Steve waited anxiously, well out of the potential blast zone that Bruce had managed to determine based on what information they had, with the rest of his team minus Tony. From his peripheral vision, he noted Peggy looking over Bucky who was still unconscious. He had told Peggy about what had transpired between them, how Bucky seemed to be fighting against the brainwashing but it seemed to cause him intense pain until Natasha knocked him out with a strong sedative. Steve was worried about Bucky, but right now, with no sign of Tony and intermittent tremors rocking the earth, he was very much more concerned over the missing warlock.
Tony had bought them time by delaying the inevitable implosion of the destabilized portal but none of them knew for certain how much time that exactly was. Bruce, now turned fully human, had said that there were a combination of factors involved but hadn't gone into detail, probably because it would get too technical for most of them to understand. From what Steve had gathered though, it felt like a lot of skill and even more luck was required for it all to work out such that even Tony could be clear of the potential fallout in time. So with Tony still nowhere in sight, it was definitely not doing wonders for Steve's nerves.
"He'll come out," Natasha murmured as she appeared beside him, her eyes fixed on the fortress too. "He promised."
It was not terribly consoling to Steve that even Natasha, calm and unflappable Natasha, sounded like she was trying to convince herself that it was true. But still he held on to hope.
This whole raid on HYDRA's fortress and possibly the whole journey since the point he'd met Tony had made a huge impact on Steve. As his worry grew with each passing minute, he could no longer ignore his feelings regarding Tony that he had pushed aside to focus on the quest and then on Bucky when his best friend had reappeared in another guise. Now, all the chances he'd failed to take because he was uncertain and afraid came to his mind, and he knew it had to change. Steve decided now, that once Tony came out, he was going to confess.
Then, without warning, the fortress imploded.
Someone screamed out an anguished denial. It took Steve a long moment before he realized that it had been himself who'd produced that gut-wrenching sound and that Bruce and Clint were both straining to hold him back from running straight to the crumbling structure. Holding him back from going to find Tony because it would surely end in his death if he got anywhere near the falling rocks.
"No, no, no."
He couldn't stop himself from repeating those words, nor could he tear his eyes away from the crumbling stone fortress that had once been HYDRA's stronghold.
HYDRA. Why did it always have to be this cursed organization? Why did it seem that he would always lose someone precious to HYDRA?
It seemed to take an eternity before all the rumbling stopped and the fortress was nothing but piles and piles of jumbled stone and debris. Even though he knew that there was practically zero chance for anyone to survive the cave in, he found himself still refusing to give up hope. Not until he saw a body. Because, just… just look at what happened with Bucky! And… and Natasha said that Tony had promised!
(But yes, there was a part of him that knew that he was kidding himself.)
He shook off Bruce and Clint's arms and they let him go without a word of protest. Steve made his way towards the ruined building, single-minded determination in his head. He was vaguely aware of footsteps behind him, that his friends were all still following him despite the undeniably foolish thing he was about to attempt. Then, he was next to a sizeable pile of rubble, and Steve began to dig, began to shift the stone and rubble away.
Bruce murmured something from behind him and then gradually, the largest pieces of the wreckage began to levitate and move away, reducing the amount of work they had to do. At the same time, Natasha and Clint joined in, their hands moving as quickly as it was possible to shift aside rock and dig down. No one else spoke but there was a sense of urgency and barely restrained fear in the air that Steve was sure they all felt. Time seemed to slow, however, and it felt like he'd been digging for an eternity and that it was going to be all…
No, he couldn't let himself think that way. He had to hope. He had to.
Later, Steve would wonder if it had merely been coincidence that led to a portion of the detritus crumbling harmlessly to the side and unearthing an arm that Clint had seen immediately. But that would be later.
He turned to look at Clint, the urgency in the archer's voice catching his attention and shaking him out of the trance-like state he had fallen into while digging. The archer was making his way quickly towards a portion of the ruins that had shifted, revealing… an arm! It probably took Steve just the slightest bit longer than Clint, but once he spotted the gold ring inlaid with a blue diamond, he knew that it was Tony.
The process of uncovering the rest of Tony proceeded at what felt like an even slower pace but Steve did not dare risk upsetting the delicate balance of the surrounding rocks and structures. They were so close to reaching Tony. Little by little, more and more of Tony was uncovered, until they finally had all the rocks and rubble that had been covering him moved away.
Tony was motionless, his eyes closed and he was bleeding from various shallow cuts.
Steve reached out a hand, wanting to touch, to heal when his eyes caught sight of something he had never noticed before. The chainmail that Tony wore was damaged, and a part that was covering his chest had peeled aside, revealing Tony's skin underneath. What was unusual, however, was a strange marking of thick black lines and as Steve watched, the lines pulsed, changing from black to blue-white and then back again.
The last time Steve had really seen Tony's chest uncovered had been the day they'd met Bruce. But had the mark been there? He couldn't be sure, because some parts of his memories of that day were indistinct at best, clouded as his mind was filled with equal parts fear and desperation. It was possible that he'd missed seeing it entirely as he was just so focused on healing the warlock. But he could still remember Bruce telling him to focus his attentions over Tony's chest. Was this mark the reason for that piece of advice?
"Bruce," he said, knowing that his voice was oddly calm. "Did you know about this… mark?"
"Yes, but this is the first time I've seen it."
The wizard's voice was subdued. Steve ignored the flash of hurt and unbecoming jealousy that made themselves known in his chest. It was not the time.
"What does it do?"
"Tony told me he was cursed a few years back. The mark weakens his heart the more he uses his warlock powers."
Steve did not know what to say. Tony had, in his obscure way, told him about the curse, describing it as a heart condition. He hadn't pushed then, even though he had wanted to know how it could affect Tony. Not just in battle, even though that was important too, but because he genuinely wanted to know so he could help. He hadn't pushed because their friendship had still been new and he'd already seen how closed off Tony could be about personal details even before revealing that he wasn't Antonius but Anthony Stark. Now, he wished that he had found the opportunity to ask.
So, instead of replying to Bruce, he turned back to Tony, taking off his gauntlets as he prepared to heal the warlock. The mark had stopped glowing but Steve had no idea if that was a good thing or not. He laid his bare palm on top of Tony's chest and-
There was no heartbeat.
He pushed his palm firmly down again but there was still no pulse. Steve bent further down, hovering over Tony's face, trying to feel for Tony's breath.
There was a roaring sound in his ears or maybe it was all in his mind, he wasn't sure. All he knew was that denial was ringing loudly and prominently in his head because no, Tony. He couldn't be… he just…
"Steve! Steve! Breathe!" Clint's worried voice reached him, as if through a body of water, indistinct and muffled.
Someone started pulling him backwards, away from Tony and he let himself be pulled back. All the fight had just gone out of him, unlike when the fortress had just collapsed. Then, it had been easier to hold on to hope. Now, it was harder to deny the truth of the situation when the evidence (Tony's body) was lying in front of him. The world was going hazy around him and something about it was becoming a little familiar. Like he hadn't felt this way in a while, but it had happened before…
"Steve! Breathe. Focus on me, Steve!"
Peggy's face swam into view and he registered her touch on his hands.
"Yes, that's it," she murmured, still holding on to his hands tightly.
Gradually, the fog around him seemed to lift and he realized that he had been hyperventilating. It had felt almost like an asthma attack, a sensation he had been very familiar with but had almost forgotten due to the passage of time. Peggy was kneeling before him, blocking part of his view of the scene behind her. He could see Bruce kneeling on the ground and Clint was hovering nearby, Artemis having joined them at some point.
"Peggy…" Steve almost couldn't recognize his voice with how hoarse it sounded.
"Steve, I'm so sorry."
He knew what she was apologizing for and he wanted to tell her that it wasn't anything she should apologize for. It had been rumored that powerful clerics could resurrect the dead but nobody he knew had ever seen that happen before. Peggy was not to blame. A part of him, however, wanted to go back, to try to bring Tony back to life. But it wasn't possible. It was completely out of his power. He had once again lost a friend, no, Tony was more than just a friend to him and it was too late. He was always too late. He had gotten an unbelievable second chance with Bucky, but he wasn't holding out for another miracle.
"For one of my best and most devout followers, you are surprisingly pessimistic, Steven," a gruff voice that clearly did not belong to anyone in their group said. It was, however, kind of familiar.
Steve looked up to see a bald, dark-skinned man dressed entirely in black full plate armor complete with a cape. There was also an eye patch covering his left eye and a very familiar star symbol emblazoned on it. He also noticed that Clint had an arrow pointed at the man's head and that Bruce was standing up in front of Tony and the wizard's hands were glowing with magic.
"Who the hell are you? Where did you come from?" Clint demanded, just as Steve put together just who the man actually was.
"Clint, Bruce, it's okay. Stand down. That's the God of War," he said, voice surprisingly calm.
"The God of War dresses like some sort of cross between a dark knight and a bandit. Really?" Clint replied in a deadpan voice, clearing not believing it.
"It is Him," Peggy confirmed, her voice hushed with respect.
Slowly, almost reluctantly, Clint lowered his bow. Bruce, too, let his spell fizzle away. Steve, personally, was still a little too numb to feel any astonishment at seeing the War God making a personal appearance. The last encounter he had had with Fury was just before he had become a paladin and the god had paid a visit to his dreamscape to recruit him. But at that time, the god hadn't appeared to him in a humanoid form; Fury had mostly been just this stern voice emanating from His holy symbol. Steve had then woken up from the dream to a whole new body, his asthma gone along with all the other ailments that dragged him down since he was a baby.
"Thank you for averting this crisis. I am pleased to see that you all worked well together, I appreciate the haste that was taken."
Steve supposed that to most clerics and paladins, having the god you served personally thanking you for a job well done would be a moment of utmost honor and glory. But right now, he didn't feel any of that. Yes, they had averted a crisis and yes, it was important, he knew. It was Good and it was right. But it still did not lessen the pain that, in the process of saving the world, Tony had been sacrificed.
"You're welcome, I suppose," Clint retorted bitterly, as if he weren't talking to a god who could smite him where he stood. "Any reason why you couldn't have done something about it before it came down to this?"
His question was punctuated by gesturing to their surroundings but Steve and everyone else read the actual meaning. Couldn't the War God Fury have done something to prevent Tony from having to sacrifice himself?
"The gods aren't fully omniscient or prescient. I do not know all that will happen and I certainly cannot predict everything that can happen. Nor can I always interfere with events that occur on the mortal plane. I sent you, Clint Barton, Margaret Carter and Steven Rogers on this quest because you needed to meet Anthony Stark," Fury explained, unruffled by Clint's brusqueness.
"There needed to be a diverse group of people who could respond to crises and could make use of their varied experiences and knowledge to complement and help each other. HYDRA needed to be stopped but the greater importance was the meeting that I Saw. I had no doubt that HYDRA's plans would be thwarted, but I did not See how it would happen, only that it happened after meeting with Anthony."
"Did you know about Bucky?" Peggy asked.
"Yes. James Barnes' ending up in HYDRA's clutches came to my knowledge. It was however uncertain whether it would be possible for James to have a fighting chance against his brainwashing after he came into contact with you."
"Why did they have to meet Tony?" This time, the person who spoke was Natasha. There was a coldness to her tone that Steve hadn't yet heard before.
"It wasn't clear to me then, but now I know that it's because through Anthony that you, Natasha Romanoff, and Bruce Banner could be brought in to form the group that I had partly Seen."
"Tony is dead," Bruce said quietly. "How would that work now?"
"It is not generally my area of expertise but I can remedy that."
That sounded like… That sounded like Tony could be resurrected and that the God of War would do it.
"You would do that?" Steve asked, unable to keep the hope out of his voice.
"Like I said, Steven, you do place far too little belief in miracles. I am willing to do it, though not for entirely altruistic reasons," Fury replied matter-of-factly. "This team that I want to put together requires Anthony. It would not work otherwise."
"What about Bucky?"
"The spell's effects are already wearing off. I can speed up the process, but the after effects will linger with James for some time and that, I cannot help with."
"Do it," Steve said, then remembering that he was actually talking to a god, the god he served no less, he added, "Please."
Fury didn't do much of anything but perhaps blink his single visible eye before he said, "It is done. I would advise keeping a close eye on James when the sedative wears off."
Bruce immediately crouched down beside Tony again, fingers pressing against Tony's neck to feel for a pulse. Steve watched as the tension left the wizard and felt himself relaxing as well. Tony was alive.
"The curse mark is still present," Bruce said.
"I've brought Anthony Stark back to life as I said I would," Fury replied. "The curse did not come under that purview."
"That's why he's unconscious, isn't it?" Bruce deduced. "The damage to his heart from the curse did not kill him but it affected him enough to slow him down, cause him to black out during his escape and when the fortress collapsed, it all added up to cause his death."
"So if the curse is not removed, Tony could still end up dying?" Steve demanded. The happiness and relief that had filled him was rapidly fading away.
"Yes. But the curse is not irreversible, and Anthony Stark has been away from Mainheim for a long time." With that cryptic reply, Fury vanished.
"No! Wait!" Steve cried out, but it was already too late.
Damn it. Tony was alive but he might not stay that way. Already, Bruce's expression was turning grim. Peggy went over to Tony's side as well, healing over the superficial wounds. She started to frown when her hands hovered over the curse mark. Steve went over as well, unable to keep away as worry and fear began to creep up on him.
"The curse has… gotten stronger," Peggy said to him. "I can't really heal the damage to his heart. If this persists, he will die."
No, he couldn't have Tony brought back to life only to lose him again before Steve had the chance to tell him. It didn't matter if Tony did not reciprocate his feelings, he needed to let Tony know. There had to be a way to break the curse, especially if the greatest wizardry minds…
"We need to get him back to Mainheim, back to the Starks," Steve said, abruptly realizing what Fury's parting words meant.
"The Starks have resources… If I can use their information, I'm sure I can find a counter-curse," Bruce said.
"Tony's not going to like it when he wakes up," Natasha pointed out, but it didn't seem like she was truly objecting to the plan.
"Unless one of you has a teleport spell on hand, Mainheim is still really far away," Clint said. "How much time does Tony have?"
"I believe I can help with that," a new but familiar voice said.
"Coulson! Where did you come from?" Clint exclaimed.
"I was informed of the situation," Coulson replied calmly. "Gather everyone around me so I can bring all of you back to the church. We have no time to waste."
When everyone had been safely transported to the church in Mainheim, they found that they were not the only people present in the room that Coulson had taken them to. There were a few healers and Coulson instructed them to take a still unconscious Bucky to a private healer's room. Steve was torn between staying with Tony and following after Bucky, but Peggy placed her hand on his shoulder and indicated that she would follow Bucky and Steve nodded to her in gratitude. Other than the healers, there was one other person. He was a rather elderly man, with grey-white hair and dressed formally like a butler.
"Mr. Coulson," the man spoke in a mildly annoyed tone. "If you could please inform me of the reason for requesting the presence of-"
The man's voice broke off as he took in the sight of Tony, lying on a magically suspended sheet. He took several steps forward, eyes never leaving Tony's still form. As Steve watched, tears welled up in the older man's eyes.
"Is… is that…?" he started to ask but was unable to complete it as his voice was shaking with emotion.
"Yes," Coulson replied gently. "It is Anthony Stark."
"I thought I'd never see him again. What… what happened to Master Anthony?"
"You must be Edwin Jarvis," Natasha spoke up, a slight smile on her face. "Tony has mentioned you."
Steve had known of Edwin Jarvis by name, though for all the times he had been in the Stark manor, he had not seen the man. Usually he was greeted by another butler or footman, but Howard had mentioned Jarvis a couple of times, most often as an off-hand comment about having to make sure he wasn't working too hard or he'd be chastised by the old family butler.
"I, yes, I am. I'm the head butler of the Stark household," Jarvis said. "Please pardon me for not introducing myself. I… I'm just…"
"It's alright, Jarvis," Coulson said, still keeping his tone gentle. "It must have been a shock. We wanted a member of the Stark clan here because of Anthony. He's alive but because of a curse, he will die if a counter-spell is not found. We need the resources the Stark clan can provide."
Taking a breath and drawing himself up straighter, Jarvis replied in a more composed voice, "Yes, certainly. I will personally ensure that access to the Stark family library and archives will be available for perusal. I presume that Master Anthony will be brought home to recuperate?"
"Yes, if that's what you wish."
"Good." Then to the rest of them, Jarvis said with a slight smile, "You must all be Master Anthony's friends. Mere words cannot express the magnitude of my gratitude towards all of you for finding him. It would be an honor for you to stay at the Stark manor."
"If it's not too much trouble," Bruce replied, looking faintly abashed at the sincerity in Jarvis' words. "I… I'm a wizard and I would like to help in breaking the curse on Tony and it would be more accessible from the manor."
"It is never any trouble to have Master Anthony's friends over," Jarvis replied.
Everyone present in the room, except for Coulson, began to make preparations to transport Tony safely to the Stark manor.
"Steven, I'm sorry," Coulson suddenly said, looking visibly apologetic about having to mention it. "You need to attend a debriefing now."
A part of him wanted very badly to resist, to leave with Bruce and Natasha to the Stark manor so that he could watch over Tony. But he knew his duty and also knew that the best care would be provided for Tony. Jarvis had been overwhelmed when seeing Tony again after such a long time and genuinely cared for the warlock. Steve was sure that the old butler would provide everything needed for Tony to get better. Coulson had also sent another of the church's healers to accompany Tony so Tony would still be okay for a while longer. Certainly long enough for Steve to give his report and then head to the manor.
"I understand," he replied. "Let's get started then."
The sooner the debriefing finished, the faster he could return to Tony's side.
After the debriefing, Steve paid a visit to the room Bucky was now sequestered in. His friend was still unconscious but Peggy reassured him that it was just the sedative and that as far as she could tell there was nothing wrong with Bucky physically. She didn't say anything about his mental condition but Steve could read the truth of that without any input. There would be after-effects and they were not going to be pretty. But as long as Bucky was safe and back here with them, they would be able to get through it.
"There's somewhere else you'd like to be, isn't that right Steve?"
"I… well, yes."
"Then go. I'll let you know when Bucky wakes."
So he went.
Steve was familiar with the way to the Stark manor, having been there first to test his compatibility with the shield and later on for the periodic checks that Howard liked to conduct. As a child, growing up in Mainheim also meant that he'd always known about the large Stark manor. Now he wondered if he had ever seen Tony before, whenever he and Bucky had decided to wander close to see the manor and fantasize about owning a house even half its size.
In no time at all, he was at the gates, which opened as he drew near. He guessed that his arrival was anticipated and was proven right when the main doors opened to reveal Jarvis standing there with a warm smile on his face.
"Captain Rogers, welcome," Jarvis greeted him with a slight bow.
"Please call me Steve," he replied. "How is Tony?"
Jarvis' smile dimmed a little. "Master Anthony is still unconscious. Miss Romanoff is in the room with him, and the last I heard, she was quietly threatening him with much pain if he were to die. Mr. Banner is currently in the library doing research."
"May I see Tony?"
"Of course, Captain. Please follow me."
Though it was far from Steve's first visit to the manor, he had not gone to the private areas of the large house. Jarvis led him through unfamiliar hallways until they finally stopped in front of a set of double doors. It looked much like any other set of doors in the mansion, until Steve started to notice faint burn marks and scratched areas.
Noticing what he was looking at, Jarvis said with a slight chuckle, "When Master Anthony was young, he liked conducting experiments with any magical trinkets and artifacts he could get his hands on. He also liked to build things from scratch. Sometimes, they resulted in… less than satisfactory outcomes."
Even Steve smiled a little. "I think I can imagine that," he said, thinking back to the time he'd seen Tony's workshop and how parts and random tools were scattered around.
Then Jarvis pushed open the double doors to reveal a large bedroom. Steve saw Natasha sitting on an armchair by the large four-poster bed before the redhead turned around to look at them.
Steve walked further into the room, all the way in until he was beside the bed and looking down at Tony. Tony was pale and he looked infinitely smaller and more fragile, swathed in the sheets of the large bed. But he was still alive and breathing and Steve would do everything in his power to make sure Tony would be well and alive in the near future.
"There's been no change, I guess?" he asked Natasha.
"No, he's still the same as when we brought him back. For now, that's a good thing."
"Do Pepper and Rhodes know?"
"Yes, I've sent a message to them. They're both on their way over now."
"Don't they need to help Tony run Ironfields?"
Natasha smiled faintly. "Everyone in Ironfields adores Pepper and even more than that, they're protective of Tony. The population of Ironfields is largely made up of people who had been cast out for unjust reasons and who were considered misfits. We guard our own. Everything will still be smoothly running even in Pepper and Rhodey's absence."
Steve had not really noticed that but it explained the diverse mix of races in the town. It was yet another manifestation of Tony's kindness. He was glad that there were other people who would look out for Tony, even though he suspected that the warlock was unaware of that himself. Tony needed people to help look out for his general wellbeing.
"Has… has Lord Stark been by?" he then asked Jarvis, who was now standing at the foot of the bed.
"No. He is… busy."
The pause before Jarvis said "busy" was telling, as was the slight frown on the older man's face. Steve was sure that Jarvis would've informed Howard about Tony and the curse. There could not be anything more important than seeing your missing son finally come home.
"Is he helping Bruce with finding a counter-curse?"
"Master Howard is in his workshop."
A sort of calm, cold anger settled around Steve. He found that a part of him had still held out hope that his old mentor wasn't as bad as Tony had described, but in the face of this, it was getting harder to think otherwise. Howard Stark was a brilliant wizard and Steve was sure that with his help, the process of finding a permanent counter-curse would be sped up significantly.
Steve had sworn to himself to do everything in his power to help Tony and if that included confronting his mentor, then he would gladly do it.
"I'm going to see him," he announced.
"Very well, I will take you there, Captain," Jarvis said, a note of approval in his voice.
With Jarvis leading the way, Steve soon found himself in more familiar territory. He thanked Jarvis for his help, stating that he would prefer to go the rest of the way by himself. Mostly, Steve didn't think it would be appropriate for him to be essentially lecturing Jarvis' employer in front of the butler, even if the older man probably knew what would happen.
After the butler had left, Steve continued down the long hallway to the workshop. He tried to compose himself, to carefully find the right words to say to Howard to make his mentor realize that he had to help. Howard could be stubborn but unless he was completely wrong about his mentor, then there had to be a part of the other man that loved his son and would do everything he could to save him.
Now standing outside the workshop door, Steve could not hear any sounds that signified that Howard was working. So he knocked twice and then proceeded to open the door, stepping in and then shutting the door behind him. As he had guessed, Howard was not working. Instead, the other man's back was to Steve, leaning over a worktable that had an opened bottle of whiskey and a glass that was half-full of the alcohol.
"I said no interruptions, Jarvis," Howard said without turning around.
"I'm not Jarvis."
Howard turned around swiftly, eyes wide with surprise, though a smile quickly found its way onto his face. "Steve! This is unexpected. How are you?"
Steve found that he couldn't quite bring himself to smile back at Howard, even though it was good to see him again. "It's not really that unexpected, is it, Howard?"
The smile slipped off Howard's face, turning his expression into one of resignation as he sat back against the tabletop. "So I guess it's straight to business."
"It's not "business". Tony is your son, who's been cursed and will probably die if a cure isn't found. Why are you drinking in your workshop, Howard?"
"…escape. Denial, maybe. It's hard to believe that my son is back."
"Do you even know why he ran away?" he asked.
"Not for certain but I have some ideas," Howard answered. "You already know how we weren't very close, don't you? I know Tony believes that I didn't love him and that I was never proud of him. That's not true. He's my son. He picked up everything taught to him so fast, with magic being the only hiccup. But there was no denying that Tony was a child prodigy and I was so proud of him."
"I don't think that you showed it to him."
"Yes, I realized that. I'm… I'm not very good with showing affection and I have always gotten too caught up in my work. Then it was working on your shield and after Tony manifested as a warlock, I felt afraid for him. I'm fully aware of the prejudice that warlocks face, most rightly so, but Tony didn't deserve any of it and I was afraid that if it was found out…"
Howard let out a mirthless chuckle, looking like he had aged ten years in an instant.
"I panicked. I didn't want my son to be exposed to the way society thought of warlocks and I also didn't want him in contact with the shield, because Good magical energy never interacted well with the darker energies that warlocks manipulated. I was afraid that Tony's curiosity would cause him to get injured and so I reacted thoughtlessly. So in the end, in wanting to protect him, I ended up ostracizing him even more. I always meant to make amends but by then, Tony had given up on reaching out towards me and rebuffed my attempts to engage him.
"Then Maria passed away and…" Howard closed his eyes, taking a fortifying breath before continuing, "And I was in a very bad place. I turned to drinking, excessive amounts of drinking for days. I neglected Tony during those days after the wake and the funeral. When I finally got my head out of the bottle and realized that I needed to see to my son, he was gone. No note, nothing. I looked for him. But the longer he stayed missing, I started to realize that Tony didn't want to be found. So I… decided to let him go. He was never really happy here. Only Maria and Jarvis treated him normally and showed their love for him. I thought… I thought that he'd be better off free, not tied to the Stark name. Not tied to me.
"Now that Tony's back but with a fatal curse, I just… I was hit by the realization that I could've lost my son permanently any time over those seven years and I would never have even known."
"You love him, Howard," Steve said gently, unable to be not affected by his mentor's confession. It still did not make up for the neglect Howard had showed Tony, but there was still a chance for Howard to make a difference. "You can't undo the past but there's still the present. You shouldn't be hiding yourself away to drink again. Tony's still alive, there's still time and I can't speak for Tony so I don't know if he'll forgive you, but you… you owe it to him to find a way to dispel the curse."
"I… I know, Steve. I… Thank you, I needed that wake up call. It was just overwhelming to find him again."
"Have you actually seen him?"
"If you can count the scrying device I used."
After Tony had revealed his identity, Steve had noticed the similarities that Howard and Tony shared. Right now, it was even more obvious and he wondered how he'd missed the signs for such a long time.
"Go pay him a proper visit. Though I can't guarantee that Natasha won't threaten you in some way."
"Is she Tony's girl?"
A laugh startled itself out of Steve. "Oh no, no. They're friends and Natasha started out by working for him. Tony's generally known by another name now. You might have heard of the warlock Antonius?"
Howard blinked. "That… that was Tony?"
"Yes but don't worry, he's now more focused on blacksmithing and inventing things," he assured Howard, guessing that Howard was thinking once again about how Tony had been in a dangerous line of work and could've died in battle with himself being none the wiser. "He has two other friends who help him run his business and town."
A soft smile, unlike the ones Steve had ever seen on Howard's face, curved the older man's lips. "He's done well for himself, hasn't he?"
Steve saw the quiet wonder and pride from both his mentor's eyes and his tone of voice. At the same time there was the faintest hint of a deep-rooted regret that Howard hadn't been there beside Tony and hadn't seen it happen for himself. But most importantly, Steve could now see the resolve in Howard to help his son and begin the journey towards reconciliation and making amends.
"Yeah, he has," he agreed.
"You'll make a good advisor and mentor to someone one day, Steve."
He felt a blush rise to his cheeks at Howard's words and finally realized that he had been, essentially, lecturing his own mentor for the better part of their conversation. But Howard seemed to be in genuinely good spirits or at least, better spirits than before, and so Steve decided that he didn't have to worry.
Howard didn't wait for Steve to reply before the man stood up. "Okay, I've wasted enough time as it is. I'll be joining Mr. Banner in the library."
"I'm the last person who should tell you this but Steve, you should take a rest. It's been an eventful day. I may send Mr. Banner away from the library soon too."
"Steve, just rest for now. You've done much already. Thank you for bringing my son back."
Knowing that he would not be allowed to help until the next day, Steve backed down gracefully. "You're welcome."
To say that he was surprised to find himself opening his eyes again and not see the equivalent of an afterlife was an understatement. A very large one. Tony had willingly stayed behind to buy his friends enough time to evacuate before the destabilized portal collapsed on itself and brought everything else down with it. Though he'd tried to make his way out, he also had been fully prepared to die despite having promised Natasha to come back out alive. When it came down to the line, when it was a choice between his life and those of his friends… There really wasn't a choice.
His body felt sluggish and weak. He was tucked into a plush, four-poster bed that seemed really familiar and when he could manage to move his head to take in the rest of his surroundings, he was once again surprised. Though it had been years since he'd been anywhere near this place, he now recognized where he was at once. It was… it was his room back in the Stark family home. How was this even possible? Was he actually dead then? So was this some form of twisted punishment for the things that he'd done?
Before he could really start to panic, however, he heard the door to his room open. In short order, Steve appeared at the edges of his field of vision. Steve. Was this also a hallucination?
"Tony! You're awake!" Steve exclaimed, a bright and relieved smile lighting up his face.
The blond hurried over to his bedside and Tony couldn't help but just stare. The sunlight filtering into the room through the gap between the drawn curtains lit up Steve's hair in mesmerizing golden streaks and it looked just like how it did when he'd seen it in the past. Did that mean…?
"I'm… I'm not dead, right?"
Steve shook his head though the smile on his face dimmed a little, and Tony, strangely enough (well, it was not really that strange, to be honest), mourned that slight loss. Steve looked great when he smiled and Tony really wouldn't mind seeing it for a lot longer.
"No, you're not. Or at least, you didn't stay dead."
Well, that sounded ominous. Kind of. "What happened?"
"We found you in the rubble of the destroyed fortress but you weren't breathing. Then Fury appeared-"
"Did you just say the God of War appeared? After everything was over?" The outrage was clear in his voice.
"He brought you back to life, Tony," Steve gently admonished, probably guessing why exactly he was upset. "But you were still unconscious so we were transported back to Mainheim and the rest of us found out that you had been cursed. With Howard's help, Bruce managed to dispel it eventually. It's been two weeks since then and we've all been worried sick."
Though he registered that two weeks was quite a period of time to be in a coma, Tony couldn't help but zero in on one specific part of Steve's speech. "Howard? Dad helped?"
"Yes, he did," Steve confirmed.
There was a pause as Tony tried to process what he'd just learnt. That his father had been concerned enough to help. Or even if he'd needed persuasion… Another Stark family trait that Tony had inherited was definitely stubbornness. Nobody made a Stark do something he or she didn't want to, even if they hadn't know they'd wanted to do it at first. Which still meant that…
"When you're feeling better," Steve added a moment later. "I really think that the two of you should talk."
"I… I guess." Honestly, he was still a little gobsmacked at the implication.
"Tony, why did you keep the curse a secret?"
There was probably never going to be a good time to bring it up, so Tony decided that he might as well have that conversation over and done with. Steve had so kindly brought it up after all.
"It's not much consolation, I know, but only Bruce knew about it and you were the only other person to even have an inkling that I wasn't physically as well as I appeared to be. It's just… I spent a long time not being allowed to show weakness to anybody, of being ashamed of any vulnerabilities. It's still hard to shake that feeling, Steve. I'm sorry."
"You promised Natasha that you would come back out."
He winced slightly. Natasha was going to be pissed at him for actually dying, even if he was now alive again. "I know, I'm really sorry. I tried. It wasn't in my intentions to deliberately get killed, I swear."
"Yes, I know that. I really thought I'd lost you and that I wouldn't be able to tell you."
"Tell me what, Steve?"
Steve did not reply immediately and for a moment, Tony thought that perhaps Steve would not speak at all, that perhaps Steve hadn't meant to say what he had. But he was proven wrong.
"I feared that I wouldn't be able to tell you that I love you."
Tony thought that perhaps he had misheard Steve. He had just woken up from coming back from the dead and having a fatal curse removed after all. Perhaps not all of his senses were working properly. But Steve continued to speak.
"This is probably not the best time for me to tell you, but… But when you were dead, when you were actually dead, that was my greatest regret. Not letting you know how I feel about you and then it was too late. So when Fury brought you back, I couldn't let that happen again. It doesn't matter if you don't feel the same way, you don't have to say anything. I just… I just wanted you to know."
It was almost surreal. He'd thought he'd lost his chance with Steve when he'd blacked out in the fortress. Never had he dreamt that Steve would be the one confessing to him instead.
"Sit down. On the bed, yes."
Steve complied with his demand, although he looked mildly confused. But Tony was now going to take a leaf out of Steve's book (or rather, his own book before he died and then got brought back to life). He wasn't going to let any more chances be lost.
"Okay, now kiss me."
"Tony?" Steve questioned, but Tony could see the hope lighting up in his azure eyes.
"Kiss. Me," he repeated with deliberate punctuation, unable to keep the smile from his lips now.
And then Tony had Steve's lips covering his own, and it was the best feeling in the world.
There would probably still be many things to work out and not all of it directly involved Steve. For those that did, the main one would be that he needed to tell Steve how he'd gotten cursed in the first place, if Steve hadn't already gotten his answers from Bruce. He wasn't going to lie to Steve anymore. It was not going to be an easy ride, because, as they had proven the first time they'd met, they had opposing temperaments. But it was also because of that that made them click, because they complemented each other.
It would all be worth it, no matter what else happened. It would, and that was all that mattered.
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