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Corrupting Light (For All Mankind)

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Official S.H.I.E.L.D. Interview Transcript of Natasha Romanoff, codename Black Widow, conducted by Deputy Director Maria Hill

Hill: I’ll interview everyone during this investigation, but I wanted to start with you because you’ve had the most exposure to the scepter. Can you tell me about that?

Romanoff: Yes, I used it to shut down the gateway during the difficulties in New York. I kept it hidden until S.H.I.E.L.D. was able to arrange containment and transport to a safe location.

Hill: During this time, did Mr. Stark come into contact with the scepter?

Romanoff: No, ma’am. No one touched it but me, and none of the others came near it after Loki was in custody.

Hill: Did Mr. Stark seem susceptible to scepter?

Romanoff: No more than the rest of us.

Hill: Did he ever express an interest in the scepter?

Romanoff: No, ma’am.

Hill: He didn’t ask you to study it or try to determine its location?

Romanoff: No.

Hill: It’s strange, isn’t it, that Mr. Stark was the one affected? Not Agent Barton, who’d already been compromised. Not you, who had more exposure and access to the scepter.

Romanoff: Agent Barton and I aren’t walking around with a power plant embedded in our chests.

*

“Steeeve,” Tony whines, drawing out the vowels as obnoxiously as possible, draping himself a little more snugly over Steve’s back.

“Oh, god,” Steve replies. At least that’s what Tony thinks he said. It’s hard to tell when he’s face down in a pillow.

“Tell me a story, Steve,” Tony says, digging his chin into Steve’s shoulder.

Steve groans and lifts himself up to turn, shifting Tony’s entire body weight as he does. It’s pretty hot. He gives Tony a look, and Tony beams innocently back, batting his eyes a few times. “I was really hoping I’d worn you out completely this time,” Steve says, but he sounds too fond for the words to sting.

“Oh yeah, no worries there, Tiger, I’m down for the count. The world better not need saving in the next two hours because I don’t think my knees are working. That doesn’t mean I’m sleepy, though. Hence, bedtime story.”

“Well,” Steve says as he moves them around again, finally settling on his back with Tony still draped on top of him. Tony hadn’t suspected Captain America of being a cuddler, but with Steve’s warm body beneath his and Steve’s large hand stretched across his ribs, he has to admit he likes it. “What kind of story?”

Tony thinks fast. They haven’t really broached the topic of his dad yet, and he doesn’t want to get Steve upset, so no war stories. Tony already knows about Steve’s adventures in the 21st century. Well, except… “You should tell me how you knew to ride to my rescue. I don’t think you ever told me your side of that particular tale.”

Steve freezes, fingers digging in slightly, before relaxing again. “You sure you want to talk about that?”

Tony shrugs. “I’ve been wondering about it for a while.”

“Okay,” Steve says, frowning slightly as he thinks, “I guess the first hint of something strange was when you broke up with Pepper, but I didn’t know it at the time.”

*

"I brought beer," Clint said when he showed up at Steve's door an hour before the game. He said that every time he showed up, as if he felt he needed to buy his way into Steve's apartment. Or maybe he was just trying to be polite, in a Clint sort of way.

"Great," Steve said, although he probably wouldn't drink any. "Order some pizza, will you? I have to finish this up."

"Okay," Clint said, "But I'm ordering a lot. Last time you ate half of mine, too."

"Probably a good idea," he agreed as his stomach growled.

He sent a text message to Natasha inviting her, although he doubted she would join them since she never had before. At the very least, she could relax for a few hours without worrying about Clint. She'd kept a close watch on him since he'd been suspended. Then he tried to finish sorting through some emails about the rebuilding effort.

Clint disappeared into the kitchen to order pizza and put the beer away. He came back after a few minutes and sprawled on the couch, turning on the television and making himself comfortable.

It was nice to have someone else hanging around. He wasn't used to living alone.

After a few minutes of companionable silence, Clint gave a low whistle. “Damn, he’s self-destructing.” He took a sip of his beer and thought about it. “Again.”

“Who?” Steve asked, turning away from the email he was writing to face the television. On screen, Pepper was fighting her way through a pack of paparazzi toward a sleek car. Behind her, Tony staggered out of the restaurant entrance, screaming with a drink still in his hand. Clint raised the volume, but it was hard to hear what Tony was saying over the roar of the crowd. He stumbled down the steps until he was stopped by Pepper’s driver.

He smiled, pushed his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose, and leaned in close to say something. The man pushed him back, and Tony tripped over and landed on his ass, laughing the whole way down. As the car pulled away, Tony saluted it with his glass, which had stayed remarkably full despite his antics, and downed the rest of his drink.

Tony pushed unsteadily to his feet and tried to re-enter the restaurant, only to be stopped at the door. He started yelling again, and this time someone managed to get a microphone in his face as he cursed a blue streak.

“Man, I can’t watch that anymore,” Clint said, flicking through the channel guide until he found a basketball game.

“Maybe I should check on him,” Steve said, a little doubtfully because despite things being a little warmer between them, he wasn’t sure Tony would be happy to see him.

Clint shrugged. “I guess,” he said, “But take it from me, he won't thank you for it. Might be best to wait until he crawls out of the bottle.”

Steve frowned, but was interrupted by a knock at the door from the pizza guy before he could say anything else.

*

“Wait, you were writing an email?” Tony asks.

Steve raises his eyebrows. “That’s the part you have trouble with?”

“Come on, it was the least believable part!”

*

A couple weeks later, he was having lunch with Bruce, something he tried to do when he could. He thought Bruce might be lonely, but then, Bruce was probably thinking the same thing about him.

They were at a tiny Indian place near Stark Tower. Bruce was introducing him to new foods, and it was a lot of fun. Steve had enjoyed sushi a lot more than he'd expected.

For most of the meal they spoke about a book that Bruce had lent him, a modern account of the New Deal and its ramifications. Bruce was particularly interested to find out if it matched Steve's memories. It wasn't until after their meal when Bruce followed him out to his motorcycle that Bruce said, looking decidedly ill at ease, "I'm afraid I won't be able to have lunch with you again for awhile. I'm leaving tomorrow on a trip out of the country.”

“Oh," Steve said, surprised. "Aren't you all settled in at Stark Tower? You said the labs were pretty nice, which I figured meant they were a scientist's dream."

“I don’t really settle,” Bruce said with a wry smile. “It’s not safe. Especially since the media’s really starting to poke around. SHIELD tries to keep them away from me, but I figure it’s a good idea to get away.”

“I can’t blame you for wanting to escape the press,” Steve said. “You’ll keep in touch?”

“When I can,” Bruce agreed.

“You better,” Steve said, holding out his hand like he did the first time they’d met. Bruce gave him that surprised look he got every time someone voluntarily touched him, but shook his hand.

“Wait,” he called as Bruce started to leave, and Bruce paused. “Does this have anything to do with Tony?”

Bruce frowned. “I don’t… that’s not any of my business.”

“So yes,” Steve said.

“I’ll see you around, Steve,” Bruce replied and walked away with a little wave.

After that, Steve started to pay more attention, but Tony had dropped out of sight, cloistered inside the Tower where the cameras couldn’t find him.

*

“I’m beginning to appreciate how hard it would be to decide if I was acting erratically given… well, me. This is all shit I have totally pulled on a normal day. You know, before aliens invaded Manhattan.”

“It’d be easier now,” Steve explains with a smile, tracing out circles along Tony’s side, which Tony approves of. “I didn’t know you very well, though.”

“You haven’t told me how you figured it out yet,” Tony points out.

“I was getting there. That didn’t happen for another few weeks.”

*

Steve had been busy helping with the rebuilding efforts, in particular organizing help for smaller businesses and charities. The insurance companies were in endless legal debates about liability due to terrorism and acts of gods, but people needed to rebuild immediately.

A man in a nice suit, way too expensive for Steve’s neighborhood, arrived in a taxi as Steve reached his apartment building. He followed Steve in and they waited quietly for the elevator. Steve didn’t start to worry until the man watched as Steve pushed the button for his floor but made no move to do the same.

It was probably paranoia, but when the man followed him out of the elevator and inspected the first unit, Steve couldn’t help but ask, “Can I help you find your way?”

The man startled and turned. “Ah, yes, actually. I’m looking for 5C,” he said, voice unexpectedly deep.

"That’s my unit,” he said, trying to keep any suspicion out of his tone.

“Ah, Mr. Rogers?” he asked, and at Steve’s nod, pulled a plain envelope from a pocket in his suit jacket. “I have a delivery for you. I hate to be rude, but might I see your identification?”

He fished the drivers license that SHIELD had given him out of his wallet and handed it over. “You don’t look like a delivery guy,” he said as the man examined his ID.

“No, sir,” he agreed with a chuckle. He pulled a business card out of his wallet and handed it over with Steve’s license and the envelope. The card read: Norton, Grey and Lovitt Law Firm, James M. Grey, Attorney at Law. “Mr. Stark has been a valuable client for years, so I have no issues with making the occasional delivery. Not that Mr. Stark has ever made such a request before.”

“Never?” Steve asked, looking down at the unassuming envelope. “Do you know what it is?”

Mr. Grey shook his head. “It arrived sealed with an address for delivery. And now that I’ve accomplished that task, I’ll take my leave. Have a nice day, Mr. Rogers. Do please call on us if you need any legal expertise. We'd be happy to help a friend of Mr. Stark.”

“Thanks,” Steve said as Mr. Grey stepped back toward the elevator. “You have a nice day, too.”

When Mr. Grey was safely gone, Steve went on to his apartment, locking the door behind him before carefully peeling open the envelope. Inside were several thick sheets that turned out to be pictures when he flipped them over.

There were 5 of them in total, and Steve spread them out in order, unease settling in his stomach. The pictures were of the Tower during the Chitauri battle, Loki and Tony silhouetted against the huge wall of windows, facing each other.

The first picture showed Loki with the scepter raised, the second with it glowing and pushed against Tony’s chest. The third showed Loki looking down at the scepter, confused, and the fourth with it aimed and pressed again at the middle of Tony’s chest. The fifth and final picture was of Loki grabbing Tony, rage clear on his face.

Steve leaned against his table and studied the photographs. He’d read everyone’s report from that day, and Tony hadn’t mentioned Loki trying to possess him once. Tony had written about stalling and getting the sensors for his newest suit, but he hadn’t said a word about Loki’s scepter failing.

But even so, what did it matter? Tony hadn’t been possessed. He’d seen surveillance of Clint and Dr. Selvig. Tony hadn’t lost himself. He hadn’t turned on them with eyes clouded blue.

Steve wasn’t sure what all this meant, but he couldn’t ignore what was going on with Tony anymore.

*

“But that doesn’t make any sense!” Tony exclaims, “I’m the only one who had access to that feed. Well, me and… Jarvis?”

“Yes, sir,” Jarvis replies promptly.

“I suppose you’re the one behind this?”

“You suppose correctly, sir.”

“Well, listen,” Tony says, “Not to look a gift rescue in the mouth or anything, but I have a fuzzy memory of telling you to not to contact anyone.”

“You did, sir. However, you also asked me to take care of routine correspondence, such as paperwork required by your law firm, so that no one would interrupt your work in the lab.”

“That’s sneaky, Jarvis!” Tony says, grinning, “I approve.”

“Thank you, sir. I thought you might.”

“And what about you, huh?” Tony asks, turning his attention back to Steve. “What was your next move once you were certain my ass needed saving?”

Steve doesn’t answer, his expression going a bit distant.

“You’re thinking about my ass!” Tony accuses, laughing when Steve comes back to himself and blushes faintly. “No one ever believes me when I tell them what a perv you are,” Tony laments. “And stop getting distracted. I want to hear the rest of the story.”

“Okay,” Steve says, “Well, I figured it was time to talk to the person most likely to know what was going on with you.”

Tony winces.

*

Steve thought he might have to wait since Pepper was such a busy lady, but her secretary smiled and led him straight into Pepper’s office.

“Ms. Potts,” he greeted her.

“Captain,” she replied, taking his hand and then pulling him closer to kiss his cheek, “What have I said? Call me Pepper, please.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he agreed and grinned when she glanced over with narrowed eyes. He corrected himself, “Okay, Pepper.”

“Better,” she said, leading him over to a pair of sleek couches. “Can I get you some coffee, or tea?”

“No, thank you,” Steve answered politely, taking a seat.

“Well, I hope you don’t mind if I do,” Pepper said, pushing a button on a complicated looking machine and coming over with with a sweet smelling cup of coffee. “I’m glad you came by. I haven’t seen you since Thor left. I thought you were planning to do some traveling.”

“I was,” Steve explained, “And I left for about a week, but it felt a little too much like I’d run away after making a mess of things, so I came back to help.”

“You’re too good for us, Steve,” Pepper said, and Steve ducked his head. “Now, why don’t you tell me your problem with Tony?”

Steve sobered and looked up. “How did you know this was about Tony?”

“Well, you told me it wasn’t a business matter on the phone, so I just assumed. I should warn you: I’m not sure how much help I can be to you. We haven’t spoken for... some time.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, what happened? He seemed fine the last time I saw him.”

“He was good for a while,” Pepper said, and thought for a second, staring down into her coffee. Steve waited patiently.

“He wouldn’t want me to tell you. I mean it,” she looked back up, expression fierce, “Especially you. But he was having nightmares. Bad ones. And he tried to hide it from me, but he was having panic attacks. Then the drinking started. I hadn’t seen him sober in over a week when we broke up, and we were living together. It’s the kind of thing I’d expect from the old Tony. I haven’t seen him like that since before… well, before Iron Man.”

“So you wouldn’t say this was normal?” Steve asked.

“What’s normal for Tony?” Pepper replied with a bitter twist to her lips. “But no, I wouldn’t.”

Steve pulled one of the photos out of his jacket pocket, one of Loki with his scepter at Tony’s chest, and handed it to her.

“Jesus,” she said, and set her cup down to hold the photo with both hands. “You think Loki has something to do with this mess?”

“I really don’t know,” Steve admitted, “But I’m going to find out.”

“Again, I’m not sure how much help I’ll be,” Pepper said, “But let me know if you need something, and please let me know what you find.”

“Of course I’ll let you know,” Steve said as they stood, “And you’ve already been a big help.”

“That’s kind of you to say,” Pepper said.

“It’s true,” Steve replied with a shrug, “And, actually, there is one thing. Tony’s holed up here at Stark Tower, right?” Pepper nodded. “Well, if you could let me have access to the residential parts of the building-”

“It’s Avengers Tower, now,” Pepper interrupted him, “And all of the Avengers have had access since the attack.” She smiled. “It was one of the first things Tony did when we started rebuilding.”

“He always surprises me,” Steve said with a shake of his head as Pepper escorted him to the door.

“He does that,” she agreed, “And thank you, Steve. Not just for looking out for Tony, but for… saving the world, I guess.”

“I don’t need thanks for that,” Steve said, “It’s my world, too.”

Pepper ignored that and opened the door, kissing his cheek again as he moved past her. “Be careful,” she warned.

Natasha was waiting for him at his motorcycle when he left. “About time, old man,” she said with a smirk.

“I’d apologize, but I’m pretty sure you can’t be late for a date that doesn’t exist.”

“You wish,” Natasha said, “but I’ll buy you a coffee if you have some time to talk.”

Steve suspected that the offer was just polite and that they’d have spoken even if he was busy, but he agreed and followed her to a crowded coffee shop just the same.

*

“Wow, two hot redheads offering you coffee in one day,” Tony says, wiggling his eyebrows in a suggestive manner.

Steve smiles, like he does every time Tony makes that face. Tony appreciates it, even if he still thinks it should be sexy, not funny. “Not like that. You want me to tell this story?”

“I’m just saying, coffee is often a euphemism.”

“Not this time, trust me.”

*

“What’s going on with Tony?” Natasha asked point blank when they had settled with their drinks.

Steve wasn’t sure he wanted to talk about it in public. “I haven’t seen him since the park,” Steve answered truthfully. “Why do you ask?”

Natasha frowned. “SHIELD found a couple of troubling things. They’re concerned. And you must be, too, otherwise you wouldn’t have gone to see Pepper.”

“What troubling things?” Steve asked.

“Why are you worried?” Natasha shot back.

Steve took a sip and considered. Whoever had contacted him clearly hadn’t wanted SHIELD involved, or they would have sent the information their way instead. Steve had planned to honor that, at least until he found out that he couldn’t handle the situation himself. Still, he trusted Natasha. “Is SHIELD asking, or you?”

“Is there a difference?” Natasha asked, sounding bored with his question. Steve raised his eyebrows and she sighed. “SHIELD is concerned, but I’m looking into it. We should work together, Steve.”

Steve gave it another few seconds of thought, but in the end, he handed over the small stack of photos he’d been sent.

Natasha flipped through them quickly, and then a second time, slower. She frowned again and handed them back. “He didn’t mention that in the report.”

“I know,” Steve replied, “That’s what bothers me.”

Natasha nodded and leaned forward. “Stark Tower is pulling a significant amount of energy from the power grid.”

“Is that unusual?” Steve asked. “It is a big building.”

“No, it shouldn’t need any outside power at all. The Tower was completely off the grid until a few days ago,” she explained. “Remember when Tony was talking about his clean energy? The entire building is powered by an arc reactor, and not even the battle knocked it offline.”

“So what’s he doing with all that extra power?” Steve asked.

“That’s what I want to know,” she answered, “That’s why SHIELD’s concerned.”

“Tony’s a genius,” Steve said slowly. “If he’s been forced to build some kind of machine, or a weapon…”

Natasha nodded. “We’re going to need some back up.”

“Clint?” Steve asked, still holding out hope that they could keep SHIELD out of it. He just didn’t quite trust them, not with Tony’s life possibly on the line.

“No,” Natasha said firmly, “He needs to stay far away from this. I have someone else in mind.”

“This had better be good,” Rhodey said as soon as he came through the door.

“Colonel,” Natasha said, and Steve could detect a hint of fondness in her tone, which was unusual.

Rhodey scowled. “Seriously, I know you probably wouldn’t recognize down time if you kicked its ass, but I was on leave. My mama was cooking for me. She made pie, and now she’s upset.”

“That’s so sweet,” Natasha said with a perfectly blank expression.

Pie,” Rhodey repeated with emphasis, “So like I said, this better be good.”

Natasha glanced over Rhodey’s shoulder to where Steve’s sitting and watching. Rhodey looked too, and then did a double take. His hand jerked like he wanted to salute, but it stayed down at his side.

“We think Tony’s possessed by alien technology and building a weapon of some kind in Stark Tower,” Steve said eventually.

“Jesus,” Rhodey replied with what Steve felt was an appropriate expression of horror, and then he blinked and went thoughtful. “That does explains the text messages.”

Natasha raised an eyebrow.

“They were spelled correctly," Rhodey explained, "With punctuation and everything.”

That’s how Steve wrote his own texts, but Natasha nodded like she understood.

*

“I know what they meant about the text messages now,” Steve says, poking Tony in the ribs and making him jump, “And I’m pretty sure you do that just to annoy people.”

“Au contraire,” Tony argues, grabbing Steve’s wrist, “I’m interested in the inherent flexibility and rapid evolution of textspeak. It’s a purely academic endeavor.”

Steve leans in so that he’s speaking directly into Tony’s ear. “You know what’s not so academic?”

Tony shivers and makes a low questioning noise.

“How much of a pain you are,” Steve finishes, and pokes Tony in the ribs again despite his grip. Tony yelps and elbows Steve in the chest to get away, starting a small scuffle that ends with tangled sheets and Steve pinning Tony down to continue his story.

*

“Want a sandwich?” Steve asked Rhodey, waving a wrapped sub. “Not pie, I know, but I promise it’s good.”

“Thanks,” Rhodey said, and took it with a sigh. It had been a long few hours of filling Rhodey in on what they knew and making a plan, and now they were waiting for night when Stark Tower would be emptiest, especially with Pepper’s help. “Natasha back yet?”

“No,” Steve answered, “But she had a pretty long list of supplies. Your suit, for one.”

“I’m still not convinced she’ll be able to get ahold of that,” Rhodey said.

“We’ll see,” Steve said, “But I for one trust her abilities at ‘sweet talking them in the name of interorganizational cooperation.’”

Rhodey snorted. “More like cracking a few skulls.”

“Sounds about right,” Steve agreed with a grin.

Rhodey took a bite out of his sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. “You know, I get why Natasha is doing this. SHIELD keeps an eye on Tony, and this isn’t the first time she’s helped clean up after him. But you,” Rhodey said and shook his head decisively, “I don’t get you.”

“Why I’m helping Tony, you mean?” Steve asked.

“No, that I get. You’re a good guy,” Rhodey said, “And stopping a possessed weapons genius seems right up your alley. I don’t get why you cared enough to find out that Tony needed help in the first place. Seems like you went to a lot of trouble for someone you hardly know, is all.”

Steve didn’t answer right away, considering the question while finishing his sandwich. “Well, I don’t actually think I’ve done all that much so far,” Steve said, crumpling up the wrapper.

“More than anyone else,” Rhodey said, “Hell, more than me, and I’m his best friend.”

“I guess I was trying not to misjudge him again,” Steve said.

“Again?” Rhodey asked.

“He probably told you, but I didn’t really give him a fair shake at first. I let other people’s opinions and my own issues color what I saw, and I said and did some things I really regret.”

Rhodey smirked. “And I’m sure Tony found and gleefully pressed every single one of those buttons.”

“He didn’t make it easy,” Steve admitted, “I was having trouble adjusting, and he seemed like the embodiment of everything that bothered me about the future. But I know better than to make snap judgements about a man.” He shrugged. “Didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.”

Rhodey grinned and shook his head. “The history books were right about you, Captain.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Steve said, “I try to avoid my own press.”

“Spot on,” Rhodey said, laughing softly as Steve produced another sandwich and started on that one.

*

“Hey,” Tony says and shifts closer so that their legs are intertwined, “You know that’s all water under the rainbow bridge, right?”

“I know,” Steve agrees.

“That means you can stop apologizing now,” Tony elaborates, “Especially since Rhodey was correct: I was not exactly a peach about the whole thing.”

“Wow,” Steve asks with a smirk, “Did that hurt much?”

“I’ll have you know I’m so manly that admitting my faults only causes limited emotional turmoil and not actual pain.”

“Good to know,” Steve says.

“Just don’t tell Pepper,” Tony pleads, and that earns him a laugh.

*

Steve resisted the urge to run as he entered Stark Tower, ready to have this whole thing over. Instead, he strolled over to the elevator trying to look as casual as possible in his uniform, shield strapped to his back. He pushed the call button a few times, sighing when it didn’t light up.

“Always have to do everything the hard way,” Steve said wryly as he went to find the stairs.

The higher Steve climbed, the faster he went. He kept his footsteps light and focused on the sounds around him, but there was nothing but the dull echo of his soles against the concrete. When he reached the top floor where Tony lived, it was much harder to move loose and easy. He let the door clang shut behind him and walked as nonchalantly as possible even though he was expecting an attack at any second.

“Hey, Iron Man,” Steve called out, “You realize your elevator’s not working?” He walked slowly through the dim hallway which opened into a large room he recognized from capturing Loki. Windows covered the entire wall, letting in the glow of New York’s skyline, but there was no sign of Tony.

“Hello?” Steve tried again, “I was hoping to get some help with…” He trailed off as he caught a glimpse of Tony out on the landing pad. He climbed up the stairs, keeping his eyes on Tony, wind ruffling his hair as he stepped outside.

Tony was facing away, but his voice carried. “Sorry to disappoint, Captain Rogers,” he said, tone vicious in a way Steve recognized from the fight on the helicarrier, and then he turned around.

“T-Tony...?” Steve stuttered, and he didn’t have to fake his horror. Tony looked terrible, skin an ashy grey with dark circles under his eyes. His expression was fixed on Steve in a way that was oddly hungry, and he had yet to blink.

“I’m afraid Mr. Stark won’t be joining us this evening,” Tony replied as Steve stared, “He’s currently a bit … occupied.” His eyes flashed bright blue, and the arc reactor flared with it, visible even through Tony’s suit, a far cry from the usual cool, faint glow.

It was one thing to believe that Tony was possessed. Seeing it was something else entirely.

“Who are you?” Steve demanded. His fingers itched for his shield, but he stood tense and still, unwilling to make a move that could start a fight.

The thing wearing Tony’s face smiled. “I am Truth, and I wield Power so that others might see it.”

Steve remembered Dr. Selvig’s debrief, about how it felt to have his mind opened to the scepter’s knowledge, and how consequences had fallen away. “What power?” Steve asked, “Do you mean the Tesseract?”

“The Tesseract would have been a beautiful weapon, but it is beyond my reach now. I have adapted. Knowledge cannot be stopped.”

“I don’t understand,” Steve said.

“I could speak for eons and you still would not,” it replied, “But it’s of no consequence. It’s fortuitous that you are here tonight.”

“Is it?” Steve asked, feeling a low thrum of dread that he might have played into the thing’s plans.

“Thor is too far to intervene, and I sent the beast away,” and Tony’s eyes flashed blue again. “You are the only threat left.” It took a step forward.

“What are you going to do?” Steve asked, holding his ground as it approached.

“I’m going to give your world a gift,” it said with another grin that made Steve’s skin crawl.

“Like you gave to Tony? And Clint?” Steve asked, resolutely keeping his eyes on Tony’s face. It nodded, and Steve tensed even further. “I can’t let you do that.”

“I know,” it said, “But your will doesn’t matter, because the truth is that I have already won. You came believing that I would lead you to my secrets, but they remain hidden. Look around. There is nothing here for you to destroy. You believe that you can stop me, but my plans cannot be stopped, and I need to do but one more thing: eliminate the remaining threat.” Then it reached out and grabbed one of the straps that held his shield in place, throwing him across the rooftop with ease.

Steve hit the ground with a grunt and rolled, coming up with his shield in time to block a falling blow.

He stopped thinking at that point and just moved, always managing to stay just ahead of the next attack. He couldn’t do more than deflect and dodge, leading Tony around the roof in a violent parody of dancing, unable to launch his own attacks for fear of harming Tony.

It seemed to realize that he was holding back and started leaving openings that Steve couldn’t risk taking, attacking him with a more brutal and reckless style. Finally Steve couldn’t keep up, couldn’t get his shield up in time, and took a hit to the face. The blow felt like it had been made with steel, much harder than the flesh and blood that had dealt it.

His ears were ringing when he staggered back to his feet, and he stared as Tony approached. Maybe it was the blow to the head, but Tony was glowing a faint blue all over now, eyes and reactor piercingly bright.

It grabbed his throat in a move much faster than all the rest, making it clear it’d been playing with him the whole time. Steve gasped as it lifted him, striking out with his shield only to have it wrenched from his hands.

Steve thought it might start to gloat then and give him a little more time, but it merely smirked and tossed him over the edge of the platform. He was too far out to catch on any of the building struts, so he relaxed into freefall, smiling when he heard the whine of repulsors beneath him.

“Thought you might need a lift,” Rhodey said, rising up to catch him, and flying them both smoothly back to the top of the building.

He thought that Rhodey’s appearance might give the thing inside Tony pause, but it watched them land, blank and unconcerned. Rhodey’s main gun came around to aim at Tony, and he held his hands up, repulsors ready.

It merely tilted Tony’s head and said, “That’s very impressive. But you’re not going to hurt me, are you, Rhodey?”

Rhodey held firm for a moment, and then stood down, weapons aimed away. He opened his faceplate. “No,” Rhodey said, anger and despair echoing in his words, “I can’t, Tony.”

“You should pick your allies more carefully, Captain,” it said, and Steve refused to answer, carefully watching Tony’s face. It seemed to be enjoying their defeat. “Time to finish this,” it pronounced.

“Let’s,” Natasha said from directly behind him, grabbing Tony in a choke hold before it realized what was going on, stabbing him in the neck to drug him with one hand and electrocuting his arc reactor with the other. Tony stiffened and collapsed, taking them both down to the ground.

Natasha was on her knees quickly, rolling Tony over. “Check the arc reactor,” Steve told her as he and Rhodey ran to them, but she was already cutting his clothes open with a small blade. She pushed the material aside, but everything looked normal to Steve.

Tony gasped and arched, flailing against the floor and trying to get away from Natasha, but he couldn’t break her grip. Steve dropped to his knees to help, and realized that Tony was talking as he thrashed, a low, continuous murmur, “Get it out, get it out, get it out, out, out, get it out.”

Steve pulled Tony to him, catching Tony’s arms with his own and bracing Tony's body against his, until he was pinned as much as Steve could manage. “Do it,” he ordered Natasha, and she carefully twisted and removed the arc reactor. It flared and she dropped it into the containment unit she’d brought with her, slamming the lid closed. Tony’s body went completely limp as if removing the arc reactor had cut all his strings, but then his breathing grew labored, and he gasped for air.

“Rhodes,” Natasha said. His armor opened up, plates shifting until he stepped out of it and then gently twisted the arc reactor out the front panel. The suit went instantly dark and quiet, and he handed it over to Natasha. She took it gingerly and positioned it into the cavity in Tony’s chest, and then carefully locked it into place.

Tony arched again, but he couldn’t move far in Steve’s grip, and they all watched closely as he choked and coughed and then came back to himself. His eyes opened, and Steve couldn’t see much from his position along Tony’s back, but the tension dropped out of Rhodey and Natasha like a switch had been flipped.

“Oh god,” Tony groaned, “This is the worst hangover of my life. Also, I think I’m having a heart attack.” Steve started to get worried, feeling the way Tony was shaking all over.

“Not anymore,” Natasha answered, “That’s probably just the stimulant I gave you.”

Steve loosened his grip and lowered Tony gently down so that he was no longer restraining Tony and could see him.

Tony turned his head at the motion and blinked quickly several times. “Where did you come from?” he asked, sounding perfectly confused.

Rhodey started laughing, and even though it had a hint of an hysterical edge, Steve grinned back.

“Rhodey?” Tony asked, and then, “Seriously, tell me the truth: Someone kissed me this time, didn’t they?”

Steve breathed out a sigh of relief before tensing up all over again when he noticed the approaching helicopter. “Get him inside,” Natasha ordered, standing up and collecting the containment unit with Tony’s compromised arc reactor. Steve frowned, but she just shrugged. “We need to get this away from here as quickly as possible.”

Steve couldn’t argue with that, so he and Rhodey helped Tony inside, practically carrying his weight between them.

*

Steve is quiet for a long moment, Tony waiting as patiently as he knows how, idly drawing schematics onto Steve’s skin.

“Is that the end of the story?” Tony asks eventually, and Steve comes back from wherever he went in his head.

“No, sorry,” Steve says, “It’s just… a bad memory, you know?” Tony’s surprise must show on his face because he sighs and says, “I don’t like seeing you hurt.”

Tony grimaces, reminded of how he’d asked for this thinking it wouldn’t bring up bad memories for Steve. He kisses the smooth skin of Steve’s shoulder in apology and then rests his head there.

“Actually,” Steve says hesitantly, “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” Tony says, although he’s a little apprehensive if it’s heavy enough to make Steve hesitate.

“It never made sense to me… why didn’t it just put on your armour?” Steve asks.

Tony shifts away enough to look at him. “I’m pretty sure that’s in both Natasha and Hill’s reports. You haven’t read them?”

“No?” Steve answers, confused. “I’m not part of the investigation.”

Tony sets his head back down and just breathes for a minute. He’s constantly amazed at how much Steve trusts him, especially after everything he’s done. “It was weaker in the beginning,” Tony says, and Steve listens carefully even though he’s heard parts of this before, “And its influence was weaker. It hardly took any convincing to get me to drink, though, and then I was even more suggestible.”

Tony swallows, and Steve runs a hand up and down his back, slow and warm. “I couldn’t use the armor with alcohol in my system. I had installed a fool-proof system after…” He can’t bring himself to talk about that birthday, so he skips over it. One landmine at a time. “It didn’t even try after it figured that out. It didn’t think the armor was necessary, I guess.”

“Thank goodness for that,” Steve says. “I’m not sure we could have stopped it in the armor.” He presses a kiss to the top of Tony’s head and says, “One more part of the story, and it’s my favorite."

*

Tony was still shaking as they sat on the couch, drinking a bottle of water that Rhodey had found. Steve had captured one of his hands and held two fingers against his pulse. Steve relaxed after he felt how steady it was, even if it was too fast.

“Jarvis?” Tony said abruptly, causing Rhodey and Steve to look up sharply.

“Sir?” Jarvis replied.

“Listen, any orders I’ve given since,” Tony pulled his hand out of Steve’s grasp and waved it, as if he was at a loss for how to describe the current situation, “you know, let’s just rescind all of that. Just, you know, fuck it. I mean, use your judgement.”

“Of course, Sir,” Jarvis agreed, and then added, “It’s good to see you made your way home again, Sir.”

Tony laughed, although it sounded kind of choked. He took another drink of water and fixed his eyes on the opposite wall so that he wasn’t looking at Steve or Rhodey. “Jarvis, buddy, did I… I mean, is everyone…?”

Jarvis answered after a pause when it became clear that Tony wasn’t going to continue. “I put all nonessential programs into stasis when it became apparent that you weren’t yourself, Sir, including the robots.” Tony nodded and took a shuddering breath. “However, I am afraid that the situation in the basement is becoming critical.”

Tony froze, and then began to get up. Steve put a hand under his arm to help, and he understood just how critical when Tony allowed him to help and continued leaning on him to the elevator. The doors opened smoothly as they approached, Rhodey and Natasha following them into the tight space. Steve hadn’t even noticed her return.

The elevator moved quickly, making Steve’s ears pop about halfway down, and they stepped out into a lab with reinforced walls. It would be a good defensible position, and Steve felt a chill as he thought about how badly this all could have gone. Alarms went off as they stepped out, but cut off at a sharp gesture from Tony.

“Apologies, Sir,” Jarvis said, “Captain Rogers and Agent Romanoff are not authorized.”

“So authorize them,” Tony said absently, moving toward a large structure in the center of the room. Steve followed closely, but Tony seemed to have gotten a second wind and was walking under his own power.

It was actually two units: a larger version of the arc reactor cradled in metal with wires flowing out, most of which connected to a taller unit next to it. That machine was large and made of dark metal, all angles and flashing lights, and Steve couldn’t help but think that it didn’t look like something Tony would build. It was too piecemeal, without any hint of the aesthetic beauty that Steve could usually find in Tony’s tech, especially the suit.

Tony swore and began doing… something, Steve wasn’t very sure. He took a step forward, unable to stop worrying because this could end badly if they hadn’t managed to remove all the contamination, if Tony was at all compromised.

He looked over at Natasha, who was watching intently but making no move to interfere, and Rhodey, who was frowning but relaxed. “Tony?” he prompted.

“Yeah,” Tony said, “Just give me a minute, I need to…” Poke a few buttons, as near as Steve could tell.

“It said that it couldn’t be stopped,” Steve said quietly.

“Hubris,” Tony answered, “Machine couldn’t be stopped unless you freed me, and it didn’t think you could. Now shhh, I’m busy saving New York again.” He examined the arc reactor, fingers sliding expertly over the mass of wires. “Baby,” he said in an undertone, “What did the bad man do to you?”

It seemed like it took forever, but was probably no more than 10 minutes of flipping switches and typing away at the keyboard. Tony kept up a constant stream of ideas and threats, mapping his progress as he worked.

At one point, the blinking sped up, and Jarvis said, “Sir.”

“Shut up, I know,” Tony ordered, working frantically for a heartstopping moment before Tony sat back and sighed with relief as the machine went dark. It settled into quiet, winding down from the low hum echoing around the room that Steve had felt more than heard. Tony systematically began disconnecting wires, including a thick, heavy one that twisted into the heart of the arc reactor which made him stagger. He circled twice to make sure that he’d gotten them all.

Tony paused for a second, and then turned abruptly, locating a heavy, metal sledgehammer. Steve wasn’t even sure where he found the strength, but he brought it crashing down on the machine. Rhodey winced at the sound of breaking parts, but didn’t stop Tony as he hit it again and again with enough force to shatter the main console.

Tony lifted his arm for a fourth swing, but he was shaking so hard that Steve stepped forward and intercepted the blow. Tony swayed into him, both their hands gripping the hammer, and Steve was able to get an arm around him and lower him gently to the ground as he collapsed again.

“Shit,” Tony said, letting go to press both hands firmly to the arc reactor, breath strained. Steve set the sledgehammer aside, and put a hand on Tony’s shoulder. One of Tony’s hands came up to grab his arm, grip tight as he wheezed and shook.

“It’s okay,” Steve said, unable to do anything else, “You did great. You stopped it. It’s over now.”

Tony nodded and kept breathing.

*

“And then we fell madly in love and lived happily ever after,” Steve finishes.

“That’s not quite how I remember it,” Tony says softly. He hadn’t been serious about the story being a bedtime thing, but now with Steve’s fingers carding gently through his hair, he’s having trouble keeping his eyes open.

“Might have simplified things,” Steve admits, “But that’s how stories are supposed to end.”

“Well,” Tony says, and yeah, he’s definitely falling asleep, “Either way, you’re not wrong.”

*

Official S.H.I.E.L.D. Interview Transcript of Steven Rogers, codename Captain America, conducted by Deputy Director Maria Hill

Hill: In your opinion, how likely is this scenario to happen again?

Rogers: Very unlikely, as long as S.H.I.E.L.D. keeps the scepter contained.

Hill: And is Mr. Stark still a threat?

Rogers: No, ma’am. Not any more than usual, at least.

Hill: Is that an objective analysis?

Rogers: No, ma’am. You asked for my opinion.

Hill: And you’re incapable of objectivity where Mr. Stark is concerned?

Rogers: Fairly incapable, yes, ma’am. But I can tell you this: I would trust him with my life.

Hill: That’s all well and good, Captain, but would you trust him with the lives of your teammates? Would you trust him with the lives of ordinary Americans on the line?

Rogers: Yes, ma’am. All that, too.