A/N: REJOICE, THE HIATUS MAY [JUST ABOUT] BE OVER!
His eyes open slowly, and he blinks in the early morning light. The room is pale and quiet around him, the air still. His fingers find the sleep gathered at the corners of his eyes and he digs at it, absently. He wakes slowly. But when his fingers find a vacant space beside him, a hollow in the pillow beside his own, he stiffens, brain now fully alert.
His voice rings hollowly around the sparse room. He hadn't cared to fill it with his personal affects, preferring his apartment unless necessity called for temporary residence. It feels emptier now than he'd ever noticed, now that it is empty of him.
There is no answer. Steve fumbles for his sweats on the cool floor, pulls them on as he begins to rush, heart rate accelerating as the absence weighs; as it pulls harder at him.
He snatches up a jacket from the chair beside his door, tugs the zip sharply up to his chin, and skims the access panel to exit, the glow of red to green illuminating his fingertips.
Without shoes, his toes scuff the metal corridors in a soft brush, making barely a sound. He travels further in his mind, turning corners before he comes to them; searching, thinking.
Where did he go?
Or, where would he go?
He stops at a junction on the floor below the sleeping quarters. The corridors are almost empty this early, and he is alone. His head tilts up as considers his options.
Lab, or the container?
Logically, these are the two most likely places. And yet, a memory of sun, of bright fields, of hot stone, invades his thoughts then.
Steve turns his eyes up, and heads for the flight deck.
. . .
He quickly regrets not wearing shoes. The air is quick and cold outside, the sun too weak to warm it yet. He shoves his hands into his pockets, curled into fists, and breaks into a brisk walk away from the observation deck and towards the open surface where the planes stand ready.
He finds him sitting, cross-legged, at the furthest corner, hair a wild black mess, hands in the pockets of his own jacket, eyes glazed by the rising sun. Focus blurred, he looks a world apart. He stares blindly across the clouds, into the distance, the horizon far below them, beyond them. He does not focus, but lets the sky swim past his open eyes. It feels distant. It feels like meditation.
Steve can't bring himself to intrude; at least, not yet. He waits just beyond the wing of a stationary plane.
Until a pilot casually hails him, hand raised in salute. His voice is too loud.
Tony's eyes refocus, and he blinks. He turns to look over his shoulder before his brain can reconnect, before he can recall all that came before. One hand rises in greeting. A smile alights his eyes before he can remember.
And it freezes on his lips when he does.
His hand falters, mid-air. His throat constricts, driving the breath from him before he can swallow it. He gulps, and the smile turns sour at his mouth, his lips hardening into a line.
Steve's own hand drops like dead weight, following the path of his heart. His limbs turn to stone as Tony turns away from him, as he visibly flinches inwards, knowing Steve is there, the illusion of peace shattered by his presence.
Steve's hand drops to his side, fingers curling, tightening into a fist. He feels the pressure in his jaw as his teeth grit. Slowly, carefully, he exhales. It is a practiced motion, but it is not steady. Nor are his feet as he moves forwards.
Each step lasts a lifetime, his mind racing with a thousand thoughts, his tongue burning with a thousand questions. His heart aches. His lungs are tight. He is heavy.
He comes to a slow halt a few paces from Tony, his back straight, body utterly rigid. His apprehension chokes him.
Long moments later, Steve manages, "Good morning."
His tongue is thick, and the words are clumsy to his ears. He winces at the sound of his own voice.
Who knew two words could sound so foolish?
His shoulders sag when Tony gives no response.
A plane takes off, its pilot unaware of the tension he has left below him. Steve swallows hard, his mouth dry as bone. Tony's body does not move an inch.
Irritation flares in the dry hollow of Steve's throat, expands in his chest, contracts like his lungs. Still the silence extends. His chest tightens, the subtle beginnings of panic.
Steve exhales slowly through his nose in a shallow attempt to control his breathing. It doesn't work.
And then Tony sighs.
The tightness surges, dissipating in a violent rush, leaving Steve's body burning with the aftermath.
He forces himself forward, though his legs are stiff and unwilling. After two slow steps, they stop, but will not bend. They will not bring Steve down to Tony's level.
For the moment he is grateful for that. He does not want to see the look in Tony's eyes right now.
His own slip closed for a brief second. When they open, he looks down to see Tony staring out across the water below them again. His gaze is still, and steady. Steve's palm are slick, and he slides them slowly down his thighs to dry them. Tony catches the movement, eyes flicking back and forth in a heartbeat. His gaze does not linger long on the length of Steve's fingers.
Steve swallows past the lump in his throat. He tries to summon words, pleasantries, empty conversation. It will not come.
It is a shock when Tony speaks first.
He clears his throat, and his eyes flick up to Steve as he says, "We should talk."
Steve nods. Instantly, the motion feels too curt, and he regrets it.
"Here?" he asks, cringing at his own voice. It sounds small. It sounds weak.
But Tony is defeated when he answers, "Sure. Why not? It's as good as anywhere."
He shrugs. "Least they won't be eavesdropping here," he mutters, lacing his fingers in his lap. His eyes look out, seeing nothing, taking nothing in.
Steve closes his for a moment, letting out a deep breath that he'd held for too long.
"What is there to say, Tony?" he says, quietly.
The bark of laughter that escapes Tony makes Steve jump.
"You're joking, right?" Tony snorts. "Don't tell me you're just going to say "What's past is passed" and forgive me like you –" Tony starts, and Steve stops him with a single finger.
"No," he says, deadly quiet. "No, I'm not."
Tony looks at him, brow furrowed.
Steve's throat is tight, tight enough that he shouldn't be able to breathe. But he can, and he does.
"I'm not going to forgive you," says Steve, and his eyes are resolute. His resolve weighs heavy in the blue. It makes them hard. "Not like this."
Tony blinks at him, squinting.
Steve swallows, forces himself to be steady.
"I'm not going to forgive you like this," he says, fingers balled in fists at his sides. He can't remember when he did that. "Not when you haven't told me a single thing that's gone through that thick head of yours for the past month. Hell," he snaps, "maybe longer."
Tony's eyes widen. Whatever he expected from him, this was not it.
"Did you honestly think I would just let this go?" Steve says, "That I wouldn't want to know why you did it? Or what you could possibly have been thinking that would justify the way you've treated me?"
He shakes his head tightly. "I may be a Christian, Tony. But I'm not God. I can't forgive you so easily. I'm not that good."
Steve exhales, eyes hard.
"And I won't," he says.
Tony just looks at him.
"I want to know why you did it," says Steve, taking a bold step forward. "And that is the very first thing you are going to tell me. Because I have questions, and you owe me the answers. That is the least of it."
Tony holds his gaze for a long moment, mouth open ever so slightly.
Then he stands, slowly, deliberately. He puts himself two inches from Steve's face, chin jutted out, pressed up too close, a shade of last night so far-removed that it sends a violent jolt through Steve. It makes him feel sick.
He remembers the day he confronted Tony in the corridor. Remembers his fist connecting with Tony's face; remembers leaving him unconscious in his bed.
His stomach churns, and when he swallows he tastes bile.
Tony is breathing too fast. His chest heaves, and this close it presses against Steve with each quick breath. He stands defiant, and his eyes are dark, cold.
Steve doesn't know if he wants to kiss him or choke him.
"Don't hold your breath," Tony mutters, finally. His voice is grating rock, coarse as sand, and it stings.
"And don't ever threaten me again."
His eyes glitter, diamond hard and dangerous. "Because I promise you, I'll make you regret it."
He turns away, and leaves Steve burning in the morning air, fists still curled like the rage in his aching chest, eyes towards a pale sun.
Bruce looks surprised to see him, which doesn't come as a shock. The doctor rubs his eyes, short hair dishevelled like he just woke up. He looks like that a lot. "What a… pleasant surprise."
Tony's smile is more like a grimace.
"You got a minute?" he asks tightly.
"Sure," nods Bruce. "Just let get myself some tea and I'm all ears."
Tony watches the screen as Bruce shuffles off to fix himself a mug of it. He folds his arms, dips his chin down towards his chest and closes his eyes, just for a moment.
He's almost forgotten what real rest feels like, always running on panic and adrenaline, that tight feeling in his chest. Panic attacks see him seize up in the halls of the helicarrier, make him drag himself stiff-limbed and hyperventilating into doorways and empty corridors, trying to remember how to breathe.
Closing his eyes feels like closing the lid on his coffin as they lower him into the ground. There is too much metal here, the walls are too close, the lights too bright or not bright enough to chase the shadows away. Every day the mirror shows him skin that is pale, drawn, smudged below his eyes with purple bruises from where he hasn't been sleeping. His head is too loud and his eyes are dull, and they play tricks on him under the artificial lights.
Bruce reappears, mug first, on the screen, sitting down and pulling his bathrobe closer around him, covering more of the white t-shirt he wears underneath it.
He takes a sip of the steaming liquid and swallows. Tony briefly wonders if he notices extreme heat at all. Bruce looks at him.
Tony swallows, index finger pawing absently at the sleeve of his shirt.
"I need a favour."
The doctor nods, taking another sip.
"And what would that be, exactly?" he asks, voice quiet gravel from being too recently asleep.
Tony closes his eyes, fingers gripping tighter for a moment on his upper arm.
"I need you to monitor me."
And it feels like defeat.
Bruce raises an eyebrow. "What, you think SHIELD isn't doing that already?" he says, with no attempt to hide his sarcasm or disapproval.
"I have absolutely no doubt in mind that they are trying to," Tony counters tiredly, "but I am also confident that I have a little something up my sleeve that scrambles whatever they see when the cameras do pick me up."
He lifts a wrist and pulls down his sleeve to show the modified MARK VII bracelet he wears.
Bruce takes another sip of his tea, nods at the bracelet as Tony covers it again with his sleeve.
"New suit?" he asks.
Tony smiles thinly. "What d'you think I've been doing with myself all this time, Banner?"
"Brooding?" he replies archly. "Finding new ways to drive Steve Rogers to fascinating new depths of insanity?"
Tony's fingers tighten on his arm enough to blanch the skin below his shirt, though Bruce can't see it.
"Working," he says after a long moment, voice tight and unsteady.
"Ah, yes," nods Bruce, "Of course." A thin smile flashes across his lips, "My mistake."
Tony bristles visibly. "I wouldn't mouth off about things you don't understand, Bruce," he says curtly.
The doctor raises his hands in submission.
"No offence intended."
Tony makes a face. "I'm sure."
Bruce tilts his head, and considers him for a time.
"So if I do decide to help you," he muses, "why do you want yourself monitored in the first place? I thought even the idea of it made you break out in hives."
Tony rubs his crossed arms absently with his hands.
"I just… I just want to check something."
"Tony," he starts, more gently than before, "I might be more effective if you trusted me enough to give me all the information." Tony's mouth twitches briefly in a pained smile, but it dies quickly on his lips.
"I know that's a lot to ask," Bruce adds softly.
Tony smiles that grimace again.
"Isn't it, though?"
For a long moment there is only silence. Bruce turns the mug in his hands, losing his thoughts in it. Then he exhales through his nose.
"Fine," he says, resolved. "Don't tell me." He looks at him. "What do you want me to do with the footage?"
Tony speaks quietly, deliberately. He has weighed these words in his mouth, on his tongue, before.
"Keep it on a secure drive," he says. "I'll access it in real-time as and when."
Bruce meets his eyes.
"Do you want me to watch it?"
Tony doesn't look away as the question bores into him through the doctor's placid eyes. Tony wonders how close to the surface the rage within him dwells; wonders how his eyes can look so calm when all beneath them, behind them, is in turmoil, in chaos. How can his eyes be so still, when Tony's own can't help but betray the storm inside of him?
"I suppose could stop you from doing that," he answers eventually.
Bruce just looks at him, trying to piece together the motives, the possibilities.
"And from that I take it that you won't?" he asks.
Tony just shrugs.
"I suppose sometimes it can help to have an extra pair of eyes," he says quietly.
"You think there's something you're not seeing?" Bruce asks, curious now.
Tony opens his mouth to speak, then closes it so abruptly his teeth snap together, as if about to swallow his answer. He draws several deep breaths before he opens his mouth again.
"More like something only I'm seeing," he mutters, and it sounds like a confession.
It takes Bruce a moment to nod, but when he does the movement is firm, sure.
"I can do that for you."
Tony looks up, holding his gaze until the dryness in his mouth forces him to swallow to wet it.
His voice is brittle, coming out cracked as he says, "Thank you."
He clears his throat, thoughts turning to the bottle in his desk drawer. He thinks about drinking, and his throat itches in kind.
Bruce raises his mug. "Guess I'll go get started then."
"I'll check in with you in three days."
Bruce inclines his head, then puts the mug to his lips for another sip.
"What is that anyway?" Tony asks, tilting his chin towards the mug in Bruce's hand.
Bruce swallows the sip he just took.
"Jasmine," he answers, raising the mug in salute.
"You keep well, Bruce," he says quietly, after a moment.
The doctor nods on the screen.
Tony picks the remote up from the table beside him to end the call, but looks up when he hears his name.
Above him, the doctor's eyes are sincere, but there is concern written in the lines that frame them.
"Take care of yourself," he says gently.
Tony looks at him with a question, and Bruce shrugs, eyes betraying a sudden sadness.
"Sometimes I just think you need telling."
Tony's nod is stiff, short. His mouth pulls into that queer grimace again. It is still not a smile. Tony wonders if he's forgotten how.
"Goodbye, Bruce," he says.
. . .
Natasha lazily dodges a swipe. His fist jabs left, right, straight for her face. His left leg swings up and connects with her arm as she blocks him.
He wipes sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, bouncing on the balls of his feet. Natasha circles him like a cat, slow, predatory.
Steve cocks his head as he asks, "Are you even trying?"
She distracts him from her answering smirk by lunging, and though Steve catches her fist in his palm, his block is too slow to stop her driving her left elbow into his right temple, sending his ears ringing.
Natasha moves two paces back, light on her feet, rolling her shoulders and raising her hands again.
She brushes away an itch at the tip of her nose and smiles, lips pressed, at Steve from across the ring.
"Getting stiff, old man," she drawls, teasing.
They taunt each other when they spar. It's routine, playful, and the banter provides a welcome distraction from the turmoil in his head, and in his heart.
He advances next, dodges right to avoid her punch, blocks a cut with his forearm, then catches her left arm as she jabs at his face and pulls it up, twisting it behind her, pressure on her shoulder with his other hand, pushing her to her knees. Her grunt of discomfort is momentary, as she rolls right, onto her back, turning to face him and pulling him down onto her bent knee. He jerks his hand free from holding her before her knee can connect with his stomach, covering it to lessen to blow the sudden reversal of force would deliver.
Natasha smiles up at him, her hair clinging to the places where sweat has collected along her neck and shoulders. It's getting long again. The curls are coming back. Steve stands, arm outstretched to pull her up with him.
Their faces are suddenly close as he pulls too hard and she oversteps. Their breath mingles in that small space, and Steve can see a single bead of sweat roll down her brow.
He looks down at their hands still clasped between their chests.
Natasha glances down, then up again to meet Steve's eyes. He exhales, heavy but steady, through his nose. Neither releases their grip.
Natasha raises an eyebrow.
Their next steps are almost too fast to follow. Steve spars with Natasha because she doesn't treat him as anything less, or more, than an equal. She does not bow to his seniority, his superiority, or his history. She gives no quarter, and expects none. Steve spars with her because she makes him better. She can be vicious, if that is what efficiency and effectiveness calls for. Steve values her tutelage because it stretches him. Because fighting her leaves him no room to think of anything else.
Sounds of their exertion grind in the air as they move back and forth across the practice mat.
So absorbed are they in trading blow for blow, blocking, advancing, retreating, and advancing again, that neither of them hears the doors hiss open.
But Steve certainly feels it when Natasha catches him square in the jaw, caught off-guard the moment his eyes find the dark-haired man at the door.
Tony's mouth forms a hard line when he sees that the room is already occupied.
"Sorry," he says curtly, "Didn't know this room was… in use."
The fist holding his towel tightens on the fabric until his knuckles are white.
For a moment, the three of them stand there, in tense and stretching silence, no words providing themselves to spare them from the awkward quiet.
Until Natasha sniffs loudly and scrapes her hair back from her face, pulling a band from around her wrist and tying the red mass securely in a high knot.
"Good fight, Steve," she says, nonchalant. She claps his shoulder as she moves past him, dipping under the ropes to walk towards the door.
She collects her water bottle from the bench beside Tony and holds his gaze as she takes a long swallow. She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, not looking away. For a moment she doesn't say anything. She glances at Steve, then back to Tony. She speaks only with her eyes, though there is no less fire in her message for it.
"You boys play nice, alright?" she says finally, opening her mouth to tip more water in, squeezed from the bottle.
She glances back at Steve, and turns to leave them, the door hissing shut behind her.
Neither one of them moves.
Steve's eyes remain firmly on the mat underneath his feet, and he rubs his thumbs over the sides of his index fingers like it will wear away the tension in the air around him and free him from it.
Tony's glare bores into the side of his face.
Then he walks to the bench and throws his towel at it.
Steve concentrates on unwinding and rewinding the bindings across his knuckles as Tony laces his shoes in silence.
"You ready to talk about it?" he asks after a long while, more to his feet than to Tony.
He can almost hear it when the other man grinds his teeth.
"Are you?" Tony grits out.
Steve tucks the ends under layers of criss-crossing tape.
"I was ready to talk about it yesterday," Steve replies curtly, "But you weren't interested."
"And guess what," Tony snaps back, "I'm still not interested."
He stands and brushes his sweats off, turning to face him. Then he throws his arms out and says curtly, "Are you done?"
And Steve was going to leave. He was going to slip out of the ring, pick up his jacket and go.
But the gesture, the sight of Tony baring his chest, arms wide in challenge, is too much.
So he puts up his fists, motions him forward with one hand, and mutters, "Not by a long shot."
And Tony bites.
His fists clench, and in three short strides he has crossed the room to the ring, ducking below the ropes and inside.
He wipes his mouth with his right hand.
Steve looks at him.
Tony shakes his head, fists up now, and mutters, "Not for you."
"Good," grits Steve. "Then you'll feel it."
He doesn't know where it comes from, then; the rage that suddenly bursts in his gut, the pain exploding in his chest. Every nerve is alive, on fire, with it.
And he hears the words before he knows he's said them.
"About time you felt something, Stark."
Tony swings first.
Steve jumps back, arms up from the shoulder, then lands and steps left foot forward, bringing his right fist up toward Tony's middle. Tony blocks him, both hands down, pushes him back with knuckles pressed to his sternum.
They circle each other. The movement is so familiar that it makes Steve feel sick.
They've danced this waltz before. Steve remembers the bookcase, the rubble, the picture in the dirt.
He remembers the white hot rage behind his eyes, remembers being so angry he felt like he'd gone blind.
He doesn't know he's doing it until his fist drives the wind out of Tony's lungs.
Tony sinks to one knee, wheezing, clutching his ribs with one hand, the other supporting him on his knuckles.
Steve blinks through the sweat in his eyes and his mind reconnects to his body, every fibre burning with the desire to carry on.
And if this is the only way Tony will listen, then Steve has no choice but to do so.
He only wonders if he will be able to stop.
"I was never… good enough for you," Tony grunts, swinging low and missing as Steve sidesteps before the blow can connect. "I was never good enough… for… anyone!"
Steve dodges a clumsy uppercut.
"You're wrong," Steve says, spinning with one foot on the mat, to take Tony's legs from under him. "I told you, over and over, that you are everything to me. And did you listen? Did you ever care about anyone but yourself? And what you wanted?"
Tony lands hard, scrambles back to his feet before the captain can reach him. He dances backwards, away, and they circle again.
His eyes are black, violent, and Steve's eyes are blazing, too.
"You shut me out, Tony," he bites out, "and you never told me why. You didn't care what it did to me. You didn't care that it nearly broke me. You just stood by and watched –"
He kicks, foot square against Tony's braced forearms, forcing him back again.
Tony's back presses against the ropes, and he rolls left, away, advances jabbing left, and then right. Steve blocks and dodges, feints forward, and steps back.
"What did you want me to do?" Tony snarls, air coming hard with the exertion, the fury hot in his blood. "Beg you? Beg you to forget it?"
"I wanted you," Steve grunts, as Tony's fist slams into his shoulder, "to speak to me!"
"What would it matter, Rogers?" Tony hisses out, blocking an uppercut that would've made him bite through his tongue. "What difference would it make?"
"You could've let me help you," Steve spits back at him, advancing, relentless punches falling on every part of him Tony leaves exposed. "You could've let me in!"
Steve kicks him hard, just behind the knee, and Tony drops like a stone and cries out.
Something bubbles up in Steve in that moment, constricts in his bones, and he hesitates, just for a heartbeat. It is enough to give Tony an opening.
He lunges up at Steve then, arms wrapping like iron round his legs and forcing him off balance, slamming him into the floor. The air hisses from Steve's lungs as he lands badly, so shocked by Tony's advance that he forgot to go limp as he fell.
Tony pulls himself to his knees over Steve's body and his fist connects with Steve's cheekbone. Tony hits him again, his left fist this time. He hits him, left, right, left, until Steve feels his lip split, sees blood on Tony's knuckles, both Tony's and his own. There is no difference in the colour of it, and that thought blazes through the pain, leaving his heart aching like it could break all on its own.
He feels hot liquid coursing over his chin from his lip, collecting in the hollow of his throat. And Tony's fingers close around it, slick with the blood, his chest heaving, his lips curled back to bare his gritted teeth.
As the air leaves him, a fog settles over his eyes, and it hurts to think, to struggle to draw breath.
And yet he still sees a glitter in Tony's eyes, sees tracks across his cheeks, though he wonders whether Tony even realises he's sobbing as he chokes the life from him.
Steve doesn't want this.
And so he rolls.
Tony's centre of gravity shifts so suddenly that he has to release his grip on Steve's neck to stop himself falling.
The violent rush of air into Steve's lungs is like an electric shock. He dives across Tony, behind him, and in seconds, Steve has Tony in a chokehold.
Tony struggles against the arms around his neck, their muscles standing tight under the skin as he kicks and claws.
"Stay down, Tony," Steve chokes out, blood on his lips and in his mouth making his speech thick. But Tony's errant fist connects with his jaw so unexpectedly hard that, for a moment, Steve sees stars. His arm releases its grip around Tony's throat long enough for him to struggle free, crawling away to massage air back into his lungs, throat marked an angry red, raised against his pale skin.
And Tony rasps, "I'll kill you," his eyes blazing. "I swear to God, I'll kill you."
He dives for Steve again, and Steve pushes up from his knees, suddenly towering over Tony on his knees. Tony's arm reaches up and Steve acts as if without conscious thought. Incapacitate.
He grabs his arm around the elbow and wrenches up.
The sickening crunching pop as the joint is separated from its socket reverberates through the room, and Tony's ensuing scream of pain forces Steve back into the present from the distant fog behind his eyes.
As they refocus, he sees Tony writhe on the mat below him, eyes screwed tightly shut, teeth gritted, grinding against the pain coursing through his arm and body.
Steve sees his hand pull Tony onto his back, sees his foot press hard against Tony's chest, pinning him to the floor, as if he is utterly separate from it.
"DO IT!" Tony yells, and it rings so loud that it hurts to hear the words. His eyes are wet, cheeks marked by sweat and tears. The mat below him is streaked with bloody prints, Steve's blood and his against the fabric.
And Steve wonders why he cannot see.
But when he feels heat on his cheeks, a finger coming away wet, the tang of salt in his mouth, he realises he's crying too.
And his voice is harsh and broken as he steps back, faltering. He barely catches himself as he nearly trips over his own feet.
He shakes his head, as the reality of what has been done here sinks in. His heart is suddenly heavier than he has ever known it.
He rasps, "I can't."
"You coward," spits Tony, bloody and pale on the floor. He clutches at his dislocated shoulder with red fingers.
Sadness grips his heart, and cold shudders through him.
"I'm not the coward here, Tony." Steve sounds strangled, almost, by the sobs that writhe in his throat. Everything hurts. Everything aches. His knuckles sting, and his lip throbs, sparking with fresh pain when he touches his tongue to it. His cheeks are hot and wet again, without his consent for them to be so, as he mutters hoarsely,