When it's all over, Tony offers Steve a hand up.
Steve looks at him for a long while, and doesn't take it. He straightens up and walks away, and Tony stays there, his hand still extended, and wonders what happened to them.
Tony turns around, watching the battlefield. Everyone is relaxing. Superheroes talk in small groups. The army stands away. It's not a new thing for anyone.
No one looks at Tony. Spider-Man turns away when he meets his eyes. Luke and Spider-Woman start walking away when Tony moves in their direction. Thor holds his hammer in a way that stops Tony from approaching him. He doesn't see Carol or Jan. Rhodey isn't there, either.
There's just one person he can talk to, and he's already made it very clear he doesn't want anything to do with Tony. But Tony has to ask. He knows he must have missed something crucial. That there are a lot of things he doesn't remember. When he woke up, aching all over, and Speed brought him the armour, there wasn't any time for questions. But even this old model has working computers, and the HUD is merciless. The date is wrong, and Tony doesn't have Extremis in his head, like he planned to. Mallen doesn't seem to be a problem anymore—but Osborn, for some reason, had way more power than he should've. Tony doesn't remember anything that could help him get some answers, and he can't leave it like that.
He waits for the moment Steve starts walking to the soldiers, away from the other superheroes, and flies to meet him before he reaches them.
“Steve,” Tony says. Even if things are bad, who can he turn to, if not Steve?
“What do you want?” Steve asks, holding himself stiff.
“I'm—can we talk?”
“I'm busy,” Steve says, as if they were strangers, as if they were never even friends, let alone . . .
“I don't remember,” Tony blurts out. Steve doesn't trust him, it's obvious, but Tony will never stop trusting Steve. He knows Steve can help.
Steve finally looks at him at that. “What do you mean?” he asks carefully.
“I don't remember,” Tony repeats quietly. “I—do you know what Extremis is?”
“Yes,” Steve answers, something strange in his voice.
“That's the last thing I remember,” Tony admits.
“The last—” Steve shakes his head. “You deleted your own brain—you made me decide if . . . and you don't even remember now?”
He did what?
Steve exhales. “Do you remember the SHRA?” he asks suddenly.
Tony nods, and something in Steve's face changes. “So that's how long it was going on.”
“Steve,” Tony almost begs. “Tell me what happened.”
“Why? Doesn't Tony Stark always know best?” Steve snarls before storming off.
Tony could easily catch up—he still has the armour on.
He doesn't try.
No more trouble shows up, and maybe Tony should be grateful for that, but . . . People are starting to leave; some in the Quinjets, some flying away on their own. No one asks Tony to go with them, and he doesn't ask if he can, either. It's obvious they don't think he belongs there, with them.
He's not sure where he can go. The armour GPS tells him they're in Oklahoma—that Asgard is in Oklahoma—and he could fly to New York, but . . .
Something tells him he doesn't have a home there anymore.
Two years have passed, and Steve doesn't even want to talk to him. Tony thinks he might need internet access more than a place to crash now. He has to know.
He hears Reed's voice. He turns around, weirdly relieved to see someone willing to talk to him. “Hi.”
Reed seems unsure, and he's not looking straight at Tony but that's nothing new. “You're—fine?”
Tony doesn't know where the hesitation comes from. He wonders if he should tell him the truth. Reed is his friend, and he is a genius, he might shed some light on what happened, but . . .
Tony looks at Steve, who's now laughing at something Natasha said. “What happened?” he asks before he can stop himself.
“Tell me,” Tony says.
“The last time I saw you, Norman Osborn was beating you unconscious,” Reed answers after a while. “You're wearing an old armour, Tony. How's Extremis?”
Tony almost laughs at the impossibility of it. “I've no idea,” he admits.
Reed frowns. “What do you mean?”
“I don't remember,” Tony says, and it comes out almost hysterical. He hates it, he hates not knowing, he's not used to that. Reed opens his mouth and Tony shakes his head. “If you're going to ask me what I don't remember, Reed . . .” he trails off. He's tired and annoyed, but he shouldn't snap at the one person who's not treating him like he has the plague.
Reed smiles sadly. “Actually, I was going to ask if you want to stay in the Baxter Building.”
There are a lot of things Tony should do. He should find out what the node in his chest is, how exactly he fucked his heart up this time. He should find Pepper and Rhodey. He should rest, because exhaustion is definitely catching up with him.
There's also one thing he has to do. “Thanks for letting me stay,” he says, as Reed awkwardly leads him to one of the guest rooms in the Baxter Building. “Can you get me a tablet or laptop?”
Because he can't go on like this. It's only been a few hours, and he's so sick of guessing.
“You don't remember anything?” Reed asks as if he wants to make sure.
Tony shakes his head.
“Be careful with your research,” Reed says, and Tony thinks Reed warning him is what really worries him.
Tony looks at the screen and can't really read the words.
Learning that something was definitely wrong with his memories just before the battle was easy. He had something else to focus on, something to distract him; Steve was there, alive and well and understanding Tony without words as well as always.
Going home, that's the hard part, especially when home is gone, and Tony doesn't know why. He's very glad he didn't ask Reed about everything that happened, and that he didn't volunteer any information on his own.
Because it's not just something going wrong with Tony's modified version of Extremis.
It's so much more.
It's two years of his life missing, which he'd known already, but it's only now hitting him full force.
Two years, and—
CAPTAIN AMERICA ASSASSINATED
Tony can't understand it. He's staring at the letters, and there's a picture underneath, Steve lying on the white stairs, bleeding out, and—
How did this happen? How could Tony have fucked up so spectacularly? He remembers vaguely the beginnings of the Superhero Registration Act. He remembers being worried about how Steve would take it. He remembers trying to change it into something that would work for everyone.
CAPTAIN AMERICA ASSASSINATED
How could this happen?
There are more links he doesn't understand. A small eulogy for Happy Hogan. Bill Goliath.
Headlines like Superhero Civil War, and pictures of New York on fire, news reports of Captain America fighting Iron Man.
He reads the articles and looks at the pictures and watches the occasional video, and he doesn't understand any of it.
CAPTAIN AMERICA ASSASSINATED
But Steve is alive and well and brought down Osborn—
And refused Tony's hand up, refused to talk to him, and this is why, of course this is—
What happened to them? When had they kissed for the last time? When did Steve decide enough was enough, that he couldn't trust Tony, that he couldn't be with him, couldn't even be his friend . . .
How could Tony ever think it would end up any differently?
CAPTAIN AMERICA ASSASSINATED
The one thing he promised himself he'd never let happen, the one thing he's sure he couldn't live with . . .
Is this why he doesn't have any memories of it?
CAPTAIN AMERICA ASSASSINATED, but he can't read the words anymore through the tears.
He wakes up curled around a tablet. For a moment he wonders why Steve let him sleep like that—he always complains when Tony brings work to bed—and then it hits him.
Steve died and came back, and Tony doesn't remember any of it.
Steve died and came back and Steve hates Tony now, and Tony will never fall asleep in his arms again.
His muscles hurt. He suspects it's more than just the uncomfortable position he slept in. Steve would've made sure he got himself checked out—
No, Tony tells himself. No thinking about that. And he's grateful that Reed and Sue let him be, really; he's not sure what he'd do otherwise.
Steve died and came back, and Tony is missing two years of his memories and there's so much more he has to learn.
He forces himself to straighten up. His hand wanders to the strange node in his chest. He's not sure how he fucked up his heart this time, but he's not really surprised. That might be the one constant in his life.
He has to plan. He can't keep on following links on Wikipedia; he has to do his research in some order. He should ask Reed for access to his database first. It'll have the most accurate information. He has to rebuild the armour, and he has to find out what exactly happened to his company. He knows that Osborn took it down, but not how—and not how to go about getting it back.
He forces himself to breathe. He has to sum it up.
Steve died, Tony was the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and then Osborn beat him to the verge of death.
That's what he knows.
First things first, he thinks. He has to learn what happened to his body. He knows what he meant to do with Extremis; is there anything of it left? Had it worked at all? Steve and Reed's reactions would suggest so, but Tony can't be sure without any tests.
He goes to the bathroom. He looks at himself in the mirror for a long while and fights the urge to smash it. His eyes are red-rimmed. He clearly hasn't shaven in some time; he's got a beard in place of a goatee. He's thinner than he remembers, and his body looks almost alien to him. There's nothing left of the multitude of scars he had, but there's a new web of them surrounding the shining node. It makes him look almost ghostly, and he thinks that would be for the best; if he was gone.
But he has to go on.
He splashes himself with cold water and goes back to the room.
He really should start with calling Pepper. He wants to believe that at least she doesn't hate him, but he's too afraid it's not true.
He did put it off last night, because he told himself there were things he had to check on his own first, and—
Tony wishes he could forget again.
But he can't escape. He lifts the phone Reed left him and dials Pepper's number.
She answers after the first ring.
“Hey,” Tony says.
She gasps loudly. “Tony? Oh god, I was so worried—” She breathes, audible over the phone. “Tony, are you all right? What happened? What—”
“I'm fine, Pepper,” he interrupts, and steels himself. I don't remember are the words he's already grown to hate.
He tells her everything, and she listens.
Tony stops the recording Pepper sent him.
He knows now what Steve meant when he said Tony made him decide. He doesn't know why Steve took this option, why he didn't let him stay effectively brain-dead, no longer a problem for anyone.
(That's a lie; of course he knows. It's Steve. Of course he wouldn't have done anything else.
Tony wishes he would.)
That's the first mystery solved, and there's so much more he has to find out.
Tony feels a little self-conscious with his shirt off, the RT uncovered. He pulls the electrodes of his skin. Reed's saved all the scan results already, and Tony's suddenly less okay with electricity near himself when he's just learnt the node is keeping his heart going.
Reed is watching him carefully. "No back-ups," he says, because of course he can't let that go.
Tony smiles and shrugs. "I was too full of myself," he lies through his teeth.
No back-ups is a flimsy excuse for a genius. The picture of Steve bleeding out on the courthouse steps flashes before his eyes again.
Two years of his memory.
Tony has to believe there was no other option to stop Osborn, if he is to stay sane, but if he's being honest with himself, he's not sure about that.
Two years of memory and his heart unable to beat on its own; it's a small price for not knowing a life without Steve. Because now, even if he hates Tony—at least he's alive. That's everything that counts.
"The RT has some interesting abilities," Reed says.
Tony nods. "I have some ideas for the armour." Extremis is gone, but his body is still wired like a computer. He can use that.
Reed raises an eyebrow in a silent question.
"Come on," Tony says. "Let's talk over chess."
He needs something else to put his mind to, something to stop him from thinking about Steve and everything else he lost.
Tony actually goes to sleep that night. He wants to be awake for what he's attempting to try.
He wakes up and goes through his morning routine, thinking over what he wants to do. The theory is sound. The practice . . . He'll see in a moment.
Finally, he sits down next to the table and exhales. He stares at his wrist for a long while, willing the undersuit to appear, but nothing happens.
Of course it doesn't; Extremis is gone.
Time for another approach, then. There's a bracelet lying next to his laptop on the table. He prepared it with Reed, carefully comparing it to the blueprints for one that was supposed to stop Extremis. This one, well . . .
Tony puts it on and presses a button. It stings a little, and he knows the tech has just connected to the ports hidden in his skin.
He types in a few commands on the laptop, and the golden undersuit covers his hand. It's thin metal, but as Tony flexes his fingers, he can still feel the air in the room. He touches the table and feels it, as if his hand was bare and not gloved.
The undersuit was—obviously, still is—stored in his bones. So what he'd told Reed last night is possible.
He just needs another metal, and something to use instead of the bracelet to operate with the system.
His brain should be good hardware for that.
Tony works on the armour in the mornings and reads up on what he missed in the evenings.
He made Peter unmask, and Tony thought he couldn't hate himself more, but he clearly was wrong.
(He always is when it comes to that.)
He cloned Thor, and there might have been no other option, but he understands now the way Thor looked at him at the battlefield. He's disgusted with himself.
Happy is dead. Tony really can't say for sure why Pepper stayed with him after that, but he's so selfishly grateful.
Jan is dead. Tony goes to her grave and Hank Pym punches him in the face. He deserves it, Tony thinks, and the bruise heals too quickly; yet another advantage of the RT.
Sal is dead, and with Maya gone who-knows-where there's no one but Tony left to mourn him.
Steve was dead and is alive and miracles don't exist, but maybe they do.
(Sue fought against Reed, and yet they managed to stay together through it; Tony can't help feeling jealous whenever he sees them touch.)
Osborn took the Tower from him and brought his company down, and these are the only things Tony can still fix now. He spends what's left of his time on discussing ways to get them back with Pepper.
The Tower's all but empty now; there isn't a new Avengers team moving in. Tony wonders if there is a new Avengers team at all, but if there is, no one told him about it. He knows he no longer deserves a place on one anyway.
Steve is on TV sometimes, no longer Captain America but Commander Rogers. It's weird, seeing him in the wrong uniform, and more so not planning his public appearances with him first, and Tony isn't sure what to think.
He's drinking his morning coffee—he'd been unsure about just showing up in the kitchen, like he belongs here, but Sue caught on quickly and told him to stop being ridiculous—when the elevator beeps once. It's probably Reed coming up from the lab. Tony starts the coffee maker again when he hears laughter.
“Yeah, they're good. Valeria is—oh, Tony, you're up, good,” Sue says. Carol walks in behind her.
Tony barely has time to put the mug away before Carol hugs him tight.
“You idiot,” she whispers into his ear.
“Missed you too,” he replies.
She steps away and shakes him by his arms. “You could've called.” She's glaring at him.
He could've, but everyone hated him these days. He didn't want to bother her when he was almost sure she didn't want to see him. Something in her face changes, like she guessed that, because she says quietly, “You do have friends still, you know.”
Carol looks good. He's happy to see her. But she's seen what happens to his friends. She shouldn't . . . “What are you doing here?” he asks.
“Since someone didn't call, I thought I'd pay him a visit,” Carol answers.
“And it's a good thing she did, I think,” Sue speaks up. “I'll leave you two alone. Have fun.”
“Bye! And tell Val I can still take her flying even if she does have her own jetpack,” Carol adds.
“And you,” Carol looks at him again. “We're going for a coffee.”
“I've just had some,” he says idly.
“As if you ever have enough of it,” she says and punches him in his arm playfully.
“Ouch,” he says with exaggeration. He's glad she came. He did miss her.
“Well, are you ready?”
He nods. "But you'll have to pay for my coffee," he warns, "my accounts are still frozen."
She shakes her head, amused. “Must be torture.”
He shrugs as they get into the elevator.
She keeps observing him out of the corner of her eye, and he knows the inevitable questions will come soon.
He points at her Air Force t-shirt. “Steve would—” he stops himself mid-sentence and winces.
“Yeah,” she says and squeezes his hand briefly. “But Air Force is better.”
They walk out into the sun and Tony squints for a moment before his eyes adjust. He hasn't been out that much lately. He didn't have any reason to go out.
It's still early, but after the initial rush of people hurrying to work. The streets aren't really crowded. He follows Carol to a café on the corner, but even on this short distance he can feel looks directed at them—he's pretty sure it's at him—and he can't say he's surprised, but . . .
“Ignore them,” Carol orders as she steers him inside the café. She makes him sit down at the furthest table from the door. “I'm gonna order. What do you want?”
“Just a latte,” he says, feeling stupidly grateful. It's nothing he hasn't dealt with before, but his memory is still a mess; he doesn't feel sure in his own skin just yet.
She's back with two tall glasses moments later and pushes one in his direction.
"How are you doing?" he asks. She'd led the Avengers, Reed's files told him as much, but . . .
"I really think that should be my question," she replies. She leans over the table and taps at the RT, clearly visible through his shirt. "Heart problems again?"
"You could say that," Tony admits. "Carol . . ."
"He's back," she says. "Have you talked to him?"
He swirls his spoon in the tall coffee glass and doesn't look at her. "He hates me now."
"He's as capable of hating you as you're capable of hating him, Tony," Carol says seriously. He wants to laugh at that, but it's not really a good joke.
"I killed him.”
"You didn't," Carol glares at him, "and we've been over this enough times already."
A part of him wants to ask if she knows how it ended between them. A bigger part doesn't want to say he doesn't remember again.
"What aren't you telling me?" she asks suddenly.
He smiles over his coffee, but before he can say a word, she's shaking her head. "Do not lie to me, Tony Stark," she says like a warning. "I know what you look like when you're hiding something."
"I had to stop Osborn," he says, "and there was a copy of the database in my head."
"Was," she repeats.
"I don't remember it now," he says quietly.
"You had to stop Osborn," she quotes, and he knows what she's thinking.
“My brain is a hard drive. I wiped it clear,” he admits.
Her gasp is audible. "Christ, Tony, you were a mess, but to delete—"
"It was the only way," Tony interrupts her. If he repeats it enough times, he might believe it himself.
"Don't give me that shit," she says. "I remember how you were, I shouldn't be surprised, but . . ."
He wonders just how badly he'd dealt with it, really, and an old fear comes back to him. But Carol might be the only person who can understand, so he forces himself to get the words out. "Do you know," and he's not looking at her, "did I drink?"
"I think we both know that if you had, you wouldn't have stopped," she answers quietly.
It's true, if not nice, but he's glad she said it. It's just one thing less to worry about, but the relief he feels is almost palpable.
"You were—I was angry at you, yeah. But all that time, you were trying to do the right thing," she says.
"You know what they say about good intentions," he tells her, and she huffs a laugh.
"Seriously, Tony." She looks almost sad now. "Not everything is your fault."
She might be the only person who believes that.
Suddenly, screams come from the outside. Both of them stand up, and then Carol puts her hand on his arm and makes him sit. “You don't have the armour,” she reminds him, even as golden energy runs over her, changing her clothes into the Ms. Marvel suit.
She flies out into the street, and Tony can only watch her take on the time-misplaced dinosaurs.
But that's not true. He can still help, if less than usually. He takes out his phone and sends Reed a message. Then he goes out.
Carol's punching a T-Rex. Panicked people are running around, most of them thankfully away from the fight. Tony notices a guy hurrying forward, staring into his phone, oblivious to the chaos around him, and he stops him.
“Let me—” he looks behind Tony and pales. Tony doesn't even need to say anything before the guy is running away too.
It's not what Tony wants to be doing. He wants to be there with Carol, he wants to fight, he wants to be able to protect people, not just stop them from going into danger heads on.
But he needs his armour for all of that, and Carol is right: he doesn't have it yet.
Maybe he should focus on that.
The RT energy output is quite something, if he says so himself. It'll be able to power the armour without any additional tweaking. It'd be able to power the city, but that's something he'll focus on when he restarts his company. Clean energy is a much better market than weapons.
Tony's phone rings, jolting him out of his thoughts.
He doesn't recognize the number, but he picks up all the same. Who's to say it's not a friend whose number Tony forgot?
(A friend; as if he still has some.)
“Hello,” Tony says.
“Stark,” Steve replies.
He doesn't drop the phone, but it's a close thing. “Ste—Commander,” Tony replies. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
He pushes emotions away. He's always been good at it. He can pretend it's normal, to talk to Steve in an official way, to act like they were strangers, to pretend there's never been anything between them.
“We need your technical expertise,” Steve says.
“That's expensive,” Tony replies before he can stop himself.
“You can work on it from jail as well,” Steve answers cuttingly, and Tony bites the inside of his cheek.
So that's how they are, now.
“What is it about?” he asks.
“Too important to talk about over the phone,” Steve says. “Helicarrier, tomorrow at 4.”
“Anyone could've told me that,” Tony notes carefully.
Steve hangs up.
Walking through the helicarrier feels weird. He must have done it a thousand times, gone through the landing deck to the director's office, and he doesn't remember it at all. The looks some agents shoot him clearly say that they at least do remember.
Tony's not sure what to make of it.
He doesn't like politics. He's good at it, but he hates it; he doesn't want to think of why he took the position as director. It's not really important anymore.
Steve will be in the office, alive. He might hate Tony now, but he's alive. That's all that matters. It's not even a lie, not really.
That doesn't mean Tony doesn't miss him like air.
He tells himself not to hesitate in front of the door. Not to show weakness. Fake it till you make it.
He puts a smile on and pushes the door open.
Steve's sitting behind the desk. He looks unexpectedly tired and Tony feels a pang at realising there's nothing he can do about it.
“Ever learnt how to knock?” Steve raises his eyebrows.
“You knew I was here,” Tony replies, and then he just looks at Steve.
He hasn't seen him face to face since the siege of Asgard.
Steve has a new uniform now. Once upon a time, Tony would make a joke about his star-spangled wardrobe. Now, he keeps silent. The uniform looks good, and this is another thing Tony really shouldn't focus on these days. He won't get to strip Steve out of it in the evening. It's gone; what they had.
He's here on business.
He has to remember that.
CAPTAIN AMERICA ASSASSINATED flashes in front of his eyes again, and Tony digs his fingernails into his hand.
He's here on business, but Steve is right there, alive, and business can wait.
“Tony?” Steve asks. Not Stark. Tony.
Tony tells himself that's why he loses control.
“I got you killed,” he blurts out.
Steve shakes his head, but Tony doesn't let him interrupt. He knows what Steve would tell him, anyway. “I love you,” Tony says, “and I got you killed.” He barely notices he used present tense. It is the truth, still. He doubts Steve doesn't know it.
But Tony doesn't know, not really . . . “We were over, weren't we?” he asks quietly, and he doesn't look at Steve's face. There's a framed picture on Steve's desk. Tony isn't sure he wants to know what Steve wants to see while at work now.
A week ago, he touched him at night. A week ago, he kissed him. A week ago, Steve kissed him back.
(A week ago Steve was dead, and Tony deleted his brain.)
“Tony,” Steve says, sounding pained.
“Tell me.” Tony looks at his hands. “I deserve that much.”
“I'm not the one who made you forget it,” Steve says. Tony's so surprised he stares at him, and Steve doesn't even look angry, just . . . closed off. “You always know best, right. Let's make everyone register, let's put our friends into a prison, let's fucking delete my brain.”
“Like you're any better,” Tony spits.
“How do you know, you don't remember,” Steve snaps. “Not everyone took the easy way out—”
“You don't even know what it did to us!”
“I can damn well see that!” Tony yells. He knows he made Steve hate him.
He just hadn't felt it until now, not really.
“Send me the details of this work you need done so badly,” he says and walks out.
Pepper's apartment survived Osborn destroying anything and everything connected to Stark Industries, but Tony knows it's not thanks to him. Pepper set it up wisely. There were no legal connections to his company.
Not like with the Avengers Tower, but that couldn't have been avoided. Still, they're going to fix it now.
They're sitting at a table near the window. It's cloudy out, but not yet dark enough to put the lights on. He taps at the RT as he's looking through the documents Pepper gave him.
"This doesn't look bad," he says.
"Read till the end," Pepper sighs.
Clearly he's said that too early. "Osborn didn't have the right to take it," Tony mutters to himself. "And he wrecked it."
And his parody of the Avengers lived there. Tony almost shudders at the thought. The Tower is his building, designed from the ground up; it's his home.
He's not really a stranger to reclaiming his property. He knows it'll work, and everything Pepper dug up seems to be on his side—
"Oh, hell," he curses.
"Do you think it'll be a problem?" Pepper asks. She's in full business mode; he's grateful she's not asking about his feelings.
He's not sure what to say.
"I'm not—" He stops himself. He can be dangerous, Extremis or no. But the Tower is his; no one had any issues when he was building it. When had it become a matter of national security?
(When he invited the new Avengers to live there, he knows.)
He looked back at the document.
Commander Rogers' opinion necessary.
Steve isn't vengeful, but he doesn't trust Tony now. Maybe he's planning a new Avengers team already, one, obviously, without Tony. Maybe he's not; maybe he considers the Avengers a thing of the past. Either way, with how their last meeting went . . .
"I don't know," he admits. "Is this really necessary . . . ?"
"I take it your meeting didn't go well," Pepper says.
"Doesn't matter," Tony answers.
Steve hasn't trusted him for a much longer time than just the last time they talked.
"Hey, Reed," Tony asks as they're working on his new armour. "Can I stay a bit longer?"
Reed looks surprised, like he doesn't really understand. "Of course, Tony. You know you're always welcome here."
"Thanks," Tony mutters. He'd almost destroyed Reed's marriage too; he didn't expect this much kindness.
They go back to sketching out basic systems. Tony's done it a million times, but he has to connect it to the RT this time, and this part really has to be perfect.
"Why did you ask?" Reed asks a couple of minutes later.
"I was trying to get the Tower back," Tony admits.
"I'm sorry, Tony," Reed says. "I know Osborn didn't . . ."
"Yeah," Tony cuts in. "They want Steve's approval."
Reed doesn't comment, and Tony is grateful. He looks back at the schematics. The energy output should pretty much always be enough—the RT is an almost unlimited power source, which, more than anything else, makes it dangerous as hell. The wiring will have to be done carefully.
And of course, he has to connect it to what's left of Extremis in his body.
An alarm sounds suddenly. Reed looks at his screen and gets up. “I'm sorry, Tony—”
“Go,” Tony says. “Do you need me on comms?”
Reed shakes his head. “It's Doom. Seems pretty straightforward. Focus on your armour.”
He leaves, and Tony sighs. He hates not being able to help. The sooner he finishes with his armour, the better.
He submerges himself in the code again.
Reed comes back at some point, looking unharmed, and they settle back to working together.
When Tony finally takes a break, he isn't expecting the email he finds in his inbox.
There's an attachment—a scan of the documents he needs for reclaiming the tower, Steve's signature on them.
Tony lands the Fantasticar at the helicarrier. The moment he's out, armed agents surround him. He raises his hands. “Do you always point these at civilians?”
“You're not a civilian, Stark,” Maria Hill says. “And we didn't expect the Fantastic Four today. Weren't they busy with Doom?”
“It's a private matter,” Tony says.
“It's—” she stops talking. She tilts her head to the side, as if she's listening to something. Then she nods sharply. “Let him pass,” she orders.
Steve must've learnt he's here. And he allowed him to stay. Tony isn't sure he expected that, really, when he set to talk with him. It's for the better though. “Thanks,” he says ironically, and goes straight to Steve's office, not bothered by anyone else.
Steve looks at him. "So you're back."
"Cut it," Tony says. "You gave me the Tower back. What do you want?"
Steve tightens his jaw. "Do you really think that has anything to do with anything?"
"You want me to work for you," Tony reminds him. "So, great, the Tower."
"The Tower is yours," Steve says. "You built it. It was your home. You offered it to the Avengers, but it remained yours. Of course I said it could go back to you."
Theirs, it was theirs, Tony wants to protest and doesn't. Has Steve really done this because he felt it was the right thing to do? Without trying to use it as a leverage?
Of course he has. Steve Rogers doesn't play dirty, not like that, because it's true that at least officially the Tower has always been Tony's.
(Theirs, he thinks again.
Another thing he's lost.)
"And if I don't take this secret work . . . ?"
"You will," Steve says quietly. "But the Tower doesn't factor into it."
Tony's curiosity gets the better of him. "What is it, though? It must be important if you came to me, and you still haven't found someone else to take it . . . And you won't discuss it over the phone, really, I designed the security—" Tony stops himself and looks straight at Steve. "That's it, isn't it? I designed something I don't remember, and you have no idea what to do with it."
Steve sighs and Tony knows he's right.
And Steve needs Tony to solve this, but more than that, Tony needs Steve. Because he still has no idea what it is about. Some new software no one can crack? A new encryption? What he really doesn't want to consider is that it might be a weapon.
It's something Tony has designed, and he can't have other people looking at it, not knowing what it is. He needs to see it. He won't have his tech harming anyone ever again.
"All right," he says. "I'll help you."
"Told you," Steve says, but he doesn't seem happy. He's watching Tony with a wistful expression. It's almost like he misses Tony too.
But that's impossible, isn't it?
Steve remembers what happened. He can't be missing Tony.
Tony's only seeing what he wants to see.
“You might as well tell me now,” he says.
Steve hesitates, but then he nods. He stands up. “Come with me,” he orders. He doesn't turn back to check if Tony's following him, but it's not as if there's anything else he can do now.
“It's about our systems,” he says as they walk. “A security issue. You wanted to stop Osborn from accessing too much data.”
“And now you can't access it,” Tony finishes. That makes sense. He wonders what exactly he's done.
They reach a closed door. Steve types in a code at the keypad and the door opens with a soft hiss. They walk into a room filled with computers.
A young woman, short and curly-haired, looks up. “We haven't—oh. Commander. Di—Mister Stark.”
Tony raises an eyebrow at the word she stumbled over. So she knew him. It's a shame he can't remember that.
“That's Anne Novac,” Steve whispers, quietly enough only Tony can hear. “Head of tech.”
“Thanks,” Tony answers equally quietly. He's glad Steve's polite enough not to broadcast that Tony doesn't remember things he really should know.
Anne starts explaining the issue.
Tony listens carefully.
When she finishes, he wants to laugh, but he knows it's not an appropriate reaction. "Are you telling me S.H.I.E.L.D.'s network is for all uses and purposes down?"
"Your doing," Steve says.
Yes, his doing. If only he could remember that. It was a late surprise aimed for Osborn, obviously, and Tony still had Extremis while creating it. That explains why no one was able to crack it.
Anne speaks up. "We tried to break in, but it looks like it might lead to a cascading system failure, and we can't afford that."
"No back-ups?" Tony raises his eyebrows.
"That's your doing as well," Steve cuts in.
They glare at each other. Why is Steve even still here? He's not a programmer.
"They got destroyed when you—" Anne stops herself when Steve turns his look at her. "Um. Sorry. Well, this is where we're at."
Tony nods. It's interesting what he's done, and certainly useful if S.H.I.E.L.D. was still run by a homicidal maniac, but as it is . . .
Anne is right; a brute force approach will delete all the data. From the quick glance Tony took at the system, it's like a virtual ball of yarn. It'll take time to undo, but as long as he doesn't pull on a wrong thread, the data should be safe.
In the meantime, well. He thinks the little game of an 8-bit Iron Man hunting Green Goblins is quite amusing.
Tony decides that working for S.H.I.E.L.D. is almost fun. He's always liked programming, and what better opponent than himself? It's challenging and it lets him relax when he's focusing on code and nothing else.
He has to go to the helicarrier every day, but he doesn't mind. The agents still stare at him, but he learns to ignore them.
Steve's always waiting for him when he lands. Tony isn't sure why Steve feels like he has to personally escort him, but he doesn't ask. He likes seeing him despite how it hurts that he can't touch him, that he only has these stolen moments before work now instead of sharing his life with him, and Steve leaves before Tony starts working anyway.
Steve breaks his routine after a weak and doesn't leave, opting to watch Tony instead.
It's more distracting than Tony really wants to admit.
He keeps making typos and furiously backspacing. He should be better than that, he's used to working under stress, but this is something different. He's just noticed he's been wasting time over an infinite loop with no stop condition, and he decides enough is enough.
"I am not going to blow up your computers," Tony says. "You don't have to stand over me. The world will not run itself."
"I like seeing you work," Steve replies easily, like nothing has changed at all, and Tony freezes with his hands on the keyboard.
He waits too long; when he turns around the only thing suggesting Steve was even there is the closing door.
Steve isn't making any sense, Tony decides. He's acting like he's the one who doesn't remember what happened. They were close, and it's gone. Why can't he act like it?
“Tony,” Reed says.
Tony blinks a few times before getting his bearings back.
He's in the lab with Reed. He's working on the armour. Reed asked him . . . something.
“Can you repeat that?” Tony asks sheepishly. It's been two days and he's seen him in passing, but they didn't talk. Tony still has more questions about Steve now than answers. He can't get him out of his head. Which . . . isn't exactly new, if he's honest, but it didn't used to be a thing he worried about.
“I'm wondering about the energy output.” Reed starts reciting equations and Tony forces himself to focus on that.
Tony meets Pepper and the insurance agent Stuart in front of the Tower. He glances up at it. It seems very high from the pavement level, reaching up into the sky.
He hasn't been inside yet.
Pepper gives him an encouraging smile.
“Let's get this over with,” Tony says, and leads them inside.
The lobby is emptied out, but nothing seems to be broken. It gives him hope.
“Shall we start from the highest levels?” Stuart suggests and Tony nods. Thankfully, the elevator is still working. The ride up is smooth.
Tony isn't expecting to find what was once his carefully decorated penthouse looking like a battlefield.
He struggles to maintain a neutral expression. Pepper's sharp intake of breath tells him she's surprised as well.
All the furniture is broken. There are bottles lying on the floor. Tony winces at the sight. There are stains on the walls. He doesn't want to know what caused them.
“This will take a while,” Stuart comments, and Tony has to stop himself from snapping at him.
Thunder strikes outside. Tony peers out, and sees Ms. Marvel and Falcon flying towards it. The two of them with Thor shouldn't have any problems with anything, but Tony wishes he could help anyway.
But he can't, not yet.
He bounces on his feet lightly. Tony can barely contain his excitement. They've finished the work on his armour. Finally, one thing will be back to normal.
"It's risky," Reed says.
Tony shrugs. It's nothing more dangerous than what he's tried in the past, and he's sick of not having the suit. He's had to sit out more attacks than he cares to count, even if he's pretty sure no one would quite welcome his help.
But he is Iron Man, and no one will take that away from him.
"You've been over the designs with me," he answers. "You know it'll work. Did Sue tell you to warn me?" He's getting impatient. He wants it done now. He wants to be back in the suit.
Reed smiles. "I know it'll work if you don't exert yourself. That's not something you're good at, Tony."
"The RT is a perfect energy source," Tony reminds him. He briefly runs his fingers over the node before he sits on the examination chair. "Come on. Do it."
Reed nods and starts attaching the wires to Tony's body.
The nodes are cold on his skin. He still feels weirdly exposed because of the RT. . Soon, he tells himself. This is the last step. Soon he'll have the armour again.
"Ready?" Reed asks.
"Yes," Tony says, and then it turns out he's not.
It's like someone's injecting hot metal into his veins.
When he comes to, Reed is leaning over him, the worry clear on his face.
"I'm not dead," Tony says.
“I'm really glad,” Reed mutters. “It seems to have gone well.”
Tony waits impatiently as Reed removes the wires, and then he jumps to his feet.
He extends his hand, and the armour flows over it from inside his skin, smooth and strong. It's like one piece of his life slides back in place.
Tony grins. "Iron Man is back."
“My armour also needs updates,” Rhodey says when he sees him in the Bleeding Edge armour for the first time. Tony's standing on Rhodey's balcony and doesn't regret surprising him.
He grins behind his faceplate. “I promise. But you wouldn't want these.” He lets the gauntlet hide back inside his skin for a moment.
Rhodey shakes his head. “Only you, Tones.”
“Come on, it's awesome.”
“It is,” Rhodey agrees. “But I don't want to know how you did that.”
“So will you go flying with me?” Tony jumps up and stays in the air, extending his hand in an invitation.
“Is that a question?” Rhodey grins. “Give me a moment.”
It's the first test for the new armour. He knows it'll go perfectly, but he's happy to have Rhodey with him. He's missed him. He should've visited him sooner.
Rhodey's out in his own armour the next moment, and they both shoot up into the sky.
“What are the updates?” Tony asks. He's not sure what's safe for them to try now.
“Nothing serious,” Rhodey replies. “It's just been a while.”
Has it? What the hell was Tony doing?
“I'll fix everything as soon as I can,” he promises.
“I know,” Rhodey answers, and immediately pushes more powers to his thrusters.
Tony follows without any problems. The new armour is spectacular. He doesn't need spare parts, not really; he looks at the War Machine and makes a similar missile grow up on his own shoulder. It is heavier, and makes him fly differently, so he dissolves it and puts more repulsors on the armour instead. It's—he knew it in theory, of course, but he really can do anything and everything in this armour—and he's never really out of it, is he.
He's almost dizzy on the realisation, and it's almost like being drunk—
No. The armour is nothing like that.
“Everything all right, Tones?” Rhodey asks.
“Yes,” Tony answers. “What about you? I haven't—”
“I know,” Rhodey says. “Don't worry about it. We'll catch up at some point. But as of right now, I'm still training some kids. It's—I don't mind it. They need it.”
Tony remembers this, pushing for as much stuff that would be useful to be put into SHRA as possible. Training camps, support for younger heroes, care for the youngest.
“Show off the armour,” Rhodey says. “How fast can you go now?”
“How fast do you want me to go?” Tony challenges, and Rhodey laughs.
He goes to S.H.I.E.L.D. early, like usual. Steve is waiting near the server room.
"I told you—"
"That's a lot of metal you're carrying," Steve interrupts.
"You and your hidden detectors. I have the RT, remember?"
"Tony." Steve's voice is sharp.
And, well, it's not like Tony doesn't want to show off. He looks into the server room. "Everyone out," he orders before he remembers this is not his team.
All the same, they listen. Tony looks at Steve.
He's got his arms crossed in front of him. "The good agents left with you," he explains like it pains him. “Now they're back.”
Impossible, Tony thinks. Even if they did—he was a horrible Director. Everyone's told him so.
It doesn't matter anyway; he's not here to reminiscence about that. "Before you say anything, this is not Extremis." Tony doesn't remember having it, but he remembers Steve's reaction when Tony asked about it, just after taking down Osborn. He doubts Steve liked the enhancile.
“Get on with it,” Steve orders. He's holding himself stiff, but he seems curious, too, observing Tony's every move like he doesn't want to miss anything. It's familiar, but thinking about that hurts. Or maybe—maybe it's not familiar, maybe it's Steve assessing a threat.
Tony activates the armour. It flows over him until he's fully encased in the suit, just the faceplate off, and he looks at Steve and smiles. Steve isn't acting friendly, but Tony loves the armour. No one will take that away from him. "Isn't it neat?" he asks.
“That doesn't look like it's not Extremis,” he says.
Tony almost rolls his eyes. "I don't have Extremis anymore and I designed this armour, so you can trust me on that."
“Trust you,” Steve repeats.
Tony throws his hands up. “It's not Extremis.” Even if he regrets not having it anymore, the enhancile is gone. There's no way for him to get it back.
Steve still seems tense as he runs his eyes up and down the suit."It looks good," he admits. "But it makes you even more of a machine."
Tony shakes his head. "I'm controlling it, and it's keeping me safe. I can't be surprised without it anymore. You used to worry about that." Maybe he shouldn't have said that last thing.
Steve whispers something sounding like I still do, but that's impossible. "What if," he says suddenly, "what if someone hits you with an EMP?"
That's always a risk if you're flying a suit of highly-advanced armour. What is he getting at now? "I have shielding, but . . ."
"A targeted, strong enough EMP would kill me." He might as well admit it.
Steve goes inexplicably pale. "And with Extremis?"
"Extremis is gone," Tony repeats, trying not to get annoyed.
"Just answer me," Steve snaps.
Tony shrugs. "My whole body was an electric circuit, in a way, but it was built atop human biology. It would hurt. I'm not sure if the damage would last."
Steve nods sharply. He looks like he wants to say something, but stops himself. There's something bothering him, Tony can tell, but he doesn't have enough context to guess.
"Okay," Steve says suddenly. "I'll let you work."
"Steve?" Tony asks.
"It's nothing," Steve says. "Don't worry."
And that's a lie, but—they're no longer close enough for Tony to call him on it. Steve is acting weird. Tony wishes he knew why.
He steps to the nearest console, the armour hiding back in his bones.
Steve is leaning over him. “You shouldn't have trusted me.” His voice is dark.
He touches his hand to Tony's chest. There's something cold in his palm. Tony looks down and sees an EMP device.
Steve puts it on the RT and activates it.
Tony sits up, covered in cold sweat. He touches the RT. It's fine. It's glowing through his shirt, and it's fine. He's breathing fast. The nightmare lingers behind his eyelids. He can still feel Steve's hand on his chest.
But Steve isn't here. And even if he were—he wouldn't do that. Tony knows that. What the hell is his subconsciousness doing? He shakes his head. Steve wouldn't do that. He looked so scared when he asked what an EMP could do to Tony now. He cares about him.
Tony gets up. He doesn't want to risk more nightmares. He might as well go and check if Reed still is in the lab.
The next day, Steve isn't there when Tony arrives.
He starts working—and okay; he might be getting more done than usual—and Steve still doesn't show up.
Finally, Tony stops typing and takes a deep breath.
Steve's not there.
It's not like he has to be, and Tony was annoyed at him at the beginning, but he'd always come anyway. Always. What happened? Did he get fed up with Tony? Was it because Tony has an armour now? Or?
Tony stands up. There's no one watching over him, so he locks the computer and leaves the room. He might not remember the full plan of the helicarrier, but he knows how to get to the Director's office.
If he doesn't run into any agents, that is, but he has a feeling that not many people have access to the parts of the helicarrier Tony's in. And if no one was put there to watch over Tony himself, well, there's nothing more interesting around other than useless computers he's trying to fix.
He approaches the stairway just as Maria Hill jogs down it. Her expression clearly tells him it's not a coincidence.
"Got lost in the server room, Stark?" she asks.
"Thought I'd take a break," he smiles.
"He's not here," she says, and Tony wonders if he's that obvious, or if she really got to know him better than he suspected during the years he's forgotten.
"That's classified," she answers. "He'll be back next week. Do try to get on with the work."
She turns around.
"Maria," Tony says. She doesn't scold him for that. "If something happens . . ."
"I don't think that's any of your business anymore, is it?"
"Please," he says.
She nods and walks away.
Tony, much as he's grateful, doesn't really understand her. She clearly came down here to reassure him. Why? What had happened between them? He was just short of hating her before Extremis, and then . . . They were forced to work together, he knows that much, and now sometimes she's almost nice to him. It's disconcerting.
He walks back to the server room, but the worry about Steve doesn't quite recede. He doesn't like it when Steve fights without Iron Man.
But Steve wouldn't his help anyway, would he?
It's three days since Steve disappeared on some mission when Carol calls Tony and asks him to meet up. He gladly agrees. He wasn't getting any work done on anything; what with worrying over Steve and trying to remember anything that might help with restarting his company.
They meet on the roof of the Baxter Building; a H.E.R.B.I.E. identifies her as a friend as Tony walks out of the elevator.
"I've heard you have a new toy," Carol says.
Tony extends his arms and lets the armour cover him.
Carol nods. "It's pretty," she admits.
"I've always said you have good taste," Tony grins.
"But is it fast?"
She jumps off the roof and flies up and away, and Tony follows, feeling giddy.
"That's cheating, Marvel!" he calls.
"Only if you don't catch me in that fancy new armour of yours!"
She leads them out of New York, over forests; makes loops in the air and laughs.
It's refreshing to be out in the sun. He should go out more often. He's missed flying, too, he hasn't done much of it apart from his first tests with the armour. Carol had a good idea. He should've reached out to her before.
She loves flying and it's obvious when he watches her like this. He redirects the power to his jetboots and flies straight after her. He can play around with acrobatics later, but for now . . .
He catches her—he does not think because she let him—and grips her elbows lightly.
Carol laughs. "Dance?" she asks, and Tony shakes his head, tips her back.
"The armour isn't bad," she allows.
"I know," he says with just a hint of pride.
"How are things?" she asks.
"He's on some mission," Tony says before he can stop himself.
Carol hugs him. It's awkward mid-air; he has to adjust the thrusters to keep his balance as she lifts him higher up. He puts his hands on her waist and holds on.
"You know he'll be fine."
He does. And yet . . .
"Catch me again?" Suddenly Carol's out of his arms, and flying away; and Tony laughs and follows, grateful for the distraction.
Tony knocks on Pepper's window from outside.
She almost jumps, and then she notices him and glares.
She opens the window and leans out. “I could not let you in,” she says with stern expression. “I've got a front door, you know.”
“That's not as much fun,” Tony says. “Don't you like it?” He gestures at the armour.
Pepper smiles. “I do,” she admits. “I'm glad you have it back.”
“So am I.”
She moves aside to let him in and he lands on the carpet and lets the armour hide back inside his bones.
“Okay, that was creepy,” Pepper comments.
“Useful,” he corrects.
“You look happier,” she notes. “Is that just the armour?”
“I slept well.” He did, for once, as if flying with Carol let him push the worries away for one night. “And—Pepper, we're starting this company up again.”
“I know that.” She sounds certain.
“But this time, we're not relying on military funding,” he tells her. “I know what you want to say, but no. The RT,” he taps on it, “is a perfect energy source. Let's focus on that.”
Her expression turns calculating. She'd probably already planned which generals to approach, but she doesn't protest. “Sometimes you're very idealistic.”
“I'm anything but,” he says seriously. “But I don't want my legacy to be bombs.”
She nods. “Okay. Tell me.”
He starts talking.
When Tony touches down on the landing pad—this time in the full Iron Man armour, he's done with pretending he doesn't have a new suit—Steve is there. He's wearing his commander uniform, and his face is pinched, like he's in pain. He should be resting, Tony thinks. What the hell is he doing there?
"Which doctor let you go?" Tony asks when he walks up to him. “Have they even finished their first year of med school?”
"Careful, Tony. Sounds like you're worried."
Tony's almost annoyed at that. Steve—Steve knows it's been less than a month for him. He knows Tony is worried. Tony told him as much.
"I remember a very different you,” Steve explains, like he noticed Tony's reaction, but he still sounds distant.
Tony sighs. "And I, a very different you."
"Whose doing is that?" Steve reminds him, but there's no malice in his voice.
"Are we going over this again?" Tony asks, suddenly tired. Steve is back and he's all right; that should be all Tony needs to know.
But he wants to touch him, feel his heartbeat, he wants to strip him and see for himself that he's really unharmed.
He wants to be back in the past.
"No," Steve replies. He sounds tired as well. His voice is quiet. "Maria said—I didn't want you to worry.”
And this, this Tony doesn't understand, this Steve doesn't fit with what he's learnt about the Superhero Civil War, this is not the Steve who held his shield over Tony, ready to kill him.
(Why didn't he, Tony wants to ask.)
"Thanks," Tony mutters. "A call would be enough for that."
"Would it," Steve says, and he knows Tony too well. A call is never enough. It's too easy to lie over the phone. Tony would know; he's the master at downplaying his injuries, but Steve is just as bad.
"Come on." Steve moves towards the corridor leading to Tony's current workplace. He moves stiffly—of course he's hurt, that damn idiot. But there's something else too.
"I'm sorry," Steve says, confirming Tony's suspicions that Steve was getting out of the view of the other agents. "I can't promise to always warn you, but I can try. I—I wouldn't be happy if you disappeared without a word either."
"It's a different situation, isn't it, Steve," Tony says, forcing himself to stay calm. If he disappeared, it would be worry over world security dictating Steve's actions, because Tony is dangerous and a traitor and can't be let out of sight. It wouldn't be—personal.
"I don't know," Steve whispers, and he really sounds uncertain.
Tony isn't sure what to do with that.
Things between them are different, after that. They don't try and force themselves to sound as hostile as possible—or at least Tony doesn't. He always assumed it was honest on Steve's part. That there really was nothing left that could maybe . . . care for Tony.
He shakes his head. That's impossible. That's gone. Everyone would say so.
He should focus on other projects, fix Rhodey's armour, push paperwork through for Stark Resilient; do anything that would get him out of being in the helicarrier almost every day.
Except he can't, because the helicarrier takes priority—he needs to break these codes and he needs to learn how he implemented them in the first place, so that no one can replicate it. He's still crashing at the Baxter Building, because Reed doesn't mind, and moving back into the Tower is something Tony might not be ready for just yet.
It was never supposed to be just his. He'd hate it there on his own.
Steve . . .
He won't think of Steve now.
He finishes his coffee and starts the coffee maker again. It's late, but the thoughts of Steve kept him up, and when he finally did drift to sleep, he dreamt of how things used to be; of waking up next to Steve, of the Avengers living in the Tower, of their family being all right.
It's all gone.
He downs this mug of coffee and shuffles back to his room. He won't sleep—he doesn't want to sleep—but he might go over his company papers.
They fight Electro.
It's a weird mix of superheroes, none of them Avengers—all of them Avengers, at one point or another, except not now, because now there are no Avengers.
They make it work. Electro has clearly updated, but Spider-Man knows all about it. Tony tries various frequencies with his armour until he's sure he's got everyone—and Steve, back in the helicarrier, but he's not thinking about that—on his comms.
Bucky-Cap—Tony will not call him Cap, that's reserved for Steve still—is working seamlessly with Natasha, and Tony thinks that once upon a time, it was him and Steve fighting like that.
Carol's playing air support with him, and they chase Electro as he runs through power grids only to be sucked out by a specific repulsor attack, and again, and again.
It's good, fighting in a team, and they're almost there. Electro is getting tired—
But then he jumps out of the wires earlier than Tony expected, just in front of him.
Lances of pure electricity go through Tony. There's just pain, and he screams as all his systems go down.
He slowly comes to. He's aching all over. He vaguely remembers getting electrocuted while in the armour, and yeah, not an experience he'd like to repeat.
His hand goes to the RT and finds it safe, but it's only then he realises that before he moved, someone had been holding his hand.
Tony opens his eyes, and there, at the edge of his bed, is Steve.
They look at each other for a long moment, in silence.
"What are you—"
"Don't do this—"
It's—it's almost right, Steve at his bedside worrying about him, but they don't have this anymore; do they? Steve doesn't love him, he doesn't even consider him a friend, so what is he doing here?
"I was worried," Steve whispers. "I heard you scream, and—I should've been on that battlefield; I might not have changed anything, but I should've been there with you; isn't that how it always worked?"
Tony starts to get afraid he's high on morphine and hallucinating.
"How do you feel?" Steve asks when the silence is getting awkward.
"Tired," Tony admits, and he's blaming his next words on the meds. "Can we—Steve, we need to talk."
Steve nods. "When you're better," he says.
Tony doesn't argue.
"Can I . . . stay?"
He looks so hopeful, Tony can't say no, even if he doesn't understand why Steve still worries about him.
Every time Tony wakes up, Steve is there—and how many things is he ignoring just to hold Tony's hand in the hospital? Maria Hill must be going mad.
Steve doesn't seem to care. He just stays with Tony.
Carol visits and hugs him, and she doesn't ask about Steve's presence. He could kiss her for that, because he has no idea what answer he could give her. "But don't do that again," she says. "Okay, Iron Man? Try and avoid getting electrocuted."
"Promise," he says.
She smiles at him. "Peter said you weren't that bad, either."
Tony smiles back. It'll be a long time before Peter trusts him again—or at all—but that friendship was important to him. This is good.
Carol hugs him again. "I mean it, Tony. Stay safe."
"I'll try," he says, and she leaves. Tony turns to look at Steve.
"So that talk," he says.
Steve looks away. It doesn't make any sense, it should be Tony avoiding it.
"I told you," Tony says. "That first day on the helicarrier; I told you, I still love you. I remembered kissing you good night not that long before." He's been over that so many times, it hurts less now.
"It's been a few weeks," Steve says carefully.
"You don't fall out of love in a few weeks, Steve." Tony grips his bedsheets tight. "But I don't get you."
"You hate me," Tony interrupts him, then rethinks it and corrects himself. "You hated me."
"No," Steve says. "I could never hate you, Tony. That's why it hurt so much."
"I need to know," Tony all but begs. It'll hurt, he's sure, but knowing the truth will be better than guessing how everything between them has managed to go so wrong.
"I care about you," Steve says. "You can't die, Tony. When Electro hit you—I can't lose more people."
"And . . . that's it?" Tony asks, disappointed despite himself. What else did he expect? Of course Steve wanted his friend—everyone safe.
"You should stay away," Steve says, and it unexpectedly hurts. "I—I hurt people I lo—people who are important to me."
"That's my line, Steve."
"I don't deserve you," he says, and then he's leaving, and Tony can't call after him, because what does Steve mean?
It's Tony who's destroyed everything between them.
Steve doesn't come back.
He checks himself out of the hospital the next day. The doctors protest, of course, but he's used to that. He's been lying in bed for three days, and he wants to be in an actual lab instead of trying to work on a tablet.
(The fact that Steve kept visiting him every day didn't have anything to do with how long Tony stayed there in the first place, he lies to himself.)
Getting back to working on untangling his own code is easier then he expected. He's almost done, he realises as he scrolls the source code. One, maybe two more days of decoding. He's not sure how he feels about that. He'll finally have time to focus on restarting his company, yes, but—this work is his only excuse to see Steve.
Not that Steve is here now.
There goes his caring.
Tony's already in bed when his phone rings. He glances at the screen and hesitates for a second. The number is no longer unknown. He's learnt it by heart, even if he didn't save it in his phone, because he wasn't sure if he should put in Steve or Commander Rogers.
He picks it up.
“Hey,” Steve says.
“Hello,” Tony answers, wondering what it's about. Steve hasn't contacted him in a few days. Tony was so sure he finally understood he was better off without him.
There's a moment of awkward silence. “I promised to let you know if I was leaving,” Steve says finally.
“Thanks,” Tony mutters. “Do you—”
“I have a team, I don't need your help,” Steve interrupts.
It doesn't hurt, Tony tells himself.
“Sorry,” Steve says. “I didn't mean it like that.”
“It's fine,” Tony answers. “Just—be safe.”
Tony doesn't ask how long Steve will be gone. That's not something one can foresee, and he doesn't want false hope. “See you,” he says instead.
“Yeah,” Steve answers and hangs up.
Tony doesn't put his phone away for a long while.
Waiting for Steve to return from a mission never gets any easier.
He still doesn't know what to think about what Steve's actions. He works on the computers—he estimates it to take just one more day, really, but he doesn't want to finish while Steve is away. He wants to talk to Steve.
He wants to ask.
Because—well, before Extremis, Tony had been the happiest he can remember. And he is selfish enough to admit he wants that again.
If Steve wants it too . . .
He shakes himself. He's getting ahead of himself, and Steve is stressed. He's running S.H.I.E.L.D. He's good at it, but it's not something he's used to. He couldn't have meant it. And he's in Latveria doing god-knows-what—Tony did stop himself from hacking all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s info while fixing other parts of their network. Steve's risking his life right now, and Tony's stuck here, unable to help.
Steve has to come back, because Tony doesn't want to think what will happen if he doesn't.
He saves the work for the day. He's getting tired and he can't risk any mistakes now. He walks out of the server room and almost runs into Steve. Steve catches him by his elbow and steadies him, and Tony smiles with relief.
“You're back.” He can immediately breathe easier.
Steve nods and doesn't say anything.
It's too awkward. Tony thinks back to their last talk and wants to ask, but they're on the corridor, someone could see them at any moment.
Steve's still touching him.
“Steve?” Tony asks.
“I missed you,” Steve says quietly. He runs his hand up Tony's arm, gently.
Tony fights not to lean into his touch. “Me too,” he admits.
“I was trying to—but there's no point in it,” Steve says. Tony wants to ask what he means, but Steve's looking at him with intent, and Tony's mouth goes dry. “I love you,” Steve whispers, and his hand resting on Tony's shoulder twitches, like he wants to move, to cup Tony's cheek.
Tony shivers. Steve's serious. Tony—Tony hoped for that, deep down, almost too afraid to voice his thoughts, and now . . .
He feels he should say something, but his mind is empty. His heart is beating wildly. He wants this, but—he needs time, he needs to process it, it's out of the blue and he wants to kiss Steve here and now and is so afraid of doing it.
“Can we talk later,” he blurts out and all but flees.
Smooth, Stark, he thinks. Really fucking smooth.
Steve's the best thing that ever happened to him. Tony wants to try again. He does. Steve no longer being with him might've been the hardest part of waking up in this changed world.
But he's lost him once already, and he's not sure he could survive it again.
He shakes his head at himself almost as soon as he thinks that. He knows better now. They both do. And is he really going to let some irrational fear stop him?
He loves Steve.
There's nothing more to it.
Steve isn't waiting for him the next day. Tony isn't really surprised, but it hurts all the same.
He finishes the work quickly. Luckily, no one really understands what he's been doing well enough to pick up that he was stalling for the last few days.
Then he takes a deep breath and calls in Steve and Agent Novac.
He grins when they arrive. He's stressed about Steve, yes, but as always, he is also excited about finishing a project. "It's done."
Steve is on the other side of the room, avoiding his eyes. Anne starts walking around the room, testing every single computer and its connection to the database. Tony watches her idly.
"They work," she says at last.
"Of course they work, I fixed them," Tony says.
"What about the virus?"
Tony tosses up a small pendrive. Just before it can land back on his hand, the repulsor covers his palm, and a well-aimed shot—probably violating the helicarrier security protocols—destroys the pendrive. "All gone," Tony says.
“Commander . . .?” Agent Novac asks.
Steve just nods. "Great, Tony. Thank you. Agent, if you could leave us alone . . ."
She hurries out of the room.
Tony looks at Steve.
Steve looks at Tony.
Tony can't run away from this one, and he doesn't really want to. He made up his mind on this.
"I really thought you hated me."
"I don't," Steve whispers, too quietly. He leans on a chair, as if he needs something to support him.
"I love you," Tony says. It's easy to admit, because it's a fact of his life. He doesn't remember not loving him. He's said it enough times already. "I really do. Don't you trust me?"
"I do," Steve says without any hesitation. It almost makes Tony dizzy, how certain Steve seems of that.
"And . . . You told me you loved me still," Tony says. "How's that possible, Steve?" He's not sure what he's expecting. Steve to take his words back, maybe. Tony had time to think, but so did Steve. He might've realised what a mistake he made.
"Don't you trust me," Steve quotes back at him with a sad smile.
Tony closes his eyes briefly when the emotions surge over him. He's happy, too happy, but he know that's not all there is. Steve is tense, his knuckles white where he grips the chair. "Okay," he says, like this isn't turning his world upside-down right at this moment. "Okay. Then—then what is the problem here, Steve?”
Love isn't always enough, and Tony knows that, just as he knows it's not what Steve will say.
Steve exhales. He's keeping his eyes somewhere behind Tony. "You asked me what our break up looked like."
Tony feels something cold settle in his stomach. Suddenly he doesn't want to know that.
"There wasn't any break up, not really. One day we were on the same side, and another . . . we weren't." Steve sighs. "I used our relationship," he says in a steady voice. "I asked you to shake my hand, and I had a mini-EMP ready. I knew you'd trust me enough to give me that handshake. And I disabled your armour."
Tony freezes for a moment. He remembers the nightmare from days ago. He thinks he might still be asleep. He doesn't want to listen to that. It was just a dream. "That was the war, Steve—" It's—he tells himself it's not important. He doesn't remember that. He can't be sure what really happened, what he could've done to make Steve do this. He doesn't want things he doesn't remember to keep him away from Steve.
The terror of the nightmare, Steve putting the device that could kill him to his chest . . .
He trusts Steve.
But . . . If someone had asked him five minutes ago if Steve was capable of tricking him and locking down his armour—Tony would've said no.
"You trusted me, Tony, and I hurt you. You told me exactly what it could've done to you."
Tony walks to him. "Steve, look at me." He puts his hands on Steve's shoulders and keeps them close. "That was the war,” he repeats. He doesn't want to care about that.
"You asked me to meet," Steve stubbornly continues. His voice raises. He's not shouting, but it's a near thing. "And I wouldn't listen, and we fought. I fought you out of your armour. I probably broke your ribs. I hated myself. And the last battle? You asked me to finish you. And I would have, Tony. I loved you, but I would have done that, if the civilians hadn't stopped me."
He steps away from him. "You shouldn't trust me, Tony. You're not the one who committed the betrayal here."
Tony realises he's shaking, and he can't stop. This isn't what he expected. He was sure he fucked up, and that was something he was used to. He was prepared to deal with that, he was prepared for Steve to say he didn't want anything to do with him.
Steve placing the blame on himself—Steve saying it was his fault . . . Tony trusts him with his life, but apparently that's the problem here.
He doesn't remember getting out of the helicarrier. Everything seems to be covered in a haze. Steve's words still sound in his ears.
He flies back to the Baxter Building and shakes his head when Reed asks him to join him in the lab. He goes to his room, powers on the tablet and looks through the database for the mini-EMP Steve mentioned. It's there, and Tony looks at the specs.
It's small in size, yes, but the charge is strong. Of course it is, if it disabled his armour.
It's strong enough to stop the RT.
The war, he reminds himself. It doesn't matter now. Steve won't use it again. Tony won't force him to.
He closes the database and opens the search engine. He's not sure what he's doing until the image loads, and he looks at the picture of Steve holding the shield over him again.
Steve said Tony asked him to finish it, and that's the one part he's not surprised at.
He's scared, but it's not of Steve. He's scared of what he can make Steve do.
But is that a reason to throw everything away? Isn't removing the obstacles and rebuilding what they do best?
Tony hovers in the air in front of the Avengers Tower. He hasn't been inside since official visit to estimate the damage. He can't keep avoiding it, though. And maybe the familiar corridors, even if empty, will settle his nerves.
He lands on the rooftop and goes inside.
The penthouse is abandoned. It's been cleared out of the broken furniture. The empty walls seem to haunt Tony. There should be pictures up, paintings of the Avengers—
There should be Avengers living there. It was never meant to be just Stark Tower. New York needs this team, and so does Tony.
And there are no Avengers without Steve.
He can't leave it like this, Tony realises. He can't. They're too close to go flying in opposite directions again. He doesn't want that. He needs to talk to Steve; somewhere neutral, not on that dark helicarrier full of agents just ready to interrupt.
He has to talk to him again.
He can't let it go.
He wonders where Steve might be. There's one place he called home when the Avengers weren't there for him and it is late, but it's not like running S.H.I.E.L.D. is a 9-5 job. Still, it's worth a try. Maybe luck will be on Tony's side this time.
He goes to the roof. He's missed looking at New York from here, and he thinks again that it's really high time he moved back.
He steps down, and the armour surrounds him as he's already falling, the rush of adrenaline in his veins. He makes a loop in the sky and flies between the skyscrapers for a while. It's always exhilarating, but the crowds no longer cheer at the sight of him, and that makes him fly higher and higher. He wants to go to Steve, but he doesn't want to find just an empty apartment, and it's making him hesitate.
No more waiting. He plunges down and flies straight to Brooklyn and Steve's apartment.
Steve raises his eyebrows when he opens the door. "What are you doing here?"
"As if no one warned you," Tony says.
Steve smiles. "Touché. But that doesn't explain why you're here."
He moves aside to let Tony in, and Tony grabs his wrist, pulls him through the familiar rooms, towards the balcony. Steve doesn't fight it. They stand outside. The stars aren't visible from here, but it doesn't matter.
He turns to Steve. "What you're telling me," Tony says, going back to their last conversation, "is that you're afraid."
Steve smiles mirthlessly. "That relationship almost got us killed once."
Tony could laugh at how similar it is to what he thought about after Steve's confession, but it's too serious. And he has an answer to that already.
"We know better this time." Tony's certain of that. “I'm not afraid. Why are you?”
Steve looks down. "I can't lose you like that again."
"You didn't lose me," Tony says angrily. "You were dead, Steve. I got you killed." He remembers the article word after word; CAPTAIN AMERICA ASSASSINATED, and it still hurts.
Steve puts his fingers under Tony's chin and forces him to look up. "You didn't kill me, Tony. It wasn't your fault. We—we both made mistakes."
Tony nods. This much is true.
"I love you," Tony says, forces himself to make it sound easy. This, at least, they should be clear on.
"I love you," Steve replies without any hesitation, and Tony believes him.
The past, well. He's a futurist. He's supposed to look forward, not cling to what happened.
"The Tower is standing empty," Tony says.
“Is it,” Steve says. “What do you want to do about it?”
“You know damn well what.”
Steve smiles a bit. “I miss the team,” he acknowledges.
“So are we going to do it? Or are we going to continue talking about how dangerous—”
Steve shuts him up by kissing him, and this, this is what Tony wants, needs; this is what he's waited for ever since waking up with two years of his memory gone; Steve, finally back with him, his lips on Tony's, their bodies pressed together.
Steve looks surprised at himself when they separate, but there's no regret in his eyes.
"Come on," Tony says. The suit flows over him and he's a few centimetres taller than Steve now. "It'll be okay. Take my hand. Let's go flying."
Steve does, and Tony pulls him up and in the air with him, to where they can see the stars.