The Corrupt and the Pure • Chapters 40-44
Chapter 40: The Survivors
When the armor suddenly halted in the middle of its slow circling around Central Park, Tony sensed something had changed. “J?” he called out in question. So far, the AI had been elusive, trying to make his rebellion less obvious even though it couldn’t have been more glaring.
“The fight seems to have come to an end,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied.
Tony tried not to worry, deciding his AI would be phrasing the sentence very differently had something happened to Cap. “Relinquish control,” he ordered, and unlike all the other times he had demanded it, this time J.A.R.V.I.S. actually complied. Tony turned the suit around and made a beeline for the field of battle, coming upon a scene much like the one he had left – with one blatant difference.
He put the suit down and stepped outside instantly. “Pull Thor out of the pond and see if anyone else needs help,” he ordered his AI. The suit moved to comply while Tony approached the still figure on the ground. Dread grew into a condensed little ball in his chest that weighed way more than it should have, but he couldn’t help it: the shield that stood upright from the Commander’s body blocked his view, and until he could be sure, he should be ready for anything.
Tony rounded the body, steeling his nerves as he stepped beside it. Lifeless eyes stared up at the night sky, blood smeared all across his neck, chest and chin, no longer pulsing out of his body. The shield – Cap’s shield – was still embedded in his neck, no doubt after delivering the fatal blow.
For reasons he couldn’t quite explain, Tony stood by the fallen super-soldier for quite some time, studying his face, committing it to memory against his better judgment. It might haunt him, which really wasn’t necessary…
In the background, the armor wrestled Thor out of the water, the Asgardian groaning as he finally came to. J.A.R.V.I.S. left him kneeling on the muddy bank, heading over to check on Rhodey and the damaged War Machine armor while a bit further off Sam Wilson was finally sitting up, hunched over and clutching at his head.
Tony blinked slowly and forced himself to look away from the body, eyes sliding across the grass to the bench where Steve was seated, staring off into space. Prompting his body to move, Tony walked over to him and took a seat next to him, leaning against the back of the bench and breathing in the night air. He could smell a whiff of blood, and he guessed it was coming from the man next to him.
“We’re both dead in that world, now,” he pondered out loud. “Wonder if that’s for the best…”
Steve didn’t say anything in return.
Tony allowed the silence to last a fair bit longer than was probably necessary, then looked at Steve. His face looked ashen in the far-away lamp light, smeared in blood that may not have been all his own. His hair was a tangled mess, and Tony fought a strange urge to run his fingers through it, to make him look a bit more presentable.
“Steve,” he called out instead, not touching him. “No one’s going to blame you for making that call,” Tony reassured him.
Steve blinked, lips opening a fraction. His gaze was still fixated on something Tony couldn’t see. “I felt nothing,” he finally said, voice strained like he had to fight to make a sound. “I thought of doing it, before,” he continued, a little easier. “Made up my mind, accepting it. I thought it would be a tough call, but if push came to shove, I would do the right thing.” He blinked and looked down at his hands. “Now, I just feel empty.”
Tony wasn’t sure what to say. That it would get better, later? That killing your enemies didn’t always make things better? That regardless of how he felt, it was done and there was no taking it back now?
“I know you did it for me,” he said instead, before actually processing the words. There was no taking back those words, either…
Steve’s fingers curled into fists.
“Thank you,” Tony added, voice dropping, his brain telling him that it was most likely making it worse, but there were some train wrecks that should be allowed to happen.
From the debris, something better could be built.
He sat back again, silence falling between them even as a Quinjet came hovering over the trees, stirring the water, the hum of the engines drowning out the rest of the world for a few blissful moments.
to be continued…
Chapter 41: The Comparison
Bruce surveyed the scene as he stepped off the ramp of the Quinjet that had swiftly replaced the destroyed one. Across the clearing, Tony’s armor was helping Rhodey out of his mangled one, Natasha had headed out to check on Sam, and Thor was slowly making it towards the aircraft, soaking wet, streaked in mud and blood, the hammer’s strap in a loose grasp and appearing almost too heavy for him to carry.
On the other side of the pond, Steve and Tony sat on a bench together, and in the center of it all lay the still body of the Commander.
Bruce swallowed. They had agreed the Hulk would be the last resort, and it seemed it had been a close call. Sure, Bucky had been in reserve, and Clint and Natasha would have stepped in and done their best, but it would have been up to the Hulk to put the Commander down if all that wasn’t enough.
Steve had handled it, though – with a rather permanent solution.
It had always been an option, of course, whether they liked it or not, but Bruce had considered it a complication of sorts that the Commander was another Steve Rogers, no matter how altered.
Some things couldn’t be forgiven, though…
Rhodey was stone-faced as he passed Bruce, halting just as he was about to step onto the ramp, eyes moving towards Tony and Steve.
“Give them a moment,” Bruce said, supposing that was the best plan of action.
“It is over,” Thor murmured as he reached them, steps shuffling. He looked weary to the bone.
“Yeah,” Rhodey agreed, voice strained. “About time.”
Thor nodded and moved to board the Quinjet, prompting Rhodey to follow him inside. They were still getting settled when Clint came walking out, taking in the scenery. His sharp gaze lingered on the fallen man.
The armors were moving towards the Quinjet, Tony’s red-and-gold suit carrying War Machine’s limp form rather effortlessly. Clint and Bruce got out of the way, remaining by the ramp while Natasha pulled Sam to his feet and headed towards them. Sam was moving mostly on his own, so Bruce didn’t worry too much, instead keeping his attention on Tony and Steve.
“Should we do something about the body?” Clint asked at length.
Natasha and Sam, who had just reached them, looked out towards the Commander’s fallen form as well.
“Can’t just leave him lying there,” Sam stated. He made a move to step towards the body, but swayed rather dangerously, and Natasha promptly stepped forward to catch up with him.
“Someone else can deal with that,” she said. “You need to be checked for a concussion or a cracked skull.”
Sam didn’t argue, and Natasha led him up the ramp to join the others.
Bruce hesitated, seeing as he might be able to help with the diagnosis, but J.A.R.V.I.S. was also present and perfectly capable of running the equipment, especially while the AI was in charge of Tony’s suit. He opted to stay where he was, waiting for a reaction from their two remaining teammates. After all, it didn’t seem right to touch the body before they gave the green light.
As if bothered by the sudden crowd of people within the Quinjet, Bucky came walking out, halting at the top of the ramp. He could look around from there, yet remain mostly out of sight. He seemed to prefer blending into the shadows, and after the things he had been made do over the last several decades, Bruce didn’t blame him. It was best to give him his space.
In the distance, police sirens blared, then died down again. So far, no one had attempted to approach the scene, but that wouldn’t last forever.
The sound seemed to prompt Steve into action: he sat up, back ramrod straight, then looked around as if taking in the scene for the first time. Tony also shifted beside him and then stood up, appearing ready to move things along. Steve followed his lead, and together they walked away from the bench.
They passed the body as they headed towards the Quinjet, and Steve stopped, hand reaching out, yet at the last moment he seemed to loathe reclaiming his shield from where it still stood embedded in the Commander’s body. Tony halted beside him, watching silently, and eventually Steve chose to walk on, leaving the shield for the time being.
Clint nodded in greeting as the two finally reached the Quinjet. “Everyone in one piece?” he asked – then grimaced. “No pun intended,” he added, gesturing towards the Commander’s body which, frankly, was still in one piece, although barely.
“We should head back to the Tower,” Bruce said, keeping his tone as nonthreatening as possible; Steve still looked a bit queasy, and Bruce had never seen him like this in the aftermath of a battle.
“Any ideas on what we’ll do with him – and the extra shield?” Clint asked, nodding towards the Commander.
“And the Tesseract,” Tony mused.
“The Tesseract is no longer a concern,” J.A.R.V.I.S. cut in, the armor stepping out to the top of the ramp. All of them looked up at it expectantly – except for Bucky, who simply moved away a couple steps, keeping his distance as if he were suspecting everyone to turn on him next.
“What do you mean?” Tony asked, frowning.
“It is difficult to be sure, but approximately four minutes ago, there was a power surge that overloaded most of the Tower’s systems. They are rebooting, and from what I can tell, the Tesseract is gone.”
“Stolen?” Bruce asked.
“Gone the way it came, I would assume,” the AI replied. “The preliminary readings suggest a similar event.”
“Keep an eye on it, and lock down the Tower until we get there,” Tony ordered. “We can’t risk it falling into the hands of someone else…” He trailed off, turning to look at the Commander again. “Is it too far-fetched to imagine that when he died, the Tesseract’s tether to this world was cut?”
“If his command was what brought it here, then it is possible,” Bruce cautiously agreed. “We know the Tesseract acts as a doorway between two spaces, and it cut into our world upon his request.”
“His desire to find me,” Tony murmured, words barely audible. There was something haunted, suddenly, in the way he was looking at the Commander’s body.
“Sir, perhaps it would be best if you go join the others while I help the team with clean-up,” J.A.R.V.I.S. suggested.
“No,” Tony refused. “I’m seeing this through.”
“We can’t leave him here,” Steve said, speaking up so suddenly it startled Bruce. “We can’t… let anyone have him,” he went on. “I know how badly S.H.I.E.L.D. wanted to test me in the beginning, and getting their hands on a perfect copy…”
“As much as I wouldn’t mind the idea of someone cutting him into tiny pieces, I agree,” Clint stated.
“All he ever wanted was to recapture what he had,” Tony said, sounding like he wasn’t quite following the conversation.
“He was willing to kill all of us to get it,” Steve retorted, rather sharply, then seemed to regret saying it out loud in the next second, his expression almost apologetic. “I know there were other options,” he went on more tentatively.
“No,” Tony shook his head. “For him, there weren’t. Kill or be killed. If he couldn’t have me, it wasn’t worth it.” He looked at Steve. “I didn’t magically change my mind about being his…” He chose not to say what, exactly. “But I did see a glimpse, no matter how distorted and tiny, of the man he still wanted to be,” he finished.
“Doesn’t mean he’s not better off dead,” Bucky muttered.
Tony nodded slowly, expressing that he agreed – even though his facial expression was much more complex. Maybe he regretted that it had come to this. After all, the Commander had been Captain America, once upon a time…
“J, there’s a tarp in one of the compartments,” Tony spoke up an instant later, tone shifting towards efficient and matter-of-fact. “Let’s get the body wrapped up and ready for transport.”
Steve made a tiny nod even though Tony hadn’t spoken to him and walked back over to the body, this time seizing the shield without hesitation and yanking it out. He didn’t attach it to his back or arm, however, holding his legendary weapon at his side as if it carried a disease.
Tony’s armor had moved back inside the Quinjet, soon returning with a tarp in its hands, just as ordered. Without taking it, Tony moved out towards the body, the armor following him. Clint took a step to join them, but Bruce stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Prep the Quinjet for take-off and make sure everyone’s okay,” he said, knowing that Clint’s bandaged wrist might not take kindly to the strain of moving a body. “I’ll go help Tony and Steve.”
Clint frowned but did as he was told.
Bucky kept watching from the shadows at the top of the ramp, eyes rapt on the action. He didn’t volunteer to help, but he didn’t go sit down, either.
Steve wasn’t doing much other than standing off to the side, either, and Bruce hurried to aid Tony. The Iron Man armor was more than enough to move the body around, but Tony seemed adamant that he be allowed to partake in it, and Bruce felt like he had to help, even if it was moral support rather than actual help.
It was noticeable that Tony was done looking at the body at length, J.A.R.V.I.S. making quick work of covering up the Commander’s upper body with the tarp.
When Steve finally moved, it was to retrieve the Commander’s shield. He looked like he felt he should help more, but didn’t quite seem able to bring himself that far.
Once the body was wrapped up, it only took Tony’s armor to carry it into the Quinjet, and the rest of them followed. Clint had the aircraft ready to go, closing the ramp once they were on board and firing up the engines. Everyone took a seat, the body laid out and strapped to one of the tables designed to treat the injured – or worse, for carrying casualties back home.
No one spoke, most people either nursing injuries or deep in their own thoughts. Bruce monitored the situation, the way he had grown used to over the years, fearing anything that might trigger the Hulk. That was how he spotted Steve glancing towards Tony – who in turn was staring at the wrapped-up body on the table, a distant expression on his face.
Manhattan, New York City, NY
Back at the Tower, the team divided into three parts: Steve and Thor headed out to clean up, forgoing medical examinations despite their obvious injuries, whereas Rhodey and Sam voluntarily accepted to be checked out. Tony disappeared with his armor and the Commander’s body, and Steve tried not to think about that.
Incidentally, it was hard to think of anything else, and once he had showered and changed into fresh clothing – and tossed his bloody shield into the shower for a later cleaning – he headed out to find Tony.
He could have looked for a long time, but he decided to ask J.A.R.V.I.S. for directions, just in case the AI would volunteer the information, and was given instructions on where to find Tony.
Steve wasn’t certain whether to call it surprise when he found the other man in a small room where the temperature had been lowered, and which could hardly be called anything but a ‘morgue’. Steve hadn’t known they had one, but it made sense, if one cared to think about it.
The Commander was laid out on a table at the center of the room, the tarp hanging off the sides, and Tony seemed frozen in place, staring at the body.
“Do you wish he weren’t dead?” Steve asked before he could help himself.
Tony jumped, obviously not having realized Steve was there, and looked over his shoulder at him. His eyes lingered on his throat, and Steve couldn’t help swallowing under the scrutiny.
“I feel like I didn’t do enough,” Tony finally replied.
“He was beyond everyone’s help,” Steve countered, stepping further inside the room. The chill was already crawling deeper into his flesh, and he had no idea how long Tony had stood here, staring at the corpse of a man who had kidnapped and abused him.
“Maybe,” Tony said – not sounding like he believed it.
“You kept telling me he wasn’t my responsibility,” Steve pressed. “He wasn’t yours, either.”
“It’s not that simple,” Tony snapped, beginning to shiver all of a sudden. Steve wanted to drag him out of this room and close the door permanently behind them, but he had a feeling they weren’t done just yet.
“Then explain it to me,” Steve requested, trying to make his tone less hostile.
Tony shook his head, once, as if it were an involuntary spasm of muscles – then sighed and wrapped his arms around himself. He did not, however, shift to remove himself from the room. “He was broken, perhaps beyond salvation, but he was just trying to reconnect with the man he thought could save him.” He looked at Steve. “He was trying to connect with me. I felt it, even when I rejected the rest of it, and it feels like I wasn’t able to focus on what really mattered.”
“Don’t feel sorry for him,” Steve ordered. “He could have come after you in so many different ways, but I think he ended up choosing the only way he knew by heart: violence.”
Tony couldn’t deny that, and with a final look at the Commander, he moved to wrap the tarp back around the body, hiding it from view. Steve waited until he exited the room before following. When he closed the door, he expected it to feel good, but just like after delivering that deadly blow, he simply felt hollowed out on the inside.
to be continued…
Chapter 42: The Prospect
Steve spent a few hours mindlessly scrubbing his shield. He probably could have dropped it off for Tony to deal with, but after their conversation at the morgue, he knew better than to think it would go over well.
Tony’s feelings towards the Commander were a myriad of mixed messages – just as his feelings for Steve seemed to be. While he pretended to be thinking of nothing in particular as he cleaned the vibranium disc, it was becoming more apparent by the minute that Steve was obsessing over each little detail of his and Tony’s interaction ever since the man was rescued.
“I wouldn’t have fought back nearly as much had it been you.”
Steve’s scrubbing arm halted, fingers tightening around the rag he was using, squeezing the water and soap right out of it. The red of the Commander’s blood was long gone, but he had kept cleaning on autopilot.
Half of the time, he kept thinking Tony had said that to cheer him up in the form of a morbid joke.
The rest of the time, he kept going back to the comments the Commander had made, ever since appearing in the middle of the Tower’s living room. Insinuating that Steve would never experience that particular feeling…
The click of a lock sliding open drew his mind away from his feverish ponderings and into full focus on someone entering his room. Steve rose from his crouched position on the shower floor, dropping the washcloth and gripping the shield tight, just as he began to move towards the doorway of the bathroom, each of his motions as soundless as he could make them.
“It’s me,” Bucky’s voice called out before he could decide on a strategy.
Steve relaxed and lowered the shield, stepping out of the bathroom to find Bucky standing in the middle of the bedroom, looking ready to bolt in case Steve didn’t take kindly to his presence.
“Hi,” Steve said, uncertain how to proceed. It was like constantly balancing on thin ice, hearing the cracks form beneath his feet even when he couldn’t see them.
“He’s dead now,” Bucky began, clearly having no such problems. “The other you. The Commander.”
Steve nodded, feeling the tension crawl back into his body.
Bucky stared at him, studying him. He had stayed behind during the capture mission at Central Park, and Steve had half-expected him to disappear when they got back and the Tesseract was still messing up the Tower’s systems with its vanishing act.
“You’re not celebrating,” Bucky finally observed.
“Should I be?” Steve asked, propping the shield against the side of his bed, deciding that it wasn’t going to get any cleaner.
“You were pretty dead set on stopping him,” Bucky noted. “Killing him was always the safest option.”
Steve nodded again.
“It’s Tony, isn’t it?” Bucky guessed, alarming Steve with his jump of logic.
“Why do you think that?” Steve asked.
Bucky shrugged and folded his arms over his chest, then began moving around the room as if observing the little details of Steve’s presence there, although there were barely any that Steve himself could find. “I could tell he had mixed feelings about the guy. A bit odd, considering what happened between them.”
Steve couldn’t agree more.
Not finding anything of interest, clearly, Bucky stopped and looked at him again. “Maybe it’s you,” he offered. Whether he was just shooting blindly or exploring a theory, Steve didn’t know. Just the fact that Bucky was in his room, instigating a conversation, was surprising enough.
“We’re not the same,” Steve replied. “At least, that’s what Tony keeps telling me. It seems to be very important to him that I should know that, too.” Tony had made that point more than once, and whether it was to reassure Steve or Tony himself…
In hindsight, it could have been both.
“Maybe he likes to draw a line between the two of you: the Commander was corrupt whereas you are as pure as the driven snow.”
“I’m not…” Steve started, but he supposed that in comparison, he might as well accept Bucky’s wording. “Tony told me there was good in the Commander – or that’s what he was trying to imply, at least. That he might have had the capacity to change.”
“We all do, right?” Bucky mused, looking at him.
“Yes,” Steve quickly agreed, knowing Bucky might take it personally if he didn’t.
“He’ll sort it out in his head, eventually,” Bucky said thoughtfully, eyes straying off Steve’s face to trace the wood-like paneling on the walls. “Emotions are tricky, especially if they conflict with pure reason.”
“Maybe I should leave, make sure I don’t make it worse,” Steve pondered out loud. “But I don’t want it to look like I’m running away from my responsibilities, if he needs my help.”
Bucky nodded, watching the walls some more. “What does your gut tell you?” he asked.
“I don’t think I should consult my gut on this one,” Steve replied dryly.
“Why not?” Bucky asked. “I think I recall it used to get you places.” It was the first time Bucky admitted to remembering much of anything of his past – or maybe it was just a remark, to get his point across.
“Really not sure I want to listen to my gut,” Steve muttered.
“What is it telling you to do?” Bucky asked, openly curious.
Steve wasn’t certain whether he could trust Bucky yet, but if he withheld the truth from him, it might ruin any chance of trust between them for a long time. After all, Bucky used to know when Steve wasn’t being honest. He didn’t want to push him away, but the feelings and thoughts inside him at this time…
He wasn’t certain he could trust them.
“Say it,” Bucky told him. “It will make you feel better.”
Maybe he was right – or maybe he was just fishing for information, hoping to use it as leverage at some later instance when he needed something from Steve.
If it had been anyone but Bucky, Steve would have clamped down on the truth.
“The Commander told me, several times, that I was missing out, not seeing Tony as a potential partner. That I would never know the happiness he had obviously felt, no matter how twisted his version of it had to be.” He couldn’t look at Bucky, nor did he want to look at his shield right now, so he opted to stare at a spot on the floor that was no different from any other section of it. “I keep wondering if maybe he had a point. That Tony and I could have some kind of a… relationship…” He forced himself to snort. “I’ve never fought so much with anyone who’s supposed to be on my side as I’ve fought with him,” he spat out.
“But your gut is telling you to give it a chance, isn’t it?” Bucky guessed. His tone was steady, almost intimate, like they were sharing secrets in the dark again, like they used to. “If one version of you could fall for him so hard he traveled across the barrier of two realities to be reunited…”
Bucky made it sound like a damn romantic tale of endless love and a ‘happily ever after’, but Steve couldn’t quite deny there was a piece of truth hidden within that outrageous description.
“Like I said,” Bucky said, “your gut used to get you places. Why would this time be any different?”
“You seem awfully calm at the prospect of me romancing another man,” Steve pointed out, narrowing his eyes in suspicion.
“I hear it’s a thing these days – not to mention legal,” Bucky replied. “Besides, you were always ahead of your time. No reason to start hitting the brakes now.”
Steve hated Bucky for supporting this idea, especially when he had no idea how Tony would respond to it, no matter how he approached him about it.
If he approached him.
But if he didn’t, how would he know if he was missing out on something that might actually work – and moreover, make him happy?
to be continued…
Chapter 43: The Trial
The timing came from hell, no matter how he put it.
Every time he came up with some casual way to gauge Tony’s true feelings, the masochistic part of his mind that liked to torture him reminded Steve that he could count in days – hours, even – how long it had been since the Commander still had Tony captive and raped him in that subway tunnel.
That was enough to make him abandon all his plans of ever broaching the subject with Tony. Perhaps Steve was simply confused, just like Tony was with his feelings towards the Commander; if he gave it enough time, those thoughts would disappear and he would feel stupid for ever having them.
However, he kept coming back to the same facts that originally convinced him to give it a shot. Did he really want to spend a lifetime wondering if he’d walked right past a person who could make him happy? If he had looked in all the wrong places when he already had the answer right there?
Steve wasn’t actively looking for companionship or a relationship, but the Commander’s crazed devotion to Tony, no matter how horribly expressed, had to come from somewhere.
The Commander had said they had fought each other for years – literally. It didn’t sound like they were set up to be soulmates, just like Steve didn’t feel compatible with Tony on most days.
Compatibility wasn’t everything, however, because dysfunctional couples often made it work surprisingly well.
After once again convincing himself that it was worth a shot, that cautious part of his brain decided to pull a card that told Steve he had no right to put Tony in that kind of position, to force him to imagine some kind of a relationship with the double of the man who had abused and violated him.
Back to square one…
There were times when Steve thought he had gone insane to even entertain the possibility, seeing as he had never seen Tony as more than a tentative friend at best. To take that to a level that required people to like each other seemed impossible and impractical, and in the end, he told himself to let it go, no matter how much second-guessing it would create within him.
- - -
Five days after the events in Central Park and the conclusion to their fight against the Commander, Tony declared it was party time. Even the injured members of their team seemed to think that was a good idea, so they all gathered in the newly refurbished common area.
It was just the team, not even bartenders in sight, which made it a lot more intimate – not to mention crazy. There was no need to keep up appearances, so everyone was drinking a bit heavy-handedly. Even Bruce was sipping alcohol, although in significantly smaller amounts than the others.
Perhaps Tony thought he needed to out-drink everyone, or maybe he just felt like getting really drunk. Steve couldn’t blame him, after the experience he’d had, even though alcohol consumption wasn’t going to make it better.
Thor pulled out a flask he shared only between himself and Steve. Bucky had declined to join the party, which was perhaps smart, seeing as Thor’s Asgardian spirits were strong enough to make even Steve feel his brain going for a spin.
The party was getting pretty outrageous with jokes and laughter, drinking games challenging just about everyone’s limits. Those on the team who were still on the mend began to slow down, eventually, even though ‘work hard, party harder’ seemed to be on everyone’s lips.
Tony parted from the crowd at some point, and once Steve noticed, he headed out to find him. He finally located Tony in his workshop, having a drink and staring at the safe where the now-missing Tesseract had been.
Steve decided it was infinitely better than finding Tony in the morgue, keeping the Commander’s body company, which Tony had said would be incinerated sometime soon. The shield would be a bit trickier, and he had implied Steve might want to consider keeping it as a spare. After all, that kind of a chance didn’t come along too often, if ever.
“Hey,” Steve greeted as he entered. The door that had been open until now slid shut behind him, sealing them away from the rest of the party.
“This party was an excellent idea,” Tony mused into his drink, then pushed himself around on the edge of the table where he was seated in order to look at Steve. “Even you’re in party mode.” He saluted Steve with his glass. “Good for you, Cap!”
“Party seems to be slowing down a bit,” Steve observed. “Maybe you should, too,” he added, attempting to make it a subtle hint that Tony was rather drunk.
“Nah,” Tony refused and swung back his drink, swallowing with a grimace.
“It won’t stop you from having fun,” Steve offered gently. “But it will stop you from bending over the toilet sometime in the near future.”
Tony snorted, then suppressed a burb. “Clearly you don’t know me very well. I know my limits. Years of experience.”
That Steve could believe.
They looked at each other for a moment, inexplicably silent. It was as if they were having a conversation, only they weren’t, but it felt like something was happening instead of simple staring.
“I like your shirt,” Tony finally commented, totally at random.
“I think I would like to like you,” Steve replied, his lips completely botching up the sentence he had been working over and over in his mind for days.
“What?” Tony asked, frowning.
Steve felt like kicking himself – or getting some more of that Asgardian liquor until he passed out and had a bout of mini-amnesia to erase this conversation from his mind. Perhaps denial would do the trick, too.
“Nothing,” Steve mumbled when Tony kept looking at him for an explanation.
“Nuh huh,” Tony refused, pointing a finger at him. “You said something about liking me.”
“Wanting to like you,” Steve corrected.
“You don’t like me?” Tony asked, and he sounded hurt, suddenly.
“Uh, no,” Steve mumbled. “I mean, I do like you. Usually. I would just like to…” He wasn’t sure how to explain it. He’d had so many elaborate conversations figured out in his head, most of them going over very smoothly – too smoothly. Some of them had Tony agreeable to his interests, whereas the others ended in refusal and sometimes even with an armored fist to Steve’s face.
Either way, all of those versions had gone over so much smoother than his current attempts at communicating his complex and often contradictory feelings.
“What?” Tony asked, swaying slightly in his seat but not jumping down. “You would like what?” His eyes bore into him, demanding explication.
“I don’t know!” Steve exclaimed, frustrated. He began to pace, restless. “I’m curious, but it’s a horrible idea – horrible timing. There’s no way I can predict how you’d respond, so it’s safer not to act on it. I keep coming back to it, though, and people always say not to live with regrets and I totally get that –”
Tony’s hand shot out, grabbing him by the front of the shirt he had complimented earlier, dragging Steve around and right into a kiss. They both froze for an instant, lips unmoving, and frankly, it was no peck either; Steve felt every square inch of his lips being pressed against Tony’s mouth, and even when Tony’s hand released him and Steve took a step back, he could still recall the pressure of the touch as if he hadn’t lost it just now.
Something crashed in the living room outside, followed by shouting and laughter, and Steve snapped out of it, exiting the lab so fast he almost dislodged the sliding door as he struck his shoulder against it.
Tony didn’t call after him.
to be continued…
Chapter 44: The Mistake
The aftermath of the party felt like good ol’ times – including one hell of a hangover.
Tony recalled retreating to his room before the party had even truly ended, only to continue some partying of his own. Or rather, more alcohol consumption; it hadn’t been much of a party anymore at that point, his body already fairly liquored as it were.
Come midday and his awakening to the horribly painful new day, Tony didn’t at first recall why, exactly, he had made the mistake of drinking too much. He would never admit it, but he, too, had a limit – obviously – and he had passed it spectacularly.
“J,” he groaned from the bed, “what did I do?” He left it up to the AI to figure out the cryptic request.
Apparently, it wasn’t as cryptic as he had thought, seeing as J.A.R.V.I.S. answered almost immediately: “I believe you are referring to your kiss with Captain Rogers, sir.”
Tony could have gone on happily with his life without ever remembering that part of the night, but he supposed it was for the best he recalled it now instead of later, seeing as it was very doubtful that the other party of said kiss was likely to forget it had happened.
“Why?” Tony moaned, tossing his arm across his eyes.
“That I cannot answer.”
“Didn’t expect you to.”
What the hell was wrong with him? Kissing Steve… If one of his bots had done something this caliber of insane, he would have assumed their wires were crossed the wrong way. What was his excuse?
He needed to find Steve and apologize before the good Captain got it in his head that Tony was a very screwed-up individual.
Well, perhaps he was; his actions proved that point quite eloquently. However, kissing Cap hadn’t been a completely foreign thought to him before, although the lines had become somewhat blurred thanks to the Commander. That experience had put things into a new perspective, over-complicating matters even when Tony thought he and Steve had become closer because of it.
There was no better bonding catalyst than trauma, obviously – especially for superheroes.
Tony forced himself upright, which almost made him empty the contents of his stomach right then and there. He swallowed it back, however, and slowly made his way out of bed and into the bathroom. After a cold shower, vigorous tooth-brushing and making himself at least semi-presentable, Tony headed to the kitchen to make himself a smoothie. There was no way he was having a potentially explosive conversation on an empty stomach, but he was also afraid to let any more time pass than was absolutely necessary.
J.A.R.V.I.S. confirmed Steve was in his room, and Tony walked to his door, took a deep breath, then knocked. There was no reply, so he knocked some more, keeping it up until Steve came to open.
Clearly, he wasn’t expecting to find Tony there, if his expression was anything to go by.
“Hi,” Tony started and ran a hand through his hair. “Can I come in?”
Steve hesitated, one hand on the door. If he really wanted to, he could slam it in Tony’s face and not let him in. Tony made no move to try and force himself inside despite the odds, wanting Steve to make the choice for himself. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Steve finally said.
Shit, Tony chanted in his mind.
“I’m sorry about last night,” Tony said. “It was completely out of line and no amount of alcohol should justify what I did,” he admitted.
Steve frowned. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Tony stopped to check his memory – which was spotty, but not that spotty. “I kissed you,” Tony said. “I’m pretty sure I started it.”
Steve shook his head. “It’s okay. I led you on.”
“Since when?” Tony asked incredulously. “I think I would recall it if you did.”
Steve pressed his lips together, like he didn’t want to tell him more. Tony, however, wasn’t buying any of it without proof, and Steve must have realized that because he sighed shortly after, looking tired. “I said I liked you – that I wanted to like you more.”
“That hardly counts as ‘leading me on’,” Tony countered.
“Yeah, it didn’t go over too smoothly,” Steve agreed ruefully. “I had it all sorted out in my head, but it always felt like the wrong time… And that’s because it is,” he added, almost angrily. “I never should have said anything because it was going to always end like this, with you apologizing about something that wasn’t your fault.”
Tony blinked, feeling very confused. Clearly, Steve wasn’t about to accept his apology, and there was only one good reason why that was. “Are you telling me you’ve been trying to come up with a way to let me know you like me? In light of all that’s happened?”
Steve shrugged. “Exactly. Horrible timing, like I said. But it wasn’t until the Commander that I even considered it –”
It was most likely the only time Tony was ever going to hit Steve totally out of the blue, taking the super-soldier by surprise.
And, while Steve was still gaping at him, his cheek red from the impact, Tony raised his smarting hand again and pulled Steve into another kiss.
Last night, it had been something that could barely be called a kiss, and this one wasn’t much better. However, they were both sober, albeit hungover, and they both pulled back at the same time.
“What are you doing?” Steve asked, a frown so deep on his face it might well have become permanent if left there for too long.
“Making a mistake, maybe,” Tony offered. “Or starting something that will work despite the odds.”
“Those are pretty big odds,” Steve reminded him. However, he hadn’t moved away, staying right there in Tony’s space – or allowing Tony to stay in his, depending on how you looked at it.
“I know,” he rolled his eyes, frustrated. The motion of his eyes made his head hurt, and Tony knew he had better go lie down soon. “But you reached the same conclusion, right?”
Steve looked away, but clearly there was something he had been wanting to talk to Tony about, and he doubted it was to tell him how much of a bad idea this was. After all, they didn’t need to have that talk, seeing as they both knew that by default.
What they probably needed to talk about was the flipside of the coin.
“We need to talk this through, but first, I need to lie down,” Tony said, knowing it was a shitty way to end the conversation but he was starting to feel pretty woozy.
“I have a bed,” Steve blurted out, then looked like he wanted to kick himself. “I won’t be in it,” he added, not really managing to save face. “I think we should have that talk, too,” he concluded, serious again.
It was one of the rare times in Tony’s life he got into another person’s bed with the solid intention of doing nothing more than having a conversation.
to be continued…
Chapter 45: The Consensus
Steve had no idea how they had ended up here, Tony propped up on the pillows in his bed after punching Steve in the face and then kissing him again, now drinking the smoothie he had brought along with him.
Neither kiss measured up to the ones Steve had experienced before, but he wasn’t interested in that. Those kisses shouldn’t have even happened, but here they were because of them, sorting out the myriad of thoughts and feelings normal people, hopefully, never had to deal with.
“What are we doing?” Steve asked, pulling a chair into the bedroom but not close enough to Tony to make it seem like he was crowding him.
“We’re talking – which is probably the smartest, safest thing we could be doing,” Tony answered. “There’s no way this will work if we just rush headlong into it.”
“You tell me.”
They stared at each other for a moment. Steve was the first to look away because on some level, he still blamed himself for starting all this even though Tony had been the one to pull him into that kiss last night.
“The things he said, about me missing out because I couldn’t see you the same way…” Steve was still uncertain whether saying it was a good idea. “It got me thinking. Obviously, I’ve spent a few too many hours obsessing over it.”
“I didn’t know it struck you so hard,” Tony said, cradling the smoothie bottle.
“Neither did I, but the thought hasn’t left me alone,” Steve admitted, looking directly at Tony again. “I missed out on so much. I waited too long, didn’t think it was the right time even though I felt like it was the right person.”
“But you don’t feel that with me,” Tony guessed.
“We barely get along when we’re in the same room for more than a couple minutes,” Steve huffed. “That was why it didn’t make sense to me at first, but you kept saying we came from the same life – that while we weren’t the same, there was a lot we shared.” Steve still didn’t like that thought, but he couldn’t dismiss it either, seeing as it was probably true.
“We’ll never know how much I shared with that other Tony Stark,” Tony reminded him. “Could be it worked for them, but it will never work for us.”
“Then why kiss me – twice?”
Tony’s jaw snapped shut and it was his turn to look away.
“It’s not… because of him, is it?” Steve asked. He didn’t want to bring it up, but he needed to know.
“Not really,” Tony replied slowly. “I never thought of you that way, but this thing opened my eyes to new possibilities.” His eyes snapped towards Steve’s face. “It doesn’t mean you’ll remind me of him, every second of every day. Sure, there will be times, I’m sure, and all this could be just some kind of a stress response from us,” he added, gesturing between them.
“Maybe we should wait,” Steve suggested. “See how we feel about it after some time has passed.”
“But how much time is enough?” Tony asked. “You already waited too long, once.” He shifted, sitting up slightly. “I’m not meaning to rush you,” he clarified, playing with the bottle, rolling it back and forth between his hands. Obviously, it served as a reason not to look at Steve again.
“I know,” Steve said, voice dropping a few notes even though he didn’t mean it to. The weight of that knowledge was all too real sometimes… “If we rush this, I think it will ruin whatever friendship we’ve built between us,” he decided. “I’ll do something and you’ll hate me for it, the way you hated him.”
Tony snorted. “Those things don’t happen accidentally, Steve,” he argued. “For me to hate you like I hated him, you would have to actually do something bad and mean it.”
“Never,” Steve retorted instinctively. “I would never do that. I promised you before, and I promise you again. No matter how angry you make me sometimes.”
Tony gave him the softest of smiles. “I believe you. It might sound like very little to you, but it’s more than that. It’s a good place to start building something new, no matter the bad stuff that’s right behind us.”
Steve couldn’t shake the feeling that the damage the Commander had done would come between them, eventually, in one form or another, but he supposed it would make itself known eventually even if they didn’t pursue this. Things had a way of coming back to haunt them.
So, instead of running away from it, perhaps the smart thing was to learn from their mistakes, overcome the obstacles as they came – and embrace untold possibilities.
Tony drained his smoothie, setting it on the bedside table, then yawned. He looked like he could do with a few more hours of sleep.
“I should probably hit the gym,” Steve offered, to give Tony some distance.
“Or, you could come lie down with me and catch up on some more of your sleep; it looks like you didn’t get much last night, and I recall you being pretty wasted, too.”
Steve couldn’t deny either of those points, but he hesitated. “What happened to waiting?”
“You don’t have to lie down on top of me,” Tony rolled his eyes. “I would prefer it if you didn’t, actually, for a while…” Then, he scooted to one side of the bed and patted the empty space beside him.
Slowly, Steve moved to the appointed side of the bed, and after getting a nod of confirmation from Tony he slowly sat down and then moved to lie down.
There was plenty of space left between them, the bed large enough for the two of them to claim their space and never touch each other. Steve hadn’t thought it was practical to have such a large bed for just one person, but now he was glad it was there.
“Okay?” Tony asked, lying on his side, looking at Steve and appearing relatively comfortable.
“Okay,” Steve agreed. Tony was right there, within his reach, but for the time being he was satisfied not to reach across that distance. Instead, he would trust Tony to be there, and they would bridge the gap at a pace that worked for them, no matter what their alternative versions had done before them.
This was their beginning, after all, and no one else’s.
And even though it felt like someone had already robbed a chunk of Steve’s time and experiences with Tony, leaving an ugly stain behind for him to clean up, he was determined to see this through and make this theirs.