It’s raining. Steve’s feet are wet. Hands on cards, cards should be in pocket, why isn’t there a teleprompter, surely when something is televised they give you a teleprompter? He runs over advice in his head: look up regularly, if you fluff a line wipe your eye like you’re crying. Ad lib something about how grateful you are that Tony secured your pardon, and how you know he worked so hard for you, the team, the world.
That’s all you have to say. That’s all he has to say.
His cards are wet, now. The ink is running all over the page. It had been sunny earlier, they’d carried Tony’s coffin through the streets, draped in a flag, and it had been sunny. But the air had felt heavy, bursting, and now the rain is dribbling down, the sky is grey, and no one has an umbrella.
The guests who get seats: Potts and Rhodes. Tony’s big friend, the boxer, whose name Steve can’t remember. Natasha, Vision, Helen Cho. Clint has come, and is sitting silently with his wife, his children, who are crying even though they never knew Tony, not really. Sam is there, stoic, head down, hands folded in his lap. Vision looks out of place in a suit, yet listens the most intently out of all of them as a religious man — what kind of religion, what denomination? Why is there someone like this at Tony Stark’s funeral at all? — talks about ashes to ashes, heroism, sacrifice. Steve keeps thinking about how heavy the coffin had felt, and how awful it was Rhodey didn’t get to be a pallbearer, and how in another world it could have been different, and Tony could be carrying Steve.
Anyway: the guests who get seats. T’challa, and an entourage, sitting at the front. Maria Hill, who is pretending not to cry, and Sharon, who rests her head on her shoulder, holds her hand, rubs her knee. General Ross (sorry, Mr Secretary of State), President Ellis, a few ambassadors, UN representatives. The entire board of Stark Industries, Tony’s acquaintances, what few, extended relatives he actually has (a cousin once removed, a great-aunt), and, shockingly, friends. Friends of Tony’s that Steve has never met, but men and women who are now crying, dabbing their eyes. People he grew up with, people he worked with, people that are part of a life Steve never really knew about. The life of a real person.
The people who do not get seats: camera crews, lots of them. Reporters. The thousands who have turned out on the streets, holding flowers in red and yellow, the children in their Iron Man costumes. Then, the millions who are watching this in Britain, in France, India, China, Australia, Kenya, Mexico, South Africa, the list goes on.
Also not sitting: a black man in a black suit, sunglasses large on his face, a scar just visible on his cheek. He stands with his hands in his pockets, unconcerned by the crowd, because he is long dead and no one is looking for him now. Another, wearing a sweater that’s too big, black curls hidden by cheap beanie and pants filled with holes. A bum. He has lost his glasses, and he won’t get too close in case Ross decides to look up.
The pastor is still talking. Great sacrifice, yes, such a great sacrifice. A philanthropist, a man who gave so much to those who had so little. A man who realised the error of his ways and spent so many years trying to atone for his mistakes, an example to anyone that any act of goodness, no matter how small, is worthwhile. Is this Tony he’s talking about? Steve is trying to match up the man being described with the image of Tony passed out on a couch surrounded by a pack of beers, or smiling as he tossed a pancake, or humming when he wakes up, turning his head and looking at Steve with wide warm eyes —
“And here, on the spot where his family is buried, we see a great life come to an end. A hero.”
A hero, the crowd murmurs back in response.
The rain is heavier now. The grass is turning to mud, and the flag on Tony’s coffin is soaked. Steve will need to speak soon. Quick, what does he say. What were his lines again? Heroism, sacrifice, home, this is really simple Steve, it’s three minutes and then you’re done.
(It should be longer, it should be more. Steve doesn’t want to say goodbye like this, he needs more time, he needs to say more than just — )
Thunder. Lightning. The congregation gasps, and the acrid smell of ozone fills the air. Thor is walking down the aisle between the chairs, he’s wearing a dark suit, his hair is tied back on his head in a bun. Steve wants to laugh, almost hysterically, because it’s so inappropriate that he looks like an Armani model, and Ross’s eyes are bulging from his head like he wants to swing around and get Thor to sign the Accords right there and then.
On the screen projecting the funeral to the crowds they show Thor taking an empty seat — left empty out of respect for him, as an Avenger — settling down, and respectfully turning his head to the platform. It takes the congregation a moment to recover. Then Potts is at the podium.
All the speeches are carefully manufactured. None of them give away anything, not about Tony, not about how he was before he died. They just talk about how he was so kind, and so clever, and how generous, brave, strong. The rain doesn’t stop.
Is Tony’s body in that coffin? It’s terrifying if it is. Did they stitch it back together with a needle and thread? Or did they just bundle him in, a collection of body parts? They should have had him cremated, why didn’t they do that? The idea of Tony, resting like that, not built the way he was born, it makes Steve want to vomit. They should have cremated him, flown his ashes out over the sea, over the sky, over space. Now he’s going to be grounded forever, a patchwork puzzle (there’s a reason it isn’t open casket) and stuck in the earth, buried. Jesus, that’s not right, that’s just not right, Tony needs to be in the air, somewhere he can hum, and fly —
“And now, Captain Rogers.”
Silence. He’s standing behind the podium. He doesn’t remember moving.
The world watches him.
Steve blinks. He fumbles for his cards, but his fingers are numb. They’re soaked through, and the ink has melted into the page. He squints, smooths them out, time ticks on.
Time ticks on. Still, no one talks.
Steve clears his throat. “Tony Stark,” he begins, and his voice cracks embarrassingly. He swallows, clenches his fingers on the podium. There’s some microphone feedback, and he winces. The podium is wet, Steve’s hair is wet, his suit is wet. Tony’s body is behind him, and the flag is wet. He has to pause to push damp hair from his brow, dry his face, blinks rain from his eyes. “Tony Stark was — my friend. First and foremost, he was my friend.”
(No, he wasn’t.)
“We had our differences. Ideologically, we never quite saw eye to eye. But — Tony saw the bigger picture, even when…” Steve swallows, stops pretending to read from his cards. “Even when others could be so short sighted.”
(He wonders if Bucky is watching this at home, or if he’s keeping his promise to turn off when Steve comes on.)
“He was a futurist, in the broadest sense of the word. He was — haunted, by possible outcomes. Everything he did, I know, he did with the intention of bettering mankind. He saw that we aren’t alone anymore, in the universe. He saw we needed to deal with larger threats, we needed to adjust to a new world order. Even when so many — myself, included — were so fixed on the old, the past, Tony knew that, if we wanted to survive we had to move forward. And for that, I know he will be remembered. As a Darwin, as an Einstein. As a… Mother Theresa, as a healer, a scientist, a peacemaker. I hope — after everything that happened between us, I would hope — “
Steve doesn’t know. His mind has come up dry, and empty. It’s still raining. The world is still watching.
Time keeps moving. A minute goes by, two. Someone taps his shoulder. Steve can’t —
“I hope he would still call me friend,” he blurts, suddenly. “I would hope he would still call me friend, because — it would be an honour.”
And he’s crying. The wet on his cheeks is not rain. “It would be — “ his voice hitches, his shoulders clench, and he’s about to start sobbing here, in front of everyone, on this stage, with Tony’s body behind him in a coffin with a flag that is wet, and it is still raining, and his suit is soaked and his hair is soaked and the air still smells of ozone, the cameras are still trained on his face, his friends are still staring at him with pity, and time ticks on, and it is still raining. “An honour,” he manages once more. “Because he was my friend. And he was a great man. But — more than that, to me. A friend.”
(A lie: they were lovers.)
The streets are still full of people, so they have to get cars back to the tower. Steve is stopped by friend’s of the deceased, fans, the crowd outside the cemetery gates now screaming Tony’s name, holding up placards and pictures. There’s a small, roped off group who are chanting obscenities. Murderer! Scumbag! Sellout!
A lot of other cards have his name. His picture. Steve Rogers, the traitor. Captain Asshole. His face with the eyes crossed out, facist written across his forehead, an upside down cross pinned on his cheek. It’s a bit much, Steve thinks. It’s a funeral.
Someone throws something. A rock. It hits him on the temple. It doesn’t hurt, but he’s bleeding. “It’s your fault!” A woman scream “It’s all of you! You were meant to help us! You were meant to save us!”
Steve dabs fingers to the side of his head, and they’re red. He smears it on his fingers. God, Tony had bled. It hadn’t been that fast, either. Slow and sluggish. And then —
“Sir,” one of the men in black says, pressing a finger to his ear. “There’s reports of rioting downtown. We need to get you somewhere safe.”
“YOU HEAR THAT?” Someone shouts through the crush of people “THERE’S RIOTING!”
People start to scream, either in fear or anger, and Steve is very nearly taken up in it. Someone spits on his cheek. Someone has spat on him. He turns to see who it is, irrationally angry, but they’ve been taken up in the crowd and now he’s being shepherded towards a car —
“CAPTAIN!” Someone screams “MR ROGERS!”
There’s a kid frantically waving his hand, trying to push past the crowds of people. He gives one man a shove and he goes flying, cursing and knocking into six others. “WAIT, MR ROGERS! YOU KNOW ME! I’M FROM QUEENS! I’M FROM — “
The door is slammed shut. Natasha hasn’t made it in; she’ll take another car. The crowds rock the vehicle back and forth and the driver revs threateningly. They part easily. Steve drives away. Tony is in the ground.
After, there is a gathering. The tower hasn’t been occupied by them in so long. Once, they all stayed here, lived here. Before Wanda, before Bucky, in a temporal vacuum, the good days. The days when he and Tony would share the same bed, rise together in the mornings, join back at night. The days where they were all united in the joint concern of erasing HYDRA from the world, the days where Tony and he would go on trips to Europe dressed in civilian clothes, on the pretence of a mission to find Bucky, to gather intel, but really they would walk along rivers and eat at country kitchens and smoke on balconies while people younger than them walked on the streets below, alive and happy.
There are too many ghosts.
The tower hasn’t been touched since the Ultron debacle. Glass still lies strewn on the floor, overturned cups, lights crashed over the bar and Ultron’s robots still lying in pieces. The sight of them, missing heads, arms, legs, it makes him want to vomit. He might actually vomit. Please, God, don’t let him vomit here, when he’s already embarrassed himself too much to quantify —
His foot crunches on glass. He looks down. It’s a beer bottle. Was this a beer that Tony drank? Could it be? The idea that he just crushed it pains him, like instead he should have preserved it, that thing that was once Tony’s, that once touched his lips.
“This place is a dump,” Clint mutters, family gone. “He didn’t have it cleared?”
“I think he had other priorities,” Natasha says bluntly.
“And Bruce is a no show.” Maria states, picking her way through rubbish. “Why am I not surprised?”
“He was there,” Steve finds himself speaking up. “I saw him. It’s dangerous for him to even show his face.”
“He could sign like the rest of us, Steve.”
“I think Ross would just kill him, actually,” Steve says absently.
You can tell Thor’s arriving just by the rumble that carries through the ground. A new humidity in the air. His presence long ago stopped being threatening to Steve, but the hair on the back of his neck still prickles when he enters a room. Static, probably. “I’m late,” Thor says. “Apologies.”
“Late?” Maria asks, raising an eyebrow. “You haven’t been here. At all.”
“There have been other things to attend to.”
“Yeah,” Clint muses “I guess anything’s more important than Earth, right?”
“Was I needed to aid you in tearing yourselves apart?”
“Pick a side, man.”
“Clint,” Steve warns. It lacks strength. “Bruce should have been here. He was Tony’s friend too.”
(More than them. Bruce was the only one out of all of them who really ever treated Tony like a friend. And when Tony took a side he couldn’t agree with, he did the right thing, and didn’t get involved.)
“What will happen to the tower?” Thor asks “Will it be left like this?”
Steve doesn’t have an answer; why is Thor asking him anyway? Why would he know? “I think they’re talking about turning it into — a monument. This floor and up.”
“Our old rooms,” Natasha says dully.
“Yeah. Anything below… probably flats. It’s already got built in office space, and it’s the first building to run off arc powered — “ Steve halts. Will any other building ever run off arc reactor technology? Or has humanity’s advancement come to a halt, a sudden plateau, just like that, hit a wall, because now Tony is dead.
Tony is dead.
“And us?” Clint asks. “What about us?”
“We’ll go back,” Natasha says simply. “Back to HQ.”
“Without him?” Clint says, and suddenly he sounds stricken. “How are we supposed — “
“Where else is there?” Maria snaps. “God Clint, stop acting like there was any love between you after — “
“You want to fight?” Thor asks quietly. “You stand here, in the tower that was once your home, without the man who built it, and you argue? While he is still fresh in the ground?”
“Let’s drink,” Steve says suddenly. “We should drink.”
“I can’t see you drowning your sorrows, Cap.”
“In honour. Tony kept scotch under our — “ a beat. Steve rectifies his sentence. “Under the bed in his room,” he finishes dully.
“You think it would still be there?” Maria asks with an arched brow. “After everything?”
“Sure,” Steve says awkwardly. He realises that he doesn’t want to go back into the bedroom the once shared. He realises it would probably be bad taste to drink, all things considered.
It’s Thor who smoothes over the awkward moment. “The funeral was a spectacle,” he says.
“Tony was an important man,” Clint answers. “People wanted to say goodbye.”
“He still is important.” Natasha snaps.
“Of course,” Thor eases. “Which is why we should hold a ceremony. Our own ceremony.”
“I’ll be honest, Thor, I didn’t think you two were that close.”
Thor rounds on Clint. The air crackles, and almost bursts. Natasha’s hair is floating in air, standing on end, and Clint looks like he’s been electrocuted. “Don’t be simple,” he says heavily. “Where I come from, fighting side by side with a man is enough to bind you together for life.”
“And what? You want to dig him up, kick him out to sea and have me torch the motherfucker with an arrow? You think that’ll make this better?”
“Shut up, Clint.” Natasha mutters.
“I wouldn’t disturb the dead,” Thor says evenly. “An artefact would suffice.”
“What is this?” Maria asks. “Some kind of… nordic ritual? You trying to send Tony to Valhalla, Thor?”
“You shouldn’t speak about things you don’t understand,” he responds quietly.
“I think we should,” Steve says, and his mouth is dry. “Do something personal. Something — with us. All of us.”
Natasha is rubbing his shoulder, looking at him sympathetically. “Sure, Steve. It would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
“And then — “ Steve begins. He trails off. He has nothing to say.
Neither does anyone else. One by one, they disappear, and go their separate ways.
The tower remains empty.
Something had happened, after Ultron.
Steve had still loved Tony. With everything he had, maybe.
But he could feel himself pulling away.
When Tony called, he would let his phone ring out. He would ignore his texts, not even glance at his screen, just to pretend to himself he hadn’t seen them. When he heard Tony’s voice calling out, across the kitchen, from the study, he would wince, dread the moment he’d have to smile and ask Tony what was wrong, or make conversation.
He hated himself for it. Worse, he hated Tony for making him feel that way.
The desire to keep what they had, to keep it going, was paramount. At the back of Steve’s mind, there was the knowledge that Tony had done something bad. That he’d built this robot, this AI, and it had nearly destroyed the world.
And when Steve had to hold him at night, when Tony would roll and give him a sleepy smile, it would hurt his chest, make him choke with guilt. He didn’t want this to end, but in his heart he knew the good days were over.
Tony stopped humming in the mornings.
They had fallen into bed together some time after Loki. It hadn’t been an official thing; Steve was still desperately repressing any side of him that held an attraction for other men and Tony wasn’t much better. They had been angry, fighting, shouting.
They started the way they ended.
Steve, shamefully, had slammed Tony into the wall. And Tony — packing a lot of muscle at the time, but still not ever enough to beat Steve — had responded the best way he knew how. He’d slapped him, which had hurt, and Steve had seen red. And by the time he’d realised they were kissing, they’d moved to the kitchen counter, and then the bedroom.
They had woken up next to each other. That was the first time Steve ever got to see Tony’s slightly sheepish, lazy morning smile. It wouldn’t be the last.
Tony had made pancakes. Apologised, and said he wasn't used to sharing a command. Steve had agreed, said he shouldn’t have reacted the way he had, and the whole time all he could think about was the way Tony had throbbed in his hand and the way his neck is still bruised with the marks of his teeth.
The next time, Tony has moved back to New York. It’s been seven months since their one night stand, and Steve hasn’t thought much of it since. In that time, Tony has taken on a terrorist group and won by the skin of his teeth. He says he doesn’t want to be iron man anymore, that he’s going to stay in New York while he recovers.
“Recover?” Steve had asked.
“Surgery.” Tony had explained. “Arc reactor. Other things, too. Best kind of therapy is to… face your fears.”
“Yeah,” Steve had agreed. “Amen to that.”
They toasted their glasses, and ended up in each others arms not much later.
In the short lived months where Steve tries to make a life in Washington, Tony would visit. Ostensibly on business, mostly to fuck. It worries Steve that his apartment was bugged; did Pierce hear that? Was Rumlow laughing at him? Steve hates the idea that any one of those bastards could hold that sort of information over Tony, or over him. That Tony’s moans could be put down to memory and stored, that his laugh broken down and memorised for further reference, the way he would sing to the records Steve played manipulated and changed into a poor mimic.
When drunk, Tony could go one of two ways: he could be your best friend, or your worst enemy. Steve learnt early to tell the two apart, to predict who he was getting before Tony even took a sip. If Tony arrived at his doorstep eyes shuttered, disheveled, shoulders tense and — most likely — briefcase in hand, Steve knew to silently pass him a shot, get it over with, like ripping off a bandaid.
Those nights, Tony would either drink himself to sleep (best outcome), want Steve to fuck it out of him (middling), or work himself into a rage (bad). And, granted, it was the only time Steve ever really got to see him angry, and it wasn’t often, but it was mildly scary. It would remind Steve of himself as a child, hiding under a table, under a bed, behind his mother’s hip, when his father spat and screamed and smashed.
Sometimes Tony would break down. “I’m my father,” he would croak “I’m turning into dad.”
“You should sleep.”
And Tony would wail, pitch himself in Steve’s shoulder, and on those nights Steve was happy to hold him, to sit with him, to wait until he quietened and then surreptitiously replace his drink with tea.
But on the good nights? Tony would dance, and he would laugh, and Steve would laugh with him. He would swing Steve around the floor of his small apartment, clear out the couches and coffee table so they could dance. Tony would rifle through Steve’s records, bring his own, ones he bought as a teenager and out of sentimentality never threw away. He keeps them at Steve’s so they’re always ready to play.
And he sings, softly, or loudly. He would stand on the roof and smoke, singing Steve’s favourites while wrapped in his sweater. When you cut through the bravado, and act, and put-on mannerisms, Steve learns that Tony is clever, in the most pure sense of the word. He learns that he loves music. He learns that while his moods can oscillate depending on his day at work, he always has time for Steve. And while the age gap is big, Tony is not quite as modern as he puts on.
After Project Insight, and Bucky, and Sam, and all the rest of it, Tony visits him at the hospital. No one knows what they’ve been doing together, and so Tony can’t hold his hand. But he leaves a note, and an MP3 loaded with all of Steve’s favourite songs.
Steve is the last to arrive back at HQ, in the early hours of the morning.
Few people are still up. It looks like Potts, Rhodes and Vision held their own sort of wake, one that Steve and company were not allowed to be part of. There are pictures strewn across the coffee table, a younger Tony with a green wig and prank glasses in the shape of a star, cigarette in mouth and eyes wide with drugs, probably. Tony in swimming trunks, much, much younger, most likely as a young boy, beaming proudly. Others, of Howard and Maria holding a baby in their arms, and Tony on his dad’s shoulders. Then, Tony on Rhodey’s shoulders, both of them grinning manically wearing college sweaters, a birthday party and cake, twenty-seven candles and Tony’s face lit by flame, Tony reaching out across a bed, laughing, while the person who takes the photo snaps him in movement.
A whole life lived. Birth to death.
There’s a picture there, of Tony towards the end. His face is more lined, and he’s smiling, strained, like someone has told him to pose for the camera. One hand is tucked in his hair, the other holding a pen while he pours over papers. Steve recognises the shirt: this was probably the last photo that was taken before —
Steve pockets the one of Tony in bed. It reminds him of their lazy mornings. He wishes he’d had the forethought to take his own pictures, before it was too late.
He finds Thor still up, in conversation with Vision, who is still wearing his black suit. “Good morning,” Steve says, even though it’s still dark out.
“Steven,” Thor greets. “I hope you don’t mind, but I intend to stay awhile. Settle my earth affairs.”
“Stay as long as you want. Just be warned — “
“The General? Yes, Banner has mentioned him. I don’t doubt I can handle it.”
“You’ve been in contact with Bruce?”
Thor turns away like he hasn’t heard. “Last time I was here, we parted as friends. What went wrong?”
“I don’t expect you to understand.”
“You wanted to save your friend. Barnes. I understand that, Steven. I — I sometimes think there isn’t much I wouldn’t have done to have saved my brother.”
Thor sounds weary, tired. Steve doesn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry,” he begins “I know that — if Loki — “
“Loki was a monster, I don’t doubt it. But that didn’t stop me from wanting to tear the earth apart to save him from himself. The difference being,” Thor says, with a hint of reproach “I didn’t. I couldn’t let myself. Because I had others to think of. Other duties.”
“You think I made a mistake.”
“I know you’ll never forgive yourself. I don’t see much point in labouring the details.”
“Oh, well that’s very gracious of you.”
Thor doesn’t sound angry. There’s no tell-tale ozone. He just sighs heavily. “You’re old,” he says “but still very young. I was like you once, Steven. Had you twenty more years under your belt, I don’t doubt you and Stark would have seen eye to eye quite happily.”
“You really think that?”
“When you get older, you realise the world rests on compromise.”
Steve is silent after that. Thor doesn’t speak either. They sit in companionable quiet.
Eventually, Steve says “The Arc Reactor. You should use the reactor.”
“For the ceremony. If you wanted to use something precious, it would be the arc reactor.”
“Yes,” Thor says “yes, that would do.”
“It’s important the artefact holds great sentimental value.”
“Because it’s a ceremony. Why else?”
Steve realises he’s skirting around what he wants to say. “But — you talk about Valhalla.”
“I talk about what I know to be Valhalla. It’s not a term I coined, Steven. The humans who worshipped us, they created Valhalla. It was their name for the afterlife. The one afterlife, it would seem.”
“Why do you mean?”
Thor shrugs. “You would be better asking Loki, he always paid more attention to philosophy. Natasha took me to a church once, I’ve been told about the Christian notion of heaven and hell. I suppose every culture, universally, has a different name for where their good people go.”
“And Tony — I mean, you’ve been to Valhalla?”
Thor smiles, looks at Steve from the side of his eye. “It’s a difficult concept to explain.”
“I’m not a god, Steve. I am a person, like any other. But around the universe, there are… different species of human.”
“There are more of us? Out there?”
“Thousands. Millions. Civilisations have been and gone in the time long before earth existed. Don’t strain yourself, now, I wouldn’t want to give you a headache.”
“I am Aesir. You are human. What we call magic, you call science. Loki, for all his talents, is nothing more than a particularly adept physicist. Or was it chemist? Where’s Tony when you need him, hmm?”
“And Valhalla? What is that?”
“A dimension, I suppose. Your notion of God, it isn’t… unfamiliar, across the worlds. Maybe there was someone who created everything, on Asgard we have our own myths. I am supposedly a god, although I can’t think of myself that way. But yes: Valhalla. Another dimension, if you will. I have been there often in my youth, because on Asgard we possess that ability.”
“So Tony — “
“I cannot bring him back, Steven,” Thor says, so gently. “I would not.”
“But you could?”
A long pause. “I would not lie to you,” Thor says gravely. “There would be ways. Death could be consulted — oh, don’t look at me like that, it is complicated, didn’t I tell you? A bargain could be struck, I could rewrite Stark’s fate. But I cannot promise the man I brought back… I cannot promise he would be the same.”
“But he would be here.”
“It would be selfish, Steven.”
“Selfish?” Steve blusters “How? To, to miss my friend? My — my only — “
A heavy hand rests on his shoulder. “Those who go to Valhalla do not leave easy. A world of eternal happiness, pleasure. Would you take that away? Take it away from a man who — who suffered so much, before he fell?”
“But I want him,” Steve croaks. “I need him.”
“I know,” Thor says simply. “But now, he’s gone. And I would not re-write nature to get him back.”
After Insight, after HYDRA, after the fall of the helicarriers and crumbling of the Triskelion, it had been the good days.
Steve moves home to New York. He lives in the tower, joining Natasha and Bruce and Rhodey, who never left. Clint drops in from time to time, and eventually Thor joins them too. Tony gives Sam a flat rent free, and he hosts veteran meetings in the conference room of Stark tower, which are attended by hundreds. He even convinces Tony to go, once, although Steve got the feeling it was more to please Steve than anything else.
They’re united, and focused on a common goal, a common enemy. Steve and Tony hold what can only be called a healthy relationship.
It’s good to have something to do.
Steve doesn’t know how much the others know about their relationship. He thinks they must suspect, because he and Tony don’t go out of their way to hide it. Among friends, they don’t mind who knows, but won’t be oblique. Tony is still reticent, and Steve understands that all too well.
It pains Steve to think that that year and a half is the best year of his life ever lived. How they were all so full of hope. Steve, so close to finding Bucky, with a family, and friends. Tony, believing in the change he was enacting, free of the reactor in his chest. Tony smiled often back then. He stopped drinking so much.
God, they were happy.
“Favourite decade,” Tony asks him, smiling up from where he’s lying splayed out on the couch. “One two three go.”
“What kind of question is that?!”
“Favourite decade. If you had to choose one, what’s your favourite period of time?”
“You think I’m qualified to answer this question?”
“Well for the record, mine was the nineties.”
“Just so I get this clear: you ask me a question you know I can’t answer because you want to give me a little monologue on your favourite decade?”
Tony grins. “Exactly.”
“Well go on then, tell me why the nineties were your favourite decade,” Steve had smiled indulgently. “Make it good.”
Natasha tells him that, the night Tony died, they find him scrambling around, trying to patch him back together. “You were holding a foot and sobbing,” she tells him.
That’s not how Steve remembers it. He remembers holding Tony while he died in his arms. Maybe he did that, and then his mind snapped. Maybe that’s when he decided he would try and fix Tony like a puzzle. Piece together what he’d lost.
Now, Steve is lying in the bed they used to share.
Thor’s warning is fresh in his mind. Tony would not be the same man if he was brought back. That it would be abhorrent, re-writing nature. But if Steve got to live, and Bucky got to live, and they were dragged past death kicking and screaming, why not Tony?
The pillows still smells of him.
Tony hadn’t left this bed much in the weeks before the accident. In fact, he’d spent most days lying here, either asleep, pretending to sleep, or surfing the internet. Sometimes he would lacklustrely pick up his work, try to get back to basics, invent simple things, but he would laugh and say whoever thought depression fuelled creativity was an idiot.
“You’re not depressed,” Steve had said “you’re just — this is a funk, Tony.”
“Yeah,” Tony had agreed dully.
Steve had thought they would have more time, you see. He had thought, okay, so now Tony’s depressed, but so was I once. And it gets better eventually. We have so much time left, Tony won’t always feel this way, and someday he will get better.
Of course, that didn’t happen. And now Steve sleeps in their bed, and Tony rests six feet under, packaged and stuffed and stitched up for propriety’s sake.
After Tony had secured their pardons, he had been one of the official welcome team that had stood outside the White House to usher Steve, Clint, Sam, Wanda, Natasha, Bucky and Scott back home.
They had posed for photographs but hadn’t spoken. Steve noted that Tony had lost weight. He thought that he looked more haggard than usual.
They hadn’t spoken. In fact, Tony hadn’t said anything to any of them, short of fixing a smile on his face and reading his acceptance speech. After, he’d been cordial at the reception back at HQ. He shook their hands, made small talk about sports, about the markets, about the Middle East. He had posed publicly for a photograph with Bucky, his arm wrapped around Barnes’ shoulder, and had left as soon as was socially acceptable.
But Steve had found him, later that evening after the crowds had gone. He was sitting at the indoor pool, pants rolled up and suit jacket slung over his shoulder, swishing his feet in the water. “Hi.” He’d said simply, not looking up.
“Thank you,” Steve had said by way of greeting. “Thank you for all of this.”
“No problem.” Tony replied easily. “This is what I always wanted.”
“I know it couldn’t have been simple winning Ross over like that.”
“Yeah well common sense won out. He couldn’t be seen to be letting Wakanda be the earth’s first line of defence.”
The room had been silent other than the sound of water running past Tony’s legs. “You been here long?” Steve asked.
Tony shrugs. “It’s quiet. I got used to it. Nobody used the pool when you were gone. I like the water.”
Steve had shoved his hands in his pockets. “Well — I’m going to bed, then.”
“You staying here?”
Tony had stared vacantly at the artificial blue. “Just a bit longer,” he murmured.
It had come to a head after Ultron, their relationship. Steve hadn’t stayed for breakfast. He knew this would hurt Tony’s feelings. He knew it was childish to go for a run without dropping Tony a line. But he felt suffocated, choked, and so he had run anyway. The good days were over.
When he got back, Tony was washing up.
He didn’t do this, usually. He would leave it for a cleaner, or anyone else. He hated washing up, hated getting the food under his nails. But there he was, slowly and carefully wiping plates clean, setting them out on the sideboard.
“Morning,” he’d said easily. “Were you up early?”
Steve swallowed. “Yeah, I — went for a run.”
Tony nods, turns off the tap. “There’s some bacon in the fridge, if you want.”
Tony turns, leans against the sink. “Am I — doing something wrong?”
There’s a small furrow in Tony’s brow. To the untrained eye, it’s like he’s confused. Steve knows it’s worse than that: it means he’s hurt, and trying not to show it.
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t — I don’t know, am I overreacting? It feels like you don’t — want me. Like me.”
“Of course I like you, Tony.”
“But love me?”
Steve is silent for a moment while he drinks his water. “I love you, Tony.”
“Could you — look at me, when you say that?”
Steve turns. “I love you, Tony. You know that.” And there’s reproach in his voice, isn’t there? He sounds like he’s scolding a child.
Tony starts slamming pots into the sink. “Fine,” he mutters “you’re right. Clearly I have nothing to worry about, right?”
“Tell me what I’m doing wrong,” Tony blurts, desperate. He spins, takes Steve’s arms. “What is it? Am I too old? Am I shit in bed? I know I’ve been tired a lot lately, but I’ve been working, and — yeah, I guess it’s not as fun as it used to be, but I could change that. We could take a break, right? Or, or do something different, I don’t know. You could — fuck other people,” Tony winces, like he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying. “I am trying, Steve, I’m trying really hard to understand what it is I need to do to make this work. But sometimes I see you look at me and — it’s with disgust. Do I disgust you?”
“Never,” Steve croaks.
“Then what is it?!” Tony asks, shaking him. “What could I do to get you back? We were,” he tries to huff a laugh, a smile “we were so happy, weren’t we?” And he cups Steve’s cheek. “We were so happy. We can still be happy, I know it.”
“You’re fine, Tony. There’s nothing you need to change, nothing you could do,” Steve soothes. He’s stroking Tony’s head, and Tony is luxuriating in it, leaning into his chest.
“The thing is,” Steve manages, after a pause, “it’s not you, it’s me.”
And that’s when Tony knows. Because Tony was never stupid.
Steve offers to drive him to the mansion. Tony doesn’t respond. He just upends his chest of drawers into a suitcase, throws in his laptop, gives back Steve’s sweaters. He drives away, and doesn’t take Steve’s calls.
(He leaves his records. All of them, packed away in a box. Steve takes them out some nights, leafs through them, fingers their delicate casing. Bits of Tony he can’t throw away.)
The next time they meet, Tony is talking about the Accords.
In the weeks running up to his death, Tony grew increasingly morbid. “I keep dreaming about a black dog,” he’d say. “You know what that means, Steve?”
“It means you need to take your medication and stop watching the discovery channel at night.”
“It means death. Or it means — someone’s going to die. I think it’s me. I think I’m going to die.”
Steve had taken Tony’s shoulders, hissed in his face. “Stop it,” he said. “Stop saying that. Do you know how — fucking terrifying that is? Hearing you say that? You’re not going to die, Tony. You have years left, decades left.”
“No,” Tony had said, near manic. “It’s coming, I know it. I just need to know what to watch out for, you know? Look at for the signs.”
This was around the time that he stopped leaving HQ all together.
“It was after Ultron,” Steve tells Tony quietly one night, not long after Steve returns from Wakanda. “That’s when.”
“That’s when you stopped loving me?”
The room is very quiet. Tony is resting his head on Steve’s bare chest, dragging his finger in a spiral across his breast.
A quick kiss to the crown of his head. “I never stopped loving you, Tony.”
“Ah,” he says, and Steve can hear his smile. “Well, that’s not true, is it?”
“Why would I lie?”
“Because you’re home now. And Ultron is distant, and you want things to be like they used to be.”
“Why can’t they?”
“Because you chose him.” Tony says simply, burrowing closer, pulling the heavy duvet up over both of them. “Because you chose Bucky. And I can’t forget that.”
“Can you — could you ever forgive it?”
Tony is silent. He kisses Steve on the cheek before he turns out the bedside lamp. “Get some rest,” he says quietly, and settles down to sleep.
Back in the good days, Steve and Tony had once taken a vacation. Not a long one, seven days in a villa in Italy.
Tony had tanned. Steve had burnt. Tony had found this very funny, even when Steve’s skin had repaired itself by the next day. Tony had liked to take his work out to the veranda by the pool and sit there in the cool of the night, drinking wine and thinking, until Steve could coax him to bed.
Another day, they sit on the grassy hills that make up their estate. Steve is lying on his back, head in Tony’s lap, while he murmurs under his breath, reads his book. The air is warm. It smells like flowers, and chlorine.
“Do you love me?” Steve had murmured, sun in his eyes.
“Hmm,” Tony had hummed, gently pushing Steve’s hair back from his brow. “Until the day I die,” he sang.
Pepper Potts is standing in the kitchen when Steve wakes up. She kisses him once on the cheek, perfunctory, and flattens his hair down on his head. They were closer, once, when he and Tony were lovers. Pepper was one of the few who shared in that relationship, who was actually informed it was happening. They had been friends.
The familiarity she exudes now isn’t friendship, it’s politeness. There is nothing tying her to this team, nothing tying her to this building. Steve suspects that after this morning, they might never see each other again.
“I’m sorry I didn’t catch you yesterday,” she says, not meeting his eye. Her hair is tied back neatly in a ponytail, her shirt and skirt spotless. This woman is so flawless, he can understand what attracted Tony to her all those years ago. Just looking at her makes you feel like you have your life together, even though you can tell she’s been crying, and she keeps laughing at inopportune moments. “It was so busy, what with the traffic.”
She doesn’t say ‘riots’; she could, but she doesn’t. Steve appreciates it. “Yeah,” he says, “well it’s good to see you.”
“Right,” Pepper lies, “we’ll have to catch up sometime.”
“Definitely,” Steve says with a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. Pepper reaches for him, her hand hovering by his elbow. It looks, for a moment, like she might say something more. But then she pats him lightly and moves away, her heels sharp against the ground.
“Good morning,” Natasha says dourly. “There’s coffee in the pot.”
He waits for her to add something, to ask him how he slept, to just — to at least acknowledge the fact that Tony is no longer here and yesterday was his funeral. But she doesn’t. She just puts her plate in the sink, washes her hands briefly, and turns away.
“You’ve left the grounds in the sink,” Steve says, disgusted. “What did he say about leaving coffee grounds in the sink?”
There’s an awkward moment where — Steve can see, it’s on Natasha’s lips — where she almost says ‘he’s not here anymore, so it doesn’t matter’. But she curtails herself before she can open her mouth and cause irreparable damage. “I know,” she says gently. “But I’ve called the old firm, and they’re sending a new cleaner. So you won’t have to worry about it, okay?”
Steve nods, choking on something, a lump at the back of his throat. It’s burning again, through his chest and up his neck, pricking his eyes. He fucking wishes it would stop. He wishes he could just turn it off, stop crying at every inconsequential little detail, like the fact that Tony used to complain about the dirty sink, and that he was on first-name basis with all the staff, and now he’s not here so they have to handle it themselves while dealing with the huge, gaping hole —
“Ross wants to see us,” Natasha mentions, scraping crumbs from the counter. “He wants to talk about the chain of command.”
“He can’t wait?” Steve asks, mildly disgusted. “He’s barely cold in the ground and — “
“It’s been two weeks,” Natasha interrupts. “The team still needs to function. We can grieve on our own time. Meanwhile, you need to figure out who’s going to be the government liaison.”
“You,” Steve says dismissively, easily. Obviously, it will be Natasha. Why does she even want to have this discussion?
“No,” Natasha says, evenly, “I’m ex-KGB. I can’t hold a position liaising with the US government. Take your time to think it through.”
“Rhodey wants a break, Steve. He’s wrecked. Think about everything he’s lost in the past two years.”
“Sam, then.” Sam is the obvious answer, the perfect answer, a spotless military record and a close friend.
“Right. Ask him. Next time, think it through first. You can’t afford to lose focus because Tony is dead.”
She dumps her crumbs in the trash and leaves. It’s the first time she’s addressed it head on, the first time anyone has said, bluntly: Tony is dead. It leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. Thinking about the day ahead, about the next day, and the day after that, all of them without him, with nothing to look forward to, it makes him —
It makes his chest curdle, a heavy weight settle on his shoulders. He leaves the coffee grounds, takes his breakfast back to the bedroom that he and Tony shared.
Back in the good days, he and Tony would go for lunch. At least once a week, any day. Usually when Tony had been in the office, because he said it gave him something to look forward to. They’d tried everything, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, every cuisine under the sun.
Steve favourite was a sushi bar a block away from the tower. It used to make Tony laugh, how impressed Steve was by the automated counters. He thought it was like stepping into a sci-fi novel, he thought raw fish was something so exotic, and so like every other part of their relationship, Tony indulged him.
One day, Tony is distracted. He doesn’t touch the sashimi Steve knows he loves. He picks at ginger and doesn’t put it anywhere near his mouth, and so sensing that it might be one of those days, the days where Tony isn’t quite right, Steve talks more to compensate.
But then Tony puts down his chopstick and folds his hands against the tabletop. “I have something I need to tell you,” he says, and he doesn’t meet Steve’s eye. “I was at — I had a meeting with my doctor.”
Steve always feels light-headed, when Tony mentions that. It’s like piercing a balloon. It reminds him of reality, that Tony is older, and human, and he suffers physically in a way Steve never will. He swallows, puts down his chopsticks and says, “Oh yeah?” As casual as he can manage.
And then Tony starts rattling off a litany of conditions. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, angina, something about restricted lung capacity and a shoulder that is stiff no matter what Tony does. His back, he says, is fucked after ten years of having it screwed in his suit. He tells Steve that sometimes his heart beats so hard against his chest it feels like his ribs are going to snap. “I’m surprised you don’t hear it,” he says, as if that makes it any clearer. “Essentially, I’m crumbling, Steve.”
Steve hadn’t known what Tony wanted him to do with this information. “But you look healthy,” he had protested, “you’re still young.”
Tony had turned back to his plate. “No,” he had said, “you’re still young. I was just letting you know.”
And then he picks up conversation like the interlude had never happened.
“When we were younger,” Rhodey says absently “Tony would — I always hated math. Wanted to be an engineer, wanted to fly a plane, but I hated it. I got into college by the skin of my teeth. I would have probably dropped out if Tony hadn’t done half it for me.”
“As a favour?”
“Nah. He just really liked math.”
Steve looks away, looks out the window. “I don’t remember.” He says quietly.
“Hmm. He had other things to be good at that took more time. You know he was writing a lot, towards the end. I’m not sure what. I would ask him. Every night, he was writing. When you were still in Wakanda, and after.”
“He — mentioned something like that,” Steve says carefully. “Only once. He said he was publishing a paper about the new normal. Western Theology post the Thor effect.”
Rhodes snorts. “Yeah,” he says “stuff like that. If Thor’s humanoid, and there are other humans out there on different planets, it kinda spits on Darwin’s grave.”
“Undermines everything. Tony was fascinated.”
Steve’s chest tightens. “He never mentioned he was interested.”
“Yeah, well. You weren’t so friendly towards the end.”
“We were,” Steve blurts. “We were still — “
Rhodes looks at him for a long time. “After Wakanda? You were still…”
“Sharing a bed,” Steve settles for, tactfully.
But Rhodes goes cold. “You were with him, then. You were there for all of that, all of the — paranoia.”
That’s a simple way of putting it, Steve thinks. “No more than you were.”
“How’s that possible? You were fucking, you ‘shared a bed’, how could have not been there all the time?”
“Because when Tony was low, he wouldn’t talk to me. Same as you.”
“But you were lovers.”
“What did you want me to do?”
“Why didn’t you help him?!”
“What did you think I could do that you couldn’t?”
“Christ, Steve, I saw you with Barnes. I saw what you did to help him, and fix him, and heal him. You would have moved heaven and earth — fuck, hell, you did, you left us here as the first line of defence, you left Tony, the man you were supposed to love — “
“We had broken up.”
“Listen,” Steve spits, standing. “You’re angry. You’re angry he wouldn’t listen to you, that you couldn’t help. I understand that. I’m sorry. There isn’t a day I question if I could have done something differently, or helped him another way. But you don’t project on me, understand? I don’t need that. We are — we’re all suffering, Rhodes. All of us.”
Rhodes blinks furiously. He pushes his fingers against Steve’s chest. Looks like he’s about to rip Steve a new one.
And then he starts to cry, and the sobs are so loud and vicious Steve folds easily, onto his knees, so Rhodey can clench his fingers in his shirt and scream into his shoulder. It’s not fair, Steve thinks objectively. It’s not fair.
After Steve had returned from Wakanda, they fell back into bed. Steve loved Tony, and for him it was as simple as that. It didn’t matter that Tony’s hair was going grey at the temples, or that there were days he would be home so late whole days had passed. Steve’s love for Tony had alway been uncomplicated: he liked that he was clever, that he was kind, that he was funny.
Tony had reached for Steve with the fierceness of a parched man drinking water. The first time Steve rested his hands on Tony’s tired shoulders, squeezed slightly, asked if he was alright, Tony melted like wax under a flame. He had no resistance. Steve was what he wanted. And his enthusiasm bolstered Steve, made him think he could exist in a world where Tony was still his lover and Bucky his friend.
But something had changed, in the year that Steve had been away. Tony’s eyes were often empty when open. When he laughed, it was delayed. When he smiled, it never reached his eyes. At night, he would kiss Steve on the cheek, roll onto his side, and nothing more. The first time they made love post-civil war, Tony barely made a sound, sighed when he came, and cleaned himself up with clinical efficiency.
“Do you love me?” Steve had blurted one evening. “Tony, please. Do you love me?”
For one terrifying moment, Steve had thought Tony wasn’t going to respond. But then he had lowered his head, and fought back tears, and said, “I love you, I love you. I love you too much, Steve.”
Steve had said, well then what’s wrong, please Tony, let me help you. And Tony had told him, to his face, “I love you. I love you more than you could ever love me. And I’m so sorry I — I screwed it up, I fucked it up with Ultron. I’m sorry I made you see a side of me that wasn’t what you could handle. I — you’ll leave again one day, Steve. You’ll leave me. In ten years time you’ll still be young and I’ll be sixty. But I’m — stupid, and weak, and I love you, so I tell myself if I can have you even for this small time — “
“But I won’t leave,” Steve had said, mystified, desperate. “Tony, you age means nothing to me. Your health means nothing to me, as long as you try to make yourself better. I would never leave you again, I wouldn’t — I’ve been stupid, I know, I know, but not again. I’ve learned. I’m better now.”
And in hindsight, Steve was telling the truth. He didn’t leave. Tony did.
Even in the good days, there were bad days
Tony’s moods could oscillate wildly, even then. Steve would sit in his penthouse and listen to the sounds of him smashing plates, cracking windows, bringing down the carefully constructed structures and statues that littered his apartment. If Steve tried to intervene, he would get screamed at, shaken with gauntleted hands, pushed away.
After, Tony would be apologetic. He would slide up to Steve, beg forgiveness, explain that everything was so stressful and it wasn’t Steve he was angry at. He would become tearful, he would tear at his hair. He would drink, and Steve would try to stop him, knowing full well that it would just make him worse if confronted.
And they would dance around each other for a few days, at least until Tony, sheepish, would ask Steve what time he wanted to do lunch. And then they would snap back into shape, and life would continue.
Now, they’re all worried about him.
Steve hears them through the walls; they hover outside his door. Bucky and Natasha, Wanda and Clint. They question if they should help him, if he just needs time to grieve, if this is something more serious. Steve hasn’t got the right words to articulate what this feels like, an absence of purpose, and absence of hope. The world could be burning outside his door and he wouldn’t care, because what does human life matter when it’s so fragile, everyone dies anyway, and all we live for are fleeting, short experiences that amount to nothing. Let the world burn, it doesn’t matter. Humanity is pointless as it is.
Steve can’t understand what made him seek out Bucky so much. This is where he’s at, now, regret, wondering what he could have done differently to make Tony live. He was happy when he thought Bucky was dead, so what made him forsake everything once he found out he was alive? Would Tony have stayed? Could they have repaired their relationship the real way, not the sticky tap and glue mashed together disaster that happened after Steve returned from Wakanda? Rhodes’ words keep playing around his head. It’s guilt, obviously, what he’s feeling. God, it’s guilt. It’s guilt, it’s guilt, it’s guilt.
A knock at his door. “Steve?” Asks Bucky, “Steve are you — we’re worried.”
“I wish you had stayed dead,” Steve says, voice hollow. “I’m so sorry Buck. I wish — I wish.”
“Yeah,” Bucky sighs. “Me too.”
They had been cordial, Bucky and Tony. There had been bad blood, obviously. Tony admitted that he found it hard to even look Bucky in the eye, not out of hatred but guilt. And Bucky had then admitted the same thing, said he didn’t know how to talk to someone who he had hurt so profoundly, not just through the murder of his parents but by supplanting him in Steve’s affections.
There had been a few incidents, towards the end. Tony, souped up on medication and suffering from alcohol withdrawal, had said some things to Steve, mean, nasty things. Things about his choices, yes, but also bizarre insults about his mother, his father, where he was from and what he had to put up with. He had said he wished Steve had stayed stuck on ice, that he had died in the crash, that his whore mother had fucked some other alcoholic, that she had considered protection. He had ranted about how he knew, just knew that Steve and Bucky were screwing, that they had always been screwing, that they were fuckbuddies long before Tony was around.
Steve had remained calm, because that’s what he does. Tony was ill, and he knew that come morning he would regret everything he’d said. But when he failed to get a reaction out of Steve (that’s what it always came down to, a reaction, attention, something) he turned to Bucky instead.
Steve doesn’t want to think about what he said. It can’t be repeated. He respects Bucky’s ability to just take it up to a point, but doesn’t really blame him when turns around and throws it right back in Tony’s face.
“That’s it!” Tony spits, turning to Steve, “That’s it! You won’t say anything to that? You don’t care? He can say that to me, and you don’t care?”
This was Tony’s game, now. Set them off against each other and accuse Steve of taking Bucky’s side. Steve didn’t rise to it, he wouldn’t. He may have dealt with everything else piss poorly, but this, at least, he has: he would stand up, take Tony’s arm, lead him to the bedroom, and let him smash and break and scream. And afterwards, when he was exhausted, vomiting, sick with withdrawal, Steve would lay him in the bed, tuck him up, and turn out the light.
Now, Steve is driving through New York. What for? Something that doesn’t matter, a talk, or a seminar, he can’t even remember. He’s not feeling awful, which makes a pleasant change, and there’s the first bite of winter in the air.
But he sees it out of the corner of his eye, and then he turns to look. It’s the big billboard that’s been up since Tony built the tower, the one with his smiling face and ‘Stark Industries: building the future for New York city’ written in bold font.
They’re pasting over it. Three men, levered up the side of the building, replacing it with white. They cover up the left side of Tony’s face, and then the centre, and by the time they block out his eyes entirely Steve’s traffic is starting to move.
He wants to scream at them. What are you doing? Don’t you know he’s not gone? How could you do that, it’s disrespectful, it’s wrong, it’s only been three weeks—
Steve screams at Natasha when he gets back to HQ. “They just — took it!” He spits “No one even asked us, we weren’t notified, and why would they take it down, Stark Industries is still the future, we all know that — “
“Steve,” Natasha says quietly. “He’s gone.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
“I think you feel guilty. I know what you were to each other. But what’s done is done.”
“Guilty?” Steve whispers. “You think it’s my fault?”
“I didn’t say that,” Natasha replies measuredly. “I said you feel guilty.”
Steve won’t let himself waste away. Having witnessed Tony’s decline, he knows he can’t just spend the rest of his life in bed. It would be hypocritical. There are things he needs to do, people who deserve his help. But currently he’s stuck between feeling like the scummiest individual to have ever walked the planet, coupled by the fact that without Tony life feels very much empty, purposeless, and without meaning.
“How are you holding up?”
It’s Sam, this time. Steve hasn’t seen much of him recently. He wasn’t close to Tony, never pretended there was any love lost there, and so he’s probably found it more effective to make himself scarce these past few weeks.
“I’m fine,” Steve lies easily. “I’m readjusting.”
Sam is looking at him, one hand resting on his chin, because he knows Steve is lying. “Sure,” he says, nods. “Sure. Well if you need to talk — “
“But if you did.”
Sam sucks his teeth. “Alright then. Well I tried. But I’m here. We’ve — we’ve already lost someone, Steve. We don’t need to lose another.”
This tugs something in Steve, reminds him. “I need you to fill his position,” he says. “Liaison with Ross.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“I don’t have anyone else,” Steve blurts. “There’s no one else who could — you’re the only one left with experience. Please, Sam.”
“I’ll think about it,” he says again, this time softer. “Just let me think, Steve.”
The irony of his situation is not lost on him.
Steve spent many days trying to convince Tony to just leave the compound. He asked what he was afraid of. He tried to understand how someone could be so lacking in purpose.
He now feels the same way, although he wonders why Tony couldn’t find purpose in him.
Days go on, then.
Wake up, eat. Work, eat. Work, rest. Talk, sleep. And repeat. Just do it. Just do it, just do it Steve, because he’s not coming back either way.
Steve visits the grave.
It’s dark, it’s late. This is probably an exercise in futility. It’s nice to see that people still leave flowers, cards, memorials. That Tony is not yet entirely forgotten.
There’s someone else there, though. Hooded, standing braced against wind with his hands in his pockets.
“Did you know I was coming?”
Bruce shakes his head. “No. No, I — I come by regularly. Every few nights. I just, I know it’s crazy, but it’s like I can still talk to him if I — “
“I know,” Steve blurts, “I feel the same.”
“It’s like he’s here,” Bruce confides, “I can feel him.”
“We miss you, Bruce. All of us. You could come back.”
“With Ross at the helm? Not a chance.”
“Tony would want it. He would want to know you were safe, somewhere. That you were with us.”
Bruce looks pained. “That isn’t fair, Steve. That isn’t fair and you know it.”
“He — he always considered you a friend. His friend, a good friend.”
“I wasn’t a good friend,” Bruce murmurs. “None of us were.”
That hurts, more than Steve cares to admit. “But he always liked you,” he pushes. “More than any of us, he liked you best.”
Bruce is silent. Eventually, he asks, “Was it an accident?”
“Was what?” Steve rebuts, unconvincingly.
“Did he do it on purpose,” Bruce says, without saying the word that they’re both thinking. “Was it — intentional.”
A brief pause. “I don’t know,” Steve says slowly. “I couldn’t — it was hard to tell.”
Bruce sniffs slightly. Steve thinks he might be crying. “It was intentional,” he mutters, “it must have been. Tony knew cars, he knows how engines work, he wouldn’t — “
“It happened fast. I couldn’t even see what was about to happen. Seven people died, Bruce.”
“Yeah, I know. I know that.” He zips up his coat, pushes his hands into his pockets. “I’m leaving again,” he says. “I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
“We would like to have you,” Steve tries, one last time. “It would be good to have you back on the team.”
Bruce shakes his head. “There is no team,” he says, truthfully. “There is no team without him.”
The last night they spend together.
Tony’s playing one of Steve’s old favourites, something soft, The Ink Spots or Fitzgerald. He’s humming, quietly cleaning up what looks like the remains of another Incident. The suite is spotless though, and he’s laid out flowers on the coffee table, set Steve’s books neatly on the kitchenette’s island. “You shouldn’t strain yourself,” Steve says when he enters, hoping the comment will be well received and not taken as an insult, like so much of what he says is nowadays.
But Tony smiles. “I made a mess,” he says. “I thought maybe I could clear up before you got in, but — surprise.”
“You should have let someone else handle it.”
Tony’s smile cracks just slightly. “I didn’t want to bother them,” he manages, straightening. “I thought — I just wanted to let you know that, I know I’m not easy, and I’ve been real rough on you lately. Rough on everyone. But I just wanted to let you know that — I appreciate you, and everything you’ve done for me, and — I’m trying to get better. I am trying.”
Steve softens. “That’s all I want to hear,” he admits, “all I want to know is that you want to get better, Tony.”
Tony smiles again, this time it’s real, and it meets his eyes, and he looks — for just a moment — happy. “Do you like the music?”
“Like old times, right?”
“If you can clear out the coffee table, I could maybe go for a dance.”
The song is ‘It’s All Over But The Crying’. Tony rests a hand on Steve’s hip, and curls his fingers around his palm. They don’t dance, not like they used to, Tony couldn’t take that. But they sway, and Tony lays the side of his head against Steve’s chest. He fits neatly beneath Steve’s chin, his hair tickling his neck. He sings, for what feels like the first time in decades. Tony’s voice is smooth, and strong. He’s warm in Steve’s arms, and he allows himself a smile against the crown of Tony’s head, allows himself to feel a burst of hope, and happiness.
They stay like that for awhile. In that moment, they are happy, and they are healthy, and they are in the Good Days once more.
Tony dies two days later. A freak accident. They’re in New York for a statue opening, and one of the cars on the sidewalk is leaking gas. Some idiot flicks his cigarette butt to the ground. It goes up in flames. Tony turned to look at it, searching for an attack. He had laughed at the oddity of it, a small fire on the sidewalk. It happened in slow motion. Steve tells him to move back, and Tony steps closer. In that fraction of a second, Steve will never know if it was an accident.
Tony knows cars. He knows what happens when you put fire near cars.
Regardless, three seconds later he’s dead, so are six other bystanders including the idiot driver who lit the fuse. Steve spends four hours scampering around the road trying to stick Tony’s body parts back together, and the next day they’re still trying to scrape bits of him off the sidewalk.
They can’t burn the arc reactor so they bury it. All of them, each Avenger. Under Thor’s guidance, they say the right words, and erect a plaque in the ground.
“He was a hero,” Thor says. “A soldier, a brother, a partner. We wish him well.”
“We wish him well,” the rest of them murmur in unison.
“In all his future battles,” Thor continues.
“In all his future battles,” they reply.
“And may he find peace.”
“And may he find peace.”
Thor pulls him aside after the ceremony. “Sleep well tonight,” he murmurs.
“What? What does that mean?”
Thor smiles, like the benevolent God he’s supposed to be. “Sleep well. I hope you find what it is you are seeking.”
Steve doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t sleep well. They drink, all of them, until the early hours of the morning, and when the others go to bed he offers to clean up. He ends up sleeping there, head pillowed on his arms, on the floor of the living room. Sometimes, he thinks anything is better than the bed they used to share.
But then a glimpse.
A golden field, an oak hall. Tony is smiling. Steve reaches out a hand, tries to grasp air in his fingers, but the mirage shimmers, dips out of his touch.
They’re there, All of them. Peggy, Dugan, Gabe and Monty. Jim and Jaques and Erksine. And Tony, standing, watching, smiling. In the months before his death, Tony had lost weight. Now, he stands like he did the day they first met, tall, strong, healthy. He raises his eyebrows like he’s daring Steve to say something, and Steve lurches forward, tries to catch him in his hands, pull him close.
He shimmers, blinks out of time, out of space, into nothingness. “No,” Steve rasps “wait, no. Come back! Where — “
Steve spins when he feels fingers ghost his neck. “I’m here,” Tony whispers, and there’s gold again, spilling from his fingertips, hovering over Steve’s skin but never touching. “You can’t touch me,” he says “I won’t let you.”
“Why not?” Steve asks, plaintive. Tony has all his arms and legs. All his limbs intact, his face serene, lips twisting upwards like he can’t stop smiling. “I want to — see you. We miss you, I miss you. I need you.”
Tony looks sad. “Yeah,” he says “I know.”
“You know? Tony — come back. Come back to us, I know — “
“And inhabit my old body? Decaying in the ground? Broken in half. Steve,” Tony says gently “speak sense.”
“What are you?” Steve whispers “Where are you?”
Tony shrugs a shoulder, easy. “Humans have their myths. Elysium, Heaven, the Field of Reeds. But I know it as Valhalla. We all do. We’re all here, Steve. Waiting for you.”
“I want…” Steve’s mouth is dry “I want to be there.” He sees his friends smile, he sees an eternal sun and fields of gold. “How do I get there?”
“You die,” Tony says simply. “You die, and you join me.”
“Then I want to die,” Steve croaks. “Let me die, please.”
Tony’s face is pained. “No,” he says softly. “I will always wait for you, Steve.”
“But you’re there,” Steve chokes. “You’re there and I’m here and — and I don’t know how long I have left. I want to be happy, and I want to be with you. I want to — “
“If you die tonight, you join me here. And you’ll be happy, I don’t doubt it. But what about everyone else, Steve? What about Barnes? What about the world? Don’t you think they need you? Don’t you think they care?”
“I’m selfish,” Steve is saying “let me be selfish.”
“And why can’t you live your life? Because you’re going to see me again one day, no doubt about that. When you know the time is right, the time will be right. One day, Steve, you’ll — need to give up. And you will. Your body will make that decision for you. It made it for me.”
“Please,” Steve is begging now. He’s crying. “Tony I can’t — “
“Live without me? Why not? We’ve been apart before.”
“Not forever,” Steve whispers. “Never forever.”
Tony is nodding. “Yeah,” he says “but what is this other than an extended vacation? If I could — touch you,” he sighs, letting his hand rest against the space near Steve’s cheek “if I could just touch you.”
“I’m so sorry,” Steve says quietly. “That you died. I never got to tell you how much — how much I loved you, Tony. How much I love you.”
“It was never your fault.”
“What I did to you, those last years, if I could take it back. If I could take back every second, every word, every punch — “
“Shh,” Tony soothes. “Steve we don’t have much time.”
He drags in a sob, reaches again for a Tony who shimmers away, reappears at his side. “I love you,” he’s crying. “I love you.”
“I love you,” Tony replies, simply. “And I want you to live.”
“And what if — what if I can’t? What if I can’t do it, Tony?”
“Then you die. And you join me. And you’ll be happy. But Steve, please do this for me: please try. Leave now, and live your life. Know that when you’re tired, and when it’s time, I’ll be here. We’ll all be here. Each of us dies, but it’s not the end. It won’t be the end, Steve.”
“Like the good days?” Steve croaks, rubbing at his eyes.
“It will be the golden days, Steve. A golden age. I can’t wait for you to join me, I swear it. I just want you to live first.”
Tony’s smile is kind, his eyes crinkling. His hands are ghosting Steve’s shoulders, as if pulling him into an embrace. He seems to be imploring him, somehow, and so Steve nods. “Death is nothing,” he says.
“Oh, it might hurt,” Tony admits. “It hurt me, a lot. But after? It’s not so bad.”
“Like falling asleep?”
“Eh,” Tony shrugs “that’s exaggerated. More like… riding a rollercoaster.”
“Flying, if I’m honest. It felt like I was flying, one last time.” He turns, as if speaking to someone Steve can’t see. “Not much longer.”
“When will I see you again?” Steve asks, desperate. “Can I see you again?”
“Probably best to save it for the grand finale.”
“It will be so long.”
“D’ya think you’ll still love me by the time you’re done?” Tony teases.
“Always,” Steve answers readily. “Forever. Tony, do you forgive me?”
“What is there to forgive?”
“Please, Tony. Please, just say that you forgive me.”
“I love you, Steve.”
“But that’s not the same thing. Tony, I can’t — “
“I love you,” Tony says again, and his fingers trace Steve’s cheek. Touch him, really touch him. For just a second, Steve is there, in a golden hall, drinking, dancing. His friends cheer, and air is warm, soft against skin. Tony is smiling, his eyes are laughing. “I’ll see you on the other side,” he whispers against Steve’s lips, and pushes him away.
Steve stumbles, falls.
Tony is gone.
The carpet is rough on his cheek, and he’s drooled into it at some point during the night. The sun is slanting through the window, bright, golden, even. It’s morning. It was a dream.
But then a certain catch of light, a sound carried in the thick air. The shadow of a man, hands in pockets, cloaked in sun and head tilted at the sky. He turns, and smiles.
Light fades fast. When Steve blinks, he’s gone. But he hears the humming, sweet and happy and somewhere distant. Fading now, but there all the same.