Maria is calling him.
It’s too early. Tony is sore and stiff and has no inclination to force himself into the waking world.
“It’s 4 in the morning,” he responds wordlessly. Steve is passed out on top of him, Tony doubts he could move if he wanted to.
“We just found James Barnes’ body,” she says.
Tony can feel his blood slowing.
“What,” he says, closing his eyes to this new unexpected horror.
“Get here,” she says. “You should probably bring Rogers. Hill out.”
This is your job, he thinks, and nausea roils in his skull. Bring out your dead.
“Steve,” he murmurs, “you have to wake up.”
- - -
“I’m sorry,” Tony says when Sam’s left. “I wish I could go with you, I really do, but – ugh, Steve, this is such a mess, I haven’t been in shit this deep since Obadiah -“
“Tony, it’s ok,” Steve says.
Tony tears his head away from where it’s resting in his hands.
“I know what he meant to you,” Tony says. “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling right now.”
Steve looks resolutely out the window, and doesn’t look at Tony. There’s weariness written in his stance, the way his shoulders are slumping, the way his hands hang limply at his sides.
“I don’t know who he is now,” Steve says. “I don’t know anything. He – they say he’s been brainwashed. An assassin. That’s what they’d call me if I’d been born ten years later than I was, if they’d made me during the Cold War instead.”
“Steve,” Tony says.
“It’s cruel,” Steve says, “He’s alive. It’s what I always wanted. But it’s not – he might as well be dead.” His voice breaks, ever so slightly. He shuts his eyes tightly and leans his head against the molding around the glass.
“You never know,” Tony says softly. “You know how this shit works, Steve, he could be there, underneath, the source material could be –“
“He could hate me,” Steve says. “Even if he’s in there, he could hate me.”
“I’ll do whatever you need,” Tony says. “Anything. Say the word.”
Steve turns slowly, terribly deliberately, and Tony knows this is a thing people don’t ever see, Steve falling apart, dark and vulnerable. Steve lets him look, lets him see how his eyes are glazed and red and haunted, how there’s blond stubble on his chin.
He looks like he wants to say something. He’s lost, his eyes are miles away, but he flexes his jaw and Tony knows he’s biting back tears. He moves his hand, an aborted little wave in Tony’s direction before he drops it back down.
Like he wants the touch.
Like he wants Tony to give it to him.
But then the moment is gone, and it moves over Steve’s features in a wave, the steel, the resolve, the barriers put back up.
“Yeah,” Steve says, terribly sad, “I’ll let you know.”
- - -
Bucky died in costume.
He has energy burns across his chest, and one side of his face is completely black, charred and burnt, like human flesh should never be. There’s blood, so much blood, seeped into the star on his chest, smearing on the metal gurney he’s lying on. Bullets he couldn’t dodge, nestled between the ridges on his arm.
It was Steve, lying there, not too long ago.
“You gave him the shield?” Maria splutters. Dugan shifts uncomfortably in the corner.
“Let it go,” Tony says, willing this problem to go away. The headache is already coming, he can feel it filling out his temples, billowing behind his eyes. “Tell me how this happened.”
“You fucked up,” Steve says, speaking for the first time since they’ve landed. He’s speaking into his palms, holed up in the corner in a folding chair, his head in his hands.
Tony isn’t sure if he means S.H.I.E.L.D. or him.
He’s not sure there’s a difference, now.
Maria must sense danger, because she jumps in with a circumspect glance at both of them. “We think it was an anomaly. One of them shouldn’t have gotten past inspection, the coding was off, it killed him instead of apprehending-“
“I see that,” Tony snaps. “Can you offer me anything useful?”
Maria falls silent.
“Autopsy,” Tony says wearily, after a minute, almost sorry. “This can’t happen again.”
He hasn’t forgotten (though he’d like to wipe that whole night from his memory) how he waited, how Bucky never showed.
Hindsight is always 20/20.
“I’m going back home,” Tony says, but the word is foreign on his tongue.
“Should we shut the rest down?” Maria asks of him, because apparently this was Tony’s idea.
“No,” he says to the floor, because he doesn’t know what difference it even makes. “I’ll fix it.”
At that, Steve walks out of the room without looking at him.
- - -
Tony forces himself to go over Bucky’s autopsy report.
He reads about Bucky’s body and how the Sentinel killed him and catalogs each and every horrible injury. He lets it wash over him, he lets himself feel each and every stab of guilt, and when the not-inconsiderable dossier comes to an end, he reads Sharon’s autopsy reports.
He learns about how she’d been severely dehydrated and how the bones in her feet were broken from blunt trauma. He learns about how they kept her drugged out of her mind, how they tried to use her blood to pull Steve back through the timestream.
He learns about the innumerable wrongs he’s let happen, about the pain he’s done to Steve.
When he’s done, he sits in the kitchen and downs several fingers of Scotch before he commits himself to fixing the code he doesn’t remember writing.
He rides the elevator all the way down where he’s had them bring the offending unit. It stares up at him, which is unnerving, so he takes the head apart first, he goes over every fucking inch of it, but there’s nothing mechanically wrong that he can see. Still, there are 30 more of them, so he leaves it in pieces on the workbench. He doesn’t need another Ultron.
He goes over each and every one of the remaining machines. He makes sure the parameters are clearly defined, very distinctly delineates between ‘terminate’ and ‘apprehend’ and then he closes his eyes in horror for a moment and goes about updating the search criteria.
He’s going to do it right.
He modifies the parameters to detect biochemical energy. He trains them to ferret out extraordinary agility. Artificially generated magnetic fields. Modified arachnid DNA. He spends 2 hours writing in every characteristic of every person he’s ever worked with that’s gone underground.
Traitor, his brain hisses.
- - -
Steve sits across from him at the kitchen table, a thousand different kinds of betrayal in his eyes, and it strikes Tony, how he can’t even be comfortable in the most casual of spaces anymore. Even with the remnants of a half-eaten dinner strewn between them, even with Jarvis bustling about somewhere on the floor, even when he’s in sweats and a ratty t-shirt, the air itself is caustic.
He doesn’t belong anywhere.
“This is your fault,” Steve is saying, but Tony is only half-listening. He’s already moved ahead through the rage and the anger and the violence he’s sure is going to happen and onto the silence, the awful looks Steve will give him he knows he deserves but doesn’t want to endure.
Tony stares and stares, because there is nothing he can say or do to write himself out of this latest error.
“Yes,” Tony says to his coffee. Even if he doesn’t remember, even if he didn’t want this. Intent is nothing and consequence is everything, he’s coming to realize. The road to hell.
He’s learning every mile.
“He’s dead,” Steve says, all quiet, focused anger. “Him and Sharon, now, you seem to have a talent for getting everyone that’s every mattered to me killed.”
Tony doesn’t say anything.
“Are you even listening to me?” Steve says, kicking his calf under the table.
Tony looks up and can’t make an expression appear on his face.
“I’m sorry,” he says stupidly.
“No, you aren’t,” Steve says, throwing down the paper he’s carried in with him (CAP 2.0 SLAUGHTERED BY ROGUE SENTINEL, the headline boasts), standing to leave.
Tony’s brain kicks into higher gear, then, and he’s standing, too, reaching for Steve’s arm and begging.
“No, I am, I’m sorry, Steve, there’s – I’m sorry, I’m sorry, and I know that nothing I can say will help, but please, just – ”
“No, it won’t,” Steve snaps, shaking Tony’s hand off his arm. “You had to do this one thing, Tony.”
I know, I know, I know.
He doesn’t say it could have been worse, he doesn’t say I tried, he doesn’t say please forgive me.
“You told me this would be a non-lethal solution, Tony. Your words, not mine.”
I don’t fucking remember, Tony can’t say.
“I’ll shut them down,” Tony says, “I will shut them down, we never should have done this, it’s –“
“It’s not about the Sentinels, Tony, it’s about you, being sloppy. You aren’t like other people. When you screw up, people die. Bucky is dead, Tony, because you couldn’t get your goddamn code right,” he snarls.
Steve is dead because of you. Because of you, Tony.
Because of Tony.
Tony closes his eyes. “It’s been hard,” he says, “it’s been really hard while you were gone, Steve. ”
“Yes, I’ve heard,” Steve says. “I’ve heard how lost you were without me. I’ve heard how terrible everything was when you finally got your way.” Steve steps closer to Tony, and there it is again, the undeniable urge he has to scamper, to hide himself away in the sub-basement until this blows over.
“And to be honest? I’m really sick of the excuses,” Steve whispers viciously. “I’m not gone anymore, and you’re still doing a piss-poor job where it matters.” He huffs out a hollow little laugh. “The Tony Stark I used to know got things done right the first time.”
Everything sounds infinitely truer when it comes out of Steve’s mouth.
“Steve,” Tony says, and he’s pleading a little, because this is awful, this is more awful than he was prepared to deal with when he woke up this morning, and his head hurts and there’s no more room in him for this kind of disaster any more. “I get it, ok, you’re angry, justifiably so, ok, but I don’t know what –“
“No, see,” Steve says, looming a foot above him now, his eyes edged with feral rage, “You don’t get to tell me how I’m feeling,” he hisses.
“What can I do?” Tony says. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, tell me what I can do.”
Steve turns away. “Don’t ask me that.”
“I am trying,” Tony says, “I hate this, I fucking hate it, I don’t know how to be better –“
“You don’t get it, do you,” Steve says, all spit and disgust now. “This isn’t about you. You don’t get to be a martyr for this. Poor Tony, so much on his plate, so much responsibility, too much stress, no support, does anything actually matter to you?”
“Can you please not yell at me,” Tony says, feeling very small.
“Can I – fine, you’re right, it would just be a waste of energy,” Steve spits.
“Steve,” Tony says again, “I’m doing the best I can –“
Steve punches him in the jaw.
Tony finds himself crumpling to the floor, because it’s easier than taking a stand at this particular moment.
“Your best isn’t going to bring him back,” Steve hisses as he turns away.
He thinks he should stand up and hit Steve back, but then Steve is leaving, and Tony doesn’t have the energy to do anything but watch him go.
Tony sits, slumped against the wall, until he can’t hear Steve’s footfalls anymore, and then he sits some more.
- - -
He crawls into bed, later, when Tony is curled into a ball under the duvet. Then his fingers are on Tony’s face, exploring, irritating the bruise that’s blossoming on his jaw, running over his lips with the pads of his thumbs.
“I’m sorry,” Steve whispers into his hair, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have hit you, you just make me so mad, Tony, you don’t know what you do to me.”
Tony thinks he has some idea.
He doesn’t want to be angry anymore, he doesn’t want Steve to be angry with him. Really, he’d like to be held and kept and loved in Steve’s strong arms, but that’s probably not in the cards tonight, so he does the next best thing. He picks himself up and curls into Steve’s side, rubs himself on Steve’s skin and does his best to shut off his higher brain functions.
That’s all it takes, and Steve is rolling him over and forcing his boxers down over his hips.
Tony doesn’t need to say anything. That’s what sex is for.
- - -
This isn’t like the other times.
There is nothing but devotion in Steve’s half-lidded eyes as he cradles Tony in his arms and rocks into him, rocks them together as though they were never two different people.
He’s everywhere, writing this new history onto Tony’s skin with every press of his lips, and Tony clings to him with slick fingertips that can never feel enough. Steve is pressing his lips to Tony’s temples, the place where his eyelashes fall when his eyes are closed, the corners of his mouth fallen open as he pants for more, for more of Steve, for this to never end –
“Tony,” Steve is saying, his arms trembling, his neck tucked desperately into Tony’s, and he moves and Tony lets out a shattered sob.
He’s happy, there’s nothing in him but joy and desperate, aching need for his lover and he can’t remember the last time he’s felt like this (if he’s ever felt like this) -
He lets himself cry out, because it feels good to do it, because he is utterly in love with this man and this is everything they’ll ever need, this is how it always should have been, Tony-and-Steve, writhing on this bed, breathing each other’s air as if it were their own -
“Fuck,” Steve manages, wrecked and desperate, because he is the other half of Tony’s whole –
Yes, Tony is saying, I love you I love you Steve yes more Steve yes, and then there’s only blinding sensation and ecstasy and the blood rushing in his ears and Steve’s face next to his, whispering the only truth Tony has ever needed to hear -
Tony opens his eyes to his dark and silent bedroom and he’s trembling.
He reaches a hand up to his throat where Steve’s lips were, seconds before, but there are only hours-old bruises that ache when he presses.
He rocks with his knees pulled up to his chest and bites back sobs he should be screaming out.
- - -
It occurs to him, over breakfast the next morning.
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” Tony says, staring very intently at his half-eaten cherry turnover. He shifts on his chair until he finds a relatively comfortable position.
“What,” Steve says absently, not even bothering to look up.
“S.H.I.E.L.D.” Tony says. “This title. I want my soul back.”
Steve folds his paper with a sigh and levels his gaze at Tony. “Tony,” he says.
“No, don’t. I can’t do it,” Tony says, finally working up the guts to look Steve in the eye. “I’m going to give my notice.”
“That’s not an option,” Steve says. “You can’t quit.”
“Why the fuck not,” Tony says sharply. “Other people can quit.”
“Who do you think they’d get to replace you?” Steve says, entirely reasonably.
Tony has had enough of reason.
“I don’t even care,” he says. “Do you know why I took the job? Because I was obligated. Because whoever else they would have put in would have.” He bites at his lip. “You died and there was no one, Steve. It didn’t mean anything, it was so senseless.”
He’s startled at the vehemence of his own words, but it’s something he hasn’t allowed himself to say out loud since he took the job. It was Maria’s suggestion, yes. Piss off the right people, she’d said. It felt good. It was supposed to be a giant fuck you, an as long as I’m around there’ll still be heroes.
It’s something else entirely, now.
Steve is very still. “You have a responsibility,” he says. “Not just to me, Tony. To all of them. Out there.”
Tony snorts. “We’re sending sentinels after them, Steve, I think they’re beyond giving a shit about what we do here–“
“Stop. Listen to yourself,” Steve says, and he’s abandoned his eggs now. “When will you learn that you don’t exist in a vacuum? You took this job so this would stay in-house. They made their choice,” he says. “You need to make sure they –“
“I’m no good to anyone if I’m getting people killed. The collateral damage is getting unmanageable.”
Steve sighs heavily. “We knew there was going to be damage,” he says. “It’s better –“
“I don’t want to make these decisions anymore, Steve! I don’t want to have to choose between incarcerating our friends and killing them! How soon before it’s Sam on that table because I fuck up again? How soon ‘til it’s Peter?”
Steve closes his eyes. Biting back his anger on Tony’s account again, no doubt.
“I need to take myself out of the equation,” Tony says, letting his fork clatter to his plate.
“That’s not going to fix, this, Tony –“
“Then tell me what will!” he shouts, his voice echoing off the vaulted ceiling. “Tell me what to do, Steve!” He claws at his own hair. “I can’t do this, I can’t take the fucking stress, Steve, I’m hallucinating, ok, I’m not sleeping, I was never a good politician, I was never a soldier, I fucked up!”
His words ring in the spacious kitchen and Steve sits very still. “You’re not cut out for this,” he says, as if he’s realizing it for the first time.
“No,” Tony mutters, looking out the window, “I’m really not.”
“I can help you with that,” Steve says.
“They’re not going to make you director,” Tony says, “They were ready to hang you a few months ago-“
“That’s not what I meant,” Steve says, standing up. Stalking around the table. Insinuating himself in Tony’s space.
Tony sits very still as Steve’s hands run themselves down Tony’s chest, back up under his shirt. One of them wraps around his neck, and then his head is being forced up, and Steve is looking down at him with a predator’s smile.
He leans over the back of Tony’s chair, over his shoulder. “You have a control problem,” he croons.
“I wouldn’t if I quit,” Tony says miserably.
“You can’t quit,” Steve says. “Not until we can find someone to replace you.” He runs his hands through Tony’s hair.
It should be soothing, but Tony can’t concentrate when Steve’s hands are all over him. Which is always, these days.
“I’m going to help you,” Steve says, massaging Tony’s shoulders now. “I think we need to find Fury.”
“Don’t you think I’ve tried to find him?” Tony says wearily.
“No,” Steve says. “Not really. You’ve been doing everything but your job. Signing things. Meetings. Arresting people. Playing around with the Alphas.” He kisses Tony’s forehead and wraps his arms around Tony’s neck. “You haven’t had time to do real intelligence.”
Tony sighs, because Steve is right. “He’s off the map, Steve. I don’t even know if he’s in the country. I don’t know if he’s planning to come back - what are you doing?”
Steve is pulling him out of his chair, smooth and deadly and efficient as all his movements are, holding him around the waist, fisting his fingers in Tony’s t-shirt.
“I told you,” Steve says, holding him very firmly with his other arm around his shoulders. “You have a control problem.”
Tony swallows. “Yes,” he says.
“You just can’t let go, can you,” Steve says, moving the hand around Tony’s waist to grab at his ass. “You can’t relax,” he purrs.
“Steve,” Tony says, because they just had sex half an hour ago.
“Tony,” he mimics darkly. “Let me take care of you,” he says.
“I do,” Tony says. “I do let you take care of me.”
“No,” Steve says, running a thumb over Tony’s bruised lips. “You need to stop thinking, for a change.”
“I can’t,” Tony says. “I'm wired in.”
“Turn off the feeds,” Steve says, low in his voice, the unyielding edge of command creeping in.
Tony hasn’t heard that in a while.
“I can’t,” he says again, “they never really go away unless I turn off the network, and I can’t-“
“Tony,” Steve says, dragging him unexpectedly closer with a sudden flex of his arms. “Don’t lie to me. You have ways. Turn. Them off.”
Steve’s eyes are edged with fierce determination, all of their intensity focused on Tony’s face. It’s terrifying and smothering and Tony can’t help but think that he must need this if Steve is so insistent.
Tony uses a filter he hasn’t used since Steve died and blocks every one of the 3 billion receptors in his body to go off-network. He feels them going offline, one by one, and it shudders through him like a full-body cramp for a moment before there’s silence.
“Ok,” he says, feeling entirely not ok.
“Good,” Steve says, his mouth twitching upwards in a smile. He leans in for a kiss, and Tony opens his mouth automatically, lets Steve take what he wants, even though his lips are chapped and bruised and it feels like a chore.
Steve pulls back and cups Tony’s head in one of his massive hands. “We’re going to find Fury,” he half-murmurs, as if it’s as filthy a secret as anything he’s about to whisper in Tony’s ear. “You’re going to find him, and bring him back, and you’re going to walk away from this government business.”
“Ok,” Tony says, knowing he’ll agree to anything Steve posits now, because Steve has better ideas than he does. Steve has a working memory. Steve doesn’t hallucinate.
Steve is always right.
“Come with me,” Steve says, pulling them back to Tony’s bedroom.
- - -
“I’ve done research,” Steve says after Tony closes the door.
There’s a coil of silk rope on the bed that’s somehow appeared in the time it’s taken Tony to make coffee and pretend he gets any pleasure from eating breakfast anymore.
“Have you now,” Tony says, unease and intrigue warring in his voice. “Really, this is your solution?”
“You said you wanted my help,” he says.
Tony swallows. “Yeah, I didn't think you meant this,” he says.
“I know you like it,” Steve says, cupping Tony in one of his huge hands, and Tony’s dismayed to realize he’s already half-mast. “You have a drawer in your nightstand filled with restraints, Tony,” he whispers, dragging his teeth over Tony’s earlobe, and Tony’s breath catches in his throat.
Steve is hard already.
“Jesus, Steve,” Tony says, and Steve slides his hand up a little. “I don’t really,” he says. I haven’t used those since Rumiko, he doesn’t say.
Sometimes Tony thinks that maybe Steve came back wrong.
Because Tony has a closet full of toys, there are videos of Tony on the internet doing ridiculous things (when he was stupid and reckless about it), there was a time Tony did shit like this every night. Tony likes sex, he does. Except it’s Steve. He isn’t sure he’s ready to show Steve this part of himself. He’s not sure Steve is ready to see him.
"Have you," Tony says, and his voice gives out, he chokes. "Have you - wanted this?" Because they're admittedly not the best at communicating, but this is more than out of left-field for Steve, it's - odd, it's - unexpected -
It's not odd at all, Tony realizes, and maybe that explains some of what he's been doing recently, why it's never gentle and always slightly impersonal, why he always ends up with Steve's hands around his wrists.
Steve wants to tie him up. Steve maybe wants to hurt him. Recreationally.
It’s Steve, though, he thinks. Steve.
Steve runs a finger over Tony’s lips.
“Do you not trust me?” Steve says, as if he’s been reading Tony’s mind.
“Of course I trust you,“ Tony says as evenly as he can manage.
“Then prove it.”
This is all kinds of darkness. All kinds of dangerous.
It takes everything Tony has not to bolt for the door and call the armor and run.
“Ok,” Tony says, entirely unconvinced, and lets himself be led. Steve is already pulling Tony further into the room, dragging him off balance, handling him like he’s a ragdoll.
He smiles and locks the door.
“Why don’t you kneel,” Steve says, and Tony feels himself kneel.