Tony wakes early with his face plastered to the coffee table, a bottle between his thighs, orange sunlight creeping over his face and a hollow ache he knows won’t go away with his hangover.
He brings his brain online and really, just the effort is enough to make him dry-heave, but there’s no one left to give him disapproving looks or take away his liquor, so he drags himself over to the coffee maker and swallows what’s almost certainly a dangerous dose of aspirin and absolutely does not think about what he thinks he said last night. It settles, heavy in his stomach, the awful stab of regret indistinguishable from the nausea.
He had an impossible chance, and he squandered it away for a pittance. A few hours’ numbness. A few hours of empty relief.
Tony vomits, just once, and pours the rest of the bottle down the drain in the kitchenette.
He doesn’t want to do this anymore.
- - -
Maria almost drops her coffee in shock when he walks onto the bridge in his uniform. Tony can’t say he blames her, quite frankly, he’s shocked he doesn’t have alcohol poisoning.
Not that he wasn’t trying. Extremis, he decides, is a curse.
They spend the morning going over the manifest detailing all the tech they confiscated from Latveria – generator units, the apparatus Tony saw, various pieces that look reverse engineered from the time machine that once sent him to medieval Wales. He tells Maria so, and she chokes on her coffee. She seems to be having trouble appreciating humor right now.
He has it all packed and stored – he’s sure the science types will want to go over it all, but there’s no way of telling if it’s still tagged with Steve’s biotelemetry – or Red Skull’s, for that matter, and the last thing he needs is some overeager probie fucking up the space-time continuum.
There are meetings, and there are inspections, but his mind is down in detention.
He hates this part, the comedown, the inescapable melancholy that mires him in despair the next day. He doesn’t absorb the majority of what Dugan tries to tell him about the search for Fury, or the details of Sharon’s undercover assignment, or how how the autopsy indicated she had chronal markers in her blood.
Steve’s voice, though, that, he can’t seem to get rid of.
Tony isn’t sure what he expected, but his fucking face, his voice, his everything that Tony ever wanted, warped with rage and hurt that Tony put there.
He’s a fucking idiot for thinking he was ever going to get a second chance.
He wants to blame it on the bottle, wants to think that it would have happened differently in daylight, but really, he knew as soon as it left his lips. Steve would have reacted the same way even if he’d been sober. All those years, Tony thinks. Sparring, fighting, arguing. So much time spent in close quarters. Saving each other. Tony could never quite tamp down on the wanting.
Steve doesn’t want him. Steve never wanted him, probably.
That’s – fine, Tony can do it alone. He’ll do it alone and then he’ll slip out of the public eye, maybe move back to Seattle for a while. He could head the Washington team, they don’t have one yet, coordinate with the West Coast Avengers.
It doesn’t matter where he goes, really, he just needs to be away. He can’t live in the ruins of this house he’s built and razed.
- - -
It turns out there’s still no legal precedent for someone who’s come back from the dead, much less a super-powered someone who happened to be in federal custody for treason. He could get S.H.I.E.L.D. lawyers, but it feels like a betrayal, an outsourcing of what should be a family matter.
He wants to handle this on his own, but there are protocols, he has to adhere to policies and due process and it feels petty, he knows he wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t resting on his uniformed shoulders. He has to hold himself up with the fabric of the law, but the law isn’t equipped to deal with these eventualities.
Things like this only happen in Tony’s world.
And isn’t that just what Steve was trying to tell him.
He calls Carol.
- - -
She shows up a few hours after he sends the message, still in costume, smelling faintly of crumbling cement and sweat. Tony wonders who she’s been fighting and the nostalgia is physically painful.
“Hi, Carol,” he says with a grin he doesn’t feel.
“Why didn’t you call me earlier?” she says with a sigh, falling into the chair opposite his desk.
“What?” he says, “We just found him yesterday –“
“No,” she says, “Well, yes, but that’s not what I mean, Tony, you’re relapsing –“
“What the actual fuck,” he says, “does Maria just make a point of letting everyone know what I do in my spare time? I have one fucking bad night -”
“No, she told me because she’s worried about you,” Carol says evenly. She’s not going to stoop to bickering over this. She’s better than he ever was.
Tony runs a hand over his face, because this is not the time for this conversation.
“I am not relapsing, ok, I’m – better, even, I’m to the point where it’s ok to have a drink now and then, it’s a non-issue –“
“Oh, you’re better,” she says, rolling her eyes, “and this has nothing at all to do with Steve dying –“
“Everything in my life does not revolve around Steve Rogers,” he snaps.
She looks like she wants to snap back, but she relaxes her face instead and Tony knows she’s being more polite than he really deserves.
“Ok,” she says carefully. It’s a concession and they both know it, but that’s why he’s talking to her about this and not Maria. “What do you need?”
“Did you see him?” Tony says.
“Yes,” she says, “I did. We talked. It was hard.”
Tony stares for a minute at his hands.
“I don’t know what to do about him,” Tony admits. “I’m worried they’re going to have him sent before a military tribunal once this gets out, I’m worried they’re going to want the death penalty. That’s – not many people knew that, but there was talk of it, before.”
Carol doesn’t say anything.
“Oh,” she says finally. “But – I mean, a lot has changed since he died. The media ate it up – you saw it, you built a statue.”
“He deserved a statue.”
“He’s going to hate the statue.”
He smiles weakly. “I can’t let him go through that again,” he says quietly.
“I know,” she says, “He’s a hero.”
There’s that word again. Somehow it always ends up tacked to Steve’s name.
Tony sighs. “He’d hate the statue. He’ll hate everything I’ve done.”
“It’s not just you, Tony. “You weren’t acting in a vacuum, none of us were – you can’t blame yourself for everything. We are doing a lot,” she says, “it’s not perfect, but it’s working. It’s – different, I know, I – it’s not what we had, but we’re making a difference. Just – keep that in mind, from someone who’s out in the field all the time. Steve – he hasn’t seen the progress we’ve made.”
“I’m not sure he’s going to care,” Tony says.
“Do you?” she says, her voice a little too sad.
“We’re not talking about me,” he says, and it comes out harsher than he’d intended.
He sighs, and tries again. “I’m sorry I bothered you,” he says, “I want this to be OK. I – this is my fault, I just want to fix it, I want everything to go back to the way it was, and it’s – it’s not going to. He can’t go back to prison, he should be - ” Tony trails off, because he’s doesn’t know what Steve should be.
She sits there for a moment, considering. Scrutinizing. She knows him too well.
“I think you need to do what you always intended to,” she says, and for a moment he freezes because he’s not entirely sure she hasn’t added mindreading to her skillset.
“What?” he says.
“You were always counting on the SHRA passing, I know that – but you weren’t counting on having to deal with the aftermath alone, were you,” she says quietly. “You always wanted Steve in charge–“
“Yeah,” Tony says, “that went well.”
“It could be different now,” she says. “Maybe he’s changed his mind.”
Tony snorts. “Don’t be coy,” he says, “has he or hasn’t he?”
“I think you need to talk to him,” she says, standing.
“I did,” he says ruefully. “I tried. He doesn’t want to hear anything I have to say.”
Carol’s eyes flash. “Well, then try again. Sober,” she says vehemently. “Non-issue, my ass.”
Tony closes his eyes momentarily.
“I would have called you if I thought I needed to,” he says.
“No you wouldn’t,” she says, “you like your lone wolf thing too much.” She pauses, running a finger over the edge of her mask. “I worry about you,” she says.
“Don’t,” Tony says.
She looks like she wants to say something else, but Tony doesn’t want to hear it, it’s too hard, it’s too soon. He misses being on a team with people who trust him. He used to have the certainty of knowing what he was doing was right. For the greater good. Carol is – salt in a wound that’s never going to heal.
She stands. "Take care of yourself, Tony," she says. She throws a last wan little smile his way and strides out, her feet dragging on the floor, the slump barely visible in her shoulders.
- - -
The White House is still decorated for Christmas, and Tony shows up in a suit out of courtesy, although he’d dearly love to be wearing his armor.
They have dinner, and it feels like another lifetime to Tony. Once, he could grease anyone he needed to, spin anything just the right way so he could get what he wanted. Wheedle. Lie.
It never worked on Steve.
“Aren’t I spoiled,” The President says, prodding at his halibut with his fork, “Grant gets it shipped right from the dock. I’d move to Alaska if I didn’t have a day job.”
Tony smiles and does his best to look like a man who wants to be where he is.
“Mr. President,” he says with a sigh, “We need to discuss the matter of Steve Rogers. I’m sure you’ve heard about his recovery.”
“I have,” he says. He seems wholly unconcerned, and Tony decides if necromancy isn’t giving him pause, he’ll do well in the next four years. “I was assured it was being handled internally.”
“It is,” Tony says, “I have some concerns about what’s going to happen next.”
“I’m listening,” he says, taking another bite of halibut.
“It’s - since the SHRA’s inception, we’ve seen a massive reduction in terrorist activities. The loss of a major portion of our superhero population notwithstanding, those who’ve registered are making leaps and bounds in national security. That said, there are problems – there’s still a great deal to be done with efficiency, implementation, security. Public reception,” he stresses, pressing his mouth into a thin line.
“And you have a solution,” The President says, his mouth quirking up in a smile.
“I’d like to ask you to consider granting Steve Rogers a full pardon.”
The dining room is painfully silent for a moment.
“Uh. That’s a tall order. Steve Rogers is about to be tried for treason,” the President says seriously.
“I know that,” Tony says, “he’s also the single most powerful symbol we have at our disposal. We need public approval if we want this to survive. We’re doing all right, but it’s still early – if we have him working for us, this thing will be ironclad for years to come.” He sighs. “Much as it pains me to say it, we need this bill not to be overturned.”
“My predecessor agreed to give you 12 pardons, Tony. You’ve used them all, if I’m not mistaken.”
“That was before Steve came back from the dead,” Tony says. “Give me a 13th.” Please.
The President’s face is solemn. “They’re not Halloween candy. He’s a high-profile criminal, I’m not just going to agree to absolve him.”
“He’s no more guilty than I am,” Tony says.
“The law begs to differ.”
“He’s willing to cooperate now,” Tony lies. It’s true, if he’s exceedingly lucky. “He’s seen what we’ve done with the Initiative. We’ve swayed him. Putting him in prison, or on death row, would be a colossal waste. The public loves rehabilitation.”
“Is that what we're calling this?” the president says with a pointed look.
“Yes,” Tony says evenly, staring back.
They stay like that for a moment, because the President is not a stupid man, and Tony doesn’t like baring his soul to anyone. It’s a role he’s never quite mastered, asking for what he needs. For help.
He’ll beg if he has to.
The president breaks their gaze first, and Tony sighs. “He doesn’t deserve what’s coming to him,” he says quietly. “He’s a hero.”
“That may well be,” the President says, “but I need to know this isn’t going to come back and bite us in the ass.”
Tony puts his fork down.
“I don’t ask for this lightly,” he says. “You’re the only one with the authority to do this, so I’m coming to you.”
Maybe it’s the honest melancholy Tony can’t seem to wipe from his face, maybe the President just doesn’t have all the information, but he shakes Tony’s hand and promises to have it on his desk by tomorrow.
“Don’t mess it up,” he says, with entirely more faith than Tony’s ever deserved.
- - -
Tony hears the door, hears them tromp in, the slightest jangle of chains even before he turns around. He’s standing in front of the panel windows, his breath fogging on the glass.
“Dismissed,” he says, without turning around. “We’ll be fine.”
He wishes he could just stay frozen like this. He looks at the glass in his hand. It’s very Marlon Brando, he knows, but it gives him something to examine, something he can press his fingers around when it gets to be too much.
And it will, he’s sure.
Steve is waiting, so he turns around.
“Hello, Steve,” he says quietly.
“Why am I here?” Steve says, his legs planted apart, his chin tilted up in challenge. Restrained, still. Wearing one of the awful S.H.I.E.L.D.-issue jumpsuits.
Eager to leave.
“I’m sorry you’re still in the brig,” he says, “I can get you real clothes. Here,” he says, and unlocks his cuffs with Extremis. They fall away onto the floor.
“Don’t bother,” Steve says, “I’m sure I’ll be someone else’s problem soon.”
“I don’t want to fight with you,” Tony says. “I – sit.”
Steve works his jaw, but he sits. He looks healthy enough, and it’s startling, really. There are no bags under his eyes, there’s none of the haunted look that Tony remembers from their final interactions. He looks whole.
Tony sips. He’s certainly not.
“I know you probably don’t want to talk to me, but I have a proposition for you.”
“Not interested,” Steve says.
“You haven’t even heard what it is yet,” Tony protests.
“I don't need to,” Steve says. “I know how you work. You’re going to offer me a deal.”
Tony bites the inside of his mouth. “Do you want a drink?” he asks, even though he knows the answer will be no.
“No,” Steve says, “but I’m sure you’ll have one.”
Tony perches on the edge of his desk and sets his glass down.
“Ok, fine. You’re right, the President’s agreed to pardon you.”
“And what’s the catch?” Steve says, folding his hands together. He looks so comfortable on the couch, so fucking assured that he’s always been in the right, so unconcerned with what could happen to him.
“There isn’t one,” Tony says flatly.
“Then why am I here?” Steve says. “You could have just sent it down.”
“I wanted to ask you for a favor,” he says, wilting in the face of Steve’s hostility.
Steve snorts derisively. “Always a catch.”
“It’s not a catch,” Tony says. “It’s a request.”
“I’d like to go back to my cell now,” Steve says.
“No,” Tony says, “You have every right to hate me, but you need to listen to this.”
“I don’t need to listen to anything you have to say,” Steve snarls, rising from the couch.
“I am asking you, Steve,” Tony says desperately. He feels his face twitching, and he knows it’s because he’s going to get upset again, he’s going to lose this if he doesn’t wrap it up soon.
“I don’t owe you anything,” Steve says, and it hangs there, between them.
Tony knows. The debt is entirely his.
“You’re getting the pardon,” he says with conviction he doesn’t feel. He reaches behind him for the tablet that’s lying on his desk. “This is all I’m asking you to do, and if you say no, I won’t ask you again. I want you to reconsider. You’ve missed a lot –“
“Everyone keeps saying that,” Steve says. “When are you going to understand that it doesn’t change anything. I couldn’t care less what you’ve arranged. Is it going to bring Bill back? Is it going to make the Avengers a team again?” Steve’s eyes narrow into slits of blue. “Is it going to make me trust you again?”
Tony grips the desk so hard his knuckles turn white and tries to find his voice.
“Just listen,” he says, holding the tablet out. “Take this. Look at what we’ve done with the Initiative, that’s what we’re calling it, look at the numbers, look at how much good it’s done.”
“You still haven’t asked me for anything,” Steve says, not taking the tablet.
“I want you to manage the SHRA’s implementation. Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Again. Full deal.”
There isn’t even the faintest hint of surprise in Steve’s face. He doesn’t protest, he doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t react, and Tony wonders if anything he’s saying is even getting through.
“And this has nothing with what you told me last night,” Steve says, finally.
“No,” Tony says.
He’s lying, of course – it has everything to do with what he let slip in his terrible sorrow. Premature, he thinks. It was a childish thing to do, he knows, but what can he do? He’s always been terrible susceptible to this particular vice.
(He tells himself it was only a matter of time, but that’s dishonest too.)
Steve stares at him, his eyes dim and hollow and full of bottomless doubt, and Tony has to look away.
“Forget what I said last night,” Tony says. “I was drunk.”
“That’s not an excuse you can use,” Steve says. “I don’t –“
“Don’t,” Tony says, feeling shame pooling in his cheeks. “I don’t want an answer right now, I just want you to read, you can read tonight, you can look over everything, there’s security clearance on there - I - it’s not perfect, but it’s good.” He hasn’t figured out what to do if Steve says no.
“Yeah?” Steve says. “You think Luke and Peter approve of the good you’ve done?”
Tony blinks at him, blinks, tries to keep his face together. It’s cruel, to bring them into this, but Tony needs reminders like that, doesn’t he, needs to remember that he’s supposed to hurt for what he’s done.
He tries for indifference.
“I don’t know,” he says, “but if you do this, I bet they’ll register.”
“They won’t,” Steve says, “it’s a matter of principle.”
“You are principle,” Tony snaps, hurt. So very tired of being sad. “It should be you, in charge of this, I – I’m not cut out for this bit, Steve, it was always supposed to be you. I don’t trust anyone else to do this, no one else would have access to the database.”
Steve stares at him for a moment, and takes the tablet.
The guards whisk him away to real quarters, but Tony doesn’t watch them go.
He thinks that maybe Steve means every hurtful thing he’s been throwing his way.
It’s probably karma.
He sits for a long while after they’ve gone, his eyes glassy and red, his glass abandoned on the coffee table, the taste of disappointment bitter on his tongue.
- - -
Steve finds him alone in the sub-basement having a staring contest with a half-empty bottle of Johnny Walker Blue. It’s 3 am, but Steve’s still dressed in jeans, and Tony wonders if he’s been waiting up for him. Probably, even though he told him he wouldn’t get back from Kyoto until late.
He feels ill, like his brain is too dry, like it’s pulling away from the inside of his skull. His eyes aren’t working right, and he can’t remember the last time he really slept. He’s rocking in his swivel chair so he doesn’t puke, his chin resting on the workbench for extra stability, and Steve straddles a chair he’s dragged over from the cornerwithout saying a word. He reaches over and tugs the bottle ever so gently out of Tony’s line of sight.
Tony doesn’t bother to pretend he hasn’t been sobbing.
“Tony,” Steve says, and pushes a cup of water at him. He’s been expecting this, then.
“I loved her,” he says. “Why does this keep happening to me,” he asks, and he can't help the anguish that's spilling into his words.
And then he vomits all over Steve’s shoes.
“Oh, Tony,” Steve says, sighing.
“Guh,” Tony says.
Tony thinks he should be apologizing, for doing this all over again, but it’s so easy to let the alcohol warm through him, to let everything slide –
Steve is toeing off his shoes, and bless him, he’s not even making a face. He strips off his socks, too, and hefts Tony into his arms. Tony doesn’t argue, because he’s been too drunk to walk for several hours now. Steve makes for the elevator, his bare feet smacking across the cement.
Steve holds him for the entire ride up, and Tony mashes his face into his shoulder like the lush he is. Steve smells like laundry and aftershave, and it’s almost enough to settle his stomach. The lighting is too harsh, though, to be comfortable on his eyes, and it calls everything into sharper relief, focuses his pain, makes him wince away into Steve's body.
He remembers pressing Ru up against the doors, once, her skirt hiked up to her waist, how she giggled and fumbled for the hold button –
The thought is enough to rouse the nausea again.
“There’s nothing I can do,” Tony says, the words clumsy in his mouth. “I’m such an idiot, Steve, I – she’s not coming back, I can’t make up for this.”
Steve stares straight ahead, but his deep voice sounds deep in his chest, thrums against Tony’s cheek. “Tony,” he says, with impossible gentleness, “You don’t have to atone for this.”
“No,” Tony mumbles, “I do, I have to fix – avenge, we’re Avengers, I have to do something.”
“You’ll fix it,” Steve says, the lilt of his voice so damn convincing Tony just has to argue.
“No I won’t,” Tony mumbles, “I feel so sick, Steve.”
“You will,” Steve says softly. “I know you.”
“I had no business dreaming,” Tony murmurs.
The elevator dings open.