I am very honored to have two amazing artists who contributed to this story. I am so in love with their art, and I hope you will be, too. To Xy and Tripp: thank you both so very much! I am in awe of your talent, and incredibly grateful that you shared it with me.
You can see Tripp's art here on LJ.
You can see Xy's art here on Tumblr
Part I: A revelation in the light of day
The reception was in full swing by the time the wedding party arrived at the ballroom. The picture-taking seemed to have lasted forever, and if the applause for the returning group was a little more enthusiastic than was warranted, it was probably only because everyone was tired of picking at little appetizers, and ready for the four-course dinner promised on the invitation.
Steve stood by the bar, nursing the same drink he had been holding for the past twenty minutes. He watched as they came in one by one, announced by the band's lead singer. Natasha Romanoff, stunning in an ice-blue sheath that left little to the imagination, accompanied by a groomsman so unremarkable that Steve was embarrassed to admit he could not remember the guy's name. The parents of the groom, a cute little old couple who wore the slightly shellshocked expressions of two people who couldn't quite believe where they were, or how they had gotten there. The mother of the bride, beaming with pride as she walked in. The man who had given the bride away, grinning widely, holding out his arms and almost bowing to the crowd, completely in his element for those moments when he was the center of attention. And then the newlyweds at last, Pepper and Harold Hogan.
Steve joined in the applause. He would never have imagined they would fall in love, but it had happened, and there was no denying how happy they were together. Even Tony, who feigned jealousy from time to time, had said once that he had never seen Pepper glow the way she did when she was with Happy.
Pepper and Happy had reached the head table now. There was some more applause, then everyone sat down – for about ten seconds. Then people were up on their feet again, some moving to another table to talk to a friend, while some waited for their chance to hug the bride. Still others took advantage of the chance to head over to the bar and get a drink.
Steve pretended an interest in the watered-down contents of his glass and raised it to his lips so he could peer over the top of it and study the man headed his way. The glass hid his smile. "Way to be subtle there."
"What? And miss an opportunity to make yet another grand entrance? Have you met me?" Tony rapped his knuckles on the bar. "Scotch."
Steve continued to lean against the wood at his back, his gaze on the people milling about the ballroom. "Did anyone ever tell you how sexy you look in a tux?"
"Lots of them, actually." Drink in hand, Tony turned around to stand beside him, one elbow crooked back on the bar, just barely touching Steve's arm.
"Well, have I ever told you how sexy you look in a tux?"
Tony grinned wickedly. "Why, Captain America, are you coming on to me at my own employee's wedding? Honestly, have you no shame?"
A couple months ago, Steve would have flushed at such a pointed question. Tonight he just lifted one shoulder in a studiously casual shrug. "I guess not."
"I've taught you well then," Tony said, and knocked back his drink.
Steve just chuckled and shook his head.
They stood there for a moment, watching as Pepper worked the crowd, Happy in tow. He looked a bit dazed, like he still couldn't believe his good fortune. She was radiant in white silk. "They're good together."
"Yeah," Tony said. He shifted his weight subtly so he was no longer touching Steve's arm.
Steve risked a glance at him, then looked away again. It bothered him that he had to pretend like this, but that was just how it was. The world simply wasn't ready yet for a Captain America who loved another man. Maybe it never would be.
"Well," Tony said. He set his empty glass down on the bar. "As the father figure at this glorious event, I have certain obligations to my guests. Such as getting obnoxiously drunk and providing entertainment for all and sundry." He grinned again, but this time it didn't quite reach his eyes. Somewhere between ending their physical contact and putting his drink down, he had donned his public persona again, the version of Tony Stark that most of the world knew – or thought they knew.
There were times when Steve could almost hate that man, the Tony Stark who charmed and sleazed his way through life with a grin and a pat response to everyone and everything. But not tonight. He knew their own happiness depended on that man's performance to keep the ever-watchful public eye off them and focused on where it belonged – the newly-married couple.
"I'll see you later," he said quietly.
Tony barely nodded as he made his way back into the glittering ballroom, opening his arms for an airy kiss and an embrace from a woman dressed in shimmering black satin.
Steve sighed and turned around. He signaled the bartender. "I need another."
It was some time after three a.m. (his watch had somehow gone all blurry) when Tony finally stumbled up to the room where Steve was staying. He owned this hotel, which was one of the reasons Pepper had agreed to let him host the reception. Owning the hotel also meant owning the master keycard that opened every door in the place, which was good, because that meant avoiding that totally awkward moment when he asked the front-desk staff for the key to Captain America's room.
He would never have admitted it, but in the beginning the subterfuge had been kind of fun in a way. Quick gropings in the hall, stolen kisses when no one was around, midnight assignations, that kind of thing. But by now, four months into this amazing…whatever it was he had with Steve…it was getting kind of old.
Still, he wasn't about to jeopardize what they had by doing something stupid. Tony knew – better than anyone – how fickle the public was, and more importantly, how judgmental they were. The world needed to believe in Captain America, and by extension, the most beloved face of the Avengers, Steve Rogers. Especially now, when public sentiment was not exactly pro-Avengers.
That wasn't really fair, he thought as he tried for the fourth time to get the keycard to slide into the narrow slot in the door – really he ought to design a better system than this, this was just ridiculous, who on earth could be expected to have such precise motor control at this hour of the morning and especially after drinking Scotch like it was water? And anyway, it wasn't the Avengers' fault that every supervillain out there wanted to make New York City their own personal playground. And it certainly wasn't their fault that the clean-up bills tended to run to nine figures every time.
There had been meetings about it. Many meetings. Tony still shuddered to remember the last one. They had met with the mayor in a round conference room that was still half-destroyed, lacking windows and half its walls, containing no furniture but a cheap metal table and the kind of folding chairs that put your ass to sleep after about ten minutes of sitting in them. It had been a cheap move, but an effective one.
"All we're saying," the mayor had said with a long-suffering sigh, "is that it would be greatly appreciated if you could divert the main part of your…battles…out over open water, or unpopulated areas."
"And where are we going to find an unpopulated area around here?" Fury demanded.
"Or maybe you could just fight them somewhere else," an aide said. "Like, I don't know, Los Angeles."
Tony, who had been doodling new ideas for the suit on the legal pad Steve had insisted he bring (like he was really going to sit there and take notes like some junior secretary, who did Steve think he was?), abruptly sat up straight. "Hey!" he protested. "I like Los Angeles!"
Deathly silence descended. Every head turned, every eye glared at him. Finally the mayor said icily, "And we like New York."
Tony just sank down in his seat, muttered something no one could hear, except of course for Steve and his dumb super-soldier hearing, and went back to his doodles.
Afterward, walking out into the refreshing stink of the city, Steve said, "Well, that could have gone better."
Immediately Tony rushed to his own defense. Even after all this time, he still didn't know how that worked, how Steve's mild reproach could reduce him to such a frenzy of self-defense, succeeding where the greatest of shouting matches couldn't have done. "I'm sorry, okay, I was only half-listening and when he said that, it was like something went off in my head, some oh hell no response, and I didn't think, I just—"
"Exactly," Steve said heavily. "You didn't think. You just said it. That's all you ever do, Tony. You just blurt things out without thinking. One of these days it's going to get you into serious trouble."
To prove just how wrong Steve was, he managed to swallow his angry retort, and settled for a petulant glare at Steve's back.
Two blocks later, though, he couldn't resist saying, "I thought you liked it when I just 'blurted things out.'"
Steve's step did not falter, but Tony saw it anyway, that miniscule moment when he nearly checked himself. "Sometimes," he admitted, and ducked his head.
That had made Tony smile, because it was undeniably true. It was, after all, his habit of just "blurting things out" that had finally got Steve into his bed. Kissing was great, and kissing Steve was even better, but he had wanted more, had ached for it, and finally one day he had just said it out loud, just put it out there, "God, I want to fuck you," and Steve had turned first white, then red, then said quietly, "Okay." And the rest was history. Bed-breaking, earth-shattering history.
Which reminded him… He stabbed his keycard at the door one more time, and at last it slid neatly into the slot designed for it. The internal mechanism clicked over, the green light came on, and he was finally there, stepping inside.
Steve was awake, which did not surprise him. On nights when he had to be Tony Stark, Billionaire (Genius Playboy Philanthropist) at Large, Steve always waited up. "Hey," he said.
"Hey," Steve said. He smiled and set down the drawing he was working on.
Something incredible always happened when Steve smiled at him like that. It was like his smile exerted a tidal influence on the whole world, causing it to stop turning for just a few seconds, just long enough that all the gravitational forces encircling the planet slammed into Tony at once, making him reel under the effect.
Or that's how it felt, anyway.
He smiled back. He always felt guilty when Steve waited up for him, like he was forcing the other man to do something he didn't want to do. Times like this, he believed all over again that he didn't deserve this, that Steve could do so much better than him.
"What time did you leave?" he asked. Only the reading light above the bed was on, but it seemed strangely too bright, exposing his many flaws, revealing what a crappy partner he was. "I looked for you…" He hadn't expected Steve to say good-night – that would have been weird, in front of everyone – but he had still experienced a pang of sorrow when he suddenly realized that Steve wasn't at the reception anymore.
"I don't know," Steve said. "Around midnight, I guess."
Midnight. Three full hours without Steve – and nearly two before he had even noticed. The guilt surged to the fore again.
Well, there was one easy way to forget about such things. Smirking a little, Tony started toward the bed.
"Wait," Steve said. "I just want to look at you. You look really nice in a tux. Did I mention that?"
Tony preened a little, the gesture completely reflexive. He was carrying his jacket, which was badly wrinkled and smelled of champagne, but his bowtie was still present and accounted for, if undone and hanging loosely about his neck. He had unbuttoned the top button of his shirt, and his hair was carefully disheveled (and not at all artfully arranged in front of the mirror in the hall). Yeah, he knew he looked good. "You may have. But feel free to mention it again." He pursed his lips in a sexy little pout, then blew Steve a kiss.
Steve made a face. "Aaaand the moment's gone."
"Hey," Tony said in mock outrage.
Steve just smiled and shook his head. "Get over here."
"Aye, aye, Captain," Tony said, grinning back. He tossed his jacket onto the armchair, pulled his bowtie free and let it drop to the floor, then climbed onto the bed. On all fours, he crawled across the ugly comforter toward where Steve sat waiting. "Did you miss me?"
"I'm sorry, were you gone?" Steve said, all wide-eyed innocence.
"Such a lack of focus," Tony said. "Failure to pay attention to detail. Your field evaluation will reflect that." He straddled Steve's legs, one knee on either side of those strong thighs, still sadly covered by the ugly comforter. "And you call yourself the leader of the Avengers. For shame, Cap."
"My focus is right where it needs to be," Steve said quietly. His eyes were a darker blue now, his gaze very serious. He wasn't going to be in the mood to play much longer.
That was perfectly fine with Tony. He set his hands on Steve's shoulders and leaned in until he was within kissing distance. "And where exactly is your focus?"
"You know where," Steve murmured, his breath warm on Tony's lips. Strong hands clasped his hips, pulling him closer so he was practically sitting in Steve's lap.
"Oh, I think I do," he said. The barest of centimeters separated them now; the slightest tilt of his head allowed him to nuzzle at Steve's mouth. "But maybe you better show me."
Steve's muscles tensed, and Tony moved with him, ready – and more than willing – to be tossed onto his back.
And his phone rang.
Steve froze. A split second later, his phone began to chirp the hideously cheerful tune that was his latest ring tone.
Tony dropped his head in defeat. "I'll say this for Fury: he's either got the best timing in the world, or the absolute worst."
"Right now I'm leaning toward worst," Steve said. He looked in the direction of the dresser, where his phone was chirping.
"Right there with you," Tony sighed, and dug into his pocket for his phone.
The calls had come in on their normal lines, not the Avengers' emergency band, but Steve still had a bad feeling about things. He couldn't explain it, either. He just knew he did not want to leave this hotel room. Whatever Fury wanted them for, he knew he wasn't going to like it.
"Hey," Tony said as he shrugged back into his tuxedo jacket. "The world isn't ending, okay? As soon as we're done here, we'll pick this up where we left off." He waggled his eyebrows in a deliberate leer.
"Yeah," Steve said. They would. They always did. So why didn't he feel it this time?
The world might not be ending, but Fury wanted them back as quickly as possible, so he had sent the Quinjet. Within minutes they were on the roof of the hotel, boarding the plane. Steve looked around at the city, so bright and alive with light even at this hour of the night. Then the doors closed, and the plane lifted off.
"What is it?" Tony asked, having picked up on his mood. Although he had probably been drinking all night, he looked perfectly sober.
"I don't know," Steve said. He was reluctant to put his feelings of foreboding into words. "I just don't like it."
Surprisingly, Tony didn't come back with a snarky comment about being interrupted in the hotel. He just nodded. "Yeah." Then he shrugged, trying for nonchalant. "Maybe I'll send Fury the bill from the caterers. It would serve him right, making me miss out on the greatest party of the year."
"Were they still going?" Steve asked.
"Not the newlyweds – oh and you're going to be sorry you missed our send-off, but it's probably already up on You Tube – but the rest of us, yeah. I spotted Natasha on my way out, still going strong, not one hair out of place. I swear, she's not human."
Steve just smiled.
Fifteen minutes later, they were landing. The helicarrier's decks were dark, but the interior of the great ship was alive with activity. He was surprised, however, when the SHIELD agent who met them in the hangar led them not to the bridge, but to a private conference room deep within the ship. The agent extended a hand in a "go on in" gesture, but made no move to join them.
Steve stepped inside, quickly scanning the other occupants of the room. Director Fury. Maria Hill. Reed Richards. And…Reed Richards.
He stopped dead, still half in the doorway. Behind him, Tony pulled up short with a muffled exclamation, nearly bumping into him.
The two Reed Richards sat on opposite ends of the conference table. They looked identical, but for the clothing they wore. One was dressed in a rumpled white shirt and tie and lab coat. The other wore his Mr. Fantastic outfit. Both men looked tired and unshaven, but the one in the costume looked worn down in a way that spoke of long hardship. And that one was currently staring at Steve in stunned amazement.
"What the hell…?" Tony pushed into the room and stood beside Steve. "There's two of them now?"
Both Reed Richards turned to Tony. The one in the costume stared openly. His gaze dropped to the glow of the arc reactor visible through Tony's dress shirt, then back up to his face. Then he looked at Steve again. "Oh my God," he said. "I found it. I finally found it."
"Found what?" asked Director Fury. His tone made it clear that he was not expecting to like the answer he got.
"The right world," said the Reed Richards in the costume. He continued to stare at Steve in a way that was rapidly becoming quite uncomfortable. "The one where we can stop it."
"The right world?" Tony repeated. "You mean you're from another world?"
"Yes," Richards said.
"You're sure of this?" Steve asked the room at large. "This isn't just an illusion?" For all they knew, it was Loki sitting right there, pretending to be one of their own.
"We're sure," said their Reed Richards, the one in the lab coat. "All the tests have come back clean. He's really me. Just…from another world."
"A parallel world," Tony said, studying the other Richards. "And you found us. First."
"Yes," Richards said.
"You came here through a portal?"
"Yes, but it has no effect on your world, I can promise you."
No one said anything to this. Steve was nonplussed; he hadn't even considered that a portal to a different world might have any consequences over here.
Tony recovered first. He pointed at their own Mr. Fantastic, smug in victory. "You owe me a thousand dollars."
Their Reed sighed. "I never shook on that bet."
"Gentlemen." Director Fury sounded anything but amused. "If we could stay focused here?"
Tony's crude attempt at humor had at least served to break the ice somewhat. Steve was able to walk into the conference room and sit at the large table – although he deliberately chose a chair as far away from the other Reed Richards as he could get. He felt a little better about the situation when Tony sat right beside him, but not a whole lot.
"You said 'stop it,'" Agent Hill said. "Stop what exactly?"
"War," said Reed Richards.
Steve stiffened in shock. He had read science fiction as a kid, and he'd seen some of the movies made during the years he had been asleep. He knew about parallel worlds, and the many and sometimes drastic ways in which they could be different from each other. And he really didn't care for the way that other Reed Richards kept staring at him. The look on the other man's face was nothing short of astonished joy – like that man hadn't seen him in a very long time, nor expected to ever see him again. There had to be a reason he was looking at Steve like that – and he was pretty sure that single word had just provided it.
"War is coming," the other Reed Richards said solemnly. "Every world I look at it. Every single one. It's inevitable. But here…" He finally stopped staring at Steve and looked directly at Tony. "Here there's a chance to stop it before it ever happens."
Tony looked meaningfully around the room. "Is that why Cap and I were the only ones called to this super-secret meeting?"
"It starts with the people in this room," the other Reed said. "If anyone else were to find out, they would find themselves taking sides without even knowing it."
That was bad, but no one was asking the real question here, Steve thought. He took a deep breath. "What kind of war are we talking about?" He clasped his hands tightly on the table so they wouldn't shake. It had been terrible enough in 1939. Technology had advanced so far since then though, that it could not support another world war. The human race would exterminate itself first.
"Civil War. Between superheroes," said the other Reed Richards.
Shocked, Steve turned so he could see Tony's reaction. He wore the same expression of unwelcome surprise that Steve suspected was on his face, too.
"I think you better explain," Director Fury said, in that tone that suggested he was about two seconds away from inflicting bodily harm in order to get what he wanted.
"I…I'm not sure how much I should tell you," said Reed. "I don't want to influence events."
"Well, that sounds fair," Tony said. He leaned back in his chair, eyeing that other Mr. Fantastic up and down. "Because I'm not sure I should believe you."
The other Reed Richards actually smiled at that. "I knew you were going to say that. So I came prepared." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a slim device, then set it on the table.
Any other time and Tony thought he would be enjoying the hell out of this.
Because seriously? Parallel worlds. Alternate realities. Portals between those worlds. Dire omens and warnings about the future. It was the kind of thing to give any self-respecting science-fiction geek a raging hard-on.
But there was no way to enjoy this. Not when that alternate Richards kept using that word war, and looking at Steve that way. Tony knew that look. He had been on the receiving end of it too many times after Afghanistan. It was a look that said, I thought I would never see you again. I thought you were dead.
It gave him cold chills to see that look directed at Steve. And then all this secretive bullshit, that old chestnut about not influencing the future because you knew too much. This from a Reed Richards who came from a world where Steve was dead and there was no way, no way in hell Tony was going to let this guy keep secrets from them.
But there were ways to get information, and then there were ways to get information, and Tony was intimately familiar with them all. So he leaned back in his chair, lazy and calm and utterly unaffected by what they were talking about, and he said, "Well, that sounds fair. Because I'm not sure I should believe you."
And Richards, who never could pass up the chance to show off his dazzling (and annoying) intellect, stepped neatly into the trap. He even smiled. "I knew you were going to say that. So I came prepared." He pulled out a flash drive Tony recognized immediately, and set it on the table in front of him.
"Uh, no," Tony said. He was so outraged he was halfway out of his chair before he caught himself and sat back down. He settled for pointing at the offending object. "That's proprietary Stark technology. Not even released for prototype yet. Where the hell did you get that?"
"Where do you think I got it?" the alternate Richards asked calmly.
And just that fast, shit got real. Tony had never really disbelieved the story anyway, but seeing his own tech sealed the deal. It made his stomach churn, though, because there was obviously a Tony Stark in that other world who was alive and well and able to give that flash drive to Reed Richards. And that was wrong, that was just so wrong, because Steve was dead in that other world, and his other self had no business being alive and well when Steve was dead. No business at all. Why didn't you save him? Why didn't you die alongside him?
He had never even met the guy – probably never would – and already Tony hated him.
The alternate Richards plugged the flash drive into the port built into the table for just such an occasion. Instantly a dozen holographic screens sprang into existence at each seat around the table. There was a blip of blank screen, then suddenly Tony was looking at himself.
Or rather, a different version of himself. It was beyond surreal. The Tony Stark on the screen somehow managed to look both younger and older than himself. It was difficult to tell because of the dark suit he was wearing, but there did not seem to be the telltale light glowing at his chest. And if the Reed Richards from that other world looked tired, the alternate Tony Stark appeared utterly exhausted; lines of strain were etched on his face, and his shoulders were bowed. But his voice was steady when he spoke. "Hello, Tony. I figure if you're anything like me, the only person you'll listen to is yourself."
Everyone looked at him then. Tony just shrugged. "Well, he definitely sounds like me."
"I know this has all come as quite a shock. Believe me, I understand. But I'm asking you to listen to Reed and what he tells you. Every word he says to you is the truth.
"War is coming to your world. I don't know how or when it will start. But you have to keep it from tearing your world apart. You have to. You can't take sides on this, Tony. You have to find a way through it all, a clear path…a clearer one than I did.
"I know how hard that's going to be for you. I know how badly you're going to be tempted. You're going to want to take a stand, and rise to action. I know. But you can't. You have to let this one go. Because no matter how much you may believe in it, no matter how strongly you may feel about things, it isn't worth it."
The Tony Stark in the video closed his eyes briefly, overcome by emotion or memory – or possibly both. And right then and there, Tony forgave him. He was helpless not to. He was looking at a broken man. And if that man was anything like himself – and he almost certainly was – then he would never forgive himself for whatever things had happened in his world, things he obviously blamed himself for.
The alternate Tony Stark took a deep breath and opened his eyes again. There were no tears, and no emotion in his voice. "I couldn't save my world," he said. "In the end, none of it mattered. I've lost everything. But you still have a chance. Don't make the same mistakes I did."
The video ended. The screens went black, then disappeared.
An uncomfortable silence filled the room. Tony kept his eyes lowered. He didn't want to know what Fury and Hill were thinking. And even without looking, he knew that Steve was staring at him with sympathy, having already forgiven the alternate Tony Stark for whatever he had done in his world's terrible war. That compassion was his greatest strength – and his greatest weakness. Always Steve's instinctive first reaction when confronted with something bad was to make it right, no matter what it took.
A horrible thought struck him. Was that how it had happened in that other world? Had Steve's compassion finally been his undoing? He would have hated it, fighting against people he considered his friends and family. Had he paused before delivering a killing blow, unable to bring himself to do it? Had he gotten himself killed?
Tony wrenched back a shudder.
"You know," Steve said calmly, "you haven't even told us what the issue is. What this war is all about."
"I'm not sure that I should," said the alternate Reed Richards. "If you know about it ahead of time, you'll find yourselves taking sides without even realizing it."
"How can we guard against something if we don't even know what we're supposed to be on the lookout for?" Steve argued.
"I'm going to have to agree with him," Fury said quietly. "And add that if you don't tell us, it might just happen that you miss your portal back home."
The alternate Reed Richards looked to their own for support – and found none. He sighed heavily. When he finally responded, he kept his eyes on the table the whole time, unwilling – or afraid – to look any of them in the eye. "This is hard for me," he said. "I don't know how to explain something like this and keep it simple."
"Yeah, he's definitely you," Tony said to their Richards.
Everyone ignored this interruption. "It might be different here," continued the alternate Richards. "I don't know. But in my world…there was an accident. Civilians – including sixty children – were killed when a group of superheroes took on some villains in a populated area. After that, there was a sudden demand for superheroes to register with the government. They passed a law. If you didn't register, you were considered a criminal and could be arrested. People took sides. Things escalated and got bad. Real bad."
Nick Fury reared back like he had been socked in the face. Maria Hill and their own Mr. Fantastic looked thoughtful. Steve exclaimed, "What? That's ridiculous! You can't make people do that."
Tony said, "Oh shit."
They all turned to look at him.
Steve's brow was furrowed with worry, and he hated that. He hated seeing that look on Steve's face. Worst of all, he hated being the reason for it. Because "Oh shit" didn't cover the sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach at how fucked up things had suddenly become. "Oh shit" didn't even begin to cover it. "Yeah…" He reached up to rub at the back of his neck. "See, I was going to tell you…"
"Tell me what?" Steve said.
"Tell us what?" Fury echoed a split second later – and he was definitely not happy.
Tony fought the urge to squirm in his seat. "I really was going to tell you," he said, although now that he said it, he wasn't sure when exactly he had planned on it. "I had a meeting last week with Senator Boynton—"
"The asshole from New York?" Fury interrupted.
Tony nodded. "The one and the same. He isn't exactly the Avengers greatest fan, as we all know. Or mutants. Or Spider-Man. Or the Fantastic Four."
"We know," Fury said tightly.
"Just making sure we're all on the same page," Tony said hastily, aware that he was pushing his luck with Fury in a way he rarely did any more. He risked a glance at Steve and was dismayed to see that Steve didn't look worried anymore – he looked downright scared. "Anyway, he asked me to meet with him last week. He wanted to talk about the future of the Avengers and the other superheroes in New York. And…he may have mentioned something about registration."
"And what did you say?" Steve asked. He had never learned to dissemble very well. It was one of the things Tony loved about him. Except for times like now, when it physically hurt to see the desperate hope in Steve's eyes.
It killed him to have to dash that hope. If the floor had opened up and swallowed him then, he would have gone to his carpeted doom with gratitude. "I said…"
"Stark?" Fury sounded like he was ready to open fire on them all.
"I didn't commit to anything," Tony said in a rush. "I just…I thought…it sounded like a not-bad plan."
"No," Steve said faintly.
"Oh my God," said Reed Richards. The other one. He had gone alarmingly pale. "I'm too late. It's already started. I'm too late."
"No, no, you're not," Tony said. "I just told you, I didn't commit to anything."
"But you support the idea of it!" Steve said loudly.
"Well, not anymore!" Tony shouted.
For a full five seconds, no one spoke. Then Fury said, "Come again?"
This time Tony did fidget in his seat. "Well, I mean, obviously I can't. Not now. Now that I know…" He looked at the alternate Reed Richards. He was going to make time to speak to that man alone before he left for his own world, no doubt about that, because there were things he needed to know. Statistics and probabilities were lining up in his head, all leading to one inescapable conclusion because his math was right, it was always right, and he had to know. "It's done. It never happened. It's over."
Steve took a deep breath. "Just like that?"
"Just like that," Tony said. Then he remembered something, and he winced. "Well, not technically. But theoretically, yes. It's over."
"Technically?" Fury said.
"Technically I may have another lunch scheduled with the Senator on Tuesday," he said. "I'll just cancel. No, wait, he'll hound me until I do meet with him. Okay, so I'll go, but I'll tell him that I'm changing my mind. And that's it. End of story."
Their Richards looked at the other one. "Can it be that simple?"
The alternate Reed Richards shook his head helplessly. "I don't know. I haven't exactly done this before."
"Boynton won't just let this go," Maria Hill warned.
"He will if I tell him to," Tony said confidently. At Fury's death glare, he hastily amended, "And if you. Tell him."
Steve looked around the room. "So that's it then? We just averted a civil war between superheroes?"
Tony smiled. "And all before breakfast."
The alternate Reed Richards did not smile. "I only hope you're right."
Director Fury dismissed them, and they were free to go. As it would be some time before they could arrange to return to the city, Steve headed for the quarters he had been assigned. It wasn't often that any of the Avengers spent an extended period of time on the helicarrier, but they each had a place to go, in the event that they needed it. There were a lot of things SHIELD did that Steve disagreed with, but this at least he approved of.
Tony followed him silently, a warning sign Steve knew he ought to heed. But he couldn't help himself. No sooner had the door shut behind them than he said, "I can't believe you didn't tell me you met with Senator Boynton. You can't keep things from me. Especially things like that."
"I was going to tell you, I swear," Tony said.
It had been a long time since he had been this angry. "When? After they passed the law?" He shook his head. "God, Tony. You really support that?"
"I— Yeah." Tony did not look surprised by this sudden question, and that too was a warning – but like the first, Steve chose to ignore it. He could not let himself by diverted. They had to talk about this – now.
"Why?" He saw no reason to lie, to hide how he felt about the idea of registration. In his experience, it was always better to be honest about things. "How could you?"
Tony blinked in shock. "Okay. Wow."
He had no right to look angry right now, Steve thought. This wasn't about them. There were much larger issues at stake here. The arrival of that other Reed Richards had brought those issues to the forefront, but they had been there all along, lurking in government shadows. And he hadn't known. Because Tony hadn't told him. Because Tony had made the decision for both of them, choosing what he needed to know – or didn't need to know. No, if anyone had the right to be angry, it was Steve. "What? Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Well, how the hell am I supposed to look?" Tony shot back, his eyes flashing. "I might as well leave. You've already made up your mind. Nothing I say is going to change it."
"I haven't made up my mind," Steve said.
"Yes, you have," Tony said. Although he had just mentioned leaving, he made no move to open the door. He just stood there with his arms crossed; the posture accentuated the outline of the arc reactor beneath his white dress shirt. "You've already decided that I'm wrong."
"I didn't say that!" Steve protested, because that was unfair. He had never said that.
"Oh really? 'Cause that’s sure as hell what I'm hearing."
And it hit Steve suddenly – hard – what they were doing. People took sides, said the Reed Richards from that war-torn world. And that was exactly what was happening now. He and Tony had already come down on opposite sides of the registration issue, and they were letting it drive them apart even before it became a problem.
He took a deep breath, calming himself. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean for it to sound that way. I don't think you're wrong."
Tony made a rude snorting noise to show just what he thought of that.
Steve had to work hard at not getting angry all over again. He made himself walk over to the narrow couch that lined one wall; like a hotel room, his quarters on the helicarrier were serviceable but ugly. He sat down, noting the way Tony lingered by the door where he had stopped when they first came in, as though ready to bolt at any moment.
The sight of Tony standing there, ready to run, banished the last of his anger. He was ashamed of himself then. He hadn't even given Tony a chance to explain. He had just turned on him the moment they walked inside.
"I'm sorry," he said again. "Why don't you sit down?"
Tony glanced around the room pointedly, reminding Steve that they had never done so much as kiss on board the helicarrier before. Director Fury had sworn up and down that there were no cameras in their private rooms, but no one believed him. There was no telling who was watching.
"Please," Steve said. He held out a hand, gesturing to the empty cushion beside him. "We just found out our entire world is in danger," he said. "Are we really going to get in a fight now?" He smiled a little to show that he wasn't angry anymore.
"Why not?" Tony said, and he didn't sound one bit amused. "Seems like a perfectly good time for it."
Steve took a deep breath. He had badly misjudged Tony's reaction, and that rattled him more than he cared to admit. He stood up. "I don't want to fight. I just want to talk."
"Fine. So let's talk," Tony said. He made it sound more like a challenge than anything.
But there was no point. He saw that clearly. Not when Tony was acting this way. "No," he said heavily. "You won't listen to anything I say right now." Even though every fiber of his being cried out against it, he added, "I think it's probably best if you just go. We can talk about it later."
Tony stiffened. "Fine," he said again. "Sure thing." He reached for the doorknob, but the instant his hand closed about it, he let go and spun around. "Just so you know," he said all in one furious rush, "I would never let anything happen to you. Whatever happened in that other world, it is not happening here. I won't let it. So you can be as pissed off as you want to be, I deserve it, all right, I should have told you, but don't you dare think that I won't do whatever it takes to keep you and this world safe."
Steve waited until he had to stop for breath. Gently he said, "Are you finished?"
"Yes. No." Tony blinked. "Depends on what you say next."
He didn't say anything. Not at first. He just walked up to Tony and stopped right in front of him. He could still smell champagne and cologne on Tony's clothing, and it made his heart ache to think how happy they had been just a few hours ago. "I know all that," he said quietly. "Why do you think I love you so much?"
Tony groaned. "Because you're a star-spangled idiot," he said, and then he was kissing Steve, hard.
Steve let himself be pushed backward until the backs of his knees hit the couch. He stopped there, though, refusing to let himself fall. As much as he wanted this, too, he had to stop it. This was not the time nor the place. He turned his head to the side, avoiding Tony's kiss. "Stop. Tony. Stop."
"What? Why? Don't you want to put on a show for SHIELD?" Tony teased. He licked at Steve's jaw, then pressed a line of burning kisses down his neck. His hands roamed over Steve's back, then slid down to grip his ass.
Steve took hold of Tony's shoulders and pushed. Not much. Just enough to put a tiny bit of distance between them. "Stop."
Hurt flashed in Tony's eyes, quickly masked. Steve had seen it, though, and he bit back a sigh. Always Tony was like this, and Steve understood why, really he did. From earliest childhood, Tony had learned that connections were forged with wires and circuit boards, not with words and affection. When he grew older, he had replaced circuits with things like sex and wildly magnanimous gifts – but the basic idea had remained the same. All Steve had to do was remember that very first day aboard the helicarrier, and the way Tony had offered his snack of blueberries to Bruce – but only after Bruce had agreed with him that SHIELD was keeping secrets.
He had tried since then, so many times, to show Tony that there was more to relationships than blueberries and sex, but no matter how hard he tried, Tony was either unwilling or unable to learn that lesson. And it didn't say much about himself, Steve mused bleakly, that he was often perfectly content to take what Tony offered, finding pleasure and comfort in it himself, instead of taking the higher ground and refusing.
Not today, though. Today he had to refuse. Today there was so much more at stake.
"Not here," he said, as though that was his only concern. He flicked his gaze upward, toward the cameras Director Fury had promised weren't there.
Tony huffed in exasperation, but he did step back. "Okay. Yeah. And anyway," he gestured to the door, "I remembered something I need to, ah, check on while I'm here. So I'm just gonna…"
"All right," Steve said. "I'll be here."
At the door, Tony paused for a moment. Then he opened it and stepped out into the corridor, and was gone.
On Monday the alternate Reed Richards went through a portal back to his own world – but not before Tony made sure he got the chance to speak to him alone. He had to play a few of his cards in order to pull that one off, hinting at things he knew about SHIELD that would be very damaging should they ever be made public. Fury was, well, furious, about it, accusing Tony of bullying him and SHIELD to get his own way, and for once Tony was not inclined to disagree.
He had no regrets. He had only done what he had to do.
Afterward he didn't say anything to Steve about the meeting, but he was pretty sure Steve already knew what he had learned. Even a blind man could have seen the truth in the way that alternate Richards kept staring at him.
Yet they did not talk about it. It was as though some silent pact had been struck. For the next two days they behaved as though nothing had happened. They just went about their normal routine. Although Steve complained about keeping the other Avengers in the dark, he put up much less of a fight than Tony had expected from him.
For his part, he was reluctant to let Steve out of his sight, even foregoing his work in the lab in order to join Steve for a groundbreaking ceremony on a new shelter for runaway teens that was opening its doors for the first time. It wasn't the kind of thing he normally bothered to attend, and the organizers were flustered at first by his unexpected appearance. Accustomed to this kind of reaction when he crashed a party, Tony easily charmed them out of their worry, and even found himself offering to pay for the whole thing – an offer they eagerly took him up on, of course.
"Thank you for coming," Steve said later that night. "That meant a lot to me."
"You bet," he said, and smothered Steve with kisses. He didn't want to talk about the ceremony. He didn't want Steve to know that the reason he had gone wasn't because he was a nice person. He had gone because he was a selfish coward who didn't want to leave Steve's side any longer than he had to.
Which was why it sucked so bad on Tuesday when he had to get up at an obscenely early hour in order to arrive on time for his lunch with Senator Boynton. He was grumpy as hell the whole flight down, and spent most of the time designing a new rocket launcher on cocktail napkins, only to shred the things into tiny pieces just before they landed.
DC was one of those towns that never changed, regardless of who was in power at the time. The Capitol in particular clung to an aura of quaint, old-fashioned times. He had been here before, more times than he could count, and he scarcely looked around as an aide led him to the waiting room outside Senator Boynton's office, then promised that the Senator would be with him shortly.
Tony just strolled around the waiting room, impatient and trying not to show it. He wanted to get this over with. He wanted to go back home. And that thought was enough to make him smile a little. Until last year, he had considered California home, and as recently as four months ago he had split his time between the house in Malibu and the Avengers Tower. But since he and Steve had started this amazing thing between them, he hadn't once been back to California. New York was home for Steve, and that was enough to make it home for Tony.
Boynton made him wait half an hour, which did not do anything for his already high temper; he was the one supposed to make people wait on him, not the other way around. By the time some blue-haired secretary let him in, he was practically fidgeting with nervous energy and the desire to be doing something, anything, besides sitting here on his ass.
"Tony!" Boynton greeted him like they were old friends. "How've you been?"
He smiled back – he couldn't help it. At times like this, he always reverted to his public persona, the man who had a charming smile and a witty quip for any situation. Steve didn't like that about him – hell, he hated it himself – but it was a necessary evil for someone who had spent so much of his life in the public eye. "Senator."
He drew the line at a hug though, even one of those manly, back-slapping hugs. He neatly sidestepped the Senator's advance and dropped into the cushy chair across from the desk. "I wanted to talk to you about this registration bill."
"Yes." Boynton grew serious as he moved around the desk and sat down. "I wanted to talk to you about that, too. I've been putting out feelers, and I'm pretty certain that Stern and Dzuniak will be on board. I really think we're ready to go wide with the coverage on this."
Tony fought back his dismay at hearing that Boynton had talked about the proposed law with other Senators. He should have come here straight from that meeting with Richards. Every day that passed by was another opportunity lost to shut this thing down.
"Actually," he said, "the thing is, I've been doing a lot of thinking, and—"
"Boy, so have I," said Boynton. "This thing is keeping me awake at night, let me just tell you."
Tony made a face. "Um, okay. Anyway, the point is." He scanned the contents of Boynton's desktop, needing something to play with, something he could move around in his hands. He itched to reach for his phone, but he didn't dare. "The thing is, I'm withdrawing my support for the Superhero Registration Act."
There. He had done it. And it hadn't been that hard after all.
Boynton sat back in his chair. "Well," he said. "I must admit, I didn't expect this. I'm disappointed in you, Mr. Stark."
So he was Mr. Stark now, not Tony. That hadn't taken long. "Get used to it," Tony mumbled, then sat up straight. "But hey, you're doing a great job representing the American people, so, you know, keep up the good work." He gave the Senator a double thumbs-up.
Boynton, surprisingly enough, did not seem pleased by this praise.
"Oh and, ah," Tony continued, "there is one more thing."
"Yes?" By now it was obvious Boynton was holding onto his pleasant demeanor with some effort.
"I'm going to have to ask you to let this one go," Tony said. "No registration. No law. Just…let it go. Trust me, if you pursue this, it will only end badly. For everyone."
The Senator blinked, taken aback. "Mr. Stark, are you threatening me?"
Tony leaned back and spread his hands. "Why would I need to do that? You're a smart man. Why else would you be a Senator at such a young age? Besides, if I was threatening you, I would ask if you had ever met my friend Dr. Banner. Or remind you of what happened to Senator Kelly when he tried to get that Mutant Registration Act passed. Or point out that neither SHIELD nor the Avengers will allow any such law to go into effect."
Senator Boynton just stared at him, clearly trying to figure this all out. He looked both pissed off and scared, and Tony wasn't sure which one he preferred. An angry man could still be reasoned with, but a frightened one was liable to do just about anything.
Eventually Boynton settled on just plain confusion. "I'm going to ignore the things you just said since I know full well you didn't really mean them. I know that's just your way, talking a good line, making people believe you even when you're full of shit." He smiled brightly. "But I will ask that you at least do me the courtesy of telling me what happened to change your mind. Last week you were in full agreement with me that this was something that needed to happen."
"Yeah, that was last week," Tony said as he stood up. He wasn't impressed by the Senator's insult; he was actually glad to hear it. It meant he had made his point and won. "And for the record, it wasn't full agreement. It was more like a lesser of two evils kind of thing." Or a dozen evils, actually. Boynton had shared with him some of the government's proposed plans for dealing with the sudden influx of superheroes, and they had chilled him to the core. Registration was the least of those evils.
The Senator stared at him, but Tony wasn't giving. He had stared down guys far scarier than Boynton could ever hope to be.
"Fine," Boynton sighed. He smiled and got to his feet, seeming to shrug off defeat. "Let's just do lunch. I have one thing I need to do first, just a quick vote on the floor. Come with me, it won't take but a minute."
Tony winced. He wanted nothing more than to leave. "You know, I should probably sit this one out. I'm not exactly the most popular person around here." That was a modest understatement. Calling a group of Congressmen "ass-clowns" during the Iron Man hearings did not rank very high on the list of smart moves he had made.
Boynton just laughed and threw his arm around Tony's shoulders. Tony stiffened under that comradely arm. The Senator's touch creeped him out, reminding him strongly of another tall, bald man who had pretended to like him while privately wishing him dead. He had to fight the urge to reach up and touch the arc reactor through his clothing, just to make sure it was still there.
"I'll let you in on a little secret," Boynton said. "None of us is really popular around here." He laughed like this was the funniest thing he had ever heard. With his arm still around Tony's shoulders, they left his office.
Boynton was lucky enough to have an office in the Capitol itself, so they did not have far to go to reach the north chamber where the Senate presided. Nonetheless, they passed several other Congressmen, each with their own entourage of aides and secretaries and members of the press – and every single one of them stared at Tony as he passed by. On any other day he would have smiled and given them a jaunty wave, but today he just kept right on walking.
Nothing had changed in the Senate chamber since he had been here last. The same busts lined the wall, the same desks sat in their semi-circle, the same ugly blue carpet covered the floor. Even some of the speeches sounded the same, and he wrestled back a yawn. His attention wandered, and he started thinking again about that rocket launcher he had invented this morning, wondering if there was a way to modify it so it would fit in Clint's quiver.
After half an hour of boring law-making, Senator Boynton rose to his feet. He was recognized, and he began to address the room. "It is my distinct pride to introduce to you something that my friend Tony Stark and I have been working on together."
At this mention of his name, something short-circuited in Tony's brain. It was like a switch had been thrown. For a moment all he could hear was that other Reed Richards: shot on the courthouse steps. He leapt to his feet.
Startled silence fell in the chamber. Every head in the room turned to stare at him.
"Ah, no," he said, calmer now. It had been a long time since he had had to work so hard to maintain his public face, the one that was all light-hearted insincerity. "No. Whatever the good Senator is about to suggest, I have no part of it. I want to make that perfectly clear." He smiled, charming and winning and without a care in the world. "I'm just here for the sushi he promised me."
Senator Boynton looked both surprised and disappointed. "You're going on the record with that statement? That you and Stark Industries have nothing to do with this bill?"
A warning bell went off in Tony's head at the mention of Stark Industries, but he had spent the better part of his life ignoring that niggling little voice; he saw no reason to start listening to it now. "On the record, yes." He pulled his sunglasses out of his pocket and put them on. "I'll just leave you to it, Senator. I've got more important things to do. Companies to run, new inventions to create, you know, real work."
As far as exit lines went, it was pretty lame, but at that point he didn't care. He just wanted out of there. He had said his piece and made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with registration. Steve would be happy, the superhero civil war would be averted, and the world would go on turning.
Not too bad for a day's work – and it wasn't even noon yet.
On the flight home, he called Fury. "Well, it's done."
"What's done?" Fury sounded skeptical.
Tony resisted the urge to sigh theatrically. Why did no one ever believe him when he said he would do something? "My play date with Senator Boynton? You know, bald, little on the chunky side, hates superheroes?"
"What did you say?" Fury asked.
"I told him no," he said. "I wasn't on board with the Superhero Registration Act anymore, and he didn't have my support." Which…kinda sucked. Left to his own devices, he would have ended up backing Boynton despite his misgivings. But he had seen the results in the haunted look in his other self's eyes, and he understood the stakes, and war is coming Richards had said, a war that ended with Steve dead. Like hell it was. Not if he had anything to say about it. And no one had ever accused Tony Stark of being at a loss for words. "So that's that. No registration law. No Civil War."
"Wonderful," Fury said, his voice thick with sarcasm. "I'll tell Hill to give you a cookie. Now get your ass back here. You may have stopped the Senator from introducing the registration bill, but you also stopped him from other things – and he seems mighty pissed off about that."
Tony was bewildered. "What are you talking about?"
"Just get back here," Fury said, and ended the call.
"Hmm," Tony said, and reached for the remote control.
The satellite connection on the plane was amazing – as it ought to be, since he had installed it himself. Not a pixel jumped out of place as he watched in silent disbelief at the story playing on CNN. Hell, it wasn't even a story. It was theater of the absurd, starring the noble Senator Boynton as the hero, and co-starring the dastardly Tony Stark as the villain.
For a long time he could only sit there and stare, trying to process it all. Then at last he laughed. It was all he could do.
He was screwed. Oh, he was so screwed.
Part II: You were the silence in between what I thought and what I said
It wasn't often that the Avengers gathered together for something as mundane as watching TV, but it did sometimes happen. Usually these occasions occurred after some special event such as saving the world again. However there were also those rarer instances when one of their own had been caught doing something incredibly stupid and ended up in front of the camera for an entirely different reason.
"One of their own" meaning Tony, 95% of the time. As it did tonight.
Most times Steve actually enjoyed these evenings, even if he didn't always approve of the reasons behind them. It was nice to interact with his teammates in what he still thought of as civilian mode, when there was no imminent danger out there and they could just joke around and have fun together. It was hard to enjoy himself, though, when all he could think about was the guilty secret he was keeping from them all. That secret was the whole reason they were here, sitting in the enormous living room they had appropriated for themselves on the top floor of the Tower, watching as the news stations gleefully showed the C-SPAN footage over and over again.
The only thing keeping it from being a total disaster was that registration was not once mentioned.
And that was the only bit of good news that evening, as far as Steve was concerned. The other Avengers knew nothing about the visit from the Reed Richards from that other world, and his dire warnings about the civil war that would tear them apart. They had agreed it had to be this way – Tony and himself, Director Fury and Agent Hill, their own Mr. Fantastic. Even mentioning registration would cause people to form an opinion on the issue. Steve hated withholding information from his friends and teammates, especially something like this, but he had to concede that there were bigger things at stake here. People couldn't take sides on an issue they didn't even know existed.
The way Tony and I did, he thought glumly.
And while he understood and even accepted why they were keeping their friends in the dark, that didn't mean he had to like it. It was too similar to what Tony had done, not telling him about his meetings with Senator Boynton, making the decision for him about what he needed to know and didn't need to know. When you made those kinds of decisions for other people, it put you in a bad place. That was the start down a long, dark road that could only end one way.
"Mr. Stark has arrived," JARVIS announced blandly.
"Well," Clint said. "This should be good."
"Are you going to at least let him explain this time?" Bruce asked mildly. He was often the only one besides Steve who was willing to side with Tony when this sort of thing happened, although Steve wasn't sure if that was because he genuinely believed Tony was innocent, or if it just stemmed from his non-confrontational nature. Either way, he always appreciated Bruce's efforts.
He wasn't even sure if Tony would come in here tonight. Sometimes he just went straight to his workshop and avoided them all. Usually he did this when he had no way of denying his latest stunt, like that time he had been caught helping some students at MIT erect a statue of Iron Man on Harvard's main campus as part of a prank. But when he wanted to defend himself, he would march in here, blustering from the moment he set foot in the room.
Steve wondered which it would be tonight.
He didn't have long to wait. They all heard Tony coming, muttering to himself. For an awful moment Steve worried that he was drunk, then he was there, stalking into the room and already pointing at the TV. "That," he said emphatically, "is a load of crap."
"Do tell," Clint said with a smirk.
"Please don't," Steve muttered, too quietly for anyone to hear.
"What exactly were you doing in Washington, anyway?" Natasha asked, raising one slim eyebrow. "No one at SHIELD even knew you'd gone."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Tony said acidly, "I didn't realize I needed a fucking chaperone to take my own private plane somewhere."
"You don't," Natasha said in the mild tone of disinterest that meant she was actually intensely focused on what you were about to say next.
"Just tell us what happened," Steve said, playing his role in all of this. On any other night, he would be genuinely curious and concerned, wanting to hear Tony's side of the story. Tonight, he just felt sick at heart with guilt and worry, and even to his ear, the words rang hollow. Nor was he the only one to notice; out of the corner of his eye, he saw Natasha give him a long, considering stare.
Before Tony could begin, the TV news anchor helpfully filled them all in, repeating yet again the day's top story out of Washington. It made for good drama, the noble Senator Boynton's efforts to introduce a bill requiring clean energy in all public buildings that had an occupancy rate of one thousand persons or more, only to be stymied by the loss of his greatest supporter, the sole manufacturer of clean energy right now: Tony Stark. What made it even better was the video of Tony making his dramatic exit from the Senate, and his line about having more important things to do – a line the reporters were quick to jump all over.
"You have got to be kidding me," Tony groaned. He sank on the couch, his head in his hands.
Bruce made a face. "Well, you definitely made your stance on the issue clear."
"That was not the issue, though! That is not what he was going to say," Tony swore. His phone rang; he barely glanced at it before silencing it and tossing it onto the coffee table, where it slid a little ways and almost knocked over Clint's can of soda.
"Oh? What were you talking about?" Again Natasha pretended to disinterest. "Because the last time I checked, Senator Boynton hated us."
Steve tensed, praying that Tony wouldn't just blurt it all out in anger. Instead Tony glanced briefly at him, then said, "Nothing. Just the same thing they all want to know."
"Which is?" Clint prompted.
Tony sighed. "When is Stark Industries going to start producing weapons again," he lied smoothly. "And by the way, the answer is never, so remember that one, boys and girls, in case anyone ever asks you."
Slowly Steve let out the breath he had been holding, and sank back in his chair. He should have known Tony would be able to deflect their questions.
On the TV, the anchor was saying, "Boynton has not responded to requests for interviews, which lead many to believe he is still trying to work things out with Stark. Our requests for a comment from Stark were all denied."
"Liar," Tony muttered.
"Not to, um, but…" Bruce pointed to the phone Tony had ignored.
Tony followed his gesture, then waved him off. "That was just Pepper."
"Is she not with her new husband under the honeyed moon?" Thor asked. He seemed rather bewildered by the whole thing; someone was going to have to give him a quick lesson on how the United States government operated.
"Er," Tony said. Quick guilt flashed across his face.
"And how many times has she called?" Bruce asked.
"I may have lost count somewhere around eleven?" Tony said, turning it into an almost-apology. Not that poor Pepper could hear it, halfway around the world in Venice on her honeymoon, and still drawn into the latest scandal involving Tony Stark.
"What is it about the C-SPAN cameras that turn everyone into a giant, raging dick?" Clint mused thoughtfully.
"Shut it," Tony snapped.
"No, seriously. Is there some kind of light beam being bounced around down there? You're the tech wizard. You ought to look into that."
Tony's phone began to ring again.
"I could answer it for you," Clint offered.
"Oh, hell no," Tony said. He grabbed the phone, glanced at the screen, then sighed. "I better take this one." He stood up and began walking out. As he left, they all heard him say, "Franklin. Calling to congratulate me on my latest success?"
For a moment no one spoke. Then Clint shook his head. "You gotta hand it to him. When he screws up, he does it in style."
"Like everything else," Bruce offered.
Steve just sighed.
He found Tony in the workshop later, stalking back and forth between three different schematics floating lazily in the air, firing off commands to JARVIS. He stopped when Steve came in, though, and sat on the nearest stool. "So," he said brightly, "how was your day?"
Steve was in no mood to joke around. "Who was that on the phone?"
"Oh," Tony said dismissively. "Franklin. That's Mr. Arthur Franklin to you lesser mortals, Frankie to me when I'm feeling really feisty. Head of the board. Hates my guts."
"Does he really?" Steve asked. Given his mood, he was pretty sure Tony was exaggerating.
"He was in Obie's pocket," Tony said, and oh. Apparently he was telling the truth. "Well, they all were. I mean, look at it from their perspective." He picked up a glass of amber liquid Steve hadn't even seen, and drank deeply. "Here they are, clichéd old white men running the board – and don't think I haven't taken any flak for that over the years – presiding over the company, and then dear old dad kicks the bucket. Enter Tony Stark, stage left. Not even legal yet, brilliant, drunk half the time, wasteful, and with no fucking clue what I'm doing. But they manage to straighten me out a little, although mostly they just go with what Obie tells them, and everything's cool for a while. Then I had to go and ruin it all by having my little adventure in Afghanistan and announcing that SI wasn't making weapons anymore, and there goes their pensions. And boy, were they pissed. To top it all off, six months later I'm dying and so I make Pepper CEO, and their dicks just shrivel up at that, having to take orders from a woman, even though they're pretty sure those orders are actually coming from me, which probably makes it even worse for them. So yeah." He drank again from his glass. "They hate me."
Steve didn't know what to say. He knew very little about Stark Industries and Tony's role in the business. He wasn't sure why he had never asked before, or why he had never shown an interest. All this time, and he had always just thought Tony didn't care, or simply wasn't needed anymore for the company. And he had been wrong.
"So now this news breaks, and Frankie's all over it like white on rice. 'This is great,' he says. 'We can sell the arc reactor technology. Just think of the third quarter bonuses!'" Tony made a face. "Yeah, 'cause at a time like this I'm really worried about the value of my stock."
"Well, why don't you sell it?" Steve asked.
"Because." Tony set down his glass heavily. He stared at Steve. "Because this…" He tapped the light glowing in his chest. "This is great. This is keeping me alive. And the one powering this building is even more awesome. But in the wrong hands?" He shook his head, his lips thinning. "The words minimum safe distance wouldn't even apply."
That was…not good. Steve suddenly viewed the arc reactor in a whole new light – and not a very positive one. "So…you're walking around with a bomb in your chest?"
"Pretty much, yeah," Tony said. Surprisingly, he grinned. "Does that turn you on?"
"Uh, no," Steve said.
Tony shrugged. "Eh. Give it time."
"So what then?" Steve said. "You just keep it secret forever?"
"Of course not," Tony said. "I always intended to put the reactor out there. It's not just clean energy for me, no matter what that asshole Boynton says. But there's years of R & D that has to come first. This one here is just the prototype. You think I'm going to sell a product I haven't extensively tested? You think when I sold weapons that they weren't field-tested for everything under the sun?"
Slowly, trying not to draw attention to himself, Steve found a stool at a nearby work table and sat down. Tony was getting progressively more worked up, learning so far forward it was a wonder he didn't fall off the stool, the words tumbling all over themselves as he tried to make his point.
"But can I say any of that? Of course not. Bastard's already cut me off at the knees. Anything I say now is going to smack of pathetic self-defense and make it look like I've got something to hide." He picked up his glass and scowled at it. "You know, I never told you, but the very same day I turned this thing on, that was the day Coulson came to me and told me about Loki and the Tesseract. There was supposed to be a press conference. Pepper was working on it. But after the attack, what was I supposed to do? Half the city was in ruins and without electricity or water, people dead all over the place, and I'm going to go out there and brag about my shiny new source of clean energy? I might be a selfish prick but even I knew how crass that was."
He paused to take a drink. "So I didn't say anything. And somehow the time was never right. There was all this Avengers business, and everyone was calling me a hero and so happy I saved the day and all that bullshit. And then there were all the clean-up efforts in the city, and rebuilding Stark Tower, and the repairs and upgrades to the helicarrier, and then all your gear needed major upgrades except for Thor because hello, I'm not stupid enough to interfere with a god's armor, and that's not even mentioning the Mark VIII and the Hulkbuster armor and –"
"We never asked for you to do all that," Steve interrupted. "No one did."
"Well, I guess Fury never got that memo," Tony said. "But that isn't the point. The point is, I never got to say anything. I never even got to start working on making the arc reactor safer for the public. You know, less a bomb waiting to go off in the wrong hands and more like a true source of clean energy."
Steve looked away, feeling guilty even though he knew he shouldn't. It wasn't his fault that Director Fury had asked Tony to do so much for SHIELD. And it certainly wasn't his fault that Tony had spent so much time overhauling the Avengers' existing uniforms and weapons and gear, upgrading them and making them even better than before. That had been Tony's choice – but Steve was well aware that he hadn't done it just because he enjoyed creating new things and showing off the results of his genius mind. He had done it because he felt the need to justify his presence among the other Avengers, to give them a reason to keep him around, to prove that he was more than just a big man in a suit of armor. It was that sad little offering of blueberries all over again from a man who had never learned how to value himself.
"So," Tony said. "Here I am, with one giant awesome arc reactor and one little awesome arc reactor, and not a damn thing I can do about either one."
"Well," Steve said, trying to think of a way out of the impossible situation Tony found himself in. "If you're worried about someone turning it into a weapon, can't you just sell the reactor itself without giving away the plans?"
"Oh, sure," Tony said. "But sooner or later, someone will reverse engineer it. And may I remind you, the last thing any of us needs is some nutjob at Oscorp getting their hands on an arc reactor. Which would bring us right back to square one." His expression darkened. "Speaking of which, is now a good time to point out that I never did finish what I started all those years ago? And yeah, I know that's a real surprise." He tilted his glass and stared at the liquid that remained – which wasn't much, by this point – but did not drink. "So many of my weapons are still out there, and here I am, doing nothing about it. I need to get back out there. Not as an Avenger. Just Iron Man, fixing Tony Stark's fuck-ups."
Steve worried at his lower lip, not wanting to say the wrong thing. He hated the idea of Tony flying off alone, feeling like he had to take on the whole world in order to correct the wrongs he had committed so long ago. He had done so much good as Iron Man, so much to balance out those wrongs. The world itself had largely forgiven him. The problem was that Tony couldn't seem to forgive himself.
He would not talk about that, he decided. Not right now, at any rate. Later, if Tony still hadn't dropped the idea, they could come back to it. For now, he would let it go – and hope that Tony did the same.
"It'll take years to reverse engineer the arc reactor," he said, hoping Tony would take the bait. "And whoever it is would have to obtain the materials first. I don't know much about it, but I do know that kind of stuff is hard to come by. You could monitor the supplies, so you'd know who was buying them."
To his relief, Tony did allow himself to be diverted. In fact, the narrow look Tony gave him was just short of genuine anger, and that was not at all the direction he had wanted this conversation to take. Wanting to defuse the situation, he smiled self-deprecatingly. "Aaaand you're already doing that. I'm sorry. I should have known."
"Yes, you should have," Tony said shortly. "Remember who you're dealing with here."
"So what are you going to do?" he asked.
"I don't know," Tony sighed. He began fiddling with one of the computers on the work table where he sat, touching the screen rapidly, although he didn't actually pull up any files. "Nothing, I guess, until this blows over. I can get started on the next generation of the arc reactor, but that's not going to produce anything for a while."
Steve nodded, not at all sure this was the wisest course, but willing to go along with it. Tony had far more experience with the media than he did; he trusted him to know the right way to respond.
He watched as Tony drained his glass, then set it down in order to focus on the computer screen. He waited a little bit longer to make sure Tony had nothing further to say about clean energy or the arc reactor, then he decided it was finally time to bring up the real reason he had come down here. "So," he said, "are you going to tell me what happened? Or am I just going to have to guess?"
Tony gave him a puzzled look. "About what?"
"Registration?" he prompted.
"Oh," Tony said. "Oh! Yeah, that." He frowned. "Fury didn't tell you?"
"No," Steve admitted. He understood that Director Fury had been forced to remain silent so no one would learn of his involvement, but it still angered him when he thought about it.
"Well, whatever. You don't have to worry about it anymore." Tony waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. "It's totally off the books. Done. Won't be any."
When the news from Washington had first hit, Steve had heard Senator Boynton's name and feared the worst. But as the day progressed and the story remained focused on the clean energy bill, he had slowly let himself feel hopeful. "So that's it, then? No registration law? No Civil War?"
Tony gave him a smug look. "Seems that way."
He let out his breath in a short exhale of relief. "And the Senator?"
"I'd say he got the message." Tony scowled. He tapped the screen again, and the static display suddenly blossomed into three-dimensional life in front of him. "This whole thing, it's his revenge. The son of a bitch knew what I would say when he brought my name up in front of Congress. He laid a trap for me, and I walked right into it."
Steve couldn't help wincing. It had been a long time since Tony had admitted to being outsmarted by someone else. As in, well, never. No wonder he wasn't taking this very well. He was angry with Boynton, but angrier with himself for letting it happen.
"But still," he said. He smiled, finally letting himself feel happy. "Haven't you realized it yet? We did it. We stopped it. We stopped the war. It really was that easy."
Tony looked up at him. For a moment he studied Steve solemnly, then he sat back, sudden mischief dancing in his eyes. The 3D display in front of him cast an ethereal blue light on his face. "Yeah, I guess we did. And are you calling me easy?" He smirked.
"I don't know," Steve said. He slid off the stool and started forward, only one thing on his mind now. "Are you?"
"Sir, the diagnostic is complete," JARVIS said smoothly. "Ready to begin the simulation."
"Ah, crap." Tony's gaze went from Steve to the image in front of him, then back again.
All day long Steve had been frantic for news about what was happening in Washington. Then when it had come, it had been awful watching as the reporters all made snide comments about Tony and questioned his motives with the arc reactor technology. It made him sick to his stomach to hear things like that, and worse, to know that Tony heard them too, and took them to heart, probably even silently agreeing with them.
He wanted to take away the sting of the hateful words. It was the only thing he could do.
He kept walking. When he reached the image suspended in the air, he reached out and took hold of it. He pushed it aside, needing more force to accomplish what Tony always managed with such an economy of motion and grace. "Not tonight," he said.
"Mmm, giving orders," Tony teased. "Feeling Captain-y tonight, are we?" That light was back in his eyes, the look Steve loved on him so much, the one that said he wasn't thinking about anything except Steve and what they were about to do. That genius mind was rarely still for very long; Steve coveted these moments when he had Tony's complete attention, treasuring them all the more for knowing how infrequent they were.
For the past two nights, since learning about the threat of war, Tony had touched him with the kind of fevered intensity he usually only displayed when he woke gasping and choking from a nightmare. Tonight, however, their roles were reversed. He was the one almost desperate for touch, to feel Tony's bare skin on his. His kisses were frantic and rushed, and he had to keep reminding himself to ease up before he bruised Tony's mouth for all the world to see.
It wasn't long before he had Tony backed up against the work table, jeans and boxers down around his ankles, muttering a steady stream of obscenity that was oddly more romantic than any endearment. He dropped down to his knees. "Do you even know how amazing you are?"
"Yes," Tony said, then gasped as Steve leaned in and sucked hard at the flat plane of his hip. "Fuck!" His hands tangled in Steve's hair. "But you're going to tell me anyway, right?"
"I'd rather show you," Steve said with a sly grin.
"I am surprisingly – oh God, Steve – cool with that," Tony gasped, and then he didn't speak at all; he just threw his head back and groaned as Steve took him in his mouth.
The pull on his hair was almost painful, but Steve didn't mind. He had one hand between his own legs now, stroking himself with the same rhythm he used with his mouth on Tony. He would never grow tired of seeing Tony this way, his eyes so dark with lust they were almost black, his skin flushed and sheened with sweat. It turned him on in a way he could never describe with mere words, knowing that he was responsible for this.
"God," Tony said. "Oh fuck. Steve. Fuck. I'm gonna…"
In answer Steve just did that thing with his tongue, the one that he knew drove Tony over the edge. It worked beautifully too, Tony's entire body arching as he came. The sight of him like that made Steve's hand clamp down almost painfully on his cock, and he shuddered into his own release even as his throat worked, swallowing hard.
"Oh. Fuck. Oh. Steve." Tony backed up a step, even though Steve could have sworn there was no more space between him and the table. He was wobbly on his feet, another thing Steve felt absurdly proud of. "God, I love you." His hands slid down to cup Steve's face. "You are so beautiful right now." He dropped down to his knees and kissed Steve, then drew back with a wicked grin. "Mmm, you taste good, Captain Rogers."
Steve just laughed. "I bet."
Relieved that the tension of the day was past, he threw his arms around Tony. "I love you." He closed his eyes and bowed his head so he could rest his forehead on Tony's shoulder. "I love you." They had the rest of their lives ahead of them now, thanks to what Tony had achieved today. Even the hateful news story about the fake clean energy bill didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was what they had, here and now, and the future stretching before them.
They had done it.
Four a.m. found Tony back in the workshop.
This was nothing new. He never stayed the entire night with Steve. Part of that was the ever-present worry of being caught, but mostly it was just how he operated. He never spent the night with the people he had sex with. It was just a thing he had.
Besides, he had too much to do. He did some of his best thinking in these predawn hours, alone in the workshop with rock music blaring in the background, surrounded by half-finished projects.
And of course, the biggest advantage to having at least four projects ongoing at any given time was that it gave him plenty of other things to think about. Instead of, oh let's just say, how he had lied to Steve.
Well, lied was maybe a harsh word. He hadn't seen it that way at first. He had watched Steve leave the workshop, then waited twenty minutes before following him out – just long enough to recalibrate the simulation JARVIS had been running, and get it going again.
They had made love again, properly this time, and he had actually slept for a little bit. But right on schedule, he had woken up shortly after three-thirty, brain full to bursting with ideas and equations. He had barely made it down here before launching into a monologue to JARVIS, opening new project files and terminating others, dictating new code for that upgrade to the SHIELD software he had promised Fury two months ago, then in the next breath laying the groundwork for the research that needed to be done on the next generation arc reactor.
It wasn't until he managed to find room in his head for actual thought that he realized what had really happened last night. Until this blows over, he had said, and only Steve was honest enough to take him at his word. Steve hadn't been there, hadn't seen the genuine fury in Boynton's eyes at being thwarted. Steve didn't know that this was not just going to "blow over." Not any time soon. Today's story was just the warning shot across the bow. He had stopped one war, but he had inadvertently started another.
Tony had learned long ago how to compartmentalize. He shoved all that crap about Boynton and the arc reactor into one corner of his mind and buried himself in work, and by the time he realized that he had accidentally soldered together two of Clint's arrows, it was after eight o'clock in the morning. He knew this because JARVIS told him so when he announced that Pepper was calling again and this time she would absolutely not take no for an answer.
Well, he'd been putting her off long enough, he supposed. "Go ahead," he said, still distracted by the soldering problem, because Clint was really attached to his arrows, like almost unhealthily so, and so he had better figure out a way to undo this, quick.
The thundering rock music was silenced. Pepper's voice filled with workshop, laden with disapproval. "What have you done now?"
"What? I didn't do-- Wait, how did you, are you spying on me?" He looked around with deep suspicion, fighting the urge to hide the arrows behind his back.
Pepper just sighed, her voice amplified by the speakerphone. "Turn on the news."
He rolled his eyes. Great. Now what?
JARVIS cycled through three news stations, and there it was. The tail end of a story about the price tag for the latest round of destruction the Avengers had wreaked on New York City. "They caused all this damage," the mayor was saying. "But I don't see any of them offering to pay for it. Especially Mr. Stark, who could certainly afford to put some of his ill-gotten gains to good use."
"Ill-gotten gains?" Tony asked no one in particular. "Do people actually still say that?"
"Do you have anything to say to Tony Stark, or the other Avengers?" the reporter asked.
"Yes, I do," said the mayor. "I hope to see you downtown soon." He turned away, and the interview was over.
"Why does the mayor of New York suddenly hate you?" Pepper demanded.
Tony examined the soldered-together arrows. "Why do you assume he suddenly hates me? For all you know he's been harboring an ever-growing animosity for years, ever since I found the loophole in his property tax bills."
Pepper did not answer, but he could hear the exasperated sigh in her silence.
"Pepper, relax. It'll be fine. Have SI issue the city a check to cover the bill, and everyone will be happy again."
"Are you serious?" It sounded like she was choking.
"I'm always serious," Tony said. He picked up the arrows and gave them a good, hard shake. Nope. Still soldered together.
"I'll handle this," Pepper said, sounding long-suffering and like she was totally entitled to it – which to be fair, she was. "But Tony? We really need to talk about this thing with the Senator. We need to make a statement, and soon."
"Yeah, yeah. We will. Next time you stop by. It's a date."
"I'll be there this evening."
"What?" Tony said. He had only been half-listening to her, but that got his attention in a hurry. "You should be in Venice. Aren't you in Venice? Stay in Venice."
"As a matter of fact, I am in London right now," Pepper said. "We left Venice this morning."
Tony stared blankly at the arrows in his hand. He sighed. "Do you want to say it, or should I?" When she did not speak right away, he answered for her. "Yeah, okay, I'll say it. That's only fair. I am the world's biggest douchebag. And I'm sorry I ruined your honeymoon. I really am."
"You didn't…ruin anything," Pepper said. She didn't sound angry, but she also didn't sound like she meant it, though, and Tony knew that was the closest she would ever come to admitting that he had ruined her honeymoon.
"I'll make it up to you both, I promise," he said. "Venice, Rome, the moon. Wherever you guys want to go. A full month. No phone calls, no texts, just uninterrupted sex. Er. With Happy. Not with me. No thinking about me at all. Not even during the sex. Especially during the sex."
"Good-bye Tony," Pepper said firmly, correctly choosing to ignore his rambling. "I'll see you tonight."
JARVIS ended the call.
Tony sighed. He looked around the empty room, then down at the arrows that remained stubbornly soldered together. "Have you seen my sledgehammer?"
At noon Senator Boynton appeared on Fox News, giving a very solemn interview where he championed his cause for clean energy and was treated like a modern-day martyr. He said he sincerely hoped he would have the chance to talk with his good friend Tony Stark, to find out what had caused his change of heart. "I still have faith that he will see that this is the best thing for the American people right now."
Around mid-afternoon, the real trouble began. A radio talk show host accused Tony of deliberately withholding the arc reactor technology from the world. Greedy and selfish were the kindest words used in that broadcast.
By the time the six o'clock news started, everyone had picked up the story and run with it. The New York media in particular seemed intent on pointing out that Tony seemed to go out of his way to cause as much damage in the city as possible, in order to drive the commercial construction Stark Industries now had a hand in. Surely, they said, Iron Man could do better. Here they were, forced to rebuild in the wake of the newest round of destruction, with the perfect opportunity to begin anew with the arc reactor technology and clean energy. But SI refused to share its tech. Phrases like artificially creating the demand and strangling the supply and name any price were commonplace in these broadcasts.
Steve watched all this with the inexorable sensation of a noose tightening about his throat. There was a strange fluttering in his chest, and several times he had to swallow hard, almost fighting for breath.
It hadn't even been twenty-four hours, and their happy future was crumbling all around them.
"How can they say such things?" he demanded later that night, unable to make himself watch any more of the lies and accusations on the TV. Full of angry, restless energy, he paced back and forth in the workshop. "It's all lies!"
"Steve." Tony didn't seem perturbed, and oddly enough, that bothered him most of all. "Steve."
"They can't just say things like that!" he burst out. "It's slander. It's illegal!"
He barely glanced up. "What?"
"If you don't stop pacing, I'm going to have Dummy hose you down with fire retardant."
Abruptly he stopped. "What?"
"You're driving me crazy," Tony said. He was standing in front of a work table, poking delicately at one of the Iron Man suit's internal systems. "And this is really very sensitive work here. If I screw this up, the next time I try to fly I'll end up doing somersaults in the air, which would be great fun for Clint, but not so much fun for me, so can you please stand still?"
Feeling guilty, but also still angry, he said, "How can you work right now? Aren't you angry about what they're saying about you?"
Tony shrugged. "Honestly? No. It's happened before, it'll happen again. It's no big deal."
This casual attitude rocked Steve back on his heels. "It's no big deal? How can you say that? It is a big deal!"
With a sigh, Tony set down his tools. "No. It really isn't. And I'll tell you why. Because this won't last. Sooner or later, some reality TV star is going to do something incredibly stupid – while they're naked, probably – and it'll be all over the news. The President will say something to piss off half the country. Another athlete will get accused of using steroids. And before you know it, life has moved on."
This was undoubtedly true, but Steve still could not let it rest. "Okay, I get it. But right now, this is happening. They're saying those things about you. And I—"
"Steve." The unaccustomed serious note in Tony's voice warned him into silence. "I know what you're going to say, and I appreciate it, really I do. But let it go. Okay?"
"I could talk to Senator Boynton," he began. "He's the one who started all this."
"No!" Tony shouted. He started forward, then checked himself. "Damnit, no. If you do that, it'll only add fuel to the fire. He'll take that and run with it. And I won't have you or the Avengers dragged into this. People are already turning on us. Just let it go, Steve. Promise me."
That was the last thing he wanted to promise, but he could see how much this meant to Tony. With serious misgivings, he surrendered. "I won't do anything. I promise." He couldn't resist adding, "Even though I want to."
"And that's why you have to promise," Tony said.
Steve drew in a deep breath, then slowly let it out, forcing himself to calm down. "All right," he finally said. "Are you coming up?"
"I will," Tony said. "Later. I want to finish this first."
"Okay," he said. He walked forward and gave Tony a kiss. "Just don't take too long."
"I won't," Tony promised.
But when Steve woke up the next morning, his bed was still empty.
The lead story on the morning news shows featured some so-called experts who were speculating about the arc reactor. "The truth of the matter is, we know very little about the arc reactor powering Stark Tower. Mr. Stark has been very tight-lipped on the subject. Even the plans filed with the city's permitting office are very vague. I would not be surprised to find out, at the end of the day, that this apparent clean energy source is in fact not clean at all, and possibly even dangerous, maybe even very dangerous."
"Do you think Mr. Stark was lying when he claimed the arc reactor was a safe, viable source of clean energy?"
"Well, Miriam, I couldn't answer that. But I would like to think he had the best of intentions."
Thoroughly disgusted, Steve turned the TV off.
Pepper arrived shortly after noon. She looked stressed out and worried, not at all like someone who had just gotten married. He couldn't blame her – she had only been able to enjoy three days of her honeymoon before duty and loyalty brought her back to New York.
"You need to make a statement," Pepper kept saying, while Tony either ignored her or did his best to distract her. All but forgotten by both of them, Steve sat quietly at a work table that was slightly less cluttered than the others, and watched them play off each other.
"A statement about what?" Tony said. "This is nothing. Pepper, we've been through worse. Trust me, this won't last."
"Well, the board doesn't share your confidence," Pepper said. "They want you to call a press conference to address the issues, starting with Senator Boynton's accusation that you are deliberately withholding clean energy from the American people in order to make a profit."
"Absolutely not," Tony snapped. He glowered at her over a miniature replica of the Quinjet.
"Fine," Pepper said. "Then give me a prepared statement and I'll have your publicist do it."
"I have a publicist?" Tony said with some bewilderment. He spun the 3D display of the Quinjet with the touch of a finger, then glanced up at Pepper. Off her unamused glare, he said quickly, "I knew that. Yeah. I was kidding. It was a joke, Pepper, jeez."
"So what do you want to do?" she asked. "You can't just hide down here until it all blows over."
"Why not?" Tony said. "Sounds like a perfectly good plan to me."
"Of course it does, to you," Pepper said with exasperation. "That's all you ever do. Unless you're calling surprise press conferences of your own and turning them into sit-ins."
"Hey!" Tony left off playing with the model and pointed at her. "I only did that once."
She gave him a look. "We—"
"That will be all, Ms. Potts-Hogan," Tony said, in a tone that defied her to argue with him.
Pepper drew herself up, eyes sparking with anger. Steve guessed it had been a long time since Tony had spoken so dismissively to her. "Of course, Mr. Stark." She stalked out of the workshop, yanking the door open so violently he half expected her to rip it off the hinges.
Steve waited until the door shut again and he was positive she was out of earshot before saying, "Did you have to talk to her that way?"
"As a matter of fact, I did. Otherwise she'd be down here all day. And I need her out there, running interference," Tony said, completely unapologetic. "Was there something you needed?" He gave Steve a look that said he was half a second away from ordering him out, too.
"No," Steve said slowly. "I guess not."
Later that day he watched as the spokespeople for two separate non-profit clean energy groups made a statement disassociating themselves from Tony. "It would seem Mr. Stark has chosen a different route than us, and we wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors. For our part, we will continue our efforts to achieve clean energy for the global community."
The story ended and the annoyingly cheerful newsanchors began discussing the flooding happening in the Midwest. He sensed rather than heard someone standing behind him, and looked up to see Bruce standing in the doorway. "What is all this?" Bruce said uneasily.
"I don't know," Steve admitted. "But I don't like it."
"The only thing I can figure is that Boynton is looking ahead to 2016," Bruce said. "He wants to make a name for himself now, using clean energy as his platform. But…" He shook his head. "It doesn't make any sense. If that's his plan, he should be doing everything he can to get into bed with Tony, not make him an enemy."
Steve looked away, hoping like hell that his face didn't give anything away over that unfortunate choice of phrasing – even the idea of anyone else "getting into bed" with Tony made his heart race. "I don't know," he said again.
"Has anyone talked to him about it?" Bruce asked.
"I've tried," Steve said.
"And let me guess, he told you to stay out of it," Bruce said.
Steve just nodded. He was surprised at how quickly Bruce had picked up on the situation – then told himself that he shouldn't be. He forgot sometimes, the way Bruce and Tony were so often on the same wavelength, how well they understood each other, not just as scientists but as friends. "How'd you guess?"
Bruce quirked a little smile at him. "Lucky, I suppose."
"I'm going to try again, though," Steve said. "This isn't right, what they're doing. He needs to say something to defend himself. Or if he won't, one of us should. And I guess that someone should be me."
Bruce thought about this, then lifted one shoulder in a faint shrug. "He doesn't have to."
"What do you mean?" Steve asked. "Why wouldn't he?"
"You weren't around, of course, but Tony's spent most of his life answering to the things people say about him. You know what they used to call him." Bruce gazed into the distance, seeing the past, the headlines that had once been current news to him, but would forever be only words pulled up on a search engine to Steve. "Maybe he just decided he's tired of having to defend himself. Maybe he decided that he's going to let his actions be the answer, instead."
"His actions?" Steve replied. "But he's not doing anything. He's just hiding down there."
"Maybe it looks that way," Bruce said. "But do you even know what he's working on?" When Steve shook his head, he said, "Neither do I. For all we know it's a new version of the arc reactor, one that the public can have. All I'm saying is, before we jump to any conclusions, we should ask a few questions."
The reproach, mild as it was, stung Steve to the quick. "That's a good idea." But he didn't say that Tony had already mentioned that he would soon start work on the next generation of arc reactor – mostly because he didn't remember seeing anything like that this afternoon.
"So let's go," Bruce said.
"Now?" Steve asked, then thought, Why not? It might even be for the best. If he went down there alone, Tony would just see him as interfering again, and get angry. But if he went with Bruce, suddenly it became a matter of genuine concern, two friends who were worried about a third. Tony would have to face the problem then, and not just insist that things would blow over.
"Okay," he said.
Together they took the elevator to the workshop. As they approached the glass doors, he saw Tony talking animatedly as he paced back and forth between two volumetric displays. It was hard to tell what exactly the images were, but neither one looked like an arc reactor to Steve.
He and Bruce went inside, and now they could hear what Tony was saying. "—really, not necessary. Cross my heart and hope to die, all that."
"I mean it," a voice replied, and it was not JARVIS. Startled, Steve turned to look at the computer monitors, searching for the one that held the information about this phone call. He knew that voice, but couldn't place it. "Just say the word, and I'm there."
"I know," Tony said. He glanced up at Bruce and Steve, a question written all over his face. "Still not necessary."
"Fine, whatever you say," sighed the voice, and just before Steve finally spotted the image on one of the computer screens, he identified the speaker as Jim Rhodes. "Just…Tony…don't go this alone, okay? You've got five other big guns there. Don't be afraid to use them. Get your buddy Cap to make a statement. People eat his shit up with a spoon. A lot of this would go away if he just spoke up."
Tony ducked his head, a rather guilty look on his face. "Ah, sure. I'll look into that. Look, I gotta go. I'll call you later."
"All right, take it easy—" and the call was cut off.
Tony stopped pacing and came to rest in front of the larger display; it seemed to be a model of the Quinjet, but already it was vastly modified from the one he had been fiddling with earlier when Pepper had been here. He looked almost embarrassed, babbling at a more rapid speed than normal. "Rhodey in full mother hen mode, he doesn't, he doesn't really know what he's talking about, um, yeah, did you guys need something?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw Bruce look at him, but he had eyes only for Tony. "With a spoon, huh?"
Tony made a face. "Did I mention that Rhodey was an idiot?"
"Well, he's not wrong," Bruce said, prompting Steve to give him a slightly incredulous look. "But that wasn't why we came down here."
As always, Tony knew when a set-up when he saw it. He backed away from the display. Just a single step, but it also put some distance between himself and Steve and Bruce. "So what was the reason?"
"We were worried," Bruce said. "I'm sure you've seen today's news."
"Actually, no," Tony said. He started to reach for the image of the Quinjet, then let his hand drop back down. "But JARVIS has been keeping me up to date."
"Oh," Bruce said. "Well, that's…helpful."
"You oughta see what he can do in the kitchen," Tony retorted.
Steve exchanged a brief glance with Bruce. There were probably only a handful of people who would even hear the anger behind Tony's mockery – and he and Bruce both happened to belong to that select group.
"We just wanted to see if there was anything you need," he said. "Or if there's anything we can do to help."
Tony looked at Steve, then at Bruce. He sighed. "Don't tell me you couldn't see this coming a mile away. Those clean energy hippies—"
"Hippies? Really?" Bruce mumbled.
"--couldn't stand having me as their champion, anyway. Most of them spent all their lives hating me for manufacturing weapons. I bet half of them protested outside my factories at some point or another. I'm sure it's a relief now that they don't have to pretend to like me and support me."
He turned to Bruce. "Steve already knows this. He's just too nice and polite to fill you in and make you feel bad. Fortunately, I've never had a problem being a dick. So I'm just gonna say this once, and you two can duke it out amongst yourselves for who gets to tell the rest of the gang.
"I don't want your 'help' and I don't need your 'help.' There is no 'help' required. This thing with Boynton is no big deal and it won't last. I will be fine and the Avengers will be fine – as long as you all stay out of it. I mean it. No heroics, no rushing to my rescue, no statements in my defense. Just…stay out of it. Any of you open your big mouths and you'll just be painting a big target on your foreheads. And I won't have that. You got me?"
In spite of Bruce's presence, Steve nearly threw all caution to the wind then. He wanted nothing more than to rush forward and seize Tony in a crushing embrace and kiss him senseless. He wanted to make Tony understand the fierce pride and love he felt at that moment, listening to him selflessly choose to remain Boynton's only target, thus protecting the Avengers – and by extension Reed and the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the X-Men and every other superhero out there. As long as Boynton was focused on turning public opinion against Tony Stark – and only Tony Stark – the rest of them were safe. And all this because he had turned his back on what he believed was the right thing, and taken a stand. Because he had said no.
He hoped he would get the chance later to say those things, to show Tony how incredible he was. For now, though it practically killed him, he just stood there beside Bruce, and did nothing.
"Okay," Bruce said, not at all upset. "Yeah. I get it." He cocked his head slightly. "And for the record…thanks."
Tony looked taken aback. "For what?"
"For taking one for the team," Bruce said. He smiled a little. "Again."
After a moment, Tony smiled back. It was his I'm-not-really-amused smile though, not an expression of genuine humor. "Yeah, well. Someone's gotta do it, right? Might as well be me. Cap can get the next one."
Joining in on the act, Steve made himself smile like he thought this was funny, too. "You bet I will."
And for just a second, he let his intentions show in his eyes. Just long enough that Tony saw.
I will. For you. Without hesitation.
Bruce offered to do it for him. "I know this can't be easy for you, considering…" He trailed off, looking uncomfortable.
Steve just shook his head. The news had to come from him. So he was the one who met Friday with the other three Avengers and told them in no uncertain terms that they were not to react publicly to the news stories about Tony.
Clint and Natasha greeted this news with barely perceptible shrugs, accepting what had to be. Only Thor seemed perturbed. "Why would we not defend our brother?" he demanded. "Are we willing to stand in silence as he is attacked?"
"He's doing it to protect us, buddy," Clint said. "Just let it go."
"What about you, Cap?" Natasha asked. "Are you okay with this?"
"No," Steve said. "But this is what Tony wants. We have to respect that. And I understand where he's coming from. Like Clint said, he's trying to protect us. There's already enough public sentiment against the Avengers."
Natasha said nothing, but there was a look on her face Steve could not define. She seemed almost disappointed in him, although he did not understand why.
After that he made the trip to the Baxter Building to visit with Reed and the other Fantastic Four. Only Sue was there, but she greeted him warmly and took him down to Reed's lab unannounced.
Reed shook his hand and waited for Sue to leave before saying, "How are you two doing?"
"Okay," Steve said. "About as well as can be expected."
"I saw the news," Reed said, which was surprising. He was not the kind of man who watched a lot of TV or kept current on the news of the day. But then, Steve supposed he had a vested interest this time in staying up to date. "I suppose this is the Senator's revenge for having his law taken away."
"Seems that way," Steve admitted, and he told Reed what had really happened when Tony went to Washington.
Reed listened solemnly at first, but by the end he was smiling. "So you did it. No Civil War."
"Yeah," Steve said. "It's just coming at one hell of a cost."
"These things always do," Reed said. That kind of pissed Steve off. It was easy for him to say. He wasn't the one having to pay the price.
Then Reed said, "I've been trying to figure it out, you know. Wondering…which side they would be on, Sue and Ben and Johnny."
"And what about you?" Steve blurted out. The moment the words left his mouth, he kicked himself. This was one thing he did not want to know – even though he did.
"I don't…" Reed looked troubled. "I've tried to do the math. But there are so many variables. It's so… I can't…"
"Don't," Steve said, grateful for this reprieve. "Don't tell me. I don't want to know."
Reed nodded miserably, and Steve added, "There's something Tony and I need you to do." The way he saw it, Reed didn't need to know that this order had come from Tony himself. Now more than ever they needed to present a united front – even to their own people.
Naturally it took no effort to persuade Reed to stay silent on the issue. "Senator Boynton doesn't like us either, especially Ben. I don't think it's going to be difficult to convince the others to stay out of it."
"Good," Steve said. "And if you happen to see Peter…"
"We'll tell him," Reed promised.
Steve thanked him and left.
Feeling like a traitor, he returned to Avengers Tower.
The weekend was a slow time for news. On Saturday Steve put on his tuxedo and joined three of his teammates for a charity fundraiser. The event was sponsored by the Maria Stark Foundation, which meant Tony had to at least put in an appearance, despite his grumbling that he had too much to do. Bruce, who never went to these things, volunteered to look after his most pressing work, which only made Tony complain more.
"Suck it up," Clint said while they waited on Natasha. "How often do you get to go to a silent auction for precious artworks, all in the name of raising money for the children of this illustrious city?"
"Counting the one I went to last month? And the month before that?" Tony scowled.
"Okay, bad example," Clint conceded with a laugh.
Steve said nothing, pretending that he was just going along because he had said he would, not because he wanted to stay by Tony's side and shield him from the rest of the world.
"Is that the same tux you wore to Pepper's wedding?" Tony asked.
"Yes," Steve said. "I had it dry cleaned."
Tony just sighed and raised his eyes heavenward. "Wearing the same clothes twice in one week. It boggles the mind." He looked incredibly handsome in his tux – new, of course – but Steve was so apprehensive about the evening that he couldn't enjoy the sight the way he normally would.
Natasha appeared then, wearing something slinky and silvery. "Were you waiting on me?"
"Never," Clint said gallantly. He extended his arm.
She rested her hand in the crook of his elbow. "Then what are we waiting for?"
Their limo was waiting at street level. When the elevator arrived in the main lobby, Steve saw that there were people standing outside the Tower. This was not unusual; quite often there was a small crowd gathered there, people waiting for a glimpse of one of the Avengers, or sometimes wanting an autograph, or just to talk. Tonight, though, the throng was larger than normal, and they were definitely not there for autographs. Not if the signs they carried were any indication.
"Oh, Christ," Tony sighed when he saw them. "We better go down to the garage. I'll have JARVIS call the driver and tell him the gate is open."
"Should have him let Bruce know, too," Clint said. "So he can tell Thor." The god of thunder did not do charity auctions, either – not because he didn't like them, but because he had been politely asked to leave the hammering to the man with the gavel.
A strange look crossed Tony's face at the mention of Thor. Then his expression smoothed out and he nodded. "Good call." He reached for his phone.
Steve spared one last glance over his shoulder as they headed back into the elevator. He knew it was futile, but he couldn't help hoping Tony hadn't actually read the signs out there. The ones that said Mercenary and Tony Stark = Merchant of Lies.
And then he realized that it didn't matter if Tony had seen those particular signs or not. He already knew what they said. He had known it long before tonight.
Tony reacted to the slandering of his name the way he usually did – by ignoring it. He went to ground in his workshop, losing himself in his work. He upgraded the Iron Man suit and nearly every piece of equipment Clint and Natasha used. He finished the designs for new engines on the Quinjet, overhauled the software SHIELD used, and built a jetpack for Clint so he could get to those rooftops he loved so much. All in one weekend.
When Steve could get him to talk about it at all, he was dismissive. "Look, it happens. Sooner or later a new flavor of the month will come along, and all this will be forgotten. It's no big deal."
But it was a big deal. For Steve, at least. He had never had to stand idly by while the press savaged someone he loved, and it drove him mad with frustration.
It wasn't the first time he had witnessed how swiftly a story made its way through the media and caught fire with the public, but it was the first time he had seen it affect someone he knew. He watched with growing amazement and horror as the tone of these stories steadily grew more hostile, until it seemed like everyone was out to get Tony Stark.
On Monday the other major clean energy groups all issued statements distancing themselves from Tony Stark and the arc reactor technology, saying that they would instead focus their funds and research on the more traditional sources of clean energy.
Pepper dragged Tony to yet another board meeting at Stark Industries. When Tony came back he was white with fury and would not talk to anyone. He retreated once again to his workshop and locked everyone out – including Steve.
"I'm sorry, Captain," JARVIS said blandly. "Mr. Stark has given orders that he is not to be interrupted. Even by you."
That hurt. A lot.
They were together now. They loved each other. They were supposed to turn to each other for support – not lock the other person out. Which was exactly what Tony was doing, both physically and emotionally.
If he wanted to, he could go back up to the floor where his rooms were and retrieve his shield and come back down here and smash the glass doors. He knew it could be done. But it would serve no purpose, except to get glass everywhere and make Tony mad at him. So instead he went out running – and did not return for four hours.
It was well after dark when he came back, forced to enter through the underground parking garage in order to avoid the crowds gathered at the entrance to the Tower. He went up to his room, intending to take a long hot shower, and found Tony waiting for him there, half-drunk and contrite. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I just needed to be alone for a while."
Steve understood the need to be alone, truly he did. But with Tony, his first instinct when he was wounded or angry or upset was always to retreat into solitude, saying nothing and sharing nothing. That wasn't supposed to happen anymore.
"Let me help," he urged. "Talk to me. Don't shut me out, Tony. I hate this. I hate what this is doing to us. I wish we had never heard about that war."
"I will," Tony said. "I know. I will. I just…I needed some time, is all." He paced away from Steve, toward the door, then came back again. He stopped, still a few feet away. "The board wants me out," he said. "And this time I think it might actually happen."
"What? Can they do that?" Steve asked.
"I don't… Pepper is working on it. She doesn't think so, but…" He shook his head. "I don't know. I really don't know anymore."
On Tuesday, one week from the day Tony had averted a civil war but begun another one with Senator Boynton, Steve wandered into the kitchen and found Thor and Tony standing beside the coffeemaker, deep in conversation.
Thor looked up when he saw Steve enter. He nodded, his expression solemn. "Farewell, Captain. I wish you success in the coming battles."
Steve frowned. When Thor returned to Asgard, he simply went, without any farewells or ceremonies. This was clearly something else, then. "Um, good-bye?" He waved a little, giving Tony a baffled look. Tony just shrugged and made a face they all had made at one point, a face that said, Who knows? It's Thor. Just go with it.
He filled a pot with water and turned the stove on, then began his daily search for the canister of oatmeal. Some mornings it was right where he had left it. Other mornings he had to hunt for it, a not-so-subtle reminder of whose Tower he was living in. Today it was hidden behind the enormous jar of peanut butter the Hulk favored. He removed it with a small sigh – it was not a clever hiding place, which meant Tony had been pressed for time – and tried not to listen in on the conversation he seemed to have interrupted.
"I'm sorry, buddy. I wish it could have turned out differently."
"As do I, my friend. But I am glad that you will not have to bear this burden alone."
"Er." Tony cleared his throat. "I don't know what you mean."
"Yes," Thor said.
"Riiight," Tony said dubiously. "Okay, well. Have fun storming the castle."
"I doubt there will be castles in Hawaii," Thor said. "But I imagine there will be some storming." He laughed.
Tony gave Thor a firm pat of encouragement on his upper arm, one man to another. "Have fun with that."
The water was nearly boiling already; Steve poured out the oatmeal and returned to the stove. As he did, Thor and Tony walked away, strolling out of the kitchen.
They did not return, and Steve ate his breakfast alone.
He thought nothing of the incident until later that evening, when Natasha said they had a conference call from Director Fury. They gathered in what Tony called the executive boardroom and what Clint called the classroom, on the sixty-eighth floor. Only Thor was absent, but again Steve didn't think this was unusual. Not at first.
Director Fury did not come often to the Avengers Tower, preferring to conduct any necessary SHIELD business from the helicarrier or the agency's offices in the city. For today's meeting he was clearly sitting at his desk on the helicarrier. Usually that desktop was completely bare, with no official business visible, nor any adornment or concession to his status. Tonight, however, one single sheet of paper lay on his desk.
"Would someone mind telling me why my heavy hitter suddenly decided to take off for parts unknown, taking with him one of the smartest scientists we have, effectively shutting down an entire project…and decided to tell me by sending me a memo?"
Across from Steve, Clint burst into surprised laughter, a sound he quickly masked with a very false-sounding cough. Director Fury's eye narrowed, but as he was all the way across the harbor, the threat was not very effective.
"Ah, that would be me." Tony waved his hand.
"Stark." Director Fury did not sound surprised. "Would you mind telling me why I was right to assume you were behind this?"
"First of all, I kind of resent the implication that I was considered guilty before you even talked to me," Tony said, "because I thought our whole country was founded on the concept of innocent until proven guilty, and you do have the walking epitome of this great land sitting right here next to me, so you know, maybe next time you should think about that." He blinked, having apparently mystified even himself with the direction his babbling had taken, and shook his head. "Anyway, yes, I told Thor it might be a good idea to take a leave of absence right now. Because let's face it, Jane Foster isn't getting any younger, and if there's ever going to be any little thunder babies, now's the time."
Now it was Natasha's turn to smother a choked laugh.
"And for the record," Tony continued, "I did suggest sending you a memo, but I honestly never thought he'd actually do it. I didn't even know he knew how to type."
"He didn't," Director Fury said, his voice so frosty Steve half-expected to see icicles form on the viewing screen they were all staring at. "He handwrote it." He brandished that single sheet of paper at the screen; Steve had a brief glimpse of very ornate, rather delicate handwriting, before Fury slapped it down on the desk.
"Fortunately for you," Director Fury said, "as it so happens I agree that this is a good time for Thor to lay low. The last thing we need right now is a repeat of last year's 'he's an alien' hysteria. So…points for effort, Stark. But you lose points on the execution."
Tony shrugged. "The judges are biased. Second opinion?"
Steve just sat there. He suddenly understood what he had walked in on this morning in the kitchen, and his heart swelled with furious love and a terrible, frustrated anger. He hated that no one could know the real reason Tony had urged Thor to disappear for a while – and not just something as simple as returning to Asgard, but a real vacation, taking Jane with him in order to protect her as well. He wished desperately that the rest of the world could see this side of Tony, all those people who claimed he was arrogant and selfish and thought only of himself. He wished they could have heard Tony attempting to shield a friend from the collateral damage sure to affect them all.
And he knew what Director Fury was going to say next, knew it so clearly he might as well have written this script himself. There was only one thing Fury could say now, only one way he could react to the sudden media frenzy and not be viewed suspiciously by the other Avengers when he failed to take action.
"Which brings me to my next point," said Director Fury. "What are we planning to do about this latest media circus?"
"Ah, meeting adjourned," Tony said quickly. "All in favor?" He stood up, raising his hand. He looked around the table. "Anyone? No one wants to second that motion?"
"Stark. Sit." Fury did not sound amused.
"Jesus. I'm not a puppy," Tony muttered, but he sank back down in his chair.
"I don't know what you did to piss off Senator Boynton," Director Fury said, "but you better either make it right, or find a way to keep him off our backs. I have enough problems with the mayor breathing down my neck, wanting you lot to 'take your destruction elsewhere.'" He said those last words with such heavy sarcasm Steve could practically see the invisible air quotes surrounding them. "Can I trust that you'll do this?"
"Yeah. Sure," Tony said breezily. "Consider it done."
"Good," Director Fury said. He looked at each of them in turn. "Now this meeting is adjourned." The screen went black, then resumed showing the SHIELD logo that rotated there slowly like an endless screen saver.
Steve stood up. He was almost impressed by Director Fury's lie regarding Senator Boynton – until he remembered that Fury worked for the government and therefore lied for a living. He hoped Fury felt guilty about what he had just done, putting on this little show just to keep up appearances so the other Avengers would not wonder why he did nothing to protect one of their own, all the while actually leaving Tony out there to hang. When it was Fury who had started all this, by making the decision to bring him and Tony in to meet the Reed Richards from that other world. Had he kept it to himself, only their own Reed would have known, along with Maria Hill.
You never should have done that, Steve thought. Pepper's wedding had only been nine days ago, yet it seemed so long ago that he could scarcely remember it – that last night they had been truly happy together. We would have been so much better off if you had never told us.
We would still be happy.
The news stories kept on coming. Every time Steve turned on the TV, he saw Senator Boynton giving another interview. He rarely talked about clean energy anymore. Now it was all about Tony Stark and Iron Man – and the references to the Avengers and other superheroes were steadily growing more numerous.
The stock value of Stark Industries plummeted. Every mistake Tony had ever made, every character flaw he had was trotted out in the press and rehashed. The drinking. The hedonism. The erratic behavior. The instability of the company itself and the many changes of leadership.
Steve knew he had promised, but he simply could not let it go. He was tired of the lies, the secrets, the war he could not join in. It was like being scrawny Steve Rogers from Brooklyn all over again, having to stand aside and watch as other soldiers did the fighting. Except that in this case, there were no other soldiers unless you counted poor Pepper, out there alone with the board of Stark Industries, doing her best to keep them from forcing Tony out of his own company.
"You have to let me talk to them."
Tony was writing code on this night, his fingers flying over the screen and the keyboard he had designed specifically for this type of thing. When Steve spoke, he dropped his hands to his lap and turned around with an exasperated sigh. "Are we really having this conversation again?"
"I think we need to," Steve said defensively. "Don't you?"
"No. I don't." Tony stood up. "Let me spell it out for you. I gave my first interview when I was four. I grew up in the media spotlight. I've spent my whole life here, okay? This is nothing new. It will blow over, I promise you. I've heard it all before. Welcome to the wonderful world of being Tony Stark." His shoulders slumped a little, and a lot of the fight went out of him. "I know it seems like it's getting out of hand. And if this is too much for you, if you can't handle this, I totally understand."
He didn't intend for it to be patronizing, Steve knew that rationally. But he still couldn't help his knee-jerk reaction. "I can handle it," he snapped.
Tony looked hurt for a moment, then he brushed it aside, the way he did with most everything. "Good. Then we're on the same page." He returned to his coding, putting his back to Steve.
There was no use in trying to talk to him further. Steve left without another word.
September arrived, nearly unnoticed in all the chaos. Children went back to school. Summer was officially over. The weather remained hot and sunny, though, and the general mood in the city was angry and unhappy. Steve found himself almost wishing that something would happen, some kind of alien attack that the Avengers could go out to meet head-on and do battle with. Something to prove to the people that they were still there for them. Something he could physically smash and destroy and let all his frustration out on.
He woke up one night to find himself alone in bed. Tony was still physically there, sitting cross-legged near the foot of the bed, but he might as well have been in Timbuktu. He didn't even notice when Steve woke up. His focus was on the television hanging on the opposite wall, and the story playing on one of those round-the-clock news stations.
The sound was turned off, but the images were enough. It was the same story that had been playing for weeks now, the same slanderous accusations, the same disgusting lies. And in that moment, when Tony didn't know he was awake, Steve saw how truly distressed he was over the media coverage. It was there in the grim set of his jaw and the thousand-yard stare that probably wasn't even seeing the actual footage on the TV anymore, but something else, something private and no doubt infinitely worse.
The remote control was on the bed beside Tony's knee. Steve picked it up and turned the TV off. Tony startled badly, proving how far afield his thoughts had been. "…what?"
Steve wrapped his arms around him from behind. "Why do you watch that?"
"It's fine," Tony said, falling miserably short of his usual blithe, careless tones. "No worries."
"You keep saying that," Steve said. "But even if you mean it – which for the record, I don't think you do – that doesn't make it right. What they're doing to you is wrong."
"Maybe I deserve it," Tony said. He sounded a little more light-hearted that time, but he was forcing it. The obvious effort made Steve's heart ache even more for him. Iron Man enjoyed a tremendous amount of goodwill from the public, something that had always been sorely lacking from Tony Stark's life. By donning the armor, the former "merchant of death" had become a true hero, someone people the world over looked up to. Now all that had been torn away, because he had taken a stand – and all for the sake of a lie.
That was the thing that hurt Steve the worst. Tony had thwarted Senator Boynton's efforts at introducing the Superhero Registration Act, and this was Boynton's revenge. Yet given the choice, Tony would have voluntarily supported him. He had done all this for Steve's sake, and now he was paying the price.
"No," he said firmly. He kissed the warm skin of Tony's shoulder, then the side of his neck, feeling the pulse beating beneath his lips. "You don't. You never did."
"Never say never," Tony sighed. He shook his head.
"Never," Steve asserted.
Tony said nothing to this, but he didn't have to. Steve knew what he was thinking – about those days when he had spent half his time designing and building new weapons, and the other half selling them to a world that had taken everything he had to offer and then demanded more.
He hated that he had nothing to combat those dark thoughts with. Over and over he had tried to make Tony see that he had changed so much since then, that he had done so much good with his life, but Tony refused to see it. As far as he was concerned, he could never atone for the horrors he had unleashed on the world. And the worst thing was that Steve knew there was a part of Tony, and probably a big part, that genuinely believed he deserved every ugly word people were saying about him right now.
"Let me talk to them," he pleaded, hoping that this time Tony would say yes, even though he already knew what the answer would be.
"No," Tony said immediately. "Absolutely not." He sounded more like himself now, which was an improvement, but not one Steve necessarily wanted. "I appreciate what you're saying, but no. In case it's escaped your notice, I'm a grown man capable of fighting my own battles. And by the way, if it has escaped your notice, then you and I need to have a serious talk."
He ignored the crude humor and the blatant attempt at changing the subject. But you aren't fighting, he wanted to say. You're just rolling over and taking it. Even the press had noticed this distinctly un-Tony Stark-like behavior and pointed it out, in between stories savaging his reputation. The worst offenders claimed his silence was proof of his guilty conscience. The ones who claimed to be fair and even-minded said that it was probably just a way of biding his time until making a statement, conveniently omitting the fact that the time for making a public statement had come and gone two weeks ago.
"What about lunch with the Senator?" he asked. "You could come, too."
Quicker than he would have thought possible, Tony twisted out from under his embrace and slid off the bed, then turned around to face him. There was half a second when Steve could have tightened his grip and held him there, and forever after it shamed him that he seriously considered doing it.
"What," Tony hissed, "the hell is wrong with you? Why won't you listen to me?"
The venom in his voice shocked Steve to the core. "I didn't—"
"None of that bullshit matters!" Tony flung an arm out behind him, pointing to the TV on the wall. "This is what matters!" Now he pointed furiously at Steve. And although Steve knew it was only a trick of the light and not real, it seemed like the arc reactor burned incandescently white, matching his anger. "This right here!"
"I know that," Steve said quietly. He was at a major disadvantage here, sitting on the bed while Tony stood there and glared down at him.
"You don't have the faintest clue," Tony said, as scornful as he had ever been, back in those early days when they hadn't even liked each other much, when Tony had never missed a chance to make fun of his ignorance about the modern world – and not always in a joking manner, either.
"Well, then why don't you fill me in?" Steve said tightly, trying hard not to get angry in return.
Tony opened his mouth to say something, then shut it, his jaw clenching tightly. He raised his hands, about to gesture broadly – and then cut himself off with that, too.
"If we just—" Steve started.
"No," Tony said, either unable or unwilling to let him speak. "Just…no." He took a deep breath. "If you go out there, if you meet with him, there is no way, no way, to spin that positively. You can't see it, 'cause you haven't been there, but I've lived in the spotlight all my life. They will take what you do—" he held up his thumb and forefinger like he was holding onto something— "and they will twist it to meet their own agenda. They all do it, especially the ones who claim they don't. And you won't be Captain America then, or a member of the Avengers. It'll just be you, plain old Steve Rogers, coming to the rescue of his best buddy Tony Stark, and they won't—" His breath caught. "No. I won't let you do it."
He tried to laugh it off, to act like he wasn't both horrified and very, very angry all at the same time. "Rescue you? What, like some damsel in distress?"
"Goddamnit, Steve, don't play the ignorance card with me."
The swearing tipped the scales. Now he was just plain angry. "No," he said, climbing off the bed on the opposite side from where Tony stood. "I don't play games. That's your job."
Swiftly he marched toward the door, aware that he was being chased out of his own bedroom but beyond caring. At the door he stopped. "For the record, I understand what you're saying, but it's not your call. Not everything is about you, you know."
In the light cast by the arc reactor, he could see the stricken look that crossed Tony's face. Unlike the rest of the world, Tony could never hide his emotions under cover of darkness. That too had been taken from him. "You promised you wouldn't."
"Promises were made to be broken," Steve snapped. "You should know. You taught me that." He opened the door and stalked out.
He met no one in the halls or the elevator. There was no one to watch as he stormed into the gym, yelling wildly, already throwing his first punch even before he was lined up with the bag.
By dawn he had added three punching bags to the long list of ones he owed Tony, but he had calmed down.
They had lost sight of what was important. Away from the heat of the moment, he understood that now. He was even able to think logically about what was happening.
Maybe I deserve it, Tony had said, and those four simple words explained so much.
Nothing he said was going to make a difference. Nothing he did was going to change anything. Because in Tony's mind, there was no "maybe" about it. He did deserve this. Somehow, somewhere, this had stopped being about the threat of civil war, and become more personal.
And Steve could do nothing about it.
He stared down at the latest punching bag he had destroyed, still breathing heavily, and reached a decision. There was one thing he could do. Tony would be angry with him, but if this worked, that wouldn't matter. It was the only play he had left, his last chance to make Tony see how wrong this all was. It meant breaking a promise, but he could live with that. And he had to do it. Things were getting worse between them by the day. And they were not going to get any better until all this other stuff went away and Senator Boynton ended his crusade against Tony.
The moment eight o'clock rolled around, Steve made a phone call. He felt guilty using his name to get his way, but he refused to let that stop him. And in a surprisingly short amount of time, he had a lunch date scheduled with Senator Boynton. "You're in luck, Captain Rogers. I'll be back in the city on Wednesday. We can meet then."
He didn't tell anyone, though.
Tony wasn't the only one who could keep a secret.
Part III: You can't choose what stays and what fades away
They met in an upscale restaurant, where waiters in tuxedos seemed to glide along on silent wheels, and the conversations were all muted and urgent. The diners were wealthy, elegant, and far too polite to stare, but Steve was certain that even before their salads arrived, the word had gone out: Captain America was having lunch with Senator Boynton.
He tried not to imagine Tony's reaction, having to find out through an alert on his phone as Steve's name made the news. He deliberately kept his gaze on the Senator, refusing to look past the man's shoulder and out the window, where he half-expected to see the red blur of Iron Man show up at any moment.
"I appreciate you wanting to meet with me, Captain," the Senator said. "I think we really have a chance to work together to solve some matters." He smiled.
Steve did not smile back. "The only matter I want resolved is why you keep attacking Tony Stark."
Boynton blinked. "I have not 'attacked' anyone. If that is what Mr. Stark believes, I apologize. But I can assure you, that was never my intention."
Steve stabbed at his salad, not because he was hungry, but because he needed to stab something. "Then what is your intention?"
"It's never easy," the Senator said, "asking the hard questions. But someone has to do it. And I'm okay with that."
"You're okay with destroying a man's reputation," Steve said.
Senator Boynton just looked at him. "Is that what you think I'm doing? I'm sorry if that's how you have interpreted my actions."
The Senator's constant – and patently false – apologizing was getting on Steve's nerves. "How else should I interpret them?" he asked. He strove to keep his voice low and his tone even. If Boynton thought Steve Rogers' interest in Tony Stark was anything less than professional, he would not hesitate to use that information against them. "I have a job to do here. It's my duty to lead the Avengers, to make sure the people on my team are capable and ready to protect the people of this world. I can't do that when other people like you are attacking them and making the rest of the world distrust them."
"I sympathize with your dilemma," Boynton said. "I'm sure it can't be easy for you. But I assure you, all I want is to do the right thing by the American people."
Their waiter was approaching with a silver jug of water. Steve sat back in stony silence as their glasses were topped off. He watched the waiter glide away, then he leaned forward. "Just tell me. Is this because of the Superhero Registration Act?"
Boynton's eyes widened, revealing his surprise at the question. He quickly mastered his expression, but Steve had seen that first reaction, and he knew it to be the true one. "I don’t know what that is, Captain. I've never heard of it."
"Oh, I think you have," Steve said.
Boynton drank from his water glass, then patted his mouth with his linen napkin. "So," he said. "Stark told the Avengers. I admit I didn't expect that."
"Not the Avengers," Steve said. "Just me."
"You know," Boynton said thoughtfully, "some people might say that telling anyone at all was a breach of national security. Treason, almost."
"But none of those people are sitting here today, are they?" Steve said tightly. He had made a major tactical error in coming here, he knew that now. This was Senator Boynton's territory, this classy restaurant, this public setting. He should have demanded a one-on-one private meeting, someplace where he could have brought his shield and worn his uniform, and done what he needed to do. He hated playing games, hated politics, hated having to lie and pretend and smile when he didn't mean it. And although he would never admit to hating another human being, right now he felt very close to hating Boynton.
"No," Boynton said with a polite smile that nonetheless reeked of triumph. "I would say they are not."
Their entrees arrived then, and for a time conversation ceased as they began to eat. Steve was not remotely hungry, but he knew better than to behave otherwise. Men like Boynton could smell weakness. If the Senator knew how truly uncomfortable he was, he would be ceding yet one more advantage to the other man. And that was unacceptable.
So he ate his steak and Boynton ate his fish, and from time to time they made small talk about the weather and the Yankees. It wasn't until they were nearly finished that the Senator said, "Earlier, you said something about trying to lead the Avengers. May I make a suggestion in that regard?"
"Of course," Steve said, wondering if he was about to get the same speech Director Fury so often complained about, that old request to take their battles somewhere other than directly over the city.
"I understand that Iron Man is an important member of the team," Senator Boynton said, "but have you ever considered replacing Tony Stark?" He sounded thoughtful, and curious, and as polite as ever. "After all, I'm sure any one of our distinguished service members could operate the suit. I would even be so bold as to suggest Colonel Rhodes, who has some experience with this kind of thing."
"You want me to replace Tony," Steve said. He couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"It's only a suggestion," Boynton said smoothly. "But I might point out that the public don't seem to really trust him anymore."
"They trusted him just fine," Steve said, "until you came along with all your accusations."
Boynton looked unruffled. "You're fairly new to this century, Captain, so I can understand why you might think that. But I can assure you, that is not the case. Mr. Stark has a long history of erratic behavior, and his lifelong work with the military-industrial complex has hardly endeared him to the average citizen of this country."
"I am not replacing Tony Stark," Steve said firmly, "and that is final. I am done discussing this with you, Senator." Yet even as he said it, he thought of the night of the charity auction and the signs he had seen outside the Avengers Tower. The crowd gathered there had only gotten bigger since that night, and there were more angry signs than ever before. As much as he hated to admit it, the Senator might have a point.
"All right." Boynton leaned back in his chair. "All right. I'm sorry if I upset you. Like I said, it was only a suggestion."
"Let me ask you a question now," Steve said. He hadn't meant to be so blunt, but with Boynton's little suggestion, the gloves had come off. "Is your current crusade against Tony a way to get back at him for thwarting your efforts at introducing the registration bill in Congress?"
Boynton smiled a little. "Son, please don't take offense at this, but I think you've been watching a little too much TV. Real life isn't like that. I don't really care about Tony Stark one way or another. Although I do still hope that he will agree to share his arc reactor technology and sponsor my clean energy bill."
"You'll excuse me if I don't believe you," Steve said. He barely bothered now to hide how angry he was. "And please don't take offense at that."
"None taken," Boynton assured him. "I know you're just trying to do the right thing. The same as me."
For a moment they stared at each other, not speaking. Steve knew then that he had lost. He supposed he had known it from the moment he set foot in this room, although in truth his defeat went back further than that. He had actually lost the moment he called Boynton's office, demanding to see the Senator.
And Tony. God. What was he going to say to all this? What was he thinking, back there in the Avengers Tower, waiting for Steve to return from this ill-conceived mission? How angry was he? How hurt? How betrayed did he feel, knowing that Steve had broken his promise?
I'll make this right, he swore silently. Somehow. One thing was for certain: he could never tell Tony that Boynton had tried to have him replaced on the Avengers. Given his mood lately, it was a little surprising that Tony himself hadn't already suggested such a move as a way to take the heat off the rest of the team. If Tony knew that someone else had brought it up, he would agree that it was for the best, and he would probably even go quietly – and it would kill him.
The thought of the Avengers without Tony made Steve's blood run cold. He could never accept that, never agree to that.
"I'll take care of the bill," Boynton said, bringing his thoughts back to his present situation. "I have quite a generous expense account available to me."
"No," Steve said. "I've got this." He reached for his wallet. The bill hadn't come yet and he had no idea how expensive this lunch was going to be – but he feared the cost would be measured in far more than mere dollars.
"I tell you what," Boynton said. "I'll let you pay, if you'll answer one more question for me."
Warily, Steve looked at him. "What do you want to know?"
Tony was waiting in the penthouse when Steve came home.
Since seeing the news two hours ago, he had tried unsuccessfully to work, to bury himself in equations and models and theories. None of it had helped. All he could imagine was Steve sitting across from Senator Boynton, a pristine white tablecloth and a gulf of seventy years separating them. So he had come up here to wait, instructing JARVIS to send Steve to him when he finally arrived. Because this, this had to be dealt with.
He cursed the curious nature that had made him answer that tone on his phone that meant he had a news alert. If he hadn't heard it, if he hadn't looked, if he hadn't read the news: Captain America seen enjoying lunch with Senator Boynton of New York.
Ignorance truly was bliss.
Steve walked in, leather jacket slung over his shoulder, looking guilty as sin. And that pissed Tony off even more. Steve knew what he had done, knew it was the one thing Tony had expressly made him promise not to do – and he had done it anyway.
How could you? he wanted to shout. You promised! People were forever breaking promises to him – he was used to it by now. He was even able to admit that he himself was the worst offender, lying to himself all the time. But he had never expected this from Steve. The one person he had believed when they made him a promise – and it had all been a lie.
"So. This happened."
Steve's remorseful expression melted away then; he draped his jacket over the armchair, then stood a little straighter. "Are you going to let me explain, or are you just going to be angry with me?"
"Can't I do both?" he said, and was shocked and dismayed by how shaky his voice sounded.
Steve smiled a little, and Tony glowered. He had not said it to be funny.
Instantly Steve's smile vanished. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean—"
"Forget it," he said. "Just tell me what the hell happened to, 'I won't do anything, I promise.' Did you experience a bout of temporary amnesia today? Forget to screw in your brain? Is this some lingering side effect of the ice?"
"Enough," Steve snapped.
He couldn't hold back any longer. "I told you to stay out of this!"
"I can't!" Steve yelled right back. "If you really think I'm going to stand back and let him tear you apart—"
"This isn't about you!" If there hadn't been six feet separating them, Tony would have been sorely tempted to take a swing at him. "Stay out of it!"
"This isn't about me?" Steve's eyes blazed with anger. "It's about you! And that makes it about me!"
"Oh Christ," Tony sighed in disgust. "Don't start with that."
"Why not?" Steve retorted. "Is this what we do now? We let other people hurt one of us, and the other person says nothing? We just stand back and let it happen?"
Tony had no answer for that. He was still trying to adjust to the concept that someone was willing to take his side on something and defend him. Especially when that someone was none other than Captain America himself. All his life people had backed his play – but only up to a certain point. When everything started to go pear-shaped, as it inevitably did, they all bailed. Until Yinsen. Only he had stayed until the bitter end, and look where it had gotten him.
And normally it was true that he would be the first person to insist that they back each other up. But on this? Absolutely not. There was no way he was dragging Steve down with him on this. Not Steve, not Bruce, not any of the Avengers. Hell, not even SHIELD, although they probably deserved it. No, he would handle this alone, the way he always had. Call it taking one for the team, call it whatever. Just call it.
"We're in this together," Steve said, more softly now. "I've tried so hard to make you see that. I don't know what else I can do."
That was a low blow. Not trusting himself to speak, Tony just glared.
"Will you at least give me a chance to tell you why I did it?"
Yes. All right. For all those times he had bitched that no one gave him a chance to explain when he had pulled his latest bonehead move, he owed Steve that chance. So he shifted his weight onto his back foot and folded his arms. "Okay. Explain."
"I wanted to talk to him myself," Steve said. "I wanted to hear him tell me why he's so intent on destroying you."
Tony blinked. "That's an awfully harsh choice of word," he said.
"I think it's an awfully appropriate choice," Steve said tightly. He was angry too, but Tony had the sense to see that at the moment that anger wasn't directed at himself, but at the Senator. "So I asked him. And of course he denied it. He said he was just trying to do the right thing for the American people, and give them the clean energy they wanted."
Tony scoffed. Loudly.
"I know it was all a lie," Steve said. "You don't have to tell me that." He hesitated. "So then I asked him if this had anything to do with the Superhero Registration Act."
If Steve had reached out and punched him, Tony could not have been more shocked. "You actually asked him that?"
"Yes," Steve said simply. He was so noble and righteous that it hurt Tony's heart to look at him then. He could not fathom that this amazing man was on his side, defending him. He had never done anything to deserve this.
"And what did he say to that?"
"Nothing at first," Steve said. "But he was surprised that I even knew about it. He couldn't hide that. So I pressed him. I asked if he was trying to get back at you for stopping him from introducing the bill to Congress." He paused.
"And?" Tony persisted.
A rueful smile twisted Steve's lips. "He accused me of watching too much TV, and said real life wasn't like that."
"Bullshit," Tony said.
"That's what I said," Steve replied. "Only without the swearing."
This time Tony did let himself a smile. Just a little. "Naturally."
Steve returned the smile, and it killed him to see the way Steve looked at him then, like he was really hoping Tony had forgiven him for the lunch date.
"He asked me something, though," Steve said. Now he looked troubled. "He wanted to know what I would have done if he had introduced the bill."
Knowing he absolutely did not want to hear the answer, Tony asked it anyway. "And you said…?"
"I said I would have opposed him with everything I had," Steve replied.
Tony let out his breath. His shoulders slumped. "Of course you did," he said softly.
"I still don't understand how you could have ever told him you would support him," Steve said. "Not that it matters now, but–"
That fast, all of Tony's anger from before came roaring back. "Not that it matters?" he exclaimed. "What the fuck does that mean!? I put myself on the line for you! For once, I stood up and did the right thing. And I don't, I don't particularly care that they're tearing me apart." He flung out his hand, pointing to the world at large. "Whatever. I'm used to that. But this?" He made a curt gesture that encompassed both himself and Steve. "This thing we have here? This is a good thing. And I will not—" He broke off, hating that damning quiver to his voice.
"If you knew," he started to say, calmer than before, then stopped. Because no, this was not the way. If he told Steve the things he had seen, the things Boynton had showed him, those terrible government plans for dealing with superheroes who had gone off the rails, it would forever destroy Steve's faith in America. And he could not be responsible for that. Sooner or later it would happen. It was inevitable. But he would not be the cause. He would rather die first.
He took a deep breath. "When Loki came here, that first time we ever fought together, do you know how many innocent people died that day?"
Steve went very pale. "You know I do."
"And do you know how many people have died since then, while we're out there battling space monsters and Doombots and everything in between?"
"Yes," Steve said.
God this was cruel, but he could see no other way to make Steve understand. "And how long do you think it will be before someone dies because of some stupid mistake one of us makes? Not because of some freak who decides to unleash chanting robots on the city or something like that. But just because we slip up, we zig when we should have zagged, we were a heartbeat too slow. We just…make a mistake. And someone dies."
"We don't…" Steve faltered.
"I happen to know for a fact that when Reed Richards summoned that demon thing through his portal back in April, it was because he was so sleep-deprived his calculations were off." He did not mention that he had gleefully rubbed that in Richards' face too – once they had killed the monster, of course, and made sure that no one was hurt. "And Steve…last year at my birthday party, I got so drunk I was shooting things with the Iron Man gauntlet right in front of everyone. Didn't care what I wrecked. Didn't care who was in the way. Just…shooting."
Steve looked stricken. Either he hadn't known about that incident, or he hadn't known the severity of it. Feebly he said, "I wouldn't—"
His willful ignorance could not be allowed. As terrible as it was, he had to see where this all inevitably led. "Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot. You're Captain America. You don't make mistakes."
Hurt flashed in Steve's eyes. "I… I think I make mistakes. But so does everyone. Like you just said. What matters is that we do our best and we make sure we don't let those mistakes hurt anyone else. We keep ourselves in line. We look out for each other."
He just wasn't getting it. Tony didn't know what else he could say. "And what if I had killed someone at that party? What if Reed's monster had killed someone? What if the next time Bruce Hulks out, he takes someone's head off? How are we going to 'keep ourselves in line' then?
"And you're not thinking about the other side of the coin. So far all us superheroes have done a pretty good job of policing ourselves, and we're all about 'using our powers for good,' but even you can't be naïve enough to think that's always going to be the case. Sooner or later someone's going to come along who decides that he wants to use his powers only for his own benefit."
The line of Steve's jaw tightened. It was his stubborn face, the one that meant he would not be swayed from his opinion, no matter what. The sight of it filled Tony with despair. He was never going to make Steve see reason in this. "If that ever happens, the rest of us will be there to stop them."
"If we had this law, we wouldn't be needed for things like that," he said. "Let's face it, if everyone were like you, we wouldn't need registration. But they're not. Everyone feels inadequate next to you." And before he could stop himself, he blurted out the rest of that damning confession. "God knows I always have."
And thank God he stopped himself before he could carry on with that horrible line of thought. Because what came next, the thing he could never say was, "Do you even know how scary it is to be loved by you?" How could you say that to someone? Even when it was so true sometimes it damn near killed you.
And it was scary. Knowing that someone as perfect as Steve Rogers loved him. Feeling the weight of all those expectations and hopes, and knowing that he would never, not in a million years, live up to even a tenth of them. Knowing that Steve knew this, and forgave him for his shortcomings, his flaws, his laundry list of character defects, forgave him and loved him for them anyway. Knowing that Steve could do better, oh so much better, but not having the guts to speak up and say so.
Yeah. Scary as hell.
Steve looked stunned by this revelation. He shook his head. "You? Tony, you're brilliant. Successful. One of the richest men in the world."
"Yes, I am." He said it without arrogance, just a plain statement of fact. "So if I get that way, imagine how everyone else feels. You're the perfect man. You live by ideals and standards that are…more than outdated. They're impossible for anyone but you. And somehow you not only make it work, you make it look easy. You make the rest of us feel like we're just kids playing dress-up while you're the real deal."
Steve took a deep breath. "You really feel that way?"
"Not…so much," Tony said, suddenly aware that he had said way, way too much. Hastily he tried to divert the conversation away from himself. "But everyone else does. I mean, look at that kid Peter Parker. He idolizes you."
"Not me," Steve said.
"Yes, you. Every little kid in this country does. Hell, I idolized you when I was a kid," and damnit, they were back to talking about him again. When had that happened? "Okay, I idolized you and hated you in equal measure, but that's just me and my fucked-up childhood. Most kids, they just stick with the hero worship. But it's not only kids, you know. I know a hell of a lot of adults who feel that way, too."
Steve actually flinched, as though he had just taken a terrible blow. "Why are you with me then?" he asked, his voice almost a whisper. "If that's how you really feel, why do you stay with me? All I'm doing is holding you back. You won't even let us be seen in public together, and you just said you don't—"
In a flash, Tony realized what he had just done. He had been so intent on swaying Steve to his side over the registration issue that he hadn't comprehended where this path led. "God, don't listen to me!" He was suddenly frantic, desperate to undo everything he had said.
"I'm sorry." He crossed the distance between them and put himself right in Steve's personal space. "I'm sorry." He threw his arms around Steve and kissed him fiercely.
It was two point eight seconds before Steve responded, two point eight seconds when Tony died an agonizing death, utterly convinced that he had forever ruined the best thing he had ever had. Then Steve was kissing him back, crushing him to that perfect chest. "God, Tony."
He stepped back a little, staying within the circle of Steve's arms, but far enough back so that he could look the other man in the eye. "Okay, listen. I'm going to say this, and then we are never going to have this conversation again. Yes, I idolized you – as Captain America. Then I got to meet you and learn about the man behind the mask, just plain old Steve Rogers, and then I thought you were a pompous dick but that was mostly Loki's doing and anyway I figured out pretty quick that I was wrong about you." He paused to take a breath. "And then, and then somehow we were friends, and I didn't want to lose that. In fact the very idea of it made me want to go out there and shoot things just to make sure it didn't happen. And then…somehow I was in love with you. And don't ask me how that happened because it just did. And I'm glad it did. I've never been so happy as I am when I'm with you. You make me into something more than I ever was. I hope you know that. I'm not half as good at—at anything as I am when I'm doing it next to you. And that's the truth."
Embarrassed and horribly aware that he had been steadily babbling for a period of time approaching infinity, Tony forced himself to stop talking. He just stood there, staring into Steve's eyes, ready to bolt the instant Steve opened his mouth.
But Steve, who had always known him far too well, did not say anything. He just tightened the circle of his arms.
Tony let him draw him in close. And when Steve bent his head to kiss him, he accepted that kiss eagerly. He knew forgiveness when he saw it, even if he wasn't deserving of it.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
"I'm sorry, too," Steve said. "I shouldn't have broken my promise."
"It's okay," he said, even though it really wasn't. "You know I still love you, right?"
"I love you, too," Steve said, but there were tears in his eyes, and that was when Tony knew. Even before Steve took a deep breath and said, "I can't believe I'm going to say this," he knew what was coming.
And it was all he could do to keep from screaming.
Steve's heart was pounding.
This isn't really happening.
Except that it was. It was horrible and it was painful and it was wrong, so very wrong – and yet he knew it was the right thing to do.
At this point it was the only thing to do.
"I can't believe I'm going to say this," he said. He let go of Tony and stepped back, and that was it, that was the last time he would ever get to touch Tony Stark.
And still it was not too late. There was time to change his mind. He didn't have to do this.
Then he saw the look in Tony's eyes, and he realized that Tony knew what he was about to say. And he knew then that even if he never actually said the words out loud, it was too late, because Tony had already heard them inside his head.
So he said it.
"This isn't working."
"What isn't?" Tony asked. Deliberately, willfully misunderstanding. Just like Steve, clinging to the hope that this wasn't really happening.
"This," Steve said miserably. "Us."
Panic flared bright and hot in Tony's eyes. "What do you mean?"
"We never agree on anything anymore," he said. "You've been shutting me out ever since this all began."
"I didn't—" Tony looked bewildered, almost lost, his usual veneer of arrogant confidence utterly shattered. Like he still couldn't believe this was real. It was not a good look on him.
"And I know why you did it," Steve continued. There was a cold, hard weight in his chest. With every second it spread outward, seeping into his bones, numbing his limbs, threatening to choke him when he spoke. "I know you didn't want to drag me down with you. But Tony, that wasn't your choice to make. I love you. I would have stood by you through anything. You never gave me that chance, though. You just pushed me away."
"I couldn't let them hurt you." Tony spoke stiffly, like every word stabbed him. Steve understood all too well; he felt the exact same way. Knowing that Tony shared that pain only made it harder to keep going.
"They hurt me anyway," he said, trying desperately to sound calm and not accusing, not wanting to add to Tony's already considerable guilt. "How do you think I felt, having to watch this happen to you? You wouldn't talk to me, you wouldn't let me help. I would have done anything to trade places with you, to bear the burden for you. And now I finally tried to do something, to talk to someone, and all you can do is yell at me."
"You promised," Tony said faintly.
Oh God. He would have done anything, anything at all then to go back and have the chance to not make that promise. Tony did not give his trust easily, but he had trusted Steve, trusted him to keep his word when he gave it. That betrayal had to cut deep, along with reinforcing all the terrible things he already believed about himself.
"I know I did," he said. "And I'm more sorry than you can ever know that I had to break that promise."
"I just wanted to protect you," Tony said. He still looked dazed. He could adjust to anything – three months of captivity, an arc reactor embedded in his chest, a world full of demi-gods and aliens – but he could not accept Steve's leaving.
"I know," he said gently. "I understand. I do. But I still don't think I can do this anymore."
Again that panic flashed in Tony's eyes, brighter than before. "Why not?"
"I'm saying…" He took a deep breath, wanting so badly to say this right, to not make this any more painful than it had to be. "Tony, every time I look at you, I feel guilty. I know I'm the reason this all happened. If you hadn't tried so hard to…" But he could not finish that thought, could not say the dreadful words out loud. "I know. You wanted registration. You went against your beliefs to stand beside me."
Tony made a terrible sound that was possibly meant to be a laugh. "And evidently I lost you anyway."
Steve ached to make him understand, even though he knew it was impossible. He could never explain how awful the last few weeks had been for him, forced to stand back and do nothing as the world tore down the man he loved. He could never describe how it felt to slowly realize that it didn't matter what he said or did, because Tony would not believe him, that nothing he ever did would be able to compete with the things Tony already believed. "Because you didn't stand by me. You moved on ahead, and you wouldn't let me come with you. You made me stay behind."
"I never!" Tony protested, and Steve knew it was fear that made him nearly shout it, not anger.
"You did," he said. He had to push the words past the cold weight which was now lodged in his throat. "I don't think you knew that's what you were doing, but you did it anyway. The way you always just do whatever you think is best, without asking anyone else what they think. You just…you just do it." Tony flinched a little, and Steve's heart broke a little more for him. He had never wanted to say these things, never wanted to be so cruel. But he owed it to Tony to be honest and explain why he was leaving, why he had decided this was not working, nor could it ever work.
"You always think you're in things alone. For a while I thought I had made you see that that wasn't true, that you had me, you had the Avengers. But you never really believed it, did you? No matter what I do, you can't break that old belief that no one cares, that you have to go it all alone. And I can't…" His voice nearly broke, and he swallowed hard, driving back the tears. If he started crying now, he would not be able to stop. "I can't keep trying to make you see otherwise. It's…it's not your fault, I know that, I understand, but it's hard, trying over and over and failing."
"So I'm ending this," he said. "Now. Before we just hurt each other even more. I think it's time, don't you?"
For a terrible moment he thought Tony was going to cry. Tears shone in his eyes, a glimmering mask that did nothing to hide what he was feeling. Then he drew in a deep breath through his nose, his chest lifting, chin tilting. He blinked, and the tears were gone as though they had never existed.
"Sure," he said, and his voice was smooth and even. "Yeah. Okay. You're right. Of course." He nodded. "You're right."
He told himself he should not be surprised. Of course Tony would retreat behind his public face, decades of practice coming to the rescue. He still hated to see it, hated that Tony felt compelled to hide behind this façade, the billionaire playboy who didn't care about anyone or anything. "Tony."
"No, it's good. You're right." Tony nodded again, then he walked away, putting distance between them, moving over to the computer on the smooth black desk. "I'll, um. It's… You guys can stay. You know, the Tower, it's yours. I'll get Pepper to, ah, call Legal, they'll make it right. I'll go back to Calif—"
"No. No." Steve was nearly overcome with sudden panic. He ought to have expected this, but he was still terrified at the thought. "I want you to stay. This is your home, too."
"No," Tony said quietly. "It never really was." He looked at Steve, so much misery on his face that it took everything Steve had to stay standing where he was and not go to him. "I only stayed for you."
"And the Avengers?" he asked. He could understand Tony wanting to leave him, given the way he had just been abandoned, but he could not believe that Tony would turn his back on the rest of the team.
After a long hesitation, Tony said, "Call me if you need me."
It was getting harder and harder to keep from crying, to remember why he was doing this, why this was the right thing. He clung to that small shred of hope, that Tony would not be out of his life for good, that he was still committed to the Avengers. Even if he had nothing else, he could still fight alongside Iron Man and remember that once upon a time he had been one half of something far greater than the sum of its parts.
"Can't…we can't be just friends?" His voice broke humiliatingly, but he didn't care. He simply could not bear to lose Tony completely.
Tony gave him a weary smile. "Can you?"
"I don't know," Steve said truthfully. "But I want to try. Won't you stay?" He stopped himself before he begged, but it was a near thing.
"No," Tony said. He gazed out the window, at the sky that was somehow still blue and filled with late summer sunshine, in direct contradiction to what was happening to them. "I don't think that would be a very good idea."
And that was it, then. There was nothing more to say.
Still, he tried.
"Tony. I'm so sorry."
"Hey, no, it's okay. It's cool." Tony gave him a little smile, just a curve of his mouth that did not come anywhere near his eyes. "Don't look like that. We still did it, don't forget that. We averted Civil War. That's worth something, right?"
God, but at what cost? It was suddenly more than Steve could endure. He had to get out of there before he lost it completely. "I don't know," he said hoarsely. "You tell me. Was it worth it?"
He could not stay there. Blinded by the tears he would not let fall, he walked out.
It had happened. The one thing he could not live with, and it had happened.
He had lost Steve.
The numb haze that enveloped him was almost peaceful, in a way. It meant he could stand there quite calmly as Steve walked away and the elevator door shut behind him.
It wasn't supposed to be like this!
Yet here they were. Here he was. Alone again, at last. The way he had always known he would be. They had had a good run, but it was always going to come down to this moment when Steve realized the truth about him and left, the way everyone before him had.
"Yes, sir?" The AI's tone was muted, quietly respectful of his loss. Or maybe he was just projecting. He didn't know anymore. Didn't care.
The band about his wrist lit up. He heard it coming before he saw it, then the suit was there, wrapping itself around him, whirring red and gold, unfeeling, coldly mechanical. There was a lesson in there somewhere, he knew he ought to know it, but at the moment he was having a hard enough time standing up, let alone facing the bitter truth.
The instant the display came online, he activated the boot jets and flew the hell out of there. He didn't care where. He just knew he had to get out. Out into the open sky, while down below people pointed and exclaimed, and maybe Steve was down there, looking up, watching him fly away for the last time.
On he flew, pushing the suit to its limits and beyond, insisting that JARVIS route more power to the thrusters. The world below streaked by in a blur of uncolor and light. Various alarms inside the suit were screaming, and he was screaming too, howling unending grief and loss into the vast light of sky and earth, where no one could hear and no one would ever know.
It wasn't enough. He could never outfly the pain and the terrible knowledge that he deserved this, he had done it to himself, he had let himself hope that this time it might be different, when in truth it couldn't be any different, because he was never going to be good enough, never going to measure up. Desperate for more speed, he manually overrode JARVIS's controls and diverted most of the arc reactor's power into the thrusters. Pain ripped through his chest, stealing his breath and finally cutting off that terrible scream of agony he hadn't been able to stop until now. And still it wasn't enough, still he fell short, still he tried and tried and tried, because he couldn't change who he was, he was always going to try – even though he would always fail.
Blackness began to crowd at the edges of his vision. It hurt to breathe. The labored thump of his heart drowned out everything else, so he could barely hear the alarms screeching in the suit and JARVIS's strident efforts to talk to him.
Abruptly his forward motion slowed, then halted altogether. The suit hovered for a moment, then began to spiral downward, back to earth.
"No!" he shouted.
"Sir, I am afraid you have exceeded the suit's limits," JARVIS said, cool and implacable. "I have instituted Protocol 42 to safely return you to the ground."
"Abort!" he yelled. "Damn it, abort!" There was a word he was supposed to say here, something that would override even this last-ditch safety protocol, but his mind was a confused jumble of blue sky and Steve's stiff back retreating, and he could not think what it was.
"I'm sorry, sir," JARVIS said. He did not sound apologetic at all.
Even his AI, the one he had started creating in his garage simply because someone had told him it could not be done, didn't believe in him. And God, what did it matter? He had won the war, but lost the only thing he cared about. The one thing he could not live with, and it had happened anyway.
The ground was rushing toward him, green and full of trees. All he saw was Steve, the look in Steve's eyes the moment he realized he could not do this anymore. Steve's back, walking away.
He had won the war, yes, but for what?
The suit was slowing, rotating in flight for landing. He closed his eyes and Steve was gone, and now it was his own face he was looking at. His other self, from that other world, broken beyond repair, already knowing what had taken him too long to learn.
You were right, he thought as the suit landed, as he stumbled heavily to his knees and began to cry.
It wasn't worth it.
The Tower was empty when Steve returned later that night. He had debated even coming back at all, before deciding that he had to. The other Avengers had no idea anything had happened between him and Tony. They knew nothing of their relationship, and so they knew nothing of how it had all fallen apart. If he didn't come back tonight, they would wonder why, and that would lead to questions he was not at all prepared to answer.
And it wasn't like he had anywhere else to go. He had let the lease expire on his Brooklyn apartment some time ago. And he couldn't return to SHIELD and the helicarrier. That would not only look suspicious, it would put him under the government's gaze in a way he did not want to experience ever again.
So he went back.
No one greeted him, but that was normal. They lived in the Avengers Tower together but there were ninety-three floors to this building, and they all kept different schedules. He might go for days without seeing Bruce or Clint, and that was not unusual.
The kitchen was empty, but the red light on the stove indicated a still-hot burner, so someone had been here recently. He couldn't help the small, desperate hope that kindled in his chest then. "JARVIS?"
"Yes, Captain Rogers?" JARVIS's response was immediate, as always. He slumped a little in relief at that, having half-expected that JARVIS would be gone along with Tony, ordered not to speak to them anymore. He felt ashamed of himself for that, though. Tony was not that petty.
He shouldn't torture himself this way, but he needed to know. "Where's Tony?"
"He is in the main workshop on 83," JARVIS said smoothly.
Shocked, Steve stared at the red light on the stove. "I…I thought he was leaving."
JARVIS did not answer that.
He didn't know what to say. He had fully expected to find Tony gone, already back at the house in Malibu. He had mentally braced himself for Tony's absence, even begun thinking of how he must react so the other Avengers did not suspect that he had already known Tony was gone.
And it was all for nothing. Tony was still here.
"Is he…when is he leaving?" he asked.
"I do not know," JARVIS replied. "He has not said anything to me about it."
And that was even more surprising. More than ever, he felt at a complete loss. Were they really just supposed to act like nothing had happened?
Could he even do it? He would have to carry on like it was just another ordinary day, like he had not just lost the man he loved. Not just today, but tomorrow, and the day after that, and all the days to come. He would have to get up and go down to the gym and eat breakfast and suit up as Captain America, and he would have to smile at Tony like he always did and make jokes and roll his eyes and pretend they were still friends. He would have to look at Tony and not see all those times they had laughed together, all the times they had talked about the things they could not tell anyone else. He would have to forget the way Tony kissed him, the way Tony touched him, the way Tony closed his eyes and threw his head back when Steve touched him.
"I can't," he whispered. "I can't do it."
But what choice did he have? Even if he went down there right now, if he got down on his knees and begged for Tony's forgiveness, if Tony took him back and they kissed and fell onto the floor and made love, even if all that happened, nothing would change between them. He would still find himself a step behind, still forever striving to change what could not be changed, still forever doomed to failure.
This moment here, standing alone, faced with the enormity of what he had done and knowing he could never go back – it had always been inevitable. It had just taken the threat of civil war to make him see it sooner rather than later. They were never going to make it, he and Tony. They had been cursed from the start.
He reached for one of the kitchen chairs with a numb hand. He fumbled at it, then slowly sank onto the seat. He clasped his hands on the table and stared blankly at them.
Behind him, the red light went off on the stove.
Two days later, Tony was still there.
Steve could not understand it. Tony had the resources to pack up everything he owned and be gone in one day. Nor did he even have to wait. Nothing prevented him from leaving on his own and having his things sent later – after all, he had an entire house in California, who needed a few suitcases of clothes from New York?
Yet he stayed. Shut away in the workshop, speaking to no one, but still present. When Steve dared to ask JARVIS what the delay was, the AI responded that Tony needed time to get his things together before leaving. This answer took Steve by surprise at first, until he thought about it – and then it suddenly made sense.
Tony didn't want to go. He was looking for a reason to stay. So he made up some excuse about needing time to get his things ready, and he hoped and prayed that someone, somehow, somewhere, would give him a reason not to go.
Steve ached to find that reason. If he and Tony could maybe just go away somewhere and be alone. If they could talk as men, not superheroes or Avengers. If they could somehow find a way to be rid of the whole mess about registration and clean energy and Boynton and the media circus surrounding Tony. All that stuff was standing between them, forcing the real issues between them out into the light of day. Until all that went away, there was no chance for them.
On the third morning he rose from a sleepless bed, resolved to do something. One way or another, this had to end. Out of habit, he turned on the TV – and froze in shock upon hearing his name. "—what happened with Steve Rogers?"
Senator Boynton was on the screen, as he so often was these days. He was seated in a plush studio, giving an interview to a pair of blond journalists on one of those Saturday morning news shows. The two journalists wore identical expressions of manufactured concern and worry. The Senator himself looked to be at ease, fully confident and in command.
"You may have heard, Rita, I recently had lunch with Captain America. Now, I tell you, I have nothing but respect for Steve Rogers. We have a lot in common. We're both looking out for the little guy, wanting only to do the right thing for the American people. He's got a big job, leading the Avengers. I don't envy him. But I worry that his judgment is being clouded. It's hard to get an objective perspective when you're caught up in something larger than yourself."
Numbly, Steve sat on the edge of the bed.
"When I suggested to him that maybe there ought to be a change in the roster of the Avengers, he became very defensive and angry, and the conversation pretty much shut down then. That's not good."
"What kind of suggestion did you make?" asked the journalist named Rita.
Senator Boynton raised a hand. "I'm getting there. Let me finish. As team leader, Captain Rogers needs to be clear-headed, able to see things differently. I know that's difficult, but I don't think it's impossible. Nor it is impractical. These people we call superheroes need to have some form of accountability. They need be held to higher standards than everyone else. With that in mind, I asked Captain Rogers if he would consider removing Iron Man from the roster."
One of the journalists looked surprised. "You don't think Iron Man should be an Avenger anymore? Even after all he's done for us?"
"Well, it was only a suggestion," Boynton said smoothly. "A suggestion Captain Rogers shot down immediately, I might add. Which is fine. I know he is privy to information I don't have, and I would never expect him to share that with a civilian. But I do ask that SHIELD and the Avengers practice full disclosure of the information they can share, so the people aren't kept in the dark."
"Thank you, Senator." The camera panned away from Boynton and the two journalists, and back to the main anchor desk. The man sitting there promised that they would return to Senator Boynton in a little bit and show the rest of his interview, then began to talk about the President's recent visit to Spain.
Steve stopped listening. The blood was pounding in his ears, making it difficult to hear, anyway.
He had done this. This was all his fault. Everything Tony had already been through was all for nothing. He had ignored Tony's warnings and he had forced the issue. Boynton was obviously setting things up to introduce the idea of superhero registration to the public. Interviews like this one were designed to put doubt in the people's minds, to make them believe superheroes were running amok and needed to answer to someone. That someone, of course, would be the government.
He knew how this was going to play out. Boynton's "suggestions" about removing Tony, while public sentiment against him continued to grow stronger, would eventually seem more and more reasonable. Stacked against that, Steve's refusals would look more and more unreasonable. Inevitably, public opinion would be fully on the Senator's side. The Avengers – and every superhero out there – would be backed into a corner, and the SHRA would become law.
Civil War was still right on schedule.
He saw now how clever Boynton had been, starting small by savaging Tony's reputation, then slowly widening the net to include the rest of the Avengers. Even though he was utterly repulsed by the man's tactics, he had to admire them.
God, what was he going to do? He had intended to talk to Tony today, but suddenly that was the last thing he wanted. How could he face Tony now, knowing that he was to blame for this latest turn of events? Tony had been right, he had known this would happen. It had been inevitable all along, but Steve's interference had forced the Senator's hand and moved the schedule up.
Since the whole terrible thing had started, he had thought so often that he would have done anything to be given the chance to trade places with Tony, or at least find a way to divert the media's attention onto himself. He should have done it. People listened when he spoke. Rhodey had even said it that day – people ate up his words with a spoon. He knew that was true, even though he always did his best not to take advantage of that fact. He supposed he had always known it, even before Tony had thrown it in his face during their final argument.
The "what if" tore at him. If he had spoken up right at the start, maybe he could have changed things. Maybe he could have stopped all this before it even began. He and Tony might still be together, happy and in love.
And now it was far too late. He would never know.
He stood up, then stopped. Where was he going? Where could he go now? He couldn't face Tony, nor could he bring himself to brave that crowd gathered outside the Tower with their signs and their hateful slogans and their angry faces.
He made himself take a deep breath. He sat back down.
What am I going to do? What am I going to do?
Tony had tried doing nothing. That tactic had not only failed, it had backfired spectacularly. What other options were left?
As usual, thinking of strategy calmed him. He realized suddenly that he had been thinking about this all wrong, going at it from the wrong angle. He had been thinking like Steve Rogers, not Captain America.
Senator Boynton was the enemy and he had the bigger, better weapon. Sound strategy now said to do one of two things. Neutralize that weapon, or else make damn sure the enemy couldn't use it.
Well, he couldn't neutralize an idea, but he could make sure that Boynton didn't use it. Obviously Boynton had an agenda. There had to be something they could use against him. Something to make him stop before he took things any further, and the civil war that had loomed over their heads for so long became a cold hard reality.
He could not do it by himself, though. He recognized that immediately. He needed help in this one.
Having a clearly defined plan made him feel better. For the first time in weeks, since everything had come crashing down around them with that first news story about Tony withholding the arc reactor technology, he felt a sense of hope about the future.
There was still a chance he could make this right.
With renewed purpose, he stood up. He showered and shaved and got dressed in some clean clothes, and then he went in search of Natasha.
He found her in the kitchen, sitting at the large table there, hands clasped around a cup of coffee. Without being asked, he sat down across from her. "I need your help."
She looked at him, her expression masked, eyes giving nothing away. After a moment she said, "Sure."
He said, "I guess you saw the news this morning."
"No," Natasha said. "I don't watch the news."
He smiled a little at that, appreciating her dry sense of humor at a time like this. It made him feel better than her sympathy would have. "This has to stop. He can't keep saying these things about Tony. I…I can't let him."
Natasha's mouth barely moved, but he somehow got the impression that she was grinning at him. "It's about time."
He blinked. "What?"
"Honestly? If you hadn't said something soon, I would have done it for you," she said. "It's actually kind of insulting, the way you thought we didn’t know."
"I, uh." His thoughts were frozen. Suddenly they weren't talking about Boynton and the news. He knew exactly what they were talking about. And all he could think was, She knows! "How did… You knew?"
"Everyone knows," Natasha said, surprisingly gentle. She sipped from her coffee cup, giving him time to pull himself together. "And you have no idea how hard it's been to keep Thor from saying anything."
They knew. All of them. All this time he and Tony had thought they were doing so well, keeping it a secret. And all along, the others had known. Suddenly all those little looks Natasha had given him over the past few weeks made sense. Thor's comment to Tony the morning he had left, about not having to bear this burden alone. Bruce's half-voiced question on the day he had told the Avengers to stay quiet over Boynton's accusations.
He felt a rush of embarrassment, swiftly followed by an almost angry defiance. No. He would not be ashamed of what he had shared with Tony. "I'm sorry?"
"Don't be sorry," she said. "Just don't do it again."
"I…won't?" He truly had no idea how she was able to do this, reducing him to stammering, blushing helplessness.
Natasha took pity on him and relented. This time when she smiled, it was real. "What can I do for you, Cap?"
"Tell me what happened at Tony's birthday party," he said, and then he blinked, because he honestly hadn't meant to say that. He had no idea where that had come from, hadn't even known he was still thinking about it.
Natasha did not pretend to ignorance. She did stop smiling, though, and grow very serious. "I'm not sure I should share that with you."
"Why not?" he asked. "Tony told me about it."
"Then you already know," she said.
"But I want to hear it from you," he said. "I want to know why you didn't stop him."
Her eyes flashed, and Steve knew a moment of anxiety, suddenly worried that he had pushed her too far. "Three reasons," she said, her voice icy calm. "I couldn't do anything without blowing my cover. The situation didn't warrant it, although I was ready to intervene in the last resort. And I was confident Colonel Rhodes could handle things." She took a breath. "And that is the first and the last time I ever explain myself to you." Her tone made her thoughts on the matter very clear.
"What would you have done if he killed somebody?" Steve asked. Although it made him sick to his stomach, he had to know the truth. He had walked away from the man he loved because of a law that would never come to pass, a law based on the idea that something like this could happen. He owed it to both of them to pursue the thought to its logical conclusion.
"I wouldn't have let it get that far," Natasha replied.
"But what if he had?" he persisted.
"Then I would have taken him down and let SHIELD handle it," she said coolly.
"SHIELD," he said, and now he knew whom Natasha would have sided with in their version of the civil war. "Not the police."
"No," she said.
"Why not?" he asked.
"I don't think they're equipped to deal with something like that," she said. "Or someone as unique as Tony Stark."
"But you're saying SHIELD has procedures for…dealing with something like that?" He wasn't sure if that reassured him or frightened him.
"There is a plan in place in the event that any one of us goes rogue. Including yourself, Captain." She looked him square in the eye. "What is it you really want to ask me?"
He said, "I think Senator Boynton is deliberately trying to ruin Tony, and through him, the Avengers. I need you to help me find out why, and stop him."
Natasha gave him a long, searching look. "That seems rather obvious, but what makes you so sure?"
"Because all of this started after Tony refused to support some legislation he wanted passed." He would have to tell her the truth about registration, but he could live with that, he decided. Strangely enough, it was even a little bit easier, knowing she would take the opposite stance as him.
"The clean energy bill," Natasha said.
"No," Steve said, shaking his head. "That was never it. The clean energy thing was just a cover for the real law he wanted to pass. But Tony can't talk about the real law. He can't defend himself. And the Senator knows that."
She considered this. "He must have something pretty big on Stark in order to keep him quiet." One eyebrow raised in a meaningful gesture.
"Why do you call him that?" Steve snapped, unaccountably angry. "He has a name, you know." When Natasha just looked at him, he flushed in spite of himself. "Anyway, it's not about me and Tony." He had no doubt that if Boynton knew the truth, he would have used it already. There was no way such a man could sit on information that volatile and keep it quiet.
It struck him then that he had been very careless during that lunch meeting with Boynton. He had been on dangerous ground that entire time, their secret so close to being revealed. He had apparently succeeded in hiding it, but if he hadn't, if he had slipped up and revealed the depth of his feelings for Tony, not as Iron Man and a member of the Avengers, but as someone he loved… The consequences would have been disastrous for all of them.
Tony had tried to warn him that night they had fought in his bedroom, he realized. Had tried to keep him from being put in such a position, having to walk that tightrope between acceptable concern and crossing the line into forbidden territory and jeopardizing everything they had. He had done a terrible job of explaining why he hadn't wanted Steve to do such a thing, but his intent was clear – looking back.
And Steve hadn't listened.
"Are you sure?" Natasha asked carefully. "He could be just biding his time."
"I'm sure," Steve said, forcing himself to focus once more on the matter at hand.
No, Boynton did not know about him and Tony. But Natasha was on the right track. It wasn't the Senator who was emotionally blackmailing Tony into silence; Tony had done it to himself with that awful video, the one his other self had made in order to convince him that the threat of war was real. But it was Steve's fault too, dead in that world and alive in this one, his mere presence giving Tony all the motivation he would ever need.
"So what do you want me to do?" Natasha asked, and Steve loved her then, for not asking him what the real legislation was that Boynton wanted, for trusting him to tell her – but only if she needed to know.
"I don't know," he admitted. "What can you do?"
A faint smile touched her mouth. "I can do a lot," she said. "But it's up to you, how far you want me to go."
"Can you break into his computer?" Steve asked. "Look at his files, his records, wherever there might be something we can use to prove what he's doing?"
"And then what?" Natasha said.
"I don't know," Steve admitted. In the perfect scenario in his head, Boynton folded as soon as they confronted him with the evidence, went public with an apology and a retraction of every hateful thing he had said about Tony, the rest of the media followed suit, registration was buried, and it all went away forever. In reality he knew nothing like that would happen – but he could still hope.
"Okay," Natasha said. "I may need to bring Clint in on this."
"That's fine," Steve said. "As long as he doesn't know the real reason for it."
Her eyebrow shot up again, but this time Steve remained silent. He trusted Clint – but not as much as he trusted Natasha. She was the first person who had fought at his back in this strange new world, shortly after waking up from the ice. She was the first one who had – however inadvertently – made him feel normal again, just a soldier in action, with no thoughts of Peggy or Bucky or what on earth he was going to do with himself in this century. Side by side, they had just battled the enemy, and for that brief time, everything had been simple and uncomplicated again. It hadn't lasted, of course, but having felt it once, he had been able to recapture that sensation even after the fighting was over, and that had helped immensely in those weeks afterward as he tried to rediscover both America and himself. He would be forever grateful to her, even though he could never tell her why, or even make her understand what she had done for him.
"If that's what you want," she said.
"That's what I want," Steve said firmly.
"Okay," she said.
And it was done.
He didn't know how Natasha intended to get what she needed on Senator Boynton, and he didn't ask. While he was pretty sure even she wasn't good enough to break into a Senator's office in the Capitol building, he assumed she would have other means at her disposal. So he wasn't surprised to learn the next morning that she was already gone.
What did surprise him was the phone call he received just before noon.
"For someone who hates superheroes, your Senator has some very interesting friends," she said without preamble. Over the phone, without anything in her face to hint at any softer feeling, she sounded cool and professional – and almost hostile.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"What do you know about the New Warriors?" she said.
Steve shook his head. "I've never heard of them. Who are they?"
"You should really come to more SHIELD briefings, Cap," Natasha said. "They're a bunch of nobodies, really. Third-string superheroes."
"What do they have to do with Senator Boynton?" Steve asked.
"That's the real question," Natasha said. "Apparently he's been in touch with them. They're arranging some kind of meeting in Stamford, Connecticut."
"When?" he asked.
"Tomorrow," Natasha replied. "And they're not the only people he's meeting."
That did not sound good. "Who else is coming?"
"Nitro," she said. "And I think he's bringing some friends."
For a split second all he could feel was selfish relief that she hadn't told him it was Tony. Then the meaning of what she had said sunk in. "What?" Instinctively he found himself looking around the room, searching for whoever was closest so he could tell them to suit up. Already adrenaline was coursing through his veins. "I thought he was in Rykers."
"He was," Natasha said dryly. "Until he broke out a couple months back."
"Wait a minute," Steve said. His thoughts raced. "He's meeting with third-string superheroes and at least one known villain. That doesn't make any sense. Why would he be doing that?"
"You tell me," Natasha said.
"Okay," he said. "You've done what you can. Get back here. I'm going to talk to Tony. I think we need to show up at that meeting."
He could hear her grim smile over the phone. "I was hoping you were going to say that."
"Sir, Captain Rogers is requesting entry."
Not too long ago he would have smirked and made a rude comment about how dirty that sounded. Today he didn't give a shit. "Permission not granted."
"Sir, he says it is official Avengers business. Apparently you are needed."
Damnit. Tony sighed. Well, he had told Steve he would still fight with them as Iron Man. He had no one to blame now but himself.
In other words, situation normal.
"Fine, let him in." Maybe it was just Doom again, and another round of bots. They would all put in a quick bit of work, and he would be back down here in a couple of hours.
Down here. Exactly where he shouldn't be. He knew it was cowardly to hide, rebuilding a car engine that didn't really need it, especially when he had told Steve he was leaving. He needed to leave. But he couldn't bring himself to do it. It wasn't for a lack of trying, either. Every time he had tried to give JARVIS the command to start wrapping things up, his voice had dried up in his throat and he simply hadn't been able to go through with it.
He hadn't talked to anyone besides JARVIS in three days. He had almost gone upstairs, though, when he had seen the latest interview with Boynton, the one where the Senator name-checked Captain America and began paving the way for the Superhero Registration Act. Those things were bad enough, but what had really pissed him off was hearing that Boynton had wanted him removed from the Avengers – and Steve hadn't told him.
He had tried to give Steve the benefit of the doubt. Maybe Steve had always planned on telling him, but then other things got in the way – like breaking up with him.
Or maybe Steve had thought his ego couldn't handle it. Maybe Steve had been trying to protect him. Maybe Steve had loved him enough to want to spare him any more pain.
He didn't know anymore.
All he did know was that now more than ever it was imperative for him to leave. It wasn't just about him and Steve anymore. Now the Avengers were involved – no thanks to Steve and his damn lunch date. The hell of it was, leaving now was going to look like it was in response to Boynton's interview, not something he had freely chosen to do.
And that pissed him off, too. Because if he had left when he said he would, if he had just taken his sorry ass out to Malibu when he was out there flying off his self-pity, if he had even gone yesterday, for fuck's sake, before the interview aired, he would have been fine. He could have left with some dignity, rather than having it look like he was just running away.
But nope, not for him. He had lost his chance and now he was stuck here, fuming in the workshop that was supposed to be his refuge, banging away endlessly on this engine that had nothing wrong with it.
What he ought to do was swing by DC on his way to California. Boynton's last interview had made his intentions clear. The SHRA was right around the corner. Time was running out. If he went to Washington, if he met with the Senator again, this time as Iron Man, repulsors powered to 100%... Hell, he didn't even know if it would work. Quite possibly the time was long past for gestures like that.
No matter what he did now, they were headed for Civil War.
Movement at the corner of his eye alerted him to Steve's presence outside the door. He watched as Steve input his passcode – still unchanged, of course – and let himself in.
"What's going on?" he asked, noticing that it was in fact just plain Steve, and not Captain America suited up and ready for action. Either Steve had lied to JARVIS about how important it was for him to get in here, or JARVIS had decided to let him in anyway. And frankly, both of those options sucked.
"We have a problem," Steve said. He looked very serious. Tired and a bit worn, but otherwise just fine. Apparently he was not losing any sleep over things. "I need you with me on this one."
Tony wiped his hands on an oily rag that probably only got his skin dirtier than it had been before, and tossed it aside. He took his time before replying, wanting to make damn sure that his voice was steady and gave nothing away. "What is it?"
"I'm not sure yet," Steve said. "Natasha filled me in. We've got four superheroes and at least one supervillain scheduled to meet with a government official on Monday in Stamford, Connecticut. And I don't know about you, but I don't like the sound of that one bit."
"Scheduled?" Tony was incredulous. "What, did she hack someone's Blackberry to find this out?"
"I don't know how she did it," Steve replied, "and I don't want to know. All I care about is stopping that meeting."
"Well that's great," Tony said, and he was proud of how normal he sounded, like it wasn't tearing him apart to stand here in front of Steve and act like nothing had ever happened. Like it wasn't just last week when he would have done anything for Steve, would have given him the whole world and everything in it, including himself. "But I think you can probably handle it. I don't see why you need me on this."
"The supervillain is Nitro," Steve said. "You were the one who took him down last time. You figured out that thing with the pulse and how to stop him from exploding again. So yes, I need you."
He could have argued some more, but there was no point. He knew he would end up going. But mostly he just wanted Steve to leave. He really couldn't do this, stand here and pretend like things were fine, like it wasn't killing him to look at Steve and remember how Steve had betrayed his trust, or to know that he could never have him again.
"Fine," he said. He turned around, heading back to the engine he had walked away from. "Let JARVIS know the particulars, and I'll be sure to show up."
"Tony." That was all. Just his name, but it was still too much.
"What?" he snapped. He whirled around. God, why wouldn't Steve just leave? "I already said yes, what more do you want from me?"
"I just…" Steve swallowed hard. "I just wanted to see how you were doing. That's all."
"I'm fine," he said. "Just fine. You?"
"I miss you," Steve said, and that was, no, that was not fair, not fair, and suddenly he couldn't breathe.
And before he could stop himself, his traitorous mouth said, "I miss you, too."
Something flashed across Steve's face, too quick to identify. "There's things I need to say. Things I should have said before. After we're done in Stamford, can we talk?"
No. No way in hell. Absolutely not. They had said everything already, and any more words would just make it worse. But again Tony found himself responding in spite of all the alarms shrieking in his head telling him to abort abort abandon ship! "Yeah. Okay."
Steve managed a tentative smile. "Okay. Good. I'll see you tomorrow then."
Tony raised a hand in a dismissive wave. He did not trust himself to speak.
Steve backed away, still sort of smiling, looking absurdly hopeful. The sight was more than Tony could bear, and he turned around again, returning to his engine block.
He didn't do anything with it, though. For a long time he just stared blankly at the car parts spread out on the ground.
"I can't do this," he said.
JARVIS did not respond – but then, he hadn't expected an answer. He had only said it out loud because the words needed saying, not because he actually wanted to talk about it.
He had never thought this would be so hard. From the moment he had first heard those terrible words – shot on the courthouse steps – he had made it his mission to keep Steve alive. Stopping the Superhero Registration Act and preventing Civil War was incidental. Those things had mattered only because they were necessary to keep Steve alive in this world.
Everything he had done since then was with that goal in mind. The attacks in the media and the loss of his reputation were small prices to pay for his victory over Senator Boynton. It went against everything he was to remain silent and not rise to his own defense, but time and again he had told himself that it did not matter. Nothing was more important than keeping Steve alive. Nothing.
And now he had lost Steve. Not in the worst way, it was true, the way his other self had to suffer in that other world, but that did not make the pain any less. And no matter how many times he told himself that it was worth it, that he could live without Steve as long as Steve was still alive – he knew that he couldn't do it.
Tomorrow he would go out there and do whatever needed to be done – but it would be the last time. He had learned today that he could not stand beside Steve and pretend that everything was okay, that he could forget about the past and act like it had never happened. Stamford was going to be his last act as an Avenger.
He had been a fool, sitting around here waiting for something that was never going to happen. No more. He was through waiting, done pretending. When they were finished in Stamford, he wouldn't even come back here. He would say his good-byes and fly straight to Malibu. He had told Steve they would talk after Stamford, but it certainly wouldn't be the first promise he had broken.
It would, however, be the last. He was leaving and not coming back. The other Avengers would be annoyed at losing their aerial fighter, but they would get over it. He could always suggest that Rhodey fill in as War Machine. Fury and SHIELD would probably officially protest his sudden departure, but in private they would be relieved. With him gone, there was even a slim chance that Boynton might back down on registration; it was possible that this was all the Senator wanted – Tony Stark in exile, in disgrace, out of the picture. Once Boynton got that, he might be content with his revenge, and let it go.
It was the best thing for everyone. Really it was.
He sighed heavily. "So. Nitro. This is gonna be fun. Better make sure the suit is ready for this, JARVIS."
But who's gonna make me ready?
Part IV: And I'd do anything to make you stay
Even Thor showed up Monday morning when they gathered for the journey to Stamford. As this was an unofficial mission, no one at SHIELD had been alerted. Fortunately Stamford was close enough that there was no reason to take the Quinjet. Instead the Avengers piled into two of SHIELD's black SUVs that Clint and Natasha had appropriated for the occasion.
Except for Tony. He had no intention whatsoever of being trapped in a car with anyone, a fact he had made abundantly clear by showing up for this little rendezvous already in the armor.
Just before they left, Steve took him aside. "Listen, I didn't want to say anything before, but you should know that Senator Boynton is the one who arranged the meeting in Stamford."
The realization that Steve had once again kept such vital information from him was shocking – and it pissed him off tremendously. Only the fact that everyone else was watching them prevented Tony from giving in to his temper and flying away right then and there. "Oh, that's just great. You didn't think this was something I needed to know yesterday?" he hissed.
"If I had told you yesterday," Steve said, "would you still have agreed to come?"
Tony could only stare at him, far more angry than he rationally knew he ought to be. He tried to calm down, to not let his anger show. This was the last time he would ever suit up with the Avengers. The last time he would fly into battle as a member of a team, not a solo act. He should be behaving professionally, making this a good memory, something to look back at with pride, not regret.
"We need to find out what he's up to," Steve said. "Are you with us?"
"Of course I am," he snapped. "I told you I was."
Steve just looked at him, not responding. His cowl was up, making it harder to read his expression and know what he was thinking.
Tony refused to be the first one to back down. He was used to awkward silences, and he was used to being the reason behind awkward silences, but the silence between them now went beyond awkward and into previously-undiscovered realms of excruciating.
Thankfully, Bruce rescued them by calling Steve's name. "We're all ready here, Cap."
Part of him wanted to be pissed off at Bruce for interrupting, but really, it was for the best. There wasn't anything left to say. He would tell Steve he was leaving the Avengers when they were through here. It wasn't fair to tell him now. They needed to be focused on the mission, not their personal issues.
"See you there," Tony said expressionlessly.
"Yeah," Steve said.
He took off.
Natasha's information had not included the actual meeting place between Senator Boynton, Nitro and his buddies, and the New Warriors. It was left to Tony, who got to Stamford well ahead of everyone else, to figure that out.
Alone, he flew over Stamford with an infrared scanner activated. The task required none of his attention – JARVIS did it all. Instead he brooded on Steve's newfound ability to keep secrets, and tried to convince himself that he was doing the right thing by leaving.
It was fine, he thought. He would be fine. Iron Man had started out working alone. He had just come full circle, that was all. And this way there would be nobody to hold him back. Nobody to build new armors for, or waste his time on upgrades for existing weapons. He could spend all his time working on the suit and finding ways to improve it. He could finally go out there and finish the job he had started years ago, and track down the last of his weapons and destroy them. There would be no one to nag at him to slow down or stop before he got himself hurt or worse. He would be accountable to no one.
"Sir, I've located a source of higher than usual heat. I believe we have found Nitro."
He had never been so glad to leave the gloomy company of his own thoughts. "Let's go."
Going against the traditional villain route, Nitro had found a perfectly ordinary house in a perfectly ordinary neighborhood to hole up in. Across the street, a nondescript tan building sat behind a gate with a sign declaring this was Stamford Elementary. It was so mundane and normal that alarm bells began ringing in Tony's head right away.
He instructed JARVIS to send his location to the others. "Well, guys," he said, "I found our man. Or men, I should say. Scans show he's got at least three other people with him."
"Good work," Steve said over the comm. "Stay out of sight. Remember, we're just here for recon. Nobody does anything unless you see something out of the ordinary."
"I might see something out of the ordinary and do something," Clint said.
"What's that?" Steve asked.
"Four known criminals walking around free," Clint said. "Does that count?"
Even over the comm, he could hear the tight smile in Steve's voice. "It might."
It took another ten minutes for the rest of the Avengers to show up on foot. Tony had no idea where they had ditched the SUVs, nor did he care. He just wanted to get this over with. It had been a serious mistake to agree to this, he knew that now. If he had been smart, he would have stayed behind and used this opportunity while the others were all gone to finally leave New York for good.
Quietly they encircled the house, staying well back among the abundant suburban shrubs and hedges that provided cover. "Leave Nitro to Tony," Steve instructed them quietly. "He's the only one who can handle him safely. No offense, Bruce."
"None taken," Bruce said dryly.
From his vantage point in the sky, Tony watched as the trap drew tighter about the house. Across the street, a bell rang within the school, and kids began pouring out, heading for the playground. As they ran, they shouted at each other and pushed and shoved and formed little groups that were constantly shifting and reshaping, like molecules in motion. He dropped back down to the ground and took cover so none of them could spot him and sound the alarm.
He supposed he had been that age once, but he couldn't remember it.
For a long time, nothing happened. Bored now, he instructed JARVIS to open a new file and began dictating the code for a new upgrade to Dummy's protocols. He would probably never get around to implementing the changes – for some reason that defied logic, he was almost sentimentally attached to the robot just the way it was, stupidity and all. But at least it gave him something to do.
"You guys aren't going to believe this," Steve spoke in his ear. "SHIELD just logged an anonymous phone call, tipping them off to Nitro's hideout in Stamford, Connecticut."
"It is fortunate we are here already," Thor said.
Yeah, Tony thought. Very fortunate. And convenient.
"Sir," JARVIS warned.
"I see 'em." Two white vans were approaching the house. "Heads up," he said. "We got incoming."
The two vans pulled into the driveway of Nitro's hideout. One had a painted-on logo that read, "New Warriors." The other was unmarked.
"Here we go," Steve said.
The van doors opened. Four young people in costumes piled out of the first van. Two older men stepped out of the second van. Neither one of them was Senator Boynton. They both carried television cameras. And from the moment they set foot on the driveway, they were filming.
"Are you kidding me with this?" Bruce groaned.
"They seek to record their exploits?" Thor asked.
"Kinda surprised you don't have a camera crew following you around, Stark," Clint said.
"Bite me," Tony said. It wasn't like he hadn't considered it from time to time over the years. But it was vastly impractical, and anyway, he did too many things that absolutely did not need to be caught on camera. He was filmed without his consent far too often for his liking anyway, by random people with cell phone cameras and easy access to You Tube. He didn't need to add to that already too-long playlist.
The back door of the house opened and a tall woman stepped outside, a bag of trash in her hand. Tony recognized her as Coldheart in the same instant her record popped up on the HUD, courtesy of JARVIS. Immediately his assessment of the situation took a sudden turn southward.
Coldheart made it all the way to the garbage can at the side of the house before she looked up and saw the vans and the six people approaching. She dropped the trash bag and ran for the safety of the house.
The door was still open. They all heard her yell, "Everyone in costume! It's a raid!"
Over the comm, Bruce said, "Oh crap."
Everything seemed to happen very fast after that, as these things often did. The New Warriors ran for the house, and Nitro and his friends ran out. Senator Boynton was not among them, and that made him an official no-show for this wonderful event.
The two groups clashed in the backyard – the television cameras recording the whole thing.
Nitro himself ran out the front door, a familiar-looking young woman flying after him in pursuit. The scanner showed his body temperature was rapidly heating up; he was building toward an explosion.
"I got him," Tony said, even though no one had asked him to. He rose into the air, heading after them. A split second later, he heard Steve give the command for the Avengers to move in.
Nitro was running down the middle of the street now. He didn't seem interested in fighting – just running away. Before he could get very far, though, the woman pursuing him put on a burst of speed, and swooped down low. She slammed right into him, arms outstretched, and pushed him square into a school bus parked in front of the playground.
The bus rocked back on two wheels, a massive dent in its side from the impact. Nitro dropped like a stone, and the young woman stood over him. "On your feet, Nitro," she said. "And don't try any of your stupid explosions, because that's only going to make me hit you harder."
Still on one knee, Nitro looked up at her, and seriously, did neither of them see the red and gold suit of armor hovering right over their heads? "Namorita, right? Aren't you the Sub-Mariner's cousin or something?" Which explained why she could fly, and why she looked so familiar. "Well, I'm afraid we're not the bargain basement losers you guys are used to, baby." A wide grin split his face. "You're playing with the big boys now."
That was all the warning they were going to get. Back at the house their cover was already blown, and at the moment that hardly mattered anyway. Without thinking, Tony rocketed down and seized Nitro in his arms. He accelerated quickly upward, not caring if Namorita was caught in the backdraft. The only thing he wanted was to get as high as he could before the inevitable.
The explosion was immense. Intense heat seared at the armor; it was like flying into the heart of a sun. A high-frequency pulse shuddered through the suit like feedback, darkening the arc reactor and sinking hot claws of pain into Tony's chest. Grimly he hung on, feeling them both drop sickeningly for a second or two until the suit's flight system came back online and he was able to regain some altitude.
"Let go!" Nitro was already whole again. He pushed ineffectually at Tony's arms.
"Let's go again?" Tony said. "Okay, since you asked so nicely."
The reconfigured chest beam released another high-frequency pulse. Helplessly, Nitro exploded again, this time not of his own accord. Again they dropped, the arc reactor going ominously dark for a second.
Nitro reformed. Tony unleashed another pulse. Another explosion. Another nauseating fall, close enough to the ground now that he could see frightened people running for shelter. The Hulk was roaring and thunder crashed in the clouds. Alarms were beeping all over the place, lights flashing like mad as JARVIS urgently gave him status reports on the damage being done to the suit.
"Get off me!" Nitro's voice was a guttural growl.
"Hit him again," Tony commanded. "And turn off those damn alarms."
"Shut up and do it!"
Another pulse, another uncontrolled explosion, and this time the entire suit went offline as all power was lost. They dropped rapidly, still locked in that fiery embrace. Tony barely noticed. He was having enough trouble just staying conscious at that point.
The HUD came back to life as power was restored, and reflexively he activated the boot jets, regaining some of the height they had lost. "Again, JARVIS," he gritted out.
"Sir, that is not a good idea. The arc reactor—"
"I don't care!" he shouted. "Do it!"
The suit released another pulse, and Nitro screamed this time as he was forced into another explosion. Searing pain ripped through Tony's chest. He cried out with the pain, unable to help it, beyond caring which comms were open and who might hear. He felt himself falling, his grip on Nitro loosening along with his hold on conscious thought – and could do nothing about it.
The sick vertigo of free fall snapped him back to consciousness. The HUD was offline again, as were most of the suit's systems. They were terrifyingly close to the ground, but it didn't matter anymore. Nitro hung loosely in his arms, too exhausted to even move. The danger posed by those fiery explosions was past.
He caught sight of a blur of movement out of the corner of his eye, then Thor was suddenly there, Mjolnir in one hand, seizing Nitro and flying away with him. Tony watched them go, and then with no further reason to remain airborne, he stopped trying to fly and just let himself fall.
The street rushed up fast. Too fast. He hit hard, and something gave way in the overstressed armor with a loud pop. He tottered on his feet, overbalanced, and crashed heavily to his knees.
God, his chest hurt. It was difficult to breathe. He didn't know how much of that came from imminent cardiac arrest, and how much was due to the lack of ventilation in the suit. Gasping, he clawed at the helmet and yanked it off.
"tony oh my God."
Blearily he looked around, trying to see who was talking to him. But there was only Thor and Nitro, and they were on the front lawn. Out of sight but still plenty loud, he could hear the Hulk roaring, so he assumed the other Avengers remained in the backyard, dealing with the other villains and the New Warriors and their stupid camera crew. In the distance, but steadily growing louder, sirens were screaming.
And then Steve was suddenly there in front of him, Steve with his cowl raked back, Steve with his hair sticking up in sweaty little clumps. "Tony, oh my God, what were you thinking? You could have got yourself killed! Are you okay?"
"Sure," he tried to say, and managed only a hoarse croaking noise. He pressed a hand to his chest, grimacing in pain, and turned away so he wouldn't have to see the concern on Steve's face.
The movement brought the battered school bus into view. The playground beyond it was completely empty, and there was no sign of life in the windows of the school. Someone had had the sense to evacuate the children.
"Tony?" Steve's hand landed on his shoulder. He couldn't feel it through the armor, but he could see it.
One of the swings lifted and stirred as a gust of wind swept across the empty playground. And it hit him then, what had just happened. What had almost happened.
"Oh my God." Still on his knees, he looked up at Steve. "This was it," he said. "The children. This was where it started."
Steve looked down at him, worried and a little bit wary, like he thought maybe Tony was delirious. "What…?"
"Civil War. This is where it started," Tony said again. He could still vividly remember what Reed Richards had told them, the one from that other world. There was an accident. Civilians – including sixty children – were killed when a group of superheroes took on some villains in a populated area. "But we stopped it. Steve, we just stopped it."
Sudden realization dawned on Steve's face. "Are you sure?"
Tony nodded. He had never been more sure of anything in his life.
Hope blossomed in Steve's eyes. And then he was smiling, so radiantly happy that he outshone the sun, or something else stupidly poetic, because he was Captain America and he was the living legend but mostly he was just Steve, just Steve, and Tony had never loved him more. And it didn't matter if he lapsed into stupid poetry because the only thing that mattered then was Steve lifting him to his feet so easily, like the armor weighed nothing, Steve hugging him tight, laughing a crazy little laugh and saying, "We did it, Tony, we did it," over and over.
Thor and Nitro were looking at Steve like he was crazy, and hell, maybe he was, maybe they both had gone a little crazy after that other Reed Richards had come here with his dire warnings of Civil War. And maybe, Tony decided, being crazy wasn't so bad. After all, it meant he got to kiss Steve right then and there, for all the world to see. 'Cause what the hell, he could always claim later that it was just a desperate attempt to shut Steve up in the heat of the moment.
But somehow he didn't think he was going to say that. In fact, he didn't think he was ever going to carelessly explain away his behavior again.
He had just saved the world. (Again, damnit.) He was entitled to a few moments of being selfish.
Well, that was his story, at any rate. And he was sticking to it.
They had done it. They had really done it. If Tony was right – and Steve saw no reason to believe he wasn't – they had just prevented a major disaster and averted a terrible civil war among superheroes. There would be no registration law, no fighting, no dying. They had won.
And yet, they almost hadn't. The narrow margin of their victory was frighteningly thin. If he hadn't asked Natasha to look into Boynton's activities when he did. If she hadn't acted right away and found the information about today's meeting. If Tony hadn't agreed to come with them. If they had arrived just ten minutes later. If Tony hadn't been so quick to react to Nitro's impending explosion…
That was the one that chilled him the most. When that first explosion went off, high in the sky, children had been playing outside at the school. Had Tony been even a couple of seconds slower, this day would have ended with tragic results.
But Tony had been fast enough. And they had been here.
They had won.
The Stamford police helped contain the situation until SHIELD arrived. Nitro and his friends – along with the New Warriors – were taken into custody, some going more quietly than others.
Before SHIELD came on scene, though, the media descended. The local reporters showed up first, along with a crowd of gawking onlookers, most of whom stood there taking pictures with their cell phones. The national news came next, CNN and Fox News and all the others Steve could never keep straight.
Normally he avoided the press, especially at times like this when the battle was so near and he was still half-running on adrenaline, every nerve in his body jangling and feeling overly sensitive. Today, though, he marched right up to them, shield in hand, and gave them an interview.
He praised the quick actions of the Avengers, their coordination, their swiftness in evacuating the school and nearby homes, their determination not to let any civilians be injured in the fight. He finished by saying, "But really we owe it all to Tony Stark, who nearly died in his efforts to contain the threat Nitro posed to those children. The people of Stamford, of this whole country, owe him a debt of gratitude."
Clint would call that laying it on thick, but Steve didn't care.
He also made sure to point out where Tony sat under the watchful eye of the paramedics – sulking about being forced to rest, if truth be told, but Steve wasn't about to point that out. Solemnly he repeated what the paramedics had said. "The Iron Man suit was badly damaged in the fight. One more pulse and Tony would have gone into cardiac arrest. But he didn't care about the danger to himself. He only cared about saving those kids, and the rest of us." He paused for dramatic effect, then said, "I've never known anyone with so much heart."
Oh, Tony was going to be furious with him, but he didn't care. Some things were worth it.
He made his way back to the front yard, where the ambulance was parked and police cars had formed a protective cordon around the area. Bruce was sitting on the grass, a blanket draped over his shoulders despite the summer heat. Clint and Natasha stood together, identical solemn expressions on their faces as they listened to what a uniformed policeman was saying. Thor stood off to one side, holding Mjolnir, keeping a wary eye on the crowd.
Tony looked up as he approached; he was sitting in the back of the ambulance, still in the armor. He had that look on his face that said he was fast approaching the end of his patience. "What's going on?"
"How's he doing?" Steve asked the paramedics.
"He is sitting right here," Tony said peevishly. "And he is doing just fine, thank you."
One of the paramedics gave Steve a sympathetic look. "He should really get to a hospital. They can run some tests, make sure there isn't any lasting damage."
Tony made a rude noise to show what he thought about that.
"Thank you," Steve said. He made a vague gesture. "Would you mind…?"
"Sure thing, Captain." The two men nodded and walked a little ways down the road, giving them some privacy.
"Are you all right?" he asked. A discarded oxygen mask lay off to one side; he doubted Tony had used it more than a few seconds, just long enough to appease the paramedics and get them off his back.
"I said I was fine," Tony said curtly. He stood up. "I really need to be going."
Something in his voice alerted Steve. He did not care at all for the look in Tony's eyes. All the vitality had bled from him. He stood there, staring off toward the west, and it was like looking at a statue, not a flesh and blood man.
Sudden fear gripped him. "I thought we agreed that we would talk after this."
"I know," Tony said. He sounded as distant as that look in his eyes. One hand rose to touch the spot where the armor showcased the glowing light of the arc reactor. "Damnit," he sighed.
"What is it?" Steve asked. That gesture worried him, made him think Tony wasn't as all right as he claimed to be.
Tony turned his head and looked at him for a long moment. "All right, fine. We'll talk. But not here." He reached for the red and gold helmet.
There was barely enough time for Steve to push his cowl back into place. He was swept into an armored embrace and pulled off his feet. And then he was flying.
Tony held him about the middle, supporting most of his weight; he had only to hold onto his shield and keep his legs up. The world passed below him at a dizzying pace. He knew they were flying slower than Tony could go alone, without a human passenger to worry about, but their speed was still thrilling. The landscape became a gray-green blur, broken by tall buildings and patches of dark green trees. The sky around them was brilliant blue, a color he could honestly say he had never seen before. Hot summer wind scoured the exposed skin of his face.
He had flown this way before, and yet there had never been anything like this. Steve whooped in total abandon. They weren't that high up, but he had never felt so free before. "Faster! Go!"
Tony did not hesitate. The boot jets whined and their speed increased. Steve shouted aloud deliriously. When Tony banked left, he threw his arms out to compensate for the change in his center of gravity. "Yeah! Go!"
They flew. Tony soared higher, then dove at the ground, pulling up at the last minute possible. Steve laughed, his heart in his throat, every inch of his body alive with pure joy. Tony had told him once that the time when he was first learning how to fly the Iron Man suit were some of the happiest days of his life. That had been a time of pure experimentation and discovery, learning to escape the bonds of gravity and see the Earth below. Even now, years later, Tony still loved to fly. Today that joy was communicated to Steve in a way he had never experienced before; he felt ready to burst from the emotion filling his heart.
Right and left they banked, swooping over the interstate and the tiny cars below, then shooting through a narrow gap between two skyscrapers. They emerged over water painted every shade of blue and green, with whitecaps crashing on a beach. Up ahead the tall spires of the city beckoned them home.
On and on they flew. Steve never wanted it to end. And maybe Tony felt the same way too, because instead of heading for the Avengers Tower, he soared over the harbor and the water that glistened and sparkled in the sun, so dazzlingly bright it hurt Steve's eyes to look at it for too long.
They circled the harbor once, and then abruptly the flight lost its charm as they dropped several feet closer to the water. Above him, he heard a sparking sound. They dropped again, jolting downward in total freefall for a couple seconds before the boot jets engaged and Tony regained his usual graceful flight motion.
"What's wrong?" Steve yelled.
"Hang on," Tony said grimly.
Now there was nothing fanciful about their flight. They arrowed through the city, the Tower growing ever closer. As they climbed in altitude, he could practically hear the armor groaning, overstressed joints protesting loudly at this extra strain; at his back, the sparking sound was nearly constant now.
The instant they touched down atop the Tower, Steve was on his feet, moving away and turning around so he could see what was happening. He watched as Tony ripped off his helmet and cast it carelessly to the ground. Beneath it, he was very pale and his hair was dripping with sweat. At his chest, the arc reactor sparked fitfully, its light flickering in and out.
"Oh my God," Steve said in horror.
"JARVIS is sending Dummy up," Tony said. He swayed on his feet, staying upright only through an effort of will.
"On it." Steve dropped his shield with a clang, whirled around and ran. The robot Tony had brought from California was not the fastest, and it would take some time to reach them. He could get down to the workshop on his own much quicker.
His heart was in his throat as he ran for the elevator. What the hell had he been thinking? He had known that the suit was damaged, that the arc reactor had been severely drained, to the point of threatening Tony's health. Yet he had accepted the flight, even gloried in it and asked for more, oblivious to the way each second of travel time only added to the strain on the already-overloaded arc reactor.
He tried to tell himself that Tony knew what the suit could handle, what he himself could handle, and would never have flown Steve here if he hadn't thought he could do it – even while he knew that wasn't true. Tony was forever denying his own limitations, both as Iron Man and as Tony Stark, pushing himself long past the point where most men would have accepted that they must slow down or stop. Moreover, he strongly suspected that Tony had done all this because he thought this was the last time they would ever spend any time together. Despite their success at stopping the disaster in Stamford, Tony still expected him to walk away.
"No," he said out loud, even though there was no one to hear him. "No, I won't." He couldn't. Not when he knew for certain that he could not live without Tony. Everything else was irrelevant. He knew that now.
The elevator doors opened on the workshop floor, and there was Dummy, patiently waiting, clutching an arc reactor in his claw-like hand. Steve reached for it, and the robot drew back with a clacking noise of aggressive disapproval.
"It's okay," Steve said, trying to sound soothing even though his hands were almost shaking in his haste to grab the device and return to Tony. "He sent me."
Maybe JARVIS spoke to Dummy in that mysterious language the machines shared. Or maybe the robot had learned either through experience or changes to his programming that Steve was to be trusted. For whatever reason, Dummy stopped backing away, and extended his arm so Steve could reach the arc reactor.
"Thank you," Steve breathed. Holding his prize tightly, he stepped back into the elevator.
Up on the top floor again, there was an awful moment when he couldn't find Tony. Then he spotted him, and that was even worse. He cried out and ran outside.
Tony had managed to get out of the armor before collapsing, but that was far as he had made it. He huddled against the curved arc of metal that followed him around the rooftop as he walked right out of the suit. Despite the summer heat, he was shaking and gasping for breath as though in the grip of tremendous cold. One hand was pressed tightly to his chest; beneath his palm, the arc reactor's light was so dim it was barely noticeable in the bright sunshine. At Steve's shout, he lifted his head and looked up, and the frightened desperation in his eyes made Steve's blood run cold.
Wordlessly he held out the replacement arc reactor. Tony took it with a trembling hand, and with the other yanked his T-shirt up. He didn't even need to look at what he was doing. With practiced ease, he pulled out the damaged device and slammed the new one home. It flashed once, then its white light burned steadily. Tony uttered a choked sigh of relief, and slumped.
Instantly Steve was down on his knees, wrapping him in his arms, pulling him close. "I got you," he murmured. "I got you." Tony smelled of sweat and metal and ashes. He lay heavily on Steve's chest, making no attempt to move away.
Steve counted to sixty, listening carefully as Tony's breathing eased. Then he said, "The next time you're stupid enough to offer to fly me somewhere when the suit is damaged – and I'm stupid enough to accept – remind me to kick both our asses."
Tony huffed with laughter. "Deal."
"Are you okay?" he asked. The worst of his fear had subsided, but he knew better than to relax completely. Not just yet.
"Yeah," Tony said. His voice was much stronger already, and he had stopped shaking. "I'm fine."
"You should go to the hospital," Steve said. "They can check if you had a heart attack."
"Trust me," Tony said dryly, "I would know if that were the case. And it isn't." He stirred within the circle of Steve's arms, and sat up.
Steve released him and scooted backward, giving him some space. The color had returned to his face and he looked perfectly normal again. Tired and sweaty and smelling of battle and the suit, but normal.
And utterly beautiful. Impulsively Steve leaned in and kissed him. "Mmm, coconut."
Tony eyed him like he was crazy. "What was that for?"
Suddenly it wasn't funny anymore. Twice today he had nearly lost Tony forever. In Stamford he had been busy trying to subdue Nitro's friends and the New Warriors, but even then he had been terribly aware of each of those explosions in the sky, and the effect they had on Tony. With every fireball, every sickening plunge downward as Iron Man and Nitro fell, his heart had leapt into his throat, choking him with fear. When Tony had cried out, making no effort to hide how much pain he was enduring, Steve's first instinct had been to run to him. And now this close call with the arc reactor – too close. The old one lay dark and dormant on the ground; he guessed there had been maybe five minutes to spare before it gave out completely and Tony died as the shrapnel buried in his chest finally won its unending battle to pierce his heart.
"I thought I lost you," he said. "God, don't ever do that to me again."
"You know I'm not going to promise that," Tony said, and yes, he did know. It was one of the things he loved about Tony, the way he never gave up and never gave in, regardless of the danger to himself. That he took it too far was just one of the things Steve had no choice but to love, too.
"I'm not just talking about today," Steve said, although it hadn't been true until he said it. "This whole thing… Ever since we learned about the war, nothing's been the same between us. And I can't take that anymore. I just…" He swallowed hard. "I want you back. I want things to be the way they were."
They could never go back, though, and he knew it. The issues that had driven them apart were still there, waiting to raise their ugly head again. They had both said too many things that should never have been said and could never be taken back. But that didn't mean they couldn't still make something together, something that was stronger than ever for having been so sorely tested. Didn't it?
"Steve." Tony looked like he was near tears, a sight Steve would have given anything to unsee. "I never told you, but I talked to him, that other Reed. Before he left. I asked him. I had to know. And he told me you were dead in his world."
Steve's breath caught. He had known all along, of course. It had been obvious right from the start, with the way that other Reed had stared at him. But to hear it said out loud like that, so plain and cold, was still horrifying.
"He wouldn't say, but I know it was my fault." And God, Tony was crying now, or near enough as to make no difference. "It was my fault you died in that world. I couldn't let that happen here. All I ever wanted was to keep you alive. Whatever it took. I would have done anything. Even when it meant losing you for myself."
"I know you would have," Steve murmured.
Tony went on as though he hadn't heard, so desperate to make Steve understand that he began to repeat himself. "I had to save you. My other self, he couldn't do it. I couldn't let that happen here. I had to save you."
Part of him wanted to know how it had happened, how he had died in that other reality, how his death could have destroyed that other Tony Stark so thoroughly that he had given up on his own world and focused his efforts on saving other worlds instead. But the rest of him rebelled at the thought. It was better not to know. Better to remain ignorant on some things, and know a measure of peace.
"And you did it," he said.
Tony just nodded, the tears standing in his eyes.
Steve couldn't bear it. He reached out and hugged Tony hard. "You did it," he said again. "I'm here. You're here. We both made it. We stopped the war and we're both still here."
Tony clutched at him fiercely. "Are we?"
"Yes," Steve vowed. "Yes. Just…don't ever…I thought I lost you. I couldn't bear that, Tony, I couldn't…"
Tony said nothing. He just made that faint little choking sound that meant he was crying, and Steve started crying a little too then, because he had been utterly convinced that he would never have this again, and he hadn't known how he could go on living without it.
Only one thing kept the moment from being perfect. "You know this isn't over with yet."
"Oh," Tony sighed. "You always say the most romantic things."
Steve sniffed back the tears. "We have to end it. Once and for all."
"Can we go ahead and do that now?" Tony asked wearily. "I'm getting tired of being accused of staging my own kidnapping and torture just so I could create a device that I then deliberately withheld from the American people in order to strengthen their dependence on foreign oil."
"What?" Steve reared back in shock. "Who the hell is saying that?"
"Oh, my bad," Tony sighed. "I guess that one hasn't hit the airwaves yet. That must be the headline for tonight."
"No," Steve said firmly. "There are other headlines today."
Tony considered this, then grimaced. "You're right. It isn't every day that Captain America gets outed in front of superheroes and villains alike – especially by the dastardly Tony Stark. Now there's a story that's got some real longevity to it."
"That's not what I'm talking about," Steve said. He actually thought they were pretty safe. None of the Avengers would talk, and if Nitro claimed that Iron Man and Captain America had been hugging and exchanged a kiss, no one would believe him. In a way, they were safer now than they had ever been. "Everyone's going to be talking about what happened in Stamford. But no one's going to know the reason why it happened."
"Boynton." Tony's face darkened. "Who was a no-show, by the way, and don't think I'm not curious to find out why."
"Boynton," Steve agreed. "I'd say we have to make a trip to Washington DC, wouldn't you?"
"I would," Tony said. He heaved himself to his feet. "But first I'd say I need a shower." He smiled, an almost shy expression that looked oddly out of place on him. "Don't suppose you'd care to join me?"
Steve grinned back. "Just you try to stop me."
They walked inside. Steve deliberately did not look at Tony as they crossed the open space of the penthouse. He pressed the button for the elevator, and the doors opened. He stepped inside, and Tony followed him.
The doors slid shut. He looked up, already reaching out, and Tony was there, in his arms, kissing him with such heated urgency that he was almost shaking. Hands pulled at his belt, then shoved him backward, catching him off balance so that he slammed violently into the wall.
The elevator stopped. Still kissing, they stumbled out into the hall. They were on the floor that Steve called all his own, he noticed with a quick glance.
"Come on," Tony urged, yanking his head back down for another burning kiss.
They somehow made it to his bedroom. Once inside, he kicked the door shut, then locked it out of habit. "Forget it," Tony growled. He was already half-naked, his T-shirt on the floor; even as he spoke, he was unzipping his jeans.
Steve tore at his costume, wanting only to be rid of it. He cursed the tight material then that made it harder to peel away from his body.
Tony laughed at him. He was naked now, flushed and sweaty, his eyes fixed on Steve's face. "Come on, old man. I'm not gonna wait forever."
The last piece fell to the floor. He captured Tony in his arms and pushed him steadily backward across the bedroom and into the bathroom. That sense of frantic urgency rushed over him again. He wanted to touch Tony everywhere at once, and judging from the way Tony's hands roamed restlessly over his body, he wasn't the only one who felt that way.
They stumbled into the shower, clumsy and awkward in their haste, rutting against each other with a complete lack of grace. Tony slapped at the wall and the spray came on. Warm water cascaded over them. Tony nearly slipped and he grabbed at Steve's shoulders to steady himself. For a moment they were still, separated by a bare inch, staring at each other.
"I can't lose you," Steve whispered.
"I'm right here," Tony said.
Water beat down on his shoulders and ran down his back. Tony had nearly died today, and suddenly it wasn't enough just to look at him, or to touch him like this, without wanting more. He needed more. He could not trust his eyes; only his hands could reassure him of Tony's safety.
And Tony responded in kind, kissing and biting his way down Steve's throat and chest. He started to lower himself to his knees, and Steve caught him. "No," he said. He wanted to look Tony in the eye. He needed to know he wasn't alone anymore.
"Steve." Drops of water were beaded on Tony's face, caught in his beard, rolling from his hair.
He reached down and took them both in hand. An instant later Tony's fingers closed painfully tight over his; with his free hand, Tony grabbed his ass and pulled him even closer.
He threaded his other hand through Tony's hair, holding him still. Tony's hand pushed at his, wanting him to move, but he resisted, wanting to prolong the moment as long as he could.
"God, Steve." Tony's hips bucked forward. His eyes burned with the need for release, but also something Steve dared not identify. Tiny tremors wracked him all over. He tugged again at Steve's hand.
He wanted to make it last, but he was filled with that fevered urgency. He needed this as much as Tony did.
He began to move his hand, stroking them together, finding the rhythm that worked for both of them. Tony arched up against him, his fingers bearing down on Steve's, tightening his grip almost painfully. But his eyes remained locked on Steve's, never once looking away.
God, he was so close. Tony uttered that little groaning noise he always made just before he came, and that was it. Steve was there and gone, over the edge, taking Tony with him. His vision whited out and his knees buckled, not wanting to hold him up any longer. He felt himself falling, but Tony was right there with him, and it didn't matter.
It wasn't like falling at all.
They were halfway to the airfield when Director Fury called.
Steve was actually a little surprised that it had taken this long. He suspected JARVIS had something to do with that, rerouting their calls while they had been otherwise occupied. It never stopped amazing him, those little things JARVIS did that were so human.
Even before they were fully dressed, Tony had made a quick call and asked for his private plane to be fuelled up and made ready for a trip to Washington DC. "Don't let SHIELD know, but this is even faster than the Quinjet."
By the time they were ready to go, a car was waiting for them beneath the Tower. The driver nodded imperiously as he opened the door for them.
"I want Happy back," Tony grumbled as he got in.
Steve agreed. Not because he wanted to see Happy Hogan driving Tony around again, but because he knew how much better Tony functioned when he was surrounded by those few people he was close to.
They did not talk at first. The thought of their meeting with Boynton made Steve's stomach twist in knots. He both longed for it and dreaded it, and could not decide which feeling was stronger. He kept imagining it, running through all kinds of scenarios in his head, trying to guess how the Senator was going to react to their presence.
So when the phone rang, it startled him badly; he jumped a good six inches off the seat. Beside him, Tony eyed the phone like it was a snake about to bite. "I really don't want to answer this, do I?" Then before Steve could reply, he tapped the phone's screen. "Yeah?"
"Stark." Fury's voice lost none of its power over the speakerphone. "Where the hell are you?"
"Ah, I'm just on my way out," Tony said.
"To your debriefing," Fury said. The way he said it, it was not a question.
"You know," Tony said conversationally, "everyone else today keeps telling me I need to see a doctor."
Steve frowned with disapproval. But what could he say? Technically it wasn't a lie.
Fury's growl of discontent filled the car. "Just get here when you can," he finally rumbled. "And where is the Captain?"
"He's here," Tony said smoothly. "Playing chaperone. Keeping me on the straight and narrow. Currently giving me the stinkeye."
Steve gave him a quick glare. Tony winked at him.
"SHIELD has arrested Senator Boynton," Director Fury said. "Apparently one of his aides made the anonymous call about Stamford. The aide got cold feet, though, when he found out what happened, and he blabbed to us in order to save his own skin."
Steve's breath caught. He looked over again at Tony and saw the smirk had been wiped clear off his face; his expression was utterly blank with shock.
"Stark. Did you hear me?" Fury asked.
"Yeah," Tony said. He cleared his throat. "Yeah, I heard you. What are the charges?"
"That hasn't been decided yet. Right now we're going with conspiracy to commit murder, just to give us a reason to hold him," Director Fury said. "Not sure if that will stick though." It was hard to tell with him, but he actually sounded almost pleased.
"Well. That's very interesting news," Tony said. In direct contrast to his words, however, he looked tense and unhappy.
"Yeah. So get your asses back here as soon as you can. We've got a lot to discuss."
"I'll get right on that," Tony said. He tapped the phone and the screen went dark. "Shit."
Steve said nothing. He was relieved, actually. While part of him had been looking forward to confronting the Senator, he was glad he would not have to make the arrest himself.
He still could not decide which was more shocking: the knowledge that Boynton had set the Avengers up to fail, or the fact that he had decided the sacrifice of innocent lives – of children – was justified in order to achieve his goal of proving that superheroes needed to be regulated.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"Sure," Tony said, but it was an automatic response, with no real emotion in his voice.
"Do you still want to do this?" Steve asked carefully. It was not too late to turn back around and return to the Tower.
That got a reaction out of Tony. He gave Steve a hard glare. "Hell yes. Fucker owes me."
"Okay," Steve said. As simple as that.
"What about you?" Tony asked. "Do you still want to do this?"
"Oh yes," Steve said grimly.
The plane was far larger than one man needed, and stocked with everything a person could conceivably need – in short, everything Steve would have expected from something belonging to Tony Stark. They were cleared for takeoff, and a smiling stewardess came by to ask if they wanted anything.
"Just some water, thank you," Steve said.
"Same," Tony said, much to Steve's surprise.
The stewardess left. Tony sighed. "What? Don't look at me like that."
"I’m not," he protested, even though he kind of was. "I'm just surprised, is all."
"It's not time to celebrate just yet," Tony said. He stared out the window at the landscape dropping away beneath them as they rose into the clouds.
Steve could not reconcile Tony's dark mood with the events of the day and their earlier truce. "So," he said. "Did you want to talk now, or later?"
Tony screwed up his nose in a grimace, but did not look away from the window.
"Fine," Steve said. "I'll start."
Tony made a pained sound. "Really? Now?"
"I think we should," Steve said. He took a deep breath. "Okay. I'm sorry. For…for…for everything, really. But mostly for breaking my word to you and meeting with Senator Boynton. I didn't understand what you kept trying to tell me, why I should stay out of it. I understand now, of course, but—"
"And not telling me that he wanted me off the team," Tony said. He continued to stare out the window. "Are you sorry about that, too?"
"Yes," Steve said instantly. "I should have told you." Then, before Tony could start to gloat, he added, "The same way you should have told me when you first began meeting with Boynton."
Tony glanced at him, then resumed staring out the window. "Point noted," he said. "I apologize for that, although I'm pretty sure I already did."
Actually Steve was pretty sure he hadn't, but now was definitely not the time to say as much. "I think we both need to work on that whole 'keeping secrets' thing."
Tony mulled this over, then nodded. He finally turned away from the window and looked at Steve. "Here's the thing," he said. "I never wanted to hurt you. I never wanted to let you down. And I knew that's what would happen. You would be disappointed in me for even talking to Boynton about something like registration, and you would really be disappointed in me for supporting it. So I just didn't bring it up. I guess I was hoping it could all happen without my involvement ever being known."
Steve swallowed painfully, hoping that wasn't true – but knowing it was.
"So I didn't tell you. I never intended to tell you. There it is." Tony gazed at him anxiously. "And I don't…I don't really care that you know that now. It doesn't matter anymore. I just thought you should know the truth."
Steve shook his head. "What do you mean it doesn't matter anymore?"
Tony just stared at him.
"Wait, are you…" He inhaled sharply. "Tony, are you thinking I'm still leaving you? Is that what this is about?"
"Well, aren't you?" Tony said dully. "If you aren't, you should."
"No!" he exclaimed. "God, no! Tony, I'm not leaving. I'm staying. You're staying." A sudden, horrible thought struck him. "You are, aren't you? You're not going back to California now, are you?"
"All those things you said about me," Tony said, and there was no hope in his eyes, none at all. "They're still true, Steve. That hasn't changed just because we saved the world."
"I know that," Steve said. "But I still want to try to make this work. Don't you?" Oh God, maybe he really had ruined everything. Maybe he had hurt Tony too much, and Tony had decided he couldn't deal with that anymore, that it was better to not even try.
And to his horror, Tony slowly shook his head. "I can't, Steve. I can't."
"Why?" he whispered. "Why not?"
"Because," Tony said in agony, "I'll never be worthy of you. That's never gonna change. You know it. I know it."
"No," Steve denied immediately. "No. No. Tony, that isn't true. You were right. I do have impossible standards. And that isn't fair. It isn't fair to you, and it isn't fair to me. I don't have the right to hold you to them." When he saw that his words were having no effect he became almost frantic in his desire to make Tony understand. "I won't do that to you anymore, I swear. I never even realized I was doing it, but I see it now, and I won't do it anymore, I promise. But Tony, you have to promise me something, too. You have to stop hating yourself."
Tony flinched back as though he had been struck. "I don't…" he almost whispered. "Haven't you heard?" His voice gained in volume as he recovered his composure. "Textbook narcissist here."
"That's not true," Steve said. "It was never true."
"Yes, it is," Tony said, stubbornly clinging to that old line, even while deeper emotion welled up in his eyes – along with a healthy dose of fear.
"It wasn't," Steve insisted. "I know, Tony. I know what you think about yourself. And you are so wrong. More than anything I wish I could make you see that, make you see how amazing you are." He reached out slowly and cupped Tony's face in one hand. "I love you so much. All of you. Your heart, your genius, your hands, your soul, your ability to hold five conversations at once and invent three new things before noon every day. The way you laugh. The way you touch me. The way you don't think about yourself, but you put others first even though you pretend you don't care, and then you act surprised when people say they're proud of you, because I know you really are surprised, because you can't understand why they would think that. But Tony, you deserve that praise, and that trust, and that belief in you. Because you are such a good man. And you are the good man I choose to be with. The one I love."
Throughout this speech Tony had just stared at him, wide-eyed with astonishment and fear and a terrible hope that nearly killed Steve to see. When Steve leaned in to kiss him, though, it was like a spell had been broken, for he suddenly threw his arms around Steve and crushed him close. "Steve. God." And then their lips met and that was all Steve cared about right then, trying to eliminate the last bit of space between them, suddenly needing the reassurance of physical contact.
He had promised he would do better, and he would, he would. He would remember that Tony had spent a lifetime believing the worst about himself. Something like that could not be unlearned quickly. He had been cruel to demand that Tony stop making him feel guilty for his own failures at helping Tony see himself in a different light. He would be patient. Someday Tony would stop offering those blueberries, and when that day came, Steve would be there. Until then, he would just have to remember that these things took time – but he would be there for that, too.
He would always be there.
"I'll try," Tony whispered into his neck, pressed close to him, hugging him tight. "I will. I'll try."
"That's all I ask," Steve said. The back of his throat burned with unshed tears.
"I don't want to lose you again," Tony breathed. "Don't go. Don't go, Steve. I can't bear it. Don't go."
"I'm not going anywhere," he vowed. "I'm right here, beside you."
The circle of Tony's arms tightened, then he sat up and he was kissing Steve again with unrestrained violence, hard enough to bruise. He reached up with both hands and seized Steve's face, holding him still.
Steve returned those kisses with equal passion, holding nothing back.
"God, I love you," Tony swore. "And I don't care who knows it. From now on, I don't care. I'm not hiding anymore."
"Oh," Steve said. He sat back a little. He felt a heady rush at the idea of the entire world knowing about them, along with an equal amount of fear. "Okay. But let's not rush into anything. Let's just see what happens."
"Okay," Tony said. Which was entirely too easy. Steve suspected he would "accidentally" find a way to let people see them together – and soon. Tony never did anything by halves. Once he had made up his mind, nothing stopped him.
And he figured he had better share something with Tony now, before he forgot, or it was too late. "You should know…the others already know about us."
Tony looked puzzled for a moment, then his eyes cleared. "Yeah. I kinda thought they did. Bruce told me once that I was about as subtle as a brick." He paused. "How did you find out?"
"Natasha told me when I asked her to help me look into Senator Boynton's background," Steve said. He wondered how long Tony had known that the other Avengers knew their secret – and not said anything.
He told himself that it didn't matter. It was in the past, and he was not going to let it bother him. They were moving forward from this moment. No looking back.
"Ah, so she's your mystery hacker," Tony said. "I should've known."
"Well, come on, how many hackers do I know?" Steve said with a smile.
"Only the one, I hope," Tony said. He reached for Steve again. "Now, where were we?"
"I think," Steve said, "you were doing this." He kissed Tony.
"Mm," Tony agreed. "And I was saying that you're mine. Mine. And I'm never letting you go again."
"I won't let you," Steve promised, and drew him close.
That was one promise he was never going to break.
A car waited for them at Reagan International. The driver was short and surly; Tony missed Happy all over again.
They didn't speak much on the drive to SHIELD headquarters. He didn't know about Steve, but he was still trying to process everything they had talked about on the flight down. He still could hardly believe that he had Steve back, that they had been given one more chance.
To test that theory, he reached out once and took Steve's hand. Steve glanced at the privacy partition in the car, then squeezed Tony's fingers.
The traffic was horrible; the driver knew several shortcuts but it still took them far too long to reach the Triskelion. Tony longed to suit up and fly the rest of the way, even as he conceded that this was probably not such a good idea, given the day's earlier events.
As their destination became briefly visible, he pulled out his phone and began sending commands to JARVIS. Some of SHIELD's software engineers were good, and a select few were very good, but none had been able to dislodge JARVIS from their systems. From time to time Fury would bitch about that, but as long as Tony didn't make a habit of digging up his own information and then acting on it, the complaints weren't too numerous.
He had JARVIS tell him now where they were holding Senator Boynton and what kind of security presence surrounded the man. He also gave the order that the cameras in that room would suddenly cease to function once he and Steve were inside. They needed to be able to speak freely, and that meant no record of what went on in there.
As Boynton's arrest was not made public yet, there was no media presence outside the Triskelion, no one shouting questions at him as the car pulled up and they got out. It was a refreshing change from their suffocating presence outside the Tower the past few weeks, and he savored the moment, breathing deep as he stepped onto the sidewalk.
"Ready?" Steve asked.
"Oh yeah," Tony said.
"You should probably leave the talking to me," Steve said.
"Yeah," Tony said. "'Cause you've been so calm, cool, and collected during this whole thing."
Steve's jaw tightened, but he didn't say anything
They were not stopped as they entered the building. The guards at the security checkpoint, however, looked surprised to see them. "Mr. Stark. Captain. How can we help you?"
"We need to see Senator Boynton," Steve said in his best Captain America voice, the one that said he would not take no for an answer, the one that said, Son, just don't. The fact that he was in uniform probably went a long way toward underscoring the gravity of his tone.
"We need to clear that with Director Fury," said one of the guards.
"You do what you need to do," Tony said. He was not going to let guys like this dissuade him. "In the meantime, we're going in."
The guards hesitated, uncertain. Then one of them waved them forward.
The metal detector went off as he walked through. Of course. Tony scowled as one guard drew close with a wand. It began screeching immediately as the man raised it in his direction. "It's this, we all know it's this," he said, tapping his chest, "so we can please just get on with it?" And if these guys worked for SHIELD and didn't know about the arc reactor, or when to let well enough alone and just let him be, he was going to make sure the only jobs they ever held again involved asking Do you want fries with that? somewhere in the depths of Alaska.
"We're in a hurry," Steve said, coming up to stand beside him – no screeching for him, of course. "So if you wouldn't mind…" He let the sentence trail off.
Just as it had in Stamford, the ploy worked. The guards exchanged another look, then the one with the wand backed away. "You know where you're going?"
Tony gave the guy a fake smile. "Sure do. Keep up the good work." He headed for the elevators, then pressed the down button.
It was nothing like his last meeting with the Senator. Back then, Boynton had had the upper hand and Tony hadn't known they were playing – hadn't even suspected. Now Boynton was going to jail, and the world was about to fall at Tony's feet again.
All things considered, he was already five steps ahead of the game.
The guard outside the detention cell was expecting them. He stepped aside respectfully, but said, "Director Fury has been notified of your presence here. You might want to keep it short."
"Duly noted," Tony said, then opened the door.
Boynton was sitting at a simple metal table. His hands weren't cuffed, but he held them in his lap as though they were. His suit was wrinkled and his tie was askew. He looked somewhat frazzled, a little scared, and a lot angry. "Well," he said. "That was fast."
Tony looked at him and realized with a start that he hated Boynton. Truly hated him, with that cold black hatred he had formerly only felt for Obie and the Ten Rings. He wasn't exactly proud of himself for feeling that way, and he hoped like hell that Steve never found out he was capable of it, but it was there all the same.
You almost cost me everything, you little prick.
"Did you think we wouldn't come?" Steve said. "You've got a lot to answer for, Senator."
And wasn't that Steve all over. Facing a man who had been willing to murder innocent children in order to attain his goals – and still affording him the respect of calling him by his title.
"Starting with your accusations against me," Tony said. "Which I want formally retracted, of course."
"Are you really arrogant enough to think that this was all about you?" Boynton's mouth twisted with ugly mockery. He leaned back in his chair, managing to make it look like he wasn't sitting in a cold, utilitarian room that was just a step above the kind of interrogation rooms where he might have reasonably expected to find some thick-bodied cop waiting to beat on him in order to get answers. Tony hated him all over again for that, that studied air of carelessness – and hated him all the more for recognizing himself in that gesture. It was exactly the kind of thing he would have done, were he in the Senator's position. "Don't flatter yourself. You were just convenient. If it hadn't been you, it probably would have been that alien freak with the hammer."
Hearing that, a switch flipped in Tony's brain. And it must have been the same one that Boynton triggered that day in Congress when he had first tried to submit the Superhero Registration Act, because it was like he could suddenly see clearly for the first time in weeks. Like when Boynton had hit that switch, it had flooded his brain with so much crap that he had been blinded. But now that was gone. Suddenly he was free to regard all the hateful things Boynton and the press had been saying about him as the complete bullshit it really was. He no longer had to agree that they made some good points about him and his character. He no longer had to accept it as true.
He looked over at Steve, and it was like seeing him for the first time. He didn't see perfect Captain America then, the man he could never measure up to and would never be worthy of. He saw someone he was proud to stand beside, someone he deserved to stand beside. Someone who would be there for him for all the days to come. Someone he loved, who loved him in return.
He turned back to Boynton. "Thank you," he said evenly.
Boynton's eyes narrowed. "For what?"
"For telling the truth – for once," Tony said. For giving me Steve back.
"What about Stamford?" Steve asked, changing the subject, completely ignorant of the tidal shift that had just occurred in Tony's world view. "What were you trying to achieve there?"
Boynton looked up at him. "You tell me, Captain. You seem plenty smart."
"Come on, Steve," Tony said lightly. "This one's easy. He wanted the Avengers to fail. He wanted those people – those kids – in Stamford to die. Then he could use that as a springboard to ram the SHRA through Congress." He shook his head, pretending to feel regret. "You know, one of the things your lovely people keep saying about me is that I can't admit when I'm wrong. Well, guess what? I'm doing it now. I was wrong, Senator. I was wrong to call you smart, that day I told you I wasn't supporting you anymore." He gave Boynton his most winning, charming smile.
Boynton actually started out of his chair at that one. Steve stepped up immediately, menacing him back down. "Don't do it," he said quietly.
"Oh, let him do it," Tony said. "Just give me a reason to punch him in the face."
"Threats are good," Boynton said. "Keep 'em coming, Stark. My lawyer's gonna have a field day with this."
"Good luck finding a lawyer willing to represent your sorry ass," Tony snapped, fully aware that he had descended about two levels below immature, and not even caring. "They'll have to draw straws for you, and buy the loser a consolation prize."
"Enough," Steve commanded. He glared at them both. "Was that it?" he asked Boynton. "Set up the Avengers to fail, then use Stamford against us, so you got your way with the Registration Act?"
"Of course that was it," Tony scoffed.
"I want to hear him say it," Steve said.
"Keep waiting then," Boynton said. He glared at them both. "I have rights and I know I don't have to talk to you."
"Oh, but you do," Steve said. "Because if you don't talk to me, you may find yourself talking to people who aren't very good at listening." He took another step forward and now he positively towered over Boynton. "You said it yourself, Senator. It's a tough job leading the Avengers. I'm going to tell them that nothing like this will ever happen again, but I'm not sure they'll believe me. I don't really control them, you know. For instance, I don't really know if I'll be able to stop Dr. Banner from getting very angry over this."
Boynton's face went deathly white.
Tony just stared at Steve. He wasn't sure if the threat he heard in Steve's voice was real or not, but he was honest-to-God impressed as hell right then. He had never imagined Steve had it in him to do something like this.
One thing was for sure – there was going to be some mighty fun role-playing in their future.
"You wouldn't," Boynton protested, sounding weaker than before.
"You're right," Steve said. "I wouldn't. But I'm not Dr. Banner. I honestly can't predict what he'll do when he learns about this. Or Thor. Or any of the Avengers."
"I know what I want to do," Tony chimed in.
Boynton's gaze cut to him, then went right back to Steve. "So what do you want from me?"
"I want your word," Steve said. "And then I want you to keep it."
"My word about what?" Boynton asked warily.
"That this is where it ends. No Superhero Registration Act. No trying to get it passed again. No even mentioning it. Ever. We bury this, right here and now. No one outside this room will ever know the truth about Stamford."
"So what will they know about it?" Boynton asked. Some of the color had returned to his face as he judged himself to be back on safer ground now.
"Just that you set us up to fail," Steve said, "as part of your crusade against Tony Stark and Iron Man and ultimately, the Avengers. No one needs to know the real reasons behind it."
"No," Tony said. He got it now. He knew how it was meant to have ended. "This is what you say. The Avengers weren't supposed to fail. Only me. I was going to be blamed for our failure to show up in Stamford on time. Am I right? Then I'd be the one sitting here, arrested for murder, on my way to prison. You would have swooped in then and found a way to convince SI to start manufacturing the arc reactor tech. Clean energy for all. Everyone wins. Except me."
It all made perfect sense – and it made him sick to his stomach. He hadn't felt this kind of horrified betrayal since that terrible day with Obadiah Stane, sitting there trapped and helpless as he listened to Obie confess to wanting him dead.
Why? he wanted to demand. Why, damn you? What did I ever do to deserve this?
"Admit it," he said. "You were looking ahead to 2016 and the Presidential race."
Boynton did not respond to that, but Tony saw something shift in his eyes and he knew he had hit the mark with that. Boynton had been thinking along those lines, only he had intended taking a different route to the White House. Not clean energy, but registration.
"That's our story, then," Steve said. He did not look happy about it, either.
"The short version? You're a vengeful bastard," Tony said. "Lucky for you, so are we." He grinned humorlessly. "And me? I'm a rich vengeful bastard. I can make things happen."
"No," Steve said firmly. "We agreed, it ends here."
"I didn't agree to that," Tony pointed out.
"Yes, you did," Steve replied. "We all did."
Boynton looked at each of them in turn. He glanced up at the camera, where no red light shone, revealing that the events in here were not being recorded. "That's it then? We're done here?"
"Sure," Tony said. "Although I would still love to sock you one."
"No one's hitting anyone," Steve said. "Tempting though it may be."
Tony couldn't help smirking at that. God, he loved this man.
His phone chimed, alerting him to an incoming text. He pulled it out and saw without surprise that it was a message from JARVIS. "Time's running out," he said. According to JARVIS, there were no less than six SHIELD agents headed their way with orders from Fury to pull them out of there using any means necessary.
"All right then," Steve said. "Stick to the story."
"Wait a second," Boynton said. "What's in it for me? What do I get for going along with this?"
"You get to keep your head attached to your shoulders," Steve said. "Which is frankly more than you deserve."
"What he said," Tony added. "Also, remember, I can make things happen. Good or bad."
Boynton looked like he wanted to say more, but the door opened then, admitting the SHIELD agents. At the same time, the red light above the camera came back on.
Tony turned to face them. "It's okay," he said, raising his hands. "We're cool. Everything's gonna be fine."
For once, he thought, that might even be true.
He woke from the kind of sound sleep that had eluded him most of his adult life, and been completely absent since learning about the impending civil war. For a long time he lay very still, not quite sure what he was supposed to do next; this was a relatively new thing for him.
He knew he was in his workshop even before he opened his eyes; the smells and sounds told him so. He was lying on the gray couch, the one with the motor oil stains and the afghan that looked like something someone's grandmother might have crocheted. The afghan was currently draped over his body, and his head was on a blue throw pillow that had a tear down one seam. This pillow, stuffing poking out from the ripped seam, lay atop a pair of strong thighs clad in blue jeans. Steve himself sat very still, pressed up against the armrest of the couch. In one hand he held a book. With the other he gently ran his fingers through Tony's hair, pausing only now and then to reach up and turn the page before resuming the soothing motion.
All in all, it was the nicest way Tony had woken up in a very long time.
And to prove it, he said, "Mmm."
The hand in his hair never hesitated. "Sleep well?"
"Mmm," he said again, then strove mightily for real words. "Yeah."
"That's good," Steve said.
"I had the strangest dream," Tony said.
Steve closed his book and set it down on the armrest of the couch. He lowered his hand to his lap. "What was it about?"
Without moving any more than was necessary, he slid his arm forward until he could capture Steve's hand and close his fingers about those strong, callused ones. "We broke up."
The hand in his hair stilled for a moment before continuing on. "That doesn't sound good."
"It wasn't," he said. "It was horrible. There was a visit from a strange man from an alternate reality, and we had to stop a civil war."
Steve's hand tightened on his. "And did we stop it?"
"Yeah," he said. "But we broke up because of it." He turned his head just enough to be able to glance upward. Steve was staring straight ahead, his expression somber and somewhat regretful.
"So then what happened?"
"Actually," Tony said, "it was pretty cool. I saved the world, but I almost died doing it, in a noble, heroic moment of self-sacrifice. And you were so worried about me, and you realized you couldn't live without me. Something I already knew, by the way. About myself. Not about you. Even though I hoped. Anyway, for some strange reason you decided to forgive all the stupid things I had done, and you took me back. We got to tell off the villain of the piece, which was very satisfying, by the way, I'm glad you suggested it. Then we came back here and had some amazing make-up sex, and then I woke up on the couch and you were reading some dreadfully dull history book even though I keep telling you you should just watch the documentary they made on the History Channel. It's got some really cool re-enactments."
He glanced up again and saw that Steve was fighting back a smile. He didn't look serious anymore. "I see."
"And then we lived happily ever after."
"That sounds about right," Steve said with a faint chuckle.
"With lots of hot sex."
Now Steve was grinning. "Well, you know what they say. Sometimes dreams can come true."
"Yeah," Tony said. He lay still for a little while longer, then reluctantly sat up. The crocheted afghan slithered to a heap on the floor.
"How are you feeling?" Steve asked with some concern. It would be a while before he stopped asking, Tony knew. Not until he either officially saw a cardiologist, or some new and exciting injury came along to distract him. He had even needed some persuasion – of the best kind – to agree to the scorching hot make-up sex last night.
"Fine," he said. And it was true. No twinges, no pain, no irregular heartbeat other than the normal irregular one. "Perfect."
"Good," Steve said. "Because I really was worried."
"I know," Tony said. "Sorry about that."
"Don't be sorry," Steve said, and embraced him. "Just don't do it again."
"Um," he said, arms around Steve, his face pressed to Steve's chest.
"For six months at least?"
"That I can do," Tony said.
Steve released him. "I'm sorry we had to go through all that. I know I keep saying that, but it's true. And I also think it's made us stronger. We went through fire, but we came out the other side. That means something."
Usually this kind of sappy talk made Tony feel deeply uncomfortable. He did feel a twinge of unease at the sentiment, but he decided he wasn't going to let that get in the way. Steve was right. They did have something special, and he wasn't about to let that go. Ever.
"Everything we went through, everything we did…" He would always regret the way he had handled some of it, but he would never regret the outcome. Stopping the war. Saving those kids. Saving the world. Losing Steve but getting him back, never to lose him again.
He looked up at Steve, and he smiled. "It was worth it."
Epilogue: you want a revelation, some kind of resolution
He had no idea what time it was when the call came. He had been in the lab long enough that the hours had blurred together long ago. Osborn would be here soon, and at this point every second mattered, but the call came from one of the few lines that still had some significance, so he answered it quickly. "Yeah?"
"Tony." Reed's face swam into view on one of the monitors. His voice echoed in the large room, completely unnecessary but strangely comforting. "I checked on them this morning. I thought you would want to know, before…" He cleared his throat. "It worked. They did it."
The delete protocols were almost done, and he had meant to push on until they were complete, but suddenly they did not seem important at all. He looked up. "You're sure?"
Reed smiled. Lately he had been looking as tired and overstressed as they all did these days, but for that single moment, he seemed content. "They stopped it. We did it. Their world will never know Civil War."
Overwhelming relief made his knees weak; he had to sit down on the nearest stool. "We did it." He hadn't realized how thoroughly he had expected to fail until just then.
But they had succeeded.
"Thank you for letting me know," he said sincerely. He ended the call and the screen went blank, along with the connection in his head.
"We did it." Tony looked around at the lab, almost empty now, all the equipment and tech stripped away except for the things he needed to finish this final program, the last one he would ever write. He hadn't told anyone – there was no one to tell, anyway – how frightened he was by his own plan, but he found now that he could face it calmly. It would be no consolation to the people of this world, but at least he had done some good before the end.
There should have been someone else there with him to share this moment, his penultimate triumph. Of course, if they had been there, none of this would have been necessary in the first place, but he did not let himself think of that.
Into the echoing silence of the lab, he whispered, "We did it, Steve. We saved them."