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Fragments of a Different War

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3. Midtown, Manhattan, New York
"Cap... it's not enough to be against something. You have to be for something better."
--Tony Stark (What If? #1 "Civil War")

The media was not, for once, hounding Tony Stark. Instead, they clustered around the entryway to Stark Tower, coming close to mobbing Captain America. Tony couldn't say he blamed them. Steve had his uniform on but with the cowl pushed back, and with the sun breaking through the clouds just in time to cast a narrow strip of light on the street, he looked like a bed-headed angel. A very serious angel, who had his I'm-Captain-America-so-You'd-Better-Listen-to-Me face on.

Kat asked him something that made him grimace and rub the back of his neck. Tony casually tapped into the CNN audio feed for the answer. "...can say, Ms Farrell. I'll be able to tell you more later today. The Avengers will probably set up a press conference." Then he held up a hand and told them that he didn't have time for more questions.

The reporters immediately dispersed, which was not something Tony had ever been able to get them to do. He supposed that he should try asking nicely like that sometime.

Steve waited for the light -- though Tony was pretty sure that even New York cabbies would break for Cap -- before striding across the street.

"How'd it go?" Tony asked.

"Like you weren't listening in."

Tony shrugged, unabashed. "I still want your take."

"They're scared." Steve turned towards the Park, eating up the ground at such a pace that Tony nearly had to jog to keep up. "They want Captain America to tell them everything is going to be okay."

"And did you?"

"No. I won't lie to them."

"Have I ever told you that you have a unique relationship with the press?"

"You've mentioned it... once or twice."

They waited for the next light in silence, but, after that, Steve didn't slow down until he got under the trees. Closing his eyes, then, he took a long breath and let it out slowly. The muscles in his neck and shoulders visibly relaxed, and he seemed somewhat less likely to hit something at any moment. Tony could still see lines of worry and anger around Steve's mouth and eyes, blending with tired shadows.

Tony figured that he looked about the same. The night before, Steve had lured him to bed, wrapped himself around Tony like a cuddly octopus, and then promptly passed out. Without even sexing Tony up. Tony had tracked the rescue efforts and worked on armour upgrades until his own fatigue and Steve's warm, steady presence had lulled him to sleep as well. They got up five hours later, and that had been the first rest either of them had had in three days.

Steve nodded to himself and started off again, this time at a more moderate pace. Every so often, he paused to exchange greetings with people along the way: a young family here, an old man who hadn't bathed since the Vietnam War there. He knew most of their names, and only the most obvious tourists seemed at all surprised to see Captain America walking in Central Park.

Tony kept pace in silence, watching Steve's ritual search for familiarity and reassurance without comment. Steve had once told him that he saw more of the New York of his youth here than in any other part of the city. It had changed, like everything, but somehow it felt the same.

"You know," Steve said, stopping to watch a little league team practice on Heckscher Field, "Hank McCoy once told me the X-Men play softball, as a team building sort of thing."

This team didn't have as many players as they should. Tony suspected that some parents were keeping their kids home, as if that would keep them safe. "You'll never sell it, Cap. We don't have enough people, even if you somehow manage to get Spider-woman and Wolverine to play."

"Well, there's always the reserve members," Steve mused. "Something to think about. If we make it out of this, anyway." He turned away from the game and headed deeper into the park.

Tony took a deep breath. If he let them get much further without saying anything, Steve would start in on how they'd been actual sheep on the meadow when he was a kid. That would inevitably lead into the history of New York, or a reflection on the government policy on homelessness, or even Presidents and Mayors Captain America Has Known. "Steve..." he started.

"Yeah?"

"I didn't come on this hike to talk about sports."

Steve brushed his gloved fingers against Tony's bare ones, the contact almost imperceptibly brief. "Yeah. I know."

 

2. George Washington Elementary School, Stamford, Connecticut
"Yeah, well. Maybe they're right this time, Goliath. Who the hell can justify this?"
-- Carol Danvers (Civil War #1)

No one should be familiar with the smell of this kind of carnage, but Steve knew it well. He was no Wolverine, but he could pick up traces of the incendiary, tell how it was different from other sites of wanton destruction, and how it was the same. He knew that it would take days to scrub the stench out of his skin, and, even then, a phantom scent would cling to him for weeks, undetectable to anyone who didn't know it too.

He hadn't wanted to do this ever again. The children, god help them...

Shaking his head, he tried to clear the images from his mind and turned back toward the ruins. Steve had been here for coming up on two days, and the exhaustion had started to get to him. He felt his hands shaking with it and clenched them tightly. He hoped that no one had caught him hesitating like that. The nation didn't need a picture of Captain America's thousand-yard stare splashed across the front pages right now.

Across what used to be a cafeteria, he could see Iron Man making his way towards him, picking his way through the clear patches. He was carrying a disposable cup, tiny in his gauntleted grip, and the only still-white thing besides bandages that Steve had seen all day. "That had better be coffee," Steve told Tony, pushing his dust mask off his face to dangle around his neck.

"Calming herbal tea, actually." Iron Man did deadpan pretty convincingly.

Steve took the cup and brought it up to his nose. "You're serious!" It smelled strongly of chamomile. "This'll put me straight to sleep."

"It's time to go home, Cap."

"Tony, no. I..." He turned, angling away from Iron Man to look over the remains of the school. The rescue crews had started to set up halogen lights in stable areas, preparing for the gathering dusk. "I can't leave them here."

Iron Man's armour clicked, and Steve felt something warm on his face. Tony had retracted his right gauntlet, and the golden under armour, so he could cup Steve's jaw, skin to skin. "Marvel Girl's swept everything three times," he said, volume turned down low. The processors on the suit's speakers stripped away any gentleness that might have been in Tony's voice, but Steve heard it anyway. "There's no one left to save."

They stood so close, that when Steve pivoted to face Tony again, his nose almost brushed Iron Man's face plate. Tony's hand trailed down Steve's jaw, pausing on his throat, as though feeling for a pulse through the leather. Steve closed his eyes. He could feel the weariness and care pulling at him from skin to soul. The desire to lean in and rest his head on Tony's shoulder and let him take them home hit him so strongly that he wavered for a moment.

Then, he straightened and stepped back, letting Tony's hand fall away, armour reforming around it as it dropped. "There's still families who'll want to bury their children."

Iron Man's helmet dipped for a moment. When he looked back up at Steve, the machine's voice sounded harder. "There's over a thousand highly trained rescue workers here, and thirty-seven meta-humans, most of whom are more suited to search and retrieval than Captain America."

Steve felt his mouth turn down at the words, and made an effort to unclench his jaw and not make a fist. Tony had a habit of trying to protect him in the damnedest ways, besides, he was completely missing the point. "It's because I'm Captain America that I need to stay. People see this uniform and, well..." He felt his cheeks warm, and trailed off before he could finish that bit of arrogance.

Sickening as it was, he felt like he was doing more good here than he had in weeks. Bucky had gone to ground, not letting Steve help him when he needed someone to look after him more than he ever had. Instead of looking for him, Steve had stuck with Tony through interminable government meetings, and no matter what he said, he only seemed to make their position worse.

"You give people hope, Steve," Tony told him. "It's not just the flag, either; it's you."

Steve nodded to himself. "But...?" Tony didn't usually offer compliments like that without some kind of catch.

"Steve..." The armour hissed and whirred faintly as Iron Man shifted uncertainly. Tony had spent so much time in older, bulkier suits that that Steve had to wonder if he realised how much of his body language the Extremis armour gave away. He couldn't quite see Iron Man's chest plate rise and fall as Tony took a deep breath, but he could tell by the shift of the shoulder joints that he had. "After 9/11 -- after Oklahoma City, even -- how much time did you spend putting your shield between one American citizen and another because people were angry and scared?"

"More than I should have had to."

"It's not Muslims they're going to go after this time -- well, some of them will, because people are stupid." Iron Man jerked his hand sideways, dismissing a large chunk of his fellow citizens. "But look at the people, Steve. Look at them now. Our family is going to need your shield, Cap, and soon."

Steve knew Tony was managing him again, and felt disloyal for still considering taking Tony's version of the how the world worked over his dream of how things ought to be. He didn't feel entirely sure that, by leaving this place to go play politics, he wasn't turning into someone he would have fought in the old days. After 9/11, he'd told Nick Fury to get lost, because working to keep his country together felt more important than joining one faction or another and going looking for blood. He probably should tell Tony the same now, but instead he sighed and said, "I assume you have a plan for this."

"I have a plan for everything," Tony assured him.

Steve felt his stomach clench at the memory of several of Tony's previous plans. "I need to check in with the team leaders. Forty minutes, then we'll go home."

 

4. Bethesda Terrace in Central Park, Manhattan, New York
"Well, Partner, I'm glad it all came out in the wash! No hard feelings?"
--Steve Rogers (Tales of Suspense #58)

"I'm a soldier, Tony." Steve folded his arms tightly across his chest and glared at the lake as though he suspected the ducks secretly worked for Red Skull.

Tony leaned against a pillar, searching his friend's expression for some clue of how to talk to him about this. "Well, this will be like a promotion: General America." Steve tightened his fists, leather creaking. No good there, damnit. "If you have a better plan, or a better leader, I'm all ears, but we have to offer something. Waving your hands in the air and saying you don't like the new law isn't going to make it go away." He flung his arms out to illustrate the point, and Steve put a steadying hand on his shoulder before he fell in the lake. Tony wanted to yell, but they had to keep their voices down, under the cover of the damper in his briefcase.

Steve squeezed his shoulder then let his hand drop. "I understand, Tony. I do, but what you're talking about will change everyone's lives forever."

"You would take the brunt of it." He tried to appealing to Steve's desire to take one for the team.

"Yeah, maybe I would." Steve turned to fully face Tony, meeting his eyes for the first time since Tony had outlined his alternative to government-led Registration. "Honestly, the idea of holding that much responsibility -- that much power -- pretty well scares the hell out of me."

Welcome to my life. "I'd be be worried about you if it didn't, Cap." Steve's eyes narrowed slightly. He really seemed be getting a knack for picking up on when Tony was trying to manage or placate him. It probably had something to do with the amount of practice he's had these last few years.

A mallard splashed down a few feet away, and, startled, Tony broke away from Steve gaze. As he watched the ripples spread out from the bird's landing, Tony wished that time travel caused less problems. He could just go back and fix everything they'd screwed up, maybe kill Kang, too. While he was there, he could smack himself upside of the head for not realising sooner that Steve was both bisexual and interested in him.

However... Tony told himself to suck it up and stepped away from the pillar. Steve was also looking out over the lake again. The clouds had solidified into a high overcast that reflected grey in the green water. Steve's expression held a vacant, pinched cast that told Tony that he was probably seeing right though it to smoke and mangled limbs.<

Last chance. "We're barely holding on here, Cap." Tony pitched his voice so low that Steve had to lean in to hear him. He didn't understand why Steve didn't see this. The man hating playing politics, but the country had turned on him before, more than once. Doesn't he remember how fast it can all go wrong? "I had a plan that would work for sure, but..." He closed his eyes for a long moment before continuing, "but it would have cost more than I could bear. Putting you in charge of Registration is the only other way I can see through this without a massacre."

"I know that's what you believe, Tony," Steve told him sincerely, sympathetically even. Tony ground his teeth. "...and you're probably right. I've been trying, and I haven't come up with anything better myself." Steve stopped, biting the inside of his cheek. Tony felt his gut tighten in panic. He'd given Steve everything, and he still wasn't going to help. He'd bet the whole world on Captain America doing the right thing, and this was the right thing, dammit. Christ. I should have just lied to him. Sure enough, Steve continued, "But I can't do it, not like this. This isn't a decision we can make -- just you, me and the president -- not for every superhero in the country."

"We don't have--"

"We'll make time!" Steve's expression set, chin up, eyes hard. He looked like a war bonds poster.

There's that then. Tony's mind started churning though alternate plans. Most of them played out to bloody or intolerable ends. Tony shook his head minutely, and wished he didn't think so fast, or in such vivid detail.

He glanced at Steve, who was watching Tony intently. Tony couldn't tell if the look was critical or speculative. It wasn't expectant. "Listen for a minute." Steve took Tony's free wrist, holding it loosely but securely. His blue eyes were wide and serious. Tony felt almost hypnotised. "Tony, you're strong and brave and incredibly generous; if there's a price to pay, you always take it on yourself to spare your friends. Lord knows, that part of you drives me crazy some days, but it's also part of what makes you a hero. You've always been so good at seeing all the angles and choosing the lesser of two evils." He shifted his grip so that they were holding hands, and pressed his gloved fist to Tony's heart. "But we're in this together now, and if we're going to make a new future together, we're going to have to find a third way. Whatever it is what we end up doing, we have to do it fairly and openly. And, Tony, I need to do it honestly. Do you understand what I mean?"

"Of cour..." Tony started, but Steve squeezed his hand almost too tightly and shook his head. "Oh... I... oh!" Yeah, he understood all right. "Yes."

"And?"

Tony swallowed dryly and committed. "I said 'yes.'"

Steve smiled, a real smile this time, that deepened the fine lines around his eyes. "Okay." He cradled the side of Tony's face in one broad hand. His gloves had warmed to his body temperature, and Tony leaned into the touch. Steve stroked Tony's cheek with his thumb, and Tony tilted his head a little. Then he closed his eyes and let Captain America kiss him soft and slow.

The Extremis registered fifty-seven cameras and cell phones recording the moment. Every single one of Tony's plans tilted on its side. Steve planned to make everything better though pure good intentions, which seemed to work for him a lot of the time. Tony had no idea what the future might hold.

Hell, maybe it would be okay this time.

 

1. Steve Rogers' Residence, Brooklyn, New York
"I knew what it meant. I knew it would pass. I knew my feelings. I knew your feelings. I knew this was it."
-- Tony Stark ("Civil War: Confession")

The lights of the city filtered through Steve's windows and only just touched Tony's profile as he stood in the doorway. "It's just me," he said unnecessarily. "I... uh let myself in."

"I know." Steve had propped himself up on one elbow, but flopped down onto his back. "You forgot about the squeaky board in the living room, again."

"Oh." Tony shifted from one foot to another, the shadows playing across his face. Steve could see darker lines of stress under them, and lifted the sheets before Tony had time to ask if he could stay. Nights like these, Tony usually just stripped down, climbed in, curled up against Steve and passed out. It was kind of like having a thermal blanket, only with a heartbeat.

Steve moaned sleepily when he felt the touch of lips on his cheek, gentle and persistent. When Tony's mouth moved to cover his own, he tilted his head away. "Tony..." he protested, "It's three in the morning, and I've had a hell of a week."

"Shhh. I know." Tony touched Steve's chin, trying to nudge his face back into line. "You don't have to do anything. Just let me take care of you." His other hand slid along the outside of Steve's hip in a long, smooth stroke. The Extremis' healing factor kept Tony hands soft now, and Steve wondered what they would have felt like before. We waited so long...

"Okay." He closed his and let his head relax back into the pillow.

Tony took his time, trying to touch Steve everywhere, hands slow and languorous. His lips didn't leave Steve's, seeming to make a study of kissing him, intent and undemanding.

Steve's whole world felt... well, 'good' wasn't really covering it, but he couldn't really find any other word to describe the warmth and contentment filling him just then. He started to raise his hand, thinking of how the skin of Tony's back would feel, but Tony caught it, wrapping his fingers around Steve's. He pressed a kiss to the palm before he set it down on Steve's belly. "I'm taking care of you, remember." He finally trailed his finger tips over to Steve's dick, catching his hiss of shock in another kiss. "Easy."

It took nearly all of Steve's self control not to buck up into Tony's hands, or to flip them both over an turn this into something else. He wanted to let this play out like Tony needed it to. Maybe he needed to let go, too, and it felt so good. Another moan worked its way up from his gut, through his chest to his lips, where he choked it back when Tony's finger slipped inside him. He'd missed the part where Tony had found the lube, but obviously he had at some point.

Then Tony slithered down his body, disappearing under the sheets, and everything but sensation became lost in a haze of desire. Tony took his time, a long, long time.

When Steve's thoughts found their way back to something like coherency, he found he'd rolled onto his stomach, and Tony was inside him, still moving with an agonisingly slow intensity. He was whispering now, murmuring a devoted, unintelligible stream of words into Steve's ear.

It was then that Steve figured out that something was wrong. Because if this was Tony's last night on earth, Steve felt pretty sure that this what he'd be doing. "Tony..." He tried ask what was going on, but couldn't make the words come together.

"Shhh... it's okay. Everything is going to be okay. I promise."

But it didn't feel like it was.

The thought made Steve tense, and Tony came with choked gasp, hands knotting in the pillowcase on either side of Steve's head. When Tony caught his breath again, he kissed the back of Steve's neck. "It's been a hell of a week," he said, and rested his damp forehead on Steve's shoulder blade.

Steve inhaled slowly, lifting Tony as his chest expanded, enjoying the solid reality of the weight on top of him. Maybe that was it, maybe Tony was just worrying too much, like he did. By the time Tony had cleaned them up, Steve was three quarters of the way to sound asleep, telling himself that he'd badger the truth out of Tony in the morning.

Only, when he woke up Tony was gone, and the sticky note on the stack of paper on the dresser read: I didn't mean to tell you about this yet, but I can't think I need your help on it. Let me know what you think. Love, Tony.

Steve peeled the note off and folded it carefully, wondering what the hell S.H.R.A stood for.