Part I: Reflections
Tony Stark stood in the ruins of Stark Tower in his armor. Hot pieces of twisted metal bent around broken concrete and a fog of dust filled the air. He took off his helmet and looked around for any sign of life, but there was none. Not until he heard a familiar voice. He turned to find Steve Rogers, or rather Captain America, staring at him with scorn.
Tony looked him in the eyes. "You're going to kill me, aren't you?"
Steve walked toward him and spoke with kindness in his voice "No." He put a hand on Tony's shoulder and his tone shifted to a bitter one. "You're going to kill me."
"We're going to kill you," a chorus of voices chimed in. Tony turned once more and was confronted by his mistakes. Spider-Man, Falcon, Mr. Fantastic, Professor X, Black Widow, Beast, Quicksilver, Pepper and Rhodey stood before him. All were in costume but the last two. Pepper wore a cream suit he'd seen dozens of times over the years and Rhodey wore his dress uniform.
"That's..." Tony started, but before he could finish that thought, yet another voice finished it for him. This one was young and smug, and he hated it.
"...not likely?" the voice finished. It was him—a younger, more attractive version of Tony wearing his finest Armani suit and sporting the pencil moustache he had abandoned long ago. He moved in close to his older self's face. "They're all dead, I know. So are you."
"I'm not dead... am I?"
"You might as well be. Now take off that armor. You look ridiculous."
Tony frowned. "I can't. It's part of me."
"Fine. I'll do it." The younger man grabbed Tony's arm and forced it upward, pressing the repulsor at the palm of his glove against his face. Tony wasn't afraid. "Fire," his younger self said. He did.
He jerked awake in what was a surprisingly large prison cell. It was cold, dank, and smelled like urine thanks to the toilet whose wax ring had clearly disintegrated. But it was spacious. Tony imagined that it was probably designed to hold superpowered beings much larger than he.
It wasn't often that he truly felt the effects of aging. He felt the effects of his bipolar disorder and the effects of Extremis withdrawal, but he rarely felt old at age fifty. He did on this day, the result of being beaten with a baton and left to sleep on an icy concrete floor. His back tensed and ached as he stood himself up. He rubbed his eyes and groaned—the right one was swollen and stung—then heard the sound of a pen clicking and realized he wasn't alone.
It was the woman again: attractive, blonde, maybe thirty years old. She wore a pantsuit and tried her best to present a professional demeanor, but her shirt was tucked in wrong, her nose was crooked in an unnatural way that probably resulted from a fight and her updo was poorly-implemented with wiry hairs sticking out from every angle. Tony may have been certifiably insane (everyone else seemed to be sure of it), but he was still Tony Stark and he absorbed information like this in a calculated way. If this woman wasn't who she presented herself to be, he might be able to use that later.
Some time during his beating-induced slumber, she had arrived and brought two folding chairs: one for herself and one for him. She invited him to take a seat, and Tony obliged. There was really no point in arguing with these people; he had learned that the night before.
The woman was surprised. "You're not going to tell me to go to hell again?"
"I'm a fast learner," he said. "What do you want this time?"
"The question from before still stands."
Right. The interrogation. Tony wasn't sure what they wanted from him. They had already taken his company. They had already taken his armors. He was fairly certain he had nothing left to give but his life, and if they were going to take that he wanted them to get it over with already.
"What do you want, really?" he asked.
She narrowed her eyes and focused on his face. "I'm here to help you. We're trying to explore the nature of your relationship with Mr. Rogers."
"He taught me everything I know about the Neighborhood of Make-Believe."
She frowned. "This isn't a joke, Mr. Stark."
"I'm not laughing. I just have no desire to go easy on a government that—"
"A government that you helped create!" Her anger in that shout seemed to Tony to be genuine. He was no expert in human behavior, but he felt he had successfully struck a nerve. The woman adjusted her shirt and calmed herself. "You were responsible for expanding the government's power, weren't you?"
Tony leaned forward in his chair. "Not into our daily lives. Not into people's bedrooms."
"Well, like it or not, here we are." Her voice was tinged with bitterness. "You're set to be executed for crimes against humanity, and—"
"Oh, I've definitely committed some of those." Looking back, his support for the Superhuman Registration Act immediately sprung to mind. "But they're not what you have me locked up for."
"In any case, I'm a psychiatrist. If you comply with me, your penalty will be more lenient."
"So I'll end up slightly less dead?" Tony knew his situation was a dire one, but keeping his sense of humor meant keeping himself sane. He promised himself that he wouldn't lose control again, that he wouldn't lose himself again. It was his fault that he and Steve were captured and he had to do anything he could to keep his mind off of that fact.
The woman leaned in close. "I mean it. People can and have been freed from here."
"Not me," Tony said, "but I will talk to you."
"Why?" Her face showed her suspicion.
"Honestly? I want to see what happens." That was true enough. After eight weeks, sitting around waiting to die was getting staler than the bread they served him once a day.
The woman leaned back in her chair, getting herself comfortable. She crossed her legs, set her notepad on her lap, and readied her pen. She spoke in an overly professional tone. "Go ahead and talk to me about your life."
"My entire life or the juicy tidbits?"
"Whatever you want. It's your story."
Tony began. "When we found Steve, it was the year 2000. We were barely in our twenties. People had just gotten over the Y2K scare. Pets.com was still a thing. The day was like any other. The Avengers were a new concept. We were idealistic. Namor threw a block of ice and it just happened to have our greatest World War II hero in it. And it just so happened that he was still alive. That was the kind of thing that happened to us back then. When we first found him, I wasn't impressed. Everyone agreed we should have him join the team, but I was almost certain he would be useless. I mean, he uses a shield as a weapon. Come on."
His eyes grew wistful. "He wasn't useless, but he was alone. And despite all my money, I was too. Misery invites company, so we became good friends, even before we really knew who we were. He figured out my secret identity pretty quickly, and I’m no slouch… I did my research, found out about the disappearance of Captain Steve Rogers. He asked me why I wore the chest plate off duty. I told him about my accident that made it impossible to be close to anyone. At least I thought it did."
It was a Monday night, and Steve was as close to being a mess as he could get. He sat on his couch in his sweatpants watching a World War II documentary on mute while Ella Fitzgerald played on record in the background. He wasn't sure why he'd done it, but earlier that day he went to Peggy's grave site and it brought back the feelings of irrelevance and displacement that he thought he had driven away. The twenty first century was good. The Avengers were good. So why did he still desperately want to go back?
A knock on the door disturbed his thoughts. He got up and opened it to find Tony standing there carrying a six pack of some beer or another. Tony noticed the solemn look on the other man's face. "Jesus. Who died?"
"What are you doing here?" Steve demanded.
"The same thing we do every Monday night, Pinky. Try and take over the world." Another reference lost on Steve. He hated that. "There's a Rangers game. We were going to watch it..."
"Oh, right. I hadn't realized what day it... Come in." Steve sulked back to his spot on the couch.
Tony set the beer down, then seated himself next to Steve. "Seriously. Nobody's died, right?" He noticed that the History Channel was showing a documentary for once instead of Nostradamus's Alien Encounters. Then he realized that it was about World War II. "Just... everyone you ever knew. Sorry. I should go."
"No, it's fine. I visited Peggy's grave today."
"I really can go, if you want to..." Grief stricken Steve made Tony horribly uncomfortable. This was the man Tony turned to for comfort, not the other way around. The way he saw it, Tony Stark did not provide a shoulder to cry, lean, and/or rest on.
"I'd rather you stayed, if it's not too much trouble."
"Of course. I'm not sure what I can do for you, though. I can try to get you drunk, but that's gonna be a hard one to make work."
"You're probably the best friend I have here, and I need some advice." He considered Tony a friend. That was something. "I can't figure out why being here still bothers me. I'm never going back and I need to accept that."
"But you can't." Tony pulled out two bottles of beer.
"Steve, you need a girlfriend." He handed Steve a drink.
"Say you could go back to 1945. Your parents are still dead. Bucky's still dead. You go hang out with the Invaders, but I like to think the Avengers fill that void. So what's missing from the present that wasn't missing back then?"
Tony took a sip of his beer. "Yeah."
"I've tried dating, Tony."
"You've tried dating an ex supervillain and your dead girlfriend's niece. I think you need to try a little harder."
"I don't think it's a girlfriend I'm missing. People are... different."
They had been over this before and Tony hated it. There was nothing wrong with people today, and he felt the need to stick up for them. "Well I'm sorry we don't meet your standards. Would you like me to crash the stock market so we can enjoy soup lines, or would it be enough if I got you a wife you could beat?" Steve was obviously hurt, but Tony continued. "I know! We can bring back the Spanish Flu. That'll be a treat."
Steve stifled a choking sound, and that's when Tony realized that his eyes were filled with tears waiting to erupt. "Don't do that," Tony said. "You punched Hitler! I don't want to be the guy who can make a Hitler-puncher cry. That's a pinnacle of assholishness that I hope never to reach."
"It's not you," Steve said, staring at the screen. Tony was certain that no one had ever been so moved by the History Channel. "I was needed back there. Here... I'm a guy on a team of gods and giants."
"Hey, now. You're not the Heart of our Planeteers," Tony joked, moving in closer. "We need you."
"What do I do that nobody else can?"
"Well, for starters you're probably the best strategist I know. But even if you did nothing, I would need you here."
"Even if the Avengers didn't need you—and I think they do—I would. I can be a pretty big idiot, and you steer me in the right direction. You're my rudder..."
As Tony spoke, Ella sang "This Time the Dream's on Me." Before either of them knew what was happening, they were kissing.
"Just like that?" the woman asked Tony.
He was offended and raised an eyebrow. "Just like that? No. It was a struggle. You already know I'm a mess. When I was twenty five years old, it felt worse. I had just become keenly aware that I’d been a waste of oxygen for twenty two years and I spent every waking moment trying to make up for it. Steve was something good. Something I didn't deserve."
"And to him?" she asked.
"To him, I was a mistake." Tony wasn't upset thinking about it. It was twenty five years ago, and everything that had happened since had solidified his knowledge that Steve loved him unquestionably.
Steve pulled away from Tony and stood up, his face stuck in a state of alarm. He had just kissed a man. No, a man had kissed him. He wasn't sure. "What are you doing?" he exclaimed.
"What am I doing?" Tony repeated, puzzled. "I didn't do anything. We were kissing." Tony wasn't alarmed. Sure, this was the first time he had ever made out with another man, but there was a first time for everything and he wasn't the kind of man to fear the future.
"You kissed me."
Tony stood defiantly. "Reciprocal. Don't tell me that wasn't your tongue in my mouth."
Steve was silent. He knew he was in no position to argue that point.
If Tony were a smarter man, he would have seen that Steve had issues that he needed to work out. He wasn't, though, so instead he pushed him further. "Only one way to find out," Tony declared, grabbing Steve and pulling him in again. Their tongues danced rhythmically around each other and before Tony could have the satisfaction of thinking he was right, Steve had pushed him back onto the couch and was lying on top of him. They continued kissing for what seemed an eternity as their throbbing cocks pressed against each other. Finally, Tony had enough and reached into Steve's pants. Rather than accelerate things as he'd hoped, this brought them to a complete stop as Steve jumped off of Tony in a panic.
"I think you should go." Steve brushed himself off and looked away, embarrassed. "That's not something we do. I'm not—"
"Me neither, but you went from being Mr. Ready-to-Cry to pretty damn happy. What's the problem?"
"The problem is the two of us... It was a mistake. It won't happen again."
Tony smiled. "It did happen again, of course. We avoided each other for weeks. Then there was this lava monster attack on Manhattan. Not a big deal, really. But afterward Steve and I were on cleanup duty and I apologized. I said 'I know you're Mister 1940s who's gonna want a wife and two kids and a dog, but I wasn't trying to get you to marry me' and he said it wasn't that. He was just fucking terrified that someone would find out Captain America was into guys."
"In hindsight, I can't say I blame him. At the time, though, things were looking up. Sure, there was the Defense of Marriage Act, but there was Will and Grace too, you know? Things were looking up. Still, he was afraid and I don't have to tell you how little scares that man."
"No. You don't," she said. Tony could swear her tone was one of admiration. It didn't make sense given the circumstances. Was it possible they would let anyone other than their best interrogate him? He couldn't decide whether her employers were stupid or she was very, very good at feigning sympathy.
Tony continued. "He knew people would tear him apart and, really, being Captain America was the only thing he had. I told him nobody would find out, and that was almost true."
"Your friends knew?
"Clint's the only one who knew before we wanted him to."
It had been three months since whatever it was started between the two men, and Steve was still uncomfortable about it. On any given day, Tony didn't know whether he would happily make out with him or turn things into a doom-and-gloom pity party. He would later recognize that Steve suffered from PTSD for years, but at the time he just wanted to fuck that man. It would have to wait. This evening they were with the rest of the Avengers in a quinjet headed for Genosha and Steve hadn't so much as looked at Tony the entire time. They were all seated when Tony stood up and made his way toward the cargo area. He tapped Steve on the arm on his way back and motioned for him to follow.
"They're acting weird," Clint noted.
T'Challa chimed in. "They probably have a secret plan they're keeping us out of the loop on. They do that often."
In the cargo area, Tony smiled and reached for Steve's waist.
"I told you it's over," Steve said, pushing Tony's arms away from him.
"You keep saying that, and yet we keep doing it. Talk to me."
"Why you find it so damn hard to enjoy yourself."
"I'm not interested in explaining myself to you. Not here."
"Well guess who my plan pairs you up with?" There was a reason most people considered Tony to be a jerk. "You're going to talk to me one way or another."
They returned to their seats, Tony occasionally looking over to see Steve either looking away or looking furious. When the plane landed, Tony directed everyone to split off. "T'Challa, Natasha... You're going in the east end. Steve and I will go west. Find Wanda and get out. Clint, you've got quinjet duty. Stay here and keep your eyes and ears out."
"Whatever," Clint replied. Quinjet duty was basically nap duty since the damn thing was so secure. He would just turn up the radio and if anyone yelled for help, that would wake him up. He called this being the "Hawk-eyes-and-ears." Everyone groaned.
The west path sucked, Tony thought. It was nothing but jungle, and T'Challa and Natasha had probably strolled right down the road into the palace by now. He gave a repulsor blast to another branch that was in their way. Steve silently followed.
Humor was always Tony's defense mechanism. "You are worse than an ex-girlfriend with the silent treatment, you know."
"Trap," Steve muttered.
"What?" Tony asked as he stepped down on a branch that gave way and collapsed into a large cavern. The two men fell about thirty feet before Tony could grab Steve and float him down safely.
"Trap," he reiterated.
Tony took his helmet off. "Well I'm sorry if I don't speak 'cryptic.' Clearly I don't or I'd know what the hell your problem is."
Clint Barton, at this moment, took great enjoyment in the fact that Steve had—as he often did—left his communicator on. He kicked his feet up on the dash and waited for the entertainment that would surely follow.
"You are my problem, Tony."
In his head, Clint responded with "oh, snap." Quinjet duty was shaping up to be the best duty.
"What did I do, other than be there for you?" Tony asked.
Clint took a sip of his grape Gatorade and thought, "Tell him he's a drunk! Mock the moustache!"
"You made me have feelings for you!" Steve exclaimed, and his voice echoed through the long stretches of cavern in front of them. Clint nearly choked on his purple drink.
"I'm sorry? What?" Tony asked. The question mirrored Clint's thoughts.
"You're my best friend. I can't just go from that to having unattached sex. I want you, and if we keep doing this, I'll end up falling in love with you." Steve's words were emotional, but his tone remained matter-of-fact. He was a difficult man to interpret sometimes.
"I want you too," Tony replied. "If it turns to love, so what. Two people go from being friends to lovers. What's the problem with that?"
Clint made a mental laundry list of problems with this. So many problems, the foremost being that he shared a locker room with these two. Another being that Steve Rogers was Captain America and Tony Stark was... kind of a dick. He felt dirty snooping but the channel was open on Steve's side, not his. There was nothing he could do unless he said something. And there was no way Clint was saying anything.
"You act like I'm untouchable," Steve said. "I'm not really seventy-some years old, you know. I'm only twenty five, and my upbringing is still fresh in my mind."
Tony was oblivious. "So what?"
"Do you know what it was like for me back then? I was skinny, weak, and unathletic. My father told me he wished he'd had a son instead of a daughter."
Tony was still oblivious. Oblivious and selfish. "Your dad was an alcoholic douchebag. This has nothing to do with me."
"This has everything to do with you. Nobody would bat an eyelash at you, but do you have
any idea what would happen to me if anyone found out about us? Do you even care?" He paused. "My father hated me to the day he died because I was going to 'grow up to be a faggot' and you want me to prove him right."
Tony didn't have a good response for that. He had assumed the problem was with Captain America, not with Steve Rogers.
Steve snapped at Tony's silence. "I'm sorry. Does it make you uncomfortable to think that anyone other than you has problems?"
"Not anyone else," Tony started, "just you. There's the whole missing sixty years of your life thing, but I never thought... I didn't think anything before that..."
"You never think about anyone but yourself, Tony." Steve regretted the words as soon as they left his lips.
To Tony, they were like extra shrapnel to the heart. Nobody could make him become sassy quite as quickly as Steve could, so he let his own vitriol flow freely. "You spend half your time waxing poetic about how goddamn special the 1940s were. Why wouldn't I think everything was peachy for you back then?"
Steve, deep in thought, decided to sit on the floor of the cavern. "I grew up in the Great Depression. My life had just started to get good when I ended up here."
Tony gesticulated, still angry. "Then it makes sense that you wouldn't want anything to happen between you and me. Wouldn't want to be happy or anything."
"That's all I want," Steve said. His voice finally betrayed his sadness, albeit only slightly.
Tony felt the shift in tone, sat down and moved in closer. "Then let me help you."
"That's bullshit." Tony said, then kissed him softly on the side of the mouth. Steve's eyes began to water. He tried desperately to maintain the composure he was famous for.
"I'm Captain America. I have to..." Steve was going to go on a tirade about the ideals he had to live up to, but there was no way to do that without offending Tony, so he settled on begging. "Please. This is all I have."
"Bullshit. Again." Tony softly kissed him once more. "You have me."
Steve turned away, obviously beginning to cry. Tony moved in and pulled on Steve's shoulder to get the man to face him. Steve had never looked this vulnerable—not since he became Captain America—and it bothered him. "Don't look at me."
"Steve," Tony said, "I don't care. You're not Captain America to me. You're not some ideal. You're a real person." He continued as Steve sobbed silently. "What do you—Steve you, not Captain America you—want to do?"
"I told you." Steve wiped his eyes, then turned and looked at Tony carefully. "I want you." Tony kissed him gently again, and without Steve's resistance the intensity soon increased. He put his hands on Tony's chest plate. "Take your armor off."
This was going to a very, very bad place where Clint Barton did not want to be. For people who liked to bark out orders to everyone else, Tony and Steve sure were quick to waste mission time on what sounded like slurping. God help him. There was slurping. Clint covered his ears and hummed Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" to himself to drown out the noise.
When it was over, Tony relaxed against a cavern wall. "Good God, Steve. Do I want to know where you learned to do that?"
"In a cave in Genosha," Steve answered dryly. Then he took a breath mint out of his utility belt.
"Huh." Tony smirked. "You do keep things in there!"
Steve smiled. "Yeah."
Tony wasn't sure he should broach the subject, but it was important. "Are you going to be okay?"
"I don't know. I'll try to separate myself from Captain America, but... I don't know."
Tony hugged Steve. "I'll be here either way."
When Clint was satisfied that there would be no more slurping, he interrupted, clearing his throat. "Uh, west team, you can abort. It looks like Wanda managed to talk our way out of this one."
Tony and Steve were back to the quinjet before the others, probably a result of their having not gone far from it in the first place. When they arrived and walked into the cockpit, Clint greeted them with a stern-yet-amused glare. "You two."
"What?" Tony asked.
Clint stood up and approached them. "I don't know what this fucked up thing is between you two, but if you want to keep it a secret, you may want to make sure your comm link's not on before you start sucking each other off."
"Oh, God..." Steve said. "You heard..."
"You can't tell anyone," Tony said. "Promise."
"Why would I want to talk about this with anyone?" Clint remarked. "I didn't even want to know."
"You said nobody would find out," Steve said to Tony.
"It wasn't my communicator, Steve."
"The thing is," Tony said, "we were pretty dysfunctional back then. I mean, we still are, if he's even alive. But it was pretty bad. We started sleeping together... I believe "violent and degrading" is how you describe it." He snarled at the phrase. "But after two years we were still having the same fights, and I was tired of it. I did something I never thought I could do. I’m obsessive. I cling to any small thing I have for stability, for sanity. I told him to leave and think things over."
"And he came back?" the woman asked, scribbling furiously.
Tony laughed. "No. He didn't. Not until I almost drank myself into dying in an apartment fire. It wasn't him. I had some other things going on that I couldn't handle. Then he came back pissed, demanding to know why I hate myself so much."
"Do you hate yourself?"
"I always have," Tony said bluntly, "but I had fallen in love with him, and I wanted it to work. So I sobered up, and we kept at it for years. Nobody knew. We knew how to keep a secret. It’s sort of a trick of the trade. We had breaks, of course… fights over any number of things, especially when I fell off the wagon again. Sometimes I couldn’t believe it, but we always came back together."
"In—" she started.
Tony interrupted. "I don't believe in destiny. I think it's a load of crap. But I started to believe in love."
"In your breaks," she repeated, "you both slept with women?"
Tony rolled his eyes slightly to the side to point out how obvious the answer to that question was. "We were never attracted to men in general, just each other. So, yes, I slept with women… a lot. It didn't mean anything, but it sure kept people off our trail."
"It didn't mean anything to you," she said, "but what about Steve? Even you would admit that he had an ongoing relationship with Sharon Carter."
Tony's voice didn't waver. "He loved her, but he chose me in the end. It was after our biggest fight, which, as you could probably guess, was over the Super Human Registration Act."
Steve found the vacation to be very suspicious. He and Tony were no longer seeing each other, and it wasn't every day that Tony rushed him off to Isla Mujeres. It wasn't just a ploy to get Steve to sleep with him again. Sure, that was part of it, but Tony had been positively desperate to leave the United States and Steve didn't know why. He had meant to ask why, but he became preoccupied with romance against his better judgment. On the third day, when they were lying in the sand after Tony had somehow convinced him to have sex on the beach, Steve finally brought up the question.
"Tony," he started.
"Hrrmm?" was Tony's almost-response. He was busy nibbling at Steve's ear. Steve pulled away from him and sat up, causing Tony to let out a low whining noise.
"As nice as... all of this has been... What are we doing here?"
Tony also sat up. "Enjoying ourselves. Obviously."
"You were in a big hurry to leave New York and I want to know why."
"A guy can't try to win you back?" Tony thumbed his fingers, as he usually did when he was nervous. "It doesn't matter why. I want to stay here. We can retire for a while."
This obviously wasn't working. Steve sighed. "Tony..."
"I mean it." He grabbed Steve by the shoulders and looked at him, now pleading. "Let's just stay."
Steve pulled away from him. "You always want to keep busy. You love working. If you're considering retiring to an island, I want to know why."
"Because Congress is working on this bill, okay? Superhuman Registration. It's not good, Steve. They want to register everyone who has abilities with the government, force them to receive training..."
"Then this is the worst time to take a vacation. We need to get back there and fight this."
"That's the thing. I'm not... I'm not sure I want to."
"They've asked us to do this before. The Avengers were supposed to keep an eye on superhuman issues, and we've done a piss poor job at it."
Steve raised his voice. It was the first of many times that would happen over the next few months. "So the solution is to let the government control people's lives?"
"No," Tony replied, becoming irritated. "There is no solution. Look at what Wanda alone did. We can defeat this bill, and the next time someone with powers blows up a building, they're going to pass one that's even worse. Maybe next time they lock us all away. I'm saying, if we go along with this one, we have a chance at shaping it."
"So you think our options are either bad or worse."
"I can't believe that. You're not going to get me to stand against personal liberty."
"I know I'm not!" Tony could have smacked Steve right then. "That's why I'm saying let's just sit this out entirely. I'm not trying to start a fight with you."
Steve stood up. "I have to go. If this is happening, I'm going to do anything I can to stop it."
"Steve..." Tony pleaded.
Steve was walking back toward the vacation home when Tony grabbed one of his shoulders from behind. Steve turned and Tony's face was nearly in tears. "Please think about it. I know we've had some problems lately. I know that. But I love you, and I don't want this to—"
"I love you too. That's not going to change because we disagree."
That was the first time Steve had ever told Tony he loved him, and within six weeks, Steve was dead. After everything they had faced, it was a sniper who took him down. A sniper. Not Ultron or Kang or Thanos. Not an alien invasion. Not the effects of Ragnarok on midgard. A sniper.
He sat on the floor of his penthouse with his head on his knees, just as he had sat the day before and the day before that. Three days prior was the funeral, when Tony had embarrassed himself by breaking down into tears before he could finish Steve's eulogy. Two days before that, he had conversed with his best friend's corpse, telling him that all of this—registration, the fighting—wasn't worth it.
Prior to the funeral, Tony had tried to keep himself together. Aside from crying to Steve's dead body, he had succeeded. He directed S.H.I.E.L.D. He made the arrangements. He did what needed to be done. But something about the funeral had caused him to snap. Suddenly everything was too real, and that's when he decided to take another vacation. Tony wouldn't normally take time off two weeks into a job, but after everything he had sacrificed and lost, he had no trouble demanding leave.
This was day three of that leave, and Tony hadn't moved from this spot. He couldn't recall eating or falling asleep at any point, though he may have gone to the bathroom. He thought about retiring to his bed, but the idea that he might be comfortable disgusted him. He didn't deserve comfort, not when he'd gotten Steve killed.
He began to cry. He'd done so every time that thought had crossed his mind, which was often, and he hated this. He was too good to let grief get to him like this. Before he could begin chastising himself for losing control, there was a knock at the door. Tony wiped his eyes, lifted his head and tried to stand up, but couldn't find the strength. It was then he realized he probably should have eaten at some point.
"Who is it?" he called out weakly.
"Carol," the voice from the other side of the door responded. "Can I come in?"
"Yeah." There was no point in arguing with Carol. She would have come in either way. At this point, Tony didn't even mind anyone seeing him like this. They had all seen him at the funeral; they all knew how hard he had taken Steve's death. Maybe having someone else around would help motivate him out of this. Normally Pepper or Jarvis would have checked on him by now, but he had demanded that they not disturb him when he went into the room in the first place. Carol had been given no such request. If she had, she would have ignored it.
"Tony," she demanded as she barreled into the room. "Where have you been?"
"Here... I've been here. Right here, actually... for a few days."
"The Avengers have been trying to get ahold of you for an hour. We were getting worried since your communicator is... in your head now."
"Sorry. I wasn't listening for anything." Carol's tone turned to one of deep concern when she noticed the puddle of vomit to the left of where Tony was sitting. That was the last of what he had eaten before holing himself away in the penthouse. It had all come up in a particularly spastic moment of grief.
"You haven't been drinking, have you?" The thought concerned Carol more than most.
"No..." he replied. God knows he'd thought about it.
"Here." She extended a hand. "Let me help you up." She pulled him up and guided him into his black leather desk chair.
"Is it important?" he asked.
"What?" she questioned.
"The Avengers thing..."
She wasn't about to worry him further. "There's trouble in Wakanda, but... no. No, it's not important. Not right now."
"Okay..." he said as he sank deep into the chair.
"Tony, I'm worried about you."
"I'm fine. Really."
"You're really not. You're taking Steve's death way too hard."
His voice became somewhat indignant. "Too hard? You think..."
"I think you're going to end up doing something stupid if you don't calm down."
Tony was livid. She was afraid he might do something stupid. Something like wage a war against the only person he'd ever loved? Something that stupid? He knew they were going to disagree, but he didn't realize he was going to end up personally arresting his friends and trying to put Steve in jail. How could anyone take a death like this one "too hard"? Didn't she know how much Steve meant to him?
Then he remembered that, in fact, nobody knew. Nobody but Clint, and they weren't going to be speaking again for a while. Tony decided to come clean. Carol was a good friend. He needed to talk to someone about this because she was right: he was never good at solving problems by himself.
"I've already done something stupid, Carol. I got my best friend killed."
"Tony..." she interrupted.
"I loved him."
"We all loved Steve, but..."
"No, you're not following me. Steve was the only person I've ever loved." Tony's voice cracked slightly as he said the name.
"You're not making any sense, Tony."
He searched for the right word to describe what he and Steve had. "Lovers" was too tawdry, too superficial. But they weren't dating either. He settled for an awkward dodge. "We were...uh... together, Carol."
"Wait." She sat down in a chair next to him. "Are you trying to say that you and Steve had a relationship?"
"Yes," he choked out, tears streaming down his face.
Carol paused for a brief moment, then scooted the chair closer and looked her friend straight in the eyes. "It... makes sense now. How hurt you are. How hurt he was when all of this... You two loved each other."
"He just told me that he did... Right before all the fighting. I didn't think..."
"Nobody ever thinks anyone's gonna die, Tony. If we did, we'd never hurt each other." She then turned to a question. "Did he know how you felt?"
"Then he died loving you and knowing that you loved him. There are a lot worse things than that."
"I know there are. I'm living a worse thing right now."
Carol stood up out of her chair, then leaned down and hugged him. "It's going to get better. I promise. Please don't hurt yourself over this. You have a lot of friends who love you, Tony..."
He pulled away. "I have a lot of friends who hate me too."
"I'm going to help out in Wakanda. I'm coming right back here when I'm done. Promise me you'll take care of yourself."
Carol turned to leave. She looked back toward Tony twice and both times his head was in his hands as tears streamed down his face. She felt awful for him, but she was also confident that he wouldn't move from his penthouse any time soon. It would be safe to leave him there.
Tony, in the midst of his sadness, had been struck by a thought. "Don't hurt yourself..." "I have a lot of friends who hate me..." He thought of the other Avengers. The non-official ones. He thought of the fact that they were staying with Doctor Strange and that Strange could put him in contact with someone who could help him. Strange wouldn't help him, of course, not with what he wanted to do. But Tony had made up his mind. He was going to find a way to resurrect Steve.
The New Avengers were a miserable lot.
"This sucks," Peter said during a game of hacky sack with Luke, Danny, and Clint.
"You're just saying that because you suck at it," Luke retorted.
"I don't mean the game. I mean sitting around here. I know we should let the whole registration thing simmer down a bit, but I feel like we're useless right now."
"That's because we are," Luke replied. "But when something big comes up, we'll be there. Maybe turn some opinions around..."
"Yeah right," Clint replied.
"Have you always been this negative?" Peter asked.
"Have you always had an aunt in a coma? I'm being honest. The only one of us who had any chance of talking Tony down was Steve, and he's dead. Now that egomaniac is..."
Jessica Drew interrupted in a panic. "Guys! That egomaniac is here!"
She was looking out a front window. Everyone else gathered around, including Doctor Strange, who had heard the commotion and decided to investigate. Outside, Tony Stark was hobbling toward the front door.
"Are we safe?" Danny asked.
"Yes," Strange reassured him. "But I must admit that I'm confused."
"By what? He's probably here with another one of his traps," Clint replied.
"Then why's he in normal clothes?" Peter asked.
"To be sneakier? Because he's an asshole?" Clint speculated.
Just as the word "hole" left Clint's lips, Tony knocked. His gaunt face was visible through the window in the door. His eyes were red and the circles beneath them were almost pitch black. Doctor Strange walked toward the door and Luke pulled at his arm.
"Are you crazy?" he asked.
Strange brushed him off. "No, I simply have confidence in my abilities. I also trust that's not the face of a man who has come here to trick us."
He opened the door as everyone else backed away. Tony entered slowly and approached Strange, but before he could explain the reason for his visit he collapsed to the floor. Strange lifted him, then turned to the group of Avengers.
"Will someone help me get him upstairs?" he asked.
Peter took him up on the offer, and they helped Tony to one of the home's many guest rooms. Two hours later, Tony was awake, with Strange, Peter, Danny, and Jessica sitting around the room watching him. Luke had taken off with his wife and the baby, and Clint was too disgusted to want to hear anything Tony had to say.
"Talk." Peter demanded. He'd changed since registration left his aunt in a coma and his wife on the run.
"I'm just here to talk to Stephen," Tony replied. "I promise."
"Well your promises sure do mean a whole lot to us," Jessica replied.
"Stephen, please." Tony pleaded. "Just let me talk to you... alone."
Doctor Strange agreed, and sent the others from the room. They tried to argue, but he assured them he would be fine. As they were leaving, he directed them to bring some food up to Tony.
"I can't eat right now," Tony said.
"You can't go around collapsing either," Strange responded. "You're going to eat something before you leave my home. Now, what can I do for you?"
"I want your help."
"You didn't even hear my question yet."
"No, but I can sense your grief. You're going to ask me to bring Steve back. I don't do that."
"I know you don't do that," Tony replied. "That's not what I was going to ask you."
"I want you to get me to Mephisto's realm so I can bring Steve back myself."
Strange was appalled. "No."
"No. I'm not sending someone to barter their soul."
"You wouldn't be sending anyone. I volunteer. Let me do this."
"No. You don't understand the implications of..."
"No, you don't understand." Tony replied defiantly. "I'm going to find a way to bring Steve back whether you help me or not. I'm going to do it whether it means cloning him or searching the universe for a goddamn cosmic cube. You know I mean it. If you don't want me to do that, you can help me now."
Strange relented, knowing there was no chance of changing Tony's mind when he was like this. "Answer one question for me," he said.
"Why do you refuse to let your friend rest in peace?"
"Because I'm selfish. I can't live without him."
Strange was not buying this explanation. "You're selfish, and yet you want to sacrifice yourself. You're a difficult man to interpret. Or could it be you're lying to me?"
"I love him, Stephen."
Tony was a bit surprised at himself. He and Steve had managed to go five years with only one person finding out about them, and he'd gone and told two people in one day. He continued, "I love him and I want him back. He's a better man than I'll ever be, and the world needs him a lot more than it needs me. The world... doesn't need me at all, really."
"I'll send you, but I hope you'll change your mind," Strange replied.
His hands emitted a purple glow as he waved them toward Tony, knowing that he would never get what he wanted from Mephisto.
The next thing Tony knew, he was in Mephisto's realm. It was bright despite the lack of sun, and there was heat radiating from everything. Tony walked along a stone path for a few minutes and encountered nothing. The path wound upon itself over and over as far into the distance as he could see, and he worried that he would walk himself to death before he ever got the chance to make a deal.
Suddenly, Mephisto's face was inches from Tony's. The demon was hunched toward him.
"What are you doing here?" he growled.
"I want to make a deal."
Mephisto laughed. "Mortal, you do not get to decide when and if I make a deal."
"Take my soul. Take whatever you want. Bring back Steve Rogers."
"If you value your life so little, why would I value it? I don't want anything you're willing to give me."
"Then take something I don't want to give you."
"Would you give me all of your memories? Both of you forgetting everything you've ever done together?"
"No..." Tony thought aloud. "No, I wouldn't."
"Then we're done here."
Tony was back in Strange's home. There was a plate of fruit and a glass of water on the nightstand next to him, and Stephen stood at the foot of the bed.
"Well?" Stephen asked. "Did you get what you wanted?"
Tony stood up and approached Strange.
"No. We need to try again. Try Dormammu, or... Satannish... or Chthon... Anyone..."
"You are going to find that anyone to whom I can send you will treat you the same. Dark forces do not exist to grant anyone's wishes."
Tony grabbed Strange by the shoulders and shook him slightly. His eyes met the sorcerer's with a look of total desperation. "So you do it then. Make the exception."
"No," Strange replied as he removed Tony's arms from his shoulders. He then asked a question that Tony thought he had already answered, but Stephen Strange was clearly aloof. "When you said that you loved him, did you mean that you were in love with him?"
"...Yes." Tony's eyes glistened with tears.
"Then I am truly sorry for what this loss has done to you. But I'm not going to resurrect anyone. Sometimes people must die. That is the rightful way of the universe."
"There's nothing 'rightful' about it."
Tony sat down on the edge of the bed, feeling dizzy. Strange noticed and told him to eat, then left the room. Tony sipped some water and ate two strawberries before he felt that he could eat no more. He was embarrassed by two things: that he was so pitiful right now, and that he had let Doctor Strange know about his relationship with Steve. They weren't even close friends like he and Carol.
Outside the room, Peter, Danny, Jessica, and Clint were waiting for Doctor Strange.
"What did he want?" Jessica asked.
"He wanted to bring Captain America back," Strange sighed.
Peter, Danny, and Jessica exchanged sympathetic glances but Clint became enraged, as he did often lately. He stormed toward the room where Tony sat, threw open the door and began yelling at him.
"You think everything should be easy for you, don't you?!"
"What?" Tony asked, perplexed.
"You think that you deserve whatever you want. Some company gets the edge on you, you buy it. You don't like S.H.I.E.L.D., you become the new director. Someone dies, you just bring them back."
"You don't know me like you knew Steve," Tony replied. "I don't think I deserve anything but suffering. It's Steve who deserves to live."
Clint was briefly taken aback, but soon continued with his rant. When he got going, he couldn't let go.
"You're on top of the world while the rest of us hide in the shadows. Quit acting like you're the person who's been hurt the most by all of this."
"I don't think that, but we had a relationship. I loved him. You know that," Tony responded. He then snarled, "I'm sorry if my grief offends you."
"A relationship? You had a fuck buddy and you're completely deluded about it."
Before Tony even realized what he was doing, his fist met Clint's face. This was a mistake. On his best day, Tony couldn't take Clint in a fist fight. In his current condition, Tony knew he was about to be pummeled. Clint threw Tony down and kicked his chest into the ground. Tony lost his breath, but Strange and the other Avengers heard the commotion and entered the room before Clint could do further damage.
Tony always needed a focus. He hated being Tony Stark and would gladly drink himself to death or get himself killed in a fight... If he didn't have anything to focus on. Bringing Steve back to life was his new focus, and no punch from Clint Barton was going to change that now. Doctor Strange wouldn't help, and Tony knew that he was probably right: none of the entities Strange could put him in contact with would be willing to help him. So Tony, lying on the ground bleeding, set his sights on Latveria.
Stephen helped him up and Tony wiped the blood from his face with his sleeve. Peter and Danny held Clint back.
"Stop it," Peter demanded. "I'm not exactly happy with the guy, but we need to stop hurting each other."
Danny nodded in agreement. "Besides," he added, "trying to bring back a friend is one of the more noble reasons to visit us."
Clint shrugged the two away from him then turned to face them in disgust. "There is nothing 'noble' about Tony! The only reason he wants Steve back is so he can fuck him again."
Peter, Danny, and Jessica stood in confused silence for a brief moment. This quiet was interrupted by Tony, who walked toward Clint with a look of betrayal in his eyes. In weakness he had told Carol and Stephen about his relationship with Steve, but this was wrong.
"You have no right to out people like that. What happened to what you promised us? What you promised Steve?"
"I don't keep secrets for traitors, and Steve's dead."
"So... Wait..." Peter interjected. "You've been sleeping with Cap?"
Tony sighed. "Yes."
"Oh god... That's so wrong. It's like finding out your childhood hero kicks puppies. I mean... Gay people are awesome and all but I'd like to think Cap would have better taste..."
"Peter!" Jessica scolded. She then turned to Tony. "How long has this been going on?"
"Almost five years..."
"What?! That's longer than MJ and I have been married. And we've all been clueless this whole time... Jeez. That's kind of... jeez."
Clint interrupted. "For crying out loud. It's not like they've been dating. It doesn't mean anything..."
"You don't sleep with someone for five years and have it mean nothing," Jessica responded. "I'm sorry, Tony."
"You feel sorry for him... Really?" Clint asked, starting to think he was surrounded by crazy people. "He got Steve killed!"
Jessica began to refute that comment but before the word "no" could leave her mouth, Tony replied with "I know."
Peter stuttered, "It's not... You didn't really..." He wasn't sure why he was trying to make Tony feel better. This was the man who had convinced him to reveal his identity to the world. But they had been close friends at one point.
"I know what I did. Nobody feels like I'm responsible more than I do." Tony answered, then headed toward the door. He turned back toward the Avengers and said, "Try to stay out of the way. I don't really want to see any of you arrested. And if you could not mention anything about..."
"We're not gonna tell anyone," Peter replied. "Well... I can't speak for Clint, but I'm pretty sure the rest of us won't."
"Thank you... for not arresting us," Peter replied sarcastically.
Tony left Doctor Strange's home feeling better knowing that a few people understood his relationship with Steve, even if it hadn't been with his permission and even though they still didn't understand why he supported Registration. At this point Tony wasn't sure he still did.
Six months later, Tony was standing face-to-face with Doctor Doom. He was no longer the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D, thanks to a Skrull invasion and some clever work by Norman Osborn. On one hand, this turn of events made him furious; on the other, he was glad to be free of his duties so that he could have more time to pursue this quest. And it was certainly a quest at this point. Tony stayed awake most nights devising newer and (in his mind) better ideas for persuading those inclined toward dark magic. His most recent breakthrough was magic-stealth armor. It seemed to have worked, as he had made it past Doom's defenses.
He looked Doom straight in the face and calmly stated, "You're going to help me bring Captain America back."
Tony Stark didn't invent hubris, but he had perfected it. Standing before Doctor Doom—one of, if not the smartest supervillains in the world—he made his demand. But rather than become indignant and berate or murder Tony for insulting him, Victor pulled a psychological card.
"You can't resurrect the living, Mr. Stark."
"You heard me. Now leave before I change my mind about letting you leave my country alive."
"I'm leaving, but if I find out you're lying to..."
"I'm not lying, but if I were there's nothing you could do in retribution."
Tony was bothered. It had been another eight months since his encounter with Doctor Doom and all of his investigations had turned up nothing. He hadn't suspected that Doom lied to him about Steve being alive. There was no reason to when he could have said something much more hurtful. He also wasn't using this as a diversion to keep Tony busy. Reed's surveillance of Latveria was as strong as ever and nothing seemed to be amiss. Tony trusted Reed...for the most part.
He had gone over all of the obvious culprits: Baron Zemo, Baron Von Strucker, Sin and Crossbones, MODOK, Doctor Faustus... There had even been a particularly awkward confrontation in which Iron Man interrogated Batroc the Leaper, who subsequently wet himself.
The obvious answer was Red Skull, but he was dead. Sin and Faustus had attempted to bring him back using the fetus Sharon Carter had been carrying. Unfortunately for Sin, that plan had been foiled by Natasha and Bucky. Unfortunately for Tony, Sharon had given birth to Steve's child, which would undoubtedly complicate things if—no, when—he managed to find Steve.
Out of ideas, he had asked Bucky to come meet with him. He had been acting as Captain America for almost a year now and even though he disliked Tony, he would certainly divulge any information that would lead to Steve's return. That is, if he ever showed up. He was already an hour late.
By the time Bucky showed up, Tony had collapsed onto his desk for a nap: the only kind of sleep he got anymore. Bucky smacked Steve's shield—it would always be Steve's—against a lamp post. Tony jerked awake.
"Make it quick." Bucky demanded. He was wearing his Captain America uniform, which seemed to have been tattered in a fight.
Tony stood up. "Okay. Bucky, I know this is going to be hard to believe, but I've received information that leads me to believe that Steve is still alive."
"You've got to be fucking kidding me."
"No. I'm not."
"We've seen his corpse. You said you were 100% sure that it was him."
"I know I did. But here's the thing. There's any number of reasons it could have been genetically identical. There's the possibility of cloning, or..."
Bucky interrupted. "I'm not interested in the possibilities. Who told you he was alive?"
"Uh..." Tony knew this wouldn't end well. "Victor Von Doom."
"Oh!" Bucky exclaimed sarcastically. "Well, that settles it then, doesn't it?"
"I know... I know. But the relationship I have with Doom is complicated. I have no reason to believe he was lying on this one."
"Your relationship with... That's insane. You're insane."
"That's probably true, but I want you to help me here. Can you think of any leads you've had lately that might have something to do with Steve? I know you deal with a lot of his old enemies."
"Have I encountered anything that might lead me to believe he's alive? No. But if I had to guess, I'd say your best bet is Red Skull. He's always playing around with genes and magic and shit."
"That's what I figured, but he's dead. Sin failed to bring him back."
"No, he faked his death again when everyone found out he was possessing Lukin. He's in a robot body now. Sin wasn't trying to bring him back, just transfer his consciousness. We've been keeping an eye on him."
"Who is 'we' and why was I never told any of this?"
"Natasha, Sharon, Sam... me. We don't generally have anything to do with you. But I figured you were briefed on this during your time at S.H.I.E.L.D."
"I told you to keep me updated on everything," Tony replied. Though it was entirely possible that he had received a S.H.I.E.L.D. briefing and neglected to read it. He was a terrible director.
"I don't work for you."
"Where is Red Skull now?"
"I'll have to ask Natasha, but last time I checked he was in Paris. You don't really think we're going to find Steve alive, do you?"
"I don't think we are going to do anything. I think I'm going to find him."
Bucky was clearly annoyed by this statement. "You mean we," he snarled. He had known Steve since 1940. Steve had been his best friend. He'd helped him overcome everything that happened to him as Winter Soldier, and he wasn't going to be kept out of this, no matter how slim the chances of success were. "You have no right to claim this as your own personal journey."
"Does the fact that I'm trying to make right my mistakes count as reason enough?"
"No," Bucky replied matter-of-factly. "I'm going with you if for no other reason than to make sure you don't actually find Steve then decide to lock him up somewhere."
"Do you really think I would do that?" Tony had trouble with just how awful some of the people around him thought he was. Sure, he had taken the "bad" side with registration, but he was only trying to help people in the long run.
"I don't know what you'd do. You're a loose cannon, and coming from me, that's saying something."
Tony didn't want Bucky to think of him this way, especially when he was going to be Tony's best bet at finding Steve some time in the near future. He had no desire to work with someone who thought he was going to capture his best friend and throw him in the Negative Zone. So Tony decided to bring the count of people who knew about him and Steve up to seven. He considered that Steve would probably scold him harshly when he found out how many people Tony had told, but decided that it was necessary for his current partnership with Bucky.
"I don't want you to work with me under false pretenses." Tony said. "I'll tell you exactly what I'm going to do with Steve if I find him."
"Yeah? Go ahead."
"When I find Steve, I'm going to kiss him harder than I've ever kissed anyone in my life. Then I'm going to apologize for everything and beg him to forgive me because I realized that he's the love of my life and I fucked everything up."
Bucky started laughing. "That is some fucked up humor, Stark."
Tony frowned. "That's because it's not. I was being sincere."
Bucky smirked. "Get the fuck out. Come on, Tony."
"No. Really," Tony insisted.
Tony's face seemed hurt, which Bucky picked up on. Bucky's face quickly turned to a frown as well. "You're not serious. Please say you're not serious. That's... Please..."
Tony could see that Bucky was close to a panic, so he interrupted. "We were in a relationship for five years. It meant something to both of us, and it doesn't change anything for you."
Bucky was silent for a moment, then spoke frantically. "It changes everything. I considered Steve my best friend, and I didn't even know he liked men? That's a pretty big fucking deal."
"It was just me, if that makes you feel any better."
Bucky took a seat. "No. It really doesn't. God. What else did I not know? And you! Really?" Bucky was put off by this news. He had spent a lot of time despising Tony Stark, but if Steve had seen something in him... maybe Bucky had been wrong. He was hit by a realization. "This is why he put you in charge of finding a new Captain America, isn't it? That always did seem weird. Oh, fuck."
Tony put a hand on Bucky's shoulder, which Bucky smacked away. "No. God. Don't do that! For all I know, that's how you seduced the last Captain America."
"Calm down. It's not like that at all. Honestly. I like women. Steve likes women. We just... like each other too."
"Yeah. No kidding Steve likes women. He has a daughter! Jesus. Fuck."
"I just wanted you to know why this means so much to me. I'm sorry I freaked you out. Can we please focus on the task at hand?"
Bucky took a deep breath. "Uh... Yeah. Sure." He added, "Fuck."
The next evening, Tony and Bucky were in a quinjet flying over France as Iron Man and Captain America. Bucky had asked Natasha for the exact location she had been scouting that morning, and had been met with a lot of suspicion. Bucky was the type of person to jump into a dangerous situation alone, and the Black Widow suspected that he might be going after Red Skull by himself. He assured her that he would be doing no such thing. Nonetheless, Bucky turned to Tony and said, "You know Natasha's going to follow us, right?"
"Of course she will," Tony replied. He was piloting the plane with his mind, but firmly held the controls anyway.
"Sorry about yesterday. I was... uh... a little surprised to say the least."
"Don't worry about it."
"You really think we're going to find Steve?"
"I do," Tony answered. Every time he had an idea so far, he had to convince himself that it would be the last one. He went into his encounter with Doctor Strange thinking he would get what he wanted. He went into his conversation with Doom thinking the same. Making progress was the only way he could keep himself going, and even if they didn't find Steve with Red Skull, they would find another lead. They had to.
"So... my horror aside, what are you going to do about Sharon and Shannon?"
"That's Steve's decision, not mine."
"Yeah, but I mean... Would you tell him right away?"
"I would tell him as soon as I could." Tony's answer was purposefully vague. He couldn't help but think that he would have the urge to keep Steve all to himself... at least for a little while. "But that's... We don't want to get ahead of ourselves."
Tony had his mask up and was taking a sip of coffee when Bucky moved on to his next topic. "So who's the top and who's the bottom?"
Tony felt a spit-take coming, so he closed his lips tight and finished swallowing his coffee. He responded in amusement. "You went from being freaked out to asking for details in under twenty four hours?"
"Oh, I'm still freaked out. I'm curious, though."
"Whatever feels right," Tony replied.
"So you're the bottom, then."
"Why am I discussing this with you?"
"Well, there's a chance you could be getting me killed here, so..."
Tony realized that he'd had very few conversations with Bucky. This day and the day before were the most they had ever talked. He asked, "Are you always this straightforward?"
"When I'm not sneaking off on my own. For the most part, yeah."
"Then I can see why Steve likes you so much."
"Please tell me you're not flirting with me." Bucky raised his eyebrow.
"I'm not. You're just a lot less annoying than I'd assumed you'd be."
Tony smiled. "Besides, I have a thing for blonds."
Stealth missions were not Tony's strong suit. He hadn't thought to wear his stealth armor until he found himself inside Red Skull's hideout making a metallic thud noise every time he took a step. Luckily, there appeared to be nobody around. Suddenly, a female figure appeared in front of Tony and Bucky. It was Black Widow.
"Natasha," Bucky stated with only a hint of irritation.
"You knew I'd be here," she replied.
"Yeah." It was true.
"What are you two looking for? The Red Skull and his daughter have gone out, so now would be the time to find it."
"Is there anybody else here?" Tony asked, ignoring her question.
"I'm not sure. The only other person I've seen here before is Dr. Zola, but I can't say whether he's in the building right now or not. If he is, he'll know we're here."
"No he won't," Tony responded. "I turned the camera feeds back an hour when we got here."
"So let me ask you again. What are you two looking for?"
Bucky answered. "We're looking for Steve, 'Tasha."
"No. It's a long story..."
"Since you're here," Tony interrupted. "Why don't we split up? You two head left down that corridor and I'll go right."
Five minutes later, all three were standing in front of the same large red door. Their paths had met.
"What's the plan?" Bucky asked. Before he received an answer, Tony blasted the door in with his unibeam. He wasn't one for subtlety.
On the other side, Arnim Zola was working with some kind of machine. He turned away from what he was looking at to confront his visitors.
"Zola." Bucky started.
"Fake Captain America," Zola replied. "How can I help you?"
Before anyone could say anything else, Tony had blasted Zola into a wall with his repulsors. He flew forward, scoping out the room, then dropped to the ground in front of a pane of glass. For a moment, he thought his heart was going to stop again. On the other side of the glass was Steve—or at least someone who looked a lot like him—sitting on the floor of a cement room. His arms and legs were cuffed. He appeared to be unconscious, but alive. Tony smashed through the glass and jumped into the room, ignoring the fact that Zola had unwedged himself from the wall outside.
Suddenly, Tony sensed that Zola's technology was about to go off, so he quickly dodged the blast that came his way. Zola immediately fell to the floor.
"What did you do?" Bucky asked, approaching Tony.
"I shut his system down from within. He shouldn't be able to get it back up for a good ten or fifteen minutes."
Natasha was closer to Tony, and when she reached the shattered glass, she asked, "Is that..."
"I don't know," Tony answered, kneeling down next to the blond figure. He sank his arm's armor back into his skin and touched the man's face. "Steve?"
There was no response for a moment, then the man opened his eyes slightly. "Tony? Is that... you?"
"It's me," Tony replied, pulling back his face plate. His eyes were wide with trepidation and wet. "Is that... you?"
"It's me. I knew. I knew you'd come." Steve's voice was raspy with exhaustion. He leaned into Tony and closed his eyes.
"We need to leave," Bucky said. "Now. Before Zola wakes up or somebody else comes home."
"No argument here," Tony said. He blasted through Steve's restraints and picked him up.
The three made their way to the quinjet. When they were aboard and in the air, Natasha asked a question that had been on her mind. "Why didn't you tell me that you were looking for Steve earlier?"
Bucky answered. "I didn't think we'd find anything."
"And... were you planning on telling me about that?" she asked, looking at Tony and Steve. They were sitting on the floor of the cargo area with their faces pressed against each other. Tony kissed Steve's forehead.
"I just found out yesterday," Bucky replied.
"Tony... Should we be..." Steve whispered.
"Bucky knows," Tony answered. "Actually, I told a few people."
"That's... that's okay. I don't care... I love you."
"I love you too." Tony kissed Steve on the lips. "Just rest for now."
Steve closed his eyes and fell asleep. Tony stood up. Natasha and Bucky were both staring.
"I honestly didn't believe you until now," Bucky said. "Are we sure that's Steve?"
"Positive," Tony replied. A clone or something similar wouldn't have known about their relationship. "We'll run tests when we get back anyway."
"When did this happen?" Natasha asked, referring to the obvious.
"Six years ago," Tony answered, realizing that it was March 21st. He laughed for the first time in a long while. "To the day, actually."
"So at that point, several of our friends knew."
Tony became thirsty from telling his life's story. It wasn't even the complete edition, as he'd left out the parts that made him look, well, worse. The woman, who refused to give her name, had a guard bring him a glass of water.
He took a sip, then continued. "From then on, we decided to just admit that we were in love. Maybe it was a foolish thing to do, but when you’re apart that long, you don't think right. I always felt guilty. I think he gave up on caring what other people thought because of me… because I had already made him an outcast with the SHRA. To be honest, though, I had what I wanted. Okay, that's not true. I never wanted Sharon to be a part of my life..."
Sharon Carter spent over a year dreaming of this moment, hoping that somehow the body they had laid to rest wasn't really her boyfriend. Then it came true; Steve Rogers was standing in her doorway, alive. She was unsure whether to be excited or afraid of an experiment gone horribly wrong.
"Steve?" she asked apprehensively, reaching for her sidearm. Clones tended to come out of the woodwork around her.
"It's me," he answered. "You can ask Fury." He had run all the tests, and Steve was neither Skrull nor robot nor clone. She kept herself guarded, then called to confirm with Nick. When she knew that Steve was really himself, she wrapped her arms around him. He was tense and didn't reciprocate.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"Do we really have a daughter?"
Sharon was shocked. "How did you..."
"Tony told me."
Sharon took Steve into the spare bedroom that she had turned into a nursery. Shannon was sleeping. Steve looked down at her and knew instantly that he loved this little girl. How was he supposed to leave Sharon? They had been dating when he was shot and for all she knew they were still together. She had no reason to think otherwise. And now they had a daughter.
"She's beautiful. I don't know what to say."
"You don't have to say anything," Sharon replied, kissing Steve softly on the lips. He remained passive, but she chalked that up to his having been dead. She would ask how it was that he was alive later. For now, she just wanted him.
He should have ended it there. He knew he should have, but the flicker of doubt in his mind—the part of him that was stuck in the 1940s that told him he should be normal—let Sharon take him to bed. That part of him wanted desperately to have a family and live life the way he'd always thought it should be. He wanted to live the American dream. He thought he had extinguished those thoughts. He didn't look at Sharon and love her unequivocally, but when he looked at Shannon he did. He wanted desperately to be the right kind of man to raise a child, and he doubted that he could be that if he was with Tony.
After they slept together, Steve felt awful. He knew that this wasn't what he wanted and that he'd never be able to make it work. He would never quit loving Tony. If he tried, it would only make things harder for Sharon when she eventually found out. For two years before the shooting he'd been sleeping with Tony and Sharon at the same time, and he knew who it was he needed to be with. He didn't want to think that he'd been using her. That was never something he had set out to do. But on some level he knew that he had. He had used her as a counter to Tony.
"Sharon..." he started.
"What is it?" she asked, stroking his arm.
He pulled away and sat up. "I have to tell you something." Steve had been through some uncomfortable conversations in his life, but this was the worst.
"I love you, Sharon. You're one of my closest friends," Steve started.
She sat up, feeling sick, and slipped her shirt back on. "Why do I feel a 'but' coming on?"
"I had a lot of time to think. Red Skull had me trapped for over a year—"
"Whatever happened, we can get past it."
"I've had time to think and... I'm in love with someone else."
"But..." Her tone changed to one of anger. "We've been dating for two years. Who could you possibly be in love with?"
"First, you need to know that I'm going to be here. I'm going to help raise her. I'm going to be a father."
Sharon didn't care at that moment. "Who?" she demanded.
"Tony," Steve replied.
Sharon stood up and squinted. "You're kidding me." She knew from his tone that he wasn't, but her brain wouldn't let her react with anything but disbelief. "You have got to be kidding me. Since when are you..."
"I'm not. I just love him."
"So you're leaving me for a possible relationship with a man."
"It's not... possible." Steve shifted uncomfortably. "It's already happened. It's been happening."
"Six years ago."
"So you've been cheating on me too," Sharon responded, "or you were cheating on him with me. Steve, what the hell is wrong with you?"
"I'm so sorry," Steve replied. He knew that there was no excuse for what he'd done and that all of it could have been avoided if he'd been honest with himself. All those years trying to convince himself that what he had with Tony would never work were a waste of time they could have spent together. That was time Sharon could have spent finding someone who felt about her how he felt about Tony.
"Just leave," Sharon demanded. "I can't do this right now."
Steve bowed his head and walked out the door in shame. He heard the baby start crying and felt the urge to go to her, but he knew that now wasn't the right time. He headed toward Stark Tower, his two lives weighing heavily on his shoulders.
Tony was still in bed when Steve arrived. He had completely crashed after bringing Steve back. The year of sleeping less than four hours a night finally caught up with him. Still, he was easily stirred and his eyes shot open when he heard the doorknob twist. He sat up, his mind reeling with possibilities when Steve's silhouette appeared in the doorway.
Steve walked over to the bed and sat next to Tony. He ran his hands through the man's dark, messy hair. Before Tony knew what was happening, Steve had pulled him in and begun stroking the inside of Tony's mouth with his tongue. Tony let himself enjoy this feeling for a few minutes before he forced himself to stop.
"What about..." he started.
"She's beautiful, and I'm going to raise her...but I told Sharon everything. I told her I needed to be with you."
He was, and the next two weeks were amazing. They were basically a real couple. They hadn't told any more people about their relationship, but they hadn't gone through the effort of hiding it either. They went on dates. They cuddled on a couch in the Avengers mansion during the movie night Peter insisted that they have. They kissed in Stark Tower, in full view of Pepper, who only rolled her eyes. Tonight they were in Tony's penthouse relaxing in bed following a battle with Baron Zemo and the rough sex that usually followed such fights.
"We should say something," Steve said.
Tony leaned into Steve's shoulder and ran his hands through his hair. "About?"
"About us. It feels dishonest letting everyone find out on their own."
"What do you want, a not-quite-coming-out party?"
"No. Not a party. But we could get the Avengers together and tell them. After all the fighting and deception over registration, I think we owe them honesty."
The next day, he had changed his tune. "I don't think I can do this," Steve said standing in the kitchen of Avengers mansion.
"You're panicking again," Tony replied.
"It's not a panic. I realize they're not going to have a problem with us. I just don't think I can actually say the words. What are the words?"
"Don't soften it up. How about: 'Hey, Avengers. I'm fucking Iron Man. Just an FYI.'"
The Steve that Tony had spent years breaking out of his shell was re-emerging. "You do it."
"This wasn't my idea, Steve. I was perfectly happy to let them figure it out themselves, remember?"
Steve peeked through the door to the mansion's main foyer. It was packed with everyone from Tigra to Captain Britain to Darkhawk.
"Why are there so many Avengers?"
"Because we have issues with people lying, turning evil, getting fed up with rules, dying, getting kicked out for alcoholism and leaving for greener pastures or the west coast," Tony remarked. "I'm honestly surprised there aren't more."
Steve was flustered. His eyes widened as he looked around. "Those aren't even all Avengers. The Fantastic Four are out there, and... did you invite everyone?"
"Yeah, basically. You wanted one fell swoop." He looked Steve in the eyes with the most sincere face he could muster. "You managed to tell Sharon. You're going to be fine." He then pushed Steve through the door and followed right behind him out into the room. Steve shot Tony a glare as everyone quieted down and turned to face them.
"Um..." Tony found shy Steve to be adorable, but he knew Steve didn't feel the same way, so he decided to start the conversation himself in his most professional tone. "Hey, everyone. Thanks for being here. It's good to know you all remember how to assemble if we need you... So... there's an announcement we need to make. You're our closest friends... and Darkhawk... So Steve?" Everyone, including Darkhawk, chuckled.
Steve cleared his throat, stalling. Then he froze.
Tony whispered to him, "Seriously? You punched Hitler in the face." When Steve cleared his throat again, Tony muttered, "fuck it" then continued loudly. "We're dating. Steve and I, I mean. Everyone's gonna know soon. Just putting it out there... Don't really care what you think about it."
"Seriously?" Janet asked, looking at Steve.
She then made a high-pitched sound that Tony could only interpret as joy, walked forward and hugged both of them. The silence was broken, and soon conversation erupted everywhere.
"Old news to me," Hawkeye told Falcon, bragging. "I figured it out way before anyone else."
"Doesn't he have a daughter with Sharon?" Luke Cage asked his wife.
"I'm offended," Deadpool exclaimed. "If Captain America's gonna fall for an emotionally disturbed freak it ought to be me! Stark doesn't even wear spandex!"
"Who invited Deadpool?" the Human Torch asked Spider-Man.
"So when did this happen?" Janet asked Steve. "Last I checked you two were fighting in a big way."
"Actually, we were sort of seeing each other before all of that broke out," Steve answered.
"...And now that you're back it's amends. Sweet. I like that a lot better than the lying and punching."
"Do you know anything about this, Jessica?" She-Hulk asked Spider Woman.
"Yeah. Apparently they've been at it for like five years."
"Do you think they're actually... in love?"
"I kinda do. I saw Tony after we thought Steve died. He was... really upset. The kind of upset you don't get for just a friend."
"This isn't just a joke?" Wiccan asked Hulkling. "I really wouldn't appreciate the joke."
"No. Look at 'em, Billy." Tony was softly rubbing Steve's arm, trying to calm his nervousness. "I'm pretty sure we've just scored two more for Team Homo."
Later that evening, Tony and Steve retreated to the kitchen. Steve had calmed considerably in the last few hours and brought up another topic: telling the public.
"No way," Tony responded. "You practically stroked out on me just telling our friends, which I had to do, by the way."
Steve sighed. "I did not 'stroke out.' I would have told them. In any case, I made it and I feel better. I don't want these secrets anymore, Tony. They destroyed us before."
"I agree with you. I do. But no more gathering people for big revelation speeches. Can we try something more subtle?"
"What did you have in mind?"
Steve stepped out of the limo in what Tony had assured him was a very fashionable tuxedo. He didn't know. It all looked the same to him, and the bowtie was uncomfortable. Tony exited after Steve and put an arm around him.
"This is your idea of subtle?" Steve asked, frowning.
"Absolutely. You've just been resurrected. No one thinks it's strange that I brought you here."
A redheaded reporter approached. "Mr. Stark, you're not arriving attached to some gorgeous blonde this year?"
"Actually, I am." Tony and the reporter both laughed. Tony turned to Steve, "It's all a game. Just play along." The truth was that he hated this game, but he played it well. He hadn't been this person since he took shrapnel to the heart. He did, however, like flustering Steve.
They walked the length of the red carpet into the ballroom where Tony's charity gala was already underway. The two sat at a round table with Pepper and Rhodey.
"Hey, Tony!" Rhodey said, feigning excitement. "Thanks for telling me you'd gone gay. I really appreciated finding out in a room full of people I don't know."
"A) not gay, and B) sorry about that. It seemed convenient at the time."
"So Steve's your date," Pepper stated calmly.
"And you recall that there's traditionally a dance at these things? You remember that, right? You remember that you always take part in said dance?" she asked.
"Sure do." Tony grinned.
"Wait. Tony!" Steve exclaimed. "You didn't say anything about dancing. We're not dancing."
"Sure we are."
"No. Tony... No."
Before he could further object, Tony had whisked Steve to the dance floor. "You wanted to go public. We're going public." Tony led and they danced for what seemed like an eternity as everyone stared and cameras flashed. When the song ended, Steve hurried back to his seat and Tony took the podium.
"I didn't bring a date this year, so... Captain America, everyone. He's a great sport." Tony laughed, and the room followed his lead.
If he weren't a super soldier, Steve could have had a panic attack. That was the second close call of the evening. He was sure this was Tony's way of getting revenge for all those years he had insisted on keeping their relationship a secret.
"He's really good at hiding things in plain sight," Rhodey said to Steve, "I'd watch out for that."
Tony continued his annual speech about charity, which always ended with him revealing his chosen charity of the year. The Secret Giving Gala was a tradition Howard Stark had started and Tony continued, despite his mostly being annoyed by the show of it. This year he chose the Human Rights Campaign. Steve thought for sure that this was the part where Tony was going to reveal their relationship, but it wasn't. Close call number three. Tony finished his speech and sat down as the room filled with inane chatter once more.
Tony leaned in sensually toward Steve's ear. He whispered, "This is killing you, isn't it?"
"I thought we'd have gotten this over with already."
"You want to?" Tony nibbled on Steve's earlobe. Pepper and Rhodey gave each other a wide-eyed glance. Nobody else seemed to notice. Close call number four.
"Yes. Please," Steve said.
"Okay." Tony smiled, jumped up, grabbed Steve by the arm and pulled him—feet dragging—to the podium. He tapped the microphone to get everyone's attention and, following the loud hiss of feedback, the room fell silent once more.
"Hey. There's one more thing I wanted to say." Tony paused. "Can I get a round of applause for a very much alive Captain America?" Close call number five. Steve couldn't stand it. The room obliged and there was a good thirty seconds of boisterous applause. When it had stopped, Tony continued. "Also? This." He grabbed Steve and pulled him in for a passionate kiss that didn't last as long as the applause, but felt like it did to Steve. When they pulled apart, Steve was stunned. "Deal with it," Tony concluded.
He grabbed Steve by the hand and led him out of the building as cameras nearly blinded them. Questions flew their way from every angle. "How long have you been seeing each other?" "Don't you have a daughter?" "Was the superhuman civil war just a bad breakup?" They ignored all of these, and when the reporters realized they wouldn't be giving any answers, they swarmed Pepper and Rhodey.
"Damn it, Tony." Rhodey muttered, exasperated.
"2010 was a shitty year," Tony told the psychiatrist in his cell. "See, everyone knew we were together. No one cared, save a couple of fundamentalist whack jobs. Unfortunately, they came out in droves to vote while everyone else stayed home. People don't think midterm elections matter, but... they did.'"
"Is that the only reason 2010 was a bad year?" the woman asked. She knew. She had to or she wouldn't have phrased it that way.
"No. That's the year I had a psychotic break."
Tony yawned. Steve's rustling had woken him up at 7AM—far too early for someone who had been up until 3:00 working in his lab, especially since that same someone had then spent two hours at his boyfriend's place. Boyfriend. It was a strange new word, but he liked it. He did not, however, like being woken up. It was bad enough that there was a window behind the bed letting the full force of the sun in. He objected to the ruckus, and also to the cold that had just hit his naked, Steveless body.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Getting ready for church," Steve replied.
"You're kidding me."
Tony thought out loud. "Have I really never been here on a Sunday morning? In any case, isn't there like an 11:00 showing you can go to?"
Steve ignored the joke. "There is, but I'm meeting Sharon and spending time with Shannon afterward."
"She's finally letting you see her?" It had been three months since Steve broke things off with Sharon, and she hadn't taken it well.
"Yeah... I guess she's finally convinced that it's really happening."
"You don't sound excited."
"I am, Tony. I really am. I just feel guilty when I think about seeing Sharon."
"I know." Tony was quick to change the subject. Thinking about the fact that Steve and Sharon had a daughter made him uncomfortable. A guilty Steve made him even more so. "So I guess I won't be seeing you until late today. Barring any Avengers emergencies, that is."
"No, I guess not."
"Do you mind if I keep sleeping here for a while?"
"You know you don't have to ask."
Steve kissed Tony and headed out. Tony buried his head into Steve's pillow. The scent lulled him back to sleep within minutes. Twenty minutes later, Tony was awakened by the door slamming shut. Standing near the door taking his coat off was Steve, obviously upset.
"What time is... What's wrong?"
Steve sat on the side of the bed. "They kicked me out."
"The church I've been going to since 1930. They kicked me out."
Tony thought to ask "why" but he already knew the answer. Instead he sat up and offered an pathetic "I'm sorry." He was and he wasn't. He didn't care for churches or religion in general for that matter, but he didn't want Steve to lose something important to him.
"I knew we'd upset a lot of people. Apparently they get more upset during an election year."
"You're not having second...er, third thoughts about us are you?" Tony half-joked. Inside, he really worried that Steve would be unwilling to handle the stress and leave him.
"No. Everybody knows about us. I'm not going to go back so I can stay in a church." Steve kissed Tony on the forehead. "They never saved my life."
"On the bright side, you have a few hours free. I can think of one way to pass the time."
"Tony!" Steve feigned shock.
"I'm a heathen. What can I say?" He pulled Steve in for a kiss and began prying his clothes off. He pushed him down onto the bed and sucked until Steve shuddered and filled his mouth. He swallowed gladly.
Steve flipped Tony over and began to repay him for the favor. His shaft dangled in front of Tony's face as he sucked. Each time Tony came close, Steve stopped. He loved teasing him. The super soldier serum made it so that Steve could orgasm several times in the time it would take Tony to recover, so he relished in making this take as long as possible for Tony.
Tony grabbed the bottle of lube from the night stand. With one hand he reached around Steve and began stroking him. He inserted three fingers from the other hand into Steve, who groaned with delight. They pleasured each other for a while until both men came at the same time. Steve swallowed Tony's fluid just as his own spread over Tony's abs.
Steve turned around and smiled. His day had gotten a bit brighter. Tony smiled back. By the time he noticed the red dot on Steve's chest, his partner had already fallen backward onto the floor. A sniper. Tony wished for anything but a sniper.
Tony reflexively pulled his armor out of his body. He leapt down off the bed. "Steve?" His mind flashed back to those steps when Steve was shot three times. He thought of catching up to Steve in the ambulance. He thought of the funeral. That couldn't happen again. It wouldn't. Tony felt himself become hot with anger.
"Ton..." Steve whimpered. The wound looked to be too far to the right to have hit Steve's heart, but that wasn't much consolation. Tony called for the Avengers. He grabbed a pair of pants and slid them onto Steve for his dignity's sake, then grabbed a shirt and pressed it against the wound. Steve put his hands up and pressed the shirt down himself.
"Go... get ... him." he muttered.
He needed to say no more. Tony flew through the window and began searching nearby rooftops for a sniper. He'd only exhausted about two minutes checking on Steve, so he knew this person couldn't have gotten far. He scanned for life forms twenty to fifty feet above ground and found someone running toward a rooftop stairwell.
Tony landed in front of the steel door just as the sniper got there. He was middle-aged, bearded, and wearing all black, except for an American flag on his hat. Underneath it were the words "Stars and Stripes."
"Who are you?" Tony demanded as he slammed the man against the door.
"A patriot," the man cooly responded.
A voice in Tony's head—Doctor Strange's—alerted him that Cloak had teleported Steve to a nearby hospital.
"You're a patriot who shoots Captain America. Makes sense."
"We will cleanse the Captain America name."
"Excuse me?" Tony tried to remain calm but inside he was furious. The idea that someone would try to 'cleanse' away someone who fought Nazis was hideous.
"You heard me. Captain America deserves better than some faggot."
"There is no other Captain America," Tony said matter-of-factly. Sure, there were technically other Captain Americas—John Walker and Bucky sprang to mind—but there was only one the world loved.
"There will be when me and my friends are done."
"No. There won't." Tony grabbed the man by the head and, not knowing what had come over himself, snapped his neck. Immediately, a wave of horror rushed over him. He had done this before. Extremis had made him do this before. He dropped the man's body and stood still for a moment in a panic. There was no time to think about this. If he thought about it, he didn't know what he would do. Steve was in a hospital and—no matter how much he hated those—that's where he needed to be.
When he arrived, Steve was still being operated on and talking to the nurses got him nowhere. He headed into the Emergency waiting area. Spider-Man, Spider Woman, Hawkeye, and Maria Hill had already assembled; the Avengers were always where they needed to be fast (though Thor and Wolverine were missing, as was often the case). The were all wearing their uniforms as if they thought there would be a battle, and the other people in the room were staring. Tony, meanwhile, had put his armor away and approached in his normal attire: a suit.
"I think I'm underdressed," he said.
Peter replied, "When you said Steve had been shot, we all assumed danger. Is there danger?"
"No. Not for you guys anyway."
"We heard from Cloak that there was a sniper," Maria said.
"There was," Tony replied. "He got away."
"He got away? From you?" Clint said in disbelief.
"Yeah. I wasn't thinking straight. He said he was with some group of 'patriots' that was out to 'cleanse' the Captain America name."
"Cleanse it of what?" Peter replied, then added, "Oh."
"Yeah," Tony answered.
"And you let him get away?" Clint repeated.
"I didn't let him do anything. I told you. My mind slipped." Clint's accusing glance let Tony know what they were really thinking happened. They thought he murdered the man. Tony jumped to his own defense. "You guys don't think I would..."
"Who here thinks he would?" Clint asked. "Raise your hands."
Maria and Jessica raised their hands high. Peter sheepishly raised his slightly. "Did you?" he asked.
"There may have been an accident," Tony replied. "I swear I would never..."
"What? Kill somebody?" Maria asked. "You've done that before."
"Kill for revenge..." Tony trailed off. He didn't even seem to believe himself. He wasn't sure what had happened on that rooftop, but he knew that he wouldn't kill someone in anger. He never killed unless he absolutely had to... or when he'd gone insane. But that was Extremis. It made him crazy, and he was fine now.
Tony was there when Steve woke up. Steve looked over at him and gave a slight smile that lured Tony over to the hospital bed. He leaned in toward Steve.
"You have to stop getting shot like that," he said, pushing away memories of Steve lying lifeless in the helicarrier.
"I know," Steve replied weakly. "Did you find the guy?"
"And? What did he want?"
"He wanted to kill the 'faggot' in the Captain America uniform so he could give it to a 'real man.'"
"I was afraid it would be something like that. Did he have friends?"
"Yeah. Some group called Stars and Stripes."
"We'll just have to be careful," Steve said. "This will blow over eventually."
"You're an optimist." The way Tony said that made it seem like an insult, but he really did respect Steve's optimism. He envied it, actually. For one thing, Steve would never snap a man's neck.
"Someone has to be." Steve smiled, then the expression faded. "Sharon?"
"I'm not..." Tony trailed off. "Oh."
Sharon was standing in the doorway carrying Shannon. "We need to talk," she said, walking toward the bed. She sat down in a chair to the left of Steve.
"Can't it wait? He's been shot if you didn't notice," Tony said.
"We need to talk... alone."
"Tony can hear anything you need to tell me," Steve replied. Tony smiled. He couldn't help but feel an uncomfortable jealousy around Sharon. She had the family that he and Steve would never have.
"I really think you'd rather I not," she said, staring pointedly into his eyes.
"Really, Sharon. What is it?" Steve asked.
She answered in frustration. "I'm pregnant."
"Excuse me?" Steve asked.
"I'm pregnant again."
"How is that Steve's problem?" Tony asked, then realized. "Oh." Then the full reality set in. "Oh god!" Tony stood up. "I can't... I just fucking can't..."
Tony was already out the door and into the bathroom. He spent ten minutes dry heaving and was immediately thankful he hadn't eaten breakfast or lunch. He couldn't stop convulsing in agony. His breath was short. He thought for sure that he was going to have another heart attack. In his head, he couldn't stop hearing the snapping sound that man's neck had made.
Steve, meanwhile, wanted desperately to chase after Tony. He couldn't, though. For one, he'd been shot. Worse than that was that yet another responsibility had just fallen upon him. He spoke to Sharon in a confused tone. "We only... It was only one time."
"That's all it takes, Steve," she replied. At that moment, Steve understood why she'd been avoiding him for months.
"Okay. We can deal with this," Steve replied, looking down at his daughter.
When the feeling of sickness finally subsided, Tony flew off to his penthouse to be alone. On his way he went by Steve's room and saw him playing with Shannon. Tony's eyes began to act like his stomach and he couldn't stop the tears from flowing. There was still snapping in his head. Endless snapping.
Tony entered the penthouse in full despair. So far this morning he had killed someone, and the man he loved was shot and had cheated on him. To top it off, Sharon was pregnant with Steve's child again. Tony's thoughts were becoming disturbed in a way they hadn't since he first took Extremis.
He killed a man for Steve, and how did Steve repay him? He spent a year searching for him, trying to barter his soul for him, and what did he do? Sleep with Sharon. He felt like an idiot. It seemed obvious that a man from the 1940s would never be happy with him. Tony told himself that Steve would always want some perfect family. If it wasn't Sharon, it would be Bernie or Rachel or whoever. He felt a strong urge to hurt Steve for what he'd done, then he stopped himself. It was Steve.
Tony was shaking. He knew what he was going to do. His bar was for guests to drink from. For him, it was a reminder to stay strong and stay sober. Not today. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, but it was happy hour for Tony Stark. He grabbed the bottle of Napoleon Brandy and a glass. He reconsidered, tossed the glass away, and began drinking from the bottle.
By 6:00, he didn't regret his decision. If he didn't have his mind and he didn't have Steve, he needed to keep himself in a stupor so that he couldn't hurt anyone or feel any pain. It was noble in a twisted way. The room was spinning and Tony was about ready to pass out when he heard a familiar knock at the door. He hurriedly tossed the two bottles he'd finished into the trash and threw some paper over them.
"Come in," he said, sitting in his desk chair to stop the world from moving.
Steve stood before him, holding the wound on his chest. "It took a bit of convincing to get them to let me leave."
"Good... for you." Tony's voice was bitter and slurred slightly.
"Tony, I owe you an explanation."
"No you don't. I don't want to hear it."
Steve moved closer to Tony's desk. "Tony..."
"That's enough. I don't want... you near me. I don't want to see you..."
"Tony, please. You're..."
"What? Crazy? I passed that mark... a... long time ago."
Steve inched closer, reaching out.
"Stay. Back." Tony demanded. "I have something to say to you. You... you were dead as far as I... I knew. I spent a year... a year looking for you. For half of that I didn't even... I didn't know you were alive. I was trying to... bring you back fr...from the dead. I offered my soul to Mephisto for you."
Steve was shocked. "Tony, I..."
Tony's voice became louder. "I brought you back. And what...what was the first thing you did? You fucked Sharon! After you told me you loved me and you wa...wanted to be with me." He paused. "Fuck you, Steve."
Tony put his head down on his desk so that Steve wouldn't see him crying. He wanted to burn this bridge, not arouse sympathies in it.
"I was confused, Tony. I saw Shannon and I made a mistake. I knew it was a mistake."
"It's always a mistake! I'm tired of hearing it..." Tony muttered into his desk. He wiped his eyes with his sleeve and lifted his head. He practically began screaming. "Go fuck your blonde wife and have your two kids and a dog and a picket fence!"
"I don't want that," Steve replied calmly. He defied Tony and walked closer and closer to him. He wouldn't get angry. He wouldn't let Tony down when he needed him. The last time he did that, Tony fell so deep into the bottle that it took half a year to get him out.
"Go away." Tony stood and backed away.
"I don't know what else I can do to convince you. If I didn't want to be with you, I wouldn't have told everyone about us."
Standing was a mistake. Tony began to sway back and forth. "Actions are... louder than words..." He fell to the ground and Steve rushed to his side. "I... killed a man for you..."
Steve smelled the alcohol immediately. "You've been drinking. Tony, how..."
"I killed that man. I snapped his neck... because he hurt you. I've been trying to... to... convince myself it was... mind control or something. Maybe Extremis. But I did it. It was just me... I'm just...not a good person. That's why you'll never love me."
Steve held Tony for a long time even after he passed out. Tony had been doing so well after the craziness that was Extremis. Was he just holding it in all this time, waiting for the right trigger to snap? It was possible, Steve supposed, but Tony was sober for five years. He wouldn't just throw something like that away unless something was seriously wrong.
When Tony awoke, his head was throbbing and he was locked in what he recognized as one of the spare bedrooms at the Avengers mansion—one of the spare bedrooms with no window. He tried to mentally unlock the door, but his head was fuzzy. He couldn't sense anything. Suddenly, Steve's voice came on over the intercom.
"Hank's running some interference. Your powers aren't going to work. You want tough love, I can do that."
Hank Pym turned to Steve. "You're sure you want to stay here? You should be getting rest."
"I'm sure. I'm not going anywhere."
Aside from when he was sleeping, Steve spent the next week monitoring Tony. He watched him shake on the floor in a cold sweat. He watched him talk to himself. He watched him yell at himself. He watched him curl himself up and cry for hours. He did nothing but watch because he wasn't going to visit Tony until he was completely sober. By the eighth day, Tony did nothing but sleep and Steve went down to see him.
"Tony," he said, opening the door. Tony was silent. "I'm sorry I hurt you. I honestly didn't realize how much you cared about me. I thought..."
"You thought I was 'take it or leave it' with you, like you are with me. I get that now."
Steve sat down next to Tony. "No. When I came back, I had just realized how much I love you. I needed you more than I've ever needed anything and it scared me, so I tried to make that feeling go away. It didn't. It never will." He took a deep breath and continued. "I will always love you, but I don't want to be with you right now."
"I already broke up with you."
"I know. It has to stay that way. You have problems, Tony. I thought they were gone, but you've just been hiding them. You need to talk to somebody."
Tony would have been offended, if he didn't know that what Steve was saying was true. "You want me to see a psychiatrist."
"I think you need to. I think it's not normal to try selling your soul. It's not normal to hate yourself like you do. It's just not."
Tony stared at Steve, his eyes wide with pain. "I had a solution, you know."
"Drinking yourself to death. Yeah. I know."
"You'd have a normal life with Sharon. I'd be out of the picture."
"Don't talk like that. Don't." Steve kissed Tony on the forehead. "Just get better."
"I'll do whatever you want me to."
The next six weeks were mostly miserable for Steve. On the plus side, he spent a lot of time with his daughter. On the other hand, nearly all of that time was also spent with Sharon and she still believed that they could be together, which led to many hours of loud arguments. He sat down for lunch with Clint one afternoon.
"I'm not good at this, but I need to talk to someone," Steve said.
"I hope this isn't about certain billionaires. Because you know my feelings on them."
"I do. That's why I wanted to talk to you. You won't tell me what I want to hear when it comes to Tony."
Clint smirked. "That I will not. So what's the deal?"
"He's in psych rehab."
Clint didn't miss a beat. "About time."
"We broke up," Steve said.
"Also about time. Though I'm hoping point B didn't directly lead to point A."
"I did something stupid and hurt him. It triggered something, he broke up with me, and he tried to drink himself to death." The pain and guilt were evident on Steve's face and in his voice.
"What did you do?"
"I slept with Sharon."
Clint was confused. "You've been doing that for years, right?"
"Yeah, but Tony and I weren't supposed to be doing that anymore."
"Honest mistake. I can't believe that would make him snap."
Steve blurted out, "She's pregnant again."
"Oh. Well there it is." He set down the roll he was about to bite into. "You two are a goddamn train wreck. Honestly. If we weren't friends, I would love to watch."
"I need advice."
"Start using condoms, for one," Clint quipped.
"I mean it. I don't know how I'll ever make this right with either of them."
"You know what I'd do if I were you?" Clint asked.
Steve sighed. "Leave Tony. I know you would."
"Yes, but that's totally not what I was going to say. I know you love him. I don't understand it and I think it's creepy and gross, but... what I think you should do is stop giving a damn what other people think about you. You're not going to do right by Sharon. You knocked her up and left her for a dude. That's how she's always going to see it. Live with it and be there for your kids, not for her."
He continued, "As for Tony, the guy is psychotically in love with you. I was there when he tried to get Strange to resurrect you. I'm guessing when he found out the guy he'd been fixated on all that time went and slept with someone else...It popped a screw loose. Don't try to justify it. You fucked up. He'll get over it or he won't. The truth is it's up to them what they think of you. It's not up to you. That was the point of the whole reveal-your-relationship-to-the-world thing, right?"
"You actually make a lot of sense."
"I know I do," Clint said, pleased with himself. "I honestly hope this rehab thing works out. I like you, and I'd rather you be with some guy I can't stand than with some psychotic guy I can't stand."
Steve hesitated. "Uh... Thanks, Clint."
Two weeks later, Steve returned to his room at the mansion where he'd been staying for safety's sake to find a very calm—in fact suspiciously calm—Tony Stark sitting at his desk chair. Steve closed the door behind him and fumbled around for his words. "You're back," he said, settling on stating the obvious.
"I am," Tony replied.
"Apparently, in addition to being alcoholic, I'm bipolar. There was some debate about whether I have post-traumatic stress and compulsions too. Basically, I'm a mess. They put me on mood stabilizers."
"That's good, right?"
"Aside from the nausea, yeah. So far I haven't felt inclined to snap anyone's neck or try to kill myself."
"Tony..." Steve hated it when Tony joked about things like that.
"I'm really sorry. Not for the joke. I mean for... I said things to you I shouldn't have. I didn't mean them."
"Yes you did, and I don't blame you. I told you I loved you. I told you I needed to be with you. Then I broke your trust. And after I did, I never told you. I let you find out from Sharon. I can't take that back."
"You can't. But all things considered, I still think I did worse after you'd taken us public and gotten shot for it. We both fucked up this whole 'fresh start' thing we had going. I don't know whether... Can we just try this again?"
"Yeah. I think we can," Steve said.
Tony stood up. "Okay... Well...Steve... I missed you while you were gone. I missed you so much that I did some stupid things like try and barter with Mephisto. I know you've got a sort of family with Sharon and you need to be a part of their lives. I don't care about that as long as I'm a part of yours."
Steve smiled. "You're asking me to go steady?"
Tony stepped closer. "I am."
The psychiatrist leaned back for a moment and put her hand to her chin in thought. She knew what she needed to ask and she knew equally well that Tony Stark wouldn't tell her. The first attempt didn't go well. "Tell me about Extremis."
"No," Tony said bluntly.
"I'm not asking you for the scientific details—"
His face stayed frozen and his arms crossed. "I don't care what you're asking for. The answer is no."
Extremis was an incredibly sore spot for Tony, because it was an incredibly sore spot for Steve. He first took the nanovirus in 2006. At that point, he had to. He was dying from injuries sustained in a fight with Mallen, and Extremis would re-write the repair center of his brain. Of course, being Tony Stark, he made a few enhancements before injecting himself with it.
He made himself superhuman. His armor, previously a burdensome piece of equipment that he had to take with him everywhere, was now controlled by his mind. The undersheath for it was stored in his bones. If that weren't enough, the process of injecting himself with Extremis also left Tony with an enhanced healing factor and improved organs. He thought better. He breathed better. His stamina was increased. Sex was better. It was an exciting time.
Side effects included hallucinations and "increased aggressiveness," as Doctor Hansen put it when she began the procedure. The hallucinations came from his new brain, which processed so much information that he pushed a lot of it into his subconscious—into the same place he pushed his guilt and suicidal tendencies in order to get through most days. When all of that made its way into his conscious mind, it was a disaster. It was a disaster because "increased aggressiveness" was apparently scientific code for "losing your fucking mind."
He tried to choke Steve. All Steve had done was point out Tony's newfound aggressiveness and suggest that he stay out of fighting until he knew what was going on in his head. That was the cause of their worst break up, that is if you could break up with someone who nobody but Clint Barton knew you were sleeping with in the first place. That breakup was the reason Steve started seeing Sharon again. It was the reason he kept seeing her when Tony begged and pleaded and apologized. It was the reason Steve feared him. He tried to not let Tony know that he did, but the looks he gave him sometimes made it obvious. And why shouldn't he? Tony scared himself sometimes.
"It failed, didn't it?" the woman asked, prodding.
"You already know that," Tony replied.
"Then you don't have to go into the details. Just tell me what happened afterward."
Bradley Scott was not a good man. He gambled too much. He drank even more. He had been married and divorced three times already, and each time was his fault. The word "fault" didn't really apply in his mind, though. He found it a relief to leave those women before they had half as many wrinkles on their faces as he did. He was on his fourth wife—thirty years his junior—and if he played his cards right, she would soon be First Lady of the United States.
His personal life didn't matter. What mattered was his public persona. What mattered was his Congressional record, and as the senior Senator from Georgia he had a record that appealed to the most self-righteous and xenophobic voters the United States had to offer. In July, he gave a speech that would be replayed again and again until the election in November.
The first time they heard it, Tony and Steve were with Sharon and the children. Shannon was four years old and James was nearly two. Looking back, this was probably the happiest Tony had been in his entire life. Sharon started seeing Sam, which allowed her to accept Tony and Steve's relationship. They had formed a bizarre little family. Shannon knew she had two daddies (soon to be three if Sam had his way) and they all raised her and James together. The kids lived with Sharon most of the time, but spent a good portion in Stark Tower as well.
The television was on in the background when Tony and Steve arrived to return Shannon and James. They had spent the afternoon at the Children's Museum at Tony's insistence. He was now completely frazzled by the experience. His hair fell haphazardly in his face and it felt...sticky? There was vomit from James on his Gucci jacket. Steve could call it "spit up" all he wanted; it was puke, it was disgusting, and it would probably never come out.
Sharon chuckled at the sight. "Have a good time?"
"Mom!" Shannon exclaimed. "Did you know Pluto was a planet and it isn't anymore?"
"Really?" Sharon feigned surprise.
"Really?" Steve turned to Tony, confused.
"When did that happen?"
"We went to the planets exhibit while you were calming James down outside."
"No, I mean..."
"Oh. They demoted Pluto like five years ago. Where were you?" Tony made a face that could never capture how awkward he felt inside. "Right. Captured by Red Skull. Sorry."
Steve shrugged his head as he pulled James out of the stroller. Tony dutifully folded the thing because Steve seemed to think it took an engineer to do so. It really wasn't that difficult, but the beautiful, grateful smile he received from Steve every time made him love doing it.
They joined Sharon and Shannon on the couch. Sharon was about to tease Tony when she heard Bradley Scott's voice and frowned.
He spoke in a sharp, shrill Georgian accent. "...We, as a nation, have our priorities all wrong. Order has gone out the window. Morality has gone out the window. We have these so-called 'superheroes' running around. They’re supposed to be role models. That’s why we registered them. To show that working with the law is what’s right. Now you've got two of the most popular—Iron Man and Captain America—running around telling kids it's okay to ignore morality..."
"Oh, fuck that guy," Tony accidentally said aloud.
"Tony," Steve said in an exhausted tone. Shannon idolized Tony for some reason or another, and now she would be repeating the phrase "fuck that guy" for at least a week.
"I can't believe it," Sharon said, "you've saved the entire planet before."
Tony couldn't believe it either, but he couldn't articulate anything below an R rating at the moment. He was thirty four years old, and nobody had campaigned on his immorality when he was spending sixteen of those years sleeping with any woman who showed signs of a pulse. Nor did they care that he designed and developed weapons that were responsible for the deaths of thousands. That was okay. This? Committing himself to one man and trying to raise a family? This was what they thought was despicable?
"It's bullshit," he said to Steve when they left Sharon's apartment.
Steve was resigned. "We knew this would happen. I told you I'm okay with it now."
Tony opened the passenger side door of his black Porsche—the Panamera he'd bought so that he could, just barely, fit a car seat and a small child in the back—and Steve got in. Tony walked around to the driver side and did the same. Inside, he looked his partner in the eyes. "Really? You're okay with this?"
Steve's steadfast eyes wavered. "No. Not at all. But we knew it would happen, Tony. And you know what?"
"With the mood people are in right now, he's going to win."
Tony turned the key. "You don't know that. Besides—"
He didn't get a chance to finish the sentence. His head thrashed back into the headrest and his chest jutted violently outward. He was convulsing, his mouth foaming, and the last thing he heard was a panicked Steve shouting his name.
That was the second sign that Tony's Extremis was degrading. The first had been his psychotic break two years earlier, and the next came in September at Bucky and Natasha's wedding. Nat was someone Tony had known for a long time—longer than he'd known Steve—and also someone he'd been certain would never, under any circumstances, tie the knot after what happened to the Red Guardian. Then again, he himself was someone he was certain would never, under any circumstances, be a parent and look how that turned out. He figured Bucky worked the same sort of old-fashioned charm on Natasha that Steve had on him.
Steve, of course, was Bucky's best man, and since Sharon was in Natasha's wedding party, Tony found himself on kid duty. The ceremony was in the courtyard of Avengers mansion, and it went off without a hitch. The same could be said for the reception inside until halfway through the evening. Steve and Tony sat with James and Shannon while the newly engaged Sharon and Sam danced. When the DJ started Ella Fitzgerald's "This Time the Dream's on Me," Sam and Sharon returned to their table.
"You two dance," Sharon said looking at Tony, "it's your song, isn't it?"
Steve looked at him, surprised. "We have a song?"
"Yeah." Tony blushed. "We do." He took Steve's hand and pulled him onto the dance floor where he led. He always led because Steve couldn't dance to save his life. "This was playing the first time we kissed."
"How do you remember that?" Steve asked. "Why do they know that?"
"I remember everything. It kind of goes with the whole Extremis thing. And I told them to play it."
Steve smiled. "Did I ever tell you I love you?"
Tony teased, "Not nearly enough." Then he collapsed to the floor, shaking. Last time he had recovered within minutes and insisted that nothing was wrong. This time, his body went limp and he had to be teleported to the Baxter Building where he didn't recover for days. In the meantime, Reed Richards looked into the problem. Because he was Reed Richards, he found the solution. He broke the news to Steve while he was in the room with Tony's unconscious body.
"You know what's wrong." Steve wasn't asking.
"Yes. The Extremis nanovirus is decaying, and as it does Tony's losing connections in his mind and body. Essentially, he's short-circuiting."
"Can you fix it?"
"It should correct itself. Once it deteriorates entirely, these effects should wear off. He'll be as he was before he ever took it."
"He has armor inside his body," Steve said, worried.
"Well, fortunately it's organic armor. It's made from him. It has the same DNA he has. It's inside his bone marrow and his body shouldn't reject it. In theory, anyway."
Before Steve could celebrate this news or even ponder it, he received a call from Sharon. He knew instantly that something was wrong. Her voice was unsteady, and she said the code words they had to indicate a trap. "Come get me now." Those were the only words he needed to spring into action. There was nothing he could do for Tony until he woke up.
Sharon Carter wasn't a damsel in distress. Granted, her current situation was pretty distressing, but she had rescued Steve and Sam more times than she could count. She had escaped from Red Skull's captivity when she was pregnant. She had, on one occasion after too many drinks, punched Tony in the face and broken his nose. She could take care of herself and her children better than anyone. But they had gotten to her while she was sleeping. Sam was in Russia on a mission filling in for Bucky and Natasha while they went on their honeymoon, so she was sleeping alone. The next thing she knew, she and her children were sitting in a vault with metal collars around their necks.
Steve arrived knowing he was walking into a trap. What he didn't know was that it wasn't set for him. The moment he walked through the back door of the bank he was hit with a dart filled with enough tranquilizer to take down a stallion. When he came to, he found himself in the room with Sharon and the kids, his own neck now adorned with a collar. Shannon scurried toward her father and jumped up, wrapping her arms around his neck. "Daddy, where's dad?" She had two distinct names for Steve and Tony. Sam, oddly enough, was just "Sam."
"He's busy," Steve answered, hugging her.
Tony woke up the next evening with a searing headache and an intense hunger for shawarma. But it wasn't Steve who was sitting next to him; it was Reed Richards. Reed told him two things: what was happening to his Extremis, and that he hadn't been able to get ahold of Steve for over twenty four hours. Food would have to wait.
When he pulled his armor out, something was wrong. It hurt. He ignored the stinging sensation that plagued the skin all over his body and flew toward the condemned bank in Queens where Steve's cell phone had last been. He ignored the fact that tracking the GPS also hurt. He hadn't lost Extremis yet, and he wasn't going to until after he'd rescued his family.
At the bank, Red Skull emerged and kindly informed Tony of his plan. The devices attached to Steve, Sharon, James, and Shannon's necks were explosives. Two of them would live, two would die, and it would be Tony's choice. If he didn't choose who to kill within a minute, they would all die. Tony smirked. Did Red Skull really think he was going to pull this off on a man who was one with the internet, who could connect to any electronic device he wanted and shut it down?
Red Skull did think that, and there was a sinking feeling in Tony's gut when he realized that he couldn't access those explosives, that he couldn't access anything. He was in stuck in his armor, and he couldn't even shoot Red Skull in the head because it was re-engineered to work only with Extremis. He thought hard. He clawed at the back of his mind trying, hoping to reach it. Nothing.
Twenty seconds turned to fifteen. Fifteen turned to ten.
Steve assumed that Tony had a plan. He didn't, and with seconds to go he made his decision. He cringed and shut his eyes. "Sharon and James."
"I felt guilty for losing Extremis." Tony's eyes were deep in thought. "I should have been able to do something, but I couldn't. And I know..." His voice broke for the first time in prison. "I know I should have picked Sharon and Steve. I know that. I know Steve wanted me to. I just couldn't. What was I going to do, raise those kids alone?"
"I'm not judging you."
Tony snorted. "You know damn well you are. And that was the point. Sharon and Steve were never going to be killed. The bomb on her neck didn't work. Red Skull wanted Captain America's boyfriend to kill one of his kids. And I did."
"He fucking forgave me." Tony's voice illustrated his disgust.
"You don't like being forgiven, do you?"
"Not when I shouldn't be. I spent the next few years in a dark place. I killed our son. Without Extremis, I was useless. I was a relic. The election of President Scott didn't put me in any better a mood. They passed the gay marriage amendment. People started talking about enlisting people with powers in the Army. I would have started drinking again. I thought about it constantly. But I promised Steve I wouldn't, and I owed him for sticking with me."
"Is that really it? The only reason you didn't drink yourself to death was that you promised him you wouldn't?"
"No. I've promised Steve a lot of things I never followed through on. The reason I don't kill myself is that it would hurt him... I try..." Tony was cracking. He put his head in his hands and could feel himself shaking. Damn it. This was not where he had envisioned this conversation would go. "I try so hard not to hurt him."
"But?" the woman asked.
"I have never been... I will never be the man he thinks I can be. I will always let him down."
Steve shut the door to Shannon's bedroom in Stark Tower. She was finally—after three rounds of storytelling—soundly asleep. Spending the evening in Tony's workshop had wound her up and it took the entire length of the first two stories to get her to stop talking about nanobots. The third story, the one about Atlantis, finally bored her to sleep. He walked across the penthouse to his and Tony's bedroom. Steve didn't bother keeping an apartment for himself anymore.
He lumbered over to the bed where Tony sat silently, deep in thought. He leaned in and captured the lobe of Tony's ear between his lips. What would have normally garnered a pleased whimper instead produced no response. "Tony?" Steve wondered aloud.
"I'm going to take Extremis again." He didn't even look at Steve as he said it. His eyes remained forward, almost in a trance.
"We've had this conversation. It won't last and you'll get hurt again."
"After what? After six years? That's how long it lasted last time. I'm perfectly okay with that. At least I'll see it coming and not—"
"Stop it." Steve knew what was coming.
"And not let a fucking baby explode!"
"I've tried it your way! I've tried being the way I was. It's not working. That guy shot me and I could have stopped him. I could have stopped him from getting away and—"
"I'm sorry about Pepper. I really am. But the side effects are—"
"To hell with them. What happens when it's Shannon? What happens when she's hurt because I'm just a regular guy?"
Steve couldn't handle another conversation like this. It seemed like they had this same discussion on at least a monthly basis. "Not everything is your responsibility!" he shouted. "You can't save everyone."
"You know? You're right. And you can't save me, so stop trying." Tony rolled off the bed and left the room.
The next day, Steve couldn't find Tony anywhere. By the time two o'clock rolled around, he had to leave for a parent-teacher-student conference without the man who was supposed to go with him. The school was for gifted students and they had called to set up this meeting the day before while Tony was in his workshop. Steve took Shannon, and met Sharon and Sam outside the building.
The conference turned out to be with Mr. Welker, the school's principal, which they all found out upon entering the building and being guided to his office. Before the man could speak, Tony hurried into the room and took a seat next to Steve. Something was wrong. His eyes were cold and mechanical. Steve knew instantly that Tony had gone and taken Extremis and he thought of dozens of things he wanted to say, most of which were uncivil. But now wasn't the time. He eyed Tony up and down with a face that let him know he was in trouble, then turned to listen to the principal.
Mr. Welker looked around at what he considered to be the premiere freak show among freak shows. One mom, three dads. An agent of shield, a billionaire inventor, a supersoldier, and a guy who talked to birds. He decided not to mince words. "We're expelling your daughter."
"Why?" Steve asked.
"She beat up two boys yesterday. Using karate."
Sharon spoke. "She only knows tae kwon doe, actually. And our daughter knows not to fight anyone unless they hurt her. Did you even ask her what happened?"
"I know how to do my job, Mrs. Wilson. Of course I asked. Your daughter won't say what provoked her."
Shannon, who sat between Sharon and Steve, looked up at her mother in sheepish uncertainty. "I'm not allowed to say," she squeaked.
Sharon encouraged her. "Go ahead, honey."
Shannon looked nervously at the principal. "They called my dads bad words."
Steve put a hand on her shoulder. "You know we told you to ignore that."
"I know..." The six-year-old was ashamed that she'd let her parents down.
Sharon, meanwhile, confronted the Mr. Welker. "I assume those boys will be punished?"
"For what?" he asked smugly. "For exercising their right to free speech?"
"No. For creating a hostile environment in a damned elementary school!"
"Frankly, Shannon has been an unsuccessful student anyway."
Tony chuckled. "Yeah. She just helped me build an engine. I suppose she wouldn't be." He then leaned in close and shot the man an intimidating glance. "Tell you what. You don't need to expel her. We'll remove her ourselves."
They did. Following the meeting, Shannon returned to her mother's apartment at Steve's request. They had planned for her to stay in Stark Tower for several more days, but Steve wasn't going to let that happen. Not when Tony was likely to explode either figuratively or literally. Tony had flown back to the penthouse without saying a word, leaving Steve to himself. He thought about what he would say when he got home. He had to say something, but he had to tread carefully or risk losing Tony entirely.
Steve found his partner in their bedroom, staring intently into a mirror. He did that sometimes, usually with a look of vivid disgust. He would never understand how a man with as much to offer as Tony has as low an opinion of himself as he did. It was a point of personal contention for Steve and he tried over and over to make Tony see what he saw: a brilliant, beautiful man who would do anything for his family and friends. If Steve's image of Tony was guilty of anything, it was caring too much. He did stupid things because he cared. In Tony's own mind, he was a failure and a bastard. He sighed internally as Steve approached and gently put a hand on his shoulder.
"Can we not do this?" Tony snapped. "You're going to yell at me again." He turned and walked toward the room's exit.
Steve turned hopelessly toward him. "I'm not going to yell at you." He really wasn't. "Please listen to me."
The words Steve spoke were not spoken in the tone in which Tony heard them. He raised his voice at the imagined conflict. "I listen to you all the time! I do!" Suddenly he was yelling. "All you do is criticize me!"
That wasn't remotely true. It didn't matter. Tony was going to lose his mind here and there was nothing Steve could do about it. He hated this. He hated seeing Tony destroy himself. He tried pleading. "Stop shouting, Tony."
He didn't. "You think you're better than me! You think you should make my decisions for me."
"I really don't, but maybe I should if this is what you're going to do."
Tony moved in and positioned himself inches from Steve's face. "You know who I am. You knew that when you started fucking me."
Steve didn't blink. "We're done here."
"I don't think we are," Tony said bitterly.
Steve stepped to the side to leave the room, and Tony moved with him, blocking his path. Steve was certain that two things were going to happen: that they were going to fight and that Tony would snap out of it, his need to unleash aggression sated. He relaxed his posture, looked Tony straight in the eyes with his own glistening. "Go ahead."
Tony paused, concerned. "You think I'm going to hurt you?"
"You did last time." Steve remembered what it felt like to have Tony's gauntlets tight around his neck. He remembered the bruises they left on his normally resilient skin.
Tony was on edge, trying to keep his voice calm. "I was ready this time. I can feel that anger and I'm holding it back. You know why?"
"For you. I want to punch you in the face right now. I want to get my hands around your throat. But I can handle myself. I can control it, and you need to know you can trust me."
"Damn it, Tony. I don't want you to have to suppress that. I don't want you to have those thoughts in the first place. Do you really not see what you're doing to yourself?"
Tony felt an immense rush of energy flowing through his body. He was adjusting to Extremis and there was too much to handle. He had to do something. He grabbed Steve and pulled him in, plunging his tongue into the man's mouth and kissing him savagely.
Steve pulled away in a grimace. "What the hell are you doing?"
Tony clawed Steve's shirt up and over his head. Steve found himself in an uncomfortable situation. He sure as hell didn't feel like sleeping with Tony, but he wondered what would happen if he told him to stop. Should he do that? What if Tony didn't care? No. Tony couldn't be that lost. He would never do that. At the same time, sex could keep Tony out of harm's way for a while. Steve was angry that Tony had put him in a position where he had to think about these things. What should have been something beautiful turned into an exercise in sound decision-making.
Steve used that feeling, and turned things around on Tony. He overpowered the man and threw him down onto the bed. He tore Tony's pants off and threw them to the floor. Tony turned back and gave a sinister smile as Steve pushed into him using only a quick burst of spit as lubricant. The friction was agonizing and Tony loved it. Steve combatively pulled Tony's hips toward his thrusting body. He moved hard into him and Tony screamed in anger and delight at the sharp penetration. He slammed himself into Steve until they climaxed together in agony and ecstasy.
When Steve pulled out, Tony let out a harsh groan and turned over to face him.
"Let's go again."
"Steve, I think—I think he stopped buying into the idea that I was bipolar or whatever. Something was wrong, sure, but it was caused or exacerbated by Extremis. Before I took it, I was just a drunk. Every time I took it, I got angrier."
"What did you do that time?" the psychiatrist asked.
"You mean aside from all the rough sex?" He still tried to joke. Still.
"I stopped caring whether I killed my enemies. I was safe around Steve and Shannon because I love them. When I killed that sniper before, I cared. When I was fighting Crimson Dynamo, Titanium Man, Whiplash... I didn't care. I killed all of them."
"So why didn't you just let it run out?"
"The world made me feel powerless," Tony explained. "Scott was re-elected, and his second term was more extreme than the first. They drafted all of us into the military. Most people went underground. Steve and I agreed to it because Nick Fury thought it could be useful. They let the whole 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' thing slide in our case, but in the civilian world they were busy passing the MEA. So now not only couldn't we get married but we couldn't kiss in public. Steve lost legal parenthood of Shannon. You want to know why I kept taking something that let me control any electronic device I wanted? It made me feel safe, like I could actually live in that world."
It was March 21st and London was foggy, which was no surprise, but the temperature was pleasantly mild. Steve and Tony were in town working with the MI-13 on a Doctor Plokta situation and they lingered a few days longer than their assignment actually took. They were in no hurry to return to the states, for obvious reasons, and they strolled casually along the Thames, holding hands. Tony wasn't much of a hand holder, but he felt like he had to demonstrate his affection for Steve if for no other reason than because he could.
Following a discussion of Shannon's martial arts training, there was a lull in the conversation.
"You know what's weird?" Tony asked, looking ahead at nothing in particular.
"What?" Steve looked at him but Tony was still facing forward.
"We could get married over here."
A startled Steve stopped walking. Tony followed his lead and suddenly they were face-to-face.
"If we were British, yes," Steve said.
Tony smiled. "You are British, Sir. They made you an honorary citizen at the end of World War II."
"Wait," Steve started, "Was that a suggestion? Not a statement?"
It took a lot to make Tony blush, but he did. His stomach was in knots. "It's just..." He uncharacteristically stumbled over his words. "You're the person people always asked me if I'd ever find." He was flustered and beginning to ramble. "Our first kiss was fourteen years ago, to the day, and—"
Steve was both amused and touched. "You counted to the day?"
"My armor does most of the counting. That's not the point. The point is, it's been that long and I know we've had our problems, but I wouldn't mind making it forever."
"Did you just propose to me?"
"No..." Tony said, looking down and away. He buried his hands in his pockets. One brief, awkward silence later, he was on one knee holding a simple platinum ring. "Okay, yes." He began babbling again in his nervousness. "I was going to do this back home, but we'll probably be dead before that's legal. And I—"
Steve found the fact that Tony actually got down on his knee for this both hilarious and beautiful. He grabbed Tony's hand and pulled him up. "Yes." He leaned in and kissed him, then glanced at the ring. "I can put that on myself, though." He did, and Tony fished another out of his pocket and put it on his own finger.
"I was worried, you know, that you'd refuse."
"No you weren't."
Tony leaned closer to the psychiatrist. "Your people took my ring."
"They did." She sounded almost apologetic, and her use of "they" rather than "we" sent Tony's already growing suspicion over the edge. There was that and the fact that she had gotten him to say far more than he'd ever planned to.
He eyed her up and down. "You're a mutant."
Her eyes widened in a blend of acknowledgement and fear. She set her pen down. "We're here to talk about you."
"Don't worry," Tony joked, "some of my best friends are mutants."
"I mean, they had the right idea, really. They started their own country and when that wasn't enough they high-tailed it off the planet. I take it you ended up here before you got the chance to leave."
There was pain and regret in the woman's eyes, but her voice didn't waver. "This is not a conversation about me. You can get back on track or you can sit here alone until someone comes to torture you. Your choice."
She picked her pen up once more. "So you and Captain America were married in England."
"That seems like a bad decision on his part," she said. He'd managed to irritate this woman to the point that she snarked on him. Unfortunately, she struck a nerve. Tony stood up, causing her to recoil in fear. He hated that people feared him, and he hated more that he understood why they did. But he did nothing but pace back and forth for a moment, then unleashed a tangent he'd been dying to go off on since his arrest.
"You don't know a damn thing about us. It's easy for you to say our relationship doesn't make sense, that Steve deserves better. Hell, I know I've thought it. But even if I hate myself, even if I don't understand why, I know Steve has never regretted our relationship. I know he would do anything for me, and I would do anything for him."
"You would do anything except stop taking Extremis, right?"
Tony stood still, then began gesticulating wildly as he continued. "I tried! I tried like you wouldn't believe. It didn't last six years that time. It lasted just under four, and... I promised. I told Steve I wouldn't take it again, not unless we both agreed I should. And I sat idly by while they repealed the 26th Amendment. I sat by while the American public was so panicked by the attack on Los Angeles that they didn't care who we bombed. I sat by. I built weapons for our army—something I swore that I would never do—because that's what they told me to do so they'd leave Steve and me alone."
"So what changed your mind?"
Steve was certain he could work more effectively underground. He also knew that if he did that, he would be able to bring Tony with him and save him from the guilt that designing weapons again was causing him. But this was Nick Fury's plan, and if there was anyone Steve trusted to be able to manipulate events to everyone's benefit, it was Nick. The man had already begun assembling an army of people to run for Congress and take it back. Steve didn't trust him on a lot of things, but he trusted him to do this.
Still, Steve was unhappy to find himself at Guantanamo Bay. He'd been at the zoo with Shannon when he got the call to come down. The facility was hot and miserable, and there was a smell not unlike human feces permeating the air. General Evans, an older gentleman with a drawn-out voice, led Steve down a dank hallway while explaining that he needed to make sure Steve was still "loyal to the United States."
Steve didn't care for that phrasing at all. The only thing he was loyal to was the American dream. "Excuse me?" he asked.
"You heard. People are talking."
The man opened a door to reveal three prisoners chained and cowering on the moist cement floor. Steve couldn't know where they were from, but one of the half dozen middle eastern nations the US waged war against was a good bet. He felt sick as he turned and faced the General.
"Kill them," Evans said nonchalantly.
"No." Steve didn't have to think about it. "They haven't had a fair trial, and I'm not an executioner."
"I thought so. You say you're working with us to keep your family safe. I knew you were full of it. You could have sent them underground any time you wanted. So who put you up to this?"
Steve stood defiant. "Go to hell." There was a stinging sensation in the back of his neck, then blackness. The next thing he knew, he heard the combined roar of jet engines and gusting wind. He was lying in the cargo bay of a Boeing C-17. The hatch was open and Steve felt the hair on his neck rise as the wind rushed over his back.
"I'm glad you're awake," the General said.
"Where am I?" Steve mumbled. He tried to stand, but the tranquilizer hadn't worn off yet. Instead he swayed slightly.
The older man approached Steve menacingly. "We, Captain, are over the middle of nowhere, Cuba. This is where you're going to die and where nobody will ever find your body." He pulled the super soldier to his knees.
Steve thought of Tony. Shannon would be fine with her mother and Sam. Tony wouldn't. He would take Extremis again, he would try to bring Steve back, he would—" The thought was interrupted as the General bulled a six inch knife from its holster and stabbed Steve in the stomach. His insides wrenched as the blade twisted. Then another thrust. The General smirked as he pulled the knife out.
"One last thing." He grabbed Steve by the mouth with his left hand. His right brushed Steve's face with the flat sides of the blade. Before Steve could realize what was happening, his mouth filled with blood as the General reached in and sliced through his tongue.
"Now talk back."
Steve choked and shook as his own tongue was stuffed into the palm of his hand and he was kicked unceremoniously from the plane. As he fell, he thought of nothing but how terribly he had failed Tony. But he was resilient. He was fading, but he managed to tap the comm link on his glove. Bucky answered just as Steve hit the canopy of trees below.
He heard his former partner's voice. "Steve?" Then nothing.
Steve should have been dead when Bucky and Natasha found him. If the stab wounds weren't enough, he had impaled himself on a branch as he fell. Every inch of exposed skin on his body was torn and bleeding. His leg was twisted and broken. His eyes rolled back into his head. But he was still breathing.
They returned him to Fury's secret compound on Long Island, where there was a rush to treat the wounded soldier. Unfortunately, there was a distinct lack of medical experience among their ranks and nobody knew what to do. Tony arrived moments after Steve, alerted by a call from Natasha.
"What happened?" Tony asked, panicked.
"We don't know," Nick answered, "but we're pretty sure he's conscious."
This was confirmed by the look Steve gave Tony. The eyes that had been glazed over the entire trip back softened, showing something akin to fear. Tony put his hand to Steve's forehead and ran it down his hair. Then he turned to everyone in the room and told them to leave. "I can handle this."
When they obliged, he spoke directly to his husband. "What happened?"
Steve couldn't move, but his eyes pointed toward his clenched hand. When Tony uncurled the fingers, his stomach turned. He knew what to do and screamed immediately. "STEPHEN STRANGE! We need you NOW!"
Within moments, the room filled with purple smoke as Doctor Strange appeared with Linda, the Night Nurse. "What happened?"
"Just fix it," Tony said, leaving the room.
Tony didn't know what to do but pace outside the room, watching through the long window that lined the room as Doctor Strange used his magic to clear blood and insert stitches. When all was said and done, Steve would live, and he had a reattached tongue—one with no feeling, but reattached nonetheless.
He awoke surrounded by his closest friends, but he immediately asked Bucky, Natasha, Nick and Clint to leave the room and leave him alone with Tony. Outside the room, Bucky turned to his wife and muttered, "Uh oh."
"What?" she asked.
He took her shoulder and guided her vision through the window toward Tony and Steve. Steve sat up and flung medical supplies off the tray to his left and across the room. He was furious.
"Steve—" Tony started.
"Don't. Just don't!"
Outside the room, Bucky spoke. "I want to tell you something about Steve Rogers. When he took the Super Soldier Serum, they didn't spend months just training him physically. They trained him mentally, 'Tasha. If he showed fear or pain, it would demoralize the troops."
She furrowed her brow. "Are you saying they brainwashed him? Like us?"
"Not like us, but essentially... yes. He lets emotions build until, well—"
Inside, Steve lamented. "I won't feel it when I kiss you." He buried his head into Tony's chest and let his tears flow freely. This was their secret. Everyone knew Tony was a damaged individual. Nobody knew that Steve had just as many problems. He hid them too well.
Bucky knew. He told Natasha, " I saw it a few times during the war, when he didn't know I was looking. In all these years, Tony's the only person he'll let see him break down. If he were gone, Steve would be completely alone."
"We're his friends," she said.
"We're his troops," Bucky corrected, "and he won't demoralize us."
Natasha's brow narrowed. "He can't honestly think we'd look down on him for being human."
"Wouldn't we? Aren't you uncomfortable right now?" That was a fair point. She actually didn't like seeing an emotional Steve at all. Bucky continued, "We don't want leaders with emotions. That's why we follow Nick. That's why we follow Steve. We need them to be stronger than we are."
He looked her in the eyes. "Don't ever let me be the only person in your life, 'Tasha."
"I won't if you won't."
Inside the room, Steve pulled his head away from Tony's chest and looked up pitifully. "Kiss me."
"Steve, are you sure—"
Tony obliged, and Steve pulled away in tears. "I can't feel anything."
"I think it's worth pointing out," Tony said, "that Steve's a stronger man than I am. But when he needs me, he really needs me. And my problems, my issues... they get set aside. They don't matter."
"How do you define strength?"
"I don't know," Tony lamented, "I just know I don't have it. So I took Extremis again and I swore I was going to get back at them. You can hurt me. You can hurt me any day of the week. But I draw the line at my family, at Steve."
"This is when you attacked Guantanamo Bay?"
"Not just that." He wanted to regret his actions, but he couldn't. "I blew up every piece of Stark weaponry in the government's possession. I had access to all of it with my mind, and there was no way for them to prove that I did it. I don't think they mentioned that to the public."
"What happened then?"
"Well, that was a bad idea. Under the Defensive Interrogation Act, they could legally seize property from anyone deemed by the United States to be a threat. Lucky for me, being a gay superhuman was enough to qualify."
"Gay? I thought—"
"It's complicated," Tony remarked. It really was. He hadn't slept with a woman in practically twenty years and he didn't have any desire to sleep with anyone but Steve. The truth was that Tony wasn't exactly sure what he was, and he was okay with that. "The point is. They took my stuff. They took all of it: the buildings, the labs, the armor. I kept one suit and the last two vials of Extremis I had. Officially, I retired. Unofficially, I went underground with Steve."
"Were you okay with that?"
"I might have been, if they hadn't managed to put a tracer on my armor and track down our location."
Tony sat alone in Fury's makeshift hideout. The last headquarters, the one on Long Island, had been nicer. This one, located underground in Hoboken, New Jersey, was what remained of a paranoid old rich man's bomb shelter. Everyone else was in the conference area, so Tony took it upon himself to sit in Fury's office. He longingly eyed the bottle of scotch that sat on a bookcase unopened. Steve kept telling him everything would be okay, that they would make it through this. Tony was beginning to suspect that his husband was a liar.
A tracer. There was a tracer on his armor and he didn't notice. How the hell did he not notice? It was another in a long history of mistakes, and Beast and Tigra paid the price during the raid of the compound that followed. He was standing right next to Greer when that bullet drilled through her skull. He had long since given up on caring about killing people, but people being killed because of him? He cared very much, and he knew that right now Fury and Steve and all of their friends were discussing what to do with him. He was a liability, and he decided to take himself out of commission. He reached for the bottle and remembered nothing that came after.
He awoke lying on the floor of the conference area with a headache and what was left of Fury's team surrounding him: Nick, Steve, Peter, Clint, Bucky, Natasha, Jessica, Janet, and Hank. That was it. Fury was the first to speak.
"Goddamn it, Stark."
That wasn't helpful. Steve glowered at him, then leaned down and spoke to Tony. "What happened?"
"You know what happened. I got them killed. I should have known— There's nothing I can do. They took everything. They took my company, my home—"
"Oh no." The voice was bitter and sarcastic. "You mean Tony Stark finally gets to reap what he's sown for the rest of us?"
"Clint—" Peter interjected.
Clint could not be tamed. "The rest of us have been living underground for years. It’s about time you ran into something you couldn’t buy your way out of."
"Back off, Clint." Steve stood up and faced him. He didn't need this. He didn't need Tony sunk any further into a depression.
"I will not!" Clint shouted. "Everything started with the SHRA. Everything! You, of all people,
should know that." He went for the deeper dig. "I don’t see how you can stand to look at his face, let alone—"
"It has been thirteen years!" Steve bellowed. "Thirteen years since the SHRA passed, and I'm sick of you bringing it up every time—"
"Every time Tony screws up," Clint said pointedly. "It happens a lot, don't you think?"
"Why don't you put the blame where it belongs?" Bucky asked. "Why don't you blame the politicians or the people who keep voting for them?"
"You're assuming people actually vote for them," Hank muttered.
"It doesn't matter," Steve said. "There aren't enough of us left that we can afford to spend our time fighting."
Fury had kept out of this argument. Finally, he broke his silence. "Agreed." He turned to Clint. "Stark stays. Now help me get all the booze out of here." He walked away and Clint begrudgingly followed.
Steve dropped to the floor and spoke to Tony once more. "You haven't lost everything."
Tony reflected on his husband's words. "He was right. I hadn't lost everything, but this country had. We elected Bradley Scott to a third term. They passed the SHWA and arrested anyone who didn't immediately turn in an unregistered superhuman. They suspended habeas corpus, deported half the immigrants in the country, started interrogating anyone they deemed suspicious enough—"
"I don't need a history lesson," the psychiatrist said, "I was there."
Tony practically leapt from his chair and shouted. "I think you do! See, I've been declared an enemy of the state for loving someone. There are cameras everywhere and I've had more friends than I can count die or vanish." His lip curled in disgust as he shook his head. "They're allowed to shoot superhumans on sight now. I've been on the run for three years—"
"About that. Why were you on the run? Why weren't you with Fury?"
Tony looked away, shielding his sorrowful gaze. "I couldn't handle what happened to Peter."
Thick ash filled the sky and each member of Fury's team was lucky to be able to see three feet in front of them. The mission was ill-advised. An entire block of Newark had caught fire—possibly from an attack, possibly from someone leaving their stove on—and they decided to do what was right and heroic and help out. It was Peter's idea.
But the world had outgrown people like Peter Parker. It had outgrown people like Steve Rogers, for that matter, and there was never an opportunity the authorities wouldn't exploit. As a giant Hank Pym pulled civilians from the upper stories of burning buildings and Clint grappled people to safety, Peter built webbed nets to catch others who chose to jump. The others were on the ground, directing panicked crowds to safety. Except Tony. He flew overhead, watching and waiting for trouble.
He found it, in the form of several incoming... gliders? He spoke with the team. "Time to go."
"Military?" Steve asked.
"Doesn't look like it. Everyone get out of there."
Hank shrunk to his normal size. Clint scaled down a building and joined the others as they headed for a manhole that would lead them to the sewers and eventually the bunker. Peter didn't follow. He looked up at the building and saw a young redheaded boy coughing as he looked out the window. The boy reminded Peter of his own son, and the poor thing was too afraid to jump into the web below him. He dutifully climbed the building and extended a hand to the child.
Steve stood by as everyone but Peter descended into the sewer. "Peter!" he yelled at no direction in particular. "Come on!"
Tony landed and prepared to climb down. "Is everyone in?"
"I don't know where Peter is," Steve worried.
"I'm sure he just—"
There was an explosion of menacing laughter about a block in the distance. Steve shot Tony a troubled glance as it progressed into ferocious, boisterous hysterics. The two men rushed toward the sound and found the Green Goblin, Norman Osborn, cackling atop two unresponsive bodies: Peter's and a small male child's. The government had sent the Thunderbolts, a group that was now their personal squadron of superpowered assassins.
Tony blasted forward and tackled Osborn as Steve rushed to Peter. The upper half of his costume had been burned away by one of the Goblin's bombs, and the face underneath was left charred. "Peter?" Steve checked for a pulse and for breathing; there was neither. Peter's skin was partially black and most of his hair was gone. Steve knew that any attempt to revive him would be futile, so he mentally prepared himself to bring the body back to base. Instead, he found himself knocked to the ground by Venom, who was soon joined by Bullseye, Scourge, and Ghost. There were more gliders in the sky on their way, and Steve did not want to find out who else had been recruited for the Thunderbolts Initiative.
Tony didn't care who had been recruited; he only cared that they died. With one quick, merciless blast of his unibeam, Osborn was decapitated. He flew back to Steve's side and confronted the others. Steve knew that they needed to leave immediately. It was entirely possible that there were more skilled fighters on the way—ones he and Tony could not take on alone. Maybe even ones the entire team couldn't take on.
"Tony, we need to go."
"Not yet." Bullseye met the same fate as the Goblin.
"Tony!" Steve was no stranger to violence, but he couldn't stand to see something like that coming from the man he loved. As far as Steve was concerned, the taking of any life—no matter how depraved—was regrettable and took a piece of the soul with it. "We need to go now!"
"I'm not done here."
Steve grabbed Tony's shoulder as Baron Zemo and Spymaster landed. "Tony. We're done. Please."
Tony didn't want to stop. He wanted desperately to take the life of every person who showed up to challenge him until his own life was finally, mercifully ended. He wanted to destroy everyone in his path because they destroyed the most heroic person the world still had to offer. Even Steve knew when he had to let civilians die these days, but Peter never did. He never stopped doing what was right, and it had gotten him murdered.
Steve looked at Tony with pleading eyes. "If you won't stop for me, stop so you can see Shannon again. Please." Beneath his helmet, Tony's expression softened. Though he loved her, it wasn't the mention of Shannon that did it. It was Steve. It always was and always would be Steve's will to move forward that could keep Tony from going all the way over the edge.
The two of them fled without Peter's body.
"You were close to Spider-Man?" the psychiatrist asked.
That was a stupid question. Everyone was close to Peter. He was one of those people you couldn't help but love, even with all the puns. Tony explained, "He was like a younger brother to me. I always wanted to see him happy."
"So you didn't react well to his death, I take it?"
"That depends on your definition of 'well.' After that, I took one of my last two doses of Extremis and made it my personal mission to kill as many superpowered bastards as I could get my hands on."
"Where the hell is Stark?" Fury demanded.
The group sitting before him in the conference room was small. After what the authorities did with Peter's body, Hank and Jan disappeared. The only remaining agents—if they could be called that—were Steve, Clint, Bucky, Natasha, and Jessica Drew. They sat around the conference table looking at Nick. Following his initial question, everyone's gaze shifted toward Steve.
"I don't know," he muttered under his breath.
"Oh, that's good," Clint remarked. "Nothing bad has ever come from that."
"Cap, you said—"
Steve interrupted the Colonel. "I said I'd keep an eye on him. I know. And you know he's got Extremis again and there's nothing I can do to stop him if he doesn't want me to."
"Steve." Natasha wasn't sure how to delicately phrase this, but it needed to be said. "He's dangerous. Not just to himself and to us, but to our mission." The mission was no longer to help people; that ended with Peter's life. The group was now completely dedicated to espionage and correcting the nation's political judgment.
"It's an election year," Nick added. "We've got our guy. He can end all of this, but we need him to beat Scott." That would prove difficult: defeating a man who was running for his fourth term. Tony wouldn't make it any easier. "We need silence on the superhuman front."
"I know." Steve spoke frankly. "I agree with you. But what do you want me to do?"
"We could kill him," Clint said offhandedly.
Natasha frowned. "That's not funny."
"Didn't say it was a joke."
Steve stood up and left the room. He'd had enough of these conversations to know it wasn't going anywhere. In the eight months since Peter's death, Tony had gotten out of control. Control was what they needed now, four months out from a Presidential election. They didn't need another "terrorist incident" that could be spun into Scott's favor. But that's what they were about to get.
As Steve meandered back to the quarters he shared with Tony, a metal hand at his shoulder tugged and stopped him.
"'Tasha and I are expecting."
That was sudden, and it took Steve a moment to realize what his friend was saying. When he did, he couldn't help but hug his former partner. "Congratulations."
Bucky pulled back. "That's the thing. We're more horrified than excited." He paused for a moment, then looked into his friend's eyes. "We need this election, Steve."
"And we need to find Tony."
Steve's voice was more pained when he repeated the words. "I know."
"Guys!" Jessica called out from the doorway of the conference area. "We found him!"
The two men rushed over to find Jessica, Clint, Natasha, and Nick staring intently at a monitor. The headline "Doom Attacks Manhattan" spanned the bottom of the screen as the bulk of it showed an armored Tony battling Doctor Doom. Battling was too strong a word, apparently. They watched as Tony fell to the ground and was motionless in his armor. He seemed to be struggling to stand himself back up.
"I'm going," Steve said, walking toward the door.
"We're all going," Natasha corrected.
"You're not going," Bucky said to his wife.
Steve became frustrated. "Nobody else has to go. This isn't your problem. It's mine."
Clint intensified that statement. "Nobody should be going."
"Then stop me, Clint," Steve threatened. "I'm not watching my husband die on the news."
Natasha turned to Bucky. "We're going."
Steve, Natasha, Bucky, and Jessica arrived to find Tony lying on the ground with a bloodstained metal pole jutting out through the abdomen of his armor. Doctor Doom, meanwhile, was casually chatting with the local authorities. A trap. Tony had walked right into a trap and now they were looking at walking themselves right into it as well.
They hid behind a corner and listened as one officer spoke to Doom. "We knew at least one of them would come after you."
"I assume your government will stop meddling in my affairs now?" Doom asked.
"After the Extremis antidote you gave us, absolutely."
Steve turned to his small party. He knew exactly whose lives he wanted to protect the most: Bucky and Natasha's. He directed them to secure the exit: a manhole that connected Manhattan's sewers with Nick Fury's private tunnels. He and Jessica, meanwhile, ran right into the open; he headed for Tony and she flew above, shooting blasts of energy at the police offers who fired and anyone else who seemed a threat. Since they wouldn't kill, she always felt it was better to not use her powers sparingly.
"Come on, Tony." Steve pulled his husband off the pole that trapped him to the ground.
He wasn't unconscious, just stunned. "They did... something to... Extremis..."
With one arm around Tony's waist and the other deflecting fire with his shield, Steve guided the other man through what looked like a battlefield toward their exit. When they arrived, Bucky and Natasha were nowhere to be found, but a splatter of blood on the wall made Steve fear the worst. Jessica landed behind them.
"You guys wanna hurry up and get down there?" she asked, glancing at the open manhole.
"Go ahead," Steve answered.
She went down first, and Steve guided Tony in after her. He stood for a few moments, glancing at nearby rooftops, hoping that somehow Bucky and Natasha had made it out. But there was nothing he could do at this point, so he followed the others down a ladder into the sewer. His hand pressed a loose brick and soon he found himself in one of Fury's passageways once more.
Steve was unsurprised to see Jessica holding up a bleeding, delirious Tony. He was surprised to see that Bucky and Natasha were already waiting for them in the tunnel, then sickened when he realized that only one of them was waiting alive. The small dark entry wound and stream of blood running down Natasha's forehead made Steve immediately aware that there was no chance for her.
Bucky was a soldier on a mission. He carried his wife's corpse back to Fury's compound, never saying a word or even stopping to shed a tear. But he wasn't Steve. When they arrived safely and were certain they hadn't been followed, Bucky lost his composure loudly and in front of everyone. He rushed toward Tony and shoved the injured man against a wall with a loud clangor as metal arm met metal armor.
"You worthless piece of shit!" Bucky had grown to tolerate and sometimes like Tony over the years, but he knew that attacking his self-worth would hurt him. And he wanted to hurt him more than anything. He punched the faceplate as hard as he could but made only a tiny dent. Spit flew from Bucky's mouth as he kept hitting. "I swear I'll kill you!" Punch after punch yielded no visible result and he became angrier and hit harder.
Steve appeared behind his former partner to calm him. He reached out for the man's arm with a calmly stated "Bucky" and received a metal elbow to the face in return. Steve began bleeding profusely from his nose and gave Bucky pause. He stopped punching, and Tony slumped to the ground. Bucky looked at Tony and spoke with venom. " I hope you burn in hell." He walked past Steve and muttered the slightest "sorry" as he returned to Natasha's body.
"What a big fucking surprise!" Clint screamed, making his way toward Tony, who was shaking underneath his armor and unable to mutter anything in apology. "Once again, you decide what's best for all of us and someone who isn't you ends up dead!" Clint couldn't stop, and no one attempted to stop him. "And for what? Every time you take Extremis, it lasts a shorter amount of time. You were less dangerous drunk."
Steve finally stepped between the two.
"Here comes the defense," Clint blurted, exasperated.
"Let me handle this," Steve said. He knelt down and faced Tony. "Take your helmet off."
Even with the healing factor that Extremis granted him, Tony's face was worn down. It couldn't shield him from the effects of age and of spending years underground. The hair at his temples was fading, and the eyes that once shone in beautiful, cornflower blue now appeared to be grey. In them was the expression of a man whose soul had been wrecked.
The eyes only became more pained when Steve spoke. "Clint's right. You put every one of us and yourself in danger. Your body can't handle Extremis, and this team can't handle any more damage."
"And I guess it means nothing," Tony said, "that I stopped Doom."
Tony didn't know it had been a trap yet and Steve didn't have the heart to tell him. "Of course it means something, but listen to me."
"I am listening." Tony rose slowly and limped toward the door. "Nobody wants me here, so I'll go."
Tony continued speaking, "I told him to let me go, but Steve went with me. We stayed out of everyone's way. We did everything right. Scott won that election, and we still stayed out of everyone's way. We didn't do a damn thing."
"Then how did you get here?" the woman asked.
2028, Two Months Ago:
The Metro was disgusting. A wonder of engineering, yes, but still absolutely disgusting. Tony was certain it couldn't have been updated in at least fifty years. He and Steve sat on a faded mustard seat riddled with cigarette burn holes that left bits of foam padding sticking into the open. Tony picked nervously at the padding.
Cities were easy to get lost in, and they had shuffled between different ones for just over three years. Washington, DC wasn't Tony's favorite, but it was an election year and Steve wanted to see the Presidential candidates speak in person. Bradley Scott was finally stepping down, leaving an enormous power vacuum in the nation. Cutting contact with everyone meant they had no idea which candidates were Fury's and Steve wanted to see if he could figure it out.
"Are you okay?" Steve asked, watching his husband pull a sliver of yellow foam from the seat.
"I'm not overly fond of taking the Metro, is all. We're trapped underground, surrounded by people who might recognize us."
"Relax. Nobody knows who we are." Steve had colored his hair brown and, thanks to the super soldier serum, he looked about twenty years younger than Tony. The last time anyone had seen them in public together they looked about the same age. Tony, meanwhile, had shaved his facial hair and taken to wearing a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.
"That old women is staring at me," Tony said nervously.
Steve glanced over and the blue-haired woman was knitting. "No one's looking at you."
"I don't like this."
"Relax. We're almost at our stop," Steve said, putting a hand on Tony's leg. For someone who had excelled at hiding his affection, that was an unforgivable error.
The recorded voice of the Metro spoke. "The doors are opening. Please stand back so customers can exit the train. When boarding, please move to the center of the car."
The two men stood and exited the train at the Farragut West station, where they were greeted by a dozen federal agents pointing guns at them. Steve shot Tony an uncomfortable glance as Tony rolled his eyes. They were surrounded.
"Hands in the air," one of the agents said.
"Run for it?" Tony asked.
"Run where?" Steve questioned in return.
"I'm thinking—right through those guys."
Steve smiled slightly, then grabbed Tony's hand and darted toward the largest gap between agents. They pressed their way through, hoping that the crowd of commuters would deter the officers from shooting. They may have been working for an evil government, but they were still people.
Steve made it to the stairway that would take him out of the station, but realized with horror that he was no longer holding Tony. He looked down and saw his husband being held down by several agents, one of whom jabbed him with a syringe. Tony began to feel drowsy, but he saw Steve looking down at him and managed to yell out a loud "Go!"
That wasn't going to happen. Steve jumped back into the crowd and pushed his way toward Tony. He felt a stinging in his left arm, then another in his back. It didn't matter; he reached his husband and put his arms around him, grabbing Tony more tightly than ever.
Tony's eyes were downcast. "You should have—"
"We stay together."
"We... stay..." Tony's voice faded. Steve was slowly falling out of consciousness, but he had enough energy left to kiss Tony one last time. He captured his husband's lips in a bittersweet fervor, then spoke the last word he knew Tony would ever hear from him.
"That's everything?" the psychiatrist asked.
"Hardly," Tony said, annoyed. "That about sums up the important parts, though."
There was a brief moment of silence and Tony once again found himself eyeing this woman from head to toe. A person didn't socialize as well as Tony Stark and not learn to pick up on nonverbal cues. No matter how stern she wanted to be, the woman's crossed arms betrayed her uneasiness. Her gaze drifted downward for only seconds, but it was enough. Tony figured that she had no more desire to be in that room than he did.
He broke the silence with a plainly stated question. "So what's the deal?" He'd been kept alive this long. There was something they wanted from him.
"You have two weeks. In that time, you will either publicly disavow your relationship with Captain America—"
Tony interrupted. "Not gonna happen."
She didn't hesitate to repeat herself. "You will either publicly disavow your relationship and begin working for the government again, or you'll be executed."
"PR stunt?" Tony smiled. "Let me take a stab at it. Steve and I, we're icons of resistance. You get us to go along with your Leviticus-inspired bullshit, say we're born again or something and that's a serious blow." He paused for a moment, then stared into her eyes. "The answer is no."
"You don't understand. What they will put you through in the next two weeks will either make you comply or kill you."
"No, you don't understand. Steve is the only part of being Tony Stark I can stand. I will not say the best thing in my life was a lie. I don't care what you do."
"Then we're done here." She stood up to shake Tony's hand, then leaned in close to his ear to whisper. "Just lie to them. That's what I did."
Tony was left alone to consider that statement.
Part II: The Escape
The bed in Steve's old apartment wasn't very comfortable. Tony had tried supplying memory foam and adjustable mattresses, but Steve couldn't get used to them. He liked sleeping on a thin spring mattress that reminded him of where he came from. To anyone who wasn't a 1940s transplant, it felt like an inadvertent round of acupuncture.
Still, it was Steve's bed, and it was Tony's go-to dream retreat for years. He spent several minutes just looking at his sleeping partner, especially the curve of his slightly parted lips.
Suddenly, they moved. "Tony, are you staring at me again?" Steve opened his eyes and turned to face the other man.
"I can't help it." Tony smiled. "How long have you been awake?"
"A long time."
If there was one thing Tony Stark was terrible at, it was enjoying the moment. He looked into his partner's eyes and asked a question that had been on his mind: "Do you miss me, Steve?"
Steve stared for a moment before answering emotionlessly. "No." Before Tony could respond, he continued. "The best days of my life are all days when you weren't in it."
Tony snapped awake, again on the cold cement floor of his cell. He choked out some blood—a remnant of the previous evening's entertainment. It would be nice if he could at least be happy in his dreams, but that obviously wasn't the case. He pulled himself to a seated position, legs crossed, and thought about his dream husband's words. Looking around the dank cell, he could definitely see how they might be true. Steve would have been better off without him.
All things considered, the first day of torture hadn't gone too badly. He'd taken worse than a beating from some normal human officers. Still, the hunger pangs were starting to bother him and his bruised arm still pulsed with pain where one of the men had kicked it.
The door creaked open, and the man he could only assume was in charge of this place appeared. He had more meaningless bits of flair on his jacket than the others and his grey hair showed that he was older. He spoke with a thick Boston accent that was almost as torturous as anything else, and his arms were suspiciously behind his back. Tony tried to angle himself for a good look, but he couldn't see anything.
"I hope you enjoyed yesterday's warm-up," the man said.
"That was supposed to hurt?"
"You think you're clever, don't you?"
Tony pretended to be deep in thought for a moment, then answered. "Uh, yeah."
"Do you know who I am?"
"Lots of rainbow-colored pins, miserable look on your face... A waiter at TGI Friday's?" Tony was resolved not to take any of this seriously. If he let himself be miserable, if he let himself become emotionally compromised, assholes like this would have beaten him. They might kill him, but they weren't going to beat him. He would feign sanity and put on an air of sarcastic contempt as long as he needed to.
The slightly older gentleman ignored the quip and continued. "My name is Jeremiah Samson. I'm the General in charge of this operation. You've already been given the terms that will end your captivity."
Tony stood up to confront the man. "Yeah. Not happening."
"Okay, then. Let's see what we can do to change your mind." From behind his back, the General brought forward a large bottle of scotch.
Tony glowered. "I'm not drinking."
"And I'm not asking," Samson replied, moving menacingly toward his prisoner.
It took the help of two guards to pin Tony to the ground, and he thrashed his head from side to side trying to dodge the bottle. Any control he had over himself would go out the window if he was drunk. But the struggle was fruitless. He eventually felt the glass of the bottle tap against his teeth on its way into his mouth. He ignored how good the scotch tasted and forced it back out, creating a stream that ran down the side of his face.
"Again, I'm not asking," Samson said.
He gripped Tony's nose so he couldn't breathe. After a minute or so, he let the alcohol glide down his throat. It was going to be more difficult to win than he had imagined.
Steve crossed the threshold into the filthy apartment where Tony had been staying ever since he lost control of his company thanks to Obadiah Stane. He found the former billionaire relaxed on the bed, a bottle of whiskey in hand.
"I don't suppose you'd care to join me in a drink," Tony slurred.
"You're right. I wouldn't." Steve sat down at the edge of the bed and looked at his drunken friend. "Tony, just tell me why. You're an intelligent man. You must realize you're destroying yourself, and I want to know why."
Tony didn't answer. He stared intently at the green bottle in his hand, avoiding Steve's gaze. After a few moments, he couldn't take the silence any longer. Steve struck a blow to the bottle, and it flew out of Tony's hand onto the dingy yellow carpet of the dilapidated room. "Answer me!" he demanded. It wasn't Steve's proudest moment, but he was furious.
Tony's answer was pitiful. "You don't understand." He flopped off the side of the bed and inched toward the bottle. "If you could feel what I'm feeling, you'd know I have to drink."
It was fruitless. Tony wasn't going to change on account of words. He probably wouldn't come out of this until it was too late. Steve thought about his father's death and foresaw Tony meeting a similar fate. He turned away from his friend and spoke sadly, knowing the words wouldn't get through. "What you're saying isn't new to me. My father was an alcoholic. We tried to help him, but a man has to want to be helped. Let me know when you do." Steve walked out the door, leaving the drunk to take care of himself.
At least that's what Tony had assumed happened. In reality, Steve spent far too many hours perched atop the building across the street, looking in to make sure his friend hadn't died. On one occasion, there was a fire and he carried an unconscious Tony out of the building. Tony managed to escape the scolding he was due, but Steve found the next run-down apartment he occupied and again waited on the roof across from it. During the day, he assigned the task of monitoring Tony to Sam or Carol or whoever would help. At night, Steve always kept watch. On this night, a familiar voice on his comm. link interrupted his surveillance.
"You're still intent on keeping an eye on him?" It was Clint.
"I am," Steve said.
"Why?" Clint asked earnestly. "At what point do you write someone off?"
"Never," Steve answered without hesitation.
He saw Tony fall off the side of his bed onto the floor. That was a usual occurrence. What was unusual was that he didn't react to the collision. He was motionless, completely unconscious, and Steve leapt across the street onto the apartment building's fire escape. Tony's window was open, and Steve climbed through it. He knelt down next to the other man. Tony was breathing, barely. Keeping him from choking and getting him conscious were Steve's immediate goals. He picked him up and carried him to the shower, where he turned on the cold water and climbed in.
A bit of salmon-toned vomit emerged from Tony's colorless lips. Steve spoke gently as he held him upright. "Come on, Tony." There was a faint groan. A groan was good.
"...Gonna ... die..." Words were even better.
"You're not going to die." Steve resolved to hold this man here until he was sober. In the meantime, something happened. The soaked shirt that clung to Tony's body outlined it in a way Steve hadn't seen before. This was probably the worst possible time for a person to realize they were attracted to someone of the same sex, but this was where it happened. He eyed the perfect triangle from Tony's shoulders to his waist that culminated in a ridiculously firm ass, and suddenly Steve was hard.
He stood there in extreme discomfort, simultaneously holding up his drunken friend and thinking about how much he would like to kiss him. It horrified Steve. He wasn't interested in men, or at least he wasn't supposed to be. And he was a terrible friend. While he held Tony up, he shifted slightly and his pelvis briefly touched Tony. The drunk wobbled slightly.
"Are you...horny?" Tony mumbled.
"You're drunk," Steve said sternly.
"...And you're hard." Tony leaned his head back. His lips barely touched Steve's before he was out cold again.
They never spoke of that. Steve assumed it was because Tony had been so drunk that he didn't remember. Tony, on the other hand, just assumed he'd been mistaken and also chalked it up to his drinking. That, in fact, played a small part in his resolving to stop drinking when he survived to see the next day. If he'd been so far gone that he imagined Captain America had the hots for him—well, he was pretty far gone. He sat on the edge of the room's bed, next to Steve.
"If you hadn't come—You were here all night—" he phrased the words as if they were questions.
"Yeah," Steve answered.
"I knew it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. You weren't listening before. Maybe you will now."
"No. Why?" Tony said meekly, his voice cracking at the second word. "Why do you give a damn about me? I don't."
"Because you're a good man whether you want to believe it or not."
Three rooms down from Tony's dank and miserable cell, Steve Rogers was being kept in relative comfort. He had a real bed. He ate decent food. The General was trying a different strategy with him—one that involved guilt, shame, and a large amount of anti-gay and anti-superhuman propaganda. They knew he'd struggled with this relationship in the past. Everyone knew. But it wasn't working, and he was annoyed when the same woman who sat down with Tony appeared in the doorway to speak with him.
"Ma'am," Steve said before she could let out a word, "I've talked to at least a dozen of you people by now. At this point you might consider calling it quits."
She sat down on the bed beside him. Her face was familiar. He stared at her for a moment before his photographic memory allowed him to draw a conclusion. "You're Emma Frost's sister." The woman's face froze. "Cordelia, right?"
"How do you—" she started, then turned her focus back to her task. "I'm not here to talk about me. I'm here to talk about Tony."
Steve's eyes widened. "He's still alive?"
She nodded. "He's my assignment." There was a brief pause. "I want you to tell me how to break him."
"Excuse me?" Steve squinted in disbelief.
She looked him straight in the eyes. "Listen to me. You know what we want. Right now he's being tortured until the General gets tired of him."
"What do you want from me?" Steve asked.
"They're going to kill him, and I know you don't want that. So how do we get him to agree?"
"Agree to what?" He was fairly certain he already knew the answer.
"To publicly denounce you and work for us again."
Steve didn't hesitate. "You don't." He stood up to move away from Ms. Frost.
"What do you mean?"
"You don't." Steve repeated his words bluntly. "If Tony's made up his mind about something, that's it." He knew that well enough from experience. He paused for a moment, then spoke again. "The resistance is gaining traction, isn't it?"
Steve speculated aloud. "I'm guessing you haven't publicized the news of our capture yet. Whoever's in charge thinks it would be more valuable to have us repent or whatever you're calling it than to have us dead. That way more people become disillusioned."
"What makes you think—"
"You could have killed both of us by now. I'm not the genius of our relationship, but I'm not an idiot. There are people out there who still believe in us."
"You're partly right. You are an inspiration to people. You would make a valuable asset. They don't care what happens to Tony. If he agrees to their proposal, great. If not, they will kill him." She paused. "I want to help him," she said. "I want to help you both make it out of here alive."
"You'd better hope we don't," Steve advised, "because if we do, it won't be under your terms."
Without Extremis, Tony had a very poor concept of time. In previous years, he would routinely spend hours in his lab, never stopping to eat until Steve or Shannon came in to interrupt him. Currently, his lack of chronal awareness was exacerbated by the alcohol flowing through his bloodstream. He was simultaneously furious and thrilled. Mostly furious, but there was a part of him that would never not love being blind drunk. He sat in the corner of the room, feeling the world spin slowly around him and hating the fact that he liked it that way. If this was their idea of torture, they were idiots.
Then again, this was probably part one of a multi-step process. What would be the benefit of getting him drunk? He'd have been able to figure it out if he weren't intoxicated. Instead he stopped wondering.
When what he figured was several hours had passed and withdrawal had set in, he clenched his throbbing forehead in misery. He needed a drink. He spent every day of his life needing a drink and the only person who made him feel like he didn't need it—like he could be happy without—was Steve.
Steve wasn't there.
"Damn it, Tony!" Steve slammed his fist down on Tony's desk, causing the empty liquor bottles that covered it to shake and rattle. "Is this how you plan on getting me back? By making yourself so pathetic—"
"This has nothing to do with you!" Tony yelled. "There's a lot going on in my life and... You would know that. You would know it if you were here with me instead of running around as Nomad or The Captain or whatever you're calling yourself these days."
"You told me to leave," Steve corrected.
"For a little while. As in days. I didn't think... I thought you'd come back."
Steve spoke earnestly. "I'm here right now. Talk to me."
"It's just... It's all too much. One thing after another. It's always going to be one thing after another...and... I want it to end. I want to not look in the mirror and see myself looking back." Tony had experienced a lot of trauma as of late, including an ex girlfriend paralyzing him, his armor becoming obsessed with him, and being manipulated by Kang into killing Marilla and Yellowjacket.
Still, Steve was upset at this. "You think killing yourself is the answer?"
"It's an answer. You can't tell me you're not sick of it. All the struggle. All the pain. What the hell are we doing this for?"
"If we don't, who will?" Steve asked honestly. "The forces of evil won't stop, so we can't. Not for a second."
"I'm not sure I care if they win," Tony admitted.
"Everyone has their breaking point. It's okay." Steve looked him directly in the eyes. "But you're going to overcome it because you do care." He put a hand on Tony's shoulder. "You may not care about yourself, but you care about the world. And the world needs you more than you'll ever realize."
"The pep talk isn't going to work this time. There's nothing I can do to help the world anymore. My armor's an antique. Everyone I face has a good chance of killing me. Everyone. And if I don't have this... If I don't have Iron Man... I have nothing."
"The world needs Tony Stark as much as it's ever needed Iron Man. I know I do."
That was one of many times Tony Stark contemplated suicide, and he was beginning to entertain the thought again as the last remnants of alcohol left his system. If he could control his own fate, that would be preferable to letting them toy with him.
And toy with him was exactly what they did.
Tony could handle physical pain. That wasn't an issue no matter how many bats or knives they used against him. It wasn't an issue when he was beaten or tazed or waterboarded. What he couldn't handle was more emotional trauma.
On the second day, Tony was presented with two beverage options: a gallon of water and a 750mL bottle of bourbon. After he mustered every bit of strength within him to choose the water, he found that it was poisoned and spent the next several hours vomiting profusely. When offered the choice again, he wisely chose the liquor.
By the third day, he was suffering the effects of severe dehydration. If anyone cared enough to pity him, he was a piteous sight with his pale, dry skin and sunken eyes. When he realized he was becoming delirious, he paused and looked at the toilet in the cell where he'd been puking just hours before.
"Don't even," he muttered to himself. "We're not even drinking toilet water." He paused. "Who the hell is 'we'? Jesus. Pull it together."
They told him two weeks. If he could do it, he could make this last only a day or two more. But there was a nagging thought in the back of his head. There was no hope of ever seeing Steve again, but—what if there was? What if it was day fourteen and Steve came to get him only to find he'd given up and died? He couldn't do that to him. Toilet water it would be.
Time dragged on for the next several days. The fleeting pleasure of alcohol, followed by the pain and self-hatred of withdrawal. The sound of ribs cracking and the breathlessness that followed. The constant vomiting from either poison or the liquor that may as well have been. Shallow cuts that stung. Deep cuts that ached. The enduring smell of his own seared flesh. Knowing the futility of struggling, Tony distanced himself from all of it. Those who thought of him as a cold person beforehand would have marveled at just how emotionless he remained.
Halfway through the two weeks, that changed. Samson entered the cell with two guards on either side of him.
"Group beating," Tony shrugged. "Fun."
The General responded, smiling. "Not quite. Before you decide whether or not you'll be drinking tonight, I have a task for you."
"That's funny. I have a gesture for you." Tony raised his middle finger.
Samson ignored that entirely and continued. "As you can guess, this is a top level security installation. As such, our men aren’t allowed to leave until their tours are up."
Tony scrunched his nose and narrowed his eyes. "What's your point?"
"If you could go ahead and raise their spirits—"
Tony, not blinking, crossed him arms in defiance. "You already know what I’m going to say."
"'Fuck you'" Samson intoned in a mimicry of Tony's voice.
"Nailed it," Tony said smirking. Inside he was nervous, but the hell if he was going to let it show.
"I’ll change your mind." The General pulled a small monitor out of his pocket.
On the screen was Steve alive in his cell, restrained at gunpoint by several soldiers. Tony's mind held three emotions in response. The first was relief; Steve was alive. The second—anger—was already strong from Samson's request. In their fucked worldview, what Tony and Steve had was wrong but demanding sexual favors from prisoners was all right. He thought of what he would do to them if he had Extremis, and it wasn't pretty.
The third emotion was unadulterated fear. Not for his own life, but for Steve's. His rational mind didn't believe that they would harm him, but these people were far from rational.
" I call bullshit," he said, reason beating fear.
"Why is that?" Samson asked.
"You’re not going to kill him," Tony stated as if it were a fact.
"How do you figure?"
This a chance for Tony to extoll Steve's virtues, and he took it. He also figured that saying them out loud would convince his captors of their veracity. "He’s more powerful than you are. Despite everything, people still love him. You want him on your side for propaganda. Kill Captain America and people rebel more than they already are."
The General gave Tony a sly glance. "Are you willing to bet his life on that theory?"
His bluff had been called. Tony stuck with it. "You know, I am."
Samson put a hand to his earpiece and spoke to the other end. "Do it."
On screen, Steve was shot twice in the stomach. The sound rang through Tony's head. He couldn't handle this. Not again. Everyone always got hurt when he was around.
If anyone understood Tony Stark on a fundamental level, it was Pepper Potts. The romantic relationship between them didn't work for reasons both obvious and not, but aside from Steve there was no one Tony trusted more. And right now she was bleeding out in the dust-covered lobby of Stark Tower while all he could hear was harsh, endless ringing.
A bomb. Shrapnel. He could fix this. He tripped over a bit of rubble and knelt over his friend. Her lips trembled slightly, but there was still no sound but the ringing. He could fix this. He had to fix this. He lifted her in his arms with the intention of taking her to his workshop. When she'd been hit by shrapnel a few years earlier he had put an arc reactor in her chest just as he had his own. Eventually neither of them needed one, but he could do it again. He stumbled upstairs, the ringing slowly giving way to sirens and panicked screams. He tuned them out. Steve and Shannon were out; they were safe. Nothing mattered in this moment but saving his closest friend.
When they were in the relative quiet of a stairwell, he heard a soft whisper. Pepper repeated the words he hadn't heard moments earlier. "Take care of yourself."
"Please, Tony," Pepper muttered as her voice faded.
That was it. He couldn't fix this.
Two days had passed when Ms. Frost tried speaking to Tony again.
" They shot Steve," he muttered.
"He’s fine." Tony didn't know whether to believe that. "You’ll both be fine if you just—"
"No!" he shouted. Taking their offer was out of the question. "I won’t give them anything!"
"You already have, Tony. They want you broken, and they’ve done it. If you get out of here, you can live to resist them. You can do what Nick Fury and his friends are doing."
Tony put his hands to his head. "No. I'm tired. I’m tired of fighting… My life has been nothing but a struggle since I was 22. I can't fix the world. I'm done." He slowed his speech, realizing how much emotion he had put on display. "How many days are left anyway? Two? Three?" He'd lost track of time.
"Five days, then, and I’m done."
"Five days and you're dead. Steve Rogers is in his cell planning, still insisting there’s hope of fixing the world, and here you are—"
"I’m not Steve!" he screamed. "I'm sitting here shaking because I need a drink. My body is one giant bruise, and I can't move without being in pain. I haven't eaten anything in days other than some goddamned soldier's—" He clenched his teeth, cutting the sentence short. "I'm not going to be 'okay.' Ever."
She left, writing him off as a lost cause.
For the last five days, things went on much as they had before: Tony contemplated suicide, found that he couldn't go through with it, then repeated the process. When his time was up, he felt relieved—relieved that he would finally be done with this life and that Steve would know that he died at the hands of someone other than himself.
His mind was a mess, but he tried not to let it show. Not for Samson, anyway. That was until he was presented with a surprise: that he would be receiving a last request. He knew it had to be a trick. They knew that he would ask to see Steve, and they would manipulate that somehow. At the same time, he couldn't not make that his request. So he asked to see Steve Rogers.
He was escorted through the hall, his body barely remembering how to walk after falling out of practice for so long. When it only took a minute or so, he was in complete disbelief. The entire time he had been wondering about his husband, he was only a few rooms away.
His stomach churned with dread. What if they had done something to him? What if Steve had been treated the same way he had? What if— It didn't matter. When the door opened and he saw his husband sitting on the edge of his cot, it didn't matter.
The blond looked toward the door and froze. This was his chance. This was their chance. He allowed his heart to be consumed by love, but his mind became focused on tactics.
"Tony?" The name erupted in a frenzied whisper.
Their eyes met and held for a long moment. It had been nearly three months since they had seen each other, smelled each other, touched each other. It had been so long that neither man was entirely sure what to do. They had been inseparable, but they were separated, and now they were each eyeing the other up like he was a mirage.
"Your arm—" Steve started, looking at the broken, bloodied appendage.
"Fuck my arm," Tony declared. He rushed toward his husband, threw his good arm around him, and buried his head into Steve's shoulder. His lips embraced the familiar neck and Tony thought he would cry, but he'd worked so hard to not give their captors anything that he wasn't sure he could. Instead he murmured, "You're really you. I thought for sure—"
"Me too." Steve stroked his hand through Tony's matted hair. He was clearly happy to see Tony, but he seemed detached. Tony noticed his eyes shifting.
"What are you thinking?" Tony asked.
"I need you to take their deal," Steve answered directly.
Tony nearly jumped away from his husband. "What?!"
"You heard me."
"No." Tony curled his lip in disgust. "If you had any idea what I've been through, you wouldn't dare ask me that. I'm ready to die. I am not going anywhere without you."
"Tony..." Steve moved in close and pressed his mouth against his husband's ear. To anyone watching, it would have looked like a kiss, but Steve breathed out two sentences in a husky whisper. "Play along. I have a plan." He dragged his lip away from Tony's earlobe and continued the faux conversation. "I love you. Please listen to me. You're better off alive than dead."
Tony could see in Steve's eyes that he was plotting something, and he almost wanted to smile. Instead he agreed. "Fine. I'll do it for you."
No sooner than the words left his lips, Samson appeared with two guards.
"You've decided to agree to our conditions?" he asked.
Tony nodded. "Yeah."
"I'll go get your release papers in order." The General turned to his lackeys. "Take him down to holding." Steve gave a look that told Tony this wasn't part of his plan.
Tony improvised accordingly. "No," he demanded. "I stay here until you're ready to let me go."
Samson gave the two men a look of disgust. "You get five minutes." He turned to the soldiers once more. "Stay on watch outside this door until then."
Tony and Steve were alone once more. Steve reached out and touched Tony's right arm, which caused him to jerk back suddenly and violently. In his mind there were flashes of pain taking him back to how he got injured in the first place, and he snapped at Steve. "Don't touch me!"
Steve was taken aback. "Your arm's broken. I was going to—"
Tony cringed at his own outburst. "Right. Yeah." He moved back toward his husband. "Go ahead."
In one quick motion, Steve snapped his arm back into alignment. After the past two weeks, that barely registered as pain. Steve grabbed the pillowcase from his bed and ripped it lengthwise, then tied off the makeshift sling around Tony's neck. "Are you okay?" he asked.
"Not even a little."
"You trust me, don't you?" Steve asked.
"You're the only person I trust."
"Then trust me when I say it's going to be okay." He was playing for the cameras again. "You'll go out there and live and maybe someday things will change and we'll see each other again."
Tony played along. "I'm going to miss you every day." He hoped that wasn't too cheesy or obvious; he was a surprisingly terrible actor for someone so dramatic.
"I know you will." By Steve's estimate, they had under a minute of their five minutes left. He grabbed Tony and pushed him against the wall next to the door. He kissed him once on the lips, then traveled up his neck once more. "Stay behind me," he mumbled almost inaudibly into Tony's ear. Steve pulled back, put a hand on each side of Tony's face and looked him straight in the eyes. "We're going to make it." That wasn't acting. The two men kissed and their lips parted ways just as one of the armed guards opened the door barely a foot away.
"Come on," he said.
"Wait," Steve choked out. He put a hand up toward the guard, signaling him to wait as a tear rolled down his cheek. This was the rarely witnessed magnificent bastard side of Steve Rogers. Tony couldn't help but smirk when the soldier lowered his weapon, moved in closer and put an arm on his shoulder.
Before the soldier could say anything, Steve had grabbed his sidearm and shot him through the stomach with it. He would probably live. When his partner appeared, Steve shot him at first sight without hesitation. Blood splattered as the bullet forced its way through the man's neck. He fell to the ground clutching at his throat as blood gushed between his desperate fingers. He probably wouldn't live, and Tony was somewhat startled by that. He'd only ever heard of his husband killing Nazis, and he never thought he'd see Steve take a life.
But there was no time for reflection. Not now. Steve promptly handed the sidearm to Tony and grabbed the M4 carbine the first man dropped when he fell. He tucked extra ammo into the pocket of Tony's prison uniform. "Stay behind me," he directed. Tony was still too shocked to respond. He had prepared himself for death, and now he might have to live. It was an unsettling feeling. Steve raised his voice. "Tony! Can you do that?"
Tony was drawn back into the conversation. "Yeah."
Steve peeked out the door into the hallway. "We're clear, but I'm sure they'll be here in no time."
"Do you know the way out?" Tony asked.
"No," Steve replied as he made his way into the hallway. He glanced to the right and saw a door marked "Stairwell." It was unlocked, and he led Tony through and down three flights of stairs.
"Do you know where we'll go?" Tony asked.
"No," Steve answered. The door at the bottom of the stairwell was solid. There was no way to see what was on the other side. Steve put his ear to the door. "I don't hear anything." Upstairs, the stairwell door opened and the sound of footsteps began carrying downward. Steve opened the door and the two men entered the first floor of the building. They were lucky to have exited right near the building's entrance. They were unlucky to have walked right into an area filled with half a dozen armed soldiers.
"Cover my back," Steve instructed.
"I have maybe five shots here," Tony said.
"Then make them count."
Steve had hoped to escape without killing anyone. It wasn't that these soldiers were "just following orders." World War II killed any sympathies he had for that. But he had firsthand experience with the way these people operated, and there was a very good chance many of them were tortured or otherwise coerced into service. The no killing plan was already out the window, though, and he wasn't going to let these people have Tony. He gunned them down quickly and efficiently; regular human beings didn't have a chance in a gunfight against a super soldier.
Behind them, soldiers began emerging from the stairwell. Tony fired at one and missed, his off-hand aim failing him. Steve turned and took down all four men who appeared. As the last one fell, the General's voice relayed orders over his walkie talkie.
"Kill Stark if you have to, but keep Rogers alive. If all else fails, use prototype 47."
"That can't be good," Tony remarked.
Steve spoke calmly. "The exit's right over there."
"And how many guys with guns do you think are outside?"
"A lot." Steve's eyes became distracted by a door marked "Confiscated Item Storage," which he approached gingerly. "Watch the door," he instructed.
"Yeah. Because I did such a good job watching your back before."
Steve ignored his husband's self-deprecation and entered the room. There was one guard sitting at a desk, and he jumped at the sight of the escaped prisoner.
"Please don't kill me!" he exclaimed.
"I'm not planning on it. You're going to tell me a few things—"
In the doorway, Tony could barely hear Steve and the soldier conversing. He was focused on keeping an eye out. No one else had approached, but he heard shouting coming from outside the building. He fingered the trigger of his gun nervously as his eyes darted back and forth. What the hell was so important that Steve had him doing this?
Suddenly, his husband emerged. "We're in the military superhuman containment facility outside of Quantico. If we head northwest, we can get lost in the Prince William forest for a while."
"You kill anyone for that info?" Tony asked.
"No. I asked nicely." Steve held out his hand. "I also asked for these."
Tony instantly recognized the two platinum bands in the blond's hand. "You're unbelievable."
"Here," Steve said as he slid Tony's on. "I know you hate that, but with your arm—"
"It's fine." Tony's voice creaked. "It's more than fine." He'd only been with Steve for fifteen minutes and he already felt guilty about wanting to give up. Steve put on his own ring, then led his husband toward the front of the building. "You're sure this is a good idea?" Tony asked.
"There are only 65 soldiers stationed here. We've taken out a dozen—"
"We?" Tony muttered under his breath.
"We can do this. I just wish we'd had a chance sooner."
"Steve, if we don't—"
Steve pushed through the heavy steel door and the two found themselves facing gunfire from nearly every direction. Steve grabbed Tony and jumped to the side behind a large cement planter. He raised his head for seconds to survey the area. Photographic memory had its advantages. There was a wall about fifteen feet high surrounding them. Atop it was an additional two feet or so of barbed wire. An M47 cargo truck was parked close, about twenty feet from the wall. Steve knew what his plan was.
"Can you drive with one hand?" he asked as pieces of cement shrapnel and dirt hit him in the face.
"I can try," Tony answered. With just his left hand it would be a challenge.
"Get to the truck. Put it against the wall. I'll cover you."
They used the no-kill order on Steve to their advantage. The soldiers shot at his legs and Steve was easily able to dodge their bullets. Tony jumped in the driver's side of the truck. Steve slid underneath it and joined him in the passenger seat, his upper body hanging out the window as he fired at the soldiers.
"You didn't ask me if I could hot-wire it," Tony mumbled, poking his head under the dash.
"That's because I know you can."
Within moments, the engine started and Tony awkwardly shifted the truck into reverse with his left hand. When his side of the vehicle was about a foot from the wall, he moved it into park.
"Climb up your side," Steve directed, still firing out his window at the forty or so soldiers who had now gathered to stop them. He began climbing up his own side of the truck, pushing his foot against the side-view mirror to hoist himself up.
"Little help here!" Tony shouted from his side. He was dangling from the roof by his left arm, kicking at the driver's side door. Steve grabbed his husband's hand and pulled him atop the vehicle. During the momentary distraction, Steve felt a sharp pain in his right leg and suddenly there was a growing red stain on his pants. He pulled Tony down and the two lay down on the roof of the vehicle for cover.
Tony stared in horror at Steve's leg. He couldn't be responsible for the man he loved getting shot. Not again. He barely registered his husbands words. "Lift... Barbed wire..." Steve noticed and shouted, "Tony!"
Tony snapped to attention. "What?"
"We're going over the fence."
"I don't think I can get over that," Tony said. It wouldn't have been possible even if he weren't fifty years old.
"I'm going to throw you," Steve said bluntly. "Do you remember I taught you how to land from a fall?"
"There's no time to argue." Steve grabbed Tony and stood quickly, using his momentum to toss the other man over the barbed wire and out of view. He rolled to a safe landing and looked up to see his husband following. At the last second, Steve jerked to adjust his trajectory and avoid another bullet to the leg. This caused him to botch the jump and scrape his already injured leg on the barbed wire as he fell and landed awkwardly on his chest.
Tony scurried toward him. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Steve said, lifting himself off the ground.
"So who taught you how to fall?"
Steve ignored that and eyed the setting sun, judging their position. He pointed his husband toward the northwest and instructed him. "Run."
Tony looked down at the tattered fabric of Steve's pants and the shredded strips of skin it revealed. "Your leg—"
They started off and, despite Steve's leg injuries, Tony was the one who lagged behind. Suddenly Steve came to a stop, and Tony caught up to him, breathing heavily. "You're not fast enough."
"Thanks. Next time I'll remember to work out when I'm being brutally tortured."
"I'm not insulting you. I'm saying I can run a mile in a minute. Maybe two right now—"
"No!" Tony exclaimed. "You are not carrying me. A) I'm not entirely helpless—"
"I didn't say you were—"
"—and B) You've got stitches holding your insides together and your leg is both shot and shredded to pieces. You could get yourself killed."
Steve snipped, "Okay. We'll just go back to prison then." Tony was silent. "Do you have any better ideas?"
"No," Tony admitted.
"So chastise me when we're done, but we need to get out of here fast."
Tony shuddered slightly as Steve put one arm around his back and slid the other under his knees, picking him up. He spotted a small stream and ran up it in an effort to avoid leaving footprints or bloodstains. As he ran, Tony's exhaustion and injuries caught up with him and he fell asleep.
Tony was practically pleading. "I have two doses of Extremis left that they didn't seize."
"No," Fury corrected, "I have two doses of Extremis, and I'm keeping them the hell away from you."
Fury tilted his head in disbelief. "Do you really have to ask why?"
Tony was reckless enough without Extremis. With it, he was insanely so. But he was also the most powerful member of the team since Carol left for the Kree home world of Hala with a vexingly resurrected Mar-Vell and Thor returned to Asgard to deal with a new Ragnarok cycle.
Tony pointed this out. "I need it. With Extremis, I’m the most powerful person you have."
Fury scowled. "We don't need power. What we need's strategy. What we need's brains, and you checked yours out a good while back."
"Without it, I'm useless."
"You're useless with it. Last time, you decided it was a good idea to punch Barton in the face—in your armor—then storm a government armory."
Tony's voice turned a mix of bitter and defeated. "If I had it three weeks ago, Ben Parker would still have a father and MJ would have a husband."
"Newsflash, Stark: Extremis has never helped you save anyone. It's only made you feel like you could have."
"I'm just saying that—"
Fury dismissed him. "There is no discussion. Get out of my sight."
"I am useless without it!" Tony shouted.
"Then I have one word for you." He looked straight into Tony's eyes. "Retire."
As he had since his imprisonment began, Tony jerked awake. Someone was carrying him, and he instinctively struggled to free himself. The disturbance caused Steve to trip and nearly land on his face. He groaned, picking himself up from the bed of the stream.
Tony eyed him anxiously. "I'm sorry. Are you okay?"
Steve stood. His arms were scraped, but he was otherwise unharmed. "I'm fine. What happened?"
Tony stepped toward him, averting his eyes. "Nothing. I just nodded off for a second."
"Don't lie to me." Steve put a hand to Tony's chin and lifted his face so their eyes met.
"We don't really have time for—"
"We're at least six miles out under deep cover. We have a minute. Come on." He took Tony by the hand and moved away from the stream into a heavily forested area. They walked for a few minutes before Tony said what was on his mind.
"I was thinking of before we left Fury's."
"And?" Steve asked, still clutching his husband's hand.
"And how this whole thing is my fault. Everything that happened to me—to us—it’s my fault."
Steve grasped Tony's other hand. "We both left. You’re not accountable for my decision."
"I was the one who was angry at Clint and Nick. I stormed off. You followed me because you felt like you had to."
"We held them off for two and a half years. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. We had fewer close calls when it was just the two of us than we did at Fury’s. Besides, we’re both fine now."
Tony was fairly certain that Steve couldn't have possibly believed those words. They were most assuredly not fine. But, not wanting to bring up any of the reasons he was feeling awful, he didn't argue. "I guess," he muttered as he pulled away from his husband.
In the distance, a faint glow carved through the darkness of the forest. Both men noticed it simultaneously.
"You think they got ahead of us?" Tony asked.
Steve shook his head. "The light's not moving. We might be at the edge of a town."
"And you're going to walk toward it?" Tony asked as Steve began to do so.
"We might be able to find some clothes to blend in."
They walked in silence for some distance. As they approached the lighted area, the glow appeared higher and higher above the ground until it finally disappeared. They had walked straight into a cliffside that seemed to stretch for a mile in either direction.
"It looks like we'll have to go around."
"I don't like that," Tony answered. "Only two junctions, too easy for them to cover."
"Well, I'm not sure how we're going to get up there with your arm and my legs." He would never complain about it, but Steve was quite literally on his last leg. If Tony hadn't jerked awake and caused him to stop running, he would have soon after. He had no desire to make an attempt at scaling a thirty foot wall of crumbling rocks at night. And there was no way he'd be able to support Tony while doing so.
Tony eyed a nearby tree. It was right on the edge of the cliff. An enormous, old cedar tree with branches spaced nicely for an easy climb. There was, of course, one problem: the lowest branch was a solid twelve feet off the ground. He ambled over to it and gave a look that should have been patented: the "Tony has an idea" face. He turned to his husband and instructed, "Give me a lift."
Steve dutifully clasped his hands together. His legs buckled slightly as Tony stepped up into his hands. There was still too much distance between Tony and the branch, so Steve lifted him higher above his head, his legs practically screaming at him. "I don't see how—" Steve started.
Tony stared at the branch for a moment. This was going to hurt like hell, and Steve was going to be furious. He tore off his homemade sling and tucked it into his collar. He then draped his injured right arm over the branch and grabbed that hand with his left. "Let go," he instructed.
Steve couldn't see what Tony was doing, so he obliged. Tony muffled the piercing cry that came naturally as the weight of his body crumpled his right arm. He steadied his voice. "Climb me."
"Are you serious?" Steve asked. There was the indignation. The outright fury couldn't be far behind.
"Just do it. This already hurts like a—"
Steve surprisingly didn't argue. He grabbed the bottom of his husband's legs and climbed the length of his back. When he reached the branch, he pulled himself up by his arms, then reached down and pulled Tony up. They sat for a moment, Tony catching his breath.
"Are you okay?" Steve asked.
"Next branch shouldn't be as bad. It's close enough that we won't have to do that again." Tony stood up and touched the next branch with his left arm. "Another lift?" he asked.
Four branches later, they reached the top and sat for a few moments, surveying the forest below. There didn't seem to be anything or anyone. Tony was probably right. If any soldiers were there, they were probably blocking the ends of that cliff.
Steve eyed Tony's arm sadly. "Do you want me to re-set that?"
"No." Tony said roughly. "You said we have to keep moving." He stood up and began to do so.
Steve followed his lead. "I did, but—"
"If there's no time for your leg, there's no time for my arm." He hated being coddled. He hated it and he didn't need it. He wasn't some fragile thing, to hell with what Samson said. Steve made the mistake of reaching over and touching his shoulder. Tony spun around and brushed his hand off. "Damn it, Steve. I'm tired of being treated like I'm useless!"
"I never—" Steve was bewildered by the other man's sudden anger. If there was any doubt in his mind that something horrible had happened to Tony, it was gone. He was acting like he did on Extremis, or when he was drunk.
"Don't even say you never said it. I know you've been thinking it."
"No. I haven't," Steve said truthfully.
"I have! I've been sitting in a cell for months thinking about it!"
Steve reached for his husband's shoulder again. "Just calm down—"
This time Tony angrily shoved the hand away. "I told you not to touch me."
"Tony, whatever you're feeling—"
Tony cut off the attempt at comforting words. "Whatever, Steve."
He kept walking, and Steve followed silently. The light was now clearly coming from the porch of a small cabin. It wasn't a town, but it would suffice. They approached in the shadows, still not speaking a word to each other. In a turn of good luck, the people who lived or vacationed here had a clothesline and various garments were hanging on it.
Steve approached it slowly. "We'll change into something more discreet and—"
"Right. I couldn't have figured that out on my own," Tony said bitterly as he grabbed a shirt.
Steve's mouth dropped in annoyance. "What are you angry at me for?"
"Nothing. Just that we never would have been caught if you hadn't insisted on taking the Metro."
"You've got to be kidding me." Steve put his hand to his forehead in frustration. A fleeting thought begged him to bring up the fact that they never would have been caught if Tony hadn't stormed away from Fury's compound. But he didn't. His husband was obviously disturbed and getting into another of their squabbles wouldn't help that. He prepared to offer up an apology when a voice that wasn't Tony's stopped him.
A man stood in the doorway of the cabin, holding a shotgun. "Don't move."
They could have disobeyed that command, but something told Steve not to. Something in the voice. The man approached them slowly and when he could see his face, Steve knew.
Doctor Pym's face was wrinkled and his blonde hair was greying, but he was unmistakable. He was also momentarily speechless before he could mutter a soft "Oh my god." His eyes were wide with shock. "You're not dead."
"Not yet," Tony dryly remarked.
Hank's facial expression changed to a suspicious one. He glanced around hurriedly. "Go around front and get into the truck."
"What?" Tony asked.
Hank retreated into the cabin. Tony and Steve skeptically walked around to the front of the building, where a red Ford F-150 from 1980 sat, presumably collecting rust. They glanced at it, then at each other.
Tony balked. "You know, he told me to trust him once and ended up being a Skrull."
"What are the odds of that happening again?"
"I don't know. Ask Reed Richards."
"Still," Steve said as he opened the driver's side door to sit down, "with the look he gave us, I'd say he's as wary of us as we are of him."
Tony opened the passenger side and took a seat. "And I'd say you trust people too much—"
As the last word left his lips, the floor of the truck dropped out and the two men found themselves sliding down a ramp as various scanners blinked and beeped and flashed lights at them. Tony's breath quickened in panic when they reached the bottom and he landed with a thud on yet another cold cement floor. He held his broken arm and looked around, not blinking and expecting General Samson to appear at at moment.
Instead, he heard his husband's hoarse voice. "Tony." For a moment it didn't register. "Tony, are you okay?"
Tony shifted to look at Steve. His eyes, unblinking, were still wild with fear, but he answered contrary to them. "Yeah." This room was different from a cell. It had a table with four chairs and a curtained off bathroom area. It was well-lit. It was warm. Tony breathed, then repeated himself, this time believing the word. "Yeah."
The room didn't have a door, but an area of the cement wall shifted and Hank entered the room with a still beautiful Janet. Tony and Steve stood up to greet them.
"I'm sorry about that," Hank said, "but I had to make sure you weren't robots or clones or—"
"Or Skrulls?" Tony croaked.
"It's really you?" Jan asked in awe as she looked from Tony to Steve then back.
"It's really them," Hank answered.
She stepped forward and threw her arms around Steve, hugging him tightly. He smiled. "It's good to see you."
"Yeah," Tony agreed. Jan let go of his husband and reached for Tony in another excited embrace. Steve worried for a moment that the touch would unnerve his husband, but it didn't. Apparently he only dreaded Steve's touch.
"I take it you guys were in the Piedmont complex outside Quantico," Jan said as she pulled away from Tony.
"Seems like it," Steve answered.
Hank chimed in. "We moved here so we could help anyone who escaped."
"The clothes hanging outside at night was a bit suspicious," Tony noted.
Jan smirked. "And when would I ever use a clothesline?"
"How many people have you helped?" Steve asked.
Jan looked at him seriously. "You two are the first." Not one to let the gravity of a situation overwhelm her, she smiled. "They're not very smart. Letting you two stay together is just asking for a break out."
"We just met up today," Steve corrected.
"So what—" Tony started.
Hank explained the plan. "That truck's on its way to Maryland. When they come ask us, you two stole it. When they find it, it'll be abandoned on a roadside."
"That's all fine and well, but they're not going to notice that you're Hank and Janet Pym?"
"Image inducers," Hank answered. "For all anyone knows, we're Eric and Gina Wilhouse, a couple from North Carolina." He paused for a moment and glanced around the room with his hands stretched outward. "Nobody's going to find you down here. Once they stop by and find out you've taken our truck, you can stay upstairs with us. When you're there, if there's any sign of trouble, just jump in the fireplace. It's the doorway down here."
"I have a question." Tony stared at Hank for a moment. "How bored have you been?"
Hank grinned. "Very."
"We're going to head upstairs and keep an eye out," Jan said. "We'll let you know when it's safe."
"Thank you," Steve said as the two disappeared back into the wall. Then he walked over to the table and took a seat, propping his leg up on another chair. Tony was still standing in the middle of the room looking at the wall that served as the room's entrance. "Come here," Steve said. "I'll set your arm again."
Tony walked over and pulled a chair next to Steve's, then took a seat. "I'm sorry."
Steve didn't answer. He set his husband's arm on the table and pushed the bones back into place once more. He then pulled the homemade sling from Tony's jumpsuit, wrapped it around his husband's arm and tied it off behind his neck.
They sat in an uncomfortable silence for a long while. Steve finally broke it. He looked into Tony's tense eyes and asked a question that had an obvious answer. "Tony. Back at Piedmont... Did anything happen that you need to talk about?"
The response was a sharp, quick lie and Steve knew it. He tried once more. "Tony—"
Tony practically snarled. "There's nothing."
Steve accepted his husband's lie. Tony, meanwhile, expanded on it. He leaned his head into Steve's shoulder with a slight nuzzle. This was what he should want to do. This was what he had dreamt of while he was imprisoned. But the action was a lie; he didn't feel anything but drowsiness.
Steve knew, and when Tony finally fell asleep, he allowed himself to cry silently for a moment before joining his husband in rest.
"They didn't..." Steve began his question on the deck of the helicarrier.
"They didn't have sesame," Tony answered, handing him an everything bagel.
"This is fine." Steve smiled.
"So you want to assemble a new team of Avengers?" Tony asked. This seemed like an exceptionally bad idea given how the last team had disbanded.
"I'm saying the new team has already assembled itself." Steve spoke with an enthusiasm that only the Avengers could give him at that point in time. "If the old Avengers can't be there, then let's try new ones like we always have."
It was a naïve idea that there could ever be a group of people who could solve the world's problems. "Let me think about it."
Steve knew what that meant. "Great! I'll assemble the team."
"Steve, wait..." Tony said. It was true that Tony would reassemble the team—not for the sole purpose of making Steve happy, though it didn't hurt—but he had to clarify something that had been on his mind. "It won't always be like this, you know. You can't just patch a team together and make things right."
"I know that, Tony. But when the world's gone to hell, somebody has to try something."
They woke up to Jan tapping each of them on the shoulder. "They're gone."
Tony yawned. "How long were—" He stopped when he noticed that she was wearing butterfly pajamas. He shot her an incredulous look that she ignored.
"Six hours. It's 2AM. You guys can go ahead and get cleaned up. I’ll walk you to the bathroom. First Aid’s under the sink. Fresh towels are in the closet."
They followed her to the cement opening which revealed itself to be an elevator upstairs. "Thanks, Jan," Steve said. He turned to Tony. "You can go first."
Jan was about to push the button to go upstairs when she stopped mid-press to turn and chastise them. "Did I hear that right?"
Tony and Steve glanced at each other, then back at her. "What?" Steve asked.
"You two haven’t seen each other in months. You’re not taking turns, you’re going together." She paused and crossed her arms confidently. "That's an order."
Upstairs, Janet handed Steve a stack of men's clothing. "Here's some of Hank's old clothes you can sleep in.
Tony smirked. "I’ll pass on wearing Hank’s underwear."
Hank poked his head out of his and Jan's bedroom. "You're not going commando in my pants."
His wife ignored him and continued showing Tony and Steve around the house. "The guest bedroom’s right over there. The bathroom's next to it. Just make yourselves at home."
"Thank you," Steve said sincerely.
"Thanks," Tony added.
They ambled into the bathroom for what was destined to be an uncomfortable shower. Steve set Hank's clothing down on the edge of the sink. Tony kept his eyes averted as he spoke. "How do you want to do this?"
"I don't know," Steve said.
"So you're as uncomfortable as I am right now?"
"Yeah." They shared a pained gaze.
Tony awkwardly moved his arm above his head and pulled the sling over his head and off. Steve would have offered to help, but those offers hadn't been going well so far, so he let Tony take care of himself. "At the same time?" Tony asked as he reached for his jumpsuit's zipper.
"Sure," Steve said, and he did the same.
Suddenly, Tony was rambling as he undressed. "Can I just warn you now that…" His sunken chest was riddled with cuts, bruises, and burns. "I don't even want to look at myself right now."
Steve attempted to interrupt. "Tony."
"It’s not really a bearable sight, let alone a pleasant one… and we can still do this separately." Tony's jumpsuit dropped to the floor at the same time as Steve's. The fact that Steve was in bad shape as well didn't seem to affect Tony. Steve sported a bandage around his waist that had spots of blood seeping through it, and his leg was completely covered in red except for where some of the barbed wire scratches had congealed and turned black. Still, Tony was worried more about what his husband would think of him, or that he would somehow figure out what had happened to him.
"Tony." Steve repeated.
"What? I know—"
Tony hated birthdays. They were little more than an excuse to get drunk and since he couldn't do that anymore, they did nothing but remind him that another year had passed. He hated that. He hated time because no matter how much he did in a given year, it would never be enough. Nothing he could do would ever be enough, in his mind.
The party was fine. Good, really. Hundreds of people he didn't care about came to drink his wine and talk about Iron Man behind his back. It was just the sort of party he used to love before Afghanistan and the piece of shrapnel that lodged its way into his chest. Hell, it was just the sort of party he would have loved a year ago. But something had changed, and he really wanted nothing more than to spend the evening alone with Steve. He couldn't, though, because Captain America was in Germany on a mission.
Tony considered that he might be falling in love, but he wasn't sure what that was supposed to feel like. He just knew that when he was with Steve, he felt like he was actually worth something. He tended to forget about everything, preferring to allow himself the comfort of feeling safe next to the other man. Steve had calmed and settled into some kind of acceptance of his relationship with Tony. There wouldn't be any "I love you"s or public displays of affection, but Steve didn't complain, he didn't fret, and he stopped dating Bernie in favor of living the single life with Tony on the side.
He untied his bowtie as he entered his penthouse, then tossed his jacket across the kitchen island. This was normally the point when he'd offer a drink to the random woman he'd brought home, then fuck her all over the room. But he wasn't drinking, not anymore, and he didn't want some random woman. What he really wanted was Steve's cock in his mouth. Knowing he wouldn't be getting that tonight, he made his way toward the shower.
When he entered the bathroom, Tony was sure he'd fallen asleep and started dreaming. Steve was there in a towel, having just finished a shower of his own. "Tony!" Steve said, surprised.
"What are you doing here?" Tony asked. Not that he minded.
"I just got back a few minutes ago. I—"
"I figured that," Tony said, eyeing a missed bead of water that ran down the side of Steve's neck. "Why did you come here?"
"Because it's your birthday."
"Yeah?" Tony grinned. "Where's my present?"
Steve blushed. He never could get the hang of saying what he wanted when it came to Tony. "Well, I thought we could have sex."
"You're gonna have to do better than that. I can get that from you any day."
"I mean, really..."
Tony's eyes widened as he realized what Steve meant. "Oh!" It was a troublesome thing. Neither of them had actually penetrated the other even though they clearly wanted to. Tony had been the only one with the courage to bring it up previously and Steve had shot him down. After that, he decided not to bother. They had something good going for them with or without sex, and it would happen when they were ready. "Are you sure?"
Steve nodded. "I'm sure."
This had the potential to be a very awkward and uncomfortable evening, and it lived up to its potential. The two men made their way to the bedroom and proceeded as usual. There was kissing, lots of kissing, then Tony rolled Steve onto his back and began licking the back of his neck in quick flicking strokes. He made his way downward, and Steve trembled as Tony's tongue explored the length of his back. When he finally reached the soldier's firm ass, Tony buried his tongue inside. That didn't earn quite the reaction he was hoping for as Steve clenched up and jerked away.
"What are you doing?"
"Uh, rimming you," Tony said matter-of-factly. He then sighed as Steve turned around to face him. Of all the men he could have chosen for his first, Tony had to pick the most squeamish.
Steve's face was once again bright red. "Tony—"
"Steve." Tony sent a name right back as he leaned in toward his partner's face. He put his left hand to the side of Steve's face. "You're impossible."
"I wasn't trying to top you, if that's what you're thinking. I sort of figured you'd want to."
That was apparently exactly what Steve was worried about, as he soon relaxed while Tony moved between his legs. Knowing the chances this night would go wrong were high, Tony decided to make sure the other man was satisfied at least once. This time, he went for Steve's cock and moved his mouth excitedly until Steve's hips began pulsing at his face. The blond grabbed Tony's hair tightly as he released. Tony crawled up to greet his partner's face with a hungry kiss, and soon he was on his back as Steve gently kissed his stomach then moved south.
Tony had no idea what to expect. He was under no false impression that Captain America would be eating his asshole, and he wasn't entirely convinced this would be the night they had sex. He was pretty sure that Steve would give him a blowjob and call it a night, which was fine but somewhat disappointing, given the context.
So Tony was surprised when Steve reached for the bottle of lube and shoved two fingers inside of him. That was unexpected, but welcome, and Tony thought there should have been a dramatic choir singing hallelujah at the revelation that Steve had even the slightest clue what to do.
It was a very slight clue. Steve was soon covered in lube, fumbling around with his dick trying to find the right spot. When he finally did, it became painfully obvious (at least for Tony) that he hadn't quite mastered the finer points of how much lube to use. Tony found his ass stinging and his face cringing.
Steve stopped and a look of worry spread across his face. "Did I hurt you?"
"No, Tony lied. "You're fine. Seriously. Just fuck me."
Steve continued thrusting, but at a fearfully slow pace. This wasn't going to work.
"Jesus, Steve. I'm not made of cellophane."
"I'm sorry. I just—"
"We're switching," Tony stated bluntly. He sat forward and put his arms around Steve's neck. "I don't have to worry about hurting you since, you know, I can't."
Steve was skeptical. "Tony—"
"Steve, you are killing me right now. Killing. It's my birthday. Humor me."
"Yeah, and you never sucked a dick before me either, but you're pretty good at that. It is far too late to call 'no homo' on me."
"Steve. Do you trust me?" He wouldn't have blamed him if the answer were 'no.'
Without hesitation, Steve answered. "Yes. With my life." Something about that statement made Steve relax. He hadn't thought it through much, but he supposed he was the only Avenger who had complete, unwavering faith in Tony. He gladly accepted the man's tongue in his mouth and allowed himself to be moved back down on the bed underneath him.
Tony figured Steve would be considerably less likely to freak out if they weren't facing each other, so he guided the blond to his hands and knees. He wasn't sure how much prep work was required when you were fucking a super soldier, but he erred on the side of caution. One finger inside resulted in an almost imperceptible twitch. Two made a small groan emerge from Steve's mouth. The third changed the tone of that groan to a slightly higher one. He seemed to actually be enjoying himself.
That was more than enough for Tony. Despite their earlier rimming incident, he decided against warning Steve. He figured he would never have him this relaxed if he did. He slid himself into his partner. Steve tensed slightly and emitted a short, sharp breath.
"You okay?" Tony asked.
"You sure?" He really didn't need an emotionally scarred Captain America on his hands.
Steve teased, "I'm not made of cellophane, Tony."
Tony took that as a go-ahead and buried himself deep inside of Steve. The air in Steve's lungs emerged in short, uneven gasps as he met and matched his partner's thrusts. It was perhaps too much to hope that Steve would suddenly go wild and talk dirty to his partner, but he made a lot more noise than usual. He groaned and breathed in ragged gasps as their bodies pressed together in rhythm.
Finally, Steve couldn't take any more and let out a muffled cry. "Tony!"
That was the best birthday moment Tony had ever had. He shuddered as he came in what felt like the longest release of his life. Steve let out an uninhibited cry of satisfaction as he erupted onto the bed. They collapsed in a heap. After catching their breath for a few moments, Tony kissed Steve's ear then spoke into it. "So?"
"Happy birthday," Steve said.
"That's it?" Tony asked.
Steve turned around and kissed him. "You're beautiful."
Tony cringed as Steve embraced him, and he hated himself for doing so. Granted, he hated himself all the time for different reasons, but this one was now at the forefront. He had been ready to die, completely. Now he found himself alive and dealing with the physical and emotional effects of being tortured. This was worse. No matter how much he had stubbornly tried to insist that he wouldn't let Samson and his men win, they had. They had won because what should have been a perfectly wonderful moment of reunion wasn't. He could fake being fine in front of others, but not Steve. He balked at his husband's touch, and they showered in silence.
Tony lingered in the shower for a while, staring at nothing in particular while Steve patched up his own wounds. When he finally exited, Tony found his husband sitting on the closed toilet taking a pair of forceps to the bullet wound in his leg. Tony slipped on a pair of Hank's pajama pants and sat on the edge of the bathtub, watching.
"That’s disgusting," Tony said as Steve pulled the bullet from his flesh.
"I know." Steve examined the bullet, but he was no longer sure that it was one. It was square, almost flat, and looked more like a microchip than anything. "What is this?" he asked.
Tony leaned forward to investigate. "I’d say a tracer, but they’d be swarming this place."
"Take it for a minute." He handed it off to Tony while he dabbed some antiseptic on his leg and began stitching it up. "We’ll ask Hank to look at it in the morning. I’m sure he’s got a lab around here somewhere."
"Yeah," Tony agreed.
More silence. There wasn't an elephant in the room; there was an entire circus. Any conversation Steve tried to start would go nowhere, and Tony wouldn't try to start one at all. When Steve finished stitching himself up, he made his way to the guest bedroom and Tony followed.
It was small, but better than anything they had experienced in a long time. They sat down on the bed and Tony was practically blown away by how comfortable it was. He sat back, leaning his aching back against a pillow and stared at the wall. He reflected that he should be happy, but it wasn't happening. His stomach churned. He coughed into his hand and quickly wiped the blood off on the side of his pants so that Steve wouldn't see. Hank would have to forgive him for that, but he couldn't deal with any more of Steve's concern.
Unfortunately, Steve Rogers was not someone who could ever stop being concerned. He repressed the urge to touch his husband and instead spoke to him from across the distance of the bed. "Are you okay? You look pale."
Tony replied under his breath. "I thought I was 'beautiful.'"
"I didn't mean—"
Tony half-smiled. "I’m messing with you." Joking was all he could think to do in order to pretend that things were all right. Pretending was futile in light of the man sitting next to him.
"Tony, stop. Can we please talk about—"
"Why?" Tony asked, his face incredulous. Steve sighed and stirred the guilt simmering within his husband. Tony continued, finally speaking sincerely. "I know. I know you want me to talk to you about the past few months. I know that." He looked down, hurting. "I just... I don’t know what to say. I don’t think I can even explain it." He turned to Steve, his eyes glazed with tears. "At the same time, I can't stop thinking about it. It won't leave my head."
Steve's face was sympathetic. He tried once more to put a hand on his husband's shoulder. This time, Tony allowed it to stay as his thoughts spewed recklessly from his mouth. "I could deal with any one thing, but they had to keep piling it on. And they taped everything for their goddamned amusement. Everything with..." He raised his voice, not noticing the sliver of blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. "They were laughing!" Tony's voice reached a panicked scream. "They were all laughing while they... while they killed me!" He was overtaken by a coughing fit and this time he couldn't hide the blood from Steve as it spattered into his palm.
Steve was more frightened than ever. "We need a doctor."
Tony wiped his fist across his mouth, smearing the blood away. He scowled. "Why?"
"You're coughing bl—"
"It doesn't matter! Everything is already ruined. Even you."
Steve put his other hand on Tony's shoulder, bracing him. "Listen to me. It doesn't matter what happened. I l—"
"I know." Tony choked on his words. "I know that you love me, and I love you, Steve. I do. But... I can’t send that feeling back right now. Half the time it’s like you’re one of them." Tony lowered his head, sobbing softly. "How fucked is that?"
"It's okay. It's understandable." Steve moved in toward him and Tony jerked back and away. Steve kept his eyes on his partner's. " I don’t know what you’ve been through, but it’s okay to not adjust right away."
"I just… Right now I feel worse than I ever did there. I thought if I could see you, something would click, and… and it would all be okay. But it's not." He was now crying outright. He pushed Steve's hand away from himself then dropped himself to the bed, sinking into a pillow.
"It will be eventually." Steve couldn't think of anything else to say. He stroked Tony's hair as he fell asleep, then lay awake for hours watching his husband restlessly roll back and forth. Eventually, Tony began muttering in his sleep.
"Stop." He clutched a pillow as he thrashed about. "Please just kill me. Please."
This wasn't unfamiliar to Steve. He had spent nearly every night plagued by violent nightmares for the first few years after he was unfrozen. But he wasn't sure he wanted to know what had happened to Tony to induce such a reaction. Tony only fell apart like this when he was freshly dosed with Extremis or when he was drinking, and he never rejected Steve during those times. If he couldn't help Tony, nobody could.
Suddenly, Tony's eyes sprung open and he jerked upward, covered in sweat and yelling. "Stop!" He fell back down on the pillow.
"You're okay," Steve said calmly.
Tony, eyes red, rolled into Steve's arms and buried his face in his chest. "It won't stop."
Steve ran a hand down the other man's neck as his face became contorted with pain.
"It won't stop," Tony repeated as Steve clutched him tightly.
"You're going to be okay."
Tony continued muttering. "Should kill me..." He pulled away from his husband's chest to look up at his face. His waterlogged eyes pleaded and his voice followed their lead. "Kill me, Steve."
The next morning, Steve wandered into the Pyms' dining room, where Hank and Jan sat for breakfast. She was reading something on her cell phone while her husband ate a plate of eggs and toast. Steve outwardly wore his exhaustion; his eyes were accented by dark circles and his hair was disheveled.
Jan looked up from her phone, grinning. "Looks like you didn't get any sleep."
Steve returned a serious glance. "Not for any reason you're thinking."
"Where's Tony?" Hank asked.
"Still sleeping." Steve opened his palm and presented the bullet-like item to Hank. "I need you to take a look at this."
"Where did you find that?"
"In my leg. Could you figure out what it is?"
"I'll give it my best shot," Hank answered. "Do you plan on staying around long?"
"No. We need a doctor."
" What’s wrong?" Jan asked.
"Tony’s injured badly. We need to do something."
"I know!" Jan realized. "We’ll get you to Dr. Strange and Night Nurse."
"You can do that?"
"We can," she answered confidently, shuffling Steve away from the dining room. "You guys get ready to leave. Hank will get the amulet."
When her husband was out of view, she turned to Steve as they walked down the hallway. " How is he, really?"
"I already told you he needs a doctor—"
She returned that answer with a severe look. "I don't mean physically. I heard yelling last night, and—"
"He’s in terrible shape," Steve answered. "Whatever they did to him made things a lot worse. His thoughts are fragmented. His mood shifts." He opened the bedroom door, ready to enter. He paused. "The only constant is that he wishes he were dead." He entered the room, leaving a frightened Janet in the hall.
The door creaked to a close behind him. He surveyed the room and found his husband to be nowhere in sight. Then he noticed that the door to the bathroom was halfway open, and approached with caution.
"Tony?" he asked gently. There was no response but a loud choking sound. Steve pushed the door open and found Tony hunched over the sink, bracing himself with his good arm as blood dripped from his mouth down his chin and into the sink. "Are you okay?"
"No," Tony muttered. "Clearly."
By this point, Steve was close enough to see the reflection of harsh bathroom lighting against his husband's pale, clammy skin and the slight tremble of his left arm as it threatened to give way underneath him. The sink was not simply spattered with blood; there was more red fluid than white porcelain and that was specked with small dark pieces of flesh.
Steve stepped in and put his hands on his husband's hips. Tony let go of the vanity and sunk backward into Steve's grasp, breathing in his scent as he spoke.
"Hank and Jan are going to get us to Doctor Strange. He and Linda can help you."
"That's—" The word 'unnecessary' came to mind, as did the word 'pointless.' But he was trying his hardest not to come across as miserable and pathetic. "That's... good." He leaned forward, away from Steve's hands. "Can you let go of me? I don't need your help."
"I'm not trying to help," Steve asserted. "I want to hold you because I love you, not because you’re in pain."
"I want that too." Tony looked into his partner's eyes, his own full of shame. "But I'm always in pain."
Steve grabbed him by the waist and pulled him in for a kiss. Tony's lips were pale and chapped, and they scraped roughly against Steve's. "Are you in pain now?"
Put some feeling into it, Stark.
Tony couldn't muster an answer. Instead he collapsed into his husband's chest, bawling. They stood there for a long while, neither saying a word.
When Tony stopped crying, Steve led him out into the living room. "We're ready to go," Steve said as they walked toward the Pyms.
Despite how hard he tried to put himself together, Jan immediately noticed the red in Tony's eyes and her heart sank at the thought of how the years had damaged a man who founded the Avengers. Steve's grim appearance didn't help. This was someone who had given everything for his country and his friends. He deserved better than this. She wiped her eyes quickly and re-focused on the task at hand.
Hank held out a palm-sized golden ring that was specked with gemstones. Tony scoffed. "Magic?" No technology would ever be so tacky.
Hank ignored his scorn. "All you have to do is grab this and think of Stephen."
Tony and Steve grabbed it simultaneously. The last thing either heard was Janet blurting a soft, quick "Good luck."
Nobody in power bothered Stephen Strange because there was nothing they could do to him. His home was a sanctuary, impenetrable by nearly everything—certainly by anything the United States government could develop. The Sorcerer Supreme knew before Steve and Tony did exactly where they would materialize, and he stood waiting for them at the bottom of his grand staircase.
The doctor wasn't one for sentiment. He greeted them with a simple statement. "Doctor Pym assures me that you two passed all of his tests, and I sense no mystical energy around you. I can't say I'm thrilled to see you, given the circumstances, but you're welcome to stay in my home as long as you'd like."
Steve's expression remained serious, but his voice, rushed with worry, betrayed the pleading nature of his request. "Tony needs medical attention. Can you and Linda help?"
"Follow me." Stephen turned and began walking down one of the many poorly lit corridors of his home. Not many homes employed wall-to-wall wainscoting and gas lamps, but Doctor Strange lived up to his name. Steve and Tony quietly followed him to a room that was unlike the rest. They turned a corner and entered a stunningly well-lit operating room.
Linda Carter, the Night Nurse, had worked with Doctor Strange for years and remained at his side, ready to help any superhuman who needed assistance. When they arrived in the operating area, she was already waiting.
"Do you just sit here all day?" Tony asked.
"I called for her," Strange corrected. He had a tendency to communicate telepathically. For Tony, he spoke aloud. "Take a seat."
Tony sat on the edge of the exam table and flinched as Strange and Linda flanked him on either side. "No offense, but I hate doctors."
"Lie back," Strange instructed.
"Relax, Tony," Steve insisted.
"Nothing good ever comes from this. Nothing."
There was a quick prick to his neck, and Tony drifted out of consciousness.
When Tony heard the news, he was thirty miles off the coast of the Atlantic on his way inland from the S.H.I.E.L.D helicarrier. As the organization's acting director, he received a lot of chatter, most of which he ignored in favor of his music. He loved his music. There was one bit of conversation that hit him, though, and it hit him hard. "Captain America is down." Without asking any questions, he pushed his suit's thrusters as hard as he could.
When he arrived, the ambulance was parked outside the hospital. There was no rush to move the body inside. Instead the paramedics had left Sharon alone in the ambulance to grieve while they pronounced Steve dead on arrival. Tony stood for a moment, taking in the scene, then panicked. He climbed into the ambulance as he heard the paramedics asking "Is that Iron Man? What's he doing here?"
"Get out of here!" Sharon yelled.
Tony completely ignored her. He pulled his helmet off and stood over the body. "Steve," he said. There was no reply. "Steve... Steve..." He grabbed him by the shoulders and shook, his voice reaching a desperate scream. "Steve!"
"He's dead!" Sharon said. "Leave him alone."
Tony couldn't accept that. He tilted Steve's head and tried to give him CPR, but his lips were already colder than Tony ever remembered them being. It was pointless, and Tony slammed an armored hand through the side of the ambulance. He put his helmet back on; inside it nobody would be able to see how vulnerable he was. Inside it, the last words he spoke to Steve echoed in his mind. He visited him in a jail cell and said "You're a sore loser." Of all the moments they had shared, those were his last words. It made Tony sick.
When he followed his former lover's body onto the helicarrier and saw it lying lifeless and shriveled on a cold exam table, Tony sat there shaking for hours. He didn't have to, but he felt compelled to watch as doctors poked, prodded, and dissected Steve. That was when Tony was traumatized into developing an irrational fear and hatred of medicine.
"You're sure?" Steve's voice was hazy as the anesthesia wore off and Tony slowly came to. He noted the new pain in his esophagus and mentally sighed. There was little worse than having been connected to a breathing tube. It would burn for days. While he struggled to force his eyes open, he heard a faded conversation.
"I'm surprised he's still alive at all. The fact of the matter is there's just too much damage."
Tony groaned, touching the new cast on his arm. "What..."
Strange leaned over him, his face solemn. "I'm afraid there's nothing we can do for you."
Tony, still dazed and seemingly bored by the news, spoke in a mordant tone. "What a shame."
"Linda and I patched up what we could, but it's too much. We can't do anything about your liver failure. Your stomach is practically eating away at itself from what I presume to be some sort of poison. Both of your lungs have collapsed from rib lacerations, and I have no idea how you've survived this long without going into cardiac arrest."
"I did do that," Tony said offhandedly.
Steve, who had been sitting at Tony's side, stood up angrily. "We know it's not his implacable will to live." He couldn't handle Tony like this, and he stormed off.
"I'm the one who's dying," Tony muttered.
Linda looked at him in disbelief. "You know, for someone who cares so little about himself, I'd think
you'd have plenty of room to care about someone else."
Steve was no stranger to fallen comrades, but walking through the cemetery behind Strange's home brought him a great deal of pain. The graves were a reminder of the fact that all of his friends either had or would die before he would. Even Bucky had aged, albeit slowly. But the super soldier serum was perfect. Here he was, either 106 or 48 years old, depending on the perspective, looking and feeling no older than he did twenty years prior. To anyone else, the feeling would be crippling, but Steve held his sadness well.
He slowed as he passed the grave of Peter Parker. Peter and MJ's son, Ben, had been born the same year as James. As it turned out, Ben no longer had a father, just as Steve no longer had a son. Soon he would have no husband, and one day his daughter would die before he did. None of this was okay.
It had recently rained, and the ground sank slightly beneath his feet as he moved on. The graves were all familiar—Sam Wilson, Pepper Potts, James Rhodes, Natasha Romanoff—as Fury made sure that anyone the government might have a remote interest in was buried where no one could disturb them.
He looked down to find a new one:
"With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind that is not natural in an age like this."
He heard the ground shift behind him.
"Clint too?" Tony asked. He limped toward his husband and took his place next to him.
"Yeah. Seems like everyone's dying these days."
Tony eyed his husband earnestly. "About that. I'm not worried and you shouldn't be."
He didn't get it. Steve threw his hands up in defeat. "I'm sure that's easy for you to say when you're not the one who'll be left behind." The thought of dying didn't frighten Steve nearly as much as the thought of death coming for Tony.
"I told you—" Tony started.
Steve interrupted. "You haven't told me anything." Then a sigh. "Damn it, Tony." He didn't want to be frustrated during what were to be his husband's final days, but he couldn't help it.
Tony's face froze, wiped of emotion. "Fine. You want me to tell you something?" His eyes narrowed. "You remember the day they shot you?" Steve shrugged at the obviousness of that answer. "They did it to play games with me. There were four guards, and—" He couldn't look at his husband anymore, so he turned away.
Steve was confused. "What?"
The words were painful to articulate. He wasn't even sure what the right words were. "If I didn't..." He exhaled sharply. "If I didn't... pleasure them...they were going to kill you. I refused, and they shot you."
At that moment, Steve Rogers' picture could have been in the dictionary next to the entry for naiveté. "But they didn't kill me," he said.
"Because I did it!" he yelled, turning back to face his partner. His eyes wandered up in thought, trying to avoid Steve's gaze. If he hadn't, he would have seen the painfully unnerved expression on his face. "I did everything they told me to. I did it." His eyes watered as he spoke. "And at that moment, I thought 'I hate you.'"
He finally let his eyes meet his husband's. "I wished that I had let you die, Steve." His voice cracked at the name as Steve stood still in shock. "And that's when I decided that living wasn't worth it. When I could no longer care about the one person who meant the world to me... I don't deserve to live." He moved in close to Steve's face, their noses practically touching. "So ask me again how I'm not upset at the thought of dying."
Steve responded as he so often did: with understanding. "People aren't accountable for their reactions in situations like that. You can't let yourself be wracked with guilt over something they forced you to think." He could have brought up the propaganda he was forced to endure that sometimes made him disgusted with himself, but now wasn't the time.
"I know I should think in the present," Tony hesitated as he considered his statement, "but that day was one of the better ones."
Steve put an arm around his husband, pulled him in and kissed him softly on the forehead. Tony looked up, "I can try, but I can't help it when that pain comes out. I want to be able to love you, Steve. I want to feel like living. I just can't."
"I'm sorry," Steve said, clutching Tony. It wasn't an eloquent response, but there was little else to say. "I'm here for you."
"I know you are."
Before long, Doctor Strange appeared behind them. "Fury wants to see you."
Tony ignored that statement. Fury could wait. "What happened to Clint?"
Stephen eyed him, perplexed. "You're familiar with the SPA?"
The Superhuman Protection Act. In short, anyone who felt "threatened" by a superhuman could defend themselves by any means. "A regular citizen did this?" Tony looked down and kicked the ground in disgust.
"Clint felt that he could go out on Christmas Eve and be safe, considering the crowds. He was wrong. An elderly man—and I use the word loosely—ran him down in a truck. Though I do wonder why you care."
"Despite everything that... He was still a friend."
It was once again the yearly holiday party, and Avengers mansion was filled with members past, present, and future. It was the last party they would have for a while, as the next year would be filled with violence, deceit, and the eventual disbanding of the team thanks to the Scarlet Witch. It was also a dry party for Tony, who had just spent a month detoxifying from his last attempt at solving his problems with a bottle.
He and Steve stood on the third floor balcony overlooking the back lawn. Thick, wet snow was falling hard and Tony leaned back into Steve for warmth. Having those arms—those muscular, perfect arms—wrapped around his chest made Tony once again come to a conclusion he'd come to several times recently: that he was madly in love with this man.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Steve asked.
Right. The snow. Tony couldn't help himself; he turned on the charm that he excelled at. "Not as beautiful as you."
Steve chuckled. Tony leaned back and angled his face to kiss him. Then he had a better idea, or a worse idea depending on perspective. Steve's lips made a slight pout as Tony turned, looked him in the eyes and said the most important words he would ever hear. "I love you."
They didn't go over quite the way Tony had hoped, which was with returned sentiment and a night of passionate sex. Instead Steve withdrew, and Tony knew he still wasn't ready. Still. In the silence that followed, he muttered the words "Forget it." The two men separated and stood several feet apart, each staring out at the frozen lawn.
That silence was interrupted by Clint, who announced his presence by dangling a bit of mistletoe over Tony's head. "This will work better if you two stand together," he said.
"What are you doing?" Steve asked.
"Tidings of joy." Clint smiled. "Come on."
Steve uncomfortably walked two paces toward Tony and planted the slightest of kisses on his cheek. Clint was visibly disappointed.
"Clint. Can I have a moment?" It was more of a statement than a question, as Tony put a hand on Clint's shoulder and shuffled him toward the door. Steve stayed outside, cold and alone.
"You're not offended—" Clint started as he was pushed inside.
"Tony. Is that what we're doing? Saying each other's names?"
The door shut behind them, and Tony blurted his thoughts. "I'm thinking about ending things with Steve."
Clint was struck for a moment, unable to formulate a response. The only thing he could think to say at first was "Don't." Then he found the words. "I know you've had trouble getting him to embrace whatever this is, but... You've been good for him. I mean it. You'd hardly know he was gone for sixty years anymore."
"I can't keep this up. I told him I loved him."
"And nothing. He said nothing."
Clint looked out the door at Steve, then back at Tony. "He loves you. Trust me."
"Because you know him so well—"
"Hey." Clint objected. "We were on a team for a while without you. I think I know him pretty well. And I'm saying he loves you." He scratched at his head and looked to the side. "Also, I may have watched you guys for a minute or two before I went out there." Clint had a habit of observing things he wasn't intended to.
"Then you saw his reaction," Tony said.
"I saw the way you two were holding each other. I saw you looking out over that balcony like you were planning a future together. It reminded me of me and Bobbi, actually." Clint's face became uncharacteristically unhappy.
"I'm sorry," Tony said.
"Don't be. Just don't mess this up like I did."
"Nick wants to see us?" Steve asked.
"Indeed. I can send you to the present hideout, but—" It wasn't like Doctor Strange to hesitate.
"Security measures have been tightened, and the person you need to see to get in... It's Shannon."
Steve couldn't believe it. "Our daughter." He angrily demanded, "Who brought her into this?"
"Considering her parents," Strange answered, "I'd say she brought herself into it."
This was unacceptable to Steve. "I told everyone—"
"You were presumed dead," Strange reminded him. "Shannon takes extremely good care of herself. She has since she was sixteen, remember? If she was set on joining Fury, no one could stop her. Not even you."
Tony aimed a pointed glance at his husband. Steve scratched his head. "How do we get there?"
Doctor Strange raised his hand, which glowed a faint purple. They heard him clearly. "Head straight up the ladder." Then they swirled through time and space for seconds before landing gently in a sewer tunnel. Sure enough, there was a ladder, but Steve hesitated to climb it.
By age sixteen, it was already clear that Shannon was going to look exactly like her mother as an adult, just as Sharon had been a spitting image of Peggy. Carter genes were suspiciously strong. Somehow that made every argument Steve had with Shannon feel even more painful.
"Dads!" she shouted as he and Tony approached the door to exit the apartment. This was the third or fourth time she had tried to stall their departure. Tony put his hands in his pockets and looked away uncomfortably as Shannon approached and began begging Steve. "Please don't leave me here. Mom's not right anymore. I need you."
She paused, then brought a pleading hand to Tony's shoulder. "Both of you."
"Shannon... I know it's hard, but you have to stay here," Steve explained.
"Just take me with you."
"Please. I've already lost half my parents! Just take me—"
"Shannon. No. I know you've had it in your head since you were tiny that you'd 'be a superhero' like your parents, but now is not the time."
She frowned, then took a page from Steve's book and began lecturing her father. "This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences."
Tony shot his husband a look that said 'that's your fault.' Steve grabbed his brow in frustration. "Mark Twain never lived in this world. Please. Live a normal life."
"We should have." He knew they should have. Tony had suggested staying in Europe after the wedding, but Steve had been too damned stubborn to give up on 'his country.' When the two men revisited the issue following Guantanamo, Steve still insisted that they could make things right. By the time they revisited it again after Stark International was seized, the borders had been locked down.
Shannon kept going, frustrated. "You could have quit a long time ago, but you didn't."
"When was that? When they drafted all of us into the army or when they started killing anyone who wasn't registered?"
She pointed at his chest. "How about when you chose to leave a normal life with mom?" Steve cringed. "You went with what felt right. Why can't I?"
"Because you're my daughter, and I'm telling...asking you not to."
"Yeah, that's going to work," Tony muttered under his breath. He could have been supportive of his husband, but there was no point. Shannon was a sixteen-year-old girl who was going to do whatever she damn well pleased. The average teenager's rebelliousness was bad enough; throw in some super soldier genes and Sharon and Tony's sass and it was hopeless.
"I'm sorry." Steve put his arm at Tony's back and turned to walk out the door.
"I swear... if you leave me here, I will never speak to you again!"
Already out the door, Steve turned his head back and spoke sadly. "We'll probably be dead before you get the chance to."
Steve insisted that Tony lead going up the ladder in consideration of his arm and so that he could catch him if need be. Luckily, there was no need. It didn't take as long as it could have considering that Tony was dying. They reached the top of the ladder, threw open a hatch, and found themselves in the middle of an empty, windowless room. The only objects in it were a steel door and two security cameras, the sight of which made Tony feel queasy. They looked around for a moment, but before either said a word, the door opened itself almost completely in silence. He know Tony hated it, but Steve couldn't help but be protective of his husband. He stood in front of him as they passed through the doorway.
On the other side was a room neither expected: the typical apartment of a college student. Mostly typical. The average student probably didn't have robots in their living room and lab equipment strewn over their kitchen counter. The door shut behind them, masking itself as a wall.
Before they had fully assessed the situation, they were sideswiped by their elated daughter who threw herself at them, pulling both into a hug. "Hank and Jan called, but I didn't believe them." Tony shrank at the embrace; Shannon was a lot stronger than he remembered.
"I'm supposed to do a bunch of scans on you, but they already did, and... You're really okay?" she asked, rambling.
"We're alive," Steve said, not really answering the question.
Tony was busy eyeing up the television in the corner of the room. It was turned to the True News Network, and a mustachioed blond was yelling directly at the camera.
"You watch that?" Tony questioned.
"Yeah. Know thy enemy and all..."
As he moved further into the room, he turned his attention to the Columbia hoodie spread over the back of the couch. "Columbia? You didn't—"
Shannon rolled her eyes. "I got into MIT, dad. I just wanted to stay here." She smiled. "I'm glad you skipped the tearful reunion and jumped right into interrogating me."
"I'm not interro—"
"Is someone else living here?" Steve asked, noticing a pair of men's shoes next to the doorway.
"He's interrogating you," Tony laughed as he took a seat on the sofa, doubling over slightly.
"Yes," Shannon answered, looking at Steve. She saw Tony holding his ribcage and hurried over to take a seat next to him. "Are you okay?"
"I'm not the one you need to worry about," Tony answered, brushing her away.
Steve, still standing, moved in closer. "Who?"
"We've been dating for three years. If you don't like that, you're really not gonna like this."
Steve's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"Shannon—" he started, his tone almost scolding.
"You are far too young for that."
"Billy and Teddy were my age when they got engaged."
That triggered something in Steve. He didn't want to imagine his daughter taking the same path as the Young Avengers, and he tried to make a point so she wouldn't. "They're both dead now! Along with Tommy and Cassie and Kate. You don't have any business—"
"Oh, so it's not really Ben," she realized. "You're mad about me working with Mr. Fury."
"Mister?" Tony mouthed.
Steve entered full-on protective parent mode as he asserted himself. "You're damn right I am. You have no idea how dangerous this is."
That made her jump off the couch and point a finger at her father's chest. "You don't get to tell me that. I know what Red Skull did to mom. I know how dangerous this is."
She stormed off toward the bedroom and Steve sighed. "Why do I always butt heads with her?"
"Because she takes after Sharon and me rather than you and Sam," Tony answered matter-of-factly. "You and I don't always get along so great ei—" He stopped mid-sentence to focus on the yelling blond on the television.
"... a ten million dollar reward for anyone who kills Tony Stark." Tony swallowed, his eyes remaining fixed on the screen. "The Department of Homeland Security emphasized that it does not want Steve Rogers killed. It is believed that Rogers was progressing through reconditioning well, when Stark masterminded an escape that resulted in twelve deaths and twenty two injuries..."
Shannon re-entered the room, holding an envelope that she shoved toward Steve's face. "Here. Look at this and tell me I don't—" She noticed Tony's unmoving gaze. "Is he okay?"
"...General Samson had this to say..."
Tony was cracking. So far he'd been able to hide his vulnerability from everyone but Steve. Now he was sitting in his daughter's living room shaking and unable to say a word. All because one man appeared on the television. He wanted to make a joke or an offhanded remark, but his body betrayed him. His mind would focus on nothing but the brutality he'd faced.
" I think we should turn that off," Steve said.
Shannon reached for the remote and obliged, but not before Samson appeared on the television. Tony stared at the black screen where the man's face was only moments before. He was frozen. Steve put a hand on his husband's shoulder to no response. "Tony."
Shannon knelt down next to her fathers. "Dad? What's going on?"
"Tony." Steve repeated himself as his husband's eyes, still unblinking, became glazed over with tears. He put a hand on each of Tony's shoulders and shook him gently. "Talk to me."
Shannon meekly let out one word. "Dad—"
"This is what happens when you—" Steve cut that statement short. Now wasn't the time to lecture his daughter. Instead he looked her in the eyes and informed her of what was happening. "They tortured him. He's not doing well." He paused, the weight of his own words slowing them. "He's dying."
He shook his husband gently once more. "Talk to me, Tony. Please."
A blink. "...Why?" Tony mumbled.
"We need to leave," Steve said, looking at his daughter. "If there's any chance, it's with Nick."
"Behind the stove," Shannon said, noting the location of the entrance to Fury's current hideout. Steve lifted Tony and walked toward the kitchen, half-dragging his husband with him. Shannon prodded a few buttons on the stove and another wall opened up for them. "The password is 'Romanoff.' I'm going to follow," she continued, "I just have to get something first."
"We'll be there in no time," Steve said to his husband, struggling to bring him down the long corridor ahead of them.
"So what?" Tony choked out, ending his silence.
"So if anyone can think of a way to help you, it's Nick Fury."
"I don't want help," Tony insisted, pulling away from Steve.
"I know. You've made that perfectly clear. That doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying."
"Right. Because you're Captain America. I'm in awe."
"Tony—" Before he could let his frustration get the better of him, Steve returned to his original thought. "Nick will know what to do."
"God knows Fury has never steered us wrong," Tony quipped.
Steve came to a halt. "Can you stop it, please? Your jokes aren't helping."
"I can't stop," Tony said seriously. "If I stop... I'll fall apart again."
Steve hesitated before responding. "We'll fix this." He wasn't sure he believed it, but like Tony's sense of humor, his optimism kept him going when he otherwise shouldn't have.
The path to Fury's hideout wasn't a long one, and the two soon found themselves staring at a steel door with retina and voice scanners. Tony limped closer and stared at the machine.
"Retina not recognized. State password."
"Romanoff," Tony said, enunciating as clearly as he could.
"Voice not recognized. Engaging security measures."
"Fantastic," Tony remarked as the hallway closed off behind them and began filling with smoke. "Let's go see Nick." He coughed. "He'll have all the answers." He sustained a long coughing spell that brought more blood. "We'll fix this," he mocked, stubbornly taking a seat on the ground.
Steve refused to respond to Tony when he was like this. He would have preferred the emotional wreck he was dealing with less than half an hour earlier to the bitter facade in front of him. He didn't bother fighting the knockout gas; he knew Fury would capture intruders before killing them. Information was too valuable. Steve sat down next to his husband and let himself fall unconscious.
Both men awoke to the loud slamming of a door, followed by Nick Fury's angry voice. "Who the hell are you two supposed to be?"
"Who do we look like?" Tony followed his response with a bloody cough that he could do nothing about while his hands were tied behind his back.
"I don't care who you look like. I'm not entirely convinced you ain't a trap."
Steve reasoned. "We made it through Hank's scanners—" As he finished his sentence, the rest of Fury's current team made their way into the holding area. Bucky, Cloak, Patriot, Spider Woman, Captain Marvel, and someone dressed as Spider-Man. "Who is that?"
Nick ignored that question. "We know you ain't Skrulls or robots. Could still be brainwashed." He paused and looked up at no one in particular. "Emma?"
Emma Frost appeared, projected from off-planet. She hadn't aged a day in twenty years. She had, of course, but one advantage of being a telepath was deceiving others about appearances. She looked around the room, then stared intently at Steve. He felt a brief pain in his head. "He's clear," she declared.
She turned to face Tony. "Time to look into that sick, sick mind of yours," she teased. When she searched his mind, however, her expression became startled. She hesitated as she spoke. "He's...clear." She gazed at him for a moment.
"Thanks," Nick said.
"No... problem," she answered before disappearing.
Fury freed Steve while Bucky unbound Tony. When he could move, Tony wiped the blood from his face off on his sleeve while Bucky shared a difficult glance with him. It crossed Tony's mind that Bucky might try to finish what he'd started years earlier and beat him to death, but the younger man just looked at him, then walked away toward Steve.
"You're an idiot, Stark."
It seemed to Tony that Mrs. Arbogast had never actually stopped anyone from entering his office. "Care to elaborate?" he asked as he looked up from his desk to see Bucky in his Captain America uniform. He paused. "You're still wearing that?"
Bucky looked at him with disgust. "This isn't about me." He approached the desk. "You just spent two years doing everything in your power to find—I can't believe I'm going to say this—to find the man you love. And what? You tell him to leave and talk to Sharon? You don't tell him how you've spent the last few years. You just let him go?"
Tony leaned back in his chair, already exhausted by this conversation. "I don't suppose you've noticed that Steve and Sharon have a daughter, have you?"
Bucky leaned in. "So? You think it's better for that kid to have two parents who don't love each other?"
Tony turned his head and answered softly. "He loves her."
"Not like you," Bucky answered.
"Stop it," Tony hissed, turning back toward him.
"I have never seen Steve look as happy as after we rescued him. When you were holding him. I don't really care about you, but he deserves that."
"I am not—" Tony hesitated. "I'm not going to be the piece of shit homewrecker in this story. If playing matchmaker means so damn much to you, go harass Steve."
Bucky shook his head. "You're going to be miserable if you're not with him."
The chatter of the room made Tony anxious. There were only so many halfhearted jokes he could make. There was only so much catching up he could do. Carol was back; apparently things with Mar-Vell hadn't worked out. Elijah was the team's leader, not that they did much that required leading. Espionage and sabotage were still the name of the game. The man under the Spider-Man costume was, of course, Ben Parker, and he was soon joined by Shannon, dressed like Steve and calling herself American Dream. Tony was never sure why they all still dressed like they did. He imagined that—like Extremis—it made them feel stronger in a world where they were all really helpless.
Bits of conversation faded in and out. He was starting to feel dizzy. Steve and Shannon were patching things up. Carol was asking him about Quantico. Then there was nothing as he collapsed, Ben catching him just before he hit the floor.
Steve insisted on being the only one to take Tony to one of the compound's bedrooms. No matter how difficult things were, he felt compelled to protect Tony. Nobody needed to know how bad he was doing, and nobody needed to know how vulnerable Steve himself was. He set his husband down on the bed, stroking his hair.
Tony choked out some blood as he spoke. "I think I'm about done for." He was relieved.
Steve buried his face in his hand. He intended to say something—to insist that there was still a chance of saving Tony—but before he got the chance his husband was already unconscious again.
Steve couldn't sit there. He slipped out of the room, intending to find somewhere he could truly be alone. Instead, he found Bucky in the hall staring right at him. "I'm sorry," his friend stated simply.
Looking at Bucky brought back even more previously dormant feelings of guilt and pain. Guilt for what had happened to him in WWII, guilt for bringing his memories back with the cosmic cube, and guilt over Natasha. In every instance, Steve thought he could have done something differently.
Then there was the pain. Bucky, who was sixteen years old when Steve was twenty, now appeared older than him. Steve could still pass for thirty, and Bucky was in his forties. It was hard to say exactly how old given how many times he was frozen and brought out over the years, but he was aging.
Something everyone would have known, had they paid attention, was that Steve was prone to periods of depression. He wouldn't let it show as Captain America, and he assumed Tony was the only one who knew. But Bucky knew. He eyed up a nearby bench, signaling for Steve to take a seat. They both did.
"How are you holding up?" Bucky asked.
The question confused Steve. Nobody asked that. Not Janet or Hank or Stephen or Shannon. Why would they? He wasn't badly injured like Tony. He wasn't outwardly stressed. "What do you mean?"
As they spoke, Tony awoke to find himself alone. He dragged himself out of bed and, hearing his husband's voice, pressed his ear to the door, listening.
"Steve, your husband is dying. You just spent months in prison, and that was after you were on the run for two years. You can be stressed. You can be hurting. This is the kind of thing—"
"I'm fine," Steve interrupted.
"You're a liar," Bucky snapped. "I know what you're doing."
Steve spoke plainly. "I don't have the luxury of doing anything right now. I need to be there for Tony, and that's what I'm going to do."
"Right. And who's there for you, Steve?" Bucky was becoming annoyed. "I swear, I never thought I'd end up more emotionally balanced than you."
"It doesn't matter. There's nothing you can do. There's nothing anyone can do. I'm going to outlive him and everyone else. I just..." Steve's voice slurred slightly as he became more emotional. He stopped himself and spoke calmly. "I just wish we had more time."
The crack in Steve's voice made Tony's stomach turn. He didn't need to hear any more. If Steve wanted more time, he was going to get more time. His own self-hatred and desire for death were unimportant in this moment. As Steve continued to speak, Tony slipped out of the room and made his way toward the medical bay.
"I need—" Steve started anxiously. If he could have finished the sentence, he would have said that he needed something other than darkness, but Steve wasn't one to share the miserable side of himself. He didn't know what compelled him to do it—the loneliness he felt even in Tony's company or how much Bucky cared about him—but he grabbed his former sidekick and pulled him close, pressing their lips together.
It was immediately obvious that this was a mistake. Bucky moved back in awkward discomfort. He wasn't attracted to men and this? It was like he'd been kissed by his own brother. "Uh, Steve—"
"I'm sorry," Steve said abruptly. "I... I'm sorry."
"Don't worry about it." Bucky hesitated, then reverted to a comfortable posture. "I get it. You need him."
Bucky stood in the doorway, directing a stern look toward Tony. He was upset that his honeymoon had been cut short, deeply saddened by the reason why, and furious at the man who sat behind a desk shuffling papers.
"How did you find me?" Tony asked.
"That's what I do," the younger man answered, "but the real question is why you're holed up in your Austin office while your—while Steve needs you." Bucky could never quite get comfortable calling the two men boyfriends. It wasn't out of offense; he just thought the word was too silly.
Tony set down the pen he'd been holding and leaned back in his chair. "Did he tell you what happened?"
"Then you know damn well why I'm here." Tony turned his chair around to avoid looking at Bucky's face.
Bucky approached the desk, spun the chair back around and moved his face to within inches of Tony's. "No. I don't. He needs you right now."
"I'm leaving him," Tony said bluntly.
"What?" Bucky pressed his lips together and glowered.
"You heard me."
"Yeah. Why don't you say it again to this?" He held up his right arm—the one rebuilt from adamantium following his near-death experience in WWII—and dared Tony to say something that stupid again.
Tony pushed the arm to the side and stood up. "I mean it. I can't do this anymore. I can't keep screwing up his life." His eyes met Bucky's for a sympathetic glance. "You, of all people, know he deserves so much better than this." He paused and turned away again, hiding his rapidly sensitizing face. "You know he deserves better than me."
"It doesn't matter what anyone deserves. We get what we get in life, and what Steve's got is you."
"He could have anyone—"
Bucky moved in front of Tony to confront him. "What part of this isn't clear to you? That man is alone in his apartment right now thinking, over and over again, about his son dying and the only person—the only one who could help is sitting here shuffling papers."
"Our son," Tony corrected, his eyes starting to water. He really did think of James that way. "And I'm the one who killed him."
"No. Red Skull did." Bucky's voice became angrier at the name. He was going to kill that bastard for good.
"Right. So you wouldn't have made a different choice?"
"I don't know what I would have done," Bucky said sadly. "It's a choice you never should have been forced to make." He paused. "And everyone knows that."
"Bucky—" Tony was prepared to once again say something self-disparaging, but his emotions got the best of him and he was crying before he got the chance.
That was uncomfortable. Bucky didn't handle emotions well, especially coming from someone he barely knew but was sure he held somewhere between indifference and mild dislike. He was a trained assassin, not a therapist, and Tony Stark was a jerk on his best day. Bucky shifted awkwardly as Tony leaned into him, sobbing. What the hell was he supposed to say to someone who'd been forced into killing their kid? He was lucky enough to not have to figure it out, as Tony spoke in muffled tones.
"What am I supposed to do?"
"Just come back with me."
He did so reluctantly. The lights were off in Tony's penthouse, but he knew Steve was there and he knew he was awake. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness before he noticed the shadowy figure on the couch. Steve was motionless, leaned against the arm of the furniture. His arms were crossed over his chest, almost as if he were consoling himself in an embrace.
Tony inched toward his partner, his chest heavy with fear. Fear that this would be it—the end of their relationship—and that he would have no say in it. Pretending that he ended things would have been easier. The thought of having them ended by Steve was positively heart-wrenching.
He didn't know what to say, so he chose nothing and lowered himself onto the end of the couch opposite Steve. The blond man lifted his head slightly to investigate. One word faintly left his mouth: "Tony?" Steve abruptly sat up and crawled across the couch to him.
Expecting and deserving to be chewed out at any moment, Tony avoided Steve's gaze. But instead of finding himself on the receiving end of an argument, he found himself on the receiving end of a kiss—a gentle but lingering kiss. Tony pulled away for a moment in confusion. "Steve? I—"
Steve's finger met Tony's mouth, silencing him. "Don't." He didn't want to feel worse than he had for the last two days without Tony. "I need you right now." Another kiss, then Steve lifted Tony off the couch. Under normal circumstances, Tony loved it when Steve took control of him. But this wasn't sexy. It was two men in profound pain needing to feel something else.
Steve moved Tony to the bedroom, grasping his back as tightly as he could on the way. However close he could get to him, it wouldn't be close enough. He desperately needed Tony. He separated from the other man just long enough to retrieve a bottle of lube from their nightstand.
Tony spread his legs and welcomed Steve. Then he pushed himself up from the bed to join his partner's trembling lips with his own. There wasn't much movement, and there were no words. There were only soft but powerful thrusts and two entangled tongues as Steve held Tony like he would never let him go.
It seemed to last forever, but that wasn't nearly enough and Tony actually felt a bit of sorrow when he finally came. As his body writhed, Steve too finished and their hips crashed together in a combination of pleasure and pain.
Afterward, Tony fell back to the bed. Steve lingered inside him while resting his head on Tony's wiry chest. He pressed his face against the scar where an arc reactor once sat and listened to his heartbeat. This was what he needed: a reminder that not everything in their lives was darkness. After a short time, he finally pulled out and moved upward to meet Tony's face.
"Don't ever leave me," Steve said sincerely.
It hadn't occurred to Tony until that moment that Steve really did need him as much as he needed Steve. He knew Steve loved him— that was never a question—but it seemed to Tony that he had underestimated the level of care anyone could have for him. He wasn't sure he deserved it.
"If the next words out of your mouth aren't 'I love you,' then I don't want to hear them."
"I love you." Tony's mouth curled in what was almost a smile, then reverted to its prior state. "But I failed you."
Steve rolled off of Tony so that he was at his partner's side. "Listen to me." He ran a hand through Tony's black hair. Even in the darkness of the room, Tony's eyes glistened, waiting for the words that would trigger overt crying. Steve remained calm. "I would have made a different decision," he said. He would have saved both of the children; Tony knew that. Steve continued, "But I wasn't the one who had to make it. With the lives we lead, this is the sort of thing that happens. You don't owe anyone an apology for handling it the best you could."
"It wasn't the best I could. I should have figured out a way. I—"
"This isn't the first or last time something like this is going to happen. The only person who needs to forgive you is you."
Steve had no idea how many times Bucky had worked behind the scenes to help him when he would have insisted that he didn't need it. Even if he had known, he wouldn't have felt comfortable burdening Bucky with his troubles. Not when Bucky had dealt with so much. What did he have to complain about, really? That he was going to live too long? There shouldn't have been anything wrong with him in his mind.
Bucky's face became dismayed and he let out a deep sigh. "When did everything go so wrong?"
"About the time Tony and I told everyone about our relationship,” Steve answered.
"Don't do that. You can't help the way Scott used you."
"I'm not 'doing' anything, Bucky. I'm stating a fact. I'd do it all over again, but Tony and I helped inspire everything that's gone wrong with this country."
In the medical bay, Tony rifled through several cabinets and drawers. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew what it looked like. It just wasn't there.
"Stark." Fury's voice relayed his displeasure.
"I'm dying,” Tony blurted out, without even a touch of sadness.
Nick responded in kind. "I know." He paused. "What I want to know is this: why the hell is someone so desperate to die poking around in here looking for Extremis?"
"What makes you think I'm desperate to—" Tony stopped that sentence at Fury's scornful gaze. "I need to do it for Steve."
"You think he wants you losing your goddamned mind again?"
"I already have," Tony answered.
"You were always going to die before him. You can't do anything but prolong the inevitable."
"Then let me prolong it! After all this time, I just... I need to see him happy."
"Stark," Nick sighed. "You're gonna fuck it all up again. You know that, don't you? I give you that last vial, you're gonna do something stupid. Then how happy is Cap gonna be?"
"There's only one way to find out."
"I know that I've been nothing but a burden to him for years now." Nick didn't bother to argue with that statement, and Tony continued. "You can help me fix it."
Fury responded, drawing out the words. "Extremis won't fix you."
"It will heal me."
"And make you crazy."
"Crazier." Tony said it lightheartedly, but it was entirely true. "And temporarily."
The men stared intently at one another. Nick seemed to roll his one eye. "And then, when it wears off, you'll need to be 'healed' again. You'll lose your goddamned mind again. Same old, same old. You want that to be how you're remembered?"
"Do you want this to be?" Tony asked, raised his arms in a gesture toward himself. Seeing that Fury was unmoved, he sighed. "Fine, then."
Tony turned, clutching at his aching back, to leave the room. Behind him, Fury's voice growled. " This is the last time I help you."
Tony turned back toward him, stunned. "Thank..."
"You're going on antipsychotic meds. And you're going to do something for me," Nick stated bluntly.
Back in the hallway, Steve and Bucky picked up their pace. For a hidden compound, there were far more rooms than anyone would expect and they had already searched half a dozen of them. Steve feared the worst: not that Tony had died, but that he had found alcohol or Extremis. There was losing Tony, and there was losing him. He hoped that Fury wouldn't keep the last dose on site.
When they practically bumped into Fury as he exited the medical area, Steve got the chance to find out. "Nick, have you seen Tony?"
"Yeah. He popped in for a minute."
"Where is he now?" As Steve spoke, Bucky leaned his head into the room Nick had just come from.
Bucky pulled himself back out of the room quickly and spoke in a tone that couldn't adequately convey his concern. "Oh, you're not going to like this."
Steve's understanding of how Extremis actually worked was low. He knew that it was essentially a virus, that it completely regenerated the inside of Tony's body, and that the process of doing so was entirely disgusting. He looked in at what Bucky had seen—his husband lying on a table, unconscious and covered in scabs—then turned back, nearly speechless.
"Nick, how the hell could—"
"I didn't give it to him, he'd have stolen it. This way I get a deal out of it."
That was cold. Then again, that was Nick Fury.
Waiting was torture. Extremis didn't take days like it did the first time because Tony's body had adapted to it previously, but still the hours dragged on. Steve didn't move from the uncomfortable folding chair Fury had placed next to his husband. Bucky had stayed for a while until Nick needed him for some mission, but waiting with a friend hadn't really been any better than waiting alone.
He noticed a crack of light stream across the floor, but he paid it no attention. His eyes remained fixed on Tony. Behind him, in the hallway, there was a conversation.
"Senator Bronson's onboard," a female voice stated calmly.
"Yeah, nothing like a good old-fashioned blackmail to start the day off right." That voice, a young male one, seemed to get closer. Steve turned around to find his daughter and her fiance doing what he'd hoped they never would. Shannon was, for all intents and purposes, dressed in a Captain America uniform with the hood down. Ben wore a modified black Spider-Man suit, his mask off. Their eyes met his and Shannon's widened with the realization that her father had found her out.
"Dad? What are you doing here?"
Steve stood up, resolute. "What are you doing here?"
She glanced at her scab-covered father. "What happened to—"
"He took Extremis again," Steve answered sharply. Then he repeated himself. "What are you doing here?"
Shannon stepped closer to her father and looked up at him sadly. "You're mad."
"I'm worried. You're dressing up in a costume and you have no idea what..."
Now she was frustrated. "I'm an adult. I'm marrying Ben and—"
Ben interrupted, sheepishly. "That is, uh... if I have your permission."
Steve shot him a slight smile. He was every bit the man his father was. "You do. But you two really have no idea what you're doing."
"But you like Ben."
Steve half-rolled his eyes and tugged at the material of her shirt. "I'm talking about this. All I ever wanted for you was a normal life."
"Yeah, well with you and mom and Sam and Tony..."
"I know," Steve said softly. "We shouldn't have let you admire this lifestyle. We shouldn't have hidden so much from you."
Shannon stood defiant. "We know people can get killed. Ben's dad—"
Steve put his hands on her shoulders. "There are worse things than death." He paused and turned to Ben. "Do you mind if I speak with Shannon alone?"
"Consider me gone," the young man answered.
Steve pulled another chair next to his own and they both sat down. "You are an adult," he said, "and you deserve to know everything."
Steve didn't think much about the scar on his face, but at that moment he ran his finger down the ridge that covered his temple. "Do you know how I got this?"
"You were fighting Red Skull," she answered.
"No. When I was stationed at Guantanamo Bay, I refused to kill a man who hadn't had a trial." He continued as Shannon listened carefully. "So they broke my arms, did this, cut out my tongue, and left me in the jungle to die."
"But you're okay," she insisted. Always optimistic.
"Did you ever notice that Tony mostly kisses the side of my face or my ear?" She nodded. "He does that to not remind me that I have almost no feeling in my tongue. I can't taste anything. Every cookie, every cupcake you've ever made, I've lied to you about."
Shannon maintained her composure. " I know people get tortured. I'm ready for that."
"Are you ready when it's someone you love?"
"No, you're not."
Her father's seeming know-it-all attitude frustrated Shannon. "I know about James!" she exclaimed, suddenly standing over her father.
Steve was shocked. "How?"
"I found a picture of all of us from when I was little, and mom was holding a baby. That's how it was labeled. 'With Shannon and James.' I can guess I had a brother who died. And since you're acting the way you are, it was probably some supervillain who did it."
"Sit down," Steve directed. "Please." His daughter obliged.
Steve calmly relayed his story. "He was born three years after you. You don't remember, and we hid him from you." Steve's face became pained. "He died ten months after he was born. It was Red Skull's fault."
"But I already know that can happen," she said. "I know people can die."
"He set it up so that Tony killed our son."
"You're ready for being hurt physically, I understand that. But you have no idea the kinds of things this life has in store for you." Steve put his head in his hand. "Red Skull had Tony kill James of his own free will. He happened to not have Extremis at the time, and that started the obsession he has with it."
"It just makes him better, though."
"It makes him insane. You have no idea how much I've kept from you. You saw Tony earlier in your apartment."
"It's much worse than that."
"But I'm not him, dad." Shannon continued. "I'm me. Not everyone ends up dead or broken or crazy."
Steve sighed. "Yes they do."
"What about you?"
Steve was silent for a moment as he considered how much to tell his daughter. Finally, he settled on everything. "I'm broken, Shannon. I've been slowly losing the love of my life for years. I'm at the point where I'd rather he be dead, but once he is I'm going to be empty. Trust me, I'm as broken as everyone else."
He could sense that should would say something about how calm and collected he was. "I do what I need to do."
It wasn't every day Namor threw a block of ice. Actually, given Namor's issues, it may have been an everyday occurrence. But it wasn't every day he threw a block of ice that was being worshipped by an Inuit tribe, and it certainly wasn't every day that block contained the frozen body of Captain America.
For Tony, it was a welcome distraction in what was only his second year as CEO of Stark Enterprises, his first year as Iron Man, and his first month as an Avenger. This wasn't business and it had nothing to do with superheroics; this was science and he was more than happy to come back to it. He sat behind a computer screen, scanning the body while Hank prepared to take a scalpel to it. Jan and Thor stood further behind as she caught him up on the legend that was Captain America.
Thor was as impressed as a god could be. "If what you say is true, Wasp, the Captain's feats rival those of Hagbard."
"Uh, sure," she responded, then turned to Hank and Tony. "Shouldn't we be burying him or something? This seems a little—"
"He," Tony interrupted, "is the Allied Forces' greatest scientific achievement. The respectful burial can wait until we're done."
Before Janet could object further, the corpse sprang to life. With a tremendous gasp for air, Steve flew upward into a seated position. His eyes darted around the room.
"Captain—" Tony moved toward the panicked super soldier. He was immediately smacked out of the way, as were an unsuspecting Hank and Thor.
"Cap!" Jan's voice echoed as Steve darted down the hallway of Avengers Mansion.
That was the last time the Avengers saw Steve in a true panic. By the next day, he had come to accept that he spent sixty years frozen in the Atlantic, that nearly all of his friends were dead, and that there was no way to return him to his proper time. He hadn't really accepted these things, of course, but as far as anyone could tell, he had.
Tony wasn't sure why he felt compelled to befriend Steve, but he did. He knocked at the blond's bedroom door and heard the sound of a record stop playing.
"Come in," Steve said from within. Tony did just that, then took a seat in a desk chair while Steve sat at the edge of his bed.
"You doin' okay?" he asked.
"Sure. I'm fine." Steve answered immediately.
"It's a lot to take in, I'm sure. I set your computer to bring you up to speed on..." The words struck Tony as he said them. "...on the last six decades."
"If you need anything. Even if it's just to talk to someone—"
"I'll let you know."
Their eyes locked for a moment. During that moment, either one could have bared his soul to the other. Instead, Tony stood up to leave. As he grabbed the door handle, he heard Steve's voice.
"Actually, there is something I need."
"Do you know any good restaurants around here?"
Shannon could not be deterred from working with Nick Fury. She could not be deterred from putting on a costume and helping people. Her conversation with her father went in circles for a while before he reached that conclusion. So rather than ask her to stop, he asked Ben to return and spoke to both of them in earnest.
"You two are in love?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," Ben answered.
"Yes," Shannon said concurrently.
"Then promise me you'll do everything you can to take care of each other."
They both agreed. "We will."
"Just like you and Tony," Ben added.
Steve looked at the man on the table. He didn't doubt much, but he did doubt that he'd done everything he could for his husband. He was certain that he had focused so much of his energy on saving the world from threats, on saving the country from itself, on maintaining the Avengers that he didn't give enough to Tony. That was, of course, a lie. But Steve couldn't accept that he wasn't at least partly responsible for this. It was something he and Tony shared: the belief that the weight of the world was always on their shoulders.
Tony's awakening after taking Extremis was never quite as dramatic as Steve's thawing. His eyes shot open and he lie there blinking for a few moments. He sat himself up and even if his husband hadn't known he had taken the virus, he would have been able to tell by the cold, vacant eyes.
"Tony—" Steve started.
"Dad—" Shannon added.
"I have work to do."
With that, Tony leapt from the table and walked toward the door. The group began to follow, but Steve gestured for his daughter and Ben to stay back. As he walked down the hallway, pieces of Tony's armor began assembling around him, having traveled from whatever government storage center had held them.
"Tony—" Steve repeated.
"I told you I have work to do. If you want to come with me, suit up. If not, don't."
Steve begrudgingly put on the Captain America uniform that Fury had kept in the compound. He followed his husband outside, occasionally repeating Tony's name to no avail. Outside, he grabbed ahold of the armor and they were off, soaring through the sky toward whatever destination Tony had in mind. Steve clung desperately both to the suit and to the notion that he'd be able to talk his husband down from doing something regrettable.
Their destination turned out to be the prison outside Quantico, and Steve knew immediately that this was going to end badly.
"Tony," he said as the armor set him down in front of the fence they had scaled just a few days earlier. "Think. What's going to happen if the public sees an attack from us?" Tony ignored him and started walking into newly started gunfire. Steve grabbed the shoulder of his armor. "This isn't going to help."
It didn't matter. Tony blitzed through all the guards he found in his way. As he proceeded, looking for Samson, he didn't notice that Steve was no longer following him. Instead, Steve found himself in the surveillance room, rifling through files on the computer of a soldier who had clearly abandoned his post.
His mind was torn about viewing what had happened to Tony, but he felt like he had to. He had to know whether or not all of this was an overreaction. There may have been a time when he would have known instinctively, but that time was gone.
What he found was horrific, and he set out to find and speak with Tony using his deepest sympathy. Instead, he found two guards pointing their guns at him.
"Listen to me," Steve instructed. "I don't know how you're still alive, but you need to get out of here. Nobody is going to make it out of here alive, especially anyone who kills me."
The soldiers looked at each other, then back at Steve. They gave a slight nod, then hurried off. The message seemingly got through. He continued on, following a trail of bodies and hoping to find his vengeful husband. As he pressed on, he began coughing, a strange occurrence for a super soldier.
Tony, meanwhile, had wasted no time. No sooner than he found the General, Tony had pinned him to a table by ramming a letter opener through his palm. "You're going to do something for me," Tony said menacingly.
"I'm not going to do a damn thing," was the General's response.
"You are. You're going to die as slowly as I can make that happen."
"For a genius, you aren't very smart, are you?"
"Shut up," Tony said, slapping him across the face with an armored hand.
Samson said what was obviously a plea for his life but was also entirely true. "There's an election tonight. You want your guy to have no chance, keep on torturing people and destroying this building."
"You know what?" Tony stabbed him in the gut, purposefully missing any vital organs. "This country is beyond saving."
"I don't know about that, but you certainly are." He kept talking even as Tony made shallow cuts all over him. "Right now, this whole place is filling with tungsten hexafluoride. You are going to die wasting time here torturing me, but not before your fuck buddy does."
"Everybody dies." He pressed on, putting a repulsor to the General's eye. Once again, Tony was far gone, unable to focus on anything but righting the wrongs committed by this man.
Samson screamed loudly as he was blinded, but soon returned to scorn. He was trained for this. "Some hero you turned out to be."
Steve had heard the scream and was making his way slowly now, coughing harder than before and feeling a burning sensation in his eyes. Tony was unaffected by the toxin. His armor's filtration system was adequate for the time being, and he took pleasure in this knowledge. "You know what?" he told the now coughing General. "I don't want to hear any more from you."
He grabbed the blade he'd been using to inflict wounds on the General, held him by the chin, and cut his tongue out just as a collapsing Steve made his way into the room. The piercing look of horror in his husband's eyes momentarily snapped Tony out of his rage.
Steve coughed all the way to the floor, his words barely coming across through the choking. "Tony, how—"
Tony grabbed Steve and flew out of the building. In one last moment of defiant anger, he blasted the gas-filled building, causing it to explode violently. He set his husband down on a nearby hilltop, where Steve violently coughed and puked for several minutes.
"You okay?" Tony asked, taking off his helmet.
Steve had always been a paragon of patience when it came to Tony, but when his body finally let him, he stood up and unleashed a flood of emotion that had obviously been in the back of his mind for some time. "No. I am not okay!" He began pacing slightly. "You know, Fury told me. He said the second we came back that something like this would happen. He said you'd take Extremis and do something stupid." Steve looked his husband in the eyes. "You know what I told him?"
"I told him I trusted you." His voice strained. "And that's a lie. I haven't been able to trust you in a long time, Tony."
Now Tony was angry. "What did you want me to do? Sit around Fury's waiting to die?" He had been ready to do just that until he saw Steve mourning for him.
Steve curled his lip in frustration. "You know I don't want you to die. But this?" He looked over at the smoldering buildings behind him. Still feeling a painful stinging in his lungs, Steve unleashed years worth of anger. "Do you think I wanted to spend, what, the last ten years reining you in? Do you think I wanted to leave Shannon and follow you? I'm tired of this. You don't respect yourself and you don't respect me."
Tony felt his stomach twisting. He knew he'd been a burden on Steve, but he didn't think his husband would ever say so. And now he was better. He was going to get better. "Steve, I love you."
"That's a completely different thing."
It hit Tony that Steve didn't return the words. He always returned them, ever since that day on the beach. His eyes began to swell with tears as he transitioned from anger to sadness. "You don't. You don't love me anymore."
"If you did, you would have said it by now."
Seeing the look on Tony's face softened Steve's voice. "I will always love Tony Stark. But I'm not sure you're him anymore."
Tony ran a hand through his own hair. "You know we can't go back. You're not exactly the cute, naive man out of time I fell for either. Things change."
"And they have to change so you're a murderer and a torturer? Do you even remember how broken you were the first time you killed a man?"
"Let me think." Tony's voice creaked. "Do you remember when I wouldn't be locked up and tortured for loving another man?"
Steve spoke as gently as he could. "I'm sorry the world's been unfair. I'm sorry you're hurting. I am. But we all are. Every one of us who's still alive is in pain. You're the only one taking it this far. You're the only one who almost let your husband die so you could get a few more punches in. You're the one proving to people that they're right to fear us."
"I'm the one who actually gives a damn," Tony answered defiantly, his anger rising above his sadness once more.
Steve was stunned. "You think I don't care? Really?" He grabbed the shoulder of Tony's armor. "I could have escaped in DC, but I came back for you."
Tony moved away. "Yeah, and when you found out what they did to me you shrugged your shoulders and said 'oh well.'"
"I did not!" Steve snapped. Nobody else could infuriate him like this. He immediately tried his best to remain calm to keep his spouse in check. "I tried to do the best I could for you. What did you want me to do?"
"Get angry! Get... something! You barely care." He turned and started walking away from Steve.
Steve grabbed his shoulder again and turned him around. "You don't get to tell me I haven't supported you. You don't. When was the last time I was allowed to have a problem and turn to you? Tell me...because I don't remember."
"You don't need me!" Tony shouted. "You never did!"
Steve couldn't help it; he began to cry softly. "I still do." He gazed at Tony, whose mouth dropped in confusion. Steve lost control of himself and his voice slurred as he spoke, a reminder of the tongue incident he worked so hard to hide. "You want to know why I've been holding everything in? Because you needed me to. Because everyone needs me to." Steve thought about prison. He thought about every night spent dreaming of being with Tony once more and he couldn't stop crying. This was reality. The country was still a disaster and his husband was completely insane. He dropped back to the ground. "I can't do it anymore, Tony. I had a life I wanted for us, for Shannon. You're right: there's no going back. This is our life now, and—"
Tony knelt down beside him, drawing his armor completely into his skin. "Steve—"
Steve looked Tony in the eyes, which were for once less pained than his own. "This is our life, and you're going to grow old and die. Shannon's going to grow old and die. And I'll be here. I'll be stuck living this for who knows how long." Steve's voice made a painful crack that hit Tony in the chest. "I can't do it, Tony."
It hadn't occurred to Tony that he was anything but a burden to Steve these days. He suddenly felt awful, but something overwhelmed his feelings of regret and he needed to be there for Steve. He threw his arms around him. Steve gripped Tony's back tightly and pulled him in close, forcing the side of Tony's neck to absorb the brunt of his tears. He could no longer say anything. The only sounds he made were choked sobs. Tony ran a hand through Steve's hair and kissed him softly on the forehead. "We'll be okay."
"You don't... You don't know that."
"No. I don't," Tony admitted. He put his hands at the sides of Steve's face and forced their eyes to meet. "But I believe in you, and I'm going to try to be what you need again." He pressed his face into Steve's, capturing his husband's lips with his own.
A few hours earlier, Tony didn't think he would ever sleep with Steve again. In this moment, though, it wasn't sex. It was comfort. He kept kissing, tilting Steve until his back met the grassy ground below. Getting the Captain America outfit off was always an arduous task, so Tony neglected it. He reached for the pouch at the left hip of Steve's belt—the one that always contained a small bottle of lube, just in case—then pulled his husband's pants down to his ankles. He thought briefly about using his mouth, but he couldn't. Not yet. He turned Steve over to his hands and knees and was soon buried deep inside of his warm body.
A fire department had arrived, and the sounds of sirens and distant shouting filled the air. It didn't matter. Nobody could see the two men desperately clinging to life on the hilltop. With every thrust, something in their relationship was renewed.
"Don't ever stop," Steve whimpered.
"It's kind of inevitable."
Tony prolonged this as much as he could. Steve had come three times before Tony finally allowed himself to fill his husband and collapse atop him, their bodies trembling. They fell asleep there, clutching each other as sirens continued to sound below them.
They returned to Fury's compound just in time to watch the polls close. It was the first election in years in which Bradley Scott was not a candidate, but his successor in ideology—Utah Senator Milton Hume—won handily.
The news anchor explained, "The attack by Iron Man on the facility at Quantico earlier today seems to have been a strong motivator for voters..."
Tony's heart sank for a moment, until he noticed that nobody else seemed to be disappointed. There was a brief pause, then the others actually began to celebrate. Ben and Shannon hugged. Carol gave Jessica a high five. Steve looked at his husband in confusion.
"That's our guy," Fury explained briefly.
"Wait..." Tony started. "You knew. You knew what I would do."
"I ain't an idiot. I wouldn't have given you Extremis if I didn't know it would work out. Not after you shot our plans to hell last time."
Tony was offended. "You used me."
"Tony—" Steve's eyes begged him to stop and despite the decades' worth of anger bubbling beneath the surface of his brain, he did. It was time to rebuild everything, starting with his relationship with Steve.
Three Months' Later:
Steve made a mental note that Tony Stark was actually giggling. This was not something he did with regularity at any point in their relationship, but it came easily when a post-coital Steve once again bemoaned the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
"Stop it, Steve. Just stop." Tony laughed.
"You don't believe me, do you?"
"That everything went downhill when the Dodgers left Brooklyn? No."
Steve scoffed. Tony pulled him in for a kiss. "But if it's any consolation, I believe that you believe that."
Tony's telltale AC/DC ringtone went off and even in his new determination to make this marriage right, he could not ignore a ringing phone. Steve took this as his cue to get up and use the restroom.
Hank Pym was on the other end, and he was frantic. "Tony!"
"I'm on my way there. Is Steve with you?"
Tony's confusion was evident in his voice. "Yeah. Why?"
"Has anything happened to him?"
"No?" Tony said hesitantly. "What are you going on—"
"That chip that was in Steve's leg... when you guys escaped..." Hank's rambling was nearly incoherent. "It's an artificial life support device. It never did anything until today... think they set him up to die without looking like they were at fault."
Just as he was hanging up the phone, Tony heard a loud thud in the hallway. He pulled open the door to find Steve lying on his back in the hallway, his right arm twisted upward toward the door knob. His blue eyes seemed to be frozen in place. Tony knelt next to him and was relieved to hear raspy, labored breathing. "Steve... Hank's on his way. You're going to be fine."
"Are you actually nervous?" Tony asked, straightening Steve's bow-tie.
Steve rebuffed. "What makes you think that?"
"Well, you don't sweat normally and, uh, you are."
"And you don't normally stumble over words," Steve pointed out.
A female voice chimed in. "You're both allowed to be nervous on your wedding day." It was Janet, wearing a slinky red dress and holding Shannon's hand. She looked down at the young girl in the puffy gold dress and added, "She couldn't wait to see her dads."
Steve picked Shannon up and put her on his shoulders, where she immediately began tousling his hair. He looked up and smiled. "Thanks." He then glanced at Tony. "I still don't see why you got to pick the colors."
"Because I have better taste. Red and blue would be a deal-breaker."
"I like red and blue," Shannon chimed in.
Steve's face took on an oddly proud glow. "Are you going to tell her she has bad taste in colors?"
"She's ten. You're like a hundred years old. You have no excuse."
Steve smirked. "I'm not the one going grey."
Tony leaned in closer to his partner. "That's a low blow."
"Just wait until later," Steve whispered back at him, causing Tony to develop an uncontrollable grin.
Then the cue came; a pianist began playing "This Time the Dream's on Me." Janet grabbed Shannon from Steve's shoulders and shuffled her out of the room toward the gardens at Braddock Manor.
Having a big, traditional wedding was most decidedly hokey. Steve and Tony initially agreed to have no such thing. They would make no fuss and get married in court. Then they saw one of their dear President's speeches and Tony came up with the idea to rub their relationship into the public's mind. He had an excess of money and he was going to use it, damn it. He invited all the press he could muster. Maybe people would see how perfectly normal their relationship was. That was Steve's hope. At the very least, they could make a bunch of homophobes uncomfortable and that was a thought that made Tony exceptionally happy.
So Shannon tossed flower petals, then joined her mother in the front row. Next came the groomsmen and women in one large group: Rhodey, Sam, Bucky, Natasha, Carol, Clint, Hank and Janet. They took their places on either side of Thor, who was set to officiate.
The only person Tony would have wanted to walk with him on this day was Pepper. He thought about her and mourned, as he often did, but quickly regained his focus. She had been one of the biggest supporters of his relationship with Steve, and she would have wanted him to enjoy this. He grabbed Steve's hand and they walked down the aisle as hundreds of their friends from all over the world looked on smiling.
They stood in front of the crowd, held hands, and soon everything went by in a blur. Thor said some words about their fallen comrades, then something about when two people join together on Asgard. It either didn't make sense or the two men were too preoccupied with each other to pay attention.
Then it was time for vows.
Steve almost choked on his words, but he'd come a long way since the awkward night they revealed their relationship to their friends. He looked directly into Tony's eyes and spoke with sincerity. "Tony, I don't know if I can be poetic, but I can be honest." A short pause. "I love you. God knows we've had our problems, but I can't imagine what my life would be like if you hadn't been there all these years as my best friend and the love of my life. You were with me when I woke up in this world, and I want you to be with me until I leave it."
"Steve—" Tony started.
There was the loud, shrill screech of a child, and everyone stared at Peter and MJ. Tony and Steve chuckled nervously. Peter shot a tiny bit of web over Ben's mouth, which only caused the stares to deepen. Peter apologized. "Not child abuse, I swear. He likes it. Really." MJ's palm met her face as Peter continued. "Um... Nothing to see here. Carry on."
"Steve—" Tony repeated, still smiling. "You're everything to me. Let's face it. There were a lot of times you should have left. A lot. But it means something that you've always believed in me, and—" His voice cracked slightly. "In doing that, you've given me something to believe in. I believe in you, Steve. I believe in love. I believe in us. And no matter what happens... I don't care as long as you're there. I love you."
Within seconds, their lips were united in a passionate but tasteful kiss, and they were married.
Steve Rogers did not die peacefully. He made a choking sound that Tony interpreted as an attempt at speech. When he leaned in to hear, his face was splattered with coughed up blood. Tony called out for help but his voice came out a whimper in shock. "Help..." Steve's body convulsed violently as the biological bomb inside him destroyed his brain. The seizures shook his partially liquefied internal organs and a wave of vomit, blood, and pieces of flesh rushed from his mouth. The body finally settled into stillness, blood still leaking from the eyes and mouth.
Tony knew that his partner of eighteen years was dead, but his brain wouldn't allow him to do nothing. He crouched down, wiped the mess from Steve's face, and spoke pitifully to a corpse. "Steve... Please..." Tony made a futile attempt at CPR. When he looked down and saw the gore that now covered his hands, he jerked away from the body and stood. "Oh god..." Tony turned away and puked up everything inside him. He looked back toward the body, stumbled backward for a moment, then fainted.
In the aftermath of Steve's presumed death, Tony had done many stupid things—barter with Mephisto, attempt to work with Doctor Doom—but yelling at the god of thunder was one of the stupidest. "Where the hell have you been?" Tony angrily threw down his helmet.
Thor, who had reappeared on Earth to fend off yet another Skrull invasion, was unfazed by the display. "I swore to protect Midgard. It is not my job to interrupt humanity's natural course."
"Natural?" Tony gestured wildly as spit flew from his mouth. "Everything is going to hell down here. Steve is dead and you're too busy building rainbow bridges over Oklahoma to do anything about it."
"I take it you consider cloning your friends to be 'doing something' about it." Thor referred to the robotic clone of himself that he had already given Tony a beat-down over.
"That was..." Tony's voice was full of regret. "That was stupid. But this is... Steve's dead. I need you to help me get him back."
"Every mortal dies. Take solace in the knowledge that you and all the other Avengers will have a place in Valhalla."
"That 's your answer?" He began mocking the god's tone. "Hey, don't worry. You can spend eternity eating roast battleswine with some Vikings!"
"I am done here." Thor answered.
Tony awoke to the sound of the front door slamming shut. His blurred vision slowly focused to reveal Steve's body then, moments later, Hank and Dr. Strange.
"Oh no," Hank said, quickly covering his mouth with his hand.
Tony pushed himself up to a sitting position, which seemed to take all of his energy. His pale lips choked out, "You're too late..." He stared at his bloody hands. Hank asked, "How long ago did..." Tony's eyes widened as he focused on a small chunk of flesh attached to his thumbnail. "Oh god..." His head swayed in dizziness.
"He's in shock," Strange said. "Tony, lie down. Breathe." He guided Tony down on his back. "Now look at me." Tony's face turned to the side. "Breathe." Tony obliged.
"What happened?" Hank asked.
"Don't." Strange demanded. "He's dead. That's all that—"
"I meant to Tony..."
Tony muttered, "I tried to help, but... he was dead. He was dead when I got there. I was only in the next room and..."
"I knew it would be fast, but I hoped it wouldn't be activated yet. I'm sorry... I'm sorry I didn't figure it out sooner..." Hank trailed off.
"So am I..." Tony said.
Tony was the first to Fury's compound. He gave his palm print, flashed his glazed eyes at the iris scanner, then muttered a weak "Tony Stark." The door opened.
Nearly everyone was in the common area since they had just finished dinner. Bucky sat on a couch chatting with Nick while Shannon and Ben played foosball. They all looked up to see a ghostly pale Tony Stark covered in gore. Shannon darted toward him immediately and asked "Dad, what happened?" Before an answer could come, Strange and Hank appeared carrying the body. "Th..." Tony couldn't form the words he wanted.
Hank explained, "The chip that we took out of Steve's leg. It wasn't a tracking device. It was a technovirus that made his body think he needed it to be there. They knew we would remove it, and they knew removing it would do this."
Shannon hugged Tony tightly, both their eyes filling with tears. Everyone in the room was crying or close to it. Nick Fury excused himself, the closest thing to emotion he could show.
They kept Steve in what was supposed to be an operating room but had too often doubled as a morgue over the last ten years or so. Fury had someone in the city mortuary who came and embalmed the body. They dressed him as Captain America.
Steve died Sunday. Tony didn't come out of his bedroom on Monday. It was now Tuesday, and Tony stood and stared at the corpse for nearly an hour. He was still dirty. He hadn't been able to bring himself to shower and watch Steve's blood flow down the drain. It was sick, but then Tony was still a sick man.
"What do you want to do?" Fury asked, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. Anyone would have appeared that way, since Tony hadn't paid attention to anything but his husband's corpse.
"I want a real funeral," Tony said.
"Well that ain't gonna happen."
"Yes it will."
That afternoon, Iron Man had flown past security through a window into the Oval Office. He knocked out one secret service member before the President ordered them to stand down. Tony confronted the new President. "I know you're one of Fury's and you're gonna do me a favor."
"That," the President said, glancing at his broken window, "is not how you win one."
"Captain America's dead," Tony said, glad to have his eyes concealed. "It's a national day of mourning. No arrests."
"I'll see what I can do for you," the President said loudly enough for his secret servicemen to hear. He whispered to Tony, "Absolutely."
When he got back to Fury's hideout, everyone was staring at him. "Can you all stop looking at me like that?" he asked.
"Are you okay?" Shannon asked.
"No. I'm not okay, and I'm not going to be okay. Ever. But I'm on my medicine and Extremis is fine and I'm not going to kill myself or blow up a building or whatever you people think I'm going to do."
"Well okay," Bucky said. "But can you please shower? It's... really getting disturbing."
Wednesday came, and Tony finally cleaned the blood off. Without a reminder of Steve's death coating him, he managed to eat for the first time. Tony realized that Shannon was avoiding him and sought comfort from Ben mostly. That made sense. He knew that he couldn't say anything that would help. And she was young. She needed someone to be an adult and help her. Tony reflected that he was never a very good adult. He sat and stared at the body, then sent out a press release for the funeral. He had something to say and America was going to hear it.
On Thursday, Nick confirmed that he had made all the arrangements Tony asked him to. Tony thanked him and retired to his room. He'd spent a lot of time there this week, just sitting and thinking, and everyone had left him alone. Tonight, however, Bucky knocked at the door and Tony reluctantly let him in. He sat down on the edge of the bed next to Tony. "I wanted to know if you needed anything."
"So many things," Tony said. "Nothing you can help me with."
"You're not doing yourself any good in isolation. Why don't you go out there? You don't have to talk to anyone...just be there. You might feel better."
"Is this the thing where you watch over me because Steve told you to?"
"He knew you'd say that. He told me..." Bucky moved his face in close to Tony's.
"What?" Tony asked.
"I don't like you very much," Bucky said.
The two men stared at each other for a moment, then began feverishly kissing.
"I don't like you either," Tony said, pulling Bucky's shirt off. They had an understanding. They both needed this. Everyone else had a partner. Everyone else had somebody to hold. Everyone but Nick Fury, and that was a thought neither Tony nor Bucky wanted to entertain. They made love intensely. In Tony's mind, it was Steve inside of him. In Bucky's, he was with Natasha. Afterward they fell asleep clutching each other for comfort.
In the morning—the morning of the funeral—Bucky was gone and Tony regretted nothing. He would never love anyone but Steve. Anything he did from Sunday onward was meaningless. Anything he did the rest of his life would be meaningless. He showered and dressed, then joined everyone else in the common area.
Steve's body had been teleported to Avengers mansion by Doctor Strange. When everyone arrived, the area was already swarming with cameras. Tony refused to make a comment. The courtyard had been arranged for a funeral and every living superhero was there. Even Thor had returned, despite his intention to never do so. Tony sat next to Shannon and Ben in the front row. Shannon reached over and held her father's hand.
"You're going to be okay," she said.
"No, I won't...but I'll live."
There were endless speeches and Tony heard none of the words. During Bucky's, his eyes caught Tony's and Tony felt pierced with sadness. Shannon refused to say anything; she thought that she would make a scene. She shared her mother's tendency to get emotional about Steve. After Nick Fury had said his words, he turned to Tony.
"... Everyone did. But no one more than Tony Stark. Tony?"
Tony was ready. He walked up to the podium with a stoic face. "I'm not going to regale you with heroic tales or cute little anecdotes. You all know why I loved him. Instead I'm going to answer a question you should all be asking." He took a deep breath. "Why are we here? Why is Steve Rogers... Why is Captain America dead? The answer is... because he loved me. Some people would say now's not the time to be political. I say it damn well is. He's dead because a psychotic minority who show up to vote love violence and hate faggots. Our government has turned our soldiers into the morality police, and America has sat here and taken it. I really want you to ask yourselves how you let it get this far. How you let it get to where love is a crime. Not just the gay thing. Loving your fellow citizens so much that you risk your life for them... that's also a crime—one that took the lives of Clint Barton, Natasha Romanoff, Sam Wilson and others... more than I can count. What I'm saying is: this nation is a disgrace. No one should tolerate a country that kills a World War II hero for sleeping with a man. You're all mourning now, so mourn for yourselves. This is your fault."
Everyone was silent as Tony walked back to his seat. The musician that Fury had arranged for appeared stunned, but began to play. Safely in his seat, Tony began crying. Hank, Stephen, Bucky, Nick, Ben, and Thor carried Steve away. They placed him in the ground and with a wave of Strange's hand he was buried next to Clint. Tony was to someday share that spot.
"Thor—" Tony approached the god. Their relationship had been strained at best since the cloning incident. To his surprise, Thor turned and hugged his fellow Avenger. His speech contained all of the complete sentences Tony could muster. "...Something you told me..."
Thor reaffirmed his statement. "All my friends have a place in Valhalla."
The words still weren't comforting.