Steve doesn’t get to carry Tony off of the battlefield.
He wants to, wants it more than his next breath, wants it more than anything.
Wants to hold him one last time. Wants to feel Tony’s weight in his arms again like they’ve ached to since the last time Steve held him all those years ago. Wants one more chance to breathe in the scent of molten steel and oil and oranges that always seemed to hover over Tony no matter what.
He wants to, even manages to rise up off of his knees and step forwards to offer, to try, but he doesn’t get the chance.
“Don’t,” Rhodes, because Steve lost the right to call him Jim years ago and Rhodes was never willing to let him earn it back, stops him before he takes more than a handful of steps. “Do. Not. ”
“Rhodes,” Steve whispers his name, half plea, half request, half something he can’t really name.
“You don’t touch him,” Rhodes snaps, pushing up onto his feet and covering the distance between them to snarl right in Steve’s face. “You don’t ever touch him again.”
There’s something dark and terrible in Rhodes’ eyes then. Something aching and yawning and filled with teeth.
In that moment Steve knows, knows in his bones and his soul, that if he pushes this, if he presses, Rhodes will kill him.
“Okay,” Steve agrees, tears hot and thick in his throat. “Okay.”
This is not a war he has the strength in him to fight at the moment.
As much as he loves Tony, will always love Tony, this isn’t a war Steve has a right to fight.
No matter how much it hurts, it's not his place.
But it is, has always been, Rhodes' place.
People had always underestimated Rhodes’ attachment to Tony, the love that those two had shared for years and years. Even Steve himself and the rest of the team had back in the beginning. They’d all assumed that Tony with his waving hands and sarcastic quips was the clingy, boundary-less, overly attached one of the two. They’d all assumed that Rhodes with his military bearing and his dry humor and his slow smile had just ... put up with Tony.
But in reality Rhodes had always been just as invested in Tony as Tony was in him. Had always loved him as fiercely, as protectively, as Tony had loved him.
Steve had learned that truth the hard way, all the way back towards the beginning of his relationship with Tony, back before he took what they’d been building and snapped it down the middle with his own two hands.
He’d learned it when Rhodes had herded him up against one of the walls in the Tower, the muzzle of his pistol pressing against Steve’s temple and the inscription on it shining bright and silver on the side in what Steve had recognized as Tony’s surprisingly elegant scrawl.
“I’ve been friends with Tony since he was fourteen and drunk and covered in bruises,” Rhodes had said, calm and even like he was discussing the weather instead of pressing a gun against Steve’s temple hard enough to bruise anyone else. “I saw him through Howard and Bain and goddamn Tiberius Stone and Obadiah Stane. I carried him out of that fucking desert. I’ve been by his side as he survived one betrayal and fuck up after another. Do not put me in a position where I have to help him survive you too Rogers.”
And then, as if nothing of real import had actually happened, Rhodes had just ... smiled, holstered his pistol, and stepped away.
Half the time Steve wishes that his younger self had taken the threat more seriously than he had. The other half he wishes Rhodes had followed through on his promise despite knowing all the reasons why, despite obviously wanting to, he never did.
“I should kill you,” Rhodes had told him one night in Wakanda after half the universe had turned to ash around them. “I should kill you where you stand, for what you did to him, for how you hurt him.”
“I’d deserve it,” Steve had rasped back, bitter and lost and too hollow to cry.
“The only reason I haven’t is because it’d be too easy,” Rhodes had shrugged lightly, eyes trained on the Wakandan sky. “Because you’ll be useful, somehow, when Tony gets back and we figure out how to fix this.”
“What if he doesn’t come back?” Steve had bitten the words out. “What if he …”
“Tony’s alive,” Rhodes had stated, solid and sure like an irrefutable truth. “Half the universe might be gone and he might be out there somewhere I can’t reach him but Tony’s alive. Because if he wasn’t? I’d know.” Rhodes had thumped a closed fist against his own chest, right over his heart. “If Tony Stark was dead I’d know.”
So Steve doesn’t get to carry Tony off of the battlefield.
Doesn’t get to touch him one last time.
He wants to. Wants to with everything he is.
But he doesn’t.
Instead all Steve can do is watch as Rhodes picks Tony’s body up carefully, lovingly, in a move that looks long practiced and familiar.
Rhodes carries Tony away through an army of warriors settled on their knees in reverence, in thanks.
And all Steve can do is watch him go.
Tony’s body isn’t … stable.
There’s energy, radiation of some sort, that makes a burial impossible.
Steve thinks the fact that Tony’s cremated is almost poetic.
‘Like a phoenix, darling,’ Tony’s voice almost whispers to Steve.
Only this time Tony won’t be rising from the ashes.
Only this time he won’t be coming back.
There’s a service later, when things are a bit more settled. Something private for the people who knew and loved him instead of the mourning that’s already sweeping the world.
Sweeping the universe if Rocket and Nebula are to be believed when they call in.
Stories of The Stark, of The Iron Man who killed The Titan, seem to be spreading far and wide.
Steve likes that, thinks it's fitting.
The stars should whisper about Tony. All the worlds should know.
But, when the time comes, they all gather there at that house by the lake to say their final goodbyes.
Pepper puts the arc reactor on a wreath of flowers and pushes them out into the water.
It’s a bitter and cruel sort of thought to have but Steve can’t help but think that Tony would have hated the gesture.
Because, even so many years out from the horrors Steve knows he’d faced in Afghanistan, Tony had still hated the water, had hated swimming and baths and getting his face wet.
Steve thinks they should have put the reactor on a mountain instead, should have enshrined it on some rocky cliff top somewhere as close to the sky as possible.
Thinks they should have shot it into space on a satellite or found some other way to fling it out into the stars.
Somewhere that piece of Tony could spend eternity marveling at the beauty of the universe.
Steve thinks Tony would have liked that. Thinks maybe it would have made him laugh.
But he doesn't say anything.
Steve lost the right to make those kinds of decisions years ago.
Steve just wishes there was a way for him to make this right.
The Stones have to be dealt with.
Someone has to deal with them, has to put them back where they should be.
Steve, mind clicking and humming, volunteers.
“I’m sorry, Stevie,” Bucky tells him one night not long before Steve’s due to start the jumps, his hand warm on Steve’s shoulder as they both stare up at the stars.
They both know what, who, he’s talking about.
“I miss him.” The words aren’t enough, don’t come even close to describing what Steve’s feeling at the moment, the way he’s been bleeding out inside since the second Tony stood his ground and saved the entire universe. “I lost him a long time ago and that was my fault but I just … even if he wasn’t mine anymore at least he was still …”
“Yeah,” Bucky dips his head in a shallow nod of understanding. “I get it.”
“I think a part of me,” Steve swallows hard, tries to bite back his bitterness and shame, “a part of me always thought that maybe … maybe there was still a chance somehow. Like maybe we’d find our way back together someday even if it wasn’t … even if it couldn’t be like it used to be. And it would have hurt but … but it would have been better than this. Even if he hated me it would’ve been better.”
There’s a long moment of silence then where they just stand there together, eyes on the stars and Bucky’s hand still warm on his shoulder.
“He would have liked you,” Steve finally murmurs. “If, if things had been different, if he’d had … time. If I’d given him the truth when I first got it instead of running scared. I think, eventually, you would’ve been friends.”
“Wish we’d gotten the chance,” Bucky sighs quietly. “Wish it had all worked out differently for all of us. All the stories you told me about him? He seemed … fierce.”
“He was,” Steve huffs out another watery laugh. “God Buck, he was. He was always so alive. So bright and brilliant in a way I’ve never seen anyone else be. Drove me crazy half of the time, kept me from going crazy the other half. He always had so much love to give too. And he was big on second chances. He’d have pulled you right in and took over your entire life in the process just like he did mine.”
“Sounds like it would’ve been a good life,” Bucky muses.
“The best,” Steve agrees. “Because Tony always had the best of everything and so did everyone he cared about. A thousand little ways to make your life better and he'd find every single one of them. Was just … the way he was.”
The hand on Steve’s shoulder shifts, slides over until Bucky’s arm is wrapped around him, hauling him in close for a rare hug.
“Sorry you lost that,” Bucky says softly against his temple. “Sorry the whole universe lost that.”
Steve takes a shuddering breath, presses his face against the thick wool of Bucky’s jacket and tries to breathe.
“I love you,” Steve tells him. “You’re my best friend, my brother.”
“Love you too,” Bucky says, easy and sure in that way that Wakanda had given him the peace to find.
“Buck,” Steve whispers then, voice low like a secret, “I don’t … I don’t think I want to live in a world without him. I don’t think I can.”
“Ah hell Stevie,” Bucky laughs, soft and fond and just a bit sad. “I always knew that.”
“You could come with me,” Steve can’t help but make the offer, voice low so the others won’t hear.
It wouldn’t do for them to know what, exactly, Steve’s planning to really do. What he’s been researching and laying out and preparing for behind their backs.
“Nah,” Bucky quirks a small smile and shakes his head. “Not this time.”
“You sure?” Steve presses.
“Yeah, punk, I’m sure.” Bucky shrugs just a bit, something soft and melancholy in his face. “I’m tired Steve. I don’t … I don’t think I’ve got the kind of fight left in me that you’re gonna need where you’re going. I think I’d like to rest a while.”
“I’m gonna miss you,” Steve says because that will always be true.
“Well you’ll know right where to find me this time won’t you?” Bucky shoots back easily.
“I’ll find you,” Steve promises like he already has a million times before. “I’ll get you out, bring you home. I’ll do it right this time.”
“I know you will,” Bucky agrees before he grins, bright and cocky in a way Steve hasn’t seen in decades. “Might wanna watch out though. Guy like Stark, all fierce and bright like you said he is? Might try to steal your fella if you give me a half a chance. Soldier always did like pretty, deadly things.”
Steve blinks, more than a bit surprised.
“I was brainwashed, Stevie,” Bucky tells him dryly, “not dead.”
Finally Steve just laughs, loud and happy and true for the first time in what feels like years.
And then he turns and steps onto the platform.
‘Wait for me,’ Steve thinks even as the others come closer to see him off. ‘Tony, just wait for me. I won’t be late this time.’
Returning the Stones is a trial but Steve sees it done.
Sees everything put back in its place.
By the time he’s finished he’s got one jump left.
And he knows exactly how to use it.
Steve lands in a back alley in New York.
He’s close enough to the Tower to recognize where he’s at but far enough away that JARVIS shouldn’t be monitoring the area for any kind of suspicious activity.
So, right on target.
It’s simple enough to strip off his now useless gear, to tuck it away in his duffel and pull on a cap and a pair of shades before he steps out onto the busy city street.
His eyes are, of course, immediately drawn towards the Tower.
Every single bit of him wants to head in that direction immediately. Wants to go there, to the one place that had felt like home to him after waking up from the ice.
Wants to go right to Tony, to sweep him up into his arms and never let him go.
Tony’s still with Pepper right now. He hasn’t had the chance to face Killian or to finally realize just how deep the stress fractures in his and Pepper’s relationship have spread. It's coming soon though, real soon.
Steve’s surprisingly content to let all of that play out again just like it had in his original timeline. Even if a part of him itches to head it off at the pass, to step up and step in and protect Tony.
That’s a lesson that he’d learned a bit too late the first time around. Tony didn’t need his protection from everything and everybody, didn’t need him trying to step into every single fight Tony might find himself in. He never had. Tony could take care of himself in more ways than most of them had ever given him credit for.
Instead all Tony had ever needed from Steve was his trust, his honesty, his love and support. His hand on the wheel beside Tony’s as they guided the future Tony never stopped dreaming about towards a better place than the one Steve has just left behind.
All of that, and more, is what Steve intends to give to him when the time is right.
But, for now, Steve has a plan, a schedule, to follow. Has a list of things he can and will actually do to protect Tony and, ultimately, everyone else.
He’s only got six months before the fall of SHIELD is due to happen and he has no intention of letting that play out the way it had.
So that means Steve needs to get moving.
It’s a simple thing to get out of the country.
Steve’s got a bag full of diamonds to fund his way if necessary and a duffel full of Tony’s tech and a few other bits and bobs to help out the rest of the time.
Bucky had been more than happy to help him pack, to help him pick and choose what he’d need, what would make stealth and infiltration and anything else he might not be able to punch his way through work.
“Right then,” Steve murmurs as he steps off of the plane, a perfected photostatic veil firmly in place. “Time to get to work.”
Sokovia is nicer than Steve remembers it being.
Mainly because it’s not actively on fire or being lifted into the air.
Either way Steve doesn’t actually plan to stay long.
“Sorry about this,” Steve can’t help but say as he stares down at Wanda. “If there was another way I’d take it.”
She’s even younger looking than he remembers somehow.
But then maybe that’s just the fear in her eyes and the way she’s clawing at the collar he’d managed to get around her neck.
“P-Pietro,” Wanda warbles out the call, desperate for her twin to come, to save her now that she can’t access her powers.
“Don’t worry,” Steve soothes her softly as he reaches up to pat her hair in one part sympathy and one part comfort. “You’ll see him soon.”
Steve’s hand fists in the back of Wanda’s hair.
It doesn’t even take actual effort to snap her neck.
“I really am sorry, Wanda,” Steve murmurs as he lays her body down gently.
It’s true too. He really is sorry that there wasn’t another way, that he knows she wouldn’t be able to be talked around from her hatred of Tony at this point.
But that doesn’t mean he actually regrets what he’s done. What he’s still going to do.
Crouched over his sister’s body and shaking with grief, Pietro goes even quicker.
After all he’d been taken down with bullets the first time around too.
And Steve might not be a sniper, might not be up to Bucky or Clint’s standards, but he’s always been a good shot.
Siberia’s just as cold as Steve remembers it being.
The Winter Soldiers are still sleeping, tucked away in their cryo chambers.
They die just as easily for Steve as they had for Zemo.
The information on the base’s computers is simple enough to gather before he destroys them alongside the bodies.
If Steve has his way about it he’ll never see this place again.
And Tony will never see it in this time at all.
Steve finds himself back stateside a few months after he’d first left.
He makes his way to D.C. and the apartment he’d kept there easily enough.
Another veil, some top-tier scrambling gear, and he’s inside his old apartment.
Now all he has to do is settle in and wait.
The other him gets home sometime well after dark and Steve knows from the way he pauses at the door that he’s aware someone’s in his apartment.
Heightened senses come in handy in a lot of ways.
But, just as Steve had known his younger self would, he still steps forward into the apartment, still walks straight towards what can only be some kind of threat.
The look on his face when he sees Steve, sees himself, sitting on his couch is actually kind of funny.
That surprise gives Steve more than enough time to bring the gun up and fire.
Two tranquilizer darts hit the younger him directly in the chest.
He wavers, stumbles forwards enough to crash into the wall, and then hits the floor in a heap.
The emergency sedative Bruce had designed for him has always been very effective, very quickly.
Especially since Steve had packed the darts with about ten times the recommended dosage each.
It might not last that long, not much did with the serum actively fighting it, but it’ll last more than long enough for what Steve needs.
Steve puts his gun away, stands, and then moves over to pick his younger self up off of the floor.
He sets his mirror image upright on the couch and then collapses back down onto the cushion beside him.
“You know,” Steve muses softly to his unconscious twin, “I thought about maybe sending you back too. Or maybe even forward. But I don’t think it’d work. Going back would just mean that, eventually, there’d be two of us in one timeline. You and the one in the ice that’ll eventually get found. Being forced to jump forward again would just make you worse than me in the end I think, even with Buck there with you. And you’d just miss out on the best part of the future since Tony’s …”
Steve huffs, clears his throat, reaches over to pat the other him on the head.
“I just think this way is better,” he finally says. “This’ll give me a chance to make everything better.”
Steve’s thought about killing himself before but, well, he does have to admit that doing it this way is more than a bit weird even after everything else he’s seen and done.
He empties his double's pockets, strips him down, and then puts the body in the bathtub.
A quick application of a glowing blue slime Rocket had left at the Compound gets rid of the rest of the mess in an hour or so.
After that all it takes is a quick rinse, some bleach, a little elbow work, and then everything’s ... good.
Steve showers, puts on clothes he hasn’t worn in years and takes a moment to scroll through past him’s phone and check his schedule. Not that he intends to keep it of course, but it’s a good way to touch base with the timeline and see how things are lining up.
Finally he settles into a bed he can’t wait to no longer call his own.
Early the next morning, duffel repacked and slung over one shoulder, Steve catches the train for New York.
A handful of hours later he finds himself staring up at the Tower, heart pounding, as he calls Tony.
“Speak and possibly be heard,” Tony answers.
“Hey Tony,” Steve’s voice is gentle, almost sweet, something inside of him going sugar soft at the realization of who he’s finally talking to. “It’s Steve, Steve Rogers.”
“Well hello there, Steve, Steve Rogers,” Tony sounds amused in that way Steve had always loved seeing him, sounds calm and happy and good.
God it’s so good to hear him outside of Steve’s dreams again.
“What can I do you for, Captain my Captain?” Tony’s familiar banter brings Steve sharply back into focus.
“I was uh, I was actually hoping I could see you today?” Steve asks, trying to keep calm, trying to stay ... even.
There’s a moment of silence.
“Is there some kind of issue I need to know about Cap-Attack?” Tony asks, surprise and a light sort of suspicion obvious in his tone.
Steve can hardly blame him. This is, after all, the first time Steve’s reached out to him since they parted after the invasion.
“Maybe?” Steve hedges. “I just … there are some things I’d like to talk to you about and I … I thought maybe we could get to know each other?”
“Alright,” Tony says. “I’ll bite. When do you plan on stopping by or do you want me to meet you somewhere?”
“Now good? Since I’m actually already outside the Tower,” Steve admits. “But only if that’s okay.”
“Well then,” Tony huffs out a laugh, “I guess you should come on up.”
Tony’s standing by the elevator doors when they open, hair mused, sleeves pushed up to his elbows and feet bare.
He looks warm and welcoming and just all around perfect.
It takes every inch of control Steve can scrape together not to kiss Tony as soon as he sees him face to face again, to not reach out and pull him close and never let him go again.
That, Steve knows, will come later.
“Hey,” Steve says again, an honest smile stretching wide across his face. “It’s really good to see you again Tony.”
Surprise and a shy sort of delight spread their way across Tony’s face in return.
“Well I am a delight to the senses,” Tony teases in that way it took Steve too long to understand as harmless in the beginning, the way that used to fluster him so bad once he finally did. “But what brings you by besides looking for another chance to bask in my radiance?”
“I was doing some thinking about the things you said on the helicarrier,” Steve starts carefully. He needs to get this right. “About Fury and his secrets. That kind of thing.”
Tony’s gaze sharpens with interest and Steve feels his cock thicken just a bit despite himself at being the center of all that focus again.
“Do tell,” Tony prompts, brows arched high.
“They put me on the STRIKE team and I’m set to start running missions soon. I just,” Steve shifts, reaches up to run his hand through his hair, “I’m not sure if I trust it, trust them. So I thought … I thought it’d be better to come to someone I do trust instead to help me work some things out.”
“And you came to me?” Tony asks, more than a bit incredulous.
“Tony,” Steve sighs, does his best to smile again. “It’s been hard, waking up, realizing everything I left behind. And I wasn’t … I said things I shouldn’t have, on the helicarrier. But out of everybody I’ve met so far since waking up, the person I trust most not to steer me wrong is you.”
For a long moment Tony just stares at him, gaze tracking over him and mind obviously working at lightning speed. And then, finally, Tony seems to just melt, seems to soften even further than before.
“It’s all good, Cap,” Tony waves him off in that way Steve knows he only does when he can’t deal with some sort of deep emotion right away. “Water under the bridge, I was a dick too. So come on in and let’s see what we can do about finding out what SHIELD and everyone’s favorite pirate is up to.”
Steve never really leaves after that day.
Instead he slides seamlessly back into the rhythm he’d once had with Tony.
Slides right into making coffee in the mornings and sketching in the labs in the afternoons and watching movies on the penthouse couch in the evenings.
Slides right into Tony's space with a hand on his shoulder, his elbow, and the small of his back.
Slides right into pulling Tony closer with an arm around his waist, fingers running through his hair and kisses, light and sweet against his temples.
And Tony, obviously curious, obviously confused but still more than a bit delighted and unable to not soak in his easy affections, lets him.
This time Tony and JARVIS are the ones to find the HYDRA files.
This time Steve and Tony both call the others and Fury to the Tower and show them irrefutable proof of what's been happening right beneath everyone's noses.
This time when Tony finds out the truth about Howard and Maria's deaths Steve is there with him, is there to apologize for the tragedy of it all, to wrap his arms around Tony and hold him close in comfort.
This time Steve meets his grief and his rage with soft hands and sweet kisses and calm.
This time Steve gets to watch as the anger eventually fades, as Tony reads Bucky’s files and sees the suffering he went through.
This time Tony is the one who says, “Let’s bring your boy home, Cap. And burn the fuckers who did this to him, the ones who killed my mother, to the ground once and for all.”
This time when Steve lays Tony down on the workshop bench or the common room couch or his too big bed and fucks him deep and slow and whispers forever and always into Tony’s ears he knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that he means it.
He’ll always mean it.
With Tony’s help they find Bucky before he’s ever defrosted and deployed.
They bring him back to the Tower.
Together they bring him home.
They find the scepter with the Mind Stone still intact.
Tony and Bruce lock it away, dampen its energy outputs as best they can and pass ideas back and forth about world wide protections.
Tony tells Steve about his nightmares after the Invasion, about the anxiety it took so long to begin to get under control.
This time Steve listens. He contributes.
Eventually, after months of work and consideration, VICTOR rises, built by Tony’s loving hand and modeled after and tutored by JARVIS himself.
A suit of armor around the world.
He’s not Vision reborn but Steve has faith that, if push comes to shove, he probably could be one day.
"Tell me more about Extremis," Steve gets to say this time. "Kind of like the idea of you being more durable."
And Tony, always so eager to share, always so happy to talk and be heard, to be listened to, does.
Bucky gets better, bit by bit.
He starts to smile. Starts to talk and engage and just live bit by careful bit.
Eventually Steve sees the way Bucky starts to watch Tony with that look whenever he thinks no one is looking.
And Steve …
Steve loves him, loves him soul deep and in every bone and bit of himself, but he’s never been in love with Bucky. Has never wanted him, never ached to touch and kiss and have.
He’d been in love with Peggy before he went into the ice. And then, afterwards and in the future and for always, it was just Tony.
But, just like Steve had told Bucky in the future that Steve will make sure never happens, it’s obvious that Tony and Bucky like each other.
And it’s obvious that neither of them will ever do anything about it.
Bucky out of guilt and loyalty and a lack of self worth.
Tony out of all of the same issues played in a slightly different way.
“You two should kiss,” Steve tells them one afternoon when the three of them are in the workshop together as they so often are these days.
Bucky freezes, goes still and tense. But Steve isn’t fooled, he can see the want, the longing, in his eyes before Bucky wipes it away.
"Steve?" Tony looks stricken, looks scared.
Steve never wants to see that look on his face again.
“I love you and I love Buck,” Steve tells Tony easily. “He’s my brother, my version of Rhodes. I want him to have good things, to be happy. And you’re the best thing Tony, the best thing in the entire universe. You make everything better and you’ve got so much love to give. I wouldn’t mind if you gave some of it to him. If you’d let the both of us try and keep you happy like you keep us.”
Tony’s breath leaves him in a shuddering sigh.
The look he turns in Bucky’s direction is soft and sweet.
Settled on the couch, sketchbook in hand, Steve smiles.
This time he gets to sit there on that couch and watch Bucky make Tony shake and sigh and scream on the workshop floor.
This time he gets to watch them come together, the two most important people in his entire universe.
This time he gets to slide down onto the floor and press kisses against Tony’s slack mouth as Bucky fucks him deep and hard like he’s desperate for it, like he’s afraid this isn’t real and Steve will take Tony away again.
This time he gets to lean close, gets to put a hand on Bucky’s shoulder and tell him, “it’s okay, it’s okay Buck, he’s yours now too. Not gonna let anyone take him away from us, no matter what.”
The Sokovia Accords come, just like Tony had always said they would have eventually.
The so called Civil War doesn’t.
There’s no Zemo pulling strings, there’s no bombing or left over tensions in the team to pull things apart.
Instead there’s Steve and Tony at the helm together, there’s Bucky watching their sixes and the rest of the team closing ranks.
This time they talk and discuss and make decisions together.
The Avengers Accords are something they can all be proud of.
When Thanos comes they face him as they always should have.
Steve and Tony and Bucky as one unit, Rhodes and the team at their backs, the people united behind their heroes.
This time they stop him.
This time Tony lives.
This time Steve gets it right.