I always told you, look after your heart
Keep it protected and out of the dark
I always told you to make it foolproof
Hey, baby, I always told you the truth.
When Tony wakes for the second time, he knows without opening his eyes that he must have done something spectacularly awful. A heart monitor beeps from somewhere at his side, there's the light pressure of an oxygen monitor clamping his fingertip, and he isn't sure, but he thinks he's got an IV in one arm. Hospitals. Great.
He opens his eyes, and the situation just gets bizarre, because his chest is glowing. There's a blue-white circle about the size of his fist implanted in the middle of his sternum. Huh. That's new.
Tony considers this calmly. He's not sure if they've drugged him, or if he's just that frequent a visitor to the land of Strange Cardiac Implants, but he doesn't feel particularly surprised. So it's his heart. Isn't it always his heart? What did he do to it now? He could have sworn it was going to be fine this time, after Extremis. Extremis had fixed everything. But he doesn't remember doing anything to his heart. He doesn't even remember a fight.
--Ghost, there was Ghost, he was in a basement with Ghost, just now--
Was that a dream? Did he only imagine that?
Extremis. Right. Information. He can find out what he's missed. Check his email. Groggily, Tony shakes his head and reaches out for the feeds--
And there's nothing. Nothing at all. Dead air.
Okay, Tony thinks, taking a fast, hissing breath, hearing the monitors next to him spike, now he's starting to worry, because someone disabled Extremis somehow, and he's not in restraints, but that doesn't mean he's in friendly territory--
And then Pepper and Rhodey come through the door. It's okay, Tony thinks, it must be okay, they're here, everything's okay, and here they are sitting down next to him. Breathe, Stark. Breathe.
They both look pretty awful.
"Glad to see you're awake," Rhodey says, and his smile looks forced. "Again."
Pepper's face is furrowed in concern. "You collapsed after you took down Ghost. We were worried something else had gone wrong."
Something else? What does that mean? Well, at least he hasn't dreamed Ghost up.
"Where--?" Tony looks around at the hospital room. It looks pretty much like every hospital room everywhere. "Where am I?"
"Broxton, Oklahoma," says Rhodey, and, okay, that's not an answer Tony was expecting.
"What's in Broxton, Oklahoma?" he asks, and Rhodey and Pepper give each other a look. Like maybe Tony should have known whatever this is. He wonders if they're going to ask him the date, or the president.
"Asgard," Rhodey says, looking even more concerned, but that doesn't make sense. Asgard?
"Well, great." Tony makes himself smile. So maybe it's been a weird week. He can't have been out that long, but maybe he's missed something. They can tell him all about it. Right after they tell him why Extremis isn't working, and why he's got a nightlight in his chest. "I don't think I really need to be in Asgard right now," he begins, "so maybe you can have Happy bring the car around, and you can explain--"
And Pepper just cracks. It's like watching a building implode, everything sliding in and down, dropping into ruin and destruction. There are tears in her eyes and she's covering her mouth with one hand. What did he say?
"Oh my God," Pepper says, strangled. "Oh my God."
"What?" Tony asks. "Is something wrong? What's wrong?"
Rhodey is staring at him, horrified. "Tony," he asks, voice low and intense, "what's the last thing you remember?"
--the bright morning sunlight is streaming through the windows and he's half-tangled in the sheets and dragging Steve back to bed, Steve who is laughing and gloriously nude and only pretending to try to get away.
"You said we should put the Avengers back together," says Tony, teasing. "So I am. In bed."
Steve's still laughing. "It's not like that fortune cookie game, Tony," he says, but he's turning back and leaning in and kissing him and kissing him--
"It's private," Tony says.
Pepper makes a noise somewhere between a hiccup and a gasp, and something is very, very wrong.
"This isn't," Rhodey says, his voice far too even, "the time for privacy."
Tony looks wildly between the two of them. "Steve and I were just putting together a new Avengers team, after the breakout at the Raft a couple days ago. We were talking it over. This morning," he says, very slowly.
Dammit, that's as much detail as they're getting. Pepper and Rhodey may be his friends but this thing with Steve, that's new, barely a few days old and still fragile, and they haven't told anyone yet. He has to ask Steve first, figure out just how open they're going to be. Steve will probably want to tell them, of course, because Steve will want to tell everyone, but Tony's going to do this right. He's going to ask Steve what he thinks. He's not just going to go off and do things behind his back. He's not going to fuck this up. Steve means too much to him.
Rhodey shuts his eyes, and Tony knows that somehow this was the wrong answer.
"Tell him," Pepper says, her hands over her face. "I-- I can't. You tell him. Please."
"Tell me what?" Tony asks, and okay, now, now he's starting to panic.
Rhodey leans forward and puts his hand over Tony's, and somehow that touch snaps him into reality, cold and unwelcoming. Tony watches as Rhodey takes a deep, shaking breath.
"I don't know where to start," he says. "Tony, you-- you were in a coma. Basically, you deleted your own brain."
Jesus Christ. Why would he do that? Why would he have ever done that? Sure, he has -- had? -- Extremis, but other than the technopathy he'd mainly been modifying his body. But his brain? What in the world could have possessed him to fuck around with that? He pictures himself, a drooling vegetable, and shudders. No.
"The thing in your chest--" Rhodey gestures-- "is repulsor tech. You made it. It's what's running your brainstem for you."
Well, it's not his heart. That's new. His heart's fine. It's just his fucking brain, not that he needs that or anything. A part of Tony considers laughing hysterically.
Pepper takes a few shaky breaths and opens her mouth. "You left us a backup. That you made with Extremis. You left us instructions about how to load it. But you've forgotten-- that's really the last thing you remember?"
Tony nods. So maybe it wasn't the most current backup. But it's his brain. He must have backed it up regularly. Of course he made backups. Nightly cron job. He remembers thinking he ought to implement that. "How much have I lost? A week?" he ventures.
That's probably enough time for there to suddenly be... Asgard in Oklahoma. And, sure, he's had some thoughts about how else to use repulsor tech; he probably could have mocked up something like this pretty fast. If he had to. It looks like he had to.
Rhodey sighs, and when he speaks the words are forced from him, slow and full of awful reluctance. "Over a year."
No. Tony's mouth is open. It feels like the world's been yanked away from under him. He remembers the way Steve looked when they pulled him out of the ice and showed him the future, the way Steve shivered for a week in the warm summer sun, the way his eyes were blank, shellshocked. He wonders if Steve felt like this, like nothing was real. He wonders if he's dreaming.
"No," Tony says, dazed, denying. "That can't be right."
He doesn't have Extremis. Asgard is here. There's a repulsor node in his chest. Pepper is crying.
"Happy's dead," Pepper says, and she's sobbing into her hands again, and oh God, oh God, no.
"No," Tony says, louder, his voice rasping in his long-unused throat. "No, he isn't. That's not true. Why are you telling me this?"
This is wrong. This is very wrong. Happy can't be dead. He can't. He was just here yesterday; Tony just saw him.
"I wish it weren't true," Rhodey says, and now he looks like he's about to cry too. "You've forgotten so much. I don't even know where to begin."
"Okay," says Tony, even though it isn't, it really, really isn't okay. "Why don't-- why don't you guys go talk it over, figure out what I need to know, let me just-- let me just process this, okay? I'll be fine by myself for a bit." He takes a deep breath and tries to make himself smile, for their benefit, to show them he'll be fine. A year. Happy's gone. Dead.
God. He wonders how it happened.
"All right," Rhodey acknowledges, like he's grateful for the break too, and he has an arm around Pepper, who's leaning into him, and they're standing up.
Tony thinks of something as they're nearly out the door. "Hey," he adds, "if you could call Steve, let him know I'm awake now? That'd be great. Or if he's here -- is he here? -- you could send him in? He's probably worried."
It'll be nice to talk to Steve. Steve will actually understand waking up in the future, for one thing, and for another... well, it's always nice to talk to Steve. He can picture it now. Shellhead, I can't believe you pulled that damnfool stunt, he'll say, as he's storming in, the way he always says it, sounding angry but visibly radiating concern and relief, and Tony will promise never to do it again (and God, this time he'll really mean it), and Steve will hold his hand and talk to him and feed him ice chips and smile and say I'm glad you're all right. That would be really good right about now. Tony's looking forward to it.
The two of them freeze where they're standing. Rhodey's eyes are wide, and Pepper's face, the part that isn't blotchy from crying, has gone bone-white.
Oh, hell, Tony thinks.
Okay. So Steve isn't talking to him. He must have fucked something up after all. He takes a shaky breath, and that happy-stupid-I'm-in-love glow that comes up these days when he thinks about Steve twists into agony. They were so happy. He thought-- he really, truly thought he was going to get it right. That this was going to be it for him. That Steve was really the one. He's loved him long enough, after all. And apparently they haven't even lasted a year. What has he done? Whatever it is, he's sorry, he'll apologize, he just wants Steve here, he wants Steve to hold him and tell him everything will be fine.
"He's not--" The words catch in his throat. "He's not talking to me right now, is he?" He tries not to sound as hurt as he feels. Maybe Rhodey and Pepper don't know about them together. Maybe this breakup is temporary, whatever it is. Even if Steve's mad at him, he's probably still worried, right?
"He's--" Pepper begins, and her voice is raw, and whatever it is she can't get it out. "He's--"
Rhodey looks at him, his face twisted in grief. "Tony," he says, and his voice is low, gentle, like Tony's some kind of scared animal he's trying not to frighten, the kind of voice you use when you're trying to break the very worst news. "I am so, so sorry."
And just like that, Tony's world falls apart.
There are tears on his face.
He doesn't hear anything they say after that.
He isn't sure whether he can't get out of bed or he won't; at any rate, it amounts to the same thing. Rhodey tells him a few vague, nonsensical facts about Norman Osborn, about a list that used to be in Tony's head, and he doesn't understand why deleting a year of his life was the only way to keep it out of Osborn's hands, and he doesn't understand why-- how-- Steve--
Pepper brings him a laptop with newspaper archives bookmarked, and this is only after he insists, in a voice that doesn't sound like anything that has ever come out of his mouth before, that he needs to know.
"For God's sake," she says, as she leaves, "don't Google yourself. And don't read the comments."
Tony reads the comments.
The last publicly-available footage of him and Steve together features Steve battering him to within an inch of his life. In the video Tony's staring up at him through the broken suit faceplate. His mouth is moving in words the cameras didn't catch, but what terrifies Tony the most is that he knows the expression on his own face, even though he won't ever remember making it. He wanted to die. He would have let Steve kill him.
He remembers Steve's mouth under his, open and pliant and welcoming, Steve laughing and saying I can't believe this is real, you're my best friend, I can't believe you want this too and kissing him back. How did they get here? What did they do wrong?
The next image is Steve's body, lifeless, lying on the courthouse steps. Blood spatters the concrete, soaks his uniform. It's grisly and awful and there's nothing left of him but a body, and he's never going to open his eyes, he's never going to smile, and Tony ordered this, the caption says, Tony arrested him, it's his fault, Tony did this--
He throws the laptop across the room.
This is what you didn't want to remember, he thinks.
Outside the window, it looks like the sky's on fire. Maria Hill's in the doorway holding a gun, and some kid Tony doesn't know who says he's a Young Avenger is clutching a familiar metal suitcase. It's one of his old armors, not reliant on Extremis. It's a suit he can still use. If he wants to.
"Norman Osborn is invading Asgard," Maria says, and Tony can't bring himself to care.
"That's nice," he says. "I'm busy."
Maria trains her gun on him, and Tony starts laughing, low and awful, because it's only a threat if he's actually afraid of what she can do.
"Hey, Stark," she snaps at him. "Put the suit on. The Avengers need you."
He's seen exactly how much the Avengers need him.
"Tony," she says, more calmly, like she thinks she can persuade him by reasoning with him, "you don't actually want me to shoot you."
Tony spreads his arms wide. He's a bigger target this way.
"That's a hell of an assumption," he says, and she stares at him for long seconds before dropping the gun and walking out.
Eventually the sounds of battle fade, and Tony wonders who won. If Osborn won, maybe Norman will come find him and hurt him and kill him for whatever isn't in his head anymore. He can have Tony's brain. He's welcome to it. It's not like there's anything good left.
"--helped bring him back," a man's voice says, indistinctly, from somewhere down the hallway. He's loud. He sounds angry. Tony can't place the voice, but something about it sounds almost recognizable, making something empty and hollow in his head twinge. "The least he could have done is fight, and somebody oughtta tell him so!"
Tony wonders if it's one of Osborn's lackeys.
"They said he was missing a lot of memories," says a woman, and God, that's Carol's voice. The Avengers won, then. He isn't sure whether that's what he wanted. "He might not know-- he might not remember-- he might still think you're--"
The man cuts off whatever Carol was going to say with laughter, an angry bark of dismissal. He's right outside the doorway. "Good," he says, "then he can be terrified of me."
"He wasn't before," says Carol, dryly, and that's all the time Tony has to ponder that before the door swings open.
The man standing in the doorway is wearing Captain America's uniform, and for one awful moment Tony thinks his heart has stopped, because some primal, visceral part of him knows that the uniform means it's Steve even when it isn't. It can't be. He inhales, a shocked, shallow gasp, and now that he's actually looking at it he sees that it isn't Steve's uniform after all. Oh, it's similar enough that he has absolutely no problem figuring out that this is supposed to represent Captain America -- it's got red, white, and blue in the same places, the star on the chest, and even the wings on the cowl -- but in every other way it's wrong. The colors are darker, more muted, and the fabric is sleeker; the bright scale mail is gone. The sides are black all the way down. The man's wearing a gun belt, and Steve-- Steve would never. This man looks vicious and deadly in a way that Steve never does. Did.
It's obvious, too, that it isn't the same man under the uniform. He's much, much shorter, for one thing, and not as broad across the shoulders. From what Tony can see of him with the cowl up his hair is dark. His eyes are brown. This isn't Steve. But he wouldn't have come here, in this uniform, he wouldn't have dared if he hadn't thought Tony would be okay with it, so whoever he is, however he got here -- even though Tony can't believe anyone would ever have allowed this -- Tony must have accepted it. Before. In the year he can't remember.
Something shifts and glints on the man's back, and he's got the shield slung there, Tony realizes. Rage runs through him, hot, like a circuit closing and lighting up, full power, because that's Steve's shield. This man might be in some-- some mockery of Steve's uniform, something agreed upon so that the world can still have Captain America, but he's got the shield on his back and that isn't his.
"What the fuck?" Tony says, and he's up in the guy's face, fists clenched, frightened and furious, because if someone else, some stranger has Steve's shield he's really-- it's over. It's all over. He can't. "Who gave you-- how do you even think you have the right-- who the hell are you?"
Carol steps between the two of them, hands outstretched, placating. "Tony," she says, voice low and soothing, "it's all right. I can explain." Then she tilts her head at the stranger. "I did say he wouldn't remember you."
The man who isn't Steve looks up at him and his mouth twists in a cocky, sardonic grin, an expression Steve never would have worn. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Stark."
Tony knows that he's grasping at straws for any kind of resemblance and that anything he once knew about this man has fallen into a void, a ragged hole of ones and zeroes, but damned if something about his voice doesn't sound familiar. It hits him, then: this man sounds like Steve. Not anything too specific, not close enough to be eerie, but something about the cadence sounds... old-fashioned.
He's probably just hearing things.
"So," Tony repeats, "who are you?"
The guy blinks, and in his eyes Tony sees something strange: a flare of relief. However he met this guy before, whatever Tony knows about him... it seems like he's glad to be getting a do-over. Curious. Well, at least someone's happy.
The guy holds out a gloved hand; Tony shakes it automatically, because if he's not going to punch the guy he might as well shake his hand. This makes the guy smile again, even more relieved now.
"James Barnes," he says, and he says his name like he thinks Tony ought to know it. Tony's pretty familiar with that particular tone himself. "Nice to meet you again."
He's about to tell the guy he's never heard of him, that the only man he's ever heard of by that name died in 1945, but then the guy grins again and pulls the cowl back and he looks like every faded photograph Steve ever had, only maybe a decade older, and Tony's mouth goes dry. Dear God.
"You were dead," Tony says, uncertainly, and the horrible realization that Steve wasn't the only one in the ice settles over him.
The guy -- James? Barnes? Bucky? -- gives an easy shrug. "Not so much." The words are flippant enough, but Tony gets the sense that he doesn't want to talk about the specifics.
Tony wonders when they found him. How they found him. How happy Steve was. He wonders if Steve stopped talking to him because of this. If they broke up before the war. He knows Bucky was Steve's best friend. When they pulled Steve from the ice, he was yelling Bucky's name. Did he leave me for you? he wonders, and he wants to be sick. Why do you get to live? Why do you get to live and he doesn't?
"Do we call you Bucky?" Tony asks, because he can't ask any of the hideous questions rotting his mind, and the guy shakes his head.
"Only St-- no one does anymore," he says. "James is fine."
"You gave him the shield," Carol says, gently, and he trusts Carol, he has to trust Carol, but that can't be right. He wouldn't have. He doesn't think he would have. It belongs to Steve.
"You didn't want to at first. You said there was never going to be another Captain America," James says, sounding almost defensive, and okay, that seems a lot more like a thing Tony would have done. "But then it turned out Steve had left you a letter. You showed me it. He said he wanted you to, uh, save me. He said America needed a Captain," and he's clearly quoting something now. "He said not to let the dream die."
Oh. He would have done it if Steve asked. He would have done anything. And Steve would have wanted Bucky to be Captain America. Of course he would have.
Tony breathes in. Out. Steve's gone. Steve's really gone. There's another Captain America now. It's not Steve's shield anymore.
"Is he at Arlington?" Tony asks, and he feels his throat close up. Acceptance. This is acceptance. This is what acceptance feels like. Isn't it?
Carol gives a tight nod. "Yeah." Her voice is soft, careful. "Yeah, Tony, he is."
"I want to see him."
She grimaces. "You'll hate it."
"I don't care."
It's a beautiful day. The air is clear, and the sun on Tony's back is warm. The Virginia sky is a cloudless blue. It's like nature didn't get the memo.
Dwarfing the endless rows of tombstones is a monument. A memorial. Larger than life, Captain America poses in concrete, shield thrust high and proud in his left hand. (It's wrong, Tony knows. Steve liked to wear the shield on his right arm, even though the serum made him ambidextrous. Steve wrote with his right hand. Steve drew with his right hand. Don't they know this? Doesn't anyone know him at all?) In his right hand Captain America holds a flagpole, on which a huge American flag is mounted, fluttering gently in the slight breeze. It's not a statue of a man. It's a statue of a legend.
It's awful. It's embarrassing. Carol was right; Tony hates this. Steve would have hated this.
Carol stands behind him, a few paces back. She hasn't said anything since they entered the cemetery.
"Was the funeral nice?"
He's sure there's footage of it on the internet. He hasn't even looked at a computer since he saw that picture.
"The weather was rotten," Carol says, after a long pause. "It was raining. Not that it affected the turnout any. There were thousands of people on the streets, watching the procession. We were his pallbearers, you know."
It surprises him, that he was there for this. He apparently hadn't been there when Steve died, after all. He had thought maybe he stayed home from the funeral. He had thought maybe he hadn't been able to handle it.
She steps forward, a little closer, and at the edge of his vision he can see her nod. "You. Me. Sam. Rick Jones. Ben Grimm. T'Challa."
"Did I-- did I give a speech?" If he was there at all, which apparently he was, he can't imagine that he didn't. He would have wanted to.
Carol bites her lip. "You were supposed to."
Well, that's not a good sentence. Tony sighs. "What did I actually do?"
He wonders if he was drunk. He wonders if he's started drinking again. It's starting to sound like a really good idea. He definitely shouldn't say that to Carol.
"You got up there. You got a few words out," Carol says, and her voice is hesitant. "You-- you said it wasn't supposed to be this way. You were crying. You walked off."
Tony scrapes his hand across his face, blotting out the sight of the monument. "Oh."
"Sam gave a lovely speech."
"I'm glad," Tony says, hoarsely. "I'm glad someone did." Someone who knew him. Someone who was his friend.
He looks up at the monument again and feels everything within him go tight and twisted, and then achy, stretched thin, a rope just before it snaps. This is it. This is really it. His vision starts to swim a little, distorted by the tears he's just barely managing to hold back.
"Carol?" he asks, and his throat is so tight that it hurts to speak. "Do you think-- do you think you could give me a moment? Alone?"
There's the light pressure of a reassuring hand on his shoulder, and when he turns his head Carol is floating a few feet away, moving further back even as he watches.
"Take as much time as you need."
She disappears from view, and everything holding him together slides away. Tony drops to his knees in the grass, bowing his head against the dirt, and he starts to cry.
"I'm sorry," he says, because he can't think of what else to say, because the last thing he remembers is that they were happy. They were in love. "I'm sorry. I miss you. God, Steve, I miss you so much. I don't know if I can do this without you. I need you."
This is wrong. This is wrong, and everything about it is wrong, and he wants to open his eyes and see Steve there. They're superheroes; they've all cheated death enough. Can't they do it again? Just once more?
"I'd trade," Tony whispers. "I'd take your place. I'd do anything."
He doesn't know how long he kneels there, but eventually, when his face is streaked with tears, when he feels numb enough that he can't cry anymore, he pushes himself, shaking, to his feet and turns, leaving the monument behind him.
Carol looks at him and then wordlessly unties her sash and offers him the end of it for his face. Ugh. No. They start walking away, still silent.
"This is wrong," Tony says, suddenly.
Carol looks at him, her face twisted into agonized sympathy. "Tony--"
"Not like that." He waves away the comfort. "This is-- this is for the public. This is for Captain America. This isn't for Steve Rogers." He's wondered, sometimes, why so many people, even people who ought to know better, even Steve himself some of the time -- why they couldn't tell them apart. "He's not here. He can't be here. Where did we bury Steve?"
Now Carol's expression is somewhere between dubious and disbelieving. "We buried him here," she says, gently. "Tony, we both carried the casket. I know you don't remember, but I do. I wouldn't lie to you. I swear we buried him here."
"I'm sure we buried a body," Tony says. "Clone, LMD, who knows? But I-- I wouldn't have-- it just feels wrong. To let them put him here."
Carol sighs. "It sounds like a stunt you could have pulled, yeah. But if you did, you didn't tell me about it."
Okay, so if he hadn't told Carol, and he hadn't told Pepper or Rhodey -- because he'd told them he was coming here and they'd have told him not to bother if they'd known Steve wasn't really here -- who had he told? It doesn't seem like the sort of thing he would have done entirely by himself. Maybe he'd asked the original Avengers?
"Do you think I told Hank or Jan?" he asks. "I could ask them."
Carol comes to a jerky halt and looks away, and Tony thinks, God, no, not again.
"You didn't catch up on anything, did you?" Carol asks, and the question is nearly emotionless.
Tony shakes his head. "A little bit about Registration. About the fighting. Then I saw the picture of St-- of the courthouse, and I... I couldn't. I couldn't look at anything else."
Carol sighs again, and this time it sounds ominous.
"Hank's not speaking to you," she says, finally. "He blames you. Because Jan's dead."
The noise Tony hears himself make is wet and pained and awful and he thinks maybe he's crying again. Jan. Oh, God.
He wants his life back. This can't be right.
He doesn't remember walking back to the car, but somehow they're there and when he looks up Carol is holding out a hand.
"Keys," she says, patiently. "Give me the keys, Tony. You're in no shape to drive."
He gives her the keys.
They're sitting in the parked car and he's looking over at Carol, who returns his gaze with an expression he can't parse, and everything is blurry and disconnected and unreal, and then he's leaning over and his hand is on Carol's thigh and he's leaning in to kiss her and he has no idea what he's doing but she smells nice and she's here and she's warm and human and alive--
Carol's voice is even, calm. He looks down. One of Carol's hands is splayed wide, braced against his chest, right where the RT nestles underneath his clothes. She could put him through the window. She could put him through the door.
"Carol?" he asks, and his own voice is plaintive in his ears, rough, nearly unrecognizable.
"You don't want this," Carol says, slow and kind. "Trust me. This isn't what you want."
Tony looks up, and he looks into Carol's eyes, wide and pale and sad, and he feels himself start to choke up again. Carol slides her hand up to his shoulder and rests it on the back of his neck, fingers gripping him lightly, holding him up. Even through the glove her hand is warm, comforting. When was the last time anyone touched him, really touched him? He thinks it might have been Steve. He hopes it was Steve. He'll never know, he supposes.
"I just want," he says, unsteadily, "I just want to not be alone."
He pitches forward into Carol's arms, and she holds him while he cries.
Everyone Tony fucks for the next three weeks is tall and blond, blue-eyed, clean-cut and muscular, and if his few remaining friends hadn't figured it out before, they certainly have now.
The newspapers don't, though. They're too busy being scandalized that he's queer, because it's not like Tony's being discreet. It's not like he gives a shit anymore. There's no one's reputation to protect. It's not like he has anything left that's worth protecting. One of the gossip sites eventually suggests that he has a type, but none of them ever hit upon exactly what, or why. It's like it's so far out of the realm of possibility that it could never have occurred to them that Steve would have done this with him. Maybe that means they should never have been together.
It's not a type. He doesn't have a type. A type means that he likes a set of features, a combination of attributes, a range of people.
It can't be a type if he only wants one man.
He's face-down in silk sheets. He's got his eyes shut, so he can pretend.
"I'll pay you double," he whispers desperately, and he doesn't remember if this one's even a hooker, but what the hell does it matter? "Tell me you love me. Tell me you forgive me."
He might not have Extremis, he might not have a year of his memories, he might not have S-- a lot of things, but he's got an amazing power source implanted in his chest. You work with what you've got. You make do.
He builds a new suit.
It's a good one; he's proud of it. He takes the RT, he takes everything he knows, and he just pushes it out and into the future in one brilliant, manic, caffeine-fueled engineering bender. Forty-eight hours from blank blueprints to manufacture. He thinks it's the first time he's been at all happy since Oklahoma.
The first time the armor enfolds him, a lonely metal embrace, Tony smiles behind the faceplate and remembers when he used to be two people, when no one knew, when Iron Man was everything good about him.
He wants to leave the suit on forever. No one would be able to see his face.
He wonders if he ever did that before.
He offers the Avengers -- he assumes that there's going to be a team, there's always been a team -- space in the Tower. His recently-reacquired Tower. He's always owed them at least that much. Tony Stark: Avengers benefactor. He's always been proud of that.
He looks over the week's purchase orders and sees enough food for a party -- specifically, a superhero party, because the financial outlay for dinner for a bunch of superhumans with metabolisms to match is both always impressive and very familiar. Tony knows how this works. He's run so many of these shindigs himself. Everyone wants to get together, to reconnect after the latest disaster, to celebrate life, to glory in their continued survival. Eventually the idea will be floated about that they should put together a new team. New Avengers. It's a recruitment party. It always is. He's pretty sure he can make a stab at the guest list. Thor. Spider-Man. Hawkeye. Wolverine. Spider-Woman.
It's who he'd pick.
There's an email in his inbox from James Barnes. An invitation. He doesn't open it.
It's three, maybe four in the morning; he hasn't looked up in a while. He's been working all night, visor down, acetylene torch on. He started before the party did. It's noisy work. This way he can't hear them. He doesn't think he could have heard them anyway. It's the principle of the thing.
He knows what they'd look like if he walked in the room. He knows how they'd stare at him. They'd hate him for things he can't remember doing. They'd pity him. They'd think he was broken, and maybe he is. He doesn't want their sympathy. He doesn't want anything.
The next time he sits back and looks up, there's a man leaning in the doorway.
James is wearing civilian clothing, a t-shirt and jeans, in what Tony strenuously hopes is not a concession to him and his last reaction to the uniform. It probably is. His left arm glints dully, metal all the way up. Tony's read his file now. The first time they met, this man was going to kill him.
He wonders why no one's ever managed to finish the job.
Tony looks at him. "No," he says, evenly. His voice sounds very calm. He's proud of it.
James stares levelly back. It's almost not a threatening look. Tony suspects this is him trying very, very hard to be welcoming.
"I'm not leading the team," he says, like this is supposed to be some kind of consolation, and it's even worse if it was meant to be a sop to Tony, a bribe, something he needs because he's weak. Every possibility appalls him. "Maria Hill is."
"I don't care."
James takes a few steps inside the room, holding up his hands in surrender. As if he's unarmed. "You're good," he says. "You know you're good. We could use you."
"Maybe I don't want to be used by you."
"Listen," he says, low, coaxing, "I know it's hard. I know. Don't you think he was my friend too?"
Oh. This is the part where they bond.
Tony feels his lips draw back, a sneer. "I don't want to talk about him."
"I know you're sore," James says, and Steve's the only person he's ever heard talk like that, and suddenly Tony can't fucking stand it. "But I'm not-- I don't want to be him. I couldn't be him. I'm just the guy holding the shield."
"Would you put it down?"
James blinks once. "What?"
"The shield. Let it go," Tony suggests, and now he knows he's smirking. "Be someone else. Winter Soldier, maybe?"
James' hands are curling into fists, and Tony's honestly surprised he hasn't taken a swing at him. Getting under the skin of Captains America is clearly something Tony's perfected.
"I don't think you know what you're asking me," he says, finally. His chest is heaving; he's unclenched his fists.
"And I know you don't know what you're asking me," Tony counters.
James steps in close. If Tony were standing he'd probably have half a foot on him even out of the suit, but he isn't and he's not in the suit now and so he's as breakable as anyone else. James stares down at him, fierce and dangerous.
"I'm asking you not to be a coward," James says. "Look, Stark, I don't know you that well, but I know Steve liked you. I know you were his friend. Hell, you knew him for longer than I did. And I know he'd want you to pick yourself up and keep going. He'd want you to join the team."
"Don't," Tony says, tightly. "Don't even tell me what you think he'd want from me."
"Why not?" James' stare is a threat, a challenge, a loaded gun. "Because I think you should think about how you're not doing it."
Tony laughs. "Because you don't have the faintest idea how he felt about me. Do you know what the last thing I remember is? Before the Civil War?"
The words are out of his mouth before he thinks about saying them. He hasn't told anyone this. He didn't want to taint his last good thing, to use it as some kind of fucked-up point in an argument no one can win, but it's too late now. He can't take it back.
James tilts his head. It's a question.
Tony smiles bleakly. "Steve was fucking me."
James' eyes widen fractionally. Nothing else betrays his reaction, but for him, Tony thinks, that's enough of a tell. You didn't know that about him, Tony thinks, vicious. You didn't know he wanted me. You didn't know that your fucking sainted Steve Rogers could fall this far.
"So I wake up," Tony says, exhaling hard. "And it's been a year. And they say he tried to kill me. And they say he's dead, and I as good as killed him. He died hating me. And I think you don't have a fucking clue what he would have wanted, because it looks to me like the last answer was my brains on the pavement."
James is quiet for a long while.
"You think he loved you?" he says, and his voice is hoarse. "Back then? Before?"
Tony nods. He doesn't trust himself to speak.
"Then stand up, God damn it," James snarls. "Stand up, Avenger, and start fighting. Because you should know even better than I do that once he decided what was right he never changed his mind."
He's almost accepted Steve hating him. The thought that Steve might have still loved him is terrifying. The thought that this, Tony's secret heart, is something about him so obvious that it can be intuited by a man who doesn't even know him is so frightening that there aren't even words.
"Get out," Tony says, and James goes.
He doesn't join the Avengers.
He builds things. He works on his suits. He works on his company.
He hangs out with Reed Richards a lot. He likes Reed. Reed doesn't breathe a single word about Steve.
The Hood steals the Infinity Gems, and the Illuminati reassemble. It's like a team, Tony thinks. His team. Their team. The Avengers seem honestly hurt that they exist. Tony finds that he doesn't really care. He doesn't care about a lot of things, these days.
Somehow it's Tony with the Infinity Gauntlet on his hand as the Reality Gem slips out of the Hood's grasp into his, like calling to like. He holds his rainbowed fist high. The Avengers array themselves around him, staring in open-mouthed awe.
"What will I do with it?" he asks. "I could take back things I should never have said or done."
He glances over. There's a gap in their formation. The space to his left is empty. He knows who would have stood there before. He knows who would have covered him.
"I could bring Janet back," he says. "I could bring Steve back."
Someone behind him gasps, shallow, shocked. It's like the idea never occurred to them. It's like they've figured out infinite power is probably a bad thing to hand to a man with infinite regrets.
He can't do that now. Not now, not here. Not in front of everyone. He's got a mission.
"I'm only going to do two little things," he says.
And then the Hood is gone, and so is the Gauntlet.
Well, as far as the Avengers know, anyway.
He's never claimed to be a good man. At least, not recently.
The Gauntlet sits in the middle of the bare wooden table, surrounded by five men. They are the Illuminati.
The Gems are parceled out, like toys, like trinkets: Tony takes the Space Gem; Charles Xavier, the Mind Gem; Namor, the Power Gem; Reed, the Reality Gem; and Stephen Strange, the Soul Gem.
The Time Gem sits in the Gauntlet.
"Six Gems," Namor says, in that dry tone he likes to use, the one that makes everything sound like an insult. "And five of us. I think there is a problem."
"Don't worry," Tony returns, mocking Namor's intonation. "I'm a genius. I've already solved it."
He picks up the Time Gem with his other hand and closes his fist around it possessively. Behind the faceplate, his mouth is bared. He's not sure if it's a smile.
The rest of the Illuminati are staring at him.
"You can thank me later," Tony says. "Or now. I'm not picky."
Reddened by the glow of the Power Gem, Namor glares. "Stark," he begins, and his voice is not at all pleasant, "we need to discuss this."
Tony holds his hands out, one Gem glimmering in each. "I don't think you want to disagree with me."
"Are you threatening--"
And then Reed, damn him, puts one stretched-out hand between them.
"Namor," he says, calm, unflappable. "Let him. Someone has to take it. It might as well be Tony."
Namor seethes visibly for a good ten seconds, rage in his narrowed eyes. And then he turns and stalks out.
"That was edifying," Stephen observes.
Stephen leaves. Xavier leaves. And then it's him and Reed, alone in an empty room, with an empty Gauntlet, with half the Gems in their hands.
Reed favors him with a long stare. "This is me standing up for you, Tony."
"I know," he says. "I'm grateful."
"Don't try anything. Please."
Tony shoves the faceplate back for the first time in a long time. He tries to smile. He thinks he remembers how to smile. "Who, me?"
"Yeah," Reed says, tiredly. "You."
It's like his friends know him.
Tony goes home. To the Tower. Part of him wonders why he's gone there when he's not an Avenger anymore. Reflex. Habit. He could sleep anywhere, really. It's not like he was even planning to sleep.
It's a testament to how completely unlike himself Tony is these days that it takes until he gets to his quarters for him to realize that the one Gem he snatched up is, in fact, the one that would go very, very far toward alleviating his major regret.
He opens his palm, and the Time Gem shines.
He realizes that this is what Reed was trying to tell him.
God. He guesses he should be pleased that his friends think the best of him. That they think he's a better person than he is. If they'd actually known him they would never have let him walk away holding this. They would never have let him hold the Gauntlet at all.
He can't bring Steve back to life.
He doesn't mean that ethically or morally -- because God knows that's never stopped him -- but he means that practically, and that's the barrier that's guaranteed to stop him. He'd need more Gems. He'd need the entire Gauntlet to become greater than Death. The rest of the Illuminati are never going to let him hold that again. Especially not if they ever find out what he still wants to do.
But he has the Time Gem.
Even if he can't bring Steve back, he can go to him. He can see him, just once. He's not asking to be able to stand at the courthouse, to put himself between Steve and that first bullet -- although now that he thinks about it, that doesn't sound like a bad idea. A trade. He wanted that. He wants that. Messing with history is always a lousy idea, but it's not like he likes this present. He guesses maybe the rest of the world does, though, even though they wouldn't remember it after he alters the time stream. He guesses this is him being considerate. Maybe he's still got some vestiges of a soul left.
Steve would be proud of him, he thinks, and he puts his face in the hand that isn't holding the Time Gem and starts to cry.
He can't change the past. He shouldn't. But maybe he could just go see him. Maybe he could pick a small moment, something that would hardly change anything, something Steve would never remember later. They spent a lot of time together, after all. He could go back to when they were young, when they were innocent, when they had never hurt each other. He could walk into the mansion, and Steve would be there, and Steve would smile at him. He was always happy to see him. Hey, Tony, he'd say, still smiling, and Tony could hug him, could let him hold him, could tell Steve he'd had a bad day. He wouldn't have to be specific. Steve would hold him as long as he needed. Steve always loved him. Long before they did anything about it.
Then he'd go back to this nightmare.
Just once, Tony thinks, and he knows he's bargaining with his demons. He should know how far that gets him. That's all he's asking. Only once.
The Gem gleams seductively between his fingers, and Tony shivers all over, a full-body shudder of horror and need. God, it's worse than wanting a drink. He can't be in here alone with it.
He goes out and up to the communal areas. He hates being with the Avengers, but as long as he's with someone else, he won't try anything. He hopes he won't.
The only person he finds is Carol, in the kitchen, nursing a cup of coffee. She looks up, looks at his face -- he didn't mean to leave the faceplate up, he didn't want them to know -- and wordlessly pours him a cup, sliding it down the counter.
He takes a sip. It burns his tongue.
"That was a nice speech you gave earlier," Carol says.
"Thanks." Tony smiles, and, because he has never not been a smartass, adds: "Extemporaneous."
Carol laughs. "Oh, of course."
He stares down at the mug between his gauntleted hands. "There are still things I regret, though."
"Everyone has regrets," Carol says, and he wonders what she's thinking of, when a shadow passes over her face. "But most people don't get a fistful of Infinity Gems and a chance to act on them."
"No," Tony agrees. "They don't." He sighs. He shuts his eyes. He opens them again. The world's still there. "I wouldn't change everything," he says, wistful, angry, and his voice breaks in the middle, and he doesn't know why he's telling Carol this, he doesn't know why he's telling her anything. "I wouldn't. I'd just-- I miss him so much, Carol, I can't even tell you how much--"
The familiar grief throbs under his breastbone, a bloody wound.
Carol's eyes go wide. "Tony," she says, suddenly. "Don't."
He didn't say anything. He didn't hint at anything. How does she know? She can't know.
"Don't what?" he asks, and he's lying through his teeth. "I'm not doing anything."
She looks at him, and he sees his own shame and sorrow reflected. "Don't tell me what the details are," she says, very quietly. "I don't want to know what you've got, how you got it, or what it does. Don't make me have to tell anyone else about this. Please."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
She reaches out, laying her dark-gloved fingers over his fingers. He's in the armor. He can't feel it.
"Don't lie to me," she says, and her voice is barely above a whisper. "But don't do it. It won't be what you want."
He remembers a parked car in Virginia. He remembers the way her hair smelled. "You seem pretty sure about what I want."
Carol's laughter is hollow. "Yeah, and I was right last time, wasn't I?"
He sighs. "Yeah. You were."
"Sit down." The words are less than an order, but more than a suggestion, and obediently Tony takes a seat at the kitchen table. He sits unsteadily and heavily, a puppet with its strings cut. A broken robot. "And answer me this: how much do you know about things that happened at SHIELD while you were Director?"
Tony blinks. SHIELD's files from those days, so he has been told, are a patchy mess, and even their supposedly-redundant backups had been lost to what was apparently a Skrull virus -- the same thing that had taken out Extremis -- that was also apparently somehow his fault. The main computers had crashed, literally crashed, when the helicarrier had gone down. He's seen... maybe his medical records, he thinks, and those only enough to know that his brain on Extremis had been a gloriously broken labyrinth that possibly contained actual kernel panics.
There's not much left. He only knows what people have told him. He's gotten the impression he wasn't very good at the job.
"Almost nothing," he says, honestly.
Carol sits across from him and leans forward, folding her hands together. "Then I'm going to tell you something about yourself that you don't know."
"Oh," says Tony, half sarcastic and half scared. "Story time. This will be good."
"While you were Director," she says, "we had a bit of an... incident. Involving time travel. We didn't start it. But we did have to finish it. See it through, as it were."
Carol meets his gaze and holds it. "The Invaders were dropped onto the streets of New York."
The Invaders? The-- "Wasn't that the team from World War...?"
Tony places the name just as soon as he opens his mouth. World War II. Steve. Oh God, oh God, Steve.
"Yeah." Carol's voice is gentle. "That's them."
"All the Invaders?" His voice sounds weak in his own ears. Faint.
Her mouth quirks. "We missed a few, actually, in the first round. But we got most of 'em. The original Human Torch. Toro. Namor. Bucky, who met himself, and isn't that something?"
She smiles again, softly, like she's trying not to scare him. "And Steve."
Tony puts his head between his hands, rubbing at his temples with his fingers. "Jesus Christ." His mouth is dry. "What--? How--?"
"It was a mess at first." Carol frowns. "Actually, it was a mess all the way through, really, but it was a different kind of mess at the beginning. They'd been yanked right off a battlefield in 1943. They fell straight into the middle of a fight with the Thunderbolts, and naturally they thought it was a trap. A trick. They thought we were all Nazis. Obviously we had to get them off the streets and onto the helicarrier and ideally in some kind of custody before they could figure out they were in the future and really start to ruin history. You know how this kind of thing goes."
"I take it this didn't go well."
Carol chuckles. "Have you ever tried to make Captain America do anything he didn't want to do?"
"They tell me I did try that, yeah," Tony says, flatly, and Carol's laughter stops dead.
"Sorry," she says, under her breath.
Tony waves a hand. "It doesn't matter. So I... I locked him up?" Steve. Christ. Behind bars. Apparently again. He can't believe he did that twice. He had to do that twice. That must have fucked him up something awful.
Carol's teeth worry at her lip, and Tony is reminded of how she didn't want to tell him that he couldn't make it through the funeral. "Look," she says, very quietly, "I was your friend. I am your friend. I worked with you, after the war. I was on your side. I stood up for you when half of our friends wouldn't. We put a new Avengers team together. I saw you every day. And you were... you weren't coping, Tony. You were walking wounded. It was... I can't even tell you how bad it was."
Tony snorts. "What, like now?"
"Pretty much." Her gaze is measuring. "I think you cried more then. You had the helmet on a lot, though. Hard to tell."
Well, at least he's consistent in his desires.
"So what did I do?"
"First you locked yourself in a room on the helicarrier with all the footage of Steve you could find," she says, and yeah, that sounds exactly like what he would do if it happened now. "And then... you, well, you had to bring him in. Yourself. He thought you were a Nazi. He was fighting you all the way. God, Tony, I remember-- I had to keep telling you his death wasn't your fault, so you could even get out there and assemble the Avengers. He said he was going to stop you, and you told him you deserved it."
I deserved it, Tony thinks, and he chokes on everything he can't say.
"You brought him in eventually. After that, things got pretty heavy."
"Torch got SHIELD's LMDs to riot. All of them. And then--" Carol ticks villains off on her fingers. "Ultron, D'Spayre, and Red Skull. And we all ended up in 1943 for a bit, thanks to a very ill-advised use of a Cosmic Cube." She eyes him with some sympathy. "Civilian. Well, civilian by our standards. That part wasn't you."
"Thanks," says Tony, dryly. "So did I-- did Steve--"
Carol reaches across the table and fits her hand over Tony's again. "He didn't know you. He didn't know any of us. We couldn't tell any of them that we knew them. Even Bucky -- the one from the past -- never found out who was under Cap's cowl now."
"But I knew him," Tony says. "Even if he didn't know me. I saw him. I got to see him again."
Carol sighs. "I wasn't there for this part, but you told me afterwards." Her fingers squeeze the metal of Tony's gauntlet. "To get them to stop fighting us in the first place, you had to tell Steve they were in the future. You took him up to your office. You told me that you literally had to tie him to a chair before he would even consider listening."
"Well," says Tony, "now I know it was him for sure."
The joke falls flat; mostly he just wants to cry again.
"From what I can gather, he was upset that you wouldn't tell him about the future. That they would have to suffer through the war. His war. He thought you were abusing your knowledge and power." She breathes out and looks away. "You said that he was angry, that he told you that you looked guilty. You said he asked you who you killed to get where you were."
Something inside him breaks. Maybe it's his heart. He didn't know it was possible to feel worse than this. He's going to be sick.
"This was a Steve Rogers who didn't know you," Carol presses. "This was a Steve Rogers who had never met you before in his life. And he still knew exactly where to push to hurt you the most." She takes another breath, and stares straight into Tony's eyes. "I know you loved him. I know he loved you. But you could always hurt each other worse than anyone else ever could. And you don't remember the war. You don't know what it was like. And if you're looking for forgiveness, you might not find it. I just-- I don't want you to get hurt, Tony."
"I'm already hurt, Carol," Tony says, bitterly, and the words taste like blood.
"That's my point."
Steve would hate him if he did this, Tony realizes. He'd see Steve, and no matter what he thinks now he knows he'd want to explain everything, and he'd want forgiveness, damn him for being weak, and what if Steve didn't--?
He wouldn't be able to handle that. He can barely handle this.
Steve wouldn't want him to do this.
Tony shuts his eyes. Breathes in. Out. In.
"You're right," he says. He turns his hand over, squeezes her fingers back. "You're right. I-- thank you. I have to go. Long-distance call. Have to make one right now. I forgot."
Carol's brow furrows as he stands up, dumps the rest of the coffee in the sink, moves toward the door. "Tony, it's three in the morning."
"Good," he says. "Then he'll probably be awake by now."
Tony suspects that T'Challa puts him on hold just because he can. At the king's pleasure, he thinks, although he's pretty sure that phrase doesn't mean that.
When T'Challa finally comes on the secure line, he draws back at the sight of him. It's hard to tell with the mask, but Tony thinks he looks surprised. Tony's own faceplate is down. Might as well make this even.
"Stark," T'Challa rumbles. "I assume this isn't a social call."
"I need you to do something for me," Tony says, and he knows how desperate he must sound, and he knows he's not above begging.
Just at the edge of his field of vision, the Time and Space Gems glimmer, orange and purple. The more he looks at them, the more he can't look away.
He hopes T'Challa won't make him beg.
T'Challa tilts his head. "Need?"
"I need you to hold on to something for me," Tony says. "I can't tell you what." Not even over this line will he take that chance.
"Mmm." T'Challa sounds thoughtful. "Will you tell me why?"
Tony swallows hard. "It's for the Illuminati."
"I want nothing to do with them," T'Challa says. "With you all. You should remember that." And he's reaching for the button to turn the screen off--
"Wait!" Tony cries out, flinging out a hand. "Please. Please, T'Challa. You're the only one I can trust."
Fingers in midair, T'Challa stops. "Why not your compatriots?" He sounds honestly curious, and not like he deliberately wants Tony to crawl on the dirt. Small mercies. "Why not you? Why me?"
Because you were smart enough to get out on the ground floor, and right now that makes you smarter than me. Because you don't want the power, and that means you will never, ever use it.
"Because you'll keep it safe better than I ever could. Because your life isn't defined by your regrets."
T'Challa looks at him for a long time. "I am curious," he says. "Very well."
Tony's suit is fast, and the flight to Wakanda is short. (He could have used the Space Gem, but he thinks that would be pressing his luck.)
Almost before he knows it he's pressing the Time Gem into T'Challa's outstretched hands.
Because he is not a good man, the only thing he feels is sorrow.
Steve would have understand him wanting to make the pain stop, he thinks. If he'd used the Gem to see him, Steve would have understood that, no matter what else had happened. No matter what else they'd done to each other.
Tony knows this is the right decision, but God, it hurts. It all hurts.
There's something going on with the Asgardians. What does he care? He's not an Avenger.
James Barnes gets a fetching LMD of himself buried in Arlington. He says he's going to be the Winter Soldier -- it's funny how he wouldn't do that before, Tony thinks -- but he only lasts a month before he picks up the shield again. The world needs a Captain America.
Phoenix Force. Whatever. That's always the X-Men's problem.
And then Janet Van Dyne comes back from the dead. Well. The not-dead. The never-really-dead. Because that's always the way. The microverse, apparently, says Reed, enthusing over new universes like a puppy with a new toy. It's always something like that for Avengers. Something complicated and arcane. Something there's always a way back from, some loophole, some gap, some way to cheat death. Nothing as simple as a sniper shot through the shoulder and three rounds point-blank in the gut.
(He doesn't blame Sharon. Maybe it would be better if he did. But he knows it's not her fault. It's his.)
Isn't it supposed to hurt less now? Isn't it supposed to get easier? Isn't he supposed to stop looking at books and CDs, thinking Steve would like this? Isn't he supposed to stop imagining Steve sitting across from him, smiling over breakfast? Isn't he supposed to stop believing that if he turns, Steve will be right there fighting at his back, where he's been for a decade? Isn't he supposed to stop waking up knowing that his bed is empty? Isn't he supposed to stop dreaming about him?
They're throwing Jan a party at the Tower for her resurrection, and Tony goes to this one. He can tolerate the rest of the Avengers for this. It's Jan. He can't not go. There would be no Avengers without Jan.
And she's smiling, and she hugs him, and she's so happy to see him again, and all Tony can think is it's not fair, it's not fair, it's not fair. How is it her and not him?
He just wants one more miracle. It's not so much to ask, is it?
He leaves the party early, before he can think about taking advantage of the open bar, before anyone can ask him about joining the team. The answer's still no. The answer to everything is no.
A world dies. T'Challa calls the Illuminati to Wakanda, and they're sitting, the six of them, at a table.
"Everything dies," says Reed.
Tony understands that.
This is how the fate of the world is decided. Six men, in a darkened room, who think they know better than anyone else.
The voice of Tony's conscience sounds deeply familiar, and also very much unlike his own.
"I would know if one of you is not who you say you are," says Namor, the Power Gem floating above his palm. "Prove yourselves."
Reed brings forth the Reality Gem. "Namor isn't wrong."
Stephen doesn't have his with him. Neither does Tony. The location of the Mind Gem is dead with Charles Xavier. Black Bolt hasn't held a Gem in a long time.
"Two isn't enough for verification," Stephen says, reluctantly, and Tony knows that Stephen doesn't want to pay whatever high price retrieving his Gem would cost, but he's standing up anyway, opening his mouth again, ready with one of his spells.
Silently, T'Challa holds out the Time Gem. It hovers placidly above his palm.
Everyone at the table looks at Tony.
"Stark," Namor says, and then stops, disgusted, like he wouldn't even know where to begin in the enumeration of Tony's sins.
The hair on the back of Tony's neck stands on end. He makes himself smirk.
"It was a Christmas present," Tony says. "I'm a big spender. You should see what I got him for his birthday--"
"We should have talked about this."
"No." Tony's harsh voice cuts into his own throat, like ice. "We really shouldn't have."
Namor raises an eyebrow, but thankfully he remains silent.
They verify their identities.
Reed tells them what Black Swan told him: Multiple Earths. Incursions. Eight hours. One must die, or both do. Everything dies.
"If this is the end of everything," Tony says, meeting the eyes of each of the Illuminati in turn, hating the words that are coming out of his mouth, "then perhaps it's best for everything to remain on the table while we search for an answer."
T'Challa tilts his head fractionally, an acknowledgment. "I begin to see why you have so many regrets."
He used to be better than this. There used to be someone who made him want to be better than this.
Tony inhales. Holds his breath. Lets it out.
"But," he says, "there's still something else on the table. The Infinity Gems."
Be proud of me, he thinks, to someone who will never hear him. Please.
Tony builds an early-warning system for incursions and puts timers in their hands.
They find the Mind Gem. They recruit Beast.
Four days later they're on a mountainside in Pakistan. An incursion zone. They have fewer than seven hours until a world shatters. They hold out the Gems, the six together again, and then the Infinity Gauntlet floats before them, reformed.
Six faces turn toward Tony.
"No," he says, and he puts up his hands. "Please, no. Why me?"
"It was your idea," Reed says.
"You are the only human to have wielded the Infinity Gauntlet," Stephen says. "That's a better qualification than any of the rest of us have." His face plainly says I wish we didn't have to ask you.
You don't know what it was like, Tony wants to say. He wants to scream it. All that power. I could have done anything. There's no one left to stop me. Don't trust me more than I trust myself.
"Fine," Tony says. "I'll do it."
As a rallying cry, it could use some work.
He strips off the armor on one hand, slides the Gauntlet on and raises his fist to the sky, pointing it at the other Earth.
Almost immediately, he knows this is going to be nothing like his previous experience. That was easy, comparatively. All he had to do then was put the Hood in prison. He could have done that with just the Space Gem. Now he has to push away an entire universe. And he's beginning to think that there's not enough power for that.
There's enough power to make him miserable, though. MAIN POWER OVERLOAD, the suit's HUD says, at the edge of Tony's vision, blinking red. RESERVE POWER OVERLOAD. REPULSOR CORE ONE OVERLOAD, and the energy crackles over his skin, over his heart, into what's left of his brain. He tries to stay on his feet. He hears someone screaming. It's probably him.
Everything around him is bright with power, and all he can see is the looming red sky above him, and he's pushing it back, he's pushing it back, it's working--
EMERGENCY ARMOR REMOVAL, the suit says, and then it's falling around him in pieces, and the other Earth is receding, and he just needs a little more, just a little more, and he grits his teeth and pushes one last time, as hard as he can, and he doesn't know where the last of the power comes from, and the other Earth is almost gone but there's still a noise, a thunderous roar--
Something's growing in the noise, off-kilter, a chord that's wrong, and then the power backlashes. Hard.
The Gauntlet shatters in his hand. All the Gems. All of them. Destroyed.
He's broken the Gauntlet. He's broken the Infinity Gems.
He drops to his knees in the snow. His chest throbs like he's been stabbed. He wonders if it's another heart attack. Those were the days. He wishes that were all he had to worry about.
"Do you know what you've done?" someone is shouting. Namor. Namor is shouting.
Tony lets himself fall forward into the twisted remains of his armor.
"Leave him." Reed's voice is sharp. "Leave him alone, Namor. He knows."
Tony closes his eyes.
He's failed. This is his fault. The multiverse is going to die. Earth is going to die. There's nothing left. Nothing except bad decisions. They'll be monsters.
There's no way out but down.
He always fails, in the end.
They're in Wakanda. They've been screaming at each other for hours, except for the brief break at the beginning that Tony took advantage of to get into a backup suit, scan himself, and check to see if he'd actually broken something vital. It turns out he's fine. Nothing else is.
"Excuse me," he says, pushing the faceplate up. "I need some air."
He wanders out to the balcony. He stands in the light. He's not sure he belongs here, given what happened. Given what's about to happen.
Ten minutes later he walks back in. He stands at the head of the table.
"I'm sorry," Tony says. "I know that's not an excuse. I don't know what was different this time. I don't know why it happened."
"Regrets change nothing," says T'Challa.
"The Gauntlet is gone." Harsh shadows fall on Stephen's face. "And now we have nothing."
And once again, they all look at Tony. And he knows what they're going to ask him. He builds weapons. That's what he does. He gets blood on his hands. Everyone else walks away clean. The ends justify the means.
He doesn't want it to be this way. It wasn't supposed to be this way.
Tony leans forward, palms flat on the table. "I'm not against preparing for all contingencies. But at the same time I don't want to assume that there could never be another solution and blindly set out on-- on the most disastrous one. There has to be another path."
"You're the futurist," Stephen says, coldly. "If you can't contemplate destroying another Earth, then you tell us how the future looks now. What's your answer?"
He lets his head drop. "I don't have a solution yet. But there has to be one. We're the smartest people on the planet. I believe we'll be able to find something."
Stephen shakes his head. "Not good enough. We need something now."
"I can think of something," Tony says, desperately, and he's lying to himself, to everyone. "We don't need to sell our souls for this. You can't want to. It doesn't need to be like this."
It would be easy to build them a weapon. He supposes that most of his soul is long gone.
"Are you saying no, Stark?" Namor's lip curls in a sneer. "You're more... soft-hearted... than I would have expected. You remind me of Capt--"
Every scrap of bleak sadness in Tony transmutes into rage, sliding hot down his spine, and he's got one hand back and up, repulsor flaring into life, aimed at Namor's head.
The rest of the room is frozen, watching.
"Don't even say his name," Tony breathes. "Don't."
He knows they're all looking at him. He knows he sounds crazy. He probably looks crazy. They're probably wondering if he's stable enough for this. He has no idea.
Namor's mouth reshapes into a small smile, because Namor has never been afraid of him. "Why, but James Barnes is Captain America," he purrs. "You know that."
"I know what you meant," Tony says, hand still raised. He can't make himself lower it. "Lying doesn't become you." No, Namor usually does better with outright insults.
"That," Namor says crisply, "is not the issue. This is. Are you in, Stark?"
Tony looks around the room. Only Reed meets his eyes. "What about everyone else?"
"We talked," Reed says, quietly. "You were outside. The rest of us are... willing."
He won't even say it, Tony thinks. Willing to build bombs like the one Black Swan had. Willing to use them. Willing to murder a world. That's what he means.
The atmosphere in the room shifts subtly with Reed's words, as if everyone else is a little more on edge, waiting to see what Tony will say. What he'll do. He realizes they talked about him.
Tony takes a deep breath and thinks through his options.
They don't, strictly speaking, need him to build bombs. Beast could probably do it. T'Challa could do it. Reed could do it with his eyes closed. They just want him to be the one to do it.
What happens, then, if he says no?
He won't be in the Illuminati anymore, certainly. And from Stephen's narrowed gaze, from the way T'Challa's hands are starting to curl into fists, he knows he won't like whatever method they're planning on using to take him out of here. They've probably agreed on something.
And if he's not here, he won't know what they're doing. They could come up with something even worse, somehow, and he wouldn't know. It's better to know. To have all the facts. To be able to try to talk them down if things are starting to get too bad. He has to stay in. He has to know. He doesn't want to imagine not knowing.
Tony lowers his hands. He shuts his eyes.
"I'm in. I'll build. I'll build everything. Anything. I'll do it."
Steve would hate him for this.
He doesn't care what Steve would think, he tells himself. Steve doesn't get a vote anymore.
The tragedy of it is that bombs aren't hard to build at all. Take it from a man who used to do this for a living. Any moron can build an IED with things he's got lying around. That's why the I stands for "improvised." You can probably look it up on the internet. It might even be right. Sure, some bombs are harder than others. Honestly, Tony's glad he wasn't around in the forties, because he's seen what his dad did for the Manhattan Project, and he's pretty sure he would have solved everything much faster, and that might have been bad. Historically speaking. And these particular bombs are reverse-engineering technology from Black Swan's Earth. So maybe everyone couldn't have built these. But he can. They're easy.
He wishes they were harder. Maybe then he'd be able to stop himself.
(To be fair, Reed and T'Challa helped, and they're probably adding to the stockpile. Tony just started producing in greater quantity. And he's got the Dyson Sphere to think about.)
One bomb is a last resort. Two is a backup plan. Five is a strategy.
Tony is in the workshop stripping wires for what he thinks is the tenth bomb. He's been doing this for something like thirty hours. He's not sure what it's called when you get to ten. At this point, in his past life, he'd probably be looking into marketing.
The door beeps. Someone wants access. He's elbow-deep in a planetkiller bomb, and there are parts spread across the table. Tony considers the situation. It doesn't look much like a bomb yet, and only five other people in the world know what he's actually doing. He doesn't think anyone else would guess. And if they ask, he can lie.
"Come on in."
He turns, and it's... Clint and Natasha.
Clint's another one of those people whom he last remembers as dead. Apparently his revival had come via Wanda Maximoff. Tony's past the resentment now. He hopes.
"Hi, Tony," Natasha says.
Clint sticks his hands in his pockets, glances around the workshop. Tony watches him take in the panoply of cables and wires, scattered tools, half-built suits. He doesn't recognize the bombs. "Came to make you an offer."
Not the Avengers again. Always the Avengers again.
Tony raises an eyebrow. "...that I can't refuse?"
Clint's smile is faint. "We figured you'd refuse. But we're still asking. It would mean a lot to us if you joined up. We miss you."
He wouldn't say that if he knew what the parts on Tony's workbench were for.
Tony puts down part of the fuse assembly and stands up anyway. "You know I'm still going to say no."
"We talked to James about this," Natasha says, and Tony winces.
"It's not about him."
With a derisive snort, Clint folds his arms and tilts his head back, neatly conveying that the words he would like to be saying are that's bullshit. Clint's always liked calling him out. Calling everyone out.
Tony amends his last statement. "It's not entirely about him."
"Better," Clint says.
He's got nothing against Barnes as a person. He just can't deal with him as Captain America. Or anyone as Captain America, really. Even though Steve wanted him to. He's sure Barnes is a good guy. It's not like Steve had bad taste in friends. Except him.
Natasha gives him a long stare, evenly, like she's sizing him up, trying to gauge what his reaction will be. "He's willing to go back to being the Winter Soldier."
Tony blinks. They must want him badly. He thinks maybe the implied flattery would have worked on him before. He's not particularly moved now.
"We'd be missing a Captain America."
"We would," Natasha agrees. "We thought you might... prefer that."
"He--" Tony tries to say. "There was a letter. He said it was important to him. That there should be a Captain America." He's never seen the letter. He only knows what Barnes said. But it sounds like something Steve would have written. It was what Steve wanted. Tony can give him that. It's not like he has anything else left to give. Nothing that Steve would have wanted. Not anymore. Maybe the war felt like this.
Clint half-smiles. "I've had a lot of identities. You could offer me the shield again?"
Tony stares. "I could what?"
Natasha is staring too. "You've never mentioned that."
Looking a little abashed, Clint's gaze darts away. "Well. Uh. I guess that's something no one else told you about. Some of the Young Avengers were there for part of it. You asked me because, well, I could physically handle the shield. We played catch. And then I, uh. Basically I told you to go fuck yourself. Said you were trying to bargain your way out of grief."
Tony considers this. "And it's different now?"
"I'll do whatever it takes. You need me to carry the shield, I'll carry the shield. If it'll get you on this team," Clint says, "so help me, I will even wear the skirt again."
Despite himself, Tony laughs.
"No," he says, finally. "Still no. But thank you."
"You could take the shield," Natasha suggests, her voice cool.
Tony laughs again, because, God, they're still joking, right? They've got to be joking.
They're not joking.
"You're kidding me, right?" Tony asks. "Me? Captain America?"
He is very possibly the worst choice anyone could have made. He can destroy nine and a half planets with the current contents of his workshop. Captain America doesn't let his own soul slip through his fingers.
Natasha smiles, ever so slightly. "It's not like it's an unheard-of... tradition," she begins, and he has no clue what she's talking about until she clarifies. "While we thought Jan was dead, Hank decided to go by Wasp."
"So it wouldn't surprise us," Clint concludes. "If that's what you wanted to do. To honor him. It might be nice."
He realizes that absolutely everyone on the team knows now that he was with Steve. That it's something they're suggesting because he and Steve were a couple. This wasn't how he'd ever imagined telling people.
"Really," Tony says, and the words stick in his throat, "really, no."
"We were going to ask Sam next," Natasha adds. "We haven't yet."
Tony shrugs. "And if Sam wants the shield, that's fine by me. He and Barnes can work it out. But I'm still not an Avenger."
Clint's eyes meet his, and Clint's stare is wearied, resigned.
"Yeah, well," Clint says, "it was worth a try."
It was good of Clint, Tony supposes, to tell him that they'd talked. He must have had a lot of conversations he can't remember, one-on-one, unmonitored, in places where there would be no records. There must be so many things about him that only one person knows now, and that person isn't him.
He wonders what he said to Steve, alone, during the war.
No one will ever know now.
There are two more incursions, and in both they are spared the awful necessity of choice. In the first, Galactus and Terrax make all the choices for them. In the second, the other world is already dead, and the Mapmakers take care of everything.
This can't go on forever.
If he'd bothered to read the email from Jess, he would have known. As it is, he finds out when he runs into Carol in the kitchen in another middle-of-the-night coffee break. It is, to put it mildly, unexpected.
Carol looks up, and she's staring at him like she doesn't know him at all. Like he's a stranger. No. It's worse that that. She's staring at him like she recognizes him, but all she knows of him is his face on magazines.
"Carol?" he says, and his voice sounds so forlorn and betrayed that he wants to wince when he hears it. "Are you all right?"
She's not. There's obviously something extremely wrong here. Fear settles into his stomach.
She smiles, a little nervously, in a way that is probably supposed to be reassuring, but it's nothing that Tony has ever seen on her face before, and that's so much worse.
"I guess you didn't get the message?" She sounds uncertain, and she never sounds like this. "I've lost my memory." This she sounds more confident about; it's a speech she's clearly had to make to other people. "Jessica -- Jess? -- is trying to fill me in on what I know about everyone, but I apologize in advance if I make mistakes. I hope I'm not bothering you. I didn't think anyone else would still be up. You're-- you're Iron Man, right?"
God. Carol. Tony is suddenly, fervently grateful that he's only missing a year.
They're a mess, all of them. Too many holes in their heads. He wonders how many Avengers you'd have to put together to get a full set of memories. Barnes had been missing his; he read that Steve had restored them with a Cosmic Cube. Why did he get to get his mind fixed? Why's he so goddamn special? Is it just that Steve loved him?
Steve loved Tony too. And look what Tony's got to show for it.
He supposes he can't fault Steve, because if he had a Cosmic Cube in his hand right now he'd use it on Carol. No one should have to go through this.
"Yeah," he says. "Iron Man. Tony Stark. That's me. You call me Tony," he adds, and he smiles. "You call her Jess, too."
"Jess said we were friends. That I was friends with you." She looks a little dubious. Like she isn't sure how someone like her and someone like him might have managed it.
"We are," Tony assures her. "We're very good friends."
He's not sure there's a way to explain it. They've had each other's back for so long now. The drinking. Apparently the war. Everything. They're the kind of friends who will stop each other on the road to hell, pull them off, and tell them they're being a fucking idiot. Tony probably really needs someone to do that for him right now. He's starting to think it's too late.
"Are we--" Carol pauses and knots her hands together. "This is really awful, but I don't know how else to ask, I'm sorry. We're not together, are we?"
"Oh!" Tony laughs, mingled surprise and dismay. That's usually what people think about opposite-sex friendships, he realizes. Especially his. "No! God, no. Never were, never will be. Not in this universe. Not that kind of friendship. No benefits. I promise. We really are just good friends."
He remembers Arlington. That wasn't-- nothing happened. That doesn't count. And he's the only person who knows about that now. It's something about herself that she doesn't know. He remembers sitting in this kitchen not too long ago, with Carol telling him the same thing about him as Director, and he wants to keep laughing. Nothing is funny.
She glances down to Tony's hands, and he doesn't understand why until she opens her mouth. "So you're not married? You're single?"
Something about the question disturbs Tony, and it's not just that Carol should know the answer, and really everyone in the world should know; it's not like he isn't a public figure. It feels like single implies looking and he doesn't feel unattached, he doesn't feel ready, even if he's only bound himself to a ghost. They never talked about marriage. Of course they didn't. It had really only been a few days. (A few days. A decade. The entirety of Tony's life, leading up to something he will never remember.) But he thinks they would have talked about it. If he had a ring, people would know that he'd belonged to someone once.
The unease of his thoughts must show on his face, because Carol hastens to apologize. "I'm really sorry, I just-- I really don't know these things. You don't have to tell me anything, though."
"No," Tony says, "it's all right. You should know, and there's no way to know unless someone tells you. Single, not looking. I-- I was seeing someone. It's hard to talk about. It was... serious."
"She left you?"
He feels like a widower.
Thanos comes for the Infinity Gauntlet. He's too late. All of the Gems are gone.
It could have gone better. It could have gone worse.
They have another incursion.
The bombs remain unused.
Tony wonders if they'll ever be able to use them, when it comes down to it.
He doesn't know what he'll do. He thinks that ought to frighten him. It doesn't.
The Watcher is dead, and the Hulk is trying to kill Tony.
It's funny, Tony thinks when he finds out the truth. He was better than he thought. He's wheezing, lying in the southwestern dust of the gamma-bomb test site, wondering how many of his ribs are broken. Bruce is sitting next to him in the sun.
That's one bomb that Tony never built. There's an entire bunker in Wakanda now.
He used to be better than this.
Black Swan tells him nothing. The answers are all locked away in someone else's head.
"It's time," Reed says. "The incursion's twenty minutes out. We have to go."
He comes up the stairs to find the rest of the Illuminati standing there. Waiting. Reed follows him.
"I've armed one of the bombs," Beast says, and Bruce glances at him warily.
Ah. Bruce is the new addition to their dirty little secret. The Avengers don't know about any of this. The Avengers won't know. And even if they somehow find out, there won't be enough of them to stop the Illuminati. They'd need heavier hitters than they've got. They would have needed to prepare, and Tony isn't about to hand them the keys to his downfall.
This is it, Tony knows. There are heroes on the other world. They've seen them. And they're going to fight.
That's why they've got the bomb.
He can't do this.
Maybe turning back now makes him even more of a monster. He's going to sit back and let it happen. They're going to argue, and they're going to fight, and in the end someone is going to destroy a world. He knows weapons. He knows men who buy weapons. You don't have a bunker of antimatter bombs if you're never planning to use them. It was always going to be this way, and he's already doomed them. He's doomed himself. He knew that when he built the first one. This is his fault. It always was. It's only getting worse.
Who is he now? Is he a monster?
He doesn't do well on his own, he thinks.
He takes a deep breath.
"I'm out," Tony says.
Namor's lips peel back, a disgusted snarl. He says nothing.
Reed stares. "What do you mean, out?"
"What it sounds like," Tony says, all false bravado. His palms are sweating. "I'm just the arms dealer. I've done my part. I'm not pulling the trigger. You know someone's going to. And it won't be me."
"Tony," Reed says, and his voice is shaking with something that could be fear or anger or both. "We have twenty minutes. And then we have eight hours until the Earth is destroyed. Have you forgotten the stakes here?"
"No." Tony's voice echoes along the portico. "I remember them very well. But I'm not playing anymore."
"It's not a game!" Reed is yelling now. "You think you're the only one who's ever lost someone? You think you're the only one who hurts? You think you're the only one who wishes he could walk away? This is hard for all of us."
"I don't care, Reed."
He turns. His footsteps echo on the stones. Around him the Necropolis is still. It's all death. Everything dies, Reed said.
"Don't call me when the world's ending."
Of course, he still has an incursion timer in his hand.
He watches it tick down to ten minutes. And then it disappears.
If his Earth is here, then the other Earth isn't. He supposes someone's a murderer. He supposes it's him.
And then the timer resets. Eight hours.
Another incursion. That's fast, he thinks, stupidly.
Two hours later, the phone rings. It's Reed. On the screen his face is grave, tired. He hasn't slept in days, Tony thinks. None of them have.
"I thought I told you not to call me," Tony says.
Reed stares at him. "Namor blew up the last Earth."
Tony could have told him that. "And?"
"He's been kicked out. And we're not doing that again," Reed says, and then Tony gets it.
"There's nothing else left."
Reed sighs. "No, there isn't."
Tony spreads his hands wide. "What do you want me to say? Are you expecting me to help? There's nothing I can do. Not in six hours."
"I don't expect you to be able to do anything," Reed snaps, and the insult almost doesn't sting. "But if there's anything you've ever wanted to do in your life, you have six hours left. I thought you might appreciate a heads-up."
The world is actually ending. It's almost too unbelievable to comprehend.
"I'm going to see my children," Reed says, and he moves to cut the connection.
"You've been a good friend," Tony says, and Reed pauses to give him these last few words. "I'm glad I met you. For what it's worth, I'm sorry. About everything."
Reed's smile is faint. "It's been nice knowing you, Tony. Farewell."
And he's gone, and Tony's alone again.
He doesn't go back to the Avengers. He can't. So he heads out of the Tower. He's still got that house in the Hamptons. Lovely view. He might as well die with a good view. His money's bought him that much. And hell, it's not like he can take it with him.
The place is empty when he gets there, the furniture in dust covers. He hasn't been here in a while. It's practically dead already.
He uncovers a couple chairs in one of the rooms downstairs, the one with the best view. He's thrown a few parties here in his time. There's a bar along one wall.
So he's going to die.
Everyone's going to die.
It's not like he believes in God, or in an afterlife. He's pretty sure that he and his loved ones wouldn't be ending up in the same place, at any rate. But this is it. This is all there is.
He looks over at the bar. There are a few dusty bottles of whiskey along the back, partially full. There'd have to be, wouldn't there? One last temptation.
He remembers being drunk once, nearly insensible, Steve carrying him out of a Bowery flophouse as fire crackled around them.
Steve's not here to save him from himself anymore. Steve will never be here.
He just wants everything to stop hurting. He's weak. He's always been weak.
He goes to the bar and pours out one glass. Then another. Then another. A row full of them. One last meal before the execution.
This is where someone should tell him to stop. This is where he should tell himself to stop.
If he's going to die, if he's going to die alone, he wants to die drunk. Anesthetized. No one's going to know. There's no one left to disappoint except himself, and he's already managed that.
The whiskey burns all the way down.
He's got a bottle in one hand and a repulsor gauntlet in the other.
He's going to go anyway, he thinks, lifting the gauntlet to his face.
He might as well go faster.
He can't make himself fire.
He opens his eyes, and the world's still there.
The repulsor glows, red and dangerous, and slowly Tony powers it down.
The countdown in his hand blanks out. No incursion.
Either incursions don't work like they thought -- which can't be right, they checked the math so many times -- or the Illuminati continue to be monsters. One of those is much more likely.
Fuck it, Tony thinks. Not his problem. He takes another drink. It hasn't stopped hurting yet. Maybe he'll be able to forget everything, forget what he's done, forget that Steve's dead--
He's somewhere near the bottom of the bottle when his phone goes off again. He's a popular guy today. Probably the Illuminati. He switches to video.
"Reed--" he begins, and then he stops. It's not Reed.
Namor is sitting in a darkened room. He squints at Tony. "Are you drunk, Stark?"
Tony lifts the bottle in a salute. His hand doesn't wobble. He's always been a very coordinated drunk. High-functioning, even. He knows that was one of the big problems. He knows he shouldn't be doing this. "Getting there," he says, cheerfully. His voice is perfectly clear. "Want some?"
"I'm beginning to reconsider my intentions in calling you." Namor wrinkles his nose. Tony decides that things that appall Namor are probably good, and he takes another swig just to spite him.
"Heard you blew up a world," Tony drawls.
"I did," Namor says, through gritted teeth, "what was necessary. What your poor self-righteous Illuminati could not bear to do, in the end. I saved this world twice, Stark. You should prostrate yourself in thanks for your pitiful life."
Tony blinks. "Twice?"
"How do you think you survived that incursion?"
Oh. Oh, no.
"Maybe the math was wrong," Tony tries.
Namor shakes his head. "It was I, Stark. I and my Cabal."
He sits back, and the camera obediently zooms out. It's too dark for Tony to see everyone at the table very clearly, but Black Swan's sitting next to him, and Tony guesses that means he's staged a prison break at the Necropolis. He thinks he sees Maximus' cape, then Corvus Glaive and Proxima Midnight, and standing behind them are... Terrax? Thanos?
This is not good.
Tony stares. "You've been busy."
"I'd like to extend an invitation," Namor says.
Seriously? Namor thinks he would join them? Namor really thinks he would do this?
You wouldn't have to care about anything anymore, an awful voice whispers. Nothing would hurt.
He wants to be sick.
"You saw the part where I walked away from the Illuminati, right?" Tony asks. "You were there."
Namor continues like he hasn't heard him. "We have liberated a small supply of the Wakandan bombs, but we suspect that more will be necessary. You, naturally, being as you are so very gifted at engineering--" it looks like the compliment physically pains him to utter-- "would be excellent at meeting the demand."
"What's that old saying?" Tony asks, and now his voice is actually shaking. "'I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member?' That one. I'd like to go with that answer here. Try Victor von Doom. I think he'll appreciate your style. And as a bonus, he'll probably make all your bombs into Doombots. Snazzy."
Namor smiles. "Ah, but you haven't heard the rest of the offer. I believe I can provide suitable... enticement."
"What the hell do you think you can offer me," Tony asks, and part of him is honestly curious, "that will make me want to join you?"
And Namor leans forward and smiles like the devil himself. "I am the only person on this entire planet who knows exactly where Steve Rogers' body is."
Tony grips the table unsteadily and shuts his eyes. He really, really wants to be sick. If Namor were here right now he would punch him in the face, punch him until he stopped moving, he thinks, as incandescent anger burns through him.
Think, Stark. If Namor knows where he is, that means he's underwater. And if he's underwater, because Tony put him there, then there's only one place he could be.
Tony swallows hard. "Thanks for the offer, but I have those particular coordinates memorized. I'm not likely to forget them."
"Mmm." Namor's voice is light, taunting. "Things do drift."
Okay, so he's moved him.
"There's a great number of things you can do once you obtain the actual body," Namor says, idly, like he's just making conversation. "Resurrections. Ensoulments. Things of that nature."
"Yes," Tony says, "and they're all abhorrent."
He could have Steve back. Oh God, he could have Steve back.
"Stark," Namor growls, "don't you know you're halfway there already?"
It wouldn't be Steve. It wouldn't. He remembers Steve smiling. I've missed you so much, Steve would say. Ten more seconds and Tony's going to say yes.
"Shut up," Tony says.
He hangs up.
He throws the phone through the window, as hard as he can. Glass shatters, covering the floor in jagged shining shards.
He takes another drink.
He's turned his back on the Avengers. The Illuminati. The Cabal.
It's him alone against the world now.
He deserves it.
He should build a new suit, he thinks. It's about time.
He opens up a blank file and considers the possibilities. How about silver? He hasn't had silver in... a while. Years. Silver has usually been Rhodey's thing, really. He's always given him silver accents. Maybe Tony should go with all silver? Bare metal? That would certainly be different. He's had some silver prototypes, maybe a specialized suit here and there, but he doesn't think he'd had a silver suit since...hmm. Since the first suit. The very first Iron Man.
He painted it gold, he remembers, because it was scaring civilians. They'd never seen anything like it.
Maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing, to be terrifying.
San Francisco sounds nice, he thinks one morning. Maybe he'd like it there.
By that evening he's bought himself the Transamerica Pyramid. Tallest building in the city. He knows how to make a first impression.
The view is less majestic than he thought it might be. It's all fog. Some days he can see the bridges, north and east, the Golden Gate and the Marin headlands peeking out of the fog, the Bay Bridge stretching away to Yerba Buena Island and presumably further on to Oakland, but the summer skies are still gray. Someone tells him it gets better in fall.
It never gets better, he thinks.
He moves in anyway.
He doesn't take the armor off. It kind of matches the weather.
He's not sorry about Extremis. How could he ever be sorry about Extremis? He is his own first test subject, once again, and it goes remarkably well for something he coded while completely wasted, and he laughs and laughs with joy as the data feeds unspool behind his eyes. It wasn't the way he wanted, but he will never be alone now. He has data. It might kill him. It might liquefy what's left of his brain. He doesn't really care. God, he's missed this.
The sky doesn't turn red. He's safe. He wonders, sometimes, what the Illuminati are doing. If there's an answer. If they've solved it. If they'd let him know.
He wonders if the rest of San Francisco would like Extremis.
He decides that they would.
He's been here eight months. Daredevil caught him in an alley in the Tenderloin earlier, and he's feeling... more worn than usual. He knows the healing factor should take care of everything soon. But he feels old. Like his joints should be creaking. Extremis has taken care of that.
The armor's holding him up. He can't remember the last time he actually took it off. He can't remember the last time anyone saw his face.
He's tired. He's so tired. It feels like everything has been wrong since he opened his eyes in Oklahoma.
This shouldn't have happened to his life. It wasn't supposed to be like this. He can't do this alone. He can't do this anymore.
He was supposed to be one of the good guys.
He wonders what it would be like not to wake up.
He puts his head down on his workbench and falls asleep.
His dreams are red.
They're not the bright, vital red of blood across concrete steps.
They're not the sickly, wavering red of the sky over an incursion zone.
They're not the pure, angry red of his old repulsor gauntlets, aimed at his own face.
He almost knows what color that is, he thinks. Almost. He can almost recognize it--
Tony wakes up with a strange, anticipatory feeling crackling under his skin. Well. He made it through the night, he thinks, resigned. Time to see what the rest of the day holds.
He stands up, letting the armor do most of the work for him, and he turns and heads down the hallway, into the elevator, down another hallway, past the--
His bedroom door is open.
Something is different, he thinks. There's something there that's off. Something he didn't quite catch. He closed the door last night. And he's alone up here. No one but him has ever been in that bedroom.
He steps back, cautiously, and then he sees it, at the edge of his field of vision: a flash of bright blue, a color that doesn't belong in there. A color he knows intimately.
He turns his head.
Perception comes in fragmented pieces.
Blue. White. Red. The metallic shine of scale mail. Leather. A cowl, pushed back. Blond hair. A figure, sitting on the edge of his bed. Blue eyes. A face he still sees in his dreams. A face he's never stopped seeing.
He can't be real. He can't be. A Skrull. A clone. An LMD. Another kind of shapeshifter -- a mutant, maybe. A second William Burnside. A VR projection.
If this is an assassin, maybe he'll just kill Tony now. It would be the kindest thing to do.
Maybe he's hallucinating. He's heard he used to hallucinate dead people.
Steve turns his head. He says nothing.
Maybe he doesn't know it's him? He's never seen Tony in this armor. He's never seen Tony in silver armor.
Tony shuts his eyes, cuts all the feeds, and lets the suit absorb, and then he's standing there wearing only the glimmering undersuit. He's suddenly acutely aware of how much everything hurts. His skin is a patchwork of wounds and pressure sores, continually healed by Extremis, continually forming anew. Humans are not actually meant to live in suits of armor. Tony hasn't let that stop him from trying.
When he opens his eyes, Steve is looking at him.
"Tony," Steve says, and God, it's his voice, it's really his voice.
Tony knows what shade of red that was now, in his dreams last night. Scarlet. Wanda.
Shaking, Tony falls to his knees. He's crying already, silent tears.
"You're too late," he whispers. "I'm a monster. I never wanted you to see me like this."
When he looks up, Steve is leaning forward and holding out a hand. His face is twisted in confusion, like this wasn't what he expected Tony to do at all, and Tony realizes that if the last thing he remembers is the Civil War, it probably really isn't what he expects.
"If this is about Registration--" Steve begins. His voice is angry and terribly bitter in a way Tony has never heard before, frightening, and he knows this is what the end was like.
"I don't remember Registration," Tony says, desperately, and Carol was right, this is what he gets, Steve is going to hate him. "There is no Registration, it's been over for years, it's been stopped, I have amnesia, I don't know what I did or why I did it but I'm sure I'd do it again because that's just who I am, but I can't-- please-- whatever I did--"
Steve's hand is still extended.
Tony is curled on the floor. He can't make himself take Steve's hand. He can't tell him he's sorry. He can't ask for forgiveness. He doesn't get to.
Steve looks at him. He takes one breath. Two. "I forgive you."
He can't say that. He doesn't know. He doesn't know anything. But Tony wants so badly for it to be true.
"You don't know what I've done," Tony says, trembling. "It's worse, I'm worse, I tried-- I couldn't do it alone-- there are incursions-- I broke the Infinity Gauntlet-- there's Extremis-- fuck, Steve, I've been drinking--"
"I forgive you," Steve repeats.
"You can't forgive me," says Tony, terrified. He's never planned for absolution. Just oblivion.
Steve slides off the bed to land heavily on the floor, sitting next to him, and he smells like himself. Tony had even forgotten that.
"Too bad, Avenger," Steve says, like he's rallying the team. "Because forgiveness is what you're getting."
Tony tries to laugh. "I haven't been an Avenger in years. Apparently I was, after the war. I don't even remember being an Avenger. I don't remember any of the war. They told me about it. I've seen the news footage-- how can you just get over it?"
That's not a thing Steve does.
Very slowly, so slowly that Tony could move away if he wanted, Steve's hand moves toward Tony's back, his neck, his head. He twists his fingers into the curls at the base of Tony's skull, the way he's always liked to do, the way no one else has done, and Tony shudders at how good it is, how much one touch undoes him. It's everything he's been looking for, everything he's been lacking, hurting for, searching for at the bottom of a bottle.
"Oh, God," Tony says, faintly. He's crying again.
"You need it," Steve says, as if it's that simple. Black and white. The way it always is, with him. That easy certainty Tony loves. "You need me to. That's why. Besides, I-- I'm not really sure where I was, exactly. Where I've been. But I had a lot of time to think about things. Regrets. And I decided that if I ever got back, I'd... well... I'd be better about them. I'd try. It would be worth it."
Tony doesn't even know what to say. "That's-- that's--"
Steve's hand is stroking idle patterns against his skin, his thumb rubbing in gentle circles. Steve is touching him. It's hard to think of anything but that.
"So what's the last thing you do remember?" Steve asks. "Before your amnesia, I mean."
Tony colors. "We were... together."
What if Steve doesn't want that anymore? What if--?
When he looks over, Steve is smiling down at him. "Good," he says, softly. "Let's start with that."
And he pulls Tony into his arms.
He has to tell him, Tony knows, as he buries his face against Steve's chest, he has to tell him about the incursions. He will. He definitely will. He'll do this right. Maybe Steve can think of something, now that they're together. Now that they can do anything. They can tell the Avengers. They can have a team. They can solve this. They're always better together. It's not too late.
Stand up, Avenger, Tony thinks. Start fighting.