They meet up in Apalachicola, Florida.
Because why the fuck not. It’s private, and it’s even emptier than the rest of the world, thanks to a series of oil refinery fires that have darkened the horizon and emptied out the estuary and totally fucked the local micro-economy of oyster bars. It’s difficult to get to these days from the nearest commercial airport, requiring a drive of over four hours of stop-and-go traffic through ghost towns. Or a QuinJet.
Tony finds a house that once belonged to a hobby welder. Steve arrives on his motorcycle four hours of stop-and-go traffic later and finds the house with the kicked-in door and the welding sizzle coming from the backyard.
They’re up the stairs, half-undressed, against the bedroom closet door, before the Harley’s engine stops pinging.
Steve wakes up to a subsonic rumble, far away, over the Gulf. Warm air is rolling in through the open shutters, and when Steve steps out onto the tiny balconet he can smell ozone. The breeze ruffling through his hair is warm and humid and yellow with pollen. Steve watches the faraway storm while rooting around in his front jeans pocket, finding only half of what he’s looking for. He sticks the cigarette in his mouth and waits, smirking when he hears the snick of a lighter behind him.
“Looking for this?” Tony steps up behind him, holding the Bic steady at Steve’s shoulder, and Steve twists slightly to cup his hand around the flame and suck.
“You didn’t used to smoke.”
“There are a lot of things I didn’t used to do,” Steve says, watching lightning roll silently across the horizon. “Seems silly not to do them now.”
Tony slides the lighter back into Steve's pocket. "Anything else on the list? Base jumping without a parachute? Learning to knit?"
"I already know how to knit."
"Of course you do," Tony says. He plucks the cigarette from Steve's mouth and holds it to his own. Steve watches his lips curl around the paper, sees the lazy exhale, tendrils of smoke drifting into the humid air.
Tony arches an eyebrow. "What?"
Steve takes the cigarette from Tony's mouth and puts it out carefully on the balconet's railing. "Nothing," he says, and when he crushes his mouth to Tony's he tastes nothing at all.
They don't talk about it in New York.
In New York, Steve stays on the base and Tony stays in the city and when they talk, which they don't often do, it's about the UN, or the latest message from Thor, or where the hell Carol Danvers went after she somehow brought Tony and Nebula back from that spaceship that was almost their graveyard. They don't talk about Bruce's experiments in rage, or Natasha's silence, or where the fuck Clint is, and they definitely don't talk about why they disappear for days at a time off to Florida or Toronto or Cincinnati and break into abandoned homes or check into mid-tier hotels under fake names and fuck until Steve can finally fall asleep, for a little bit, if he's lucky.
It's one of the unspoken rules: Not in New York. The team doesn't need to know. Text with an address. The rules keep it in a box, taped shut and tucked in a drawer where no one - not even one of them - can see it, or question it, or break it.
"I thought you were in Geneva this week," Steve says, stuffing a pillow into a threadbare pillowcase. He strips the bed before they leave, re-makes it with whatever clean sheets he can find, always, just in case someone comes home, even though Tony always says there's no point. Tony does his research.
"I was," Tony says. "Heading back tonight."
"What do you think?" Tony throws back the last of the cheap bourbon they found in the liquor cabinet downstairs. "You want a ride anywhere?"
"What do you think?" Steve shoots back, and Tony snorts. It's another rule: arrive at different times. Leave separately.
"Your call," Tony says. He slips on his shoes and crosses the room, presses a hard kiss to Steve's lips and then pulls away quickly, like it was an accident. "Drive safe."
"Thanks, Ma," Steve says dryly, and Tony flips him off over his shoulder as he disappears out the door.
Steve smokes another cigarette and waits half an hour before he finishes getting dressed to leave. The stairs are covered in family pictures he didn't notice on the way up, when he was pulling off his shirt and sticking his tongue down Tony's throat. He looks at every photo on the way down, one at a time, carefully, and wonders which half of these people he killed.
It started in DC, a few months after Tony got back. They're in their 31st month of Congress's emergency session now, but back then it was still pretty new, and everyone thought, or at least pretended, that they might be able to get back to normal one day. Tony was being debriefed by the House Intelligence Committee, and Steve and Natasha and Bruce had gone with him, sat in the second row and listened while Tony described everything that happened on Titan. Half the committee was enraptured, the other half skeptical. Tony didn't seem to really care either way.
Natasha and Bruce disappeared immediately afterwards, separately or together Steve didn't know and would never ask, but Tony wanted to eat, so Steve went with him to the private back room of some restaurant that Tony said used to be his go-to for after all the times he'd been subpoenaed. He watched Tony eat an entire steak and listened to him talk about the work he was doing on the Milano while he downed glass after glass of expensive scotch. Just as Steve was about to suggest they head back to the jet, Tony finished his last glass, put it down firmly, and said, "I want to blow you."
Steve stared at him.
"Let's get a hotel room," Tony said, like that was that, and somehow - and Steve never could explain how, not then and not now and not later - it was.
Back in New York after the night in Florida, Steve works out and leads neighborhood meetings in Brooklyn and leaves leftovers in the fridge for Nat and goes with the National Guard when they need extra hands in Houston or Detroit or Portland. The riots have quieted down, for the most part, but there are still periodic food shortages and Steve's been on tour before, so it feels familiar enough. Someone in Reno throws a hot coffee back in his face when they realize who handed it to them, and Steve wipes his face on his shirt and hands a coffee to the next person in line while local law enforcement drags the woman away. She keeps screaming at him until she's all the way out the door.
He's about to hop in a cargo plane that'll get him most of the way back to New York when he gets a text from Tony.
He rents a car from a guy operating out of a defunct Honda dealership and drives an hour and a half to a cabin that overlooks Lake Tahoe. It's not quite snowing but it’s cold enough to start, and when Steve walks in through the side door he finds Tony in bare feet, standing over a pot on the stove.
"You want hot cocoa?" Tony greets him. "I promise not to throw it at you."
It shouldn't be funny but it is, and when Steve starts laughing Tony does too, and they barely remember to turn off the burner on their way to the bedroom.
Later, the stars come out and Tony figures out how to turn on the hot tub, and it's so cold out that even Steve gets goosebumps as they run naked across the deck and climb in. Steve leans his head back on the edge of the hot tub and closes his eyes, and Tony feels around under the foam for one of his feet and starts kneading the arch.
"What were you doing on the west coast?" Steve asks.
"Oh," Tony says. "Nothing. Might go check on one of the plants tomorrow, but Pepper mostly manages things on this side of the country."
Steve doesn't reply. He has no idea where Tony and Pepper stand, and even though Tony's hand is currently working its way up his thigh, he doesn't really see it as his place to ask. "I've never been here before," he says instead. "Used to be ski resorts, right?"
"I think they're planning to reopen one of them this season," Tony says. "My parents brought me here once. My mom was a great skiier. She used to ski the Alps when she visited her grandparents in Italy."
Steve wonders if Tony is setting mines on purpose, if he hopes that Steve will step on one and blow the whole night up in their faces. "Is it hard?"
"Skiing?" Tony's hand creeps higher, the tips of his fingers sliding over Steve's hip bone, sweeping around the curve of his ass. "Nah. You'd be good at it."
"I'm good at everything," Steve points out.
Tony pinches him. "Well, aren't you full of yourself." His fingers skate up Steve's inner thigh, wrap around the base of Steve's rapidly-hardening cock. "I'll take you skiing one day. I still have a chalet in Switzerland. I think."
"Maybe somebody's over there using your hot tub right now."
"I hope they are," Tony says.
Bruce is trying everything to get the Hulk back.
"Not that it matters," Natasha says one day as they stand behind the glass in his lab, watching him pump himself full of epinephrine, dopamine, steroids, in different combinations and at dosages that would kill a normal man several times over. "There's nothing to smash right now, anyway."
But Bruce wants to be ready in case there is, someday, and so he drops weights on his toes, reads pre-Decimation anti-vaccination articles, watches TV coverage of the politicians who are clearly only in it to fill the power vacuum, anything to inspire the kind of anger that would have brought the Hulk hurtling forth in a past life. Steve knows that when they're not around, Bruce tries different tactics entirely; he knows that Natasha would never say it out loud, but she’s worried that one day he'll try swallowing another bullet, and this time, it'll take.
Steve doesn't get involved in whatever's going on between them. He catches them together sometimes in the kitchen, heads bent close, murmurs passing back and forth, and on other days he sees them avoid each other's eyes as they pass in the hallway. This, Steve thinks, is why Not in New York is a good rule. If they brought it home it would be all or nothing, and since it definitely couldn't be all, it would have to be nothing.
Steve wonders when he stopped being okay with this thing with Tony being nothing.
Tony texts him an address in the middle of the night, and Steve isn't sleeping anyway so he gets on his bike and rides. He makes it to the small town in New Hampshire just as the sun comes up and parks in the driveway of the sprawling farmhouse, behind an old camper van that looks like it hasn't moved in decades. He sits on the front porch and waits, and only two cars go by in the three hours before Iron Man slips out of stealth mode and sets down in the pasture next to the barn.
"What are you sitting out in the cold for?" Tony says.
"You know I don't like breaking in places."
"But you don't mind me doing it," Tony says, rolling his eyes as he blasts open the lock on the front door. "Your morals are a little squishy these days, Cap." He steps out of the suit and leaves it standing sentry in the living room, and Steve slides his hands under the thin t-shirt he's wearing. "Christ, your hands are freezing."
They crawl into a bed with a heavy quilt that looks hand-made and Tony fucks him, clutches his hips so hard that Steve thinks there might still be bruises the next day. Steve passes out immediately afterward, and when he wakes up in the afternoon Tony is sitting up in bed, still naked but engrossed in some kind of diagram on a StarkPad. "You weren't sleeping when I texted you," Tony says, not looking up from the tablet.
It's not a question, so Steve doesn't answer, just stretches out in bed and slides an idle hand up Tony's ribcage.
"You aren't sleeping at all," Tony says. "Are you?"
"You sleep here."
"In New Hampshire? Not usually."
"I mean with me."
Steve presses a kiss to Tony's hip. "Sure. Sometimes."
"Always," Tony says. Steve tweaks his nipple, crawls closer and ducks his head under the covers. "Do you sleep when I'm not here?"
"Yeah." Steve sweeps his tongue over the head of Tony's dick and feels Tony shiver.
"Good," Tony says. He spreads his legs apart, gives Steve better access, but Steve pulls off with a soft pop.
"Why do you care if I'm sleeping?"
"I don't," Tony says. "You gonna suck my cock or what, Jesus, Rogers, I don't have all day."
Steve rolls his eyes and swallows Tony down, and doesn't call Tony out on the lie when they spend the whole night in New Hampshire, pressed together under the blankets and watching snow out the window.
The kind of bad guys that they used to deal with back before Thanos - HYDRA, and the Abomination, and the Mandarin - all seem to be pretty quiet these days, but the creeping tendrils of corruption neatly fill the holes they left. They get word of someone re-routing supply lines from upstate and track the rumor to a warehouse in Queens that's filled with black market weapons and gasoline and canned goods and manned by what seem to be mostly teenagers.
There aren't good days anymore but this is a particularly bad one, and at the end of the fight one of the kids is dead and a couple more are hurt. The NYPD comes in to clean the scene up and Steve watches unflinchingly as they march the kids that can still walk into the back of a van and take the body away.
"It was friendly fire," Natasha says from Steve's shoulder as the coroner's van pulls away.
"Wouldn't have happened if we hadn't shown up.”
“Wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t started shooting weapons they didn’t know how to handle.”
"They're kids who are stealing food from other kids," Natasha snaps. "You have to shake it off, Steve."
Steve grabs his shield off his back and spins, throws it at the side of a shipping container. The container crumples like aluminum foil. The police officers in the warehouse turn toward him, and Steve senses rather than sees weapons drawn on all sides.
"Just a little accident," Natasha calls out soothingly. She steps in front of Steve and meets his eyes. "I need you to pull it together. The optics of this are already pretty bad. Do you want to make it worse?"
But Steve is already gone.
He gets on his bike and just rides, so blindly that he doesn't realize what he's doing until he's through the Lincoln Tunnel and pulling into the parking lot of a Sheraton in Hoboken. He pays for a room and texts Tony the address from the elevator, stands under the scalding spray of the shower until he hears the click of the door.
Tony's standing in front of the TV, still wearing his sunglasses. "What do you - "
Steve shuts him up, backs him up against the wall and pushes his jacket off his shoulders, rips the buttons off his shirt in his rush to get it off.
"Fuck," Tony says as Steve falls to his knees, and then, "sorry, why am I in New Jersey?"
"Hotel," Steve says. "God, why is your zipper so - "
"Yeah, I mean, I know it's a hotel, but why is it a hotel in New Jersey? I own an entire building. You know I own an entire building, right?"
"We don't - can I rip these too? - we don't do this in New York."
"My pants? I don't care about the pants - sure, we don't do this in New York, but this is kind of a letter but not the spirit thing, we can literally see New York from here."
"Do you want me to stop?"
"Not even a little bit," Tony says.
Afterwards, they lay on top of the white Hotel Collection bedding and catch their breath. It's the middle of the afternoon; Steve realizes, belatedly, that Tony was in a suit when he arrived, which means he was possibly doing something important before he got Steve's text.
Tony's propped up on most of the bed's sundry pillows, his fingers in Steve's hair. "What happened at the raid this morning?"
Steve stares at the drab wallpaper across the room and tells him, efficiently and without emotion.
"Huh," Tony says. "That sucks."
"Yeah," Steve says, and then Tony's quiet for a long time, and absolutely nothing is ever right anymore but given the circumstances it's not exactly wrong, either.
Three weeks after the raid gone wrong in Queens, Steve's flat on his back on a shag carpet on the floor of an apartment outside Chicago. He's writhing against the mingled pleasure-pain of Tony, about to wring orgasm number three out of him, two fingers buried inside him and mouth wrapped loosely around the head of Steve's cock.
"Tony," Steve gasps, "you have to - come on -"
"Say please," Tony murmurs around his dick.
"Asshole," Steve breathes, threading his hand in Tony's hair and pulling hard, just the way he knows Tony likes it. Tony hums, and Steve arches his back, trying to force his dick further down Tony's throat, but Tony holds him down firmly. Not that Steve couldn't shake him off - he could, in less time than it takes to think about it - but he likes it, Tony holding him down, Tony looming over him, Tony telling him what to do. He's pretty sure Tony's figured out that he likes it, which would be embarrassing if things like that mattered anymore.
"You want to come?" Tony says. "Tell me you want to come. Beg me."
Tony licks a stripe down Steve's cock, then slides his fingers out of Steve's ass and sits back on his heels. "You know," he says, pushing Steve's legs open and yanking him forward by the hips, lining his cock up, "this would be so much easier if you just did as you were told. What do you say?"
He waits, teasing just at Steve's edge, and Steve gives up with a groan. "Please," he says, and Tony smirks and slides inside. Steve shudders, oversensitive and dripping, and Tony fucks him so hard that he can feel the carpet leaving red-hot burns against his back.
They take turns showering, and when Steve walks into the kitchen in his sweats he finds Tony fully dressed next to a bag full of protein bars and fruit. He grabs an apple and pulls open the sliding glass door.
"Hey, you wanna close the door, asshole? You're letting the cold in." Tony pulls the door shut behind him and crowds up next to Steve as he lights a cigarette.
"What?" Steve says, when he realizes Tony's staring at him.
"I just can't believe you smoke."
"You worried it'll kill me?"
"You're setting a bad example for America's youth."
Steve takes a long drag and tilts his head back to exhale. "I don't think anybody's looking for me to set an example for America's youth anymore."
"A bad example for me, then. What happened to the whole goody two shoes thing?"
"You don't think I'm a goody two shoes."
"Nah, you look too good on your knees for that."
Steve snorts and puts out his cigarette, grabs the apple off the railing. Tony always brings snacks, even though Steve's the one who always wants to eat after sex, and as Steve takes a bite Tony asks, "Do you have to leave?"
"What? No," Steve says. "Do you?"
"No, I don't," Tony says. "I mean there's this meeting, but I don't have to - I just meant, if you have to be somewhere - "
"I don't. It's okay if you do, though."
"I don't either," Tony says.
"Okay," Steve says, and the next day they sleep til noon and order in Chinese food and Tony misses his meeting by quite a bit, and neither of them mentions it.
The next time Tony texts him an address it's in LA. It's already 1 am in New York and he's pretty sure Tony's drunk, if the number of typos and the wide variety of emojis is any clue, but Steve wasn't going to sleep anyway and it's not like he doesn't have access to a Quinjet, so. He texts Tony back a thumbs up and Tony sends him back a bunch of things that he's pretty sure are meant to be inappropriate but that Steve doesn't think would be decipherable even by someone who hadn't grown up during the Depression.
The address is up in the hills. He parks next to a bright red Lamborghini and pushes open the front door, which is unlocked but doesn't look like it was recently picked, and Steve wonders vaguely if Tony stills owns property on the west coast; he's considering poking around looking for clues when he hears a crash.
He finds Tony in the kitchen, sitting on the floor surrounded by a deconstructed toolbox, a tipped-over bottle and the remains of what looks like the inside of a computer. "You're here!"
"You asked me to come," Steve says.
"Yeah, but I didn't think you would," Tony says. He jumps to his feet and crashes against Steve, and his lips taste like a Long Island iced tea. "You came all the way from New York?"
"Well, there was nothing good on TV," Steve mutters as Tony paws at his shirt, presses wet kisses to his neck and his collarbone. "Were you at a party tonight?"
"Kind of. Not really. We don't do parties, parties are in bad taste, it was the board, and there were a lot of questions about the space shuttle program, and Pepper was there."
"Yeah, and you know Glenlivet's operating again, right?"
"I hadn't heard."
"So I was kind of celebrating but mostly not," Tony finishes.
"Seems reasonable," Steve says.
Tony leads them to a bedroom and spends a good thirty seconds figuring out Steve's belt, and Steve's settling in for what promises to be an enthusiastic if somewhat sloppy blow job when Tony holds up one finger, runs into the bathroom, and locks the door behind him.
Steve rebuckles his belt and decides to make the best of it. The kitchen's fully stocked and the backyard's full of expensive-looking furniture, so he makes himself a sandwich and spreads out on a lounge chair next to the pool. It's breezy but not cold, and LA's been subject to rolling blackouts for two years but it's all lit up tonight, twinkling yellow lights as far as Steve can see in every direction except west, where the ocean spreads out dark and endless. This would have been an okay place to vacation, back when they still did things like that.
Eventually Tony wanders out and lowers gingerly onto the next lounge chair over. "Hi."
"Sorry about that. And all of this. And just me, generally."
"Oh my god, you came all the way to LA," Tony said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "This is the worst booty call ever."
"Calling it that definitely isn't helping."
"Sorry, do you prefer Netflix and chill?"
"Netflix is terrible these days."
"I'd offer a blow job to make it up to you, but I feel like that ship has kind of sailed."
"Let's go to bed," Steve says, so they do.
Bruce has an idea.
"It has to be personal," he says. They're seated around the big table at the base, the one where they all used to fit back when there were more of them. Nobody's ever talked about taking away any of the chairs.
"So, what," Rhodes says, "you want us to attack you?"
"Not physically," Bruce says. "I mean, you can, but we've pretty firmly established that won't work."
It's true; they recently put Bruce in a room with a grenade, and the Hulk showed up only long enough to yell, "Puny Banner!" and crush it in a fist before he disappeared again, leaving Bruce holding a smoldering scrap of metal and scowling.
"Just watch Fox News," Tony suggests. "They attack us personally all the time. Twice before breakfast, if you're me."
"Won't work. It has to be somebody who knows how to get under my skin. And I think it has to come from someone I care about."
They all pointedly do not look at Natasha, who's staring at Bruce with her arms folded across her chest.
"I'm asking you guys to do it," Bruce says, leaning forward. "I need to know. If I can still - if I'm useful."
"You're useful without the Hulk," Tony says.
"Yeah, all my PhDs were so much help against Thanos," Bruce says dryly, and they all wince, because it's not like Bruce's PhDs were any more or less useful than any of the rest of them, in the end. "I'm serious. I worked so hard for so long not to feel anything, and now I need somebody to hit me where it hurts. I need somebody to hit me so hard I can't control myself."
There is a long silence. Everyone is thinking about what it would take, about how much and how little there is to say; about whether they could handle it themselves, if somebody did it to them.
Steve clears his throat. "I'll do it."
They set up in Bruce's lab, with Natasha on standby in case they need to talk the Hulk down and everybody else behind the glass to observe. Steve's got his shield on his back, just in case.
"We’re ready here," Tony says over the loudspeaker. He's got all kinds of medical readouts going in the observation room, heart rate and blood pressure and adrenal glands, to see if they can pinpoint what works. If anything works.
"Cap?" Bruce says, a little hesitantly. "You ready?"
"Ready to what?" Steve says. "To tell you how useless you were in Wakanda?"
Bruce, to his credit, doesn't even flinch. "Yeah. That."
"I've been ready for two and a half years for that," Steve says. "I've just been waiting for the right opportunity.”
“Well, that works out,” Bruce says lightly.
“You know what you were in Wakanda? Weak. You were too weak to do what needed to be done. And - honestly, Bruce, I don't see how you can forgive yourself for that. You don't deserve any forgiveness. Not your own, and not ours, and not all the people who died because of you.”
Bruce chuckles weakly, takes his glasses off and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Keep going.”
"You think this is funny?” Steve snaps, and Bruce looks up in surprise. “This isn’t funny. I’m glad you asked for this, Bruce, because I want you to hear it. You know, it kind of figures that when it really came down to it, you choked. You think you're this big strong guy when you're the Hulk, but that's not really you. You weren't born the way you are. You made the choice to become that - that thing. And you know why you did it? Because you're selfish. You're selfish, and you're a coward."
"Heart rate up," Tony says.
"And if you weren't such a coward," Steve continues, watching Bruce's jaw work, "you might have actually been able to do something about it in Wakanda instead of just standing around while everybody died. You think you deserve to be here with the rest of us? Just sitting around, living off Tony's money and doing nothing? Because you don’t.”
“I’m aware,” Bruce says quietly, and Steve advances on him, doesn’t quite crowd him but doesn’t leave him a lot of space to breathe either.
“You can't fix what happened, and you can't ever make up for it. So what's the point of sticking around? What's the point? You're no good to anyone here. Is it because you don't know how to kill yourself? Is it that you're not sure you can even die because of what you did to yourself, what you made yourself into? Because of the monster you are? What a pathetic reason to stay alive."
"Adrenaline increasing," Tony says.
"And what's even more galling," Steve says, hearing his voice rise, "is that you think you have the right to somebody like Natasha."
Bruce's pupils blacken. "Excuse me?"
Steve snorts, shakes his head. "You heard me. After what you've done, you’ve got some nerve thinking you deserve her."
"Leave her out of this," Bruce says, his voice an octave deeper than usual.
"You think you could ever make her happy?" Steve says. "That’s pretty funny, because guess what? She’s not. She'll never be happy, ever, because you failed. It’s your fault. And no matter what you do, you'll never outrun that. You don't deserve to outrun that, just like you don't deserve anybody's forgiveness, like you don't deserve for Natasha to even look at you - "
Bruce slams a hand down on the table, and it crumples under his fist. His arm is throbbing, shot through with streaks of green, and when he looks up at Steve he's baring his teeth.
Steve opens his mouth to keep going, but before he can say a word Tony cuts in, "All right, we're within three percent of standard Hulk readings, let's call it a day, yeah?"
Bruce blinks, a little confused, and looks toward the observation room. When he looks back at Steve, his eyes are a little lighter. "It worked."
"Guess so," Steve says.
Bruce shakes his head as if to clear it, takes a deep, calming breath. He's going pink again. "I know that wasn't easy," he says. "Thank you."
"Don't mention it," Steve says, and then all he can think is run.
He drops his shield in the hallway and is about to clear the labs when Tony steps right in front of him.
"Come with me.”
"It's not a fucking request," Tony snaps.
Steve narrows his eyes, but when Tony jerks his head down the corridor he follows.
They walk through the cement corridors of the underground level of the base and climb the stairs that take them directly out to the landing pad. "Where are we - "
"Quinjet," Tony says shortly.
"Why are - "
"Because I said so." Tony opens up the hatch and walks right inside, and Steve considers putting his foot down, telling Tony to go to hell and storming right back to his room, but instead he follows Tony onto the jet.
“I hope you’re not about to tell me off for what I said back there,” Steve says, folding his arms across his chest.
Tony’s sitting in the pilot’s seat running a liftoff sequence. “I’m not.”
“Then what’s this about?”
Tony ignores him. The hatch closes behind Steve, and the engines roar to life.
“Where are we going?”
“No idea,” Tony says as they take off. “Friday, you got it from here?”
“Sure thing, boss.”
Tony swivels around in the pilot’s seat. “What the hell was that?”
Steve raises his eyebrows. “I thought it was me doing Bruce a favor, but apparently I’m about to hear differently from you.”
“I’m not mad at you on Bruce’s behalf,” Tony says. “Although maybe I would be, if I thought a single word you said back there had anything to do with Bruce.”
Steve stares at him. Tony stares right back, his face pinched around the mouth like it is when he’s trying not to say something he really wants to say. Tony doesn’t have a lot of practice not saying things.
“I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean,” Steve says levelly, after the silence has gone on long enough that he can tell Tony’s not going to fill it.
“You have no idea what that’s supposed to mean,” Tony echoes. “So all that shit you said, that was how you feel about Bruce?”
“Who was it about, then?”
“It wasn’t about anybody,” Steve says irritably. “I was supposed to be trying to make him angry. I was saying the worst things I could think to say about - ”
“About yourself,” Tony interrupts. “You may have forgotten I pretty much have a degree in self-loathing.”
Steve looks out the windshield. “Where are we going?”
“Somewhere else,” Tony snaps, pushing himself up from the pilot’s seat. “You think you can just do something like that and, what, walk away and break in a few more reinforced punching bags, call it a day?”
“What do you want from me, Tony?” Steve says. “Bruce asked me for help, so I did what I had to do. It has nothing to do with - ”
“Spare me the bullshit,” Tony says, and to Steve’s surprise he reaches out and pushes him, right up against the wall of the Quinjet. “I don’t want to hear it. Friday, where are we?”
“Somewhere over Pennsylvania, boss.”
“Good enough,” Tony snarls, and kisses Steve so hard it hurts.
The thing about grief is that it’s not linear. It can ebb away long enough to let you get out of bed, go for a run, meet up with somebody in a vacant McMansion outside Charlotte, leave again in the morning before they wake up. Even grief so big you can’t wrap your mind around it lets you take a breather, once in a while.
And then it rushes up to swallow you.
It’s past midnight on a Thursday in March when Steve looks at his phone and realizes it’s Sam’s birthday.
Or rather, it was Sam’s birthday, twenty minutes ago. It’s not anymore. Steve’s missed it completely.
Steve thinks about one of the years they were on the run, the time Natasha snuck ingredients back to their shitty apartment in Phnom Penh and Wanda baked a cake while Sam was asleep on the sofa and they woke him up singing Happy Birthday. “Thought it was cats dying,” he’d grumbled, but they could tell he was happy, and they’d all had cake for dinner.
Steve thinks about two years ago, when the chaos had trailed off and they’d made it back to the US, and he’d gone down to Atlanta to see Sam’s sister. She’d made him a cup of coffee and they’d sat on the sofa, the box of Sam’s things on the coffee table between them.
“Did he,” she’d said, “did he go in the fight, or with - or with everybody else?”
“He,” Steve said, and he paused, because which was worse: lie, or admit that he had no idea? Tell her that they’d never found Sam’s body, so they assumed he was part of the Decimation but they might have missed him in the madness; that Steve hadn’t started looking for him for hours because he’d spent the time on his knees over Bucky’s ashes. “It was in the battle,” he’d said finally.
“Good,” she’d said, smiling at him with bloodshot eyes. “That’s how he’d have wanted it.”
Steve thinks about everything, and he wants so badly to think about nothing, just for a second, so he packs a bag, leaves his phone on the bedside table, and gets on his bike.
He’s in Indiana before he even looks up. Nobody talks to him when he buys a gas station hot dog and fills up his tank, so he decides to stay a few days. People in small towns are less likely to think the guy with the scruffy baseball cap really is Captain America grabbing a stack of pancakes in their neighborhood diner; mostly, they leave him alone.
He checks into a motel across the road from a Walgreens. In the shower of the dingy room, he thinks about how he and Natasha used to dye each other’s hair during the years they were out of the country, sitting in the bathrooms of abandoned SHIELD boltholes and crummy apartments and motel rooms just like this one. They’d compare shades of platinum while Sam called out the score of the game from the other side of the wall and Wanda made ramen in the microwave.
He winds his way south next, spends a couple of nights in the hills of southern Tennessee, then rents a cabin in the Ozarks and spends the days hiking through the empty woods and the nights curled up in a rocking chair with a scratchy blanket, trying to focus on the stars.
It rains the entire ride through Oklahoma. He gives Texas a wide berth and heads north again, and he’s all the way to South Dakota before he realizes his cash is about to run out and he’s no further from what he’s trying to get away from than he was when he left New York, so he checks into a motel and considers his options.
He’s been in South Dakota three days when Tony shows up.
He’s not exactly surprised that Tony was able to find him.
Steve had left his phone behind, and he knows Natasha’s inspected his motorcycle for any tracking equipment because Natasha does regular sweeps of literally everything they come into contact with, but he’s Tony Stark. Tony can do things with technology that Steve can’t even pronounce.
No, what surprises Steve is that Tony has bothered to not only find him, but to walk into the only bar in Wall, South Dakota, sit down at the next barstool, pull off his sunglasses - which he’s wearing inside, at night, because he’s Tony Stark - and say, “So, I get that New York can be a little much, but the Badlands? Really?”
The bartender, who just moments before had been minding his own business watching the Vikings game, stares open-mouthed.
“Yeah, can I get a glass of scotch? South Dakota’s finest.” Tony smiles at the bartender, and after an extended bout of blinking he scurries away. “You know Hawaii exists, right?”
Steve, who hasn’t bothered to put into words why he’s in South Dakota and isn’t particularly interested in trying, takes a sip of his beer. “I know Hawaii exists.”
“Good,” Tony says. He accepts a glass from the bartender, who’s still stunned into silence, and throws it back. “So this is just, what, a spontaneous road trip?”
“Something like that.”
“The kind of spontaneous road trip where you ditch your phone and don’t talk to your team for three and a half weeks? Didn’t realize that was something we could do.” Tony waves for another round, and the bartender nearly trips over himself racing to pour it.
Steve waits until the bartender’s gone before he says, “And I didn’t realize you were my boss these days. Did you guys update the charter since I left?”
“Nope,” Tony says. “We don’t have enough living team members to reach quorum.”
Steve sets his bottle down a little too firmly. “Did you need something?”
“Me?” Tony says. “Not at all, why do you ask?”
“It’s just that usually when somebody leaves town, it’s because they want to be alone.”
“Oh, yeah, usually when people in our line of work disappear without a word, all of their friends assume they went on a fun solo vacay,” Tony says.
“I’m sure Bruce and Natasha weren’t too sorry to get some space.”
“You have literally no idea what you’re talking about, but sure,” Tony says. “So what was the last straw?”
“What do you mean?”
“The day you left,” Tony says. “It was a normal day, right? Except you decided to leave. Any interest in sharing with the class?”
Steve thinks about Bruce’s black pupils, about Tony sitting in an empty house in the Hollywood Hills, about the birthday cake in Phnom Penh, and says, “Nope.”
Tony snorts. “Man. It must be tough.”
“What must be tough?”
“To be the only person in the world to blame for half the universe disappearing,” Tony says.
Steve stares at him.
“Oh, wait,” Tony says theatrically. “Wait a second. I feel like there might be some other people who know what that feels like.” Tony shakes his head sadly. “Too bad you don’t know any of them. Imagine if there was somebody you could actually talk to about it.”
“You want to talk about it?” Steve snaps.
“Sometimes!” Tony says, throwing up his hands. “Who knows, it might not be that bad! If you want to talk, I’m literally right here. And so is Natasha. And so is Bruce, and Rhodey, and Thor when he’s not in space. But you don’t want to talk to anybody. You just want to put the whole thing on your own shoulders and let the weight of it crush you until you don’t have to feel anything besides guilt, because you can’t stand the idea of feeling sad, or hurt, or maybe even happy once in a while - ”
Steve’s out of his seat and out the door before he even finishes his sentence.
By the time Tony joins him, Steve’s already on his second cigarette.
“We should move HQ to South Dakota,” Tony announces. “Alcohol is cheap, the views are acceptable in the dark, and you can almost ignore the smell of manure. It’s not so bad.”
Steve snorts. “It’s pretty bad.”
“Okay, yeah, it’s bad. But when I started looking for you I kinda thought I might find you somewhere worse than this.”
“You mean like Apalachicola, Florida?” Steve says wryly.
“I mean like the bottom of the Hudson.”
Steve doesn’t reply. He holds the cigarette to his lips, breathes deep and blows the smoke out into the darkness.
“I shouldn’t have said all of that back there,” Tony says finally.
Steve shrugs. “It’s all fair.”
“Oh, I didn’t say it wasn’t. I just shouldn’t have said it.”
“You’re such an asshole sometimes.” Steve glances at him, but Tony’s staring out at the black, wide-open prairie. “How’s everybody doing?”
“Oh, you know,” Tony says. “The usual. Blowing shit up. Sitting around waiting for bigger and better beings to tell us how to get revenge on the galaxy’s worst urban planner. We had a Code Green the other day.”
“Really?” Steve says.
“We were playing around with the hormone and heart rate mix that Bruce hit the day you laid into him, and I told him it was his fault you’d taken off,” Tony says. “The big guy showed up just long enough to call you puny and then left Bruce behind in pants 12 sizes too big. But hey, it’s a start.”
“You shouldn’t have said that.”
“Yeah, but saying things I shouldn’t have said is kind of my thing,” Tony says. “If I stopped, what would I be known for?” Tony pauses long enough for Steve to roll his eyes, and then continues, “So, you planning to hit the road again?”
Steve shrugs. “Maybe.”
“Is it helping?”
Steve opens his mouth to snap back at Tony, but he looks up just in time to see that Tony’s not mocking him at all. He’s - curious, actually. He seems to want to really know.
“I… don’t know,” Steve admits. “I don’t think there’s anything that helps, really.”
“Huh,” is all Tony says to that, and Steve wonders if Tony knows he’s lying or just suspects it.
“Why’d you come all the way here?” Steve asks.
“Well, I would have just texted you an address, but you left your phone behind,” Tony says. “Here it is, by the way. And now that you have it, I guess I can get going.”
He holds out Steve’s phone, and Steve takes it.
“Have a good rest of your trip,” Tony says. “Give me a call when you get back. Or not. Up to you.”
He nods, claps Steve on the shoulder, and turns to go.
“Wait,” Steve says, a catch of uncertainty in his voice that he wasn’t expecting. “You just - that’s it?”
“You followed me all all the way to Wall, South Dakota to give me my phone.”
“Sure,” Tony says.
Steve raises his eyebrows.
Tony gives him a rueful smile. “Well. I know we’re not allowed to say stuff like this, but would you be mad if I admitted I was worried about you?”
“What do you mean, we’re not allowed to say stuff like that?”
“I mean you have all these rules. Where we can see each other, and how often, and when we can talk to each other - ”
“They’re not my rules,” Steve says. “You wanted the rules too, you said - ”
“I know, I know, I wanted the rules too,” Tony says, holding his hands up in surrender. “You know why I wanted them?”
Steve stares at him.
“I wanted the rules because I was scared,” Tony says. “I was scared as hell for this to mean something.” Tony looks away, out at the blackness, and then back at Steve, and when he does his eyes are fiery and his jaw is set. “But you know what? After the last few weeks, I think I’m actually more scared that it doesn’t. I’m more scared that you disappear at any moment and not even want to tell me why.”
“I wasn’t trying to get away from you,” Steve says.
“I know that,” Tony says. “And I’m not saying I need to keep track of you. You don’t owe me anything. That’s not how this works, we agreed on that a long time ago. But it’s - it means something to me, okay? It’s not supposed to, but it does. You mean something to me.”
Steve looks away. “I know that.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty fucking obvious, huh.”
“You did follow me all the way to Wall, South Dakota.”
“Too much?” Tony says, and when he looks up at Steve he’s a little bit defiant and a little bit hopeful and Steve smiles at him, the muscles a little rusty but surprisingly willing, at least at the moment.
“Nah,” Steve says. “I went all the way to LA in the middle of the night for a fella once. Didn’t even get laid.”
Tony snorts. “Man, you must have it bad.”
“Sure do,” Steve says. “How’d you find me, anyway? Tracker on my bike?”
“Facial recognition software,” Tony says. “Or whatever. It’s legal. Don’t worry about it.”
“I will,” Steve says. “A lot.” He lets his gaze drift down to Tony’s lips. “Maybe later.”
Tony smirks. “So do you have a place to sleep in this one-horse town or what?”
“So, what’s next?” Tony asks quietly later, when Steve’s head is on his chest and their legs are tangled together under the too-starchy sheet of the motel bed. He says it so casually that a few months ago Steve wouldn’t have heard the request in it, careful and quiet.
But he hears it now. “I think I’d better get going in the morning,” he says, and the hand threading through his hair falters for a second and then resumes its steady rhythm.
“Right,” Tony says.
“I want to get an early start. It’ll take me two days to get back to New York,” Steve continues.
Tony flips them until he’s pinning Steve to the bed. He’s grinning as widely as Steve’s seen in a while, and Steve can’t help but grin back. “That’s only if you drive under the speed limit.”
“Captain America doesn’t speed.”
“That’s a bald-faced lie and you know it.”
“What kind of example would I be setting for the country?”
“You could always let me finally build you a motorcycle that flies.”
“That’ll be the day,” Steve says, and pulls Tony down for a kiss.
He makes it back to New York in a day and a half.
Natasha kisses him on the cheek and Bruce goes in for a handshake that he turns into a hug at the last second and Rhodey makes a bunch of spaghetti and Tony, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, shows up, eats more than his share of pasta, and immediately leaves again. Steve washes his bike and does his laundry and discovers 48 texts and thirteen voicemails on his phone. Next time he hits the road, he thinks as he listens to Bruce’s third anxious message, he’ll leave a note.
Everybody keeps coming by his room without a good excuse. Steve knows they want to ask him things but they don’t, and Steve wants to tell them things but he doesn’t, but somehow, for some value of okay, it’s okay.
Just before midnight, his phone buzzes.
1 am. My place?
Steve presses his lips together. It’s a flagrant violation of the rules, and what’s more, it’s showy: there’s a private entrance to Stark Tower, sure, but anybody could see him driving into Tony Stark’s garage after midnight or leaving again in the morning and start to wonder. It’s just not what they do.
But there are a lot of things he didn’t used to do, Steve thinks as he gets on his bike and heads into the city, and, well, it seems silly not to do them now.