more loudly, his face wrinkling as he frowns. He flips again. And again. He looks up at Steve and raises one eyebrow.

Steve shrugs and slides into the seat next to Sam, who offers him a donut. “It’s exactly what it looks like.”

“No. No. I refuse to deal with this from both sides. Don’t tell me you only realized this now. While we’re here. After we left.”

“Actually.” Steve feels suddenly sheepish.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”

“Yeah, it would’ve made a great conversation.”

“What are you talking about, I’m a goddamn counselor. We could’ve had the best conversation. Also, three weeks ago he cornered me and went, real conversationally like it was nothing, ‘You know it kills me that no matter how well we go together when the team is out there doing what the Avengers do, no matter what I do or how much time we spend, I can never make Cap happy about having me instead of having his old war pals.’ You see why I gotta judge the both of you now.”

Steve feels like he’s been hit in the stomach. Tony’s about as subtle as a goddamn reinforced steel and concrete wall and Steve is twice as dense, apparently. Anyway, he thinks, too little, too late.

More gently—probably noticing the look on Steve’s face—Sam says, “What are you gonna do?”

“I’m going to ask T’Challa to send this,” Steve says, pointing at the panorama sketch, even though he knows that’s not exactly what Sam is asking.

He and Sam go out to the capital to buy a nice medium-sized box for the drawings, and Steve tells Sam about how he’s been using the burner phone. Sam stares at him and mutters something about how he shouldn’t be surprised after the whole Winter Soldier fiasco, and Steve laughs so hard the guy he’s buying the box from—a sturdy box made of pale wood, carved with simple designs somewhat reminiscent of the Black Panther suit—gawks at him with poorly-disguised bewilderment.

The phone buzzes just as he’s putting the drawing of the view from the falls in the box. As he places the pouch with the ring in it with one hand, he grabs the phone with another.

Do I detect sarcasm? You do know how badly that comes across over text, right? Just making sure so I don’t accidentally cook any for you during our pending tearful reunion. I’d hate to have to get a robot to clean supersoldier vomit off the furniture.

Steve chuckles. Behind him, Sam groans.

After ripping off the page with his hike drawing, Steve can only see the sketch of Tony telling him about his three strikes. He hesitates, finger pressing the corner of the page so that it curls inwards towards the speech bubble. Thinks of the last time he’d seen Tony, his mask opened up, his arc reactor cracked and dimmed.

Steve rips off the page. He puts it at the bottom of the box, then he grabs a clean sheet of paper and a marker and writes, I’m sorry. Again. Look at this as Olive Branch No. 2?

He closes the box and looks at Sam.

“C’mon,” Sam says. He puts one hand on Steve’s arm. “Let’s get that to T’Challa.”

Three days later, Steve’s washing the dishes with Clint—it’s an oddly therapeutic activity, especially with Clint humming happy tunes under his breath as he spreads suds all over wood and porcelain. Steve dries each glass with a soft cotton cloth.

“Hey, Cap,” Clint says, interrupting his own rendition of ‘Under the Sea’. “What do you think about a game of volleyball-slash-Frisbee tomorrow? Me and Wanda versus you and Wilson. Lang can referee. I spent all day figuring out the rules with him yesterday.”

“I like that idea. T’Challa show you where the nearest park is?”

“Yeah, you won’t believe the statue garden. Wanda went nuts and started moping about how she wished ‘Viz’ were here to see it. I don’t like him for her; he tried to keep her under house arrest. I mean, she can make her own choices, sure. But I kinda object to the choice she’s making, know what I’m saying? What I’m saying is that he held me in a chokehold so she wouldn’t leave Stark Tower. You agree with me when I say that’s kind of a creepy thing to do, right?”

“Clint,” Steve says, grinning as he wrings a damp cloth. “You’re not Wanda’s father. None of us are adopting her.”

Clint grumbles, “I know that.”

When they finish their task, the sun has slipped beneath the horizon and the new blue tinge to everything makes Steve feel a causeless kind of melancholy. From this side of the compound he can see the capital’s skyline—sleek towers carve out dark shapes in the half-darkness and shadows dust the curving patterns etched on some of the façades.

The phone in his pocket buzzes. Steve hasn’t opened it in days. Had no reason to. The screen glows green, and the black pixelated text against it jumps out at him.

Olive branch received. Miss you too, honey. Key’s under the ‘Welcome’ mat. Don’t come home too late. :)

Steve places the phone on the table, tries to picture the Manhattan skyline, the unblinking lights, the motion in the streets below; pigeons taking flight in the milky dawn; slate grey skies, missing stars; the reflection of a face he knows on the glass; breathing in pine-and-cedar air.

See you soon, Tony, he writes back—and means it.

Chapter Text

People were—and are still—surprised, which is hilarious to Tony. As Rhodey poured them both cereal, Tony had chuckled his way through the television harping on about Captain America’s Shocking Betrayal and The Treachery of a National Icon. He’d had a short, stilted conversation with Ross after making it back from Siberia, which had ended as follows:

“I couldn’t believe it.” Ross had shaken his head with that slow, patrician dignity successful that politicians learned to coat their actions with. “That Captain America, the United States’ hero, could have done such things. You must feel like someone’s pulled the rug from underneath you, Stark.”

Tony had laughed to refute him. He knows what it’s like when a laugh turns ugly—knows the sharp, jagged edges of the sound—well enough to know how fucking ugly that had sounded.

The people of America are surprised, because, like Ross, they’d fooled themselves into thinking Steve had been the United States’ hero. Tony knew better. Tony knows better. Steve never belonged to the United States. Steve will only ever belong to what he thinks is right; to the freedom of innocents and those who have his love and loyalty; to ideals that refuse to let pragmatism touch them; and, as the world had learned the hard way, to James Buchanan Barnes.

So, no: Tony had not felt like the rug had been pulled out from underneath him. But to have his fear confirmed by reality—that Steve wouldn’t hesitate for a second to put up his fists and slam the shield in his chest if it meant protecting a ghost—well. More painful things have happened to him, Tony reminds himself. He recalls them in an effort to block out the sound of the shield clanging on the ground as Steve had limped away, Barnes slumped against this side; Tony takes himself back to dark caves and pain blooming in his chest and Howard waking him up on the sofa and Pepper turning away from his touch.

The lesson he should really take to heart: pain doesn’t block out pain. He learns it over and over again. And always forgets.

He finishes the cereal and has some more. They’re Lucky Charms. Clint likes them best, and Natasha puts up with them. Between the two of them they can finish five boxes in three days. Tony and Rhodey have been working through one for a week.

“FRIDAY, change the channel. Find me something funny.”

“On it, boss,” FRIDAY chirps.

When FRIDAY settles on a show—some sitcom about policemen or something, Tony sighs and gets up, heading back to the office. (“Hey, Tony, get back here, this is some good stuff,” he hears Rhodey calling, and keeps walking.) He watches his hand pull open a drawer. The phone. The letter. A simple slip of paper, some symbols written in ink; another hand, half a world away; another pair of eyes. Tony stares at the phone like a fool. Steve must have held it before he sent it. He must have felt how inferior it was to the phones Tony had made for him.

If he takes it apart, could it show him where Steve is? Or maybe Steve could’ve slipped another message inside the circuitry, something stupid and silly and inconspicuous, some kind of dry joke.

“It’s not like that anymore, Tony,” he mutters to himself. “You’re a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man.”

He thumbs the letter, folded up and silent. Remembers the words, sounding in Steve’s patient, warm cadence in his head:

I can see now I was really sparing myself.

“That’s right, Steve Rogers, you big fat coward, Captain Chicken, Commander in Chief of the Scaredy-Cats,” he says out loud, just because he knows even though the insults aren’t, the sentiment is certainly original. The man signed up to become a lab rat, marched into an enemy camp without backup, crashed a plane in the Arctic, went up against SHIELD with about four people on his side. Tony thinks no one’s ever thought of calling him a coward, probably. He tries to think of Steve’s reaction—in the old days, he’d probably chuckle and shoot back with something about Tony’s big head being full of nothing but hot air; now, though, he’d probably look all guilty. Rogers has some pretty intense puppy eyes.

He’d be okay with that. In this empty room his words don’t even echo. From the kitchen there’s the sound of Rhodey putting his plate in the dishwasher.

The phone vibrates.

Tony scrambles to flip it open—How are you?—and he stands there, his vision inexplicably shaking for a while before he realizes that he’s trembling, the hand holding the phone is trembling and Tony doesn’t know whether he wants to reply or throw the phone at the nearest wall. He’d felt the impact of Steve’s—ha, Captain America’s—shield in the arc reactor, the force of it knocking the breath from his lungs. The suit had a thermal readjustment system—Siberia was cold, wasn’t it, though, freezing and fucking bitter and biting all the way down under his skin, about as far away from warmth as the look on Steve’s face as he kept hitting Tony after he went down.

Natasha’s voice soft in his head—broken ribs, cracked collarbone, shots to the stomach; Steve let him keep hitting—when the faceplate came up and the shield hovered over Tony’s head. The air froze over his skin and set the blood on Tony’s face; Steve had dropped the shield and left with Barnes. (And that was Tony’s fault, too, because his world had shrunk to the image of metal fingers closed over his mother’s throat; because he’d put his brain in the fucking back seat; because—and this is important—nobody ever stays with Tony. Except Rhodey, but every graph has an anomalous point. Rhodey is the anomaly Tony never deserved.)

If I had killed him, Tony wants to ask, would you have let me live?

He doesn’t, though. Tony puts the phone back in the drawer and pushes it shut.

When he gets outside, Rhodey puts his palms on Tony’s shoulders, looking panicked. He asks, “Jesus, Tony, how much caffeine did you take?”

Tony laughs. He sounds fine.

He does find it in him to reply to Steve eventually—what follows is a series of texts that simultaneously ignores all the shit that went down and makes Tony feel the silence of the Tower even more as he walks across its floors. He can hear Steve when he reads his texts, knows how he’d pronounce every word. All inside his head.

Another package arrives for Tony Stank, which still gets Rhodey going with the bathroom jokes—“You,” he’d said, “are just so incredibly juvenile,” to which Rhodey had said, “Oh, look who’s talking,”—and he lays it out on the coffee table like a fool. He traces the little triangles carved into the pale wood. For a moment he lets his palm rest on the lid. He imagines that the box contains a map. There’s footage in his head of his finger tracing a path over blue swaths of paper to a red x on a brown mass; he imagines that Steve is somewhere he can fly to.

But no, this is no map. Whatever it is—a missive from Wakanda, maybe, something conciliatory from T’Challa to make up for the fact that he’s hiding fugitives from international law—Tony has to deal with it, because it can’t be what he wishes it would be.

When he opens it, he finds out that it is much better than that; it is also infinitely worse. He can’t help the sharp sound of his inhale as he spies Steve’s loopy, old-timey handwriting.

Gingerly, he picks up the piece of paper to see what lies underneath. Tony picks up the first page, and the second, the third, the fourth. They sit on his desk with equal spaces between them so Tony can properly look at them, standing still, as his world tilts on its axis and comes dangerously close to falling off altogether.

He closes his eyes. Steve’s rendering of Wakanda is burned into the backs of his eyelids. To banish the image, he pictures Steve’s fingers, blackened with graphite. He pictures the way Steve will snicker at the most juvenile jokes like a thirteen-year-old who never got to laugh at them, at that age. Now there’s something he wants to hold on to; it’s a relief to think of Steve without hurting.

With the pad of one thumb lying on the penciled-in outline of his own face, scrunched up in concentration, Tony types a text to Steve, wherever he is. He slips a joke in. Otherwise he might say some embarrassing things, and Tony’s already embarrassed himself plenty in this whole ordeal.

See you soon, Tony, Steve texts back.

He takes a day to bounce that thought around and around in his head. First he thinks of replying, that’s a little presumptuous. Or: I can handle things just fine without you, actually. I’m a grown-up superhero. But he knows those knee-jerk responses, the rapid-fire things he says and thinks and does are part of what got them into this mess in the fist place—so now he’s been given the chance to contemplate. The gift of time. Tony doesn’t like to be handed things, but to be offered—that’s a whole different thing entirely.

He says, Will you?

The reply is swift.

That’s up to you. I did a lot of things I shouldn’t have done, but I don’t take all of it back. I know you don’t, either. Still. This whole thing’s left me with a lot of regrets, and God knows I already have enough of those. I understand if you can’t forgive me for walking away every time I did. Doesn’t stop me from hoping you will, someday.

Sometimes you have to make the smartest choice—not the best, not the one you like the most; Tony had watched Natasha sign the Accords, so she knows a thing or two about the smartest choice. Get Steve back, and you get Wilson, Clint, Maximoff, Lang, Natasha. The Avengers has become a ridiculous six-for-one deal, which—hello, commercialized world of the twenty-first century—is weirdly appropriate. Tony resolutely doesn’t think of the splash of color on thick paper or his likeness in graphite as he picks up the phone to dial Hill; the Steve-phone sits, dormant and harmless, in his desk drawer.

“This is Hill speaking.”

“Can you get me Romanoff?”

“No one can find the Widow if she doesn’t want to be found, Stark.”

“Sure, sure. I believe that. On the off chance that you might know where she could be or last had a Cosmo or shot a man—mind passing along a message?”

“Like I said: no one can find her if she doesn’t want to be found.”

“I heard you the first time. Contrary to what everyone else seems to be saying all the time, I’m not actually a toddler in Tom Ford with an appreciation for good steak. If she feels like showing up, then, I need some intel—I have a feeling I’ll need to go beyond my Helicarrier hack circa Loki and her Snowden stunt, which is horrible, because how much deeper can you bury anything? I’m sure you know; I don’t feel like finding out.” When did his tangents get so revealing? He needs to reboot himself. “Here’s my message: I’m going to make a case for the innocence of Sergeant James Barnes. So, as reluctant as I am to admit it, I’m going to need some help.”

There’s a long silence.

“I’ll tell her. You should hear back in about a week.”

“Attagirl,” says Tony, hanging up before Hill can say anything appropriately cutting.

A week later he receives another package in the mail. No letter. Natasha had sent him a cardboard box with 'for Stark' scrawled in ballpoint pen. Within it, he finds a sleek black burner phone—Great minds, Tony thinks, or strange ones? He'd never told anyone about Steve's phone.

"It could've been me," Natasha says. "Just a decade later and it could've been me."

"Sorry, sorry. You can choke a man with your thighs, sure. As far as I'm concerned you're just as superhuman as the rest of them. But crushing my mom's windpipe without a garrote? Doesn't add up. Just telling it how I see it."

"It doesn't have to be a car crash. Poisoning—that would be easy. Or even a run-of-the-mill assassination with bullets or a knife. The Winter Soldier was HYDRA's fist, but I was the KGB's needle. Those organizations have a history of sharing, for some reason. I just wasn't born early enough."

Call one ended with Tony appropriately shaken. If it had been Natasha—Natasha, who had lounged on the floor of the tower in printed pants and walked with him through UN buildings and fought with him, her human body every bit as capable as a fighting machine—then could he have tried to kill her? He doesn’t think about it. As far as Tony’s concerned, he’s got enough to think about.

Call two, of course, gets into sleepover territory pretty goddamn fast:

"Why are you doing this?"

"Same reason you decided to zap T'Challa in that hangar."

"Same subject, I agree, but definitely not the same reason."

"Is a tabloid waiting on the other line right now? It's starting to feel like that kind of call."

"Ha, ha.” There’s the sound of scribbling on the other end, which Tony is tempted to use to stretch out the joke. “Interesting. I thought—since you punched him out and tried to arrest him—you were immune to the Rogers Effect."

"Pshaw, please. No one's immune."

"Do you ever wonder about it? About what it really is?"

"Historians can get up to that in their own time."

"But they've never felt it. How can they figure out what it really is?"

"Ever met a doctor, Natasha?"

She laughs. But they’re both thinking of the same thing.

The moment you see him, it's near-impossible not to want Steve. Spend a little more time and it's even harder not to want his friendship. He tears a partnership apart for Barnes, though, leaves his nation behind and gets himself declared an outlaw, burns his bridges without even looking back even once, and fuck—that's the worst one. That's the hardest thing from Steve that he has to resist desiring, and Tony didn't even try. Not even a little bit.

Three days after Tony's birthday, Rhodey pays a visit. He was there at the party—first on the guest list—to see the red-and-gold fireworks, the showy flight of Iron Man alone in the starless sky, taste the champagne Tony had dug out for the occasion, in an elegant three-piece suit he seemed mildly uncomfortable in but made him look like a billion dollars all the same. And now he arrives, not as guest, but as best and oldest and most loyal friend, in a worn T-shirt, his prosthetics encasing not sleek black fabric but breathable gray cotton.

“I got you some books,” Rhodey says. Tony gets up to relieve him of the package. Most people get him extravagant, larger-than-life gifts; among the ultra-rich, gifts are status symbols. Buy someone an island and you’re the coolest kid on the block. But the people closest to Tony know he doesn’t want the latest Prada release or a new Maserati. Pepper used to bend the world backwards so she could whisk Tony away for a couple of days of peace somewhere beautiful. Happy likes to drive Tony to old restaurants in the hearts of true New York neighborhoods, where they can chat with the owner while enjoying good, hearty food. Rhodey’s responsible for Tony’s education in civics, politics, and the military—three things he wouldn’t think could ever be as fascinating as Rhodey’s book choices make them seem. It should go without saying that their presence in his life is enough of a gift to Tony; that it means more than any island to have Rhodey here with him today.

"No, no, sit down. I'm gonna read my card to you." Rhodey clears his throat, holding up a square, cream-colored card. Tony already knows he’s never gonna lose that card. Then Rhodey reads, in a voice as sure as strong as the man himself, with feeling that Tony never can really believe he deserves, “Sure, sure, if steadfast meaning, if single thought could save; the world might end to-morrow—you should not see the grave. This long and sure-set liking, this boundless will to please—oh, you should live for ever, if there were help in these.”

Tony hadn’t cried when he was told that his parents had died. Tony hadn’t cried when the man he’d thought of as family betrayed him. Tony hadn’t cried when Steve left him. At the hospital, though, waiting for the doctors to save Rhodey, Tony had wept, biting his hand in the bathroom to keep from screaming. Now he doesn’t even bother to hold back.

"Jesus, you're ridiculous," Tony mumbles as Rhodey walks over to embrace him, allowing the cloth on his shoulder to dampen and darken as Tony rests his head against it. When he sobs he twitches; Rhodey holds him, firm and patient, as he's done so a handful of times in Tony's life when he allows himself to show affection as openly as this, sunk and tainted, as it is, by the waters of a poisoned well.

“If it were me they wanted to hunt down—if SHIELD had orders to shoot to kill me, for something I didn’t know I was doing… what would’ve you done, Tony?” Rhodey asks softly, and Tony pulls back so hard that he thinks he can feel whiplash.

“The right thing,” Tony snaps back automatically, because what the fuck, Rhodey? But then the scene flashes in his mind: War Machine, falling, falling, hitting the ground, to the sound of Tony’s heart shattering into a thousand pieces, the fragments blowing up with white-hot rage; and Tony knows. Rhodey knows. He’s just trying to get Tony to admit it. “No. No, I wouldn’t let them have you. Just like you wouldn’t let them have me.”

“See,” Rhodey says. “Why we gotta take everything so personally, huh.”

Tony laughs, anchoring himself firmly in the present, where he is loved and loves back, unconditionally, without complications. But his mind—treacherous as usual—shoves fistfuls of sunlight in a brightened sky, somewhere in an exile's paradise, where Steve sits on a rock overlooking a waterfall and—blazing golden—utters the very same poem to another scarred man with a volatile, bullet-ridden mind: Barnes, his blue eyes shining with guilt-torn joy, gazing at a miracle.

Coming together again proves to be remarkably simple, once enough olive branches have been waved around. Murphy’s Law applies to the universe at large. There are a great number of things that can go wrong across the galaxies—ergo: the world, predictably, goes to shit.

He picks up the phone.

Without preamble, he says, “I need you.”

“Tony.” Steve’s trembling voice comes through, and if the way he calls his name is enough to make Tony want to forgive him for everything, then Tony really is well and truly fucked. “Where do you want me?”

Now that’s the question, isn’t it.

They catch up with him and Vision mid-battle, as Tony gets thrown into a chunk of alien debris and bounces off, landing hard on the ground. A burst of red light blows their alien assailants back. High up above the Scarlet Witch, the wings of the Falcon glint in the sunlight. Tony manages to suspend his disbelief as he watches James Barnes clock an alien in the jaw with enough force to make a hole in a tank. He’s followed by two dark blurs: Natasha and T’Challa, danger in every line of their well-trained bodies.

But best of all: there is a hand offered to him. Tony takes it, and is pulled up to stand beside the man who had walked away. He turns. Captain America, the man, is better than the legend. One look at Steve Rogers is better than Tony’s million memories of him.

“Honey,” says Steve, the joking tone weighted with relief, eyes warmer than the sky on fire.

“I know, I know.” Tony doesn’t make the choice to smile, but he feels the pull of the muscles anyway. He ignores the way a gnarled and twisted part of him is saying: the next words you say will be a lie, because you know he knows it’s not with you. Looks again, instead, at Steve, at the sunlight threading its glow through his hair, at the illuminated line of his backlit profile. “You’re home.”