Seated on one of the workshop benches, looking distinctly out of place, Stephen Strange gave him a quelling look. Tony Stark had been “raised” by Howard Stark, though, and the self-proclaimed sorcerer really couldn't hold a candle to him.
'I told you that I am no expert on the dead,' Dr. Strange said, weaving his fingers together in front of his face. 'But one of my associates is, and she was very clear on the why, at least.'
Tony rubbed his forehead above his left eye, leaving a grease stain from his blackened fingers. A headache was starting to build there, the way every headache had for the past sixteen years, dull and throbbing with an old heat. He'd stopped having other kinds of headaches after -
He brought that train of thought to an abrupt stop with practised ease, and ended it with after I was 21 so that it wouldn't pick up where it left off later.
'And this associate,' he said, using air quotes to make his point, 'told you that the past two decades of misfortune,' another pair of air quotes, 'is because of ghosts.'
'Spirits, but yes.'
'That are haunting me because they were killed by the weapons I, and daddy dearest before me, manufactured.'
'I had heard you were a genius, but you prove it so astutely,' Strange said, his voice like acid.
'Look, Wizard W ü nderkind –'
'Sorcerer Supreme, thank you.'
'Yeah, whatever,' Tony flapped his left hand. 'It's 2007, okay, not 1307, you're going to have to be a little more convincing.' He spread his arms wide, the gesture intended to encompass the entirety of Stark Industries. 'I don't know if you're up to date on the stock market – probably a good thing if you're not, a Stockbroker Supreme sounds way less likely to get you laid compared to Sorcerer Supreme –'
Strange snorted. His face relaxed a smidge, but retained an odd expression somewhere between worry and bemusement.
'– but SI is doing insanely well, and I'm certainly not feeling unfortunate, with Forbes predicting my networth to overshoot Gates at last. In fact, I'm feeling pretty fucking fantastic.'
Even as he spoke, though, his mind spilled back weeks, months, years – kidnapping attempts, accidental deaths of board members, broken deals; for his own part, relationships fell through until he didn't bother trying anymore, lost friends, explosions and accidents in his workshop that had no known cause. Very little that would make anyone notice on their own, but when strung together...
'I do not blame you for your scepticism,' Strange said, and stood in a swirl of his long jacket. Tony knew his eyes had to be lying, but in the dark folds he could have sworn he had seen a long swirling arm of a galaxy, as if stars were tucked in the sorcerer's pockets. 'But when you're ready to believe, please, do not hesitate to contact me.' He produced a business card on some silvery paper Tony had never seen before, and continued, 'My associate fears the worst if nothing is done, and I fear for your life if the same.'
Tony took the card, examining it closely. Dr. Stephen V. Strange, M.D., it said. Consultancies, castings, and counsellings.
'Hey,' he said, turning over the card. 'What are you a doctor of, anyw–'
He looked up, but the other man was gone.
Tony stared at the blank place where he'd been, then huffed. 'Jarvis, scan the card, file it,' he said, and pinned it to the board above his main work table before returning to the Jericho schematics.
Three and half months later, as he stumbled into his workshop with a hole in his chest and horror as sharp in his heart as the goddamned shrapnel, the card twinkled at him from across the room.
'Mr. Stark?' the crisp voice at the other end of the line said when it picked up, sounding surprised – and relieved. 'Are you alr–'
'I'm ready,' Tony said, cutting off the question that didn't really mean anything, anyway.
A pause. 'I'll be there shortly.'
'Hold on,' Tony said, staring down at the reactor in his chest. 'What kind of a doctor are you?'
Strange laughed. 'A neurosurgeon, Mr. Stark.'
'Damn,' Tony said, half mournful, 'I was hoping for a cardiologist.'
'...we'll see what we can do.'
Tony looked a mess, and he knew it.
It was too warm for the sweatshirt he wore, but it was better than putting the bruises and scars on display, and Strange didn't remark on it, at least.
This time, the sorcerer skipped the platitudes, just looked at him and asked, 'What can I do?'
Tony laughed, and god, it sounded like he was gargling glass. 'Unless your mumbo-jumbo can remove inoperable shrapnel? Nah.'
Strange flinched, and it was in sympathy, not disgust. Tony wasn't sure what he would have done with disgust, and so was pitifully grateful (not that he'd admit it.) 'For what it's worth,' He started, and Tony tensed, 'I'm –'
'Don't,' Tony interrupted, and Strange subsided. 'This is my own fault, so don't bother.' He looked at Strange, and felt like decades had passed since the last time they had met, instead of months. 'Is there a way to – de-haunt me, or something?'
'I am unsure,' Strange admitted. 'There is a stopgap we can try, to buy us time.'
'What is it?'
'Spirits can be confounded by physical spaces,' Strange explained, waving his right hand; a complex architecture unfolded beneath his fingers, staircases ending at ceilings, a hall of fireplaces, doors opening to doors opening to doors. 'If you dwell in such a space, the spirits will be confused and disoriented. Your – misfortunes – should decline for a time.'
'Wait a second,' Tony said, studying the illusion with reluctant interest. 'I could have sworn I'd heard something like this before.'
'There was a woman,' Strange said, the air of a confession about him. 'Not too long ago, on the cosmic scale, but long enough that it was my predecessor who went to her, in the guise of a spiritualist. Her husband's family had done much the same as yours, and the spirits had taken him and their young daughter.'
'She fled to California and build a building much like I'm describing to you,' Strange said. 'Her construction crews worked day and night, and the house grew. She kept building until her dying day.'
'But it never fixed the problem,' Tony said slowly, 'did it?'
'My predecessor searched for many years, but she died before he could find a cure.'
Tony shuddered. 'So, what, I'm going to be crazy-ghost-lady 2.0?'
'No,' Strange said firmly. 'I have my master's notes, and I will find it where he did not. In the meantime, this could save your life.'
'If you say so,' Tony said, but he could feel the humming of the arc reactor against what was left of his breastbone, a reminded of the kind of troubles waiting for him if he didn't at least try.
'What's all this about, Tony?'
He looked up from the circuiting he was soldering to the left interior elbow panel, and was met with Pepper's hard gaze and a familiar sheaf of papers.
Tony set aside the iron before he could do something stupid with it, like stick it absently in his mouth, and met her gaze evenly. 'I'm looking for a new property,' he said.
She crossed her arms, but didn't crumple the papers. 'There's nothing there.'
'Kinda the point, Pep.'
She sighed, drawn out and low like stone groaning under a mountain's weight, and Tony watched wistfully. Before Afghanistan, before Yinsen, before Iron Man – before, he cut it off, just before , something in her called to him. Her steadiness, maybe, the reliability; with Pepper, Tony thought he could have finally succeeded where he'd always failed, and loved her like she deserved. But then – everything, really. It had all changed. He wasn't someone she could tame anymore. He knew he confused her now, moved in new directions, thought in new directions. For a second, he let himself mourn what could have been.
'I know,' he said wearily, and she sighed again, this time sounding defeated.
'Will that be all, Mr. Stark?'
'...That will be all, Ms. Potts.'
A week later, the Mark II was flight ready.
A month after that, Obie ripped his heart out, and the purchase of seventy acres in West Virginia finally went through.
The first thing built – well, put together, since most of the structure was prefabbed – was a warehouse style workshop with an enclosed loft above the main floor. Tony dumped the position of CEO on Pepper's lap and fled there, and after a week, the sound of construction was as much white noise as the bustle of the city. The nearby town was destitute after the condemnation of the local mine, and if Tony only hired locally for the crew and paid more for the hours than he strictly should have, well. He was content to let them think they were pulling a fast one on the city slicker. It all but bought their silence when the paparazzi finally descended, which was actually kind of heartwarming.
No one bat an eye when Iron Man soared overhead, either, and for that , Tony was doubly grateful.
Two weeks past his exodus from Malibu, Strange paid a visit.
' Ciao, stregone !' He called out over the racket of constant construction, and set aside the Mark IV's right pauldron before beckoning him over. Strange smiled warmly, and clapped Tony's shoulder.
'How have you been?' he asked, voice carrying evenly through the bedlam; Strange was a worrier, Tony was learning, especially for those he'd taken charge of. Tony'd never say, but it was weirdly nice, in a hovering, grandfatherly way. The guy was definitely old enough for the job.
'Been worse, been better,' Tony admitted, see-sawing his hand back and forth, and Strange nodded seriously before releasing his shoulder. 'Got news, stregone?'
Strange smiled again, but shook his head. 'Nothing concrete,' he said, 'but I bring warning.'
'Again? Okay, lay it on me, Gandalf Stormcrow.'
Strange rolled his eyes. 'My associate has sensed movement among the spirits that bear you ill will, or are tied to you in some way. They will arrive soon.'
'Ah,' Tony said blankly.
'She also said to tell you that your recent actions in the Middle East have not gone unnoticed, and have done more good than you know,' Strange added gently. Tony suppressed a full body flinch at the mention.
'It's my responsibility,' Tony said instead, and meant it; threat beyond the grave or no, he'd seen what his weapons had done, the devastation they'd wrought across an innocent landscape and more innocent people. 'How soon is soon?' he redirected, and ignored Strange's glance.
'In a few days,' the sorcerer said, 'so best to what peace and quiet you can whilst you can.'
'That doesn't sound ominous, or anything,' Tony quipped, but it was weak.
'Indeed,' Strange said, sounding more amused than the situation really warranted, in Tony's opinion. He turned and eyes the Mark III, which stood battered and proud in a lit corner. 'The armour is impressive,' he said. 'May I examine it?' He made no move towards it, waiting, Tony realised, for permission.
For the first time since Afghanistan, it didn't feel like someone was walking on eggshells around him, handling him like an explosive. Strange was just being respectful.
'Go ahead,' Tony said grandly, and when Strange started asking questions, he was happy to answer them.
Strange had been wrong.
The sorcerer had left somewhere around seven or eight, and Tony had felt – content, maybe. Strange's warning had cast a heavy pallor on his visit, one only deepened by his cautious goodbye, so Tony wouldn't say he was happy. It was just nice to have a friend who didn't look at him like he was crazy, or sick, or dying, that was all.
Once alone, Tony had returned to the pauldron he'd been working on, and sunk into an engineering daze that was only broken hours later by Jarvis' voice.
'Sir,' he said, and Tony looked up, thrown by the concern in Jarvis' voice. 'Unidentifiable energy signature two hundred yards from the rear exit.'
'Pull it up, Jarv,' Tony said, setting aside the magnetic wrench.
The plasma screen embedded in the nearest wall ( ugh, so tacky. I should make something better, interactive holograms, maybe, better note that down – ) took a second to flicker to life. When the image came into focus, he sucked in a startled breath.
A woman stood peering at the house; she wore dated clothing – eighties, at a guess – a blouse with obvious shoulder pads, a pencil skirt, pointed heels. What was confusing was that she seemed to glow, just the tiniest bit, and he could see the underbrush through her legs.
'The construction crew's gone home for the night?'
'Thank god,' Tony breathed. 'Keep me updated on – her, jesus fuck .'' His hands were shaking, he realised, but couldn't tear his eyes away. The ghost turned, as if to look back the way she had come, and Tony could see a massive hole in her blouse, the flesh beneath ragged, what he thought were gleaming bits of metal buried amid the ruin.
The bile rose in his throat and he looked away at last. 'Shut the workshop down, J,' he said, and ran to the sink, where he dry-heaved for what felt like centuries.
When he finally stopped hacking up saliva, he scrambled up the stairs to the little loft space, bare of most everything but a bed and a drafting desk. Dimming the lights (but not turning them off), he crawled under the covers fully clothed, and didn't sleep until morning.
She was the first, but she wasn't the last.
They were invisible to the naked eye, and each day Tony was grateful for that. He could only see them through Jarvis' cameras and the lenses of the Iron Man helm, which was already too much for comfort. Now, he waited to drop the visor until he was clear of the property.
He hired more workers, to work through the night and clear the land, and if any of them found it odd, they didn't say. The building, against all of Tony's aesthetic tastes, began to sprawl out from the central hub of his workshop. In his darker moments, he thought of it as – some kind of sinister root system, an invasive mycelia. He felt like he was choking, strangled by the ghosts and the architecture both.
Months passed like this: he sent designs for generators and water filters and phones and computers to R&D for patenting, not much caring what happened with them after, only caring that what he created now wasn't destructive. R&D, which had been left a mess after the gutting SI had suffered from when they'd left the defence industry, fell ravenously on the designs like the wretched wolves they were. And Pepper – good ol' reliable Pep – spun the sector change with a finesse Tony couldn't have managed if he tried.
His bots finally made it to his backwoods workshop, and if sometimes Dum-E rolled around empty spots on the floor, or Butterfingers would chirp curiously at something Tony couldn't see, well, it was easy enough to ignore.
Strange's visits became weekly, quick check ups, but it was more interpersonal interaction than he'd had in a while, so Tony didn't complain. The sorcerer seemed shocked at how many spirits had accumulated, and disturbed by the state of them, as each bore the wounds that had meant their deaths.
When he commented on the number, Tony had grinned and joked, 'Build it and they will come, yeah?'
Strange had smiled, but it was deeply sad.
He continued to fly missions as Iron Man, more so now that he didn't have to hide from Pepper; she never visited, only spoke to him by phone or email, and Tony told himself it was for the best. Rhodey had returned to duty, and contact was sporadic, when it came at all.
Sometimes, he found tools where he hadn't left them, or felt a sensation not unlike brushing through cobwebs; hands, a touch too cool and wholly invisible, would tug at his hair or his shirt. Once, he swore he heard a voice, but he couldn't make out what it said.
When he slept, he often awoke to the sense that someone – something – stood in his doorway. It would have terrified him if it hadn't felt watchful, guarding.
He turned 38. He celebrated by flying to Antarctica to test the anti-freezing measures he'd taken, and returned by way of a leisurely flight over South America, with a stop at the Atacama because he'd never been.
It was the first birthday he'd spent since he was fourteen sober. That felt a little bit like flying, too – uncertain, swooping, weird. But good.
The guarding presence now stood through the night at Tony's door. Privately, Tony counted that as a good thing, because the spirits had finally settled in enough to up the ante.
Sharp implements would be scattered in his drawers, in clear hopes that he'd jab himself. Important parts began to be removed from the armour, prompting thorough checks each time he donned it. More than once, soldering irons were turned on when he was away. Little things, yes, but dangerous if unchecked – he had reason to be desperately grateful for Jarvis, on more than one occasion.
'Thank god at least one of you doesn't want to kill me,' he said one night as something rattled in the workshop below.
A hand's weight patted his shoulder, and Tony jumped.
'Wait, can you hear me?'
A long moment passed, and Tony's hopes fell, before the hand patted him again.
'Holy shit,' Tony said. 'Can you – uh, I dunno, tap my hand?'
Almost instantly, two fingers tapped the back of his left hand.
'Wow, okay,' Tony said, delighted. 'How about two taps for yes, one for no?'
A single tap, and Tony grinned wider. 'You think you're so clever, huh,' he said, and earned two taps for his trouble. 'Okay, you got a name, Casper?'
Two taps, then an emphatic one, as if rejecting Casper.
'After your time, I guess,' Tony chuckled. 'What's your name then?'
Almost immediately, Tony was kicking himself; the limitations of a yes-no communication style were already oppressively restrictive. 'Should I guess, then?'
One tap. Then a series of taps, and Tony lost count after eleven.
'Wait, hold on –' he snagged a pad of paper and a carpenter's pencil from the drafting desk, and braced the pad on his knee, left hand splayed on the paper. 'Okay, start over.' He marked each tap on the page with tick marks, and started a new tally each time there was a pause in the steady beat drummed on his left hand.
'Nineteen, twenty, five, twenty-two, five. Letters, right?'
'Well, then,' Tony said, and grinned at the space in front of him, hoping that was where the ghost was standing, 'Nice to meet you, Steve.'
A pause. Two taps.
Tony couldn't stop grinning for the world.
'I talked to one of them,' Tony remarked when Strange next came to visit. The sorcerer stopped mid step and stared; Tony preened, just a little.
'One of the spirits spoke to you?' Strange asked having taken a moment to process the idea.
'Not talking, per se,' Tony said cheerfully, 'but we've got a way with words, don't we, Steve?'
If two knocks on the wall could sound long-suffering, Steve certainly made them sound so.
Strange's eyes tracked something over Tony's right shoulder, and Tony struggled with the urge to look, too, even though he knew he'd see nothing. 'That is the spirit that has been – hovering, around you for weeks now,' Strange said slowly. 'I hadn't wanted to draw attention to it, but if it's talking on its own...'
'It's all cool, stregone,' Tony said. 'I think he's doing me a solid.'
Three knocks, the code for confusion. It got used a lot.
'Doing me a favour,' Tony clarified. 'As far as I can tell, he keeps the others away when I'm sleeping.'
Two firm knocks.
'I see,' Strange said, and they moved onto other topics.
That night, Tony asked, 'When were you born?'
It felt a little odd, talking to a dead guy, but Tony was used to talking to someone he couldn't see (hello, Jarvis?) so he figured it wasn't that great a leap.
One tap on his forearm. Nine taps. One tap. Six.
'And here I was thinking I was getting on in years,' Tony teased, but his mind was whirring. Poor guy probably died in WWII, then. He felt guilty for even thinking it, but he was selfishly glad that he hadn't been the one responsible for Steve's death, no matter how distantly. He seemed a nice guy, good at heart in a way Tony only really knew from Rhodey and Pepper. After all, he was guarding him nightly from serious injury or worse. He certainly didn't owe Tony anything, and did it anyway.
One tap, which could have meant any number of things.
Tony took a deep breath, gathering what little courage a coward like him had to his name, and asked, 'Do you remember how old you were when you... you know.'
A pause, then Steve tapped once.
'Do you remember anything?'
Two taps, but they felt uncertain, if a tap could be so. Tony frowned.
'You've got some holes in your memory then, huh.'
Again, Steve tapped him twice, but this time they were more sure. After the second tap, Steve laid his hand beside Tony's arm, pressed close enough to be deliberate but not intrusive. Tony wondered if maybe Steve was touch starved, but then figured he really didn't have a leg to stand on in that department, since he was pressing back.
'So, I've got an idea, Steve-o,' Tony said, and placed the paper pad and pencil on the table. 'If you grow tired of the whole guarding shtick, you can try moving the pencil? Hell, maybe you'll be able to write eventually.'
Two enthusiastic taps.
'Cool,' Tony said, and yawned.
The next morning,Tony awoke to a paper covered in frustratingly faint scribbles and Steve's significantly weaker taps.
'It's okay,' Tony said, tucking the pad away. 'Just because an experiment doesn't work doesn't mean it wasn't a good idea, yeah?'
Two taps that felt weirdly grateful, and Tony set to the work of the day.
'Steve is not the only one who is following you.'
Tony tensed at Strange's pronouncement; Steve's hand clasped his shoulder and squeezed, before tapping twice on his forearm. Sometimes, Tony had trouble puzzling out what Steve meant, given the limitations of how they communicated, but this time it was as clear as bells ringing. I'm here, the squeeze said. It's okay , the taps assured.
Tony had long avoided wearing the visor where he could see the ghosts, and had instructed Jarvis to hide the security feeds except in emergencies. He didn't want to see the ghosts, didn't want to look at his father's failings and his own entangled. Didn't want to see Steve's death written all over the screen. Didn't want to know.
Clearly that had left him out of the loop, though, as to whom was following him around at any given time.
'Sure hope that he's – she's?'
One tap from Steve's familiar hand.
'– he's, friendly then,' Tony finished.
Strange was watching him closely, or something over Tony's shoulder, anyway. His expression was guarded.
'Want to direct me towards him, then?' Tony said to Steve, sounding braver than he felt. 'Want to talk to him as face to face as I can get.'
Steve's cool fingers wrapped around his upper arm and tugged gently until he was facing his direct left.
He stuck out his free hand, pressing slightly into Steve's touch for strength, and said, 'Tony Stark. Nice to meet you.'
Fingers grasped his, and Tony froze.
He knew these fingers, had felt them sewing his skin back together, hand him wrenches, hold back his hair as he vomited from infection. This hand had clasped him into the Mark 1 and fired a gun and fallen still in a far off cave in Afghanistan.
'Yinsen,' Tony whispered, and the invisible hand of his saviour squeezed his.
Strange turned politely away, giving Tony privacy. If Anthony Stark sobbed, standing in a workshop under harsh fluorescent lights and holding the hand of a dead man, then at least only the dead witnessed it.
'I'm sorry,' Tony said over and over. 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry I should have tried harder built faster done better –'
Yinsen's other hand came to cover Tony's, and squeezed again.
A voice. Far off. Tony almost couldn't hear it, almost couldn't make it out, but he strained until he could.
'You're a good man, Tony. You have nothing to be sorry for.' Tony's hand was lifted, and papery lips kissed his knuckles in something close to benediction. 'You're forgiven. We forgive you.'
Behind him, Strange jerked in awe, and Steve's hand gripped his shoulder tightly; Tony paid attention only to the last echoes of Yinsen, to the fading sensation of the man's hands.
A weight fell away from his soul that he had not known he carried, nor for how long.
'Are they all gone?'
'No,' Strange said apologetically. 'Just the number you had been responsible for. The majority remain – your father's, the oldest and angriest.'
Tony grit his teeth. Of course. 'Okay,' he said. 'Then I'll have to keep trying.'
Steve's hand (so familiar, so comforting) grasped his, and lifted it up. Two taps came gently to the back of his hand. Then, to Tony's shock, Steve laced their fingers together.
Tony didn't know what to make of that.
One year after Obie betrayed him, four months after Yinsen forgave him, things changed.
'Oh, fuck ,' Tony muttered, pressing his gauntleted hand to his right side.
Whatever this fucking kid had made his weeby-as-shit dai-katana from, it cut through the armour like butter when it finally landed a hit. It knicked one of Tony's ribs and left a flap of skin and muscle that screamed in pain and more blood than Tony had seen in a long time.
' Fuck .'
'I knew it!' the kid crowed, cocky as anything and waving the sword around carelessly. 'Your armour is no match for the Blade of Edges!'
'...Are you fucking serious ?' Tony demanded, momentarily stunned by the ridiculous name. 'The Blade of Edges? That's the best you could come up with?'
Normally, small fry like this were beneath him, but more than one military base had been literally hacked into, holes cut into the walls like the kid was carving up cheesecake, and the kid had stolen more than one decommissioned Stark missile.
'Question not my infinite power!' the kid said grandly, waving his sword even more, like flailing would make up for his utter lack of skill.
Tony opened his mouth to respond, but gasped instead as cold fingers brushed through his armour to touch his shoulder.
'Steve?' he said sotto voce, staring dead ahead to avoid looking at him and fighting confusion; he was in Miami , how was Steve even here –
Two taps, fast and shaky in what felt like panic. Then a cool palm brushed down his arm, following the crook of his elbow, and Tony sucked in a breath.
Not now, not now, Tony chanted in his head, jesus, the guy is dead , you're bleeding out, now is not the fucking time, Stark –
Steve's hand skimmed down to the hole in Tony's side and fell still.
'Steve,' Tony said a tiny bit louder, 'What are you –'
He hissed in surprise as something pulsed , something in his blood with no name and no pity, leaving a burning sensation on the walls of his veins. Steve's fingers suddenly grew warm.
'So easily defeated?' The dumb kid taunted, and lifted his – ugh, so fucking cringeworthy – dai-katana higher. 'I expected a greater challenge from you, Iron –'
The kids head snapped to the left, as if punched hard on the right cheek, and he yelped loudly as the same something jerked the sword out of his hands and snapped it in half.
'Uh,' the kid said, and the hilt of his own broken sword struck his temple, knocking him out.
Tony stared; through the filter of the Iron Man HUD, he could see some cloud of – of glowing blue static, formless and tall, dropping the hilt with an annoyed toss.
Then, Steve spoke .
'He shouldn't be talking,' the cloud said in a voice that was both deeply exasperated and deeply affectionate. 'Got a cut in his side as deep as my thumb, and he just keeps talking .' The cloud poured over in a way that implied a quick stride, and a tendril stretched out, deftly tapping Tony's free hand. It looked like a wisp of mist in Tony's sight, but still felt like fingers on his skin. Warm fingers, warm as anyone living, and the sensation was both so familiar and so strange that Tony opened his mouth without thinking.
'What, you think I talk too much?'
The cloud paused. 'He couldn't have,' he said after a moment, and tapped him twice again.
'Steve,' Tony breathed, 'Steve, I can hear you .'
The cloud flinched away, but crowded back in a second later, a hand Tony couldn't make out ( so warm, god, I thought I was in trouble before ) holding his upper arm in a bracing grip. 'You can hear me?' Steve said, and Tony swallowed hard at how goddamn wistful Steve sounded. 'Really? After so many –' a deep, rattling breath. 'Tony, we have to get you to a doctor.'
'Ugh, no,' Tony said, staring at the cloud, his heart beating too fast for its own good, the arc reactor weighing heavily in his chest. 'I hate doctors. Jarvis can patch me up.'
'You need stitches , Tony,' Steve said, the exasperation returning with a vengeance, and the cloud quivered in frustration. 'You can not give yourself stitches on your right side, you blockhead.'
'Hey, I totally can!'
'No,' Steve said, and his voice was final. 'You can't.'
Tony didn't do his own stitches, because the cloud of interference that was Steve radiated disapproval the entire way to West Virginia, and the sensation made Tony's blood itch. Which was new.
After he'd been seen to by an unimpressed nurse at the nearest hospital to his workshop, Tony fielded calls from both Pepper and Rhodey at once, which was hard to when also flying the damaged suit and ignoring the shiny new Steve-sense he'd acquired. 'Yes, Pep, I'm alive,' he said, gritting his teeth against the thrumming sensation that flew two feet above him. 'No, no major injury, just one hundred forty-seven stitches –'
'ONE HUNDRED FORTY-SEVEN?'
'– and a nicked bone, cripes, Pep, shout a little louder and we won't even need the phone –'
'Tones, you could have died ,' Rhodey cut in.
'– but I'm still here,' Tony argued. 'I'm alive , I can handle myself.'
Steve radiated disapproval again.
'Look, both of you, call me when you're over your primal need to shout,' Tony snapped, and hung up. He flew the rest of the way home in silence, and ignored how Steve's disapproval dissolved into a wary concern.
'Oh, dear,' Strange said, eyeing the space behind Tony where his Steve-sense told him the ghost stood. 'That's unfortunate.'
'Oh, great, now what?' Tony snarled.
Strange gave him a glance that was pure irritation, but it didn't sting the way it always had from – well, from other people. 'Something has changed,' Strange said finally. 'Steve is – stronger, for lack of a better word. More present.'
'Yeah, we've noticed,' Tony snorted.
'He can hear me now,' Steve added.
'Is that a bad thing?' Tony asked, now nervous.
'No, not at all,' Strange still looked stunned, though. 'It's simply that you do not have the gift for speaking to the dead. It has never manifested before now, at least.'
'Well, it's not everyone,' Tony pointed out. 'Just Steve.'
'But that should be impossible without a bloodgift.'
Tony winced, and his Steve-sense radiated something between surprise and a sudden, horrible clarity. 'That tryhard kid in Miami,' Tony murmured, hand pressing against his still healing stitches. 'He – you touched the cut.' He turned to face his right, where the Steve-sense was strongest. 'Then –'
'I didn't know that would happen,' Steve said, sounding miserable. 'I – you were hurt, I just wanted to see if you were alright.'
'Hey, Steve,' Tony said, holding out his hand, palm up. 'It's okay, I'm not mad. You probably...' he swallowed his pride. 'No, you definitely saved my life. I'm not mad,' he repeated, and finally, Steve grabbed his hand, holding on like it was a lifeline. 'It's all good,' Tony said, and turned back to Strange, who was eyeing Tony's floating hand speculatively. 'What brings you to these parts anyway, stregone?' he asked, trying to focus on the sorcerer instead of the relief rolling off Steve in waves, or the warm press of his hand on Tony's palm.
'Right,' Strange said, snapping his fingers. 'I came to tell you that I've ferreted out the cure.'
Tony stilled, and Steve's hand in his tightened painfully.
'Without a shadow of a doubt. I've had my suspicions since the incident with your friend Mr. Yinsen, but I've held off on bringing it up because I wished to be sure.' Strange watched him closely. 'Someone must speak for your father's dead, unanimously, and forgive you.'
Tony felt panic like bile in his throat, and didn't know why.
'That's it?' Steve asked, and determination was bright in the air, in Tony's blood. 'We have to forgive him?'
'Steve –' Tony said, unsure of what was going to follow the name but desperate to spit it out.
'I'll be back,' Steve said, and let go of Tony's hand.
'Steve, no –' Tony grasped blindly, but his hands closed on air, and when he called, no one answered him.
Tony thanked Strange for his hard work, promised to keep him updated, and kicked him out.
He kicked everyone out, as a matter of fact – let the construction crews go early, told Jarvis to keep to minimal sensors, to hold all calls.
He wandered the house he built, and thought of it a tomb. It had grown ridiculously large in the year or so he'd been here, and was as twisty and secretive as ever he could have imagined. Long hallways intersecting staircases, walkways to nowhere, rooms one could look into from above but could never enter, as they had no doors; he wandered, and was lost.
Night fell, and that was where Steve found him, perched in an unfinished tower that housed a spiral staircase and nothing else. The roof was open to the sky, and Tony stared through the wooden beams towards the stars. There were more stars than he knew what to do with, more stars than he'd ever seen in one place.
His Steve-sense perked up, and he realised Steve was at the bottom of the stairs.
No. No, no, no, I'm not ready for this, I'm not ready –!
'Tony,' Steve called up softly.
'Go away,' Tony called back, but that wasn't what he wanted to say at all.
Steve came up anyway. Tony couldn't help thinking that he must have been a stubborn son of a bitch in life, probably bulldozing his way into all sorts of trouble; he couldn't help trying to imagine what Steve must have looked like. Probably thin as a rail, Tony thought. Maybe light brown hair, maybe blond, with blue eyes, wide and fierce and steady. A scrawny thing, a scrappy thing.
He'd never know.
'Oh, Tony,' Steve said. A warm weight settled beside Tony, and he closed his eyes; if he couldn't see, he could pretend Steve sat with him, alive and healthy. The warmth was broad, and Tony revised his mental picture; built like a wall, maybe, or an athlete. He couldn't imagine a face, but he'd bet his ear that Steve's eyes were blue. Now they were dead.
Steve held his hand, weaving their fingers together like he was putting them back in their natural place. 'Tony,' he said, his voice achingly gentle. 'I've spoken to the others. We –'
'No, don't say it,' Tony interrupted, and didn't care if he sounded like he was begging. He was. 'Don't say it. Please.'
'No, just –' Tony scrubbed at his face with his free hand. 'Steve, please.'
How could Tony say it? I've only known you less than a year, but you're the most – no, too desperate. I know you're dead, but I'm not sure I can do any of this without you, because – no, too obvious. You're my best friend and – a lie. You're so important, Steve, and I'm selfish, so, so selfish –
'Don't want you to go,' Tony mumbled, and clung to Steve's hand. 'I can't be alone again.'
Steve's hand spasmed in his, but the grip remained tight. 'You're not alone,' Steve said, but he sounded pained. 'You have Miss Potts and Colonel Rhodes –'
'Pep thinks I'm crazy, and Rhodey's busy with his life,' Tony said. 'They don't – I'm not wanted there, I'm not who they need me to be.'
'You only need to be Tony,' Steve said, invisible thumb rubbing circles on Tony's wrist. 'You have Strange –'
'Once I'm de-haunted, he'll find other things to do,' Tony pointed out. 'I'm a project, a checklist –'
'No,' Steve said, the word hanging brokenly in the air, a desperate sadness spilling from him into Tony's blood. 'Never, Tony, they want you, you're – you're wanted, Tony, I promise.'
'And you want to go.'
'No, Tony, jesus,' Steve said, and his other hand wrapped around the one he was already holding. 'If I could stay and set you free, I would, I swear I –' A deep, shuddering exhale Tony could hear in his bones. 'You deserve so much more than this,' Steve murmured. 'So much more than to rot in a house filled with the dead. I would do anything, anything, you hear me, to set you free from this.' Steve's grip tightened, then fell away. 'Can you sit up?'
Tony did so numbly, turning blindly to face Steve's wall of warmth, his eyes still clenched tight.
Steve held his hand again, but he also put a hand on Tony's neck, pressed their foreheads together, and for a moment, Tony forgot Steve was dead.
'Tony, I choose this,' he said, so quietly it was like Tony couldn't hear him again. 'Please, let me make this right.'
Tony nodded. There was nothing else he could do.
'Tony Stark,' Steve whispered. 'I forgive you. We forgive you.'
Something lifted away from him, something vast and dark like the night sky drowning in city lights, and Tony gasped, or sobbed, he'd never know which. He curled forward into Steve's warmth, clutching Steve's hand with all his might, and waited, heart breaking, for him to fade.
A minute passed.
'You're still here,' Tony said, and his hand hurt from how hard they held onto each other, but he didn't care.
'I'm still here,' Steve said. They started laughing, unsure of who started, but it didn't matter; they laughed, exhilarated and a touch hysteric under the sky full of stars.
'The bloodgift wouldn't keep him here,' Strange said, and sounded bewildered. 'It creates a tie, certainly, but not one that would have held him here if he intended to go.'
'Then why am I still here?' Steve demanded. 'Does that mean it didn't work?'
'You are the only spirit still here,' Strange assured. 'As far as I can tell, the curse has been lifted. Perhaps...' His gaze turned hazy, as if he was looking beyond them and upon an invisible landscape. Tony's Steve-sense echoed his confusion, though, so Strange wasn't looking at Steve. The sorcerer rose from his seat on one of Tony's work stools and swirled off towards the door. 'I have business to attend to,' he said over his shoulder. 'I will return.'
'Uh, Strange? Wait –'
The man was gone.
Tony scowled. 'That was weird.'
The Steve-sense became deeply amused. 'Would you say it was –'
'Steve, make that joke and I will find a way to punch a ghost, don't think I won't.'
Steve's laughter warmed Tony's blood like sunlight, and he ignored the way it made his skin ache.
'Sir, a call from an unidentifiable number is breaking through my protocols,' Jarvis said, voice brassy in irritation.
Tony frowned. 'Pull it up, J.'
'You're a hard man to find, Stark,' a voice he didn't know said as the plasma screen flickered to life. A man with a dark, lined face and a menacing eyepatch was on the the other end. 'Even harder when you've got Grandaddy shielding the property.'
'We're not related,' Tony said idly, but there was a warm glow in his chest that he ignored. He'd gotten good at ignoring things, lately. 'Look, I know I should ask who you are first, but I'd rather ask about –'
'If it's about the eyepatch, don't even start.'
'Right, who are you, then.'
'I'm Director Major Nicholas Fury, of the Strategic Homeland –'
'Right, SHIELD,' Tony interrupted, not caring to hear the whole spiel a second time – the agent who'd tried to get him to keep his identity secret and had smoothly handled it when he'd refused to had done a good enough job the first time around. 'Look, buddy, I don't know how you got this number, but –'
'Hear me out, Stark. I've got an offer you won't want to refuse.'
'Well then,' Tony said, as Steve wandered into the room from the west wing of the house, 'Lay it on me, Evillene.'
'What the fuck is that, Stark?'
'A prototype video scrambler, ignore it,' Tony lied fluidly, and Steve paused. Tony tapped the table in front of him twice, and got to feel Steve's acknowledgement (and delight at the remembered code) thrum through his blood.
He never wanted it to stop.
'Fine,' Fury said, sounding disinterested already. 'Look, here's the deal. You, as Iron Man, come and work with an initiative we're putting together to handle problems too big for normal folk to handle. There's been some serious incidents, some of which were yours, some not, and it's got a whole lot of important people nervous. We'll supply you with intel, a team –'
'I'm not really a team-player, Nicky,' Tony said, flapping a hand. 'What would I be getting out of this guaranteed headache?'
'I have it on good information that we've found something recently that you'll want to see. Someone, actually. We'll give you first crack at him, essentially.'
'What are you talking about?' Tony demanded, confused. 'I'm not looking for anyone, who told you anything?'
'Dr. Strange,' Fury said. 'Who do you think gave us the number?'
Strange met them at SHIELD headquarters in New York, and did not look nearly apologetic enough, in Tony's opinion. Steve agreed, if the itchy disapproval (for once not directed at Tony) in his blood was anything to go by.
'What's this all about, Stregone?' Tony asked, as they were led through hallway after bland, grey hallway.
'I know why he stayed,' Strange said, and Tony almost tripped into a wall. It was only Steve's invisible grip on his elbow that kept him from breaking his nose.
'Tony,' Steve said, and he sounded wavering. Tony's blood was beginning to tremble ever so slightly. 'I feel... not good.'
Tony reached over and gripped Steve's hand, knowing now unerringly where it would be; it was too warm in his palm. He didn't say anything directly to Steve, for fear of the agent already looking deeply confused, and instead turned to Strange, scowling. 'What's going on?'
'Tony, Steve's not dead,' Strange said.
The world stilled.
His grip grew tight over Steve's hand, so hard it had to hurt, but since he was pretty sure Steve was leaving bruises on his arm, he didn't much care. '...What?' He finally managed, but it was a quiet, shivering thing.
'Steve is not dead,' Strange repeated.
'Tony, something's wrong,' Steve said, and the trembling in Tony's blood was growing stronger; now, though, he thought he might know what it could be.
'No,' Tony whispered, 'No, Steve, something's right. Where is he?' he demanded, the now frightened-looking agent flinching.
'Tony, wait,' Strange said, hand settling on Tony's shoulder. 'There's something you should know, first.'
'I don't care,' Tony snapped, mind racing through everything he knew about Steve in the time it took his heart to beat once, 'I don't care that he'll be ninety-something, I need to see him –'
'Who is he, Tony?' Strange pressed. 'Do you even know?'
'He's Steve,' Tony snarled, frustrated that Strange was keeping him from getting where he was needed. 'He's Steve, he's always been Steve. He was willing to go into whatever comes after this shitty puppet show we call life for me! Me! I don't need to know more than that!'
'He's Captain America.'
Tony froze, and would have remained so had Steve not tried to pull away, dismay's cold touch now joining the trembling in Tony's veins. 'No, don't you dare,' he said, absently swatting Steve's arm before drawing him closer. Finally, he managed to say, 'That actually explains a lot.'
'I'm who, now?' Steve asked, huddling into Tony like he was a calm port in a vast storm.
'Pardon,' said the agent. He was ignored.
'You don't know?' Strange said.
'I don't remember a lot,' Steve replied, sounding a little sheepish. Tony rubbed a thumb over his invisible forearm.
To his credit, Strange looked ashamed. 'My apologies,' he said. 'I thought you had kept it from Tony. I was worried that you would –' he looked away. 'Regardless. I am sorry.'
Tony let go of Steve with his left hand, holding tight with his other, and patted Strange gingerly on the arm. 'Thanks, I think,' he said, and Strange nodded, still looking away.
'Should I... Should I bring you to Captain Rogers, sirs?' the agent said, looking nervous and eyeing the empty air that Tony still had an arm slung around.
'Lead the way,' Tony said, and laced his fingers through Steve's, like Steve had after Yinsen. The hand that had always been so steady in Tony's before now shook under his touch, and was so warm Tony would have thought him feverish, if he'd been physical.
They hurried now, down deeper into the building complex until they reached what was clearly a medical bay. All of the cots were empty, save one, and Tony's breath caught.
'Tony,' Steve's hand was curled tight around his, 'Tony, that's –'
'That's you, handsome,' Tony said, and Steve radiated embarrassment like starlight. 'Let's put you where you belong.'
'What if I don't remember?' Steve said as they crept closer. 'What if I don't remember any of it?'
'You will,' Tony promised, swallowing his own fear. 'You will, and if you don't, I'll remind you, I swear I will –'
'Tony,' Steve said, and Tony did the bravest thing he'd ever done in his life.
'I love you,' he said. 'Now get back in your body so I can punch you for all the things you totally said when I couldn't hear you, don't think I don't know.'
Steve chuckled, sounding dazed, and Tony felt a mouth, fever-hot and achingly brief, press to his cheekbone. 'Tony, I –'
'Save it,' Tony said. 'Hop to it, Captain.'
Steve let go, and Tony fought the wild fear, clenched his fists to his side so he didn't reach out and snatch Steve back to him. His Steve-sense drew taut, and then, just when Tony expected it to snap, it settled instead just behind the arc reactor.
The pale body on the bed sucked in a deep breath, coughing around the breathing tube and his hand flying out; Tony caught it, and it was like Steve had never let go.
The machines he was hooked to began to beep wildly, and the agent ran for the doctors. Tony didn't notice, too busy pressing Steve's hand to his chest and murmuring, 'Hey, ease up, Steve, it's okay, it's okay, sweetheart, shh, it's okay, you're safe, you're with me –'
Steve's eyes flew open and caught his, and Tony had been right, they were so blue that Tony would never look at the ocean the same way again. Steve fell still at last, staring at Tony, and for a moment, it was like he'd never seen him before. Tony braced himself, and waited as Steve's other hand came up.
It reached over, shaking with exhaustion and disuse, and tapped twice on the back of Tony's hand.
'Oh, thank god,' Tony said, and then the doctors came.
'So, you want to tell me what happened here?' Fury said, standing at the end of the bed when the doctors had left.
Tony, who sat in a chair drawn up to the cot and held the sleeping soldier's hand like it was the heart of him, shrugged and said, 'Nah.'
That was that.
When Steve woke up the second time, it was late night and Tony would bet every dollar to his name that he looked like he hadn't slept for days.
He didn't know what he expected Steve to say, but it sure as hell wasn't 'What are you all the way over there for?' and to tug him onto the bed. Steve arranged them until they were a loose-limbed pile, Tony's face buried in his shoulder, and Tony didn't know how the hell Steve made a hospital bed comfortable, but he did.
'Hey, Stregone?' Tony said, stepping out of the room as the doctors returned.
'Yes?' Strange said, looking at him closely; Tony wondered now why he had ever thought Strange would just up and leave. Not with a look like that on his face.
'Thank you,' Tony said at last, and hugged Strange, hard.
Strange hugged him back, and it didn't feel strange at all.
'You want to tell me why you just demolished the house you spent a year and a half building and donated the land to be used to build a technical centre?' Pepper demanded six months later, stalking into the Malibu workshop.
Tony pushed back his welding goggles and grinned. 'Hey, Pep, how expensive is a skyscraper, anyway?'
'So help me god, Tony Stark –'
Rhodey paused in the doorway of the penthouse living room, his eyes blown wide. Tony frowned. 'Tones,' he said, sounding strangled, 'Why is Captain America sitting on your couch?'
Tony poked his head in. Four years on from Steve's recovery, and no one had found out who Steve Rogers, Tony Stark's partner, truly was. As far as Pepper and Rhodey were concerned, he was some Amish guy Tony had met in West Virginia and seduced to the dark side. Tony thought it was hilarious. Steve, wanting his privacy, had tolerated it. He'd never worn the costume home, they'd always been careful about the cowl, and though sometimes it was hard to not just grab Steve after a dangerous situation and plant one on him, it was their life. Tony didn't mind. He fucking loved it, as a matter of fact, because it meant Steve was here and alive.
But if Steve was in the living room, either he'd finally decided to come out of the superhero closet (lair, maybe? Bat-Cave? Fortress of Solitude?) or something was so seriously wrong that it didn't matter anymore.
So Tony strolled into the room and kissed Steve's cheek, ignoring Rhodey's sharp intake of breath. 'Hey, bell'uomo. Why are you suited up?'
'Sorry, Colonel Rhodes,' Steve said, pushing the cowl off and rolling his eyes. 'For the secrecy, I mean. Tony, Fury's calling in the Initiative.'
Tony flinched. 'What? Finally?'
'Yeah, that's what Clint said –' Steve began, then froze. In Tony's blood, a deep, pounding sorrow resonated, and he reached out for Steve, who did his best to both cling and look like he wasn't.
'What's wrong?' Rhodey asked, and Tony had to give him credit, he only gave Tony a single murderous glance. He was taking it really well.
'Tony, you're going to want to sit down for this,' Steve said.
As he did whenever Steve's voice took on that tone, Tony did exactly as he was told.
He opened his eyes, after having flown a nuke into space and expecting to never open them again, to Steve's pissed off face.
'Do I at least get a kiss?' he asked.
'As soon as Medical checks you out,' Steve said through gritted teeth, 'I'm gonna punch you through a wall.'
Brooklyn had crept back into his voice, the only hint to anyone but Tony that it was fear and not fury that made him shake.
To Tony, it was the way his blood vibrated.
They stood in the wreckage of the Tower's penthouse, taped ribs and bandages decorating them like war medals, their foreheads pressed together. Everyone had survived. Clint had been recovered, Natasha was safe, Bruce was resting, and Thor was sitting with his errant brother, keeping vigil over the god who would have killed the world.
Steve and Tony stood still, and held each other close.
'Don't do that again without me, got it?' Steve said.
'Can't promise that, sweetheart,' Tony said back.
'I know, but,' Steve said, and his mouth was fever-warm, the way it always was, and it said things his words could not.
Carefully, mindful of bruises and cuts and cracked bones, Tony tapped twice on Steve's spine. He did it again when Steve paused and drew back, keeping his eyes trained on the bright, living blue. One two, he tapped. I love you, it said.
Steve tapped back, gentle as anything. One two, he tapped. Always, it said.