Pairing: Steve/Tony, OMC/Tony (reference)
Disclaimer: I don't own The Avengers.
Word Count: 8743
Note: In the comics Tony Stark has blue eyes, so mine has too. The poem is taken from Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Summary: After Harry's burial, Tony stays at his grave for the rest of the day and throughout the night.
Butterfly of Courage
Mountains. Heavy are the mountains, but that changes with the passage of time.
Sky, blue sky. What your eyes can't see. What your eyes can see.
The Sun. One, only one.
Water. It is agreeable.
Flowers. So many the same. So many without purpose.
Sky. Sky of red. Red the color, the color I hate.
The liquid flows, it drips, ripples and pours.
Blood. Scent of blood. A woman who does not bleed.
From the red soil the humans come.
Humans made by man and woman.
City, a human creation.
Terror, a human creation as well.
What are humans?
Are they creations of God?
Humans, that which is created by humans.
This is that which is mine, my life, my heart. I am a vessel for my thoughts.
A throne for the soul.
Who is this? This is me.
Who am I? What am I?
I am I. This object that is, is myself. That which forms, is me.
This is the self that can be seen, and yet this is not like that which is myself.
A strange feeling. My body feels as if it is melting.
I can no longer see myself. My form, my shape fades from view.
Awareness dawns of someone who is not me.
Who is here, there, beyond me here?
This person I know
Who are you?
After Harry's burial, Tony stayed at his grave for the rest of the day and throughout the night. He leaned against the beautiful marble stone, switching between total and complete apathy to bouts of incontrollable sobbing.
The day after it rained, but he didn't move. He was too indifferent to realize his driver and bodyguard, the one who'd replaced Happy, had spent the night waiting for him, leaning against the car. He was now kneeling next to him silently, holding a black umbrella and shading him from the worst of the elements.
That man, Roman Parnell, had worked for Tony for two years by then. When Harry had realised Tony didn't have any personal protection he'd immediately began researching, eventually finding Roman and assigned him to Tony.
Apart from Harry, Roman was undoubtedly his only friend. And now that Harry was dead? Probably the only one he had left. Because the man Tony loved, who had loved and cherished him back, who'd taken care of him and had offered him everything, was buried six foot under Tony, slowly rotting and getting eaten by putrid and disgusting insects. What would become of Harry's beautiful face?
Tony shuddered and it had nothing to do with the cold that had settled into his very bones.
"Come on, boss," Roman murmured gently as he ran a hand through his damp hair. "Let's go home."
Tony didn't have enough strength to tell Roman his home was now decaying in the earth.
Tony had expected the drop in the stock exchange concerning Stark Industries. Everyone waited with bated breath for him to break down and start drinking again.
What they didn't expect, however, was for Tony to bury himself in his work and double his production rate in three weeks.
"Hey boss," Roman called, gently kicking the chair where Tony sat, bent over a worktable with his blowtorch in hand. "Ya haven't been out for four days. Let's go on a stroll."
Without waiting for Tony to answer, the tall, black man plucked the blowtorch out of Tony's hand and turned it off, before grabbing Tony by the arm and literally dragged him out of the lab. He pushed him towards Tony's room and forced him into the bathroom. While Tony showered, he grabbed a pair of black jeans, a white shirt and a black leather jacket, putting them on the chair next to the bathroom door. He sat at the foot of the bed, leaned back on his elbows and sighed.
Tony emerged an hour later, freshly shaven and hair combed back. He dressed slowly, as if every muscle in his body hurt and stood in front of Roman.
"Sharp," the black man approved. "C'mon, let's go."
They didn't go anywhere specific actually. Roman just drove around, stopping on the side of the road above the hills of Hollywood and they simply sat on the hood of the car, eating strawberries and drinking coca.
"What should I do, Rome?" Tony asked after a while, gazing at the setting sun with an expressionless face.
Roman shrugged. "Keep on, I guess," he answered simply, doing his best not to wince at the sound of Tony's hoarse voice. It was the first time Tony had talked since the funeral.
"And if I don't want to?" Tony whispered brokenly.
Roman closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Then you don't."
Tony spent every Tuesday (the day Harry died) at his grave. He just sat and stared at the engraved words, sometimes talking to Harry, sometimes humming to him and sometimes just in silence.
"Came here to gloat?"
Steve was standing behind Tony, several feet away, flowers in his hands. "I would never do something like that," he replied quietly.
Tony shrugged. "I wouldn't know," he muttered, "I wonder if I ever did."
Steve swallowed around the lump in his throat and took the steps separating him from Tony. He knelt gingerly and deposited the flowers against the grave stone. "I knew you loved him," he said softly, "I wouldn't ridicule his memory by doing something so hurtful to you," he stated calmly.
Tony scoffed disbelievingly. "I can't trust you on anything."
Steve froze at that, nodding slowly and painfully. "Will you be able to forgive me one day?"
Tony's head whirled in his direction so fast, Steve actually flinched. "It is neither the time nor the place to assuage your petty conscience," Tony snarled, blue eyes blazing with fury. "You don't have any right to come here and ask me that! Not in front of Harry!" he yelled, standing and walking back to the car where Roman was waiting for him.
Steve scrambled after him, his hand on Tony's shoulder turning the shorter man around. "When is the right time then?" he asked desperately. "Do I even stand a chance?"
Tony choked back on an angry sob and wrenched himself out of Steve's grip. "You had your chance!" he screamed, his fist lashing out against Steve's chest. "But you blew it! You had me! I loved you so, so much, you bastard! I loved you so much!" He repeated in a broken voice. "But it wasn't enough! I'm never enough!" he rasped. "I'm always lacking, aren't I, Steve? There's always something wrong with me. I push people away, don't I? My mom left me with a man who never loved me, Pepper left me because I was doing the right thing but she couldn't handle it and you left me because I wasn't good enough—"
"No, Tony—" but Steve was interrupted by Tony hitting him again.
"What didn't I give you? Why wasn't I enough for you?" he cried miserably.
He rubbed his face with hands that shook, and suddenly Tony screamed. Screamed with every cell in his body, screamed until his voice broke and his throat refused to utter any more sounds.
Steve had Tony wrapped in his arms, supporting him when his legs buckled and they fell on the ground, Tony straddling Steve's laps who rocked him in the cradle of his arms. "And what am I gonna do now?" Tony whispered flatly, every string cruelly cut off from his body.
Unable to do anything.
Unable to even resist Steve's embrace.
"What am I gonna do without Harry?" he asked pleadingly, tears falling freely from his blue eyes. "Why did he leave me too?" he sobbed. "I don't understand anymore."
Steve closed his eyes, unchecked tears falling down his cheeks. "I don't know, baby. I don't get it either."
Tony didn't dream this time.
He slashed his wrists and closed his eyes.
He woke up three weeks later, bright white bandages around his wrists, bright white hospital room surrounding him, bright white nothing swallowing him.
He called for Harry but he never came.
He was lost and couldn't return.
Steve sat at his bedside during the time he was hospitalized.
He was there.
Even when Tony yelled, screamed and whispered that he hated him.
Steve took it all.
Steve never left.
Tony hated him even more.
Harry told him Steve was his one weakness. That Tony was the strongest person he'd ever seen but that he'd always have this enormous softness in his character where Steve was concerned.
For Tony it became a flaw.
A stain on his perfectly white world.
Harry had been so, so white.
Steve was disgusting, leaving his greasy fingerprints on the perfectly clean walls of Tony's soul.
He missed Harry's cleanness.
"Humans are fickle."
Tony watched the creature stalk back and forth in front of him, its strange pincers clicking in the damp underground where it had dragged him to. It looked like an insect and it wanted to use Tony to lure the Avengers to it.
"Humans are defective."
He didn't know how it happened. In one moment he was giving a conference speech on quantum physics in Hanoi, Vietnam, and in the next he woke up in a cave, cold and trying to stop the bleeding cut on his right forearm.
"Humans are flawed."
Tony didn't say anything.
But he agreed.
Steve hissed as he gently removed the blood soaked fabric bound around Tony's forearm. The wound underneath was deep and bleeding sluggishly.
Tony looked at it and caught a glimpse of white bone thought the open skin. He frowned and absently watched Steve's hands work on cleaning the wound and sewing it shut.
They were stranded somewhere in the Vietnam jungle, from what Tony could guess, as he'd been in the capital at the time of his capture, and they were running away from the insects that had apprehended him.
Apparently the cave where he'd been brought was the nest and he was supposed to be the bait to bring all of the Avengers to the Queen—the demented insect that had been rambling.
The cut apparently came from a sharp mandibular when an insect soldier had dragged him down into the nest.
It was disgusting.
"Here," Bruce said gently, "drink this."
Tony looked blankly at the cup the man was handing him and caught a whiff of hot water mixed with herbs. "It's tea-tree. Helps against infection," he explained.
Tony wordlessly took it and sipped the steaming brew without a word or a glance at the man. He saw Bruce's intense gaze fixed on the heavy scars he had on his wrists.
"You took it off," Steve whispered into the night.
The supposed superheroes hadn't planned Tony's rescue well. They were still stranded and had no way of reaching SHIELD or any kind of civilisation. Tony could hear Romanov mutter about stupid love fools and lack of preparation.
Apparently Steve hadn't been willing to wait for the Avengers to assemble before running after Tony.
Tony wasn't able to sleep in the damp forest. Insects buzzed everywhere around them and every few minutes rain would pour down on them without warning for about ten minutes. Then the heat returned to suffocate them.
He didn't look at Steve when he answered but clenched his left hand, thumb rubbing against his ring finger. "I took it off when I realized keeping it was hurting Harry more than that fucking cancer," he whispered. "And even then it was too late because he died in my arms an hour after I took it off," he sighed.
Five months after Harry's death and he felt numb. Where before was a sharp pain piercing his heart every time he thought about Harry, now was only a dull throb and a clench of his stomach. It still hurt, but he guessed time really did make grief pass.
Steve's sharp intake of breath didn't deter him. "I'm sorry," the soldier whispered.
"So am I," Tony intoned flatly.
"So, I heard you were doing pretty okay with the company," Clint tried jovially.
Tony raked a trembling hand through his hair, combing it back and winced when the move jolted his arm a bit too sharply. "Obviously," Tony muttered, one of his booted feet slipping into a puddle of mud. He frowned and looked down, gritting his teeth in annoyance.
He now understood why soldiers of the Vietnam War had gone completely crazy. How were people supposed to survive in this kind of hell? It was all heat, rain and insects. And the fucking humidity. His white shirt, caked with mud, blood and sweat was permanently stuck to his skin and his custom made fitting black pants hugged him like the worst skinny pants on the market.
Fucking jungle. He hated trees.
Bruce hissed in sympathy—not unlike Steve two days earlier—when he pulled away the makeshift bandages from Tony's arm. "Oh, Tony," he breathed out sadly.
Tony didn't say anything, just stared aloofly at the ragged, angry red inflated skin. As it seemed, Steve's careful stitches were now a gruesome sight; seeping with semi coagulated blood and pus. The heavy humidity made it impossible for Tony to heal and the wound had now become infected.
"Not so pretty, uhm," Tony muttered.
He ignored Bruce's glance at him and busied himself with leaning back against a massive tree root, closing his eyes in exhaustion. He could feel the fever draining his strength and will. He felt weak and dizzy, disgusting in his own skin and aching. He wanted out.
"It's infected," Bruce provided unnecessarily. "How do you feel?"
Tony closed his eyes and looked away, turning his head from Bruce inquiring face. "Sick," was his only answer before he leaned over and threw up what little water he'd been able to sip not an hour ago.
"So…I see you've opted for the silent treatment," Barton said from somewhere behind Tony.
Tony gnashed his teeth, more from the pain in his arm than from anything else, and simply levelled the man with a blank look.
Barton smiled uneasily and shrugged with faked nonchalance. "I get it, you know," he sighed, sitting in front of Tony on the trunk of a dead tree. "'s'what I did to you."
Tony stared some more before averting his gaze and gingerly shifted his legs under him. They were down for the night but Tony, despite his complete and utter exhaustion, couldn't seem to find sleep.
"Sooooo," Clint trailed off, "what's with the shaved face?" he asked out of the blue.
Tony glared at Clint tiredly, fever red face drenched with sweat and sunken eyes dark in the shadows of the canopies, even though the sun was still giving them a little light above the trees. "Harry likes it," he offered simply.
It shut Barton up and he didn't ask anything else.
No one listening to their conversation seemed willing to correct Tony's use of present tense.
Tony shivered and unconsciously buried himself in the strong arms wrapped around him.
"Harry?" he whispered in a lost voice.
A quiet, soothing noise was his only answer before he succumbed to unconsciousness.
"So, tell me about this new driver you have," Steve asked quietly, Tony's burning forehead scorching the skin on his neck where it was buried.
Tony jerked slightly in his arms and blinked sluggishly. "He's…my friend," he slurred after a full minute.
Steve tightened his arms around Tony's thin frame. "You've lost weight," he commented absently.
Tony hummed and scratched his fingers against the leather of Steve's uniform. "Harry cooks," he muttered. "Is he…gonna be mad at me for miss—ing dinner?" he asked in a wrecked voice.
Steve closed his eyes and pressed his cheek against the top of Tony's head. "No, baby. Harry's not gonna be mad."
"Hold him," Bruce barked at Steve and Thor. "Hold his legs!"
Tony struggled violently when the two men restrained him and screamed when Steve grabbed his arm, maintaining a firm grip on it with big hands. He moaned and pleaded, sobs spilling from him. "No, no, Harry! Please, help!"
Bruce's hands were trembling badly as he quickly but professionally sterilized the blade of the sharp bowie knife above the lighter Clint was holding. "I have to remove the dead tissue," he said out loud, more for his sake than for the others. He brought the knife to Tony's right forearm. "I'm sorry Tony," he whispered in a suppliant voice.
Steve actually moaned with Tony when the blade entered the skin and started to cut away the dead, rotting tissues. The wound was so infected and bloated the skin had started to rot and turn black in some places.
Steve tried to ignored Tony's desperate cries and calls for Harry, but soon found it too hard and shook his head. "Stop Bruce! Stop! You're hurting him!" he yelled above Tony's shrieks of pain. "Please!"
Bruce turned his drenched face, haggard and grey with horror and glared at Steve, his eyes glowing green. "I can't stop!" he snapped. "Tony's gonna die if I don't cut the infection away!"
Where Steve wanted to sob, he clenched his teeth and shook his head instead, never relinquishing the hold he had on Tony's shaking form. "It's okay," he murmured in Tony's ear. He was sitting on the ground, mud and blood and dirt sticking everywhere with Tony trapped between his legs and against his chest. His left arm was holding Tony firmly against him; his right hand was clamped around the injured limb while Thor was effortlessly pinning Tony's legs to the ground.
Steve's eyes were locked on Bruce as he was performing the brutal surgery, face worn and pale and sweaty, and he seemed to suffer nearly as much as Tony from doing it.
Clint was pacing around them, hands in his hair, nearly putting them over his ears when Tony's cries became too loud, and Romanov was sitting away from them, seemingly emotionless, but Steve could discern the guilt, anguish and sorrow in her eyes. He knew she was the one who had hurt Tony physically the most. It was nothing compared to what Steve had done, but he knew she felt remorse now.
He'd seen her crumble when she thought she was alone, when they all learnt from Fury that Harry was dead.
The man—as painful as it was for Steve to say—had saved Tony from death and had been the man Steve had stopped being for Tony.
Steve owned everything to Harold King.
Steve licked his lips and gently traced the tears still streaming down from behind Tony's closed eyelids. How he longed to see those bright, blue eyes, so much bluer than his own. Tony's eyes had always held his very soul and Steve craved to have those wonderful orbs looking at him with love and trust…like before.
He still couldn't understand what he'd done. He couldn't quite grasp the moment where everything had toppled over, where he'd taken the leap and done what had seemed like the best thing right then.
He just didn't get it.
Why? Why had he done it? Why had he destroyed the best thing happening to him in his life since…since even before being frozen?
How could he have done that to Tony? And with one of Tony's rare friends, the man who'd been Tony's anchor since MIT…who'd found him after Afghanistan.
Hell, Steve thought miserably, how could Rhodes have done that to Tony too?
Bruce grimaced when he peeled the bandage from Tony's arm, hand coming up to rub over his mouth. "Damn."
Tony turned to eye the wounded limb warily. "What're you gonna do now?" he slurred breathily, a dark laugh devoid of any humor following his words.
Bruce continued to stare at the arm and pinched his forehead before running his hand through his hair and tugging at it in self-punishment. "I—I don't—"
Tony hummed slightly and shifted on the floor, booted feet stretched out in front of him. "Y—You know what you…have to do," he said weakly, his voice cracking on every word.
Bruce ran his trembling hand down his face again and stopped on his mouth. He shook his head, eyes wide and bulging out in horror. "I—I can't—"
Tony snorted derisively. "Infection's…gone too far. You—you have to…to do it."
Steve came back from his watch and knelt down next to them. He froze when he saw Bruce's ashen face and Tony's sickly grey complexion, now grim and resigned. "What is it?" he asked softly, tracing the back of his fingers along Tony's still smooth cheeks. Two days captivity and two more days wandering the jungle had only made a shadow appear on his cleanly shaven face. "Tony, what's going on?" Steve asked again, more urgently, panic starting to grow in his chest. "Bruce?"
Bruce swallowed, looking like he was going to be sick. He exhaled shakily, a sob lodged in his throat. "I can't do anything about the infection, I can't control it!" His voice wobbled, barely controlled. "I—I can't…can't save, Christ!" he yelled suddenly and stumbled back, away from Tony as he hulked out unexpectedly.
The Hulk towered over them, green face contorted in fury, snarling down at the heroes, teeth displayed. Steve took an instinctive step in front of Tony, shield at the ready, his other hand on the gun he had at his hip. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Thor, Natasha and Clint readying themselves to attack or defend at any given moment.
"And what are you gonna do now?" Tony's voice, weak and breaking around the edges snapped from behind Steve. Steve swirled around, brows furrowing before he realized that Tony wasn't talking to him. "Are you gonna let me die? You gonna snarl and tear us and this jungle apart just because you can't handle it?" he growled. And even in his weakened and exhausted state, Tony was still the same powerful and charismatic man he'd always been. "Are you going to let me die?" he repeated cuttingly, voice dripping with pure disgust.
The Hulk's face crumbled.
The Hulk disappeared.
Bruce fell to his knees, sobbing and clutching his head.
Tony was staring up at the dark sky barely visible through the dense canopy. The small glimpses he was able to catch of the stars were beautiful, but so, so wrong.
It wasn't his sky.
Not the sky he'd gotten used to stare at with Steve…and later Harry.
He was dimly aware of Steve's apologies, his pleas for forgiveness, for pardon and then Steve's hand was pressing down over his nose and mouth without mercy.
No way to breathe, Tony quickly succumbed to the darkness.
Waking up in a hospital was familiar.
Waking up with only one arm wasn't.
"Sir?" JARVIS's careful voice echoed through the brightly lit workshop. "Sir, Mr. Rogers is asking to see you."
Tony didn't answer, too intent on his work.
A month later, papers published the first pictures of Tony Stark after his 'tragic experience in Vietnam'.
He had two arms.
"Mr. Stark, how do you feel about people calling your new technology as a step towards dehumanization? Coming from some of the most fervent detractors it is even called unnatural…against God's will."
Tony stared at the journalist and slowly raised his right arm, showcasing a perfectly healthy, normal looking hand. "Where was God when I had my arm cut off?" he wondered mirthlessly.
"It's…" Bruce stopped himself and exhaled loudly. "How the hell did he do that?" he asked in a voice dripping with wonder and admiration.
The other Avengers shook their heads as they all stared at the TV screen.
Sitting at the kitchen table, not taking part in the discussion between his teammates, Steve smiled. He could barely breathe, so overwhelmed by the pride he felt for the man he loved more than anything else.
"Is it…pig skin or something like that?" Natasha asked, face blank as a clean sheet of paper, but in her voice was a note of uneasiness.
Tony didn't remove his gaze from Harry's name etched on the tombstone. "It's synthetic," he answered, gently pulling out some weeds that had grown around the memorial.
Natasha nodded in understanding, knowing perfectly well that Tony couldn't see the motion. "I—came to tell you we're all happy that you're okay," she said, the slightly embarrassed intonation barely there, but Tony caught it anyway.
Tony hummed noncommittally and gently trailed the fingers on his right hand over the engraved letters on the stone.
"Does it hurt?" she asked after a few minutes of silence.
Something dark flickered over Tony's face, before going back to the detached expression he usually wore nowadays. It had not escaped anyone's notice; be it the media or former teammates, everyone was aware of the lack of emotions and the smiles that never reached the eyes of the Iron Man.
Not the hero, not the suit. Just the man.
"Of course it hurts," he answered, head tilting on the side, eyes still riveted on the grave.
She didn't know if they were talking about the arm or the man lying dead under their feet.
"Tony, open the door!" Steve yelled. "Tony, open the god dammed door!"
Tony rocked back and forth, holding his unbearably aching, artificial arm protectively against his chest. Every time Steve's fist slammed against the door, Tony flinched, jolting his pained limb and increasing the hurt tenfold.
"Tony…Tony, please," Steve pleaded.
He sounded defeated, unlike anything Tony had ever heard before.
"Please…I don't—Tony I'm not gonna make it." Steve gave a small, dreary laugh. "I thought…I thought I could. That I could handle not having you because—because it was my punishment, my atonement for doing…that to you."
Tony blinked through his tears, beads of sweat forming at his hairline to drip down his forehead. His white t-shirt was drenched, his skin slick with cold-sweat, body wracking with shivers and teeth chattering from the fever raging in his veins.
"Please, baby, open the door," Steve pleaded, letting himself slide down to slump on the floor. "Roman called me, he said you were sick. God, Tony."
Tony gritted his teeth against the pain as he managed to drag himself to the door, reaching up and unlocking it with a shaking hand. Crawling back into the corner between the far wall and the toilet, Tony stared at Steve when he came in through wet eyelashes.
Steve looked like he wanted to take Tony in his arms, but refrained with obvious effort. He slowly took a step towards Tony, not wanting to frighten him with sudden movements. "Where do you keep the painkillers?" he asked gently, eyes sweeping over the bathroom before he opened the cabinet above the sink.
"I don't have any," Tony rasped, shaking his head. A second later he lunged for the toilet, just in time to throw up the meagre contents in his stomach. He'd been unable to eat for several days, and as he'd only gotten some water in him, he only had that and some bile coming up, burning his throat.
Steve grabbed him around the waist when he slumped in exhaustion and ran a hand over Tony's burning forehead. "Christ," he muttered. "The doctors had to give you something?"
He was angry, so, so angry, but not at Tony. Never at him, but at the doctors who'd fixed the prosthetic on the precious man in Steve's arms.
Tony grunted and gave an agonized groan from deep in his chest, good hand catching Steve's shirt in a weak grip. "I don't want any," he croaked, voice rough from screaming and vomiting.
"What?" Steve breathed out.
"I don't want anything that could get me addicted!" Tony growled, anger making him—for the moment at least—forget his pain.
Steve froze in sudden realization. Because of course. Tony had a past with addiction, and while alcohol had been a given, his drug abuse and many failed trips to rehab had been less commonly known. Tony had confided in Steve, in what felt like thousands of years ago, back when they'd been happily married, when Tony had been his, when Tony loved Steve without hating him.
In present day, Tony was thirty seven and sober. But his drug problems had ended in his mid-twenties; taking anything remotely addictive today could end up in disaster.
Steve had never really thought about it, but every time Tony had been hurt in the past, he'd only been treated with opiate free antalgics. Steve had on more than one occasion begged Tony to take something stronger, to make it easier for himself, but Tony had always refused, saying it made his head fuzzy and kept him from thinking clearly.
"It's not a broken arm this time, Tony," Steve reproached through his teeth, his hold on Tony remaining strong. "It's been cut off, the prosthesis is connected to your nerves, it's—"
"I know that!" Tony snarled, pushing weakly at the arm around his chest that kept him anchored against Steve. "I know!"
He dragged himself away from Steve when the bigger man relented, managing to get on his feet through bouts of pain and nausea. He staggered out into the adjourning bedroom, using the walls as a mean to keep upright. "I can't," Tony slurred, "I can't." He stumbled but refused the hand on his back offered as support, shying away from Steve's touch as he let himself fall on the bed, whimpering when it jarred the hurting limb. Tony kicked off his shoes clumsily; none of his former grace present as he wriggled out of his pants and curled up on his side, his aching arm tenderly cradled against his chest by his good one.
Steve bit back on an aggravated sigh and walked to the bed, gingerly helping Tony out of his t-shirt, comforting Tony when fresh waves of pain shot through him. "Shh," Steve soothed, gently running a hand through Tony's hair, smoothing it back from his clammy forehead. "You're gonna be okay."
The shivers running up and down Tony's spine intensified, growing to full-body trembling, his skin rising in goose bumps despite the intense heat radiating from him. "I can't," he moaned, tormented and lost.
Steve got up and walked briskly to the bathroom, coming back with a damp cloth. He sat next to Tony and draped it over his forehead. "I know," he whispered, taking Tony's good hand in his. "I know."
The night was long. Tinged with nightmares, panic attacks, body fluids, tears and vomiting.
Steve tried to be strong. Tried to help Tony through his ordeal of pain and grief. Tried to assuage his bone crushing, soul tearing guilt.
He didn't know if he managed to do it.
Looking at Tony, body prone and pale sprawled over the bed, naked except for a pair of boxers and shivering even when in exhausted unconsciousness, Steve wondered.
He wondered if he would ever be able to get Tony back.
Competing with the dead was an impossible task.
Tony struggled feebly in Steve's arms where the soldier held him under the warm spray of the shower. He moaned in pain and clawed at what part of Steve's body he could reach, leaving shallow, bleeding scratches in his wake. The bigger man hissed when Tony's blunt nails caught his cheek and grabbed the flailing hand to firmly restrain Tony to his chest, mindful of the injured arm. "Calm down," Steve urged over Tony's delirious cries of pain. "Tony, it's me, it's Steve! You need to calm down. I know it hurts but you need to calm down now."
Tony didn't hear him; deaf and blind to anything but the water beating down on him and his struggle to get away. "Stop, please, please, stop!" Steve clenched his teeth as he felt Tony tensing again, another spasm causing him so much agony he had tightened his left hand around Steve's wrist; trying to bend in two against the soldier's arm.
Twenty minutes later, in the aftermath of the episode, Tony inhaled deeply. Trying to control his breathing, he drew another through his mouth and exhaled slowly through his nose. "I want to leave," he told Steve when he felt calmer.
Steve frowned and looked down at him, noting the drawn face and the deep bruises under Tony's eyes. He wasn't sure what Tony was talking about but he was lax against him, and the fever seemed to have lessened a great deal. He turned off the shower spray and bundled Tony in a towel, carefully carrying him into the bedroom and placing him on the bed.
"I want to leave," Tony repeated at length. He was staring at the bedside table with unseeing eyes, curled up on his side with his right arm resting against his chest.
"And where do you want to go?" Steve inquired gently, brushing Tony's hair out of his eyes.
Tony's whisper was broken. "Away. I just want—" He stopped for a moment to rub his cheek against the linen of the bed. "I just miss him so much," he almost sobbed. "I just want him back."
Steve closed his eyes and sat down on the floor, back against the side of the bed. He rubbed his face as he exhaled heavily. "You know you can't go…and he can't come back," Steve answered steadily without turning to face Tony, masking the pain stabbing his heart. He didn't know if he could, if he was strong enough. He wasn't…Harry enough. "He's…he's not there anymore."
Steve wasn't sure if Tony even heard him, as the other man spoke again, eyes filled with tears but unblinking. "Why did he leave me? Why did he have to leave me too?"
Steve shook his head. "I don't know," he whispered. "I just don't."
Harry was standing right next to Steve now.
The Abandoner and The Betrayer.
"I hate you," Tony whispered late into another night.
Steve had stopped counting the days. Had stopped counting the nights.
Only Tony counted now.
"I know," he answered flatly.
"I love you, Tony."
Tony snorted and scraped the fingers of his artificial arm against the bedclothes. "I love Harry."
Slumped against the headboard, Tony lazily flicked from one channel to another. Stopping on the news, he watched with a sense of detachment as the man on screen and his guests debated on the topic of the new revolutionary prosthetic technology Stark Industries had launched.
"No, no, no!" one of the guest interrupted the anchor-man, apparently some kind of theologian. "The question we should ask ourselves here is whether Tony Stark is trying to play God or not!" The other guests started to talk at the same time, almost screaming at each other as they all tried to voice their opinions.
Tony looked on, indifferent, as the presenter loudly cut them off and steered the conversation towards calmer ground. "Let's hear your opinions, but one at a time," he moderated.
"Don't listen to them," Steve said, suddenly appearing on the threshold to the bedroom.
Tony gave him a sideway glance, not moving his head as he shut the TV off. "Am I?" he asked after a long moment of silence.
Steve gave him a curious look. "Are you what?"
Briefly closing his eyes, Tony turned to face Steve. "Playing God?"
Steve came into the room, carefully placing the tray in his hands next to Tony on the bed. He took the two pills next to the plate with sandwiches and held them out for Tony to take, smiling reassuringly at Tony's wary expression. "It's aspirin."
Tony eyed the pills suspiciously but took them and swallowed them with the glass of water Steve handed him. "Am I?" he asked again.
Steve shook his head. "No. You've revolutionized what already exists. Prostheses have been used for a long time now. What's scaring them is that now, people can't tell whether they were there from the beginning or not." Steve gave Tony's artificial arm, draped over his belly, a pointed look.
Tony scowled down at said limb, the grimace directed at the angry scarring surrounding the Graft, about half-way up his right forearm. It was a project he'd worked on for over a decade, and now when he'd had to use it for himself, he felt divided about the result. He felt elated over having two working arms, but a not so little amount of disgust was mixed in there too. It was strange.
Having taken upon himself the role of the unwilling experimental subject, as soon as the board of Stark Industries had heard of the achievement of the Graft, they hadn't hesitated to commercialize the success, spreading the news worldwide. Five weeks ago Tony had had his arm cut off in a horrible Vietnamese jungle by a ragged Bowie knife; today he was earning billions—again—for the same reason.
His association with Omni Corp Med had permitted the miracle. It was like having their CEO's arm chopped off had been the only signal the board had needed.
"The question a lot of people have asked you isn't about the process, but about the morality behind it. What do you have to say about that?"
Tony licked his lips and shifted slightly behind the table. The woman who'd asked him was watching him with curious eyes, she and the rest of the reporters waiting for his answer with baited breaths. The airy room where the press conference was held was so quiet, you could've heard a pin drop. It was miles away from the conferences from years ago, when Tony had commended everyone's attention with obnoxious, charming and snarky comments. The man sitting in the spotlight that day was impassive and controlled. Tony had realized he needed to do some damage control and hiding in his bedroom wasn't going to cut it. He could've chosen to send a spokesman from S.I, but it was too important.
He had to be the one to do it.
"What moral?" Tony asked seriously, "We've revolutionized what already exists. Prostheses have been used for a long time. What's scaring people is that now, they can't tell whether they were there from the beginning or not," he finished confidently.
Two hours later, in the back of the car Roman was driving, Tony received a text. [I could charge you for plagiarism. How about making it up to me with lunch? Tomorrow, 1:00 pm at Ginno's?]
Tony stared at the text for a long time, thumb hovering above the answering button. He swallowed thickly and swiped his thumb over the screen.
Looking at the familiar streets of New York passing by, Tony felt his heart constrict and with a flick from his finger the screen lit up again, thumb dancing over it as he typed his answer. [Alright.]
He turned off his phone and closed his eyes.
He didn't know what he was doing anymore.
Ginno's was a small, but great pizzeria. The owner, Ginno Salieri, was an old acquaintance of Tony's. He'd eaten there on more than one occasion with Pepper and Rhodey, even once with Howard and Obi.
The place held as much bitter memories as good ones.
He'd gone there with Steve on the day they'd returned from their honeymoon, and it had been glorious, hours full of laughter and joy.
Steve was already there. His face lit up with a smile and he waved at Tony as he walked up to the booth and slid down in the seat across from Steve; expensive leather shoes, crisp black suit and white shirt clashing with Steve's trainers, jeans and hoodie.
"Hey, Tony. How are you?" Steve smiled nervously, sneaking a furtive glance at Tony's right arm tucked in his pocket.
"I'm good," Tony answered slowly, avoiding Steve's gaze by eyeballing the menu, which he knew by heart. "You?" he asked politely.
Steve nodded and rubbed his mouth. "Yeah, I'm good."
They lapsed into silence and Steve followed Tony's lead and made himself busy with the menu too
"The others sends their greetings," Steve finally sighed after putting down the menu and drawing a shaky breath. "Thor specifically ordered me to pass along that: 'you are greatly missed'." He paused and bit his lip. "The Tower isn't the same without you," he added quietly.
Tony shrugged, his fingers tapping rhythmically against the table. He gave a small sigh and got ready to get up. "Look, I don't think it was a good idea for me to come here."
He froze when Steve placed a hand over his, stilling the nervous tapping. "Stay," he begged with a pleading look. "It's just—it's just pizza, alright? We don't have to talk about—about them, okay? Just—" He stopped himself and tried again, a frustrated look crossing his face. "Let's just have some pizza," he finished lamely, shoulders slumping.
Tony hesitated, not really sure even as he sat back down, his edgy drumming resuming. "Okay…" he agreed reluctantly.
Steve smiled wanly. "Thank you, Tony."
The smaller man shrugged again. They remained silent until Ginno came out from the kitchen, all smiles and hugs, kissing Tony on the cheeks. "Tonio!" he exclaimed. "It has been so long!"
Tony smiled softly and gave the man a one-armed hug. "Yeah I know, sorry about that, Ginno."
The older man shook his head sadly. "It's no good at all," he lamented. "Los Angeles is not the place for pizzas."
Tony chuckled and sank back in the seat.
"So, the usual?" Ginno asked, giving both of them a pointed look.
Tony paled slightly and shook his head. "Uhm, no. I'm not that hungry. I'll just take a small classic, please." There was no way he was taking the usual with Steve. They had used to share the biggest pizza on the menu and feed it to each other playfully, each bites accompanied with soft words or a loving caress.
Ginno nodded, his face neutral but his eyes sad. "And what will you have, Steve?"
Reeling from Tony's words, he shook himself. "Uh—I'll take the same as Tony." Ginno gave them a smile and Steve watched him as he went back to the kitchen, silently berating himself.
What the hell had he been thinking?
Of course Tony would feel uncomfortable coming here. Sharing a pizza like when they'd been together was out of the question. Tony could barely stand to be in the same room as Steve as it was; much less share a meal and get nostalgic about better, happier days.
They ate mostly in silence; each of Steve's attempt to start a conversation stumped by Tony's icy silence or his simple disinterest. Tony barely touched his pizza, Steve noting that his right arm was still stuck in his pocket and wasn't moving much. "Is—is your arm bothering you?" he asked carefully.
Tony glanced at him and pursed his lips. "It's been cut off, of course it bothers me," he snapped quietly. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and pushed his plate away. "Look, Steve…this isn't going anywhere. I shouldn't have come and I don't know what you're expecting to get out of this but—"
"Why did you come?" Steve interrupted desperately.
This was probably his last chance.
Tony stilled, half-way out of the booth, wide eyes staring back at Steve over his shoulder. "I don't know," Tony said at last, as he turned away. "I don't know."
Steve closed his eyes, as if in pain. "Do I even have a chance?"
Tony's jaw clenched and he looked down at his left hand, idly playing with the hem of his sleeve. "I—" He shut his mouth and was out of the booth in a heartbeat, throwing a handful of bills on the table before striding out of the diner. He nodded politely as Ginno stuck his head out of the kitchen, watching him go.
Steve followed him.
He followed Tony and cornered him in the garden in front of Tony's mansion; the one he'd not seen the inside of for years until a couple of hours ago. The Tower held too many memories for Tony to be able to go back to.
"Tell me," Steve all but growled as he grabbed Tony by his shoulder to stop and turn him around to face him.
Tony was pale, his face drawn and exhausted. His eyes were dark and pleading but also full of hurt and confusion. "I don't know," he growled back at Steve, doing his best to mask the emotions trying to surface.
Steve opened his mouth to speak but Tony pushed him away with only one arm, hitting his chest angrily. "I told you I don't know!" he yelled. "I don't know if I'm strong enough!"
Steve blinked in bewilderment. "Strong enough for what?"
"To forgive!" Tony exclaimed frantically. "To forget! I don't know if I'm going be able to ignore what happened and go on! I don't know if I'll be able to not use what you did against you in an argument!"
Understanding dawned on Steve. "Tony, I'd never ask you—"
"I can't!" Tony yelled, his hand slicing through the air between them sharply. "Even if you say it's okay now, we'll end up tearing into each other so badly we'll hate each other even more."
Steve shook his head. "I can't hate you," he whispered, taking a step closer, as if he wanted to take Tony in his arms.
Tony flinched and backed away, shaking his head. "You won't stand to be with me if I remind you every day of the rest of our lives. You'll leave," he said blankly, face returning to its emotionless emptiness. "If—if I were to return to you," he whispered, "it'll be when I have finally managed to forgive you and accept what you did. Accept it's done and in the past. Accept it's over." He exhaled shakily. "If I forgive you, I have to forgive Rhodey. And that I can't," he finished in a downcast voice. He turned away, slowly walking in the direction of the steps leading up to the front door. He climbed them with Steve's gaze burning a hole in his back, stopping at the top. "Go back to the others, Steve," he murmured, knowing Steve would hear him despite the low quality of his voice, "Don't—don't wait for me."
Tony should've thought about it sooner, but in reality it never crossed his mind to change to codes allowing Rhodey entry to the Malibu mansion.
It was a nasty shock to find him sitting at the kitchen isle waiting for him when Tony got back from New York.
Tony paled as soon as he set his eyes on his formerly best friend, instinctively taking a step back. "Harry's dead, you can't take him away from me too," was the first thing coming out of his mouth.
Rhodey's face crumpled and his shoulders slumped. He looked haggard, thinner than before and dishevelled. "God Tony," he breathed out shakily. "I—I wouldn't—"
"—wouldn't what?" Tony interrupted, giving Rhodey a wide berth as he made his way to the fridge and grabbed a bottle of water. "Wouldn't take my husband?"
Rhodey blinked and paled even more. "You married Harry?"
Tony shrugged, wincing a little when it jostled his right arm. "He was going to ask me, I found a ring. But then he had cancer. And it was over," Tony said flatly. "Why are you here?"
Rhodey inhaled deeply. "I came to return your suit," he said.
Tony's eyebrows arched, but he didn't say anything.
"I—I left the military." Rhodey paused to lick his lips. "After…I couldn't really go on. I came to return the suit and I just…I heard about your arm and I'm—" He stopped abruptly, swallowing heavily and looked as close to tears as Tony had ever seen him. "I'm so sorry," Rhodey chocked at last.
Tony turned away, biting his lip viciously, right arm tightly shoved in his pocket. "A lot of people seem sorry nowadays…" he murmured, turning to face the windows on his left.
Rhodey got up from his seat and walked up to Tony, the both of them staring at the breath-taking ocean view in silence. "I'm leaving Tony," Rhodey spoke up eventually, eyes trained on the rolling expanse of waves far below. "I'm leaving and you'll never have to see me again. I just—wanted to tell you…don't—" Here he finally turned his head to look at Tony, eyes imploring. "Don't waste your life because of me."
Tony snorted derisively. "It's too late," he almost snapped, returning Rhodey's gaze with his own blazing one. "It's too fucking late," he hissed, knowing what the other man was talking about without needing to hear it out loud.
Rhodey shook his head. "No…you still love him."
Tony laughed cheerlessly. "I hate him."
Rhodey nodded. "But you love him more."
Tony never saw him again.
The Grafts were a success.
Tony didn't know how many letters of thanks he received.
That year he won his second Nobel Price.
In his speech he thanked Harold King for believing in him. Again.
Tony battled long and hard but in the end, his invention was affordable for everyone in the world.
Even the orphan children in Africa and the war refugees in Afghanistan.
Tony didn't see the Avengers for a whole year afterwards.
He deleted and blocked Steve's number and rewrote JARVIS's codes to allow no entrance to anyone who wasn't Tony.
It felt good.
But he felt lonely.
"Hello, Tony Stark."
Tony smiled lightly. "Hello, Bruce Wayne."
Bruce eyed him up and down. "You look sad."
Tony shrugged and accepted the hug the other billionaire gave him. "You look sad too."
Bruce nodded and gently tapped Tony's cheek. "Come, let's talk privately."
Tony allowed his friend to lead him into the private chambers of his mansion and sat in one of the armchairs facing a raging fire.
Bruce sat down facing him, offering him a mug of hot tea.
In the end it came naturally.
Tony dreamt of Harry/Steve and he woke up with his right hand looking for the man lying next to him on the bed. The billions of tiny sensorial receptors sent the message to his brain that the sheets were cold and Tony frowned.
He didn't like the idea.
He visited Harry that morning.
He sat in front of his grave and after a while, he took out two rings from his pocket.
A silver ring with a small blue sapphire and another, plain silver with words engraved on the inside.
"I love you, Harry," he whispered, smiling serenely. He dug a small hole in the grass and buried the plain silver one. "I'll always love you and I would've married you." He kissed the gravestone and put the familiar ring with its sapphire back on his ring finger. Looking down at it, he smiled. "But I love him too," he simply said, standing up and taking a step back. "It might be some time before I come back…but I will."
He walked away but stopped halfway to the car, looking back at the grave. "I'll come back," he promised.
Harry had left him a letter.
And when Tony opened it, curled up in bed surrounded by Steve's warmth, he cried and told Steve all about what a great man Harold King had been.
It started like that:
Steve was holding Tony in his arms, his strong limbs wrapped lovingly and protectively around the smaller man. "Tell me, Tony," Steve whispered in his ear. "Tell me about the people in your life. Tell me about Harry."
And that same day, it ended like this: