When Steve asks about Namor, T'Challa looks him in the eye and says, "He's not coming."
It is then that he realizes exactly what T'Challa has done.
It is then that he realizes he has been very, very wrong.
He'd wanted the Illuminati to pay. He'd been picturing trials. Hearings. Justice. He'd wanted to be able to think about Tony -- God, he can't think about Tony -- and Reed and the rest of those damned clever boys and think to himself they've atoned.
They'd been planning a debriefing as part of the conditions of surrender. There were so many things he could have asked Namor that he no longer can. Namor was their spy, their quisling, their in to the Cabal. Namor was his friend, goddammit, his comrade. Namor knew a wealth of secrets. Maybe Namor knew where Tony was. Is. Namor will never be able to tell him now. Namor's gone.
As he stands there, with T'Challa staring at him, he realizes that this is the coin. This is the price. They have nothing left to give but their lives. Namor is dead and Namor has paid and Steve didn't even know until now, didn't know that this was what he'd been demanding, because he'd never wanted this.
He has SHIELD's backing. He's not a vigilante. Not like he was when he fought Tony. Not like he was when he stood on the streets of New York, in the last days of the SHRA fighting, in the last days of his life, and he was ten seconds from bringing his shield down on Tony's face. Tony could only look at him again afterwards because Tony didn't remember, doesn't remember, because Tony wiped his own mind. If Tony knew, Steve knows, Tony would never be able to bear to look at him again, because how could he?
Not that Tony can look at him now. They don't forgive, the two of them. They only forget.
But that was lawless, because then he was a traitor. This is lawful, because there are rules that say so. Marching orders. He was perfectly within his fucking rights to drop a lobotomized sociopathic Bruce Banner from another universe onto his friends, his friends, and say, oh, it's all right, that one's from the evil universe. Boots on necks, said his counterpart, the general, and Steve is no better.
He's not right. He's doing this wrong. He has one chance, one last chance to fix things, and he has to take it, because no matter what's happened to Tony, no matter how angry he is with him, no matter what side of the fight either of them are on, Steve still cares about him. He loves him. Tony's voice was the first thing he heard in this century, and Tony was his first new friend, and he can't give up on him. He can't.
I see someone who needs help... and I help, he'd told Kang. Iron Lad. Immortus. Whoever. Who is he helping? How is this justice?
Fifty years in the future, Tony had looked at him, bleeding, and the older Clint had whispered in his ear, whispered you could take the monster out, and he thought, yes, he could do that, he wanted that, and he's done this before, hasn't he, he's done this all before.
It ends here, because he ends it.
He takes a step back.
He has to find Tony. The last of the Illuminati.
"All right," he says, even though it isn't, because Namor is dead and so many things are so very wrong. "We're all friends here. So where's Tony?"
He's with the Illuminati, isn't he? He has to be. They have to know. But Reed and T'Challa look at each other, and they don't speak. Why aren't they telling him?
Namor would have known. Namor would have said something, some snide and sarcastic jibe. He would have lifted an eyebrow, sneered just so. But he would have known.
No one says anything.
"Come on," Steve says, to everyone assembled around him. His SHIELD-affiliated friends. The Avengers. The remains of the Illuminati. "One of you must know where he is. Sharing is caring." Sounds like something Tony would say, he thinks as he says it.
"Amnesty," he says, desperately, turning to what's left of the Illuminati, because the only thing he can offer them now is mercy. "A clean slate."
"Steve," Maria says, under her breath. "You're not authorized to make deals--"
"Please," Steve says, and he's old and he's broken and his voice catches in his throat. "Please tell me."
No one says anything. They don't know. How can they not know? The Illuminati know everything, don't they?
Christ, what if Tony's dead?
The two people who move aren't Illuminati. They're Avengers. Natasha and Jess look at each other. Natasha raises an eyebrow at her, and they must come to a silent decision, an agreement, because they step forward.
"Wakanda," Jess says. "But you're not going to like it."
Natasha sighs. "He's... imprisoned. The Cabal left him there."
The Necropolis. Black Swan's cell. Of course. He can picture it now.
"Okay," Steve says. "I'm going on a trip."
Jess steps forward and lays her hand on Steve's arm. "He's not himself." Steve remembers the inversion. Of course he's not himself. "You can't reason with him," she says.
Steve snorts. "Wasn't going to."
"I was going to apologize." The words feel strange, leaving his mouth. But it's right. He always knows what's right, and he thinks... he thinks maybe he lost his way.
Jess' tone is careful. "I'm not sure that will be enough either."
"No," Steve says, "but it's a start."
Inversion. Funny word, that. Inverted. Used to be, if a fella was queer, you called him an invert, but Steve's been alive in the twenty-first century long enough to learn that you oughtn't say the first and no one understands the second.
He leaves those who have come with him on the other side of the archway and steps down, a few more steps down into where Tony is caged. Tony is sitting on the floor, knees drawn to his chest. Tony is silver armor and dried blood and his eyes are electric blue. Steve knows that very little of Tony's tech works inside the cage, but whatever he's done to himself remains.
"I told them to come back on their knees." Tony's voice is cold. He doesn't look up; he speaks as if nothing about Steve is interesting enough that it merits looking him in the face. "I didn't think they'd send you." His mouth twists in a sneer. "You'd never bow down to anyone, would you? Bet those old bones of yours can't manage it."
Mutely, Steve sinks to his knees in front of the cell. It hurts.
Tony still hasn't looked him in the face, even though their heads are level with each other. He smiles. "Dire indeed. Is this you begging, Steve? Or was it something else you wanted?" He meets Steve's eyes now, but there's nothing real there, only the wrong color, everything wrong. "Used to wonder that about you, you know," he says. "You on your knees. Whether you liked it like that. Whether you might like me like that."
He is cruel, cutting, like he thinks he can hurt Steve by revealing his own fantasies.
Steve thinks about the old meaning of "inverted." Steve's not going to tell him he was right. It does hurt, to know what they could have had if only one of them had said something.
"Tony," he says, quietly.
"No," Tony says, like he's contemplating it, "I don't think I want you to call me that."
"This is me apologizing," he says.
Tony looks at him. Sneers. His face isn't his face. It's all wrong. Steve wonders if the real Tony is trapped under there, screaming. "Oh? And what are you sorry for?"
Steve shuts his eyes. "A lot of things. Things I shouldn't have done. Things I'm about to do."
"If you're about to do them," Tony says, "then maybe you shouldn't bother being sorry." His voice is haughty, triumphant, a teacher humiliating a pupil.
Steve takes a deep breath. "Do you remember what you told me before you wiped my mind? Because I do."
"If it's my help you're coming for," Tony says, "which I am not entirely convinced I should provide, I'm going to need all of my memories." He smirks. "You can't wipe my mind. You're stuck with me. And I like myself this way. You want me to be happy, don't you?"
Steve clenches his hands into fists. Looks at him. Quotes Tony's own words back to him.
"I'm sorry," he says, the words echoing through his mind. "I'll find some way to make this right." He raises a hand, beckons to the two people just stepping into the doorway. "Stephen. Wanda. Do it."
Two casters are what they needed for reversion before; they had said something about order and chaos and Stephen had said they could handle it. Steve has to hope he's right.
Tony had protected himself then. But now he's imprisoned, he's lost his shielding, and he can do nothing. The cell wall goes down and two volleys of magic hit Tony simultaneously, red red red, knocking him back and into midair, his back arching as he hangs suspended for long seconds--
Stephen drops his hands. Wanda drops her hands. Tony collapses with a ringing of metal and lies still.
"Is he--?" Steve starts, pushing himself to his feet with effort.
"He's fine," Stephen says.
Wanda nods. "He is himself."
Steve's at Tony's side now, crouching next to him, and Tony's eyes flicker open weakly. The blue is darker. Natural. Normal.
Oh God thank God I have him I have him, Steve thinks, lightheaded with relief, and then he's never going to forgive himself.
"Steve?" Tony whispers, and his fingers seek out Steve's, fingertips squeezing lightly. "Are you-- what did I-- oh fuck." He shuts his eyes again.
"It's all right," Steve says, like the words are a talisman, another spell, like saying it will make it so.
"Should have wiped my mind," Tony whispers, eyes screwed shut, head twisted away, face pressed into the stone. But he's still holding Steve's hand. "Should have beaten me bloody. Like you said you wanted. No way to make this right, Steve."
"I tried beating you," Steve says, exhaling, settling to his knees. "And you tried wiping your mind, once. I wouldn't say either of those worked particularly well. I think we should try something else."
He doesn't really have a plan. He ought to have thought about it. He ought to have worked out what to say, something that Tony will believe, something that will convince him to get up off the cold stone and join the fight. A rallying speech. Another apology. A way to tell him that he forgives him. That it doesn't matter what they've done. That he's done with punishment. But he opens his mouth, and instead everything in his heart wells up and pours out.
"Have you heard what Reed's been saying about the incursions? What he says Valeria says. Sue told me. You can't win. You have to figure out how not to lose. This is us, Tony. Neither of us can win."
Tony opens his eyes. "Then how don't we lose?"
He squeezes Tony's fingers. "We don't lose because we're together. Because we're together and we stay together and we try and when we're together, hell, we can take on a world ourselves."
He's hoping -- he's always hoping, isn't he? -- that he's convinced Tony, but Tony looks up at him and sighs. His face is dark, haunted.
"I wasn't lying when I said I used you and I'd do it again," Tony says, very quietly.
"I know," Steve says. "And I-- I accept that. But it's not the winning move. What you did. It pulls us apart. And then no one wins. You didn't have all the data. Together. It's better."
"Oh," Tony says, surprised, like it's just now occurred to him that this is a thing Steve honestly believes, "you really want to be together?" The words seem to set something off in him, and he winces. "Not... not like that, I know. And if you could maybe forget what I was saying about the things I used to wonder, that would be great."
"I'd like to remember that, actually," Steve says, softly.
Tony stares at him, wide-eyed, and then he's surging up and kissing Steve, straining to reach him. The position is awkward and he mostly misses Steve's mouth at first.
At the back of the room, Wanda coughs. "Carol owes me five dollars now," she says.
Steve breaks away, dizzy, and he had entirely forgotten they were still there, but he's not embarrassed, he's not, because he's never been ashamed of Tony.
Stephen raises an eyebrow at all three of them and folds his arms.
"Incursions," Steve says. "Right. Everyone up. We've got a world to save."
It's not perfect. It's not a fairytale ending. Everything between the two of them is fragile. He's still angry. And Tony is-- he doesn't know what Tony is. But he's himself, and Steve trusts him, trusts him blind, even knowing what Tony's done to him, what Tony would do again, because this is them. This is how it it works. They have each other.
Tony helps him up. Steve supposes that Tony's probably got a fix for the serum rattling around his brain too. That seems like his kind of thing.
And then they're out of the Necropolis and out of the death and into the light and Tony's at his side and they can solve this. They can.