"And what the hell would you know about it, Tony, huh? NOTHING, that's what, you know absolutely NOTHING."
Steve's voice rings clear as day around the room and Tony winces as the echo rushes back again and rings even more harshly his ears. Somehow, he has ended up on babysitting duty with Captain Yesterday, and Steve has been ranting for nigh on 3 hours now. Tony is on his, what, 4th? whiskey at this point, and more importantly, Tony is tired. True, Tony is always tired, but all he wants to do right now is collapse onto his bed in whiskey-tinged oblivion and not have to deal with an upset Steve. And "upset" is an understatement of tectonic proportions. It's been a long day for all of them, but something, and he can't quite figure out what, has set Steve off. If he's honest, seeing Steve this agitated is starting to unnerve Tony more than just a little. And yes, Tony wants to argue with him, to deny and protest and give the smart answer. He wants to retort with easy wit, a quip, he wants to say "actually, Cap, I think you'll find I know just about everything about anything". He has an army of retorts already resting on the edge of his tongue like a springboard. But instead, he swallows it all back, and not without some difficulty. Being flippant comes easily to him. Brushing off important things with gaudy humour is something he learned to do from a very young age. He mostly had his father to thank for that.
But tonight is different. He can see Steve teetering on the edge of something, pacing the room like a wounded animal, all erratic movement and wild, frightened eyes. Tony can see the vein jumping in Steve's temple even in the dim light of the small hours of the morning. He sees his hands crushed into fists, the tendons threading along his arms standing out. He can see Steve is shaking. And without the familiar, solid armour of his wit, Tony swaps his whiskey glass to the other hand, and fidgets.
The ice in Tony's glass tinkles softly as he moves it from one hand to the other. And then, all of a sudden, Steve crosses the room in two huge strides to where Tony stands by the window and shoves him backwards, and not gently. Tony screeches something that would make a nun blush and narrowly avoids throwing his drink all over himself.
"Whoa, whoa, WHOA! What the fuck, Steve! Jesus Christ, what the actual fuck is wrong with…!" And suddenly it all comes crashing violently out of Steve in a mad, cascading rush of pent up emotion. It washes over him like a sea, a haze of excruciating, agonising red.
"I am WRONG here!" He yells, throwing his hands up, voice audibly straining. Breaking. Cracking like so much thin ice. He takes a long, shuddering breath, and it skitters strangely around the room, as if it were chasing him. Through his eyes race a hundred unbearable emotions, all at war with each other, all threatening to overwhelm him and drag him under to drown.
His voice is sharp in Tony's ears, "Everything is too different. Everything is strange, and different, and God it's all so loud and awful, and it never stops Tony, it just, it's just... WRONG, OKAY?"
And then it hits him, knocking the wind out of his gut. It is guilt; it is pain; and suddenly, it is just far, far, too much to bear. Just staying standing becomes an impossible task. And so he crumples.
Panting, Steve collapses heavily onto the floor, leaning against the wall with his head sinking into his hands. He feels paper thin, and just as fragile. He is just so tired. He feels the ache of it deep in his bones and he wonders if it will ever, ever get better. If it will ever get easier. It's all he can do to keep the tears at bay, to choke back the sobs and the unyielding waves of grief. So much pain that he has never been able to face, he has never been able to come to terms with it, to reconcile, and accept it. The pain of losing Bucky, of never knowing what could have been with Peggy; oh beautiful, clever, determined Peggy. So full of fire and life. And he has nothing in this terrifying new world. All he has left of his world is ice and dust.
Sometimes he wakes in the night and he can't remember their faces. And so, he grieves. He grieves that he is still here and he is utterly alone. And they have lived. They have lived their lives, lived them full and well and they have lived them without him. Their lives have been and gone without him in them.
A still shadow by the window, Tony lets Steve have his silence for a moment, and then slides down to sit beside him.
"Scooch over, big guy."
He motions Steve to move further toward the window, and settles down beside him, whiskey glass still in hand. Tony thinks that tonight he is probably going to need even more to drink than usual, and then it occurs to him that he has no idea how much whiskey Steve might need to cope with this whole thing the way Tony usually does, and once again, he feels so very ill-equipped to deal with the situation he has found himself in.
Outside, the city bustles and busies itself in the night. The stars hide behind the fuzz of light emanating from every corner of the buildings below them. Steve stares out into the night and sees none of it. It is now that Tony notices the wet sheen glazing Steve's eyes, and he really does wonder how in the name of God he ended up being the one dealing with this. Of all the people on hand in this place, he is possibly the least qualified to deal with sensitive matters. Especially considering his own personal method of "coping" with something is by not talking about it. Ever. By locking the key in a box, strapping it to a rocket, and jettisoning it into the sun. And so he taps a few commands into the phone he takes from his pocket, and when a small robot rolls into the room carrying a full bottle of whiskey and an ice bucket, he relieves it of its load and presses a glass into Steve's hand.
"Here, whether you can get drunk or not, the fire as it goes down should help. Really warms you deep down inside, y'know?"
Steve stares blankly at the whiskey in his hand. Tony sighs, and fidgets. Then Steve seems to realise what is happening, and he turns to Tony with a look in his eyes that Tony has never seen before. His eyes are clear, and they bore into his own with an intensity that warms him more than whiskey ever has. And Steve looks deep, looks deep down into the pools of brown, and he is searching for something, but quite what that something is, Tony can't imagine. And then they have been holding each other's gaze for just a little too long, and Tony is the first to break the stare, coughing nervously and dipping his head down to take a sip of the cold bronze liquid. But Steve keeps his eyes fixed on Tony, whiskey untouched, ice melting in the glass, and Tony suddenly has the bizarre thought that perhaps ice is not the best thing to be giving a fragile Steve. Bad memories, and all that. He fidgets again. Scratches his nose. Rolls the tips of his fingers together. Taps his toes. The silence stretches on in the dark, city lights twinkling in the background, stretching out into the distance, horizon black as coal and darker, stretching further and further to the edges of the world.
"Thank you, Tony," comes the quiet voice. And Steve sounds old. Tired, yes, of course, but more surprisingly to Tony, old. Despite his frankly ridiculous out-of-date language, Steve Rogers never sounds like an old man. Not ever. Not even once. And it shocks Tony a little. To suddenly come to the realisation that this man, this legend, this paragon of virtue and good-old-fashioned American values, is just that. A man. Only a man, like everyone else.
Except he isn't. He is that, but he is also so much more. And he is a man that has experienced true suffering. No one may ever know what it is like to go through what Steve went through, trapped in the ice as decades pass, until all you knew has faded and gone. Lost to the annals of history, remnants of the glory days, idealised and manipulated until they were unrecognisable. Tony can't pretend to try to understand what it must have been like, to wake up in a cold, harsh room full of bright, blinding lights, and strangers. Not a single face he knew. Not a single friendly face at all. Tony can't begin to imagine that pain. Nothing but the beep of the medical machines. The scratching of pens on clipboards and notepads. The whirring of machinery. The hum of electricity everywhere. And everything so bright. So clinical. Scientists and doctors and government agents crowding around like chickens at feeding time. Clawing, pecking at him, all desperate for a piece, all wanting a souvenir to take away and preserve, to keep as their own, as some kind of proof. And yet somehow, despite that, Steve is no less for all they have taken from him. And Tony feels an ache, somewhere deep down.
He is abruptly brought out of his reverie by the realisation that Steve is still looking at him with wide, bright eyes. The electric lights of the high-rise across the street are caught crystallised in his black pupils, and they looks like stars somehow. And Tony experiences a feeling not unlike falling as he slips further into the soft blackness. It is like falling, and it is like drowning. But it is more like flying, floating through infinite fields of starry lights.
His drink abruptly slips from his hand, sending ice and cold whiskey skittering across the carpet, coating him in sticky bronze liquid. He jumps in surprise, groaning as he realises what has happened. Sighing, he shakes his hands to get rid of the worst of it, snapped abruptly, cruelly back to reality, skin already growing colder as the liquid soaks into his clothes.
"Oh goddamnit, shit, not again! Ah, sorry Steve, my bad," he apologises, "Let me get that…" Tony rights the glass with his left hand, collecting the ice cubes one by one, and sucks the whiskey from the fingers of his right.
That's when Steve grabs his hand. And again, they lock eyes. There, again, Tony feels the ache. Steve's face is so open, and there is something in that gaze that looks too much like a plea. His eyes look so, lost, and Tony is overcome with the sensation that he is desperately searching for something. He feels his breath hitch in his throat at the unexpected contact, and suddenly, Tony finds he is nervous and awkward.
He looks from Steve, to his hand, and back again.
"Um, ha ha, Steve, uh, what are you… doing?" he gulps out, breathing suddenly like sucking treacle through a straw. And Steve says nothing, but pulls Tony's upturned hand to his lips and tastes the whiskey that has collected in his palm. Tiny bolts of electricity race along Tony's arm, his hairs standing on end. The clash of cold whiskey and the pure warmth radiating from Steve's lips on his skin make his head swim. Briefly, his vision wavers, and there, in that moment, sat on the floor in a dark room made blue by the haze of the city's neon glare, he is so very close to a man he knows, and yet, he doesn't truly know him at all. But he knows with a burning certainty that something has changed, because now, he needs to know.
And it is like fire; red-hot, primal, and frightening, burning in his chest. Swelling with that deep ache, ripping through his chest. The familiar need to pick something apart and learn its secrets grips him, and he is lost, caught in the riptide. Drowning in those black, black eyes, so tinged with sadness and starlight.
It is in this moment that Steve pulls him by his hand, and skin still tingling, envelopes him in his arms.
And fully clothed, cloaked and hidden in the forgiving darkness, Tony Stark suddenly feels more naked than he ever has in all his life.
Disclaimer: I don't own any of these characters!