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The Spark That Started the Fire

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EXTREMIS 3.0: BOOT OK
EXTREMIS 3.0: Bodily integrity check... 100%
EXTREMIS 3.0: Healing factor... 100%
EXTREMIS 3.0: Login successful.
stark@localhost: Initializing network services...
stark@localhost: Telnet: Opening port 23...
stark@localhost: Connecting to doom.battleworld.net...
doom.battleworld.net: Connected.
doom.battleworld.net: Connecting to memory wipe and overlay...
doom.battleworld.net: Searching for domain...
doom.battleworld.net: Battleworld domain resolution: Failed. No baron identified.
doom.battleworld.net: Memory wipe failure. (Reason: Out of domain.)
doom.battleworld.net: Heresy. Anthony Stark (Earth-616) is out of Doom's domain.
doom.battleworld.net: Heresy. Heresy. Heresy. Bow to God-Emperor Doom.
doom.battleworld.net: Heresy. Heresy. Heresy. Heresy. Heresy. Heresy. Heresy.

Tony's lying on his back in what feels like sand. The sun is warm above him, beating down on his skin. He's half-awake, but he might still be dreaming, because those are the weirdest error messages he has ever seen. And then he comes all the way awake with a start because those are TCP/IP error messages in his head, goddammit, and he's had the networking burned out of his brain for years.

He sits up. He opens his eyes.

He looks down at himself. He's naked. There's no RT in his chest, and no sign that there ever was one.

He's on a beach.

It's late in the afternoon; the sun is dipping toward the horizon. Blue water stretches around him. Behind him on the beach there are dunes, and trees beyond them. An island, he thinks, looking at the way the coastline curves.

Tony stands up and turns, and that's when he sees him.

There's a man lying about ten feet away, down the shore. He's naked too. He's face down in the sand. His head is turned to one side, pressed into the sand, and he's golden all over: perfect golden skin and golden hair, caught and shining in the light.

Wait, Tony thinks, hazy and confused, something here isn't right.

No, it is right. But it shouldn't be.

Tony knows this man. He'd know him anywhere. He doesn't even need to see his face.

It's Steve.

Blood rushes dizzily through him, pounds through his head, pounds like the rhythm of punches.

Then he remembers.

He was-- and Steve was-- they were fighting-- and there was the final incursion, the sky red above them-- and a helicarrier was falling--

He has no idea where he is, or how he got where he is. Or, for that matter, why Steve is young again and what happened to his RT. Sure, he'd had the Resurrection building, but he hadn't had time to do anything before Steve--

Heresy heresy heresy, the inside of his head whispers again, and Tony scowls and takes himself offline. Whatever that is, it's not going to help right now.

Steve pushes himself upright, blinks a few times, and then stares right at him.

"Tony?" he asks, hoarsely, disbelieving, and all the bitterness and horrible rage in his voice is gone. He sounds so... alone.

Tony half-smiles. "Yeah. It's me."

Steve's still staring. "Are we dead?" He looks down at himself. He's patting at his torso like he's not sure he's real. "Nothing hurts anymore. And I'm-- I've got the serum, and look at your chest, Tony--"

"I have Extremis back," Tony says, and his voice wavers; saying it aloud feels like tempting fate. "Fully functional. I think it fixed me. I'm pretty sure we're not dead."

"What did you do?"

There's no accusation in the words, no blame. Just awe. Steve's eyes are wide, his lips parted; it's the way he always used to look when Tony brought him to the workshop and showed him something amazing. Steve... Steve thinks he did this. Steve thinks that in the end he saved them, despite everything.

Tony wishes he'd been that good.

"It wasn't me," he says, and then he feels like that's a little unfinished. He fidgets, unworthy under Steve's gaze. He's bent over a little, folded in, some part of him wishing he were smaller, invisible. "I was planning to save everyone," he adds, and then he takes another look around them. This place is empty. The realization sinks dully into his gut; his stomach tightens. "I think... maybe I just saved us."

Once again, he's failed.

He's walking toward Steve and he doesn't know why. He's waiting for Steve to say something, to scream at him, to tell him he isn't good enough, to tell him he's a liar, to take a swing at him, to do everything that he's clearly spent the past months burning to do, burning until his rage ate him alive.

Steve just sits back, looking up at him, silent, eyes wide, bluer than the ocean. Then he holds out his hand, reaching up to Tony.

Oh.

Maybe they get a second chance.

Tony takes his hand and pulls him up. Steve doesn't need the help -- not now, not anymore -- but he wants Tony's hand, and isn't this what they've always been like?

"Come on," Steve says, and he squeezes Tony's fingers. "Let's see what's out there."


It's an island. There's no one else on it. There's fresh water. Some of the plant life is edible, Steve says in an undertone as they walk, as if anyone else will hear them. Tony supposes Steve knows a lot about that, after Dimension Z. He's got local storage of some survival information, luckily, and it's all agreeing with Steve's assessments. As the sun begins to go down and the day darkens to twilight, Tony starts to see the island's crepuscular small mammals, all reflecting eyes and Extremis heat signatures, scurrying to and fro in the underbrush.

It could be a lot worse, Tony thinks.

Steve hasn't said much, except to point out the plants here and there. But then he stops and looks at Tony, the last of the day's light washing orange over his bare skin, making a halo of his hair, and he's so goddamn beautiful in a way that Tony no longer deserves to be able to appreciate, not after what he's done.

He should apologize. Even though he knows he'd do all of it again.

It was so much easier to say sorry last time, when he didn't remember doing any of it.

Steve clears his throat. "We should build a fire," he says. "It might get cold."

"I don't need it," Tony says. "I've got Extremis now; I can adjust myself so I won't feel anything. And you've got the serum back, so you don't need it--"

"I want a fire," Steve says, quietly, and he doesn't meet Tony's eyes. "Please?"

Tony has never been able to deny this man anything he wants. It might be a problem.

"Yeah," Tony says. "Yeah, okay."


They build a fire on the beach where they woke up.

They work together in silence, gathering rocks, wood, twigs, dried grasses; Tony painstakingly sorts them by relative size, and he watches as Steve crouches in the sand next to him, as Tony makes a circle out of the rocks. Steve's practiced hands -- smooth now, unscarred -- push the bigger logs together, leaning them against each other. He arranges the kindling and the dried grasses just so, underneath. Tony watches the muscles in Steve's arms flex as he works; he watches the easy way Steve balances himself, his grace and power. He's seen Steve lose the serum before; he knows the bright stubborn flare of Steve's spirit will still be there no matter what kind of body he has, and he knows he won't love him any less, but this is how he knew Steve first. It feels familiar. It feels like the old days.

Tony can't remember the last time they built anything together. Avengers World doesn't count. The machine doesn't count. Those were all him, anyway, and he can't think of them without bitterness choking his throat, because they're bound in lies.

They built teams together, once. They built a home. They were Avengers.

Maybe they still are.

Steve sits back on his heels and raises an eyebrow at him. Tony's still got the suit in his bones; Extremis told him that much. He could summon up a palm repulsor, reconfigure it for heat. Hell, he could wear the suit -- he'd be a lot less naked then. But he doesn't want to wear it anymore; his mind recoils at the mirrored perfection, and he remembers everything he did while wearing it.

Besides, Steve's naked; it's only fair if Tony is too. It's not like he's got anything Steve hasn't seen before, and there's no one else here.

But Steve wants a fire, so Tony can tolerate the suit for that. He holds out his hand; the repulsor forms up, and it's an instant's work to adjust the heat output. Another second, and the grass catches fire, then the kindling.

Steve watches him, mutely, as the gauntlet slides back under Tony's skin. There's the smallest of smiles on Steve's face, and that alone makes Tony's chest light, makes a bright fizzy tingling feeling ripple under his skin, because he's done something right for Steve, something good, and, God, he wants to feel like this all the time -- it's better than sex, better than drinking, better than flying.

The stars come out. They're not Earth's stars. Orion's belt, the familiar line that Tony can find faster than anything, is gone. Ursa Major's lopsided quadrilateral is missing. They're all gone. Extremis tries to overlay constellations on his vision and comes back with nothing.

Tony watches Steve taking in the sky, and he knows Steve knows it too. It's not Earth.

Steve settles down next to him. The fire crackles, and he can see its reflected brightness in Steve's eyes.

"In the morning, when it's light," Steve says, "we can try to figure out where we are. This can't be the only landmass on this planet."

"We're on Battleworld," Tony says, and Steve blinks at him.

"How do you know?"

"Extremis has been trying to connect to servers. They're identifying themselves as Battleworld. They're Doom's. I-- I think we're not supposed to remember what happened before. They're trying to wipe our memory and can't. I don't know; I don't understand the error messages. Something about a baron."

"Battleworld?" Steve asks, frowning. "Like... like that thing with the Beyonder?"

Tony shrugs. "I guess. I wasn't there then, remember? That was Rhodey. I was... probably drunk."

Not like he hasn't been drunk recently.

They sit in silence for a while. Tony watches the smoke rise up into the night. This is nice, he thinks. This is good. As long as they don't have to talk about anything important, or ideally anything ever, he can do this.

"I'm sorry, you know," Steve says, and apparently they're having this conversation after all.

Tony shuts his eyes. "Steve, don't--"

"I thought you were lying," Steve says. His voice is low, nearly emotionless. "I thought when everything died there'd be nothing. I was so terrified. I was so angry at you for promising hope when there was none. But we're here, and we're alive. There's something after the universe ends, after all."

Tony turns his face away, eyes still closed. "I was lying. To the best of my knowledge, I was lying. I had-- I had a plan, but I didn't have time, and-- this wasn't it. This wasn't me."

"I've made mistakes," Steve says. His voice is hoarse and Tony has the awful feeling that if he opened his eyes now he would see Steve crying. Everything in him tightens; he feels like he can't get enough air, and heat prickles at his eyes. He thinks maybe he's shaking.

"I've made worse ones," Tony counters, forcing the words out. "And I'd-- I'd make them all again, every rotten decision, because I can't not, and I don't know why you're still here--"

There's a warm pressure against his skin, and he opens his eyes to see Steve's hand on his shoulder, Steve's gaze wide and tentative. There are tears on Steve's face. Just beyond Steve, the fire is flickering, the flames high.

"I never expected you to be any different than you are," Steve says, absently wiping his own tears away with his free hand, and there's a whole lot of things that sentence could mean.

Tony's voice rasps. "There was an incursion, the first one we had where the other planet was populated--" the first one after you discovered the lie-- "and Namor pulled the trigger on the planetkiller. And we -- the Illuminati -- we were shouting at each other and I realized that right up until Namor had actually done it, I'd always thought there could be another way, even though I was the one who'd built the goddamn bomb. And then I remembered what you told us, what you told me, before we-- before I--"

He can't finish. He can't apologize. He can't even name it.

"I wasn't what you needed me to be," Tony says, and the words don't even approach the horrible weight of it. He takes a few harsh breaths; the smoke stings his throat.

"You are your best self," Steve says. "You've always been. You did what you thought was right. I can't ask any more of you than that. And I know I was furious and I-- I didn't do a lot of thinking. I haven't been thinking clearly, lately. I know I've been angry and I'm-- I'm sorry. I'm trying. But I wouldn't want you to be different, even with-- even with everything that happened between us. That's not how a relationship works."

Tony snorts. "You make it sound like we're dating."

In the firelight he can see Steve smile. Steve hasn't smiled at him, really smiled at him, in months, and even then Tony was lying. "Well, we've had all the breakups," Steve says wryly, "but no one's even gotten laid. Shame we missed out on the best part."

He wonders if Steve can see his face in the dark. He wonders what his own face looks like. "Are you making a pass at me?" he asks, strangled, and he thinks his voice is maybe an octave higher than normal, and he's abruptly conscious of the fact that they're both naked, and God, of all the things he didn't expect at the end of the world--

It's not a response worthy of Tony Stark, suave playboy, but that's not someone he's ever been for Steve. Steve sees him without the masks, without the armor.

"Sort of?" Steve says, just as awkwardly, and he hunches in on himself. "I wasn't planning-- it just kind of happened--" He shakes himself and starts over. "I just-- you've always been at my side. I always thought there would be time to tell you, and then there wasn't, and then we were all going to die and then you weren't even you -- and I just wanted to say something. Now that you're here. I just want to... keep being at your side, if you want me there."

He looks over at the curve of Steve's nervous smile. Everything in him is some slurry of unreal panicked excitement. "Now it just sounds like you're proposing to me. Oh God."

"Well," Steve says, his chin tilted up like maybe Tony's just dared him to, "in all fairness, it's been a really long engagement."

Tony stares. Maybe he is dead or maybe he's hallucinating, because this can't be real, it can't be, it's right here at the top of the list of Things Tony Stark Will Never Deserve--

Steve kisses him, very gently. His lips are warm.

"I'm not having sex on the beach," Tony says, because there's really no filter left anywhere in his brain. "Seriously, bad idea. I know it sounds sexy, but no. Trust me."

Steve chuckles and rubs his thumb over Tony's cheekbone. He's alive. They're alive. Steve-- Steve forgives him even though he shouldn't.

He forgives Steve.

"Then no," Steve agrees. "Get some sleep. I'll take first watch. I've got you."

"I've got you," Tony echoes, and Steve nods decisively, with another flash of a smile.

Steve runs two fingers down Tony's arm in a shivery line of heat, hotter than the fire, and covers Tony's hand with his. "Yep. Not going anywhere."

He's got a suit in his bones. He's got Steve. They can do this. He won't-- he won't lie to him. This is their resurrection. Their rebirth. Another chance. He'll take it.

He curls up, head on Steve's thigh, breathing in rhythm with Steve's quiet breaths, and he goes to sleep.