The sad thing was that it wasn’t even a surprise at all. Tony was used to it. He was used to the pain of not being good enough, he was used to be let down just when his hopes were high and he was used to be neglected for something better than him.
No big news, no big surprises, just his life being his life. The worst thing, however, was that no matter how often it had happened to him, it never stopped hurting like the very first time.
So ok, Tony collected broken promises like other people stamps and he had a quite huge collection by now. There was Howard and Pepper and Rhodey and Obi and now Steve, and it didn’t even hurt like the first time, it was so much worse, because this time he really had believed that there could be something like a happy ending for him and he loathed himself for his naiveté, his stupid hopes and his clinging heart for betraying him like that.
His knees gave in as he reached their – his – bed, the bed they once shared but he slept in alone for five months now. At the beginning, it didn’t bother him, really. And he absolutely understood.
If he would get his best friend back although he was supposed to be dead, he would have been head over heels. And of course Steve had to look after Bucky, had to make sure that he was safe, that no nightmares would wake him up or flashbacks would harm him. And he had some projects to work on anyway. It was for the best, at least he didn’t have to have a bad conscience when he came to bed late or not at all. A win-win situation, really.
But days became weeks and weeks became months and of course he had to sleep sometimes and also, he was a grown man and when the nightmares returned, he had told himself that he wouldn’t need Steve, that it was selfish to claim him when someone else needed him so much more, he was used to deal with this on his own and yes, ok, Steve had helped and at one point the nightmares had disappeared almost completely and when they did occur, Steve had always brought him down in a matter of minutes and so what, he was able to do it.
But then they became worse and worse and he didn’t sleep for days until he blacked out in his workshop in a dreamless state of darkness.
It was often Bruce who found him like this, because it was Bruce who made sure that he ate enough and he pretended that it didn’t hurt like hell the first time it wasn’t Steve who brought him a sandwich and tried to talk him into attending dinner or movie night or a board game session and in return Bruce didn’t say anything as well, just looked at him in such a sad and knowing way that Tony remained speechless.
Tiredly he grabbed into his pocket and pulled out a small and plain box, a painful smile on his face as he ran his trembling fingers over it. It was black and soft and meant for Steve, he had meant to give it to him today, he had meant to ask him the question he wanted to ask for so long, wanted to present the ring he had made himself from the remains of his first arc reactor, wanted Steve to wear it, just wanted to hear a “yes” because Steve had promised him a forever a long time ago and he had believed him like he had believed no one before.
He had believed him since the first kiss four years ago, since they became what they became far too quick and intense for him and everything was so delicate and beautiful and fragile but they had managed and he was so sure, so sure that he had found the one, but right now he reminded himself that he never did something to deserve this happy ending, no matter how hard he tried to think about something.
The first sob escaped and he clenched his jaw, pressed his hand against his lips to stop himself.
It was their anniversary but he knew that Bucky had had a hard week, the press conference last Monday had triggered a massive flashback and he couldn’t blame Steve for missing their date, really.
But a small and selfish part didn’t hesitate to remind him that this wasn’t the first time, that this was just another time he was forgotten, another time he was pushed aside for things far more important to him.
But he had forgiven Steve the times before that. At the beginning he really didn’t mind how he brought Bucky along at date night, how they chatted happily about past times while Tony was sitting next to them, entirely forgotten but at least Steve’s hand was in his and sometimes his boyfriend would shoot him a happy smile or squeeze his hand and it was worth it. But then it was never just them, at some point they barely kissed or touched – his heart ached, when was the last time they had kissed? When was the last time he had touched him? A small friendly gesture, nothing big?
He remembered when he had put a hand on Steve’s shoulder and he didn’t even react, he just shook it off and went away and Tony went straight to his workshop for four days before he returned, just to realize that he wasn’t even missed.
He remembered asking Steve for an evening together, just the two of them and remembered the anxious and burning feeling in his stomach, how his hands had shook and he couldn’t bring himself to meet the blue of Steve’s eyes. He also remembered to be woken up by heavy nightmares the night after he had told him that he wasn’t sure if that is a good idea, that he wasn’t sure if Bucky was ready to be alone for so long, reaching out to Steve’s side of the bed in need of the warm body next to him only to find it empty before he felt the heavy panic attack flooding him.
He tasted blood as the bit his lips in effort to prevent the dry sobs from escaping, clenched his hands into the rumpled sheets and tried to breath, but something tight in his chest made it hard, so hard and suddenly he gasped and he couldn’t stop the hot tears anymore as he opened the velvet box and touched the shimmery ring.
Selfish. He was so selfish. He had no right to claim him like this, not under these circumstances, but he just craved him, his attention, his affection, the warmth of his smile and the comfort of his strong arms, he craved the voice telling him that he loved him, craved the steady fingers running down his hair, craved his silent presence in his workshop and the stern command to eat or sleep, he craved his boyfriend, his lover, his anchor, his Steve.
Selfish, he reminded himself. Steve himself had told him. The one time he tried to speak up.
It was after a mission and Tony got hurt and Steve had tried to reason with him and everything had been like always and the sudden emotions he got from that overran him and he had snapped: “Why would you care, don’t you have to be with your fella?” and Steve had shouted at him that Bucky had needed him and that he had expected that Tony, out of all people, would understand.
“They were right, you are so selfish sometimes.”
The words had burned into him and he had apologized and Steve had nodded and when he had approached him to kiss him, he was long gone. After that, he had tried, he really had, but by now he should have known that everything he did would never be good enough because he wasn’t, he never would be and he was disappointed in himself that he had needed so long to come to terms with that.
But he loved him. He did so much and he knew Steve loved him, he just had better things to do, really, when he had missed Tony’s birthday he also tried to make it up, he had apologized so sincerely that he couldn’t be mad at him and they made love after that, the first time in months and it was beautiful and intense and it was all right that Steve left afterwards, people always did, after all.
He pulled the card out of his jacket the moment he calmed down enough to manage his hands again, it was a ridiculous card, something with baby animals and a cheesy text but he had seen it and it had reminded him of Steve and he had been so sure he would like it so he bought it for their anniversary, it was supposed to be a joke but he had wrote a text with words he could never bring over his lips, no matter how hard he would try because he wanted this proposal to be perfect and his incapability to express his emotions shouldn’t stop Steve from knowing how he felt and fuck, it didn’t matter anyway.
He threw both things, card and box on the bed and went straight to his workshop.
Maybe Steve didn’t love him after all, he managed and choked on the sob that threatened to escape his mouth, tried to ignore the laughter coming from Bucky’s room, ignored Bruce and Clint in the communal area he could hardly see through his blurry vision, ignored how they jumped to their feet and yelled his name, went straight to his workshop, somehow managed to order a temporary lockdown before he grabbed a bottle of booze, the one he kept that was meant to remind him to never drink again, to maintain the abstinence he kept up for five years now, opened it and chugged half of it down in one gulp before he fell apart.
Steve knew he was in trouble the second he entered the kitchen and Bruce jumped to his feet and practically escaped, a dangerous glimmer of green in his eyes.
Steve knew he was in big trouble when Rhodey jumped to his feet and punched him right in the face, followed by Clint, who dragged him onto a chair while Natasha stood there with a murderous expression on her face, sharpening a knife with quick and skilled fingers.
“Good morning.” She purred and he looked up to their angry faces, pressing a hand to his bleeding lip with a confused expression.
“What –“ he choked and flinched as Pepper – where did she come from so suddenly – slapped him right into his face.
“We need to talk.” Rhodey hissed and he had never seen the soldier so angry before and it was absolutely frightening.
“About what?” he asked sheepishly and the expressions on their faces told him that this was the absolutely wrong thing to ask.
Pepper went for him but Clint held out his arm and shot her a glance, not stern but silently telling her to be patient and Rhodey clenched his fists.
“About Tony.” Natasha said and let her knife flicker.
A sudden panic flooded him – “What happened? Is he all right?” he managed while he tried to ignore his creeping concern. If their friends would act like that, he couldn’t imagine any scenario where he was anywhere near all right.
“Is he – how dare you?” Pepper snapped and glared down at him and he suddenly wished to melt with the chair.
Instead Rhodey grabbed into his pocket and threw a small round chip onto the table Steve immediately recognized. It was the mark Tony always carried around, proud and confident, the one that said he was sober for five years now and Steve always smiled when he had seen it because he was so proud of him. But right now the sight of him terrified him, it scared him to death because this meant –
“He made it five years, Steve, five years.” Clint said, calm but still dangerous and he felt like someone had punched all air from his lungs.
“I – “ he choked, swallowed hard before he looked up again, biting his still hurting lip.
“Why did he –“
“WHY?” Pepper snapped and pushed the archers arm aside before she approached him, dragged his hair into his neck to force him to look at her burning eyes.
“When was the last time you saw him?” she asked and glared daggers to him and Steve wanted to snap back but suddenly his eyes went wide because – he didn’t know.
“When was the last time you slept in one bed?” she continued while he still tried to figure out when he saw his boyfriend the last time. Once again he tried to answer, but once again he failed to know.
“When was the last time you spent an evening – just you two?”
“I was – “ he tried weakly but he stopped because he didn’t have anything to say.
“When was the last time you told him you loved him?” she finished and let go of him and Steve wished she would have punched him instead because it would probably have hurt less.
“I had to… Bucky had –“ he tried to defend himself but it sounded hollow and false in his ears, like he wouldn’t believe himself.
“Oh please.” Natasha interrupted him and she looked at him like she agreed with his own thoughts.
“He needed you, yes. But don’t fool yourself. You needed him just as much and got yourself carried away.”
“We tried to talk him out of this.” Rhodey continued through gritted teeth. “But he always told us that it was ok and that it would be selfish to dump your stupid ass for this.”
Selfish. Steve remembered the argument they had months ago. He knew he had gone too far, he had never meant to call him selfish, he had meant to apologize for that moths ago. He had forgotten and this thought was like another punch in his face.
“Bruce had spent nights with him.” Pepper continued. “Because his freaking nightmares had returned and he couldn’t sleep.”
Steve stared at her. Tony didn’t have nightmares for years now. He knew it. He had spent the nights with him. He had. Not anymore. His head hurt.
“I thought he had hit rock bottom when we broke up. But it’s nothing against this.”
Steve didn’t dare to look up anymore, he felt like he didn’t deserve to be here, in their kitchen with them. He had screwed up bigger than he ever had. He never meant, he never –
“I’m so sorry.” He croaked and he knew it didn’t change a thing.
The bitter laugh Rhodey uttered underlined that.
“Don’t be. It doesn’t change shit, Rogers.”
“We found that in his room.” Clint said and Steve flinched. ‘His room’.
Steve looked up and took what they offered him and a pained sob escaped his throat as he realized the small black box and he didn’t need to open it to knew what it contained. Every fiber of his body burned like a fever and with shaking hands he took the card, it was an anniversary card – their anniversary. They were supposed to go out yesterday. He had forgotten. He had… he wanted to die.
“What do I do?” he sobbed with a shaky voice and buried his face in his hands. He needed to make this right. He needed Tony. He couldn’t – what had he done?
“Well, you better move your ass and apologize and make up for a lot of things and maybe your oh so precious boyfriend will forgive you, if you deserve it or not.” Clint replied grimly.
“I hope he doesn’t.” Rhodey spat and he heard how he left the room, followed by Pepper.
“Good luck with that.” Natasha simply said before she grabbed Clint and left him alone with his thoughts, his pain, his breaking heart.
Of course he didn’t blame Bucky. Bucky had told him often enough that he was ok, that he spent too much time with him and should go out with Tony or sleep in their room before he would snap. But Steve had always took it for granted that he was ok with that, that he understood and yes, they were right, he had let himself carry away, let himself believe that he could have his life back, that he could be the young careless boy from Brooklyn again and it went good for a while, until it didn’t.
He blamed himself, it was entirely his fault and it made it so much harder as he stood in front of Tony’s – no, their – door, a hand ready to knock but he couldn’t bring it over him.
He was scared that he had destroyed everything, that he wouldn’t want to see him or he wouldn’t forgive him, he was afraid to open the door and find the remaining shatters of what used to be the best thing ever happened to him, the broken pieces of the relationship he destroyed.
He knew he was a coward and he knew he didn’t deserve forgiveness, but his heart ached as he thought about losing the man that was most important to him.
And he knocked. A tired grunt was the answer and for a matter of seconds a smile crept on his face until he remembered and it died on instance.
Slowly he pushed the door open, eyes focused onto the ground and closed it quietly behind him, not moving an inch.
“Go ‘way, Rhodey, I’m ok.” Tony muttered, his back still towards him and Steve cleared his throat.
“Seriously, I –“ he had rolled around and froze as he saw Steve standing there, eyes shocked and mouth open mid-word.
“Hey.” Steve managed and looked up and he felt how his breath faltered by the sight he got.
Yes, he didn’t gave Tony much attention the last few weeks but how could he not realize how pale he was, how dark the circle under his eyes have been, how skinny and unhealthy he looked, how unlike himself, how hollow his eyes were, how his shoulders hang without a hint of his usual confidence.
“Oh. It’s you” Tony simply said and looked down, hands clinging into the comforter.
“Yes, it’s me.” Steve answered and he knew how stupid it was but his brain was on full lockdown and everything inside of him screamed and he was not capable of another reply.
“Look, I’m sorry, Steve. It was – nothing, ok? I am fine, you don’t need to –“ Tony began with a cracked voice, still refusing to look at him and Steve had to close his eyes for a moment because the pain he felt was blinding.
“Stop it.” He whispered, looking up again and saw Tony trying to make himself smaller and all he wanted to do is to turn back time and make things right again. Instead he approached their bed and let himself sink onto his side and was overwhelmed by the feeling of how much he had missed that, being here and being with him.
Tony stared at him with wide eyes, he saw his hands making an abrupt movement like he wanted to reach out for him but he stopped in the midst and Steve growled because Jesus!
Instead he pulled the brunette in a tight hug, inhaling the familiar scent deeply, knowing that this could be the last time, it was already more than he deserved but he couldn’t bring himself over it to leave him like that when Tony needed him, obviously needed him so much.
At first he was tense in his arms and he sucked in his breath deeply but then he let his arms slide over his back, touching him carefully and testing and after a few moments passed, he practically felt him break down in his arms, heard the sob and felt the shaking of his shoulders and the nails digging in his neck and the damp fabric on his shoulders and he bit his lips to stay strong, only held him tighter, breathing in and out and tried to bear the thought that this was his fault.
It needed longer than he liked until Tony finally let go of him, not let go of him, he practically pushed him away and shifted back to the edge of the bed and the panic was written all over his face.
“Tony –“ Steve yelled, trying to suppress his own overwhelming panic.
“Shit, Steve, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to –“
“Stop it, now.” He hissed and regretted it immediately as Tony flinched and he grabbed one of his boyfriend’s hands and pressed a tender kiss on his knuckles, not breaking eye contact and he saw how he became quiet again, how his breathing normalized and his shoulders relaxed.
“Don’t be sorry, sweetheart.” He mumbled and took the other hand as well before he inhaled deeply.
“You don’t have to be sorry at all. I have to be. And I can’t tell you how much I am.” He said and his voice was sad and tired.
“You don’t have to – Bucky –“
“Bucky is my friend. I should be there when he needs me. But you are my boyfriend, you are the most important person in my life and I have no right to neglect you like that.” He simply said and didn’t dare to look at Tony.
“Babe, god, I –“ he breathed out sharply. “Jesus, I was such a terrible person. You don’t deserve that, really, this was unfair and I – Tony, I am so darn sorry for what I did, I didn’t realize how much you needed me and I was fine because I was with my best friend but this morning Rhodey and Pepper – and I could only think about you leaving me and when I think about that, I – I can’t breathe right.” He croaked and tried to maintain eye contact again and the brown was full of hurt and surprise and fear and love and Steve felt how tears ran down his cheeks.
“You have every right to do whatever you want, I deserve to be left, it would break my heart but I don’t deserve you after this, but god, I love you and you are kind and amazing and beautiful and you should be told every day and I didn’t, on the contrary, I only hurt you and I am so so sorry, love.” He finished, his hands trembling but he held Tony’s tight and firm because this could be the last time, his last chance.
Tony just continued staring at him, his lips parted and his eyes glimmering suspiciously.
“I could never leave you.” he finally croaked and squeezed his hands and Steve let out the breath he didn’t even knew he had held.
“But I can’t do this anymore either. I tried, I really did, I tried not to be selfish but Steve, I need… I need…”
“You don’t have to.” he promised and he would rather die than to break this promise. “You’re not selfish, I was. But I won’t… I won’t do this anymore. I’ll change. I swear I’ll change because I can’t have you hurt like this and I can’t lose you, I need you, Tony.”
Tony stared disbelievingly.
“Let’s get away.” He just said and hoped to make a step in the right direction.
“Let’s disappear. Fly away. Travel. Just you and me. For a month. Wherever we want to go.”
“He will be fine.”
“Are you serious?”
“If you want to, I will pack my things right away. If you give me this chance, I will… I will make things right, I promise.”
Tony considered for a second and it was the longest moment he ever had to endure.
“I have an island in the pacific.”
“Sounds perfect.” He said and smiled and Tony smiled and it was the first time he had seen it for months and it was like seeing the sunlight after a long night again.
“Just do it, punk.” Bucky said and punched his arm and Steve flinched.
“Do what?” Tony asked suspiciously from his other side. They were sitting in the kitchen, cuddled up next to each other when Bucky had entered it to grab a coffee. A year had passed and they had managed, it was hard and long and beautiful and Steve loved every second of it.
“You want to ask him for weeks now, it’s pathetic.”
“Get lost.” Steve muttered tense.
“Excuse me, what’s going on here?” Tony asked amused as Bucky stacked out his tongue and left the room again.
“Uhm.” Steve muttered, his hand fumbling with the box he had hidden in his pocket. The same velvet box Tony had used, but with a different ring, a ring he had designed together with Bruce.
“Nothing.” He mumbled. Tomorrow was their anniversary. They would go out. A fancy restaurant somewhere in Brooklyn. Just the two of them. He would do it. Tomorrow. It was his turn, nevertheless.