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You Started

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You have started
The beginning of my life
So take a moment to decide.

What you thought is,
You picked a different side,
And I'm so relieved that side is mine.

 

 


 

 

 

Light washes over him, must be washing over him, warmth of sunshine on his face tempered by a breeze, and behind his eyes everything is a golden-orange. The pleasant feeling of being not quite awake, not even knowing where you are, but knowing somehow, that you are safe.

He smells too-clean slightly bleachy linens, fresh spring air, and… Tony.

Steve’s eyes blink open.

For an instant, half an instant, not even that, Steve feels like he’s free-falling, plummeting as if he’d been pushed off a helicarrier. He’s in bed. Naked. With... Tony?

But one corner of Tony’s mouth arcs up, ever so slightly, and he feels like he’s been caught — safe again.

This is right. This is as it should be.

Right?

He’s lying on his right side, face to face with Tony, and he can see and feel those scratchy sheets now, and the breeze is coming from an open window. This isn’t Tony’s bed — their bed — and the geography of the room feels different. Traveling, then.

“Morning, sleepyhead.”

Tony’s voice is amused, a little teasing, but it absolutely cannot distract from the fact that his eyes are locked onto Steve, like he’s trying to savor him, capture him, commit him to memory in some way that’s more than shadows and light, shape and color. Trying to hold onto him.

It’s a pretty intense gaze for first thing in the morning. But it’s hard to say what’s in Tony’s head sometimes. Bad dreams, maybe. Steve’s willing to let it pass.

He returns the smile, blinks hard twice, and slides his arm under the pillow, getting comfortable.

“Mmmm,” he grumbles softly.

His uncharacteristic lethargy is enough to shake some of the fervor from Tony’s stare; Tony chuckles gently.

“You must have been tired. I thought you’d have been on a run to, I don’t know, Sleepy Hollow and back by now. Not that I’m complaining, mind."

Sleepy…? Connecticut. Right, right, they’re in… Stamford. Something twists, just slightly, in his gut, and he pushes it down almost instinctively. Just for a moment. Just for now.

“What time is it?” Steve croaks, half muffled by the pillow.

“Seven. We’ve gotta be onsite by eight-thirty to meet with Rhodey, but it’s only five minutes away. We could go try and find some halfway decent coffee and a bite to eat, or —"

Before Tony can continue on that seductive note, Steve impulsively leans forward, cups the back of Tony’s head with his left hand and pulls him in, kissing him, hard. He knows he and Tony have been together almost constantly lately, what with the work they’ve been doing, but there’s something cold in the pit of his stomach, and also a feeling like he’s missed Tony horribly, and he needs to get as close to him as possible.

“Mmmm,” Tony growls into his mouth, surprise turning to lust. Their mouths move roughly, without any grace, like there’s no time or space for it — there’s only one thought present in Steve’s head and he thinks it might be in Tony’s, too: more of you.

Tony wriggles closer to Steve and the entire length of the front of their bodies touch; Tony’s as hot and hard and ready as he is.

Tony finally pulls away from the kiss, but not far, giving just enough clearance for his lips to move.

“Well,” he gasps, “Good to know we’re on the same page."

 


 

Steve’s pulling on his harness over his uniform, straightening his hair in the mirror, when the cold feeling returns. He’d hoped a little extra time with Tony might dispel it, but no such luck.

They’re just about ready to leave. He glances across the room at Tony, who stands in front of the dresser and television, pulling on his white SHIELD uniform gloves.

“Glad you talked me into the hotel idea,” Tony muses. "Staying nearby instead of just flying in last minute. The only thing is, now we’ll only have to grab breakfast in the lobby .” He pulls a face, which warms Steve’s heart: he could have made some remark about his metabolism and Extremis, and how he doesn’t really need to eat anymore. Complaints about the subpar breakfast fare in a small hotel in Connecticut seem charming by comparison.

Maybe Steve’s comments have gotten through to him. If Tony can manage not to show off his data connection powers at every turn, it’s the least Steve can do to consider how helpful they might be in the field.

This is good , he thinks. Different than before. This can work. It is working.

“Well,” Steve offers, smiling, “I hope I was worth it."

Tony turns toward him, face fallen. Steve’s heart feels like it stops for a moment.

“What?” Tony asks, suddenly sounding a little hoarse.

“I just said I hope us…” he gestures, vaguely indicating both of them, hopes he isn’t blushing, “…taking our time this morning. Was worth it."

“Always,” Tony answers immediately, and Steve can tell he’s trying to force a smile, but there’s something deadly serious about him, too serious for this conversation. “You’re always worth it."

The cold feeling— dread, if Steve had to name it— is rising now; his throat tightens.

“Tony,” he asks, trying to sound nonchalant, “We’re doing good work, right?"

“What?” Tony asks again, crossing to him. “What’s wrong?"

Tony puts a hand on his arm, and it’s calming, but not enough.

“Just… remind me. What we’re doing here. The Initiative. It’s the right thing to do."

“Hey, Co-Director. We worked this out together. Is there something you want to go over again, before we launch? Do you want to run SHIELD day-to-day? I figured you’d be a natural for the Initiative — you’re more experienced with training— but if you don’t want to—"

“No, no, it’s not that,” Steve shakes his head, and he knows Tony’s right. They discussed everything — the complete overhaul of the former so-called "cape-killer" task forces, the procedures for detecting and contacting new supers, Initiative program intake, training schedules and curriculum, rollout deadlines. It nearly made Steve crazy, the minutiae of fitting people into this new system--

In fact, why didn’t it? Why didn’t he object to it? He feels upset just thinking about it now. Did he and Tony fight about the implementation? It must have been hard on their relationship — why can’t he remember the arguments? The compromises? They talked about it all. Why can’t he remember any of it?

Tony’s voice brings him back to the present; it’s level, completely serious and sincere. “If you want to discuss more, I’m happy to do it, but I’m going to have to call over to Camp Hammond and let them know to postpone.” He sighs. “The press will have a field day. PR will be hell, but I do not want you having second thoughts. About any of it."

Steve wanders to the table in the corner of the room, sits in the one of the chairs resting near it and motions to the other. “Don’t call anything off yet. Just… sit with me a minute?"

Tony looks at the clock; eight fifteen. Looks back at Steve’s face, then joins him at the table. He sits, folds his hands in front of him.

“What's up? What’s got you worried?"

“The timeline for closing Project 42—" Steve’s mouth twists even as he says it. That name is so sanitized for what it is: a possibly illegal prison in the Negative Zone. But the name he’s heard they use on the inside, “Wonderland,” seems even worse.

Tony sighs, closes his eyes. “Steve—"

“I just want to get a plan in place—"

“We can’t even think about dates until a cohort of Initiative trainees graduates and we win back the people’s trust. I want to shut it down as much as you—"

“Why did you let it come into being at all, then?"

“You act like you weren’t there!” Tony raises his voice, “We talked about this—"

“You keep saying that, Tony, so why can’t I remember? "

Steve’s shouted words hang in the air a moment while Tony squints, looks bewildered. “Remember what?"

“Any of it!” Steve sighs, rubs his brow, tries to regain some composure. “I’m not sure if something’s wrong with me, but I can’t recall any of our discussions. I had to have gotten mad about some of these compromises, didn’t I? Didn’t we fight? How did we work it out?"

“We talked through it. Like rational adu—“ Tony stops, grimaces, and good, because that was intensely condescending, and Steve is not in the mood for a Tony superiority trip. “Like colleagues. We are on the same side. We had to present a united front against Gyrich for this all to work, even a little.” Tony reaches across the table, holds an open hand out, invitingly. “We’re friends. More than friends. We can do this."

Steve’s hand twitches. He wants to reach out, but instead pulls his hands away, sits back further in his chair. Tony frowns, but Steve’s looking around the room: at the bed, the rumpled sheets, the open window. They’re on too high of a floor to hear voices, but street noise drifts in, reminding Steve of the outside world.

"Does… anyone know we’re together? SHIELD, the public, anyone?"

Tony’s face freezes for a moment — he wants to be indignant, Steve can tell, but the fractional pause gives it away. The chill he’s been carrying breaks, and Steve goes hot with anger.

His voice is low, monotone. “You don’t know, do you.” It’s not a question.

Tony is still for a second, eyes fixed, unblinking, and Steve guesses what he’s doing.

“No, stop querying, you would know this. We would know this. Either we’re hiding this from everyone, miserable about it, and not doing a very good job—“ Steve gestures to the king bed, the only one in the room, the booking of which would be a dead giveaway.

“Or, everyone does know, and what? Decided it was okay for two incredibly powerful superheroes, who are also involved , to be co-directors of SHIELD? Since when does SHIELD even have co-directors? Even ones that aren’t boyfriends?"

The word comes out charged, derisive, a tone he didn’t fully intend, but the situation is much, much worse than he had realized.

Tony’s attention returns to Steve fully. “I was actually going to search the news, websites, anything, for other anomalies; you’re right. Something’s wrong here. I didn’t—“ he sighs, “I thought everything was going so well."

This time, Steve does reach out, about to take Tony’s still extended hand across the table. “I know,” he says softly. “Call Rhodey, tell him—"

Before their fingertips can even brush, Tony sits up like a shot, a far away look on his face. He shoots Steve a quick glance before standing and crossing the room. He puts a hand to his ear, like he’s pressing a comm closer to hear it better. He doesn’t need to, as comms are directly in his head now and the reception is always as good as it can be, but Steve’s pretty sure it’s a courtesy. A body language they must have worked out together. God, he wishes he could remember that.

“Stark here,” he says gravely.

A few seconds pass; Tony stands absolutely rigid, almost not breathing. Then Tony waves a hand at the television at the far end of the room. Its LED flicks on, but no picture shows. Sounds of destruction, crashing, explosions pour from the speakers, flood the room. Rhodes is clearly shouting over the din; his words are still somewhat muffled like he’s not too near his comm.

“—attacked at Camp Hammond. Anti-superhero terrorists initiated the attack, from what we can tell, but one of the new recruits tried to retaliate—"

The feed is breaking up, static interspersing between every few words— must be on Rhodes’ end--

“—Tactigon, combined — fear-based powers— fatal overload. Area — annihilation —"

Tony’s eyes flick toward the TV again, and images of a now destroyed Camp Hammond, part of a breaking news alert, illuminate the screen to accompany Rhodes’ desperate transmission. There’s an area that looks like it might have once been a building, and now looks like the landing site of a small comet. It’s a circular, blackened, empty expanse. No sign of life. In other parts of the camp and the surrounding streets, people are fleeing, screaming.

Another school, of sorts, another explosion. The Stamford disaster, in the exact same place as the original, except worse. Their plan to show the world that this could be avoided, is now directly responsible for it happening all over again.

“Armor damaged—“ Rhodes continues, “Need you on-site, now —"

The feed cuts out.

Steve is already grabbing his shield from where it’s been resting behind the table he’s sitting at, and is pulling up his cowl, starting for the door.

Tony puts up a hand on his chest, physically blocks him.

“Tony, we have to go—"

Tony exhales, breath juttering as he does, eyes closed. “I… have an idea. I have to check something. I actually… kind of hope I’m wrong about this. In a way."

Steve clenches his jaw, tries to keep bile from rising in his throat. Tony turning decidedly cryptic at the drop of a hat is never, never a good sign. Does he have some extra Extremis power that he never told Steve about? What is it?

Tony turns, crouches in front of the dresser the television is resting on. The TV shuts off as he does. With a still shaking exhalation, he puts both hands on the top drawer, and pauses for a moment, steeling himself, then opens it.

It’s just some clean laundry, as far as Steve can see at first glance. Socks, underwear… and a crumpled up ball of newspaper.

All totally inconspicuous, normal… if there wasn’t a faint glow coming from within the folds of the newspaper.

Fuck,” says Tony, and there are unmistakably tears in his voice now. He drops from a crouch to his knees, head lowered.

“Tony,” Steve implores, half an order, half a question.

Body limp, looking defeated, Tony reaches into the drawer and retrieves the crumpled ball of newsprint, pulls it to his chest, and doesn’t move for what feels like some time. Steve wants to yell, to tell him to get moving, there are lives at stake, but he too is rooted to the spot, desperate to see what Tony is grasping, what’s brought him to this state. He says nothing.

Finally, Tony rises, head still lowered, eyes on the floor, back to Steve. “I didn’t.. I didn’t even know I was using it."

He turns, and the paper in his hand is unfolding. In the center is a little yellow gem, glowing softly, almost warmly.

That’s. That’s the Reality Gem. Tony is holding the Reality Gem.

Tony used the Reality Gem. Which means...

Steve stumbles back, breath knocked out of him, his legs suddenly wobbly, as if his body instinctively wants to get as far from that thing as possible.

“What did you do ,” he demands. “Tony, how did you—"

“I swear, I didn’t know, I didn’t even think until just now—I must have just thought so much about--"

Tony takes a step forward, then pivots, sits on the end of the bed that they occupied so happily this morning. Steve feels like he’s on some horrible ride he can’t get off of, nauseous. Tony doesn’t look much better.

“What did you change?” Steve says, trying to sound more fierce, but it only comes out more anguished.

Everything , a voice at the back of his mind whispers, and he wants to retch. He could have changed everything . But no, he and Tony are--  he and Tony — Tony wouldn’t— 

“You asked if we fought,” Tony huffs a horrible, hollow laugh. “Yeah. We fought. I remember now. I thought it was just a bad dream, but… you were right. This... This, us working together, friends. This is the thing that’s wrong."

“You changed reality,” Steve is barely holding back a snarl, fury threatening to overtake all rational impulse, “Changed my mind for me, because we disagreed ? Because you had a crush ? Were we even together —??"

Tony’s head snaps up at that, and his face— he looks shattered . Just destroyed. There’s no other way to describe it. He looks like he could fly apart into a thousand pieces if either of them breathes another word.

And it hits Steve what he’s just asked Tony, really. What he’s accusing him of. And even in all the rage, all the red-hot anger Steve is completely justified in feeling, in the midst of it all, as guilty as Tony is in every other way, Steve wants to take it back. Take that last part back, because in his gut, he knows Tony wouldn’t do that to him. Force him to feel things he didn’t feel.

“Yes,” Tony says, and it’s a sob, torn from him with his last ounce of resolve, composure, “Yes, god, Steve, I wouldn’t—“ His head tilts up, eyes closed, supplicant to some higher power he doesn’t believe in, when in fact, he is, at the moment, the highest power for miles, all of reality held in his palm; he looks desolate and broken by the unintended consequences of it.

“I’m sorry—“ Steve says, in earnest.

“No, god, you’re right. You're right to question... How could you know? But I just… remember that. So clearly. Right after the Raft, when we got the new team together, and we—"

Steve does remember that. Perfectly, purely— it has to be true. It has to be.

“I remember that,” Steve reassures him. And fuck. Tony changed reality, and Steve is the one reassuring him? This is… beyond belief.

“We were on the Quinjet, headed for the Savage Land,” Steve continues, because at least this feels right, like something to anchor himself to. “You’d put the plane on auto-pilot, came back to find me—"

“You were in the cargo hold, and you just… planted one on me.” There’s a ghost of something like a smile on Tony’s face. “I thought you’d gone crazy."

Steve can’t quite smirk, but he feels his countenance soften as he remembers it, how nervous he was at the time.

“Everything was going so well, and I didn’t want you to get eaten by a T-rex before I finally got up the nerve.”

Steve can still picture Tony’s narrow escape from the dinosaur: knocking it out, then climbing out from between rows of six-inch teeth, grinning and announcing, There’s something else I didn’t think I was going to do today, and Peter (of course), asking what the first thing was…

Tony sounds a tiny bit wistful. “I always liked that it was the kissing and not the exploding Antarctic dinosaurs that made it not a normal day. A normal Avengers day, anyway."

Tony suddenly stops short again, looking stricken for what feels like the thousandth time today.

“You don’t think I erased and rewrote both our memories? About us?” he asks.

And… Steve has to admit, considering that Tony seems to have no regard for the safety of his own biology, it’s a possibility.

But, no. His feelings about Tony — however complicated — feel as right and true as his opinions on Registration: it’s part of the core of him. Tony didn't change that.

“I don’t think so,” he answers, and Tony looks visibly relieved. “But, Tony, people are dead, could still be dying; you have to change it back, we have to go back to whatever was —"

No,” says Tony, desperately, finally, like it’s not up for debate. “No, I can’t. I…"

It’s enough to make Steve instantly shift from sympathetic back to furious; he feels like he’s getting emotional whiplash from the changes. What is so goddamn important that Tony would—?

Steve has a brief flash of recall, standing in some kind of debris, peering at Tony in the half light and saying that he always puts his own wants first. And… did he actually imply Tony was a typical selfish alcoholic?

Is this one of his old memories, from the other timeline? God. It must have gotten worse between them than he’d imagined.

Tony's staring at his hands. Steve thinks he’s staring at the gem, but Tony palms that, squeezes it tightly in his right hand and places it at his side. He looks instead at the news clipping that was wrapped around it.

“I guess I even kept this, for this moment. Last piece of another timeline. Hell, maybe I wanted you to find it. So you’d know why."

Still not looking at Steve, Tony holds the paper up and out. Cautiously Steve takes it from him. The paper is worried, worn. He flattens it out, carefully.

CAPTAIN AMERICA ASSASSINATED, it says.

The rest of the text barely registers, nor the photo of his face, bruised and bloodied, looking as worn-down and frayed as the clipping itself.

“After we fought,” Tony explains, “You surrendered, and then… God, Steve, it wasn’t just that you were dead, and it wasn’t just that it was my fault— it was like… something good in the world had died. Something we found in the early days, when we found you in the ice, and everything was…” he’s crying again, covering his face with his left hand. “Everything I fought for, everything I tried to salvage. It didn’t matter, because you— you weren't--"

And for an instant, half an instant, not even that, Steve feels like he’s back in time, looking at Zemo’s drone plane. Knows what he has to do, knows it’ll cost him his life.

Except the metaphor falls apart there entirely, because this time, he’s completely in love with the engine of his destruction, and has to try to convince him to let him go.

It’s that, or live in this world with memories he can’t trust, with the blood of young superheroes and other innocents on his hands.

He pulls his cowl back and kneels in front of Tony, who is still sitting on the bed, looking entirely lost. He puts his hands in Tony’s lap. “We have to. You know we have to. I can’t believe that this— this destruction— is better than—"

“You weren’t there ,” Tony looks down at him, face racked with pain.

“But I’m here now, Tony— and this,” he points in the direction of the open window, “This could be the end of it. A second Stamford tragedy? This could be the end of the Avengers, the end of superheroes, period . Those… power-inhibiting collars, we could all get one of those."

Tony’s eyes go wider. “You remember those, too? I think those were from the other reality… There’s an airborne, nano-bot version as well— permanent power removal—"

What? "

Tony shakes his head. “There's this Nazi scientist, and— oh God, I don’t want to remember this— like I said, it was bad when you died, okay?"

“It’s going to be worse now,” insists Steve, forcing himself not to think about that. He has to power through. Convincing Tony is the only way, unless...

He could try to overpower Tony physically, but in addition to the fact that he doesn’t really know if he’s a match for Extremis, he’s not sure it’s that simple. The force of Tony’s emotion created and is sustaining this entire reality, unstable as it is; getting the gem away might not be as straightforward as getting his hands on it.

Also, he doesn’t want his last memory in this or any reality to be fighting with Tony. They’ve… had enough of that, it seems. He’ll leave that as a last resort.

Right. He has to convince him.

He tries, tries to remember what they talked about before. In the ruined mansion. What did Tony say to try to win him over?

“You and I are going to be discredited, and the people that are going to be in charge? You know what they think already. Gyrich, his friends, how scared people are of us right now… We are all going down, Tony, down for good, if you don’t put things back the way they were. I wish there was another way, but…”

Steve swallows, and it’s hard to say, even now, when everything is on the line. What’s worse is, goddamn it, it’s true.

“It looks like you were right, Tony, okay?"

Tony reacts like this is the worst thing Steve has ever said to him.

“God, don’t say that, please ,” Tony begs, voice breaking again. “Please, Steve, I’m tired of just being right. Not if it means… I don’t want to be right."

Steve touches the side of Tony’s tear-stained face, tries to get him to focus. “Hey. Hey, Tony, look at me. We got this morning, okay? We got a quiet morning,” Steve tries to smile. “I don’t know if we've  ever gotten one of those before."

“I didn’t believe they existed,” Tony agrees, and okay, there’s a little smile in between the sniffling. Steve takes a deep breath, pushes back all the anger, all the uncertainty still between them, because they don’t have much time, and he’s not going to see Tony again--not like this, anyway. 

He lets his head fall, forehead resting against Tony’s. “You know me, Tony. You know how this goes. If one person’s death can prevent hundreds, I have to—"

“No, nuh-uh,” Tony dismisses him again, but it’s soft this time, a sweet little exhalation, conversational. “No, you are not going all Kobayashi Maru on me right now."

Steve thinks the fact that he’s been in the “future” long enough-- and knows Tony well enough-- to know exactly what that means is a pretty good note to end on.

Tony pulls back and Steve meets his eyes, and there’s a little shine in them. He’s grinning a little. Is… this actually the last time they’ll ever--?

Steve refuses to acknowledge the lump in his throat.

“Before I let this reality go, I just want to say… fuck,” Tony laughs, sounding a little embarrassed, “Well, I’d say your smile is like the sun coming up, Cap, but in addition to being unbearably cheesy, it’s not quite right. It’s like… being on another planet, and watching the Earth come up. I’ve seen that, know what that looks like. It’s so beautiful, and luminous, and amazing, and makes you feel not alone. It’s like… home."

Before Steve can open his mouth, Tony cuts him off, and honestly Steve is glad— he’s not sure he can speak right now anyway.

“I know, you said I was the one that gave you a home. But, without you, it wouldn’t have been a home to begin with. And I got to see you smile at me , and that’s… probably more than I deserve--"

And they’re kissing, they’re kissing, hands gripping each other’s faces almost too hard, and it’s hard to say who started it, but it’s a snotty, salty mess and it’s perfect and soft and awful and sweet and there’s just not enough time .

“When I see you again,” Tony whispers against his cheek, “You won’t remember this. But I will."

Steve freezes. Of course he won’t remember; he’ll be dead. What does Tony mean by--

Oh no. No, no, goddammit.

You, he said before, with emphasis Steve had initially missed. You are not going all Kobayashi Maru.

Steve pulls back, horrified. “Tony, no —"

He tries, in the last instant, to grab the Reality Gem from Tony, but Tony has a firm grip on it, pulls it close to his chest. Its glow is getting stronger, illuminating his face in bright gold.

“You know me, too. Needs of the many, Cap. See you on the other side. I—"

And everything goes white.

 


 

The sky over Ryker’s is gray and angry, threatening rain at any moment. Which is perfect, really, for today. Steve hopes the sky opens up, an intense, violent storm. It’s the backdrop he wants for this. Which is a rather dramatic, petty reaction, but this entire conflict has been the height of dramatic, hasn’t it?

He is not looking forward to this, but he’s got no one else to blame for his presence there. Hill offered to do the honors, but he turned her down. He has to be there himself. He has to talk to… to Stark. He has to. After all of it, he just… has to know why , and more importantly, if this is leading to anything else.

Scuffling outside the exterior door, picked up by his super sensitive hearing, breaks him out of his reverie. A guard leading someone in; a slight pause, then a disgusting wet sound, more shuffling--

“Dude, you can’t spit in his face, he’s Iron Man ,” protests one guard.

“Not anymore,” another derides, and Steve’s stomach turns. He should have that guard fired. He’s going to want to punch the smug look off his face, no one should do that to Tony--

no , can’t think about that now.

Steve hears the door being unlocked and unbolted — analog locking mechanism. Everything in this area is analog, for that matter— it has to be.

He paces the hallway, then eventually pushes through the door at the end of the hall, slips down another corridor to be alone while Tony is—no, while  Stark is… while the guards incarcerate the prisoner. He rubs his temple, breathes deeply.

Okay. Time to get this over with.

He pushes through the doorway. A cold feeling hits him, in the pit of his stomach, uncomfortable but familiar, and he pauses momentarily before tamping it down.

“To tell you the truth,” one of the guards is chatting with Stark (which is just so like him — 30 seconds alone with his captors and he’s already making friends), "he’s kind of a—“ 

“DIRECTOR ON DECK!” shouts the other, too sharply, cutting off his comrade. Steve thinks it’s possibly the one that behaved so disgustingly outside, trying to show up his friend. Kiss-ass.

“Excuse us, please,” Steve says, careful to keep his voice neutral.

“Sir,” one responds. Clomping footsteps echo in the hall, the door swings shut again, and then they are alone.

Stark is sitting on the bench at the back of the cell, leaned forward, bound hands resting on his lap, head forward, eyes cast down. And it all just seems so familiar.

Which is predictable, because how many times did they sit together in the mansion? The Tower? The two of them chatting, laughing. The presence of Stark himself is and should be familiar… but this moment, this particular body language is even more so. But he can’t quite place it. He tries to shake it off.

“Yeah, this is better,” Stark says cryptically, breaking the silence. "The view is better, from over here.”

Stark raises his head, and he looks… well, tired , but Steve would expect that. They’re both tired. But something about him seems… relieved . Almost like they’ve finished a good day’s work stopping criminals, not like they’ve been on opposite sides of this fight for months on end.

He’s wearing a simple white shirt and dark slacks, the same thing he was wearing during his entirely unexpected, non-violent surrender. There’s no sign of the golden underarmor Stark keeps in his bones. He must not feel threatened, isn't planning to try anything.

But Steve doesn’t need Stark’s clothes to tell him that.

His slump forward, the way his head is hanging. Stark looks… broken .

None of it makes any sense for someone who had the clear upper hand in this fight forty-eight hours ago.

Also, he’s still got spit on the side of his face.

Maybe Stark can’t reach it himself, as he’s manacled.

The cell is small, shallow, and Steve could almost reach — he shoots his arm through the metal bars before he can stop himself, and makes a beckoning gesture.

“C’mere, let me get that off your—"

“I got it—“ Stark shuts his eyes, tilts his head, and his cheek… changes momentarily, the texture shifting, becoming smoother; the saliva rolls off without leaving a trace, as if it had never been there.

Fucking Extremis.

Steve yanks his hand back, suddenly self-conscious. He’s not sure if he’s more mad at Stark or at himself, for letting his guard down so easily, so soon.

“Are you even human anymore? Are you trying to piss me off?” he demands.

Steve steels himself for whatever is going to come out of Stark's smart mouth next; he knows he’s opened himself up to countless points of attack. Dismissive: “It wasn’t difficult.” Straightforward: “And succeeding.” And then the coup de grace: “You just wanted to touch my face one more time, didn’t you?"

That would be the hardest to hear, because it might actually be true.

Steve clenches his jaw, waits.

Stark’s eyes flick up, his lips part— then he very deliberately shuts his mouth and casts his gaze to the floor again.

“Does it matter?” he asks quietly, almost demurely.

Who are you and what have you done with Tony Stark? Steve thinks.

He can’t help it. Just blurts it out: what he’s been thinking for months now.

“Stark… why? "

“Why what?"

“Why… any of this? Why didn’t you come to me before? We disagree on this, that’s not necessarily surprising: you see the SHRA as an affront to… I don’t know, your autonomy as a creator? An engineer? The fact that you're good man?” — Stark makes a grim noise that might be a chuckle — “Registration is not a punishment,“ Steve insists.

“I know, believe me , I know—"

Stark's staring at him now, grimacing, like he shouldn’t have said that. Maybe Steve isn’t the only one holding back his feelings. Then how ?

No. He can't fix anything between them. But maybe Steve can at least play it to his advantage.

“Then talk to me. You probably just see me as some dumb soldier on this issue, right? Lockstep with whatever the government tells me to do. But it’s not that. I’ve tried—“ Steve pauses, god, he sounds like he’s begging. He is losing the high-ground in this conversation and Stark’s barely said three words. He’s undercutting himself .

Only Stark, he thinks. 

He feels like an open wound. Too late to change course. At least use the emotion, try to get a reaction.

“God, I’ve tried, Tony. Tried to make you see the writing on the wall."

Steve feels like he’s been punched in the sternum; he let himself slip, he said ‘Tony.’ He wishes he was wearing his Captain America uniform with the cowl, to cover his face, cover everything.

But Tony looks like a ghost, too. His mouth is hanging open a little. Like it’s more than just the use of his name, the familiarity hitting him. He looks like he might be sick.

“I take it back,” he mumbles, as if to himself, eyes falling closed a moment, “This is actually worse."

“Goddammit, Tony,” Steve pleads. “Disagreeing, I understand, but why fight? Why a war? Why involve our friends—?"

“I never asked them to follow me.“ And Tony sounds defiant for the first time in the conversation, sounds desperately sincere on this point.

“How could you think that they wouldn’t? You’re the most passionate, charismatic — you’re a born leader, Tony.” Tony shakes his head, but Steve continues, "Luke and Jess, Susan Storm, Hank McCoy… Carol."

“I’m… actually glad I didn’t have to fight Carol, too. That would have been…" Tony exhales long and hard through his mouth, as if he can’t quite formulate words to describe how awful that would be.

“But you could fight me?” Steve almost doesn’t recognize the sound of his own voice when he asks, he sounds so damn hurt when he says it.

Unless it’s a trick of the dim light in the corridor, Tony’s eyes are glistening when he looks back. He raises his shackled hands, makes a small gesture with one finger to indicate the cell around him.

“Not very well, obviously."

Steve glances around the corridor; he ordered all electronics and communications in this wing of the prison shut down, to prevent Tony from manipulating them to his advantage. That means no security footage or surveillance recordings.

Steve’s awfully glad of this fact when he addresses Tony again.

"You could have won.” Steve admits, bluntly. "You should have— Your tech, your planning, you outclassed us in every aspect. It was like you knew what we were going to do before we did it, every step of the way. And then you just… gave up. Your surrender made no sense. So I have to know: is this an act? Is this part of a larger plan? If you don’t want to tell me your reasons, that’s fine, but I’m appealing you to as a…” friend, Steve thinks, more than a friend, “As an Avenger : if other people are going to be hurt, if someone’s going to be killed--"

Steve doesn’t even see it coming: Tony finally breaks. He sits straight up, throws his arms forward in a frantic gesture that seems like there’s more longing than threat in it; it must be Steve’s imagination.

“What the fuck do you think I’m trying to prevent, Steve?"

Tony crumples back in on himself, throws his hands over his face, as if the gesture could pull the words back in.

Steve just stands there, stunned, listens to Tony’s heavy breathing.

A tiny, distraught murmur escapes from between Tony's hands. Steve thinks he hears something about wishing he had armor on.

“I don’t have any masterplan that’s going to take place after my— my trial .” Tony’s voice is low, destroyed. “No big speech, no literary quotes, no closure. I shouldn’t have ‘won' , because no one wins this. I did what I had to do, and I’ll say whatever you need to hear to get this over with. I—"

He slowly pulls his hands away from his face, balls them into fists on his lap, and when he looks up, his face is a hard mask, harder than the Iron Man faceplate. Steve isn’t sure if it’s his own wishful thinking that it seems the expression doesn’t quite reach Tony’s eyes.

Tony stands, and then rushes bars, slamming his hands against them, gripping them, handcuffs jangling harshly. Steve manages not to step back, though he flinches for a moment.

“You’re an idiot, 'Director Rogers.' Not because you’re old and out-of-touch — though you are — but because you think you have some monopoly on what it is to make a hard choice, and you have no idea. You have no idea, even right now — fuck! — what will end this? Do you want me to say I think you’re a moronic soldier without a single original thought in your head? A lab rat with an over inflated sense of justice? That I don’t need you, never needed you? Fine."

Tony’s face is a distorted snarl, but his eyes are wide, wide, wide. His hands are trembling.

“Even if I had some scheme cooked up, let’s be honest, you’d never be able to figure it out. Face it, Rogers: we’d have all been,” he winces, looks away, then looks back, staring Steve down, unblinking. “We’d have all been better off if you'd stayed in the ice."

Something snaps inside of Steve, flies apart. He can’t, doesn’t want to contemplate what. He takes one step back, breaths in through his nose, and then turns on his heel and starts walking away, to the door they brought Tony in through, fast, as fast as he can without running because he will be goddamned if To— if this man sees him cry.

He hits the door, jams the lock to the open position and rushes outside. He hopes maybe the guards are switching shifts so they don’t have to see this, see his face right now, but he can’t care enough to stop.

The storm must be moving on, because as he exits the prison, light washes over him, the warmth of sunshine tempered by a breeze. It feels cool as it rushes over the tears on his face. Behind his eyes, everything is a golden-orange.

The door closes behind him.


And then.

And then he takes two deep breaths, turns, opens the door, and goes back inside.

 

The shift from dark-to-light-to-dark in the space of a few moments is slightly disorienting, and might have been moreso without serum-enhanced senses, but despite the momentary fuzziness of vision, Steve moves on, is practically on auto-pilot. He knows exactly where he’s going and what he’s doing.

God help him.

He reaches Tony’s cell.

Tony is a crumpled heap at his feet. His chest is heaving raggedly, the sound of muffled sobs coming up from the floor.

Which, though awful to see, is maybe a pretty good sign that what he’s about to do isn’t the most insane thing he’s ever attempted. He hopes.

“Get up,” Steve orders, trying to find his own voice again, putting a bit of a commanding tone in it.

Tony raises his head, though doesn’t move to stand. He looks shocked, confused. His skin is splotchy, his eyes are red, and his face looks like that of a child being awakened in the midst of a nightmare.

“Steve?” he asks, sounding breathless, almost imploring, like he can’t believe what he’s seeing.

Steve’s already pulled the cell key, is unlocking the door. He can’t call him Stark again, and he probably won’t be able to keep it together if he calls him Tony.

“On your feet, Avenger,” Steve tells him sternly, falling into a routine, just something he’s said countless times before.

Instinct seems to kick in, because Tony starts to rise, though he’s still gawping, in total disbelief.

“This is different,” Tony says, voice ragged.

Steve unlocks the cuffs, gives Tony a firm don’t-you-dare-try-anything look. Tony doesn’t move, just stands there as Steve reapplies the cuff, one to his own wrist, one to Tony’s.

“We’re going,” he informs Tony, and starts to lead him to the exit.

“Uh,” Tony says, rather stupidly, and Steve smirks a little, because Tony’s at a loss for words. Well, good .

Steve pulls Tony through the door and marches him outside, heading to the landing pad as fast as possible.

“Are you… taking me to kill me? Is that what this is?” Tony asks under his breath as they walk. The question sounds candid; he seems slightly afraid of what Steve might say.

“No,” Steve says firmly, evenly.

Tony’s face falls slightly. Was he expecting Steve to say yes?

Okay, not as good.

“Are you an alien?” Steve asks back, as quickly as possible, trying to keep Tony off guard and gauge his instinctual reaction.

“No,” says Tony, and it doesn’t sound like bullshit. And sure, an invading alien race would lie about that, but he doesn’t think that’s what’s actually happening here.

“LMD? Shape-shifting mutant? Those aren’t as common these days, but—"

“No. Steve, we can’t—"

They’re about 60 yards from the helicopter Steve was hoping to take. Three guards are running up to them, finally. Steve yanks at the cuffs, hoping Tony gets the hint. Tony quiets.

“Sir, uh, Director sir,” sputters one of the guards behind a mask, “What’s going on with the prisoner? Do you need assistance, sir?"

“Stark is having some kind of physical emergency,” he tells the guard, glancing at Tony with a meaningful look.

Tony locks eyes with Steve, hesitates for a moment, then decides to go with it, doubling over and wincing. When his eyes open again, they’ve rolled up in his head and visible electronic shock waves ripple over his body. It carries through the cuffs to Steve, zapping him, too, like he’s standing a bit too close to Mjölnir in battle.

A little over the top , he thinks, but the guards are visibly shaken by the display, so it’s fine.

“We’ll get him to Medical, sir,” another says, reaching for Tony. Tony give off sparks again, writhes slightly.

“Not possible, gentleman,” Steve informs them matter-of-factly, “We haven’t been able to get anyone capable of working with Extremis in-house yet; I’m going to get Richards on the line, maybe try to get him to the Baxter Building."

“Sir, we’ll come with you,” one of the guards volunteers. "Protocol says--"

“Son, this man is an enemy combatant, but he is also a hero, and he is dying ; we do NOT have time for protocol,” Steve dresses down the guard efficiently, easily, willing every bit of his not insignificant stature to radiate Captain America, Your Superior Officer, and A Man Who Would Not Lie To You. "You are to remain here until Subdirector Hill follows up with further instructions, is that understood.” It’s not a question.

“Yes, sir,” the guards reply.

Tony and Steve board the helicopter without further incident. Tony’s gone completely silent and Steve even feels confident enough to remove the cuffs altogether; this is a vintage helicopter with a limited electronics array, specifically for transporting Stark— another anti-Extremis precaution — and he’ll need a fair amount of concentration to fly it.

“It’ll take a while for them to figure out what’s actually going on,” Steve tells Tony as soon as they’re airborne.

Tony’s hands are in his lap, looking small, like he’s still restrained. “Steve... what the hell is actually going on?"

“You’re one to ask. You say you’re not an imposter. We don’t have any indication that you’re from another Earth. You seem like—” my Tony, he carefully does not say, “the actual, one-and-only the Extremis-enhanced Tony Stark of Earth 616, aka Iron Man, in the year 2007—“ Steve racks his brain for other explanations, descriptions, because that’s just Avengers life— "but you’re acting like, well… nothing like yourself.

“So you,” Steve explains to him, “Are going to tell me what it is you’re keeping from me. You’re not getting out of my sight until you do, and if you’re going to try to hide it by hurting my feelings again, you’re going to have to do a much better job."

“No,” says Tony to his knees, head bowed.

“Excuse me?"

“Steve, this is different. Different is bad. I know this now. I’ve done this a few times. We’re going off the rails. This is not how this has to work."

“What are you talking about? Stop being cryptic,” Steve orders him.

“You take me back to my cell, and tomorrow on the way to my trial, I--”

Steve realizes he must be making a face at Tony as he mirthlessly describes what’s supposedly going to happen in the future, because Tony starts laughing almost hysterically.

“Is this the part where you tell me I’m 'mentally-ill'? I hate that part. That is… easily in my top five least-favorite parts of all this."

“I never said that,” Steve protests, and he knows, he knows he hasn’t, except… he thinks he remembers it.

“Oh, fuck, you remember that, now, don’t you?” Tony groans. "I really, really hate that I know what your remembering face looks like."

“I don’t know… what—“ Steve shakes his head — how could he have said that —what did Tony do — what did he do — “Is this a time-travel thing? When did we—"

“Look, Steve, once upon a reality, I did the right thing, but it was so horrible that I subconsciously tried to ‘fix' it. Then, I fucked it up some more, in an even more horrible way. Innocent people died. So, I’ve been trying to fuck it up in a slightly different way that wasn’t as bad. But the salient point is, it can’t be fixed. It just can’t."

Tony’s babbling in vague statements and not-quite-confessions, but it seems like progress. Steve presses on.

“Yeah, this is the part I don’t buy. You’re Tony Stark , the best engineer of possibly all-time: you can fix anything."

“Not this,” Tony says gravely. “I can’t."

“Well, the Tony I know would at least try."

“You won’t like it,” Tony says sadly. “You didn’t, and you definitely won’t again."

“You bet,” confirms Steve, "but when has that ever stopped you?"

They’ve reached an altitude and an area over the water where they are less likely to run into anyone else from SHIELD, so Steve holds the cyclic control firm, keeping them steady, and looks Tony in the face for a moment.

“Tony, I’m in this with you, whether you like it or not. I don’t know exactly what’s happened already, but I know you, and you try, you always try so damn hard to do the right thing, and sometimes we disagree on what that is, but we are in this together . Whether we are fighting or—"

Nothing about this conversation has been remotely friendly, let alone romantic, but as Steve pauses, Tony’s pupils dilate just fractionally and his breath hitches. More of you , Steve thinks, suddenly, an all-consuming thought. He feels flush.

“— not ," he continues, leaving the alternate option unsaid, cheeks heating up, “we are both a part of this. And I don’t know what tech, or magic, or powers are in play here, but there is nothing that can make me do a damn thing I don’t want to, in any universe. Not even you. "

“Yeah,” Tony nods, looking less distraught than he’s looked in a very long time, “Getting that now. Right, I’m done being the compass, moral or otherwise. Okay. First,” he sighs, “we have to see a lady about a Gem.”

A… what? As in, an Infinity Gem?

Tony,” Steve hisses. He’s glad he hasn’t lost control of the damn helicopter. God, Tony.

“Told you you wouldn’t like it,” Tony says. “But then, what we do with it, if anything… it’s all you this time. We’ll talk through everything. Then it’s your decision. What do we do, Cap?”

Steve should be pissed -- well, he is pissed. Those things shouldn’t be used, period. But it doesn’t change what he just told Tony. They are in this together.

“Something different than whatever you tried, genius ,” he taunts, flashing Tony a rather haughty look, before turning his attention back to the controls. He catches Tony smiling back at him.

He thinks, oddly, that it looks like dawn in a place he’s never been, maybe on another planet.

“Yeah,” says Tony, “Something different. Something different is good."