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I. Tony puts Steve to bed. It feels weird to be on this side: usually it would be Steve making him lie down after hours of work . . . But nothing is as usual now, is it?

He pretends his hands aren't shaking as he pulls the blankets over Steve. There's no one to see, anyway. Certainly no one to remember.

I'm sorry, Steve. I'll find some way to make this right. (More lies, nothing else.)

He feels sick and forces himself to close the door gently. There isn't really any chance of Steve waking up so soon, but Tony can't risk it.

He knows it has all been going too well. He never gets to keep hold of happiness. He should have predicted it – why couldn't Steve ever try to compromise?

It's not really a question. Steve is . . . Steve. This is why Tony loves him. And why he has just destroyed everything between them, forever.

He runs into a bathroom at the last moment and throws up. He tries to push the images of Steve falling down out of his mind and fails. He'll never forget. He should start getting used to it (he never will). He leans his forehead against the cool porcelain and just sits like that, remembering countless mornings of hangover spent like this.

He gets up and brushes his teeth, but there's something that would clean up the taste better.

Everything dies. Everything ends.

There's nothing to do now. He's already planning weapons of mass destruction, after all, his mind is already back in the weapons game, and Steve –

Steve will never forgive him.

The Tower is empty. It's just as well. Tony goes to the kitchen, reaches into a cupboard, pulls out a bottle of whiskey. It's good alcohol. Of course it is, Tony Stark doesn't settle for less. He kind of wishes he did, now. There's some clarity in his mind, because he's always known he was going to end up like this, and to be proven right offers comfort.

He opens the bottle, pours himself two fingers of whiskey, makes sure to hide it again. He stares at the amber liquid.

For a moment yet, he hopes.

He hopes that it's enough. That the sharp scent and the light playing in the glass will give him what he needs, that his memory will suffice, that he won't –

Everything ends. But he'll be damned if he doesn't control it.

(He'll be damned anyway. Already is.)

He drinks.

There's nothing left, now, just this, the taste of alcohol on his tongue that's like fire, fire and ice both, and so many years thrown to nothing –

He wonders, briefly. If he hadn't drunk during the superhero civil war and he just doesn't remember. He wouldn't be surprised if he had, quite the contrary. And if he had, and hadn't fallen off the wagon hard, if no one had heard –

He can do it now.

He drinks, and it's like slow poison, the best antidote.

Steve sleeps, and doesn't remember, and Tony gives up everything.

He works on the Avengers World and then brushes his teeth again, and again, and again, until he's sure not even Wolverine would smell alcohol on him, before he goes to finally wake Steve up.

***

One glass, two at most, this is how it goes.

Another Illuminati meeting, another repetition of no progress, no progress, no progress.

“I'm weaponising the sun,” he says, goes back home and drinks just one glass, to sleep easier, to be able to focus on a different type of guilt while looking into Steve's eyes.

One glass, and the Dyson sphere comes into shape.

One glass, and he's ready to answer Reed's call and talk about antimatter bombs.

One glass, and he can consult on Beast's ideas.

One glass, and everything is good, and everything falls apart, but he doesn't, does he. It's almost destroyed him once (a shame, he thinks, it should have been done), but he won't let it now.

If he can do the impossible once, he can repeat it. He can find a way to save the world.

Two glasses, after Steve smiles at him as he says, Good night, Shellhead.

***

“Be safe, Steve,” he says, and wavers, really wavers, for the first time.

He's pouring himself the third glass when Reed calls, and Tony's not sure if he's relieved or disappointed as he suits up and flies to Wakanda instead of drinking one more, two more, always more.

***

He's controlling it. He's in control. He is.

It's still his secret: no one would believe him, of course, no one ever believes in Tony Stark's willpower, and Steve, Steve would be disappointed.

Tony's in control. He knows it. No one else needs to.

Tony's in control, and he's looking through the Bridge, seeing other worlds dying, always dying –

He's married to Steve in one, and the Hulk keeps kittens, and it's all Tony can do not to break into T'Challa's wine cellar.

***

Steve saves his life in the battle, and looks at him, so worried, and this is when Tony usually flips up his faceplate, to grin at him and say, Thanks, don't worry, I'm fine, but he doesn't now. He can't face Steve without this one layer separating them.

He could do something stupid. He could say something honest, and he can't afford that.

He flies to the Tower without a word, leaving Steve not understanding and worried on the street, and he drinks vodka straight from the bottle.

He thinks of how Steve looked in Necropolis, and drinks more.

Blood is rushing in his ears, and he's still in the armour, and –

He stops himself.

He's in control.

***

He's in control.

One glass, and he sleeps over his desk, and he has nightmares that don't wake him up. Four hours of unquiet sleep, and he can work for another couple of days, design more bombs, lie to Steve some more, make sure the Avengers will survive.

Bruce confronts him on Tuesday, and when all is said and done, Tony closes himself in his lab and slowly, so slowly, drinks one glass of whiskey after another. His hands aren't shaking. He's not sure if he wanted the Hulk to kill him.

(Yes, he had, he would be free of it all; no, he hadn't, someone has to make sure their world survives.)

His time is running out, he knows it, but he's meant what he said: he will keep it up, as long as he has to. There's no other choice.

There's no other choice, and then one day Thor breaks down the door to his workshop, Steve immediately going in, and Tony knows.

His time has run out, and it's too soon. He's not done yet. He hasn't fixed it yet. He needs more time. What he needs even more is for the Avengers to stay together, so he does what he does best and plays the villain (it's not an act, not anymore, a voice in his head says as he considers all the scenarios to blow up a planet, his own planet).

Steve punches him, and Tony spits out blood and smiles, I'd do it again, and he would, he really would, he would do all of it, only better.

Steve wouldn't remember so soon. (Or ever, Tony thinks, he would lie to him forever if it meant Steve smiling at him another day, but he never will now.)

He's sacrificed everything, and then an old Clint from the future tells him he failed anyway, and it's a bucket of cold water, a knife to the guts, because he can't fail. Too much is at stake.

He goes back to his time, bandages himself as best he can, and drinks.

T'Challa sees him, hunched with a bottle of Wakandan wine in one of the labs, and doesn't say anything.

They're all at their breaking point.

(Tony is holding out, still in control, there's still hope – there hasn't been any hope ever since the Gems shattered.)

***

He thinks that at least he hasn't done it, and he wants to laugh and laugh and laugh.

Yeah, he hasn't used the device. The one device that could work at this point. The device he practically built, and then, in the end, he was too much of a coward to actually use. He forced someone else to do it –

To use Tony's creation, Tony's weapon, to commit genocide.

He falls to his knees. He can't deal with it. He can't. It's –

He wants to scream or maybe to cry, he's so pathetic – too much of a coward to save them all. Too much of a coward to admit it months earlier, when it would have changed something, when it could have mattered.

Too much of a coward to do what it takes.

Not too much of a coward to drink. Never that. He opens whiskey, and drinks.

***

He's back in control the next day, or so he tells himself.

He has practically committed genocide. He'd built the bombs with this sole purpose in mind. They can't really be used for anything else. It was a matter of time before someone would have used them, and someone did. Namor is right: they're all monsters.

Tony has to accept it. The bomb, his bomb, has been used, and even though he was too much of a coward to do that himself, he is a mass murderer now.

And he has to go on. He has.

He can't.

***

The sun is setting.

Steve looks good, standing out in the red light, and Tony shakes himself. He can't think of that. He can't.

“Think fast, Captain America!” he calls and throws the bagel to him.

Steve catches it, of course, his reflexes impeccable. He looks at his bagel and pouts. “They didn't have –”

“They didn't have sesame seed,” Tony admits, and regrets not looking further. Steve smiles at him, and Tony knows this smile.

Steve is planning something already, and Tony knows he won't refuse, not when he looks like that, relaxed and happy after the disaster of the last six months.

He wants to keep Steve happy.

That's not a bad thing, right?

(He wants to keep him safe, blameless, he wants to spare him responsibilities; he doesn't tell him the truth about SHRA until Steve isn't there anymore to hear it, and he wipes Steve's mind of the other conflict that Steve shouldn't have to face, but he does it because he wants to help, right?)


 

II. It's almost methodical, when it finally happens, when he admits to failure and lets go.

No spur of the moment decisions. No one to push his hand (no one to stop him, either).

Just him and his conscience, and the sight of an Earth on fire forever burnt behind his eyelids.

He's never been in control.

Their Earth is safe, and Tony can admit it: he's never been in control, and he's done with pretending.

He drinks, and he doesn't stop at the first glass, or the second. He doesn't stop at all, because there isn't any reason to, not any more.

***

The bars are reinforced steel, designed to keep superstrong villains in, but Tony wouldn't have a chance with normal ones either.

Steve – S.H.I.E.L.D. – Steve made sure to lock him in an old fashioned cell, devoid of electronic locks he could take advantage of (or just type in the override code; he has designed a better part of superheroes security measures).

He could pick a lock, if he had a tool, but of course it's common sense to make sure Tony Stark doesn't have anything to work with when you're trying to close him somewhere, these days.

So he's staring at the wall, counting intervals between the guards coming and going, and he thinks of other ways, because there must be some. He's accepted how hopeless the incursions are, he's not going to let a S.H.I.E.L.D. cell stop him.

Namor has destroyed a world in his place, and it hasn't changed anything, because another incursion might happen any moment, and Tony can't let it. He's a villain, a monster, closed in his cell just like he deserves, but he has to get out.

“Hello,” he hears, and turns around. Natasha is there. He didn't hear her approaching, but if Black Widow doesn't want to be noticed, she isn't. He doesn't answer, just nods his head as a welcome. “She was right,” Natasha says quietly. “I can't forget how to survive.”

“You shouldn't be expected to,” he answers.

She laughs. “What if I want to?” She shakes her head. “I know you, Tony. I trust you.”

“Now that's not something I hear often,” he says.

“As much as I trust anyone,” she admits. “Do what you must.”

She flicks her wrist, and something lands on his lap. He looks down briefly and sees a key. When he looks up again, she's gone, and he can't say he's surprised.

***

He wakes up.

A headache is pounding behind his eyes. He's lying on something cold and hard. He tries to sit up, and his head swims. He remembers what feels like this, and he thinks, No. Please no.

There's nothing he can hope for. When he finally manages to open his eyes, he's surrounded by bottles, and he can still taste alcohol on his tongue. Slowly, he remembers, and if anything surprises him, it's that he's held out so long.

(He did it sober, build bombs that could destroy a world, set them up. He did it sober, and he doesn't even have alcohol to blame.)

He thinks he should get up, that that's what people do, right, after passing out drunk, he should take a shower and –

Thinking about the future makes him want to throw up. He's sacrificed everything for it. He's never counted on living long enough to see it. He hasn't planned for dealing.

(Maybe he has: he doubts anyone has this address, one of his many flats in New York, and yet it was stocked full of alcohol. A temptation and a trial, the easy solution, slow suicide; he's planned it all.)

The white ceiling is fascinating. That's what's left when you kill the world: a moment of whiteness. Nothing else. Tony doesn't want to remember. He reaches out, blindly, grasps at some bottle next to him. It falls down, but nothing spills, it was empty.

He should get up. He doesn't feel strong enough to.

***

Steve is looking at him in terror.

“What have you done,” he says.

Tony thinks he should answer, but there isn't anything to say now, is there? Nothing Steve doesn't know, and he's never much cared for reasons; it's the action that counts, not the reasoning or consequences, the necessary evil is still evil, and means are never excused.

Killing a planet, it turns out, generates a lot of energy, and energy, of course, can be used for good and evil both; Tony's not sure if where the energy comes from in the first place matters.

Namor has condemned them all, and Namor has saved them all, because it was his actions that let them save the multiverse in the end. It was Tony's responsibility, Tony's fault, for not doing it himself, for giving Namor the means to.

He should say something. “Hey, Steve, I used the destruction of Earth to fix it all” or “hey, Steve, I found enough energy to shake the multiverse, oh, well, we all might have blown up an Earth first” or maybe just “it wasn't worth it, but I'd do it all again.”

He would, too, and this is what scares him.

***

It's a phone call that finally makes him move.

He's not even sure why, but he gets up. He stumbles a bit before getting steady again, supports himself with a hand on the wall. His head still hurts like it's threatening to split open, but that's nothing new. He's had bad hangovers. His mobile is on the kitchen table, where he left it before opening this first bottle.

If it were anyone else, Tony's not sure if he would answer, but it's Rhodey, and so he does. He swipes the call on. “Hey,” he says. His voice sounds hoarse to his own ears.

“Tones?” Rhodey stops. “Everything all right?”

“Yes,” Tony lies. “You just woke me up.”

There's a brief silence, and he half expects Rhodey to call him out on it, but then he says, “You disappeared without a word.”

Tony doesn't answer. A few long moments pass. “Tony, just – you know you can talk to me.”

About how I saw six billion people die, Tony thinks and doesn't say. Rhodey doesn't know about the incursions, and it's for the best, one less person to be dragged down by it. “Yeah,” he replies.

“Where are you?” Rhodey asks.

“I'm fine,” Tony says, and hangs up. He switches his phone off.

He turns around, and looks at his apartment. It's an open space kitchen, leading to living room. He doesn't really remember last night, but he must have tried to move to the sofa at some point. There's whiskey spilled on the floor next to where he was lying, shattered glass under the wall, and a stain on it. He must have thrown a tumbler at the wall at some point. He doesn't look at the glass again, the sharp edges are tempting as they've never been.

His head still hurts.

He should just drink his hangover down, force himself straight into another one, and he's reaching for a fresh bottle when a new thought stops him.

He wants to forget, but remembering is the only thing he can do now.

(He's made Steve forget and he's never admitted how jealous he's been for these months when Steve could smile easily while Tony was breaking every promise he'd ever given, staying up till sunrise working on bombs.)

He looks out the windows, at New York.

It's still there. That has to count for something.

***

He works on the armour, because there's nothing else he could do.

There's a glass of whiskey next to him. Of course there is, he's never been able to say, No.

He works on the armour, and he drinks, and the glass is always full, and the bottle gets emptier and emptier.

The thing is, he's never been able to stop, either.

***

When Tony sees Steve, both of them in the present again, he's different somehow.

It drives Tony mad. He's always known Steve, always could understand him without words, and it didn't matter if they were fighting against a common enemy or each other; he knew Steve.

Now, Steve is different. Harder. Changed.

Tony wants to ask what Steve has seen, but it's not his place, and he wouldn't get an answer.

Namor, all of them, have destroyed one world. Tony can't let Steve sell his soul too, and part of him knows Steve never would, but he never wants him to have to make this choice, not in any way that would matter.

(Steve's made his choice, and Tony's taken it away, to keep the world safe, to keep Steve safe. He said he would have done it again and that's what he's trying to do, now, or so he tells himself.)

“Sorry, Steve, you can't really help with that,” he mocks, gesturing at the array of electronic elements in front of him.

He hasn't really finished saying it before Steve slaps cuffs on his wrists.

***

Tony wakes up, his face pressed against wires, and sits up with a groan, leans against his chair.

It's not as bad as yesterday. His head still hurts, but he doesn't feel sick (not physically, at least, not unless he starts thinking of the last year, and – he doesn't).

He looks around, and sun is setting behind the windows.

“Fuck,” he mutters.

He has to work. To do anything. To try and fix . . . There's no fixing what he's done. But he has to work, because he's saved the world, and he has to make sure it stays safe, and he can't feel sorry for himself, he doesn't deserve this. He's made his own fucking bed.

He can't take the easy way out, can't be a coward now.

He takes an ice cold shower, avoids looking in the mirror and doesn't shave.

What could he do?

The Avengers won't accept his help, and he wouldn't offer; he knows they're strong enough. There's so many things he can work on at Resilient, except.

Except.

He can't face Pepper.

He shuffles back to the workshop, pulls up the latest car schematics and looks them over. He can try and incorporate some of his armour shielding, to make it safer.

He sends the new schematics to Pepper at sunrise, and he suspects she's been calling him the whole time by the time she sends him an email, four simple words, “What are you doing?” in it.

“Helping,” he writes back, and takes a drink.

***

He remembers to order groceries, if only so he doesn't run out of alcohol, and alternatively works and drinks himself unconscious. He knows he's toeing a line, but he has to make – he can't make it better, all the lives he . . . his device took, but he can save at least some more on this Earth, can't he?

He emails Jan suggestions for stronger fabrics for her costume and doesn't answer her questions. Maybe she'll listen.

He half-expects Steve to break down his door every day, drag him back to jail, but he knows it won't happen.

There's no jail for people like him.

He doesn't know how much time has passed when an explosion shakes New York, and he doesn't know on which glass he is when he hacks Avengers comms and listens what happened. He puts on the armour, and it doesn't work, flashing warnings about blood alcohol level at him.

Fuck.

He's forgotten he had finally put in these security measures, so as not to repeat the past mistakes, and he laughs at himself, because it's so unnecessary. It takes him fifteen minutes to reprogram it, and then he's flying, relying on autopilot a bit more heavily than usual.

The Avengers have it mostly under control when he appears. It's a giant robot, looking like a cheap Iron Man knock-off, and he feels insulted. He feels the weight of their gazes at him as he fires at the robot. It must have moved; Tony's shots go way over its head and hit a building behind it.

“Iron Man, what are you doing?!” Steve shouts over the comms, angry.

“Giant robots are kind of my thing,” Tony answers, fires again, doesn't react fast enough to avoid a shot.

When he comes to, Carol is standing over him.

He moves and moans, and she looks down. “What the hell, Tony?”

“Malfunction,” is what he says. Of the pilot is what he doesn't.

He stands up and flies home before anyone tries to stop him. Carol doesn't go after him, and it's so unlike her – but then, he thinks, she doesn't know him that well anymore.

Steve asks, in a curt voice, Iron Man, status. It sounds dangerously close to “Are you fine?” and Tony doesn't reply.

***

He makes all the computations, again and again and again, and punches the wall.

His hand bleeds, and he longs for a bottle, forces himself to repeat the computations again, asks Reed to check it for him and sees him go ashen, and he has his answer.

He needs a drink, but he's in control, right, it's all right as long as no one knows, it's as if he hasn't broken down –

He's a wonderful liar.

He just needs to hold himself in check a moment longer. And then . . . And then hopefully no more.

He doesn't tell Reed that.

(He stands under another planet, and can't do it. He's so relieved before Namor takes the device and uses it, and there's yet more blood on Tony's hands.

He thought he'd learnt his lessons, after Afghanistan.)

***

Tony is fixing the armour when someone starts banging at the door. He sighs, considers not replying before realising that if he doesn't, there's a chance the person behind it might just break it down. The door is reinforced, but too many of Tony's acquaintances are superstrong.

He opens the door an inch, sees Rhodey, and then he's unceremoniously pushed back as Rhodey forces himself inside.

“What the hell, Tones,” he says.

“Did Carol send you?” Tony says, not really a question.

“The one good thing coming out of this disaster was that I could find you,” Rhodey says.

“Nice to see you too,” Tony mutters, and goes back to his armour. If Rhodey wants to yell at him, Tony can at least spend the time productively.

“Tony, you can't just –” Rhodey stops himself and doesn't say anything for a long while. Tony doesn't look up at him, concentrated on disassembling the chest plate, and it's only when Rhodey says, very quiet, “Why?” that Tony remembers the bottle standing on the workbench.

“I'm an alcoholic, did you forget?” he says.

“You've been sober for years,” Rhodey says.

“There was the Serpent thing,” Tony reminds him, and then deliberately reaches for his glass and takes a sip.

“Don't,” Rhodey snaps.

“It's true,” Tony notes.

“What happened?” Rhodey asks, still quiet, as if he doesn't want an answer, as if he doesn't know whether to yell at Tony or take the bottle from him or check him into a rehab facility just this moment.

“Nothing did,” Tony says. “I'm fucked up. You know that.”

Rhodey walks to him, stands an arm's reach away. “Tony . . .”

“Don't tell me you're surprised,” Tony laughs.

Rhodey shakes his head, once. “I know how you act when you're drinking. I won't let you . . .”

“You can't let me anything,” Tony tells him. “Is the talk over?”

“Fuck you,” Rhodey says. “I care about you. Carol does, too. Think about Pepper. Think about your friends if you don't care about yourself.”

“I've done it for them,” Tony whispers, absolutely honestly, and Rhodey looks furious. “Leave.”

Rhodey looks as if he wants to do just that, but then he says, “You can't fly the armour drunk.”

“Okay,” Tony says, and he's not sure if he's lying or not.

“I've seen your okay,” Rhodey says. “You can't –”

“What, do you want to be Iron Man again? Is that it? Because let me tell you, this hero? Not really welcome now.”

He thinks he would punch himself, if he were Rhodey. But Rhodey's a better man than he is, and so he just walks out without another word, and Tony wonders if he's destroyed another friendship.

It's for the best.

He drinks, and he knows when the safe moment to stop is, so he does. He doesn't bother with shower, but he goes to bed like a responsible, respectable businessman and stares at the ceiling till the morning.

Someone is banging at the door again, and Tony's pretty sure it's Pepper. No one else would care now.

He gets up, opens the door, holds it with his foot.

“Morning,” he tries to smile.

She looks as if she was crying, but she meets his gaze. “Rhodey talked to me.”

“I figured.”

She doesn't try to push inside. “What were the schematics about?”

“Thought I'd help with work,” he shrugs.

She stares at him, then lower, jabs her finger at his chest, where he knows Resilient is stamped on it. “The man who made this,” she says, “this man is not you right now. You are not you right now, Tony.”

“How would you know?” he says.

“You're stronger than that,” she says.

“Maybe,” he agrees, even though he doesn't. “Maybe I don't want to be. Maybe I'm done with pretending I'm anyone else but a villain.”

“Tony –”

“Captain America closed me in a jail,” he says, smiles at her. “Don't you think he had his reasons?”

He shuts the door in her face, and waits. She doesn't knock again. He slides to the floor, and hides his face in his hands.

***

He lives closed in his apartment, and drinks just enough to remember everything, and not a single drop less. It helps numb the pain, somehow, and he thinks he doesn't deserve even this . . . But he can't stop. Not anymore. All the illusions of control are gone.

He's given up on working. He mostly lies, keeping a bottle in his arm's reach, tries not to think, doesn't do anything else. Moving is hard, but the thought of his bottle ending is harder, so he gets up at times to get another one. Sometimes he switches on TV and stares at it, doesn't see a thing, sees Earth blowing up, again and again and again.

Sometimes he drifts off to uneasy sleep and sees Steve falling down. Sometimes it's Steve saying, I remember. Sometimes it's the moment he realised he couldn't do it. Sometimes it's Earth burning over him, because he's built the device, even if he didn't have the strength to use it himself. He hates himself for it more than he thought was possible.

Sometimes, he regrets his armour was too good for that robot to really hurt him.

He keeps his promise to Rhodey, at least, and doesn't fly out drunk any more. The Avengers should be able to handle any threat.

(Sometimes, he wishes theyhad handled him.)

Showers are too tiring, and the one time he doesn't turn his head quick enough away from the bathroom mirror is the time he puts his fist through it. His hand bleeds, and he doesn't feel it, not at all.

He exists. He's not sure why.

***

His Avengers identity card beeps, again and again.

Strange, he was sure Steve would have disconnected it – but he must have, Tony hasn't gotten any other alerts, so they must be calling him on purpose.

Old habits die hard, he thinks as he answers.

“Tony, you there?” Jan's voice.

“Yeah,” he says.

“We need you here,” she says, and he wants to laugh at the lie.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Tony,” she says, low. “There's – I don't know, a bomb? Steve and the rest are gone, we need you to deactivate it –”

“Ask Reed,” he says.

A beat of silence, before she says, “Not in this universe.”

Of course. Who would ask the drunk for help first?

He sighs, because they really must need him, and suits up. He's only had a glass and wonders if Rhodey would consider it drunk-flying.

He flies to where the coordinates from Jan's Avengers card lead him, to a warehouse in the suburbs. He lands in front of Jan, ignores Havok standing next to her.

“What's wrong?”

She looks at him, hesitates.

“Jan,” he says. “You called me already.”

“Are you fine?” she asks, bites her lip.

“Yes,” he lies. What's the point?

She gestures at the warehouse. “Let's go inside.”

He follows her, and immediately sees what she meant. It seems bigger on the inside, and there's what looks like a steel cuboid inside.

“So Ste – Captain America is inside?”

She looks at him sadly, but nods, and then gestures at the cables going into it. “There's a countdown, on the other side.”

She circles the cuboid and Tony follows her. There's an old fashioned clock straight from bad movies behind it. 14 minutes 30 seconds, going down.

“Alex tried to blow it up, but it just absorbed the energy,” she explains.

He nods, switches on a few scans, touches the wall. It's not steel, obviously, another alloy . . . He takes in a sharp breath at the results.

Vibranium. Because of course.

“How did they get there?”

“Helping hostages,” she says.

He looks at the clock and the mechanism behind it. What's the point . . . ?

He can think of a few uses for a nearly indestructible metal box that can have things detonated inside, and apparently he can still feel disgust over villains even after causing more people to die than most of them could ever aspire to.

It's easy, though, once he sets his mind to it. The materials are rare, and very good quality, but the mechanism isn't anything new. He pulls off one gauntlet and takes out a screwdriver from a compartment in the wrist panel, and Jan hisses.

“What happened to your hand?”

Ah. The scars are still fresh. “I can talk about it or help them,” Tony says.

“You can multitask,” she says.

“How do you know, haven't you heard alcohol is bad for your brain?” he says, and doesn't look at her as he leans down over it.

It goes easily. He hopes Jan doesn't notice how his hand is shaking. That's alcohol, not damage, but he doesn't want pity. He's almost done when the cube shakes, and one panel falls off, a very familiar shield following in its wake, and the clock under Tony's hands stops.

Of course Steve doesn't need his help. Why has Tony let himself think otherwise?

Steve looks at him, then at Jan. “We've had it under control.”

“Didn't seem like it,” she snaps, “so I called someone who knows what he's doing.”

“Is that what you think?” Steve asks.

Tony can't –

“Sorry, Jan,” he says, pulling on his gauntlet again.

“Take off the helmet,” Steve says.

Tony freezes. “Why,” he says.

“Because I'm asking,” Steve mocks.

He has the codes. He could make him.

Tony suddenly doesn't want to know if he would.

He flips up his faceplate, and Steve never wavers, but something in his eyes changes. If Tony didn't know any better, he'd say it's worry.

“Like what you see,” he deadpans and closes the faceplate, and then he's leaving, and no one stops him.

***

He pulls off the armour, lets it fall to the ground, kicks at one boot.

Of course no one needs his help.

Of course.

Why is he even pretending?

He pours himself a drink, and this time, he doesn't stop.


 

III.

Steve carefully avoids everyone as he returns to the Tower.

It's been the Avengers Tower for years, but it was Tony's home first, a home he's been so proud of, and offered to the Avengers without any hesitation, because that was Tony: giving all of himself, without any self-preserving instinct . . . Destroying everything in the name of the greater good, betraying his friends, hurting everyone, lying, always lying, and his generosity doesn't make up for any of that.

Steve should have learnt his lesson after the superhero civil war, but Tony was like a magnet: Steve couldn't stay away for long.

It took all of his willpower not to reach out and touch him, today, when he showed his face, and Tony looked terrible, pale, unshaven and with bloodshot eyes. His bare hand was shaking.

Steve was so angry to see him there, to see him playing a hero, when he was anything but –

He was angry that Tony hadn't been with them to begin with.

He is angry at himself now, for even thinking that, because Tony doesn't deserve this regret, doesn't deserve Steve missing him; he'd use Steve again at the first opportunity, he admitted as much.

Steve's still worried, and he's not deaf, he's heard the rumours, dismissed them – everyone always speculates about Tony falling off the wagon, and it's never been true, because if there is one thing Steve would trust him with, it's this, except.

Except.

He didn't look sober, today. His words were clear and his step was straight, but, firstly, he's always been good at faking and, second, the armour would take care of a good chunk of the aftereffects, and his eyes were dull and nothing like Tony.

Steve doesn't want to, but he worries despite himself.

***

“You used me,” Steve says, the words heavy on his tongue.

“Yes. I suppose I did,” Tony answers, and Steve can't breathe, and then Tony continues, the final stroke, “And I'd do it again.”

Steve remembers his whole world crushing down around him, he remembers waking up, convinced his best friend, the man he trusted with everything, the man who's led yet another team of Avengers with him – that that man had lied to him, made the team as a weapon and not for good, and used Steve.

He remembers thinking that man was a villain, that he had sold his soul, that he had done the unthinkable.

(He remembers learning it wasn't true, not then, and he remembers learning when it was, that the Illuminati had done it, he remembers staring at Tony as if he didn't know him, and maybe he didn't – his friend would never, but that's a lie too, right? Friends don't do what Tony did, but Steve always forgave him too easily. He wouldn't now, not when Tony's made the final step to be a villain.

Steve knows Tony hadn't pushed the button and he's not sure if that matters.

There's a difference between a villain stealing his armour and wrecking havoc in it, and Tony building a weapon specifically to destroy Earth.)

***

It takes him a few days, but he corners Carol after breakfast. “How's Tony?” he says.

Now you care,” she answers.

“Carol –”

“Drinking,” she says, and he feels it as if she slapped him. He still hoped –

Why does it hurt?

“I haven't seen him,” she says. “I don't remember how it was when he was drinking, before. But he's been so broken in the last month, I can't – Rhodey went to him.” Her face darkens. “Tony doesn't want help.”

If he didn't, he would have drunk himself to death already, Steve thinks and is surprised at how calm this sounds in his head. But he knows Tony, and he knows what he's been doing all these years ago, and he knows he's drinking as some easy to explain self harm exercise, right, it's alcohol and not punching glass, and Tony's such an idiot sometimes.

Steve couldn't not try then, and he can't not try now, because some part of him feels responsible, and he wants to scream at the thought.

He turns, plans to walk away, but Carol grabs him by his arm.

“Don't,” she says.

“Don't what?” he asks.

“You want to go to him. Don't. Not unless . . . Look, Steve, you could only make it worse.”

He thinks he knows it, but ultimately it comes down to this: Tony's hurt him in every way that matters, but Steve still hasn't learnt how to hate him.

Tony drinking . . . That might be the worst of both their nightmares.

(Steve thinks of a dream he had in the future, Tony laughing at him, and he still hasn't stopped wondering why Tony used him like this, and a part of him would maybe like it if Tony didn't lie when he said he didn't regret anything, because then at least it would be one of them hurting, and Tony would – live.)

***

He's out at a run.

He tries to think it all over, and he never can, because it all returns to the moment when Tony agreed to wipe his mind, and Steve should hate him, but he only wants to understand.

He wants to understand, so he can move on, so he can stop thinking about Tony all the time – and thinking about Tony now means thinking back to the years when he was drinking, and how Steve hated it, hated seeing him go down this road.

He can't do it again.

No matter what Tony might have done to him, Steve can't let him do this to himself, to both of them, again.

He had meant to return to the Tower, but he finds himself at Tony's door instead.

(Once upon a time, Tony would have given him a key.)

He knocks, and he's not sure if he expects Tony to open.

***

“Ah, Captain America,” Iron Man says.

It's a sleek design, so very different to Tony's, yet clearly based on his. All the futures they've seen, and this, the last one, the one where Steve is alone, all of his friends lost to the time stream, is the one where he finally sees Iron Man-hero again.

Or is he still a hero, Steve wonders.

“You've been waiting,” Steve states.

“Of course, Captain.” Iron Man leans his head to the side, and Steve gets a feeling he's being scanned. “So many people must have asked you for so many things, haven't they?” Iron Man says. “One more to your collection: stop him.”

“Tony,” Steve says, because of course it's about Tony, his whole fucking life is about Tony. It only ever occurs to him that maybe it shouldn't be when Tony unmistakably betrays him again and again and again.

“Yes, Tony,” Iron Man says. “Stop him before he sacrifices everything. It won't be worth it. It wasn't worth it. If only he remembered then.”

“Why,” Steve says, but then the Time Gem appears again.

***

Tony opens the door. He's leaning against the wall, and it seems as if he can hardly stay upright. He's shirtless, the RT lightening his face in a sickly blue, and he holds a bottle loosely between two fingers. He seems very thin. He looks at Steve, almost uninterested.

“Come to arrest me,” he says.

Steve is tempted to say, Yes. That would at least get him sober, but that would also never work with Tony. You can't force Tony Stark to do anything he doesn't want to do, especially if that includes actually taking care of himself.

He's very bad at fixing things, for an engineer.

“Let me in,” Steve says.

“What for?” Tony says. “What else is there to say?”

“A lot,” Steve says. “Let me in.”

Tony turns around and walks into the kitchen. There are empty bottles on the floor, some broken.

Tony's barefoot.

Steve reacts before he can think, and catches him by his arm seconds before he can step on glass.

Tony startles, swirls around and looks at him. “What are you doing,” he says.

“I'm not going to help you hurt yourself,” Steve says very slowly.

“Because you care,” Tony says, and takes a swig straight from the bottle.

Steve hates seeing it.

“Why are you doing it?” he asks before he can think better.

(He knows the answer, the true one, that Tony seems to be so very afraid of.)

“I like the taste,” Tony laughs darkly.

“Wouldn't a gun be quicker?” Steve snaps, and Tony flinches, shakes Steve's hand off his arm.

“Are you volunteering?” he sneers.

It's all spiralling out of Steve's control.

(He's never been in control, and Carol was right. He should have listened, why does he never listen?)

“So you don't need help,” Steve snaps.

“I'm doing wonderfully,” Tony says, gestures widely with the bottle. “See yourself out.”

Steve goes. He stops in the doorway. “All you have to do is ask,” he says, quietly. “If you ever want help. I'll come.”

He hears glass shattering. “Always so noble, Captain America,” Tony calls, and Steve knows he's drunk and pushing him away, hates himself for letting him. “And yet, you didn't seem that forgiving when I told you I'd used you.”

Steve slams the door behind him.

***

Iron Man's flight is unsteady. His aim, usually great, aided by his computers, is off. His coordination doesn't seem to exist.

It all adds up to the one conclusion Steve doesn't want to think of, so he makes excuses.

Tony is tired. He's hurt. The armour really is malfunctioning. He misjudged.

He's not drunk, no.

(No one talks to the press, yet there are headlines screaming about it the next day. Tony never comments.)

He's not drunk, and even if he were, Steve wouldn't care.

He should close him in a jail, not care, but he can't do that, not really, and it's too late anyway. Tony didn't need stopping, but it didn't change anything. Steve couldn't do what the future Iron Man really asked him for (help him. Save him), and who would agree to lock up a hero that helped save their whole universe?

Steve knows not many people care about the price.

Tony doesn't. Tony does, too much.

***

Steve thought he couldn't stop thinking about Tony before, but now . . . He can't push the image of him, thin and gaunt and so broken, a bottle in his hand, out of his head.

He spends hours in the gym, punching the daylights out of the superstrong bag Tony has designed, and Tony has designed this whole building, their team, everything, how could Steve ever try to stop thinking about him?

He needs a break, he needs clean air, he needs something else.

He needs to come back to Tony and try and fix it, because it hurt to see him like that. Steve has just let him push him away like that – and people call him stubborn.

He needs to go back in time to before it all went down, to try and fix it, but there's nothing he could fix, because Tony, of course, would repeat it all over and over again.

Steve would, too.

Because there was no middle ground for them, not here, and yet, Steve has to find one now.

He refuses to give up on Tony again. He's lost so much to this man, because of this man, if he gives up it meant it was all for nothing, and he doesn't think he could survive this.

If it means he has to forgive Tony . . . He's spent so much time pretending to be the better man. He should act like this.

(He knows he doesn't have to offer forgiveness in order to care, but it would be so much easier if thinking of Tony didn't feel like ripping his own heart out.)

He has to prepare himself first.

***

“You want to talk about Tony,” Rhodey says.

“Am I that obvious,” Steve says, not a question. “I went to him.”

Rhodey looks worried and tired. “Then you know it's not pretty,” he sighs. “I tried to get to him, but you know how he is. I tried after Carol told me of your little talk, too – no offence, Cap, but you don't have the best track record with calming Tones down – and it was worse.”

“I'm sorry,” Steve says, because there isn't really anything else he has to offer. He knows he fucked that up. Tony provoked him, but what does it say about Steve that he let a drunk man, lashing out and hurting, push him away like that? He doesn't give up on friends this easily.

(Except Tony's always been more than that, even when they were fighting each other to the death.)

Rhodey huffs. “He won't accept help,” he says. “And I don't want to push, because while it's bad . . . At least I know where he is. I don't have to look for him on the streets.”

Steve shares the sentiment, and he nods, but at the same time he knows he has to push. That if he doesn't, if he doesn't try his very best and then some, Tony won't react, not at all. Steve can't stop drinking for him, but he'll be damned if he lets him go down this way, thinking everyone wishes the worst on him.

(Steve honestly can't say if he never has, after learning of this newest betrayal. He can't say if it matters anymore, with Tony taking his self-destructive streak to new heights, and he thinks he should be angry that Tony forces him to care like that. He would be, if he believed for a second Tony planned this.)

“I have to try,” he says.

“I don't know what he's done,” Rhodey says. “I don't know if you can make it better. But I can't tell you I don't want you to try.”

Steve looks him in the eyes. “I want to help him.”

Rhodey reaches into his pocket, takes out a few keys. “This door of his is more advanced than it looks like,” he tries to smile, hands the keys to Steve. “Here.”

“Thanks,” Steve says.

Rhodey doesn't smile. “Don't fuck it up.”

***

Steve is going up and down the cold hospital corridor.

Tony's still in the operating theatre, and Steve doesn't want to listen to prognosis.

Tony has virtually killed himself to save Steve, and Steve doesn't know how to deal with it. Covering each other during the battle is one thing; Tony deliberately stopping his heart like that – another.

When Steve learns that it was Extremis that saved Tony, he thinks that maybe the enhancile isn't that bad.

(He changes his mind a month later, looking at Tony through prison bars, and seeing a computer looking back.)

***

He thinks about knocking first, but in the end he doesn't. He uses keys Rhodey gave him and steps inside the flat, quietly.

It's early afternoon, and it's eerily quiet.

Steve's not sure why he treads so lightly; he doubts Tony would care even if he heard him. But he does, as if there's still a balance to his life that could be disturbed by any loud sound.

He catalogues the flat as he goes – he hasn't had the chance last time, not really. It's a big, modern apartment. He knows one corridor leads to kitchen and the living room. There's reinforced door to his right – Tony's workshop, he guesses, because Tony can never resist having one wherever he goes – and a normal one ahead of him. A bedroom, probably. There are a few bottles lying on a floor. The whole flat stinks of alcohol.

It occurs to him belatedly that maybe he shouldn't sneak around here, so he takes a deep breath and calls, “Tony!”

He waits a moment. There's no answer.

His heart rate picks up. He hopes what Rhodey said still stands, that Tony isn't out on the streets, hiding while trying to drink himself to death.

Steve decides to check the kitchen, first, and takes a turn. “Tony?” he asks again. The kitchen is empty, bottles and broken glass everywhere the only sign someone lives there. Steve turns around and takes in a sharp breath.

Tony's lying on the floor, his hand still curled around a half-full bottle. There's vomit next to him. He clearly hasn't shaven since the last time Steve saw him, and he doesn't look as if he changed clothes, either.

It hurts to see him like this. It's infuriating to see him like this. It's so many things, and Steve can't think of any. He runs to Tony's side, winces at the smell, kneels next to him and shakes him.

“Leave me,” Tony slurs, not opening his eyes.

Steve tells himself to breathe. “Tony,” he says. “Look at me.”

“Go 'way,” Tony says.

No,” he says and turns Tony's head to him.

Tony cracks his eyes open and frowns. He looks in Steve's direction, his eyes unfocused and bloodshot. “Hallucinations usually can't touch,” he says, and if he wasn't so out of it he might sound curious.

“How much have you drunk?” Steve grits out.

Tony shrugs one arm, closes his eyes again. “Who cares?”

“I do,” and Steve tells himself again and again to stay calm. Yelling at Tony has never helped, no matter how much Steve wants to, definitely not when Tony is drunk.

Tony ignores him, tries to raise the bottle to his lips.

Steve doesn't really decide on it, but one moment Tony's lifting the bottle, and the other Steve has hurled it across the room. It breaks at the wall.

“Waste,” Tony comments, and doesn't say anything else.

Steve punches the wall so he doesn't hurt Tony instead. He takes a few deep breaths.

First things first.

Steve grabs Tony under his arms and stands up, pulling him up with him. Tony sags against him, making no effort to stay upright. Steve starts dragging him to the bathroom, but it's not working, Tony's lighter than he should be, but he is almost Steve's height. Steve lifts him up without a word.

“Always wanted you to sweep me off my feet,” Tony says, his words slow and indistinct. He's breathing slowly. “Is that what you're doing?” He talks, though his eyes are closed and his head is falling to the side. “Playing a hero? Oh, great Captain America to save Tony Stark from his addiction?” Tony laughs, ugly. “There's no monster here that you could beat up. Just me.”

Steve wishes it were as simple as that.

He puts Tony in the bathtub in his trousers and opens cold water, lets it run over him.

Tony shivers and doesn't say a word, and Steve would leave him there to look for clean clothes for him, but he's too afraid Tony would find a way to drown.

There's a big towel in the bathroom, though, and it has to be good enough.

“Take your clothes off, can you try to help,” Steve says, and Tony shakes his head.

Steve pulls the pants off him, throws them in the corner, and Tony doesn't react at all, as if he doesn't care about anything at this point.

(That might be the one thing Steve is right about in regards to him.)

Steve shuts the water, pulls Tony out, catches him as Tony's legs give up. His limbs are like liquid, no muscle tension at all, and Steve wonders how much is alcohol and how much just Tony being stubborn. Steve manages to get him wrapped in the towel, and Tony's dozing off by the end of it, so Steve carries him to the sofa in the living room and sighs.

He knocks up the temperature control, goes to the kitchen to pour a glass of water for Tony, stepping around glass. He checks Tony's pulse before waking him, forces him to drink and then lets him sleep.

***

Tony throws his arm around Steve shoulders and smiles, easily. His movements are loose and he seems relaxed, and yet there's something dark in his eyes that Steve can't quite place. He decides it must be the rush and joy of getting a new idea – Tony always grows restless without a big project to work on – and listens as Tony babbles about the Avengers World, and pushes his own nightmares away.

The idea Tony has is all of Steve's good dreams come true; the two of them at the head of a team that could handle every threat thrown at it.

Steve offers his input and looks at Tony, the lines of his face, his lips. He always looks enchanting when explaining his ideas and now is no different, and Steve tells himself, as he always does, that he only appreciates him in an aesthetic way.

(Too much has gone down between them to risk the friendship they have, the friendship Steve values more than anything else, the friendship he believes now he will never lose, that he'd fight for it.)

(Months later he remembers, and just gives up, because fighting for it would hurt too much.)

***

He starts cleaning up the flat just to take his mind off Tony. He checks up on him periodically, and Tony always wakes up, weak and disoriented but conscious, and Steve lets him drift back to sleep before he can argue.

The flat is a mess, and Steve's not sure how Tony can stand it.

Steve throws all the windows open, checks the fridge and finds it unsurprisingly empty. There's some leftover take-away next to the microwave that looks plain dangerous at this point in time, and Steve throws it away, sighs, calls for groceries. He goes through the flat, collects all the still full bottles and – well, there isn't a place he could hide them in in Tony's home, and he would pour it all down the drain, but he's so afraid of pushing Tony to the point where he'd leave. In the end he puts them up in a dusty wall cabinet.

He wonders how long Tony's been going on drinks alone, he wonders if someone ordered the food for him or if he decided on his own not to starve, he wonders why this is so different to the last time Tony started drinking like that again.

He wonders why it's him who has to even think about it, because it's so unfair, and because he's failed at stopping Tony from destroying himself once, why should he succeed now?

(Because he won't give up, he thinks, because there's too much at stake and he wants nothing to do with Tony and he needs Tony there so he can channel his anger at someone, because Tony is too damn important even if it feels like Steve can't breathe for the pain Tony causes him.)

He cleans up, because it's easy and lets him focus on something else than this: that he has no fucking idea what he's doing really.

(He could ask Strange to wipe Tony from his memories. Strange owed him this much, to make Steve's life his again.)

Tony sleeps on the couch, and Steve crushes the bottle he's just picked up in his hand.

***

He stands by the open window, looking out at New York (still standing, so Tony's been wrong; still standing because of what the Illuminati did, so Steve's been wrong. Can they even be right when they're fighting each other?) when he hears a soft moan. He turns around, and Tony throws his hand over his eyes.

“There's aspirin and a glass of water on the table,” Steve informs him and makes no move to help him take it.

“This might be the most stubborn hallucination in my life,” Tony says.

“Stop killing yourself,” Steve says without any preamble.

Tony tries to laugh. “What, is that your job?”

Tony,” Steve says, like a warning.

“Six billion people are dead because of me,” Tony says suddenly, and Steve hasn't expected it, he doesn't know what to do, what to say, when Tony continues, “Do you expect me to move on?”

And just like that, Steve is furious. “Well, Tony,” he says, deliberately slowly. “You wiped my mind so I wouldn't stop you from doing just it, are you really asking me for sympathy now?”

Tony laughs at that, as if he's going insane. “Sympathy,” he repeats in a mocking tone. “Sure, that would be so helpful, sympathy. Fuck off,” he says. “I didn't ask you to come here.”

He stands up, naked, doesn't bother with the towel or blanket Steve put over him, goes to a cabinet, and Steve knows where it's going, and he really shouldn't be stopping a supervillain from committing suicide.

“Don't,” he says, quietly.

Tony flips him off before opening the cabinet, and then he freezes.

“Problem?” Steve asks pleasantly, and Tony swirls around. He stumbles immediately – he can't be entirely sober yet – and catches himself, glares at him.

“Where is it?” he says.

Steve takes a deep breath. “Can you try and sober up?” he asks.

Where is it?!” Tony shouts.

“Calm down,” Steve says. He's not sure what he hoped for; that Tony would sober up in a few hours and let them have a rational discussion? Steve can already see they won't get anywhere.

Tony looks around, his eyes wild. Steve can't look at him, but he knows he can't look away; he has to keep watch. Tony goes to the table, picks up the glass of water Steve left there, smells it, and then throws it at Steve, angrily. His aim is off and the glass lands on the wall, shattering, and Tony screams.

“Tony,” Steve says, terrified, and it's the wrong thing to do. Tony turns to him, on him, and he's out of it, getting more unsteady on his feet by seconds.

Steve doesn't react as Tony stands in front of him, hits him in the chest. “Give it to me!”

What scares Steve really is how far gone Tony is at this point: he hasn't even tried to look elsewhere, there's no logic to his reaction, nothing. Tony hits him again, and Steve doesn't really feel it, doesn't try to stop him, just stands there and takes it.

He doesn't catch Tony as he falls to his knees, trembling, his breath too quick. “You can't –” Tony starts saying and stops. He looks up at Steve, as if he's not naked at his feet. “Haven't you heard going cold turkey is dangerous?” he asks and seems so pleased with himself for thinking about it.

“Don't give me this shit,” Steve snaps. “You haven't been at it that long, the only danger here is you drinking yourself to death, I won't –” He stops talking, because Tony laughs, loud and insane.

“I've been drinking since the night I agreed to wipe your mind,” he lets out, and then he clutches at Steve's leg and cries, ugly sobs wrecking his body, and Steve feels as if his breath has been knocked out of him.

***

He sees Tony after media start screaming about him getting drunk, after the Serpent's invasion and Thor's death.

Steve wants to ask for an explanation, to offer help, to talk, just to be there, but he forgets all of that when he actually faces Tony, who looks so defeated that there isn't really any question to ask.

If years ago in the hotel room Tony didn't want help, what he wordlessly screams now can only be “Help me”, but there isn't anything Steve can do. As far as he can tell, Tony is back sober and intent on staying this way.

He seems so broken, and there's a newspaper with a picture of him hitting the ground, the headline accusing.

They haven't really been close since before the war, but seeing Tony like that is more than Steve can handle.

Wordlessly, he pulls him in for a hug, and is surprised at how easily Tony goes.

(The next time they see each other, Tony has all of his masks back in place and does what he thinks is best, which is to push everyone away, because – and here's a secret – genius inventor Tony Stark is a big idiot.)

***

Steve pushes Tony away. He thinks it's too easy to walk away from him, crying on the floor, even if he wants to return in a moment. He should want to calm him down, make it better somehow, but he can't even think how to start, and –

Tony's been drinking for months, close to a year, and Steve hasn't noticed?

He fists his hands so tight it hurts. He takes out a bottle of wine, darkly thinks it's better than vodka. He opens it and fights himself not to pour it away.

He steps back into the room, where Tony is still on the floor, shivering.

Steve hates himself for it as he hands Tony the bottle.

It's better, he convinces himself. It has to be, because at least this way it's not strong stuff, he can try and control how much Tony drinks, he can help . . .

(No one can control that but Tony, and there are just two states for him – not at all or too much, and this has always been his problem. Why does Steve believe he can change it, is it hubris or stupidity, he wonders.)

Tony doesn't even question him, and Steve watches as he drinks. He thinks he's never been so disgusted with himself in his life, and figures Tony forced him to it, Tony, who can bring out the best in him, but just as easily the worst, Tony, who got under his skin years ago and refused to leave.

Brilliant, brilliant Tony, who doesn't even resemble himself now.

Was it Steve's fault for only ever seeing the bright sides to him and ignoring the rest?

***

Steve leaves him for a moment, leans against the wall and exhales. He is shaking, but he can't stop. He wants to go out on the street and never return. He doesn't want to see Tony like this. He doesn't want to deal with it. It's too hard, too painful, it's unfair he has to care for him now.

But he left once already. He's never really forgiven himself for doing it, and he's not going to repeat the old mistakes.

Tony is strong. Steve knows it. He's beaten the addiction already. He can do it again. He can, as long as Steve makes sure he's alive to do so.

He retrieves clean, comfy clothes for Tony, steels himself and returns.

Tony's still on the floor, but he's moved far enough to lean against the wall. There's goose bumps covering his skin, but he hasn't brought himself a blanket. Of course he hasn't. Steve sighs. He doesn't know how to talk to him, so he just walks to him, puts the clothes next to him.

Tony reacts by clutching the bottle closer to himself.

Steve wants to cry. “I won't take it,” he says.

“Why?” Tony whispers. “It doesn't make any sense. I'm drunk, but I doubt it would make any sense sober.”

“Get dressed,” Steve says.

Tony actually listens. He must have been cold. “You can't be a hallucination,” he says.

“Told you that,” Steve answers quietly.

“I hurt you,” Tony says.

I remember,” Steve grits out.

Tony drinks. “I know.” Another swig. “But everything worked, right, it had to be worth it, I've been right, I've made the right decision, I had to . . .” His words get slower, and then he's sobbing again, and Steve is stricken. “I destroyed us both, but I had to, and I . . . I couldn't even finish it, and it didn't matter, nothing mattered . . .” He drinks, chokes, and tears are running down his face.

Tony's a brilliant liar, when sober, but now all of his masks are stripped off, and what is left scares Steve, but it has to be the truth – and in this moment, he thinks he preferred to believe Tony didn't care, was as certain of himself as he seemed, that he wasn't conflicted, that he just was a villain.

Steve sits down on the sofa, because he can't stand, and they stay like this, him with his head bowed, Tony drinking like he doesn't care for anything else.

***

Tony falls asleep like this at some point, and Steve sighs, shakes him awake to make sure he's not unconscious.

Tony looks at him with red, unfocused eyes, mumbles, “Go away,” and closes his eyes again.

Steve carries him to the sofa one more time, and then he goes out to the balcony and stares at the night sky.

He's exhausted.

He's exhausted, and he knows it'll only get worse. He reminds himself again that he can't give up. Isn't that what everyone thinks? Captain America doesn't give up.

But he's not Captain America here, he's just Steve, and the man inside . . . Tony is Iron Man, always has been, always will be, made by himself and destroyed only by himself.

How the hell is Steve supposed to make things better?

He calls Sam, asks him to drop some of Steve's clothes by – he doesn't want to risk going out, not that soon, too afraid to find Tony gone in one way or another – cooks himself a dinner, leaves a portion for Tony, hoping to get him to eat when he wakes up, and then he settles to wait.

He's tired, so tired, but he doesn't dare sleep.

***

Steve wakes up.

Everything hurts, everything but his hand, because it's the one point of warmth in his body.

Someone is holding it, and Steve doesn't move for a few long moments, trying to remember what happened.

An explosion, Tony without his armour, Steve jumping to cover him without a thought . . . Of course.

There's a steady beeping in the background, a heart monitor.

Steve squeezes the hand – Tony's hand, he knows – gently, to let him know he's awake. He knows Tony will pull his hand back and ignore it or try to play it off, and he desperately doesn't want him to, but he's not selfish enough to keep Tony worried any longer.

Sure enough, Tony says, “Steve,” his hand tightening around Steve's before letting go. “I was worried,” Tony says. “Don't do it again.”

Steve would laugh if even breathing didn't hurt quite so much. “Look who's talking,” he rasps out.

“You're worth every sacrifice,” Tony says, quietly.

“So are you,” Steve answers.

He hears a sharp intake of breath. There's a moment of silence. “I have a meeting,” Tony says abruptly. “Get better soon.”

And just like that, he walks away.

***

It's a routine, of sorts.

Steve doesn't leave, not for a moment. Tony tolerates him, for lack of a better word, sometimes glancing at him, as if in wonder, surprised to see him still there, sometimes ignoring him completely.

Steve gives him bottles without waiting for Tony to demand another one. He mixes wine with water and still hates himself for giving it to Tony, but it has to be better.

(An illusion of control, nothing else.)

It's scary, watching Tony like this, drinking his days away, sometimes lying without moving for hours. He's staring at the walls with blank eyes, and sometimes scratches at the scars on his hand. Steve has seen the remains of the mirror in the bathroom, he knows where the scars come from. He knows it's not the first mirror Tony has punched through.

Tony isn't acting like himself. Steve has always known him to be restless, going crazy without projects, and now he doesn't even glance in the direction of the workshop.

They should talk, but Steve tells himself there's no time or occasion, not with Tony always at least a little drunk, not with himself so exhausted.

More and more often, Steve catches himself jealous. Alcohol has no bearings on him. He could drink, but never get drunk. He doesn't get a break. He wonders if that's why Tony has come down that road in the first place, to calm his always running mind, or if that's always been a self-punishment of sorts for him. It's hard to say, now.

Tony looks like his own ghost, when he moves, pale and thin and never really there in anything but body.

Steve wonders if he just wants to wait him out, convinced Steve would get bored and leave, eventually. Too bad; he can be stubborn.

(He doesn't think of how he dreams of leaving.)

“Why?” Steve asks one day. Tony's woken up not long ago, he's as sober as he gets to these days. “If you didn't believe it was worth it, why did you go that far with it?” Why didn't you agree with me, why didn't you stop sooner, why didn't you trust me to help, he doesn't ask.

Tony looks up at him, then. “It had to be,” he says, very serious. “Six billion people or an uncountable number. It had to be worth it. How could I know it wasn't?” he says, and it's amazing how he can at the same time believe in it and hate himself for it. “Are we playing twenty questions now?” he asks then. “Why are you still here?”

“I want to be,” Steve lies, or maybe tells the truth, he doesn't know.

Tony salutes him with a bottle. “Who am I to stop you?” he says, and then laughs, drinks. “What is it really, though? Did you draw a short straw? No, no one would force Captain America to watch over a drunk, and no one would care. What is it, Steve? Do you feel guilty? It's just like you, to take responsibility for everything.”

“Wow, is Tony Stark lecturing me on feeling responsible for what's not his fault or business at all,” Steve snaps, because Tony's words hit home, and he's too tired to be patient.

“Why are you here, not arresting me?” Tony asks. “Or wait, is this house arrest, are you my jailer now, because yeah, better view than in S.H.I.E.L.D., that's for sure.”

Steve tells himself not to let Tony provoke him, but it's a hard thing.

It would all be easier if he had an answer to give, but he's still not sure what he's doing, except – he doesn't know life without Tony, and he doesn't want to know it.

(That this Tony is so much not like Tony doesn't change a thing.)

“What else was a lie?” Steve asks, the question that couldn't leave him ever since he remembered. He's not sure if he wants an answer, but he has a better chance of getting one when Tony's inhibitions are lowered like that, and fuck it if it's taking advantage, he doesn't care.

“Nothing,” Tony says, painfully quiet. “But it was all built on a lie, so I guess everything is the answer.”

Steve shouldn't have asked.

He doesn't reply. He thinks Tony will stay quiet, but then he says, “Give me my whiskey,” and Steve hesitates.

There's no progress he could set back, he doesn't think, but he revolts against doing this all the same.

Tony hasn't really gotten blackout drunk since that first day, as if he was carefully self-medicating to keep his blood alcohol level constant and never too low, as if he's trying to make it hurt longer, really, but Steve takes whatever he can, and –

He's not sure if he can stand seeing Tony losing it like this again.

But this is what he's been telling himself all this time, this is what he has to understand: it's not his choice. It can only be Tony's.

Tony doesn't follow him as Steve goes for the bottle, and Steve doesn't water it down.

He watches Tony drink, and he wonders how it feels that it reduces this brilliant man to this.

***

“How can you look at me?” Tony asks, carefully pronouncing each word, as if he decided to care for looking sober now. He can't; his face is red, his words come out slurred anyway, but Steve's seen him worse. He hardly cares now.

Steve is silent for a long while. He's looking for an answer, because he doesn't understand it himself, how he went from punching Tony, wanting to hurt him, to this.

(He hasn't; every time Tony takes a sip Steve wishes he could hit him, to make him hurt as much as Steve does at the sight of it.)

“I don't know,” he replies finally.

Tony sucks in a sharp, painful breath, and he screws his face. Steve knows him well enough to see the beginnings of a dark smile there, but his next breath comes out as a sob.

“Don't ask me questions if you can't handle the answers,” he snaps, so damn tired of it all, and if only he could heed his own advice.

“I wish you'd stop pretending,” Tony whispers, and drinks.

Steve doesn't have an answer to that, either.

Me too, he thinks, and he hopes it's not true.

***

He's going crazy. He has to leave. He can't keep watching Tony acting like a robot all the time. It's as if Tony's stopped caring for anything but the next drink: whether Steve is there or no, whether he gets a choice in what he drinks or no, nothing.

Tony should be furious at Steve for taking control of his life like that, and he doesn't react to anything much. Steve hates it. He'd prefer him yelling and arguing and trying to make him leave, he'd take physical violence over this apathy.

Steve thought the biggest problem was that Tony started drinking again, but it might not be the case.

Steve's Avengers card going off is the worst and the best thing that could happen.

Tony doesn't even look up.

***

Steve wipes his hands on his trousers, picks up his shield, looks at it carefully. Not a scratch, obviously, but he always checks it after a fight. This one was uneventful, and he's not really sure why they called him.

“And here I was wondering if you'd killed each other,” Carol says, landing next to him.

“I didn't want to leave him,” Steve admits. He really didn't, but he can't deny it feels good to have beaten up bad guys, to have had a problem he could punch.

Carol sighs, doesn't look at him. “How bad is it?”

“Bad,” he says very quietly.

“Look,” Carol says. “I didn't want to disturb you, and neither did Rhodey, but if you need help – if you think we can help Tony –”

“No,” he cuts her off before she can finish the offer. He knows they couldn't change anything. He can't change anything, and it's killing him to feel so useless. Other people don't need this burden.

With a jolt, he realises he's just thought of Tony as a burden, and he's not sure what to do with it, because –

Tony hasn't asked him to do all of that. It's just Steve's choice. Does he want to give up?

“No,” he says aloud one more time.

“I heard you,” she snaps. “Steve, I get it, I do, but give us some update if anything happens, okay?”

“Nothing does,” Steve says.

“You look terrible,” she notes. “You know you don't have to . . .”

“I'm going back,” he interrupts her again. “Don't call me unless it's important.”

“I care about him too,” she reminds him.

“I know,” he replies. “But he doesn't.”

***

Steve returns to the Tower on foot. He takes the elevator up and doesn't let himself lean on any wall. He's tired, but he's also covered in alien slime. Getting it out of his suit will take ages.

Tony's waiting for him when the door open. He's leaning on crutches, his broken leg bent in the knee so he doesn't put any weight on it.

“You shouldn't be walking,” Steve says, and receives a glare in return.

“Are you all right?” Tony asks.

“Just dirty,” Steve answers.

Tony laughs. “Breaking news: Captain America admitted to being dirty.”

“I'm covered in slime and I won't hesitate to touch you,” Steve threatens.

“I'm injured in the line of duty, you wouldn't,” Tony says, but he jumps one step back.

He's right, but Steve is not going to tell him that.

“I wish I could've helped,” Tony says, sounding angry.

Steve sighs. He knows Tony hates not being able to fight. “It was easy,” he says. “Really. The only thing you could've accomplished was getting this stuff all over your armour.”

Tony nods, unconvinced.

***

Steve isn't really sure if he wants to open the door.

Being out on the streets, on the battlefield, working with the team – he loved it. It gave him strength. He already feels better. He doesn't want to be back to being closed in a big, but so claustrophobic flat with Tony, back to seeing him every day and not seeing his friend in him at all.

He's tired.

Why is he even back here?

He's left already, he could stay out of it; it's not his business what Tony does to himself . . .

He wants to hit himself for even thinking it. He wants to care, really care, not just tell himself he does. He wants not to care, not just dream about it.

Most of all, he wants to go back in time.

He sighs and goes inside.

Stink of alcohol hits him in the face immediately. He drops his shield by the door, fear churning in his stomach, and all but runs to the living room, to where he saw Tony last time.

He doesn't have to go quite that far: Tony's lying on the floor in the kitchen, surrounded by bottles.

(Steve should have poured them down, tied him up and never let him drink again, why didn't he?)

Tony's not unconscious. He stirs, hearing Steve, looks up with red eyes. “You left,” he accuses. He hiccups. “You left,” he repeats. “I've always known it was just a matter of time, and you left, because why would you waste your time –” He breaks off, sobbing.

Steve stares at him. What is he supposed to do? He's almost disgusted at Tony now, but there's raw sorrow in his voice, too honest.

“You've tolerated me for ten years,” Tony continues, his voice slurring. “I've always known it was too long, and you left now, and –” He stops talking and just cries. “You're not even here, are you, I'm hallucinating again, I –”

Tolerated?, Steve thinks. Tony saved his life, after the ice, hiding behind his armour and yet being the best friend Steve could ask for, and he thinks Steve just barely tolerated him?

Steve shakes his head. This is a conversation for another time.

(He doesn't think of how another time, better suited for it, might not come.)

“Tony,” he says, stricken. “I think we've established already I'm not a hallucination.”

Tony doesn't react. He tries to drink again, but he can't stop crying long enough.

Fuck it, Steve thinks, kneels down, and pulls him against his chest. The bottle falls to the ground, whiskey spilling everywhere, and he doesn't care, cradling Tony in his arms.

***

“Why are you here,” Tony says later. “Why? I can't stand myself, how can you?”

Why indeed, Steve thought.

After the war, after Steve died and Tony erased his own memories, they were able to move on, or so Steve told himself all this time. And now? Does it really take Tony almost destroying himself for Steve to remember how much he counts?

Tony starts pushing at his arms, weakly, his movements uncoordinated. Steve lets him go, wonders what Tony will do next.

He's not surprised when Tony reaches for the bottle. Disappointed, maybe.

(Why? Did he really believe hugging him for a few minutes would make it all better?)

The kitchen floor is cold under Steve's knees, and Tony picks up the knocked over bottle. It's empty, and he looks at it as if it betrayed him personally before taking another one.

It's still closed, and he pulls at the cap, fails to open it, and doesn't try again.

He extends his hand and gives the bottle to Steve, clearly expecting him to help, and something inside Steve snaps.

“You wanna drink,” Steve snarls, “fine, I'm gonna drink with you, you're the genius here, you must be right.”

(He's not thinking of Tony laughing at him for months, he really isn't.)

That gives Tony a pause. “Who says I'm willing to share,” he says without any inflection, and Steve wants to laugh at him, because if there's one thing Tony has never learnt it's how not to share anything that wasn't his secrets.

Steve gets up, takes two tumblers from the shelves and goes to the sofa, sets it on the low table.

He doesn't turn back to see if Tony followed him. He knows he will come.

Sure enough, as Steve pours down the liquid, Tony shuffles into the room, sits on the sofa. He doesn't look like himself at all, his own clothes hanging on him, unshaven for days beard in place of the sharp-cut goatee, no light at all behind his eyes.

Steve sits next to him and downs his glass.

The taste is sharp and it burns his throat, and he wishes it could have more effect on him than that.

Tony drinks his glass. Steve fills them again.

“Look at you,” Tony says. “I really destroy everything I touch.”

Steve doesn't react.

“Tell me it was worth it,” Tony begs at the next glass. “You can wake up every day because of what I created. This should make it worth it. Tell me it is.”

Steve is silent.

“Why are you here?” Tony asks for the hundredth time.

“I want my friend back,” Steve says quietly, so quietly he's not even sure if Tony's heard him.

They drink in silence and Steve has no idea what it's about.

Tony breaks down after the fifth glass. “Just let me end it,” he begs, tears running down his cheeks, and Steve shakes his head.

“No,” he says, quietly, and stops Tony as he reaches for the bottle.

Tony looks at him with wide, blue eyes, and then he kisses him.

In another time, in another world, Steve wanted this.

(He still does.)

In another time, he dreamt of this.

(He still does.)

Tony reeks of alcohol, and Steve can't pretend even for a moment it's what he wants.

He pushes him away, trying to be gentle about it, and Tony just about crumbles.

He moves away from Steve, scrambling to get off the couch, his breath hitching. He can't stand upright, and he falls down, faces away from him. “I knew it,” he says in a breaking voice. “Why are you here, Steve, what kind of a punishment is it, god, just leave me,” he says, his shoulders shaking. “Just leave!” he shouts, not turning around. “You don't want me, I don't know what you want, why won't you go away?!” He hits the floor with his fist. “I don't need you here, stopping me, I don't, it's my life I'm ruining now, it's none of your fucking business, just leave!”

“Tony,” Steve tries to say.

“If you don't want me, what do you want?!”

“It's not that,” Steve says, terrified.

He loves Tony, he's always had, but it – he wouldn't think of touching him now, how could Tony . . . Steve remembers some of his exes, and yeah, Tony and healthy relationships don't have a good track record, but how could he think that of Steve?

Steve wants to hug him again and knows he can't.

“Leave,” Tony repeats, quietly, and Steve sighs, and goes to the kitchen. He can observe Tony from there, sitting in the darkness, because he doesn't dare leave the room altogether.

***

Tony returns after three days, looking younger and stronger. He smiles at Steve, his eyes bright.

“Have you seen what I can do now?” he asks, excited.

Steve starts smiling back at him. Tony's excitement is infectious. “Go, show off.”

Gold starts showing up on Tony's skin, covering him, and in a moment he's standing in his underarmour, and then his armour comes flying.

“That's a neat trick,” Steve says. “How did you do it?”

“It's Extremis,” Iron Man says, and for a moment Steve thinks he's heard him wrong.

Then the armour disassembles, the underarmour disappearing, and Steve's mobile rings. He shots Tony an apologetic look and picks it up without looking at the caller id.

“Hi, Steve,” he hears Tony's voice, but when he looks at him, his mouth isn't moving. His eyes are dark, nothing at all like his usual blue.

Steve drops the mobile.

“What have you done to yourself?”

***

They go back to their previous routine after that, but Tony doesn't talk to him anymore, not at all, and Steve doesn't try to start a conversation.

Maybe he shouldn't have pushed him away. Maybe if he made him feel wanted –

He'd never forgive himself, if he did, so there's no point debating it. Tony doesn't want to be helped, and Steve knows he can't forcibly check him into a rehab facility, and what the hell is he doing, anyway, how can he not give up when Tony so clearly has?

This time, when the alarm sounds, he's relieved.


 

IV. Steve leaves again, because of course he does, and Tony wonders if this is the time he won't come back.

Steve has to give up at some point. Tony doesn't know why he hasn't yet. He was so sure Steve wouldn't return, after that first alarm – maybe this one will do the trick.

Because if he comes back, it's almost as if he's been honest when he said he cared, and Tony can't deal with it. No one should care about him. He doesn't. He knows he's saved the world, but it doesn't make sleeping any easier. The incursions ended. There's nothing left for him. Why can't Steve just understand?

Tony drinks, because he never could stop believing there would be answers at the bottom of the bottle.

Even that feels like a chore, now.

He drops the bottle when he hears shooting outside.

His first instinct is to put on the suit and go out, see what's going on, and he's not sure why he wants to, now, when hearing the Avengers alerts going off did nothing.

(That's a lie, but more than anything, he didn't want Steve forbidding him from doing just it, because Tony's pretty much given up on being Iron Man – but it was his choice, and he wouldn't have it taken away from him.)

There's a scream, loud enough to reach him in his sixth floor apartment, and the next thing he knows he's got the gauntlet on and going to the elevator.

He's drunk. He knows he is, he's pretty sure he can't even walk in straight line, but he supports himself on the wall. The elevator ride is smooth, but he has to fight not to throw up anyway, his stomach not happy about the sudden external movement.

He's not really sure how he gets out, but suddenly he's standing in full sunlight on the street, and he can't remember the last time he's been out. There are some people staring at him, taking out phones, and none of them are trying to go to the alley on the right from where the shouts came.

“Fuck off,” Tony says to a guy that's trying to stop him, shoves him away with his gauntleted hand.

Fresh air is almost as intoxicating to him as vodka is.

He goes to the narrow alley, sees an armed man aiming at two scared teenagers.

“Hey!” he calls. “How about you take on Iron Man?”

The guy turns around, and Tony doesn't wait. He fires, and his first shot misses. He swears, tries again, and again –

The third one hits the man, stuns him, and he falls down. Tony goes forward, with some part of his mind remembering to take away his gun, and then just stands over him, and doesn't know what to do.

“Iron Man?” one of the teenagers asks.

Tony shrugs, tired, sits down. The quick burst of adrenaline is leaving him. What is he doing, really, playing the hero again?

“Thank you,” he hears, and looks up. The kid is thin, wearing old, too small clothes. The other one, younger, is hiding behind him.

“That's what Avengers do,” Tony says, often used words rolling of his tongue as if they weren't lies.

He wasn't an Avenger.

“No,” the kid shakes his head. “Don't get me wrong, it's awesome you guys don't let the city get levelled by giant sea monsters, but you don't stop muggings.”

There are bigger threats, Tony thinks, more important, more immediate, with a bigger possible body count, of course they don't focus . . . But that's it, isn't it? To this kid, body count isn't important. His life is, and his friend's, and Tony has saved them, even wasted as he is.

It's . . . Something to think of, he suspects.

“When that other world showed up in the sky,” the kid continues. “Sure, it was scary. Was it you who fixed it? Good. Great. Thanks for that too. But look, it wasn't something to worry about. Not like him.” The kid points at the unconscious thug. “So. Thank you, Iron Man.”

“You don't know what you're saying,” Tony whispers.

“Sure do,” the kid says. “Look, will you accept or what. Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” Tony says.

“That's the spirit.”

They hear steps, and someone runs into an alley. “Tony? Tony!”

Tony looks in the direction of the voice. Steve's covered in slime, his shield still in his hand. “Here you are,” he says, sounding so relieved.

And he's back again, Tony can't help but notice, why is he back, it doesn't make any sense.

“He's saved us,” the kid says a bit proudly, and Steve stops in his tracks, looks at Tony, the lying man, back at Tony, then nods. He raises his hand to his communicator. “Carol, send clean up down Tony's place, and maybe call Pepper about Resilient lawyers,” he says, crouches down next to Tony. Tony turns to look at him, tiredly. “Look, there are people with cameras on the street,” Steve says quietly. “Wanna take the fire exit up?”

Tony's not sure he cares, but he nods.

Steve looks at the teenagers. “You're all right?” he asks.

Tony looks down at his hands, doesn't listen to Steve talking to the kids.

He's saved two kids today.

It's . . . weird. He hadn't thought he would ever help someone again. But he did.

Steve would have done it quicker, better. But Steve wasn't here.

“Tony,” Steve says, and Tony looks back at him. They're alone. It's a small miracle no one has gone into the alley yet. Or maybe Steve forbade them to. Who knows, with Captain America.

“Let's go up,” Steve says.

***

Back in the flat, Tony starts reaching for the bottle immediately, and then stops himself, falls to his knees.

He can feel Steve's eyes on him.

“I don't want it,” he says, quietly, surprised at himself. “I don't – I want to stop.” He's so exhausted all of a sudden. If this doesn't work, he knows he won't stop again. “Help me,” he tries to whisper, and he's not sure if he makes it. He knows he doesn't have strength to try again.

He doesn't know if Steve heard him, if he still cares, or if he only came back out of some misplaced feeling of responsibility –

Everything is swimming, and he thinks it's been eternity, but maybe just a second, when Steve's suddenly next to him, his hand on Tony's arm. “Thank you,” Steve says, and hugs him as Tony breaks down.