An IV pinches Tony's hand, the conductive paste of electrodes makes his skin itch in about fifteen places, and a cacophony of monitors beep rhythmically from somewhere beside him. When Tony tries to open his eyes, it takes him five or six tries; it feels like they're encrusted with a millennium's worth of dirt. His mind strays to the stratigraphy of a millennium of dirt. Everything is hazy and nothing hurts. Someone's clearly got him on the fucking good drugs, ignoring the note in his file about how he'd really rather not be.
When his eyes finally open, there's a ceiling he almost sort of recognizes. It's not the mansion -- for God's sake, that's a theme hotel now -- or the tower -- because that's in rubble -- but something within him recognizes it as, if not friendly territory, at least neutral. A SHIELD hospital, maybe.
He glances to his left. No one. Steve should be here. Steve should always be here. Where's Steve?
He glances right.
Jan's sitting at his bedside, smiling eagerly down at him, like she's been waiting for him to wake up. She looks happy, all right, but... strained. Exhausted. Like she's been through hell and only now might be coming out the other side.
"Hey, sleepyhead," Jan says. "Finally. There you are." As he opens his mouth she passes him a glass of water. "Shh. You're going to want to drink a bit before you even try talking. You've been out a while."
When he takes the glass he spills half the water on himself with shaking hands that don't have as much strength as he thought they did. Jan promptly holds the glass to his mouth for him. At one point this used to embarrass Tony, but, whatever. They're Avengers. They've all been here before.
It's usually Steve who does this for him, though. Where's Steve?
"There you go," Jan says. She puts the glass down and folds her hands in her lap. "You're on the helicarrier Iliad," she says. "It's where you've been for the past eight months. SHIELD had the medical facilities, and we thought you might like to wake up to a friendly face, so here I am." She bites her lip. "What's the last thing you remember?"
Oh, fuck, is it amnesia? What did he lose? What the hell did he lose this time? He's been here for eight months. Was he in a cell? Was he Carol's prisoner? What doesn't he remember?
He remembers DC, and Miles, and Carol, and the blue-white light of a photon blast--
The readouts are going wild over his head, and Jan leans over and grabs his hand. "Tony, what's wrong?"
"Is it amnesia?" His throat feels like it's been coated with gasoline and then lit on fire. "I remember-- I was fighting Carol in DC. How much time did I lose now?"
"It's okay," Jan says, instantly. "God, no, I mean, it's not okay, but-- it's not amnesia. That's the last thing you were awake for. You've been in a coma for months."
Oh. Well. Just a prolonged coma. That's different, he thinks, numbly. He hasn't had one of those in a while.
"Your AI has been active, though," she adds. "He really helped us out. We thought maybe you'd have some kind of memory transfer with him...?" She lets the sentence trail off, with a hopeful smile.
He shakes his head. "Sorry. I wish I did. Never got that far when I made him. He had my memories, not the other way around."
He watches as Jan takes this in, and then she nods, firm and determined. Founding Avenger, that's Jan. "Okay," she says, like she's calling out battle tactics. "Well. You missed a heck of a lot." Her mouth, curves, a rueful smile. "It's so weird, really, because you were here. The AI you. And now it's you again and you don't know." She sighs. "A lot has happened. None of it's good. We-- we lost a few people. A lot of people, really."
Tony's gaze falls on the empty seat on the other side of him, where Steve should be. Where Steve isn't.
Oh God, no.
The monitors next to him begin to tick up.
"Is it Steve?" he rasps. "Please, Jan. Just tell me. I can take it."
He can't take it, of course. He already knows he can't. He knows Steve died once and whatever Tony had to live through in the aftermath was so unbearable that he deleted his goddamn brain to escape it.
Jan's face falls, and Tony can feel the grief start to rip him up, rending him from the inside out. Tony feels his breath hitch and catch within him and his eyes go hot with tears.
"He's alive," Jan says, but she looks miserable, and Tony's torn between hope and despair. "He's alive, but he-- but he--" She somehow finds the strength to draw herself up. "Okay. There's no good way to say this. For the past eight months, the United States has been under the control of Hydra."
Christ. It sounds like a joke, but it can't be. They've all seen too many dystopian futures to count. He knows what happens now. Collars. Superhuman camps. Sentinels on patrol.
If Henry fucking Gyrich is somehow responsible for this one, Tony is going to have some very stern words. And maybe some punching.
"They rounded up the Inhumans," Jan says. "Herded the mutants together in California. I was trapped in the Darkforce Dimension in New York with the rest of the Unity Squad, but that's what they tell me. In Nevada there's a big hole in the ground where Vegas used to be. That was the main resistance base." She shuts her eyes. "Rick Jones was captured and executed by firing squad. Natasha-- she--" Jan's choking. "There was an assassination attempt that went wrong. She took a hit meant for Miles and her neck was broken. Died instantly."
No no no no. This can't have happened.
"How?" Tony whispers. "How the hell did Hydra do all this? How did we let them take control?"
Jan seems to fold in on herself; already tiny, she's practically disappearing. "Some of it was mind control, for SHIELD. For most of the population, they had the water drugged. They got most of the superhumans off the playing field pretty fast. And they-- they gave America someone they could believe in. Someone they could trust. A leader who offered them safety and strength. You know how it goes. It's an old story."
"Okay," Tony says, even though it isn't, even though nothing is fucking okay. "Okay, so, we won, right? We beat them? We defeated Red Skull and--"
Jan looks like she's going to cry. "It wasn't Red Skull."
"Who was it?"
Even as he asks, he knows the answer. It's already coming together, the pieces of the past, everything Jan's said. The futurist's party trick in reverse.
Steve is alive. Steve is alive but Steve isn't here and Steve isn't and Steve can't have and Steve wouldn't have but nothing else fits the data and he did he did he did--
"It was Steve," Jan confirms. She gives a very small sob, almost like a laugh.
"Steve," Tony says, voice broken in disbelief, even though he knows this is the truth now. "Steve, like Steve Rogers? Captain America Steve Rogers?"
Jan nods, small and wretched.
"You remember that Pleasant Hill mission?" Jan asks. "The one that made Steve young again?"
Tony shuts his eyes and nods.
"It turns out," Jan says, ragged and exhausted, "that he didn't come back quite right."
Jan tells him about the unending nightmare. The Cosmic Cube. The two Steves, one of them horribly altered, one of them locked away in a dreamscape. Hydra's America. The resistance.
He hadn't been himself for over a year. Since Pleasant Hill. Tony should have seen this. Tony should have stopped this. He remembers talking with Steve, during the fight with Carol. He remembers telling Steve he'd finally learned to trust him. God, he'd learned that lesson at the exact wrong time. He remembers Steve, asking him if he'd started drinking in the wake of Rhodey's death. He remembers the way the pain had hit him then, like a gut punch, the grief and the knowledge that he was disappointing Steve yet again, and the triumphant gleam in Steve's eyes that he'd told himself he'd imagined.
It hadn't been Steve. Tony should have seen it. Tony should have known. Ten years of friendship, and an imposter walked into Steve's place, into Steve's body, and Tony never noticed. He should have. Rick would still be alive. Natasha would be still alive. Everyone in Las Vegas would still be alive.
"I should have known," Tony blurts out.
Jan's face goes soft around the eyes and she reaches for Tony's hand again. "You can't beat yourself up about this, okay? Come on." She smiles a sad smile. "He was Steve. No one expected it of him. And he used that. He used our trust. And you know him. He's good at what he does. When he doesn't want to be caught, no one can catch him. It was everything that he was, all the skill in him, used for... a terrible end. You can't blame yourself, Tony. If you should have seen it, we all should have seen it."
"Yeah, but," Tony says. "Steve and I, we were."
He stops, because he can't find a way to say what they were to each other. What they are to each other. The closest of friends. Something more than friends, really. They've fought at each other's backs for a decade. They've died for each other. And, sure, they've had other partners, other teammates -- but with Steve, it's always been different. Ever since the day Steve opened his eyes and looked at him for the first time, they were pulled down into locked orbit, spinning around each other. Not always good, but always inextricable, each of their lives carved out with a place for the other. They need each other, for better or worse. Tony isn't sure there's a word for that.
"We were close," he finishes, lamely. That doesn't even cover it.
Jan squeezes his hand. "I know."
At least there were two Steves. Tony clings to this scrap of information, because it means that Steve is alive, the real Steve, the Steve who didn't do these awful things. They can heal. He can heal. There's a way back from this somehow.
"How is he?" he asks. But, of course, he already knows the answer.
One side of Jan's mouth twists. "Oh, you know. Soldiering on. Brave face. Determined. A hundred percent fine."
He knows about brave faces. He knows about Steve's brave faces. He knows about Steve curling up alone in his apartment in the dark.
"He's a mess," Tony says, glumly.
"Yep," Jan agrees. "I see you know him."
And then, of course, he knows why Steve isn't here. Steve can't face him. He'd probably been playing both sides during the fight with Carol. He probably feels responsible for Tony's coma. Tony understands that. He'd feel the same way. Hell, he probably blamed himself when Steve died.
But he-- he misses Steve.
Tony sighs. "He doesn't want to see me, does he?"
Jan bites her lip, sparing Tony the actual words of rejection. It's an act of kindness, and he's grateful for it, but the knowledge still stings. "I'll talk to him," she says.
"Thanks, Jan." He makes himself smile. "Did I ever tell you you're my favorite Avenger?"
She leans over and ruffles Tony's hair. "Flatterer." She smiles. "You look exhausted. I'll let you get some more sleep, okay?"
I don't want to be alone, he wants to say.
If Steve were here, Steve would hold his hand until he fell asleep, if he asked.
But then Jan's gone, and Tony drifts off to the beeping of monitors.
"--know he's out of the coma now, right?"
Jan's voice in the hallway rouses Tony from dreamless sleep. Lying half-awake, all he can do is listen. The other voice that responds, too low for Tony to make out the words, is a familiar baritone, and everything in Tony orients itself to the sound, reflexively and instinctively relaxing, even before his conscious mind puts a name to the voice. It's safety and comfort and home and oh God that's Steve.
Steve doesn't want to see him.
And that must be what Steve is telling Jan, because there's a pause before Jan replies, "He wants to see you."
A long, slow, sigh. "I can't, Jan," Steve says, in a lost voice, a defeated voice, a voice that sounds nothing like him. "You don't understand. I can't."
"You're right; I don't understand." Jan's voice is sharp with tension. There's another pause; she's changing tacks. "Look, Cap--"
"Don't call me that," Steve says, low and awful and bitter. "That, I don't deserve."
He gave up the shield. Of course he did.
Jan sighs. "Steve. I've known you for a decade. I've known both of you for a decade. You're not doing well. And neither is Tony. And if there's one thing I know about the two of you, it's that everything goes to hell when you don't talk. You need each other. You make each other better. You know that. I know you know that."
Something about the frankness makes Tony want to turn and run, to hide from the bare, unvarnished truth. He doesn't want to see his friendship with Steve laid out on the table, ready for dissection. An autopsy. Post-mortem.
"It's not that simple." Steve's voice is strained. He's hurting. "I-- when I was in that dream, in that forest, Kobik showed me a lot of things. Memories. Things that... he said. That he did."
"Steve, that wasn't you--"
"But I have to live with it!" Steve's voice is raised, almost a shout. "I remember it now. Kobik made sure of that. I remember what he did. They're my memories now."
Oh, God, Steve, Tony wants to say, but his throat is too dry. He wants to reach out. He wants to tell Steve he understands. He, in fact, knows all about having memories of murdering all your friends. He wishes he didn't.
He wishes he could get out of bed and find Steve. He can't even walk. He's too weak. He's been in a goddamn coma for months.
"And he did things that no one knows but me. He-- he said things that no one knows but me." Steve's voice is practically a whisper. "He used to visit Tony. Tony's body. Alone. In secret. And I can't-- Jan, I can't even think about Tony without thinking about him, about what he-- I just can't."
Jesus. What did he do? What could he have done?
Did he hurt him? Did he experiment on him? Did he--
Tony's mind tries and fails to shy away from darker possibilities. There are so many terrible things that someone can do to an unconscious, unresisting body. Steve wouldn't have. Steve would never have. But he doesn't know what a monster wearing Steve's face would have done to him. He doesn't know if that man had limits.
He suspects the answer is no.
What does Steve remember?
"Whatever he did to Tony," Jan says, "it wasn't you. And Tony would want to see you anyway. No matter what. You know that. He needs you."
"It's not me he needs. It can't be. I wouldn't make anything better." Steve's voice is hollow, unsteady. "And I-- I've caused enough harm. To the world. To the people I care about. I can't bear hurting him too, Jan."
There's a very quiet sniffling noise. "It's already hurting him."
"You don't know," Steve insists. "It would be so much worse. No one can know. I-- I just can't, okay?"
God, what did Steve do to him?
There's the sound of footsteps down the hall, heading farther and farther away.
Tony stretches out a hand into the darkness. "Steve," he whispers. "Please don't go."
If Steve hears him with his super-soldier hearing, it makes no difference. He doesn't come back.
The next morning, the physical therapists come. It turns out that he's lost a bunch of muscle tone. Yeah. Eight months in a coma. Who'd have thought, huh?
"We'd like to get you back on your feet as soon as possible, Mr. Stark," says a brisk, chirpy woman in a SHIELD t-shirt. Tony doesn't know why all physical therapists are so goddamn cheerful.
It's possible that he didn't get enough sleep. It's possible that he stayed up half the night wondering what Steve did to his body.
He can't ask the doctors. He's not about to spill Steve's secret. He's not even supposed to know Steve's secret.
He feels fine. As fine as anyone who has been in a coma can reasonably expect to be. If there were implants or modifications, or... some kind of lasting damage, they'd have told him, wouldn't they? SHIELD is spies all the way down, sure, but Jan wouldn't have lied to him. Neither would Maria, at least not about that, or-- wait, no, not Maria. Sharon?
Huh. Who the hell is the director of SHIELD now, anyway?
"Yeah, me too," Tony says, as the orderlies help him out of the bed into a waiting wheelchair. "Hey, who do you work for?"
She frowns and gestures at the stylized eagle on her shirt. "SHIELD," she says, in a well-duh-that-was-obvious tone.
"No, I know that," Tony says, settling back into the wheelchair. "I mean, who's the director now?"
She glances around. "We're, uh. We're in transition."
Tony wonders if that's code for Hill is in hiding again or everyone is dead. He can't bring himself to ask which.
The PT area -- because apparently the helicarrier is big enough to rate one -- is across the corridor from the regular gym. There are stretches that make his thighs ache. There are massages, and not the nice kind that someone might be happy to pay money for; these are the kind that make Tony grit his teeth and try not to scream. But the worst part is the parallel bars. His arm strength is good enough to hold himself up on the railings, the therapist says. He just has to grab them and walk.
It's, what, ten feet? He can't do it. The first step has him shaking, and his legs fold under him, and he goes down; the therapist just barely keeps him from falling hard.
"It's all right," she says, as she crouches next to him. "You're going to get better. You're going to be able to do this. I believe in you."
At least someone does.
Jan comes by in the afternoon. She remembered him. It's sweet.
When Tony thinks about it, he's not sure who else would. Rhodey's dead. There's Pepper and -- oh God -- Tony's mother, how weird is that, but Tony is pretty sure that civilians aren't on SHIELD's need-to-know list, even the two of them. Carol put him in the coma and is therefore probably avoiding him. And, well, there's Steve. Who is also avoiding him.
He thinks maybe he used to have more friends than this.
"I just wanted to tell you I tried talking to Steve," she says, and she sighs.
He shouldn't admit to knowing that she did. "Well, thanks anyway." He gives her his best smile.
Jan smiles back. "You doing okay?" Her gaze is analytical. "You look awfully tired for a guy who's been asleep for months."
Trust Jan to miss nothing. "I'll be okay," he says. "They think I'll be walking soon, even."
Bless her, Jan actually looks happy. "Oh, that's lovely," she says, beaming. "I'm so glad to hear that." And then she glances around the room like she's got somewhere else to be. Well, he couldn't have expected her to actually stay. "I'm sorry, I just came by to say hi and give you the news," she says. "I've got to get home to Nadia."
Tony blinks. "Home to... Nadia?"
She nods. "You remember Nadia, right?"
"How could I forget her?" Nadia Pym, Hank's daughter, the new Wasp, had been the newest addition to the Avengers. "But I didn't know she was staying with you. You got all the immigration paperwork sorted out, then?"
Jan looks like she's about ten seconds away from pulling out her phone and showing Tony pictures. "I adopted her," she says, and then, very softly, but with the fiercest pride Tony has ever heard: "She's Nadia Van Dyne now. She asked to take my name."
Tony finds his eyes are suspiciously misty. He thinks it's the best thing he's heard since he woke up. "I'm happy for you. That's so great."
"It really is," Jan says, and she's still smiling. "She's got a bunch of friends and they're all running a science think-tank and we're living in Hank's old lab space. I mean, I never thought I'd have kids. I thought that after Hank I'd just... be alone. But, you know, somehow you're alone and then one day you turn around and there's a whole gaggle of people in your home and they're-- they're your family now. You know?"
"No, I have no idea whatsoever how that feels," Tony says, straight-faced.
Laughing, Jan nudges him. "A likely story, mister Avengers benefactor."
God, he misses that. He misses being on the team, living with the team, waking up every day to Carol eating his cereal instead of her own and Clint attempting to make pancakes and Steve up early and determinedly reading every work of classic science-fiction in the mansion library. His throat seizes up. He can't ever have that again. That magic, it's gone. Oh, he can have people around him -- assuming Riri still wants him to mentor her -- but it won't be the same. Not like it used to be. He knows he needs people around him. He knows he doesn't do well on his own.
They used to be family, all of them.
He doesn't know what they are now.
"I am a lone wolf," Tony declares, with a confidence he definitely does not feel, and Jan gives him her finest withering stare.
"They're happier in packs, Tony."
"Yeah, well." Tony sighs.
Leaning over, she pats his hand. "He'll come around. I'm positive he will."
Tony wonders how Jan knew who he was thinking about. Is he that obvious?
"Jan, I'm just not sure I can out-stubborn Captain America."
Her smile is faint. "That never used to stop you from trying, Tin Man."
That night, Tony wakes again.
He thinks he hears someone in the corridor; that's the noise that pulls him out of his dream, a blood-soaked mess of photon blasts hot across his skin. But as soon as he jerks awake and listens, there's nothing.
He was so sure there was someone there.
Maybe he's hallucinating.
He's heard he used to do that.
He takes three steps the next day, his fingers white-knuckled around the bars. He's panting, dripping sweat, but he's still mostly upright, even though he's shaking.
"Wow," the physical therapist says. "I didn't expect this much progress so soon."
The tone is half-encouragement and half-what the hell is wrong with you and Tony's certain that as soon as the session is over she's going to be pulling up his charts and looking for documentation of a healing factor, because that's the only thing that could explain this. It's not his willpower, or his natural strength, or any of that bullshit -- no, it's the fact that Tony used to like to shoot himself up with retroviruses. He's been a very particular sort of junkie, over the years.
Information junkie, his mind suggests, and the laugh he doesn't let himself laugh is ugly and hollow.
He doesn't know how much of Extremis is still within him. He doesn't have the technopathy anymore, but he has enough of a computer in his brainstem for the RT to work. He's suspected himself of still retaining at least some of the healing factor but he's not exactly inclined to chop his foot off again just to check. But he has to have the healing factor, he knows now. It's probably why he's still alive.
He wonders if SHIELD studied him, while he was in the coma. He wonders if they know what his body is capable of, better than he does.
A chill runs through him. Did that other Steve Rogers study him? Were there measurements? Tests? Experiments? Did Hydra keep a file on him? Did Steve?
If Steve did something to him, would there be records? Steve is definitely smart enough to know how to turn off the cameras, how to erase a paper trail.
Steve would have covered his tracks.
He did things, Steve had said, and Tony is cold and clammy all over.
When Tony wakes tonight, there's a shadow outside his door.
The door is open, and the harsh fluorescent lights in the hallway aren't at the right angle to make it a very long shadow, but there's definitely someone out there, just next to the door; the metal decking is a little less bright.
Anyone else might be afraid. It's not as if Tony isn't, but, hell, he's fought off would-be murderers from a hospital bed before, and he's not about to call out and give himself away.
And he's on a SHIELD helicarrier. Everyone here is authorized to be here. This is far more secure than any civilian hospital could hope to be.
As he thinks it, a terrible thought occurs to him, a branch in the endless game of what-if that he plays with himself: what if the other Steve is free?
He was in prison, Jan had said, but what if he isn't? What if he came here? Sure, they have Skrull detectors, and sure, they can cut an LMD and watch it not bleed, but a Cosmic Cube is a magical thing -- literally, more or less -- and Steve's evil twin ought to be genetically identical to him. There's nothing anyone can build to disambiguate that. He's Steve Rogers right down to the base pairs. He's Steve Rogers everywhere except the inside of his head, and even knowing that won't help, because he probably runs the usual esper defenses. Psychic shields. Protection against telepaths.
It's what Tony would have done.
If he came back, no one would be able to tell. They hadn't before, after all.
"Hey," Tony calls out. "Is someone out there?"
There's a rustling, a shifting of fabric, a harsh breath, and for an instant Tony just knows it's Steve. The real one. Skittish, shy. Wanting to check on him, but not allowing himself to get too close.
The shadow steps back and is gone.
Tony's halfway through the parallel bars -- his own personal hell -- when the physical therapist's SHIELD comm beeps.
She ignores it.
It beeps again.
"Sounds like you'd better get that," Tony says, and it would have been the perfectly-delivered artful comment he'd intended it to be if he hadn't been wheezing. "Go on. I don't mind."
He watches her fish the comm out of her pocket, read it, and mouth an obscenity to herself. She glances at him, at the comm, at the clock on the wall, and back to him again. It's a dance Tony remembers from years of having a secret identity: oh, shit, how fast can I get out of what I'm doing right now?
"I can't just leave you," she says, and she looks between him and the nice padded raised mats he would very much like to be lying on. They're all the way across the room.
Tony's hands are sweaty. He takes a better grip on the bars. "How long?"
"Couple of minutes, tops," she says, biting her lip apologetically. "They need me one deck up to sign off on an emergency-- well, it's classified, so I shouldn't say, but they need it right now--"
"Go," Tony says, and he would wave a hand but he needs both of his to stay upright. "I'll be fine by myself. I can stay right here. I promise."
She bites her lip again. "I'm not really supposed to--"
"I'll be fine," Tony says again. "Just go get it done. Really. No problem. No big deal." He smiles in a way that he hopes is encouraging. That old Tony Stark charm. He used to be good at this. He's probably gritting his teeth right now. That's probably not helping with the charm.
She's edging toward the door and glancing back at him every few seconds.
"Go on," Tony says, and she gives him a guilty nod and disappears.
No problem, he tells himself. He's going to be fine.
It is apparent within thirty seconds that Tony is not, in fact, fine.
His arms are shaking with the strain, and he's out of energy to move, or in fact, to lower himself down safely. He's starting to sag, but if he tries to ease down he's going to fall on his goddamn face. It's like that moment, the one that always happens when the supervillain has him in his clutches, and if he can just eke out one last burst of desperate strength he'll be free -- but there is no villain, and that last-ditch adrenaline just isn't coming.
He can hear the quiet chatter of SHIELD agents heading down the corridor -- they're probably going to the regular gym down the hall -- and he thinks about calling out for help, but the footsteps are gone by the time he opens his mouth.
His head's hanging lower and lower, and he's sinking downwards. In a second he's going to drop. He's not even going to be able to break his fall. He'll probably break his face.
"Hhh," Tony breathes, and he means to say help me but he doesn't quite make it.
There are footsteps behind him, pounding across the floor. The physical therapist, back already? No, it's too soon--
A big hand splays across Tony's chest, just below the RT, and another hand comes up in the middle of his back, strong and sure, holding him fast, holding him like he doesn't even weigh anything, and there aren't a whole lot of people with the appropriate SHIELD clearance who are strong enough to do that. The body pressed against his is familiar, running a little hot, always just a little hot.
"Shh, hey," Steve's voice says in his ear. "I've got you, Tony. I've got you. Easy, there."
Oh, thank God, it's Steve, Tony thinks, and then his poor taxed muscles spasm and go rigid because Jesus Christ Steve was Hydra and Steve is holding him like he always has, like he never wants Tony to come to harm, and he doesn't want to be terrified of Steve but it's like he can't help it--
"Steve?" he asks, and half of him wants to flail away.
"Yeah, Tony." Steve's voice is weary and miserable. "It's me."
If Steve were Hydra, he wouldn't sound like that.
Tony breathes in and breathes out and lets himself go limp in Steve's arms.
He's stumbling, and Steve carries him over to the raised mats, his grip never faltering. Steve's got him, all right. Tony collapses on the top mat, bracing himself against the wall in exhausted relief, before he looks up at his savior.
Steve is a goddamn mess. There's no doubt, looking at him, that this is the real Steve. There's stubble on his cheeks, he's slumped over, and his gaze is dull and dark. He's in a SHIELD shirt and sweatpants -- Tony must have caught him on his way to the gym -- and even those look like they've seen better days. And the look in his eyes--
Over the years, Tony's had a front-row seat to a hell of a lot of Steve's problems. Steve's wondered if he belonged in the future. He's grieved Bucky. He's doubted himself. He's lost faith in the government so goddamn many times that you could make a bingo card and fill all the squares. He's tried and failed to have a normal life, and he's wondered if he's deserved it. He's wondered if he could ever, really, be at peace. But Tony has never seen Steve look like this, raw and hollow-eyed, like there's nothing in him but a sure and certain darkness. Tony knows what this is, but he's never seen it on Steve's face. Tony sees that look in the mirror every day.
Steve hates himself.
Oh, God, not Steve. Not this. Please, not this.
After Pleasant Hill, Steve had never once looked like he doubted himself.
Tony should have seen it.
Steve has carefully inched away from him on the mat, keeping space between their bodies, and that's another way he's different: he was never afraid to touch Tony, before. Tony's always thought it was a forties thing; Steve's never been hesitant to touch the men he's friends with, even in ways that modern men -- straight men, anyway -- tend to shy away from. Steve will hug Tony, will throw an arm over his shoulders like it's nothing, will lean into him on the couch. Once Steve fell asleep with his head in Tony's lap. Tony's never minded.
He reaches out and puts a hand on Steve's forearm, and Steve jumps like Tony's turned repulsors on him, jerking away.
Okay, that's a no.
The thought is still running through Tony's head: what did Steve do to him?
Tony smiles very gently at Steve, who isn't looking at him; his gaze is fixed downward. "Hey," Tony says, like everything is normal, like this is how they are all the time, like this isn't the first time Tony's talked to him in eight months. "Thank you."
Steve nods in acknowledgment. "Are you all right? There--" he glances around-- "there should have been spotters. Shouldn't there?"
"I'm fine," Tony says. "The therapist had to go upstairs for a minute." He can feel his mouth curl, a rueful grin. "I thought I could handle it by myself. I'm glad you were passing by at the right time."
Relief is evident on Steve's face. "And I'm glad you're okay," Steve says, too fervently, like he means more than just this, like he means everything they aren't talking about.
Steve still isn't looking at him.
Sometimes, in the old days, Tony couldn't stand to look at Steve. Steve would be laughing, smiling, and everything within him would be so good and noble that Tony knew he couldn't get close to him, couldn't touch him, couldn't even stand to look at him, that unshakable core of him, bright like a supernova. Tony was flawed, Tony was shattered, Tony was walking wounded, and he knew that coming close to Steve would bring him down.
And now they've swapped places.
"It's all right--" Tony begins, and that's when the therapist walks back in.
"Oh!" she says, drawing herself up. "Director Rogers!"
Well, that's a detail Jan forgot to mention.
His gaze pained, Steve turns around. "Could you give us a minute, Ms. Alvarez?"
"Yes, sir," she says, and she ducks back out the door.
"Director, huh?" Tony asks.
Steve finally looks at him, and he smiles a small, sad smile that comes nowhere close to reaching his eyes. "That's me."
"Congratulations," Tony says. "I hear it's a shit job. Terrible work-life balance. May cause hallucinations and amnesia. But I'm told the go-go boots do great things for your calves. I've probably got pictures somewhere."
Steve's laugh is a startled huff of air, like he didn't think Tony would want to even try to make him happy, and then his face falls. "I-- he redesigned the uniforms," he says, under his breath, like he wants to curl up and die. "There were... armbands."
Jesus fucking Christ. Jan hadn't been kidding about the fascism.
"It's all right." Very slowly, Tony reaches out, with what he suspects is the last bit of strength in him, and rests his hand on the nape of Steve's neck. Steve trembles but doesn't move away. "Hey, Steve. It's going to be okay."
Rick is dead. Natasha is dead. There were camps.
There's a hole in the ground where Vegas used to be.
"I'm giving up the job," Steve says, in answer to the question Tony didn't ask. "Soon as I can find someone else to take it. We can't find Maria." His mouth works. "Sharon stabbed me -- him -- in the throat. She... isn't keen on the idea. Or me. Can't blame her."
Tony thinks Steve really needs a hug. He doesn't think Steve will accept one.
Steve's not looking at him again.
What did he do what did he do what did he do--
"I'm here for you, okay?" Tony says, softly, and Steve's face creases, wounded; apparently that wasn't what he wanted to hear. Tony sighs. "I wanted to talk to you. Jan probably told you."
"She did," Steve says, and he sighs. "Not here, though. Not like this. Later."
If I let you go, Tony wants to ask, are you going to run?
He can't exactly stop Steve from leaving. Steve shifts away, and Tony's hand falls from him.
"Tonight?" Tony asks, hopefully.
He has to know. Whatever it is, he has to know now. And Steve's hurting. Tony needs to do whatever he can to help him, as soon as he can.
Steve's mouth twitches like he wants to smile but doesn't remember how. "I don't know. Maybe."
Steve stands up, and he's almost at the door when Tony holds out a hand.
"Please," Tony says, and Steve's eyes go soft... and then guilty.
And then he's gone.
Tony waits. And he waits. Visiting hours are long over, and he's supposed to be asleep, but he figures that the director of SHIELD can hold visiting hours whenever he wants.
The glaring red LED of the clock ticks over. 11:59. 12:00.
There are footsteps in the hallway, and then a shadow, and then, finally, a figure in the doorway.
"Hey, Steve," Tony says. "You made it."
As Steve steps inside and brings the lights up to a pleasant middle-of-the-night dimness, Tony fumbles for the controls to recline the bed and successfully props himself up. He might not be able to walk yet, but that doesn't mean he has to have this conversation flat on his back. It feels safer this way.
Steve's still not in any kind of uniform, just slacks and a plain shirt. Tony half-expects to see the old Nomad outfit, but then the thought hits him that Steve wouldn't: the problem now is with Steve himself, not his government. He remembers when Steve used to go out with a trenchcoat over his uniform, like somehow that was a decent disguise. Everyone knows who he is now.
"That was you the past couple nights, right?" Tony asks. "Lurking?"
Steve grimaces. "I, uh. I wanted to see you," he says, "but I didn't want to do anything he'd done, and--"
The other Steve came to see him, he'd said.
A chill grips Tony, but he keeps his voice light. "If your idea of not doing anything he did includes staying away from me forever, I gotta let you know right now that that's not gonna work for me." He gestures at the empty chair next to him. "C'mere."
"Can I get you anything?" Steve asks as he sits.
He's kind. He's always kind.
Another thing that wasn't true, after Pleasant Hill.
Tony shakes his head. "I'm fine. How are you?"
Steve's gaze goes distant and dim; of course Steve is the kind of guy who's going to answer that question honestly. "You ever have a nightmare that you didn't realize you had until later on?" Steve asks. "Not the kind where you wake screaming, or even the kind where as soon as your alarm goes off you know that you were dreaming something terrible. You wake up, you go about your day, and then later that day you start reviewing your day in your head. And you think this morning I got up, I showered, I shaved, and then I murdered all my friends and that's when it hits you that it was all a dream? And the only thing you can think is thank God that wasn't real?" He sighs. "It's like that. Except it's all real."
He wishes there were a way to take on all Steve's pain, to take it himself. He'd do it.
Tony reaches out and lays two fingers on the back of Steve's hand. Steve's skin is actually cold. "It wasn't you." He traces the bones beneath his fingertips. "It might have been real, but it wasn't you."
"It's in my head," Steve says, low and miserable. "It's all in my head."
"I know," Tony says. "Hey, you remember that time Kang mind-controlled me and I murdered a bunch of people?"
"You died in my arms," Steve says, and he shuts his eyes. "I haven't thought about that in years."
"It wasn't technically me either, as these things go." Tony squeezes Steve's hand. "And it's not like I'm gonna forget it. But you move on. You have to. You can't blame yourself."
Steve moves his hand away. "I can't just--"
"You can," Tony says. "It's what we do. It's what you do. It's tough, but you're going to get better."
That sounds like something Steve would have said. Comforting, maybe.
Steve's voice is tight. "He was me, and God, the things he was capable of -- and it's inside me, everything he was. People trusted him. They trusted him because they trusted me. I'm that person. I could have done those things. Everything I've fought against, and I could just do all of it." He snaps his fingers. "Like that."
"But you wouldn't have." Tony tries to keep a lid on oh God what did he do but he's not having much luck. "It's like mind control. Brainwashing. Just because they can make you do something, doesn't mean it's you. Intent counts for a hell of a lot. You know that. Who you are, who you've always been -- even with a goddamn Cosmic Cube, you were you first. You were you to begin with. You would never have done this. He wasn't you."
Steve just looks more upset, his face contorted in anguish. "He knew he was really me."
"And Red Onslaught mind-whammied me and I spent months drinking and fucking my way through San Francisco," Tony says, acidly. "I dosed the entire city with Extremis and then extorted them when they wanted more of it. I sold weapons to the highest bidder. And I'm sure if you'd asked that guy he'd have said he was really me, too. So what does that prove, huh? What does it matter what he thinks?"
"You don't understand." Steve's nostrils flare, mulishly. Tony finds his anger reassuring. It's better than the sadness. "If you knew-- if you really knew what he did, you wouldn't be so kind."
Ordinarily, Tony wouldn't push him. But this is anything but ordinary, and the sheer weight of possibility, of what the other Steve Rogers might have done, is growing heavier and heavier.
"I heard you talking to Jan," Tony says, very quietly, and Steve says nothing. "About me."
Steve's staring ahead again. He's not looking at Tony.
"I can't talk about this," Steve says. Tony can hear him breathing, fast and panicked.
"I said I can't talk about this," Steve repeats.
"You said he came to see me."
Steve's shaking like he's going to bolt. Tony would run too if he could. "I can't."
"He locked himself in a room with my unconscious body," Tony says, and he doesn't mean for his voice to go sharp, but this is killing him and he needs to know now. "You said no one but you knows. You can't look me in the eye anymore. And it's my goddamn body and if he-- if he--"
For fuck's sake, Tony can't even say any of it, and that makes it sound more awful.
In the half-light, Steve's face goes gray, drained of color, like he's about to pass out or be sick, and Tony wonders if he should feel proud that even after all these years he can still imagine worse human evils than Steve can.
"God," Steve rasps. "He-- no, God, no, Tony, he didn't touch you. It wasn't like that. Nobody touched you. Nobody did anything to you." Quietly, wretchedly, he adds, "He would have killed anyone who did. In an instant." He breathes out. "He just... talked to you. That's all."
Tony exhales hard. Okay. He's okay. It wasn't like he thought. But Steve's being eaten away by this. Whatever it is, it's poisoning him.
"He talked to me?"
Steve's nod is a tremor. "He-- he knew everything I knew. Everything I ever thought." His mouth twists. "He thought I was weak. Soft. He-- he sat there, and he told you how much better he was than me."
"That's bullshit," Tony snaps, and Steve recoils like it's Steve himself under attack.
Steve stares back bleakly. He doesn't believe it in the slightest.
"I have to live with it," Steve whispers. "Everything he said, it keeps running through my mind, when I-- when I see you-- and I know it's nothing compared to how other people have suffered. I know I don't even have the right--"
"What did he say?"
Steve shuts his eyes and his throat works. He's trying to hold back tears. "I can't," he breathes. "I can't tell you. You'll never-- you'll never--"
He doesn't finish the sentence, and his breathing is slow and ragged.
"Steve," Tony says, and he knows it's ripping him up inside too. "Come on. You can't do this to yourself. It's killing you."
"Maybe I deserve that," Steve says, low and agonized.
Tony's been here before. He's been this far down. What would Steve have said to him?
"I don't know what you think I won't do," Tony says, softly, "but you've got me, okay? I'm not leaving."
"You should," Steve whispers, and then he sighs. "It used to be good. It's not fair. It used to be good."
Tony blinks. "I don't understand."
Steve turns away, and for long seconds there's nothing but the sound of his breathing, the outline of his profile in the shadows. He looks... small, somehow. Lowered. Broken.
Steve glances back at him. His eyes are bloodshot, glassy, too pale. "Have you ever had a really good secret? Say, you've bought someone a present, or you're about to give one of your employees a promotion, or the new Avengers roster is ready to go? And it's not so much about revealing the secret, but just-- imagining it. Having the secret, it makes you happy." He laughs. "He knew. He knew everything. He made it into a joke. A taunt."
The other Steve, he had his hands all over Steve's brain.
"He violated you," Tony says. He's not sure Steve wants him to call it rape.
"I have no right to complain," Steve says, and his head droops lower. "It's just my mind. He didn't do anything. Not to me. I wasn't even there. He had Chthon possess Wanda, and he made her--" he breaks off.
Tony feels sick. He knows now that he got off easy.
"It's not a zero-sum game," Tony says, as gently as he can. "It's all right if you're not okay."
He stretches out his hand, and just barely brushes Steve's fingers again.
Steve's breath is a harsh rattle, like he's dying. "He told you I loved you," he whispers, and he shuts his eyes, and he doesn't look up.
Tony's dreamed of hearing Steve say that for so long that he gave up hope years ago. Steve didn't love him back. Steve couldn't. Tony's heart is pounding in his chest. He never dreamed he'd find out like this. He doesn't want it to happen like this.
What is he supposed to say? What the hell is he supposed to say to that?
Steve's breaths are quiet irregular hitches, noisy and messy sounds. If he's not crying, it's a near thing.
It wasn't supposed to be the worst thing ever.
Everything is riding on what Tony says now. Their entire friendship, a coin balancing on its edge, waiting to fall.
Is it that bad? Is it so terrible to love him? It's not like Tony loves himself. He can give Steve that one. He wouldn't be happy either. But Steve was supposed to be better than he was. Ten years and Tony guesses he still has the guy on a pedestal, for all that Steve's tried to jump off.
In his fantasies, Steve was proud to love him.
"From where I am," Tony says, softly, "that's not a bad thing. But I-- I understand if you feel differently."
Steve's eyes are open. There are tears on his face. He's staring at Tony's hand on his like he can't believe Tony hasn't moved it yet.
"I used to dream about telling you." A tear drips off Steve's chin. He's shaking. His voice is thick. "It was my own perfect secret. The best thing about the future. And I look at you and in my head I can hear him laughing. Calling me weak. Soft. Sentimental."
No. Hydra does not get to fucking have this.
"He didn't ruin anything," Tony says, fiercely, and Steve's head snaps up. "He didn't ruin this. You know why? Because when you think about this--" please let him say this, please let him be able to get this out-- "you're not going to think about him. You're going to think about me. You're going to think about me telling you I love you back."
Steve has gone pale in what has to be sheer disbelief. "Tony?"
Tony is gasping, high on some unholy combination of adrenaline and terror. He hopes the SHIELD docs don't decide to come by and double-check his vitals right now. "Yeah," Tony says, defiantly, facing down a villain who isn't even there. "So you just think about that."
"When I say love," Steve begins, very carefully, like he thinks Tony might have misunderstood, "I don't just mean--"
Steve wouldn't be in tears just because Tony was his friend.
"I know," Tony blurts out, because he has to say it all now, now before one of them runs. Probably Steve, because Tony still can't walk. "Believe me, I know. Definitely still interested."
The noise that comes out of Steve's mouth doesn't exactly have words, and his thumb and fingers tighten around Tony's wrist.
"I mean," Tony adds, because midnight is a great time for bare honesty, "okay, right now the flesh is a little weak, if you get my drift, but the spirit is definitely willing."
Steve snorts. "Tony."
He used to be able to make Steve laugh all the time. He sighs. "You ever done this before?"
"Which this?" Steve says. "Men? No. Not sure that's the important part." His gaze is unfocused. "Never been with someone I've tried to kill twice. If it goes bad, Tony -- I just... I think you know we don't exactly do break-ups like other people do." He winces. "We tend to take the planet down with us."
Tony doesn't remember the war. Not the first one. He remembers Steve breaking his face open, red incursion skies above them. He remembers telling Steve that he would have done it all again just the same.
He always would have. No regrets.
"It would be worth it," Tony says.
Steve's face does something funny. "You didn't think that the first time."
"Didn't think what?"
"Your AI," Steve says. "He remembers the SHRA. Funny, that."
"Jesus," Tony breathes. "Okay, that wasn't supposed to be possible."
"He said it wasn't worth it because I was dead," he says, and Tony thinks, oh, this is what grief is, like the words are coming from a faraway room, as eight different feelings batter him at once and none of them are good. "Of course, my other self was busy trying to murder him at the time."
Tony dimly recognizes that he's crying too. At least Steve left the lights on low.
"Fuck," Tony says, his voice nearly unrecognizable.
"Hey, Tony, no," Steve says, distraught, because apparently when Tony is the one having a breakdown Steve will pull himself together. Good to know. "Hey, it's okay, I'm back, okay? It's over."
Steve runs his hand through his hair, swears under his breath, and then climbs into bed with him.
There's not really enough room for both of them. Steve has to shove him over a lot and even then Tony isn't really what you'd call comfortable; Steve is half-lying on him in a way that is not so much sexy as I feel slightly crushed. Still, Tony wouldn't trade it for the world.
Steve reaches for the Kleenex, can't quite grab them, and wipes Tony's face off with the sheet instead. They're a mess. Tony's not going to complain. Steve's right here.
"This is a terrible first date," Tony says. "There is no ambience whatsoever."
Steve's laugh is breathless, maybe a little delirious. "What do you say we don't count this one?"
"Oh, yeah," Tony says, "we go out to some nice little French bistro and then Kang invades. I know how this goes. Second date's not gonna be any better."
Steve's still chuckling, and for an instant it's like the old days, and then it isn't, as everything crashes back. They can never have that.
But they have this. They pick themselves up. They keep moving on.
Steve's lips brush Tony's temple, in the lightest of kisses, like he doesn't dare presume. "That any better?"
"Mmm," Tony says. "Do it again and I'll let you know."
Steve kisses him on the lips this time, still tentative, soft and slow.
"Yeah," Tony breathes. "Yeah, okay, I could get used to this."
Steve is looking him in the eyes. He smiles.
It could still go to shit. The world's shit. Steve's not better. Maybe he's not going to be for a while. But maybe they can have this, for as long as it runs. They've got each other. And maybe the darkness is a little brighter for it.