Hovering above the helicarrier, Tony looks over at Steve. "I hope you're happy. I just lost a bet with myself," he says. "I expected you to show up ten minutes ago."
"I think you can afford it," Steve says. He just appeared without warning, the way he always does. There's no telling how long he'll stay this time; he almost always disappears without saying anything, either.
Tony looks over at him, somehow managing to be the very picture of innocence in spite of the fact that the faceplate is down, obscuring his expression. "Yes, but the real question is, should I charge myself interest?"
Steve gives him a look – lowered chin, raised eyebrow, very nearly a Look with a capital letter, and that's it, the joke is over. His eyes are so blue, their color made even more vivid by the unmistakable worry in them. "You need to rest, Tony. I know you have a computer for a brain now, but the rest of you is still very human."
"You mean 'weak,'" Tony says. He turns away to look out over the deck of the helicarrier. It's a swarm of activity, Alpha Team nearly ready to head out, other strike teams assembling, Quinjets being fueled and prepped for flight. As Director, he should be in the command center right now, but he's never been comfortable there. He belongs out here in the sky, high above the deck where he can watch it all happen and make sure everything is going according to plan.
"That's not what I meant," Steve protests.
Tony watches a Quinjet rise into the air. "Believe it or not," he says. "I know what I'm doing." He turns around, but Steve is gone.
"Mostly," he sighs, and flies down to the deck to give his final instructions. He should have left ten minutes ago, but he let himself linger, kept by Steve's presence.
There's nothing to hold him here anymore, though.
"I'm sorry about Sal," Steve says. "He seemed like a good man."
It's a bright, clear afternoon, not at all appropriate for a funeral. "He was," Tony agrees. "Too good for all of this. He never should have been part of something like SHIELD."
"He made his own choices," Steve says, not without sympathy.
"Only because I asked him to," Tony says quietly. "He should have been at home, drinking mai tais and firing up the grill." He swallows hard against the sting of tears and tries not to think of the fact that they're not actually burying his friend, simply because there isn't enough left of him to bury. "He was only here because of me."
"Because he loved you," Steve says.
Tony clenches his jaw and shakes his head. He doesn't trust himself to speak just yet.
"It's not your fault," Steve says. The place where he's standing is cold in spite of the summer sun and his proximity.
"Everyone I care about gets killed because of me," he says dully. "Rumiko. Happy. Sal." He makes himself say it. "You."
"You didn't kill me," Steve says. "I don't blame you."
Tony doesn't look at him. He keeps staring straight ahead. He can see Maya watching him with some concern, but he deliberately refrains from making eye contact with her. He doesn't look at anyone, in fact. He's already scanned the area twice and he knows it's clean, but still. It's been a long time since he appeared in front of such a large group outside of the armor. He feels naked without it, and it's an effort to keep from looking around to see who might be out there, waiting to take their shot at an undefended Tony Stark.
"Now I know you're not real," he says. "Not that I didn't already know it. Believe me, I know. But… The real Steve would never forgive me so easily."
Steve says nothing, and Tony takes the risk and glances to his right. And there he is, dressed in a dark suit and tie like he's come here to mourn along with everyone else, eyes as blue as the incongruous summer sky. His hair glows golden, unruffled by the breeze.
Just looking at him cuts deeper than any blade ever could.
Tony looks away. He has to. He can't help it. "I think you should go."
"Why?" Steve asks.
Tony takes a deep breath and slowly lets it out. Taking control of himself again. "Because in a few minutes I have to give a eulogy for Sal," he says. "And I can't do that if I know you're here watching me."
He doesn't have to look to know that Steve is gone – but he does it anyway. He already knows what he will find, but he needs to be sure.
And it's just as he thought. He's alone.
As he should be.
Steve is with him again in the cell, though, and for that he's incredibly grateful. It's easier to push past the pain and keep talking when he has something to focus on – something like Steve's eyes.
On the other end of the line, Dum-Dum Dugan doesn't want to hear about his plan to take down the Hulk. Of course he doesn't; Dugan is a smart man. "You're talking about destroying Manhattan and everything in it, including you."
"Me, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, entire divisions of soldiers, and the H-H-Hulk." Tony shudders all over in agony, and for a terrible second he isn't sure he can go on. The obedience disc the Hulk's people attached to him is supposed to prevent him from talking to anyone; every word is a punishment, burning through him like flame. It takes monumental effort to keep speaking. Without Extremis to maintain the connection, he's pretty sure he wouldn't be able to do it at all.
"You can do this," Steve says encouragingly. He's kneeling on the bare concrete. Despite the dim conditions in the cell, his hair shines just as bright as ever.
He can do this. He has to. This is his fault, thinking he could help Bruce, only to fail him so abysmally. He has to make this right. He's the only one who can.
"It's not your fault," Steve says. "You didn't act alone, Tony." He sounds a little bit pissed off about that, having to learn of the Illuminati this way. Under other circumstances, Tony would almost be worried about his angry reaction and the inevitable argument sure to follow.
They can argue about it some other day, though. Right now he has his hands full trying to keep Manhattan safe from a rampaging Hulk, while trying to figure out how the hell he's going to get out of here. He's on his own in that regard. If he were here, the real Steve would be smashing the chains with his shield, then helping him figure out a way to remove the Hulk's obedience disc. But Steve isn't really with him, any more than he's been there all those other times. Tony knows he's only hearing what he wants to hear, some part of his mind projecting what he wants to see.
He hates himself for that, for being so needy and selfish even at a time like this, when millions of lives are at risk. He has to stay focused and remember what he's doing here. Who he's talking to, and the stakes involved. "Obviously…" He inhales deeply, shivering all over. "I'm hoping we won't have to use it. But if the Hulk…decides to take his war out of Manhattan…"
Tony hesitates. He doesn't want to say it. He doesn't want to admit the awful truth. But Steve is looking at him with such compassion, and Dugan is waiting for him, and any minute now the Hulk's people are going to come back for him. So he forces himself to forget the pain, and the shame, and his own bitter anger, and say it.
"I don't have anything else that can stop him."
Dugan is silent, and so Tony continues talking, detailing his latest, most desperate plan, even as he hopes that SHIELD will find another way.
"Tony." Steve's voice is taut with warning.
He hears the footsteps, too. "Damn it, they're coming."
"Shut up, Earthman," growls a deep voice from behind him.
There's a split second when he looks directly into Steve's eyes. He sees the dismay and fear on Steve's face, and it's so real, it's so damn real, that he's almost able to fool himself into believing that Steve isn't dead, that Steve is actually here in the cell with him. Then the disc wired into his nervous system activates, and he's screaming with the pain, unable to help it.
His last sight is of Steve's blue eyes – and then he's gone.
These days he spends so little time in his penthouse atop the Tower that it feels strange and unfamiliar to be back here. The air smells dusty and stale. When he turns on the lights, one of the bulbs in the living room flickers fitfully before burning out, creating a pool of shadow on the floor.
Within minutes, Tony feels like he's suffocating. He kicks off his shoes and loosens the knot of his tie, but it's nowhere near enough. His head feels like it's about to burst. He hurries across the living room, almost stumbling over his own feet in his haste to fling open the sliding glass door and step out onto the balcony.
The night air is cool on his fevered skin; the lights of the city are a smeary blur all around him. He hurts all over from the battle in the arena that the Hulk forced him to take part in. The worst of the pain is in his arm and shoulder mostly, but if he's being honest with himself, pretty much everything hurts. By tomorrow Extremis will have him feeling better, but for now, he feels like shit.
He looks down and is shocked to see a glass in his hand, full of rich amber liquid. He has no idea how it got there. He doesn't remember uncapping the bottle and pouring the whiskey into the glass, and that frightens him more than anything else has in a while. Because maybe he really is losing his grip on reality.
Maybe because of that fear, the temptation to raise the glass to his lips and drink is overwhelming. He hasn't felt such a strong desire since…well, since Steve died. And that thought alone is enough to further depress his already sunken spirits.
It's all just too much. Today's pointless, bloody fight in the arena was just the culmination of the never-ending battles he has to face. He's always prided himself on being able to meet each one with his head held high, but everyone has their breaking point.
End of the line, he thinks. He tightens his grip about the glass.
Steve is dead. The Avengers are scattered and divided. Happy is dead. Sal is dead. And now this debacle with the Hulk, captured along with the other members of the Illuminati and forced to fight to the death in front of thousands of gleeful spectators.
He stares down at the alcohol. He can't pretend to be surprised that he's wound up here. This day was always inevitable. He was never meant to command an agency like SHIELD. He's at home in the boardroom, or at a conference table. He's used to wearing a suit and tie, not a SHIELD uniform. He can't sit idly back and let other people put themselves in danger while he remains in a position of safety and issues cold commands.
He might hate where he is now, but he's still done his best. Not that anyone would know it to look at him. The men and women in SHIELD hate him. The other superheroes hate him. Pepper can barely look him in the eye after what happened to Happy. And Rhodey is away at Camp Hammond, doing the job Tony specifically asked him to take on in the wake of the Stamford incident. Calling him now, after he spent all day trying to protect the innocent people of the city from the Hulk's rampage, cleaning up yet another patented Tony Stark mess, would just be wrong.
The city lights suddenly grow brighter, then ebb low, a wave of disparity that sweeps around the skyline. Or maybe the buildings are swaying. It's hard to know anymore.
He thinks he might be cracking up. Finally.
He could almost welcome it. The months of little to no sleep. Subsisting on coffee and the occasional stale sandwich from a vending machine. The unending grind of work and battle. Having to remind himself daily that he did the right thing, that he is reaping his just reward, that he wanted this, didn't he?
The lights from the city still seem to be pulsing, although the intensity is fading. Tony blinks rapidly several times, and they finally remain constant, although now he feels dizzy, like he might fall. He breathes in carefully, clutching the glass like it's the only thing keeping him upright.
It might even be that it is.
He can see them now that the lights have steadied. The hands that always seem to be reaching for him, some closer than others, some more greedy and grasping, others that want to close into a fist. He spends his days trying to elude them, trying to please them, trying to find out what they want and give it to them. He knows he'll never succeed – he's been doing it for years without achieving any real victory – but he can't stop trying. Even now, when falling seems inevitable, he stiffens his spine and refuses to succumb. Falling now means slipping into their grasp, and if they take hold of him, he'll never get free.
He laughs a little. He really is losing his mind.
Behind him, a figure steps out onto the balcony. Ah, yes. That would be Steve, right on cue.
He doesn't care anymore. He raises the glass to his lips. It's just a test, he tells himself. He needs to know that here is one thing he can still control, one thing he can still look in the eye and come out on top of.
"Tony!" Steve sounds aghast.
He lowers the glass enough to mumble, "Go away," and then he raises it again. The smell of the whiskey makes his mouth water. If he swallows all of it, he can maybe just scorch away the pain, like cauterizing a wound. Start over then, with a fresh, glistening soul.
That thought makes him laugh again, and he has to lower the glass a little, and then suddenly Steve is right there, in his face. He's so surprised that he does nothing as Steve bats at the glass. It breaks even before it leaves his hand, then shatters into a hundred pieces as it strikes the tiled floor, tiny chips of glass flying everywhere.
For a moment Tony just stands there, too shocked to react. Steve has never behaved like this, not once in all those times since he first started showing up a few weeks ago. Steve has been the voice of reason all this time, keeping him sane when it feels like he is losing his grip, his mind's last-ditch effort at remaining in control.
But now Steve stands there across from him, flushed and breathing heavily. Actually breathing, as though he were alive again.
"I'm sorry," Steve says. He looks rather surprised himself.
And that's when Tony realizes his hand is bleeding.
The significance of that fact goes through him like a cold razor blade. He feels his knees weaken. His entire body flinches back, because that cut is real, it's absolutely real.
And well, why shouldn't it be? Today in the arena he was forced to come face to face with the price of his failure and his hubris, and suffer bodily for it. Why should Steve be any different? Steve's death is his worst failure yet, the cost unimaginably high – he knows he'll never stop paying for it. Why shouldn't his mind take a cue from today's events and conjure up a new version of Steve's ghost, one that can actually reach out and hurt him?
Far from gloating over the pain he just caused, Steve remains frozen, though, his hand still raised from knocking the glass aside. He's not in uniform anymore, Tony sees. Or rather, he is, but this is not a uniform he recognizes. This one is blue all over with a single white star emblazoned on the chest.
The sight of it is one more spike of horror in Tony's heart.
He backs away on legs that have gone numb. The balcony railing hits his back and he can't go any farther. He knows he's staring, transfixed, but he's helpless to do anything else.
"Tony." Steve speaks his name, and oh God it's really his voice, because he's really here, and he's actually casting a shadow on the balcony floor because he's really here, and Tony thinks quite calmly that this is what going insane feels like.
He should summon the suit, he should get ready to defend himself, he should –
"I'm sorry," Steve says again. "This isn't how I imagined this going."
"You're real," Tony croaks. The cut across his palm is proof enough of that, but how can it be, how is this happening—
Steve nods. "Yes."
"You're really here," he says. On the edges of his vision, the city lights are pulsing again. But he only has eyes for Steve, the blue of those beloved eyes and the new uniform, the way his shadow lies thick over broken glass.
"Yes," Steve says.
"Prove it," Tony commands. He's been seeing Steve for weeks. Talking to him, relying on him for advice and companionship. Steve's ghost is the only one he can trust anymore.
And now Steve is here. Actually here.
Slowly Steve closes the distance between them. He lifts one hand and rests it on Tony's shoulder.
Tony shudders and falls back against the balcony railing; if it were to crack now, he would fall to his death, still staring helplessly at this apparition come to life.
Steve's hand is warm on his shoulder. The last time Steve touched him it was in fury. With a closed fist. With the intent to kill. But this is real. Warm and solid, a familiar weight. Comforting. Reassuring. Real.
"Oh my God," he says.
"I can explain everything," Steve says. He lets his hand drop back to his side.
"Please do," Tony says, and part of him marvels over how fucking normal he sounds. The rest of him is still mesmerized by the sight of Steve, the smell of him, the warmth emanating from his very real body. That part of his brain is trying desperately to make sense out of the insane – and coming up empty.
"You're bleeding. Let's go inside," Steve says.
This strikes Tony as a very bad idea. Previously whenever Steve has shown up, it's only to stand beside him in one place. He tried the walk-and-talk before, with no success; always Steve's vision would disappear on him. He's afraid the same thing will happen now.
"Why don't you just tell me now," he says. "Or we could go inside and I could get the suit. It's your call."
Steve's eyes narrow briefly, a sign of either frustration or worry. It's hard to tell which. Then he lets out a slow breath and nods. "Fine." Despite his surrender, though, he seems stuck, like he doesn't know what to say next.
So Tony starts him off. "It wasn't really you."
"No," Steve says. "I was really shot," and Tony flinches, because he never ever wants to remember that horrible day.
"But I'm not the one who died," Steve continues. "They made a switch, and got me out of there. Stephen, and Cloak, and other heroes I won't name so they don't get arrested." His chin comes up, prelude to digging in his heels for a fight.
Tony allows himself half a second to be hurt by the insinuation that he would arrest anyone who helped Steve that day. Then he forgets all about that in the wake of the confusion that comes rushing in.
If it wasn't Steve who died in that ambulance, then who was it? Steve would never countenance a clone, especially not after the stunt Tony and Reed pulled with the Thor clone at the height of the hostilities during the war over the SHRA. And it can't have been an LMD, because he would have recognized it as one. So what then?
"I know what you're thinking," Steve says. "And all I can say is that nobody got hurt, and you won't figure it out. And I'm not going to tell you. I'm not sure that's very wise."
That stings, too, and this time the hurt lingers. He tries to ignore it, though, and focus on what's actually important. "And you…?"
"I've been recovering," Steve says. "Staying in the Sanctum Sanctorum. Watching what's going on." He looks at Tony meaningfully. "Watching you."
"That— Wait—" The realization is staggering. Tony can hardly get the words out. All that time he thought he was talking to an image his mind created. And now… "That was really you?"
Tony closes his eyes briefly. None of this makes any sense. Steve would never do this to him. Unless Steve was more hurt by what happened between them during the Civil War then he realized. But even then, he can't reconcile it with what he knows – or thought he knew – about Steve. "I thought you were a ghost."
"I know," Steve says. He doesn't sound too proud of that fact. "And I'm sorry for the deception."
He opens his eyes again, looks at Steve. "How did you do it?"
"Stephen did something so I could see you," Steve says. "Some kind of astral projection, tuned to your specific brain waves, something to do with Extremis, I can't honestly say I understand it."
Another non-explanation, but it's probably the best he's going to get. Inside his head, he opens a few channels with Extremis, searching the news for any story about the miraculous resurrection of Steve Rogers. He can't find anything, though, and he can't decide if that helps to confirm Steve's story, or makes it harder to believe. Either way, it's obvious that Steve fully intends to keep him in the dark as much as possible.
Not that he can blame Steve. But it still rankles – and he's suddenly angry. "So now what?" he asks. "You finally decided you've seen enough?"
"Yes," Steve says simply. "Now I know I can trust you."
Tony purses his lips, but says nothing. So Steve saw the fight in the arena, his latest failure and humiliation.
He still can't believe it. He would never have expected such behavior from Steve. But then again, he also would never have thought Steve could be seconds away from killing him in the middle of the street.
"Why did you do it?" he asks. "Why did you stay away so long?"
Even in the dim night, he can see the shadow that crosses Steve's face. "Do you remember what we said the last time we talked? Well, I do. I needed to be sure that you—" He stops, trying to find the right words.
Tony knows what they are. "That I wasn't abusing my power?" he says bitterly. "That I wasn't still the enemy?"
Steve gazes at him very seriously. "Yes," he says, and there is nothing Tony can say to that.
"Then when I saw what happened today," Steve says, "I knew I had to finally come forward. I would have gone out there and stopped it, but Stephen had put some kind of protection spell on me so no one could see me. I wouldn't have been able to do much good." He squares his shoulders. "But in the end I didn't need to. You handled it."
It must have driven Steve crazy, not being able to join the fight. And how typical of him to phrase it that way: I would have gone out there and stopped it. To just plain stop the madness, not try to stop it. In anyone else it would be arrogance. From Steve it's just confidence so strong that it borders on self-righteousness.
"I had to come. I had to see you," Steve says.
"Why?" Tony asks. He genuinely wants to know. To rub it in? To gloat? To tell him that he got exactly what he deserved?
"I know you're hurt," Steve says. "I wanted to make sure you were all right."
That's a lie, and it makes him bristle. Steve hates him. Steve doesn't care about his well-being. Steve stood over him on the street and was ready to bash his skull in. Steve has been talking to him for weeks now, pretending to be a ghost.
And maybe he's still talking to a ghost.
"What's the real reason?" he demands.
"Tony." Steve looks a bit uncertain now, but he remains as stubborn as ever. "You're hurt."
"So what," Tony snaps. He's become so used to living with old aches and pains that they barely register anymore. It's simply not possible that anyone else – and Steve especially – should care. "When am I not? I need to know the truth, Steve. Why did you really come here?"
"I told you," Steve says stiffly; he's angry at having his integrity questioned. In a strange way, the sight of his blue eyes flashing makes Tony feel more relaxed. The ghost-Steves never got angry with him before. The anger makes him dangerous – but it also makes him more real.
"I was worried after seeing you get hurt," Steve says. He hesitates, then with obvious reluctance adds, "And I thought it was time we talked."
Ahhh. "There it is," Tony says flatly.
As though they haven't been talking for weeks now. Of course, it's a little unfair, because he thought he was talking to an apparition all that time, a ghostly image of Steve that his grieving, bedeviled mind conjured up to give him someone to talk to. He was brutally honest in those conversations, and it pisses him off now to think of all the things he said. He would never have said most of them if he had known it was really Steve he was talking to. Worse, he suspects Steve knows that, which is one of the reasons he held his silence and let Tony go on pretending, instead of coming clean and admitting that he was still alive.
Yes, it's definitely time they talked. And one of the first things he's going to demand an answer to is why Steve lied to him for so long.
They stare at each other, the glow of the city lights keeping the dark of night at bay. Tony has absolutely no idea what to do next. Joy and anger do battle within him. He wants to embrace Steve and never let go. But at this particular moment, he also wants to punch him in the face.
"Why don't we go inside?" Steve says again. "You need to do something about that hand."
It occurs to him that so far tonight Steve has behaved exactly as Tony himself usually does. Trying to help, inadvertently causing pain and making things worse, then becoming determined to fix what he broke and make it right again. When in point of fact, nothing will ever put things back together again the way they once were. But Steve is new to this, and maybe he doesn't know that yet, and anyway they really can't stand here all night amid shards of broken glass, and so Tony just nods wearily and heads for the slider door.
"I'm sorry I cut you," Steve says. "I didn't mean to."
"I know," Tony says. At least when Sue Richards was here, she only broke the glass of alcohol and nothing else. He was the one to hurt himself, punching the door he's currently sliding open. He doesn't even remember having it replaced, but apparently he must have, at some point.
The air inside still feels stale, but the lights seem brighter now, and more inviting. Steve follows him in, and if this is a trap, he's just fallen for it, hook line and sinker.
Steve says, "Let me see that hand."
He can refuse. He can say that he's able to take care of himself, thank you very much, but the neglect evident in both the penthouse and himself is too plain to deny. So he walks forward, through the pool of shadow created by the burned-out light, and he stops in front of Steve. He searches Steve's face, looking for a sign that this is a trick, that Steve's not really here, that he is actually still standing out on the balcony, drunk and crying and losing his mind.
Gently Steve picks up his hand and examines the cut across his palm. He watches Steve turn his hand this way and that, smearing half-dried blood across his skin. His fingers tremble. Steve's touch is warm, firm, kind. He feels no pain.
I am in so much trouble, Tony thinks, quite clearly.
"Get cleaned up," Steve says. It's not exactly a command, but it's impossible to disobey all the same. Tony goes into the kitchen and puts his hand beneath the tap.
Water runs into the sink, red at first, then pink. The wound hurts now, but he barely even flinches. He doesn't look at the cut. He's watching Steve move through the penthouse, gathering a clean washcloth, aspirin, antibiotic cream, a roll of bandages. Steve sets all this down on the counter beside the sink, moving with such confidence that Tony could almost think he once lived here.
"Here," Steve says. "Let me."
Tony hesitates. He should say no. He can do this. It will be awkward with only one hand, but a variety of injuries over the years have forced him to perfect his solo first aid techniques. Steve doesn't give him a chance to protest, though. Before he can say anything, his hand is being cleaned and swabbed and bandaged.
When it's all done, Steve offers him the bottle of aspirin. Still standing there at the sink, wondering just how exactly things got so insane, Tony shakes his head. "No." He doesn't like taking meds under even the best of circumstances. But now, when at any moment he might blink and find that Steve is actually just a figment of his imagination, he really can't afford to befuddle his senses.
Steve sets the bottle of aspirin back down on the counter. "I know you heal faster now," he says, "but it's obvious that you're hurt. And you need to rest – as I've been telling you for weeks."
This reminder of all the times he talked to what he thought was a ghost does not make Tony feel any better. He laughs humorlessly. "Why start now?"
Steve does not look amused. "What else can I do to help?"
"Nothing," he says. The injuries he sustained in the arena will heal over time, and more quickly than they normally would, thanks to Extremis. Even if that were not the case, there is nothing Steve can do for him. And he doesn't want Steve to see him without the armor of his dress shirt and tie, the bruises old and new, the weight he's lost, the way he looks now – it's not just paranoia that keeps him hiding in the suit most of the time these days.
The lie could not be more obvious, yet Steve lets him get away with it. He nods a little and says, "How about we sit down and talk then."
"Sure," Tony says. "Because this time you aren't going to fade away on me."
Steve looks down, his jaw tightening. He doesn't defend himself, though. No story about how he would have stayed longer if he could. No blaming Stephen Strange for a faulty spell that meant he could only be there for a limited period of time. It happened, and it is what it is, and Tony knows he better accept that right here and now, or else he might as well show Steve the door and forget about any chance of them ever reconciling and settling their differences.
There's no way he can do that, of course. He's spent months grieving for Steve, bitterly wishing he could change the past, even while admitting to himself that he wouldn't do anything different even if he were given the chance. He's wished for this day a thousand times, but in that quietly hopeless way that acknowledges it will never happen, because even in a world full of magic and superpowers, some things remain impossible.
Some things. Not all things, apparently.
And he can't say no to Steve. Can't turn him away without at least hearing him out. Nor can he deny that part of him wants nothing more than to stand here and stare at Steve, drink in the sight of him and the smell of him and the warmth of his body because he is really here, he is alive, defying the natural order of things and making Tony almost believe in a higher power.
"Okay," Steve says, and he leads the way out of the kitchen, toward the living room with its new shadow and the couch where Tony slept for two hours the last time he was here, over a week ago.
Tony follows closely, wanting to show his cooperation, that he's willing to talk things out and meet in the middle. All the things he wanted so desperately during the fighting over the SHRA, when he held out his hand and begged Steve to listen. He was met with betrayal the first time he tried that; regret and renewed hostilities the second time, in the ruins of the mansion where once he and Steve had lived together and been friends. But now that Steve wants to talk, it will happen without interference, naturally.
He's too tired to be angry about that. And they do need to talk. So many things might have been different if only they had shared a version of this conversation when it really mattered.
They enter the living room, Tony one step behind Steve. He's focused on staying close, on keeping his temper, on the solidity of Steve's rigid spine. His foot hits the line where the kitchen tile gives way to the carpet of the living room, and he stumbles. He feels the moment when he loses his balance, his exhausted body caught off guard, too slow to react. Then he's falling, agonizingly slow it feels like. The grasping hands that always surround him reach up eagerly to claim him, and he knows this is going to hurt, because he took one hell of a beating today in the arena, and he can't remember the last time he slept, and then Steve is there, and he's down on his knees but Steve's arms are around him, and he isn't falling after all.
"I got you," Steve says, and Tony is suddenly in tears.
It's stupid and it's wrong. He has to do better than this. He has to be better than this. But this is Steve. It's Steve, and it's everything he ever wanted, and Steve is alive, he's alive. And he's so tired of being alone and he's missed Steve so much and so Tony holds onto him tightly and he just lets himself cry and cry.
Steve doesn't tell him to buck up, or to calm down. Steve doesn't say that everything will be okay. Steve says nothing at all. He just kneels there, silently holding Tony, and if he's angry or sad or guilty, it's impossible to say.
He has no idea how long he cries on Steve's shoulder. Not nearly long enough for all the tears he's held inside for so long. But after a while the humiliation and the driving need to stop overcome the grief, and he forces himself to lean back and leave the welcoming circle of Steve's arms. Stark men are made of iron, his father was fond of saying, and he's pretty conclusively proven that this is not true for him, but he could at least try this time.
"I'm sorry," he says quietly, his voice still thick with tears.
Steve doesn't respond right away, and Tony looks up at him – and is shocked to see that Steve has been crying, too. The skin beneath his eyes is shiny and wet, and his hair is messed up where he turned his head so he could rest it atop Tony's hair.
The sight of Steve's tears fills him with an almost panicky sense of guilt. It's ridiculous, that after everything he's done, it's this, making Steve cry, that makes him want to babble apologies and beg for forgiveness.
"I'm sorry, too," Steve says. "For all of it."
Steve makes the first move, he's certain of that, and so it's okay to hug him again, to hold on with all his strength. He doesn't cry this time, and neither does Steve. They just hold each other, and Tony feels weak with gratitude and relief and the overwhelming sensation of right.
No matter what else happens here, no matter if he and Steve never speak to each other again, he will always have this moment, when they held each other and no words were necessary.
Time drifts away from him again. He's so exhausted, both in mind and body, that he feels an overwhelming urge to lay his head on Steve's shoulder and let sleep take him. He thinks Steve might even let him do it, too.
In the end what stops him is the cold certainty that if he falls asleep now, he will wake up to find that this was only a dream. Maybe he's actually still standing on the balcony, half-drunk and swaying, making all this up so he doesn't have to face reality.
But if that's true, he wants to put off the moment of waking for as long as possible.
So he rubs at his eyes as he lets go of Steve and sits back on his heels, wiping away the tears and the fatigue that drags down his lids, and he says, "What happens now?"
The moment the words leave his mouth, though, he knows what the answer is. Maybe he just needed to say it out loud. The point is: he knows.
Whether or not this is the only time he gets to have this, he has to believe that it is. Because if he doesn't, if he doesn't act as though this is all he will ever have, then he won't have the courage to do what comes next.
And that is simple enough: he leans forward and he kisses Steve.
Steve rears back a little. He makes a surprised "mmph" noise, hummed against Tony's lips. Tony sits back and then they're staring at each other, still on their knees just inside the living room, not far from the pool of shadow created by that burned-out light.
"Tony?" Steve looks unsure of himself, like he can't decide if he should flee or stay where he is.
"No more confessions to people who can't hear them," Tony says. "I lost you once and I'll probably lose you again, but I'm going to say this anyway, while you're still here."
Steve shakes his head, and Tony feels the words back up and crowd in his throat. He's ready to blurt them out regardless of what Steve wants, when Steve says, "It's okay. You don't have to say it. I already know."
That stops him cold. "You do?"
Steve nods. "Yeah." He looks down, somewhat flustered. "I… It wasn't hard to figure out."
This is probably true. Even if Steve was too badly hurt to watch his own funeral on live TV, he surely would have watched the footage of it later, once he was strong enough. He would have seen Tony break down while trying to give the eulogy, and drawn his own conclusions.
Tony thinks back now over those conversations he had with Steve over the past several weeks, when he thought he was talking to a ghost. Did he ever say anything then to confirm Steve's suspicions? Did he ever mention how he spent the past ten years hopelessly, silently, in love with Steve? Did he make another confession, another useless admission of the truth?
Maybe he did. He can't actually remember. He knows he was honest, though, in the things he did say. Why shouldn't he have been? Steve was dead – or so he had thought – and conversations with a ghost couldn't be held against you. Why not speak the truth?
And maybe it's better that he did. Steve has already admitted that those conversations are what convinced him that Tony wasn't on a power trip, or gone mad from Extremis, or whatever excuses Steve and the opposing faction told themselves in order to explain his behavior during the Civil War. Steve knows now that he truly believed he was acting in the best interests of both the superheroes and the public.
Which means Steve also knows that none of it, the lies, the deceptions, the terrible compromises he had to make – none of it was worth it.
"And?" he says.
"I feel the same way about you," Steve says, a hint of color staining his cheeks.
"Do you?" Tony says. Because he's just remembered that Steve wasn't there, even in astral form, when he made his confession to what he thought was Steve's dead body. Clearly Steve doesn't know how he feels. Not the full extent of it, anyway.
"I'm here, aren't I?" Steve says, and the red on his face deepens, along with the slight tone of defiance in his voice.
But he is here, and he gets credit for that, and Tony still can hardly believe that Steve is alive, and he's so damn tired of being alone, so he leans in and he kisses Steve again.
It's a proper kiss this time, Steve's mouth open beneath his, Steve's breath warm on his lips. He doesn't touch, though. Right now, kissing Steve is all he wants, all he ever dreamed of. And all evidence to the contrary, there's still a tiny part of him that is convinced this isn't real, that if he tries to touch Steve, his hands will go right through him.
But when Steve touches him, one hand rising to cup his face, Tony groans. And it's all the permission he needs. He reaches up blindly, feels warm skin and soft, thick hair. He licks at the inside of Steve's mouth, wanting to taste all of him. Surely this can't be what Steve had in mind when he came here, but he shows no sign of backing off, as determined as ever to stick to his guns once he decides to do something.
A fact Tony is not above taking advantage of. Especially when that decision is in his favor.
They're still kissing, wet and sloppy now. Steve's hands slide downward, skimming the sides of his neck, then lower still. Tony has just enough time to realize where this is going, then Steve's hands are on his shoulders, holding on tight and pulling him closer still.
Tony tenses up. Less than twelve hours ago, he was in an arena fighting for his life, hiding behind a heavy metal shield while Reed Richards swung an enormous mace at him in an attempt to kill him. The shield worked well enough, but it was heavy and Reed has one hell of a mean swing. Although he spared himself major injury, his left shoulder and arm took the brunt of each impact. And though he does his best now to ignore it, the pressure of Steve's hand hurts. He can't help flinching and hissing in pain.
Immediately Steve lets go of him and pulls back. His lips are wet and reddened. He looks at Tony with concern. "Are you okay?"
Tony just stares at him, hating himself for his lapse. The moment is lost, the spell is broken. Steve will come to his senses now and remember that he hates Tony, that he never should have come here, that what they are doing isn't just a bad idea, it's a catastrophe waiting to happen.
"It's fine," he says. He leans in again, hoping to recapture what they had, but it's too late. Steve is frowning, his mouth thinning into a line.
"You're hurt," Steve says, and he sounds reproachful. Mostly at himself, no doubt, for forgetting this fact in the first place. Still, Tony can't help but hear it as being aimed at himself.
He sighs and sways backward again, accepting the inevitable. "I'm fine," he says. "It's nothing."
"Have you been to a doctor?" Steve asks.
He could lie. He should lie. But after the kiss they just shared, lying is unthinkable. Only honesty will serve him now – and possibly keep Steve here.
"I meant to," he says. "But there were other, more important things that needed my attention."
"More important than taking care of yourself?" Steve says.
Instantly Tony is on the defensive. "A lot more important," he retorts. "I'm the Director of SHIELD now, you know. Maybe you didn't notice while you were basically watching the fight on TV, but I had to evacuate all of Manhattan and resettle it again all in one day. And in between, I got to fight against my friends and try to kill them while they tried to kill me. Plus—"
Steve holds up one hand. "I know," he says. "You don't have to explain yourself to me."
"Apparently I do," Tony snaps.
"No," Steve says quietly. "You really don't. I get it, Tony. I do."
That might be true, or it might be a lie designed to talk him down. At this point, Tony doesn't care which one it is. All he knows is that he's suddenly incredibly tired; he lacks the strength for another argument with Steve. More importantly, if Steve decides they're done talking, if he gets up and leaves now, he might never come back.
Not even as a ghost.
"Fine," Tony murmurs. "You get it."
"I also think," Steve says, "that we need to slow down and not rush into things."
Tony blinks, unsure he heard that right. It's not at all the reaction he was expecting to their impromptu kiss. There is nothing for them to rush into, after all. "Okay," he says. "Sure."
"I just think," Steve says, "that we should…maybe…just talk first." He's almost stumbling over the unfamiliar words, his earlier confidence disappeared, like it never existed. It's a rare glimpse of the Steve Rogers who used to be skinny and unsure of himself when it came to intimate relationships. "You know, get to know each other again."
Tony stares at him in disbelief. Steve is not bailing on him. If anything, he gets the impression that Steve wants to stay. And if he really stretches the truth, it seems like Steve might actually be interested in pursuing something with him.
"Okay," he says. His next words are spoken without any forethought, his mouth acting without orders from his brain. "Did you want to stay the night?"
Hope lights up Steve's eyes for a single, shining moment. Then caution and practicalities take over. "I don't have anything with me."
"I do," Tony says. He always has spare clothing and toiletries on hand, for both men and women. He has no idea where those things are, but judging by the way Steve was walking around earlier, he'll have no trouble finding them.
"All right," Steve says, and if Tony wasn't so thrilled by that answer, he might almost be suspicious about how quickly Steve just capitulated. "I'll stay. But on two conditions." His cheeks color a little, but he says firmly, "No hanky-panky."
It's such a perfectly Steve thing to say – old-fashioned and yet strangely appropriate. In spite of himself, Tony is startled into laughing a little. "Don't worry," he says. "I'm not up to any hanky, let alone the whole package."
Steve smiles, but his eyes darken somewhat. He obviously is worried, and Tony could kick himself for his thoughtless words. "Okay," he says. "What's the second one?"
"That you promise me you won't drink," Steve says.
Tony winces. "I didn't, you know," he says quietly.
"But you were going to," Steve says.
"No," Tony says. "I really wasn't." He doesn't feel like explaining himself, though. Why should he? Steve has withheld explanations from him all night. It's time he kept a secret or two of his own.
Besides, if this isn't really happening, if he's just talking to himself and Steve is just a figment of his imagination, then "Steve" will know the full truth anyway, without him having to say a word.
He decides that the best thing to do now is to keep moving forward and hope that he can distract Steve enough to show him that there is no cause for worry. "Come on," he says. He stands up, and amazingly he doesn't sway or stagger like a drunkard. He takes a moment to appreciate how wonderful equilibrium feels, then he starts walking toward the bedrooms. "I actually only came here so I could take a shower and pick up some clean clothes. I'll show you where everything is and where you can sleep."
He stops and looks at Steve. He has no idea why he says it, except that maybe he wants to see just how far he can push Steve tonight – the way he's always pushed at Steve's boundaries, seeing how far they will bend. "Unless you're willing to take a risk and stay with me."
It's a clear challenge, and as ever, Steve rises to meet it. "Why would that be a risk?"
"I don't know," Tony says. "You tell me."
Steve looks momentarily flustered. Before he can respond, though, Tony starts walking again. He made his point, and for now that's enough. "This way."
In silence, Steve follows him. Tony leads him into the master bedroom with its king-size bed, a second set of doors leading out onto the balcony, and the heavy air of a room that is hardly ever used anymore. "Home sweet home," he mutters as he turns on the light.
For about three seconds, he thinks Steve might actually call his bluff and agree to stay here with him. After all, it wouldn't be any crazier than everything else that has already happened tonight. But Steve says, "Take your shower. I'll go make us something to eat – assuming there is actually some real food in that huge kitchen."
"There might be," Tony mumbles.
Steve gives him a sideways look. "You'll need that hand re-bandaged when you're done. We'll eat, and then…we'll talk."
It all sounds about as appealing as sitting down with the officers of SHIELD and getting their debriefs on the day's events – which is exactly what he should be doing right now. But at least Steve's scenario comes with a shower first.
"Okay," Tony says. "See you in ten."
Steve nods. "Okay." He turns around and walks out.
Tony moves over a couple steps to stand in the spot Steve just occupied. When he used to talk to Steve's ghost – what was really Steve himself in astral form – Steve never did anything as mundane as walk out of a room. He just disappeared, as suddenly as he arrived. Now though, Tony could swear the air retains some of Steve's body heat, a sense memory that he eagerly drinks in.
Drinks in. Ah-ha-ha.
"Get a grip, Stark," he groans, and heads for the shower.
The hot water feels good on his battered body, even if it does sting a little too much to be a real comfort. Despite the ache, the heat and the confines of the shower are quite soothing. He stands beneath the spray, head bowed, one arm braced on the tiled wall as clouds of steam rise around him.
Standing there, water beating down on his back, he opens a channel with Extremis and calls Maria Hill. It's way past time he made contact with SHIELD; he's a little surprised she hasn't sent someone over to collect him. "Hill, how are things going?"
She sounds brisk, like she's walking somewhere at a rapid clip. "Everything's under control," she says. "For a certain measure of control, of course. Where are you?"
"I'll be in later," Tony says. "Something's come up that I need to take care of first."
She hesitates before she replies. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah," he says. Because of course it is. Steve is alive and here in his living room. He kissed Steve and Steve kissed him back. What could be more okay than that?
"All right," Maria says. Her breath catches, as though she was about to speak and then thought better of it. Tony is about to end the call when she says it anyway. "You know, no one would think less of you if you took some time for yourself. Get some rest. All this will still be here tomorrow morning."
Tony huffs out a laugh that is distinctly unamused. She's more right than she knows – it will all still be there, all right, along with six new crises to deal with. But he knows she means well, and he appreciates the thought.
He gives her a couple directions that she probably doesn't need, and then ends the call. He washes quickly, wincing a little when he has to use his wounded hand too much; he had to remove the bandage before stepping in the shower. He doesn't think about the mystery of Steve's survival, or all the unanswered questions he has, or what he is going to say in response to the questions Steve surely has for him. Because none of that stuff matters. Not right now, when Steve is in his kitchen making them both something to eat.
It's an oddly reassuring thought. He feels more relaxed than he has in months as he steps from the shower and into a clean pair of underwear. He shuffles into the bedroom, absently drying his wet hair as he goes. He's pretty sure he has a bathrobe in here somewhere…
A moment later he's frowning. He can't go out there in nothing but a bathrobe. What was he thinking? He turns around swiftly, intending to head for the closet, and suddenly the whole room is spinning all around him. He feels dizzy, like he is about to fall. At once the ghostly hands are there again in the corners of his vision, reaching eagerly for him, convinced that this time they will finally get hold of him, never to let go.
Sooner or later they will get him. It's inevitable at this point. But not today. He staggers over to the bed and stretches out, facedown. He closes his eyes and the room is still spinning, but thankfully it's slowing down now.
He'll just lie here for a little bit and rest, he thinks.
He wakes up to a hand lightly rubbing his shoulder and a concerned voice. "Tony?"
Still half-asleep, it makes no sense at first. It sounds like Steve, but that can't be right because Steve is dead, and he's been talking to Steve's ghost for weeks now, and just today he had the most amazing dream that Steve was alive again and talking to him. Kissing him, even. But he knows that can't be true, because Steve is in fact still dead, and ghosts can't touch you and rub your shoulder, so what the hell is going on here…?
He opens his eyes, and in the moonlight streaming through the windows he sees a body standing beside the bed, a well-muscled arm in an unfamiliar blue uniform – and he suddenly remembers.
"Steve." He inhales sharply, tensed to leap up off the bed.
"Easy, Shellhead," Steve says.
The nickname stops Tony cold. Steve hasn't called him that in years, it seems like. He can't even remember the last time he heard it. Being called that now reminds him painfully of those early days when Tony Stark and Iron Man had been two separate people, and something wrenches deep inside his chest.
He closes his eyes briefly. He can't afford to do this, to be this weak. Not now, when they haven't talked yet and there is still every reason to believe that Steve will walk out on him before they get their chance.
He takes a deep breath and opens his eyes. "What's going on?" he says. He sounds a little bit hoarse, but it's nothing he can't chalk up to having been asleep.
"You didn't show up, so I came to find you," Steve says. He looks regretful. "I didn't realize how deeply asleep you were. I shouldn't have woken you."
"No, it's…it's okay," Tony says. He feels awkward and uncomfortable still lying here on top of the covers, nearly naked, Steve standing beside the bed. It's not the best position to be holding a conversation in. "What time is it?"
"Almost 10:00," Steve says.
That means he slept for… his brain is too fuzzy. He can't do the math. Even thinking about it makes him yawn.
"Go back to sleep," Steve says. His hand resumes that light rubbing motion on Tony's uninjured shoulder. He doesn't even seem to realize he's doing it. It feels good, incredibly good, and to his utter shame, Tony hears himself making a contented little humming noise.
Steve doesn’t mock him for it, or ask if that feels good. He sits on the edge of the bed and keeps up that gentle caressing gesture.
Tony just lies there, unsure what he is supposed to do. He's keenly aware that he's only wearing his briefs. Stranger still, Steve is touching him with an intimacy they've never shared before in all the years they've been friends. Yet what's strange about it is that it doesn't feel weird. It feels…right.
Steve's touch is gentle but firm, drawing warmth across his skin. That heat floods through him, and his cock twitches beneath him, reminding him of just how long it's been since he knew any kind of sexual pleasure that wasn't solo and rushed.
Suddenly it's all too much. He's practically naked, and Steve is right there, inches away, the heat of his body combining with the heat of arousal, and Tony squirms against the comforter, unable to help it. He has to move. He has to get up and put some distance between them, and he has to do it now, before he's driven to do something he will deeply regret.
"Sorry," Steve says. "Was I hurting you?"
Tony huffs out a humorless laugh. "No."
"You took a hell of a beating today," Steve says with concern. One finger lightly traces over a painful bruise on his other shoulder.
Measured against Steve's touch, the pain means nothing. Tony shivers a little, goosebumps rising on his arms.
"Oh," Steve says, very quietly.
For a moment nothing happens. Tony is torn between shame and desire. He has to get up, he needs to get up, and then Steve lays his hand flat on his back, and presses.
Steve's hand is heavy and warm. The leather of his glove rasps against Tony's bare skin, an indescribable sensation that sends shivery sparks through his entire body. He sinks into the bed and groans. He yearns to feel that touch everywhere; his cock is hard and aching, trapped between his thigh and the comforter.
Steve drags his hand downward, following the curve of his lower back and up toward his ass. His fingers skim the waistband of his briefs, and that's it, that's all Tony can stand.
He's up in a flash, on his knees, reaching for Steve with greedy hands. And Steve meets him, wrapping both arms around him and kissing him. There is nothing restrained or tentative about this kiss. It's nothing like the one they shared in the living room. This is more than a kiss. It's a promise.
The truth hits Tony like a closed fist. Sudden terror bursts within him. This is wrong. They can't do this.
He twists away from the kiss, and Steve's lips drag warm and wet across his cheek. "Wait," he says. He hates himself for ruining everything, but he has to say it. He has to be the better man. For once. "Stop. We can't."
Steve looks at him. "We can't?"
"We shouldn't," Tony clarifies. "We haven't even talked yet."
"It's okay," Steve says. He reaches up with one hand and sets his fingertips on Tony's chin, then turns his face back toward his own. "I need this too, you know."
"Why?" he murmurs. "Earlier you said you didn't want…"
Steve gazes at him, blue eyes dark with desire, his lips red and swollen. "I know what I said. But do you also remember that I said I felt the same way about you?"
Of course he hasn't forgotten. But it can't be true. It's nothing but wishful thinking, because this isn't actually happening, is it, because he never gets to be this happy. "But—"
Steve kisses him. It's a gentle kiss, full of warmth and compassion, and yes, maybe even love. It's everything he ever yearned for, everything he ever hoped they might one day share. He loves Steve so much, and he wants this, he wants him so badly, his body aching and strung taut with need…
The last of Tony's resistance crumbles into dust. He's always been helpless when faced with something Steve wants, especially when it's within his power to grant that wish. That's why it kills him on those occasions when he has to turn his back and say no, dig his heels in and stand his ground.
But he can surrender this time, wave the white flag and give in. It's what he wants. It's what Steve wants. And even if it's just this one time, for this night only, it's still shining and real. Steve may hate him again in the morning, but for tonight he is forgiven.
Steve turns toward him, left leg hiked up on the bed. He's aroused too, his cock pushing against the tight fabric of his uniform, which certainly explains part of his eagerness to move forward. It's a side of him Tony has never seen before, and a thrill shoots through him at the knowledge that he is capable of bringing Steve to this state.
Knowing it isn't enough, though. He wants to see the effect this is having on Steve. The strange uniform with the white star emblazoned on the chest is only in the way now. Tony tugs at the blue fabric where it clings to Steve's body. "Off," he gasps in between kisses. "Now."
Steve makes a hummed noise of assent, and lets go of him. He stands up and begins to disrobe with a soldier's quick precision. There is nothing sexy about it, only a need to remove the obstacle of clothing, and yet Tony's cock swells at every inch of bare skin revealed. He has never seen a more beautiful sight in all his life. And when Steve pushes his underwear down, freeing his erection, Tony catches his breath.
Steve doesn't say a word. He climbs back on the bed, and he looks at Tony. "You're still…" He gestures to the briefs Tony is wearing.
"Yeah," he says, because it never even occurred to him to take them off. Not while Steve was uncovering that glorious body. All he could do then was sit here and stare.
"Let me," Steve says. Tony looks at him, part of him still trying to understand how this can even be happening, and if this is nothing but a dream, he never wants to wake up, not ever again.
Obediently he leans back on his hands. Steve hooks his fingers beneath the waistband of his briefs, and pulls downward. Tony lifts his hips and sinks his teeth into his lower lip at the drag of fabric over his aching cock, and never once takes his eyes off Steve's face. He worries for a moment that this might be a bit too much, that Steve might suddenly realize what they're doing and decide he needs to back out. But Steve's eyes widen and he smiles in appreciation as Tony's cock bobs free, and that's when Tony knows for certain that this amazing thing is really going to happen.
He has no cause for regret as they come together, except maybe to wish that they had done this years ago, when it might have made all the difference. But there is nothing wistful in the way they touch each other, his hands roaming over the lines and curves of Steve's body, mapping out by touch what he previously knew only by sight. And Steve touches him with curiosity, with kindness, careful not to put pressure on his hurts, holding him with a gentleness all the more amazing for the strength Tony knows he harbors.
It's a little awkward, endearing and embarrassing, full of pauses and questions that are never fully voiced. They end up on their knees, moving against each other in a rhythm that never quite becomes a harmony, still learning each other's bodies and what they like. But it is good, it is so good, and when Tony dares to open his eyes, he sees the way Steve is practically shining in the moonlight, and he is overcome once again with the sensation of right.
One of Steve's hands slides beneath his ass and lifts him slightly; the other is splayed against his back, holding him up. Tony lets his head fall back as he thrusts against the heat of Steve's cock, gripping Steve's shoulders and using his weight to brace himself.
He trusts Steve utterly not to let him fall.
And later, they sit there holding each other, his head on Steve's shoulder, Steve's cheek bowed on his hair, sweat-slick skin on skin. They're both trembling with the aftermath, and maybe something more.
Whatever else happens between them, Tony thinks, at least they had this night. They can leave all the rest of it behind, or they can carry it forward with them. That is still left for them to decide.
But either way, they will always have this memory binding them together.
He wakes up in the middle of the night with a sudden jolt, and the unwavering conviction that he is alone.
The moonlight that spilled through the windows earlier is gone, leaving the room in darkness. He can't see anything. He reaches out, terrified of finding that it was only a dream, that it wasn't real.
His straining fingertips brush against smooth skin. He makes a soft sound, overcome by relief so powerful it makes his entire body feel loose and undone.
"Tony?" Steve's breath ghosts across his fingers.
"Yeah," he says huskily. "Just…just checking."
"I'm here," Steve says. "I'm not going anywhere." He stretches out one arm, disturbing the sheets that have been draped over them, and Tony smells warmth and sleep and the lingering musk of sex. Then Steve's arm is about his shoulders, pulling him in so his head rests on Steve's chest.
"Go back to sleep," Steve whispers.
He shouldn't. They still need to talk, and every hour they put it off only means it will be that much more difficult. He needs to check in with Maria Hill and SHIELD. He should check the Extremis feeds and make sure he isn't missing any major disasters. It's reprehensible to take time now for himself when there are so many people counting on him to do his duty, when too many of them are waiting for him to make that final, fatal misstep so they can feel justified in their hatred of him.
But mostly, he fears falling asleep and waking up alone, to find that none of this was real.
"Shhh," Steve whispers, and presses a kiss to the top of his head. "Stop thinking. Just go to sleep."
Tony drapes his arm across Steve's chest, holding him. Steve's arms wrap around him, creating a circle of warmth and security.
He closes his eyes.
When he wakes up, the quality of the light tells him it's mid-morning even before he sees the clock. Sunlight streams into the room, creating golden squares on the bed and bathing him in light.
The bed is empty. The pillow beside his is undented. But when he lays his hand on the wrinkled sheets, in that patch of golden sunlight, he can feel heat.
Slowly he sits up. He still aches, but the pain is much more subdued than it was yesterday. The cut on his palm is gone, though, like it never existed, completely healed thanks to Extremis.
He climbs out of bed and goes over to the dresser. As he crosses the room, he notices the things that are missing. No unfamiliar blue uniform. No fingerless gloves. Only his own clothing is here, strewn haphazardly where he let it fall during his brief, previous visits back here.
He smiles a little at this evidence of Steve's precision and tidiness. As though another stray sock would be out of place in the already-messy room.
He pulls on some clean underwear, then finds his bathrobe in the closet, right where it ought to be. He puts it on and pads barefoot out onto the balcony. He leaves the doors standing open, letting fresh air into the bedroom.
Outside, the day is already heating up; the sky overhead is crisp and blue. Further down the balcony, by the sliding door that leads into the living room, sunlight reflects off the shards of broken glass from last night. The sight gives him momentary pause, makes him wonder how Steve's fastidious nature managed to overlook that shining mess.
Maybe Steve just didn't want to wake him up. All those times that ghostly vision of Steve urged him to get some rest, and here was his chance finally.
Tony looks away from the broken glass and breathes in deep. He closes his eyes and tilts his face up to the sun. His mind feels clear, like the terrible fog that's been enveloping him for so long has finally burned away. He feels ready to face the day, and whatever lies ahead. He can still see those ghostly hands reaching for him, but they have nearly faded from sight. They won't get him. He won't fall. He knows that now.
And that's a good thing, because he can't afford to stand here any longer, wasting time. He has to return to the helicarrier and get back to work. That talk he and Steve never did have will just have to wait until later.
He turns around to go back inside, and then stops dead.
The sliding glass door that leads into the living room is open.
Tony stands there for a long moment, wracking his brain, trying to remember if he closed it last night. He remembers opening it up again to go back inside, the glass of whiskey in pieces on the ground, his hand cut and bleeding – but Steve came in behind him. And surely Steve would have closed the door, for security purposes if nothing else.
So why is it open?
Vertigo grips him, and he has to close his eyes. The empty room, the glass on the ground, the open door – they all add up to a conclusion that Tony doesn't want to accept. Because it can't be true. It all happened. He knows it did. Steve was really here.
Steve is still here.
His heart pounding, he stares at the glass door. Maybe Steve just opened it to get some fresh air in the place. He will come outside at any moment, broom in hand, the sun gleaming on his hair. He will smile to see Tony and then kiss him good-morning.
Or maybe the living room is as empty as his bedroom. Maybe he made it all up inside his head.
There is only one way to know for sure. Tony draws in a deep breath and starts moving forward. He thinks he might hear a faint sound, like a voice in a distant room. He doesn't stop, though. He keeps moving.
He does not hesitate as he walks inside.