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What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas?

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Tony didn’t know what he could possibly have been doing on this particular Christmas Eve that wouldn’t have been soul crushingly tragic…

But picking his way through debris in an abandoned warehouse in Detroit still seemed like a bad outcome. 

 

It was late in the afternoon, the fading natural light casting jagged shadows on the walls and bathing everything in a drab grey filter. The floor was littered with broken glass and chunks of machinery and crumbled fragments of dividing walls, and the air still carried the faint, sickly smell of blood. All in all, a decidedly creepy and non-Christmassy setting. 

Plus, it was fucking cold in here. 

 

Tony was rapidly regretting his decision to leave the suit in Sentry Mode at the entrance - and not for any of the reasons he should have regretted it. 

He knew that he probably should feel nervous - or at least, a little guilty - for recklessly cutting corners again. Seeing as he’d promised to stop doing that. He knew, even as he was stepping out of the suit, that it would be safer to keep it on…

But there were too many hanging wires and fallen beams for him to fly in here.

And it was so much harder to pick his way through the debris in the chunky casing of the suit. 

And he knew what he was looking for, and he really just wanted to get in and out of here…

 

And he’d been getting more impatient with the world recently. More easily distracted, more reluctant to drag himself out of his head. Just… less bothered with everything.

Maybe it was that it was run down. He’d basically been personally responsible for Global Security for the last eight months - certainly the only person stuck doing any of the politics and paperwork. He was tired. 

Or maybe it was that it was Christmas…

 

Maybe you should concentrate on what you’re actually doing right now.

 

Tony tried to tune out the background noise of injustice and self-doubt… Which didn’t actually mean he’d managed to tune into the task at hand. 

He made some random observations about his surroundings as he moved, mostly so that he could say he was doing it - not with any real plan, or purpose. 

Up until yesterday, this warehouse was being run by yet another Hydra splinter group - a handful of former ‘SHIELD’ scientists who had since gone into black market arms dealing. Chemical weapons, from the looks of the specific items in the wreckage… Although Tony knew that Rhodey had done a sweep for dangerous materials right after the raid, and he was inclined to take that for granted. 

He was only here because one of the bad guys had folded, and confessed that all of their research was on a laptop that was still in the warehouse - unless it had been destroyed. 

...Tony would be really bitter if he was about to spend hours looking for something that only existed as scraps and screws.

 

But, of course, if it was still sitting in the wreckage, then they couldn’t leave it until the forensic and recovery teams came in. Something that dangerous had to be recovered immediately. 

And Rhodey had offered to do it, but it felt unnecessary to ruin Rhodey’s Christmas when Tony was going to be miserable either way…

And, okay, so maybe it had occurred to him that if he went himself, he could skip over the paperwork and it wouldn’t be anyone’s problem but his...

 

Of course, the real problem is that everything is nobody’s problem but mine-

Tony tried to stop the thought from forming, but there it was. 

He missed the Avengers.

... He missed Steve. 

And he hated himself for missing the Avengers, and especially for missing Steve. He’d spent months listing all the reasons that he shouldn’t miss any of them, trying to convince himself that he didn’t need them - that he wasn’t as pathetic as all that.

It was a routine he couldn’t be bothered going through, right now.

 

Now, it actually seemed easier to think all these sad and lonely thoughts, rather than trying to fight them.

And everything would have been so much better, if he still had a team around him.

He did miss the happy times they’d spent together - even if none of them had been real, Tony missed thinking that they were.

He missed believing he had friends. He missed thinking that he was a part of something.

 

Maybe it would be easier to move on if he wasn’t reminded of them all the time - but it was literally his job to think about them now. 

Tony had to think about the shots that Clint would once have covered.

He had to do all the tactical thinking that he would once have left to Nat.

...He had to get out of the habit of planning like Steve would be there. He had to continually remind himself that there would be no one to cover that move, no one to hold that line… No one to catch him. 

It was very hard to do all of that without thinking about the way it was before. Or the way he thought it was, at least.

 

Of course, it would be easier to ‘move on’ from Steve if you were actually trying to.

If you actually wanted to-

 

Tony was quite happy to be distracted from that train of thought when he spotted a flash of silver amongst the remains of a desk. 

Oh, please let this be the right thing so that I can go be miserable at home-

 

And then there was a sharp snap of pain at the back of his head, and a shower of stars behind his eyes. He was thrown forwards into the floor by the force of it, his panic reflex kicking in just in time to brace for the fall - but not quickly enough to land properly. 

There was the coppery taste of blood in his mouth, and the acid smell of damp concrete, and a hot fuzz of frightened confusion. Instinctively, he threw himself onto his back, and put his arms up to shield his face-

 

And saw the guy looming over him, a length of pipe held in both hands like a bat.

 

There was a strange moment of total calm that seemed to stretch out in front of him, slowing time down…

A detached observation that it actually happened. He’d actually daydreamed and corner-cut his way to death… Like some narrative quirk. 

Iron Man is about to be killed by some random guy with a steel pipe. This feels so unlikely and so inevitable at the same time. How about that?

 

And then, just as he snapped back into reality, and started to panic about the need to stay alive, the guy went hurting forward-

Through the air…?

And landed in a heap behind Tony. 

 

Tony whipped his head around to follow the movement, catching up in time to see the guy surrender woozily into unconsciousness, sprawled out on the floor. 

And then he turned back to find the source of this unlikely event-

 

And there was Steve.

 

And Tony knew it was Steve - he wouldn’t have had this reaction, if this hadn’t been Steve.

But he didn’t even look like Steve. 

He looked…

 

Beautiful…

 

Steve’s eyes were still fixed on the man behind Tony, his features set in that fierce, determined expression that Tony had first fallen in love with - but it was as though it suited him better now. Like Steve had finally grown into that heroic quality that he’d always carried. 

…He’d grown a beard since Tony last saw him. And his hair was longer, streaked gold by the sun and trying to curl at the neck…

Somehow, he looked taller, and broader, and stronger… Was he always this commanding? 

Had Tony simply forgotten?

How long had it been since he’d seen Steve?

 

...Oh.

 

The wave of self loathing hit him immediately - and then he remembered why. 

In one awful rush, Tony remembered everything that had happened between them, all the reasons it had hurt so much, every angry exclamation that he’d spent the last eight months rehearsing...

… And now Steve was rescuing him from his own stupidity, while he stared longingly at Steve’s chest.

God, he hated himself.

And he hated Steve.

And he hated the world,

And…

 

Oh, what was the point?

 

“...Are you okay?” Steve asked, softly. There was a frisson of electricity under Tony’s skin, an automatic reaction to hearing his voice again after so long…

But it wasn’t quite enough to stop that cooling disappointment that was soaking into him. That heavy, melancholy recognition…

 

The daydreams he’d been nursing for the last eight months were no different to the rest of his relationship with Steve.

 

Tony had spent the last five years assigning Steve more feeling than was ever there, constructing a friendship out of lies and delusions - fantasising about what it would be like if Steve cared.

…But Steve didn’t care.

Even if Tony had managed any of the dignified, well rehearsed rants he’d planned out, the outcome wouldn’t be anything like he dreamed it. Steve wouldn’t be hurt on Tony’s behalf, he would never be sorry the way Tony wanted him to be… Because he didn’t feel the way Tony wanted him to. The way Tony did. 

 

… And that’s what Tony was really angry over.

That’s why he was hurt.

 

“Yeah, I’m sure I’ll live,” Tony muttered, wincing as he pushed himself to his feet. Steve took an awkward step forwards, hands hesitating halfway to reaching out for him, but Tony just stared him down. He waited until Steve had settled reluctantly into his place before he bit out a begrudging, “thank you.” And then he straightened his back, and walked right past Steve to snatch the laptop up from amongst the debris. 

 

It wasn’t as though he’d flicked a switch and severed all of his previous feelings. That would’ve been far too simple. Tony was still thrumming with adrenaline, his ribs clenched in anger and his face still flushed with a treacherous tearfulness… 

And yes, there was still the powerful, physical urge to turn around and simply look at him again, the way his eyes would’ve been drawn to a fire. There was still that impulse to picture the details of Steve’s body, that strange, watery reaction to it - and Tony still hated himself for it, by the way.

But it all felt slightly different now. Colder, and sadder, and more… resigned. 

 

“Tony…” Steve called out to him, just as Tony was turning to go. Tony stopped automatically. He hadn’t meant to, and he immediately regretted it - but here he was, looking right at Steve. 

He might’ve demanded, what? Except that he couldn’t force the words over his tongue.

He wasn’t always this commanding, I’m sure he wasn’t.

 

…He looks better without me. 

 

“Can we talk?” Steve sighed eventually, “… Five minutes? Please?”

And Tony couldn’t deny that there was a flicker of interest from somewhere deep in his chest. 

It would’ve made a better story if there hadn’t been. A cleaner story, at least. 

The reality was that the childish tug of hope, the memory of how important this once felt, and even the temptation to stare at Steve’s thighs for five minutes longer weren’t enough to reignite the passion that had just died in him. 

All the things he’d ever wanted to say had been fuelled by anger and hurt and a sense of injustice - hot, immediate feelings so powerful that they sustained themselves. Now there were mostly the burdens of disappointment and loss and shame… Feelings that drained him of all his energy and smothered any residual interest in this moment.

…He couldn’t be bothered with this either, anymore.

“I’m sorry, but I really have to get this back,” Tony replied in a perfectly neutral tone, gesturing with the laptop. “And I’ve got to get someone in here to deal with that guy - and you can’t get caught here, can you? So… Probably not the best time…”

 

He saw a flash of something in Steve’s eyes - too quick for him to read it.

And then Steve had gathered himself into that same stoic righteousness that had infuriated Tony to the point of violence in that bunker…

It simply wore him down, now.

 

“I just… I am sorry, Tony,” Steve went on anyway-

And that might’ve sparked a slightly hotter pang of interest, very briefly. Tony did pick up on the change in tone, he felt that prickle of familiarity…

He remembered, I will miss you, Tony. He remembered the tug of emotion he felt at the time…

 

… And then remembered that Steve had been keeping that secret from him, even then. 

 

“I know,” Tony nodded, politely. “I got your letter.”

“I… I wanted to call you…” Steve said, sounding almost nervous now…

A bitter little voice spoke up from the back of Tony’s mind, why didn’t you then?

But Tony already knew the answer to that-

“There was no need,” he sighed, wearily. “It’s… You want to save the world on your terms, and I’d rather do it the legal way, and… that’s that, apparently.”

Tony knew he shouldn’t have added the ‘apparently’. He already knew he didn’t have the energy to see that last stutter of petulance through to the end.

“That’s… That’s not even what I meant…” Steve winced, clearly searching for the right words. But Tony didn’t have the patience to wait for him.

“Well, whatever it is you mean, I know you probably didn’t set out hoping to hurt me, and it was what you thought was right. And…”

 

And there were only two ways to finish that sentence.

 

If he was going to try and explain why that was exactly what hurt so much-

Or why he’d dared to hope for more than someone who didn’t set out to spite him-

Or-

Well, this was the point, wasn’t it - if he was going to start down this road, he would have to go through all of it. 

And he couldn’t find the motivation to list it all out like that.

… He couldn’t bear to say it all and watch Steve nod solemnly. Not tonight.

He just didn’t have the strength for it. 

And he was cold.

 

…And his head hurt. 

 

 “...good luck with it,” he finished, resignedly, and at long last began walking towards the door.

 

He made it three broad, determined steps, his eyes deliberately fixed straight ahead, his stomach simmering with the last of his nerves-

And then Steve grabbed his wrist.  

 

It jolted up Tony’s spine as a shot of pure panic, jarring his bones into a painful stop. He’d spun round to glare at Steve before he could stop himself, his heart beating in his throat, raising his other hand reflexively against the shock of it-

But then he saw the way that Steve was looking at him.

 

It was the same flash of feeling he’d seen earlier, Tony was sure it was… But this time, Steve didn’t try to cover it. He looked at Tony with that fierce sort of tenderness, something more honest than Tony had ever seen from him… rawer, maybe…

And his lips were perfect-

 

“I miss you, Tony,” Steve whispered, with such heartfelt pain that it made Tony’s legs felt weak-

And it seemed to have come from nowhere. This reaction was so completely at odds with anything Tony had expected from Steve; it was in such stark conflict with everything Tony had just settled into…

It spoke to a deeper conflict, right at the core of him - he genuinely didn’t know whether he was terrified to get his hopes up or desperate for any chance to cling onto them…

And it shocked him out of his numb sadness, sure - but the response it sparked could only manifest as confusion-

And then panic-

 

And then before he could think anything else, Tony was snatching his hand back and bolting for the door.

 

*

 

It was up against some strong competition - but Steve was pretty sure this was the shittiest motel room yet. 

 

It was maybe six feet by eight, with a lumpy, water-stained single bed taking up most of the floor. At the foot of the bed was an ancient iron radiator, which would’ve scalded his skin off if he’d been foolish enough to touch it, but was no match for the chill creeping in  around the rusty sash windows. Steve could hear the rhythm of voices in all of the surrounding rooms, and beyond that, the sound of car engines and sirens and the occasional crash of a trash can being kicked into the street. 

He was sure that anyone forced to stay in this establishment - especially on Christmas Eve - must’ve been as desperate and unhappy as he was. He was quite literally surrounded by human misery…

 

But he did at least have a room of his own. And with the mood he was in, the privacy was worth the damp patches and the chill. 

 

He’d had the flip phone gripped in one hand for so long now that he couldn’t feel it anymore… Like it had literally become a part of him. He’d spent the last two hours trying to script an opening to a conversation that he knew he should have had months ago - but he couldn’t focus enough for a task that monumental. Put simply, he couldn’t concentrate over how miserable he was. 

And worried.

And angry. Angry at himself, at the situation, at the whole damn world…

 

But not angry at Tony. Not tonight.

 

He couldn’t deny that he had been, at times, since Siberia. There had been nights when Steve had thought back to the Bunker, and his terror that either one of them would get hurt, and he’d let his fear turn to fury. There had been plenty of occasions when he’d run through their various arguments, and simmered with the same frustrated outrage that he felt at the time. There had been irrational bursts of anger at how unfair the world was, when Tony had been pulled into Steve’s rage at Zemo, and Ross - moments when he wished so much that Tony would understand, when he’d wished that Tony had listened… 

 

Now, those moments were just more things to hate himself for.

Now, Steve realised that none of that was ever the point.

…Now, he didn’t know what to be miserable about first.

 

He flipped the phone open for maybe the hundredth time that evening, more a habit than a statement of intent. 

He was so familiar with that gesture - he’d been doing it, night after night, for eight months. 

But it was different, tonight.

 

All the nights before, Steve had known that he wasn’t actually going to call him - back then, he was under the ridiculous impression that he shouldn’t

Yesterday, Steve thought that he and Tony were in a completely different argument. He’d assumed that Tony was angry at him for the choices he’d made, resentful of the circumstances Steve had left him in. Steve had thought that Tony might feel disrespected, that he might hate Steve’s politics… That, after everything Steve had shown himself to be, maybe Tony just didn’t like him any more…

 

…But he’d never for a moment imagined that Tony would be hurt. 

Not in the way he’d looked tonight, anyway.

 

This whole time, Steve had been thinking that his personal feelings for Tony weren’t relevant to anyone but him. To be honest, he’d never thought that his feelings for Tony were important to anyone but him - it had never occurred to him that Tony might feel something for him, or that he’d particularly value any input from him, or that he’d be interested in what Steve thought of him. He’d hoped that Tony had come to like him well enough, that Tony at least knew he existed - an important milestone in any crush… But he couldn’t imagine Tony being especially pleased to see him, if he’d stopped by to ask if he was okay, as Steve had so often wished he could…

 

He never thought that Tony would care if it had killed him to keep that secret. That he’d hated himself every time he had to lie. That he’d gone to tell the truth so many times, and not been able to force the words out - because he was so scared of losing him. Because he was scared of hurting him. Because he knew that there was no way he could choose

He didn’t think Tony would care that he missed him. Why should he? Why would he want to hear that the only thing Steve truly, unequivocally regretted every day of his life was that he’d hurt Tony? 

 

And so, Steve had sent him that awkward, over-thought letter that ended up saying nothing… Because he’d wanted so much for Tony to be able to contact him, because he couldn’t bear the thought that he’d really lost him forever… He’d wanted Tony to have the phone, and couldn’t wait until he’d found the right words to send with it…

Because he didn’t think Tony would care what he had to say.

 

Steve had hoped that, maybe, with enough time, Tony might think of his own reasons to hear him out. That maybe, just maybe, there was something he could do to make this up to Tony, some way to bring them closer again. Occasionally, he dared to hope that they could find a compromise between their political differences, that Tony might judge Steve by the same standards that everyone else got to live by and forgive him his mistakes - in his daydreams, he could even imagine Tony apologising for attacking Bucky in the bunker, and finally freeing him from the impossible dilemma of loving them both. 

And, yes, a lot of the time, he worried that everything was broken beyond repair, and that he’d have to carry the pain of that for his entire life… and why should anyone care about that?

But in any case, he’d always assumed that he would have to wait for Tony to call him. That it was only fair to let Tony make that choice, that there wouldn’t be any point in starting the conversation until Tony was ready to have it - that, most likely, Tony would hang up on him if he tried making another move. 

 

…But then Steve had actually seen him.

Right there in front of him, without any warning what-so-ever-

And almost getting hurt like that-

Steve didn’t know what exactly had come over him, whether it was the adrenaline of combat or the shock of seeing him or the fact that Steve hadn’t felt that way in so very long… it just broke out of him. I miss you Tony.

 

And he’d never expected for Tony to look at him like that. 

 

It was such a visceral, honest expression, something that hit Steve right in the chest - something he understood, immediately.

And with that, Steve had realised that he’d been thinking about this all wrong from the start - which was a revelation that had carried on unfolding as this awful, endless night had gone on.

 

Tony did care about Steve as a person, as a friend … or at least, he had, once.

Tony had been hurt by what Steve did - deeply and personally hurt. Steve had seen it, in that look. He’d known it. 

Tony didn’t care about their political differences… Anymore than Steve did, now that he thought about it. They hadn’t fallen out over those - they would’ve gone on in spite of them, like they did with their disagreements about AI. 

 

And now that he saw that, Steve saw everything so clearly. 

 

Steve thought back to Tony’s sad sigh as he delivered the concession, you want to save the world on your terms, and I’d rather do it the legal way, and… that’s that, apparently. Steve recognised that Tony resented him for putting that in the letter - for so spectacularly missing the point. For being so disinterested in Tony’s feelings that he didn’t even know he’d hurt them.

He thought back to that moment in the Bunker, when Tony had tearfully demanded, did you know? Steve finally realised what Tony had needed him to say then, why he was so angry that he hadn’t.

Steve realised that Tony really didn’t know that Steve had missed him - and that it had mattered. That was what had hurt him so much…

 

And now Steve knew that he should have called Tony sooner. That Tony needed him to call sooner - that, all this time, Steve had been adding to the pain that he so regretted causing…

And now, it might be too late. 

 

Steve knew the difference between anger and sadness. He knew that if Tony was really done being mad at him, then it meant he’d given up…

It meant that Steve had had a chance to fix this, the whole time Tony was angry… It meant he’d missed eight months worth of chances to make this better, and instead made it a little bit worse, every single day…

…It meant he’d fucked this up even worse than he ever thought. 

 

Of course, the answer to all of this was to call Tony now… 

Except that Steve still didn’t know what to say. 

And he couldn’t quiet his head for long enough to work it out…

 

He looked so tired, and so lost , and if I’m the one who did that to him-

He could so easily have been killed tonight. And he never would’ve been that reckless before, he would’ve paid more attention-

He really doesn’t see the point in talking to me anymore, there’s just no fight left in him for us… And there was once, and I completely missed it…

 

He looked down at the phone again. 

There was a certain bitter amusement when he remembered how scared he’d once been of Tony’s anger. How his stomach had knotted when he tried to guess some of the things Tony might like to yell at him, how he’d tried to prepare himself for the pain of hearing them…

He’d never wondered what it would be like not to hear them. When he thought about it, that was so obviously worse. 

 

And then he thought again of Tony’s face. The flash of agonised hope when Steve finally admitted that he cared about him, the angry confusion as he flinched away… Those beautiful eyes that Steve had tried to picture every night for the last eight months…

 

It was the moment that finally broke him. The moment when not speaking to Tony became more unbearable than the thought of trying - even though he still didn’t know what to say.

 

He held his breath as he dialled Tony’s number, his heart pounding in the vacuum as the ringtone sounded… and again…

A third time… a fourth…

Steve felt it first as a splinter of hurt somewhere deep in his chest, something cutting and shocking that started to grow and dull with every additional ring, until it was sitting as a cold, dead weight in his heart…

There was a soft little click, and the ominous emptiness of blank audiotape, before the jarringly jaunty robot chimed in,

You have reached the voicemail inbox for number - six, seven-eight, two, three-seven…

Steve felt his heart break. Ground into dust rather than shattered…

He just didn’t answer…

 

And Steve really thought that he was going to hang up. Whether he was going to try again, or simply curl up into a ball and cry, he hadn’t decided - but it hadn’t occurred to him that he was going to say anything to the answerphone…

But then the beep cut in, demanding and oppressive, and then… Steve started talking. 

 

“...Tony, I… I just want you to know that I am sorry - and that I’m sorry I didn’t say that before. I’m sorry that I didn’t say it in the bunker - and I was sorry then, and I should have said it, but I didn’t think you’d want to hear it and… and because I’d fucked everything up so badly and I was panicking and I didn’t know what to say - and I should’ve done, and I’m sorry. And I am so, so sorry that I didn’t tell you about Bucky and your parents. I tried to, I just… I couldn’t stand the thought of losing you. And I know that’s stupid, and selfish, but I just-”

 

He was rudely interrupted by another discordant beep.

 

Out of time, apparently. 

 

Steve closed the phone and let that one raft of hot tears slide down his cheeks… If he’d wanted to, he could probably have given into that impulse, let his face fall into his hands and sob, but he was worried that he might never stop…

 

…Yesterday, Steve really thought that he’d fallen in love with someone who thought of him as a colleague, and then lost any chance to be around him because of his own stupid responses to impossible choices. He’d assumed that Tony was angry about what happened to his parents, and angry at Steve for all the damage he’d done, and maybe still angry that Steve had treated him so badly, in principle… Steve thought the worst thing about this was that he’d never get to be close to Tony again, when if he’d only been honest, then maybe…

 

But no, as it turned out, the man that Steve loved so much had been heartbroken that Steve didn’t seem to care about him… Tony had stood there and asked Steve to reassure him, and Steve had said nothing. Tony had spent the last eight months thinking that Steve had trusted everyone but him, that he’d been prepared to throw Tony under the bus for the ‘greater good’ - that Steve believed any of that was worth it…

 

…Actually, maybe he would just sit here and cry-

 

Except that, at that exact moment, the phone rang. 

 

Steve hiccuped as he raced to open it, keenly aware that his breath was still shuddering - but he didn’t dare pause to collect himself. He had to swallow hard before he could find his voice, and then, as he went to say Tony’s name, he heard Tony sigh.

Steve hesitated, heart in his throat, waiting to see if Tony would speak.

 

“...So, I’ve been thinking,” Tony said, eventually. “...And I’ve changed my mind. I do want to yell at you, actually.”

 

Steve melted in relief. 

And he made sure to keep the smile out of his voice. He knew that wouldn’t be appropriate, and it wouldn’t help… But he was smiling, as he answered,

 

“Okay.”