Author's Note: This story is inspired by Ella Mai's song "Naked". It's such a gorgeous song, and if you want to capture the whole vibe of this fic, listen to it while you read this.
Love you all. Xoxo.
It's almost too easy to fall back into his old habits.
An act of freedom, of comfort. Something like putting on an old shirt or a favorite pair of shoes — it fits, it's shaped and modeled according to his body, and, best of all, it requires no conscious thought or decision-making process on his part.
And so, the second Tony gets back from Siberia, he snaps his fingers, and suddenly he's rewinding the clock, going back in time, filling his penthouse with expensive women and gorgeous booze. He's Tony Stark — there are no doors he cannot open with a wave of hands and a well-placed comment or two. It's all there. Precisely the same as before — waiting for him, calling his name, giggling, laughing, moaning, covering the oppressive silence with sounds of debauchery.
Loud enough that he can nearly pretend to ignore the whispers bouncing around in his mind.
Tony turns up the sound of the music, and he can instantly feel the thoughts being suffocated inside his head. It's a glorious feeling, and he deserves it, wants it, craves it. Most importantly, though, Tony needs it, 'cause he has nothing else to go back to after the party is over. Beyond the walls of his penthouse, there's only a desert, and Tony's done with deserts.
Which simply means that the party can never be over.
It's what he needs; the only way, the only thing he has left. Because Tony has a mountain of putrid regrets, an ocean of sorrows, just waiting for a minute, one single sober moment, where the magnitude of what he has done will invariably catch up to him and swallow him whole, as it should.
As it should.
Yet, even though he understands that it's inevitable, that there will come a time where he will have nowhere to hide and no choice but to pay for the endless shits he's done, Tony is protesting, struggling, trying to postpone it as best as he knows how.
Which is why the party is still going strong, occupying the entirety of his penthouse — the penthouse of an otherwise empty tower. The Stark Tower. The Avengers Tower. The building that he had once sold — perhaps thinking that he wouldn't need it anymore. The decision had been foolish, idiotic, but that was the pattern with him, the M.O he couldn't help but adhere to, so, in a way, it was still on brand, much like the illegal rave happening on his property.
It's easy, though.
The rule is simple: If the booze keeps on coming, the music keeps on blasting from every corner of the rooms, and the women keep draping themselves all over him, constantly fighting for his attention, then he can pretend the outside world does not exist and that this is all there is to know.
And it works. It works, 'cause Tony is, deep down inside, a horrible human being — despite his many attempts at evening his miserable odds — and the darkness clings to him, recognizing a familiar face when it sees one.
So Tony parties, ordering FRIDAY to keep Pepper, Rhodey, and any of the Avengers away from the tower, to redirect all of his calls — if there are any, which he doubts —, and to cancel every single one of his appointments. The last thing he wants is to see a familiar face, at the moment.
Tony's living in the moment. Or rather, the travesty that the present has become.
At some point, someone shoves a cigar into his mouth — already lit and burning — and Tony has only to take one deep drag to remind himself how much he missed it — the smoke, the heat, the smell, the comforting gesture of closing his eyes and feeling his senses being clouded by wood and Cognac. It's exquisite, perfect. Not even in the same category of the pathetic nicotines patches be tried in the past — for Pepper, for his work, for Iron Man, for the Avengers, for being better, and nicer, and a team-worker.
Fuck him. Fuck them. Tony never needed anyone, and it's about time that he reminded himself of that.
"Hey, handsome," some blond model purrs, giving him a teasing look and tugging on his tie. "You ready for the next round?"
And it must be a rhetorical question, 'cause she doesn't wait for a response before jumping down onto her back in his bed, grabbing a small bag and carefully pouring straight lines of coke over her stomach, her legs spread out. That's the moment Tony realizes that they are, in fact, in his room.
The door's closed, but the music is still blasting strong. There's barely any lights on, and, other than him, there's no other man in the room. Only him and five twenty-something women — no more than three articles of clothing between them.
The blond is giving him an expectant look, clearly waiting for him to get a move on, but there's a cigar shoved into his mouth and both his hands are closed around glasses of scotch.
"Maybe he needs an incentive," a brunette with huge tits says, taking the glasses off his hands and placing them somewhere else at the same time as another girl begins to unzip his pants, already dragging her tongue over his boxers.
"I could be persuaded." Tony hears his voice, feels his mouth moving, but doesn't remember deciding to say that, or to put the cigar away on his bedside table, or to unbuckle his belt and smirk lazily at the naked body supporting several lines of blow.
The girls giggle in response, loud and carefree, and for a second there, Tony hates them with a passion — for being happy, for doing shit and liking it, for wanting this. But then one of them shoves his dick into their mouths, and the other shoves his face into her soft stomach.
After that, Tony's no longer angry at anything.
Three Years Later
Tony knows they've arrived. Of course he knows. He doesn't leave his workshop, and he certainly doesn't show his face or allows any of them to access his private space, but he knows the second they land on the Avengers Compound — watches from a screen as they step out of the Quinjet and make their way inside.
It's been years — many, long years — and the truth is that the wound has healed somewhat. Ugly, twisted, and prominent, yes, but still healed, nonetheless. So Tony is hesitant to step outside, to confront with the reality head-on, only to have them tear his scars open with a single misplaced sentence or gesture.
Honestly, it doesn't seem worth it.
Tony has lived too long without them. Without him.
He can deal with having them around.
With having Steve around.
He's clean. He's good. He has done well enough on his own to prove that he never needed Steve in the first place.
That's what he tells himself, over and over, for three days straight, until his coffee beans run out and he has to face the outside world to fetch more.
That's the moment Steve pounces. Unsurprisingly, Tony is not ready for it.
"It's been three days," Steve says from his place leaning against the doorway, and Tony sort of hates himself for being able to read in between the lines, for hearing that voice and instantly cataloging the hundreds of nuances of it. It's like no time has passed, and he despises it.
"So it has," he agrees, holding the bag of coffee beans to his chest, studying the room and trying to come up with an escape plan that didn't involve coming into contact with the super-soldier.
Tony has enough self-awareness to know what that would mean.
Steve studies him; blue eyes sharp. "Were you hoping to avoid me forever?"
"It seemed as good a plan as ever, yes," Tony confirms, biting the inner part of his cheeks to ground himself. God, how bad is it that he sees Steve standing there — wearing sweatpants and a hoodie, with his arms crossed over his enormous chest — and he already feels something thawing inside him?
"Tony," Steve says. It's both a question and an answer.
"We're not doing this," Tony protests, waving a hand to mention the two of them, even though he feels deep down that they are, indeed, doing this. "No. Nope. Not happening."
And he tries. Tries to step forward and hold his coffee like a lifeline and side-step Steve so he can get out of the kitchen and go back to his workshop, where there's math, and sense, and most importantly, no Steve.
But suddenly there's a strong arm blocking his way, and Steve's face is right there. "I can do this all day," he promises with a pointed look. And he can, too. He will; Tony knows that.
"Well, some of us have jobs and things to do, Rogers. So why don't you get out of my way and allow me to go on my merry way?"
"Stop pretending," Steve says, demands, but his eyes soften with the proximity. "Haven't you missed me, at all?"
Missed him? Tony's missed Steve like a severed limb, like half of his very soul had been taken from him and dragged away into some mysterious corner of the earth without his consent. There's not a strong enough word to describe how Tony felt — feels — every day with Steve's absence.
He swallows. "That's a stupid question."
"You know it is."
And Tony breath catches in his throat. "Good? Are you fucking kidding me, Rogers?" He spits. "Try dreadful, awful, terrible. Those might work better, in this case."
"It's been three years, Tony," Steve says, leaning forward an inch. Which is an inch too much in Tony's opinion, because it puts them that much closer and his heart condition might not handle the stress after all. "I've missed you. Every single day."
"Have you? How great. Maybe you should've come home, then. I've been here, all this time, you know?"
"I needed to do this. I needed to."
Tony loses it. "And I needed you here!" He accuses, jabbing his index finger into Steve's chest. "You left me, Steve. Not the other way around. Now fuck off."
"That's not true," Steve says gently, not even doing him the courtesy of getting angry, of losing control and acting like an asshole. He just takes the aggression, the rage. "I never left you, Tony. Bucky needed me, and I needed to stand up for what I believed was right. It was never about us."
"Since I was the one who had to deal with all the crap you left behind, Capsicle, I think I know exactly what it was about."
Brilliant blue eyes flash with pain. "I wish—"
Tony shakes his head, sighing. The proximity is doing things to his head, messing with his mind, turning his breathing cycle into a mess. He doesn't need to hear the rest of the sentence to understand what's being said.
"I know," he exhales deeply, stung. "You're Captain America. In the end, you'll always be Captain America."
Steve grabs his forearm, but doesn't tighten his grip or pull him closer. Just touches him. Holds him. "I think we both know I'm more than that," he says. "At least I hope you still do."
"I still do what, Steve? You think there's something to go back to?"
"Yes." Steve nods, serious. No evasion, no plays.
"You think you can leave me to rot in hell for three years and come back as if nothing has changed?"
"I'm not saying that." He shakes his head. "I just want to know if you still…"
"If I still what? Tony questions, dares. He takes a deep breath, and another. "God, you have no idea how it has been…"
"So tell me," Steve says, fondness etched into every pore on his face, giving Tony a familiar look. Giving him space to talk, to speak, to air his grievances and be heard.
It's insane. Steve is strong, and steady, and willing to listen patiently about whatever Tony wants to speak of, and Tony didn't know how badly he needed that until it's offered to him and his hands shake. Suddenly, he needs to say it, to let Steve know the mess he left behind.
"It's been a mess, Steve. What do you think happened?" He says, rubbing his eyes with his free hand. "T'Challa tries to balance his time between here and Wakanda, and his sister acts as Queen when he's not there, but it difficult for him to lead a double life all the time. Natasha just moped for the first months non-stop without Clint there to nag her out of it, until Bruce came back and—"
Steve blinks. "Wait, Bruce is with you?"
"Yes, he showed up, like, three months ago."
"We've been looking for him," Steve informs. "I'm glad he hasn't been alone."
"Yeah, it's been good. He and Natasha... yeah, they're trying. He's still so damn sensitive about the other guy... and Vision is still so new to all of this, you know? And when Wanda left— let's just say it was hard."
"Tony, I—" Steve tries to interrupts, but now that he's started, Tony is on a roll, and he can't stop. Couldn't stop even if he tried.
"And Peter! God, Steve, Peter is eighteen. Eighteen! He wants to save the world, and work with the police, and be a scientist."
"I have an idea of how hard—"
"No, Steve, you don't," Tony exhales. "You fucking don't. I'm not you, okay?"
"I'm not suited to be a leader," he admits, whispering the words, as though that might make them any less painful. "I get caught up with my work, and sometimes I'll stay up for days on end in my workshop coming up with new stuff, and that's what I do. But since you— well, since you left, it's been chaos. Natasha, Vision, Bruce, Peter — God, Peter — they all look at me for guidance, for orders... Everything. You have no idea how much added pressure that's been for me."
"I'm so sorry, Tony." Steve apologizes so sincerely, his eyes shining with compassion and understanding and it burns. It burns so badly. Tony wants to wiggle free from the soldier's hold, to run away, to at least look away before the tears swimming in his eyes fall down his cheeks.
The pain, the sadness, the frustration, the loneliness, the anguish — it's all there, threatening to erupt from his chest with the slightest nudge in the right direction.
"This just hurts too much, Steve," Tony admits, and his voice breaks and hitches and cracks and his chest feels so tight that it might as well explode at any given moment. "This hurts in ways I can't explain."
"You don't have to," Steve soothes with a tortured expression. His whole face is twisted in a pained frown. "I feel it too. Tony, I get it."
"You left me."
Steve leans forward until their noses touch. "Never."
Tony can't. The tears are falling down, and he's breaking. "I'm such a fucking mess, Steve. I hate you. I hate you so goddamn much."
Steve lets the tears fall. "I watched it," he says, so, so gently — talking about the headlines, the articles, the videos, the parties. All the shit that inevitably ended up on the internet when Tony had been too busy getting high.
And even though it's clear that the man is not pointing fingers or casting blame, Tony feels the need to defend himself. "This is me, Steve. Wake up!" He argues, shifting in place and bumping their noses together, mingling their breaths. "I'm Tony Stark — you don't get to pick and choose the parts of me that suit you, that suit your perfect American image."
"Don't say that." Steve shakes his head, closing his eyes. "I know precisely who you are — all bits included. You are the one who doesn't get to use your public persona to avoid dealing with your emotions, Tony."
"I don't know how to give you a percentage of me. I've tried — I have. I just don't know how; even though I should, I really should, after all these years, but I don't. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, for me to step one single toe out of your proverbial line in the sand, and for this whole thing to be over."
Their eyes meet, and it's fire. "There's not a line. There's never been a line," Steve promises, tilting his chin up so their lips rub together. Slowly, so slowly. "I'm still here, aren't I? Stop pushing me away just because you can't handle the idea that maybe someone does love you, unconditionally. That I'll still be here no matter what."
There a pause, where time seems to stop and the world holds its collective breath, waiting for an answer, a decision, a change in the tone of the conversation. It's heavy, but oh so glorious.
Tony gives in — like he always knew he would.
In the end, he would always give in.
But there's something he needs to know, first.
"Well, can you? Do you think you can love me? Despite all this shit?" Tony asks, desperately. He needs to know, even if the answer crushes him, even if it will tear his heart open once again, right there, in his sparkling clean kitchen, where the stains of blood won't ever come off. He swallows. "Can you love me naked?"
"I already do."