"Jarvis, what time is it?"
"Nearly two in the morning, sir. You've been at it for ten hours."
Tony flicked up the visor of his welding helmet and stepped back to admire his night's work. Before him sat the Mark VII, freshly tweaked, calibrated, and upgraded. It had been too close a call with Loki; he needed to be sure it would work, and fast.
He'd done a little work on the whole "outer space equals near-death" thing, too.
"Perhaps it is time to call it a night?"
"Read my mind, Jarvis."
Because night owl or not, it had only been four days since Battle: Manhattan, and his batteries were still on recharge. It didn't help that those four days had been about as restful as running a marathon on Speed. Between dealing with the Asgards, arguing with Pepper about the building, getting Banner out of town, arguing with Pepper about the risks of being Iron Man, fixing his tower, arguing with Pepper over the way he tied his shoes, and all the other "in the aftermath" bullshit, he was just about ready to call those Chitauri back to get a break from it all.
Sadly, unleashing an alien army on an unsuspecting civilian population was farther than even Tony was willing to go for a vacation. He'd have settled for a bed and a hot shower, only he realized as he was shutting everything down that he still wasn't quite tired.
He was restless. His mind was, anyway, even though his body was nearly ready to drop. Restless and stir crazy.
One, he could do something about.
"Jarvis, I'm going out," he said, grabbing his jacket off the counter where he'd tossed it last. He fished in the pockets – he'd take whatever car he found the keys for first – and came out with the keys for his Acura. They were probably still in there from when he'd dropped Bruce off.
"Three in the morning. Yes, dear, I know." He hopped over the door and into the driver's seat before donning his sunglasses – so what if it was night? – and a cheeky smile.
"Don't wait up."
Tony had peeled out of the garage with every intention of taking a drive and nothing more. Just him and the road, no destination, until sleep finally started knocking on his door.
So, needless to say, he was a little confused when he ended up walking through the theatrically-lit streets of Coney Island. At three in the morning, he was very nearly alone, passing only the occasional wanderer. They never even raised their heads or batted their eyes at him.
It was probably the best experience he'd ever had there.
To be honest, though, that wasn't saying much. Tony had never really understood the big pull of Coney Island. A bunch of venders with fried Twinkies and ice cream and anything else that could sit forever on the hips after a moment on the lips, a bunch of rickety old coasters that should've been shut down years ago, and generally a sea of sweaty people bumping into each other and getting pissed with a natural vigor only New Yorkers seemed capable of.
Needless to say, not really his thing.
Yet, there he was, wandering. He didn't even really remember parking – that would bite him in the ass later when he was trying to find his car – he was just suddenly there with the feeling like there was a reason that he was. It didn't make any sense, but then, Tony had never claimed to be sensible. He was there, he thought, and reason or not, he might as well at least get a good walk out of the deal.
His aimless meandering took him all the way around the place, until at last, he came to a stop in front of one of the coasters. "Cyclone," the signs said; God knew there were enough of them, and all lit enough that they could probably be read from satellites, zoom off. Not that he cared about the name, or really much of anything about it. His feet had just decided that was where they wanted to plant themselves, and Tony didn't argue.
Besides, looking at the coaster, something piqued his interest. His eyes fell on a figure just a few meters ahead, on the broad shoulders and narrow hips, on the short hair that shone blond in the tastelessly bright lights.
His eyes fell on none other than Steve Rogers.
He would've been lying to say a couple warning bells didn't sound in his head right about then. After all, wasn't exactly normal behavior to be hanging around a theme park at three in the morning when the rides weren't even running. His being there didn't impact that any, either; he'd never been normal.
That said, Tony had a thing for ignoring warnings. They were usually stupid, designed to take the fun out of everything. Really, they did nothing but get in the way of clever people doing productive things. Tony being one of the aforementioned "clever people" didn't tend to pay them much mind.
Case and point.
As Tony came up to stand beside him, though, Steve didn't even turn to look at him. Tony only had to take one look at Steve's face to know why.
He'd interrupted something.
"Really?" Tony said. "This is you're 'happy place'?"
Still nothing. Steve just kept staring, straight ahead.
So, Tony kept going. "I mean, don't get me wrong, at least it's unique…ish. A lot of people don't go for the whole 'eerie, abandoned theme park' thing. But hey, if that's you're thing, more power to—"
"Why are you here, Stark?"
There was no missing the bite in the words, or the resignation in them. The sadness.
No missing it…but plenty of ignoring it.
"Are we speaking existentially here, or…" Tony gestured for Steve to fill in the blank.
"How did you find me?"
"I just followed the sound of pitchy emo music," Tony said. "It led me straight to you."
At Steve's blank look, Tony tacked on "modern music genres" to the rapidly-growing list of references Steve wouldn't understand. Frankly, if the list got any longer, he was going to run out of material.
Okay, no, that wasn't true. He was a veritable spring of sarcasm. But still, it was a lot harder to make a dig at someone when they had no idea what he was talking about.
Steve sighed. "I don't know why you found me, Stark, but I don't—"
"Save it, Stars'n'Stripes," Tony said, effectively cutting Steve's dismissal short. He hadn't come all this way just to get shooed off by a sulking super-soldier. "I didn't find you. I was wandering around here, and you showed up."
"I was here first."
"Moot point," said Tony, waving his hand flippantly. "The point is, it's strictly coincidence that we both happen to be here. Though since we are – both here, that is – it seems to me we could at least exchange stories. Maybe figure out this happy little happenstance. What do you say? I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours?"
Steve clearly wasn't amused. "Leave it," he said, and with his impressive arms folded across his equally impressive chest, he practically broadcasted every kinesiological sign in the books that he was blocking Tony out. That he was done with this conversation.
Unfortunately, Tony wasn't.
"You should stick to red, white, and blue, Cap. Brooding isn't a good color on you."
"I'm not brooding."
"Your lips say no, but your scowl says 'brood,'" Tony said. When the scowl set in deeper, though, Tony sobered. He wasn't the kind to kick a man while he was down, and judging by the slump of his shoulders and the sadness in his eyes, Steve was down in a bad way. The Captain was only fun to poke fun at, anyway, when he was poking back. "Seriously, what's the matter?"
That actually merited a look from Steve that wasn't a glare. He arched a single blond eyebrow, and although dubious, it was still a lighter expression than Tony had seen on him yet.
"Seriously?" Steve said. "No offense, Tony…you're not exactly the sharing and caring type."
Tony shrugged. "Why not?" he said. "We've got this team thing going, might as well dance the rest of the monkey dance."
"You're patronizing me."
"I don't patronize."
"You always patronize."
"No, I—" Tony stopped short. "Okay, I patronize. Generally. But not right now. I'm not patronizing you." He gestured in a circle around them. "Patronizing-free zone, right here. Happy, Cappy?"
He didn't look happy, but then, Tony was working on that. In his own special way.
Steve looked like he was ready to fire off a snappy retort, but instead, he let out a sigh.
Tony wasn't sure why, but the air suddenly felt heavier with that sigh. A weight had settled in, and brought with it a seriousness that even Tony wouldn't try to mask behind a shield of sarcasm.
"A friend brought me here, once," Steve said, a sadness in his voice so poignant that Tony felt his own heart give a twinge in sympathy. "Back when I was still…before I joined the army, he brought me here. Bucky, his name was; he was my best friend for as long as I can remember. He brought me here and made me ride this damn thing." Steve let out a half-hearted chuckle.
"Let me guess – best time you ever had?"
"I threw up all over myself."
Tony would take that as a no. Still, there was a fondness he seemed to have for the memory, unpleasant as he said it was. Tony could only imagine why. His best friend, Bucky.
The name sounded familiar. Tony had seen it in his dad's journals, he remembered. Bucky Barnes: a soldier himself, and a damn good one, even standing next to the great Captain America. He remembered reading about their daring missions, about their nights out drinking, about all the things they accomplished.
He remembered reading about the day Bucky Barnes had died. His father hadn't been really specific on the details, though the reports Tony had read later had made up for it. He hadn't really said much of anything, really, only – and Tony remembered this line with alarming clarity:
"In the aftermath of Barnes's death, I believe the best and only thing I can do to help Steve now…is find the secret to getting Captain America drunk."
And looking at Steve now, he was starting to wonder if his old man had made any breakthroughs on that front. The poor bastard looked like he could use it.
"We were on a mission…trying to capture this man, Zola, get him to tell us about the weapons Schmidt was making. He was on a train, and I—" Steve's voice caught, and he cleared it, "—and I remember him asking me…asking if it was payback, the zip line onto the train. If it was payback for making me ride this deathtrap." Steve took a deep breath, running his hand through his hair. "He died on that mission. Got blasted out of the train…I couldn't get to him in time, and he—he fell."
"And you blame yourself, even though you know it wasn't your fault." Tony was aware he sounded a little sarcastic, but really, after seventy years, was it too much to ask for the guy to start singing a different tune? Surely all that uber-righteousness thing had to get tiring sometimes.
But then Steve did something…unexpected.
"What if it was my fault?" he said harshly, turning on Tony faster than he could blink and grabbing hold of the collar of his shirt. He didn't quite lift Tony's feet off the ground, but Tony felt suddenly much lighter, and was it suddenly harder to breathe? "What if he died because of me? Because of something I didn't do? What then?"
Tony decided right about then that he didn't like this side of the Captain. He'd seen him angry – made him angry – seen him guilty, seen him hurt, but never such a violent combination of the three. And the worst of it was knowing that even though he was the one Steve had his fist poised to punch, he wasn't the one Steve was angry at. He'd seen that look enough to know that the one Steve was really angry at wasn't Tony, but Steve himself.
Steve was stealing Tony's "piss off the Captain" thunder, and see, that just wasn't gonna fly.
"Slow your roll, Spanx," he said, grabbing Steve's hand and prying it from his shirt. He took one look at the stretched-out fabric of his t-shirt and scowled. "Damn, hate that."
Steve's brows knotted. Not quite a question, but Tony didn't quite need an invitation for situationally inappropriate media references.
"You don't actually know how to be serious, do you?" It wasn't a jibe; Steve was genuinely displeased.
Well, then. "Fine," Tony said. "You want serious? Here's serious: what the hell could you have done? Leapt out of the train after him?"
Steve looked confused.
"I read the reports, Steve; I know what happened. You friend got blasted off the train and fell into a river and they never found the body. Remind me where in there any of that was your fault."
Scowling, Steve turned his back on Tony, running his hands through his hair irately. Tony thought that meant he'd won, but then Steve turned on him. "I should have done something!"
The suddenness and volume of the cry caught Tony off guard. It was like Steve had been holding everything in, all this pain and guilt and vicious self-loathing, behind a dam…and it had just burst.
"I should've saved him. I should've…I should've done something. Thought of something." Steve had taken to pacing, his fingers twisted in his blond hair until Tony could feel his own follicles wincing in sympathy. "It's you, Tony. You're the one that says there's a way out of everything. There's always a way, if you're clever enough. So, what? I was too stupid to find it?"
Tony felt something his chest tighten. Something settled in the pit of his stomach: something heavy, something uncomfortable, something deep.
It felt a lot like guilt.
"That's what this is about?" he said, but Steve didn't even turn to him.
So Tony made him.
Reaching out, he grabbed Steve by the shoulder and forcefully turned him around, grabbing his other when he tried to wrench away. "Steve! Is that was this is about?"
"What does it matter?" Steve said, shoving Tony's hands off his shoulders.
He refused to look Tony in the eyes, and Tony found himself realizing just how out-of-character Steve was like this. He always looked people in the eye, always had his broad shoulders squared and strong and proud, not slumped like they were now. He didn't shrink into himself like he was doing now.
He didn't hate himself like he was doing now.
"Right," Steve said. "Because everything's about you."
"I'm trying to make this about you, but you're not cooperating. Just skip to the part where you tell me what's the matter and I tell you why it's not an issue and we get out of this creepy park before the clowns start showing up."
"Nothing's keeping you here."
"You are, Steve. You're keeping me here, because as much of an ass as you think I am – and, admittedly, as much of one as I tend to be, for which I regret nothing – even I know it would be in bad taste to leave you standing here sulking like a kicked puppy. So the sooner you tell me what's the matter, the sooner we can both get out of—"
"I got my best friend killed because I'm an idiot."
"You said there's a way out of everything, and if that's true, then Bucky died because I wasn't smart enough to think of it."
"I thought you said there wasn't always a way out."
"I thought that," Steve said, shoving his hands in his pockets. "But then the other day, with Loki…you found a way out. Nobody died."
"I almost did."
"You're still here. I'd count that a victory."
"That might be the nicest thing you've ever said to me."
"And there it is again," Steve said, throwing his arms in the air exasperatedly. "Just—just go away."
"Nope," Tony said again, his lips popping on the "p" for effect. "I said I wasn't going to leave you here, so I won't."
"I want to be by myself."
"You say you do, but you don't really." At Steve's scowl, Tony took two steps to close the distance that had appeared between Steve and himself. "See, you need me."
Tony nodded solemnly. "I know," he said. "You need me to tell you how wrong you are."
"You mean to patronize me."
"That's a thing with you, isn't it?"
"Only around guys like you."
"Don't be silly," said Tony. "There are no guys like me. Now, stop deflecting. You're misinterpreting me, and I hate it when I'm misinterpreted. You were right, you know, when you said that there isn't always a way out. From what I know – and that's more than enough, trust me – there wasn't anything you could do. There was no way out."
Steve looked taken aback, and Tony could almost hear the gears grind to a halt before slowly starting to turn again, processing this new material. "Then why would you say there always is?" he said finally.
At that, Tony gave Steve the most sincere smile he'd given anyone in a long time. Sad, sympathetic, but sincere. "Because," he said, putting a firm hand on Steve's shoulder, "the second you stop believing there is one…that's the second you stop trying to find it."
Tony was pretty sure Steve couldn't have looked more surprised if he'd reached out and slapped him. His blue eyes widened in an odd combination of realization and confusion.
"You understand what I'm saying?" Tony was a little worried, actually. Steve was a smart guy, no matter how little credit he gave himself, but Tony was starting to get the impression he wasn't firing on all engines just then. Probably had something to do with the bone-crushing angst.
"Yeah," Steve said after a moment, his voice thick with something that Tony couldn't quite identify. Gratitude, maybe? Relief? "I just…I can't believe you're the one saying it."
"A 'yes, Tony, thank you' would've been just fine. You know what? That's it. Storytime's over." But just to make sure he'd really driven his point home, he had to add one last thing. "Moral of the story: it wasn't your fault. There isn't always a way out; what matters is that you tried. You did everything you could, so stop punishing yourself." And with one last squeeze of Steve's shoulder, he decided the moment was over. "And for that matter, stop hitting theme parks in witching hour. It's creepy. Come on, out, out. About face and all that."
Tony actually ended up turning Steve around and half-steering, half-shoving him in the direction of the parking lot.
"I don't have a car," Steve said when they reached the lot. He wasn't putting up a fight as Tony steered him through it, though there was some hesitation in his voice. "I walked."
"Yeah, well, I didn't." He let go of Steve's shoulders when he got to his car and nodded towards the passenger seat. "Get in. We're going someplace…" he glanced back at the park and shuddered, "normal for four in the morning."
Steve raised an eyebrow, but Tony noticed he was getting in the car just the same. "You know I can't get drunk, right?"
"I know," Tony said. "I was thinking breakfast instead. I know this great little crepe place down on the strip…"
Tony kept talking as they drove off, and though Steve had no idea what crepes were (he thought they might have some relation to fondue), and Tony had no idea what he was doing driving Steve to get them at four in the morning, things were okay. They both knew the problem wasn't fixed; Steve had still lost his best friend, and Tony…well, Tony was still Tony.
But what mattered was, he'd tried.