Six Degrees Of Separation
This one’s for @ishipallthings. Screw you Jen, I love you too.
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i. Tony knew that anybody who knew him would probably call this amicable; at least by his standards and the circumstances considered, it should be called amicable. They’d been adults about it, shaken hands, broken teams, and found homes.
He’d asked Steve if he’d be okay. Steve had lied that he was home.
Okay, so maybe Tony wasn’t the best judge of lies, but it had sounded like a lie. His eyes had averted, his hands were clasped behind his back and his brows had been mildly furrowing, and Tony had considered himself a reasonable judge of Steve’s body language. So it had looked like a lie. But again, Tony had laughed when he had brushed aside JARVIS’ death so really, he wasn’t probably the best authority on lies at the moment. Hidden truths were lies too, and Tony had learnt that a bit harder than anybody would have liked.
Considering all of that, the break-up was quite amicable. They’d dated for three months so that could be a reason, such a short time not really having much significance. Or maybe that was just Steve. Always ready to move on.
Tony took a sip of his seltzer and eyed the lime wedge, wondering if his heart was as bitter as it. Steve’s old paint-smeared sheets were stuffed in one of his closets and Tony knew that there was a handprint in them that matched his palm.
“Sir, Captain Rogers on the line,” Friday announced over the newly installed central intercom and Tony leaned back against his swiveling chair.
“He,” there was a pause and Tony waited for Friday to finish judging him, “he simply stated that he would like to speak with you, sir.”
Tony threw back the seltzer like it was vodka and rotated his neck to work out cricks. He placed the glass beside his coffee mug and leaned forward, flicking the paused hologram back to life.
“Tell him I’ll call back, Friday,” he said and detached Wilson’s old wings framework by parts on the screen, “And book my schedule for the day.”
“As you say, sir,” the judgement was pronounced and Tony crushed an old relay of the scattered framework, throwing it into the virtual trash.
“Don’t call me, sir”
The pause was longer this time but then an Irish voice flowed back through the speakers.
“Of course, boss.”
Throwing out old habits was a new hobby. Tony rubbed at his chest, mentally cataloguing any causes for indigestion, and went to work. Fixing broken things, as usual.
ii. The news headlines were getting less creative as days passed. Tony raised an eyebrow as a more conservative looking Christine primly read out a straight headline about some Scott Lang and didn’t even make a face as it read like a school essay.
He remembered her being much more creative with her words when she was thrusting a recorder in his face outside a casino. He wondered what made her more…fake.
His phone buzzed and he glanced down from his pasta to see Pepper’s photo flash, her face younger than she looked now but more harried and naïve. She was wearing a ponytail that was more of a mess.
Her hair was always perfect now. Tony had stopped running his fingers through them during the rare moments she leaned against his shoulder. She had stopped placing blunt nailed hands on his knee. They smiled more now. He knew she practiced just as well as he did nowadays.
Happy’s lingering looks lingered more nowadays. Nobody talked about it.
On the screen, Lang rambled something about stolen tech and mid-level morality. He didn’t sound half as bad as he should have. Christine’s face looked judgemental and Tony toasted his pasta fork to Lang on the screen.
“Boss, Rhodey on call,” Friday quipped and Tony dug his fork into a heap of pasta, nodding without looking away from the screen.
“Hey,” Rhodey sounded mildly breathless and Tony smiled into his pasta, “you about done with your latest upgrades?”
“Weren’t you supposed to check yesterday?” Tony spoke through a bite, “You’re slacking there, Colonel.”
“I’m WORKING here, rookie,” Rhodey shot back, swallowing something before he continued, “C'mon, you done or not?”
“Yeah, done,” Tony leaned forward and took a sip of his water, “I’ll drop by with uogrades for the others too. In about 4 hours?”
There was a minute pause and Tony caught it because Rhodey never paused. He didn’t pause unless it was an ending, a full stop.
“Nothing,” Rhodey said and sighed before relenting, “Look, I’m gonna just say it, okay? Don’t make it weird or awkward and -”
“I don’t think anyone needs upgrades right now, Tones,” Rhodey cut to the point and Tony’s fingers tightened on the fork, just a smidge, “Listen, it’s not anything, everyone just wanted to get used to what they have right now and work with it for a while. There’s nothing else.”
“Right, yeah,” Tony has had practice with an unwavering voice and he shoves more pasta into his mouth to muffle any hitches, “That’s good, less work for me, good news. I’ll just drop by and leave your upgrade.”
“Hey, I’m busy, eating,” Tony must have ordered the spicier variety because his tongue burns and his eyes water, “I’ll talk to you later, okay?”
“You do that,” Rhodey sounds pointed, like Tony won’t call. Tony almost waves for Friday to cut the connection but Rhodey adds quietly, “I’ll let everyone know you’re stopping by, man.”
Tony hums and cuts the line. He doesn’t need to say anything for Rhodey to know that he can catch hints.
He doesn’t understand why being avoided is a big deal. Rejection isn’t new. He’s had exposure to it from childhood.
His tongue burns and he wonders if this was how Happy felt when he’d seen Pepper back with Tony. He watches Scott Lang smear his name and bites at his food harder.
At least someone was still bothered to talk about him.
iii. He got the report an hour back and it still hurts his head. The words are formal and dry but Tony knows how the Captain writes to avoid discussion.
He can read between the neatly typed lines.
Rhodey had been stonily silent ever since the team had come back from Lagos and he had found out about the disaster. Tony doesn’t ask him anything. He has heard enough to put together that Rhodey had recommended Vision to go along with the team. Steve had refused.
Steve had screwed up. Steve had refused to suspend Wanda or give a statement himself. Steve was going to blow up when Tony reached the Compound with his guest.
Tony rubbed at his temple and let his head fall back against the seat as Happy turned right. Happy didn’t ask him if everything was alright. During his most stressed moments Tony liked to think that it was because he was glad that Pepper had left him again. After those moments Tony would remember Happy’s near attack and curse himself some more.
He never claimed to like himself but there were days when he could break the dislike meter.
He fiddled with the sunglasses in his pocket and wondered if Steve hated himself for Lagos right now. He breathed out and let the thought die. He wasn’t Charles Spencer’s mother. He had nothing to lose, nothing to blame on Steve.
He put the tinted blue glasses on and looked out the window as they rolled into the campus, eyeing the building he had built for the team he had quit.
He wasn’t an Avenger and yet here he was, trying to champion causes for them.
Steve explodes just as he predicted, muted and righteous. Tony watches the man walk away after a phone call and wonders if the cracks in the air are as pronounced as in the team.
He doesn’t tell Steve about Wanda’s suspension and waits for the cracks to deepen as he knows they will. It is inevitable. Walls don’t survive repeated blows on cracks, no matter how necessary they are.
Steve doesn’t come back and Tony signs the Accords as Steve mourns a dead girlfriend.
And then Tony mourns his dead parents as Steve signs his own fugitive notice.
The walls crumble and a bunker collapses.
iv. Peter was loitering by the office and Tony let him stew for a whole minute before looking up.
“Your training is with Vision, if I’m not wrong,” he drawled, looking back down at the reports he was signing for SHIELD.
“Yeah, I know,” Peter cleared his throat and Tony bit back a smile, knowing the faint flush of red that would be staining the boy’s neck. Nervousness was an unbreakable trait of Spiderman, no matter how brazen his mentor had been called.
“You got something to say, Pete?” Tony frowned at the details of the new recruit program and added a comment for further discussion.
“I didn’t know it was an original,” Peter said, flustered in every syllable, “I mean, Friday did say that it was unique but I didn’t know - it wasn’t placed in your safe or wherever you should probably keep such things.”
“You mean in my room?” Tony hummed under his breath as he let the pointed silence stretch before glancing up to see Peter glaring down at his shoes.
“I’ll - I’ll get it cleaned up?” Peter said, knowing that any cleaner would only ruin the painting now. There was only so much webbing you could remove from a canvas without damaging it.
Tony opened his mouth to tell him to try it. To tell him to not take dares from Rhodey again. To not shoot webs in other rooms of the Compound.
“It’s okay,” he says instead and pauses, registers the words and confirms, “It wasn’t important anyway.”
“But it’s Cap’s -”
“It’s okay, Pete,” Tony repeats and looks calmly at the kid he had dragged into the world of Avengers. The one who had destroyed Steve’s painting of the Avengers.
Peter eyed Tony like there was a catch but then his expression cleared and he nodded.
“I’ll get back then,” he pointed to the door behind him and Tony turned his attention back to his work, waving a distracted hand at Peter.
“Yeah, yeah, go fix your things,” he said and didn’t think about any paintings for tge rest of the evening.
The dancing monkey pasted on the window beside his chair looked on as Tony fixed errors in the work he had taken up.
v. They don’t kiss but Tony doesn’t miss the way Sharon’s eyes linger on Steve’s face, how she angles towards the now scruffy Captain, the drag of her feet as she walks away from hugging him.
To Steve’s left, Sam looks a little confused but not the way a friend would at seeing a new relationship. He looks like someone who doesn’t understand why an old one isn’t continuing in full swing.
Steve’s eyes move suddenly and he’s staring at Tony, across the room and the people crammed in it. The blue eyes look tired and Tony doesn’t pull his faceplate down immediately. He remembers Pepper’s last glance before she had driven to LA. There had been no ring on her finger and a sad smile on her lips.
She had promised to keep things safe on her front. It hadn’t been a goodbye.
Tony doesn’t look away from Steve for a minute and knows that Sharon’s look hadn’t been one too. It hadn’t been a hello either though.
He nods at Steve and turns away when Strange calls for him. He hears Sharon call for Steve and focuses on Strange’s plan to kill themselves more imaginatively.
His chest doesn’t ache but his stomach does roll. He blames it on Thanos, what with the ongoing theme.
He shoots Sharon a nod before leaving but she simply stares back.
He remembers Pepper doing the same to Steve once.
They go to die and he doesn’t think of memories anymore.
vi. The worst thing about surviving an alien invasion is the paperwork. Natasha would disagree and point to the UN rebuilding efforts. Sam would mutter about alien tech. Thor would go silent and not mention lost brothers.
But Tony would call the paperwork his worst. The lists of dead, damaged, distributed things were endless and unending in depression. The names starting with A ran more than the alphabet would permit and Tony had almost torn the entire G file.
Someone knocked on the door and Tony looked up to see Steve standing with two mugs of coffee.
“Want a break?” the new Commander of the New Avengers asked, now clean shaven and unsnapped neck.
“Yeah, break sounds good,” Tony said and stretched mildly, groaning as his back popped, “Not a word.”
“Have I ever said anything?” Steve asked rhetorically and Tony rolled his eyes as he took a mug from him, “You almost done?”
“That’s a wish,” Tony scoffed and took a large sip of coffee, sighing deeply, “It’s like fuck-ups of all times are popping up now.”
“Mistakes can always be fixed,” Steve shrugged and Tony didn’t shoot him a look but he continued, “You do like fixing thing, so it should be good.”
“You can shut up now,” Tony snorted and Steve took a pointed sip of his coffee.
They hadn’t talked about anything other than fixing the world recently. Ever since Tony had raised the Infinity Gauntlet and stunned the world by not changing anything. Ever since Steve had come back from the dead. Ever since the war that had broken more than they seemed to be able to fix.
But it was calmer now. Like a storm had passed.
They had moved into Tony’s old family home for temporary use. Steve had not said anything but Tony had heard enough nagging from Clint. Steve had not mentioned anything about anything.
Tony didn’t want to say he was grateful but he probably was, more than anybody realized.
They didn’t know where they stood anymore but the bitterness had passed. The silence and the sourness and the stifling awkwardness had gone somewhere they didn’t know. Steve didn’t talk about Sharon but Tony knew that she was dating or at least sleeping with Maria Hill. Tony hadn’t told Steve about Pepper and Happy’s engagement but the press had done it well enough for him.
They didn’t talk about it. They talked more though, about everything else. About themselves. About the stress and the ugly parts of their work. The things they never spoke into pillows before.
Tony hadn’t known it could be like this. It was strangely amicable.
“You ever think we’re good at fixing because we’re better at fucking up?” he asked as he took a sip of his coffee, made exactly the way he liked.
Steve didn’t reply for a while, contently sipping his coffee. He turned and leaned over, pulling half the sheets off Tony’s pile towards himself and shot Tony a wry smile.
“I don’t know,” he said as his lips quirked, a small but real grin, “but I’m sure it’s better to have realized your fuck-ups than to ignore them forever.”
Tony narrowed his eyes in mock suspicion at Steve before rolling his eyes. Sitting on either side of a table, separate from each other, they worked together in silence.
It was either the most amicable beginning or ending, both of a familiar story.