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This time tomorrow (where were we?)

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0 | Winter's setting in again, and it feels like the end is near.

 

The cold bites at his face and his eyes are squinted against the wind, offering only a blurry vision of the featureless white world in front of him. He stumbles in the snow and barely catches himself before he falls.
Of course, the Iron Man armor is insulated and could resist to the most extreme temperatures, but these days the suit is barely more than scrap metal. The helmet is long gone, the chest plate is torn in places and sports scorch marks, the internal circuitry is shot to hell, and without Extremis... If Tony didn't know for a fact that he couldn't stand without it, let alone make the journey here, he would have ditched it a long time ago.

He stumbles again and this time falls face first into the snow. The shock of the cold makes him gasp, and he blinks, his eyes burning. He gingerly gets up and locks his knees so as to not fall again.

He's at the end of his rope. If he stops and thinks too long about it, he knows what he's come to do is hopeless. But without Extremis, without spare Iron Man suits, alone against everyone…

It's not like he has other options, so he just grits his teeth and raises his eyes.

And there she is.

She stands in the snow, a couple of feet from him, dressed in what looks like a very warm furred coat, a scarf covering most of her face, but it's her. It's her.

And she's here.

His knees give out under him one last time, and with a broken sob he kneels in the snow.

"Wanda," he says. "You found me."

She stares at him for a long time. "I don't know you," she says. Then, "I like to go out after it has snowed. Everything looks… untouched. It feels as if you are first one in the world. Or the last one. The only one."

He nods slowly, energy tickling away. Sheer force of will and denial got him here, but now that he has found her – that she has found him – he's finally fully conscious of the absolute idiocy of his plan. It's not even a plan; it's a flight of fancy, a wish, a futile hope.

He snorts. No more hope.

"There's always some hope," she tells him, and he realizes he must have spoken out loud. "Would you be here if there wasn't?"

But there's no more hope; there hasn't been for such a long time. He should have learned by now. It's not hope that kept Tony going all these years, that got him here. It's regret. His regrets.

"You look cold," she says, but she makes no move to offer him some of her warm clothing. Tony wonders what he must look like to her. Damaged to the point where armor seems to blend and become flesh, he must seem like a half man, half robot abomination. She doesn't look scared, though. "You look very lonely. And sad."

"You have to help us- me," Tony says. His voice is rough and barely above a whisper, but he's sure she can hear him. "We were divided, too weak," he continues. Skrulls were brilliant tacticians, he can admit this at least. And so is Norman Osborn. Of course, he's a madman drunk on power, as well, but that description touches a little too close to home.

She remains silent.

"Help me," he pleads, finally. "Help me. I don't care how you do it, just help me. Please. I need to make things right. You brought Clint back, you created a whole new world for everyone, you…" he trails off, having no more words.

She says nothing, just stares.

He sighs, and his head sinks low, his chin coming to rest against the cold of the chest plate. He has no more strength. He'll just kneel here, waiting for the cold to kill him. He's heard it's one of the most peaceful ways to go, hypothermia numbing everything, until you can't feel anything anymore and then you fall asleep. Tony hasn't felt anything for a long time, but sleep- sleep he craves.

To close your eyes and dream nothing, that would be bliss.

"You look tired," she says, finally. "You should sleep."

He lets himself fall back into the snow. Above them the sky is clear and so blue it hurts, as if it didn't know that the world below it was falling apart. As if it didn't care.

It's been a long time since Tony last saw that particular shade of blue.

He closes his eyes. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah I will."

"Isn't it strange?" she says, after a long time, but the voice is far away, at the edge of his consciousness. "You close your eyes and the world disappears."

 

 

1 | Stunned by my own reflection, it's looking back, sees me too clearly.

 

Loud knocking and a voice woke him.

His head was flooded by streams of information, numbers, thousands of voices speaking all at the same time in different languages. The world was inside his head once more for the first time in months. A headache exploded behind his eyelids.

He shot up with a gasp, and took several more, barely able to breathe.

A feeling of displacement seized him, so strong that for a moment he could recall nothing, not his name, nor his age, his face. Everything was meaningless because there were too many meanings.

And then he blinked.

Extremis. Extremis worked again.

And it wasn't only that, the voices inside his head-- they were news broadcasts, telephone calls, emails, machines. Around him the world spoke; in his head it was alive once more.

He pushed all the information passing through his mind to the side, but he left it so it was reachable at the edge of his consciousness. He'd spent so much time without it when he needed it most, that the white noise in the background was comforting in a way that it had never been before.

The loud knocking began again, and he turned sharply towards the door. He knew this room, but the thought left a sick wash of fear and he refused to admit what his eyes were telling him. The voice called again, and he could only sit there, staring frozen at the door when the actual meaning of the words sank in.
"Director Stark," the voice said. "Are you awake? The prisoner is in his cell."

He took a deep breath. And another.

"Director Stark?" The voice was uncertain now. It was a man, and suddenly Extremis provided him with all the information it was able to obtain. Name – Lucas James Miller –, addresses – he had three on his record, but one was actually his parents' home address and the other- , service record – S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent with clearance level 20, but before that he had been in the-, bank accounts- he had one jointed with--

Tony suddenly felt nauseous, and he shook his head to clear it of the flood of numbers and letters that threatened to overwhelm him. Too much after too long a time; he was no longer used to Extremis and-

"Director Stark, Sir! Are you all right?"

"I'm-" he called, and stumbled on his words. "I'm fine. What were you saying?"

"Uh," Miller started, and Tony understood his hesitation. Talking to somebody through a closed door wasn't the easiest task in the world, but there was no way Tony was getting up from the bed. He wouldn't make it to the door. "The prisoner is in his cell."

What prisoner? He frowned and checked the date.

Oh.

"Dismissed," he said.

A firm, 'Sir,' came through to him and then footsteps rang fainter and fainter.

Tony didn't know how long he sat frozen on the bed. It wasn't possible. He had to be hallucinating. He buried his face in his hands, as if not looking could stop the stream of data running through his head. There was no way—His hands. He blinked and stared at them, wide-eyed. They were his hands, his smooth – thanks to Extremis – hands. His two hands.

He'd lost his left arm during a particularly vicious fight, almost two months ago. Extremis had been destroyed by the Skrull virus, and he'd almost bled to death. If he had had his lab, he could have made a bionic arm, but his company was no more and the Avengers Tower was-- He had the suit, anyway, and no matter how bad its state, the old Shellhead had served him well.

But now, he had two arms.

He bolted from the bed, catching a foot in the covers and almost tumbling to the ground. His status as Director of SHIELD gave him the right to have bigger and better quarters than average in the Helicarrier, and even if they were nothing compared to his suite in the Avengers Tower it sure beat anything he'd slept in lately. Hands down.

God, if the date was true, if Wanda had managed to do it, that meant he had a chance to rewrite the past, to put things right. His memories seemed intact; he had to compile a list of known sleeper Skrulls, and go to Reed to get the Skrull detector done. Maybe there was someone who hadn't yet been substituted for a Skrull; maybe he could save them. He should assemble the Avengers and—

He remembered the date and his memories caught up with him.

Steve was alive.

This time, he stumbled and tripped, pitching forward.

The doorjamb broke his fall.

Pain exploded on the right side of his face, followed by intense heat, but it faded into the background.

Steve was alive.

Oh, God. And Jan, too, and Luke and Jessica's baby—

He slowly stood and made his way to the bathroom. He found the switch and blinked at the glare of the suddenly lit room, pain burst again fiery and bright on his face. Warmth was spreading in the area from above his right eye to his cheek. He was probably bleeding.

Correction. He was bleeding, as he found out when he raised his eyes to meet the ones in the mirror.

His hair was a mess and his goatee barely shaped, lost in the days' worth of stubble, but he was definitely Tony Stark.

He remembered when he'd had to shave the goatee and dye his hair blond, how unsettling it had been, how unlike himself he'd appeared. It had served the purpose, but every time he looked in the mirror, a stranger had stared back at him. When his hair had grown long enough to be cut so he could go back to its usual black color, he remembered the relief he had felt, looking in the mirror and seeing himself.

Of course, back then he hadn't known there would be a day when he couldn't bear to look at his face again. It had been a long time since Tony had seen anything other than Iron Man's impassive face on any reflective surface.

And the glare of the lights, the pain spreading through the side of his face, the cold metal under his fingers, his senses were in overdrive, trying to adjust the world he was feeling, to the world he was connected to with Extremis. It felt real.

He stared at himself in the mirror while he checked his e-mails and various feeds with Extremis. Everything was as he remembered, and maybe that was the catch. What if this was a delusional fantasy, what if-

One of the video feeds showed him the interior of the cell block. He could see the back of a guard and then, beyond the blue force field, in the darkness of the small cell, a figure was sitting down, bent forward leaning with his elbows on his knees. He could just make out the dirty red of the boots and the gloves, and the blue of the leather pants. He couldn't see the face from this angle, but the head bent forward was blond.

Wanda's powers were more powerful than anyone thought, and she had brought Clint back to life. But was she powerful enough to bring Tony back? To change history?

Because what if that bowed blond head was really-

He bent over the sink, opening the tap and cupping his hands – his two, flesh hands – under the chilling stream. After a moment he brought them to his face.

He raised his eyes again. The cut above his eyebrow still bled, but the flow had slowed and the water had mixed with it, forming thin, pinkish rivulets that ran down his cheek, some reaching his neck.

Despite his relatively clean face, the absence of injuries and his arms, he recognized the man in the mirror.
He couldn't deal with this now.

The armor flew in from the bedroom, assembling on his body, everything except the helmet and the gauntlets. Until now, he had merely felt it as a vaguely familiar presence at the back of his mind, too many days gone by since the last time he'd felt anything remotely similar, but now he recognized it as the armor and he gasped out loud as the golden under-armor slithered on his skin and he felt the armor engulf him, protect him, fully functional and ready for his instructions.

He almost sobbed and had to support himself against the edge of the sink.

It had been too long. His armor without Extremis was just the heaviest body-armor in the world, but with it, he was Iron Man.

The helmet sat next to his right wrist, as if it were looking at him. The lights in the room cast shadows around its eyes and mouth fissures. It seemed to be glaring at him, disappointed.

"Now you're judging me, too?" he snorted.

The prisoner was in his cell, Agent Miller had said, and there was no way any of this was nothing but a perfectly-fabricated reality. Extremis had done something similar before, after all. And even Ty had managed to create a perfect virtual reality, sensory-wise.

But, what if? What if that blond head rose and the eyes were Steve's? Would he really care whether it was real or not?

He bent over the sink again to try to wash away the blood. The blood on his face, too.

 

 

2 | You're face to face with the man who sold the world.

 

The kid in front of him is about to say something but gets cut off when a voice comes from down the corridor. "Director on deck!" the voice shouts, and Steve hears the heavy steps coming closer and closer.

Metal on metal.

Tony — no, Iron Man – arrives and stops right in front of his cell, his back turned to him, the force field bars the only thing dividing them. The only physical thing, at least. At the moment Steve thinks there might as well be an abyss between them, because he doesn't know this man Tony has become.

The other possibility is that Tony has always been like this, but it's unthinkable and it would mean that Steve never knew him at all. And that's worse than anything he could imagine. It would mean that his friend, his partner, has never been real.

Tony still hasn't turned to face him. Steve isn't sure why. Maybe behind bars he doesn't consider him much of a threat, or maybe he doesn't consider him much of anything. Or he just can't face him.

Perversely, he hopes it's the latter.

"Leave," Iron Man says to the guards, and they do.

Tony is still refusing to turn around and something in Steve's gut coils and it's ugly and furious, and for a moment he's back standing over Tony's inert body, his shield raised to strike down, to kill him.

They were friends a few months back, but now he would gladly crush him, beat him up until there's nothing left, if not for those bars keeping him in.

They used to be friends.

"Can't you even look at me in the eyes?" he asks, voice low. It echoes strangely in the room.

Iron Man doesn't react, except for the fingers of his left hand twitching a little.

"Look at me, dammit!" he yells, slamming his hands on the bench. "Have the guts to look at what you've done!"

Loud knocks come from the door, and then the voice of the kid Steve was talking to earlier comes through, anxious. "Director Stark!" he calls. "Something is wrong with the video feed! And the communicators don't seem to work, we—"

"They work fine," the hollow voice of Iron Man cuts him off. "I just need some time alone with- with the prisoner."

The hesitation is slight, but Steve catches it anyway. He narrows his eyes at Tony's back. "So now what? Are you going to beat some sense into me?"

That seems to get through, and Tony turns slowly around. The armor looks new, but Steve remembers clearly smashing the faceplate up. Tony said the new Extremis armor is self-repairing, but this one looks as if it just came out of the workshop.

"No," Tony replies, slowly. "I would never-"

"But you did," Steve cuts him off, fixing his eyes on the slits of the faceplate. There was a time, a long time ago, when you could see blue eyes staring back at you, definitely human. Now there's only two lit rectangles. "You did hunt us down. You did beat me up."

Tony says nothing, but soon after the armor disassembles from his body, falling around him with loud clangs, the under-armor shimmers golden as it disappears from his body, leaving Tony virtually naked in just his boxers.

His skin is covered in bruises, from the battle he guesses; they look days old, but that's probably because of the healing factor Tony has gained with Extremis. A curse in disguise for a person like Tony, healing faster may be a good thing when you end up jumping in the line of fire or launching kamikaze attacks, but in Tony's case it also means that said kamikaze attacks would probably get higher in frequency.

When Tony got Extremis, Steve promised himself to be more attentive and keep him under close watch, as if those who wanted them dead weren't already high in numbers. When he wonders if Tony was injured more severely then he first thought during their last fight, it's with a hint of worry. And then he remembers Thor, and Bill. He remembers this isn't his friend anymore.

At the time, it never occurred to him that he would be the one Tony needed protection against.

"Steve," Tony says, slowly, with wonder in his voice. His eyes widen almost comically, but then he winces in pain and lowers them. There's an open gash above his eyebrow that Steve didn't notice before. It looks fresh. "Steve," Tony repeats, the catch in his voice now more obvious.

"What?"

There's a weird sound – laughter, Steve realizes – and then Tony raises his head to stare at him. "You're alive," he says, laughing again. It sounds painful, though, like sobbing should sound.

"And you're mentally ill," Steve replies, grinding his teeth.

"Oh, you might be right on that."

"You think I'm out of touch, a man out of my time, but you're—you're ill, Tony," Steve should have realized sooner that Tony had a serious problem, he should have helped him. Maybe this wouldn't have happened. It's just like watching Tony drink himself to death all over again, only this time he's decided to bring other people down with him in his trip of self-destruction. "You have a new suit you can't control and—"

Tony cuts him off. "New powers I don't understand, right?" he says, shocking Steve into silence.

"I have this whole conversation clearly fixed in my mind," he continues. "Every conversation we had, every word we spoke. And I pictured millions of scenarios where they could have gone different. Things I should have said, things you should have said."

Tony stares at him through all that. He's talking with a calm, detached voice, and his eyes are blank. But there's something he can sense underneath all that, a barely perceptible tension, as if Tony were bracing for a punch. Tony blinks and the blue energy bars separating them flicker for a second and then disappear.
Steve can't understand what this is. Maybe Tony has gone crazy.

"And I play them - those what if scenarios - in my head when I'm lying in bed. Not that I get much time to lie in bed, actually," Tony goes on, his tone of voice neutral, as if he hadn't just virtually freed Steve. "I don't sleep, I can't sleep. Because in every one of those fancy futures you're alive, Steve."

Fighting against Tony was hard, but this might be harder. He knows how to fight, and apparently he knows how to fight Tony, but Tony is standing weaponless and defenseless in front of him now, and he's just opened his cell while speaking nonsense.

Steve stares at him. He could get up, step out of the cell but then what? Tony really seems gone, and he would probably have the upper hand were they to fight right now, even considering the strength dampener, but after that? He's in a Helicarrier full of SHIELD agents who wouldn't hesitate to shoot him down, Captain America or not.

They didn't the first time.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he says finally, taking time to assess the situation seems to be the best course of action for now.

"Maybe she actually did it," Tony whispers, wide eyes fixed on him. "It can't be Extremis, it doesn't…" he trails off, his eyes staring at something off Steve's right shoulder.

He always found Tony's habit of thinking out loud when he's tinkering with his machines amusing, if a bit strange. Right now, though, he's deeply- unsettled is the right word. And the look in Tony's eyes…

"Tony," he starts, slowly. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Real or not real," Tony replies, or rather doesn't. Not to Steve's question, at least. "I mean, magic?" he snorts. "Who am I kidding? Extremis, though… Extremis is powerful, and the human brain is probably the most advanced computer you'll ever find. Pity the human thought-patterns can't keep up. Like the most advanced OS with the shittiest RAM ever."

"You assume I'll understand better if you put it in computer terms," Steve says. He can use a computer, much better than the average person, but he had to draw a line a few years ago, when Tony took one apart in front of him and asked if he wanted to rebuild it for fun. Steve likes to sit with a book or his sketchpad for fun. Computers don't figure in it. "You know I won't."

"No, because my mind thinks you're Steve," Tony says, "and it's acting accordingly."

Steve narrows his eyes at him. He can't decide if this is a farce or if Tony is really so far gone as to have left sanity clearly behind.

"But the actual question is," Tony continues, as if Steve were actually debating with him, rather than not understanding much at all, "could Extremis come up with something like this? It already came up with Captain America, and Yinsen and… all the others, before. But a whole virtual reality? With this level of sensory detail?"

Steve has no idea what to make of this. Tony goes on talking, saying words that make no sense, at least to him. Tony, though, seems to think they're perfectly logical sentences, but Steve feels as though he's hearing one side of a conversation started by someone else, sometime before he came in the picture. Like overhearing someone else's telephone call.

"I mean, highly detailed delusions have been documented, and there's no doubt that adding Extremis to the equation would increase the perceived reality—"

He's tired of asking why, but he still hasn't got an answer. "What do you mean- Tony!" he grabs his arms, trying to catch his attention. "I'm asking again, what the hell are you talking about?" For a moment, Tony seems surprised at the question, as if he's just remembered he's even in the room. He remains silent, though.

Steve stands up abruptly and takes the steps that separate them until they're only inches apart. Tony blinks up at him and stumbles back with a small gasp.

"What's this whole Extremis nonsense?" Steve asks again, slowly.

Tony gives him a long look, then his eyes flicker away. "I've got a lot of reasons to believe I'm off my rocker, so to speak. You want a list?" he asks after a moment, and then without waiting for his reply he starts counting off on his fingers. "One, your death. Two, it's not like it's the first time people have tried to screw with me. Failing that, three, Extremis is still a vast, unknown world of not knowing and while we're on the subject, four: It's not the first time I've… hallucinated, for lack of a better term, dead people when my subconscious needs to tell me something important. Five, there was an inv-"

"I'm not dead, Tony. I'm right here. And you are… hallucinating? What-" Steve exclaims. "How long has this been going on?"

"No, see, I told you," Tony shakes his head. "It's not really hallucinating, it's just random information that I need, making itself known."

Steve's hands, seemingly by their own volition, raise to settle on each side of Tony's face. Tony looks up at him expectantly, but his eyes are lifeless. He shouldn't feel sympathy for this man, but Tony has always held a special place in his heart. Tony's always been the only one who could make him feel like he belonged and was out of place at the same time. Tony's always been made of opposites and contradictions, a familiar unknown territory, an oxymoron.

Tony's hunted them down, Tony's cloned Thor and arrested Steve, but there's no one else in the world who could evoke these feelings inside of him. It's hard to define, especially at this point, it's like disappointment, mixed with pity, but also with affection, and a sense of inevitability and acceptance.

As if they were always destined to come to this.

"Tony…" he whispers.

"Because, you see," Tony says, slowly. "If Wanda's magic worked, it means this is all real and…" he trails off, lowering his eyes.

What have you done to yourself?

"What's that?" he asks, despite himself. He doesn't know what to make of Tony's words, his armor lying on the ground, the open cell, so he'd better start with something he does understand. Tony didn't get that injury while fighting him, it looks fresh.

Tony frowns, then he follows his eyes and touches the cut. "Oh, this?" he shrugs. "I walked into a door."

"Right."

"Well, I did."

And there goes his attempt at steering the conversation onto a more coherent track.

And then Steve's mind registers something that's stumbled from Tony's lips just moments earlier. "Wanda?" he asks, and Tony's eyes narrow as he stares at him. "What have you done?"

His right hand shoots forward, seemingly on its own accord, and closes around the tender flesh of Tony's neck. He doesn't squeeze but his grip is solid, a little more pressure and Tony would be struggling to breathe, even more pressure than that and in a couple of minutes Tony wouldn't struggle anymore.
Wouldn't breathe anymore.

Not that Tony seems to realize that. He's still staring at Steve's face, his eyes flickering over his features as if he's relearning them. Tony's right hand raises and the tips of his fingers touch his cheek. His hand is slightly trembling, Steve realizes.

Steve growls and turns, pushing the other man away from him, making him stumble and fall on the bench where Steve was sitting barely minutes ago.

"What is wrong with you?" he exclaims as he steps outside the cell, just in case Tony decides that this whole charade is over and he reactivates the bars.

But no, Tony is still sitting on the bench and the armor is still lying at Steve's feet.

"The short version? Everything," Tony snorts, and it might be the first thing he's said that makes any sense at all. "The long version? Everything."

Steve points at the cell. "Why did you do that?"

"Simple," Tony says, raising his eyes to meet his. "I need you."

Steve snorts. "Right," he says. "You need me to back you up the Registration. Of course you do. Well, you can forget it, Stark," he hisses, and is darkly pleased as it has the desired effect on Tony, who flinches. "All I had was my freedom and my hands and my shield to fight for it, but you took that away. And even if you lock me up in a cell for another sixty years, I will never sink as low as you did. I know freedom, Tony. I know how it feels to fight for it and how much it costs. You know compromise."

He jumps as Tony slams his hands against the bench and shoots to his feet. "Of course I compromised!" he yells. "It was the right thing to do! Why can't you see that?"

"Because it wasn't!"

"The bill would have passed anyway, opposing it, going against the leaders, the people of this country elected to represent them, would have been—" Tony's eyes widen and he stops abruptly. "This is not the time to have this discussion. Not here."

"Oh, I don't know," he shrugs. "I think I'm going to have a lot of time on my hands from now on."

"No, you aren't," Tony says slowly. The words come out flat, almost lifeless. The tone chills Steve's blood. "We aren't."

Once again, Steve feels the reins of the conversation slipping from his fingers. It's a feeling he's often experienced lately, and he doesn't like it one bit. "What are you talking about?" he asks for what must be the tenth time.

"I—" Tony snorts and hangs his head, shaking it as if in disbelief. "What would you say if I told you I came from the future? Sorta."

Steve stares at him. Tony has really gone insane. His delusions of grandeur have brought him to this, he's always defined himself as a futurist, but this— this is too much, too over the top.

There has to be a line that can't be crossed at some point.

He realizes he's thrown a punch only when his right fist connects with Tony's jaw. There's a smack of something hard hitting flesh and then Tony tumbles sideways, to the ground.

He remains lying like that, his cheek already swelling and blood flowing from another cut on his face.
"Right," Tony snorts.

Steve towers over Tony's prone body, an angry soldier and a practically naked man, and while Tony's not completely useless without his armor, he surely is no match for him. It should feel sick, wrong, but Tony has gone over that line and Steve isn't sure if he'll be able to leave it, much less to forgive, if this is what they've come to, now.

He's still on the floor, words spilling out of his mouth with a slow and monotonous cadence. "They're coming," he says. "They're already here."

"Who?"

"Skrulls," Tony replies, and the blood freezes in his veins, despite the fact that Steve knows it can't be possible, knows that it must be another one of Tony's tricks. "An invasion."

Steve doesn't reply; he doesn't have the words. He just looks down at Tony, trying to connect the dots. He feels like he felt when he was thawed out of the ice, more than ten years ago. Unbalanced. Unreal.

"I have the answer to your question," Tony says then, as he sits up, "the one you were-- are about to ask, I mean."

Steve frowns. He didn't think he had questions to ask him, but now that Tony has mentioned it, there is one question. And it dawns on him that the line is the question, the border between a redeemable Tony and a Tony he's never known.

After all this, all the tears, the blood, the words between the two of them, after everything has come crashing down around them, and it's all been their own doing – Tony's mostly, but also his – there is one thing that could maybe make things, not right, but a little less wrong.

"No," Tony whispers, before Steve can say anything at all. "It wasn't worth it."

 

3 | Everybody's shouting "Which side are you on?"

 

Steve had yet to say anything, but he gave him space and watched calmly, if frowningly, as the armor flew and assembled on his body.

Steve.

Steve looked good. His uniform was torn in some places, he had a few days' worth of stubble and he looked – and smelled – like he seriously needed a shower. Or three.

But God, he was alive and strong – his cheek was still hurting from that hook. And he might be angry, furious at him, but to Tony that was nothing but a reminder that he was alive. He looked nothing like the… body. His last glimpse of Steve, and yet so alien, so not-Steve in the stillness of death that it still made him feel nauseous every time he thought about it. The Steve to whom he'd said all the things he should have said when he'd been still alive.

And now that he finally had the chance—it wasn't the time, yet. He had to bring Steve up to date with everything he knew, and he had to clear his name with S.H.I.E.L.D., and they needed to assemble all the Avengers who weren't Skrulls and probably notify—

"Tony," Steve's voice was low, but it lacked his earlier angry tone.

"What?"

"You're just standing there, doing nothing," Steve replied, vaguely annoyed. "And since the only thing I've managed to understand in what you said is the fact that time is a issue…"

"Right," Tony sighed and opened a private channel. He turned to Steve, "I'm calling Maria Hill," he said, so at least one of them would be prepared.

"What?"

"Just… don't do anything rash."

"Just don't—" Steve's angry frown returned full force. "I wasn't the one making rash decisions and taking actions that were uncalled for."

"I know," he said, raising his hands in a calming gesture. "I know. But she helped me when I- when I needed help. And we need her if we want to stop this invasion."

Steve stared right into his eyes for a long time. Tony had never realized just how menacing he could get, just by glaring at you in that particular way. Tony wasn't afraid, though; he'd never been. Not of Steve. "If I find out you're lying…" Steve said, trailing off before he made the threat explicit.

"Believe me," Tony said, turning towards the door. The cameras showed him Hill was approaching. "I wish I was."

The door opened and Maria Hill entered. There was a frown on her face, undoubtedly put there by Tony's vague order to come to the brig.

When she saw Steve out of his cell, though, her face changed drastically and it would have been the most hilarious thing Tony had seen in a while, if not for their current situation.

Hill had her gun out in a flash. "What's he doing—" she started, outraged.

Tony quickly stepped between them. With some relief, he realized that behind him Steve remained still, though he was tense and alert. "Wait, Maria," he said, once again raising his hands in a pacifying gesture. "I let him out of the cell."

"You what?!" she exclaimed. "Guards, this is Sub-Director Hill. The prisoner is- guards?"

"I isolated all communications and video feeds," Tony explained. "Now, put the gun down. There's something we need to discuss."

"Are you out of your mind, Stark?" she turned to him, the hand holding her gun didn't even waver. "What-" she frowned. "What happened to your face?"

Despite himself, Tony shot Steve a nervous glance. "I, um. I walked into a door."

"And what?" she snorted. "You didn't apologize so it hit you on the other side of your face?"

"Look, calm down," he said, grabbing the barrel of her gun in one of his gauntlets. She didn't seem to like the move and glowered at him, but she let him lower the gun. She didn't holster it, though, just let it hang from her hand at her side. "I have intel that will affect the entire world."

"This doesn't explain what he is doing out of his cell," Hill repeated, glaring at Steve. Her hand tightened on the gun, Tony noticed, but it remained down.

"Because we need him," he replied. "We need his side. We have enemies within our ranks, and we need a united front. Divide et Impera, while they don't know the first thing about Latin, they were really good at putting the thing into practice."

Hill narrowed her eyes at him. "Who? What are you talking about?"

"Skrulls," he said, finally.

Behind him Steve cleared his throat, and Tony could feel his stare boring into his back. Maria's eyes widened in alarm. "What?" she exclaimed, sharply.

"Skrulls," he repeated. "I don't know how long they've been planning the invasion, but I know for sure that Hank Pym is one. As is Dugan, or will be. I'm not sure of the timing in his case, but I think it's better to proceed with caution."

"So, the two of us…?" Steve trailed off, nodding in Maria's direction.

"You're not Skrulls," Tony shook his head. "Neither am I, although…" It would have been better if I was, he didn't say.

"Who else?" Steve prompted. His eyes were hard and his expression serious and business-like. So apparently he believed him now. Or at least, he was giving him the benefit of the doubt.

That was enough for now. "Jarvis," he lowered his eyes. "Spiderwoman. Many others."

"And you've known this how long, Stark?" Maria narrowed her eyes at him, Steve, and the fact that he was outside of his cell, momentarily forgotten. "Is this one of your Machiavellian plots again?"

He exchanged a brief look with Steve. The truth – if it was the truth at all and not some near-death hallucination – was not to be shared with Maria Hill. Not now. She had proven herself a trustworthy person, especially when Tony needed her to be. She was, however, a practical woman and while dealing every day with super heroes and meta-humans had made her more… flexible, Tony doubted a fairy tale-like explanation would satisfy her.

"No, I-" he sighed. "Look, I just know."

"Skrulls, you say," Maria continued, eyes still fixed on him. "Not possible. If as many people as you say were substituted, we would know. Dugan especially, every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent has to undergo several unscheduled check-ups on a monthly basis."

"I said I'm not sure when Dugan was- will be substituted, I don't know if he's already a Skrull or not. So I figured better safe than sorry and called you," he replied. "Besides, they've come up with incredibly sophisticated biotechnology and it's practically impossible to tell them apart. Not even Wolverine could recognize them. One way is to kill them."

"Convenient, isn't it?" Maria snorted, and the gun at her side twitched. "What I think, is that you've either gone completely crazy, or Captain America here is doing something to you that—"

"I'm not doing anything!" Steve exclaimed, pointing at her, as if a finger would be threatening to the woman with a gun. Still, Captain America used to go against Nazis with nothing but a shield.

Tony laid his hand on his chest and pushed gently, palm directly on the white star, now dirty and torn.
"Steve is telling the truth," Tony said, turning to her. "And while concerns regarding my mental health or lack thereof have been raised several times over the past year, I'm telling the truth as well."

'Past year' wasn't technically true; it should have been the year to come, but time travel came with all kinds of problems attached. Tony had always held on principle that you shouldn't mess with the time-continuum. It was against the laws of physics, and anything that could give you verb tense trouble induced headaches was plain evil.

And yet, here he was, back in time. Or rather, his present consciousness in his old body. Or should he say future consciousness in present body? He sighed heavily. He'd broken so many of his self-imposed rules already, given his dignity and his convictions away, what was one more thing?

"Think of it this way, Maria," he said, finally. "If I turn out to be crazy, you can put me away. But if I'm telling the truth…"

"We're screwed," Maria finished for him. She sighed and rubbed her face, finally re-holstering her gun. "Okay, I'm listening."

The air in the holding cell area went from heavy with tension to heavy with urgency. Unsurprisingly, Cap was the first to talk. He was always the man with the plan, Steve was.

"First of all, we should locate all the Skrulls," Steve said, then he turned to Tony. "Are you positive the only way we can make sure of their nature is by killing them?"

"No," Tony replied. "Reed built a sort of Skrull-detector, I remember the schematics vaguely. It's not like I had the time to fully study them…" he trailed off, muttering to himself, then he realized what he'd said and shot a glance at Maria, who was frowning at his slip up. Eventually, he'd have to tell her the truth. Not now, though. "But we have time, and it's likely that Reed could come up with it anyway, if I give him a push in the right direction."

Steve nodded. "Is he safe?"

"He is, but Sue Richards isn't."

"Damn," Steve muttered.

"Yeah, they knew- know what they're doing," Tony agreed. "They have sleeper agents in every place of power, in every faction."

"What about the New Avengers?"

"Spiderwoman was- is the only one," Tony shook his head. "In fact, she is the Queen."

"She came to us," Steve murmured, realization slowly dawning.

"But she will defect to the Mighty Avengers," he replied.

"Who?" Steve frowned.

Oh, right. They had been assembled after- he blocked that line of thought before it would take him too far. Steve was alive and would stay alive, no matter what Tony had to do to maintain that condition.

"Apparently Spiderwoman is making a lot friends," he replied, snorting. Then he took a deep breath and continued, "Steve, Spiderwoman only infiltrated the New Avengers so she could keep us on our toes and our attention averted. As for the rest, the New Avengers don't count as a position of power."

The sound of Steve punching the steel wall was a sudden explosion that caught him by surprise and made him jump. "How can you-" he growled through his teeth.

"The New Avengers—" Tony cut him off abruptly, but it was better to get it out of the way as soon as possible. And as painless as he could make it, if at all. "Lose most of their offensive power and inspiration to fight when their leader is dead."

The silence that fell after his words had a physical presence. Tony could swear he felt it making his armor heavier with the implication of what he'd just said, with the guilt, dragging him down.

When Tony turned to look at him, Steve was wearing an unreadable expression. "You- You planned to have me killed," he said, phrasing the words as a statement, not as a question.

All the air was sucked from Tony's lungs. Had things gotten so bad that Steve would think- that Steve could think he wanted him dead? "No!" he exclaimed, almost shouted. "No! Steve, I would never- I never- No!"

Still not enough air in his lungs, and now both Steve and Maria were looking at him as if he'd grown another head. He took a step back, reaching blindly with his arm to steady himself against the wall. "I never wanted- You've got to believe me! Not you!" he continued. And he had to try to get a grip or they would really think he was insane.

"Okay, Tony," Steve said slowly, approaching him rather like one would approach a scared animal. "I'm sorry. But the way you said it, I was only asking…"

Steve's hands closed on his shoulder, his armor-clad shoulder, and Tony wished he wasn't wearing the suit, just to feel the touch, the reassuring warmth of life. "It wasn't a question," he whispered, and he doubted that even Steve, who was so close now, would be able to hear it. "It wasn't a question."

"Earlier you said that I was dead," Steve prompted carefully, turning Tony's head towards him with a hand clad in a torn red glove. "Is this what you meant?" Tony nodded. "The Skrulls?"

"No," Tony shook his head. "Completely unrelated as far as we could tell. Lousy timing, though," he said. "The Red Skull." Steve's jaw hardens and his eyes narrow to small slits, the blue barely there anymore. "On the way to the Courthouse, you were- you…" he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to keep the images away.

"It doesn't matter now, Tony," Steve said, almost gently, and Tony found himself nodding. "We will prevent it."

"Should I leave you two alone?" Maria asked, her voice bleeding sarcasm and reminding Tony that they weren't, in fact, alone. "I thought we had an alien invasion to stop, here. And an assassination, apparently."

Steve seemed to have forgotten her, as well, his head turned sharply in her direction and he took a step back. And then another.

"I- I don't think that's a very good idea," Tony said. "Preventing Cap's death, I mean."

"You- What?" Steve was probably too surprised to be angry, right now. "What?"

"What the- Stark," Maria sputtered. "You dragged me here to the Secret Club meeting and you said we need to work together and then you want him to be killed anyway?"

"No!" Tony exclaimed. "You misunderstand. Messing with the timeline is never a good idea, and the fact that we're attempting to do so at the moment has introduced an unconceivable number of variables that in the long run will deeply change the end results." If Reed were here he could probably list all the variables and predict most of the possible outcomes of the next ten years. But Reed wasn't here, and Tony guessed he would agree with him, anyway. "It's Chaos Theory. So, the fewer changes we make, the fewer the variables, the better."

"I see what you mean. If we change things," Steve said, "the Skrulls will change their plans to accommodate them as well, and we can't risk going in blind."

Tony gave him a long look. "I'm not worried about the Skrulls," he said, receiving a frowning look from both of them. "It's not relevant right now. Trust me on this; the world must think Steve is dead."

"I'll go with that for now," Maria nodded. "But what are we supposed to do, let him die?"

"We send an LMD in his place, and we keep him hidden," Tony explained. "This way you can go back to the New Avengers undetected and prepare for an anti-Skrull offensive with the world none the wiser."

"You make it sound so simple," Steve said with that unreadable expression. It was… assessing was a good description. Carefully blank was another. "But what about my friends? They'll think I'm dead. And for that matter, what about the New Avengers? If you plan making them your secret anti-Skrull force, what will become of their status as outlaws?"

"They will have to register, of course," Maria said with a snort. "We can't work together if we're fighting each other."

Steve looked like he was about to reply, and not in a particularly polite way, so Tony intervened before things escalated towards the irreparable. "No, they won't," he said, startling both Maria and Steve into silence.

"We don't have time for the Registration right now."

Maria pointed an accusing finger at him. "But you said we must avoid at all cost any changes of the status quo, which, by the way, only you seem to know anything about."

"I said no," Tony repeated firmly. "I have other plans in mind."

"And what would they be?" Maria said, crossing her arms and regarding him expectantly.

"Yeah, Tony," Steve went to stand next to her, ignoring the double take it earned him and glaring at Tony. "What plans?"

"So now you gang up on me," he sighed. "Look, I still have some details to iron out and we don't have time right now. People will start to wonder what the hell we're doing in here with all the monitoring feeds shut off. We couldn't be more obvious if we started yelling 'conspiracy' at the top of our lungs. Just…" 'trust me' he wanted to say, but he was very aware it would be way out of line under the circumstances, "Just be patient for a little longer, I'll tell you everything," he concluded, staring straight at Steve. "For now, you'll have to go back to the cell. Sub-Director Hill and I will come up with a way to make the switch before we reach the Courthouse."

"Tony…" Steve started, but trailed off with a sigh. It didn't matter; his face made it perfectly clear that the discussion was far from over, and Tony couldn't help but agree. He just nodded at him, hoping he would understand and watched as Steve went back into the cell and sat down on the bench, his position almost exactly the same as it had been when Tony had first walked in to see him.

He looked more- relaxed, though, his shoulders not as tense, his body not coiled in anger as it had been earlier.

The blue energy beams flicked back on, and Tony turned to Steve with a smirk. "Now act for the cameras," he said, before the faceplate fell shut.

He glimpsed the ghost of an answering grin on Steve's lips, before he shot up towards the bars, as if to grasp them, but stopping at the last moment before being zapped. "Was is worth it?" he yelled, and for a moment Tony was so overwhelmed by the memories that the stumbling half-step he took back wasn't an act. "Tell me!" Steve yelled, when he didn't reply.

Steve's yells followed him as Tony turned and left, and he might have stopped breathing for longer than was comfortable.

Maria was silent at his side as they stepped out of the cell block, the guards stationed outside giving them curious glances, but snapping to attention and saying nothing when it was clear that neither of them was in a good mood.

The door closed behind them with a loud echoing metal noise and they slowly walked away, in silence.

Only when they were finally alone in Tony's office, did Maria break the silence. "I would tell you just how crazy you are, but I've got the feeling it would be a waste of perfectly good breath," she said, standing in front of him, the desk between the two of them.

Tony shrugged.

"So," she said then, with a heavy sigh, "what do we do now?"

 

 

4 | What shall we use to fill the empty spaces where we used to talk?

 

Tony and Maria Hill have been gone for quite a while now, and another guard is on duty, surveying his cell.

The kid isn't the same from before, they must have changed shift while he and – how did Hill put it? – the Secret Club were talking. He's just as young, though, and for some reason idolizes him as well. He calls him 'Sir' even though he's supposedly a prisoner and a traitor.

What do they think he's going to do? It's not like he can break out, with steel walls and energy bars. If he had his shield, maybe…

But they've taken his shield away. Tony has taken his shield away.

And now Tony is offering to get him out, to fake his death, because apparently, they're on the brink of an alien invasion. A secret one at that, and of course Tony is the only one to know about it because he comes from the future.

A small part of Steve thinks Tony is playing some kind of horrible trick on him – but his eyes, his eyes when he first saw Steve didn't look faked. And besides, for all they've fought and hated each other lately, he doesn't think Tony would do something so… base.

So maybe Tony has finally gone insane, which is as frightening as Tony lying about this, but not as horrible. If in his delusions of clairvoyance Tony has seen Steve dying he seems so utterly… broken by the prospect, perhaps they can build on that, salvage some of their friendship and their partnership. They could try to set this whole Registration business right again and move from there.

Steve has to admit that the possibility that all the things Tony's told him will turn out to be true has a certain bittersweet appeal. Not because he likes the prospect of a Skrull invasion – Skrulls so biotechnologically advanced that are virtually indistinguishable from the humans they're emulating, if Tony's telling the truth – because he doesn't. But it would mean that Tony is still sane, and that whatever's left in the armor, despite Extremis, is still human enough – Tony enough – to make a difference.

Still, whatever the truth is there are so many things to wrap his mind around. The fact that he's been left alone, with no means to communicate with Tony or Hill while they supposedly work on a plan to switch him with an LMD and break him out, only adds to his doubts.

Tony said Dum Dum was probably a Skrull, so what if something goes wrong? Hill didn't seem convinced earlier – and Steve has to admit that he isn't quite convinced either – so what if she talks Tony out of his plan? What if she decides to assume command?

He sighs and lets his head fall forward into his palms, the heels of his hands pushing against his eyes. It's no use really, this line of thought. No matter what happens, he can't do much stuck in a prison cell. All he can do now, is wait for what comes next, be it prison, death or freedom. All he can do is see what Tony and Hill come up with, a man who is a friend and an enemy at the same time and also possibly crazy, and the woman who didn't hesitate to order him shot down when he resisted an unconstitutional arrest.

Steve really hates feeling this useless. He's good at helping others, but when it comes to letting other people help him...

The strength-dampening collar he's wearing suddenly stops working.

He raises his eyes to see if the guard outside his cell has noticed. He hasn't.

He's asked several times if he needs anything, or if he's cold, or hungry, but Steve's only response has been silence, and that and his body language must have convinced the young S.H.I.E.L.D. agent to give up at some point.

Now he stands, silent and awkward, sneaking glances at Steve every now and then.

"Relax, son," he says, finally taking pity on him. "I'm not going to bite your head off."

"Er, no. Sir. Of course," the kid clears his throat but relaxes a little.

"So, tell me," he says, raising his head to meet his eyes. It's about the only thing he can see, the rest of his
features and body covered by his uniform. Apparently, keeping an eye on Captain America requires a great deal of firepower and body-armor. Tony may be overestimating him, but Steve finds it somewhat satisfying.
"What's your opinion on all this?"

"Um, all this what?" he asks, puzzled. "Oh, you mean the SHRA and the fighting you guys have going on?"

Steve nods but says nothing, waiting for a reply. When after a minute nothing comes, he frowns. "Well?" The guard raises his eyes to the corner further from Steve. Oh, right. Cameras. "Speak freely; I'm sure Tony won't mind."

The kid seems to consider his words for a moment, then he shrugs. "None of my business, Sir," he says, matter-of-factly, "but I think it's all bullshit."

"What?" Steve blinks. "You work for Tony; how can you think that?"

"Okay, first of all, I work for S.H.I.E.L.D., not Tony Stark," he replies. "And second, well… Frankly, I don't understand all the drama. You guys – superheroes I mean – are supposed to protect people. I don't see much of that happening now."

"Exactly," Steve nods. "What's your name, son?"

"It's Miles, Sir," he says. "And I'm sorry if I gave that impression, but I wasn't agreeing with you. I think you're all being primadonnas over this. Sir," he clears his throat. "No offence intended, Sir."

"None taken," Steve replies, vaguely amused in spite of everything. "And what you suggest we should do?"

"I have no idea, Sir," Miles replies with a shrug. "I'm just a grunt with a gun."

"Everyone's a critic," comes Maria Hill's voice from the entrance, and Miles snaps to attention. "As you were, Miles," she says, walking in, four agents following her. "We're taking the prisoner."

The bars deactivate once again and Steve stands up. Hill knows what she's doing, he has to admit grudgingly, her eyes give nothing away. "Where are we going?" he asks, scowling.

"For a little walk," she replies, and her smile is not at all friendly. "And then a little talk."

He gets out of the cell, crossing his wrists behind his back. There's a faint 'click' as the metal closes around his wrists, and then they start to walk, two taking point, with him and Hill in the middle and the other two bringing up the rear. Her fingers close around his forearm; the grip isn't tight, though, but… reassuring, if not actually kind.

Her other hand closes around his wrist, her fingers slipping down for a moment to leave something in the palm of his hand. He can feel it through the tears in his glove, it's small and rough, made of paper.

They walk down a corridor, but they go a different way from earlier, when he was brought in. In the Helicarrier, the corridors all look the same, except for the numbers written over the walls – D34 in this case. They walk in silence, the echo of their steps the noise around them.

Without warning, the lights go out. Steve hears the surprised sounds the agents make, but Hill tugs him on the side.

"Just headbutt me or something," she hisses in his ear, "and run. Forward, then left. A safe place to take a breath."

And then she draws away from him. "What the hell, Control?" she exclaims, presumably into her radio. "The whole deck 34 is without-" she gets cut off when Steve charges into her, his shoulder catching her in the stomach.

She goes down with a gasp, and Steve hopes he hasn't hit her that hard.

"Sub-Director!" one of the guards shouts.

Steve is already running away so he doesn't hear her reply, but he hears the heavy footsteps of the guards chasing him. 'Left' Hill said, and when he guesses he's more or less crossed the threshold, he takes a sharp left, stumbling in the dark.

There's a hissing noise behind him, and he hears the metal click of what he presumes is the door closing behind him. After a moment the lights flicker to life.

The place he's in is so small and cramped he can barely fit. In front of him, a control panel covers the wall, with buttons and gauges for voltage, heating, door pressure and so on. Even if Steve is able to recognize it from his previous stays on a Helicarrier – when he was still one of the 'good guys' in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s book – he has no idea what he's supposed to do in here.

Then he feels the roughness the paper against his palm and remembers. Maneuvering his body so he can slip his bound wrists past his feet and in front of him is difficult in the tiny room, but he manages it, his shoulders bumping against the walls every few seconds.

Sirens begin to wail. Apparently, Hill's bought him all the time she could.

The piece of paper is folded in two, and when he opens it, he instantly recognizes the writing.

Left, on, left, left, right, 38729,right,right, d93 93840,wait, Tony has written. Then, remember.

He does his best to memorize the instructions, then refolds the piece of paper and slips it into his pocket. As if on cue the light goes off and the door opens. Beyond it the corridor is still dark, the only source of light the fluorescent stripes on the floor. They're not enough light to read by, though, and Steve realizes why Tony wanted him to memorize the instructions.

He lets his eyes adjust for a moment and then springs to his left, trying not to make too much noise as he runs down the corridor. He makes two lefts, then a right. He comes to a corridor that goes on in the opposite direction he's supposed to go, and then he spots the door with the numeric pad next to it. He quickly types the code and it opens without a noise.

The sirens are still wailing, and Steve can hear the heavy footsteps of agents desperately looking for him, but he trusts Tony – and Hill, he supposes – to keep them a safe distance away.

He turns right and right again and he finds himself in a corridor with several doors. Living quarters, then. He looks for the door with 'd93' written on it and punches in the code. The door hisses open, and the lights turn on as soon as he's inside.

There's a S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform folded on the bed, a key and another piece of paper. For the handcuffs, this one reads. Change, leave your clothes on the bed, then go back to deck 34. Maria will bring you to me.

It's signed with a T, but it's not like Steve needs that to know this is once again Tony's doing. He takes the small key and gets rid of the handcuffs and the collar, then he proceeds to swiftly take off his clothes and swap them for the S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform.

As an afterthought, he removes the first piece of paper from the pocket of his Captain America uniform and transfers it to the pocket of his current uniform. The second note follows after being carefully folded, as well.
He takes a deep breath, now that he's relatively safe. Apparently Tony's been telling the truth about wanting to get him out. Maybe he can trust him with this. Maybe he can trust him again in the future.

Maybe.

Now, though, now he has no time to waste. Along with the uniform there's one of those pulse chargers the kid told him about before Tony came to see him, hours earlier – Jesus, has it been only hours? When his hand closes around it, it activates and hums for a second and then it goes silent.

Thought of everything, haven't you, Tony?

Still, if Tony has Thor's DNA, why not his too?

He gets out of the room and makes his way to deck 34 as quickly as he can. Sirens are still blaring, and there're people running everywhere in small groups. He knows that if you move – or run – giving the impression of having a right to, no one will try to stop you, but there's still the possibility that somebody is going to ask him what is he doing or where is he going.

The few minutes it takes to get to deck 34 are tense. As soon as he gets there, he spots Hill barking orders. She's holding an ice-pack to her forehead; under it he can make out a bruise that's just starting to form. He didn't realize he hit her that hard.

"You!" she exclaims, pointing straight at Steve. "Come with me!"

For a second he's startled that she's recognized him so quickly, when only his eyes are visible, but he recovers and, in a flash, he's walking after her.

"Sorry for that," he says when they're alone, pointing vaguely at her face.

"Well, I did tell you to headbutt me," she shrugs. "Nothing serious."

"How did you recognize me so quickly in this?" he asks then, looking down at the uniform.

"Please," she snorts. "Have you got any idea just how big you are? Not exactly easy to miss."

Steve feels his face heat, and the rest of the walk to Tony's office is spent in silence.

As they go in, Dugan is coming out and Steve lowers his eyes to avoid meeting his gaze. If Hill recognized him only by his build, how easy would it be for Dum Dum when they've known each other for so long, fought side by side? From what Tony's said, though, he might be a Skrull. He can't put all of their plans in jeopardy, not when they've almost made it. Not when Steve can almost taste freedom.

"Hill," Tony says, nodding at them. He's wearing his suit, the faceplate down. "Found my prisoner, yet?"

"No, sir," she replies. "But it's only a matter of time. It's not like he can get off the Helicarrier without us knowing."

Dugan just frowns at them and leaves.

Tony stares at him, taking in the uniform he's wearing. "Man, that looks weird," he says, as if to himself, though it's hard to say when he speaks as Iron Man. "Still, it suits you." Hill clears her throat impatiently, and Tony turns to her. "You know what your orders are."

"Let it go on record," she says, "that I think this is one stupid course of action."

"Noted," Tony says, and she walks out of the door.

There's a long moment of silence. Tony's looking at him, or at least that's what Steve guesses, it's hard to say when you've got nothing to stare at other than a gleaming metal helmet. He clears his voice and fidgets with the pulse charger at his side. "So, now what?" he asks after a moment.

"Now we wait," Tony replies, "until they find you."

Tony must mean the LMD. "Yeah," Steve nods. "So you just happened to have an LMD that looked like me lying around. Isn't that… convenient?"

"As a matter of fact, right now?" Tony says with what Steve is sure would be sarcasm if his voice weren't a dull electronic one at the moment. "Yes. Yes, it is."

Steve's fists clench at his sides. "I still think we're making a mistake, faking my death," he says. "You said it has nothing to do with the Skrulls. We could just stop Red Skull and-"

"And what?" Iron Man cuts him off. "What then? We need an ace up our sleeve, and you're it."

"So you want me to lay low, watch from the sidelines while you do what?" he growls. "Because if you want to save the world, if you want to keep people safe… you've already shown that you haven't got quite the knack for it."

Iron Man looks sideways, it's a distinctly Tony-gesture. And seeing what for all intents and purposes looks like a robot occasionally showing human behavior is still unsettling, even after all these years. "No, I suppose I don't," he replies. "That's why I need you."

As always, there's no inflection in the hollow voice, but Steve can guess just what he sounds like inside the suit. He's heard Tony use that particular tone many times, too many actually. It's the one he uses when he thinks the whole world hates him, and he agrees with it.

Steve clenches his teeth and curses himself. They're supposed to work together on this, and even if what he's just said may be partly true, he's got no right shoving it into Tony's face, when he's actually trying to do some good here. "Tony," he starts hesitantly. "Look, I'm sorry. That was out of line…"

"It doesn't matter. I…" he trails off.

Steve frowns. "What is it?"

"It looks like your escape attempt was a half-assed one, Cap," he tells him. "Maria just found you trying to steal a flying car."

Steve blinks at him. "They're so sweet, though," he deadpans. "Can you blame me?"

"Oh, god, Cap," Tony says after a long moment. "Please don't ever, ever do that again."

"Despite what everyone else thinks, I'll have you know that I actually have a sense of humor."

"Yes," Iron Man nods. "But you shouldn't inflict it on unsuspecting people without some kind of warning. Maybe a flashing light on your forehead."

He rolls his eyes. "What about the black-out, earlier?" he asks. "Aren't you going to get in trouble?"

"It's hard to keep track of this routine maintenance," Tony says. "And Hill should have checked the schedule before taking you for a stroll down deck 34. Still, you're back in your cell, so she won't get more than a reprimand."

Steve snorts and shakes his head. "Tony," he says, then, raising his eyes to meet what he hopes are Tony's. "I'm sorry. I really was out of line. I want us to work together on this, but it's got to be on terms I can actually accept."

"It's fine, Cap," Tony says, moving from behind the desk and walking to the door. He signals Steve should follow him. "You're more accepting than I anticipated, anyway. I know you have no reason to trust me, and I know that you won't like what I'm going to propose to you now, but I know better than to tell you to sit quietly, so…"

Steve has the nagging suspicion he's not going to like whatever comes next. "What is it, Tony?"

"I had it flown in an hour ago," he goes on, ignoring his question.

"Tony…" he starts warningly, but Tony says nothing more and just motions for him to follow.

It feels strange to move freely in the Helicarrier, walking after Tony, who's still in full armor, among other agents when mere hours ago he was a prisoner and then a fugitive. And now he's apparently a prisoner once again. Well, a LMD modeled on him, anyway. And Tony had one just lying around.

He's all for working together against a common enemy, but they have to set down some rules.

Tony stops in front of a door, punches in the code, and the door slides open. It closes as soon as they cross the threshold, darkness swallowing the room. Neon lights flicker and come alive, revealing the room to Steve's eyes.

It looks like a storage facility, mostly empty, except for two worktables, some tools scattered around and…

"Tony, what is that?" he asks, his voice shaking only slightly.

It takes a while for the reply to come. "It's a suit of armor," Tony says.

In fact, it is a suit of armor. It reminds Steve of the one Tony built for him when he was having problems with the Super Soldier Serum and had to rely on it to go on fighting as a superhero. The design's changed, however; it resembles the current Iron Man's suit, though it's bigger and glimmers white, blue and red, instead of the red and gold of Tony's armor.

"Tony," Steve says once again, slowly. "What. Is. This?"

"I- It was supposed to be a gift," Tony says, looking sideways, his human-like movement once again noticeably clashing with the appearance of a robot. "But then Registration…"

A gift. Only Tony would give people high-tech suits of armor as a gift. "It's… a gift?" he snorts, disbelieving.

"Well. That, and a precaution," Tony replies. "In case Starktech - and me - got hacked again."

"How long have you had this ready?"

"It's- a long story," Tony says. "Short version, after I got Extremis and Yinsen's kid used me to kill all those people, I decided to rebuild your suit from scratch without employing Starktech. In case you needed to… stop me."

To 'stop' him. "To kill you, you mean."

"Then Civil War happened, and isn't that ironic?"

"Tony-"

"Still," Tony cuts him off. "Guess what? Starktech is going to get hacked. Again. So it's lucky I had this one sitting around."

"Tony…"

"Want to take it out for a spin?" Tony goes on, as if he didn't hear him. "You probably should get acquainted with the new HID and the handling, I made lots of changes."

Steve grabs Tony's armored shoulder and pushes, turning him so that they're face to face. Face to faceplate. Iron Man doesn't move at all, glowing eyes fixed on him. He doesn't say anything. "Tony," he says one last time, commanding. "If it's anything like your armor, it's one of the most powerful weapons ever built. I don't use weapons. What made you think I would have used the suit?"

"I made it because Captain America didn't use weapons. Doesn't. I knew you would have used it only as a last resort," Tony replies, and Steve lets that slip go. "And I specifically built it to stop my Extremis enhanced armor. It's more powerful."

Tony built this suit so Steve could kill him, if there ever was the need. Suddenly he's back, standing over Tony's still body, his shield raised to strike down. He feels sick. Even if the fight over the SHRA isn't a war in the strictest sense of the word, it's still a war, and he knows war. He knows how it can twist and pervert everything, every little thing, down to the most innocent and insignificant. Everything that it touches becomes foul and blind and sick and wrong. At the worst of it, Steve was ready to kill Tony, to kill his friend. And even if it was a fleeting thought lasting barely the time between two seconds, it was, and that's enough for Steve to know that he'd been willing to kill Tony.

And now Tony is practically giving him his blessing and the means to do it.

"What do you want me to do with it?" Steve asks, after a moment. "What do you expect me to do?"

"I want you to try it, get used to it," Tony replies. "The first move the Skrulls will make in the open is going to be against Stark technology and against me. I'm going to try to prevent it in every way I can, but practically every advanced defense system in the world uses my technology, so it'll be pretty much useless."

"And what about the attack against you?" Steve prompts. Tony's only telling him bits and pieces, and he wonders how much of the picture he's still missing and how long Tony plans to keep him guessing. So far there hasn't been much good news about this… 'future' Tony supposedly comes from.

"It's a virus that prevents me from using Extremis," he replies. "If I don't get my hands on the original coding, I'm afraid I won't be able to prevent that either."

Hacking into the world's most effective defense systems and cutting off their creator. Another excellent strategy on the Skrulls' part. So far, from the little Steve knows, they've proven themselves to be formidable enemies. Enemies that can plan long and wait to strike at the right moment. This doesn't reassure him. Not in the slightest. As if shape-shifting into fellow humans weren't enough.

"So you see why I need you to fly that thing," Tony says. "I upgraded Rhodey's armor much the same way, but if you show up on the battlefield in that suit… No one's gonna see it coming."

Steve frowns. "Tony…" he trails off with a sigh. "I see your point, but fighting in that… It doesn't feel right. I would feel-"

"Like a coward?" it's impossible to tell Tony's mood, with his face hidden like that.

"No," he says, firmly. "You're not a coward, Tony." 'Not for that,' he adds mentally. "I'm just saying that I wouldn't feel comfortable-"

"Well, suck it up."

Steve stands speechless for a moment. "What?" He blinks.

"Suck it up, Steve," Tony repeats. "I went through hell. We all went through hell and, granted, it was mostly my fault, but now I can prevent it all from happening and I won't let you ruin everything because you don't… feel comfortable wearing a suit of armor. You-"

"Take off your helmet," Steve interrupts him, abruptly.

"What?"

"Your helmet," Steve repeats. "I want to see your face when you speak to me."

Steve knows Tony's caught the reference. There's a moment of silence, but Tony doesn't move. Just when Steve starts to think he isn't going to do it, there's a faint hiss and the faceplate flips up, revealing Tony's face, his eyes carefully avoiding Steve's.

"You have to kill the Queen, Steve," he says after a while, his voice almost too low to be heard. "You have to be the one."

Honestly, he doesn't know what to make of that.

"I will… suck it up," Steve says, when Tony finally dares to meet his eyes. "But you have to promise something to me, Tony."

"Anything."

"Promise me that you'll tell me everything," Steve says, slowly, holding Tony's gaze with his. "Everything."

"I promise," Tony replies after a moment, and Steve wishes he could decide whether he's telling the truth or not.

"Tony, I-"

"I need to get a message to Peter," Tony cuts him off.

Steve blinks at the non-sequitur. "What?"

"MJ and his aunt are in danger."

Whatever he's been about to say dies on his lips and his mind becomes totally blank. "What?" he whispers, hoping he's actually heard wrong.

"Mrs. Parker and MJ," Tony repeats. "He has to take them away from wherever they're hiding. Find a safe place," he stares at him for a long time.

Steve takes a deep breath and scratches the back of his head. "I don't know, I-" he sighs.

"Steve, whatever means you have, use them," Tonys says. "You have the right not to trust me, but innocent people are going to get hurt if you don't."

For a second, Steve wants to punch him, and his right hand actually closes tightly in a fist, eager to feel the soft flesh of his cheek giving under his hard knuckles. But it's a scene he's seen already, only a couple of hours earlier, and Tony's right, he doesn't trust him, but people are going to get hurt. He's right, and that's the main reason Steve wants to punch him.

Tony is right and Steve is wrong, but at the same time Steve is right and Tony is wrong.

Tony's eyes go from the clenched fist to his face. "Steve," he says, blankly. And it hurts, it almost physically hurts, because Tony sounds a whole lot like he's preparing to be disappointed in him. In Captain America.

Some of his enemies respect him, some don't, and while he doesn't consider Tony an enemy – Tony deserves a whole category to himself with the confused feelings he manages to provoke – he wonders how Tony's respect could still mean anything after all the things he's done, all the lies he's said.

"I'll try to contact Sam," he says after a moment. "And I need to contact Johnny."

"You want to try the Spidey-Signal again? Isn't it a little too risky?"

"You have a better idea?"

Tony sighs and shakes his head. "In a way it should be easier, though," he says. "Everyone's been granted amnesty temporarily to help with… the victims."

"That's right, so you need us now, but when you're done we're on the run again."

"You keep forgetting why I'm doing this, Steve," Tony says, quietly.

"Maybe," Steve retorts with a snort, "but I sure remember the methods."

Tony starts, for lack of a better word, and something flashes across his eyes, before they shutter down, blank.

Mechanically, Tony turns and hands him a device that's been sitting on one of the worktables. On closer inspection it turns out to be a cell phone. "Use this," he tells him. "I know it doesn't mean much, but you have my word that no trace of your call will remain."

Steve nods and takes the phone.

"And I won't be listening," he continues, tapping two fingers against his temple. Right, Extremis. "I'll go see what I can do about Johnny," he says, before the faceplate slams shut.

He stares at the phone for a long time after the door's closed behind Iron Man's back. Tony's right; he can't really trust him right now. He would, but he can't. But he's also right, no more people should get hurt because of them. They protect people, and that's the only common ground he and Tony have lately.

He flips the phone open and starts to type a message.

Tony comes back half an hour later, but they exchange no words, not even as he tries on the armor. It comes as no surprise that it fits perfectly.

At first, Steve is afraid that with all the upgrades it will feel too alien to him, but it's surprisingly intuitive and even easier to maneuver than the first time he tried it on, years ago.

They escape the Helicarrier, Tony saying something about wanting to try a new remote-controlled suit. Strangely enough, no one seems to raise any questions or have any doubts regarding their rather sketchy excuse.

To be honest, Tony doesn't get much reaction at all. Steve doesn't think they like him much around here, but it makes sense. S.H.I.E.L.D. is a military-based organization, and while Tony is used to leading large groups of people in the most efficient way, he's just the CEO of a company. A very capable CEO of one of the biggest international companies worldwide, granted, but he's still a civilian in the role of a military leader.

To the east, a ball of fire explodes in the late afternoon sky. It looks nothing like Peter's symbol. In fact it looks like…

"A Bat-Signal?" he asks, incredulous, through their channel.

A dry sound that may have been a chuckle once upon a time answers him. "Well, we don't want to be too blatant."

"How is that not blatant?"

"They'll think it's a joke," Tony says. "And those who don't probably won't guess the meaning."

"Well, I hope Peter understands it."

"He will," Tony says, and the sureness in his voice is somehow comforting. "Did you get the message to the Falcon?"

"Yes," Steve replies.

What they don't say is, 'now we just have to wait and see'. Then again, neither of them had ever been good at waiting.

For what's left of the day, Tony teaches him to use the armor and all its functions. When he activates the jet boots, the rush of speed is unbelievable.

Apparently, Tony wasn't joking when he said he built this specifically with neutralizing Iron Man in mind; the fire power of Steve's repulsors alone is unimaginable. Going by Tony's explanation, their armors are connected to each other, and when that connection is severed for any reason – Starktech getting hacked, Extremis giving troubles, Tony's death – the armor will activate.

It can also locate Tony at any given moment.

If Tony had given him this before the Civil War… In a way, Steve is glad he didn't. He doesn't know what he would have done if he'd held that kind of power over Tony. Forcing his opinions on other people, even when he's doing the right thing, doesn't sit well with him. Especially when he wonders what would have happened if he'd held the upper hand from the start against the Registration.

They've had serious disagreement in the years they've known each other, and Tony came to him several times during Civil War, trying to build bridges between the two of them, trying to repair their friendship, but there are things that can't be forgiven. Murder is one of them. Betraying trusted friends is another.

When it's time to head back to the Helicarrier, they fly fast, faster than Tony's ever flown when transporting Steve. It makes sense, since a human – even one enhanced with Super Soldier Serum – probably couldn't bear their current speed without some kind of protection.

"I've got a bit of a jitter," Steve tells Tony via their radio link.

"Hey, you've just started the flying lessons," Tony replies, and there's a pale shadow of amusement in his voice. "You're actually very good at it. Not that I'm surprised."

"I've been flying without artificial stabilizers for the last fifteen minutes," Steve admits proudly and a little embarrassed that he's actually proud.

"What?" Tony exclaims. "Turn it back on, human reflexes can't compensate- fifteen minutes?" He's actually impressed. "Wow, Steve. That's- Turn it back on."

"Yes, mom," Steve huffs and gives the command. The jittering he's been experiencing finally stops. Right, that's one thing Tony will never know.

"You like it, then," Tony says. "We'll have to find you a new superhero name."

"I think Captain America is all I need," Steve replies, half-jokingly but serious as well.

Tony doesn't reply. And it hits Steve once again, how in the last few hours they've managed to crack jokes at each other, talk about inane things and actually have a good time, when in reality they're… not enemies, but not friends. And every once in a while, Steve or Tony will say something and the state of things will make itself forcefully known.

They're still silent when they touch down on the Helicarrier deck, where Carol in her Ms. Marvel costume is evidently waiting for them. Well, for Tony anyway.

Carol steps forward as soon as Tony has touched down. "I heard that there's been- what is that?" she exclaims then, pointing in Steve's direction.

He turns to look before he realizes that Carol is pointing at him. He quickly goes back to pretending to be remote controlled armor, hoping she won't notice his slip.

Tony spares him a glance. "That? It's something I've had in storage for a while. I was testing it."

Carol narrows her eyes at him. "Tony, those are Steve's colors," she says slowly.

"Now's not the time, Carol," Tony cuts her off. "You heard what?"

"I heard that Cap managed to escape, and-" she starts, but Tony cuts her off before she can add anything else.

"Old news," he says, waving his hand in a vague gesture. "Now excuse me, but I have to get the paperwork ready for Cap's courthouse appointment."

Oh, that's right. While he and Tony have been fooling around with the armors, the night has dragged almost to an end. It must be at least three a.m.. He asks the armor and it helpfully displays the time in front of his eyes. Four fifteen.

They sit in Tony's office for the rest night, waiting for what he knows is coming. In the morning the big LCD screen turns on, seemingly by itself, but at first neither of them looks at it.

Steve says nothing as he watches Tony. He hasn't moved in a long time, and in the armor, at this distance, Steve can't see him breathe. It's always disturbed him, that you couldn't see Iron Man breathe. Every time he's seen him fall during a fight, seeing him lying still, not breathing.

Now, Tony looks like a statue, a very exhausted statue.

Steve turns away and watches himself climbing the steps to the courthouse. Maybe Tony is wrong, maybe he's crazy, maybe Steve's LMD isn't going to die on those cold steps surrounded both by people who hate him and love him, but don't know him in either case.

Maybe—

The shots, when they come, don't surprise him.

Next to him, Tony – who already knows, who should be the one expecting them – gasps as if in surprise.

When Steve turns to ask if everything's all right, he's just in time to catch a glimpse of his goatee before the faceplate slams shut and Steve is left with Iron Man.

 

5 | Someone take these dreams away, that point me to another day.

 

 

The TV winked out with a thought.

He'd been without Extremis for a long time, but getting used to it again had been a question of minutes. He knew Steve was staring at him, but what could he have done? He needed Steve to believe him, and showing him that things were actually happening as he'd told him was the only way to do that.

"I'm sorry you had to see that," he said after a moment, turning to look at him.

Steve frowned at him. "It was… weird," he confessed after a moment. Weird. An understatement, if you asked Tony. "Almost alien."

Tony's head was flooded with information, agents reporting from the scene, reporters already calling to ask questions, Maria confirming her position. He devoted half his mind to impart orders, and turned back to Steve. "Maria has her end covered," he told him. "It's all in her hands now."

"How is she… I mean, if they try to operate on the LMD, they'll find out for sure I'm not dead."

Tony shook his head. "DOA," he replied. "There's nothing left to do here; put on your armor. I've made sure Spiderwoman is going to be busy for the next couple of hours, so we're going to pay a visit to the Avengers."

"Now?" Steve exclaimed disbelieving. "Of all the moments, now?"

"I've left Maria in charge of things," he shrugged. "They'll just think I'm somewhere taking care of things. Or gloating."

Sad thing was, there probably were people around who thought he'd rejoice at Cap's death. There had been, where he came from. There would be here as well.

"Tony…" Steve started, and Tony recognized his Tony-you're-being-stupid tone of voice. He was probably going to say that not everyone hated him or something to that effect. Apparently he changed his mind, or realized the absurdity of that thought – of course everyone hated him, and those who hadn't would start now – because he continued with, "are you sure leaving Hill in command is the wise thing to do?"

"I know you don't trust her, Steve," he told him, after a moment. "But in the end, she stuck with me when I had no one else, and she helped me when I needed her the most. She can be trusted with this."

Steve seemed to seriously consider his words for a moment; maybe they still held some small measure of meaning. "Yes, Tony," he said then, "but you said that you could trust her in the end, and it may even be true. But this isn't the end, Tony, this is the beginning. Are you sure that this Maria Hill and yours are the same?"

"Of course they are," he replied. "Are you not? Am I not?"

"The fact that we're here proves in fact that you aren't," Steve said. "If you were still the same, we wouldn't be having this conversation now, and I would be the one in the ambulance getting rushed to the hospital."

Steve, of course, was right. When was Steve ever not right? Even when he was wrong, he was still partly right.

For all his careful planning, Tony hadn't considered the possibility of Maria turning on him, on them. In fact a large part of his plan relied on her doing what he told her to do. Maria certainly didn't want Earth to be invaded by green, shape-shifting aliens and while she now might believe he'd told the truth about Steve's assassination plot, he knew she wouldn't be wholly convinced until he brought her the dead body of a Skrull. Which right now was impossible without putting all of their plans in jeopardy.

He'd have to think up a new plan in case Cap was right and Maria turned on them. Maybe he could fake his own death, too. Yeah, right. He had no secret alias behind which to hide, both of his identities being quite public, and besides he was mostly useless without his armor.

"Tony," Steve called him, and he remembered what he'd promised. 'Everything', he'd said.

Tony looked at the black screen of the TV. He had given his word and already broken it as soon as he'd promised, but he couldn't tell Steve. He probably would learn, sooner or later, especially if Sam or Barnes got involved, but he just couldn't tell him now.

They could work together on this, though. "We'll think of something," he told him. "We'll cross that bridge if we come to it."

Steve remained silent for a long moment. He just sat, leaning slightly forward, his elbows on his knees. Except for the fingers drumming on his knuckles, he was completely still. "So, I have to put on the armor," he said.

"Yes," Tony replied, getting to his feet. "Then you're going to lock down my armor, and we're out of here."

At that Steve looked up at him, sharply. "Lock down your armor?" he blinked. "Why?"

"Have you forgotten I'm your enemy right now?" he snorted. "If I walk into your Avengers' hideout wearing the armor, how long do you think I'd last? And the same goes for Extremis."

Steve narrowed his eyes. "What about it?" he asked, cautiously, and Tony was reminded once again of just how much Steve seemed to despise Extremis. Frankly, it was bemusing.

Tony went to his desk and opened the drawer where he'd put the anklet earlier that day. He got it out and showed it to Steve. "Dr. Samson used this on me when I was temporary suspended. It effectively prevents Extremis from working."

"You were suspended?" Steve asked, obviously not focusing on the relevant piece of information. "Why?"

"Pending psychological evaluation," he replied. "I was going through a couple of mental breakdowns at the time. Of course it didn't help that the Mandarin chose that moment to put his Doomsday plan into motion. I had to fight him with one of the old armors. Not my finest day, I tell you."

And that was another thing to add to ever increasing list of things they had to save the world from.

Steve stared at him. "You had a mental breakdown?" he asked, once again ignoring the relevant information. "And you fought the Mandarin in one of your old armors? When did this happen? While we were fighting?"

"Relax, Steve," Tony said, gently, even though it probably didn't matter, when he was talking with Iron Man's voice. "It's going to happen weeks from now."

"Relax?" he snorted. "How do you think I could relax, when I know we have not only an alien invasion, but the Mandarin as well to look forward to?" Tony remained silent, and despite his promise, he didn't have the heart to tell Steve that the Mandarin was just the tip of the iceberg, that his last eighteen months had been the worst of his life. Of a lot of people's lives, possibly. "And you fought him seriously underpowered while you were going through a mental breakdown?"

"Well, I managed it," he said with a shrug. "Besides, you didn't seem much concerned with my physical and mental welfare when you were about to decapitate me with your shield, the other day."

Steve looked as if he'd sucker punched him, but Tony felt just as surprised. When he had thought he would never see Steve again, talk to him, apologize to him, he'd assumed that working together would have been easier. As Tony was starting to realize, it really wasn't. But he shouldn't have been surprised. Talking and reaching a common ground through their differences even sounded harder than smashing each other to little bits.

But one thing hadn't changed. Talking, setting things right with Steve… that was worth anything.

Tony took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "I'm just- I want this to work out."

Steve nodded slowly. "Yes, me too," he said, sighing. "We've both been through a lot, mostly at the hand of each other. And you're right, yesterday I was willing to kill you. Yesterday you were willing to arrest me and try me for treason."

He nodded, accepting Steve's indirect apology. They were still tip-toeing around each other, testing the limits, trying to estimate the extent of their truce. Of course, Tony's hope was that it would eventually stop being a truce and become an actual peace, but there was still a long way to go.

"I'll carry the armor in a briefcase," Tony told him. "But it'll be in lockdown unless you decide otherwise,"
Steve nodded. "Initiate the override procedure." Steve stared at him for a long moment. "Come on, we haven't got all day."

"I don't have the codes, Tony."

"Of course you have them."

Steve frowned, "What do you-" he started, then his eyes widened and the rest of his question didn't make it past his lips. "My old codes still work?" he asked, instead. "You didn't change them?"

Steve's tone, his utterly bewildered expression, would have been quite amusing in any other occasion.

"Of course not," Tony snorted. "Even if I wanted to, they're called override codes for a reason, Steve. I can't override your override."

"You mean to tell me," Steve said, his eyes narrowing, "that I could have stopped you at any moment?"
When Tony just arched one eyebrow and didn't reply, he continued, "I never thought of- Leaving your enemy with that kind of power over you is a huge tactical mistake, Tony, I wouldn't have imagined that- What?"

"Just think of you've just said," Tony said. "I'm not- You are not my enemy, Steve."

Steve stared at him. "We fought each other, giving no quarter," he said.

"Yeah," Tony nodded absently, "we always seem to do that, don't we? Only, this time it got out of hand."

"I've said it before, Tony," Steve retorted, his voice underlined with a vague threat, "don't make it personal. Don't make it about us."

"And I already told you that it's more personal than you think," Tony replied. "See? We seem to have knack for disagreeing spectacularly."

Sometimes Tony thought that it was a wonder they were friends. Or had been, possibly.

Steve seemed to want to add something, but he closed his mouth with an almost audible sound. His body was tense and his fists clenched at his side and Tony observed him carefully as he made a visible effort to relax.

Steve's next words were his override codes and the armor came away and dropped down at his feet. It was still connected to Extremis and he tried accessing it, but nothing happened. Good. Next thing, the anklet.

Tony extended his palm and Steve deposited it in the middle of it. "I have to set the timer," he said, looking at Steve. "Is twelve hours all right? Before that, there's no way to take it off."

Except cutting off half your foot, of course. But he didn't say that, he had a feeling Steve would guess he knew that from experience.

"Isn't that too much?" Steve asked, frowning. "Make it four hours."

He shook his head. "Eight's the minimum."

"Then make it eight hours," Steve said.

Tony nodded, and set the timer. As soon as the device had closed around his ankle, his golden under armor slithered away, absorbed by his body to be stored in the hollow of his bones. Being suddenly exposed to the slightly chilly air of his office made him shudder and he rubbed his arms, trying to preserve some body heat. He looked down at himself.

Boxers were the only thing he was wearing.

"Right," he said, after a moment. "But first, clothes."

"You plan to parade through the Helicarrier in your underwear?" Steve asked, a hint of amusement coloring his voice.

"I'm afraid I'm going to deprive everyone of my good looks today," he deadpanned. "I have a spare uniform."

He quickly put it on and when he turned he noticed Steve staring at him with a bemused expression. "What?" he frowned.

"It's just…" Steve cleared his throat. "It's strange seeing you in a military uniform."

"It's strange seeing you in a suit of armor," Tony replied, then he nodded towards Steve's armor, fully assembled and standing against the wall.

Steve shot it a dubious glance. "How does it work, then?"

"The armor responds to your voice," Tony replied. "Just say the word."

Steve arched an eyebrow at him. "The magic word?" he asked with a small smirk. Tony rolled his eyes. "Armor order: assemble," Steve said finally.

The pieces of the armor flew and assembled around Steve's body and in a matter of seconds, Tony was staring at the gleaming surface of a white helmet. Being so used to think of Iron Man's as his own face, Tony had forgotten how inhuman it looked.

"What is it?" Steve asked, his filtered voice betraying no inflections.

Maybe Steve had been right, it didn't suit him at all. Steve's voice, his eyes, were Captain America's weapons as much as his shield; it felt like replacing him with something completely different.

Tony forced himself to look away, shaking his head. "Nothing," he mumbled, then clearer, "we have to go."

"Okay, now, this is strange!" Tony said, ten minutes later. He almost had to shout to hear himself over the wind whistling past his ears.

It was strange, indeed. It was their usual flying position, human arm across metal shoulders, a heavy gauntlet around the waist, fingers firmly closed just above the hip. The strange thing was that their positions were now reversed.

Steve was flying them, while Tony was left trying to hold on one-handed, as his other hand gripped tightly the handle of the briefcase with Iron Man inside. He constantly had to readjust his position as he kept slipping, and the arm he had around Steve's shoulders was starting to ache. How had Steve managed it?

Really, if Tony had known he'd have let Steve ride him piggy-back style, as embarrassing as that had been.

Of course, the fact that Tony was blindfolded – a precaution he'd insisted on – made things even more complicated.

"No, I'm serious!" Tony shouted. "I'm thinking handles for the next suit upgrade."

"I can hear you fine, Tony," Steve's voice was unrecognizable filtered as it was by the armor. "And handles are a good idea only if you want super villains to get a hold of you."

Tony blinked and pondered Steve's words. "Was that a joke?" he asked finally, still shouting.

"No," Steve said. With a lurch, they touched down.

Tony stumbled and almost fell on his face. "You need to work on your landing skills."

"My landing skills are good," Steve replied, and Tony could easily imagine his miffed tone of voice. "I just forgot to compensate for your presence."

"That's included under the term 'landing skills', actually," he said.

"Give me the user manual for this thing, and then we'll talk," Steve replied.

"Right, right," Tony dismissed. "Are we there yet?" he asked then, trying to orientate himself with his hearing. He could hear the sound of cars and people, but it arrived muffled to his ears, as if from far away.

That and the disgusting smell of trash told him they probably were in a back alley or something similar.

"Not far," Steve replied. "Put a hand on my shoulder, and be careful."

Tony did as he was told, and he was concentrating so much on using his other senses to avoid stumbling or falling, that he didn't notice Steve had finally stopped and he bumped into him. Or rather, he bumped into the back of Steve's cold, hard metal armor.

"A little warning next time, please," he muttered, straightening up. "I hope there's no one around."

"So no one can see you fall on your face?" Steve asked. Okay, so it was strange to hear a robotic voice making sarcastic remarks.

"No, because I'm blindfolded and wearing a S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform," he said. "And you're wearing a red, white and blue suit of armor and carrying your shield. If somebody sees us we can kiss our covert operation goodbye."

Giving the shield to Steve had probably been a stupid move, for all his advocating the preservation of the timeline as much as they could. But despite what the world thought, Steve was alive, and the shield belonged to him, was a part of him. Taking it away from him would be like amputating a limb. And the soft smile when he'd taken it from Tony's hands, the look in his eyes, the way his bare hands had followed its edge…

As for Bucky, he'd think of something.

"I've actually been doing this kind of stuff for a long time, you know?" Steve replied. "Before you were born, in fact."

"Sure, sure," Tony said, dismissively. "Lead on, old man."

There was the sound of a metal door opening and then Steve's doubtful, "Hmm."

"What?"

"Stairs," Steve said, as if that somehow managed to explain anything.

"So what?" he asked.

He yelped and almost dropped his briefcase when a metal arm encircled his waist and lifted him. "What the hell?" he exclaimed when he'd recovered from the shock of being carried around like a football. "Put me down!"

"There's a lot of stairs," Steve explained as his jetboots clanged as he started climbing said stairs. "It'd take us an eternity to get there with you blindfolded."

Tony gave a long-suffering sigh. "Please tell me there are no cameras here," he said after a moment.

Steve didn't reply.

"Great," he snorted. "If LOLCats of this start showing up on the Internet I'll know who to blame."

"What cats?"

Tony shook his head and did his best to look dignified while hanging from the hip of a white, blue and red suit of armor.

The stairs were indeed a lot and they probably would have wasted time if Tony had climbed down by himself, but the fact failed to make him feel any better. Steve turned him around and let go, steadying him with a metal gauntlet.

Getting vertigo while blindfolded was an… interesting experience.

"Can I take this off?" Tony asked, hoping he was pointing at the blindfold.

"Yes, I think you-"

Tony didn't get to hear how that ended, because somebody roared, 'Stark!' and he was tackled to the ground by what felt like a rampaging rhino.

"What the- Wait-" he only managed to gasp out, before a big hand closed around his throat, cutting off most of his air. The rest of his breath was knocked out of him when he was slammed against a wall.

"Stop!" he heard Steve say.

The blindfold was ripped away and Luke Cage snarled right into his face. "What are you doing here?" he growled. "And what is that?" he continued, pointing at Steve. "It has Cap's colors, how dare you?"

Tony tugged at the hand clamped around his neck, even if he knew that it would be nothing but a vain effort.

"Stop!" Steve repeated. It was probably supposed to be commanding, but it came out cold and alien in the armor's voice. "We have no time to fight among us! We have a bigger threat to face."

"Great," Luke snorted, and Tony knew that Luke could be scary, but he'd never witnessed it firsthand. Now that he had, though, it was way too up close and personal for his liking. He could feel his muscles tensing up, anticipating the blow that was sure to come. Oh, this was going to hurt. "It talks like him, too."

Abruptly the pressure around his neck was gone, as well as the force keeping him up, and Tony slid down the wall, coughing and taking in much needed air.

When he looked up, he saw that Steve had hauled Luke off of him and he was now restraining him, blocking his arms against his body. Not that it would be enough to keep Luke Cage, especially with the other Avengers there to help him.

In fact, Iron Fist and Spider Man had gotten over their surprise and joined the fight. "No!" he shouted, but his voice came out as a rough rasp. He coughed again. "Wait, it's Steve!"

Everyone froze in their tracks, and Steve apparently remembered just then that he was wearing a helmet. He let go of Luke and lifted his faceplate. "Let him be," he said. "He's defenseless."

Tony got to his feet and reached his side. "You know, I think you can actually take it off now," he said tapping a finger against his metal shoulder pads.

Steve nodded and gave the command, in a matter of a few seconds the pieces of his armor flew away from him and assembled together a couple of feet from them. Under the suit he was still wearing the S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform.

"So…" Peter started, crawling closer from his upside-down position on the ceiling. "You're alive then," he said. "See I was right! He's alive, the other Steve must be some kind of clone."

"Or this one could be the clone," Luke said, but despite his hostile tone he didn't make a move towards either Steve or Tony. "Or one of those LMDs. Wouldn't put it past Stark."

"No one is anybody's clone, here," Steve protested, and his affronted expression would have been quite hilarious in another context. "I'm the real Steve Rogers."

"We saw you die!" Iron Fist exclaimed. "It was on TV."

"Well, there was an LMD," Tony conceded. "But he was the one who got shot in his place."

"See?" Peter exclaimed, jumping down from the ceiling. "I told you it was a fraud! You should never believe everything you see on TV!"

"I'm still not-"

Multicolored sparks surrounded Steve, and he blinked and took a step back in surprise. Then, as abruptly as they had appeared , they were gone.

"It is Steve," Strange said, finally coming on scene. "An LMD or a clone would have been revealed by the spell."

Right, magic. Tony had to admit that it had its uses, though.

Steve stared at him. "What are you doing here? I thought you were…" he trailed off for a second, "abroad."

"I've been back for some time," Strange replied. "And as soon as I'd heard you…" he trailed off.

Steve cleared his throat. "Thank you."

Now that Steve's identity seemed to have been established, they all turned to stare at Tony. "What are you doing bringing Stark here, then?" Luke asked Steve. "Did he brainwash you?"

"He is standing right here," Tony said, rolling his eyes. "And he didn't brainwash anyone."

He was, of course, ignored.

"Tony and I reached an agreement," Steve said. "I've brought him here."

"We took every precaution," Tony interjected, before anybody could raise objections. "I can't use my armor until Steve says so, Extremis is offline for the next seven and a half hours and I came here blindfolded so I have no idea where we are."

After that, no one seemed sure how things should go. Fortunately, after a few moments of awkward silence, they were saved by Jessica. She came in holding her daughter in her arms. "Is it safe to come out yet?" she asked.

"Hey," Luke said softly, the complete opposite of the man he'd been only moments earlier.

He reached his wife and cooed gently over his daughter.

"I'm sick of this," Jessica said, but she didn't sound much serious. "I always get saddled with the baby while you go and have all the fun, punching people's teeth in."

"Well, it's not like I can breastfeed her if she's hungry," Luke replied, grinning.

Despite the fact that they both were outlaws, despite the fact that they risked their life and their freedom every time they stepped outside their hideout, in this moment they looked like the happiest family in the whole world. For a second, Tony was mesmerized by the picture they presented. Their faces were abruptly replaced by Tony's memories, Jessica's screaming and Luke's anger and Carol's helpless expression when Tony had finally reached the Avengers Tower.

"What's he doing here?" Jessica asked, nodding in Tony's direction.

He shook his head to clear it. His memories were meaningless, things would go differently, he would make sure of it. That was the whole purpose of his being here. He raised his eyes and met hers. "I'm here to talk," he said, firmly.

She shrugged. "Then talk."

A couple of minutes later they were sitting at the long table in what Tony supposed was the living room. He could feel every Avengers' gaze fixed on him as he stared down at his folded hands.

So Tony started to talk, his voice low and flat. He told them everything he knew about the Skrulls, the invasion, the Savage Land and the attack on New York. He told them about the ship where their friends were kept. He told them that Thor was still alive. He told them of Jessica and Luke's baby. He told them of Jan.

And when he was done, he rubbed his hands over his face and took a deep breath. He hadn't felt this exhausted since- since he'd gone to find Wanda.

Around him the silence was deafening.

Jessica was the first one to speak, but she wasn't very articulate. "This is- This- God, Tony."

"If you're lying…" Luke growled but let the threat unspoken.

"I'm not," he said, shaking his head. "And I'm not finished."

Peter came down from the ceiling and landed on the table, turning towards him. He was wearing his mask so Tony couldn't see his face, but he could pretty much guess. "That bad, huh?" he said. "How can it get much worse than Skrulls?"

"They indicted me," Tony continued. "And they disbanded S.H.I.E.L.D."

"How could they disband S.H.I.E.L.D.?" Peter asked, puzzled. "It's not a US based organization-" he
continued, but Tony's deadpan glance made him trail off. "Right. In a perfect world."

"So they kicked you out, then?" Luke snorted. "First good news I've heard in a while."

"Yes, of course." Tony nodded, because he really would have agreed with him. "And then they put Norman Osborn in my place."

 

 

6 | Well, of course I'd like to sit around and chat, but someone's listening in.

 

Steve swallows thickly. He knew that there was going to be something more terrible than Skrulls, of course. Something so terrible that pushed Tony to break his self-imposed rule of not interfering with the timeline.

Having it confirmed so bluntly and matter-of-factly, however- Steve can't say how, but if he had any doubts left, now they've been swept away by Tony's calm voice, by his eyes.

The silence's broken by Peter's cry of outrage. "And this is why I should keep my mouth shut" he mutters, then. "This goes beyond bad and straight into the land of 'can I wake up, already?'"

"I ran away with everything I could get my hands on," Tony continues. "From Stark Industries projects to the Registration Database. Meanwhile, Osborn settled himself in Stark Tower and managed to get a hold of one of my suits," he turns to Steve. "Your suit to be precise. Then he assembled the Dark Avengers."

Steve's grinding his teeth so hard, they are starting to hurt. Around the table, not counting Tony's low and monotone recounting of the future, the silence is absolute. It's a horrified kind of silence, and the expressions on the maskless faces clearly reflect that.

The horror grows when Tony tells them who takes the place of Ms. Marvel, Hawkeye, Wolverine and Spider-Man.

"When he realized what I had done…" Tony trails off for a moment, his eyes becoming distant. Steve knows this tale isn't going end well for Tony; he knew that when Tony took off the helmet yesterday and looked Steve in the eyes. "I tried to run, but without Extremis my armor was useless, and the older armors were too outdated. The only thing I could do was erase everything I had downloaded into my brain."

Steve draws a sharp intake of breath. It shouldn't surprise him, really, not after all the time he's known Tony. When his back is forced to the wall, Tony's common sense always seems to take a leave of absence and he's sure to go kamikaze on whatever threat he's facing in the most destructive way – both for his enemy and for Tony himself.

Without counting the times he's almost killed himself – and in the most recent occasion, actually managed it; for thirty-seven minutes at least – to save Steve or the other Avengers. The fact that it's times, plural, is nothing but further proof that, despite the war over Registration, despite the hostilities, the person who hates Tony the most in the world is Tony himself.

"But I couldn't do it," Tony goes on, and things have gone really bad in his future if he sounds so heartbroken over the fact that he wasn't able to commit suicide. "Osborn and his Avengers raided the place. It was a close one, especially since the Sentry was with them."

Before he realizes it, Steve's hand hits the table with a loud bang that startles everyone in the room. "Bob
would never work with the likes of them!" he exclaims. "He would never…" he starts again, but he trails off when he looks at Tony.

Tony is staring intently at his left hand, his fingers rubbing the wrist. "He watched as Osborn ripped off my left arm," he says, too calm to be actually calm. "Armor and everything," he looks up at him then, and for the first time in months Steve wishes Tony was lying to him. "Thank God for Maria Hill and her RPG. And for Carol. They held Osborn's Avengers back, while I… I was in a really bad shape, but I managed to run. I don't know what happened to them."

Tony takes a deep breath, his frown deepening. Steve knows it couldn't have possibly ended there, it doesn't explain how Tony seems to have managed to go back in time for one. He also knows that they need all the information they can get, but Tony sounds as tired as he looks and Steve wishes he had made him tell everything before facing the Avengers.

He wouldn't be going in blind now.

"I ran to Canada to recover. Osborn couldn't enforce the SHRA within another country's borders, and while I knew he wouldn't stop for trivialities such as laws, the fact that he had to hunt me down and be inconspicuous about it gave me some time," Tony goes on. Then he gives a shrug and with a nonchalance that's obviously faked, he concludes, "I patched up my arm best way I could and then I went to Europe."

"And then what?" Peter asks, now crouching in the chair closest to Tony. "What's in Europe?"

"Tony," Strange says his first word since Tony's started to speak. "What have you done?"

"What was necessary," Tony replies, and if Steve never hears those words coming out of Tony's mouth again it will be too soon.

"How did you find her?" Strange asks, he and Tony apparently having a conversation that doesn't include the rest of them.

"I was keeping tabs on her," Tony says. "To make sure she was fine."

"To spy on her, you mean," Strange counters, his eyes narrowing slightly.

"Uh," Peter says, "anyone feels like sharing with the rest of the class?"

Tony's gaze flickers in Peter's direction for a moment. He clears his voice, "I went to see Wanda."

There's a collective intake of breath at that. Then, Strange takes over again. "Tony, have you any idea what you have done?"

"Actually, no," Tony snorts. "But it's not like I care much."

"So what, he went to the Scarlet Witch to be sent back in time to change things?" Peter shrugs. "I don't know about you guys, but with everything he's told us it doesn't sound to me like a bad thing. Despite the whole House of M craziness."

"If everything he said is actually true," Luke snorts. "The jury's still out on that one."

"You have every right not to believe me," Tony replies with a sigh, but he's looking at Luke straight in the eyes. "After all, I'm not so sure of that myself."

"But it's better to work on the assumption that it's true," Steve says. "You said that the Red Skull would assassinate me, and he did."

"So it was the Skull, huh?" Peter interjects. "Does he ever give up?"

Iron Fist shrugs. "In my experience, villains never do."

"Though it sure is convenient, isn't it?" Luke says. "She brought you back just in time so you could save Cap. Don't get me wrong," he says, shooting a glance at Steve, "I'm not saying that was a bad choice, but why now? Couldn't she have sent you before you started this whole fascist regime of yours? Before your pet Thor killed Goliath?"

"Or before Happy was…" Tony trails off. "I don't know, I just asked her to help me. I wasn't very coherent at the time. For all I know, this is all some kind of delirious dream I'm having while I'm lying in the snow and dying of hypothermia." He blinks, as if suddenly realizing something. "Maybe it was when I mentioned Clint…"

Steve frowns. "What about him?"

"She brought him back," Tony says. "Weeks ago, months maybe. Clint is alive."

"Clint?" Luke frowns. "You mean Hawkeye? Clint Barton?"

"Okay," Jessica admits, throwing her hands up. "I've got to say this is getting more and more unbelievable."

"He's telling the truth," Strange says suddenly, his eyes fixed on Tony. "Clint came to me months ago, looking for the Scarlet Witch. I gave him all the advice I could, and he left. He had no interest in resuming his old life."

"This is getting out of hand," Iron Fist mumbles, and Steve can't help but agree.

Steve's never thought this would be easy, but with every piece of information that Tony adds to their knowledge, the picture becomes bigger and bigger. Variables and players Steve hasn't counted make what they're trying to achieve seem more and more impossible to realize by the second.

"It's not relevant," Tony says, drawing the attention back to him.

"I think Clint being alive is very relevant," he disagrees.

"Not right now," Tony shakes his head. "I don't know how long Carol can keep Spiderwoman busy, and we still have to come up with a plan."

Jessica sighs. "I still can't believe that she…" she trails off, looking at Luke. "We have to find a safe place for the baby."

Steve glances at Tony. "You could-"

"No," Tony exclaims before he can finish. "Haven't you heard what I said? Jarvis is probably a Skrull already, and…" he rubs his face. "Being next to me isn't really the safest place in the world, right now. You're probably better on the run."

Steve frowns and then he realizes he must mean the Mandarin. "That's right," he says. "What about the Mandarin?"

"The what now?" Peter exclaims.

"I can handle it," Tony tells him, through clenched teeth. Then he turns to Peter, "MJ and your aunt… are they safe?"

"Oh, right," Peter nods. "I've been meaning to ask, what's with the whole Bat-Signal thing?"

"Are they safe?" Tony repeats.

"They are here," Strange replies for Peter.

Tony sighs in relief and seems to fold in his chair.

"What made you think-" Peter starts.

"The Kingpin ordered a hit on them," Tony says.

Peter goes still for a moment and then he's at Tony's throat fast as lightening. "The Kingpin what?" he exclaims. "When were you going to tell me that!?"

"Well, I just did, didn't I?" Tony answers, but he doesn't make a move to escape the hold Peter has got on his collar.

"Regretting you showed your face in public now, aren't you?" Luke snorts out loud.

"Enough!" Steve says loudly, standing to his feet. "Spider-Man, let go of him," he commands. "We're working with a deadline and we have to come up with a strategy."

"See, that's what I said," Tony mutters.

"You, too, Tony." Steve glowers. "Shut up."

"I still ain't trusting him," Luke says, leaning back against his chair and crossing his arms.

Suddenly multicolored strands surround them, swirling around in circles. One brushes against his arm and even through the uniform Steve feels the humming energy as it tickles along his skin.

"What is this?" Peter asks with a frown. Then his brow clears and he chuckles when a yellow circle of mystic power brushes against his outstretched hand. "It tickles."

"Magic," Tony says, but for once there's wonder instead of annoyance in his voice.

"It's a spell," Strange explains, as the circles disappear one by one. "To show anyone with deception towards us."

"So, did it work?" Peter asks.

"Well, no one is having a seizure," Strange replies.

Tony snorts. "Well, that's good to know," he mutters. "Now."

"I guess it doesn't matter if I've been deceptive about Logan's beer, then," Peter says with a shrug.

"Have you got a death wish, man?" Luke asks, shooting him an incredulous glance.

"So, what's the plan, Cap?" Tony asks, turning towards him.

"You're the one with all the information," he says. "You tell me."

Of course, Tony wouldn't be Tony if he hadn't already thought about several options. "Spiderwoman mustn't suspect a thing," he starts. "And we need a reliable way to exchange information."

"What about S.H.I.E.L.D. and all the capekillers you set on our backs?" Luke points out.

"I'll handle that," Tony says. "And I'll see if I can extend the amnesty a little longer for those who're helping with the clean up. They won't bother you."

Luke snorts out loud. "You sound so sure."

"Why do you think they haven't found you yet?" Tony asks, slowly. "And even when they found you, you always managed to escape? I know you all feel safe hiding down here, but what about when you're on the streets? There are cameras and cell phones everywhere, and that means I can find you."

During Tony's speech, Steve watches as Luke's expression becomes progressively darker and darker. He almost steps into the conversation once again, but after a moment he decides to let it go. Let them blow some steam off; if they could get everything out in the open, it would certainly be better in the long run.

"So what?" Luke snorts. "Are we supposed to believe that all this time you've been trying to help us? Excuse me, but I seem to remember a certain asshole wearing armor hell-bent on arresting us."

"Why do you think I accepted the job as Director of SHIELD? Without me there to bring you in, without me there to supervise everything, what do you think would have happened to you?"

Steve has to wonder. He still believes that Tony was and still is misguided, because while the fundamental principles of the Registration are sound, the methods are completely wrong. And contrary to what most people may believe, the ends never justify the means; it's the means that makes the ends worthy of being achieved. If you get lost along the way, what's the whole purpose?

Still, Tony is probably telling the truth in saying that he did all this for them. He just can't understand that being safe and alive means nothing if you aren't free. And superheroes need freedom, they need room to maneuver, to act as quickly as possible. Tony would have them all smothered by bureaucracy and politics.

"Oh, I don't know," Luke barks out a mirthless laugh. "The Negative Zone seems kinda hard for the humanitarian solution."

"Believe me, it isn't," Tony replies, darkly. "You don't want to know the alternative they proposed to us. And anyway, it was supposed to be temporary."

"Of course. Until we signed up with-"

Okay, they've had enough. Steve clears his voice, and Luke stops at once. Everybody turns to look at him, expectantly.

"Soo," Peter starts, voice uneasy. "Where were we?"

"What about the Skrull detector?" Steve asks, turning to Tony. "You said maybe you could develop one."

"A Skrull detector?" Peter exclaims. "Seriously?"

"I said Reed could," Tony corrects him. "And he's still out of commission for a while. As soon as he's on his feet we'll be working on it."

"What about the Red Skull?" he asks then. Technically the assassination attempt has been a failure, and as long as he remains under the radar the Skull will be none the wiser, but that's not a good reason to let him carry out more of his plans.

And having known him as long as he has, Steve is sure that killing him is only the tip of the iceberg.

"I'll handle that," Tony replies.

He sighs. "Tony, you can't-"

"The Falcon and Bucky will have Crossbones by now," he says. "Leave that to us."

"He was trying to kill me," Steve exclaims. "Don't you think I have a right to-"

"No," Tony cuts him off, firmly. "I need you here, to run your side of things."

"Will you look at that," Peter says, in mock wonder. "From fugitives to undercover for the authorities in less than a day."

"One wonders if by the end of all this we won't all be in the Negative Zone," Luke snorts. "Or worse, registered."

"No one is getting registered," Steve exclaims, adamant.

Tony's hinted that he's got some ideas regarding the Registration, and while Steve still isn't quite sure he should trust him with everything, if he ever could again, he's sure Tony knows Steve won't stand for it. He may not choose open opposition now that he's seen what they've caused to the people they've sworn to protect, but he will never support it as long as there's breath in him.

"Cap is right," Tony says. "I've got thirteen months, give or take, before the Skrulls launch their full scale attack. More time would be ideal, but I can work with that."

"I'm sure you've had plenty of practice to hone your kissing ass skills, lately," Luke snorts. "This should be a walk in the park for you."

Tony narrows his eyes at him. "You'd be surprised how much ass I had to kiss before the SHRA was approved not to get all of you sent to the scientists."

"And I suppose the Negative Zone is better, then?"

"As a matter of fact-"

"Here they go again," Peter sighs. "Seriously, guys. Find some new arguments."

Steve slams his palm on the table. Everyone is suddenly silent. "Will you listen to yourselves?" he says, slowly. "We're in the middle of a hostile invasion and you're squabbling like children!"

Tony and Luke are still glaring at each other, but after a few moments, Tony takes a deep breath and the tenseness of his shoulders lessens visibly. "You're right," he says, then he turns to him. "We can keep in contact through our suits," he says. "And I'm sure to receive a visit by the Falcon and Barnes very shortly, so I'll better head back."

"What about us?" Peter asks, and for the first time directly to Tony. "What are we supposed to do?"

Tony glances back at Steve. After a moment, he realizes that he's waiting for him to reply. "We'll be organizing an offensive-force," he says. "We have to get in touch with everyone who went underground or into hiding the past few months, and we have to prepare to strike. Of course, we'll be contacting only those we are sure aren't Skrulls."

Tony nods. "They won't take us by surprise," he says.

"Um," Peter mumbles, raising his hand. "This maybe sounds like a stupid question, but… what about the Spiderwoman pod-person? Wouldn't she, like, notice that Cap is alive?"

"It's not relevant, as long as she thinks we're still fighting each other," Tony replies shaking his head.

For a second, Steve is almost physically ill. It feels so normal, he and Tony planning a course of action like this, in front of the Avengers. Almost as if they still were a team. But looking closely, he sees how everyone except himself is keeping noticeably away from Tony, how Tony is keeping to himself, hunched on his chair, his left arm still cradled by his right, as if he needs to make sure of its presence. And Tony's eyes are downcast, and his general countenance is exhausted. The bruises from Steve's knuckles and the door are dark, almost shocking against the sick paleness of his skin.

Steve is sure that he doesn't look much better.

"Extremis will be out of commission for a couple of hours more," Tony says, after a moment. "But I'll be able to fly the armor back."

"Are you sure?" Steve frowns. "It doesn't sound very comfortable."

Tony shrugs. "I've flown in a worse shape," he says. "I'll manage." He stands up then, "I have to go, now. Autopsies to supervise. Funerals to organize."

Someone coughs uncomfortably, and Steve recognizes Peter.

Tony's looking at Steve, now, but there's a hint of amusement in his eyes. "You have to walk me to the door," he says, showing him the blindfold. "And leave me somewhere far away from here."

Steve nods, and with a command his suit assembles around him.

"Okay," he hears Peter say. "That's weird."

He takes the briefcase with the Iron Man armor and waits as Tony ties the black cloth over his eyes. No one says a thing as they leave.

Fifteen minutes later, they are in another dark and secluded alley and Steve reactivates Tony's armor. He tries not to think about the power he has over the other man. Tony's suit is practically useless without Extremis, and barehanded Tony wouldn't stand a chance against Steve, much less against him wearing his red, white and blue armor.

When he used the overrides earlier, in the Helicarrier, Tony was left only in his boxers. But even now, wearing the S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform, he looks barely less vulnerable. Steve can still picture the naked curve of his neck.

I could kill you, the idle thought springs into Steve's mind. And he could. He only needs to reach out with his gauntlet, or even just his hand, close the fingers around that fragile flesh and snap. But Tony, as he's said, doesn't consider him an enemy. He never has. Apparently, Steve still deserves all of his trust.

For the first time in a long time, Steve wants to trust him and feels that maybe, maybe he could, eventually.

Iron Man assembles around Tony, and after a moment he takes a step, another, and then he stumbles.

Steve quickly catches him and helps him keep his balance. "Are you sure you're all right?" he asks. "I could-"

Tony breaks free of his loose grip. "No," he says. "I'm fine."

He fires his jetboots and he's flying.

Tony's nothing but a small red dot against the horizon, when his voice comes through their comm link. "Be careful, Steve."

"You, too," he says, then turns and goes back to their safe house.

As soon as he's back, he hears her voice before actually seeing her.

"I've just seen Carol!" she's saying. She sounds agitated.

Strange comes out to meet him. "You better take that off," he says, pointing at the armor.

Even as he's nodding, the armor disassembles to recompose a few feet from them. Steve frowns. "I need to find a place-"

"Leave that to me," Strange says, smiling.

Steve blinks. Maybe Tony is right and Strange actually has a spell for everything. Steve follows the hypnotic hand gestures as magic surrounds both Strange and the armor. Then Strange drops his hands, his expression satisfied.

"There," he says.

Steve looks at the armor, still standing in front of them in plain sight, then he turns to frown at Strange.

"It's hidden from her view," Strange says. "We can all see it, except for her.

"Thanks, that works," Steve nods again and follows the voices to the room where only minutes earlier they were sitting with Tony. In fact, she is standing right next to where Tony was sitting.

"She told me that Cap is-" she blinks when she sees him "-still alive…" she trails off.

"Yes, I am," he says grinning at her.

She blinks again and then she rushes to hug him. Steve returns the embrace warmly. Over her head he catches sight of the others' bemused faces. Peter, who's now taken his mask off, is openly blinking at him. Everyone seems to forget he's done his share of undercover work.

He can lie. He can deceive.

She draws back, frowning up at him. "What's going on?"

Steve smiles down at her. The truth, they say, is better than any lie you could ever make up. "The one who died was an LMD, or a clone," he says. "They kept me on the Helicarrier, but I managed to escape."

"How did you manage to evade S.H.I.E.L.D. security?" she asks, disbelief clear in her narrowed eyes. The eyes she's stolen. "The last time I was a prisoner on the Helicarrier it took Hydra to get me out."

"He had a little help," Strange says, coming into the room.

She looks between the two of them, and then down at her feet. "Then Carol…" she trails off, defeated.

"It's a trap," Steve replies. The truth. "They probably don't want people to know that I got away."

Abruptly, she lets out a cry of rage and storms out of the room, leaving everyone to stare at her back. Steve has caught sight of unshed tears at the corner of her eye.

They all know what she is – and who she isn't – but looking at her, trying to tell the difference, desperately searching for something alien, and only finding familiar things is… disconcerting.

He takes a deep breath.

This won't be easy at all.

 

7 | Every whisper of every waking hour, I'm choosing my confessions.

 

Carol stormed into his office, her fury obviously written on every feature of her face. It probably would have been more impressive if his doors had slammed open, instead of sliding quietly.

"I don't-" she started, then cut herself off with a small growl. She raised her eyes and frowned at him.

"Jessica is my friend!" she exclaimed, throwing her arms wide. "And you made me tell her-"

"They won't come anyway," he said, his shrug lost in the layers of metal he was wearing.

"They won't- How do you know?" she asked. "How can you know?"

Then all of her anger seemed to leave her at once. She sighed and looked at him, and Tony couldn't really be sure, but he suspected there was a pitying look hiding underneath her domino mask. "Tony, I wonder…" she trailed off, then looked straight at him. "Steve is dead."

He swallowed. "Your point?"

"That's the whole point! Cap is dead, Tony!" she exclaimed. "And never mind this whole Registration business, he was your best friend!"

"Carol," he tried gently, but he was wearing his armor, and the tone got lost in the hollowness of the electronic voice.

"It's only been hours, Tony," she went on. "Hours. And you're already running around with a robotic version of Captain America, and you're sending me to lure my friends into a trap using an LMD clone of your dead best friend!"

Well, he wanted to tell her. You did it, didn't you?

It wasn't the time for pettiness, however, and she didn't know the truth; her rage was understandable. When they had used that same trick in his own timeline, they had been desperate to bring in the New Avengers.

To protect them, he reminded himself. He had been fairly good at convincing in the beginning, but ever since Steve's death and when things had started going from bad to worse with horrifying mathematical precision, it had started to sound like an empty reminder.

Maybe he'd always been deluding himself, and the pretense just couldn't survive in the end. But he remembered what he'd felt when Nick Fury had first handed him the draft of the Registration Act. The first thought in his mind had been, 'things will never be the same again; his second, 'Steve will oppose this to the death.'

He'd never felt such terror before in his life, but at the same time a calm, soothing feeling had bloomed inside him. Acceptance, of what he knew needed to be done, of what he had to do.

It had been the only thing that kept him going. Until Steve's death. Until he'd seen what could have been, if he'd told Steve the truth.

And Steve had wanted freedom, even at the cost of his life, but what about Tony? What of those he would leave – and had left – behind? Ironically enough, though, Steve had died only when he'd finally surrendered, as if he really needed freedom to live.

And they'd all been left- Tony had been left with the dead on his shoulders, and a lonely life to atone for all that death.

Die in freedom, or give in a little so that you could save lives. They would never agree on that, Tony knew. But it was all right, he'd rather carry the burden of the living with his own strength alone, than that of the dead, inflicting its crushing weight upon the shoulders of other people.

"Steve is not dead," he said, when he realized that Carol was waiting for him to say something.

She stared at him for a long time. "Tony," she said then, and her voice sounded as if just the action of saying the word was deeply hurting her. "Tony. Steve is dead."

"No, he isn't," he said. "I'll explain when Maria and... Jan get here." He swallowed; hopefully Carol hadn't caught his hesitation.

She grabbed his forearms. "Tony," she exclaimed. "Listen to yourself!"

But she was staring at Iron Man's faceplate, and not into a human's eyes, and that was probably why she let go of him after a moment. She sighed and combed a gloved hand through her hair. "I think you need to rest," she said. "Just go lay down, we'll talk about this in a couple of hours."

"It's funny," he said, "how you all seem to think I'm crazy, and subsequently attempt to cure me with sleep."

"Tony, if I know you," she said, "and right now, I'm not so sure I do, I know that you haven't slept since Steve's death. Possibly even before that."

"Why do you all seem to forget that I'm the CEO of an international company," he mused. "I've run on sleepless nights and nothing but coffee for days before I ever was Iron Man."

"This is not a business meeting, Tony," she said, slowly.

"You are right," he said.

As much as he wished he could, there was no getting out of this one. No ill-timed supervillain attack, no intergalactic crisis demanding his attention.

And Pepper was still in California.

Carol was about to reply, when the Extremis feed he had on the cameras outside his office showed him that Maria and Jan were barely seconds away from arriving. He opened the doors with a thought and Carol turned sharply, mildly startled.

It never got old.

"Sir," Maria said, with a sharp nod.

Behind her, a frowning Janet Van Dyne followed. For a moment, Tony thought his heart had stopped, and he could only imagine the expression he had on his face. It was the first time he'd seen her, since she-

She looked great. She looked perfect. She looked alive.

He had the sudden urge to go and hug her, but he managed to suppress it. He rarely touched people, especially women, in a non-sexual manner, and anyway it would look strange, a robot embracing a woman.

No one seemed to notice his hesitation, as he was wearing his armor, so he took a deep breath to clear his head and turned to Maria. "Everything all right on your end?" he asked.

She shrugged. "Harder than you made it out to be," she replied. "But I managed it."

"See?" Tony said. "I knew you could do it."

"Your faith in me is very reassuring. Sir," she replied, but her voice was dripping sarcasm.

"What's going on?" Jan asked. "She told me I mustn't talk to anyone and then she dragged me here."

"Tony?" Carol turned to him.

"I think you should sit down," he said pointing to the chairs in front of his desk. "This might take a while."

Jan and Carol exchanged a glance and slowly sat down.

He motioned Maria to take his chair, while he remained standing. "What I'm about say will sound crazy and very unlikely," he started, "but don't interrupt me until I'm done."

They didn't.

When he was done the reaction was very much like that of Steve's Avengers. No one spoke for a long time.

Then, Carol lowered her head, her fingers combing through her hair to end on the back of her neck, lacing together, her elbows propped on her knees. "God, Tony," she exhaled.

"I know this is a lot to take in, but-"

Jan shot to her feet. "Do you have any idea what you're saying!?" she exclaimed. "Hank isn't a- he's not- there's no way-"

"Jan, please…" he said raising his hands, palm up. "I wish it weren't true, believe me. But we know, we can get ready and we can stop them."

Jan looked like she wanted to add something, but at the last moment she seemed to deflate and she fell back into her chair. Carol still hadn't moved nor said anything.

"Is he," she murmured after a moment, "is he all right?"

"And Jessica?" Carol asked, raising her eyes.

"They're being kept prisoner in a ship," he replied. "But they should be fine."

"Are we past the denial stage, then?" Maria asked, turning everyone's attention towards her. "We over with the emotional moment?"

Carol openly glared at her, as Maria leant backward in the chair. His chair.

Tony tried not to think about what Steve had said. Maria wasn't going to turn on him, not if she believed even just a little that he might be telling the truth. She would follow his plan and his lead, at least as long as she needed him to say how things were going. Or until he showed her more solid evidence.

But Tony was never going to tell her the whole picture, he would keep her close but not too close, and the moment she would openly challenge him – because she would; even when she'd been helping him she had, up until the end – he would have solid proof of the invasion by then.

She turned to Tony. "Wilson brought back Crossbones," she said. "Just like you said." He nodded, motioning her to continue. "And we got hold of agent Carter, as per your orders. She's in custody now."

He nodded again. "Is she all right?"

"She keeps asking what happened to Rogers," she replied. "But I gave orders not to tell anything to her."

"Good," he said. Maybe he could set this right, too. Maybe Steve and Sharon could… He interrupted that train of thought before it could get too far. "Has Dr. Samson arrived, yet?"

"He's on his way," Maria replied. "Still, I don't understand why you called him."

"It's really true, isn't it?" Carol said. "And Cap is…"

"He's alive," he said. "And well, but he's still officially dead," he continued, and his voice didn't even waver. "He's going to keep his head down, and we're going to pretend we don't know. Steve's Avengers are still fugitives from the law and the Mighty Avengers will keep trying to bring them in. At least, that's what we're going to say."

Carol frowned. "The… Mighty Avengers?"

"And what about the Registration?" Jan asked.

"Yes, Director," Maria echoed. "What about the Registration?"

Tony ignored the two of them in favor of answering to Carol. "I'm putting a new team together," he said. "And you're going to lead them."

"I…" she blinked. "What?"

"You'll be leading the Mighty Avengers," he repeated. "I'm leaving everything to you, including the choice of the roster."

Carol narrowed her eyes. "And do what?" she asked. "You just told me we're supposed to just give the impression of going after the others, and at the same time what's said inside this room can't get out. How am I supposed to work with that?"

"I'm sure you'll find a way," he said. "And I'll give you the names of those we can trust."

"And there goes my free choice of the roster," she muttered.

"We can't afford to take any chances," Tony told her. "The more people we tell, the more we risk."

"And what's the alternative?" Jan asked. "Do everything by yourself?"

"No," Tony shook his head. "It's important that when it comes down to it, we present a united front."

It was important that they could work without Tony there to tell them what was going to happen. If the Skrulls managed to use the virus on him he would be incapacitated; and even if they didn't, his life was destined to go to hell once this whole mess was over and the higher-ups decided they needed someone to blame.

"Which brings us once again to the unregistered Avengers," Maria said. "What is it that you have planned for them?"

"I-" he started, not sure how to continue, when his communication link crackled to life.

"Dr. Samson is here, Sir," the voice of Agent Lewis came through.

"Bring him to Agent Carter's cell, I'll be right there," he replied, then he turned to the three women in front of him. "We're done for now, I'll get back to you later."

"Sir!" Maria called. "Sir! This doesn't end here!"

"Tony-" Carol started, but he was already at the door.

Samson was standing outside the cell-block, a guard on each side of him. "Director Stark," he said nodding.

"It's Tony," he replied, "and you know it."

"I didn't want to presume," Samson smiled slightly. "The last time we met you were just Iron Man."

"Leave," he ordered the guards.

"So what's so urgent and secret?" Samson asked when they were alone.

There were no words he could use to lessen the bluntness of the words he was about to say, so he decided to just go for the heart of the matter. "I called you here because of Agent Carter," he said.

Samson sighed and his eyes went sad. "I see," he said. "After Captain America's death, she must be facing-"

"She's been brainwashed," he cut him off. "She was supposed to be the one to kill him."

Samson's eyes widened, but to his credit he recovered almost instantly. "Would you care to elaborate on that?"

"We've managed to get her away in time," he said. Samson nodded attentively, when you dealt with super heroes and super villains on daily basis there were very few things left that could surprise you. "But I need you to undo whatever Doctor Faustus has done."

Samson frowned and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Behavior conditioning through hypnosis is tricky, Tony," he said a moment later, sighing. "And going in there to work blindly on her might do more damage than any good at all. The human brain is a very complex organ." He gave Tony a look. "Not that I have to tell you, I suppose."

"I know that," he replied. "But what will you have me do? I've kept her totally isolated, so she doesn't know for now, but-"

"She doesn't know Captain America's dead?" Samson exclaimed.

"No, they brought her here straight from the Courthouse," he said. "And Cap's not dead."

Samson narrowed his eyes at him. "What?" he whispered, shooting sharp glances right and left. He didn't need to, though, Tony had eyes and ears everywhere. "What do you mean- They've got a date set for the funeral."

"I know," he nodded. "And I'll be there, and so will be everyone else. But he's not dead."

"Then why-"

"It's not relevant at the moment," he cut him off. "I need agent Carter away from everything here, and I need you to work on her. Tell her not to trust what the TV says and-"

Samson put up a hand. "I don't think you fully realize what you're asking me to do," he said. "You're asking me to poke around in her subconscious, which has already been poked around by other people, and then tell her that she was programmed to kill her lover-"

"She didn't actually kill him."

"An empty relief, don't you think? Steve Rogers is dead, Tony," Samson said, very slowly, as if Tony had suddenly lost three thirds of his IQ. "You're asking me to lie to agent Carter at her most vulnerable time. I'm don't know if you can appreciate just how devastating this could be for her."

"Steve is not dead," Tony repeated.

"He was shot on the steps of the Courthouse," Samson pointed out, but his voice was low and kind, as if he were talking to a child, or trying to calm a scared animal.

"It was an LMD."

"They scheduled an autopsy."

"Faked."

Samson sighed and stared at him for a long moment. "Why don't you take off your helmet so that we can have this conversation face to face?"

Tony knew exactly the way this would end. "No," he said. "I don't care if you don't believe me, I don't care if you think I've gone completely nuts."

"That's hardly-"

"I told you what you have to do," he cut him off, pointing at the holding cell. "There's a woman in there who needs your help and you're going to give it to her."

Samson gave him a long look, and Tony could tell this conversation wasn't over, but Samson was one of the best, that was why he chose him in the first place, if he gave up at the first sign of hostility he wouldn't be doing his job.

"Fine," he said, at last, with a sharp nod. "I will see what I can do, but I'm no expert in the field of hypnosis."

"Whatever you need and whomever you need," Tony said. "But you have to understand that secrecy is our highest priority. Just take her and disappear, don't tell anyone where you're going. Don't tell me."

"Tony," he said after a moment. "What is it we're hiding from?"

"Trust me," he replied. "You don't want to know."

Samson nodded. "When can we leave?"

"As soon as you're ready," he replied. "And Doc, get her to do a pregnancy test."

"What?"

"Just-" he took a deep breath. "Just do it," he said, before turning and walking away.

"What- Tony!" he called after him, but Tony didn't hesitate, didn't turn back. "Stark! Stark!"

Now Sharon was in Doc Samson's hands, and despite all of his reservations, Tony knew he would be able to help her. Until then, though, no one had to know where they were hiding, not even him. Tony didn't want to know, if he didn't know he would have nothing to tell Steve, except the truth. Sharon had been the intended killer, and she was now away to clear her mind. Literally.

Of course, that alone wouldn't stop Steve from trying to find her, but it ensured that he never would. After all, it was all for his safety, until Sharon was definitely out of Dr. Faustus and the Red Skull's grip, she was a threat to Steve, and any threat to Steve was to be avoided.

Never mind that Tony himself had put him in a risky situation, but at least he had the armor to protect him. But with Sharon… Steve tended to fully lower his guard around the people he loved, and who was to know that Sharon wouldn't attempt killing him again?

Samson would come through, and Sharon would be herself again one day, and then Steve could meet her, and she was pregnant, she would probably keep the baby the moment she knew Steve was all right, and Steve would be a perfect father, and Tony…

And Tony.

He had no time to dwell on such things, this time everything would be all right, and Steve could be together with the woman he loved. With a family. Tony would do everything in his power to make sure Steve got his deserved happy ending, and it didn't matter where Tony would fit in there, if at all.

The feed linked to his office camera showed Sam Wilson pacing around. Right. Ever since Steve had contacted him to warn Spider Man, he knew this moment was coming. He had no idea what Steve had told him, if he'd managed to convince him he was still alive, and he hated getting into a situation without clues on how he could get out of it.

Still, it wasn't like he could hide from him, and the Falcon was no threat to him. Probably.

When the doors opened, Sam turned sharply around. He pointed a finger at him. "You!" he exclaimed.
"When were you going to tell me?"

"Tell you what?"

"First I get a weird anonymous message telling me to get Spider-Man's family to safety," he said. "And when I go to meet the Avengers to see if they indeed were in danger, what do I find?" he glared at him.
Tony didn't know Sam Wilson all that well, he'd always been a friend of Steve's and while there had never been friction between the two of them, it wasn't all warm fuzzies, either. Still, it was quite obvious that right now, Sam was furious. "Steve Rogers. Captain America. Alive."

"Sam, I-"

"I'm not done," Sam cut him off, raising a hand. "So I asked him what the hell was going on, and suddenly we're being invaded by aliens!"

"Sam-"

"Shut up!" Sam raised his voice. "And when I come back here to ask for an explanation that makes some kind of sense, I find out you've arrested Sharon and you're keeping her here."

"She was going to shot- well, not Steve, but she was the one that would have-"

"Bullshit," Sam cut him off. "She loves him, and you of all people shouldn't-"

"Let me finish," Tony continued. It was strange how some conversations never changed much, despite the fact that he already knew where most of them were going. "She was brainwashed. She and twenty other agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were. They would have freed Crossbones, if I hadn't acted to prevent it."

Sam rubbed his face with his hands. He muttered a curse, then he raised his eyes once more. "What am I supposed to do with this, then?"

"Whatever you were planning to do if Cap had really died," Tony replied. "You and Barnes would have gone after the Red Skull. Speaking of which, do you know where he is?"

Sam shook his head. "I told him to run after we captured Crossbones."

"By now, he probably knows Steve is still alive," he mused aloud.

Sam stared at him. "You're going to be in so much trouble," he said, halfway through serious and mocking.

"That I am," he agreed.

He had to decide what to do about him, with Steve being alive there was no way Barnes would accept his legacy. Nor was there any hope of Steve giving up his shield, even if it was to give it to Bucky.

"Just tell him to lie low," he said. "It's safer that way, and… you two keep an eye on Steve." Sam nodded.

"And I know that Barnes is in contact with Fury," Tony continued, and Sam narrowed his eyes at him. "Tell him to tell Fury I have a nice offer for him."

Sam hesitated, but then he gave a firm nod. "Anything else?"

"Keep your eyes opened," he said. "Both sets of them, act as if you don't know anything."

Sam nodded again. "Steve said I can be your contact to them," he said. "If all else fails."

"Yes," Tony replied. "That's- That's good. Now, I have to…" he trailed off.

Sam didn't say anything and just walked away, leaving Tony alone in his office.

Right.

Autopsies to supervise. Funerals to organize.

 

 

8 | In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn.

 

Tony's voice comes quietly through their link. It's been almost a week since they last saw each other, and on that occasion Tony was in the armor, so it's a relief to hear his human voice. Steve's realized he's come very close to actually forgetting how it sounds.

Tony's always telling him to use the channel just for important communications, but Steve's funeral is scheduled in just a few hours, and Steve has to hear his voice. He can't tell if it's to reassure Tony or himself.

"You asked me to help Bucky," Tony's saying, "and not to let the dream die."

"Yeah," he confirms. "I wrote that as soon as I found out about Bucky and then edited it after Civil War started. Just in case, you know…" he trails off.

Tony is silent for a moment. "Yeah. So, I gave your shield to Bucky and made him Captain America."

"And what are you going to do now?"

"I don't know," Tony admits. "But if we have to stick as close as possible to what we know…" he continues after a moment, "I guess he's still our best choice."

When, a couple of days ago, both Bucky and Sam arrived to their hiding place, looking for them and when Steve told Strange to drop the illusion, so that they could see him… They were obviously surprised to see him alive and well, but Bucky's face…

His eyes became as hard as stones and unreadable in the matter of seconds. Just another reminder of the abyss that has opened between the two of them.

Tony honored his request in the best possible way he could in his reality. It may have been too little, too late, but it meant that Tony had still cared enough. Now, it means that they could probably try and patch up their friendship, or at least a semblance of it.

"Why are you so silent?" Tony asks, puzzled, then he gives a quiet chuckle. "I can just picture you right now, hugging your beloved shield. Don't worry, Steve, I'm not taking away your baby."

Steve frowns. "My shield is not my… baby," he mumbles, slightly annoyed, but Tony chuckles again and Steve has the inkling that's a rare thing for Tony to do these days, and he's inclined to let it go.

"I'm actually having a replica made, in case we decide to go through with this," he admits a moment later. "It's based on the blueprints of the one I made for you when you lost yours. No one but you could tell the difference."

Steve rubs his eyes, he's getting a headache. "Just how far have you planned this?"

Tony is silent for a moment. "Far enough," he says, then quietly he adds, "I hope."

"You can't make plans for everything," he says with a sigh.

"Well, I can try," Tony replies, and Steve can clearly picture his self-mocking expression. "I just want to be prepared."

"Do you think," he asks after a moment, "that we could strike a preemptive attack against the Skrulls?"

"You're the tactician, Steve," Tony replies. "And anyway, Reed is still working on the Skrull detector. It's taking longer than normal because we don't know if Sue has been... swapped already, so he has to be very careful," he explains. Then, "I have to go."

Steve checks the time. Right, it's almost time for his… funeral. He still can't wrap his mind around that. "Talk to you later?" he asks, but he's not really hoping for an affirmative.

"We'll see," Tony replies, and cuts off the conversation before Steve can add anything else.

Steve takes off the armor and says the code word Strange has told him, and the armor disappears to another plane of existence. Or so Strange claims. While he's never shared Tony's hatred of magic, even Steve has to admit that it's a little frustrating and, frankly, unbelievable most of the times.

Still, the Skrull queen impersonating Spiderwoman hasn't noticed anything amiss, so he just accepts that whatever Strange is doing works, and leaves it at that.

When he arrives in the living room everyone is sitting in front of the TV, Peter even has popcorn, while MJ is giving him a disapproving look. "I think it's in bad taste," she says, frowning.

Bucky is there too, sitting by himself in a corner. He's looking at Spiderwoman as if he's barely keeping himself from beating her into a small pulp. When Steve comes in, he raises his eyes and gives him a quick look. He nods at him, and then goes back to stare at Spiderwoman. Steve nods back at him.

"What's in bad taste?" he asks, and everyone turns to look at him.

They blink absently, but no one replies.

"Well?" he demands, nodding at the TV.

"They're gonna broadcast your funeral," Luke finally answers. "Well, not your real funeral, but… you know…" he trails off when Jessica elbows him in the ribs.

Steve frowns. "I don't think I want to see my funeral," he says.

"Oh, come on!" Peter exclaims. "How many occasions to watch your own funeral are you going to get?"

"It's weird," Danny says, frowning.

"It's morbid," Steve says.

"Hey, they even got you a statue!" Peter exclaims, and sure enough there's a statue of Captain America. They've put him in Arlington, of course, and while Steve understands the importance that a symbol like Captain America has for all of the Nation, he's always been Steve Rogers, a soldier, first and he would have liked – would like, because this is just a faked funeral – to be buried next to the other soldiers, in endless rows of white grave stones.

"It's… impressive," Jessica Jones says, raising her eyebrows. Her child is contently sleeping in her arms.

"I don't think it's very life-like," Peter says, pouting and crossing his arms in front of him.

Spiderwoman chuckles and gives him a playful push. Peter tenses up, but it's barely a moment, you'd have to look for it to notice.

"You're just envious," she says.

"Am not," he mutters.

"What are you talking about?" Steve asks, his eyes going from the Avengers, to the TV and back to them again.

"Well…" Peter says, trailing off and looking away, embarrassed.

"Let's just say the artist had an eye for detail," MJ says, grinning.

"What?" Peter sputters, turning to her. "You can't know anything about that!"

"Come on, Spidey," Wolverine sneers. "He's walking around in tight leather pants."

Peter stares at him. "I don't think I want to hear you talking about Cap's tight leather pants ever, ever again," he says after a moment.

Steve can feel his face heat. "What have my pants got to do with the sculptor's…" he trails off when he catches sight of the statue again.

Logan snickers. "A tribute to the flagpole!" he exclaims, raising his left hand to his forehead in a mock-salute.

Steve's face goes warmer.

Peter shrieks, hastily covering his ears with his hands. "Oh my god!" he screeches. "Don't ever, ever, ever say anything of the sort again!"

"Shut up," Luke says, turning to glare at them. "This is a funeral, we're supposed to be respectful," he adds, but even as he says that it's obvious he's trying to hide a grin.

"You should have seen the places Fury kept dragging us to during the war," Bucky says, smirking. "Of course Steve always refused to do anything, always respectful- and boy were the girls sad."

At Peter's prompting, Bucky tells them some more of his embarrassing stories, and while it's clear that they still are unsure how to act around him and vice versa, a sort of uneasy connection is formed with the purpose of making fun of Steve. Especially when it comes to the crossdressing.

They're all grinning, despite their situation, despite the absurdity of it. Most of it is at Steve's expenses, but he can bear it if it can take their minds off the invasion they face, and the fact that Steve's fake funeral could have been his real one, if Tony hadn't intervened.

They're all grinning, at least until Tony steps up on the podium. He's looking down, at the piece of paper clutched in his hands. It's the first time in weeks Steve has seen him in clothes other than the armor or the S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform. He looks worn, tired and… old.

The camera zooms up in a close-up and Steve catches sight of a bruise high on his cheek. The ones from the doorjamb and his punch should have faded by now, thanks to the Extremis healing factor. It's in the wrong place, anyway, and it looks fresh.

The hands clutching what must be the eulogy are slightly shaking, Steve notices.

"I…" Tony starts, hesitatingly, then he looks back to stare at the coffin covered with the Flag for a long time. He looks down at his hands.

In the room, everyone is silent, eerily echoing the silence that comes from the TV.

"I…" Tony tries again, but then he abruptly folds onto himself, pushing his fingers into his eyes. His shoulders are trembling noticeably now.

"Um," Peter starts. "Isn't he supposed to know that's not really you?" then he throws a glance in Spiderwoman's direction when he realizes his mistake. He fumbles a little, trying to mend the situation. "I mean, he's bound to know you've managed to escape. He's the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D."

"Of course he does," Luke snorts. "He's probably just faking it."

Steve's eyes are fixed on Tony. A barely audible murmur is rising from the crowd. "He isn't," he says, turning to meet Luke's eyes.

Luke stares at him for a moment, then he looks back at the TV. "Yeah, he ain't faking it," he agrees after a moment. "Boy, is he screwed up."

Tony has put this whole thing in motion, and now he's breaking down in front of everyone and Steve doesn't know why. Tony knows he's not dead, and yet he's crying and barely able to speak at his supposed funeral.

"I can't do this," Tony murmurs. "I'm sorry, I can't…" he walks away from the podium as if in a daze.
Carol grabs hold of his arm and takes him aside, while Sam takes Tony's place at the podium.

The stirring in the crowd has become clearly noticeable.

"I don't understand," Spiderwoman says. "Didn't they tell him you managed to escape?"

Right, he's almost forgotten about her. What are they supposed to tell her? Thankfully Luke takes the responsibility of answering himself. "Maybe he doesn't know, like Spidey said," Luke shrugs. "A lot of weird stuff has happened lately, starting with us. The New Avengers, I mean."

Peter frowns at him. "What's so weird about that?" he asks. "Oh, wait. That was a joke, wasn't it?"

Luke shakes his head. "It was pretty fortunate that we all happened to be involved, one way or another, when the break out at the Raft happened, wasn't it?"

"It's called being a hero, you know?" Peter says. "The government may be out for our hides at the moment, but a jailbreak is still a Bad Thing in my books. In anyone's books. Except maybe the criminals who manage to break out."

Luke goes on as if he hasn't even heard, though. "Then the Savage Land deal, and S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra. And then the Government is pitting us against each other."

"Are you saying that somebody is using Tony as a puppet?" Spiderwoman asks, her eyebrows rising in an expression of disbelief.

Luke scratches the back of his head. "I'm just sayin'," he says. "I think they're connected somehow, and that scares the hell out of me."

"Connected? Connected how?" Logan snorts loudly. "This is no big conspiracy theory, bub. Shit happens, we have to deal with it."

"As much as it disturbs me," Peter says, "I'll have to agree with Wolverine on this one. What next, little, green Martians taking over Earth? Galactus coming over for tea?"

The room seems to take a collective intake of breath at Peter's words, but Spiderwoman didn't seem to notice, and nothing changes in her expression. Steve has to admire her, despite everything, it's not easy to infiltrate enemy territory as a spy and to maintain the cover day and night.

Luke shrugs, frowning. "I'm just sayin'."

"And that would be why you're the brawn in this outfit," Iron Fist says, turning to grin at him. "Leave the brain part to someone else."

"Oh yeah?" Luke says, arching his eyebrow. "And who would that be? You?" he snorts, then in a quick move Iron Fist should have been able to evade, he grabs Danny around the neck and drags him around the room. Soon enough a wrestling match has broken out.

Jessica Jones looks down at them with a disapproving frown, but there's a smile playing on her lips. "See?" she tells her sleeping daughter. "These two are supposed to be your male role models," she shakes her head with a sigh. "I don't know why I still bother."

Spiderwoman takes the remote and silences Sam's eulogy, then she turns to Steve. "You should be out there," she says. "You should show everyone that you're still alive, that you're still fighting."

Steve feels tired all of a sudden. He has to talk to Tony. His behavior wasn't an act, and Steve needs to know that Tony can go through with this grand plan he's come up with. Steve said he was ready, and he's reassured Tony that the Avengers will be able to withstand the pressure of knowing they have an enemy within their ranks. Apparently, though, he's forgotten to ask if Tony would be.

Jessica, who is not Jessica, is looking at him expectantly. Steve shakes his head. "What's the point?" he sighs. "I meant what I said when I surrendered. Openly figthing the SHRA has done nothing but hurt the people we're supposed to protect."

"Then what do you plan on doing?" she asks, her voice rising. Everyone is staring at them now. "We just go in and register?"

"No, we don't," Luke snarls.

"We do what we've always done," Steve says, getting up to his feet. "We help people."

"They won't let us, unless we register!" Spiderwoman is almost shouting now. "Are you proposing we go on like this indefinitely? Hiding like common criminals?"

"Didn't you get the memo?" Peter says, crawling on the ceiling until he's directly above her. "We are common criminals. Well, superpowered criminals," he adds after a moment. "Okay, so not common at all, but still criminals."

"I'm not registering, and I'm not retiring," Steve says, sternly. "If you have other options, let me know. I'll be in my room."

He doesn't wait for a reply and gets out of the room to go upstairs in his bedroom and find his armor.

"Tony," he calls, through their channel.

He waits for a long time, but there's no reply. Tony has to be listening, though, he's never out of reach with Extremis in his head.

"Tony," he tries again. "You know I'm fine," he says. "You know I'm here."

There's noise coming from outside the door, the sound of somebody climbing up the stairs, and Steve hastily hides the armor with the literal magic word.

There's a knock on the door and then Bucky's voice. "Steve," he says.

"Come in," Steve replies, turning towards the door.

Bucky steps into the room, looking everywhere except at Steve. "I wanted to say…" he starts, then trails off. "When I saw you- what I thought was you, go down," he corrects himself with a frown. "I-"

Steve nods. "It's all right," he says. "Sam told me you captured Crossbones."

Bucky nods. "Yes, but he was just the gun," he says. "We have to find the hand that held it."

"The Red Skull," Steve says. "What have you found out?"

Bucky gives him a long look. "Stark said not to tell you anything," he says. "Not that I would bother doing anything the man says, but I think he's right this time."

"What is it with you all?" he asks, with a frown. "You suddenly think I'm as defenseless as a new-born baby. That could have been me dead, yes, but then again I've never been invulnerable! You should just accept that I can die as easily as the next man."

Bucky looks sideways. "Actually," he says after a long moment. "That's not what I wanted to tell you."

"What is, then?"

"You won't like this," Bucky says. "And it could distract you from what we have to do."

"There are very few things I'm finding likeable right now," he snorts. "And if it could distract me from our mission, it's better to know now than later."

Bucky nods. "Your girl," he says. "Sharon Carter…"

Steve's breath seems to stop for a second. Sharon. With everything that's been going on with the Avengers, and the invasion and Tony, he's almost forgotten about her. What happened to her? Maybe she's in danger, maybe she thinks he's dead. But no, Tony has surely told her. Tony wouldn't-

"Tony arrested her," Bucky says. "She was supposed to be the one killing you. Crossbones was there just to raise some hell."

For a long moment the words just don't make any sense. "What?" he hisses, then. "What did you just say?"

"Crossbones just wounded you- well, the LMD. She was supposed to deal the killing shot, Cap," Bucky repeats, looking straight at him, and those eyes aren't lying.

"She would never-"

"Of course she wouldn't," Bucky cuts him off, with a frown on his face, almost as if he was angered by the fact that Steve could even think his girlfriend shot him. "She's been brainwashed."

"What? How?"

"I don't know," Bucky shakes his head. "Stark told Sam and Sam told me."

"Tony knows," Steve says, dumbly.

Of course Tony knows, he couldn't have known about the Red Skull's plan without knowing the particulars as well. And when Tony promised to tell him everything… he couldn't keep his promise for more than three seconds, how can he hope they could make it together?

"Where is she?" he asks.

"I don't know," Bucky shrugs. "Look, I told you because I thought you had a right to know, not so you could go after her."

"I need to talk to her," Steve says. "She needs to know I'm not dead. Where is she?"

"I don't know," Bucky repeats. "And neither does Stark."

Steve narrows his eyes at him. Bucky is looking down, his left metal hand clenching and unclenching in what seems to be an unconscious gesture. "How do you know?"

"I went to see him," Bucky admits, still not looking at him.

"That bruise he had on his cheek…" Steve realizes.

"He locked your girl away, Steve," he mutters. "I had to do something."

Steve takes a deep breath. "Thanks for telling me-" Bucky, he almost says, but he's not Bucky anymore, is he? "-James."

Bucky gives him an almost startled look, then he relaxes slightly. "You can call me Buck, Cap," he says, after a moment. "I'm not a little kid anymore."

You never were, Steve wants to tell him. Kids do not wander through war zones with machine guns, and those who do are not really kids.

Steve nods at him, and Bucky gives him a sort of smile, returning the nod.

As soon as Bucky leaves, Steve puts the armor back on. He calls Tony and asks him questions, asks him about Sharon, and why has he lied to him, and is she alright? He talks for what feels like an hour, but the other side of the channel is silent.

He tries every night, and every night he gets the same silence.

Until he snaps, about two weeks after his funeral. They've moved yet again, and the list of people they can trust seems to be shorter every day that goes by, and Steve is only human.

"I hope you're enjoying yourself, sitting in your throne and watching over the world, Tony," he grinds out. "Once again, you're taking our choices away from us. How are we supposed to work together, if you don't show me all of your cards? You promised you would tell me everything, Tony. Everything."

Silence is, as always, his only answer. Five minutes of no replying later, he's about to close the channel, when Tony's voice comes, quietly.

"There are things I didn't tell you," he says. "Before you… And I regretted not doing it at the time, because you were- you are the only person I could ever say those things to. But now…" he trails off to silence.

Steve says nothing, and for a while he thinks the conversation may be over. After a long moment, though, Tony speaks up again. "You're alive, and I should tell you everything, but… I can't do it, Steve," he whispers, and it sounds like a confession to Steve's ears.

"At the funeral," Steve says, "you were crying. Those were real tears, Tony."

Tony doesn't reply.

"Were you remembering?" he asks.

Tony doesn't reply.

"What are these things you have to tell me, Tony?"

Tony doesn't reply.

It takes another week before he gets some first-hand news of Tony. He doesn't count the TV reports and the news broadcasts. They always show just Iron Man, when they aren't showing Tony's tears from his funeral in a never-ending loop.

They are engaged in a mock-fight with the Mighty Avengers, far enough from the heart of the city to avoid serious damage and to give the impression that the Secret Avengers have moved outside NYC. Mostly it's just stage acting for the cameras.

As powerless as he's felt since this whole thing started, he has to admit that he likes their mock-fights, it's good training and it serves the purpose of giving the impression that nothing has changed between the Anti-Registration side and the Pro-Registration one.

Of course, it's not an easy task, as they have to fight and be careful not to injure each other while trying to keep Spiderwoman none the wiser. Usually it's Wonder Man and Carol that take arms against her, with the Secret Avengers intervening to 'save' Spiderwoman when it looks like she may read through their act.

It's during one of these fights that Carol grabs him and flies away, getting them a safe distance from Spiderwoman's ears. Now that they're standing face to face, Carol seems to have nothing to say, though. She runs a hand through her hair.

"You wanted to talk to me?" he prompts, softly.

"It's Tony," she says, and the tone of her voice chills his blood.

"What about him?" he asks. "Is he all right?"

"I don't know," she admits, shaking her head. "I never see him out of his armor, these days. It could be anyone under that metal for all I know."

"I need to talk to him," he says, and before she can say how dangerous that is, he cuts her off. "Don't tell me it's dangerous, you're here talking to me because you need help."

"Actually," Carol says, with a small smile. "I was about to tell you how to get to Tony. Too many people telling you what to do, Cap?"

He nods, despite himself. "I wish they would realize that I've always been human... and vulnerable."

"Just give them some time to wrap their minds around that fact, Cap," she replies with a smile. "Anyway, about that plan, why don't you come back with me to the Helicarrier?"

"What, now?"

"Just choose a place, and take your armor," she says. "No one will think it strange that I'm returning to base with Director Stark's pet robot."

Well, when she puts it like that…

Steve nods and they have no more time, Spiderwoman's coming towards them at full speed. "The Mansion," he says and then he straightens up, making sure he's broadcasting as much hostility as he can.

Carol seems to catch on and she too stiffens and glares at him. "Just think about what I've said," Carol shouts at his back, as she lets them run away.

Spiderwoman turns to him, he can't see her face because she's wearing her mask, but he can tell by her mouth that she's frowning. "What did she want with you?"

"Just another compromise."

It's four hours before he can sneak out of their hideout and head out to the former Avengers Mansion. What would have taken even him at least a hour on foot, takes but a few minutes in the suit.

When he touches down, he spots Carol instantly, thanks to the bioscanners of the suit. But she's easily visible, if you're looking for her. She's standing in the garden, behind the statue of the original Avengers.

She looks up at the stone, then at Steve. "Good days, huh?" she says, and Steve can hear the bitterness in her voice.

"Let's go," he says.

There are too many memories here, both new and old, good and bad. Right now, though, it's the newest one that hangs in the air, unresolved, just like the last conversation he had with Tony as a free and alive man.

Carol said the truth earlier, no one seems to question the suit of armor sporting Captain America's colors
following Ms. Marvel down the corridors of the Helicarrier.

"I know we're risking everything with you walking around," Carol says, keeping her eyes straight ahead, barely moving her lips.

Her voice is low, but Steve hears her all the same. "I have something I want to discuss with him, anyway," he replies.

When they're alone, standing outside Tony's office, he stares at the door. "He knows I'm here."

"Undoubtedly," she nods. "He sees and hears everything."

The fact that all the doors to Tony's office have opened regularly for them is encouraging.

The fact that their channel has remained silent isn't.

Carol looks down at her hands, awkwardly. "I'll, uh," she says. "I'll leave you to it, then."

Just as she's turned her back, the doors to Tony's office opens. Steve takes the unspoken invitation and steps inside.

As soon as the door is closed behind him, he gives the command and his suit disassembles.

Iron Man looks impassively at him from behind his desk. "That's probably not a good idea," he says after a moment.

"I'm sure you'll warn me if someone comes."

Tony gives him the once-over, taking in his simple, black leather uniform. "Well," he says a moment later, "I'm glad you chose not to break your old Nomad costume in a bout of nostalgia."

Steve narrows his eyes at him. "I needed something simple," he replies. "And I thought you were going to make Bucky Captain America."

Tony is silent for a long moment. "He refused," he finally replies.

"Take it off," Steve says, pointing at the armor.

"Why?"

"Carol told me it's been a long time since she last saw you without the armor," he says. "Take it off." When
nothing happens, he goes on, "it's not like I need an excuse if I want to see your face."

That seems to do the trick, weirdly enough.

Tony raises his arms slowly and he takes off the helmet.

God.

He looks terrible. He's pale, the kind of pale sick people turn, he has at least a week worth of stubble, his eyes are sunken and dull. He looks- he looks dead.

"Tony-"

"What are you doing here?" Tony cuts him off, and even his voice is dull and flat.

 

9 | My biggest fear is if I let you go, you'll come and get me in my sleep.

 

He followed Carol and Steve's progression in the corridors of the Helicarrier through the camera feeds with Extremis.

"You never learn from your mistakes, do you?" Steve said from the corner of the room where he'd been standing for the past thirty minutes.

Tony reminded himself he wasn't real.

"You did it again, you didn't say what needed to be said," Steve continued, not seeming to care that Tony was intent on ignoring him. He came from Tony's subconscious, after all, and it was hard to trick that. "Do something before it goes all to hell all over again."

"You're not dead," Tony said, despite his resolve to ignore him. "I can see Steve walking down that corridor. He's coming here, he's not dead."

"But I am," Steve replied. "Your Steve is dead, Tony. The one you saved is not the Steve that died. You can't save that one, you never will."

"But going back in time…" he trailed off, unconvinced.

"You know that doesn't mean anything," Steve said, shaking his head. "To you his death is just as real as the fact that he's breathing right outside that door."

He was right, Tony knew.

With a thought the door opened and Steve came through. A quick sidelong glance confirmed that the Steve in the corner had disappeared.

He watched as Steve's armor left his body, leaving him in a simple black leather uniform.

"That's probably not a good idea," Tony said, idly. But he knew his half-hearted protests wouldn't last long. It wasn't even a protest, really, more of a statement.

"I'm sure you'll warn me if someone comes," Steve said, confidently. He was frowning, though, as if he couldn't decide whether to be angry or confused.

Tony sighed. "Well," he said, after a moment, "I'm glad you chose not to break your old Nomad costume in a bout of nostalgia."

Steve glared at him. "I needed something simple," he replied. "And I thought you were going to make Bucky Captain America."

Right. That had gone well. James had looked like the mere suggestion had been an insult to him. Tony had been pleasantly surprised at James' self control, he'd been sure the guy had been about to pummel him through a wall.

"He refused," Tony replied, finally.
"Take it off," Steve said after a moment, pointing at the armor.

"Why?" Tony asked, even though he knew he would give in eventually.

"Carol told me it's been a long time since she last saw you without the armor," he replied. "Take it off."

Carol.

Tony should have known. When this had happened in his time, Carol had no one closer to Tony than herself to go to, and she'd been preoccupied with her own problems. This time around, Steve was alive and they were on the same side.

"It's not like I need an excuse if I want to see your face," Steve added after a moment.

He slowly took off his helmet and raised his eyes to meet Steve's.

Steve looked lost for a moment, taking in his appearance. Tony knew he didn't exactly look like a fresh flower at the moment, but it wasn't like he warranted that wide-eyed stare.

"Tony-"

"What are you doing here?" he cut him off. He was tired.

"I'm worried about you!" Steve exclaimed. "We all are."

Of course, that probably meant just him and Carol. "You don't need to."

"Apparently I do," Steve said with an angry frown, taking a step towards him. "When was the last time you slept?"

Tony looked at him sideways, his eyes fixed in the corner where Steve-the-hallucination had been standing. He didn't reply.

"Have you slept at all?" Steve asked then, going right to the heart of the matter.

He took a deep breath, mentally steering himself . "I have lots of things to do," he said. "Crimes and deaths I can prevent. I can't afford to sleep. I have no time."

He'd managed to catch a few winks here and there, but he couldn't remember the last time he'd had a long night of sleep; after all, he didn't know what would happen if he went to sleep. What if this really was a dream? What if he woke up in a snowfield? What if Steve was… He raised his eyes and checked in the corner, but no, the other Steve was gone.

"And you think collapsing from exhaustion would be better?" Steve snorted.

Tony focused his attention back on him. "Extremis makes sure I don't."

Steve muttered something that could have been a curse. "I'm not leaving until you go to sleep," he said, and his eyes were hard as stones. It was his, 'I'm Captain America, son, do not contradict me' tone.

It had never worked that well on Tony, though. Maybe that was one of the reasons such a close friendship as theirs had been born, but it was also definitely one of the reasons why it had ended up like this.

Tony shook his head. "I can't," he said, quietly, then he waited for the angry speech that was sure to come.

He was honestly surprised when Steve remained silent, despite the deep frown on his face. "How long have we known each other, Tony?" he asked after a long while. "It's been years. And we've been through good times and… bad times."

"You could say that again," Tony snorted, shaking his head.

"Do not interrupt me," Steve growled. "We've known each other for years, and I still haven't figured why you need to push yourself to the limit every single time."

"This is not-"

"I said, do not interrupt me," he repeated. So he was really angry. Tony decided not to tempt fate and just nodded. "You're always worried that you might not be good enough, aren't you? And every time you try to make yourself better the quick way, you always end up making the biggest mistakes of your life."

That might be true in a way, but there was no way going to find Wanda had been a mistake. It could all be an elaborate delusion, but it wasn't a mistake. Not if it meant he and Steve could talk to each other like this, without it coming to blows. Not if it meant Steve was alive.

"Tony, you are human. Like the rest of us," Steve continued. "You have nothing to prove, and you're entitled to some mistakes."

"Except when they kill people," Tony said, giving voice to the words that hung between them. "Except when my choices doomed the whole world."

Steve shook his head. "That's what I mean, Tony," he said. "You've always believed that the fate of the world rested solely on your shoulders, but there are people here who are willing to share the burden," he sighed loudly and took a step towards him, his hands rising to grip his shoulders. "Tony, you have to let go. You can't control everything and you have to learn that."

He snorted. Yeah, sure. Easier said than done. He always used to say that he was a futurist, and it was still true. He could see connections, stuff that was going to happen. When the government had tried to pass the SHRA the first time and had failed, Tony had known that it wouldn't be the end of that. He'd predicted the SHRA years before it had actually taken shape as a bill, and he'd known then that things would have ended badly for his friends, if he hadn't kept an eye on it. How could he sit patiently, when all around him the world was getting more and more insidious by the day? Forget supervillains, politics was the thing that would crush them down, in that Steve had always been right, but you can't win against politics. So he had to compromise, why was it so hard to understand for other people?

"It's one of the reasons we're in this mess," Steve went on. "You wanted too much control, because you can't accept that you may not have it on the things that happen around you."

Tony swallowed and tried to step back, to free himself from Steve's grip on his shoulder. He was in the armor and Steve certainly wasn't trying to keep him by force, it should have been easy. But it wasn't Steve's hands that held him still.

Clear blue eyes started right into his, into him. "It doesn't work that way, Tony," Steve said. "The world happens, you can't predict all the effects. The only thing you can do is to react to them and try to do what you think is right."

A bitter chuckle bubbled from his lips. It sounded more like a choked sob. "Yeah, look how well it went the last time," he said, looking away and finally taking a step back.

Steve's hands fell back to his sides.

"Anyway," Tony cleared his voice. "That's not why I can't take a rest right now. I've got a valid reason, even by your standards."

"And that would be…" Steve trailed off, the tone questioning.

"The Mandarin," he replied.

Steve took a sharp intake of breath. "Already?" he asked. "I thought we'd have much more time…"

"We don't," Tony said, shaking his head. "I tried stalling this for as long as I could, but I have so many things to keep track of and Maya disappeared before I could stop her. Besides, it's best to cut this thing off right at the source."

Steve arched an eyebrow at him. "And that would be?"

"I know what the Mandarin is planning, I have to do this, Steve," he said, almost pleading. As if saving the world needed Steve's approval. "I have to go now."

"I still think you could leave this to someone else, Tony," Steve said, scratching the back of his head. "One would think that being the head of a military organization taught you to delegate."

He shrugged. "You already said it, I'm not good at giving up control," he replied. "And anyway, it's got to do with Extremis, and I'm the only alive and arguably sane specimen," he looked up at Steve, "but I guess you'd know how that feels."

He knew he'd hit the right button when Steve looked away with a somewhat guilty expression. Tony was an expert in survivor's guilt, ever since Yensin, he'd been well-acquainted with the feeling. And surviving Extremis just because of a random genetic predisposition had renewed it even more. He guessed it was the same with the Super Soldier Serum.

"Still," Steve said after a moment, "there has to be another way."

"97.5% casualties, Steve," Tony replied. "Worldwide."

Steve stared at him wide-eyed. He cursed under his breath. "He's a madman," he muttered after a moment.

"Exactly," Tony agreed. "And that's why I have to stop him. It's Extremis, it's my responsibility."

"You didn't build Extremis, Tony," Steve said.

"How would you feel if our positions were reversed?" Tony asked, maybe a little too flippantly. Steve didn't reply. "Thought so. Now leave, I have to go."

Before he could order the faceplate shut, Steve stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "Extremis may be your responsibility," he said. "But you are mine. I'm coming with you."

Tony swallowed. There was no mistaking that expression. "No," he said before his brain could catch up with his mouth. "No. Absolutely not. I can't let you… What if something happens?"

"I'm Captain America, Tony," Steve said, the determination in his eyes replaced by anger for a moment. "I'm an Avenger. I can take care of myself."

He knew that, of course. Rationally, at least. But the image of the coffin covered with the American flag was still fresh in his mind, and it would probably never leave him, or his nightmares, it was still hiding behind his eyelids whenever he closed his eyes.

"But what if you die?" he whispered, almost to himself.

"What about all the other missions I went on, with or without you?" Steve went on. "What about the War? I could have died all those times, you didn't act like this, though."

"That's because now I know what it feels like," he replied. "I- It's not something I could stand again, Steve."

Steve stared at him for a long moment. "You just have to live with it, Tony," he said, finally. "You're not making the decisions by yourself anymore."

Tony averted his eyes, the faceplate closing down. "I guess there's no point in trying to persuade you," he said, then. "You'd follow me anyway."

"You were the one who gave me the universal Iron Man GPS," Steve replied, with a faint grin. Then he gave the command and his armor assembled on him.

"What did you want to discuss with me?" Tony asked, after a moment.

"What?" through their channel, Steve's voice sounded honestly baffled.

"Earlier," Tony explained. "While you were coming here with Carol, you said you had something to discuss with me."

There was a conspicuous silence. "We can discuss it later," came Steve's reply at last. "We have more pressing things to do right now."

The story of their life. Whenever they had something important to discuss, the world interfered with supervillains, intergalactic diplomatic incidents and, occasionally, Ultron.

"You ready?" Tony asked, then.

"On your command."

Tony nodded. "Let's go."

They went.

 

 

10 | Carry on my wayward son, there'll be peace when you are done.

 

Once again, Steve is waiting. It seems all he ever does these days.

Capturing the Mandarin was rather anti-climatic, actually. Tony told him that it took him two fights and almost dying twice to get him the first time, but then he'd been wearing outdated suits of armors and didn't have access to Extremis.

Apparently, even the most fearsome villain can't stand up against two men wearing possibly the most advanced weapon in the world.

Steve is still in his armor and it weighs down on him, despite the fact that he knows that it can't be possible really, that it's just an impression. He's tired, but the really brief battle has nothing to do with it.

If Steve didn't already believe that Tony was telling the truth all along, he would have started by now. Everything went just like Tony described, the Mandarin, Maya Hansen.

The Extremis-enhanced human beings.

Actually coming face to face with the results of Extremis gone wrong, with the real insanity, has made him realize just how lucky Tony has been. How lucky they all have been. He knows Tony's always taking stupid risks, but Tony programming Extremis by himself while he'd been severely injured and dying, injecting himself with a still largely unkown virus when he only had a very slight chance of coming out of it alive, is another thing they should have talked about sooner.

To see what else Tony risked by getting Extremis, though… And to think that Steve first assumed that his new powers made him detached from reality, that they had taken him another step away from humanity. Until now. After all Steve has seen, he's actually quite surprised that Tony's sanity is as intact as it is.

He stares at the door, willing for it to open. They came back at least an hour and a half earlier, Tony told him to go and wait for him in his office and then he disappeared to supervise the incarceration of the Mandarin and of Maya Hansen, Commander Hill standing by his side the whole time.

Steve doesn't like her, and he probably never will, but he can appreciate that despite the fact that she thinks that Tony isn't qualified to be Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. – and that's probably the only thing Steve and she will ever agree on – she's still willing to follow his lead. He can admire that, especially considering the situation they're in.

Anyway it's not like he has any other options but to trust her.

Tony's told him about his 'last resort' plan, about the EVH. Steve has known Tony for a long time, and he knows how he gets about last resort plans and worst case scenarios, he knows they usually involve big explosions and the obliteration of all life in a several miles radius, most of the time including Tony's own. Over the years he's gotten over the top, though.

The fact that he's quite sure that's not even the most destructive of plans Tony could ever implement does nothing more than strengthen his conviction that he and Tony need to have a talk as soon as possible.

It takes at least another ten minutes before he has any news on Tony. He's surprised, though, when it's Hill's voice coming through the radio in his suit. He assumed that only Tony had access to this channel, but in retrospect it makes sense. If Tony is ever incapacitated, Hill and the others should still be able to contact him.

"He's coming your way," she says. "I don't think he's all there."

He frowns. "What do you mean?"

"Just make sure he lies down for a bit," and even if she's trying to maintain a neutral tone, Steve can tell she's frustrated. "Or I swear next time he springs something like this on me I'll kick him into the brig, hierarchy be damned."

"I can relate," he replies with a sigh. "What's the situation?"

"The Mandarin is secured," she says. "We're still trying to figure what to do with all these specimens."

"They're human beings," he corrects her. "Not specimens."

"They're miserable," she says, before closing the channel. It's not like Steve could have argued with that anyway.

Tony arrives a few minutes later; the door swooshes open and he walks in, moving in oddly stiff motions. As he takes a third step into the room, the door closes.

Tony is standing right in front of him, looking like a metal statue. The black scorch marks from the Mandarin's energy beams are slowly disappearing from Tony's armor as its self-repairing feature works steadily and surely. It's not noticeable if you look at it, but if you were to look away for a couple of moments and then go back to stare, the change would be clearly visible.

Steve is sure that his own armor is going through the same exact process. He looks down at his gauntlets, and he's suddenly hit by a wave of nausea so strong it surprises him. He's encased himself in metal, built up a barrier of hundreds of filters between himself and the world outside, and it makes him sick.

This is not him. He doesn't know what is it, but it's not him. There was no need to fight the Mandarin in the armor; he could have fought him as Captain America, hell, even as Steve Rogers, he still has his shield and that's all he's ever needed.

The loud clangs as the armor hits the ground at his feet almost startle him. He must have given the command unconsciously.

He stares at the pieces of metal on the floor. Tony is an amazing man, really. He built a weapon that kept him alive, he gave himself powers when he had none. Steve still hasn't decided if Tony is in the superhero business because of the survivor's guilt that's still crushing him even after all the time that's passed from Yensin's death, along with the one that still lingers after he's stopped producing highly technological weapons; or just because he can't conceive a world he has no relevant influence over.

Tony hides behind Iron Man, because he wishes he could erase Tony Stark from the face of the earth. Steve knows that. He's tried desperately to make him see that it's what's inside that counts, that Iron Man would be nothing without Tony Stark to guide its actions, but Tony has never quite fully managed to see the good in himself.

It's quite ironic, in a twisted way, that every time Tony tries to make himself better – because he always thinks he has to, as if being Tony Stark, being human, is some kind of disease he has to overcome – every time he tries to do the 'right thing', he inevitably ends up doing the greatest amount of damage, in the shortest possible time.

Steve knows that Tony has dozens and dozens of Iron Man armors stored away, he probably has more than Steve could ever imagine. Tony's given himself Extremis. Tony is rarely out of his armor lately.

"It's as if you want to be a machine," he says. He can't quite keep the accusing tone from coloring his words, a note of horror too. "A robot."

That's the main reason that just the thought of wearing that armor again makes him sick to his stomach. If only using it for a few weeks has so isolated him from outside stimuli that he's started to feel detached from the real world, how must Tony feel after all these years?

"This is what I meant, when I said you have powers you don't understand," he goes on, even though Tony still hasn't replied. "I've realized now that it wasn't just the new ones."

Tony still doesn't reply.

"You're not a machine Tony, and no matter how badly you want to become one, you could never be," he says. "You've made mistakes, bad ones, but your heart is in the right place and…" he trails off, because Tony still hasn't given signs of life, and it would be an effort wasted anyway. Tony can't hear praise.

"Tony, are you alright?" he asks, getting closer. He lays a hand on the other's shoulder. He sounded alright earlier, when they finally subdued the Mandarin; and even if Tony's always been good at downplaying his injuries, Steve's suit wouldn't have lied about his condition.

"Stop this," he hisses, irritated. "This isn't the time where I tell you things and you just listen," or just pretend to, he doesn't add. "This is the time when we talk."

They have so many things to talk about. Tony's control issues, their plans against the Skrulls, their plans against Osborn. And other things, more personal things.

Sharon.

"You sent her away," he says, not bothering to keep the accusation out of his voice, this time. "I didn't get to say goodbye to her, what gives you the right to run our lives like- Tony!" he gives him a small shake, and then a more violent one when nothing happens.

A sudden thought blooms into his head, and he wonders if Tony's felt like this whenever they were interrupted because of one thing or another. He wonders if Tony's felt as frustrated when he was left staring at Steve's silent back.

He lets go of Tony's armored shoulder and takes a step back, already saying the override code. It's only thanks to his heightened reflexes that he manages to catch Tony's limp body before he hits the ground.
He grunts as he takes all his dead weight with just his right arm, then readjusts the grip so that Tony's more or less leaning against him, instead of hanging lifelessly from his outstretched arm.

The golden underarmor has since long retreated inside his bones, and he's only wearing his boxers. There are no apparent injuries on his body, then why… Tony's face is lax, and despite the dark circles under his eyes, the stubble and his general sickly air, he looks as if he were just sleeping.

It takes him a moment to realize that's because he is sleeping. Passed out from exhaustion, more likely. He snorts an almost surprised huff of laughter, in spite of everything. One day, when the situation isn't as serious as it is now, Steve is going to remind Tony of this and he's going to be merciless.

He shifts Tony's weight to look around the room, causing a soft groan to escape the other man's lips. There are no comfortable places the two of them could fit in Tony's office, so he just hoists Tony up in his arms and he deposits him in his chair. Tony doesn't even stir.

He clearly needs his sleep, but sleeping in a chair is bound to get uncomfortable pretty fast, and he's going to be cold in just his underwear, anyway. He already is, in fact, as he finds out by laying a hand on his shoulder. His skin is cool to the touch, he shakes him lightly. "Tony," he says. "Hey, Tony."

At first nothing happens, then Tony seems to give a full body shudder and he startles awake. His eyes dart everywhere around the room, to finally settle on him.

"You fell asleep in the suit," Steve explains, not quite managing to keep his smirk under control. Tony stares at him as if he were speaking nonsense. "You okay?"

"I…" Tony swallows, looking away. "You're here."

Steve frowns, looking down at him. "Sure," he says, confused. "We just came back from Omaha. Remember that?"

Tony nods slowly, his hands rubbing his face and then long fingers slip into dark hair, making a mess of it. Tony's hair is fascinating, it will stick anyway you want it to, and Steve has always used it as some kind of barometer for Tony's moods. Dirty with metal debris meant Tony's spent a long time in the workshop and that he's tired, but overall satisfied; flat on one side, means he's just woken up and still hasn't had his coffee and is therefore grumpy; sticking up in all directions, like now, means Tony is nervous, and worried.

"Yeah," Tony says in a low voice. "The Mandarin."

"We-" Steve starts, but gets soon cut off by Tony.

"I'm tired, Steve," Tony mutters, his voice muffled by his hands, as he sinks his face down.

Steve stares at him for a moment. Seemingly on its own, his left hand reaches forward and hovers just above Tony's naked shoulder. Steve looks down as if it were a strange entity, completely separated from his body. Then he lowers it slowly until he touches Tony's skin.

Tony's shoulder tenses, but he relaxes as soon Steve's hand closes in a lax grip.

"I know," he says, softly, because he does. The Avengers have been lying in wait, doing practically nothing, while sleeping under the same roof as the enemy. And Steve can only watch as the world moves on without him, he has to watch as Tony is sinking deeper and deeper in the black hole of politics, drowning in it.

A part of Steve perversely thinks Tony deserves it, that he's dug this hole with his own hands, but then he gets to see Tony like this, so exhausted and desperate, and he remembers that this is his friend, his partner.

In some way, the out and out fighting, their difference of views regarding the Registration was easier to face, because then he only had to fight for his ideals, he had to fight a faceless armor that wasn't his friend anymore. Now everything is confused and confusing, the boundaries are muddled.

"You should go lie down," he says after a long moment. He sighs when Tony shakes his head. "Tony, you need to sleep."

"I'm fine," Tony says, rubbing his eyes.

"You passed out in your armor," Steve snorts. "That's not fine."

"I-" Tony starts and cuts himself off with a small sound.

"Tony?"

Tony mutters something, but he can't quite make out the words. "Go away," he says after a moment, still in a low voice, but audibly.

"I'm not going until you get some rest, Tony," Steve says. He has a couple of hours to wait, anyway, leaving the Helicarrier in the nighttime will be much safer.

"No, not you," Tony says, shaking his head. Then he sighs and leans backwards in the chair, his right arm thrown over his eyes, hiding most of his face.

"You're not making any sense," Steve informs him. "And you should put something on."

Tony lifts his arm just enough to give him a one-eyed glance. "Look, Steve, I'm not…" he trails off, swallowing. "I can't go to sleep not knowing what I'll wake up to."

Steve stares at him. "You can't be serious," he mutters. "You still think this is, what? A dream? An hallucination?"

"Steve-"

Steve crouches in front of him, and Tony removes the arm from his face to give him a puzzled frown. "This is real, Tony," he says. "You can't go without rest because you're afraid to sleep."

"It sounds ridiculous," Tony says, "when you put it like that."

"That's because it is."

"No, Steve," Tony says shaking his head. "This is Wanda we're talking about, she could have-"

Abruptly Steve stands up, actually startling Tony into silence for a moment, he just blinks up at him, his mouth still hanging slightly open.

"I'm alive, Tony," he says, and when Tony tries to avert his eyes, he grabs his chin and forces him to stare straight at him. "Look at me. I'm alive."

Tony's eyes dart everywhere, never once meeting his, despite the fact that Steve's grip is keeping his head still. Steve lets him go after a while, though, and only when he sees the red imprints left behind by his fingers does he realize how tightly he must have gripped, and how desperate must have been Tony to free himself of his hold.

"What is it?" he asks, leaning forward. As soon as he realizes he's doing that, he stops and takes a step backward. Tony's acting like a caged animal for some reason and there's no need to add to it.

Tony take a deep breath, rubbing his face with his hands and then letting them fall at his sides, his head thrown backwards, his eyes closed. "In my head," he says, "in my head, you're dead."

Steve's hands itch at his sides, the urge to grab Tony's shoulders and shake him until he's convinced that their current condition is real is strong, but he manages to keep still and wait for Tony to continue.

"I've seen you die, I've seen you dead," Tony goes on in a monotonous tone, "and that's never going to change." He pauses for a moment, taking a deep breath. His eyes are opened now, but they're staring at the ceiling. "I've seen all that I've done, all that I'm capable of doing."

"Tony-"

"I'm a terrible person, Steve. And it doesn't matter if no one else but me will ever know the lengths I had to go," he says. "Because I know."

Steve observes him in silence. "Correct me, if I'm wrong," he says after a while. "You're here now, aren't you?"

Tony raises his head and frowns at him, confused. "Yes."

"You're here because you want to repair your mistakes, because you want to do the right thing," he tells him. Tony needs to be told that while he may be an idiot sometimes, he's still worth the effort. Not that Tony particularly ever believes it, but Steve can do nothing but remind him, time and time again.

And maybe sometimes Steve needs that reminder, too. "You saved me, Tony, because you wanted to."

"Of course I wanted to, how could I ever-"

Steve leans forward again, his hands falling Tony's shoulders with a firm but reassuring grip. "That makes you a good person, Tony," he says. "That means you learned from your mistakes."

This time Tony doesn't look away.

 

11 | There has to be an invisible sun that gives us hope when the whole day's done.

 

 

"That's it," Reed said, interrupting the since long unbroken silence. "I think."

Tony actually blinked at him, for a moment not really sure what he was talking about. They had so many projects going on at the same time, real projects and fake ones, in case Sue already was a Skrull and they needed to keep her blissfully unaware.

"What?" Tony asked, then his brain registered the gun shaped device in Reed's hands. There were some significant differences with the one Tony remembered from his own past, but it was a Skrull detector without a doubt. "It's done," he whispered, halfway between a statement and a question.

Reed nodded, still staring at the device in his hands. "Of course," he said, "we can't really be sure it works until we try it."

Tony raised an eyebrow at him. "Is Reed Richards doubting his science?" he asked with a snort.

"Well, I built it following your directions," Reed replied, and Tony was pretty sure he wasn't teasing in the least, he was just being Reed Richards, smartest man in the whole world and totally lacking in people skills.
He walked to Reed's side and he looked down at the gun-like device. Steve had asked several times if they could try for a preemptive attack, and Tony had always refused, saying it was too risky. But now they had the Skrull detector and…

How much would it change, really, if they attacked the Skrulls now, all at once? Would it change for the better, or for the worse? He didn't know the whereabouts of Osborn, but he was fairly sure that if they got rid the Skrulls now he probably wouldn't be prepared to put his plan in motion.

And even if he could, Tony would do anything in his power to have Steve take down the Queen. Steve, resurrected from his ashes like a phoenix, and Tony would also make sure that on that day all the cameras would be pointing at him.

The hero that saved Earth, Captain America, and no one would have the guts to go against him or demand he undergo a court martial.

They would have the people on their side and they could work at redesigning the SHRA according to their plans, without fearing any open opposition from the Government.

The question was, could Tony afford to start arresting Skrulls now?

After keeping Norman Osborn from ascending to power, his first priority was to protect people and keep them safe. What about all the people that had been captured by the Skrulls and replaced? When they'd found the ship with everyone alive and more or less unharmed, it had been in a geostationary orbit, but was now too early?

And if they started arresting Skrulls, they would certainly be used as hostages.

"Tony?" Reed called him.

He blinked and focused his attention on him. "What?"

"What do we do now?"

He snorted. "That's the million dollar question," he replied. "I may need those equations of yours."

An alarm went off briefly and one of the computers to their right blinked to life. It was connected to the cameras in the Baxter Building and programmed to activate whenever Sue Richards entered the building.

"I have to go," Tony said, his fingers twitching on the Skrull detector.

Reed wasn't looking at him, though, his neck stretched inhumanly, he was staring intently at the video feed. He didn't even bid goodbye as the door closed behind Tony.

He hadn't hung out around to chat with the others after they had won the fight with the Skrulls, as he had many other pressing matters, but he was quite reasonably sure that the people substituted by Skrulls hadn't been all captured at the same time.

So if all of them had been put in the same ship, it meant that said ship had to be close enough to Earth to come and go as quickly as possible, but also undetectable to Earth's technologies.

Although, if most of Earth's defenses were Starktech and they had found a way to debilitate it…

His fingers closed around the handle of the Skrull detector.

He hadn't sent Rhodey on a recon mission earlier, because he'd judged it too dangerous in the chance that he'd be discovered. But what if he did actually manage to arrest the Skrull impersonating Hank and the Queen?

They would have to be swift, because once the Skrulls realized what was going on, they'd make sure Starktech and Tony would be incapacitated and then they would go for a fight out in the open, much like the last time.

His head kept him feeding scenarios and calculations of possible outcomes. He had to take advantage now that he could, because he was making virtually no progress in protecting himself from the Skrull virus, he didn't know how it worked.

When he'd told Carol he was writing anti-virus software for Extremis she'd laughed. She'd sobered a moment later when she'd realized he was actually being serious, but after that the only person Tony had told had been Reed.

He'd nodded and said it was a great idea, and he'd offered to help him. But the Skrull detector was much more important, and while Tony knew that Reed could work on a hundred projects at the same time, he also needed his whole attention focused on that.

It was bad enough that Tony had to be with him every time, to watch over him, to make sure he ate and drank and slept. That was usually Sue's duty.

Ten minutes later he was flying back towards the Helicarrier, his gauntlets clutching the completed Skrull detector. He always brought it back after his and Reed's sessions, to avoid Sue finding out by chance. Reed was even worse than him at letting go of a project and quitting working when he should.

So, as he observed it sitting in his safe, back in his office in the Helicarrier, it wasn't an unusual sight. What was unfamiliar was that it was finished, complete, and as such it held potential, a possibility.

Of what he wasn't really sure at first, but it became clear when Hank showed up in his office ten minutes later with a vaguely annoyed frown on his face. Maria Hill and two agents were following after him.

Apparently he'd called all of them here without really noticing.

"I was working, Tony," Hank said. "I hope this is important. And what's with the escort?"

How could he be this calm, Tony couldn't fathom. He had to suspect something was up. Maybe he wasn't a Skrull, maybe Tony had miscalculated.

Maybe Tony was insane.

Behind Hank, Maria was silent, but her expression spoke volumes about what she must have been thinking. Tony was sure she had lots of questions for him. He appreciated the show of silent obedience she put up, though.

"What is tha-" Hank started to ask, but then his surprised face turned into an outraged green one he didn't recognize, as soon as Tony pulled the trigger.

So. It worked.

The Skrull spewed what Tony was pretty sure were insults and possibly death threats in his native language, as Maria and the two agents seized him and restrained him.

"Gotcha," Tony said with a smirk, and for once he wished he didn't have the faceplate down. It was childish, maybe, but he took his victories whenever he could.

"You'll regret this, Stark," he finally said in English. "He loves you and you just lost your chance!"

"Oh, I believe this is one of the few things in my life I will never regret," he replied, gesturing for Maria and the agents to take him away. "And also, I'm pretty sure nobody's feeling the Stark love at the moment."

When he was alone again, his eyes went down to the gun he was still clutching in his hands.

He had just started it.

He'd said they had to be careful, that they couldn't afford to stray from the known path, and then he'd gone and tossed caution to wind, and he had started it.

And why? Because Reed was making sad faces at the video feeds of his wife? Because Steve was climbing walls while in hiding, and he was constantly asking Tony what he could do, when could they start?

Snorting, he tossed the Skrull detector on his desk.

In the end he kept doing the same things time and time again, the same mistakes.

Ten minutes later, Maria stormed back into his office. "Okay," she started without preamble. "What the hell was that?"

"That, my friend," he said, removing his helmet and laying it on the table, "was a Skrull."

"I know that," she replied, barely keeping her voice from shouting. "What I want to know, is what the hell were you thinking when you just shot Pym with that thing?"

"It wasn't Hank, it was-"

"That's not my point!"

"And it's called Skrull detector," he went on, shrugging. "I know. Not very original, but it does what it says on the tin." Maria still wasn't impressed, her angry frown could have competed with Steve's if there ever was a contest of If Looks Could Kill. "At least now you know I'm not off my rocker?" he finished, sitting down in his chair and leaning back, lying his feet on the desk.

Maria leant over the table, her frown still etched on her features. "Now I know you were telling the truth about the Skrulls," she replied. "As for your sanity, the jury's still out on that."

"Well, at least you're honest I suppose," he muttered to himself.

"You said we should wait," she said, her index finger stabbing the smooth surface of the desk with her every word. "You said we had to go around and play ignorant while they spread among our ranks."

He nodded. "I did say that."

"And now you just call Pym into your office and shoot him with the goddamn Skrull detector," she said. "Explain to me how's that sticking to the plan?"

"We finished ahead of schedule," he said. "I thought at this point, we might as well-"

At the back of his mind, through the cameras he had outside his office, he saw Carol arriving, her stride and her face clearly showed that she had heard about Hank. Oh, this was going to be fun.

"-go for it," he finished, with a sheepish look as Carol burst through the doors.

"Tony!" she exclaimed. "What do you think you're…" she trailed off with a frown, as she noticed Maria's presence.

"Oh, so you heard," Maria snorted, straightening up.

Carol blinked at her, but she turned her attention back to Tony at once. "You said that-"

"-we should wait?" Maria cut her off. "That we had to act like we didn't know a thing?"

"Yeah," Carol replied, slightly deflating now that her tirade had been interrupted twice in a row.

"Yeah, I was here first," Maria said. "I'm still waiting for an answer."

"You know," Tony said conversationally, tossing his helmet from one hand to the other, "it's been a while since the last time I had two women arguing over me." That got their attention. "Just calm down, will you. We now have proof that we've got an invasion going on."

"We already knew-" Carol started and then she cut herself off, with a suspicious frown. "God, Tony. Is it because you wanted to prove that the invasion is real?"

He swallowed. "No," he said, at last. "This is because now we have the means to tell them apart," he explained. "This is because now we have a chance to defeat them when they are least expecting it."

"I can understand that, Tony," Carol said, nodding. "But you could have told us, you shouldn't have acted by yourself. What gave you the right to make that call?"

"I'm the one in charge," he replied. "I'm the one responsible."

Over and over the same things and the same mistakes.

Maria snorted and shook her head. She muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, 'still out, alright' but Tony decided to let that go. "What are the orders then, Sir?" she asked, then. She had the peculiar skill of making that 'Sir' sound like a particular despicable insult.

Tony wasn't sure he didn't agree.

"Now you arrest Dugan," he said. "We have to see if he's a Skrull. And I'm locking down the Helicarrier and monitoring all transmissions, incoming and outgoing. Then we're going to scan the whole crew. And that includes the present ones."

"Oh joy," Maria muttered, rolling her eyes.

"What's the use?" Carol asked. "If you or either one of us was a Skrull, don't you think we'd have already been found out?"

"It'll show to the crew that we don't trust anyone, not even the ones in charge," Tony replied. "It's good for building trust."

"Building trust by showing no trust at all?" Carol snorted. "How does that even work?"

"They'll see us on the same level as them," Tony continued, then he added more as a question than a statement, "it's good for morale?"

Maria snorted. "As you wish, Sir," she said.

"Keep me posted," he told her retreating back.

She pointed at the camera in the corner of his office. "Is there even a point at all?" she asked without turning, and then she closed the door behind her and she was gone.

Carol remained standing, halfway between the door and his desk. She was staring at where Maria had been, just a few moments before.

Tony stared at his helmet for a second and then he put it on.

"Tony-" Carol started, but he cut her off.

"Before you say it, yes," he said with a sigh Carol couldn't hear through the suit's speakers. "I know I make a terrible Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I can't trust anyone else with the job," she snorted at that. "Can you imagine where we would be now if Hill got the job? She shot at Cap when he refused to surrender."

"And you hunted him down and arrested him," she pointed out.

"At least, I never-" tried to kill him, he meant to say. But that wasn't true was it? In fact, he had actually managed to kill him. Maybe it wasn't him who had pulled the trigger, but he had created the circumstances. Maybe he wasn't the one who had assassinated Steve Rogers, but he was the one who had killed Captain America, the name, the ideal. "I never meant him any harm. I only wanted to protect them."

Carol sighed. "Tony, you…" she trailed off, pinching the bridge of her nose. "You are not the king of the world. When will you understand that?" she shook her head. "One day they're going to crucify you in the streets for trying to be."

"I was never trying to be," he said. "I'm just… Look, it doesn't matter now."

Carol still didn't seem convinced, but she nodded. "What do you want us to do, then?" she asked. "And by 'us', I mean the Mighty Avengers. Because even though I'm the leader, you still give out the orders apparently."

"I thought it didn't matter," he replied.

"No, you said it didn't matter," she retorted. "As if you could ever let anyone else try and take the lead, around here."

"Carol, I'm the-"

"-one responsible for it, yeah. I was here when you said that three seconds ago," she rolled her eyes. "I swear, the only good thing about this is that when Cap knows what you have done? He'll chew you out, and I want to be there for it."

"Cap wanted to get to the Skrulls as soon as possible, too."

"Somehow I doubt you taking the initiative like this was what he had in mind," she replied. "I'm just going to go and assemble the Mighty Avengers, because you're obviously not listening to me."

"You do that," he nodded. "And I hear everything you say," he added after a moment.

"Maybe. But you don't listen," she retorted, turning back when she reached the door. "The only one you ever listened to was Cap."

Cap. Right.

Now all that he needed to do was to contact Steve and tell him about the new developments. And Carol was probably right in saying that Steve would be angry at him, but he ultimately would understand. And they had no time, anyway.

He needed Steve and his Avengers to take care of the Queen, and then he would send Steve and Rhodey to find the ship with all their friends inside.

And then-

He sighed.

And then sooner or later the Skrulls would notice something was amiss, and they would destroy him.

He stared at the Skrull detector.

There was also the question of Jarvis. And Sue Richards.

He was already flying towards Stark Tower, when Steve's voice came through the comm link.

"What the hell do you think you're doing, Stark!?" Steve growled. It had been a long time since he last called him 'Stark'. He tended to do that when he was particularly angry.

"I'm going to find an old friend," he replied. Although, it was probably going to be a green face instead that of Jarvis' staring back at him after using the Skrull detector.

"Tony!" Steve was still angry.

"Just take her and don't let her communicate with anyone," he said. "I don't know, get Strange to do one of his spells. He seems to have one for every occasion."

There was a long moment of silence. "Tony," Steve finally said, and while his voice was quieter now, he still sounded furious. "What are you doing?"

"I don't know, Steve," he replied, the honesty totally blindsiding him. "I don't know."

He left the Skrull who was impersonating Jarvis bound and gagged, awaiting for the agents he'd called to pick him up. And if he was a little worse for the wear, no one would really say anything. To be safe, Tony kept the video feed from the kitchen area in Stark Tower open at the back of his mind. Getting made because of an oversight would be a stupid mistake at this point.

As he watched Sue – the real Sue – and Reed hugging and whispering to each other he still didn't know what the hell he was doing.

 

12 | If you'd accept surrender, I'll give up some more.

 

Steve finally sees Tony three hours after he's been told that, to use Tony's words, 'the show's on the road. Or rather, he sees Iron Man, who is clutching what looks like a really big gun. From what he's said, that has to be the Skrull detector.

He barely has touched down when he starts talking. "Why are you out of your suit?" he asks. "I tried to raise you on the radio about a dozen times. You got her?"

Steve takes a deep breath. "Tony, a word."

"We have no time, Steve," Tony says in Iron Man's voice. "You got her?" he asks again.

"Yes, she's not going anywhere for now," he replies, then he leans over and takes hold of one of Tony's gauntlets. "A word, Tony," he repeats, his tone brooking no refusal.

Tony seems to finally get it and he follows obediently after Steve. Until he realizes that he's leading them to their hideout.

"Steve," Tony starts, and when Steve turns around to face him he notices that he's stopped. "Shouldn't I be blindfolded for this?"

Steve snorts, not even bothering to hide it. "At this point, what does it matter?"

Tony doesn't reply to that and he just follows him into the seemingly abandoned building that has been their hideout for the past month. They've moved around a lot, but the list of safe places dried out pretty soon, so Strange offered them the decaying warehouse they're currently staying in.

As soon as they're inside, though, everything looks new and wide and spacious. It was unsettling for the first few times, but Steve has mostly gotten used to it.

"Well," Tony comments, finally removing that helmet of his. "it does look bigger on the inside." His tone suggests he's making a reference, but the confusion must be clear on Steve's face, because Tony explains a moment later, "it's from Doctor Who."

"What?"

"No, 'Who'."

"What?"

"Never mind," Tony says, shaking his head.

Steve bypasses the living room; most of the others are surely in there, and he doesn't want any interruptions. Instead he moves towards the staircase that goes up to the bedrooms. He has plans, and those plans involve no interference whatsoever and cornering Tony and finally having that talk they keep putting off to a later date.

"Steve," Tony says, quietly, and from his tone he knows that Tony has realized where this is going. "I only came here to take her to the Helicarrier. There are agents waiting for my orders to come and get her."

"They will wait," Steve tells him, and he knows that Tony will do whatever he says, because there was resignation in his voice as well. "You and I have to talk."

"Steve, I-" Tony starts to say, but he stops as soon as Steve grabs his arm and tugs him inside.

Steve closes the door behind them and then turns around, arms crossed, to look at Tony. The other man is staring at a spot on the wall off Steve's right shoulder. Steve is reasonably sure there's nothing particularly interesting on that wall.

Several moments, possibly minutes, go by. Until he finally gives in and begins first.

"What about the Registration, Tony?" he asks.

Tony doesn't meet his eyes. "I'm doing everything I can," he replies. "But it's not my first priority right now."

"When is it going to be, then?" he asks, trying to keep his anger in check. Tony remains silent, though.
"Answer me."

"I…" he starts. "I have a job for you and Rhodey-"

Steve takes the steps that separate them, his hands going for Tony's metal-clad arms. "That's not the answer I want."

Tony's gaze is sharp when it meets his. "It's the answer you're going to get," he says, "because it's the only one I can give at the moment."

Steve snorts. "That's convenient," he says. "And now that we're on topic, there's something else I'd like to discuss with you."

Tony blinks up at him, but he can't seem to withstand the look Steve's giving him, and he looks away. His swallow is almost audible in the silent room.

"You told us not to take stupid chances," Steve says, shaking Tony lightly by the shoulders, just to ensure that he's getting his point across. "You said not to risk this whole operation. And guess what? You went and did exactly that."

Tony turns to glare at him. "It worked, didn't it?" he says, and his tone is tinged with annoyance. At least Steve is getting some kind of reaction out of him.

"But what happens when you miss something? What happens if something goes wrong? We're still fugitives in the eyes of the law, where would we be?" he gives him a moment to let everything sink in and then he goes on. "We had to live side by side with a known enemy posing as our friend, and the stress was threatening to send everything to hell. And we have a baby, Peter's aunt and his wife to think of."

And Steve's had to take all the responsibility on his shoulders, because that's what he does, it's his role.
He thought that Tony would be doing the same, bearing his share. Apparently, though, Tony gets carte blanche. He gets to make reckless decisions that could have ended – still can, come to think of it – with serious repercussions on everyone else around him.

It went like this even before Civil War, ever since he's known him. He kept his secret identity and his heart problems hidden when they could have caused serious tactical problems for the team. He kept his drinking hidden, he went and got Extremis, he went and decided he could choose all of their fates by himself.

"No one said it was going to be easy!" Tony's sudden outburst almost startles him. "I told you I'm doing everything I can!"

"Like you told me about Sharon?" he asks. "Like you told me about the Mandarin?"

Tony looks shocked for a fleeting second, his eyes growing wide and his mouth opening in a small O of surprise, but it's gone so quickly, that Steve wonders if it's been real at all or if he's just imagined it.

Tony stares at him for a long time, his expression blank. He takes a step away, and then another. He's closer to the bed than to Steve now, and he's staring at the floor as if it was the most interesting thing he's ever seen in his whole life.

Calmly, he lays the Skrull detector down on the bedside table.

"Okay," he says finally, quietly. Then he raises his eyes to meet Steve's, but they're still blank and emotionless. "You won, alright?" he says. "You won."

Steve frowns. "What…"

"I was prepared to give away everything," Tony continues, and his blankness is actually starting to scare Steve a little. There's something off about it. Tony can do blank, he's seen Tony doing it, when he dealt with super villains, or the press, or people he doesn't trust in general. It's the voice that Tony uses when he doesn't want to let the world in, when he's trying to protect himself when he's at the end of his rope.
"Everything, Steve, to keep you, all of you, safe."

Pieces of armor fly away from Tony's body to scatter around in the room and he's left with his golden second skin. "And I still lost," he says. "I lost you."

Suddenly Steve realizes what's so strange about Tony's blank voice. He's never used it with Steve. Not even at the worst of it, when Steve was about to kill him. Not even when they met in the eve of their final battle in the Avengers Mansion.

Steve stands frozen, even his breathing seems to have stopped for a long moment. Tony is bared and the only shield he's kept for himself are his eyes. He's quiet, but his voice is strangely tight, as if he's trying to keep himself in check.

Tony's words sound like he's rehearsed this quite a few times.

"I lose," Tony says, and there's a finality in his voice that Steve has to look away for a moment, certain he wouldn't be able to bear his empty eyes for a second longer. "Fortunately, while you suck at losing, I'm very good at it."

Those words sound like another reference, but once again Steve doesn't catch it. His gaze goes back to Tony though. His golden underarmor is slowly disappearing inside his body. He's naked beneath it.
"You won, Steve," he says. "What do you want me to do?"

Steve stares at him. Tony has always been one for over the top and occasionally melodramatic gestures, but this is going too far. It almost feels like mocking, like he's daring Steve to hit him like he did when Tony freed him from his cell weeks – or is it months already? – ago. Maybe it's a replay of their fight in the Avengers Mansion; he's not quite sure.

Or maybe Tony just wants to provoke him, but for what purpose he can't imagine. They've seen what fighting between the two of them brings, and Tony has even seen the ultimate result. For all Steve wants them to go along, to pull through this even despite their differences, he also knows that if a fight were to break out now, it wouldn't stop until one of them was unconscious. And with Tony so passive and… naked, without his armor, with Steve's fists already clenching at his sides, they both know the way that would end.

There are too many unspoken words between the two of them, they've been building walls long before Civil War actually broke out. Ever since Tony got Extremis, or possibly even before that. Steve knows it's his own fault as well, but they've never been good with words. They never needed them. They are both stubborn, and they have their own private convictions, and sometimes they've clashed over them, but its never been a problem, at least not with the devastating results of their fight over the Registration Act.

He meets Tony's eyes and his breath actually stops for a second, when he suddenly realizes that Tony isn't looking for a confrontation. Quite the contrary, in fact. Tony's eyes aren't blank at all, now, they're questioning.

Tony doesn't want to fight at all, he wants Steve to tell him what to do, what he asked was a genuine question, and all Steve's anger flows away, and he's left with a feeling of defeat.

"Steve?" Tony asks, a frown creasing his eyebrows. His arms are down, and he isn't even trying to cover himself.

It's late afternoon; the only source of light is that of the setting sun coming in from the window. It bathes the whole room in shades of orange, and Tony's naked body should look beautiful: he should be a healthy and warm and arousing sight. But he's standing alone, in the middle of the room, separated from everything else, the pieces of his armor scattered around his feet.

He looks miserable. Lonely.

"Cover yourself, Tony," he says quietly, trying to swallow around the sudden dryness of his throat. "You look…" naked, but that will sound stupid, because Tony is naked, "…cold," he finishes lamely.

Tony looks momentarily surprised at that, but he nods and soon enough, his skin disappears under the underarmor. The sunlight reflects on the golden sheath in blinding flashes.

"I…" he starts, but he doesn't know what he's going to say.

"Steve-"

And then the words are just there. "I'm sorry," he says.

Tony gapes at him and his eyes widen so much that in any other context his face would probably be the funniest thing Steve's seen in a very long while. As it is, though, it makes Steve want to apologize even more.

Tony seems to regain control of his facial muscles and frowns. "Steve, you don't have to-"

"But I do have to," he insists, shaking his head. "How long have I known you?" Tony blinks in confusion. "More than ten years, and I…" he trails off, looking down at his gloved hands.

More than ten years, and he realizes it only now. When they had a fight, when words were exchanged between the two of them, no matter whose fault it was, the one to swallow his pride and come forward first had usually been Tony. He still is, apparently.

That day at Avengers Mansion he said that he felt inadequate next to him, and Steve had dismissed him, but now…

The surge of anger should be directed at himself. He knows that, but he can't keep his mind from cursing Tony for the stubbornness that he should blame on both of them. The pot calling the kettle black. It's always been their problem, fighting and not listening to each other out of stubbornness. But as bad as it got, they never completely forgot each other, they never cut each other out with no hope of mending the wounds.

Except he has been the first to turn away even when all those years ago he'd assured Tony that Steve had his back. "It's true, isn't it?" he says, trying to talk around the bitter taste in his mouth. "What you said." Tony frowns and shakes his head, uncomprehending. "Everyone idolizes me and I take advantage of that, whether I realize it or not."

The face Tony makes is the strangest Steve has ever seen. Steve feels like he's going to cry, but Tony is the one that looks like he really might.

"Steve, don't do this, please," Tony says, in a voice so low that he barely hears him.

"But it's the truth, isn't it?" he repeats, only vaguely aware that his voice is getting louder with each word. "Isn't it, Tony?"

"You expect the best from us," Tony says after a moment. "That's not necessarily a bad thing."

"It's just that my demands aren't reasonable sometimes," Steve finishes for him. "I set the standard too high. We're superheroes, yes, but we're also human."

"Steve," Tony says, in a small voice. He's looking down at his feet. "Don't do this."

"Why shouldn't I?" he asks him, and now he's practically shouting. "Isn't it what you wanted to hear?"

By contrast, Tony is almost whispering. "No," he says, and despite the low voice, Steve hears him loud and clear. "No, I just wanted…"

The anger from before is back full force, but he isn't quite sure at whom or what it is aimed. At Tony for looking so lost and broken when just months before he was hunting them down, and killing Bill with a Thor clone. At himself for wondering if all the times that he stood his ground and defended his ideals were legitimate or just him acting out on stubbornness. At the world for taking away everything he had, for denying him the peace he'd deserved after years in the War, for robbing him of his victory.

"What?" he practically growls.

Despite that, Tony walks the distance that separates them. His hands rise, they're trembling, and they remain suspended, golden fingers inches away from actually touching the scale mail of his costume. Almost as if he was afraid of touching him.

And Tony still isn't looking at him.

"All I wanted was for you to understand. I just wanted you by my side, I missed you and I… I couldn't do it without you. I can't. I need you to steer me right, because you expect the best from us," he says, and then he raises his eyes to meet Steve's. "From me."

If not for the fact that Tony is staring straight at him now, his eyes clear and conscious, he would think Tony was talking to a dead man.

He draws in a sharp breath. "Tony," he starts to say, but between that sharp intake and the first syllable, his voice gets stolen by Tony's lips as they press up against his mouth.

Tony's hands are still hovering over his arms, not touching him yet. In fact, the only connection between the two of them is the point where their mouths meet. Tony's lips are dry and still, just a light pressure more than anything else, and even if his eyes are closed, this can't be called a kiss.

Maybe Tony has been talking to a dead man.

Steve grabs his shoulders and pushes lightly, taking a step back at the same time. "Tony, what-" he swallows. "What is this?"

He looks sideways at the door. How long have they been in here? Maybe it's time they joined the others, they have plans and strategies to implement. They have to think about Spider Woman – well, the Skrull impersonating Spider Woman – and Tony has said something about him and Rhodey.

He pinches the bridge of his nose. Who is the one procrastinating now? He almost snorts out loud, but Tony starts talking just then, and when Steve turns around he finds himself eye-to-eye with him. Tony is almost unbearably close, crowding him, so close Steve can see his eyelashes trembling with every breath.

"I got in bed with people we despised," he's saying, his eyes staring into Steve's. His voice is rough as if he were crying, but his eyes are dry and clear.

"Tony what-"

"I lied, I deceived, I compromised, I gave away everything I had, everything I was." Tony's voice trembles slightly as he closes the gap between them, pressing his lips against Steve's. "And I didn't care who– what I was going to be in the end," Tony's lips part from his and he ducks his head, kissing the leather of his uniform between his neck and the right shoulder, "because I was right, and I was saving lives."

Tony bends down to drop a kiss on the star at the center of his chest, and then lower on his stomach, Tony's hands barely brushing against his sides as he slowly falls to his knees. "Because for all the the things I had to do and the lies I had to tell, there was one thing I had left."

Tony seems to be following a specific pattern with his kisses, tracing a strange constellation over his body. More than kisses, however, they're a barely perceptible pressure followed by a soft sigh.

"This is the only thing I will never let them touch. This is the only thing I have left."

"Tony, I don't understand…" he trails off, swallowing. "Tony-"

"Not that it ever did me much good." Tony concludes, still kneeling on the ground, and his hands are reaching forward, his eyes fixed and feverish.

The moment between Steve's subconscious realizing what's about to happen and the actual understanding is confusing and breathless.

Then the moment passes and Steve is just breathless.

"Tony-" he starts, breaking off while it's still neutral, before it can become either a protest, or an encouragement. His hands follow the example set by his voice, and his fingers slip through Tony's hair, but he doesn't him push him away. "Tony, you're not in your right mind, I don't—"

"Please," Tony interrupts, looking up at him. "Let me do this," he says. "I need it. Just this once, I-"

He looks down at the dark, barely hinted curls that escape his grip, they stand out against the red of his leather gloves, and for a moment he wishes that it was longer, he's always preferred when Tony wore his hair longer, he liked the way it curled at the back of his neck.

Tony murmurs something he can't quite make out and then he leans forward, his fingers scraping across his belt and then closing around the buckle and tugging so forcefully that Steve stumbles a little. Steve says his name again, but it gets lost in a deep groan as Tony leans forward, his mouth pressing against Steve's crotch, through the leather of his pants.

"Just this once," Tony says, "I need it, let me take it."

He's been half-hard until now, but he grows harder at the sound of Tony's voice and the scraping of his fingers against the metal of his belt buckle. "Tony, I don't think-" he starts, but the lie in his words is called by his body, when he stumbles a couple of steps towards the bed.

Tony follows him on his knees, his hands still intent on his belt, his eyebrows set in a frown of concentration, as if what he's about to do warrants careful planning and strategy. And then Tony looks up at him, his eyes are wide and dark. He licks his lips.

Steve's knees buckle under him, and he sits down on the bed heavily, while simultaneously his hands grab Tony by his shoulders and tug him up. It takes a moment for them to find the correct angle, Tony still half-kneeling and half-sitting on his lap, and Steve trying to touch all of him while taking off his gloves at the same time, but their mouths finally clash together and, this time, it's a real kiss.

Tony's mouth opens above his, Steve following him as he shifts more comfortably in his lap, and Tony moans into him, and then is all tongues and Tony's supple flesh under his bare hands, the thin metal golden underarmor not enough to alter the perception of the defined muscles underneath.

Tony draws back a little, his teeth holding Steve's lower lip captive, and his hands travel down Steve's chest, his left stopping on the white star, while the other continues its journey downward. Steve's gripping Tony' thighs – god, how he loves those thighs – so hard that he's pretty sure he's going to leave bruises.
And while he doesn't want to hurt him, some part of him likes the thought, Tony walking around with Steve's marks all over him as a reminder, as a promise, that he has somewhere to go back to, someone who will protect him, no matter what.

"I'm sorry," he apologizes again, his words barely a whisper against Tony's mouth. "I've got your back. Always will. I should've-" remembered, he wants to add, but Tony whimpers and surges forward, kissing him with everything he's got, and then nimble fingers slip inside his pants and it's Steve's turn to groan loudly.

Tony squirms around in his lap, and he draws back from the kiss to look down at him. His eyes are dark, the blue almost gone, and his cheeks are flushed. Tony's hand closes around him and gives a few, slow strokes, making Steve's eyes almost flutter shut, but he keeps them open, staring into Tony's gaze.

"Steve," Tony whispers, dropping quick, close-mouthed kisses on his lips and then travelling down his jaw, his neck and Steve has to spread his legs further to give Tony enough room to—

Tony's wet, hot tongue licks a strip on the underside of his cock, from base to tip, and Steve's head snaps back with a long, moaning growl, his hands shooting up to grab the top of Tony's head.

He swears aloud, but his voice sounds raw. Tony doesn't seem to notice, though, he just follows the way Steve's hands are taking him, and his mouth closes around the tip with a low, almost happy, moan.

The sight is almost physically painful.

His eyes shift from the intoxicating sight of Tony's lips stretched around him and travel forward, beyond the bobbing motions of the dark head, to settle on Tony's shoulders. Steve doesn't notice at first, but his attention is soon diverted when he feels the golden underarmor shift and whisper away under the hand he's gripping Tony's shoulder with. Indeed, the golden sheen is slithering away like liquid metal, and he watches as more and more Tony is revealed by the second.

The gold is almost completely gone and suddenly he catches sight of Tony's toes. Tony's kneeling in front of him, his legs folded underneath him, so the only thing he can see is the tip of his toes, but he's never seen a more erotic sight. As Tony's body rocks slightly in time with the wet suctions around him, he catches glimpses of buttocks, the smooth expanse of his back, Tony's shoulders.

Steve suddenly notices he's gripping Tony's hair too tightly, his hips thrusting too roughly when Tony makes a strange sound at the back of his throat, almost like a whimper but choked like a sob, and it travels through Steve's cock and goes straight up his spine. He unclenches his fingers and makes a conscious effort to keep himself still; a second later Tony's hands settle on his hips, pushing them down.

For the first time in months, Steve is glad he doesn't hate Tony, that he never really did. It would have been easier while they were fighting each other, maybe, but if Tony were to do this when Steve hated him…

This is the only thing Tony's has left, he said. What exactly is this 'thing', he hasn't said explicitly, but it must be precious and fragile, if Tony hasn't let anyone touch it. Except Steve, of course.

He loosens his hold on Tony's hair and lets his thumb travel down Tony's cheek in a slow movement that isn't quite a caress. "What if I hated you," he asks quietly, his voice rough. "I could destroy you."

There would be nothing left of Tony.

Tony looks up at him, letting his cock slip out from his mouth. His cock, Tony's lips are red and slick with saliva and pre-come. It should look obscene. It doesn't.

It looks perfect, it looks right.

"You don't hate me," Tony says. "And I don't care, anyway. I don't care if you're doing this because you hate me or because you… don't."

"Tony—"

"You died, Steve. I don't care what's left of me, if anything at all, as long as there's all of you," Tony replies, and he makes to take him back inside his mouth, but Steve tugs gently at his hair and then he grabs him under the armpits and bodily lifts him up.

"Come here," he grunts, and Tony follows willingly, settling in his lap much like he was minutes earlier, his naked thighs spread over Steve's, his knees planted on the bed on both sides of Steve's waist.

Tony is hard too, the tip of his cock already glistening, but he doesn't seem to have noticed. At least until Steve closes a hand around both of them, his thumb sweeping over the heads, spreading their pre-come, mixing it.

Tony's fingers scratch at his shoulders frantically, and their open-mouthed kisses are getting particularly loud, and wet. Steve takes that as encouragement, and while he works harder and faster on both of them, his other hand roams over Tony's body.

He's lost some weight, but his muscles are still well-defined under his hot skin. Steve strokes and pinches and soothes and Tony buckles above him, panting and whining against his mouth. They've given up on the kissing, their movements too wild and sharp, their breaths too heavy to manage anything more than gasping into each other's mouths.

Tony suddenly gives out a broken sob and he shudders against him, his come making the friction of Steve's hand slicker and wetter, Tony's mouth sucking his tongue in.

They come apart, both their breaths heavy and panting. Someone says, "god, you…" but Steve can't really say who, maybe it's both of them. Then Tony's hand pushes his away and takes its place, squeezing around Steve and coaxing a sound out of him that in other circumstances would make him redden in shame. It's raw and wild, and primal.

His hands squeeze gently the back of Tony's neck and then they let go to map his back, smooth and endless. They're still kissing, when his hands slide down the small of his back, over the swell of his buttocks, when Tony pushes backwards and Steve's fingers slip between the cheeks and the tip of his index finger brushes against—

He could almost believe it was by chance, if not for the fact that Tony breaks the kiss to gasp against his mouth. "I want you to," he whispers against his lips, and Steve feels his words more than hears them. "It's fine."

Steve can only sit, frozen, as Tony whispers the words against his lips, as he pushes further back, and it can't really be comfortable, Steve is dry and Tony feels so tight even just around the very tip of his finger.
But Tony shudders, and his lips tremble in a low moan against his.

"God, Tony…"

He can't possibly— He has to know what this is doing to Steve.

He grabs Tony's hips and flips them over, landing on Tony maybe a little too suddenly, making him gasp, but he readily spreads his legs to make room for him and their bodies align perfectly. Tony lets go of him and lifts his arms, laying his hands palms up on the pillow above his head, and there's a look in his eyes—
Then it hits Steve and his own hands scramble up to close around his wrists, pinning him down, and Tony isn't a small man by anyone's standard, but his wrists feel fragile and so easily breakable in his grip.

He just has to turn his face sideways, and Tony seems to have had the same idea and they're kissing again, leisurely and slowly, in total contrast with the sharp snaps of Steve's hips as he brings himself off against Tony's sweaty and hot skin.

After, Steve lets go of Tony's wrists and he falls back to lie down next to him. Tony gives him a moment to adjust and then he turns into him, lying on his side, his hand going to cover the star once again.

They're sticky with semen and sweat, they should probably get cleaned, and there are people waiting for them downstairs, there's a world on the brink of an invasion waiting outside. But Steve turns his head to meet Tony's eyes and for a moment he wishes they could exist out of time, that they could have this without worrying about the consequences, without giving it a name or an explanation, without ruining it with words.

Tony's eyes are bright and still dark, but they have lost the haunted look that Steve has begun to associate with them. They look alive for the first time in months. Tony – completely naked, sweaty and exhausted, sated, laid out like this, next to him, in the afternoon sun – looks alive for the first time in months.

Steve lays a hand on his slightly stubbled cheek and brushes his thumb against his lower lip. His mouth is a sight to behold, swollen after all the kissing and still shining with saliva, and Steve can't help but stare. He wonders if he still could taste himself on those lips.

Tony draws in a sharp breath and Steve knows he has to stop this before it starts again, when they have no time. "We never seem to get to the talk part of our talking," he says, raising his eyes to meet Tony's.

Tony gives a small smile and his hand goes to cover Steve's. "The last two times we tried, it ended first with a fight, and then with me falling asleep," he says. "I'm counting this as an improvement."

Steve chuckles despite himself. "You would."

 

 

13 | Speaking strictly for me, we both could've died then and there.

 

 

For the first time in… he didn't know how long – years maybe? – Tony felt calm.

He closed his eyes and lay his head on Steve's shoulder, their fingers still threaded together and resting on his cheek. He sighed contentedly against Steve's neck, his lips barely touching the warm skin; he could feel him breathe.

Steve drew his hand away and turned on his side to face him. "Tony," he said, quietly. "We have no time."
No, they didn't. But Tony couldn't help a small sound of protest when Steve sat up, the warmth of his body leaving him, and the shoulder that served as pillow disappearing and causing his head to fall down on the mattress.

He craned his head sideways to look up at him. From this angle Steve looked huger than ever, his entire presence looming over him, the window at his back casting a bleeding halo around him. Steve was still in his uniform, and from his position Tony could barely see the outline of a naked hipbone, the hint of pubic hair.

I was there, he thought. I was there and Steve was inside me.

Everything had happened as if in a dream, it had felt like he had been watching himself from outside his body, his hands reaching for Steve. And Steve's quick acceptance, his response, his warmth, his kisses, his cock— there was no way this could be real. In the real world Steve didn't want him, in the real world Steve loved Sharon Carter, in the real world Steve didn't get off at the thought of fucking Tony Stark.

Except the man looking down at him with a confused frown on his face was undoubtedly Steve Rogers.
Tony scratched idly at the drying come on his belly. Steve followed his hand and Tony swore he could see his cheeks reddening. Or maybe it was only the setting sun. The sharp intake of breath hadn't been his imagination, though.

He sat up, making a face. "Gross," he muttered. "We need a shower."

"Tony—"

Tony's hand sneaked in Steve's lap and his fingers closed around him, causing another gasp and Steve's hand to close around his wrist. It wasn't a particularly decisive grip, though, and Tony took it as a sign to continue. He gave an experimental stroke, and he could feel Steve already growing harder, and Steve hissed, but the fingers on his wrist tightened.

"Tony…" he said, warningly, glaring at him.

"Super stamina has got to be the best thing ever," he replied with a smirk.

He gave another stroke, and he was leaning forward to lick the frown away from Steve's mouth, when the door was flung open.

"Cap, have you killed him ye—eeeep!"

Tony had only the vague impression of Peter's wide, startled eyes before the door slammed closed again.

"Fuck," he cursed, folding onto himself. "Fuck, fuck, fuck." Next to him, Steve was apparently too frozen for words. "That's why you lock doors, Steve."

Steve turned towards him with a scowl. "So it's my fault, now?" he said. "I only wanted to talk, you were the one who ambushed me."

Tony blinked. "I amb—" he rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right. That's me, ambushing people with blow jobs."

"Well, you did," Steve said, and his miffed expression coupled with the still half-hard cock peeking out of his open pants was quite possibly one of the weirdest things Tony had ever seen.

"I didn't hear you complain," he replied, standing up. "Where do you keep your towels?" he asked then, opening the wardrobe and rummaging around. Not that there was much inside. You couldn't take much with you, when you lived your life on the run.

"Maybe I should go and talk to him," Steve said, but his tone of voice made it clear that he desperately wanted to be talked out of it.

Tony obliged him. "Yeah, right," he snorted. "Go after him while you still smell of come and your dick is hanging out of your pants."

Steve was silent for so long that Tony wondered if he hadn't exaggerated. He pretended to continue with his perusal of the wardrobe, while he listened carefully for any clues about Steve's reaction. There was a rustling of clothes, the sound of a zipper and then steps.

Two seconds later he could feel Steve's imposing presence, and his warmth even through the clothes, mere inches from his naked back. An arm brushed against his right shoulder and went up to the top shelf.
Steve's hand came away with two fluffy, white towels, pressing them against his chest. Tony grabbed them before Steve let go, turning around at the same time.

Steve was right there. And god, he was huge.

Tony swallowed, the sound loud in the otherwise silent room. Steve was looking down at him, his face almost bewildered, and then his hands sneaked up, and his fingers laced at the back of Tony's neck.

"Steve, we—" he started, but he honestly couldn't think of a way to finish it. He didn't even know if it was meant to be a protest.

The towels fell to the ground when he let go of them to grab Steve's waist, tugging him closer, and then they were kissing again. Steve mumbled something against his lips and then his hands settled on Tony's hips and he took a step closer, and if they went on like this much further, Tony was going to have marks from the scale mail on his chest.

"Tony," Steve gasped, breaking a kiss and leaning his forehead against Tony's. "What are- this is—"

Before he could go on, Tony lifted his arms and threaded his fingers as best as he could in the short military cut of Steve's hair, guiding his head down so they were kissing again. Steve tried to take a step back, but Tony raised his right leg and hooked it around the back of Steve's thigh to prevent him from going too far.

He had miscalculated, though, as distracted as he was by the kissing, and he stumbled backwards. He hit the mostly empty shelves and his gasp of pain was swallowed by Steve's mouth, his big hands steadying him.

The hands stroked down, over his ass, and then Steve's hands squeezed and lifted him up. Tony scrambled to hook his left leg around his waist, locking his ankles together at the small of Steve's back. Steve grunted, adjusting his hold, and then he resumed the kissing, pressing Tony backwards against the rows of shelves in wardrobe. They dug painfully into his shoulder blades and spine, but it was negligible, if it meant he got Steve like this.

Oh god, if Steve could bear his weight in this position, they could fuck like this. They could—

"Steve," he choked, trying to put some distance between their mouths. But he was squeezed between shelves of wood and a wall of muscle and he couldn't move an inch. "Steve, stop—we…" he trailed off into a moan, as his lower lip was gently bitten and then Steve's tongue was invading his mouth again.

No.

He planted his hands on Steve's shoulders and pushed. Steve let go of him and Tony barely had the time to put first one leg, then the other, down before he lost his balance and made a fool out of himself. More of a fool.

Steve was staring at him with a confused frown on his face. Tony swallowed. "Shower," he explained, his voice coming out rough. "Then Skrulls."

Steve nodded, but when he licked his lips – red from kissing, and still wet – Tony was tempted for a second to send everything to hell. Let the world burn if he could have some more of Steve looking at him like that.

He cleared his throat and bent down to retrieve the towels.

"I…" Steve started, looking away. "There's a small bathroom attached to this room. It's not much, but it's got a shower."

Tony nodded, absently. "Want to go first?"

"We should go together," Steve said, his hand hovering a few inches short of touching Tony at the small of his back. He seemed to make up his mind after a moment, and the fingers pressed against his skin, gently pushing him in the direction of the bathroom. "It'll save time, and hot water."

"Doesn't Strange have a spell for hot water?" Tony asked, deciding not to point out the fact that if they took their shower together in the condition they were in now, possibly years would go by before they got out of it.

"I didn't think to ask."

Tony got into the shower first, adjusting the temperature as he liked, while Steve undressed in the small bathroom. He hadn't been lying earlier when he'd said that it wasn't much. With the two of them inside it felt crowded, claustrophobic. And the shower wasn't that much bigger, they would have to squeeze in to fit.

This wasn't a good idea.

He amended that thought when the light blue shower curtain was pushed aside and Steve entered, pressing against his back to fit in the narrow space. He murmured appreciatively and leant back. Steve was half-hard, behind him. This had been a great idea.

"How can you stand this?" Steve muttered, shoving him aside to turn the faucets. "It's scalding."

Tony was about to protest that it was too cold now, and that Steve's body temperature was freakishly high because of the Super Soldier Serum, but the words died on his lips when Steve positioned him right under the spray and started scrubbing at him, his strokes made slick by the liquid soap.

They were just curt, economic gestures, only aimed to getting him clean, there was no subtext, no lingering touches. But it was Steve's hands on his body, and for Tony it was enough. Years of – presumed, apparently – unrequited attraction, of bottled feelings had reached the climax, and after Steve's death, after everything that had gone wrong, he couldn't stand quietly and do nothing.

He pushed against Steve's chest with all of his strength. Even Extremis-enhanced, he was no match for Steve's greater strength and combat experience, but he must have caught him off guard, because he only made a surprised sound as Tony pressed him against the tiled wall.

Tony's triumph didn't last long, though. Maybe Steve had read the intention in his eyes, because he took hold of Tony's arms, fast as lighting, and he spun them around. Tony's feet slipped on the wet floor, his arms shooting forward to grab at something, anything, that could hold him up.

Anything turned out to be the shower curtain.

"No, Tony! Wa—" Steve exclaimed, his hands coming up to steady him.

Plastic ripped and Tony was falling, Steve's eyes widened and he scrambled to keep them upright. Tony hit the floor painfully hard, ass-first, and Steve followed suit, falling on top of him, squeezing the breath out of him and making him knock his head on the ground in the process.

There was a long moment when the sound of the water spraying down on them was the only thing that could be heard.

Then Steve squirmed up his body, causing all sorts of interesting reactions in the interested areas. Never mind his sore ass and his potential concussion, Tony would have to be dead not to be aroused by Steve Rogers squirming on top of him. Steve rose on his hands and knees above him, blocking the spray from hitting Tony squarely in the face. He peered down at him, the plastic curtain had fallen half off and half on him, covering his head and the top of his shoulders like a shroud. He looked ridiculous.

Tony giggled.

"Are you all right?" Steve asked, frowning.

He shook his head and tried to sit up, but immediately decided against it. "I think I just bruised my coccyx," he replied with a groan.

"That's nothing," Steve said with a shrug. "You should see my ego."

Tony chuckled. "Where are your legendary reflexes now, Captain America?" He pushed at him and Steve sat back on his haunches, tossing the shower curtain aside and giving Tony the space to sit up. Water was spilling everywhere.

Hopefully Strange had a spell for that.

"We really should have sex," Tony said, "before we either get concussed or worse trying not to have sex."

Steve rolled his eyes. It was strange how he could just crouch there, naked and wet and half-hard totally at ease, as if he didn't realize the effect he had on people. On Tony.

Thinking about other situations where Steve was naked and wet and around with other people that were not Tony stirred a dark kind of anger within him. Not that he had any right to those feelings. They were in the middle of a hostile invasion, not to count the fact that they were officially still on opposite sides of a war. And what had just happened in Steve's bedroom…

Actually, he wasn't quite sure what had just happened.

"We just had a shower, Tony," Steve said with a long suffering sigh. "We're not getting dirty again."

"Okay, first of all?" Tony started, "we only got as far as trying to take a shower."

"And whose fault is that?"

Tony ignored him. "So far the only thing we've managed to wash is the floor," he said, leaning back on his elbows and spreading his legs. Tony was very, very good in two things, and engineering was far from his mind at the moment.

In a swift motion, Steve grabbed him under his armpits and tugged him upwards. Tony's feet slipped once again on the floor, but this time Steve seemed to have anticipated the move and he steadied him, at the same pressing him against the wall with an arm across Tony's chest, his forearm pushing against Tony's throat.

The pressure wasn't much by all means, just enough to make itself known, to tease with the possibility of cutting off all of his air. It was awkward, though, and Tony had to arch his back and lift his chin to get into a more comfortable position.

He had gasped at Steve's sudden movement, but now he was almost panting, Steve's eyes were looking at him, and they were purposeful and dark with arousal.

"Steve-" he tried but his voice broke before he could go on, as Steve's other hand went between his legs, his palm pressing lightly into him. He dissolved into a long moan.

"You like this," Steve said, his tone halfway between bewilderment and accusation. "You like it when I-"

Before he could finish, Tony's hands shot forward, grabbing Steve at the back of his head and tugging him down to kiss him. It was uncomfortable with Steve's arm in the way, but he managed anyway. He moaned openly as Steve started stroking his erection, fingers closing tightly and then changing position, bringing the two of them closer, Steve's own cock pressing against his.

The water cascading down on them started turning cold and Tony shivered as goose bumps rose on his skin. He didn't care, though, Steve had quickened the rhythm of his strokes and he was panting in time with them, his hand wide enough to close around the two of them.

"Fuck, Steve," he swallowed another moan, but the second one escaped his lips and turned into a long wail when Steve's thumb brushed against the head of his cock.

"How- How long, Tony?" Steve grunted, removing his forearm from Tony's throat and planting it by his head to support his weight. Both their weights at this point, Tony's knees were shaking. "We could have-"

"Shut up," Tony growled, but his teeth were chattering from the cold and it came out small and pathetic. "Don't-"

They couldn't talk about that. Talking would lead to admissions, and if for Steve this meant the same thing it meant for Tony, or even close to it, then all this time – years maybe – had been wasted. What if they'd been together like this at the moment of the Registration? Would things have gone better or worse?

They couldn't do this, Tony couldn't do this.

"Shut up," he repeated, his voice raw and broken. "Shut up. Shut up."

His words were lost as Steve kissed him again, as he bit his lower lip. Then his mouth left, but soon enough Tony could feel kisses and tiny bites travelling down, on his neck, his left collarbone, his nipples, soon enough the trajectory became pretty clear.

"Oh god," he tried to swallow. "Oh god oh god oh go-nnngh," he trailed off into a long keening moan when
Steve's mouth closed around his cock and oh god Steve was sucking him off.

The water was freezing by now, but he didn't care, not when he was inside Steve's hot, burning mouth. Fingers were closed around his hips, keeping them still, pressing them down, and Steve let him slip from his mouth and gave a few experimental licks.

Tony came embarrassingly fast, but it wasn't like he was coherent enough to even notice. He was panting, and then Steve was suddenly standing again and Tony couldn't tell where his breath ended and where Steve's started.

Steve was murmuring something over and over again, it could have been curses, or prayers, or Tony's name, it could have been anything, but the fast, violent movements of his hand and forearm against Tony's stomach were unmistakable.

Still dazed, Tony leant forward and licked along Steve's lips. "You could do anything," he told him softly, "and I would love it. You could hold me down and fuck me until I can't walk anymore. Or I could suck you off, I would love to suck you again." Steve groaned aloud and then turned his head against Tony's neck, making him gasp when his teeth bit him. "I would- Steve, you could- I'd let you do anything, anything, as long as it's-"

"Tony-" Steve almost shouted, and there was a sharp pain as he bit down halfway between Tony's shoulder and his neck. He was coming, and Tony looked down entranced, as he came all over his stomach, the running water soon washing everything away.

Tony was probably going to die of hypothermia if he spent another minute under the freezing cold water, but Steve's weight against him was solid and warm enough. He lathered up his hands and started to run them all over Steve's body.

He could touch him now, after who knows how many years spent dreaming about it, he could touch. He was going to take advantage of this before either of them could realize what they were doing, before they could decide it was a Very Bad Idea, before the reality of the world could tear him away from Tony.

For now, under his hands, Steve was his and only his.

Steve raised his head from where it was resting against the crook of Tony's neck. One of his hands came up to stroke wet hair away from Tony's forehead. "I liked it when it was longer," Steve said, and his eyes had the strangest light in them. They looked nostalgic and resigned at the same time. "You should grow it out again."

Tony pushed at Steve's shoulders until he was directly under the spray. This time, Steve's hands joined his to wash away the soap. He didn't seem to feel the cold, though.

"Tony, we-" Steve started, then his eyes widened. "Tony, your lips are blue," he said sharply, his hands shooting up to turn off the faucets. When the sound of the water stopped, another one filled the silence. "And your teeth are chattering. Why didn't you-" but he trailed off, shaking his head.

Pretty soon, Tony was engulfed in a wide towel, Steve's hands rubbing his arms in slow circles.

Somehow they ended up standing in the middle of the tiny bathroom, trying to dry each other up. It wasn't an easy task by any means, and they kept swatting away the other's hands in turn. Tony's chest hurt, right where his heart was.

It felt as if a bubble had bloomed in there and suddenly needed space to expand.

Steve's soft laughter rang in his ears and he surprised himself by replying with his own.

Where did all this light-heartedness, all this innocence come from?

 

 

14 | And you could have it all, my empire of dirt.

 

 

Steve lets his hands drop. Tony's hair is still damp, but it won't get much drier than this unless they find a hairdryer. It's sticking at odd angles and, despite the black circles under his eyes and the tired lines drawn on his face, it makes Tony look much younger.

"Tony," he starts, "how long have you-"

Tony widens his eyes. "No," he says, so firmly that Steve actually cuts himself off. "We can't- That's not going to take us anywhere we want to go."

The golden underarmor is spreading on Tony's skin and Steve knows that if he doesn't say something now they'll never really talk about anything. They need to talk, the lack of communication is what got them in this mess in the first place.

He tosses his towel on the closed toilet seat, grabbing his pants and tugging them on. Tony is looking at him and with his eyes narrowed like that, he looks very much like a satisfied cat.

Steve frowns. "What?" he asks, hastily doing up the zipper.

This can't turn into another frenzied sex session. He still doesn't know quite exactly how it became one – well, two – in the first place, everything is hazy in his mind. The only clear feeling he remembers is the one that crossed his mind as he was staring down at Tony kneeling in front of him. It was a rush of wanting like nothing he's ever felt in his life.

There's always been some kind of latent attraction between the two of them, a buzz underlying the fondness; the almost electric charge of possibility whenever they fought, side by side or against each other.
It's never been so intense, though, so blinding.

"Nothing," Tony shakes his head. "I'm just trying to get over the fact that you go commando under the costume."

He feels his face heat. It's stupid, it's never been a problem before. "Force of habit," he replies, shrugging.
"We were down to the bare essentials in the War. And the costume is-"

"-very tight, I know," Tony says, nodding. The look on his face makes Steve inhale sharply. "I have eyes."

He takes a deep breath. "If you don't want to talk about this," he says, "what should we talk about?"

"Nothing?"

"Tony," he frowns. "We have to build on trust, we can't just leave everything where it is." It's going to fester and poison both of them, if they let this – whatever this is – grow between the two of them. "I apologized," he says, trying not to sound puerile and accusing. "I think now it's your turn to… say something. Anything at all."

Tony looks away, he's still trembling slightly from the cold. It's strange how they were so close, so hot just moments before, and now they have grown distances apart, metaphorically if not physically.

"This is no pillow talk topic, Steve," he says, scratching the back of his head.

"I don't see any pillows around here."

There's a long moment of silence. "We have to go," Tony says, at last. "Everyone must be wondering where the hell we went, unless Peter already told them."

"He wouldn't," Steve says, his hand closing around Tony's jaw and turning his head to face him. There's a sharp intake of breath and Steve would have missed it if he hadn't been looking for it. The spike of arousal is unexpected, though, and in his mind Tony is whispering 'you could hold me down and fuck me until I can't walk anymore' right into his ear, his voice raw and open like a fresh wound. He swallows. He needs to focus. "And if they waited until now, waiting a little longer won't kill them. You're not getting out of this room until we've talked."

Tony stares at him for a long moment, his eyes unreadable. There used to be a time when he couldn't hide anything from Steve. Well, almost anything.

He takes a step back, then, brushing Steve's hand away.

"Tony-"

"I take it you didn't mean 'this room' as in, this room," he says, encompassing the bathroom with a glance.

Steve nods. He puts on his shirt and after a moment he follows him into the bedroom.

Tony is sitting on the bed, arms on his knees, staring down at the clasped hands, patiently waiting for him. He observes silently as Steve sits down next to him, bends down to retrieve his socks and boots. Abruptly Tony inhales sharply and Steve feels him go tense against his side.

He tears his eyes away from his feet and turns to give Tony a searching look. "What is it?" he asks.

Tony's eyes are fixed on Steve's feet. "Your sock has a hole in it," he replies evenly.

Steve frowns down and indeed his left sock has a small hole right above the big toe. "Oh, yeah," he mutters, then he shrugs. "It's nothing much," he says finally, tugging on his boots.

"You have holes in your socks," Tony repeats.

"It happens," Steve says rolling his eyes. "Even if I'm Captain America."

Tony shakes his head and bows his head down, rubbing his temples. "I hate this," he says under his breath.

Steve gives a bemused chuckle. "...I didn't know you felt this strongly about my socks."
Tony waves a hand at him, dismissively. "Forget the stupid socks," he says, annoyed. "You have holes in them."

While they are talking, it's nothing like the conversation Steve had in mind when he's first suggested it. His clothes weren't supposed to be a topic, for one. "You're the one who keeps bringing up my socks!"

Tony takes a deep breath. "I hate that you have to hide and live like this," he says. "What if something happens? What if you need to go to the hospital? What if-"

Steve carefully doesn't point out that they've been 'living like this' for quite a few months now, and Tony never seemed to think much of it before. Except they're sitting side by side now, they've had sex when for the rest of the world they're still supposed to be enemies.
"Hey, it's just socks," Steve says, his hand hesitating for a second before closing above Tony's knee and giving a light squeeze. "If there's one thing the Army's taught me, it's how to darn my own socks."

Tony snorts at that. "As far as recruiting slogans go, 'be all that you can be' worked much better," he says.

There's a moment of silence, Steve staring at Tony and Tony staring straight ahead, his eyes seeming to focus on something that Steve cannot see.

"I knew I was going to be the bad guy, but it didn't matter," Tony says, abruptly. His voice is low, but steady. It almost sounds like a confession. "It really doesn't. By being the bad guy, I could keep you safe. And you would have been, Steve. All of you."

Tony turns to look up at him and Steve has no words to describe his expression. After a long moment, though, it's clear that he's waiting for him to say something. "We would have been chained down, and we would have hated you for that," he says, going with the truth. "I would have hated you."

Tony shakes his head with a small smile. Steve hates that smile, but it seems to always have been an integral part of Tony and it appears only when the deprecation is aimed at himself. As if no one else deserves the hatred Tony feels for himself. "It wouldn't have mattered," Tony replies. "Just a small sacrifice.
You would have been the good guys. Innocent and pure. And perfect."

God, they really should have done this before. Steve should have known, he should have thought, he should have realized that Tony was only being his own particular brand of stupid on this issue. The kind of stupid brilliant people turn when they think they can resolve every problem just by sheer force of their intellect, refusing to ask for help.

The bed dips as he sits down, and Tony leans sideways to compensate for it. Steve's hand goes up to his right shoulder, lying against the back of his neck, his thumb stroking slow circles on his throat. The tension between them has been mounting for months but is now completely gone, only to be replaced by this feeling Steve can't quite place. It's part exasperation and part acceptance. Mostly, though, he can't help but feel kind of stupid. Out of the blue sex can't be the answer to resolve their issues, but it sure beats fighting and trying to kill each other.

It's a small step, a connection, and they've always been better at connecting on a physical and unspoken level than with words.

"Innocence born of ignorance isn't pure," Steve tells him. "And it most definitely isn't perfect, Tony. Why must you-" he cuts himself off, trying to control his tone. He doesn't want to sound too angry. He doesn't quite succeed, though. "'Just a small sacrifice'," he echoes Tony's words with a snort. "What I feel for you, our friendship, did it really mean this little to you?"

Tony's eyes are still fixed on his hands. "No," he whispers.

"Do you think it meant so little to me, then?"

Tony seems startled by his question, if his eyes as he looks up at him are anything to go by. "I- I don't know…" he admits after a moment, and the fact that he's telling the truth makes Steve let go of his anger all at once.

"I was angry, Tony," he admits. Tony's neck tenses under his hand and he realizes that his grip has been steadily getting tighter. He makes an effort to relax, before continuing. "I was so angry, there were times I seriously considered the possibility of killing you. But there also was something greater than anger, and more hurtful."

Tony nods, thoughtfully. "I… disappointed you."

"We were partners, and you betrayed me," Steve says, and that's a hurt he still hasn't quite gotten over yet. "You betrayed us."

Tony stares at him. "And you betrayed me," he says after a moment.

Steve inhales sharply and narrows his eyes at him. Tony goes on though. "And you disappointed me," he says. "When you thought that our freedom was more important than the safety of the people we protect. When you assumed that I hadn't done everything in my power to prevent this from happening. When you assumed that I climbed into bed with people I hated because I was nothing more than hungry for power."
Steve can't really say anything to that, because in a way it's true, but admitting such things yourself is different from someone else shoving you face-first into them.

"Then you left me alone," says Tony, "and all I had left was your hatred, your disappointment and a letter that came too late."

What can Steve say to that? He's already apologized, but he can't apologize for things that happened in another lifetime. He can try, though. "I should have listened to you, when you came to me those times," he says. It bears repeating.

Tony nods absently, but it doesn't look like he's actually listening to him. Tony's always had a penchant for getting lost in his own thoughts, and since the acquisition of Extremis, the far-away look he now has on his face has been more or less a permanent fixture. Steve has no words to express how much he hates it; Tony's mind is a scary place more often than not. Especially for Tony.

He forces Tony to look back at him, and only when his dark blue eyes are fixed on him and present does he speak. "Stop taking all the blame, Tony," he says firmly. "It's partly mine, too."

You'd figure a brilliant man like Tony would need to hear things just once to understand them.

"No, I-"

Thankfully for Tony, though, Steve is relentless. "We're both very stubborn," he continues. "I should have listened to you. We should have listened to each other." Now that he knows, it doesn't matter how many times he has to repeat it, he'll never get tired.

"It's not that," Tony says, shaking his head. "I know for a fact that if I had said the right things at the right time, everything would have ended well. Bill wouldn't be dead. We could have worked on the Registration."

"You can't know that, Tony," he tells him, gently. It doesn't matter that he's blamed Tony for that, too.
"Nobody can."

"Yes, I can," Tony says, stressing the word in such a way that Steve wonders for a moment if it is indeed possible. He dismisses it a second later, though. No one does guilt trips quite like Tony Stark. It's Tony's firm belief that he can control everything around him that got them here in the first place.

"Do you know what it's like, knowing that you could have prevented hell but didn't because you were a little too fucking proud!?" Tony's voice cracks at the end and the words come out more like a sob. His eyes are dry, though. "Because I do," he adds a moment later, in a whisper.

The day he will understand the logic behind Tony's reasoning and his futuristic visions will be one for the books indeed. He combs his fingers through Tony's damp hair, making it stand in ridiculous ways – Tony's hair tends to do that, especially when it's this short, and it's never failed to amuse Steve. Disguising a gesture of comfort as an excuse to touch Tony feels weird. It also speaks volumes about how screwed up is their current situation.

He's allowed touch him, because they've just had sex, but he doesn't know if his attempts at comfort will be accepted or not.

"You're doing everything you can now, Tony," he says quietly, after a moment.

Tony snorts. "It's all going to hell in a whole different way now," he says with a sneer. "What the hell am I doing Steve? What did I expect? I've always said you shouldn't screw with the time continuum, and yet here I am!"

"Look at me," he commands, and when Tony doesn't immediately obey, he shakes his shoulders. "Look. At. Me," he repeats slowly and even more firmly.

Tony turns to him instantly, his eyes wide and startled. Good. "I'm alive, am I not?" he says, slowly. "And Reed's family is safe and we knew about the Skrulls before they were able to get their plans ready. I'm counting those as good things," he pauses and after a moment Tony nods. "And it's all thanks to you, Tony."

"But the Registration-"

"Yes, maybe we would have been able to find a solution together," he admits, "but the Red Skull trying to assassinate me doesn't have anything to do with the Registration Act. The Skrulls have nothing to do with Registration, either. They only took advantage of the situation." Tony blinks and adverts his eyes. Steve pushes on, "and you saved us, Tony. You saved me."

Tony closes his eyes, he swallows audibly and he lets out a shuddering breath. Steve can tell he still isn't convinced, though. At least he's not actively trying to contradict him anymore. "Maybe you could have stopped the fight, Tony," he says. "But I could have prevented it from ever happening. And back at the Mansion… What you said to me- I- Some of the things you said were right."

And even if he wishes they weren't, he'll never get tired of repeating that, either. He needs Tony to understand that he wants them to work together, now that he knows what they're risking.

Tony sighs. "Right and wrong are subjective terms, Steve," he says. "They're relative to the ideals behind them. So you see, in a way, we were both right," he concludes with a small, bitter smile.

Steve frowns. "Which is just another way of saying we were both wrong."

"That's exactly my point," Tony replies, his smile widening into a grin that looks more like a grimace.

Steve bends to pick his gloves from the floor. He puts them on, closes and opens his fingers. The creaking of the leather is perfectly audible in the silence.

Steve lets his hands fall. "So," he starts, turning towards Tony, "what do we do now?"

"We choose the way with less bloodshed."

Steve presses his lips together. "We compromise," he can't quite keep the displeasure out of his tone.

Tony shakes his head, though. "My way didn't work out. And neither did yours." he says, "I say we try it our way this time."

Steve blinks and a chuckle bubbles up from his throat. "Well, then," he says, smiling, "what does 'our way' entail?"

Tony's eyes shine with mirth as he mirrors Steve's smile. "First of all you put on the fancy suit I gave you," he says, "and then you and Rhodey will go and look for the people the Skrulls are keeping captive on a ship."

Tony stands up, keeping his arms stretched in the air, at a distance from his body. The pieces of his armor fly and assemble on his body. The helmet is the last thing and, Steve is pleased to see, it doesn't go to cover his head, but Tony simply takes it in his hands and tucks it in the crook of his arm. He retrieves the Skrull detector with the other.

Steve stands up as well, his hands going to pick up the shield that's leaning against the bed. "And then?" he asks.

"Then we kick some Skrull ass," Tony says. "And we go from there."

Steve straps the shield to his back. "Sounds like a good plan," he comments.

"I thought so, thanks," Tony replies. "Shall we go? The others must think we've killed each other by now." Tony carefully avoids mentioning Peter.

They get to the door at the same time, their shoulders bumping against each other, and when they turn they're barely inches apart. Tony takes a sharp breath and his gaze goes down to rest on Steve's lips and suddenly it seems as though there's not enough air in the room.

It feels strange at first, with the armor Tony is taller than him, then it's just quick breathing, the sound of lips on other lips, and the scrape of Tony's goatee against his skin.

"God," he manages to gasp. He drops a kiss on Tony's closed lips, on the tip of his nose, his eyelids. "We have the worst timing in the world."

Tony closes his eyes and leans his forehead against Steve's. "You can say that again," he snorts, then he tugs Steve into a tight embrace, burying his face into his neck. It's awkward, it's like trying to hug a robot, but Steve does his best to return the embrace. More than hear Tony's following words, he feels them tremble against his skin. "Shit, Steve, what the hell are we doing?" he asks. "What the hell are we doing?"

Steve squeezes his eyes shut and doesn't lie. "I don't know," he says. "I don't know."

When they join the others no one says anything. Peter, though, is resolutely not looking at them.

"Okay," Tony says, and Steve notices he's standing a little straighter, his head held a little higher. "I'll just take the Queen off your hands and I'll be on my way."

There's a moment of silence during which no one mentions the rather large amount of time they seem to have spent in Steve's room 'talking', then Strange steps forwards with a nod. "She's under a spell," he says, motioning for Tony to follow him.

Steve almost misses the muttered 'of course she is', as Tony passes by. Steve manages not to smile at that, but then he raises his eyes and sees that Peter is staring at them. Suddenly he doesn't feel like smiling at all.

"Spider-Man," he says, "a word if you please."

Peter looks around and then points at himself much like a schoolboy called to give a speech for which he's not prepared in front of the class. "Me?" he squeaks.

"You see any other Spider-Men in the room?" Luke asks with a snort.

Steve gets out of the living room and goes to wait for him in the hall. He leans against the staircase and watches carefully as Peter follows him at some distance. He doesn't need to see Peter's face, when his whole body is sending such obvious signals of unease.

Now that they're face-to-face – or face-to-mask as it is – Steve doesn't know how to start.
Obviously he can't deny what Peter's seen, as compromising positions go, the one he's caught them in was quite… compromising, after all. Besides, Steve doesn't want to deny it, not to his friends, and while Tony has expressed no opinion on the matter, he didn't seem to mind much.

The burden of the first word is taken from him as Peter starts talking, his trademark babbling at full force. "I didn't tell them if that's what you're wondering," he starts. "You know, it actually makes sense in a twisted sort of way. Not that I've spent much time thinking about the two of you—or that I think we wouldn't be in this mess if you had—because I don't think that! I'm definitely not thinking about that. Although, all that aggression between you guys could have been—I really don't want to think about that and I probably should learn how to knock."

Steve blinks at him, dazed and once again slightly amazed that he's managed to say all that in just one breath. So he decides to go with the obvious. "Yeah," he nods, "you should definitely learn how to knock."

There's a moment of contemplative silence, then Peter starts again. "Cap, I… This probably won't count much since, you know, it's coming from me," he says, waving his hands around, "and I'm not the most serious and reliable person on the planet, but- what the hell are you guys thinking?"

Steve rubs his face with one gloved hand and he gives a deep sigh. "We both did things that were wrong," he says. "We endangered innocent citizens with our fight. I lead you into battle against our fellow super heroes, against our friends, even though I wasn't clear-headed. I chose fighting- I chose war over peaceful talking."

He swallows to prevent other words to escape his lips. This is not the time for a confession, Peter doesn't deserve it.

"Well, they started it," Peter says, but he sounds unconvinced.

"But I could have been the one to end it," he replies. "And Tony- Tony never started the fight. He's a business man first of all, he always wanted to talk first, to find an agreement."

"Look, you don't have to-"

"I never listened, for all the times he was willing to talk. What does that make of me?" he asks, his words harsh. Peter remains silent, but it's not like Steve is waiting for an answer, the words just tumble out of his mouth like an avalanche. "I know Tony. I knew him then, even though I didn't think I did," he says, his fists clenching at his sides. "The most terrifying thing I know of Tony is that he would do anything, sacrifice everything, to keep his friends safe. Even sell his soul, even take away our freedom. I should have known then, and yet I refused to meet him halfway so that we could discuss it like adults. And he came back to me every time. Who knows what would have happened if I had given him five minutes to explain himself?"

"So you're saying—" Peter trails off, and when he picks up again his voice is odd, almost wounded. "After all the stupid shit he did, all he has to do is roll over for you and you forgive him?" he asks, making Steve recoil in surprise at the anger, the spite, in the words. "Did you forget too? Thor? The Negative Zone? Goliath?" Peter shakes his head, and then things become much clearer, "I was standing right there next to him for most of that stuff, and I didn't even notice."

"You didn't notice because he didn't want you to, Peter," he tells him, gently. And it's true, Steve is pretty sure that the only reason Tony wanted to keep Peter by his side was to protect him. Of course, like the many good intentions Tony's had since the SHRA became effective, this one blew up in his face too. "And Tony is very good at keeping certain things hidden."

Like his alcoholism, or all the times he went into battle with crippling injuries under his armor, or even just the fact that once upon a time he needed to charge his heart periodically to survive.

"I'm not saying he's totally innocent," he goes on, gently. "Or right. Far from that. I'm just saying…I'm just saying that maybe we both were wrong. And if he's willing to give me a second chance to talk this over, then so am I."

Peter stares at him for a long moment. "I hope you're not making a huge mistake," he says after a moment, his voice weary.

"He needed us. He needed me and we abandoned him."

Peter says nothing, he just stands there fidgeting and Steve imagines his eyes darting all over the place, settling on nothing in particular. He scratches his shoulder absently.

"I, um-" Peter starts with a mumble, but thankfully the awkwardness is broken when Tony emerges from the living room calling Steve's name. "I'll just go," Peter finishes.

"Yes," Steve says, maybe a little too quickly, but it doesn't matter, as Peter is already making his escape.
He barely slows down when he reaches Tony, the two of them exchanging a glance, and then Peter disappears beyond the doorway into the living room, leaving he and Tony alone once again.

"So," Tony prompts, shooting a glance in the direction Peter has disappeared to.

Steve shrugs. "He said he'll learn to knock," he replies.

"That's a start, I guess," Tony replies, smiling slightly, then his expression darkens in a frown of concern. "Are you alright?"

"Sure," he replies. "Why?"

"Nothing," Tony says, shaking his head. "You just had this odd- it doesn't matter."

Steve sits down on the steps of the staircase and rubs the back of his neck. "It went well, considering," he says, then he squints up at Tony. "You ready to go?"

Tony nods. "Looks like you won't need to kill the Queen after all," he says and there's something quite like hesitation in his tone. "Steve, they…" he trails off, "They're here because of a stupid prophecy, I think."

Steve frowns. "A prophecy?"

"Yeah, it has to do with their god, I don't know. That's not important, though," he shakes his head. "What
I'm trying to say is… their planet is dead, they are the last ones."

"I… see."

"I'm telling you this, because," Tony looks down at his feet, the fingers of his gauntlets exploring the lines of the helmet as if they could actually feel its surface. Who knows, maybe now that Tony has Extremis and is directly connected to his armor he can feel. "Because I thought I could go all the way with this if it came down to it, but…" he shakes his head.

"You can't," Steve concludes for him.

"No, it's not that," Tony says and when he raises his eyes to meet Steve's there's something dark and terrible in them. Steve has never seen those eyes on Tony, they must belong to the future, eyes that have seen terrible things. "I can't make you all accessory to genocide, Steve. Even if you didn't know, I couldn't."

It should be terrifying that Tony has contemplated it anyway, but all Steve can feel is the bone-deep weariness he's come to associate with the sadly familiar routine of reassuring Tony that he is in fact a worthy human being. No matter the lengths Tony thinks he has to go, and the limits he pushes himself over, in the end he'll always think that the ends justify the means and he'll always get his hands dirty so other people don't have to.

The thing is, Tony knows he's doing the wrong things for the right reasons, and Steve knows that Tony will hate himself even more at the end of the day for the choices he's pushed himself to make.

What really terrifies Steve, though, is that Tony probably thinks it will always be worth it.

"We'll offer them the chance to surrender," Steve tells him.

Tony shakes his head. "They won't accept it."

"We can't do anything about that."

Tony seems to contemplate that at length, then he nods, straightening up. He puts on his helmet. "I have to go, now," he says in the robotic voice of Iron Man, "I have to stop Ultron from giving me boobs."

For a moment Steve is sure he must have heard wrong, but no, his brain tells him that's exactly what his ears have heard, what Tony has said. It still doesn't make sense at all, though.

"Trust me," Tony tells him, "it's not as fun as it sounds."

Steve thinks it better not to ask.

 

15 | And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear.

 

Maria Hill appeared suitably impressed.

She was staring at the monitors keeping track of the prisoners' progress. Or rather, lack of it. They had captured quite a high amount of Skrulls, and if this went on much further they'd need more cell space before their scheduled drop in the Negative Zone prison. What troubled Tony, though, was that apart from what he could gather were some small time agents, all the highest rank Skrulls – including the Queen – were way too calm and docile for his tastes. They were just sitting in their cells, doing nothing.

"You know," she said after a long moment, raising her eyes to meet his. "I was only one tiny step away from declaring you mentally incompetent and taking over."

Tony chuckled, despite himself. He had to appreciate the honesty. "Cap was afraid you might do that," he confessed.

She shot him a weird look, before going back to the monitors. "Yeah," she snorted. "'Cap'."

Tony stiffened and narrowed his eyes at her. "What's he got to do with anything?" he asked, warily.

"He's not registered," she said. "Actually, the fact that we, as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, are working side by side with unregistered metahumans would make us liable for immediate suspension and arrest for treason."

"You could have reported me," he said slowly, calmly. "In fact, you could report me now."

She shook her head with a sigh. "To what purpose?" she asked with a snort. "I'm in this as deep as you are."

"You lost your chance, Hill," he said. "That's not like you."

"Well, Sir," she replied, "you told me there were green aliens bent on world domination."

He frowned. "It sounds stupid when you put it like that."

"You've got to admit that it looked just a little too far-farfetched," she shrugged. "Even coming from one of you super people."

"Hey," he said, raising his hands, "I'm just a rich guy in a fancy metal suit."

"Yeah, but you also seem to have acquired clairvoyance along the way," she said. "I didn't believe you, obviously."

"Obviously," he snorted, shaking his head. "What changed your mind?" he asked a moment later, genuinely curious.

"I don't know," she admitted. "Let's do what anyone would say in this situation and call it a woman's intuition."

"Why, Sub-Director Hill, I thought you were a soldier first."

The glare she directed at him would have probably reduced a good part of the junior agents to tears. Tony just shrugged it off with a wave of his hand.

"I don't like it," she said, after a long moment, frowning down at the monitors. "They're too calm."

He sighed. "Yeah, I know," he nodded. "Steve said…" he trailed off at Maria's snort. "What?"

She shook her head and remained silent.

"Look, I understand that you don't think this is an… ideal situation, but-"

"Oh, I don't know, Sir," she said, cutting him off, "you went from trying to kill each other and destroying half the city in the process, to being thick as thieves."

"Cap-"

"Has to register," she spat. She must have been really angry, it wasn't like her to lose control like that. She could do cold anger like the best of them, but she'd never been one for sudden bursts of rage. "Or are you going to keep ignoring it?"

"It's not the time to-"

"When's it going to be, then?" she snorted, crossing her arms over her chest. "If it's going to happen at all."

Tony let out a frustrated sigh. "Maria…"

"Forget it," she said, her hand making a rather harsh dismissing gesture. "We're already breaking the law, what's a little more criminal behavior?"

Tony remained silent. It wasn't like he didn't agree with the principles of Registration, that was never going to change no matter how much Steve opposed it. He knew the methods were wrong and he'd made it his mission to prevent them from becoming even more twisted, but he couldn't say that to Maria. Not when she had been the first to open fire on Steve without giving him a chance to speak.

He wasn't a common criminal and he wasn't even one of those cocky New Warriors, he was Captain America, and she had opened fire at him.

"What is it?" Maria asked.

"Nothing," Tony shook his head, toying with the helmet. Maybe he should have asked Wanda to send him back before Stamford, so he could have slapped some sense into the New Warriors. They wouldn't be in this mess, now. But that wasn't really true, sadly. The SHRA had been ready much earlier than Stamford, the politicians had only been waiting for the right opportunity to present itself.

Maria rolled her eyes. "I'll go check on the prisoners," she said, making for the door.

He nodded. "Make sure the transport goes without a hitch," he told her. They needed to bring the prisoners to the Negative Zone as soon as possible. It didn't matter how many anti-Skrull sweeps they made. They had only one Skrull-detector and they couldn't afford to take any chances. "And, Maria?" She stopped on the threshold and half-turned back. "Thanks. For, you know, changing your mind and not kicking me out and taking charge."

Her views might be a little too strict, and her methods a little too extreme for Tony's – and Steve's – liking, but she had pulled through when he had needed her and had no one else. And when there were green aliens bent on world domination, apparently.

"I'm routing all my incoming transmissions to you," he continued. "You're in charge, until I get Fury to agree to coming back."

She paused minutely, then she shrugged. "Good luck with that," she snorted and left.

As if on cue, the incoming transmission alert came up as soon as the door had closed behind Maria. It had the Falcon's ID. Maybe he and Barnes had managed to get through to Fury.

He let the video feeds of the prison cells slip to the back of his mind. "Stark," he said, opening the channel.

The bark of voice that replied him was familiar, but not the one he'd been expecting. "Stark!" Fury growled at him, as if his name was a rather strong insult in his vocabulary.

Who was he kidding? It most definitely was.

"Nick," Tony said, his voice pleasant. "Nice of you to get in touch."

The channel was audio only, but he had no trouble coming up with an image of what Fury's current expression must have looked like. "I don't have time to waste," Fury said.

Tony rolled his eyes despite the fact that there was no one to see it. "Then I'm glad you could find a slot for me in your busy schedule," he snorted. "How's life on the run treating you?"

"How's life as king of the world treating you?" Fury retorted and even though Tony knew it was mostly a jab to irritate him, the words left a bitter taste in his mouth.

"I'm not-" he cut himself off and immediately regretted the show of weakness. This was Nick Fury, though, he probably had half, if not all, of the S.H.I.E.L.D. staff reporting to him in secret and telling him how big a screw up Tony was as Director. "Did Barnes and Sam tell you anything?"

"I hear Captain America is still alive," Fury said, with something Tony couldn't quite identify in his voice. He hated voice-only channels; he couldn't see the face of the person he was talking to. He consoled himself with the thought that he couldn't read Fury even when they were face to face, and the times he could were because the other man was being sarcastic. "Nice trick you pulled there," Fury continued. "I guess you're finished fighting like children on the playground."

He was really, really tired of having this conversation. "The Registration isn't a matter to be taken lightly," he said, "but for the sake of the argument, let's just say that school's over."

"Or maybe it's just that bigger guys want to play in the sandbox," Fury said.

"Yeah, there are…" he trailed off, frowning. "You know," he said then. It wasn't a question. Fury's only answer was a loud snort. Of course he knew. "And you didn't think to tell someone?"

"I have my way of doing things," Fury replied after a long moment. "And who should have I told? S.H.I.E.L.D.? There are more double agents there than in Germany during the Cold War. You?"

"Well, I have managed to arrest the Queen and several other Skrulls," he said, not quite managing to keep the spite out of his tone of voice. "I have sent Steve and War Machine to get the people that they impersonated."

"Good for you, then," Fury actually sounded impressed. Or more likely, Tony was reading him wrong. "What about the Queen?"

"She was impersonating Spiderwoman, we-" he paused at Fury's sharp intake of breath. "What?"

"Spiderwoman," he repeated. "She was my inside agent."

"What?"

"For HYDRA," he said. "And S.H.I.E.L.D.. And the Skrulls."

"You knew she was a Skrull?" he exclaimed. "What possessed you to-"

Fury cut him off sharply, "I didn't know she was a Skrull!" he said. "I only told her to watch out for further Skrull impostors."

Shit.

Shit.

Of course they were calmly sitting in their cells. They'd known they had been already made, but Nick Fury was only one man and all the evidence pointed to the fact that he'd kept the news of the invasion to himself. They had to have an ace up their sleeves.

God, he'd been so stupid. The Skrull detector and Steve being alive had lulled him in a false sense of security. He should have realized that the Skrull had several contingency plans. He had even seen one in action, when they had used Jan as a bomb.

He needed to gather information as soon as possible, maybe call up Emma Frost and ask her to do some mind-reading.

Steve.

Heart in his throat he checked the connections to Steve's armor, but no it was still there. The signal appeared disturbed but if he was still in orbit, the distance and the Earth's magnetic field could be possible causes for that. Steve was safe, and so was Rhodey, and so were their friends.

The fact that he hadn't received any news about the retrieval of the spaceship, be it bad or good, didn't mean anything. He'd told Steve and Jim to maintain radio silence. They were fine, they were going to make it.

"There's still the virus," Jan said.

Lost in thought as he was, he almost replied to her, but then he realized that he was alone in the room and when he raised his eyes he noticed that this Jan's hair was longer, nothing like the Louise Brooks short cut she sported these days. He stiffened, sitting straighter.

"Stark?" Fury's voice came through the channel, "you still there?"

He needed to deal with Fury as soon as possible, now time was even more of an issue. "I contacted you," he said, "because I'm going to give the position of Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. back to you."

"You're what, now?" Fury barked an unpleasant laughter. "Have you run out of LMDs?"

"I'm not joking, Fury," he replied, gritting his teeth.

"Neither am I," Fury countered, "but I must say I'm surprised that you came straight to me. Why not that pitbull of yours, Hill?"

"We're both compromised. It has to be someone who had no connection to... recent facts. It has to be you. And I'll tell you something more," Tony continued, "you're going to take it."

There was a moment of silence, then Fury spoke with, Tony was positive, a sneer on his face. "You sound so sure."

"When the Skrulls attack," he started. Because no matter what Steve had suggested they do, no matter how many peaceful alternatives Tony could bring to the table, ultimately the most of them were going to fight. "When they attack, the first thing they're going to do is take me out of commission."

The virus, he reminded himself. The virus.

He had to hurry, he couldn't have much time left now.

"It can't happen to the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.," he went on. "We need S.H.I.E.L.D. to come out on top of this mess."

"I'm sorry to burst your bubble, Stark," Fury said, "but I've got my hands full over here. S.H.I.E.L.D. is your mess now, pal."

The appellation certainly didn't fool him, there was nothing even vaguely friendly about Fury's feelings towards him. Still, it didn't mean that Tony was in any way intimidated. He had no time for that, and his sense of self-preservation had dried out a long time ago.

"I don't care if you remain into hiding to play with your Commandos, your Secret Warriors or whatever their name is," he growled. On the other side of the conversation Fury was conspicuously silent. "Surprised I know about them?" he asked, making sure the mocking tone was at full force. "I have my way of getting information too, you know." Of course his way might be considered cheating, since he'd seen what the future was like, but one worked with the resources at hand. Tony was very good at that. "In fact," he added after a moment, "it's better if you remain in hiding. We'll just get the paperwork done and then say that we had no time to make it an official announcement because of, you know, the Skrulls invading Earth."

Fury was silent for so long that for a moment Tony thought that he'd hung up on him, but he checked and the channel was still open.

"What aren't you telling me?" Fury finally asked, his voice low and measured.

"Trust me," Tony replied, "you wouldn't like it."

"Trust me," Fury snorted, "you could fill up the Mariana Trench with all the things I don't like."

One of them being me, Tony mentally added.

He didn't know how much he could afford to tell Fury. So far the only ones he'd told the full version had been the Avengers, but they were family – at least they had been, once upon a time – and anyway they had Strange and his lie-detecting spells.

He took a deep breath. "Let's say, hypothetically, that Norman Osborn manages to get his hands on a bio-weapon designed to take down Skrulls," he said, "and that he manages to kill the Queen while the cameras of the whole Nation are fixed on him."

"I'm really not going to like this, am I?" Fury said after a moment. Strangely enough, he didn't ask about Tony's apparent faculty of knowing the future.

"I said you wouldn't," Tony reminded him. "Going on with our hypothetical future, let's say that S.H.I.E.L.D. gets disbanded and that I become… a less than welcomed person," he went on. "Let's say that Osborn gets appointed to running the SHRA and the Initiative."

Fury spoke after a couple of moments. "And no one thinks that putting the Green Goblin in charge might be even more idiotic than putting you in charge? Hypothetically speaking, I mean."

"Everyone seems to suddenly suffer from a severe case of selective amnesia," he replied. "Hypothetically speaking."

Fury sighed deeply. "I don't even want to know where you got this stuff," he said after a moment, "but I get the feeling you're not bullshitting me."

"No, I'm not," he replied. "Believe me, I wish I was."

"How are you gonna smooth this up with the big guys?" Fury finally asked.

Tony smirked. "You leave that to me," he told him. "I've still got a few aces left up my sleeve." Fury snorted. "Just make sure Barnes can reach you."

"The hell you think you are, my wife?" Fury asked and then closed the channel before Tony had any chance to reply.

Not that he could have come up with anything sarcastic enough; that statement contained worlds of wrong he couldn't even begin to describe. Universes of wrong.

He checked the situation of their Skrull prisoners, but nothing had changed. They had to be up to something.

Tony dismissed them from his mind, at this point he had done everything in his power to prepare New York - and the world - for the invasion. He had set up failsafes on as much of his tech as he could, giving priority to the projects the Defense had commissioned Stark Industries. He'd taken care of Ezekiel Stane before he became a problem. He'd sent Steve and Rhodey on a rescue mission.

At this point there wasn't much else he could do but wait.

Instead of picking up the phone, he forwarded the call through Extremis. He might as well use it as much as he could, while he still had it. Using Extremis meant he got to elude any secretaries between him and his objective.

The man had barely raised the receiver when Tony started talking. "Secretary Kooning!" he exclaimed, making sure the cheer in his voice came off as unmistakably false.

Kooning didn't even pretend. "Stark," he snorted. "I thought I asked my secretary not to pass me any calls," this was said slightly louder and, Tony was sure, it wasn't intended for his ears only. On the other side of Kooning's intercom there possibly was a very confused secretary.

"I've got you on speed-dial," Tony told him, then he went straight to the heart of the matter. "I'm going to reinstate Nick Fury as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and I want you to back me up."

There was a prolonged silence from the other end of the conversation, then Kooning barked out a laughter than had nothing to do with amusement. "You're kidding," he snorted.

"I'm sorry if my choice in phrasing deceived you," Tony calmly told him, "what I actually meant was, I expect you to back me up."

"I don't think—" Kooning stopped abruptly. "Are you blackmailing me?"

"Technically, not yet," Tony said, "but as a matter of fact, yes I'm planning to."

It was refreshing to be so candidly honest.

"What makes you think that I would-"

Tony cut him off before he could list all the reasons why he wouldn't give in to 'this kind of threat'. He was positive that was what he would have said. So Tony decided to give him a list of reasons why he would give in. "I have phone logs, security clips and files that could send you away for a very long time. Remember the Mandarin?" He asked, pausing for a moment to let it sink in. "Guess what? My brain is a computer, in a second I could have everything sent to the whole Parliament, the President, the CIA and whomever strikes my fancy. What's it going to be?"

Kooning drew in a sharp breath. "I didn't-" he started and then lapsed into silence. "I didn't know about the mortality rate. I didn't know he planned on releasing it worldwide."

"And you think that makes you innocent? Just because you didn't know?" he snorted. "It means nothing, believe me. I know." What had Steve said? "Innocence born of ignorance isn't innocent at all."

Kooning was silent for a long time, but Tony knew he had already won. "I'll see what I can do," came his somewhat tight-voiced reply.

"It was a pleasure doing business with you, Secretary," Tony said.

"What about this phone call?" Kooning asked then. "Are you sure we weren't intercepted?"

He snorted. "What phone call?" He said, cutting off the conversation.

Nothing left but waiting, now. That didn't mean he couldn't go and have a chat with their guests, though, no matter how useless it might be.

He stood up, putting on his helmet. A second later he realized it had been a mistake. Probably his last one.

Searing pain shot through his head, and for a long moment he thought he might have gone blind.

The armor locked down and he pitched forward, Extremis, all the electronic voices in his head going out like a light bulb during a blackout. He felt bile pushing against his teeth and he struggled to keep it down. Being sick inside his helmet – his air-sealed helmet – would mean choking to death.

The only good thing about this, about not having Extremis anymore, was that he wouldn't see Jan bending over him, saying, "I told you so."

It wasn't common knowledge, but mostly Tony hated being right.

 

 

16 | While we're apart, we will raise the red, white and blue.

 

Steve winches as he stands up. He hit his left arm pretty badly in the crash, but nothing seems to be broken.

"Everyone all right?" he asks, looking around to check the situation.

He gets several groans and curses for an answer, but no one seems to be hurt badly.

There's the sound of metal against metal as Rhodey emerges from under the pilot consol. While Steve has taken off the armor as soon as they boarded the ship, he's still in the War Machine.

"Everything in working order?" he asks him.

"Yeah," Rhodey replies. "Well, the parts I started the day with, anyway."

Steve frowns at that, but doesn't comment. "I seem to remember you saying something along the lines of, 'Spaceships, planes, when you've flown one, you've flown them all,'" he says after a moment, raising his eyebrows.

Rhodey turns towards him, and despite the metal faceplate, Steve has got the impression that he's glaring at him.

Hank reaches their side; he's limping slightly. "To be fair, all the writing is in Skrullish," he says.

"Where did we land?" Mockingbird asks, leaning against the pilot chair and squinting at the readings on the consol. Not that it will be much use, most of it is nothing more than flickering lights, and what's left of the instruments is in Skrullish, as Hank pointed out.

Steve can't help but stare at her. Tony told him that Bobbie was alive, and while he had believed him, believing and having the proof are two very different things.

Just like hearing about his death and seeing himself go down on the steps to the Courthouse.

Just like talking about a secret invasion and actually seeing a green face in Spiderwoman's clothes staring back at them with a smirk on her face.

"We'll have to step outside," Rhodey says, after a quick check of the instruments. "This is all shot to hell."

He nods and moves towards the airlock.

Rhodey is right next to his side. "Here's to hoping we didn't land in a war zone," he mutters. "It would look pretty foolish if we manage to run from the aliens and end being blown up on a mine."

"Or somewhere in Siberia," Mockingbird says. "I'm not exactly dressed for the occasion."

The hatch hisses open, and they find themselves staring at what looks like a tropical forest. The air is so humid it's almost wet, and Steve actually feels his clothes stick to his skin in a matter of seconds. Not that his exposed skin fares much better, humidity weighs down on him like a physical presence.

Trees are overturned and there's a long trail of destruction left by their emergency landing. The ship has actually created a small clearing. Steve can't guess where they are, though, and around them the jungle is eerily silent.

"This doesn't tell us much, actually," Jessica comments, taking a few steps outside.

The silence is abruptly broken when something that by rights should have been dead for millions of years roars. From the level of noise, it's quite near.

Steve knows that kind of roar, you can hear it only in a paticular island.

"Oh come on," Hank exclaims, next to him. "Of all the places in the world!"

Steve doesn't comment, but he can't help but share his feelings on this.

Jarvis sniffs. "I was given the impression that it was somewhat traditional," he comments and Steve can't help but let a chuckle escape. "Master Stark mentioned the unfortunate amount of Quinjets you managed to crash here on various occasions."

Steve mentally adds the unspoken 'petulantly'. Jarvis always has a knack for being sarcastic without actually sounding sarcastic. He doesn't know if it's because he's British, or because he's a butler. Possibly, it's a combination of both.

"Ka-Zar probably thinks he's the official scrap dealer of the Avengers," Jessica says, then she turns to Steve, "please tell me that someone is coming to pick us up."

Tony said they should mantain radio silence, but he figures this counts as an exception. "I'll call Tony."

"No use," Rhodey says. "I've tried raising him but he's not answering."

"Maybe this place interferes with communications?" Hanks suggests, but he doesn't sound very convinced.

A chill runs down Steve's spine. "Try contacting Carol," he tells Rhodey. "I'll get—"

"Hey, Cap," Dugan calls from the depths of the ship. "Your armor has just activated."

Steve freezes in his tracks. He hasn't given the command. Tony said it's only supposed to activate in the event of his—

He rushes inside to check and as soon as he's close enough, it comes apart and assembles on him. Dugan's surprised exclamation gets drowned by the synthetic voice of the HID repeating, 'ALIEN VIRUS DETECTED EXTREMIS COMPROMISED' over and over again.

"I've raised Ms. Marvel," Rhodey tells him. "And I've just received a prerecorded message from Tony."

Steve waits for him to elaborate on that, and when nothing comes after a few moments, he prompts, "What message?"

"Guess our suits are both from the same stock," Rhodey says, opening a private channel. Steve is still frowning at the non-sequitur, when Rhodey goes on, "the Boss has given me the coordinates for a satellite."

He frowns. "What kind of satellite?"

"It's on a need-to-know basis," Rhodey replies. "Cap, the message was set to be delivered in the event of Tony's death."

Steve was aware of the possibility when Tony told him, and his own suit activating by itself has certainly made him fear the worst. Hearing it, so disarmingly matter-of-fact, is a truth he can't deny, though.

"You've got your orders," he manages to tell War Machine through gritted teeth.

Rhodey seems to hesitate, but it's barely a moment and he's already flying away, the roaring of his bootjets almost deafening in the complete silence of the jungle.

He looks down at his red gauntlets, flexes the fingers. Tony is an amazing engineer. Steve may be from another era, but he's always had the impression that everything that comes out from Tony's workshop has a glimpse of the future in it.

He straps the shield on his arm. "I have to go," he says.

"Cap," Spiderwoman walks up to him, her eyes widening as she takes in his armor. "Oh, wow. I know you said it was yours, but…" she trails off, shaking her head. "What's the word?"

He swallows. "Tony's been compromised. Carol is coming to get you," he tells her. "I have to go."

"Hoping she won't crash-land here, too," she mutters.

"She's coming here all the way from New York? It's going to take hours," Hank frowns, from his position near the hatch. "What are we supposed to do, then? Just… wait?"

"You don't understand," he says. "Tony's probably—" dead. "He needs me, I have to go."

He can't leave them here, though. After everything they've gone through, he couldn't forgive himself if one of them got injured or died here. But Tony—

"Go," Jessica says, laying a hand on his chest plate. Steve knows the truth, but it's hard to look at her without seeing different features, green skin. "We can handle ourselves, and the people here. Go."

The next thing he knows, he's flying full thrust towards Tony's last known location, helpfully supplied by his suit. The 'ALIEN VIRUS DETECTED EXTREMIS COMPROMISED' message is still flashing silently in the right hand corner of his visual.

"Cap!" comes Carol's voice through the radio, startling him. "My ETA is six hours," She's yelling. "But we need support here, they've just landed in the middle of Manhattan! Are you—"

"Where is Tony?"

"—coming over— Tony?" she stumbles over her words. "I haven't seen Tony, but it's a major mess, I wouldn't be surprised if he's around here somewhere and I missed him."

"He's not—Iron Man is down," he says. "I need to know where he is."

"I don't know!" she exclaims. "What do you mean, he's down?"

"I need to get through to Hill, then," he tells her, behind him the jet boots roar with all their worth but it still feels like he's going slowly. Too slowly.

"She's here," Carol says. "Steve, what do you mean Iron Man is down?"

"He's down," he repeats, "I have to find him."

He cuts off the conversation before Carol can reply.

He has to get to Tony in time. In time for what he can't really say. It seems so trivial that he should—that he should die like this, and while Steve knows it's irrational thinking, he simply can't accept the fact that Tony could be dead right now. It would be like a candle blowing out next to the sun, a firecracker going off during a bombing, the event going unnoticed when something else much bigger is happening close by.

It's not like Tony to go quietly, and he said that he was working on developing software to prevent the Skrull virus from damaging Extremis, he should have had protection.

It's unsettling to think about anti-virus software in relation to Tony, but even with the little knowledge of computers Steve has, he realizes that's what Tony has more or less become. He's a human computer, there's no denying it. And while he can safely admit that it's useful, what happened with Yinsen's son showed how it could easily become just another venue for mind-control.

Tony may have been incapacitated by the Skrull virus, but from what he said, he's already been subjected to the virus and survived. Granted, when Tony uses 'survived' instead of 'lived' it means that he probably got out of it barely alive.

The speed he's flying is almost unbelievable, Tony has gone well beyond building a suit of armor, he's built an entire army to be worn by one man. Still, no matter how fast he's going, he will never be able to make it to New York in time, if Tony is trapped inside his suit he won't have more than one hour of breathable air.

"Strange," he opens a channel to the Avengers, "Luke. Is anyone there?"

"Hey, Cap!" comes Peter's cheerful voice. "Guess where we are?"

"Peter, I don't have the—"

"Japan!" he exclaims. "And we fought ninjas! Man, I can't wait to tell Daredevil! Ninjas!"

Steve frowns. "Japan? What are you doing…" he trails off. Echo. "Is Maya all right?"

"Yeah, and uh, Clint Barton is back," he continues, sounding vaguely confused. "And Elektra is a Skrull. I keep having the feeling that we're all in way over our heads. Then I remember that you guys are the Avengers, so you know, this kind of thing must be like a regular Sunday morning for you."

"You're an Avenger too, now," Steve reminds him. "I need Strange to teleport me to New York."

"Haven't you got that awesome suit Tony built you?" Peter asks. "Seriously, what's with that guy and giving people metal—"

"Peter!" he exclaims, cutting him off. "I need Strange right now!"

There's the sound of shuffling coming from Spider-Man's end of the conversation, and a muffled 'hey!' in the background, then Strange's voice comes through. "I'm here, Captain."

"If I give you my current coordinates, can you teleport me to New York?" he asks, and gives his location when Strange agrees.

Steve isn't sure what he was expecting, but for sure seeing the Avengers appear out of thin air barely a moment later wasn't one of the options. Mostly, because he's floating two thousand feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

"What the—" Luke starts.

"Water!" Peter screams. "Very far away!"

And in a flash they're gone again.

It's unsettling to be somewhere far away in literally just a blink of the eye; his stomach seems to agree with him on that. Steve looks around himself; they're in Strange's hideout in New York, the ground beneath their feet.

Spider-Man is sprawled on the ground, his arms and legs stretched, as if he's trying to hug the floor. "Ground!" he exclaims. "Solid ground! Those were the two scariest nanoseconds of my life."

Strange straightens his cloak with decisive gestures. "You're welcome, by the way," he says.

"That wasn't really what I had in mind," Steve offers, somewhat apologetically to the others.

"Nice costume," a well-known voice says. "New identity?"

Clint's voice comes from a man clad in the black uniform of the Ronin. He's standing next to Maya. When his hands reach up and take off the mask, Steve sees that it is indeed Clint, tired and a little worse for the wear, but undeniably Clint.

The smile that breaks out on Steve's face almost hurts. "No, just some upgrades," he says. Now he's starting to talk like Tony, as well as using his technology. "They're not permanent, though, don't worry. So…" he hesitates only a little, "you're not dead, then."

"Nope," Clint smirks. "And neither are you, apparently."

Steve's lips twitch. For a moment he's glad he's talking through the suit's robotic voice, because his words come out as even more deadpan. "You should really stop trying to emulate me, Clint," he tells him. "You have to learn to stand on your own two feet."

Clint snorts. "Hey, if anyone's emulating here, that's you," he says. "I was dead first."

"Um, guys?" Peter says from his spot near the window. "You should probably come and see this."

They all huddle in front of the windows.

"Holy shit," Luke murmurs next to him, and really he couldn't have put it better.

There are several huge spaceships silhouetted against the New York skyline, dark and immobile.

The sound of fighting reaches them and, while muffled by the distance, it's still unmistakably the noise artillery raining down a war zone. It doesn't matter if it's bullets of plasma cannons or whatever artillery the Skrulls have, Steve knows that sound; it's haunted him more than one restless night.

"Uh, I guess the Skrull invasion is real then," Clint mumbles.

"What gave it away?" Luke snorts. "The Skrull posing as Elektra, or the giant ass spaceships?"

"Hey, one Skrull does not one invasion ma—"

"Oh, this is bad," Peter exclaims, suddenly. "This is really, really bad."

They all turn to where he's pointing and Steve forgets to breathe for a second. "Pym particles," he says. "Skrulls dosed with Pym particles."

"So you're back!" comes MJ's voice suddenly. She runs towards them to hug Peter. "How was Japan?"

"I got you a Hello Kitty strap for your phone," Peter replies at once. "Are you guys all right?"

Mrs. Parker and Jessica are following behind them, the baby in May's arms.

"I'm coming with you," Jessica says, her arms crossed over her chest and her face determined, as if daring any of them to prevent her.

Steve isn't going to. She and Luke have a child to think of, and going up against the Skrulls right now means a fight to the death. It doesn't matter what Tony said about the survivors, they may have changed history; but they still need all the help they can get.

He lifts his helmet. "I need to locate Tony," he says; the flashing alien virus message has burned an after-image into his retinas. "All the people who were swapped for Skrulls are safe," he tells the others, then he frowns and adds as an afterthought, "well, we crash-landed in the Savage Land, but Ms. Marvel is going to pick them up."

"You crash-landed in the Savage Land?" Peter asks him. "And they're safe? By whose definition?"

Next to him, Wolverine shrugs. "It's a tradition."

"S.H.I.E.L.D. has the Queen under lock and key," he says, taking in all of them with a long look. "And Tony has offered them the option of a peaceful surrender." Wolverine and Luke both snort at that. "Yeah, that's what he said too," he admits with a small smile. "Still, the fact that their leader is incapacitated mustn't fool you, they are desperate, and desperate people resort to desperate measures."

They are all staring at him attentively. They're waiting for one of his speeches, he realizes after a moment. Almost every single member of the Avengers has joked at some point or another that he could get anyone to follow him anywhere, but after Tony's words… He doesn't want people to follow him because he's Captain America, he wants them to follow him because they share his opinion, because they think it's the right thing to do.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is," he takes a deep breath, "be careful. I'll join you as soon as I can."

A vague murmur of unease stirs through them, but he forces himself to ignore it and closes his faceplate.

Right. Coordinates.

He gets out of Strange's hideout, calling up Tony's last known location. Seconds later he's off.

When he gets to the exact location, though, there's nothing but empty air. He's flying high above the battle zone, and he has to force himself not to fly down there and intervene. He sees webbing and Spider-Man's small form as he slings around one of the giant Skrulls.

He has to find Tony.

There's a sudden blast behind him and he turns in time to see one of the Skrull ships going down, a smoking hole breaching its side.

The suit computer is quick to calculate the trajectory of the fall, and Steve is already flying towards it before he even sees the list of possibilities expressed percentually. He flies under the hull of the ship, plants his hands against it and pushes.

Tony has always been great at his art, probably the best, and he's seen Tony do something along these lines a couple of times. It's always been an amazing thing to see, all the strength and the power he's managed to squeeze inside his armors. Still, Steve is almost surprised when the ship actually starts moving. A small, human-shaped thing moving a huge space-ship goes against all the instincts one has.

He manages to lead the ship in a controlled crash-down where it won't hurt anyone. Property damage is another thing, but things you can rebuild. People, not so much.

As soon as he's down, a mixed crowd composed of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, ordinary soldiers and policemen, superpowered people and ordinary citizens swarms around it. He's glad to notice that the uniforms seem to outnumber the civilians, and that they're exercising some kind of order.

It doesn't matter what the Skrulls did to them, or planned to do, a lynching is never a valid option in Steve's book.

S.H.I.E.L.D. agents.

Tony.

He raises his eyes to the sky and, sure enough, there is it, the Helicarrier.

He stops the first high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agent he can find. "Will you be able to keep this from getting out of hand?" he asks him.

The man frowns as he looks up and down at him, taking in his armor. "Uh, sure," he replies, hesitantly. Then he adds a doubtful, "Sir?"

"Good," Steve replies, and then he's off.

Convincing the agents on the Helicarrier to let him on board is decidedly harder, though.

There are four agents pointing their weapons at him at the moment, and Steve is sure that back-up is on the way.

"Step out of the armor and raise your hands," one of them says, then he frowns. "Uh, unless you're a robot, then I guess you just raise your arms."

"I'm not a robot," Steve says slowly. "Let me through, Director Stark needs my help."

"Director Stark hasn't notified us of your coming," the man replies.

"Yeah, because he can't," Steve says. "That's why I need to get to him as soon as possible."

Really, no one told him he should have made an appointment to save Tony's life. He tries calling Hill on the radio once again, but she's not responding. He really, really hopes she's not dead or he can kiss his chances of getting to Tony's office without blasting his way through, goodbye.

Desperate times require desperate measures.

He lifts his faceplate. "You know who I am, son?" he asks, tapping two fingers against the shield strapped to his arm to drive the point home. "I'm Captain America, and you're going to let me pass."

The four agents seem to be a little taken aback at that, he's still officially dead after all, but they seem to recover admirably fast. "Uh, I guess we should arrest you then?" one of them says.

His radio crackles to life. "This is Hill," she says into his ear, "does your suit have speakers like Stark's?"

Steve blinks in surprise, but a second later he patches her through and a second later her voice is loud and clear, even if they are outside on the deck, with the sounds of the battle in the background.

"Let the Sentinel of Liberty through, Johnson," she says, and Steve rolls his eyes. "I'm taking full responsibility. And by the way, what the hell are you doing bickering among yourselves when we've got green aliens to think of?"

Steve doesn't wait for them to let him pass and he just pushes past, running towards the lower decks, where Tony's office is located. The crew he passes on his way there shoots him a few confused glances but he ignores them.

There's a low rumble and the Helicarrier shakes under his feet as they take a hit. He only stumbles a little and in a few minutes he's in front of Tony's office door. He checks the time. No more than thirty minutes has gone by since his suit activated. He's still in time.

He has to be.

The door is locked, and when he tries calling for Tony he gets no answer.

"I really hope you're standing far away from the door," he yells, taking a step back and aiming one of his repulsors.

"Hey!" an agent exclaims, running up to him. "What do you think you're—"

"Get a medic down here," he cuts him off and fires a low-powered blast at the lock. Steve is reasonably sure these doors were built to withstand several kinds of weapon fire, but his repulsor melts a neat hole where the lock was a moment ago.

The agent gives an outraged shout, but Steve ignores him. "Call a medic!" he repeats and then he kicks in the door.

"Tony!" he exclaims, running towards the figure lying face down.

There's no reply from the armor and Steve is already yelling the override codes as he kneels next to Tony. Nothing happens, though, and he decides to go with force. He turns him on his side, and then he grabs Iron Man's faceplate and pulls. It offers more resistance than he's anticipated but in the end it comes away with a groan of metal.

Tony's face is pasty and he's dripping with sweat, but he's breathing in short pants. He's alive. Steve lets out a breath he hasn't noticed he was holding.

"Oh, thank god. I couldn't hold out much more," Tony mutters with a gasp, and then he gets sick all over Steve's metal boots. "Ugh, sorry," he mutters after a moment.

Steve keeps him on his side, while he checks the armor for a way to take it off manually. "The suit is yours, anyway," he replies with a shrug.

"Ha ha," Tony groans and spits. He's shaking and his eyes are glassy; they need to get the armor off him as soon as possible. "Still, the company has definitely improved from last time. The setting too, come to think of it."

Steve frowns down at him uncomprehendingly. The instinctive gesture of tracing small circles on Tony's back is difficult to resist, but he manages and he just curls the fingers of his right gauntlet around a red shoulder pad.

They must look ridiculous, two grown men in bulky suits of armor, one lying down and the other fussing over him.

"Last time?" Steve prompts.

"We were in the Savage Land. The Spider-Queen said I was a Skrull," Tony explains, "and then she kissed me."

"…I'm not going to kiss you, Tony," he tells him. "You just vomited."

Tony snorts. "Way to ruin a romantic reunion," he mutters.

There's the sound of an explosion and the room around them shakes with the blast.

"Wow, that was close," Tony swallows. "How did you manage to get in here, by the way?"

Steve frowns. "Hill," he says, curtly.

Tony snorts, and when he looks up at him his eyes are shining with mirth. "Oh, did she?" he asks, raising one eyebrow. Despite his drawn and clammy face, he still manages to pull off his best sarcastic expression.

Steve rolls his eyes. "Yes, she did," he sighs. "She helped me. She helped us. I guess we can trust her."

"Oh, great."

"With this, at least."

"You are a hard man to please, Captain America," Tony comments, groaning when he tries to sit up properly.

"That's not true," Steve retorts, "I'm really easy."

Tony gives him a long look, and up goes the eyebrow again. Steve can actually feel the blush creeping up his neck to spread all over his cheeks. "I mean," he coughs.

Tony just snorts. "Okay, time to get this thing off," he says, shaking his head.

"The override codes don't work," Steve tells him, even though he probably knows already. "Do you have a manual override or do I just rip this off you?"

"As sexy as that sounds, Cap," Tony says, "my suit is not only a fancy one, but also a costly one. And since it's very likely I'll hit a dry spot if I manage to survive this thing—"

"Of course you'll survive," Steve says firmly, one of his hands patting down Tony's back checking for the release. "Don't be so melodramatic."

"—every penny counts," Tony finishes. "And I wasn't the one who kicked in the door while yelling."

"I see you're already feeling better," he says. "Where's the release?"

"Stop pawing me," Tony mutters. "It's at the base of my neck."

"You didn't say that last night, darling," Steve retorts, causing Tony to let out a startled laugh.

His fingers find the release and the whole suit comes apart piece by piece as if by magic. "There you go," he says, then he grabs Tony under his armpits and pulls him to a sitting position. "Can you stand?" Steve asks, supporting him.

Tony nods absently. "Just give me a second," he says. "I don't really feel like getting reacquainted with all the meals I had this week."

Knowing Tony and his tendency to forget even the basics of taking care of himself while under a crisis, Steve is sure there hasn't been much eating at all in Tony's recent past. Not that Steve's own appetite hasn't been MIA for quite a while, anyway.

He sneaks a glance to the door. "The medic should have been here by now."

As if on cue, the ground shakes with yet another hit.

"They're probably otherwise engaged," Tony says. "Okay, let's go."

Steve supports most of his weight as he raises on shaking legs. He wavers and stumbles, listing sideways. Steve is quick to catch him. "Are you all right?"

Tony shrugs. "Sure," he replies. Steve raises one eyebrow at him, and he sighs. "I will be. I just need a shot of adrenaline and one of my spare armors, and I'll be ready to fight."

Steve snorts. "I don't think so," he tells him, as they slowly make their way to the door. "You're going straight to the Infirmary."

"No, I-"

"You can barely stand Tony!" he cuts him off, and Tony just proves his point by stumbling against his side.

"I thought you were working on anti-virus… software," he says after a moment, pausing only slightly. He'll never get used to Tony being a computer.

Tony looks sideways. "Um, yeah… About that."

Steve stops in his tracks, Tony stumbling again and then sagging against him. "Tony…" he starts, frowning down at him.

Tony lifts his hand. "Look," he says, and then he raises his eyes to meet his, "the Skrull detector was our first priority."

Steve gives him a long look. "Why do I get the feeling that if I go and talk to Reed about it, he'll know nothing of this?" Tony looks away at that. Right. He sighs. "Tony… I'm sure that if you had waited a little instead of launching a full scale attack, you and Reed would have managed to come up with something."

"We had no time," Tony grinds out. "And you always were against the Extremis, anyway."

Steve freezes at that. He'd swear his heart stopped beating for a second. "Please," he says in a hoarse whisper, "please, tell me you didn't let yourself be consciously… mutilated because I was afraid of a little change."

"I believe you said something along the lines of me becoming cold and detached from humanity?" Tony says, and Steve can practically hear the self-deprecating smirk in his tone, even if he can't see it with Tony's face turned away from him.

He can't possibly be implying that—

"God, Tony… You- you-"

Tony shakes his head and sighs. "No, Steve," he says after a moment. "It wasn't because of that."

"Then why?"

"Because it was virtually impossible," Tony replies, frowning. "I still don't know how they managed to do it in the first place," he shrugs. "Maybe they got Skrull copies of me, Reed and Hank to work on it. And I'm a genius Steve, you know me, but that's three against one."

Steve nods. It makes sense. It's a perfectly good explanation. Too bad it's probably a lie.

Tony widens his eyes. It should probably look like mock-wonder, but the effect is lost with the circles under his eyes vividly standing out in the clammy paleness of his face. "Hey, at least no more hallucinations now," he says, wiggling his fingers.

Oh, yeah. The hallucinations. Steve still has to get the full story on that, but they seem to have the worst timing in the world lately and even if there wasn't a war going on outside, Steve can hear people running
towards them.

"You took your sweet time," Tony snorts, as the two men in white lab coats come within earshot, then he turns to Steve. "I'm fine, really."

Steve slightly tightens the grip he has on his arm as a warning. "You need to go to the Infirmary," he tells him, then he turns to the men. "Just make sure he gets there and that he stays there, will you?"

One of the men nods, the other actually rolls his eyes. "We'll try," he says.

Steve nods and closes his faceplate. He's about to go, when Tony stops him with a hand on his left gauntlet.

"Don't—" he swallows. "Just be careful."

Steve gives him a long, searching look; Tony's small smile doesn't quite reach his eyes.

He nods firmly and then he turns to go.

It's time he joined the fight.

 

 

17 | Everything right is wrong again.

 

Ten minutes later, lying on one of the small beds in the Infirmary, Tony felt definitely more human. A peculiarly crappy human being, but at least his stomach wasn't rebelling at the merest movement he attempted.

He sat up, shivering in the cold air. Thankfully, he seemed to have remembered putting on his boxers that morning. Or was it last night? As much as everyone seemed to agree that Tony Stark was pretty much shameless, he really appreciated keeping the last shreds of dignity he might have with those under his command.

Well, under Fury's command now. Even though no one really knew it, yet.

"Lie down, Sir," one of the doctors said, pushing lightly against his shoulder.

"I'm fine," he grunted, shrugging the hand away. It came out stuttered, though; his teeth were chattering.
Okay, maybe the shivering wasn't all due to the cold. He swung his leg over the side of the bed and stood up.

The doctor was quick to catch him when his knees gave out on him. "Lie down, Sir," he repeated with a frown.

"Just give me a shot of adrenaline and I'll be fine," Tony muttered. The man gave him a look. "Right, I didn't think so."

Where was Black Widow when you needed her?

"Your vitals are all over the place, Sir," the doctor explained, trying to push Tony back to lie down on the bed. "You've developed a fever. Your heart rate is erratic and you're in shock."

As if he needed to be told. He'd had enough heart-attacks and been hospitalized so many times in his life that he'd become quite the expert on both subjects. "Look," he said, gritting his teeth against another wave of nausea. "There's a war going on out there and I'm going to fight regardless. Whether I'm going to fly a suit half-conscious or at full capacity it's your choice."

One of the things he was good at, apparently; cornering people into making impossible choices.
The other man sighed heavily and pinched the bridge of his nose. Tony didn't know his name, but when he instinctively reached out with Extremis he was left with nothing, a gaping hole where the constant, reassuring buzz of a million electronic voices used to be.

It was like trying to grasp water. He had gotten used to it eventually when it first happened, and he'd had Extremis for a relatively short time, but it never got any easier. Never would.

He really hoped he could get it fixed, when this was all over. Maybe he could get Maya to work with him, if she didn't run away with another supervillain.

The doctor's voice shook him out of his thoughts, and Tony turned to frown quizzically at him. He caught sight of the name badge; 'Dr. Lawson, T.' it said. "I have the feeling you would try and get out of here as soon as my back was turned, even if you had to crawl on your elbows," Lawson said.

"Anyone ever told you you're a very perceptive man, Doctor?" Tony coughed, grimacing at the bitter taste in his mouth.

Lawson sighed and left his side to go and rummage through the drawers of the crash cart.

The Infirmary was almost full, medical personnel running around and wounded walking in or being carried every few minutes. The patients were mostly S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, but Tony saw some civilians in the mix.
No one seemed to be injured too seriously.

"We've started bringing in whomever needed medical attention," Lawson said, returning to his side, a syringe in his hand. "It's a madhouse out there."

Tony nodded vaguely. He knew that, he'd seen it before.

"Give me the injection, doc," he said, turning to look at him. "I'll be out of your hair and you'll be able to work on people who need it more than me." Okay, that didn't come out as confident as he would have liked, his voice was pathetically small. And he was still stuttering. "I've fought in worse conditions."

"Somehow, I don't doubt that," the doctor said with a sigh, the needle prickling Tony's skin.
The rush was almost instantaneous.

Tony gasped and shuddered, his muscles seizing up for an endless, painful moment; he had to fight down the nausea.

"I'm not taking any responsibilities," Lawson said, frowning disapprovingly. The hand that helped him to his feet was a gentle grip, though. "Go and kill yourself out there, Sir. See if I care."

"Hey, I quit," Tony said, attempting a step. "I'm not your responsibility, anymore."

"That's good to hear," Lawson replied with a roll of his eyes. He took off his gloves and tossed them into the trash as well as the empty syringe. "But somehow I doubt that would stop Captain America from coming after me."

"I promise I'll tell Cap not to kick you into a wall," Tony said. Now that he was steadier on his feet, he felt kind of foolish standing in the Infirmary full people in just his black boxers. Not that he hadn't been in front of an audience with much less.

"I appreciate that," Lawson said. "Kick some Skrull ass for us, Iron Man," he added, before snapping a new pair of gloves on and turning his attention to another patient.

Tony nodded and left.

He got some double takes as he made his way back to his office – the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s office, not his anymore - but that was to be expected.

The door was still in the condition Steve had left it, wide open and with a round scorched hole where the lock was supposed to be, the edges uneven where the melted metal had solidified in the open air.

He looked at the pieces of the Extremis armor scattered on the ground, the helmet thrown a little farther and bent out of shape by Steve's metal gauntlets. Maybe when this was over he could work on getting Extremis back online. It wasn't completely gone, he knew, or he would be dead right now.

Tony went to his desk and punched the code in the keypad he'd installed. Behind him the hidden panel on the wall slid open and he turned around.

He'd been working on a downgraded version of the Extremis armor that didn't include Starktech for some time now; ever since he'd handed Steve his own suit of armor. Too many things had caught up with him, though, and while it was mostly finished, he hadn't been able to test it.

He took the golden undearmor folded next to it and started to put it on. "I guess we're back to basics, Shellhead," he muttered, looking at his reflection in the faceplate.

At least he could still fly and use his repulsors; he could still fight.

As soon as he had it on he launched a system diagnostic and raised Maria on his radio. He should have called Steve first, maybe, but he could already picture how the conversation would go. So no, duty first, disapproving Captain America later.

"Maria," he called. Now he was on the main deck; flying cars were going out, but most of them were touching down to bring in wounded. "What's the situation?"

"Aliens have landed in Manhattan, what do you think the situation is?" Maria replied, or at least that was what Tony guessed she said. The connection was coming and going. "Fury has just arrived, by the way. And… he's carrying a really big gun."

"Good for him, then."

Video feeds showed him that the situation wasn't as bad as in the rest of the world. Skrull ships were bearing down on the main cities, Moscow, Tokyo, London and LA but the brunt of it had landed in New York.

What was it with people wanting to take over the world and starting with New York? It was the most superhero-populated city in the world; if Tony ever decided to take up a life of supervillainy, New York would be his last target, after he'd conquered the rest of the world.

He tried to picture Steve's face if he ever told him that and he actually snorted out loud.

He hadn't been able to handle S.H.I.E.L.D. and the SHRA, how could he possibly handle the world?
"Steve," he called through the channel.

He was flying over Manhattan, but it resembled a battlefield more than anything else. Skrull ships were still looming over the New York skyline, but most of them had crashed down, hopefully without killing many people. At his altitude the only one he could clearly distinguish, without using the enhancements of his armor, was Cassie. She was fighting against a Skrull who was obviously using Pym particles.

Steve wasn't answering. Where was Steve?

"Steve!" he called again, losing height.

The battle was slowly moving to Central Park, that was good that was- "Tony?"

"Steve!" he exclaimed. "Are you all right? How are things going?"

Steve's voice was vaguely annoyed when he replied. "Please Tony, tell me you're lying in bed and just being your normal controlling self by checking up on the situation via radio."

"Well, Cap," he said after a long moment, "one out of three isn't bad."

"Tony…"

"Now, don't tell me you actually—"

"What the—" Steve trailed off, and when he spoke again his voice betrayed an urgency that froze Tony's blood in his veins. "I have to go."

"Steve?" he tried, but the channel was closed. "Cap?"

Tony wasn't panicking. Really, he wasn't.

And then he had no time to not-panic at all. A huge hand came down at him, obscuring the sun and smacking him. The giant Skrull hurled him through the air, and Tony felt bile climbing up his throat again.

He turned in the air and fired his jet-boots for all their worth. "You chose a really bad moment to make me angry, you know," he told the Skrull, conversationally. Tony doubted he was listening, though. "I'm feeling like shit and I've had no coffee in… Good lord, I can't remember."

The Skrull didn't seem to notice his tirade, but he sure noticed when Tony fired two repulsor blasts at his head. The Skrull let Cassie go from the headlock he had her in and turned his attention to Tony.

The hand came at him again, but this time Tony was ready. His response time might have been significantly slower in this armor rather than in the Extremis one, and he might have been on the passing out side of consciousness, but he was still quick enough to dodge the hit.

The hand swept above his head harmlessly, and Tony fired another low-powered blast at the Skrull's head. He must have felt like a particularly annoying fly. Well, an annoying fly clad in a red and gold suit of armor.

"Stature," he called, "you okay?"

Half of her face was covered with blood, but her eyes were clear when she raised her head and nodded at him.

The Skrull attacked him again, this time trying to squash him between his palms as if he were a mosquito.

"You're pissing me off," Tony told him, honestly, and this time the blasts he shot at him were much stronger in intensity.

So strong in fact that the Skrull's eyes rolled back and he swayed on his feet. His elbow hit the side of a building and a rain of broken glass fell down on the people below. The Skrull's knees folded under him and he started listing to the left.

Tony cursed sharply, flying around the huge chest to reach his back. He turned and pressed his back against a shoulder blade that was at least three times as big as him.

"Shit. Shit."

He managed to stop the Skrull from altogether collapsing to the ground, but while his armor could bear the weight without any trouble, he was too small to keep any sort of balance for much longer.

"A little help?" he asked, the armor amplifying his voice so it could be heard.

Cassie's arms went around the Skrull's waist and she grunted with the effort of supporting the whole weight, when Tony flew higher to spot a secure place to drop the unconscious body.

Cassie made a face. "Hugging Skrulls wasn't in the deal," she said.

"You know what they say," he pointed her the way and then he flew down to clear the few people stupid enough to stand in the way of a giant girl carrying an unconscious giant Skrull. "Love thy enemy and all that."

"Yeah, whatever," she muttered, letting go of the Skrull and letting him fall on an unoccupied clearing; a little too carelessly if Tony were to judge.

The ground shook, and a couple of blocks away car alarms blared.

"They're destroying the city as it is," Tony told her, "they don't need our help, too."

Cassie didn't seem to hear him, though, as she charged against another Skrull dosed with Pym particles.
Tony flew over the battle, shooting at every green face he saw. It looked so much like last time that Tony had to remind himself that this time it was different. That Steve was alive. That they were going to change things.

"Steve?" he tried again, but he received no reply.

It could mean anything really; maybe Steve had taken off the suit, he had implied several times that he didn't like it. Maybe he hadn't found a radio. Maybe he—

There was a blue spark at the edge of his vision; something hit him in the left side and he went sailing through the air, ricocheting off a car and scraping along the asphalt.

His suit was going to need a new paint job after this whole thing was over.

He got up and looked down, and yep those were hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars in the form of red and gold stripes smudged in the middle of the road. It looked rather like someone had been playing with giant chalks.

He had to reacquaint himself with the downgraded armor. It had been almost a year now that he'd had Extremis back; using the armor then had felt natural, almost like breathing. But now he had to give commands for everything.

"Scan for energy readings," he told the armor, and soon enough data was streaming in front of his eyes. "I've been hit by… lightning?"

He frowned and raised his eyes. A few yards in front of him stood Thor, a rather green-looking Thor. He had his fake Mjolnir raised over his head, ready for an attack, blue lightning crackling around him.

"Oh, yeah, I forgot about you," Tony said, and then he hit him with a repulsor discharge.

In Tony's current condition his aim was shot to hell, but thankfully he had the internal targeting system of the suit to do the hard job for him. Not that hitting a Skrull Thor a few yards away was a problem, he'd even done the nice thing and stood still so Tony could take him down.

As soon as he was down, though, three more were ready to go against him. "You don't see," one of them said. Tony wasn't quite sure whose powers he was supposed to posses. "He loves you. He loves all of us."

"Yeah, yeah, heard it all before," he muttered, as he fired his jet boots and shot down at them. "Tell me something I don't know."

Once again he was flying, shooting down Skrulls whenever he had a clear line of fire, but the battle had reached the point where friends and foes were almost indistinguishable. Some of the foes were actually friends, supervillains and superheroes fighting side by side. Only events on this large a scale, when survival was endangered by alien – literally in this case – threats, could bring those that on normal circumstances would be enemies, together.

The irony was not lost on Tony.

He was flying on autopilot now, the virus taking its toll despite the shot of adrenaline. He didn't remember how debilitating it had been; or maybe he just hadn't noticed in the aftermath, when he'd had so many things to dwell on. Jan's death, Thor, Captain America's back as he walked away, Hank's words at the funeral.
He squeezed his eyes shut to disperse the ghosts that lurked behind his eyelids. When he opened them he scanned the battleground for a red, blue and white suit of armor, hoping Steve was still wearing it, despite
not answering his radio.

If Tony knew him he would be right in the epicenter of it all.

He almost missed the shield, lying as it was on the ground as if it had been tossed carelessly; and Steve never tossed his shield carelessly. He didn't miss the body clad in the very familiar blue leather uniform, though, the red boots.

The whispered 'no' didn't make it past the knot in his throat.

He closed his eyes, trying to erase the picture with denial, but the afterimage was burned into his retinas. Captain America was lying face down in the trampled grass, still, his limbs sprawled unnaturally and even at this distance it was obvious he wasn't breathing.

Tony killed the autopilot and crashed down more than landed next to him. The shaking of his hands was noticeable even through the gauntlets as he lifted his faceplate.

"No," he whispered, and then an endless string of 'no's fell from his lips.

It didn't work like this, it wasn't supposed to go like this, Steve wasn't—Steve—

Tony reached over one shoulder to turn the body over, lying in the mud and crushed grass like this wasn't—

For a long moment his brain couldn't process what was in front of his eyes. When he finally registered the green skin and the ridges along the chin, he fell back; a sound that was neither a sob nor a laugh caught at the back of his throat.

"Not Steve," he muttered to himself, as if he needed more convincing. "That's not Steve."

He got up on rubbery legs, swaying dangerously back and forth.

That wasn't Steve.

Tony took a couple of stumbling steps backwards and swept his gaze around him. If the Skrulls posing as Avengers had landed here in New York instead of the Savage Land, there should have been an Iron Man around, too.

He hoped Steve wouldn't mistake… it for Tony in one of his old suits. Still, if he was still wearing the armor he should have no problem disposing of him.

Not that Tony would ever make the mistake of judging Steve unable to defeat him as Captain Amrica while he was in his Iron Man armor.

A bolt of lightning ripped through the air and Tony knew he had hit jackpot. Thor was finally here, then. It was either that or another Skrull clone walking around. Frankly at this point, Tony couldn't really decide which one wanted to kill him more badly.

Thor was angry. Furious, in fact.

When Tony realized why exactly he froze, the hair at his nape standing on end.

The two figures were facing each other in silence, and the battle had opened and quieted down to a hush around them, as if to give them space. It was as if the world had stopped breathing for a second.

And then Thor raised his hammer and hit the blue, red and white suit of armor with what had to be all of his strength. The spark of lightning was so intense and bright that Tony thought he might have gone blind.

Steve hadn't even tried to defend himself, what if the armor— Tony had built it to withstand and come up on top in a no-holds-barred battle against the Extremis Armor, but this was Thor. This was an angry Thor.

A moment went by, then two, but Steve wasn't getting up. Thor was still towering over him, lightning crackling around him, his booming, enraged words making no discernible sense to Tony's frozen brain.

Steve wasn't moving at all.

Someone was screaming, and it was Tony.

 

 

18 | If you're gonna die, die with your boots on.

 

 

"Hey, Cap!" Peter gives him a two-fingered salute as he swings past to land with both feet on the bewildered face of a Skrull. "Glad you could join us!"

Steve doesn't reply, but he fires a blast to the Skrull equipped with Wolverine-like claws about to slash Spider-Man's back into tiny ribbons.

He would like nothing more than taking off the damn armor and fight with just his bare hands and his shield, with the feel of the battle on his skin. The air inside the armor is stuffy and hot, and Steve is wearing his full uniform ; despite the air filters, the pungent smell of his own sweat is starting to bother him. He can't really fathom how Tony can stand it, how he can spend entire weeks inside it without getting claustrophobic.

Steve has to keep it on, though. Thanks to the Air Force the Skrulls ships are going down like flies, and with Carol on her way to the Savage Land and Tony out of commission, they need all the flyers with superhuman strength they can spare.

His vision flashes red and the electronic voice of the internal AI tells him that he's just been locked on. "Clear!" he shouts, bringing his shield up to cover himself.

All the people around him start running without asking questions, and the blast hits the white star squarely. The force behind it almost sends him to his knees, and if he had been in just his uniform his spine would have probably snapped in two; even with his enhanced strength he would have been unable to withstand it.

Stinky as it may be, the armor has got its uses, Steve has to admit.

The AI remains silent, but Steve lowers his shield and raises his eyes anyway to check if more Skrulls mean to fire again. Bob is already taking care of the ship, though, and Steve turns around to see if anyone has been hurt.

He's standing in an almost perfect circle of scorched grass.

"Wow!" Peter exclaims. "That was amazing! Maybe I should get one of those too!"

"You can have mine when I'm done with it," Steve tells him, adjusting the straps of his shield.

Peter shrugs. "Nah, I'm not sure I want the whole emotional baggage that goes along with it."

Steve can't really blame him.

"Incoming!" Somebody yells and before Steve can see what exactly is incoming, a huge hand slams into him and sends him flying.

Steve isn't sure, but it sounds to him like someone is yelling his name.

He doesn't activate the jetboots in time and he smashes through a building, landing in what at a cursory glance looks like an office. The HID flickers for a moment before coming back online.

He gets to his feet and suddenly notices a rather wide-eyed man staring at him. He's wearing a cheap suit and clutching some folders to his chest, black-framed glasses sit askew on his nose.

"You shouldn't be here, sir," Steve says. The man just blinks at him. "It's very dangerous, there's a battle going on outside."

When the man makes no move, Steve lifts his faceplate. "I'm sure your employer won't mind if you skip your overtime and go home, sir," he says.

The man's eyes flicker up to his forehead, focusing on the 'A' and suddenly his shoulders slump and he sighs in relief. "I thought you were a new supervillain," the man admits after a moment. "I never saw that design before."

Steve frowns. "You really shouldn't be here," he repeats.

As if to underline his words, the sound of something exploding comes from the direction of the battle.
The man doesn't seem much fazed, though. "Oh, I've lived in New York all my life," he says with a shrug. "I've seen it all before. In fact, aren't you supposed to be dead?"

Even as he's flying back toward Central Park, where the battle is slowly moving to, Steve's so dazed by the surrealism of the conversation that he misses the first two times the familiar voice calls his name through the radio.

He's about to answer Tony when the screens flash to life and there's another Skrull ship he needs to steer safely to the ground.

It's coming in too quickly though, and while Steve can maneuver the armor quite easily now, he's still a novice when it comes to grabbing big, fast moving objects.

That's why, as he goes to meet the ship head-on, he may have slightly miscalculated the physics involved. When he finally touches down in a people-free part of the park, there's a visible hull breach just under the cockpit, shaped rather as if a pair of metal gauntlets had pushed against the surface harder than necessary.

Luke, Wolverine and various S.H.I.E.L.D. agents including Maria Hill fan around him and the ship, taking position.

Maria seems to notice the rather large hole in the cockpit and she turns to him. "Nice job," she says, arching an eyebrow.

Wolverine's claws are out and Luke's body is coiled, ready to strike, the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are aiming their weapons at the hatch, and the tension is high all around. The ship lays still and inert, though. It doesn't look anything like the other Skrull warships.

If anything, it resembles the ship he and Rhodey retrieved from geostationary orbit and subsequently crashed into the Savage Land.

"Steve!" Tony repeats into his ears, his tone alarmed.

"Tony?" he asks, frowning.

Tony should be lying in a bed in the Helicarrier Infirmary right now. He should be recovering from the alien virus.

"Steve!" Tony exclaims, audibly relieved. "Are you all right? How are things going?"

Of course Tony isn't quietly resting in the Helicarrier Infirmary.

He sighs. "Please Tony, tell me you're lying in bed and just being your normal controlling self by checking up on the situation via radio," he says.

There's a long moment of silence from Tony's end. "Well, Cap," he finally says, "one out of three isn't bad."

"Tony…" he starts, but he trails off into nothing when something blinks on the screen in front of his eyes.

"Now, don't tell me you actually—"

Sixteen new vital signs appear on the screen and Steve turns his attention back to the Skrull ship.

"What the—" Steve has no idea of what he's seeing. "I have to go," he tells Tony hastily before closing the conversation.

In front of his eyes there stands, well, the Avengers. The past them. The armor confirms what he's seeing, it confirms their identities, but it can't be. They came out of a Skrull ship, they have to be Skrulls.

"Well, I'll be damned," he hears Maria mutter.

Before them, Iron Man hovers right above Captain America's shoulder. "Cap, what is this?" he asks.

"I don't know Shellhead," the Captain America imposter replies. "But it looks like those damn Skrulls are pulling another trick out of their sleeves."

Seeing and hearing himself talk is a deeply unsettling experience. His voice sounds nothing like the one he's used to hearing when he speaks, like listening to a recording, only much more surreal.

"This is rich," Logan snarls, and Steve doesn't need to check to know he's smirking. "Spidey's mine."

Next to him Luke barks out an unpleasant laugh. "That's good. Work all that frustration out, man," he says. "It's bad for your health."

And like that, as if by tacit agreement, they all spring forward at once.

Steve takes care of 'Iron Man' first. The twin blasts of his repulsors cutting through the inferior armor as if it were mere cardboard. Steve really doesn't want to think about the implications. He doesn't want to picture this could very well have been real if Tony had given him the armor as he meant to.

The fight over Registration would have ended differently, maybe, but surely not better.

As he anticipated, as soon as the Skrull version of Iron Man goes down, Captain America charges at him, brandishing his shield and screaming his rage out.

He knows, because that's what Steve would have done.

Steve thrusts his left hand forward; the repulsor charges with energy but he doesn't deploy it. It's a typical Tony-gesture he's learned from all the times he's fought with and against Tony. And he knows how his Skrull version will react, because that's how he would.

The Skrull is supposed to be him, and that means that Steve knows all his moves, that he knows what he's thinking, what he's going to do. Of course, it stands to reason that the opposite is equally true, but the suit looks just like Tony's, colors aside, so he knows the Skrull will expect Steve to fight just like Tony and will act on his suppositions. Right now, Steve has got the element of surprise. In the armor he's stronger, too.

Much stronger.

The Skrull sprints to the left, raising the shield with his right hand ready to strike, but Steve is there to meet him.

The punch strikes true, but not as fully as Steve would like. The Skrull has got quick reflexes and manages to deflect much of the force behind it. It's still a punch dealt by a metal suit of armor, though.

The Skrull spins sideways, his eyes widening in surprise.

"Who are you?" he says, crouching and ready to strike but this time waiting for the opportune moment as he studies his opponent.

It's so startling to hear his voice and watch himself fight and move. It's upsetting. His voice, his eyes, his hands. And this- the Skrull has them, everything that's his. His body, his uniform, his shield.

"Your suit looks similar to that of— of Iron Man," his voice cracks slightly at the name, and Steve has to force himself to pretend he hasn't noticed, "but your colors…" the Skrull trails off, catching sight of the real Captain America shield that's strapped around Steve's armored forearm. He narrows his eyes at him. "You have my shield. Who are you?" he asks again.

Steve doesn't reply and just charges. He jumps in the air, the jet boots allowing him to reach the impostor with just one leap. His cry of rage is inhuman and blood-curling, distorted as it is by the suit communicators.

"You're not Captain America!" he yells.

His gauntlet collides with the shield, the shrill sound clearly audible, even in the chaos around them. The Skrull staggers a little under the impact, but he recovers at once, using his right foot as support and pushing forward against him.

"I don't believe a word you say," the Skrull says, glaring straight at him.

"You're not Captain America, you are a Skrull," Steve says.

He grabs the shield with his left hand but has to let go to dodge the Skrull's attempt at swiping him off his feet. He could have simply activated the boots, but he's still Steve Rogers even if he may be hiding inside Tony's 'gift'. And after a life spent fighting as Steve Rogers it's hard to adapt to fighting in a suit of armor.

Tony can hold his own in hand to hand combat, but he's Tony Stark, not Tony Canzoneri. His strong suit is technology, and while this armor was done with Steve in mind, it's still Tony's specialty.

"I am Captain America," the Skrull says, rising to his feet. "I am human. I am male," he raises his shield. "I am the Super Soldier. I am an Avenger."

The shield spins towards him at incredible speed. It follows a strange trajectory, and for anybody else Steve guesses it must seem random and dictated by chance. He knows that move, though, and while this may not be his real shield, it looks like a close enough replica and it cuts gracefully through the air just like his would.
Steve knows that the Skrull threw it so that it will miss Steve by barely an inch. And if he were any other
opponent he might take it as a mistake from the Skrull, but Steve knows that movement, he knows the tactic. He knows the Skrull expects him to attack now that he's seemingly powerless without the shield, but Steve also knows that behind him the shield will make a sudden turn, almost physically impossible, and strike the enemy in the back.

It would work, too, against anyone else.

Steve's right arm shoots out and catches it.

"You are not," he repeats, slowly, "Captain America."

The Skrull is looking at him with barely concealed anger, now.

"You are not human. You were never," he says then, "an Avenger."

Steve tosses the fake shield away and unstraps his own from his arm. The Skrull springs forward and Steve rushes to meet him, wearing the shield on his left arm, where it belongs.

Their movements, their punches, their kicks, their dodges are matched but Steve is stronger, and they both know it, as they both know who's going to win this fight in the end.

But the Skrull is meant to be him.

"Who the hell are you?," the Skrull yells into his face, his eyes the same blue Steve sees every morning in the mirror. "You killed Iron Man! You killed—"

"I would never," Steve snarls, catching the Skrull into a headlock, "kill him!"

He doesn't even hear the sound as the neck snaps under his hands like a twig. He looks down as the human skin of Steve Rogers changes to the green hue of an unnamed Skrull.

For a moment he feels sick, his hands letting go of the body. He watches as it falls face down in the mud and the trampled grass. He was a Skrull, yes, but he died believing he was the real Captain America. He died believing Iron Man was dead. He didn't know, he was… innocent in a way.

Steve swallows the bitter taste of bile at the back of his throat and he reminds himself this is war. No matter what side you're on, the ones on the other side are the enemy. No matter what side you're on, there are always going to be innocent victims.

He's lost sight of his teammates, but he spies a Skrull wearing a Spider-Man costume lying on the ground, obviously dead. There are vertical tears in sets of three in his costume through which Steve can see the green skin and the blood.

When he finds Thor he assumes he's the Skrull that came out of the ship and he acts accordingly, firing at him. Thor doesn't seem much impressed by his show of force, but he's certainly taken aback when he turns fully around to face him and sees the armor.

That's when Steve sees the body lying a few feet away from them, green skin in Asgardian clothing and realizes his mistake.

Lightning sparkles around Mjolnir and Steve raises his hands in a non-threatening gesture.

"Thor! Tony told me you were alive, but he wasn't sure when you'd be—" the 'back' dies on his lips as he notices Thor's face. "Thor, it's me, Cap," he says, lifting the faceplate.

That seems to enrage Thor even further, his face contorting in a grimace of anger like Steve has never seen before.

"Tho—"

"What abomination is this?" Thor yells, and his voice isn't human at all.

He only has the time to order the faceplate shut, before the hammer hits his chestplate with a force that human-shaped hands shouldn't be able to produce, a strength that shouldn't exist in nature. Lightning frizzles around them and for an endless second the whiteness and the silence are so absolute that Steve has to wonder if he's gone deaf and blind.

He has possibly passed out, but it mustn't have been more than a few moments because when he comes to, the HID is still flickering off and on, trying to reboot the internal systems of the armor. All he can see from the reduced visual of the eye-fissures is the blue of the skies.

He tries to move, but the armor is locked down. Tony may have intended it as a precautionary measure to prevent the stealing or sabotaging of the armor, but it becomes a dangerous feature when you're the one trapped inside the metal coffin.

Steve makes a mental note to have Tony install a manual override inside all of his suits.

The AI comes back online, informing him that systems are functioning at 4% of their capacities, meaning he can see and hear now, but not much else.

Someone is screaming, raw and desperate, and the screens that have become now Steve's eyes on the world outside the armor offer him the unfolding of events in four different point of views. He watches, literally powerless, as Tony flings himself at Thor, his screams morphing into barely understandable words.

"You killed him!" Tony's screaming, and he doesn't seem to notice as Mjolnir hits him in the side, sending him sprawling at Thor's feet. "You killed him!"

He climbs back to his feet and attacks Thor again and again, mindless of the lightning and the hammer, mindless of the people that have gathered around the two of them.

"Disassemble!" Steve yells inside the armor, and when the pieces don't come apart as fast as he'd like he yells and yells it again.

All around him people are screaming and yelling, Luke and Wolverine trying to keep Tony back from pointlessly attacking Thor again, while Thor just stands there, his face a mask of fury.

Under the costume, Steve can feel the hair on his arms stand on end with all the electricity that's been discharged in the air.

They're fighting a war, they don't need internal fights to tear them apart even further.

He stands up, the armor scattered around him and yells at them to stop. His voice sounds weird to his ears, but a second later he realizes that's because they're still ringing from the lightning Thor has thrown at him.
Tony turns at the sound of his voice, and abruptly his body goes limp against Luke and Logan's grip and they let him go. He rushes to his side.

More than an embrace, it's a collision.

The metal chestplate almost knocks all the breath out of him as Tony throws his arms carelessly around him, one around his shoulders, the other hand Steve feels scratching against his left elbow trying to find a grip.

"You're alive," Tony murmurs against his shoulder. "You're okay, you're okay."

Steve adjusts their position to a more comfortable one, his hands going to Tony's waist to steady him, while Tony's left arm closes tighter around his shoulders, his right hanging down.

From the glimpse Steve got of his face, chalk-white and tight, Tony can barely stand at this point, the Skrull virus dealing a powerful blow, and Thor's rage doing the rest.

Everyone is staring at them, but Tony is still muttering nonsense against his scale mail and Steve maybe feels slightly stupid patting the metal shoulder plates in reassurance, but Tony seems to slowly relax.

"What is the meaning of this?" Thor's voice booms.

"That's what I've been trying to say," Spider-Man says, cautiously approaching the Norse god now that he's somewhat calmed down. "That's Cap."

"We'll explain everything later, Thor," Steve tells him, "for now, I'm just glad to see you."

Thor takes the few steps towards him and Tony comes away from Steve's side, turning to frown warily at
Thor. "I'm sorry I fired at you, old friend," Steve says, his lips twitching.

Tony takes a few steps back just in time to avoid being run over by Thor as he surges forward and squeezes Steve in a powerful hug. "No need to apologize, Captain," Thor says, a smile in his voice, "You too suffered from my blind rage and fell under the blows of the mighty Mjolnir."

Tony snorts next to him. "So he's forgiven because you've got the bigger stick?" he asks.

Thor's eyes become darker as they shift to Tony, and Steve intervenes before words that can't be taken back are said. "We have other things to think of," he says, looking between the two of them.

Only when they both nod does he bend to retrieve his shield from where it's still strapped to one of the armor's gauntlets.

"What are you doing, having a moment in the heat of battle?" a voice calls from above.

Steve frowns. A voice that shouldn't be here yet.

He watches as Carol touches down next to them. "I thought it'd take you significantly longer," he admits to her.

Carol points at Strange who's surrounded by some of the people he and Rhodey rescued. "We got a lift," she says. "He thought you could use the help."

They need all the help they can get. They've had a brief respite in the middle of all the fighting, and now the battling factions seem to have naturally come apart, squaring off on two opposite sides.

"We are here to save you," one of the Skrull dosed with Pym particles says, his voice echoing eerily around them. "We are here to change you."

"Uh," Peter says, scratching the back of his head through the mask. "What is he talking about?"

Tony waves a hand dismissively, the gesture makes him sway slightly, and Steve's hand goes to his shoulder to steady him. "Oh, don't mind them," he says with a snort. "There's a prophecy and a god that loves us in it somewhere."

Luke frowns. "You mean to tell me that we got saddled with the intergalactic Jehovah's Witnesses?"

Spider-Man takes in what he can see of all their forces and then he turns to look at the Skrulls closing ranks in front of them. "You know," he says, conversationally, "I'm almost afraid to say this, because we all know how I've got a lifetime subscription to Murphy's Law, but I think right now the odds of this actually going well are not as bad as before."

Next to him, Tony slides the faceplate shut. Now that he looks at it, Steve isn't sure he's ever seen that particular armor before. Granted, Tony goes through armors the way people go through Kleenex. "You think?" comes Iron Man's voice.

Peter shrugs. "Well, we could beat the Skrulls or win the Lottery."

"I like our odds," Steve says, taking a step in front. He stops at once, though, and he looks down at his feet. He completely forgot about his boots. "Um."

While his uniform more or less fits under the armor, his boots surely don't; they're probably still in the Skrull ship in the Savage Land if no one has remembered to pick them up, Steve realizes.

A pair of red boots is thrust in front of his eyes and when he turns he see Wolverine give a shrug. "Got them off him," he explains, pointing at the Skrull that was supposed to be Captain America. Steve's feelings on the subject must be telegraphed by his face. "What?" Logan asks, defensively. "It's not like he was gonna use them, anyway."

A metal gauntlet drops on his shoulder. "And we can't have Captain America fighting Skrulls in his socks," Tony says.

Steve snorts despite himself and concedes the point, stepping into his new boots, and when he stands back up, everyone – registered and non-registered metahumans, superheroes, supervillains, policemen, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents – is staring at him, waiting.

They're squaring off, and for the first time after so long they are together again out in the open, side by side and fighting the common enemy. The situation is serious, but Steve can appreciate the irony.

"Avengers," he calls loudly, raising his left arm holding the shield, "assemble!"

And in that moment it doesn't matter the words they've said to each other, and the things they've done, the lies they've told. Yesterday's enemies don't matter. Not even the Registration Act matters. What matters is that everyone charges forwards at once, what matters is that they're fighting side by side, what matters is that despite the Skrulls' dividi et impera tactics that made everyone question and suspect family and friends, despite all of that, they know how to fight together.

They fight as one.

 

19 | Wall of sleep is lying broken. Sun shines in, you have awoken.

 

It was snowing.

He couldn't see much; the sky was dark, and there was no wind. The snowflakes were falling down slowly, like ash.

A snowflake fell right into his right eye and he blinked the burning sensation away.

He was lying in the snow but he wasn't cold; in fact, he couldn't feel anything at all. Only the brief, cold prickling as more snowflakes melted against the exposed skin of his face.

"So," he said to the dark sky he couldn't see, "am I dead, then?"

"I don't know, Tony," Wanda's kind voice said as she knelt over him and blocked the gentle falling snow. "Are you?"

Tony took a deep breath, but he didn't feel it. "Does it matter?" he asked after a long moment.

Wanda smiled. "I don't know," she said. "Does it?"

Tony rolled his eyes and Wanda gave a quiet chuckle, as if amused by their little game. "This could be happening in the second between your last breath and not breathing at all," she continued. "As they say, time is relative."

"I hope you're not my subconscious," he told her, quite seriously. "I couldn't bear if all it had to offer me were hackneyed phrases about Einstein."

Not that physics, any kind, could stand up to magic, as much as Tony hated it. Science got drunk and passed out when magic came into play. Then it would wake up the morning after with a hangover and no memories of their little one night stand. It would gather up all its clothes and climb out the window before magic could wake up. And when they met after that, they both would pretend nothing had happened, but science would shift uncomfortably on its chair, while magic would hide its grin behind its hand.

Okay, that metaphor had officially gone out of hand.

Wanda smiled softly, as if she knew exactly what he was thinking. Maybe she did. "So you're saying that I could drop dead any moment and everything would disappear?" he said, closing his eyes. "Or maybe I'm dead already."

Suddenly her voice seemed to come from far away. "I don't know, Tony," she said. "I'm not really here."

After that, everything was silent around him, and he couldn't feel the snowflakes on his face anymore. He would have opened his eyes to check if she'd really disappeared, if it was still snowing and he couldn't feel it, or if everything had gone with her.

"And neither are you," it was only a whisper but it echoed around him as if it had been a shout and it cut into him as if it had been a knife jabbed into his ribs.

Fire exploded in his chest and he was gasping and every breath burned.

His eyes flew open, but squeezed them shut a second later, the light almost a physical pain. He struggled but he couldn't move, and he couldn't feel much of anything past his shoulders.

He tried opening his eyes again, but the light was still too violent for them. Where was he?

He'd… dreamed? Of Wanda. He'd been in the snowfield, but then—

Steve. Where was Steve?

Where was he?

Why couldn't he feel anything at all?

"Sir!" a voice exclaimed. "Sir, calm down, you're hyperventilating."

In fact, he was. He was sucking in air as if he were drowning. He coughed and opened his eyes a third time.
Now he could make out vague shapes, the closest and sharpest one being that of a person, a woman.

Her greenish body was still blurry and confused against the bright light of the background. For a moment he thought his heart had stopped. Skrulls. Had they won? Had they—But he blinked rapidly and the green turned out to be hospital scrubs, and the woman, a nurse, frowned down at him.

A human nurse.

"Calm down," she repeated. "You'll hurt yourself."

His eyes darted around the room. There were several beds, all of them occupied by people whose condition varied in severity; some were awake and had no visible injuries, others were sleeping or more likely unconscious, hooked to machines, bandages covering their bodies.

Tony looked down at himself, but he was covered with blankets up to middle chest, and he couldn't really feel anything, the IV inserted in the back of his right hand was probably to blame. They were pumping him with painkillers, which explained his numbness and the difficulty at focusing his thoughts.

His left arm, though, was heavily bandaged and encased in a cast.

"What's—" he croaked, and stopped at the sound of his own voice. His throat was parched, how long had he been unconscious? He swallowed, but the situation didn't improve much. "What's wrong with my arm?"

"I'll call the doctor," the nurse said.

"What's wrong with it?" he asked again. It barely came out, rasping.

She had already left, though, and when she came back there was a woman with her, a white coat over her blue scrubs.

"My name is Doctor Lewis, Mr. Stark," she said, grabbing his chart from where it was hanging at the foot of the bed. "How are you feeling?"

"My arm…" he started, but trailed off, tired.

"You broke your ulna and radius in two places," she explained. "We had to reset the bones and put your arm in plaster."

"It's going to be fine, then," he said, with a sigh of relief.

"There was no damage to the nerves," the doctor continued, nodding. "So yes, it should be fine. What we all were worried about was—"

"Steve," he said, "where is Steve? Is he all right?"

Did they win? They had to have won.

She frowned. "Steve?"

"Steve Rogers," he elaborated. "Captain America?"

The possibility that he'd been arrested occurred to him, but he dismissed it a second later. Nick Fury wouldn't have allowed it. Not on his watch, not even if Tony had made it his watch.

The nurse leant in to say something to the doctor, but she was whispering and Tony couldn't catch what she'd said. The doctor nodded and the nurse left.

"Mr. Stark," she started again, turning to him, "you were brought in unconscious, suffering from quite a severe concussion. You were also running a fever and suffered from dehydration. Three of your ribs are cracked and one is actually broken, We were able to reduce the swelling without—"

"Where is Steve?" he asked. Concussions were a piece of cake, concussions were nothing to worry about.
"Did we win?"

"Mr. Stark—"

"Yes, I get it," he muttered. "I got my ass kicked, later we can talk about it at length. Now get me Captain America."

Dr. Lewis narrowed her eyes at him. "I don't think you're taking your condition seriously, Mr. Stark," she said.

"What gave it away?" he retorted.

She opened her mouth, probably about to start listing all of his injuries and how they had managed to save his life, but he raised his right hand to stop her. The effort it took just to make such a small movement surprised him.

He was weak.

"It's not that I'm ungrateful, doctor," he said, "but right now I just want to know that we won and that everyone's all right."

She snorted and looked around the room. "Define 'all right'," she said, "all the hospitals are packed, we had to put beds in the corridors."

"You can have my bed," he told her.

"It would get pretty cramped," a new voice said from the doorway, "as you'd still be in it."

Steve got into the room, limping and on crutches, his face spattered with small cuts and a couple of bruises. He was smiling, though, and his eyes looked even bluer in contrast with the subdued hues of the hospital ward.

"I have a perfectly good bed in my suite," Tony replied, then he grimaced at the way his voice seemed to actually scratch against his throat. "Can I have some water?"

"Mr. Stark—"

Steve drew up a chair and sat down next to him. He leant over to press the call button. "I'm sure a nurse will be more than glad to help you," he said. "Now shut up and listen to the doctor."

Tony turned his head to meet his eyes, but he could barely move. "Steve—"

"Everything's fine," Steve said, his eyes serious. "Now let Doctor…" he trailed off, looking at her.

"Lewis," she supplied.

"Let Dr. Lewis do her job," he finished.

Tony rolled his eyes despite the fact that the action made his head feel like it was splitting in two. He waved a hand at her with a sigh.

"I'm glad I've finally got your permission, Mr. Stark," she said, glacially.

"Why do medical doctors have no sense of humor?" Tony asked. The nurse came back and Steve sent her to find a glass of water. "I'm genuinely curious."

"It's removed surgically just after we take the Hippocratic Oath," she said, "and it's then replaced with a brand specifically made for doctors."

"On the other hand, I see you haven't skipped Applied Sarcasm 101," he continued.

"Shut up," Steve repeated, thrusting a plastic cup filled with water at him.

Tony drank obligingly, and he'd been dying of thirst since he'd woken up, but he hadn't yet realized how much. When he sneaked a glance sideways he saw Steve was grinning at him, the smug bastard.

He let Dr. Lewis and the nurse from earlier poke and prod him as they liked, and that was a testament that he really was feeling like shit, had been feeling like shit for a long time. Normally, two good-looking women in hospital garb having free reign over his scantily-clad, if a little battered, body would have elicited all sorts of suggestive comments from him.

As it was, he barely had the force to pass the empty cup to Steve, and he let Dr. Lewis' voice wash over him as she listed all of his injuries and probably also how they had managed to keep his brain from turning into mush; Tony wasn't really listening. He shot a few glances in Steve's direction and he concentrated on breathing slowly, so his ribs wouldn't hurt much, and on keeping awake.

Steve seemed to slowly relax in his seat, despite the uncomfortable plastic chair. Tony hadn't noticed he'd been that tense until he caught Steve's grin softening and turning into a small smile out of the corner of his eye. When their eyes met, however, Steve's smile faltered and something like guilt flashed in his eyes before he looked away.

Tony frowned and he would have liked nothing more than expand on the subject but he noticed the nurse changing his IV drip. "No painkillers," he said.

Painkillers were good if you were feeling like shit, like Tony was feeling right now, but he didn't like that they made him lose approximately seventy percent of his common sense, and it wasn't like he had much to begin with.

The nurse ignored him, though, just like she ignored his further protesting. He finally shut up when Steve wrapped his fingers around his right shoulder, giving a light squeeze in warning, and Tony resigned himself to speak gibberish until the painkillers wore off.

Dr. Lewis said something Tony didn't really listen to – it was probably something sarcastic anyway – and then she left to check on the man lying opposite to Tony.

"Hey," Steve said softly, and Tony blinked at him.

Great, the painkillers were working already. On one hand, he was feeling kind of floaty, his headache had slowly subsided as well as the pain of the broken ribs; on the other, he was probably frowning at Steve with a puzzled expression.

Steve didn't seem to notice, though, or maybe he didn't mind, his hand travelled up Tony's right arm in a slow gesture that was almost a caress and it settled at the base of Tony's neck. Tony blinked up at him and he must have closed his eyes for longer than he had intended, because the next thing he knew Steve was invading his personal space, taking up pretty much all the non-Tony occupied air.

"We did it, Tony," he murmured, and Tony felt the words vibrating against the skin of his throat more than heard them. "We did it."

As far as hugs went, it wasn't much to write home about. Actually, Tony wasn't really sure it could technically be called a hug. Steve's arms weren't around him in any form, his face was aligned next to Tony's and his fingers were splayed at the nape of his neck, his other hand holding the crutches; on his part, Tony barely had the strength to lift his right hand and pat awkwardly at what he could reach of Steve's side.
Steve's weight was grounding, though, and his breath warm against Tony's skin. There were worse things.

"What about a kiss, now?" he asked, before his painkiller-addled brain could censor the question. "I promise I've brushed my teeth."

Steve drew slowly back and frowned down at him. He didn't look very happy. Maybe Tony shouldn't have mentioned kissing while in a public place. He didn't know where they stood on that.

"When?" Steve asked. "Was it before or after you collapsed in the middle of battle and spent a day unconscious?"

Tony gave a small chuckle. "Ouch."

"Don't laugh," Steve said. He was looking down at Tony with a strange, intense look; almost calculating.

"Steve?" he asked, frowning.

Steve bent down towards him and kissed him. It was nothing fancy, a dry press of lips; just a brief kiss, and then Steve sat back against the back of the chair.

Steve had just kissed him in a public place, in plain sight for everyone who wanted to see. He wasn't wearing his Captain America uniform, so it was safe to assume that no one had recognized him, except Dr. Lewis and the nurse. The hospital was packed with injured people after all, and while Captain America was one of a kind, Steve Rogers in plain clothes could—

Clothes.

For moment he forgot himself and the situation he was in and he shot up, or tried to anyway. The pain in his side flared and the IV needle tugged at the back of his hand. He fell back against the pillows with a breathless gasp. "The armor!" he exclaimed. "Please tell me you retrieved your—"

Steve rolled his eyes. "No, Tony," he snorted, "I left one of the most technologically advanced weapons in the world lying around Central Park where anyone could have picked it up."

Tony let out a sigh. "Sorry," he said, shaking his head. "Osborn got his hands on it once, and frankly that was once too many."

"Yes, I guess it would be," Steve said, smiling slightly. He was looking at Tony with the strange look he'd had earlier.

"What is it?" he prompted. Steve's smile faltered and he looked down at his hands. "Steve?"

"I…" he took a deep breath. After a moment he picked up again. "Sharon is back."

"Ah," said Tony, who really couldn't think of anything else to say. He blamed the painkillers mostly.

"Tony, I-"

"Don't lose your sleep over it, Steve," he interrupted him. "It is possible to be attracted to multiple persons at the same time, you know."

Steve sighed again, and he still hadn't looked up from his hands. That… wasn't a good sign. "Yes, Tony," he said finally, "but I'm not talking about sexual attraction here. At least, not just that."

Tony frowned and felt very much like he'd lost some important piece of the conversation along the way. "What then?"

At last Steve looked up. He stared at Tony in silence for a long time, possibly an entire minute. It was probably a meaningful stare, but Tony could barely get his eyes to focus, the meds making him sleepy, and he was evidently failing at silent conversation.

Steve raised his eyebrows at him and Tony's breath caught in his throat. "…Oh," he said. "Right."

"Yeah. Oh."

"It's fine, Steve," he said, trying to wave his hand in a dismissive gesture, but he gave up when the movement proved to be too taxing. "You don't have to explain yourself to me. And anyway, now that Sharon had more or less recovered… It won't be easy," he almost snorted at himself for that understatement, "but I'm sure you guys will pull through."

Steve blinked at him. "What?" he said, sharply. "No, Tony. I'm talking about you."

Tony had no idea what he looked right now, but he was pretty sure that his face fully expressed the way his brain had apparently stopped working altogether and his thoughts resembled a headless chicken running all over the place in a panic.

What?

What?

What the hell?

He seemed to be stuck in a loop.

Steve didn't seem to notice his current plight, however, and he went on. "I'm talking about us," he said. gesturing at the two of them. "If it was Sharon, things would be easier. But it's you, and…" he broke off with a sigh and rubbed his hands over his face. "I don't know why, Tony, but it's you and I want to see where this goes."

This… wasn't supposed to happen. Steve should have ended up with Sharon. She was pregnant and—Tony had everything set up in his head. Admittedly, his plans had sort of derailed off the tracks when he'd jumped Steve; but if Steve hadn't seen that coming, Tony himself had been taken by surprise.

It had been good – oh god, had it been – but it had also been stupid, and Tony was prepared to wrap the memory up and shove it in the box in his mind where he kept all the good things in his life he'd ruined. It was a really big box.

He laughed breathlessly. It wasn't a good sound, it came out harsh and raw and it caused Steve's head to shoot up, his eyes narrowing. "You can't toss the woman you… love because we sort of had sex once," he said.

"We had sex," Steve hissed, leaning closer. Presumably so that the rest of the people wouldn't hear all about their sex lives. Not that there was much of a sex life between the two of them. Not that there ever was going to be, if Tony managed to stick to his plans. "And it happened twice. I—" he broke off, shaking his head with an exasperated sigh. "And I can't believe I actually have to talk you into this."

"Jesus Christ, Steve," he ground out. "Cut me some slack, will you? I don't even know if this is real!"

"This is real, Tony. How many times do I have to tell you?"

Tony swallowed the curse before it could come out, his eyes squeezed shut. "I. Don't. Know," he repeated, stressing each word by hitting his head against the pillows. "I can't. I've got two sets of memories and you—" he stopped before he made an idiot out of himself. More of an idiot. He should have just shut up altogether. "Suddenly we have sex and you decide that being gay for me is an awesome idea and—"

As much as he would have liked to say that Steve kissing him had saved him from further idiocy, well—that was the whole problem wasn't it?

"Shut up," Steve said, his hand had a firm grip on the side of his neck. When Tony tried to speak, he kissed him again.

Despite Tony's resolve to convince Steve that at least one of them shouldn't be an idiot, he might try to speak just to be stopped with that particular method.

"Shut up and listen," Steve said, sadly drawing back. "First of all, how egocentric are you?" Steve actually paused for a second, but he quickly started talked again when he noticed that Tony had opened his mouth. "No, don't answer that. The thing with me and Sharon… It's complicated. It's always been. And what's between you and me has little to no relevance in that. And second of all…" he trailed off, his eyes dropping down.

Now, Tony thought Steve's hands were something else, much like the rest of him, but he didn't suppose they held the secrets of the universe. Even if they were Captain America's hands. "Steve—"

Steve shot him a glare. "I thought I told you to shut up," he said. "Tony, you're one of the most important people in my life, did you really think it would all amount to—to a little hanky-panky and a quickie in the shower?"

Hanky-panky. Steve had just said hanky-panky and Tony's brain was torn between trying not to find that absurdly hilarious, and trying to work around the concept that Steve was talking about having a relationship with him, right in the middle of the fucking hospital.

It was a cruel thing to do to a man with fuzzy-brain induced by painkillers. Convincing him it was a really bad idea was getting harder and harder. "Steve, I- if you and Sharon are complicated, then we're a fucking Rubik's cube," he snorted. "We're flying blind in this and if we crash, the amount of damage will be abysmal. You're not supposed to—This wasn't in the plan."

"We can't go back to how things were, Tony," Steve said after a moment. "Not in this, not in everything else. We can only go forward. We'll play it by ear," Steve continued. "If we don't make plans, they'll never fail."

That was logical at least. "I love seeing that brilliant tactician's mind at work, Steve."

Steve sighed. "Most of the time I feel like I'm still stuck in the past, and you're always with your mind in the future. So maybe we could have the present as a common ground?"

Tony rolled his eyes at him. "You should write cards, Cap," he said. Maybe he just needed to distract him with sarcasm. "Or the little messages in fortune cookies." Steve glared at him and then he leant over to swat his forehead. "Hey, injured man here!" Tony protested, glaring at him.

"And whose fault is that?" Steve said.

"Uh, the Skrulls'?"

"Fine. Let's blame the green aliens," Steve muttered in reply, but there was a small grin playing at the edges of his lips.

"So…" Tony drew it out, making sure to waggle his eyebrows in the most blatant way he could manage. "Does that mean that sex against the wall is still an option?" he asked and the swatting hand came down again.

Tony fell back against the pillows with a sigh. "Steve, I—" he started, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. He swallowed. "I'm really fucked up. I don't want to drag you into that."

"Hey," Steve whispered with a small smile, "I'm fucked up too, we can keep each other company."

Tony gaped at him for a long moment, a snort of disbelief escaping his lips in a rush. "You're not fucked up, Steve," he said slowly, in case Steve had trouble understanding. First he thought that he and Tony being… boyfriends was a in no way potentially catastrophic idea, and then he put himself on the same level as Tony. While Tony knew that Steve was only human, even if a really decent one, and therefore liable to make mistakes, there was no way Steve could be compared to his own special brand of disastrous failures. "You're one of the most level-headed people I know. Granted, I have Wolverine and Nick Fury among my acquaintances, but…"

"Tony, shut up. I—"

"Steve—"

"I would have killed you," Steve said in a rush, his words tumbling out of his lips as if they had needed to be said right then and had no time to wait. "If you'd given me the armor, if I'd had it when— If those people hadn't stopped me before I surrendered, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

Tony wished he could tell Steve to just shut the hell up, that it wasn't the same thing. Steve had only speculation on his part, while Tony had lived through the worst case scenario; he knew what he had done and what he was capable of doing. He had gotten Steve killed, he had gotten Osborn in charge, he had screwed his friends over. He wished he could make Steve see just how many things were wrong with Tony, with them, but torturing the both of them with what ifs – even if they had really happened – wouldn't be fair. Not right now, when they should rejoice at their victory.

"You wouldn't have," Tony said softly, reassuringly. "You don't kill people, Steve."

Steve's left hand went to take hold of his right. He brushed his thumb over his knuckles, it wasn't a particularly romantic hand-holding, just Steve's fingers exploring the texture of his hand as if fascinated by it.

Steve's eyes had a faraway, almost nostalgic look as he stared at their linked hands. "I would have killed you," he said, softly. His tone didn't allow contradictions, it was a confession of sorts. After a moment, he went on, "we're both fucked up, Tony. We have issues," he said. "I should learn that not everything can be resolved by punching people in the face."

Tony almost asked if he was doing it, leaving Sharon and taking up with him, out of guilt. It was a conversation for another time, though, now he only wanted to soak himself in the feeling of their victory and Steve's presence, Steve's alive presence. He had lived the past months as if on the edge of a razor, too preoccupied with acting to stop and dwell on what implications all this might have had.

For probably the first time in his life he didn't want to think, about the future, about the consequences. Maybe Steve was right about the fact that they should make no plans. "Our first fight will be the stuff of legends, I can tell," he said, trying for a lighter tone.

Steve was quick to bring the conversation back to a somber level. "I think we already had our first fight, Tony," he said, causing Tony to look away. He waited for their eyes to meet again before continuing. "So, I should learn to work within the system and you should learn to ask for help," he concluded, and Tony wished it would be as simple, as… easy as saying it. Steve's eyes trailed over his features with a frown. Tony didn't need to ask, he knew he must have looked like hell. "And also, you should sleep more."

Tony thought of snowfields and enigmatic words, and shivered. "I don't think I'll be able to sleep anymore. Like, ever."

Steve's frown deepened. "If this is still about-"

"Sleep is overrated," he said with a snort. "I'll sleep when I'm dead."

"Tony," Steve sighed in that put-upon way of his. "You'll die if you don't sleep."

"You can't die from not sleeping," Tony pointed out. "Go insane, sure, but not die."

"That's such a comfort to me," Steve said, rolling his eyes. Despite his serious expression, Tony knew they were leaving serious conversation territory and crossing the border into the land of their own private brand of humor, suspended between sarcasm and mock-seriousness. Very few people over the years had been able to get it, and the fact that they could share this just between the two of them had always made Tony feel somewhat special, the fact that Steve had only Tony to rely on for it.

"It's fine. I'm already insane," Tony said, dismissively. "Watch me embrace my insanity."

Steve finally chuckled. "I'm serious, Tony," he said, but his grin called the lie in his words. "I never thought it would be this hard to talk you into sex."

"As you so eloquently put it, it's not just hanky-panky," he said, stressing the words mercilessly.

Steve's face screwed up as if in pain, but a moment later his features smoothed and his smile became softer. "I know," he said, quietly.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "You can't really blame me Steve," he said, after a moment. "I thought you and Sharon would… I mean, with the baby and all…"

"Baby?" Steve asked in a choked voice and Tony's eyes flew open.

Steve was staring at him with a stony face, his jaw so tense that Tony thought the muscles would snap any moment.

Sharon hadn't—She hadn't told him. "Oh, shit."

Steve's hand closed around his wrist and his grip was getting tighter and tighter and it was starting to hurt.

"What baby, Tony?" he asked slowly.

Shit.

Shit.

Shit.

 

20 | In my mind, in the night, in a way she's haunting me, I'm wanting her still.

 


When Steve's ears stop ringing and the red haze lifts from his vision he finds himself in a bathroom stall. His hand pulses with a dull pain and he frowns in confusion; when he looks down, he finds his knuckles cut and spattered with small pieces of tile and some blood.

Raising his eyes he notices a conspicuous hole in the wall, a web of cracks in the white tiles and the plaster visible underneath it.

He wipes his hand against his pants and stumbles out, almost into the cleaning lady. She stares at him, then at the hole and then she turns to stare at him again.

"I, uh," he clears his throat when his voice comes out choked. "I'll pay for that."

The woman nods at him, wide-eyed, and she takes a step back as he goes towards the washbasins. She's holding the broomstick in front of her with a white-knuckled grip, as if to shield herself in case Steve decides to have another raptus.

He does his best to ignore her and he shoves his hands under the cold water, cleaning away the blood and the pieces of wall. When he sees himself in the mirror, Steve can't really blame the woman for whatever she must think of him.

His eyes are wild and wide with shock, while his lips are pressed so hard together that all the blood has left them, making them nothing but a thin, pale line. He looks like a man who's about to do something crazy and very, very stupid.

Like chasing down Sharon and demanding an explanation.

He wants one, he deserves one, but he also knows that starting a conversation while his feelings of betrayal and hurt and anger are still this raw and so close to the surface isn't a very good idea. The last time he tried it, he and Tony ended up having sex, and despite what Steve's told him, Tony's fears that it could end in a catastrophic mess are more than legit.

After his talk with Sharon and them deciding to part ways, he was sure it was the right thing to do.
But now Sharon is pregnant. With his baby. And Steve has left Tony and is staring at his face in the mirror.

The world happens, he's told Tony, but now he wishes he had some kind of control over it, even though he's never really had any. Not when he joined the army, not when he was in the War, not when he was frozen in the ice, not when he woke up.

Things happen around him and Steve meets them head-on, squaring his feet and raising his shield, but this isn't something he can face that way, and the hole he's left in the bathroom stall is proof of that.

Five minutes after his resolution not to punch people – or walls – to solve his issues, he's already broken it.
He should just go back to Tony and reassure him that everything is fine, that he's not coming apart. Tony is in desperate need of a grounding presence at the moment, and Steve has promised him they could make it work.

He has to go back and convince him, both of them, that they really can.

The walk back to Tony's hospital room is torture; he stares straight ahead, but every glimpse out of the corner of his eye of blonde, long hair turns his head.

When Steve steps into the room, Tony blinks up at him as if he didn't expect him to be back. That reaction shouldn't surprise Steve, not when he's stormed out of there as if hell was on his heels, but it still feels like a punch in the gut.

Tony studies him for a long time, his face blank. "Are you… okay?" he asks, finally.

Steve would like nothing more than to reply with a 'no, I'm really not' but there's nothing Tony could do about it, and it would be unfair to dump his problems on him when he has to put all of his energies into getting better. With Extremis and its healing factor gone, Tony has a long road to recovery in front of him.

"I punched a wall," Steve admits after a moment.

He sits down when he feels his knee twinge in protest. He's bruised it during the fight, and while it's nothing to worry about, he forgot the crutches when he stormed out.

Tony's eyes flicker to his slightly scratched fist. "And the wall lost, apparently," he mutters. He stares at Steve for a moment, probably trying to determine if Steve is going to flip out again. Steve tries reassuring him with a smile, but he doesn't think he quite manages it. "I'm just glad it wasn't my face, then," Tony says finally.

Tony doesn't ask anything else, and Steve feels pathetically grateful for that. He's not really sure he could handle Tony voicing the questions and the doubts swirling around in his mind, it would make them real and Steve would have to address them. He doesn't feel that strong right now, on the contrary he's worn out and he wishes he could just sit next to Tony and pretend that nothing is wrong.

"So," Tony starts after a long time, his voice still a little unsure, "you still haven't told me what's going on out there."

Steve nods. He can talk about work. "The city took heavy losses in terms of property damage," he says, "but the casualties are much lower than we anticipated. You did an excellent job at getting everything ready without anyone noticing."

Tony smiles at the praise. "What can I say? I'm a sneaky little tactician," he says, his smile widening into a grin. "I'm a ninja."

"And then I found out that Nick is now the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.," Steve says.

"Um, surprise?"

Steve shakes his head. "I've made my peace with the fact that you're clearly unable to share important information until you can't help but do it or until it makes itself known," he says. "Just—Just try not to lie to me anymore, okay?"

Tony swallows visibly, his eyes wide, and then he looks away. "To be fair," he says after a moment, "I was trying not to drown in my own vomit at the time, so you can see how it might have slipped my mind."

"Okay, I can give you that," Steve concedes, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"That's most gracious of you, Captain," Tony replies, with a bow of his head.

Steve feels his lips twitch, in spite of everything. "So now all the ones who are not injured are helping with the clean up," he continues, frowning at the crutches. "I should be out there too."

"So the crutches are just for show, then?" Tony asks. "Steve, you're going to heal in a couple of days. I'm sure there's going to be enough work left for you by then."

He knows Tony has a point, and anyway he's tried to join the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and superheroes several times, but Nick always kicked him back to the hospital. Once he even had Carol bodily take him back to the hospital.

Not that he's going to tell that to Tony.

"What about the unregistered people?" Tony asks then.

"Nick won't tell me anything," Steve says, "but no one has been arrested for now. I think they realize they need all the people they can get."

"That's good," Tony nods, closing his eyes and leaning back against the pillows.

He looks exhausted and he probably feels even more tired than he looks. "You should sleep, you know."

"Nuh-uh," Tony mumbles. "I told you about my stance on sleeping and insanity, I think."

"You did," Steve says. "How did you get Nick to agree to come back to S.H.I.E.L.D., anyway?"

To say Nick Fury is stubborn would be saying that water is sort of wet, and Steve is sure that some kind of blackmailing was involved in the process. He can't figure out what kind of material Tony is in possession of, Nick has never struck him as a man who would bend under any pressure, especially blackmail.

Tony mumbles something unintelligible and when Steve looks up at him he realizes he's sleeping. The painkillers are likely to be blamed for that, more than Tony's tiredness, though. That and the caffeine withdrawal.

It's fine. They can talk about this later, for the first time in more than a year, time is the only thing that's not an issue anymore; but Tony being asleep means he doesn't have a distraction from his thoughts anymore.

A woman's voice interrupts his train of thought before it can actually start. "Um, excuse me, sir?"

A nurse is standing next to him, a clipboard in her hands. She's looking between him and Tony's sleeping form on the bed. "I've got his discharge papers," she says.

Right. Of course Tony doesn't want to stay in the hospital. Apparently he's requested his check out papers while Steve was busy redecorating the men's bathroom.

"Leave them here," he says, extending his hand. "I'll make sure he has them as soon as he wakes up."

As soon as he wakes up, however, they get into an argument. In the end, they reach a compromise. They've gotten good at that, at least.

"Look," Tony says, putting up his good hand. "They need all the beds they can have, and I have a perfectly good bed in my suite. That's the end of this argument."

Tony's face when Steve agrees is priceless.

When they get back to Stark Tower, Steve is momentarily taken aback when he finds Peter sitting comfortably on the couch watching TV, MJ asleep and curled at his side. Tony doesn't seem to be surprised, but it's probably just because of the medications.

"Hey, Cap," Peter greets him, with a wave. His smile only slightly diminishes when he notices Tony. "Tony."

"Peter," Steve says and then stops before bluntly asking what he's doing sitting on Tony's couch.

Peter seems to have read his mind, though, because he continues, "I'm here to rest for a little bit, and then I'm going back outside to help," he explains, his eyes shift to Tony. "Jarvis said we could stay here."

"We?"

"Yeah. A giant Skrull fell on our hideout, so the Avengers are crashing here," Peter says. "Well, except Luke. But Jessica and the baby are here too, so I guess it's only a matter of time. Is that… all right?"

Tony waves a hand vaguely. "Sure," he mumbles. "Make yourself at home. You know where the fridge is."

"Um, okay," Peter frowns at him and then he turns to Steve. "What's with him?"

"Painkillers," he says.

"Ah," Peter nods. "So, um."

Steve would like to get Tony into bed as soon as possible, but Peter looks like he has something else to say and the silence stretches. Tony's basically a dead weight against his side and while normally it wouldn't bother Steve, he left the hospital without the crutches and his knee is starting to bother him.

Tony is the one to break the silence first, though. "Sure, you can stay," he repeats. "When they come to arrest me you can stand by and gloat to your heart's content."

"They're going to arrest you?" Peter says.

"No, they aren't," Steve quickly reassures him. "Shut up, Tony."

"Or maybe they'll arrest all of us and we'll be sharing cells," Tony continues. "Dibs on the top bunk."

"We're getting arrested?" Peter squeaks, causing MJ to wake up and sit up on the couch, frowning at them with a groggy frown.

"No one is getting arrested!" Steve says. "Come on, Tony. You're going to bed."

"Who's getting arrested?" MJ asks.

"No one!" Steve exclaims again, dragging Tony down the hallway.

"Because Fury told us that no one was getting arrested!" Peter calls after him.

No one is getting arrested if Steve has any say in it. Granted, with him being an outlaw and having been granted a momentary amnesty only due to the Skrull invasion, his say probably means less than nothing. But Tony assured him that the SHRA problem was going to be dealt with, and while their track record hasn't been all that clean – especially regarding the SHRA – Steve is sure that he's been telling the truth.

"You're not getting arrested, Tony," he tells him as he lays him on the bed.

Tony just mumbles something and turns on his side. Steve switched back to his Captain America uniform in the hospital and he gave his clothes to Tony so he would have something to wear, as he was admitted to the hospital in only his mangled armor and the boxers underneath it.

The jeans are loose enough that he can comfortably sleep in them, so Steve just takes off his shoes and covers him with the sheets. When he turns around he finds Peter fidgeting on the threshold.

"Peter…"

"I just—" he scratches the back of his head. "I know he helped us for the past year, and things have been crazy, and I know that you two are sort of—" he trails off, making a vague gesture with his hand, "but—"

"No one is getting arrested," Steve repeats. "And Tony has promised that he would work on the Registration."

"You trust him, then?" Peter asks. "Do you trust him not to screw us over, just like he did the last time?"

"He's trying to repair his mistakes," Steve replies. "Yes, I trust him."

Peter's eyes go from Steve to Tony's form on the bed, and then back again. After a moment, he nods. "All right, then," he says. "Let's just hope you're right."

"I'm right."

"I thought you said you were both wrong?" Peter says, arching an eyebrow but Steve knows he's only partially joking.

"I'm right in this," he replies, seriously.

Peter lifts his hands. "Okay, I get it," he says and makes as if to go. Then he seems to think better of it, and he turns back. "Oh, and Ms. Marvel said I should remind you that you're absolutely prohibited from leaving the Tower until you're fine," he says. "Well, she also said that I could web you up to keep you from going if you didn't comply—"

"Peter."

"—but you know, please don't?" Peter continues, screwing up his face. "Because I get the feeling that you really wouldn't like being webbed up, and then I would like it even less when you got free."

"Peter."

"And you know, I've got a wife and an aunt to think of," he goes on.

"Peter, it's fine," Steve says, finally managing to get his word in amidst the endless babbling. "I promise I'm not going out there until my knee has healed."

"Oh, okay," Peter says. "I'll see you later, then."

When he finally leaves, Steve takes off his boots and his gloves and goes to lie on the bed next to Tony. There's a cell phone abandoned on the bedside table, it's probably Tony's even though he doesn't recognize it, the man goes through cell phones like people with a bad cold go through Kleenex.

When he flips it open and tries turning it on, but the screen remains black. It's been sitting there for who knows how long, and the battery must have died. When Tony got Extremis, cell phones became obsolete for him.

He puts the phone back and scoots closer to Tony, his back against the headboard. Tony shifts, his hair barely brushing against the leather of Steve's costume. He still feels too warm to the touch, but from what the doctors have said his fever has significantly decreased.

Steve probably should get some new clothes, the only ones he has at the moment are his uniform, which is torn and burnt in places and generally a mess, and the outfit Tony is currently wearing. He should probably get some toiletries, too.

His eyes drift back to the phone, but he knows it's no use. Even if it was charged, she's changed her number and he doesn't know the new one.

Next to him, Tony is warm and solid. Steve circles his shoulder with one arm, the fingers coming to rest at the nape of Tony's neck, playing with the short curls there.

It's only when he wakes up two hours later that Steve realizes he's fallen asleep in the first place.

So Stark Tower is once again housing the Avengers, and Steve would like to say that it's just like old times, but it's really not. Everyone is exhausted from the battle and the subsequent cleaning up, and even though they all know no one is a Skrull, the tension is still high. They walk around each other warily, struggling like gears that don't fit anymore.

Carol and Jessica Drew talked for hours on the balcony the day Steve and Tony came back from the hospital, and now they spend the days standing and sitting close to each other in silence, as if finding comfort just in the presence of the other.

Every time Tony walks in the room, though, the voices hush down and everyone has suddenly something to do, somewhere to be. Tony doesn't seem to notice, but Steve knows better. Or he thought he did, that is. Until he casually brings up the subject.

Tony gives him a strange kind of smile. "At least there are people again in here," he says. "Not as many ghosts anymore."

Steve doesn't quite know what to do with that.

Jarvis spends most of his day in the kitchen, making tea and food enough to feed an army.

And then three days after talking to her at the hospital, Steve gets a phone call from Sharon. "I've been told you needed to talk to me," she says, and then she gives him the address of what Steve knows is a S.H.I.E.L.D. safe house before hanging up.

When he goes to Tony's room to pick up his wallet and the pass key, Tony is lying on the bed. His eyes go from the wallet in his hand to Steve's eyes before he turns over and pretends to go back to sleep.

If Steve had any doubts about who exactly told Sharon he needed to talk to her earlier, now they've all been cleared.

"I'll be back," Steve says, softly.

Tony doesn't reply.

When Steve arrives to the safe house, she's already there, standing beside a lamppost. She's wearing civilian clothes, and Steve guesses she's wearing sunglasses more as sort of protection than because of the sun. It's almost evening and the sun has almost set.

She's beautiful as ever and standing proud, her shoulders set, her ponytail swaying gently in the wind.

"So," she calls out to him, when he's still crossing the street, "why did you need to talk to me?"

And Steve really can't help it, his eyes shift from her face to her stomach before he can stop himself. When he looks back again, she's frowning in anger. "You know," she says, as if it was a terrible thing for him to do. "He told you."

"He told me everything," he says. "He thought I already knew." Sharon snorts at that, but he refuses to catch the bait and presses on, "but that's the problem, isn't it? I didn't know."

The sunglasses hide her reaction, but Steve knows her enough to notice the tensing of her muscles. His fingers hitch to take them off her eyes, but he's not allowed the familiarity anymore. They agreed on parting ways, but that was before Steve knew of the baby.

"Let's take a walk," Sharon says, looking away.

"Let's talk right here," he retorts.

Sharon finally takes off her shades, but she doesn't look at him. "Steve, I—" she starts, but trails off after a moment, lowering her eyes. She turns around and starts again, this time looking straight at him, "we were being careful but I got pregnant anyway, doesn't that tell you something?"

"Accidents happen."

"No, Steve. Not in this case," she says, and the glasses are back on. "Not when I was being… mind-fucked."

He stares at her for a long moment. "What?" he asks, frowning. "This has nothing to do with the Red Skull brainwashing you in order to kill me." Sharon stiffens and Steve would swear she's gone pale behind her sunglasses. "Sharon?" he asks. "Is there anything else-"

Sharon shakes her head and Steve's words trail into silence. She rubs her forehead, hunching her shoulders, becoming smaller. It's a gesture that doesn't belong to her; it feels so alien that Steve almost expects to catch a glimpse of green skin.

"Steve, I don't want you to-" she starts, but he cuts her off almost immediately.

"Just give me a straight answer."

"I didn't want children when we got back together, Steve, and I don't now," she says, and he's always known that, but if she got pregnant by accident and he was the father, he should have a right in knowing.

"I was supposed to arrest you, but I didn't," Sharon goes on, "and I don't know why."

She gives him a long look from above the brim of her glasses. She looks sad, and her words hang heavily between the two of them. Sharon remains silent, as if waiting for him to catch up with the conversation, never mind that all the vital parts are left unsaid.

It doesn't take much for Steve to get there."Because you cared about me enough not to," he says, but neither of them believes it.

He swallows thickly. "Why didn't you-" he starts, but he has to stop when his voice cracks, giving up on him. "I- What they did to you- what I did-"

"No, Steve," she interrupts him, firmly. "These feelings—I love you, Steve," she continues, but her tone is resigned and the admission weighs on them, "but I don't know," she says, her voice small.

He manages to suppress the urge to bring his arms around her. "Why didn't you tell me?"

She snorts. "Oh, sure," she exclaims, throwing her arms wide. "To what purpose? So we could both feel miserable despite the fact that it's not our fault?" she says. "See? Dr. Samson says I'm making progress. It's not my fault, and it's not yours."

"Sharon…" he starts, but decides to act instead. He takes off her glasses and before she can protest, he brings his arms around her and hugs her. Lightly at first, but when she doesn't move away, he tightens his hold.

After a moment, Sharon lays her forehead against his shoulder, and her arms come up to return the embrace. Her hair smells different, she's obviously changed shampoo, but underneath he can still recognize her particular scent. "Samson helped me, but I'm not sure—" she's whispering against his neck. "What if that command is still inside my brain? What if one day it gets triggered and I kill you?"

"You should think about yourself now," Steve tells her, shaking his head. "And anyway you would never—" he starts, but trails off when Sharon plants her hands against his chest and takes a step back.

She retrieves her sunglasses from Steve's grip, but she folds them and hooks them on the collar of her shirt instead of putting them on again."I would," she says, firmly. She takes another step back. "I'm requesting a transfer, if S.H.I.E.L.D. decides to keep me," she says after a long moment, raising her eyes to meet his. "This is a goodbye. I've made my decision, Steve."

"Yes, you said in the hospital," he counters, "but now, this- this changes everything."

"Changes how?" Sharon shakes her head. "It changes nothing."

"I didn't know about the mind-control, then," Steve says. "And I didn't know about the baby. What are we going to do?"

For a second a pained expression flashes across her eyes, but it's gone before Steve can fully process it.
"Steve, I already had an abortion."

"You…" he gapes at her. "You—Why—It was my decision too!"

She gives a raw and bitter laugh. "Fine!" she exclaims, throwing her arms wide. "What would you have said, then?"

"I would have wanted you to keep the baby," he blurts out before he can stop himself. A cold shiver runs down his spine and he freezes in horror.

Sharon has practically been raped and he-

"I'm sorry, I-" Steve shakes his head and stumbles backwards. When he looks up at Sharon, though, she doesn't look angry. She just looks tired. "I'm sorry."

"See what I mean?" she says softly, rubbing her face with the palm of her hand. "Explain to me how telling you would have changed the situation. I still would've had an abortion."

"But if we'd talked about it…" he trails off when she lays a hand against his cheek, her thumb stroking softly at the corner of his mouth. "It was a child. Our child," he says softly.

"If it makes you feel better, I wasn't going to keep it, Steve. Not even if I hadn't been brainwashed," she says gently. It's just a cold comfort though and Steve can't do anything but tighten his arms around her. He can't really say if it's more for her sake or his.

"Not even if you'd died. Not even if there hadn't been any Skrulls," she goes on. "I love my job, and if it comes down to a choice between my job and a baby, I will always choose the job. At least for now. If I had to choose between you and the job, the job would probably win as well."

"Sharon…"

She drops her hand with an exasperated sigh. "Why can't you see?" she exclaims. "It wasn't just a baby, Steve. It would have been a person one day. And it came third after the job and you in my list of priorities," she gives him a long look, for a moment Steve is quite sure she's pitying him. "How fair do you think it would have been to the child?" she shakes her head. "I'm not ready to be a mother, Steve. Not now."

He rubs his eye with the heel on his hand. "This is it, then."

"Yes," she replies.

He takes a deep breath. "Good luck on getting your job back," he says then, raising his eyes. "You deserve it, and I'm sure Nick will take you back."

"Thank you," she says with a nod. "Good luck on… not getting arrested."

He snorts. "We're staying in Stark Tower," he says. "Tony says that this way we'll get used to being cell mates."

"Who do you think got Fury to tell me you wanted to see me?" she says. "I know where you're staying."

Steve nods. "So you'll call if you ever need anything?" he asks.

Sharon looks unsure for a moment, but then she nods. "Sure," she says with a shrug. "You do the same."

They stand facing each other, their eyes locked together. They're done, but Steve doesn't want to be the first to leave. The lives of people like them tend to be highly unpredictable, their current situation is nothing but a proof of that, but he has the feeling that he won't see her again for a long time.

The wail of a far away siren cuts through the silence, and they both turn in the direction where the sound was coming from. The city is on its way to recovery, New York has always been good at that. It's a strong city, with a strong heart at its core, strong people walking down its street, and Steve has always been proud to be part of it. To call it home.

"Are you going to be out there, helping with the clean up?" he asks her.

She nods, then she smiles at him. "What about you?" she asks. "I've been told you were sidelined with an injury."

He shakes his head. "Just a minor setback," he replies. "It's been a few days, I'm good as new. Tomorrow I'll be out there, helping."

"That's good," she says. "This city needs you, Steve."

He shrugs. "I'm just a man."

"You're Captain America," she says.

He nods, smiling and then he turns to leave.

"Aren't you going to tell me?" Sharon asks, suddenly.

Steve freezes at the inquisitive tone of the question, almost accusing. He turns slowly around. "Tell you what?" he asks.

She snorts and shakes her head in disbelief. "I saw you kiss him, Steve," she tells him. "Back at the hospital, I was there. I heard what you said."

Steve narrows his eyes. "I told you he has nothing to do with us," he says. "And us – me and him – that has nothing to do with you."

"What would you have done if I had decided to keep the baby?" she asks, then, bluntly.

"That's not a fair question," the words taste bitter in his mouth.

"No, it's not," she says. "How does it feel when you're the one being asked?"

 

 

21 | Fill yourself with dreams.

 


Tony heard the alarm on its third ring, just in time before Steve's hand slapped it into silence. He turned around hiding his face into Steve's neck to mumble something along the lines of 'five more minutes'. That was when he remembered his left arm is in a cast and he sat up with a grimace of discomfort.

"Go back to sleep," Steve told him. "It's six in the morning."

Six in the morning? Steve was crazy.

"Which is why you should do that, too," he told him, rubbing his eyes.

"My knee has healed," Steve replied. "Now there's nothing keeping me from going out to help."

Steve had been tense for the past few days, ever since they had come back from the hospital, and his dark mood hadn't improved after he'd gone to see Sharon the day before. Tony still had to get the whole story on that, but Steve was probably never going to tell him and it wasn't like Tony was ever going to ask. Steve had been sharing his bed since day one, and Tony didn't want to look in the mouth of this particular gifted horse.

The other Avengers staying with them still hadn't put two and two together, or at least they didn't seem to have. It wasn't a situation destined to last, though. Everyone was busy with helping get New York back to its feet now, but once they were be able to take a breath—Tony didn't really want to think about it.

Not to mention the SHRA. For now, with Nick Fury at the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Kooning backing them up things were working, but it was a momentary solution at best. Tony couldn't be sure one day there wouldn't be agents knocking at their door with a warrant of arrest for him in the best case scenario, or for all of them in the worst.

He just wished he could shut the world outside their bedroom door, not for long, just a few days, but the fact that Steve was already out of bed and dressing in the dark told him just how unlikely was it for his wish to be true.

"Hey, wait," he called out to Steve. "I'm getting up, too."

"We talked about this, Tony," Steve sighed. "Your arm is in a cast and if I—"

"—had to be sidelined by a boo-boo in my knee, then the more reason for you to stay here," Tony finished for him, reciting the words by heart.

Even in the dim light he could see Steve's frown. "I don't say 'boo-boo'," he protested, with the miffed air of someone who was really offended by the implication.

"Semantics," Tony replied, waving a hand. "I'm getting out of bed."

"At six o'clock?" Steve asked, mock-shocked. "Tony, I'm afraid I'm being a bad influence on you."

"Yeah, right," he glared as Steve stared with an amused expression at the repeated tries at getting his t-shirt on. "Just make sure there's coffee ready."

Steve's smile faded slowly. "I'm serious," he said. "You need to rest."

"I have work to do," he replied, shaking his head. "And I have a few ideas I need to talk to you about."

Steve gave him a long look, but then he sighed and nodded, turning to leave. It took Tony a little while longer to put on the sweat pants he had no idea he'd owned, until he'd found them the day before, hiding at the bottom of his closet. It wasn't like he'd never had experience with broken bones, but with Extremis he'd gotten used to much faster recovery periods. Now he had to wait weeks before he could remove the cast.

Jarvis was already in the kitchen, he seemed to be living there lately, and he greeted them as they came in. His eyes lingered on Tony, slightly surprised, but he recovered quickly and handed him a fresh mug of steaming coffee.

Even just the smell was enough to make Tony feel human again.

"We're up early this morning, Master Stark," he observed as Tony drank the scalding coffee as if he was a man dying of thirst. "I see your mouth is still lined with asbestos, Sir."

"Yes, we are," he said, putting the mug down to sit at the table, choosing to ignore the rest of the statement. "You should take a rest, Jarvis."

Steve exchanged a look with him from where he was leaning against the fridge, glass of orange juice in hand. After a moment, he turned to Jarvis as well. "Tony is right," he said. "I know you feel guilty about some of the things that happened, but—"

"—that wasn't you," Tony finished for him.

Jarvis looked between the two of them. "I took the liberty of taking the Captain's spare things we had in storage and bringing them to your room, Master Stark."

"Thank you, Jarvis," he replied. Steve had bought only the bare essentials, meanwhile borrowing t-shirts from Tony, even though they were too small for him, and getting Luke's pants from Jessica, even though they were too large.

Jarvis acknowledged him with a nod and left, hopefully to get some rest.

"You kept my stuff?" Steve asked when they were alone.

Tony shrugged. "It's just old stuff you left behind," he explained. "I think some of it dates back to the Mansion."

"Thank you," Steve said, entirely too serious. Really, it was just some old clothes, and it wasn't like Tony would toss away something that belonged to Steve.

"Wait before you thank me," he said. "You should see how terribly eighties some of those clothes are."

Steve chuckled softly and went to sit at the table, laying two plates filled with pancakes in front of them, despite the fact that he knew Tony wasn't really a breakfast kind of person. It all seemed so domestic, so normal. "So, what did you want to tell me?" he asked.

"I've broken out my remote-controlled armor," Tony said, taking a sip of his coffee. "I figured you guys could use it, since you might need to do some heavy lifting."

Steve nodded as he ate his pancakes, then he raised his eyes mid-chew and frowned at Tony's still uneaten pile. "You know I'm going to stare disapprovingly at you until you eat at least half of that, right?" he said after a moment.

Tony chuckled despite himself. "Yeah, I know," he said with a sigh, and he grabbed the fork. "And I've worked on your suit, too. I fixed whatever damage Thor did."

"I thought the armor was self-repairing," Steve pointed out.

"Yes, but apparently lightning conjured by a Norse god doesn't fit in the category of what the suit can handle," he replied with a snort. "I—"

"—hate magic," Steve finished for him, with a more petulant tone that Tony would have used. "So you like to say."

"Well, I do," Tony said, munching thoughtfully. "Today I'll look into Extremis, see if something can be done."

"Do you think you'll be able to fix it, then?" Steve asked, putting down his fork.

"It's still there, otherwise I'd probably be dead," Tony explained, "I just can't access it. So yes, I should be able to, given the time."

Steve nodded. "That's good," he said, clearing up his empty plate and getting up. He stood awkwardly for a moment, gesturing vaguely towards the door. "I'll just…"

"Sure," Tony said, waving at him. "The suit is down in the workshop, your pass key should be cleared for access."

Steve nodded and made to go. About half-way he seemed to think about it and he bent down to drop a quick kiss on Tony's head. His hand was warm on the side of his neck. "Eat your breakfast."

"I'll take photos of my empty plate and email them to you," Tony promised. "Be careful. And don't get arrested!" he called out to Steve's retreating back.

Ten minutes later he was joined by Peter, who was rubbing some of the still lingering sleep out of his eyes.

"You're up?" he exclaimed in exaggerated surprise. "What is this world coming to?"

"Yes, I'm up at—" he checked the clock on the wall "—six-thirty in the morning. We established that already, everyone is making a fuss."

Peter raised his hands in defeat and Tony noticed the newspaper for the first time. "Hey, just making an observation," he said, defensively. He threw the paper in front of Tony. "Thought you might like to see this."

Tony picked it up and frowned at the date. "This is yesterday's paper," he said, before unfolding it.

"I'm a little behind in my reading," Peter said, "you know, clearing rubble, saving people. Same old, same old."

On the front page, taking most of the space, there was a picture of him and Steve. It had been taken at the exact moment when Tony had draped himself over Steve after Thor had struck him down. Steve was clearly recognizable in his Captain America uniform, even without his boots, and Tony's faceplate was up. The shot was a close up, and only someone who had been standing near by could have taken it. When he raised his eyes to meet Peter's grinning face, he had his suspicions confirmed.

The headline sealed the deal: 'UNITED THEY STAND' it said in big, bold letters.

This hadn't been Tony's initial plan, but it was probably better in the long run. A reconciliation between two estranged parties was better than Captain America killing an enemy in front of the cameras any day.

It was more hopeful, it held more potential, and while Tony found it impossible to believe everything would be fine that easily, the tension he'd been carrying on his shoulders eased up a little. Anything was better than Norman Osborn parading in front of the medias of half the world as the hero and saviour he wasn't.

Tony didn't say anything for a long time as he skimmed the article, and Peter's grin fell off his face.

"I've seen worse," Tony commented with a shrug, handing back the paper.

"From what you told us, yes. Yes, you did." Seeing Peter so serious was more effective than any Skrulls or registrations put together in reminding Tony that they still had a long way to go before everything could be all right again. "That's good, isn't it?" Peter asked after a moment, frowning. "I mean, it seems the public thinks we're heroes again."

"Yes, Peter," he said. "It sounds good, but there's still a lot of work to do."

"So what Cap said was right," Peter said, and when Tony frowned questioningly at him he went on, "he said you were going to work on the SHRA."

"I'm not really sure I'm playing a part in that anymore," he said after a long moment. "But Hank was a Skrull when he backed up the plan, and I'm sure Reed is having second thoughts. I think we can work on that."

"That's good."

Tony sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Peter, the SHRA is a good idea," he said. "Superheroes need accountability."

"Yeah, only the methods sucked," Peter replied, his lips pressed together.

"I've got an idea that I'm sure Cap won't refuse," Tony told him. "I still have to talk it through with him, but…"

Once upon a lifetime ago, a stranger in a cemetery had showed him a bright future.

The timing might not be ideal, especially if Tony was going to be charged because he had withheld important information about the Skrull invasion, like it happened with Osborn. After all, it wasn't like the charges weren't legitimate this time around.

But even if he did get arrested, he was sure he could talk Reed, and maybe Hank, into backing up his idea. And Steve was surely going to agree, so they could have tea and worry about the Space Phantoms.

He chuckled softly and Peter looked up at him. "What?"

He shook his head. "Just remembering the future," he explained.

Peter blinked at him. "It says a lot about how screwed-up our lives are when statements like that actually make sense," he said after moment. He produced a sharpie seemingly out of thin air. "First to sign the cast?" he asked with a small grin.

Tony nodded and pushed his plate out of the way, laying his arm between them on the table. Peter leant forward and scribbled the date and the words 'yay for five days Skrull-free!'. Then he drew a stylized Spider-Man smiley under it.

There was a faint click as Peter put the cap back on the sharpie and they lapsed into silence.

"You know…" Peter said after a long while. "I—"

Tony sighed. "You don't have to say anything, Peter."

"No, I don't," he said, "but you probably saved MJ and Aunt May's lives."

"I couldn't—"

"I'm not sure where we stand, now," Peter admitted, scratching the back of his head.

"You're free to hate me, Peter," Tony told him, running his fingers at the edge of the cast absently. "Just—If you want to punch me or something, can I take a rain-check? Because I'm still a little sore."

Peter gave him a long look. "I don't hate you," he said with a snort. "It would be easier if I did. You screwed all of us over and I—"

Tony really didn't want to have this conversation at not-yet-seven in the morning. Actually, he didn't want to have this conversation at all. "It's fine. Really, it is."

Peter nodded. "I guess I owe you, though," he said after a moment. "Frankly, the thought of Norman Osborn running everything will keep me awake at night. For a very long time."

Tony snorted. "Tell me about it."

"Okay, glad we sorted that out," Peter said with a firm nod, "because I'm starving."

Tony watched silently as he filled his plate with a pile of pancakes even taller than the one Steve had given Tony. When Peter didn't seem to want to add anything else, Tony asked outright. "Aren't you going to tell me anything about Cap?"

Peter froze in his tracks. After a moment of frowning deeply at his plate, he shrugged. "Why? You couldn't do better than that," he said, and Tony snorted. "If anything like this whole mess starts again, now I'm sure Cap will prevent it just by confining you to the couch," he continued, startling a laugh out of Tony. "And also, this is the last time we even hint at the two of you having sex. Seeing it once was traumatic enough."

Tony smirked at him. "If it helps, we were done with the sex part," he said innocently.

"Not listening!" Peter yelled at the top of his lungs.

Tony chuckled and watched as he sat down and started digging into his breakfast. "Thank you, Peter," he said softly.

Peter frowned at him. "What for?" he asked, his words coming out almost incomprehensible as he said them around his mouthful.

"Not hating me," he said. "And for taking that rain-check."

Peter pointed a finger at him. "Hey, watch out, now I've got a free punch to cash in."

"I will," he said with a chuckle. "Hey, can I borrow your camera for a second? I promised Steve some photos."

"Sure," Peter shrugged, then he frowned at him in suspicion. "Uh, it's not for… dirty stuff, is it?"

Tony raised his eyebrows at him. "I thought we were done talking about me and Steve having sex."

"We are!" Peter exclaimed, hastily shoving his camera at him.

Logan came in when Tony was taking pictures of his empty plate, Peter staring bemusedly at him. He was shirtless of course, indulging in his favorite past-time of horrifying the people around him from the early morning.

He grunted something that could have been 'good morning', or maybe a curse, as he made his way to the fridge, scratching his belly.

"Aren't you a ray of sunshine this fine day!" Peter said, brightly.

Logan opened a can of beer and he took a long sip. He put it down, sniffing the air, then he fixed his eyes on Tony. "How long have you been sleeping with him?" he asked bluntly, causing Tony to choke on his coffee and Peter to drop his fork.

"I'm not sleeping with him!" Peter protested loudly. Both Logan and Tony turned to stare at him. "Oh, you meant Cap. Sorry."

Logan frowned. "You know?"

"Peter sort of… caught me red-handed, so to speak," Tony said.

"No talk of sex at the table!" Peter said loudly, pressing his hands to his ears. "I'm not listening!"

Logan sneered at him. "Good for you, Spidey."

"No, not really," Peter replied, as he glumly picked at his breakfast.

"It's not really your business, Logan," Tony told him, his face carefully blank.

"Well, I have to ask these things," Logan said with a shrug, as he chugged more of his beer down.

Tony narrowed his eyes at him. "No, you really don't have to."

Peter looked between the two of them. "I'm leaving," he said, quickly getting up and leaving his still half-full plate in the sink. "I'm late anyway."

When he'd left, Logan walked to the table and took the chair Peter had just vacated. "You smell of him, and he smells of you," he said. "You've been sleeping in the same bed since you came back. How long do you think it's going to be before everyone notices your little tryst?"

"It's not a tryst," Tony protested, disgusted. "You know, I never figured you for a homophobe, Logan."

"Wake up, bub," Logan said with a snort. "No one here is gonna have a problem with this because you're both men, but because you're Tony Stark."

"I don't—" Tony trailed off when he noticed Logan's eyes go over his shoulder to fix on something behind him.

Or someone, as the case was. "You're what?" Luke asked, outraged.

Great. As if he needed a big coming out when he had other things to think of. Tony took a deep breath, trying to ignore Logan's smirk. "Good morning, Luke," he said, turning around. "I didn't realize you were already up. Or that you spent the night here, in fact."

Luke wasn't deterred by his attempt at small talk. In three steps he was in front of him, his fist closing around his collar and tugging sharply. "You're doing what?!"

Surprisingly, Logan came to his rescue. Of course, Logan being Logan it wasn't much of an effort. "Get your hands off him, Cage," he muttered, emptying his can and then crushing it.

"Stay out of this, Logan," Luke grunted.

"Just some friendly advice," Logan said with a shrug. "Cap is coming back."

"What?" Tony frowned. "He's supposed to be—"

Just as Logan had said, though, Steve walked into the kitchen a few seconds later. He was wearing the armor, his faceplate up, but he was frowning down at his gauntlets, so he didn't notice the scene he'd just walked in on. "Tony, I think there's—" he trailed off, narrowing his eyes at Luke when he noticed the grip he had on Tony's t-shirt. "Let go of him."

"Told ya," Logan said, getting up and going to the fridge, presumably to get himself another beer.

Luke stared at Steve for a long moment, but he finally let go of Tony, taking a step back. "I swear I don't know what the hell you guys are thinking," he growled.

"It's none of your business what we do in our private time," Steve growled back.

At this point, Tony was torn between stepping in before the situation got serious enough and sitting back and enjoying the show. Logan came back to the table and sat down, seeming to settle for the second option.

 

After a moment of careful consideration, Tony decided to go for the same plan of action.

"It is my business if it has consequences for all of us," Luke retorted. "And this being Stark, you can bet sweet money it will have!"

Logan tipped his beer at Tony in mock salute. "Wait for it," he said. Tony snorted.

"You're assuming they're going to be bad consequences," Steve said. "We reached an agreement about Registration," he continued, even though Tony actually hadn't talked with Steve about it, yet. The fact that Steve was willing to stake his honor on it – because after all, Captain America didn't lie, especially not where it counted – gave him pause, and for a second Tony found it hard to swallow.

"Oh, that's fine then!" Luke said, throwing up his hands. "So you reached an agreement without consulting anyone about it! What about the rest of us mere mortals?"

Steve's eyes narrowed further. "I would think that settling for a solution that satisfies both parties without further bloodshed is a good idea, regardless of who formulated the agreement in the first place."

Luke snorted. "Maybe. But I'm still not completely satisfied," he said. "And now I'm wondering just how did Stark actually manage to persuade you."

Steve drew in a sharp breath, and everything stopped for a terrifying moment. "I'll let that comment go," he said, his voice dangerously low, "but if you ever decide to share it aloud again, know that you'll have to face me."

"This is better than TV," Logan commented, Tony couldn't help but silently agree.

"And now you're protecting his honor?" Luke snorted. "That's rich."

"You're taking this way over the line, Luke," Steve said, taking a step towards him. Now it sounded like a good moment to step in before things started to get really ugly, but Tony was frozen in his seat. It was like watching an accident in slow motion.

"And what do you plan on doing, Cap? Beat me up?" Luke barked out a laugh. "You know it won't do much."

Steve was about to say something that would have definitely tipped the shaky balance from potentially bad to a definite disastrous situation, and Tony's brain finally decided to join the scene.

He shot up from his chair and stepped between the two of them. It might not have been the safest course of action, stepping between two angry metahumans, especially when one of them was in an armor and the other really didn't like him at the moment, to put it lightly. Tony had spent almost half of his life among superpowered people who could very well kill him with a sneeze, however, so his sense of self-preservation might have been slightly skewed about it.

"Okay," he said, pushing with his cast against Steve's chest plate and with his hand against Luke's wifebeater. "Stop it, you two. There's work to do out there and now is not the time to fight among ourselves."

Luke shrugged his hand away, but he kept glaring at Steve. "Luke have breakfast if you want," Tony told him with a sigh. "Steve, come on," he finished, tugging at Steve's arm.

"I'm out of here," Luke snorted and he left shaking his head and cursing under his breath.

Tony stared after him for a long moment. "Well, that went well," he commented.

"I predict things are going to get interesting around here," Logan said from his sprawl.

Steve glared at him. "Logan, out," he ordered.

Logan arched an eyebrow at him, but he shrugged and complied.

"Steve, you should know better than that," Tony told him, rubbing his eyes. "Fuck, it's way too early in the morning for all this drama."

"I know," Steve said sharply. "Believe me, I know. But he implied—"

Tony grinned at him. "Come on, Steve. You should be more affronted by the fact that Luke implied that you would stoop so low as to get persuaded by sex," he said. "Even if it was with me."

Steve gave him a sharp look. "I'm not joking," he said.

"Yes, but I am," he said with a shrug. "It's no big deal. I got out of it with no broken bones," he frowned down at the cast, "well, no more than I woke up with."

Steve nodded absently, but he still didn't seem convinced. "I wish—I wish we could just, restart where we left off," he said, softly. "The Avengers, I mean."

Tony dropped his eyes. "It's all or nothing with you, isn't it?" he said with a sigh. "I'm all for that, but… we have other things to think of, before that."

"I know, Tony," Steve said, nodding, "but I also know that evil never sleeps."

Tony gaped at him. "You did not just say that."

"What?" Steve exclaimed defensively. "You know what I mean," he said with a shrug.

Tony nodded. "The way I figure, Captain America," he said, solemnly, "if you lead, everyone is going to follow."

"I thought that was the problem," Steve said.

"Yesterday's problems are today's solutions," Tony told him.

Steve gave him a long look. "I think someone else is writing fortune cookies around here," he commented, blankly.

"Oh, shut up," Tony muttered. "Why are you still here?"

"Not even a week of us living together and you're already getting tired of me?" Steve said with a mock-hurt tone. When Tony gave him a deadpan look, he grinned and continued, "I think there's a problem with the left gauntlet, the computer keeps giving me error messages."

Tony frowned. "I thought I'd fixed that glitch," he said. "Come down to the workshop, we'll get you up and running in no time."

Tony left and Steve followed.

 

 

0 | Right now, it's your tomorrow.

 


New York lies gutted below him, the setting sun casts red and orange reflections on the glass and steel, giving the impression that the city is bleeding, the dark shapes of the crashed down Skrull ships like a cancer, the buildings torn apart like raw, open wounds.

It looks hopeless from the roof of Stark Tower, but Tony knows that you only have to go down to street level to see that life is going on pretty much as always, New Yorkers once again proving that they're possibly the toughest people on Earth. You have to be down there to see just how much progress the rescue efforts have made.

With the wind whistling in his ears, he almost misses the steps until they get close enough for Tony to recognize the cadence. He turns around to greet Steve with a smile.

"Hey, welcome back," he smiles warmly, and a second later it widens into a grin. "How was your day, honey?"

Steve arches an eyebrow at the act, but he seems amused. "We cleared up most of Central Park," he tells him, "which is good, since the Red Cross has set up camp there for all the people whose homes were destroyed."

He wraps Tony into a warm hug, the small paper bag he's carrying bumping into his shoulder blades. Tony returns the embrace one-armed, still trying to get used to the fact that now he's allowed to touch.

"How long have you been out here?" Steve asks, when he draws back. "You're cold."

"Not long," Tony replies with a shrug, before going back to lean against the rail. "I was just enjoying the scenery."

Steve joins him, his eyes scanning the view before them. Finally he turns to look at Tony. "Glad to know you finished your breakfast, after all," he tells him.

"You've received my photos, then," Tony nods, then he grins. "I would have sent something saucier but Peter absolutely vetoed it."

Steve blinks. "I was lifting a concrete beam at the time, so he probably saved countless lives," he says. "Thanks for sending the remote controlled armor, by the way. It was a great help."

Tony shrugs. "You know I'm not very good at being useless," he says.

"That's because you're not," Steve says seriously, but before Tony can deflect that with some self-deprecating comments, he hands over the paper bag. "I figured you haven't had your dinner yet."

Tony's confused frown clears up when he sees the contents of the bag. "Bagels," he says.

Steve nods. "Bagels."

Tony snorts, but he takes one and passes the bag back to Steve. "What's with us, tall buildings, bagels and the end of the world as we know it?"

"It's a tradition," Steve says like it's the most important thing in the world. "And I like to think about it as a new beginning."

"It's not a tradition if this is only the second time," Tony points out. "And you would think that."

Steve takes his bagel out of the bag. Sesame seeds, of course. "All traditions have to start somewhere," he says. "And of course I would."

Tony looks down at his hands, the left in the cast, resting on the rail, while the fingers of the other are closed around his 'dinner'. "Steve," he says after a long moment. "I— Sharon—"

"Tony."

He shakes his head. "I should have known she would— I mean, last time she—"

"Tony," Steve cuts him off, "I don't want to talk about it."

"Steve," he starts with a sigh, "you need to—"

"Not now," he says, this time turning to give him a long, hard stare. "Now I just want to eat my bagel and I want you to eat your bagel, and I want—"

"Us to eat our bagels?" Tony finishes for him, grinning when Steve glares at him.

"Yes," Steve says, irritated. "In silence."

Tony chuckles and they indeed eat in silence, Tony shooting glances at Steve out of the corner of his eye. Now that a few minutes have gone by, he looks… relaxed. And granted, it's not like Tony saw that much of him the past few months, despite their regular radio contact, but he bets this is the first time since this all started. Maybe even before that, when they were still on the opposite sides of the fight.

Steve turns to look at him. "What is it?" he asks after a moment.

Oh, just take your pick, he wants to tell him. Sharon. The Skrulls. This... thing between me and you. Where do we go from here?

The future is so full of possibilities, of what ifs and variables that it may as well be more terrifying than having none at all.

"Steve, I—" he sighs. "We need to talk about the SHRA, I have an idea that—"

"We'll talk about it tomorrow," Steve interrupts him.

Tony shakes his head. "You know tomorrow they'll probably come and arrest me, right?"

There's a long silence, then Steve's mouth slightly twitches. "Tomorrow is another day," he says, solemnly.

Tony stares at him. Steve grins and chuckles when Tony shoves at him with his shoulder. "I'm serious," Tony says.

"I know," Steve nods. "It wasn't easy up until now, and it won't be easy at all from now on."

Tony barks out a laugh. "You're telling me?" he says. "Since when am I the go-to guy for comfort and optimistic views? That's you."

"Hey, who am I supposed to go to then?" Steve asks only half-jokingly with a frown.

"Man, you are screwed," Tony tells him quite frankly.

Steve chuckles softly. "You're not that bad," he says with a shrug. "I guess I'll just have to suck it up, then," he says, draping one arm around Tony's shoulders.

"Guess you will," he replies, nodding as he leans back against the warmth of Steve's arm.

"We'll make sure they won't," Steve says after a long moment. "Arrest you, I mean."

Tony takes a deep breath and leans forward against the rail, Steve's arm slipping away. "Maybe…" he trails off, closing his eyes. "Maybe we should let them."

Steve turns around completely, the previous mirth gone from his eyes. "Tony? What are you talking about?" he asks, warily.

"If I get arrested for treason or whatever they want to pin on me, the SHRA would get a hard blow without anyone to support it now that Osborn's not an option anymore," he explains. "Maybe you could get in your word, I'm sure everyone would be willing to listen to you. Maybe you could change the law much faster."

Steve's eyes become hard. "I thought we agreed on doing this our way," he says. "You told me you knew a way this could work for both of us," he halts, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. "This is not what you were talking about, is it?"

Tony shakes his head. "I'm just saying… It might not work out in the end," he sighs. Then he adds, quietly. "Maybe it's already too late."

"And maybe it isn't," Steve retorts. "You've got to stop talking yourself into corners. We'll cross that bridge when—if we come to it."

Steve's eyes are so earnest that when he says things like that, one can't help but believe him, and Tony isn't really different from everyone else. He takes a deep breath and then he nods, opening his eyes to Steve's warm smile.

They turn back to watch New York as it lies before them, torn apart and wounded, but healing slowly, its people rebuilding it like they do every time. One would think it would get tiring after so many times, so many supervillains, so many disasters, both alien and human; but Tony is sure that if he were to ask Steve, he'd say that no matter how bad it gets, some things are always worth rebuilding.

"It's a slow process, but we'll get there," Steve says, and Tony isn't quite sure he's just talking about New York.

"Are we doing the right thing, Steve?" he asks after a moment, he knows what Steve will say, but he needs the reminder anyway.

"Yes," Steve replies, his fingers tangling up in the hair curling at the back of Tony's neck, before sliding down to rest on his shoulder. "Yes, we are."

Steve's hand is heavy on his back, but it doesn't weigh him down.