This room is drafty.
That’s the first thing Tony notices upon entering. That and there’s an empty dog bed in the corner. The bookshelves are overwhelmingly full, some hardcovers stacked on the floor around it. A fire hazard, Tony was sure.
The counselor, Dr. Cho, is small, her eyes bright and alert and peering out at him behind a pair of large black frames. The kind the kids seemed to love these days. And she is a kid. Late twenties at the most but, to Tony, she’s a child. And she’s going to try to fix their marriage?
Good luck, kiddo.
Steve’s jaw is tense, eyes firmly ahead as he strides over to the couch and sits down on one end. The far end so that, as large as he was, Tony wouldn’t be able to get too close to him if he sits down where he was supposed to: the opposite end. Far away so that they wouldn’t touch, even by accident. This couch similar to their overly large bed: once a gift, it now grants Steve the space he so desperately desires.
Maybe that had been the first sign and Tony had been too dense to realize it.
And now they were here: in marriage counseling.
He sits down at the other end; ignoring that Steve turned to stone the moment they arrived. Cho nods and takes her place for what is sure to be a rather uninteresting show. Jan had taken an unsolicited crack at it earlier and God, had that really been two months ago? How long have they been quietly orbiting each other without noticing it? How long have they been saying things to each other without really saying anything at all?
How long has Tony put off confronting the fact that his marriage is falling apart?
Dr. Cho studies them in turn and Tony narrowly refrains from shifting uncomfortably. Should he talk first? Where to start? Admitting this is a last resort? Admitting he very much doubts this will do them any good? He’d tried therapy once before, SHIELD mandated, and from the looks of the files he saw, it hadn’t helped. He always thought he knew better and adding Steve to the equation, this is a recipe for a two thousand-dollar, lengthy silence.
She smiles kindly and asks, “Can you tell me about your parents’ marriages?”
A beat, then Tony asks, “My – my parents?”
“I have it that both of your parents were married,” she explains. “Tell me about their relationships.”
Tony shifts a little, his neck warm as he starts to respond, “I really don’t know what that has to do with any of this.”
She nods calmly and says, “I don’t subscribe to the view that we imitate our parents through our own relationships. Not fully. I think it can go either way: we either become so enamored with what we grew up seeing and try to recreate it in our own relationships, or we can become so repulsed by it that we take steps to ensure we don’t emulate it at all. Starting here will help me gauge your exposure to healthy relationships in childhood. If you think that’s too personal, we can start elsewhere. However, I would prefer for you to answer the question.”
Tony blinks at her for a moment. The ever prevalent, logical part of his brain understands her words perfectly but the part of him that refused to think about Howard draws him to reply, “I’d rather talk about Steve and I-“
“My father was an abusive alcoholic,” Steve says plainly. His jaw clicks, mouth working as he faces Cho head on, eyes blazing. “Beat the hell out of my mom.” He tenses, back ramrod straight before he finishes with, “Then he drank himself to death.”
Cho nods respectfully, “I’m sorry.” Steve stares resolutely forward and then her eyes cut to Tony. “And what about your parents, Mr. Stark?”
Tony’s insides twist as that familiar urge to resist being outdone compels him to answer. He averts his eyes, picking at a piece of lint on his jeans. “My father was an alcoholic.” His mouth forms a grim line before he forces the words out, “Never hit my mom that I saw." He swallows and raises his head.
Cho observes him for a moment, Tony’s gaze centered just over her shoulder. “And you?”
Tony blinks at her, a little thrown. “What?”
“And did your father ever hit you?” Steve is still, eyes firmly ahead and Tony will find no distraction there. He’s not entirely sure why his hands are clammy, his face warm but he feels himself nod. Minutely, so much so that Steve may not have noticed.
It’s with a shock that Tony realizes he’s never discussed this with Steve before. Sure, Steve had gathered that Tony never had a great relationship with his father but he didn’t know much more than that outside of speculation. Tony doesn’t really think this is the proper setting for telling Steve about his childhood. Except, well… they are here because they don’t talk about the important things, right?
He swallows, putting himself away the way he always did in interviewed when asked about his father. “Once or twice.” The air conditioner clicks on, making the silence more apparent. Typically, Tony feels compelled to fill the silence with sound but the idea of saying more makes his throat tighten, his stomach twists. “He, uh… gave me my first drink when I was eight.” He rubs the uneven skin on his left temple. “He would drink and then he’d get mean. Left a few scars.” Steve shifts for the first time since they’d sat down, his jaw so tense it must’ve hurt.
She nods, taking this in. “I’m sorry.” A pause, “So, neither of you had great role models for ideal marriages.” It isn’t a question.
Tony shrugs, “That’s an understatement.”
She cocks her head to the side and looks to Steve. “Let’s talk about your ideals.” Tony snorts, catching her eye. “Mr. Stark?”
Tony stifles another laugh. “Nothing, just… the guy gives rousing speeches about America the Brave and all that jazz. You want him to talk about his ideals?”
She smiles, “Specifically, what you think is ideal in a marriage.”
Steve considers this for a moment and then asks, “As in, what would I like or what’s good to have?”
It’s an odd question and Cho’s brow furrows. “Are they two different things?”
Steve chooses his words carefully, “It’s… hard for someone in our line of work to have the same things civilians – other people would have. We can’t exactly wish for a quiet life with a couple kids and a dog.”
Tony’s insides twist, the question invading his mind faster than he can repress it, is that what you want?
“I’m aware that you lead very different lives, yes. Are those two things very different for you Mr. Rogers?”
“Steve,” he replies.
“Steve,” she corrects. “Are your wants very different from what you think civilians would have?”
Steve has backed himself into a corner and Tony can see him regretting it. He drops his gaze to his hands, answering, “I think, for normal people, it’s good to have honesty, respect, financial stability and safety.” Then quieter, “I can’t offer two of those.”
Tony stares at him wordlessly, his heart pounding. Cho chimes in, “And your wants?”
Steve’s jaw clicks and he clears his throat, sitting up straighter. “Intimacy. Respect. Time together.” His eyes cut to Tony’s briefly as he finishes with, “Honesty.”
Tony shakes his head, fuming internally. It would always come back to the war. He bites his tongue, staving off the argument as Cho looks to him curiously. “And for you, Mr. Stark?”
She’s kind; it’s clear she’s just trying to help them but Tony was on the defensive and his words are biting. “Sex. Lots of it. He hasn’t touched me in months.” Steve’s breathing quiets, his shoulders tense. “That’s why I’m here, actually.”
Cho frowns at him, “That’s not true.”
“Is part of therapy telling me what I think?” he asks and she shrugs, answering him honestly.
“Sometimes.” She nods towards Steve, “He makes you nervous.”
Tony stiffens, “No, he doesn’t. I’m not afraid of my husband.”
“I didn’t say you were,” she clarifies. “We’d be having a very different conversation if that were the case. But Steve does make you nervous. You watch what you say around him. You temper your answers to what you think will make him less angry with you. It doesn’t take a trained therapist to know that this has been going on for quite some time now. I’d wager, since before this rift began. Am I right?”
He can feel Steve’s sharp gaze on the side of his face but he doesn’t dare turn his head. “You’re not wrong,” he admits in a hushed tone.
“So, tell me your honest answer. No stress, no worrying what’s going on in Steve’s mind. What would you like in a marriage?”
His breathing grows heavier, eyes warm as he replies, “Support.”
The ride back is quiet.
Steve drives. He always drives.
He pulls into the parking garage and gets out, not bothering to check that Tony has gotten out. The elevator dings and Tony seriously considers waiting for Steve to go up and then getting the next ride but that would be petty. He climbs in after Steve and watches him hit the button for their floor. Tony is hungry and hoping to check in with the others but Steve has that look on his face. If they’re headed up to their bedroom to fight, Tony doesn’t particularly feel like following him.
But he does.
Steve stalks towards the bathroom and calls out, “I’m going to shower and go to bed.” And that’s that; no questions, no invitations to climb in the shower with him. No sign he ever considers it.
Tony stays in the elevator and rides down to the main floor.
Dr. Cho is wearing a floral print jumpsuit. It’s cute; nice but not too flashy. Tony could easily picture Jan in something like it and he smiles to himself. This week, Steve has situated himself just as far away on the couch as he had before. Although, he held the door open for Tony on the way in so that was something.
Is this a lost cause if basic manners count as wins in his marriage?
“Now, we talked about what you would like out of your marriage. In order to help you achieve that, I would like to talk about why you fell in love in the first place.”
Tony nods, this should be easy. He waits for her to ask Cap to kick it off but, instead, she looks to Tony. “What were your first thoughts when you met Steve?”
Well, “As myself or as Iron Man?” he asks and she gives a wry grin.
“Whichever came first.”
Tony smiles, “I thought he was dead. Then delusional… but gorgeous. Always gorgeous.”
Nodding reassuringly, she looks to Steve. “And you?”
Steve blinks, his lashes long and nearly transparent in the overhead light. “Smart. Capable.” He nods to himself and adds, “Brave.”
“As Iron Man?” she asks and Steve shakes his head.
“I, uh… the helmet wasn’t exactly personable. Iron Man was a wonderful partner but Tony was the one I… the fella I fell for,” he clarifies and Tony feels warmth bloom in his stomach.
“Okay,” Cho says. “Describe your second date, Tony.”
“The first is full of butterflies and mishaps but the second date is usually the one where you figure if the relationship is one you intend to pursue. So, was it smooth? Did you find yourself more nervous than before? Did the conversation flow?”
Tony thinks for a moment, trying to recall what technically counted as a second date. The Avengers often ate dinner together so that didn’t count. He remembers getting coffee together quite a few times but they often talked about cases. The second date, where they weren’t just shoving food in mouths after a fight, “Steve dropped by my job and practically dragged me out and put me on his bike. We went to a diner and,” he smiles, lost in memory. "I didn’t know what to do with my hands because I thought, if I put them on the table, it would look like I was pressuring him to hold one. So, I grabbed the sugar shaker and kept fiddling with the lid. By the time my food came, I’d gotten sugar all over my side of the table. I was nervous.”
She nods but Steve shifts in displeasure, rubbing at his temple. Tony glances at him curiously before Cho speaks, “And Steve, tell me about your impression of your second date.”
Steve eyes her for a moment before he says, “He’s wrong; the second date wasn’t the diner. The diner was the fourth date. The second date, we went to a movie in town.” Tony’s mind reels, trying to recall that far back. Things were fuzzy with Extremis and rebooting his brain. “You cut your business day short and went with me to see some action flick. I hated it but you seemed to like it. I bought you popcorn and Junior Mints. You fell asleep by the second act.”
Steve sounds so certain but Tony doesn’t remember any of this. “I hate Junior Mints.”
“I know,” Steve says, the corner of his mouth quirking. “That was the second date.”
“Tony, you described your feelings at the diner as being nervous. Were you nervous a lot in the beginning?”
“Of course I was! He’s Captain America. The guy makes everyone want to be a better man. He’s so strong and sure of himself and I was terrified the whole thing was some kind of fluke. I thought for sure that one day he would wake up and wonder what the hell he was doing with me.”
Steve lowers his head, hands clasped together between his knees. Cho looks to him before returning to Tony, “Do you still feel that way?”
Steve holds the elevator but doesn’t say anything when they get to their floor.
Instead, he heads into the bathroom and closes the door firmly behind him.
Dr. Cho’s frames are red today. Tony wonders if they’re prescription or decorative. She doesn’t seem the type to wear fake glasses for the aesthetic. They’re nice, he supposes. They remind him of Pepper.
“I wanted to take some time to talk about what you both would like to get out of these sessions.” She clasps her hands together calmly. “Tony?”
Tony freezes, lost in thought. “Excuse me?” Steve shakes his head and it only serves to make Tony angrier. He’s quick to anger these days and every time he looks at Steve, every time he feels his rage bubbling up to the surface, he thinks of his father and chokes it down.
“What would you like to get out of these sessions?” she asks and Tony scratches at the back of his neck.
“I want my marriage back,” he says. “I’m sure that’s what everyone says.”
“It is very common, yes.” She smiles and asks, “For you, what does that entail? You mentioned touching earlier. Were you particularly affectionate before the distance widened?”
What a quaint way to refer to the ending of his marriage, Tony thinks but he answers honestly, “Affectionate for us, I would say. I used to – well, can I say blow? Is that okay?”
She stifles a laugh, “Whatever you feel comfortable with.”
“We used to get caught around the Tower a lot. Could never seem to make it to our bedroom on time.” He gets lost in memory, touches his neck as he goes on, “Drove the others up the wall but – I don’t know… it was like he just had to have me right then and there. I know lust; I wasn’t exactly a virgin when I met him but he was the only person I felt that passionate with – the only person I felt completely lost in. It wasn’t just sex; it was – it was being matched; it was belonging to someone. It was… it was…” love, he swallows.
She nods in understanding, “Was sex the most common way you showed affection?” she asks. “Did you find it hard to express it through simple gestures?”
Tony thinks for a moment, “I used to hug him a lot. He gets wrapped up in his head a lot and hugs were a way to comfort him rather than ask him to talk about it.”
“Steve?” she asks and Steve sits up.
“I used to get nightmares. Still do,” he answers and sits up straighter, “I used to hold his hand. Wasn’t much, I know that but it seemed to help when he needed to calm down.” His right hand clenches into a fist and he holds it in his left.
“Why did you stop?” she asks and his eyes widen.
“I – I don’t,” he struggles for a moment and she changes tactics.
“Do you recall a time when you thought about reaching out for him and decided against it?” she asks and Steve’s brow furrows.
“Sometimes I don’t think it’s welcome.”
“Why not?” she asks, not letting him off the hook.
Steve massages his shoulder, averting his eyes. “He likes to punish himself.” He doesn’t raise his head as he adds, “Can’t comfort someone that doesn’t want to feel better.”
Tony’s breath catches, eyes locked on the side of Steve’s face as Cho asks, “What gave you this idea?”
A pause, “I’ve been called an idealist,” he notes fondly. “I understand the options but I always try for the best outcome; the one with minimal loss. I understand sometimes what’s best is to sacrifice myself. With Tony, it’s the opposite: if there’s even the slightest chance he can risk himself, he’ll do it. Even if it’s crazy; even if there may be another way, he’ll take the fall.”
“And that’s a bad thing?” Tony asks quietly.
“Tony, let him finish,” Cho says.
“It’s led to you making some pretty poor decisions so yes, it’s a bad thing,” Steve replies, his eyes firmly ahead. “But I can’t talk about that because what you hear is ten times worse than what I say.”
“When did you start being afraid to tell me when I’ve disappointed you?” Tony asks drily.
“When you stopped consulting me before nearly killing yourself,” Steve says. “I would think erasing your brain warranted a phone call.”
It’s quiet and Dr. Cho waits to see if Tony will respond but he doesn’t. Finally, “I typically recommend trying to get used to touching each other again. It doesn’t have to be through physical intimacy but gentle touches to the shoulder, holding hands, as well – things like that can go a long way. If you find it hard to initiate, start out slow and go on from there. Emotional intimacy is the goal here; obviously, if you find it easier to talk, that would be a great step forward.”
Steve nods, averting his eyes which earns a poorly muffled scoff form Tony’s side of the couch. Steve looks to him as Tony shrugs and says, “Good luck getting him to touch me. I’ve been trying for about three months now and aside from accidentally bumping into me coming out of the shower-“
“Tony,” Steve warns.
“I’m just being honest.”
“That’s a first,” Steve replies snappily and Tony’s mouth snaps shut.
Cho looks to both of them and says, “One thing I’ve learned doing this job: it’s never too late. Just try it. Something small. Okay? That’s your homework for the week.”
The ride back is silent.
Steve’s hand sits on the arm rest between them.
Tony could take it.
“What are your thoughts on kids, Steve?” Cho asks. Tony chokes on the water he’s sipping, nearly tipping the glass down his front. Steve gapes at her, his eyes guarded.
He clears his throat a few times, “I’m… I don’t – I don’t have any thoughts.”
“You said a typical marriage would have kids.” She shrugs, “To me, that means you’ve looked at them and at least thought, ‘this is what average couples have’.”
Steve swallows, averting his eyes in a somewhat uncharacteristic show of discomfort. “Kids are great. Bucky was a terror but, they’re great.”
“But you don’t want them?” she asks and Steve stares at her.
His words are rushed, “Our jobs don’t leave room. It’s not safe, we’re never home, our enemies come after anyone who’s ever been seen with us.” It almost sounds rehearsed and Tony stiffens.
“I understand that,” she says calmly and Steve nods, looking away. Then she adds, “However, that isn’t what I asked.”
Steve stares at her in confusion. “I just told you-“
“Do you want kids?” she asks directly.
Steve licks his lips, looking to Tony who offers no solution, focused determinedly on his hands. “What I want is irrelevant,” Steve replies. Tony flinches, shaking his head minutely. His eyes are distant, what little Steve could make of them from this far away. He recognizes the expression: Tony is putting himself away.
“I hardly think what you want is irrelevant,” Cho says plainly and Steve’s taken aback for a second. He looks to her, eyes wider than usual. “I take it you’re used to telling yourself that. I understand you’ve lived quite a hard life with a lack of options. I take it you never had a lot of say in things growing up during the Depression and then you joined the war effort. You lead the charge but you didn’t get a lot of wants then.”
Steve swallows, appearing almost lost as he holds her gaze. Finally, “No,” he says, voice rough. “I didn’t.”
“You do now,” she says firmly, spreading her arms out. Her voice is lighter, “That’s what we’re trying to do here. If you want something, you should ask for it.” She lowers her head for a second, gathering her thoughts when Steve clears his throat.
“I, uh, I did want – I do… want kids. I don’t – I know that’s not something I can have. Even if we weren’t tied up in this line of work, it’s just not –“ he cuts himself off, watching as Tony excuses himself. Sighing heavily, Steve covers his face. “I’m gonna pay for that.”
Steve pulls into their parking spot, turns the engine off but doesn’t get out. He stares straight ahead at the cement wall and says, “This isn’t going to work if you just leave when things get uncomfortable for you.”
“I know that,” Tony says, staring straight ahead, as well. “I got a call.”
Steve nods with a hum, opening his door. “That’s funny. I thought you turned your phone off.”
“So, shifting gears a bit, I’d like to talk about-“
“I’m sorry, are we not going to talk about what happened last time?” Steve asks.
Cho blinks at him, “And what happened last time?”
“He left,” Steve says plainly, ignoring Tony’s sigh. “He just stood up and left the room.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that. Is that a problem?” she asks.
Steve gapes at her, “He’s supposed to be here to listen.”
“Steve,” he corrects firmly.
“Steve,” she says delicately. “Should we talk about why that bothers you? In my line of work, sometimes you may need a break. Just for a moment, just to catch our breath. The problem comes when you don’t come back. But here you are, I believe Tony heard you last time and he came back in time for us to wrap up. It’s not ideal but I don’t get the sense he didn’t hear you.”
Steve shakes his head with an annoyed sigh and Cho speaks up, “You disagree?”
“I sit here and listen to him every day. Every damn day and I take it. I don’t leave when it gets hard,” he says, voice strong.
“Such as?” she asks quietly. “What did you find particularly hard?”
Steve’s eyes blaze and he moves a little closer to the center of the couch as he explains, “I had to sit here and listen to him say that I make him nervous. We’ve been married six years and he’s afraid to tell me things. I’ve never heard about Howard; not in that much detail. And he doesn’t remember our second date.”
Cho nods, “Go on.”
“Yeah, because this is so much fun for me,” Tony mutters.
“Tony, please let Steve continue,” Cho replies carefully before returning to Steve. “I’m sensing there’s something more that’s bothering you.”
Then, Steve turns to face Tony head on, his eyes bright and suspiciously shiny. His nose is red as he sniffs, running a tired hand over his face. It seemed he’d been getting as little sleep as Tony had since they started these weekly sessions. Maybe this is a mistake and they should’ve tried to fix things on their own. Tony’s stomach twists in worry as Steve speaks, his voice low, “You think I don’t support you.”
It’s not a question and Tony really thinks it should be. His stomach tightens and he finds it near impossible to hold Steve’s gaze. He looks so wounded, his face pained as he waits for Tony to respond. “Steve… Steve, I don’t – I know you support me.” And I don’t make it easy.
“You don’t,” Steve says, a tear rolling down his cheek. He averts his gaze, blond lashes fluttering as he gathers his words. “You said the one thing, the one thing you wanted was support.”
“Steve,” Tony tries, his tongue feeling lazy and too big for his mouth. “I just meant that – I mean, it’s not-“
“And I tried talkin’ and doin’ what I was supposed to do and you left.” He wipes frustratedly at his cheek and turns away, his voice raspy as he adds, “That’s not very supportive.”
Tony freezes, staring at the side of Steve’s face and then looking to Cho for help. She’s watching them quietly and at Tony’s pleading expression, she asks, “Tony, you don’t have to explain if you don’t want to. I will afford you that privacy.”
“But he won’t,” Tony says with a wry smile.
“I just think it’s interestin’, that’s all,” Steve finishes and Tony’s face burns.
“You’re unbelievable,” Tony growls. “I can’t do this with you right now.”
“Another six years, then? Great; I’ll put it on my calendar,” Steve mutters and Tony wants to leave. He wants to get up and slam the door behind him but he won’t give Steve the satisfaction.
“Let’s just talk about what you want to talk about,” Tony says and Cho studies them for a long moment before nodding in acquiescence.
“Okay, let’s table this discussion until you both have clearer heads.” She leans back, taking in a slow breath. “What bothers you the most about your partner?”
Tony lets out a surprised laugh, “You really want to do this right now?”
She gives a helpless smile, “It was on today’s agenda. If you’d rather discuss something lighter like a favorite vacation-“
“Don’t take ‘em,” Steve replies.
“Or a favorite holiday?”
“Don’t get ‘em,” Tony says.
“Or anything else,” she finishes awkwardly and they both shrug helplessly. “I can but this was the plan for today.”
“I don’t think it’s best that we talk about that right now-“ Tony began before Steve chimes in.
“No, I would like to hear what Tony has to say.”
Tony rolls his eyes, snapping, “You’re stubborn! You’re the most stubborn person I’ve ever met and you don’t even seem to realize it.” Steve stares at him, his face blank. “You don’t let things go. I lied to you when we first met, yeah, but I lied to everyone, Steve. Very few people knew I was Iron Man and you said you accepted that but anytime I did anything afterwards that disappointed you, you acted like I was just confirming a suspicion you already had.”
Steve’s mouth forms a hard line as Tony continues on, “I lied; well of course, that’s what I do. I tried to fix the problem with my stolen armors on my own and screwed it up; well of course, that’s what I do. I sold my soul to the government and it backfired; well of course, that’s what I do. I put a high-tech implant in my body and warped my brain; well of course, that’s what I do. I side against you in a war; well of course, I was never loyal to you in the first place. Never honest. Never noble. Never whatever the hell it is you kept telling yourself I was before you woke up one day and stopped loving me!”
“Okay,” Cho interjects quietly, holding out a hand but Steve was responding.
“I stopped – excuse me? I’m here! I’m right here! I get in that car every Wednesday and drive us here. I sit on this damn couch and listen to you talk about how I’m the worst husband in the world. But that’s what I do, Tony. That’s what I always do, sweetheart. I show up. My word means something.”
“Shut the hell up, Steve.” Tony replies. “I get it: you hate that I’ve lied to you five hundred times since I’ve known you. I understand that-“
“No, I hate that you leave!” Steve shouts. “You take yourself out of every situation that has ever caused a problem for us. After things went south with Wanda, you left. Half the stuff that happened in the war, I didn’t know, because you left. When Norman Osborn took over, you erased your brain. I – I didn’t even know what to say about that and I still don’t and when you’re not leaving, you’re hiding things from me. When things got bad with your drinking, you hid it from me. And I never forgot that time, years ago, when the team was just starting out and you let me think you were dead for months! And I didn’t know about your heart, or the chestplate or any of it. I didn’t know how- how many times we went out in the field and you could have died. I didn’t know about Happy. I didn’t know about Rumiko or Sunset or Tiberius. I didn’t know about your father. You don’t tell me things.”
Tony’s breathing is labored, eyes downcast as he replies, “If I told you half the things I’ve kept hidden from you, you’d never speak to me again.” He takes in a shaky breath and gets to his feet. He looks to Cho, his face grim, “We’re done for today, right?”
They go home and head up to their floor silently. Steve holds the elevator door for Tony to exit follows him to the bedroom. Steve takes a deep breath, grabbing a blanket and a few pillows from the closet.
“I’m gonna…” he begins but Tony waves a hand.
“Don’t say it.”
“Things got heated last time so I’d like to start light this afternoon,” Cho says. Steve doesn’t respond, instead studying the bookshelf he’d sat next to every session. Tony shrugs in response, staring down at his hands.
“I’d like to ask you to describe your favorite things about your partner. I intended to close with that last session but things got away from me.”
Tony stares at her and then looks to Steve who’s resolutely looking away from both of them. Tony swallows, returning to Cho. “You, uh, you want me to start?”
“If you’d like,” she replies kindly.
Tony takes in a shaky breath, “I, uh… well, he’s Captain America. There’s so many great things to say about him. But… I, uh, as much as I looked up to the guy, I didn’t fall in love with Cap. I fell in love with Steve. They’re not one in the same, though everyone seems to think so. Steve tells jokes,” he says with a small smile. “Terrible ones. It’s like he invented the dad joke and we’re all just trying to compete with him. He’s an awful dancer. Stepped on my toes every single time I tried to teach him. He’s polite and,” he swallows thickly, “honest. He never gives up. Anytime I got in trouble, he was always out there looking fro me. He’s loyal.”
He looks to Steve who shows no sign that he’s even heard and Tony tries to swallow past the painful knot in his throat. “I, uh… going back to what you said earlier, the man I married could not be further from my father. I feel safe with Steve. He’s the kindest person I know and he still believes in people. I just… I wanted to keep that.”
Steve stiffens as Cho leans in, “What do you mean?”
Tony’s mouth works for a moment before he explains, “Sometimes I keep things from him because I know they’ll only upset him.” Steve’s jaw clicks but he continues to stares at the bookshelf, his chest rising and falling calmly.
Cho frowns, looking to Steve. “And you, Steve? Your favorite thing about Tony?”
Tony looks to him, heart pounding. He feels sick, overly warm, his stomach tight. This feels like the longest moment of his life. With every passing second in silence, the small blossom of hope Tony had going into this begins to wither away. His breath hitches, his heart in his throat as he waits.
“Steve?” Cho asks quietly and Tony watches Steve continue to face away from them.
Tony doesn’t understand it. Things hadn’t been great lately and it had been hard to walk past the couch Steve had turned into a makeshift bed that morning. He’d thought last week would be a one time thing but six days had passed and Steve was still sleeping on the couch. It made for awkward conversation when Rhodey came up to visit but even so, Tony thought they could still make it work.
And today, Tony hadn’t done anything antagonistic. He hadn’t said anything rude or dismissive; hadn’t made light of anything Steve disliked. He had come up from the lab so they could leave on time and he’d barely said anything on the ride over. He doesn’t understand why Steve’s being like this. His eyes feel warm and start to strain from staring at the back of Steve’s head but he can’t make himself look away.
Finally, Cho nods quietly and says, “Okay, we can move on-“
“No, we can’t,” Tony says, licking his lips nervously. His voice is hoarse, “He has to say something. Make him answer.”
“Tony, I can’t – that’s not why I’m here.”
“Then why are you here?” he demands, eyes spilling over. “Why do we pay you if you can’t – he has to say something.” He looks to Steve, “Say something. Why’d you come if you didn’t intend to say anything?”
“Steve,” he pleads and he’s never needed anything more than he needs to hear Steve’s voice right now. “Say something. Anything. I don’t care if it’s bad. I don’t care if you hate me. Just say something.”
“Tony,” Cho begins but Tony is focused on Steve.
“You won’t even look at me,” he notes quietly.
Cho chimes in, her voice hesitant, “Tony, perhaps you should step outside for a moment. I’d like to speak to Steve alone.”
Tony wants to stay, to keep trying but Steve is so still, Tony’s not even sure he’s breathing. He climbs unsteadily to his feet and leaves the room.
The door closes and Steve takes a slow shuddering breath, and then another. He continues to stare at the bookshelf, his chest slowly rising and falling. Cho leans in closer, her voice gentle, “Steve-“
“When we met… when we really met, I was alone. I had no one. I lost everyone and everything I’d ever known. I know that sounds like really heavy stuff… believe me, it’s hard for someone who hasn’t lived it to comprehend what that means. I was lost and alone and I took that and channeled it into getting revenge on Baron Zemo. It consumed me.”
He sniffs, a tear trailing down his cheek, twirling the golden band on his ringfinger with his thumb. “Tony was there for me. As Iron Man and as Tony Stark. I was a complete nightmare and I certainly wasn’t good company but… he didn’t care. At first, I thought it was the whole ‘living legend’ malarkey. Told myself I was doing him a favor and he was getting as much out of it as I was because I was his hero. But that wasn’t true: I was getting distraction, support, an ear for all my griping. He got hour after hour of endless angst and whining. He just listened to me and he made time for me. He was running a company and being Iron Man and – and charging his chest plate. And during all of that, he made time to listen to an old man talk about listening to Dick Tracy on the radio. And he never complained.” He looks to her in astonishment.
“In all of that, he never complained. Not once.” He smiles, eyes wet before he wipes at them. “He was my best friend. He was the first person I went to when I needed anything. Anything at all.”
It’s quiet, then, “Was?”
“You said he was your best friend. So, he isn’t now?” she asks. Steve’s eyes are wide, “Is there someone else?”
Steve shakes his head in disgust, “I would never- I’m not that kind of guy.”
“I didn’t mean to imply that you were having an affair-“
“I accused him once,” Steve admits to Cho’s stunned silence. He smiles grimly, massaging a tightly clenched fist. He holds himself tight, like a band stretched to its limit; his control near painful to watch. “And there came a point in the – in the war,” he stumbles, “I thought him capable of it. I think Tony’s capable of a lot of things if he can justify it to himself. If he can tell himself it was necessary.”
“What other times come to mind?” she asks and Steve huffs out a laugh.
“Where should I start?” he asks, shaking his head. “Thing about Tony is, he takes everything on himself. Doesn’t trust anyone else to help him or to – to understand and when things don’t work out, he tries to end things as quickly as possible. Usually that means sacrificing himself,” he rubs his hands together, eyes downcast. “He used to go into fights with a damaged chest plate. This was back when he had a weak heart and he needed the thing to keep his heart beating. There was that time his armor was killing him and he still suited up to go fight the Mandarin. He gave his life for mine when I was dying from toxic gas inhalation. Shut down his heart for me when his tech was taken over. He sold his soul, his freedom to try to make the public happy. He gave up…” he sucks in a breath, “gave up his sobriety for a chance to save us.
“This is Tony Stark’s world and we’re all just living in it.” He looks to her wondrously, helplessly, “He plays God, plays fast and loose with his own life and whatever negative things I could say about him, it’s nothing compared to what he thinks about himself.” Cho’s eyes widen as he goes on. “He thinks my life is worth more than his. He doesn’t jump in the line of fire, sign his life away, shut down his heart,” his voice breaks. “He doesn’t do all of that for me; although he tells himself that. He does all of this because he thinks I’m worth more.”
He lowers his head, “I’m not the best at making him feel needed. It was years before I even realized it was possible to hate yourself to that degree.” He shakes himself a little, “I failed him. Time and time again: I’d look at him and I knew he needed my help and I’d try but I’d get so angry with him.”
“Are you speaking of a specific time?” she asks quietly.
“When his drinking got worse, the worst I’d ever seen it… I gave up on him. I walked away and left him to the lowest point in his life.” He looks to her imploringly, “Who does that to someone they love?”
She frowns, “From what you told me, this was before you were married.”
“It was.” His brows furrow, “I loved him then. All those years, I loved him. And I turned my back on him. I kicked him off the team, sided against him in a war, I shut him out. I did that! I did all of that to someone I loved.” His voice is rough as he goes on, “And he’s here and he’s trying because all he can do is try but he doesn’t know. He doesn’t – he doesn’t realize that this isn’t something he can fix.”
He sucks in a shaky breath, his hands clenching into fists on his knees. “Sometimes I look at him and I see the man I married… but not the one I fell in love with.” He looks to her, lost, “And I wonder, was that time? Or was it me? Where was I when he decided to take everything on his shoulders?”
A pause, “Then I wonder if he’s always been this way.” He wipes at his eyes. “But to answer your question, my favorite thing about my partner is his heart. He may not believe it, but he is kind, he is selfless and no one has ever loved me the way he does. It’s humbling…. It’s frightening. To tell you the truth, I don’t think there’s anything Tony wouldn’t do for me.”
He takes a deep breath and looks her straight in the eye, “And I don’t deserve it.”
When Steve goes to find Tony in the hallway, he’s nowhere to be found. Steve’s heart drops into his stomach and he knows, without asking the receptionist, that Tony is gone. It’s most likely he left during Steve’s talk with Cho and Steve doesn’t want to think about the headspace he was in at the moment. He gets into the car and takes the long way home.
When he arrives, he finds Tony in their bedroom. He’s sitting on the edge of the bed, hands clasped together between his knees. He’s Steve’s height but, as Steve gets closer, he tries to make himself smaller. Steve stops a few feet away, voice low, “I see you got home okay.”
Tony nods, “I called Carol and she gave me a ride.”
“That was nice of her,” Steve says and then it’s quiet again. “Tony, I need to talk to you.”
Tony reaches behind him and pulls out a folder, handing it to Steve somberly. Steve takes it curiously. Upon opening it, his face pales, ice cold lead in his stomach. “They’re for you,” Tony says. “Your call. I never know when to say ‘when’, but you know that.”
“Tony,” Steve tries, his voice giving out. His knees are weak, head swimming with broken off words and pleas.
“We had a good run,” Tony says. “You loved me once. I have to believe that.”
He stands and starts towards the door. He’s leaving again and Steve knows with absolute certainty that if he lets Tony leave right now, it’s over; there’s no coming back from this. The door opens and Steve’s hand slams it closed, sliding between Tony and the door determinedly. Tony stares at him in surprise, eyes wide and wet and the sight makes Steve’s stomach twist.
“Stop running away from me,” he says pleadingly. “Can we just talk about this?”
“We tried that. It’s only making things worse. Please, let me go.”
“Do you want me to?” he asks quietly. “You didn’t draw these papers up today. They look old.”
Tony steps back, crossing his arms as he lowers his head. “I spent the first year of our marriage happy,” he confesses. “I somehow tricked you into marrying me and that was the happiest I’d ever been.” He looks up at Steve, his cheeks wet, a sad smile on his face. “But then that fucked up voice in my head, Howard’s voice, told me ‘I better enjoy this because it won’t last.’ I tried to keep you happy and that meant hiding things from you.
“Our first fight, I still remember what it was about, I went after Whiplash 3.0 or whichever one we were on at that point, and I didn’t tell you. We’d faced off against Kang that week and, to tell you the truth, I was still a little woozy. Couldn’t fly straight for most of the ride out and I knew you’d tell me to stay home so I just didn’t tell you. And when I got back-“
“I yelled at you,” Steve finishes.
“Really laid into me. I remember you paced the length of the kitchen for so long, I thought you’d worn a path into the tile. Even though we were married and you kept it to Whiplash, I heard every single one of my flaws in that tirade. Wasn’t anything you did but I remember thinking ‘well, we had a good run’. So, I found a lawyer and drew up the papers. Just in case. I wanted you to have options.” A pause, “Then the next day, I woke up with your arms wrapped around me and I thought everything would be okay.
“Until the next fight. And the one after that. And the one after that. Until I looked up one day and realized we’d gone to bed together for the past six months and I couldn’t remember the last time you touched me. I couldn’t remember the last time you smiled at me or made a joke. We were like strangers sharing a bed… sharing a life.”
A tear falls down his cheek, eyes red, “It was a last ditch effort hiring a counselor. I had to say I tried and I did. I should’ve given you an out six months ago. But I’m selfish so I stayed. I’m selfish so I kept you. I thought, maybe having someone help us to talk things out would-“
“That’s bullshit,” Steve says suddenly, voice soft. “It’s complete bullshit.”
“If what you’re saying is true, my entire marriage has been a lie,” he says somberly. “I thought,” he chokes, a tear rolling down cheek. “We were happy. Everything’s a mess right now and some nights I wonder why we bother going to these appointments at all but at least I could tell myself, the past five years, we were happy. At least I could tell myself we had five good years before I became a complete disappointment.”
Tony flinches, blinking a few times, “Steve, you’re not listening to me-“
“You spent five years thinking I was going to leave you? You thought that if you dropped these goddamn papers in my lap, I’d just sign our life away that easily?” he asks, throwing the papers aside. He was angry, eyes flashing as he steps away from the door. “We argued, sure, but we always argued before. Did you go searching for these when I chewed you out for leaving the cap off the toothpaste?”
“You know damn well it went deeper than that!” he shouts and Steve almost relishes in seeing Tony as angry as he is at the moment.
“You talk as though everything was always your fault! You cleared an entire surgical wing scolding me when I got hurt because I had the gall to go out without telling you!” he shouts.
“Because you got yourself stabbed and only Sam had the bright idea to call your husband. Like maybe I would’ve wanted to know you were in the goddamn ICU!” he shouts.
“And I didn’t go out and draw up divorce papers!"
“Well, then you’re a fucking idiot,” Tony says in a rush. Steve gapes at him silently. Tony runs a hand through his hair, pacing away for a moment. “You could do a lot better than me. I know you know that. Every time – every time I’d wake up and see you next to me, I would memorize your face because I was sure you’d disappear someday. I’d do my best to make you happy but the more I tried to control things, the worse things got.”
“I’m not one of your armors, Tony,” Steve says quietly, moving in closer. His eyes are soft, voice hesitant, “You can’t just mold me into whatever you want me to be. And it’s not your job to always try to protect me. Maybe I get mad at you, maybe we stop pretending everything is fine and that’s okay. You can’t take everything on yourself. Sometimes arguing is just arguing; it can’t be helped. I can’t – this isn’t going to work if every disagreement leads to you panicking.”
Tony stares at him, stricken, hands shaking. “Steve, I… I don’t know how to fix this.”
Steve shakes his head, the words painful to his own ears, “Maybe you can’t, Tony.” He takes in a deep breath. “And that’s okay.”
Later that night, Steve awakes to the sounds of movement on the balcony. He sits up, rubbing at his eyes. He finds Tony on the balcony.
Tony looks to him, “Sorry, I wake you?”
Steve shakes his head. Tony is lying on one of the oversize lounge chairs and gazing up at the darkened sky. Steve lies down next to him, their skin nearly touching. It’s closer than they’ve been in weeks.
“Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I’d been born into a normal family,” Tony says by way of greeting. “No stress about taking over a weapons company. Which means I don’t go to Afghanistan and I don’t get blown up. I don’t make a crazy suit of armor and start fighting dragons.”
“I never would have met you,” Steve says and the thought seems too farfetched to consider.
“Wins all around, don’t you think?” he jokes but Steve doesn’t find it funny.
“I’m happy to know you, Tony. I’ve never regretted it.” Tony looks to him doubtfully, his eyes bright and closer than Steve can handle. He gazes at Tony as he reaffirms, “even then, even during the war, I’m happy to have been your friend.”
“But I make a lousy husband,” he says.
“I’m not a great one either,” he says. “What you said… I love you, Tony. I’ve never stopped.”
“Steve,” Tony replies but Steve needs to say this.
“We’ve been through so much, more than anyone can comprehend. How Sue and Reed have lasted so long, I’ll never know. We grew together, around each other… and apart. In all that, I never stopped loving you.”
Tony stares at him, his eyes clear, “Right back at you.”
Steve rolls his eyes, “Thanks.”
They gaze up at the stars, an odd calm between them that hasn’t existed in months, maybe even years. “I’ve seen so much,” Tony says. “I’ve been to the sixteenth century and fought alongside knights. I’ve fought dragons and super skrulls and titans. I’ve fought alongside gods and seen space more times than I ever thought possible. And in all of that, the one thing I never believed possible was you asking me to marry you.”
Steve’s heart drops into his stomach, “I’m not who you think I am.”
“Maybe not,” Tony says. “But you’re mine. Or you were,” he corrects with a soft smile. “I’m surprisingly fond of you.”
It’s simple, a joke and Steve should laugh but instead it warms him to his core and he smiles. Here in the dark with only the city below to illuminate them, he stares up at the sky above and turns his head towards Tony.
This is ending. He knows that even as he twirls the thin band on his finger possessively. They’d fought valiantly but even great warriors lost a fight or two. They’d tried and what was the old adage? Better to have loved and lost?
He can say the words. He’d turned his back on Tony before, he could do it again. Saying the words wouldn’t make it any less real. They’d tried; at least he could say they hadn’t given up without a fight. He can say the words; it’s been a long time coming.
He hears an intake of breath and he turns to see Tony watching him quietly, his eyes open and soft. Honest. Steve memorizes the lines of his face, the way his brow furrows in concentration, the scar above his left eye, the small nick on his chin from a fight with Doom. Steve knows this face well enough to sketch from memory. He knows all the little quirks, grins and clever smirks. Knows how to read annoyance, desire, excitement better than anyone else around. He knows Tony inside and out and he knows the expression staring back at him.
The corner of Tony’s mouth curls up sadly before he returns to the sky, his long lashes fluttering as he smiles up at the dark canvas. Steve remembers lying here with him years ago, before they had matching bands on their fingers. Remembers the excited way Tony’s blue eyes lit up during a blackout because he was finally able to show Steve his favorite constellations. He remembers none of it setting in and just getting lost in Tony’s enthusiasm. He is truly beautiful, the youthful joy on his face nearly painful to look at up close, even all these years later.
Steve’s stomach twists, heart beating fast in his chest. Something small.
He swallows, nervous fluttering in his stomach as he reaches over and takes Tony’s hand.