This mess we're in
Tony was right. Of course he was, he was a genius and he was always right even when he seemed to be really dumb about things.
Steve misses him.
Steve misses him.
Steve misses him.
Steve misses him.
'Do you want me to start over the playlist, Captain?' JARVIS asks quietly and Steve suddenly realizes that the room has gone completely silent: he can hear his own breathing as if it was a thunder.
'Let's do that, JARVIS,' he answers, pulling up a smile but letting it fall quickly enough. JARVIS appreciates honesty: they talked about that. Just like everything else. They've been talking so much these days that they could probably publish a book.
JARVIS appreciates honesty, Steve has learned, because he himself cannot lie or pretend, and he needs to share the situation with someone. Steve gets it.
'You should try to sleep,' JARVIS says a few minutes later, over an instrumental solo. 'It is four already and you are leaving at nine from S.H.I.E.L.D.'
The secret mission, Steve remembers. Fury was quite strict on how secret it must be, no Captain America flashy outfit – just black agency uniforms – all faces covered, no English as their manners of speech are too recognizable. Steve knows exactly why Fury wants him in there, in his never-speak-of-it caring act: he wants Steve as far from New York as possible, throwing into something completely disconnected for a while. Steve appreciates the thought.
It won't work, and not only because Tony has always insisted on Steve practicing his Russian with him, whenever they had the modern world 'lessons'.
It won't work because Steve doesn't want it to, not yet.
(It's only been a few months.)
Soon after the public coming out, Steve found it scarily easy to not be with Tony. He knew it was silly, what he was doing, but Tony had so many people to be there - with more right to be there, having known him for decades. There is always something to do for a superhero and even more so for a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, so when the winter came, Steve found himself busy, flying to places, talking, fighting, teaching, and sometimes coming back to New York, to Tony, and holding him as tightly as he could. It happened so smoothly and easily that he didn't notice it for long. When he realized what he's been doing, he still said nothing and changed nothing.
Tony knew. Steve wasn't aware of that either until Tony asked him to stay in bed one December morning, few longs weeks into the thing, after Steve came back from South America.
'Silly you,' Tony said, words slow and lazy, and he ruffled Steve's hair in a shaky movement. 'I'm gonna sound like on old man, but you're such a kid sometimes. Know so little about everything, still. C'mere,' he added, stretching his arm out to wrap it around Steve's chest, and Steve moved to let him. 'When you first asked me out, so to speak, I said no. And I said again and again, I know, but you didn't give up, and I realized I was stupid to deny you for that long. Now you're being the stupid one, Steve. I said yes, that means yes, and nothing else. I want you here. I chose you to be here.'
Steve found himself listening to those words with a hint of shame, and much more understanding; hearing Tony say it all out loud somehow made sense. Made it real.
'I need you here,' Tony said after moment. 'I thought I could do this alone, but now I'm too scared to be altruistic, too scared to let you go. And if I hurt you, forgive me, okay?'
'Sure,' Steve agreed, giving Tony a soft kiss. 'Of course I will,' he added.
he doesn't know how to.
He keeps recalling that conversation in his mind, too anxious to ask JARVIS to show him the recording, and he keeps remembering the slightest hesitation just before Tony said if. He must have said for Steve, knowing that the right words to use would be when.
Steve chose pretending and Tony respected the decision (because they both knew.)
It took a few weeks for Steve to understand he couldn't pretend anymore, observing Tony getting worse and worse. Until Christmas, Tony's been up and about most of the time, visiting Stark Industries and S.H.I.E.L.D. (…the patient may want to tie up loose ends…) or hanging out with the team, even going to the damn chocolate place, and to Riverside, if only a couple of time since it was always exhausting. They had lovely holidays together, luckily not interrupted by any supernatural interventions, the team and Tony's family. Tony kept nibbling at his food and telling ridiculous stories, and gave everyone obscenely stupid yet somehow thoughtful presents. It was good.
New Year's Eve was just Steve and Tony in Malibu, assisted by JARVIS in all possible ways, from ordering food and champagne, to playing Tony's favorite dance music so he could teach Steve some moves, and flying with Tony over the ocean.
JARVIS told Steve that there were a few times before that he offered Sir some time flying and Tony turned it down. That time he didn't; those were short ventures, but Tony seemed to enjoy them immensely.
He also hurt. Steve spent enough time around Nate and then Tony to be able to tell that. Tony didn't deny when Steve confronted him and just smiled tiredly when Steve asked why wasn't he taking more painkillers.
'Already taking some. And more… I like my head intact,' Tony said, smiling mischievously. 'If I can. As long as I can.'
Tony, as fitted the scientist he is - was - observed all that was happening to him with sharp and focused precision.
Steve was terrified.
He was also there, always there, insistently there, and Tony seemed to appreciate that, and it was wintertime.
Steve wakes up sometimes to the sun already high up in the sky, despite the early hour – which feels wrong, lacking the intimacy and coziness of a half-dark bedroom and someone else's breathing, like music – and finds his hands looking for something to caress, for something to wrap his strong fingers around and never let go, (not again.)
Steve wakes up sometimes, almost panicking because of the deep overwhelming silence, and remembers only after a moment that it's okay. No one is getting hurt, no lungs are giving out… There just isn't supposed to be anyone by him anymore.
He stays in bed more often than he'd admit to anyone, and just stares at the ceiling, thinking, reminiscing, remembering, daydreaming. At first, the others were concerned, but they decided to give him space, grief and grieving used in all possible sentences, all possible combinations.
Sometimes Steve talks with JARVIS but so often he just needs the silence to think and to draw.
he's just so lonely.)
Loneliness suits him, Natasha says, and Steve finds it a sentence like out of an outdated book. She insists it's a compliment.
'It just means that hurt glow makes you elegantly brooding, which is a handsome look.'
'Really,' Steve half-asks, half-states, and Natasha nods solemnly. Steve considers. 'Really?'
'All the widows will connect with the pain and want you –' she stops at Steve's sharp look, meets his stare for a long moment, and burst out laughing. 'Joking, joking,' she says, 'you should have seen the look on your face.'
It takes Steve a moment, but he starts laughing to – it's so silly he can't stop himself – and it feels good. Light.
'But seriously,' Natasha asks over Steve's amusement, wrapping her small hand around his wrist before he can go, 'you sure you're not up to a team dinner and the usual?'
'I want to go home,' Steve tells her simply. Maybe his voice is a bit too blank but he can't be bothered to mold it into sounding more normal. 'I will see you at HQ tomorrow.'
So he goes home, to the tower, to the empty apartment, and sprawls his limbs all over the sofa – Tony's favorite sofa – with the view of New York skyline. The sun is almost blinding, not a single cloud on the summer sky, all the rays reflecting in countless mirrored surfaces of skyscrapers and windows.
He spends the afternoon torturing himself with the memories of sitting here with Tony, on sitting on the sofa while Tony was curled on the floor or in a wheelchair, just by the windows, tracing the cold glass with his fingers absentmindedly, until a voice breaks the stillness.
'Captain,' JARVIS just says (it's almost pleading.)
Steve chuckles humorlessly.
'Entertain me,' he orders and JARVIS does, busying them both with a quite lovely conversation.
Losing people isn't a new thing for Steve, and he, as Clint commented – something relevant to all of the team – is good at losing people. It's a mixture of his character and upbringing in the wartime, so different from the style of twenty first century.
But he's never lost his romantic love before.
(And this is all slow and constant and excruciating and it's so close.)
The expression seems only right and Steve is from a different world so he takes advantage of it and uses the nowadays cheesy expression all he wants. His relationship with mother and friendship with Bucky were different but the same strong. They all died. So he misses them all, but Tony, he's the newest wound, still raw and painful and ever-present.
Steve is good at losing people nevertheless, however silly that might sound (it's much easier after than it was during, so he won't complain.)
He is just sad sometimes.
S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are helping, and the rest of the team – they are good at understanding, in their line of work. Keep Steve busy, don't coddle him, never forget to bring flowers to the graveyard.
Steve is just sad sometimes.
It will pass.
(It's just that it took so long.)
He only said this to Tony when Tony was in bad enough state not to remember, and he doesn't regret it.
When you told me you're dying, I insisted on being with you anyway. When you agreed to be with me, I knew I've already started losing you. When you were mine, just next to me, I was losing you and I knew it. I agreed to it.
Between cleaning the sweat off Tony's temples, and kissing his soft mellow lips, Steve whispered thousands of words that Tony couldn't really understand, but Steve fancied thinking Tony could get the message hidden between them (that's what the doctors said, he will know you are speaking to him): love you love you love you.
That was back in February, when Tony was fighting an infection that no one expected him to beat. He spent a few long days in ICU, unresponsive, so small and limp like a doll, and Steve refused some direct orders to save one world or another and busied himself in the little universe of the hospital room.
But Tony did it, even if he wasn't eating anymore and was too weak to walk; he got better. He knew that his body was full of metastatic tumors by then, and he knew Steve knew, but they never talked about it. They both studied cancer enough to know it was inevitable.
They laughed at it just because they could, and Steve took Tony for wheelchair races around the tower, whenever there was no one around, because it was silly enough to help.
'Try to embrace all the opportunities you still have,' Tony's doctors told Steve.
So they did.
When Steve comes back from the mission it's June and New York is overheated with the endless sunshine, all dusty and breathtaking; everyone seems to be hiding in air-conditioned buildings so the streets are empty. The only people Steve meets when he walks his way from HQ back to the tower are the more persistent tourists, and kids. No one recognizes him; Captain America would get attention but Steve doesn't, not really. He prefers it this way.
He can feel the duffle heavy on his shoulder, the almost-healed grazes and bruises barely noticeable, but his feet killing him with all the blisters – so the shoes come off, he ties the shoelaces together and wraps them around the duffle and continues barefoot, now getting a few strange looks.
'You all right, mister?' an elderly voice asks and Steve turns around, searching for the source; it's an old lady sitting in the shade and waiting for a bus. 'You look a bit rough there.' Then she gives him a long look, assessing his cargo pants and the dog tags. 'Are you a soldier?'
'Yes, ma'am,' Steve says because it feels natural, and it's close enough to the truth. 'Just coming home from overseas.' That is true, too.
'Oh sweetheart, it's a pity you have to deal with the hottest day this month, they said, it probably doesn't feel too different from over there…'
'It's fine, ma'am,' Steve assures her, modelling his voice into what he'd speak like back in his day, it always humors the elderly. 'It's good to be home.'
'Back to your sweetheart?' she asks, giving him a smile, and Steve returns it.
'Going there right now,' he says and salutes to the lady's content, and continues down towards the center of Manhattan.
After a shower and a change of outfit, he walks all the way down to the graveyard and stays there for the rest of the day, hidden in a trees' shade, maybe drifting off to sleep a few times. It's so hot all the flowers died and all the plants seem to be wilting; it only seems fitting. The world can only catch a breath is the darkness of the night when Steve makes sure he sleeps obliviously.
Steve misses Tony, and he misses being honest.
Since he woke up, there have been extremely few people he knew how to be honest with and Tony only g be one of them, when Steve couldn't lie to him anymore (because Tony deserved truthfulness.)
They had this silly thing they kept repeating every morning when Tony woke up – Steve was the one to tiptoe out of the rom at sunrise and run until he couldn't breathe, or make breakfast and read books, or sit on the top terrace and stare at the city, dreaming of drawing it – when Tony would ask how he looked today, and Steve would tell him, honestly, you look terrible, and they'd both laugh at it.
One morning, when Steve came back from an overnight team training, he sat by the bed and waited for Tony to wake up, listening to the rain outside. February was nearing to an end and spring was prematurely sneaking into the city, melting the dirty snow, urging the first snowdrops to bloom in parks, bringing rain showers instead of snowstorms.
When Tony started waking up, Steve was all ready to play their game and then give Tony a smile and a kiss before helping him out of the bed to get ready for the day – but then Tony opened his eyes, turned his head towards Steve, and stared (unsurely, if that makes sense.) He blinked a few times in confusion, moving too slowly and too heavily, and Steve did his best to ignore the wave of panic at the realization, this is happening already.
(… near the end of life, people often have episodes of confusion or waking dreams…)
Not dying, not yet, now right now, not yet, but they talked about it, Steve talked about it with Tony's doctors and Bruce and JARVIS and Tony himself, because in every textbook, in every case, that's what happens, that's what means crossing a line, that's what means being a step closer to death –
– but it wasn't the right time to think about it all because Tony was confused, and, Steve understood a second later, he was scared.
'Hey, Tony,' he said, moving closer to the bed, slowly, keeping his voice warm and calm, 'lovely to see you again, I've been waiting for you to wake up – you are home, in the tower, in New York, it's February 26th, I told you yesterday I would be away for the night, I've been waiting for you to wake up,' (he didn't care if he was repeating himself, the glimmer of recognition in Tony's hazy eyes was enough of a sign.) 'Tony, you're okay, you're home, we're in New York, your favorite place, you wanted to stay here, right? We're home. I've missed you,' he kept talking as he sat in the edge of the bed and cupped Tony's hand in his,
(it was so cold, it was always too cold)
gave Tony a softest kiss, and went back to saying the same words over and over for a few moments (which feel endless), until he heard Tony's voice.
'Steve,' Tony said harshly, his throat dry, Steve could guess, that's another thing he learned about, he read about, another symptom. 'Hey, America,' he added, smiling lazily, and Steve could finally breathe in and out and in and out and smile because he wasn't terrified anymore.
'It's so dark in here,' Tony said, looking around – admittedly, the rain clouds outside made everything feel grey and gloomy. 'I didn't know – I wasn't sure –'
'I know,' Steve interrupted, he didn't have to hear it because he just saw it in Tony's eyes, 'I was prepared to tell you you look terrible just the same,' he laughs lightly, making Tony smile. 'C'mon, get up, you've got meds to take and places to be.'
'I guess,' Tony obliged, sitting up and taking the cup and glass of water from the side table. 'What's the plan?'
'We were supposed to go over to the HQ, but – whatever you want, Tony,' Steve said,
(he remembers himself saying that, with the same genuine smile on his face, feeling as if he could just re-live that moment forever, catering to Tony's whims, staring at Tony's eyes, listening to his voice, being anchored)
'Whatever you want.'
Steve knows, objectively, that he can do everything in the world.
But he doesn't want to because it doesn't matter, because it's not his world.
So instead, he listens to old music, music he missed, and daydreams about living through the decades he should have seen. That was another thing Tony taught him about: music. The other Avengers helped, nudging Steve to listen to their favorites – to dance to their favorites, in Peter's case, much to Tony's amusement – ah, he's not supposed to think about Tony. Not again. Not that much.
Steve knows there is nothing that can stop him from running away, if he wants, too.
'Not healthy, man,' Clint says, mouth full of those terrible chips he insists on eating, 'not a healthy coping mechanism –'
'Healthier than this,' Steve can't stop himself from commenting, pointing at the bag in Clint's hand.
'Hey, I'm being serious here –'
'I know, I know.'
'Knowing and acting according to your knowledge are two different things.'
'I know that, too,' Steve says and they both laugh (but he knows exactly what Clint is trying to say, they've been talking a lot since Tony died; Steve knows Tony asked Clint to do it and he's grateful because it's been cathartic.)
Sometimes he cries, and that is a healthy way of coping, according to Clint. Releasing your emotions and all that. Steve just doesn't like people seeing him crying: not because he's ashamed, not because it's not becoming of a man, not because he shouldn't. Just because it's intimate, it's the most intimate things of all.
And he doesn't want anyone to comfort him (because that would make him believe in the lie.)
March began with a new set of words Steve had to use (fentanyl and co-danthrusate and ascites) and a new set of things to learn. They were all terrifying seen and applied in reality, in Tony's body, and Steve couldn't pretend they weren't. On top of everything else, Tony was having trouble breathing, more than the usual arc reactor-related shortness of breath, and they knew it was because of a met tumor in his lung (there's nothing we can do), that it meant his body shutting down a bit more.
He seemed so happy and peaceful drawing his first few highly-oxygenated breaths through the nasal tube.
(…breathing patterns may become slower or faster, in cycles… – not yet– )
'We should have done –'
'No, Steve. Now is good,' Tony stopped him before he could voice his regrets, and he was right.
'How can you be so calm about this?' someone asked, Steve doesn't remember who, one of their teammates, and all he could do is bury his face in his hands and smile invisibly. He understands them: this is the most visible sign. A submission of sorts. (Giving up.)
'I've been through all the phases, you can ask Happy or JARVIS if you don't believe me, they put up with all my shit – I've done some crazy things, been angry, so fucking angry, and depressed and in denial, and all that,' Tony paused for a moment. 'You know how old people can't wait to die when they're old and tired with everything? Steve, you should know how it is to be old, you ancient creature,' he teased, making Steve look up with annoyance. 'It's kinda like that. It's inevitable. And I'm damn tired.'
(… as the end of life approaches, there is a feeling of detachment from the physical world and a loss of interest…)
They all seemed sad,
but Tony didn't. It made Steve feel just a tiny bit better.
'When I'm dying, like, dying, I know it's cliché, but I need you all to let me go, okay?' Tony said over dinner a few evenings later.
It was the three of them, the Tower residents, sitting around the kitchen table and eating their lasagna – and Tony, who was halfway in a different world (in his head, in his daydreams, in his memories, in his being an ethereal dying creature) stirring his soup with disinterest.
They just nodded, as if it was a normal conversation, and continued to eat.
In the end, Steve wasn't praying for Tony to be saved, to be here one more day, longer, endlessly; he only asked for the day to be beautiful, so that the very last thing for Tony to remember would be the hazy sunshine over New York that he loved so much.
There was one day when Tony was feeling better (Steve desperately tried not to remember what the books he read said about that) so Steve helped him to a wheelchair, wrapped him with blankets, and they spend a few hours sitting silently in the hazy sun.
Then he talked to Tony all night.
(… remember that hearing is the last sense to leave…)
Doctor Eisen was always around, those days, sitting somewhere silently, his presence unobtrusive but meaningful.
Steve waved at him on his way to the kitchen to get his breakfast and to breathe.
They spent the whole week in Tony's room, in the room only, Steve talking and Tony listening, sometimes saying a sentence to him or a one-word command to JARVIS which the A.I. understood perfectly, bathing them both in an illusion of one scene or another.
It was good to see that there still was a world outside of the room, outside of the ever-present hum of the holograms, a world as simple as the kitchen. Steve appreciated the silence, and the echo of his tea mug hitting the marble counter cutting through it, more than he should.
'Sleep,' he heard Pepper's soft voice behind him, 'I will be with him.'
He didn't want to but he concurred and as soon as he lay down, he fell asleep for a few hours, even his superhuman body sick with exhaustion.
When he woke up, he stayed in bed, remembering what Tony said after his doctor – it felt like such a long time ago – there is no dignity to dying – and Tony's skinny and half-limp body as he bathed him, talking incessantly and gaining an occasional smile, which felt like the most precious thing in the world; remembering what the books and Doc said about the last days, hours (… there may be a loss of bladder or bowel control… skin may become bluish in color and feel cool and clammy…), trying to remember Tony how he looked the first time Steve really saw him.
Everything before and outside made very little sense in the cozy semi-darkness of the bedroom. Steve couldn't believe people might live a normal life after this,
but it's exactly what you have to do.
He let himself forget that (the world) though, holding Tony's hand as long as it was possible, as long as Tony seemed to want to be held, as long as he occasionally looked at Steve and his eyes said yes yes yes, as long as he seemed to tolerate the touch (…there may be restlessness or repetitive, involuntary movements…)
Then Steve sat in the room with Pepper and James,
until it was time.
(Steve doesn't remember what the last words Tony said to him were, sometime earlier that day; he could ask JARVIS, but he doesn't want to cheat. He remembers his last words to Tony, their last words, when they made sure, in hushed whispers, that he knew they were letting him go.)
This is how things are:
Tony has been gone since that one quiet moment.
he misses Tony.
Steve knew it was unfair, but he left al formalities to James and Pepper to manage and let himself spend the few days cut off from everyone and everything, in one of the guest rooms, and then driving far and fast for twenty four hours, and driving back as fast. He probably shouldn't have done that, intoxicated with grief, but he didn't care.
He doesn't remember those days much. The world, the media, must have been rather crazy those days but he ignored it completely. He didn't give the thousands of people waiting outside the cemetery during the service a third thought, and the first two were thanking them for honoring Tony's memory and wishing there was no one there.
After the funeral, Thor asked Steve for a talk and led him through the graves sitting between the wet grass of the hill. Steve followed, getting his shoes and the hems of his trousers all wet.
'I know you planned to go back to your house, friend,' Thor finally said, after they'd been walking for long few minutes. 'I want to ask you to spend some time with me.'
'Why?' Steve wondered; he wasn't in a happy mood, or any kind of remotely socializing mood. They'd talked with Thor about losing people – the god lived several human lifetimes already – so Steve expected him to respect his grief.
'This burial that Anthony was given just now, it seems a magnificent tradition with deep meaning to the words and gestures, but it is still a funeral of a fragile man. I would like to give Anthony a funeral of warriors.'
'What do you mean?'
That spiked Steve's interest, cutting through the layer of apathy and restlessness that he'd been wrapped with. He admitted to trusting Thor when asked and they sneaked out of the place, leaving everyone else behind, and made their way to the tower as quickly as possible, avoiding people recognizing them or even noticing them.
'Are there any items of Anthony's that you would want to dispose of, or ones you would not oppose to being destroyed?'
That made Steve stop for a moment, and start getting a faint idea of what Thor wanted to do.
'There are some… little things,' Steve said slowly, leading Thor to Tony's study, a room that'd always been gathering dust and acting as an unofficial storage space. 'Any of these,' he gestured at the piles of random items, ignoring the feeling of betraying Tony. But rationally, Steve didn't need any more reminders and Tony would laugh at him for being too sentimental.
'Those will suffice –'
'There also is the arc reactor,' Steve added, watching Thor's face closely: it was completely impassive and serious, but at the same time, pained. Steve still has the expression stuck before his eyes some days; he's never seen Thor like that again.
It was rather metaphorical and a bit cheap, but the reactor was a treasure that kept Tony alive for so long, despite all odds, and that Tony wanted Steve to take from his body and guard until it could be destroyed (one of the craziest things Steve has ever done.)
'Are you sure?'
'Completely,' Steve swore solemnly, leaving Thor for a moment to get the rector from the safe it was in. By the time he got back, Thor had a bag full of random items.
He took Steve's hand and a second later they were somewhere – new, Steve remembers thinking. A shore, with cliffs behind their backs, and open water of dark blue spreading lazily to reach the horizon, and a small ship sitting on the sand.
Sand, Steve remembers noticing, the beach was sandy and seemed gray in the twilight light – the light, Steve remembers realizing, meant they were in Europe. Just like that.
'I prepared her some time ago,' Thor said, his voice booming in the silence, only interrupted by soft whistling of the wind.
'You thought he would die sooner, too,' Steve noted, nodding to himself. Everyone thought so.
'It matters not, now,' Thor makes his way to the ship and empties the bag he had Tony's things in into the ship.
Steve remembers feeling the cold touch of metal casing of arc reactor right under his fingers, and he remembers thinking that this thing was inside Tony's living-breathing-smiling body just three days ago.
He closed his eyes and stretched out the arm, suddenly feeling too tired to even move his legs. Thor took he reactor carefully, leaving Steve's hands open and bare, grazed by the cold wind, the sand murmuring softly as he walked away. Steve let himself fall to his knees.
Steve remembers hearing Thor's cape rustling, and the sand, too, and a few heavier breaths accompanying them, eaten away by the wave's hum in the same way his own heavy almost-tearful breathing was.
When he heard the ship cutting through the water, he opened his eyes to see it slowly moving away, relentlessly, and he stopped himself from running after it to get everything back because it was Tony, it was all his, it was all a part of him – that didn't matter anymore.
He wanted it to matter so badly.
Thor walked up to him and put his warm hand on Steve's shoulder.
'Let her leave us a tad more, for this last adventure.'
Steve said nothing. He didn't want to. He wasn't able to.
'Now, friend,' Thor announced a few minutes later, when the ship floated onto the deeper waters, but still was close enough to be perfectly visible, spoiling the otherwise unmarred scenery. 'Stand up,' he added, taking his hand off Steve's shoulder. 'He deserves it.'
Steve remembers Thor saying deserves, and the softness of Thor's voice ringing in his ears and making him nauseous.
Thor drew the bow he was holding – Steve assumed it was waiting in the boat – and suddenly the arrow was alight and cutting through the darkening sky in a perfect trajectory, hitting he boat a moment later and setting it on fire.
Steve remembers how blinding the fire light felt.
Steve remembers standing there, unmoving and so cold, until the light died down and the boat disappeared into the darkness of the evening.
Steve remembers not crying all night because he was too numb, and he remembers wishing he could cry.
Steve remembers Thor saying he'd take him back home, and he remembers wondering what that meant.
When Steve comes from the usual team training, sweaty and hot from the mid-May hot weather, he stumbles upon a familiar scene –
(the first time he saw it was a few days after Tony's funeral)
– and freezes.
JARVIS, in Iron Man suit, is kneeling in front of the bots and playing with them – comforting them (unless someone has seen their sadness, it's not possible to explain it, not really, or to believe in it, but it's heart-wrenching) – moving all too slowly and too mechanically.
Steve retreats slowly, soundlessly; even though he knows JARVIS is still everywhere and can still see him, the scene seems too intimate for interruption.
He goes up, takes a long hot shower, eats his dinner chewing it thoughtlessly, and tries to read a book one of the agents he trains with recommended him. The words make little sense though, and his eyes keep wandering; he has to re-read sentences for a few times so he just gives up after half an hour.
Today has been a great day, busy and productive and sociable, a rare thing.
Steve is pretty content.
Being content feels like a lie, like nothing.
Being content is all he can have this days, he's slowly been realizing: the only reason things made sense was Tony (he was like a whole new universe). Steve was very selfish about pushing for this relationship, unconsciously trying to find something that would make him feel something.
Being content feels like nothing, and it's a torture.
It's exactly June 22nd, the first day of summer, when James comes up to the apartment without asking and drags Steve out of bed. It's been a couple of rough days so all Steve could do was work out, eat, and (pretend to) sleep; anyone's presence in the eerily quiet space seems very intrusive.
'I don't care,' James tells Steve, sitting down in the armchair in the corner of the room. 'And I'm pretty sure I understand, but I still don't care. I gave up my whole life for Tony and I still don't care. You need to do something with yourself.'
'I'm pretty comfortable here, thank you,' Steve's voice is dripping with sarcasm – maybe he's been spending too much time with JARVIS recently, and Spider Man – and he doesn't even sit up in the bed.
'Never knew the time will come I'd have to console the national icon out his depression,' James comments with well-practiced resignation.
'I'm not depressed – and it's not grieving or anything,' Steve protests before James can even say it (a lie, a pretty lie, they are all grieving, what he means is I'm not grieving any more than anyone else.) 'I just don't particularly have anything to look forward to.'
'Oh well,' James stands up, 'I'll give you something, then.'
James keeps his promise.
'It's something we've been working on with Tony, then with JARVIS, too, and we made sure it was the plan was carried out.'
Steve knows to trust James.
The promise makes anticipation crawl under Steve's skin and it's the first time in weeks he's felt anything. He can wait until it's time. (The promise almost fills the empty space around Steve; almost makes him forget the image of Tony's cold body, with swollen abdomen and painfully dry lips, with wet eyes staring right at Steve in a silent plea; almost makes him feel like there is another purpose somewhere in this universe because his own universe disappeared.)
'Remember that time Tony went into the wormhole? Of course you remember. It… inspired him to wrap his head around the bigger picture. He thought we need to see and protect our world more than we've been doing so far.'
'So he built a spaceship,' Steve hears himself saying, his voice hollow.
H isn't surprised. It sounds like Tony –
it would sound like Tony.
'I know most people would be happy with our carriers and the deals we're doing down here, but Tony knew if we're supposed to be a step ahead, we need to go up,' James points at the bright blue sky. 'So. First trip, just up to ISS. I'm on it, it's gonna be fun.'
'What if it fails?' he feels like he needs to ask, not that he doesn't trust the tech. 'I – I fell down from the air one time, you know. It hurt.'
'It won't fall. But maybe there'll be another adventure waiting for you when you get down.'
Steve thinks about it for a little while and when it's time, he says yes, to James' content. The journey is just two weeks long, there and back, just trying things out.
It's so far away from everything that Steve is eager to make it be an epoch of transition.
Final frontier, huh?
(Pepper laughs when he says that and all she says the whole evening is always a step ahead of us.
Steve asks if eventually they'll all be there, leaving the Earth behind, because for the four of them Tony was everything, consuming their lives completely and in a way no one else could understand.
She said he's thinking too much, and that he's too perceptive, which means yes, and he wouldn't mind that at all.)
He says bye to the team, ignoring Fury's pleas to stay and fucking Avenge stuff like your team's name says, and drives one of Tony's cars to the air base here he meets James and the other five crew members; they exchange greetings, chat for a few minutes, go through all the setup routine. When they're finally ready to take off, Steve is the last one to get on board. The strong sun has warmed up his skin nicely when he was waiting for the team to get ready, standing still in the middle of the landing area, so the air-conditioned breeze from inside feels particularly inviting.
(No one ever said he was a sane and rational individual when he was unfrozen in this century. He'll always be misplaced. He'll always be the outcast, self-imposed more than anything else. He'll always be dreaming of things that don't exist (anymore), yearning for them as if they existed. He'll always be dreaming of Tony, of Bucky, of his mother, of Tony, of Tony, of Tony.)
He will come back when he's ready to make this world his again.
He adjusts the bag on his shoulder, steps onto the ship, and doesn't look back.
don't think we will meet again
And you must leave now
Before the sunrise
(When he hears the familiar voice greeting him, he thinks maybe it was all just a dream.)
A/N: So this is the end.
Thank you all for reading & supporting me all this time, and I hope, despite everything, that you did enjoy this story. Please let me know what you think, this one last time :)