A weak man knows the value of strength.
An undisclosed location – present day
The worst thing about it was that this wasn't a conversation he'd be having with almost any other Bad Guy he could think of. None of them was like this, none of them saddened Tony in this way.
He knew who the Commander was, everyone he could think of who mattered either knew or had figured it out.
“I'm not a fool, Director,” the Commander said softly, and Tony didn't turn his head to see him. He didn't need to, the Commander wasn't like other men. Tony didn't need to watch him every second, didn't need to fear an attack while his back was turned.
The Commander had honour. Pride. He had been a good man once.
“I know you've been tracking us,” he said, “I'm just surprised you seem to think I didn't know about it.”
“I wouldn't say that,” Tony answered, and his ribs were sore. He tried to suppress his wince but he must have failed, because the Commander held a small tumbler of amber liquid in front of him, his strong hands clad in brown leather, fingerless gloves to provide him with protection and dexterity. He was a smart man, which had been one of SHIELD's biggest problems so far. And practical, which had been another one. “No, thank you, I don't drink.”
The corner of the Commander's mouth turned up; he was an attractive man. Strong jaw, endearing smile, eyes that were so blue. And in a different life...
“Surely you don't think me that inattentive a host?” the Commander said softly, holding the glass a little closer. “It's iced tea, Director.”
Tony frowned at the glass in the Commander's hand, cutting his eyes up to meet the Commander's gaze and finding something in his eyes that he couldn't define. It wasn't fondness, or familiarity, and it wasn't pity. It was civility, and Tony realized it was more than he'd expected.
Tony raised his cuffed hands and took the tumbler from the Commander's hands with a small nod of thanks. He missed the sharpness he was expecting when he took the first sip – it was peach, not lemon, and wasn't that the Commander all over? But it was, just as the Commander had informed him, only iced tea. Not whiskey, not brandy.
“I apologise for your treatment thus far,” the Commander told him, flicking long, elegant fingers toward Tony's midsection. Tony knew he was still hunched over his sore ribs. He took another mouthful of iced tea and held the glass out to the Commander, who took it back. “You know how employees in my line of work can be, they use a certain code of conduct. And, I admit, their...enthusiasm isn't without merit.” The Commander drew a chair up close and turned it around to straddle it. “It can be useful at times.”
Tony was aware of that. SHIELD had never shied away from using force if they had to, and the Commander had a reputation for it, too. He held by his own code of conduct, though – he might rough up a little guy or two, but they never found an innocent or a weakling beaten to death in the harbor. The Commander didn't do things that way – not that he was a nice man.
It twisted something in Tony's chest each time he admitted that to himself.
But there was something about the Commander left over from a long time ago, something that still stayed his hand when others would deal their blows and be done. He threatened – his very presence was threatening. He was tall, very broad, very muscled, and he was charming. In general, he seemed like a very nice young man and watching the ease with which he drew a gun – Tony had seen it – and the ease with which he could shoot a man in the skull – Tony had seen that too – was terrifying.
The Commander didn't often smile. It would depend on his mood, of course – he was almost a different man at this particular moment, with smiling as part of his charisma. But Tony had seen him in action. He went after the people who deserved it and he didn't bat an eyelid putting them down. No trial, no judge, no jury.
Just the Commander.
But he could be logical, rational, too. “But they don't seem to understand that you're not like all those petty little troublemakers. You should have been treated the way you deserve, Director, and I'll see to it that fact is made clear to my men.”
His words took the temperature down a few degrees – from anyone else, from half the people under Tony, that might have meant 'I'll talk to them, they'll be retrained.' That wasn't what it meant coming from the Commander.
“And there's no reason I can't be civil.”
Tony smiled a little, folding his cuffed hands in his lap. He knew what that meant, he'd heard it so many times before. There was no reason the Commander wouldn't be civil if Tony cooperated. And Tony was no stranger to what would happen if he refused, either.
“What happened to you?” he said, because he was going to get beaten, possibly tortured and probably killed anyway so why not ask? He'd always been curious, this might be his last chance to find out.
The Commander turned to look at him.
“War. Pain. Anger. Losing everyone and everything and waking to a disease-riddled world only to be lied to and used, Director, take your pick.”
“My pick?” Tony answered. “You fell a long way,”
“I was pushed,” the Commander answered easily. “And life is simpler when you don't have to watch people suffer because of red tape and negligence. Vigilantism is a slippery slope, I'll give you that, but I wouldn't trade it. Certainly not for you.”
Tony couldn't help what he says next, though he knew it's a bad idea. It wasn't as though he didn't hear the words coming out of his mouth and regret them, though. There was nothing accidental about the way his words were calculated.
“The Captain wouldn't have approved, I take i-”
Tony heard the sound before the pain registered, head whipped to one side as the Commander backhanded him viciously. He was bleeding, he felt that, it smeared salt and copper over his lip, made his nose feel as though it was running.
The Commander's hands were stronger than Tony anticipated – even though he knew to expect as much. There was the anger he'd been hiding, and Tony still felt that the Commander was two men; one charming and the other ruthless.
The Commander's eyes were darker, his jaw tighter.
“Perhaps your father would,” he answered. And whether that was true or not, it stung more than the slap.
“No,” Tony answered anyway. “I'm pretty sure he preferred the Captain. You know, I had your posters all over my wall-”
“He did a poor job of finding me, just the way you and your lackeys have have,” the Commander answers. “One more in a long list of Stark failures. You might have had the Captain's posters, so did a million others. It means nothing.”
“You were a hero,” Tony answered.
The chair clattered off to one side so quickly that Tony barely understood the noise before the Commander's fist was clenched in his hair, wrenching his head back.
“Then I should have been treated like one, we all should. And instead, I was lost. They were forgotten. I understood weakness before you were born, Director. I have been useless. I have been helpless. No more.” He punctuated this with a shake of Tony's head, his fingers tight in Tony's hair, and Tony winced.
There was a long moment of silence, and then the Commander moved away, produced the glass from somewhere.
“Have you had enough to drink?”
Two different men, Tony understood. One of them was old inside, his kindness worn away by hopelessness and anger and despair.
The other was insane.
The blow snapped Tony's head to the side but it was about all he could manage. With his cuffed hands on the hook high over his head, his whole body was open to the Commander's blows, and the Commander took full advantage.
“One of the things I like about you most,” the Commander said with a smile, “is that I don't need the old rhetoric with you.”
Tony, his chest heaving, cracked ribs creaking, managed to smile through the blood in his mouth. He knew it stained his teeth, dribbled down his chin, but the Commander was right after all.
“I guess I know it all anyway?” he rasped, and the Commander flashed him a smile.
“Well I would have thought you'd at least know the basics.”
Tony closed his eyes a moment, leaning his temple against his bicep as he tried to get his breath back. “ 'Tell me and I'll stop,' right?” he breathed.
“Mmm,” the Commander answered. “If you want a break, though, let me know. I can get you something to drink.”
Tony's head was spinning. They hadn't moved, that wasn't the Commander's style. He didn't do cells or dungeons. They were simply in the same big, white room except that Tony was standing now. And the brown fingerless leather gloves had been replaced by tape – Tony had watched the Commander bind it, and he'd known what he was doing.
It was as much an intimidation technique as preparation – of course it would bolster the Commander's hands. But the anticipation, the slow methodical nature of it, was at least as much for show, to make Tony nervous, as it was to save his own bones.
The Commander's knuckles were raw by now, too, but it didn't seem to bother him.
And the offer of a break only meant the Commander knew Tony wouldn't tell him anything.
“You knew I knew you were tracking us,” the Commander told him, and soft, cool cloth was at his lips a moment later, swiping under his nose, cleaning his chin. “Did you know I was aware you'd hacked into my network?”
Tony's eyes opened slowly. So that was his game – it was a simple 'What does SHIELD know?' and Tony had been expecting this.
“They'll come for me,” he said softly.
“You don't want to get infected,” the Commander said, ignoring his words completely. “That would be unfortunate.” And the cloth dabbed at the split in his lip. He chased it with his tongue, wanting the moisture, and the Commander tutted softly. “Water,” he said. “You should tell me these things.”
He snapped his fingers and someone in a nice looking suit – a little like Hawkeye's actually – ran over to pass him a bottle of Evian. The Commander looked at it and rolled his eyes. “Paying for what should come freely,” he said, sarcasm dripping from his voice. “There's a change.” And he unscrewed the easy-pop cap instead of just popping it. Which was a strange consideration – Tony wouldn't manage the pop-cap with his lip split the way it was.
But then, the damp cloth had a strange consideration, too – it didn't match the charming or the psychotic personae.
“Open your mouth,” the Commander told him, and Tony did, barely flinching when the Commander tilted his head up with one hand under his chin. “Spit the first mouthful.”
The water was cool, almost sweet, and the Commander didn't give him too much that he choked. He tilted the bottle, a little at a time, so that Tony got enough to wash away the blood, and Tony spat because it made sense. He avoided the Commander's boots purely by chance, but the wry grin he got in return seemed without malice.
He got three mouthfuls to swallow, and it helped a little. It cleared his throat, and his head, enough that he could watch the Commader give the bottle back to whichever henchman before he turned back to Tony.
“Would you like a little longer?” he said. “I'm happy to talk.”
“Depends,” Tony answered. “You gonna hit me for asking questions?”
“Depends on the question,” the Commander told him, but he was still smiling. “What do you want to know?”
Tony wet his lips, breathing so heavily that they were dry again already. “You said before,” he said, “when I asked, that you were lied to and used.”
The Commander's smile faded and Tony braced himself for another punch to the ribs, but it didn't come.
“Let me ask you something,” the Commander said. “And bear with me, I'm getting to your point.”
Tony nodded slowly, as though they were two friends sharing a coffee over the kitchen table, and the Commander smiled in what looked like gratitude.
“Humanity goes to war with itself more times than anyone wants to admit,” he said, beginning to unwind the tape on his left hand. “And the men who fight are...changed. Wouldn't you agree?”
Tony nodded again. Some men came back from places like Afghanistan as though they'd never left. Some stayed in the army because they couldn't stand everyday life. Some went crazy – became murderers, thieves, wife-beaters. They ranged from unaffected to clinically insane, but so did the general population. Tony understood the point, though.
“So there are protocols in place these days,” the Commander continued, dumping the tape on a small metal table. There were no implements on it, no scalpels or hooks or drills, though Tony didn't doubt that's what it was really for. “War does terrible things to people. You lose your life or you lose everyone else. I lost my world, too, and when I woke up, do you know what they told me?”
Tony shook his head.
He was lying – everyone at SHIELD knew. It had been a colossal fubar of a situation – badly researched, badly handled. But if the Commander wanted to talk instead of hit – and he was winding fresh tape around his hand already, even as he spoke – then Tony wouldn't begrudge him telling the tale.
“They told me it had been weeks,” he said, his voice hollower, his smile empty, cold. “They said I'd recover. Of course, they didn't bother researching the date of my death well enough, and I said before, I'm no fool. I was naïve once, but no more. And I broke out.”
And went back, Tony didn't add.
“Now, these protocols,” the Commander sighed, “they're available to anyone who might need them, enforced when necessary. They provide a counsellor, or a padre. They talk to you. And you know what I got instead?”
Tony swallowed hard and looked down. Everyone knew what Steve Rogers received in place of protocol.
“You know, don't you?” the Commander murmured, sympathy in his voice.
Tony could only nod, and the Commander continued anyway.
“One manilla folder containing the files of every man and woman I served with,” he said, “one thorough and invasive medical examination, one crummy apartment, and radio silence. Of course, I got a promotion too, maybe because I wasn't allowed to keep anything from my old life.”
“That wouldn't be the case now,” Tony told him, as little as it would help to say so when it was so obviously too late.
The Commander smiled tightly. “I know. You're a better Director than Fury ever was.” And then he set the tape down again, flexing his fingers to test the bindings. “I had to pay for a gym membership myself, mind you,” he said. “And it was a good decision at the time. But it wasn't enough - do you understand what I'm telling you?”
“They told you that you were still in your own time,” Tony answered. “And when you found out you weren't, you were left to deal with everything by yourself.”
“You have to understand, I had no-one,” the Commander said, as though it might have absolved him somehow. “There was so much wrong, so much hatred. My world was gone, my friends, my family, everything. Even when you lose everything, you keep the world you live in. But I lost that too.”
“I can't imagine what it must have been like,” Tony told him, and the Commander shook his head.
“No,” he answered. “You can't. Nobody could. But then, nobody tried, either. Do you know why I'm telling you this?”
Tony shook his head. “No,” he said.
“Because I want you to know that this is SHIELD's fault. Your fault. This could have been prevented.”
Tony's heart sank. It had long been said that a man could change if he only wanted to change, and he'd held out hope for a moment that maybe he could get through to the Commander using that. But it seemed the Commander only wanted to justify himself. The worst part was, Tony couldn't say he would have reacted any differently.
“You needed help,” Tony said, and the Commander's eyes narrowed. Maybe, Tony thought, the Commander took that as an insult, and Tony didn't want that – because it wasn't true and because the Commander taking it for truth would only make things worse. “And nobody gave it.”
The Commander's expression cleared as he nodded. “But then I discovered that it was for the best anyhow,” he said. “What good would I have been dressed as a flag in a world too busy festering in its own petty wants and desires to see the bigger picture? No. This way, I can find those deserving of everything I have to give.”
Tony suppressed a shiver. He knew the kinds of punishment the Commander meted out, and it wasn't merciful. And still there were those who supported his actions, those who looked on the horrible, repulsive ways he left criminals as some twisted kind of justice.
“I know what kind of things you do,” he said. “And I know you get a lot of support but-”
“They're idiots,” the Commander answered. “The people who cheer and scream for a man like me are blind. I don't deny what I am. But if I can put a bullet in the knees and between the eyes of a man who shot an eighty-year-old shop clerk for thirty dollars, if I can find a man whose treatment scams ruin the lives of the sick children he claims to help and relieve him of his kidneys, if I can make the world a better place by ridding it of the people infecting it, can you truly tell me I'm doing wrong?”
“Yes,” Tony said instantly, trying not to picture those things, and the Commander smiled sadly.
“It's all so black and white for you, isn't it?” he said, and then he stepped forward, cracking his knuckles. “How much does SHIELD know about my organization? Will you tell me?”
Tony closed his eyes for a moment.
“I take it my break is over?” he asked.
The Commander looked sad somehow. “I'll take that as a no,” he said, and pulled back his fist.
“You and I would have made a wonderful team,” the Commander said softly, easing Tony back into his chair with the same caution he might show an injured bird.
“We still could,” Tony answered, his voice thick, his head pounding.
The Commander chuckled, uncuffing one wrist to bend Tony's arms back, cuffing them behind his back instead. “And by taking your side, I wouldn't have to atone? I don't think so.”
Reason never worked with the Commander but Tony always tried, he had to. This man was more than The Commander. There was someone else buried deep inside his heart, cold though it had come to be, and Tony couldn't find him, as hard as he always tried.
And if he never admitted to himself that it was guilt, that would be his own lookout.
Not that the Commander would forget.
“Why did you go with Commander?” he said, as the Commander produced a small silver tin from somewhere.
“It was my rank,” the Commander answered, opening the tin to fetch out a cigarette, and Tony was mildly surprised. Of course, the Commander had nothing to worry about, the toxins from a cigarette wouldn't affect him, just as the nicotine wouldn't, just as sedatives wouldn't, just as anaesthesia never had. “When I come from, rank was something to be respected.”
Tony was just about to say you mean where you come from, but he realized that the Commander had said exactly what he meant to say.
“Your time seems to have lost that respect,” the Commander murmured, striking a match on the side of the tin, and he must have read the surprise in Tony's expression. “I like the smell,” he said softly, casually, “all the boys used to smoke.”
And Tony didn't ask if he meant the boys on his block or the boys in his platoon. He figured the Commander wouldn't like the question either way.
As it was, the Commander straddled a chair again, and Tony wondered if he was about to become a human ashtray. As far as he knew, he'd never set anyone on fire, so stabbing him with the business end of a cigarette wouldn't really have in the Commander's line of poetic justice, but it was hard to tell with a man like him. A man like the man he'd become.
“Do you smoke?”
And Tony didn't, but he also wasn't back at base by now, which meant either that his tracker had failed, or there was a dampening signal, or something stupid like that. Basically, his plan hadn't worked and now he'd gone from acting as bait to being in serious trouble.
“No,” he croaked, “not for years. But I can't ask you for a drink, now, can I?” He tried to keep his tone light but suspected he's failing at that, too.
“Not if it's alcoholic, Tony, I'm not out to ruin all those years of hard work.”
And there it was again, the baffling kindness, the completely-out-of-left-field regard for his life, the unwarranted and frankly unnecessary respect. The Commander was completely in charge, he could have doused Tony in a vat of gin if he wanted, but he chose not to.
“And giving me a cigarette doesn't count?”
“Letting you smoke one doesn't, because you're probably not going to run out and buy a carton, now, are you? One drink, and you're off the wagon. One cigarette and you might just feel a little better.”
Tony probably wasn't going to get to run out anywhere even if he wanted to, but he saw the Commander's point, saw the gesture as it was meant – however strange it was that the Commander should mean such a thing.
“I guess so.”
And so the Commander reached out, turning the cigarette over in his fingers so that the filter was just within Tony's reach – neither of them was a fool. A cigarette could be weapon enough, and the Commander kept it out of reach – not that he needed to. Where the Commander's knuckles were grazed, Tony's wrists were chafed bloody, his nose still trickling blood, his face still aching and stinging, his body still in pain.
He took a drag, inhaling the smoke, and got a moment of remembered pleasure before he was coughing, so hard he thought his lungs would split.
“Water?” the Commander asked, and Tony shook his head.
“No, I'm...” he rasped, “that's not necessary. Thank you.”
And the Commander waited, to see if Tony wanted another drag. When it became apparent that he didn't, the Commander took it back, smoking it for himself.
“You know, I was unfair before,” he said, and Tony lifted his head a little, squinting through the blood running into his eye. “When I said it was your fault.”
And Tony let his head fall back again, chin to his chest. “It was all of us,” he said, and Steve chuckled darkly.
“It was SHIELD,” he answered. “And...well, I don't need to tell you who else now, do I?”
Slowly, Tony shook his head. No, the Commander didn't need to tell him. He remembered perfectly well.
In the air above Manhattan, seven years ago – one year after the battle of New York.
“Are you kidding me, J.A.R.V'?” Tony muttered, his head's up display showing him the map of Manhattan he'd requested. Half the grid was red, colored dots corresponding to each of the Avengers showing bright in the middle of it all.
“I regret not, Sir, J.A.R.V.I.S answered. “Schmidt has indeed taken the upper quarter, and Commander Rogers is with him.”
Tony hissed through his teeth, breaking left as another drone locked onto him. “Derive and intercept,” he said.
“The suit's defensive systems are still rebooting, Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S answered.
He cursed under his breath, pulling a harder turn than he would have liked in an effort to get the drone to chase him into a building.
It didn't work.
“Dammit! How long until I've got countermeasures!?”
“Ten seconds and counting, Sir.”
Tony slammed on the airbrakes and headed up, back, in a giant loop until he was heading back towards the upper quarter, the suit's proximity and lock-on alarms blaring in his ears. “J.A.R.V.I.S, intercept it,” he groaned through the g-forces, breaking right this time, rolling into a new trajectory, “J.A.R.V.I.S, intercept, now!”
“Two, one, J.A.R.V.I.S answered and suddenly there it was, the blue and white of his countermeasure system.
“INTERCEPT!” he yelled, and the suit shot a repulsor-driven missile of it's own right back into the chasing weapon. The blast drove him forward, screwed up the suit's internal gyro for a moment or five and, when Tony regained control, it was just in time to avoid his own damned tower. “Lock on to Cap's signature, we're headed there. Cap?”
There was a crackle of static, a noise that sounded like a gong and then Cap's voice, strained and irritated, hissed through the comms system. “Not a good time, Stark!” And Tony figured he must be busy, or else he'd be reminding Tony of his new rank. Cap was more of a nickname to the rest of the Avengers, but Cap didn't like that they still called him it when he was a Commander by rights.
“Whatever,” Tony answered. “Hold tight, I'm coming to get you.”
The tiny blue and black figured of Cap and Schmidt were too close together for Tony to assist with any kind of fire-power – aiming for Schmidt would risk hitting Cap and, Supersoldier healing factor or no, he wasn't about to risk that. Fury would kill him.
“NO!” Cap yelled. “No, his whole mech is rigged to blow, don't-”
And Tony adjusted, coming down instead maybe half a block away, not even that – between Schmidt and his mech, cutting off his escape route instead.
“Stark what the hell are you doing!?” Cap's voice asked, just as Schmidt turned to look at Tony.
The expression on his face wasn't one Tony particularly wanted to see again – somewhere between absolute hatred and manic delight – but then he didn't really like Schmidt's face at the best of times.
“Cool it, Cap,” Tony answered. “This isn't about you and me – my suit can take whatever he's rigged in there. You? Not so much.”
He heard Cap's answering growl, and then Cap was running forward, the lunatic, launching himself at Schmidt and-
No, dammit! Then they were on each other again and Tony could have taken Schmidt out if Cap had just left it to him, if Cap had just stayed back and out of the way. He surged forward, pulling Schmidt out of Cap's grasp to throw him, clean through the air and straight back into the armored legs of his own giant robot where he fell to the ground in a heap.
Tony expected a reprimand at best, and screaming match about stealing Cap's fight seened more likely, but, when he turned back to Cap, Cap was holding a small black box in his right hand, staring at it as though he couldn't believe that it was real. Tony knew what it was, and evidently Cap knew too – he must have taken it from Schmidt while he was distracted.
And Tony frowned, aware that his expression was still hidden by the faceplate. “Cap,” he said. “What the hell are you doing?”
But Cap didn't even look at him, still staring at the little black box until he looked up, past Tony, straight to Schmidt.
Schmidt was moving now, stiffly – being thrown into a metal wall never did a body any favors – and he dragged himself up to stand even as Tony made to move towards Cap.
“I could kill you,” Cap answered, and Tony was confused until he realized that it wasn't him Cap was talking to. “Flick of a button, Schmidt, and it's over. I can kill you right now.”
“You? No. You are weak,” The Red Skull told him, “and you have always been.”
Cap lifted his head a little, flicked the cap at the top of the box. “You'd say that to the guy holding your life in his hands?”
Tony narrowed his eyes, stepping to one side until he could see both of them. This didn't feel right, this wasn't right at all. If he had any sense, he'd go to Steve, take the little black box – the goddamned detonator from him. And still, a part of him wanted to see what Cap would do with it.
And the Red Skull smirked, a terrifying twist of his mouth as his eyes shone. “I say this to you, Captain America,” he answered. “The 'Kid from Brooklyn.' The man whose stupidity took everything from him, who hesitation means his friends are gone, whose life is eradicated because he was always imperfect, because he is weak. I say this to you. You will never have the strength to defeat me.”
And Cap stared at him, stared and stared, unblinking, unmoving.
And then he pushed the button.
The explosion, Tony remembered, didn't reach as far as he'd expected. And in the ringing silence that followed, as the smoke cleared to reveal a crater the size of a building, Cap stared, his mouth hanging open.
He looked down at the detonator, back up at the smoking crater, and then he leaned forward, shoulders trembling. It took Tony longer than it should have to realize that Cap was laughing.
It started almost silently, almost nothing at all, and it rose until it hysterical, until it was echoing off the buildings, ringing in Tony's ears more than the explosion had. It made him want to cut off the comm link, made him want to rip off his helmet, made him want to run over to Cap and punch him in the face.
“AND!?” he yelled, unable to believe that Cap had really done what he'd done, unable to believe what the Red Skull had goaded him into. “DO YOU FEEL BETTER NOW, COMMANDER?”
And Cap's laughter stopped, smile dying, as though it had been cut off, as though a switch had been flicked.
As though a button had been pressed.
He swallowed hard, eyes shining beneath the cowl, as though he hadn't realized, as though he couldn't believe it either.
“No,” he said.
Cap didn't show when the Quinjet landed.
He didn't show up for debriefing, didn't come to the tower when Tony suggested it that evening. His phone went straight to voicemail, his emails went unanswered. And, three days later, when Tony snagged Cap's address off SHIELD's system, and went there himself, the door was ajar.
The inside had been ransacked – Cap's furniture smashed, his pictures crushed, his paintings and his drawings slashed and torn, everything that hadn't been nailed down in complete disarray where it wasn't in pieces.
And Cap, Commander Rogers, was gone.
It hadn't been long after the death of the Skull that he'd gone after Fury. The Avengers, of course, were on their way, but it had been too late by the time they reached them.
Fury's body, Cap's bloody shield, and the Commander had never been the same.
“I'm never going to forget the look in your eyes when you saw me the first time,” The Commander told him, and Tony lifted his head to get a good look at him now. “When you were called out to fight an enemy and I stood before you.”
“You went insane,” he said softly.
“Or maybe I saw things clearly for the first time in my life. Fury was the worst kind of man and he didn't deserve to live. I can make the world a better place, why shouldn't I?”
“I wish I could have done things differently,” Tony answered. “I'd do them differently if I had the chance. Don't you see? You're better than this!”
“I am what you made me!” the Commander answered. “I am broken and lost and, in the ruins of the man you people shattered, I found myself. I am the First Avenger.”
“Captain America was the First Avenger. You're nothing compared to him.”
And Tony knew the hit was coming, knew that the Commander could be goaded into doing something like it. He didn't care, even as he heard his nose break.
“How dare you speak to me as though you knew me?” the Commander said, his voice low and soft, dangerously quiet. “How dare you tell me what I was and how dare you even begin to think you know enough to understand me now?”
“It's pretty simple,” Tony answered thickly. “You were a good man.”
He saw the anger flare in the Commander's eyes, watched the tiny orange light of the cigarette sail away as the Commander threw it to free his hands to grasp the front of Tony's uniform.
“Don't call me that, Director, you wouldn't know what those words mean.”
“They meant what you stood for!”
“I stand for something greater now!” the Commander told him, shaking Tony hard. And then he seemed to soften, to smile even without smiling. “And I'll stand for something greater still.”
He drew away, gesturing to one of the men still lining the huge hall of a room, who scurried forward with a silver briefcase in hand.
A chill ran down Tony's spine – he knew that kind of case. Cases like that were SHIELD issued – lined with lead and magic and God only knew how many other things that were meant to keep their cargo safe.
“SHIELD's studies were useful to me,” the Commander told him, taking the case from the lackey and setting it down on the little metal table. “I don't know if you're aware I got into your systems – but then you wouldn't have thought it of someone like me, would you? You thought the world advanced too far for me while I was...doing time as a capsicle, isn't that right, Director?”
Tony swallowed hard.
“And I made friends in high places,” the Commander continued.
“Very high,” Tony answered. “From what I understand, you've got someone right at the top, don't you?”
“Tony,” the Commander murmured. “Is that jealousy?” Tony clenched his jaw but the Commander smiled. “Really?” he said, watching Tony with a gleeful grin on his face. And then he laughed. “You're jealous of some high-level lackey?”
“We know about the mole,” Tony answered. “We just haven't found them yet.”
“Well you won't find them now,” the Commander chuckled. “It's far too late for that.”
“What, you're having them recalled?” Tony scoffed. “I'll know who's missing, I'll be able to-”
“You won't anything,” the Commander said sourly, an expression not dissimilar to a sneer on his face, “You think you're going back to them? You think I'm fool enough to let you go? No, Director, you're too smart for that.” And then he straightened up, flicking the clasps on the briefcase. “Which is why I'm changing things to suit me.”
“Monologuing?” Tony said, frowning at the Commander. “Really?”
The Commander laughed a little, pausing before he actually opened the case, to look at Tony. “It's not so much a monologue as a business proposition.”
Tony raised one eyebrow, as the Commander let go of the case to turn to him instead, and licked his lip where the split was drying, where it was tugging at sore skin as it tried to heal. “Let me guess,” Tony said. “We can rule the galaxy as father and son?”
The Commander laughed outright this time, tugging at the front of Tony's uniform. “This from the man jealous of a mole,” he said. “Why is that, Director? Is it because something of mine was brought close to you?” He leaned a little closer, unfastening the clasps. “Because I found my way in? Because I wormed my way into your life without your permission, because I took from you without asking?”
And Tony feels his face flush – there's nothing he can do to stop it. He knows exactly what the Commander is talking about.
It had been once, after a particularly bad mission, after Pepper had gone, after so many things and it shouldn't have happened no matter how much Tony wanted it because neither of them were in the right place for it.
“Remember what I said, Director,” the Commander tells him. It's not a question, the Commander knows he can't forget.
“You said you loved me,” Tony answered, and he could hear the words even now, hear the hitch in Cap's breath, feel the bite of his fingers as he held Tony close, burying his face in Tony's throat. He could still feel the tremor in Cap's body, still hear the roughness in his voice, and the way his whole body had suddenly understood.
Cap hadn't meant it as a one-time thing, Cap had invested one hell of a lot more than Tony had been ready for.
“And you said?” the Commander murmured.
And Tony's first instinct had always been to run. So he'd run, he'd excused himself and made his exit, his one backward glance showing Steve in the darkness, eyes wide and glittering, expression empty and hopeless. He looked as though someone had torn out his hope, as though Tony had made his way into Steve's life without permission and taken his heart without asking.
“I said we'd talk about it later.”
The Commander nodded. “And here we are,” he said. “This is us, talking about it later.” He pushed the dark material of Tony's uniform to one side, baring his skin, and Tony tensed, squeezing his eyes shut as he turned his head away.
“Don't,” he whispered, and the Commander's hand stilled, not even touching him – not yet.
There was silence for a long time and, when Tony opened his eyes, the Commander hadn't even moved, his fingers still almost against Tony's skin.
“Do you really think I could?” he whispered, his voice strained. “Do you honestly expect that of me? You think that I would...”
Tony frowned up at him. “Why else would you-”
“I used your ribcage as a punching bag!” the Commander roared. “I was trying to check-- I would never-- Do you know what I do to men like that!?”
Tony knew, they all knew, they'd all been shown once when a man Tony didn't know, a civilian who'd committed countless crimes against women and children, was left skewered on a flagpole in Times Square, in a way that left no doubt about the nature of is crimes. Poetic justice, the Commander called that kind of thing. Tony called it barbarism.
“Fine,” the Commander muttered, tugging black gloves on this time, the brown fingerless leather ones tucked into the pocket of a long, black coat hung over the back of his chair. “If you want to sit there untreated, you be my guest. Hell, you are my guest and I have more important things to do.”
“Like kill people whose crimes could never match your own?” Tony bit out, but the Commander smiled, chuckled, and then laughed.
“Like this,” he said, turning the case towards Tony. And then he opened it. “I take it you remember what this is?”
And Tony's mouth fell open, his blood running cold. He'd seen the glow as soon as the Commander had opened the case, heard the whispering hum as soon as he'd been aware of it but this, this was bad, this was so much worse than anything he could think of.
“The...” Tony swallowed hard, his mouth dry, “Tesseract?”
“And all I have to do is touch it,” the Commander answered. “If I touch it once with my bare hand, reality reshapes itself around me, to my desires.”
“It disintegrated Schmidt once, do you really think-”
“Schmidt didn't understand it's power,” the Commander answered. “And Schmidt was the wrong kind of man.”
Tony lurched forward so hard the chair rocked for a moment. “You've become exactly the same!” he shouted. “Can't you see? You're exactly the same-”
“Not even you believe that, Stark,” the Commander answered. “No matter what I become, you'll never believe that.”
“Then is it worth the risk?” Tony countered. “Is it worth the risk that you'll shatter into a million pieces because your heart isn't pure enough for it?”
“It's worth everything!” the Commander shouted. “It's worth everything because there's a chance, just a chance, it will work! I never have to lose anybody, Stark, I never have to watch people I love fall away from me and die – I can have everything, I can have everyone! And you and I could-”
But what he and the Commander could do, Tony didn't hear; an alarm started blaring at that moment, loud and fast and the Commander snapped the briefcase closed reflexively, looking up, around, until a voice from the back of the room called out.
“Avengers!” it said. “They've found us!”
“A little faster than I intended,” the Commander answered, “we'll have to move.” He tugged his black trenchcoat on, picked up the briefcase in one hand, and grabbed the back of Tony's collar with the other, dragging him to his feet and dragging him alongside. “Get my chopper up,” he said, “I want to do this where he'll see.”
“You won't beat them,” Tony told him, gasping as each step jarred his injuries, “they won't let you escape.”
“I don't have to beat them,” the Commander answered, “and I don't need to escape to win.”
The rooftop was colder than Tony had anticipated, the wind from the chopper taking his breath away. Or maybe it was the pain, he couldn't tell any more. It came in waves now, pulsing over him with a throb that made his whole body weaker every time.
Around him and the Commander, the Commander's men raced for their own transport – some on sky-cycles, a few on the stolen Quinjet SHIELD had never managed to recover. But the Commander's repainted Black Hawk was hovering, a vision in white-striped shining navy blue, right next to the edge of the roof. It was a beautiful machine – remodelled for stealth, sleek and dark -
“Stop,” Tony gasped as the Commander pulled him closer to it, “I can't, please, Steve, stop...”
And, to Tony's amazement, the Commander did, his steps faltering before he turned around to face Tony, letting go to stare at him.
“Steve,” Tony said, “Steve, please, listen to me, you can't do this! You can't change the world just because-”
“Because I want it?” Steve said, and then he shook his head. “I was never meant to be here. I was never given a chance to live my life, but that ends now. I won't go back. If I go back, you might lose the battle of New York and then you're all dead, then everything I've worked for these past seven years is gone, but I can make it better. I can change the whole world, I can stop these people before they start, I could be the voice that unites this nation.”
“And who do we pledge allegiance to then?” Tony shouted over the noise from the chopper. “One nation under you?”
the Commander shook his head, reaching out to set one hand on Tony's shoulder. “Come with me,” he said. “Stand by me.” Tony didn't answer him, looking down, away, and the Commander nodded. “Have it your way.”
“You gonna kill me?” Tony asked, as the Commander turned him around.
The Commander was silent and, over the whoshing thuds of the chopper, Tony heard metal and closed his eyes. So it had come to this. He braced himself for a shot and nearly jumped out of his damned skin a moment later when something tugged at his wrists instead, repeatedly.
And it was only as his arms fell to his sides that he realized the Commander had uncuffed him.
The Commander turned him back, hands on Tony's shoulders. “Come with me, Stark.”
Tony shook his head. “Never,” he answered.
The Commander looked so sad for a moment that Tony remembered a different time, in darkness, when the Commander's eyes had been wide and glittering, his expression empty and hopeless, as though someone had stolen his heart and his soul.
And then the Commander embraced Tony. “Then this is goodbye,” he said, and punched Tony hard in the jaw.
Tony dropped, already weak, and the Commander turned on his heel, briefcase in hand, to board the chopper.
When the last of perhaps three other men were on board with him, he turned back, passing the briefcase to one of them. Whichever henchman this was, they held it while the Commander opened it, and the blue glow of the Tesseract was enough to turn Tony's stomach.
Don't, Tony's mind told him to scream, but it was too late for that. In the blue glow, the chopper hovering almost steady, the Commander bit the index finger of one glove, casting it aside with his bare hand as he plucked the Tesseract from its recess within the case with the other.
And then he held the Tesseract out for Tony to see.
“We could have been brilliant, you and I!” the Commander shouted over the whir of the helicopter blades, the Tesseract held firm in his outstretched hand, his bare hand held above it, ready. “In a different life, we could have been friends! We could have been brothers!”
Tony shook his head but the Commander didn't notice.
“We could have been so much more than we are alone, we could have been everything,” and the manic grin on his beautiful face didn't belong to him, could never have belonged to him. It was the kind of smirk Tony had seen before, a terrifying twist of his mouth as his eyes shone. “Join me,” he shouted, “and we can rid the world of everything that festers!”
And Tony stared at him, at the good man who lost everything – his life, his friends, his world, his mind – and settled his hand on the hidden holster at the base of his spine as he shook his head.
“Do you know what festers!?” he shouted back, the wind whipping his hair as it blew stinging dust and grit into his face. And the look on the Commander's face showed that he was waiting for Tony's answer. And Tony held up the gun he had stolen from the folds of the Commander's coat as they'd embraced, levelling it at the Commander's forehead. Laser sight, steady arm, no doubt. I'm so sorry, Steve. “Open wounds.”
And he fired.
The Commander never showed shock on his face. There wasn't time.
Beneath the hole in his forehead, the confusion from Tony's question still lingered, as well as a sadness in his eyes that Tony almost never saw before. As the Commander fell backwards into the chopper, the machine veering sideways and away from the building as the pilot made a belated attempt to protect his leader, the look on the Commander's face reminded Tony of a different time.
Is this the first time you lost a soldier?
And the Tesseract slipped from the Commander's unresisting fingers, his body seeming to slow, like the world around them, as Tony stared at what he'd done.
“Director Stark!” someone shouted from behind him – someone whose voice recognised – but he didn't turn, there wasn't time.
Because, an instant later, training kicked in. And, as the Commander's body hit the chopper deck, his coat still billowing around him, Tony lunged for the Tesseract, hearing a cry of dismay as the Commander's right hand man missed it, watching the small blue cube fall down, down, and Tony hit the wall, threw himself forward because it was worth everything for that one chance, his hand out as he toppled over the edge and--
Closed his fingers around it, his body falling forward, over the edge of the building and then--
Then there was only light.
Tony comes back to himself like a drowning man breaking the surface, speaking over J.A.R.V.I.S. “What the hell!?”
“--not, Sir, J.A.R.V.I.S answers. “Schmidt has indeed taken the upper quarter, and Commander Rogers is with him.
“What the hell?” he mutters again, but there isn't time to think about it. He hisses through his teeth, breaking left as another drone locks onto him. “Whoa, boy, derive and intercept,” he says.
“The suit's defensive systems are still rebooting, Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S answers.
He curses under his breath, pulling a harder turn than he would have liked in an effort to get the drone to chase him into a building.
It doesn't work.
“Dammit! How long until I've got countermeasures!?”
“Ten seconds and counting, Sir.”
Tony slams on the airbrakes and heads up, back, in a giant loop until he's heading back towards the upper quarter, the suit's proximity and lock-on alarms blaring in his ears. “J.A.R.V.I.S, intercept it,” he groans through the g-forces, breaking right this time, rolling into a new trajectory, “J.A.R.V.I.S, intercept, now!”
“Two, one, J.A.R.V.I.S answers and suddenly there it is, the blue and white of his countermeasure system.
“INTERCEPT!” he yells, and the suit shoots a repulsor-driven missile of it's own right back into the chasing weapon. The blast drives him forward, screws up the suit's internal gyro for a moment or five and, when Tony regains control, it's just in time to avoid his own damned tower, but something's different. He doesn't know what it is, doesn't know why, but it comes out when he speaks, surprising him. “Lock on to Steve's signature, we're headed there. Steve?”
There's a crackle of static, a noise that sounds like a gong and then Steve's voice, strained and irritated, hisses through the comms system. “Not a good time, Stark!”
“I know, Steve,” Tony answers, not liking that tone of voice at all. “I know but hold tight, I'm coming to get you, just hold on.”
The tiny blue and black figures of Steve and Schmidt are too close together for Tony to assist with any kind of fire-power – aiming for Schmidt would risk hitting Steve, and Tony would never forgive himself if he hit Steve.
“NO!” Steve yells. “No, Tony, his whole mech is rigged to blow, don't-”
And Tony adjusts, coming down instead maybe half a block away, not even that – between Schmidt and his mech, cutting off his escape route instead.
“Stark what on Earth are you doing!?” Steve's voice asks, just as Schmidt turns to look at Tony.
The expression on Schmidt's face isn't one Tony particularly wants to see again – somewhere between absolute hatred and manic delight – but then he doesn't really like Schmidt's face at the best of times.
“Keep back,” Tony answered. “My suit can take whatever he's rigged in there, but you'll be blown to pieces.” And that feels right, feels like the explanation he means to give.
Steve hesitates, looks from Tony to the giant black robot, and then Schmidt is running towards Steve, launching himself at him and-
No, dammit! Then they're on each other again and Tony could have taken Schmidt out if Schmidt had just stood still. Tony surges forward, pulling Schmidt off Steve to throw him, clean through the air and straight back into the armored legs of his own giant robot where he falls to the ground in a heap. It doesn't matter that he's near it, as long as Steve's safe. But Tony's expecting a reprimand all the same.
But, when he turns back to Steve, Steve is holding a small black box in his right hand, staring at it as though he can't believe that it's real. Tony knows what it is, and evidently Steve knows too – he must have taken it from Schmidt while he was distracted.
And Tony frowns, flipping his faceplate up so that Steve can see his face. “Steve,” he says. “What the hell is going on?”
But Steve doesn't even look at him, still staring at the little black box until he looks up, past Tony, straight to Schmidt.
Schmidt is moving now, stiffly – being thrown into a metal wall never did a body any favors – and he drags himself up to stand even as Tony moves towards Steve.
“I could kill you,” Steve answers, and Tony keeps moving towards him. He doesn't like the tone of Steve's voice even though he can well understand it – Steve is talking to Schmidt and there might as well be nobody else in the world. “Press of a button, Schmidt, and it's over. I can kill you right now.”
“You? No. You are weak,” The Red Skull tells him, “and you have always been.”
Steve lifts his head a little, flicks the cap at the top of the box just as Tony comes to stand behind him. “You'd say that to the guy holding your life in his hands?”
And the Red Skull smirks, a terrifying twist of his mouth as his eyes shine. “I say this to you, Captain America,” he answers. “The 'Kid from Brooklyn.' The man whose stupidity took everything from him, who hesitation means his friends are gone, whose life is eradicated because he was always imperfect, because he is weak. I say this to you. You will never have the strength to defeat me.”
“Steve,” Tony says, his voice low. He speaks without thinking, his hand out before he registers it, to settle on Steve's shoulder.
The strength is in Steve's goodness, in his inherent need to do what's right, in his knowledge and his power and that he spares lives instead of taking them. Steve is not perfect.
But he's a good man.
“It's Commander,” Steve answers after a long time, flicking the little cap closed again, not even turning to give the detonator to Tony. And then SHIELD agents converge on Schmidt, from whatever hiding places they'd taken before, whatever places they were waiting in. And Steve smiles. “In the name of the Nine Realms, of Earth, of North America and the District of New York, we are taking you, Johann Schmidt, into SHIELD custody.”
And they take him away.
They board the Quinjet when it lands, and Tony sits next to Steve, leaning closer so that they can talk in relative privacy.
“You okay?” Tony asks and Steve, who still looks a little dazed, looks at him for a long few moments. Then he smiles a little, almost sadly, and nods slowly.
“I think...I will be,” he breathes, and Tony smiles a little, too, resting his hand on Steve's shoulder.
“Good,” he says. “I know it's not exactly revenge but...” Steve looks sadder now, and Tony leans forward as Steve turns his head away. “Hey,” he says, “what is it?”
Steve shrugs just a little. “Oh, just...” he begins, and then he shakes his head. “I know what I wanted to do,” he says. “I wanted to...I mean, I...”
“You wanted to push that button?” Tony murmurs, and Steve nods, staring at his shoes.
“Yes. More than anything.”
“Well, you didn't, and that's what counts.”
Slowly, Steve moves his head until he's nodding. “I guess,” he says. “I-I mean, I know. And I know having him in custody isn't going to change anything, but...the last time Schmidt 'died,' he wasn't dead. I think I prefer knowing he's in high security confinement than trusting that he's been blown to pieces so small we can't find a trace.”
“Well, you know,” Tony says. “It's all about your peace of mind. And I was happy to help, Commander.”
Steve rolls his eyes. “Tony,” he says, “you don't have to rub it in.”
“I don't know, I have good hands,” he says, making it about as suggestive as he can manage, and watches a faint blush come up on Steve's cheeks as he looks suddenly uncomfortable. And Tony remembers the look on Steve's face when he left and tries to salvage things. “That is, y-you and I could always...I mean, we-”
“Thank you,” Steve interrupts, and Tony frowns, bemused.
“What?” he murmurs. “What for?”
Steve shrugs a little. “For being there,” he says, “for standing by my side.”
“All did was say your name,” Tony says, aware somehow that that should be important, although he can't remember why.
“You grounded me,” Steve answers. “I needed that. I needed...I need you, I...” And then he looks away. “I'm sorry, that's...I shouldn't say things like-”
Tony feels his eyebrows raise, watches Steve's blush darken, but he leans forward and speaks anyway. “Listen, I know I...didn't handle things well before.” Steve looks even more uncomfortable but Tony holds up a hand. “No, listen, I've been remodeling the tower. I made a place for everyone so...This is me talking about it later. I'm bad at this, I...I run from things like this. But I...look, if you wanted to move in, if you all wanted to move in but...but you especially...because that would be just fine. It'd be more than fine.”
Steve's eyes widen and his mouth falls open, and then he's smiling, bright and dazzling. “Tony,” he says softly, “oh, Tony, that's...”
“I take it that's a yes?” Steve nods enthusiastically and Tony smiles. “And hey, you feel better? Because you can come talk to me if you need to. If you want to. You can...you can come to me.”
Steve shrugs again, kind of nodding. “Thanks,” he says, “but yeah. I guess I do feel better. I mean, it's just as well; I can't go back and do-over.”
“Would you want to?” Tony says, wondering if it's obvious that he's leaning forward.
Steve sighs, scrubbing his hand over his face. “I...I can't bring anyone back,” he says. “And I still wish I could. But...”
Steve chuckles. “But no,” he says softly, turning his head just a little to stare at Tony, his smile soft and his eyes so blue. “Right now, I wouldn't change a thing.”
And if they're sitting so close that their thighs are touching, so close that Tony can lean on Steve the way Steve leans on him, so close that Tony lets his fingers curl into Steve's when he moves his hand, then there's nothing he'd change either.
A weak man knows the value of strength. And knows compassion.