His vision went black at the edges. He kicked out once, then again with his dangling foot. His boot crushed against metal casing, but the iron grip on his throat didn't falter. Steve's hands shot up to his neck, straining uselessly against the relentless pressure closing in on his windpipe.
He'd assumed once that killer robots would be efficient – blast a hole through his chest and call it done.
But this way bought time. Just a bit more, he struggled to remind himself. His gaze fell on the light at the other end of the room as he gasped uselessly for breath, vision narrowing on the fluorescent fixture. Black Widow would pull through. A single, desperate thought for his shield crossed his mind.
But that was back in New York, and that wasn't his anymore.
The light shut down, and everything turned pitch-black a blink after. The grip on his throat froze, enough to rouse Steve out of his stupor. He struck out with a boot, badly denting a chestpiece. He readied himself for another kick when a robotic finger detached, his only warning before the entire hand dropped unceremoniously to the floor, Steve along with it. He scrambled to his hands and knees, jerking away from the bits of metal his fingers stumbled upon in the darkness. He only stopped several feet away, reeling and gasping for breath for several short, sharp seconds.
It was moments later when the lights came on, revealing the blackout's results. The robot lay in pieces, body parts strewn around a heap, the distorted metal of the chestpiece gleaming at him. Steve couldn't see any sign of sabotage or even mechanical failure. It appeared that someone had simply cut its power, and the rest of the manufacturing plant's power with it. Steve ran his eyes over the evidence again, searching for an answer. It couldn't be as simple as it appeared.
Steve moved again when he heard the pounding of footsteps in his direction. Thankfully, by the time Natasha had rounded the corner, bounding toward him, Steve was standing and hopefully appeared the picture of composure.
“Thanks.” He resisted the urge to finger his throat where there were sure to become some spectacular bruises. “Cutting it close, but I'd thank you for that over not cutting it at all.”
Natasha's glance flitted between Steve and the robot debris, expression growing steadily blanker. “Are you okay?” she asked, dashing Steve's hopes.
“You don't need to worry about me. How about you?”
She faltered for a split second, which was more than long enough. “I'm fine, Steve.”
“You got what you were after?” Steve tried again.
Natasha indicated one of the pouches on her belt. “This little operation, if it wasn't banged up enough already by our work today, definitely won't survive being made public.” As public as a classified case file could get, anyway.
Steve grunted agreement anyway, nudging a piece of robot arm with his foot. “None of the intel we had suggested that our little operation would include these.” They had started from an uncovered cache of World War II-era weaponry two days ago and ended up at the active manufacturing of Ultron knock-offs.
The corner of Natasha's lips quirked up. “Well, after doing this for long enough, you can't get so surprised when you didn't know anything to begin with.”
Steve shot her a puzzled look. He and Natasha had had very, very different experiences in their S.H.I.E.L.D. careers.
Natasha knelt down next to the robot, turning pieces over carefully. When she looked up at Steve, he was taken aback by the sharpness of her gaze.
There was a crackle in Steve's ear and Sharon's voice cut in seconds later. “Rogers, Widow, report in!”
Steve brought two fingers to his earpiece. “The situation's been taken care of and we're unharmed, Agent,” he said.
“Right. Thanks for that,” Sharon replied shortly. “All the security measures on this place have been thrown wide open. I now have complete access to the entire network. But whatever you did, it cut off all contact with you two for a few two minutes in the process. You couldn't have let me know beforehand what you were planning?”
Steve looked at Natasha, taken aback. Natasha's own expression was schooled into evenness.
“That wasn't you, Widow?” he said aloud, quietly. He didn't like to ponder upon whatever could shut down the highest defense agency's communications network down. It was something they'd had to do much more often in the past few weeks than should ever have been deemed necessary.
Natasha shook her head, then she jerked her head toward the exit.
Steve nodded. Even if their electronics were compromised, that didn't make the idea of incoming reinforcements impossible. What had happened would have thrown up more red flags than the loudest warning siren.
“Let our guy know we're heading to the rendezvous point, Agent.”
Steve turned and began to make his way out. When he realized Natasha wasn't following him, he turned around abruptly, to catch the tail end of Natasha standing up by the robot, slipping something into her pocket.
“I wasn't the one who stopped that robot,” Natasha said, the irritation creeping into her voice as she confirmed their suspicions. Steve, Natasha, and Sharon sat around the table, the screens around them replaying video of their raid with the sound muted.
“Nor did I shut down the power, or cut the comms,” she continued. “I was working on downloading the data, so cutting things short would have screwed the transfer up. But when the power came back, the process had finished, and all the security blasted open.”
Sharon frowned at the drive. “The information was complete. No sign of corruption.”
“Exactly.” Natasha flipped the small, culpable drive over. Her face was grim. “Shall we chalk it up to the impossible, again?”
Again. Steve leaned back, squeezing the bridge of his nose. Their mystery person had struck again. The mission last week with the cell of HAMMER loyalist remnants. Last month, and the tip-off they had received on a case of biological weapons trafficking, which, to their horror, had been in the form of mutants, who were at least safely taken under the wing at the Xavier Institute. And now this. Again was the dangerous part. By the third time, it was foolish to write this off as another coincidence. Even if the incidents were random, on cases that were entirely unrelated and supposedly untraceable.
Anyone with that sort of access to that level of information that they didn't know should be their number one priority. Indeed, it had practically become Sharon's new full-time job. The pattern to the incidents suggested one person, but she had determined they had come through a dizzying array of methods and attacks, which again made it impossible for any human to accomplish.
“There's someone watching us, Steve,” Natasha said, arms crossed.
Steve also felt her unease, the incessant chill at being watched, but at least – “They don't have to be against us.” Their mystery person had consistently acted in the nick of time, the moment when someone's life was in danger. Steve's own life had been saved more than once by whatever, whoever this was. It helped a little, he tried to reassure himself.
“They might be on our side. For now. But we don't know how long we can count on that, or if we can even continue to count on it.” Sharon grimaced. We can't know, considering they refuse to show themselves, and then – ”
Natasha looked at Steve. Her eyes were cool, dozens upon dozens of possibilities being calculated behind them. “And then we have to ask the reason why.”
The route had become rote, Steve's feet taking him through the Helicarrier without thinking, or sometimes, without even realizing, up until he'd arrived.
He never told anyone when or where he was going, but that didn't mean they wouldn't find out.
“I'm not even surprised,” Sharon had told him once after he'd exited the room, months ago now. She must have been waiting for him in the hallway. Steve couldn't decipher her tone as angry or disappointed, and he hadn't responded.
“This is exactly the sort of thing you'd never let go.” She avoided his gaze, scoffed like she didn't mean it. “Not even that. Whenever you find something, anything that can hold you back, you cling to it like a dying man, right until you sink along with it.”
It wasn't a memory Steve wanted to dwell on. The signs had been written the entire time, but he'd elected to pass them over.
The initial euphoria he and Sharon had shared after he'd come back had never been just that. But that was the moment when Steve could no longer deny how many reminders of their missing time were left behind.
Years ago, he'd taken Sharon for dead, and the ache of her absence never quite disappeared even when he met other women and found happiness with them. What it had taken, really, to him to recover, was her coming back.
He assumed it'd be like that again for her after his own return. Yes, they hadn't become involved for a while after Sharon's own return, but she had been so changed by her time in captivity. Here, at least Steve was still the same person as before.
But he'd been wrong. Nothing was the same. (He should have known. Nothing could ever be the same, no matter how many times Steve missed the world's passing time.)
There were still too many moments – long stares meant to be inconspicuous, heavy silences and abrupt changes of seemingly innocuous topics, and most of all, the haunted expression Steve would catch on her when she didn't realize – that told Steve what exactly him being gone had done to her. What coming back hadn't taken away.
It had almost been relief, overwhelmed by the dread when Sharon had suggested they stop seeing each other for the time being, after she'd been kidnapped by John Steele and Fury's life model decoy to get to Steve.
Maybe Sharon had a point. Maybe he was punishing himself by doing this, and it'd be better to stop. But moving on could feel like giving up, sometimes.
This time had been much easier the other times he'd come back from the presumed-dead, in every other way except here. Here, those hopes had been washed away by one single person. Steve wanted to close his eyes against a hollowness in him that he'd grown accustomed to over the past few months.
Too late now though. Steve was in front of his destination, mind gone blank of distractions now.
He pressed a hand to the door panel, leaned his head forward, and didn't blink as his eye was scanned. There was a flash of green light, and no, Steve wasn't a Skrull.
The door slid open without a sound, and Steve slipped into the room behind it. It was small and uncomfortably cramped, even moreso because of the dominant centerpiece.
Steve had still not quite shaken the trembling that overtook him when he approached it.
He put his fingers to the case. “Hey,” he said softly.
Behind the glass, the suspended figure didn't stir.
This was no hospital room Steve had been led to. The sleek surfaces were full of scientific instruments, their intended purposes not apparent from a glance. The tables were neatly stacked with piles of notes by desktops, sans the one behind him, strewn with photographs and newspaper articles. No medical supplies were in sight, and not even the highly sterilized scent of antiseptic or disinfectant clung to the air. In short, there was no indication that this was anything other than besides an analysis lab.
It was a place Steve had never had reason to visit on the Helicarrier before, and he wondered why he needed to now.
The revival hadn't been exactly normal, Steve had gathered, but even at the worst of it, Steve had never considered the inhuman to be literal.
“Let's get to the point. They told me he was alive,” Steve said flatly to Reed Richards.
Not in so many words – Bucky had told him they'd agreed to bring him back and carried the procedure through. Thor had been both more and less cryptic.
“I don't know what he is,” Thor had said before turning away from Steve at Asgard.
Reed didn't reply, which only spurred Steve on. “If he's alive, then why aren't we in the hospital wing?” he demanded. Even after the mess of the Extremis hijacking and a heart stopped for half an hour, the man had at least been in a damned bed.
“They didn't have the appropriate facilities to house him,” Reed admitted.
“What the hell could he possibly warrant that even S.H.I.E.L.D. can't handle it?” Steve scowled, before changing tactics and rearing up. “If he's here, then I'm seeing him now.”
“S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't exist anymore,” Reed said, unaffected. “And I can't allow that, not before you get briefed.”
Briefed? Steve mouthed.
Reed signaled to the other scientist in the room, and a holographic screen appeared behind him. Photographs were displayed on one end, shots that Steve recognized and ones that, his senses suddenly on edge, he did not. On the other end appeared several images of a brain from various angles, a body, various sections highlighted in blue, and a large display that faded between lines of computer code, a map of the city, and what appeared to be a HAMMER case report.
Steve looked back and forth, connecting the person in the photographs to the records, and wariness deepened to dread.
“By the time he had been taken into Avengers custody, the effects of the virus had almost entirely eradicated his brain.”
Reed signaled to the scientist again, who cleared his throat. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Commander Rogers. I'm Dr. Bancroft, a neurologist specializing in techno-organisms working for – ” he pursed his lips – “S.H.I.E.L.D., is what I suppose it'll become again in due time. I'm working with Dr. Richards's team because our subject's brain can't be considered solely in the realm of biology or engineering, not by a long shot.”
Subject? An entire team? What was he, their lab rat? No, Steve thought, he'd never stand for that. It was one of the points he'd argued to Steve, the experimentation that he and Reed were supposed to be fighting against by supporting Registration.
“As Dr. Richards was saying, the damage had reached even the brain stem after Norman Osborn was finished with him.” If Steve gritted his teeth any harder, he would have a perpetual ache in his jaw. Dr. Bancroft waved a hand over the screen. “Meaning, he couldn't even perform basic respiratory or cardiac functions on his own.”
God. What the hell had gotten into his mind to make him believe this had been necessary? Steve would have to get the answers from him when they met.
“Maria Hill was in possession of a hard drive, entrusted to her by him, that contained a backup of his brain,” Reed said. “With Captain America, Thor, and Pepper Potts's aid, we attempted to both restart his autonomic nervous system and restore his mind with an electromagnetic implant powered by repulsor technology.”
Steve nodded. He'd known that much, but he still couldn't really understand it. He tried to imagine all of that unbelievable genius and world-spanning personality contained in a single drive. It was impossible.
“You said attempted,” he said suddenly, like his heart had stopped beating.
Reed frowned. “We're still determining the cause of failure. But I think the most plausible hypothesis is that the data was corrupted. We're unsure if this was on purpose. And then we sent a charge through it, resulting in a cascading systems failure. The end result, for lack of a better metaphor, shorted him out.”
Steve had to remind himself to breathe. Manually, in, out. He pushed his face into his hands. Hell. Why hadn't anyone just told him, that he was dead, rather than making him sit here and listen to how how he had engineered his own self-destruction? It made him sick to think of it, and not like that, something in him protested, and he was shaking, all of a sudden, anything but that.
“With any piece of ordinary technology, that would entail a complete loss.” Reed's voice gentled. “But the human body isn't so binary, like how we can function without certain limbs or organs.”
Steve looked up slowly, something welling in his chest, and Reed nodded back at him. “He's not dead, Steve.”
“Oh god,” Steve whispered, and he put his face back in his hands.
Only a gentle, even beeping broke the silence as Steve walked across it, his legs like gelatin until he reached his destination. The stasis chamber was a good eight feet high, glass slightly tinted. Steve laid his palm flat against it.
The person in the tube had a respirator fitted over their mouth, and several tubes were hooked into the line of his spine. He was curled up, floating in a fetal position. But it wasn't the unfamiliar that Steve focused on, but what he did know – the black hair falling over his forehead, the line of his mouth relaxed for once. Steve's mind had a vision, of blue eyes smiling at him, and that wasn't even fair because the last time he'd seen those eyes one had been glaring up at him, daring him, demanding him to finish it.
The piteous noise that escaped him felt like it should jolt the room out of its stillness. But the beeping continued, as uniform as before. The person didn't open their eyes, unaware.
“Like I said, he's not dead, but he's not responsive, either,” Reed said when Steve returned to the room. Steve dropped into a chair and put his head in his hands. He'd been the one who demanded to see Tony, after all. What else had he expected, after seeing how carefully everyone since his revival had avoided the subject?
Not even a regular coma, not for Tony Stark, no.
“We're attempting to salvage the original data from the drive with help from Maya Hansen,” Reed added.
Steve didn't know how to respond to that. Salvage the data, like it was a matter of gathering scraps to recreate Tony. Like Tony could be quantified as information.
Then again, maybe he couldn't. The reboot hadn't even worked, after all, and what did that mean for Reed's chances?
Chance was what it came down to. Chance and hope. Steve pressed his trembling fingers to his forehead, and wished he could experience migraines, anything to cloud his mind from the reality facing him.
Damn Tony for doing this. The first time Steve had woken up, he hadn't known what the future held. Now that he was back again, he still couldn't know that, but he knew keenly what was missing.
Tony probably had a million justifications for this, Steve thought, anger flaring, just like with everything else, about how this was necessary. Why couldn't Tony just see, something Steve knew he was perfectly capable of, instead of making things simple for once? Steve pushed his hands hard against his eyes. No, no, anything, even this limbo, was better than the finality of Tony dying.
“Thank you,” he finally said hoarsely, looking up.
Reed shook his head. “No need for you to thank me. Tony's my friend, and I'm confident there's a solution. There's no better reason to do this. ”
Steve nodded slowly. Reed wasn't the sort of person to hedge the facts. This set-up devoted to Tony was too intricate to not have a purpose. If Reed thought it was possible, then Steve would have to, as well.
“If you need anything,” Steve said, then bit his lip. What power did he have? He was still a criminal, or at least no one had told him otherwise.
Reed nodded absentmindedly. “Did you mention something earlier, about being pressed for time...?”
“Ah.” A meeting with the President. “You're right.” Frustration bubbled in Steve at the thought. Even if he believed in it, there was no room for him here. What could he even do? He didn't possess any useful knowledge for this. There was already a team working on this, and Steve just had to trust it to them.
Hope had never been just wishful thinking for Steve. If he wanted, then he could go ahead and do something about it. Here, he'd walked into an operation already in progress.
And all he could do was wait. Steve turned, picking up the photographs and newspaper clippings of Tony and slowly going through them, his throat growing tighter.
There were still too many things left unfinished between them. It couldn't end like this. Steve would wait as long as he had to if it meant something, but he couldn't even know if it'd make a difference.
Damn it, Tony, you better come back.
“Assembled here – almost, between you all – are the tools and the knowhow needed to bring me back. To reboot me, if you will. But, first you need to take a minute and talk amongst yourselves and figure out – and ask the question – do you want me back? Can you forgive me?”
Tony's eyes bored into Steve, neither of them really seeing the other as Tony droned on, tangents on how awful the superhero life was.
You loved it though, Steve thought almost petulantly. The Tony Stark he'd known had loved being Iron Man, but the one he watched on the screen didn't.
“There's no promise of a happy ending,” that Tony told him.
That's bull, Steve thought, and his eyes glazed over as the rest of the message played, the words almost imprinted in his mind by now. It was talk about Osborn, and it was still odd, how large he'd loomed in Tony's mind, in everyone's mind who lived through it. Steve knew why, of course, but that couldn't erase the dissonance between what he'd felt and what he'd learned. Steve had only been there at the end, led the final strike against Osborn and his men, watched as his reign toppled over.
It's not about promises. We fought for our happy ending, just like anything else.
Who did that 'we' include, though? He had access to top-secret files, scrapped plans under the HAMMER administration and even earlier, of superhero projects too terrible to contemplate. Hill herself had disclosed things to him about Tony's time as SHIELD director that Steve never had a chance to see. He thought maybe she had been drunk at that time, or sleep-deprived – either way had made her wracked with guilt.
Steve closed his eyes. Bucky, Thor, Pepper, and Maria had all agreed to bring Tony back. Tony had said so much himself, that it would be enough to overcome his martyr complex, but they weren't enough.
What was missing? Tony had said almost, but then hadn't bothered to follow up with it. For the last message he thought he'd ever leave, why couldn't he just come right out with it? What was there left to be dishonest about?
If there was someone who could find a reason, it'd be Tony, wouldn't it? Keeping things from you for your own good, for his own ends, until it was too late to change anything.
Steve could no longer dredge up the obliged indignation, much less rage, at the thought. The message ended and went black, the blank screen reflecting him.
As it turned out, there was a reason he was waiting, after all.
He was visiting Avengers Tower for the first time in weeks. He hadn't made it a habit to come here after the Avengers had regained ownership of it. From what he heard, the people technically in residence flitted in and out. It was their meeting space, but it hadn't become their home.
“I didn't have to do paperwork back when the Avengers were still underground.” Bucky punctuated his complaint with a sidelong glance at the offending pile of papers.
Meanwhile, Steve looked at them wistfully. At least the Avengers paperwork came to an end, after a while. No such luxuries were afforded for his current position. “I'll call up the Raft, tell them Osborn can have his job back. The new Captain America can't handle paperwork.”
“I'd take his Avengers team over getting another mission report returned by Maria Hill any day.” Bucky scowled. “'Specify approx. no. of combatants.' 'Include damage reports to equipment and property.' 'Not enough detail, elaborate.' I'm in the middle of a fight, how am I supposed to remember how many people's faces I punched in?”
“Surveillance videos, hospital reports, NYPD accounts, they all know how to deal with us at this point,” Steve rattled off without an ounce of pity.
There was a familiar beeping noise, and both of them reached for their pockets. Steve resisted a flinch when he didn't feel what he was looking for. Of course it wouldn't be there.
Bucky frowned at his Avengers card. “Lower East Side. They're thinking it's a mutant who awakened their powers, and not in the nice way.” He picked up the shield on the floor beside him and slung it over his shoulders in a familiar motion that made Steve's fingers twitch.
“I don't even have to ask, do I?” Bucky asked as Steve made to rise as well. They'd had their fair share of calls to every borough and district in the city, but Steve always felt especially sensitive about his neighborhood.
“Being the guy behind a desk doesn't suit you,” Bucky added.
Steve wasn't going to argue that point.
The damage was visible from several blocks away, in the form of thick smoke billowing and clouding the city air. It was enough to force them to land the quinjet several blocks from the perimeter, where they were greeted by the sound of emergency sirens and smoke that made their eyes water.
The police chief ran up to them, a mask fitted over his mouth. “Some of our officers who were in contact with the suspect are already in the hospital with second and third-degree burns,” he told them. Flame powers, Steve thought grimly. It was one of the powers that could wreak the most havoc in the middle of a bustling city.
Peter landed with a soft thud next to them, setting a yowling tabby cat on the floor who quickly flitted away, only to be captured by a nearby EMT.
“Caught sight of the guy. Kind of hard to miss, having to run away from all the hurled fireballs. Felt like I was in a carnie game.” Peter was gasping, visibly singled on the back of his costume. “Good thing those are always rigged, huh?”
“Get yourself checked over, and then into the quinjet,” Steve told him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “There's air conditioning,” he tried.
“No, no, Cap – Commander,” Peter corrected. “I have to – There could still be someone left – ”
“All the buildings should have been evacuated.” Steve looked to the police chief, who nodded back to him. He turned back to Peter. “For any stragglers, that's what we're here for.”
“Right,” Peter said. “Yeah, you might have a point there.”
“I'm serious about being checked over. You might be going into shock.”
“I think it takes worse than nearly being set on fire for that. How long do you think I've been in this business now?” Peter laughed weakly as he was led away by an EMT. Steve watched him leave. Peter had been uncannily quick to oblige, but he did look rather unsteady on his feet.
“Have you confirmed the evacuation of nearby buildings?” Steve asked when he was out of sight. An evacuation order didn't mean anything was clear.
“Everything east of Jefferson, yes,” the chief told him. “He's almost all the way east. Last sighting on Madison. Completely unresponsive to any attempt at negotiation.” He grimaced. “Tearing through the city, and no one's heard as much a word from him.”
“Steve,” Bucky said. “The Avengers can handle him.”
Steve nodded, having reached the same conclusion. Someone needed to help with evacuation efforts, and he wasn't an Avenger anymore, even if he had worked alongside so many of his members it would be a nearly seamless fit if he were to join them.
He jogged over to a circle of firefighters, hunched over a map. One of them spoke into their radio.
“We can't get a visual confirmation on these. Looks like the buildings' safety permit is out of date,” he said, disapproval apparent as he indicated several apartment buildings lining a block on their map. “Meaning we need people to check the elevators and fire escapes to make sure no one is inside.”
“I'll do it,” Steve volunteered promptly, noting on the map the cluster of unchecked buildings closest to the last sighting of the suspect.
Steve was on autopilot as he was directed to clear these buildings, done in groups of two, nodding along as he listened to the battle with the suspect in his other ear. He contacted his own team, filling them in on his situation, and Sharon and Hank promising to look up what she could on their guy.
They exited the vehicle at their destination, Steve feeling more at ease. It sounded under control on the Avengers' end – the suspect was currently cornered, and –
“What the – ”
There was silence, and then a frantic voice cut into the comms.
“Hawkeye's down!” Jessica yelled. Steve paused abruptly, and his partnered firefighter stopped and turned around to peer curiously at him.
“I'm not down!” Clint protested an instant later. “I managed to get out of the way in time. But hell, he wasn't moving like that before. Fire and super-speed and strength? That has to be cheating!”
“Moving like what? Has anyone got eyes on him?” Bucky demanded.
A moment of silence, before Jessica swore. “He's gone, we've lost sight of the bastard. Sorry, I got distracted by Hawkeye's injury.”
“I'm not injured, I'm – ow, shit, don't touch there!”
“I've got him,” Jessica said. “He's in no condition to fight, his leg's out.”
“Must have twisted an ankle trying to get out of the way,” Clint muttered. “Why did he just run, though?”
“Who's holding the perimeter?” Steve asked, pressing his fingers against the earpiece so that it dug into his ear, like that would get him his answer faster.
“Me,” Logan cut in roughly. “No sight of him yet. Must have gone for cover, somehow.”
“Do you need me to come in?” Steve asked.
“No. Not yet, at least. I'll fall back to you, Wolverine,” Bucky said.
Steve shook his head at his partner, who shifted from foot to foot, looking increasingly nervous.
If their guy was actively fighting, he should have gone after Hawkeye, but he'd ignored the easy target.
What did he want? What was his endgame? No one knew, or could even guess, when contact has been impossible. Steve reluctantly allowed himself to be led by his partner to their building, as Bucky joined up with Logan. Still no sign of the guy.
“Got him,” Logan growled a moment later. There was the sound of gunshots over the comm, followed by the sound of – metal clashing on metal? Why would –
“What the hell?” Bucky yelled. “He ran right past me!”
“What happened?” Jessica asked.
“He knocked Logan down, and I missed with the first shot with the shield. Switched to my gun and the bullets didn't affect him”
“Where is he now?” Steve demanded, his heart sinking.
“He's headed in – ” Bucky swore. “Steve, your direction!”
Steve snapped to action.
“You have to leave, now!” His partner visibly jumped, turning around with wide eyes, but they weren't the ones who could hear the Avengers comms.
“Let everyone else know to clear the area! Get back to at past Bowery, at the least!” Steve yelled over his shoulder as he hit the ground running. He was sprinting down the next block when he heard a loud crash. Turning the corner, he dodged away from a wildly veering ambulance. It skidded with a screech, crashing into a nearby storefront.
Steve rushed up. “Are you okay!?”
The EMT was frantically trying to start the engine to no avail. “God, this fucking piece of junk won't start!” He looked up and his eyes went wide. “Behind you!”
Steve whirled around, and saw the cause of the crash.
“Get out,” Steve edged to the side, away from the door.
“My partner's in the back with a patient! They're both unconscious!”
“You still need to get out.” Steve took out his ray gun. “I'll handle this.”
“Are you crazy!? You can't take him on alone! Who even are you to – ”
“The Avengers are coming,” Steve said. “You need to evacuate. Now.”
After a pronounced silence, Steve heard the door opening to his side. The man stumbled out, dashing down the nearest alleyway.
“I'm standing down the suspect,” he said into the comm. “Requesting backup.”
“I'm closest,” Jessica said. “Coming now.”
“Us too,” Bucky said. “We'll be there ASAP, but the bastard started a bunch of fires on his way over there.”
Steve reckoned he'd be in the middle of one of those soon. He steeled himself as the suspect at the end of the intersection finally began moving again, step after pronounced step. He had gotten here in bare minutes. Yet here he was, taking his agonizing time to come over here.
Their appearance was painfully unremarkable. Male, adult, somewhere in their thirties, brown hair and eyes, a t-shirt and track pants. The type of physical description that made police departments pull their hair out.
“Steve, we've finally traced their origin. He's – it's not human,” Hank informed him. “It might not have the shiny metal outer layer, but they were manufactured.”
That was a great help, Steve thought, his eyes still locked on the suspect's. Their vacant expression didn't change.
“Not like an LMD either,” Sharon added. “There's nothing in there besides their programming.”
No, there was something in there. The deliberateness of the actions was enough to run a chill down Steve's spine. There was no reason to rush past everyone and stop here, unless there was a target in mind.
Steve always had enemies, right? The question was, just who was the person controlling it?
Whatever happened, he needed to get them away from the ambulance. Steve surged forward. In that split second, the suspect sprinted, clearing an unbelievable amount of ground. Steve aimed and fired to no avail, as they dodged it, Steve barely catching the motion.
It was cold, efficient, ruthless. Whatever this was, it was something constructed purely for destruction.
The suspect got into position, holding out an arm, other arm positioned to prepare for the recoil, and the familiarity of the stance stayed Steve's next shot a second too long.
Steve crashed to the street, rolling and picking himself up to dive behind a car as a blast of fire burned hot feet away, his body jerking away from the heat. Steve got to his feet, crouching low.
The car was shoved, once, twice, and Steve only had the time to scramble out of its path when it rolled over. Steve found himself face-to-face with the suspect. It stared down at him, deliberate, and held out its arm the exact same way Steve had seen hundreds, thousands of times.
But Steve was prepared now. He lunged forward, feinting to the right but connecting a punch with his left.
The suspect staggered back, and Steve was on it again with a roundhouse, knocking it to the ground. It slid across the floor before rolling back onto its feet.
Not fast enough, Steve thought – super-speed was no help when someone didn't know how to handle themselves in hand-to-hand. He moved to engage again – as long as they were in close quarters, he'd keep them down long enough for backup.
The suspect blinked at him, eyes bright blue one moment and black the next. An involuntary shudder ran through Steve, not from the sight, but from the deja vu, struck dizzyingly hard. He missed his timing window, forced to lunge for the side to avoid a kick. Even if it was unskilled, there was no denying the strength in its body.
Twice he'd hesitated in less than a minute, and Steve needed to get out, now. He was never afforded many chances, and his luck always ran out.
He sprinted back, turning into the closest alleyway to leap behind a dumpster. He was nearly gasping, the adrenaline overriding even the stench of his surroundings. His mind raced, almost dizzy.
The way it acted – all the Extremis samples should have ended with its final subject. This – thing wasn't even human. What was controlling it? The dumpster heaved once, and Steve ran from behind it as it was blown ten feet back. It crashed, spilling its contents over the floor, the alleyway overwhelmed with the stench of dead and rotting things. The thought occurred to Steve, suddenly, staring at the suspect as its eyes turned black again, fire forming in the palm of its hands.
In the heat of the moment he'd always acted on intuition, and the words were past his mind and out his mouth. “Armor override, Steve Rogers, code 34-44-54-64.”
The flame was still flickering at the end of the suspect's hand when it paused. They stared at each other for several unbroken moments before a voice responded, its mouth not even moving. “Armor servers online. Assembling. One moment, please.”
It was – Steve thought he'd be sick. Thick streams of gray raced from holes beneath its skin, covering the body with the gleam of metal. There's your shiny outer layer, Beast.
At the end, the – armor, completely silver with pale blue highlights – looked at him. Its eyes were red.
The last time he had used this override, he had told the armor to locate its owner. He had half a mind to say it again. Could he have a different answer, this time?
“Disable all security protocols and accesses,” Steve said, barely hearing his own voice over the pounding of his heart. “Disassemble.”
The head of the robot fell off. Steve was too well-trained to do anything but flinch, but his mouth gaped in a soundless scream. The rest of the armor followed in falling apart, each piece clanking loudly, one by one, onto the street, deafening in the silence.
After it was over, Steve fell to his knees. The comms were nothing but alarm and incomprehension at what had caused the entire system to just fall apart.
Steve's gaze remained fixed on the pieces of armor and the emptiness inside, searching for something, someone that wasn't really missing.
“It's Stark,” Steve repeated, voice strained from overuse. “The person who's been helping us this entire time, it's been Stark all along.”
“Is trying to set you on fire 'helping', now?” Maria asked dryly.
“The robot was related to Extremis. The powers match up with the last known recipient of the technovirus that wasn't Stark.”
“Yet you were able to use the armor override given to you by Tony,” Natasha pointed out.
“Extremis – ” Steve paused. “You don't know what it did to him, it was – ” But Tony would never have willingly rampaged through a city and put countless civilians in danger, even at the worst of it. No, he would just imprison people he called friends indiscriminately. He felt sick, and his mind searched for some answer to seize on, to wash away the nausea.
“But Extremis would explain all the past incidents,” he said. The Extremis-enhanced Tony was more than capable of performing those impossible tasks. “Which means he saved all our lives on more than one occasion. This is the first time otherwise, meaning something – went wrong, or someone must have taken advantage of the fact.” Someone could be controlling Tony, with the state he was in. Steve had trouble keeping his features schooled into neutrality.
“But we know where Stark is,” Sharon finally said, a bare flicker of worry passing over her face as she watched Steve. “How could he interact with the outside world, or the world with him, when he's more or less in a coma? Not to mention he lost Extremis back during the Skrull invasion.”
“It's the reboot,” Steve replied immediately, having come to all his answers like collapsing dominoes, one after the other. “What Tony must have left behind in that drive, it – jumpstarted it. The Skrulls might have taken Extremis offline, but the framework is still there. That's what's happening. So Tony's still hooked up to computers even while he's inside the – ” He couldn't bring himself to say tube. What did that make Tony, someone's experiment with millions on millions of dollars funneled into it?
“So, Tony's been interfering even from the other side,” Natasha added quietly. “If he really is capable of that, then there's definitely some thought or consciousness behind it.”
“But if that's the case,” Sharon countered, “then why isn't he waking up?”
Steve squeezed his eyes shut, faced with the question he'd been dwelling on and dreading ever since he'd reached the same conclusion. “I don't know.”
Maria sighed, putting her head in her hand. “So now Tony Stark can fuck with the world from inside a dream?”
“Trapped in your own mind, unable to wake up. It sounds like a recipe for anyone to go haywire,” Sharon noted.
“That, or there's someone else who has access to his armor, systems, and Extremis,” Natasha said. “I have to say, I prefer the unstable dream theory.”
“Still not of much comfort.” Maria interlaced her fingers, taking a moment to begin again. “If this is related to Tony, we should take the proper precautions.”
“What precautions?” Steve said, the words too loud even in his own ears. “Is he considered a threat now?”
“Look, Rogers, you can't parade what happened today around as proof that there's something going on inside that brain and simultaneously tell us he's entirely safe. Is someone else behind this? Is he slowly going crazy? Was it a bad nightmare? Until those questions are answered, yes, he's considered a threat.” Maria ran her hand over her face. “Fuck, I can't believe those are options. Why supers and their shitty pseudoscience?”
She sat back, took a breath, recovered from her spurred airing of grievances at the world. “By precautions, I was considering catching his team up with these events. Maybe discussing the possibility of inducing a coma until he's able to be properly recovered.”
“No.” All heads in the room turned to watch Steve. When Natasha raised an eyebrow at him, eloquently alarmed, he shook his head, laying his hand on the table. “If it's a villain, just pulling the plug won't change that there's someone this dangerous out there who we don't have any leads on. And if it's his subconscious at work, to this extent, there must be some other way to wake him up normally.”
“But they've been trying to do that already for months now,” Maria said, voice tight. “I don't like this any more than you do, Steve. But need I pull up the casualty and damage reports from today's incident again?”
Steve clenched his hands into fists. “It's too hasty for us to decide before – I'll do it. I'll be the one to talk to Reed,” he said. “I'm sure he'll have ideas.”
If Reed had ideas, he would have told Steve already. But he hadn't been caught up with the new developments, of what Tony was doing.
These incidents had only been occurring for the past month. Maybe there was something now they could do that they couldn't before. If something happened to Tony right now, when they were so close, then he might never –
Steve shook himself out of it. This all happening, just now, meant something. There wasn't time to focus on the worst-case scenario, when choices were opening up before them.
“It should be impossible,” Reed stated flatly, “but the circumstances themselves are unprecedented.”
Steve stood beside Reed, looking at the readings on the screen. A quote rose to his lips, but he couldn't know if Reed would have appreciated the Spock quote.
(Tony would have.)
This morning, the same time Steve had been face-to-face with the Extremis model, various odd readings had apparently begun to appear.
“Rapid cellular decay,” Reed had said, tapping the screen with a finger. It would have been less eerie if his arms weren't crossed and the finger hadn't stretched several feet to reach its goal.
“Decay?” Steve echoed. “How's that even possible? I thought the point of keeping him like that was to prevent something like this from happening.”
Reed met Steve's frown with one of his own. “It should,” he said carefully, “although that particular effect would not have occurred to me to be relevant in this situation.”
Steve blinked, letting the words process. “It didn't occur to you that – being in that thing – Tony could die?”
“Dying, yes. Already being dead, however, is an entirely different matter.”
Steve's gaze shot back to the screen. No – Tony was still breathing. There was still a heartbeat, the beeping filling in spaces in the silence. But the dread coiled around Steve, watching the scans with nightmare scenarios of them going flat at this very moment playing behind his eyes.
“I'm undecided if that is the strangest part in this situation.”
What could be stranger than a very much-alive body rotting away like a corpse? Steve didn't even have to ask before Reed answered.
“These readings are eerily similar to the results of your autopsy.”
My autopsy, Steve echoed slowly, resisting the reflexive recoil at the thought.
To the world, he had been dead. He couldn't say he remembered the time fondly, reliving all of his memories, forcing himself to be a passive bystander while he fought, cried, and couldn't help at all when it counted. Maybe he'd even wished for it to be over sometimes during it all.
But to everyone else, it had been over. A funeral, a memorial, and...his body being cut open, the end result of an experiment begun over half a century prior.
What did that have to do with Tony? Could losing his mind actually spell out death for him? It wasn't like Tony's brain or body was typical to begin with.
Steve took a breath. “I have something that might have to do with this,” he admitted.
Reed's face paled as Steve explained his Extremis theory.
“It's a possible alternate interpretation,” he admitted after a long moment. “It makes sense of what happened at the reboot to restart Extremis capabilities, rather than the reboot failing entirely.”
Having his suspicions confirmed was a good sign, Steve told himself. But the first thing he had done coming here was visit Tony, who looked exactly the same as usual. But something was happening in there, and it was up to them to figure out what.
“If I had to decide between the possible theories, someone manipulating Tony seems unlikely,” Reed said, and Steve took hold of the edge of the desk in relief. “There are far more dangerous things you could do with that sort of access,” he added, failing to dampen Steve's spirits.
“Dreaming,” Reed continued thoughtfully, tapping his chin with a finger as he stretched his neck forward to peer at the results more closely. Steve wished he would just lean over, and he supposed that meant the moment had passed.
“We knew what his suspension couldn't exactly be classified as a coma,” Reed added. “But even in patients in comas, there are reports of dreams and nightmares. Of course, the main theory is that is their brains are trying to make sense of the limited sensory input they're receiving. Making sense of neural activity is, of course, also one of the prevailing theories behind the presence of dreams in the first place.”
“You think he's hallucinating?” Steve worried at his lip. “But if it has to do with Extremis, then – ” Nothing about the sensory input of every electronic within reach could be limited. Steve was reminded of Sharon's words in the post-mission briefing. Anyone would go haywire. “We can't let him stay like that.”
“It would be dangerous,” Reed agreed readily. “Physically, perhaps, but mentally it would be unthinkable to put someone through that. Which brings me to my next point.” Reed's arm stretched to enlarge the readings on the screen. “The reason these readings are strange is because this markedly increased activity is almost entirely focused on the hippocampus. If he really was going to wake up, then I'd expect more automatic functions to be prioritized. But the hippocampus is primarily known for its function in memory, particularly the formation and recall of. It's...another way that Tony's condition mirrored yours.”
Steve was stunned. His mind ran through the implications too quickly for comfort. Did that mean Tony trapped in his own memories, completely aware of what was happening but helpless to change them, like Steve was? He went cold at the thought.
“But the reboot didn't work,” Steve said, feeling sudden guilt at the admittance. “How would he have his memories?”
Reed nodded. “I considered that. Extremis powers include self-regeneration when its host is injured. It might be trying to apply that same principle to his own brain.”
“What exactly would it be trying to regenerate?”
“His memories, supposedly. His mind, his personality. There are endless possibilities, and that might explain the current situation. How would Extremis reconstruct him, and from where?” Reed paused to look at him, as if he was waiting for Steve to say something. Steve had nothing.
“His mind may be becoming unstable,” Reed said, voice quiet. The implications of the statement were apparent.
“We need to reach him, then,” Steve cut in sharply. “You said that Extremis may be working in order to restore his mind, right? His memories and such? Is there any way for us to work with that, to feed that information into him, or anything?”
Reed frowned. “I believe that one of Tony's previous associates had a machine that let one enter dreams. That would be the quickest method, but the task of doing so is complex. The danger is too great.”
Right, Steve remembered Tiberius Stone, and exactly how he and his DreamVision machine had ended up. But – “Are you really going to let that stop you?” Tony wouldn't, Steve was sure.
“Entering someone's mind isn't nearly so simple,” Reed countered. “The ability to displace your own mind and to enter a person's memories isn't inconsequential. Especially if the state of said memories are uncertain. Besides, this is purely speculation, versus the reality of today's casualties.”
Ice washed over Steve. “But what can you prove, when that person can't actually tell you? Are you saying we shouldn't bother? I thought him being your friend and there being a solution was enough to try, and now we have something.” Steve had never been the type of person who had needed more than an opening and his own convictions to charge forward.
“We can still have it,” Reed said, “after I devise a safer method to interface with Tony. Maria Hill's suggestion of a medically induced coma isn't so imprudent.”
Steve wanted to gnash his teeth. “Sure it is, when we know that Tony's in contact with the outside world.” His voice rose. “You can't just cut him off from that! It's how his mind is supposed to work!” It must have been agony for Tony, when Extremis was shut down for the first time.
Reed grimaced. “What we have now amounts to a solo mission with high risk and minimal information.”
“Then I'll go.”
“Steve,” Reed's voice gentled. “Your position has too much responsibility to be sent on this mission.”
“No one can order me not to,” Steve said sharply.
Reed's lips thinned. “If that's how the game is played, then do the rules also dictate I can refuse without the risk of imprisonment? How the tables have turned, Commander.”
Steve curled his hands into fists at his side. “He could be dying,” he said flatly, eye-to-eye with Reed, a hand stretched toward the screen. “Maybe the reason that this is all happening right now is because of the...decay you're picking up on.”
“I've considered the possibility,” Reed said. “Or it could be the opposite. There's no way to tell.”
“If what you're saying is right,” Steve countered, “even Hill's idea won't save him.”
“But you doing this won't, either,” Reed replied. “You might feel better, but doing so would only put yourself and Tony at risk. I can make sense of the impulse to do something even when nothing will be accomplished, but neither will I condone it. You accepted the fact the moment you accepted the president's offer. You're needed here, Steve.”
So is Tony, Steve wanted to retort. It wouldn't amount to nothing, to do something. It would mean they had tried. It would be worth it, just to fight for their friend.
But, what use was there to argue, now? Steve knew it wouldn't work on Reed. He would make his own decision and be unapologetic over it. There wasn't a shared history that ran deeper than blood to appeal to. There wasn't a need for Steve to implore him to agree, to make things so much easier, knowing that when they were on the same side, things made so much more sense. That with him, there wasn't any more room to doubt.
Not to mention, Steve couldn't do anything without Reed's help. He pulled back. “I said to Hill that I would talk to you about what to do. What am I supposed to tell her, now?” That she was right? That we should give up on him?
“Tell her,” Reed hummed as he looked away, one finger tapping against his chin. “We're all familiar with instances of artificial intelligences becoming sentient. With the behavior that's been exhibited thus far, this may be shaping up to another scenario. In that case, there's no guarantee that shutting Tony off will solve the issue. If anything, it would exacerbate the issue, cutting our connection to the source. We need to assess these possible consequences before making any hasty decisions.”
Reed avoided Steve's eyes. They had approached this with the idea that it was Tony behind it, so why hadn't he mentioned this al –
“Right,” Steve said. “We need more time before we decide on anything.”
He could feel himself deflating, the tension riled up seeping away from him. He had to come to terms with the fact that he wasn't the only one who wanted Tony back, no matter how much it felt it at times.
But just wanting it didn't mean anything, even to them, the chief authority of the United States and the smartest man on Earth. An urgency came over Steve, as he thought, no matter how much he didn't want to, about an unseen clock, ticking away how much time left they had.
Steve caught the ball when it came down. He shifted the hand tucked underneath his head, blinking slowly at the ceiling. His fingers worked their way around the foam ball. Stress ball. Someone had left it behind at their workstation, Steve eyeing it when he'd tore himself away from the lab. His presence had been unwanted, and he hadn't felt much for standing around uselessly, anyway.
He was staying on the Helicarrier at the moment. It was the property of his team as they were still in the process of rebuilding S.H.I.E.L.D., meaning there was only a skeleton crew manning it. There weren't many places anymore Steve could have burrowed himself in, a blind eye to the outside world for the time being. The mansion library had been burnt down along with the rest of it, and Avengers Tower wasn't his place to intrude on restless nights.
He hadn't talked to anyone besides Reed ever since he'd left the mission briefing in the early afternoon. He wondered how he'd tell the others when he met them. No need to worry about Tony, give it some time and he'll be no one's problem anymore.
Steve threw the ball, his arm snapping with the motion. It bounded off the ceiling, the sharp trajectory landing it near his feet. He didn't reach for it again.
He couldn't stay like this for much longer. He sat up, and saw his reflection in the mirror stared back at him. Steve flexed his fingers.
If he broke it, there'd be nothing but glass to clean up, and that would take longer than it'd take the bleeding to stop. Steve paused, peering at his knuckles, thoughts rearranging themselves into sentences into theories into ideas.
By that time, his room was a short walk down the hallway to the central control room, made even faster by how Steve nearly sprinted the whole way.
“Steve?” Reed squinted from the screen at him not even a minute later. Even though Steve hadn't been able to sleep, it looked like the problem had not befallen others. “Why a private line? Should we suit up?”
“That won't be necessary,” Steve said. “I needed to talk to you.”
Reed contemplated him warily.
“About Tony,” Steve added.
Reed's eyes widened a fraction. “Ah. Give me a moment.”
In the doorway, a disheveled Sue frowned at him, before her attention turned to her husband speaking to her. The video cut out a short moment later. Steve drummed his fingers on the console.
It felt endless, but the time showed barely three minutes later when the feed cut back in. Reed was in his lab now, his sleepwear covered by a lab coat.
“Do you remember how I ended up returning?” Steve shot off.
“The Red Skull forced your body back and subsequently took control of it.”
“Yes,” Steve breathed, his heart still pounding. “But, more importantly, do you remember why my body went back to him?”
“He'd kidnapped Sharon Carter,” Reed said slowly, his displeasure apparent at having his hand held through this. Or maybe it was because he couldn't understand it – the thoughts were racing through Steve's own head, and he'd lived through all of it. “It's 3 AM, Steve, don't continue trying to emulate one of Stark's middle-of-the-night epiphanies. I think I could understand your thought processes even less than I could understand his. What do you need?”
Steve took a breath. “I need you to run a blood test.”
“It's a match.” Reed paused, eyes scanning over the screen again. Steve followed his gaze over the numbers, but the green confirmation was all that he noticed, hearing his heartbeat in his ears. “The accelerated decomposition is a result of the identical chronal tracers in the blood. The same happened to your own body. What we know now, even though it dives into more theoretical, existential territory,” Reed huffed almost imperceptibly, “but the further the mind is from the body, the faster the deterioration occurs.”
The rush of adrenaline gave way into clammy fear. “The further the mind is away from the body. What is that even supposed to mean? When this happened to me,” Steve said, “my body was gone, but my soul was still alive. That's not what's happening here at all. If anything, it's the opposite.”
Reed kneaded the bridge of his nose, sighing, a rare show of vulnerability.
“It's Extremis.” It came out sounding like a demand, a familiar thrum of unease and anger bubbling in Steve at the thought. “All the incidents. It really does has to do with this, doesn't it?” Steve waved a hand over the screen. “This – deterioration.”
“The theory holds together startlingly well,” Reed admitted, tone almost nonchalant. Steve shot him a sharp look, but he saw how Reed was worrying his lip, his brows furrowed.
“He's dying,” Steve said. It had been a question up until now, one that had kept him up all night, but it wasn't uncertain any longer. Steve exhaled slowly. If they already reached that answer, they'd come up with another one.
“It's because I wasn't there,” Steve said, the realization out of his mouth before he'd even had time to think it over. Reed didn't respond, so Steve raised his voice, the ideas snapping into place. “When they tried to revive Tony. They needed Sharon, to bring me back, because we had the same tracers in our blood. It's the same here. I'm – ” an involuntary shudder shook him – “the constant. ”
It was on him. If they had tried the revival just a bit later, if he'd been there, then Tony would be here. A vise gripped Steve's chest, and the more breaths he took, the more it clamped him shut.
Reed's attention had finally turned fully on him. “Why would Tony specify such a condition? He believed you were dead at the time.”
“I...I don't know,” Steve admitted. From what he'd heard, Tony didn't have the healthiest of mental states at the end. (From what he remembered, he believed it.) But still, it was incomprehensibly self-defeating to include such a requirement.“But it checks out, doesn't it?”
“You did mean a lot to him,” Reed said. “But if so, I couldn't imagine why reminding himself of your death would even occur to him. I don't think many people wanted to think about it then. Least of all, him.”
Steve had watched the videos from his funeral, although he couldn't say he wished he had. That sort of display wasn't meant for him, some sort of reassurance of memories for those left behind. What could he say about himself in fond remembrance that didn't sound hollow, cursory, and like an awkward lie through his teeth?
At least seeing the footage had put to rest any petty, selfish thought he'd had about what people would, should think of him after he died.
Steve shook his head. “It doesn't matter, as long as we know it's the tr – ” Steve curled a hand into a fist. No, that wasn't right. Disregarding the motivations behind Tony always led to the most dangerous conclusions. If you looked only at what he had done, there were too many discrepancies, gaping holes in the person Steve knew. It were those gaps that had led other anti-Registration people to call him things that had made Steve feel sick, wanting to lash out and shut down.
Steve couldn't explain how to describe Tony to fully encompass him. Maybe it was impossible. He had been as familiar and reliable as Steve's shield for so long. But sometimes his trajectory was so off, defying the laws of physics, bending his own way out of his own will.
“I can't see the reasoning behind it,” Reed repeated. “Did Tony know what the tracers were for when the autopsy was first performed? You and Sharon Carter were set up. But Tony would have done this to himself. There's no good reason why.” He muttered to himself, repeating the same things with increasing bafflement.
That was the problem with Reed's hypothesizing. Good reason meant logical reasoning, for him, with palpable results. But you never could just observe Tony Stark on the surface.
Steve remained still. “From what I've heard, no one really understood what Tony was like, at the end.”
If only Steve could understand Tony, that would have solved so much of this at its root.
But he didn't want me to. Tony was willing to lie, and hide secrets, all the while making everyone's decisions for them, until his hand was forced and everything exploded in his face. It always ended up that too many of the answers could only be provided by Tony himself.
“Whatever the reason, we have to act on our intelligence. Tony believes I'm still dead. That was the beginning of this entire mess – I couldn't have been brought back from limbo without an anchor, and Tony couldn't reboot himself without something to hold him to this world.” Me, and the word echoed across his thoughts. “We need to show him the truth.” His eyes fixed on the screen again, the last push that might make this work. “You asked me why I should be the one to go in. This is it.” He took a breath. “I need to do this.”
He saw the moment Reed conceded, his shoulders slumping. “Even if someone ordered you, that doesn't mean they can get you to follow. You'll only follow your own decisions through.” He stepped back from the screen. “But we knew that already.” His voice was carefully cool. Steve and Reed got along well enough, even if he was the other person Tony had worked closely with to implement Registration, but they'd always managed to remain civil. Part of him wondered why, not acknowledging the painfully clear reason.
Reed had already set off, a goal in mind, as he brought up extra windows and screens in front of them. “When Red Skull brought you back, he used a time machine. We're not trying to bring a body back, though, thankfully. That'd make this much more difficult. Send something after him is a rather violent maneuver. We'll most likely need to consult Stephen for this.”
Violent maneuver, and the idea struck Steve, the premise almost too awful to voice aloud. But it might be more dangerous to not suggest it now.
“Being able to connect to Tony through Extremis isn't the hard part,” Steve said. “It interfaces with other electronics. There are protections, yes, but you'd be able to access it, regardless.”
Reed tilted his head. “I can't make any promises, but with Maya Hansen's input and the Extremis code as specified to Tony's unique signature, then no, that wouldn't be the most troublesome step of the process. The difficulty would have to do with your consciousness, and how to displace and transfer it. That's certainly not my specialty. It shouldn't be, of anyone who didn't want to place their own life and sanity as collateral. ”
“I know someone like that,” Steve said slowly, the best, worst option taking life with Reed's words. “I know how to get in.”
Steve's hand shook as he loaded the gun, the click loud and crisp as the magazine containing a single bullet set into the chamber. He still remembered the sound of the final cracks on the day before the arraignment – not the sniper shot, but the ones muffled against his stomach. Thinking back on it now, those last shots might have saved him, by sending him back in time. If they hadn't gotten him emergency treatment in time, he might have bled out on the steps.
“I can't recommend that course of action.” Reed had told him the instant Steve had proposed this option, after he'd recovered from his shock. “There are other ways to do this than force.”
“We need to get to Tony, and fast. Before anything else happens.” Before anything else happened, and Tony was put into a real coma, for his safety and their own, said the hateful voice in Steve's mind, and then even the hope that Steve had been holding onto this entire time would crumble away. “It's still on the Helicarrier, in one of the evidence rooms. We'd need to make modifications, of course, but this was the exact purpose it was made for. Unless you happen to have a spare, specially-made time machine?”
Maybe there were safer ways. But they were safer ways for Steve, and not for Tony, and it was easy enough to know who was more important here. Now that the opportunity was here, there was no letting it escape Steve's grasp.
It was indeed something that would dislodge his consciousness, very suddenly and crudely. It had the finesse of a dull, rusted and jagged knife used for surgery.
But at least it would make the cut. Anything else that came pre-meditated would need preparation, and from what Steve knew of this business – unless it was done through magic that few, even its wielders, truly understood, that would take weeks or months.
“It could be less shocking to your system,” Reed had said, “since this would be your second time.” Steve squirmed as Reed nodded. “Perhaps you're the best candidate for the job, as well.”
The idea of anyone else going after Tony – of course there were others. Jim Rhodes, without hesitation. Thor would, as well, even though he still wasn't exactly at the right sorts with Tony. If people who weren't superheroes were allowed, Pepper would, Steve was sure, even if he suspected a similar unhappiness with her toward Tony.
There were others, too, even ones who didn't know Tony personally, who would do it without hesitation, just because they were heroes, too. Even those people who had fought against him would, to save his life. Those were the type of people he and Tony had surrounded themselves with from the beginning. But the thought still made something rear up deep inside Steve, and it made him feel petty and cruel.
“The person in there may not be the same one you know,” Reed had warned. “The innermost parts of one's own mind can be drastic compared to outer appearances.”
Steve had nodded slowly, knowing the fact well enough. Maybe it would be a good thing to know what was going on in Tony's mind. At least, it should be.
“That's not even taking into consideration what would have happened after a brain delete.”
“But there's something there,” Steve said.
“We don't know what, or where it came from. Are you certain you want to – ” Reed cut off after seeing Steve's face.
His iron-clad determination then seemed so distant now with cold steel between his fingers. Steve couldn't look at the gun, the one with a modified version of the Time Bullet Steve had been shot with a year ago. He'd ruled out anyone else doing this bit; no one under his command should ever be asked to shoot him, not when he could do it himself. Oh, he knew Reed was behind the glass on the other side, but he could only spare that single thought for him – the man wasn't supposed to interfere, anyway.
Steve's deep breaths were close to gasps, the reality of what he held not allowing him even a clear mind.
He couldn't do this, he couldn't. The thoughts were entirely wild and alien. He'd faced down true death countless times, his reflexes trained against the fear in battle. But it was nothing like this, a fake death delivered by his own hands.
An image came to the surface of Steve's mind, of tears trailing down Tony's face as they stood in the ruins of the mansion, asking what he could do.
Steve closed his eyes against the unfamiliar thoughts of can't can't can't, up until he could.
He started with a gasp, the echo of a single gunshot resonating through his ears.
His palms were clammy, and his feet were unsteady. He couldn't tell his ability to remain upright. There was a roar in the background, like a crowd of onlookers reacting in shock and near-hysteria, even as Steve blinked at the painting that hung above the mantel in the main room of the mansion.
Seeing the team – himself, Wasp, Giant-Man, Thor, and Iron Man – caused something in his chest to settle. In the distance, tears fell on his face and a woman's voice begged with him.
Not real, Steve thought, and then wondered how the thought belonged there when he had entered someone else's mind.
That someone else's mind was Tony's. Steve whirled around, quickly taking in his surroundings.
Several couches were arranged around a gleaming coffee table, the polished frame and detail on the carving something of envy. Steve knew if he took a seat, he would sink right into the upholstery. It had taken him a while before he treated everything like it was supposed to be treated, rather than the luxury that was so plain to see.
It was their sitting room, confusing in its mundane familiarity, like Steve couldn't reconcile his memory with the scene before him. But it was the mansion, just as he remembered it.
(The last memory Steve had of the mansion was in its ruins, Tony in his gold undersuit glaring daggers at him, the fury and the satisfaction thereof of pushing and shoving and punching where it wasn't about SHRA, wasn't about two sides of a war they had to lead, but just about them – what life had done to them, what they had done to each other.)
But the mansion as he saw it now, intact and bright, and how he had seen it then, new and overwhelming meant that something in the equation had changed. Steve looked up at the painting before him, his eyes falling on Iron Man. The old armor, clunky in comparison to its latest incarnations, but still striking.
He missed this, the clarity of the thought almost too much. Steve blinked quickly to clear away the fogginess in his eyes. Luckily, it didn't return.
The sound of footsteps came behind him. As much as he felt in his own world, he was in someone else's. Steve didn't respond, and he heard the other person stop. Steve turned, gathering his breath as he readied himself.
Not well enough, because there was Tony, bright and alert, the Tony he wanted to remember. Steve swallowed.
Even though this place should be dated in the past, Tony looked much like he had in recent memory. A goatee rather than a mustache, hair styled in a modern fashion, shorter and more clean cut than what had been popular back in this era. Not that it mattered – Tony could pull off any look effortlessly.
Really, the one thing out of place was how healthy and well-rested he appeared. But it wasn't like life had been easy back then. For a man who had secretly juggled the corporate world with the superhero one, who had dealt with the ongoing struggles his heart gave him, he now looked the picture of health.
That couldn't be right. Had Steve noticed back then, just how exhausted the Avengers benefactor had to have been? He faintly recalled commenting on how pale Tony had been at times, or catching him in the middle of a nap a few times – ones that he'd always guiltily jolted awake from. Steve had chalked it up to being a busy man, but he had been too wrapped up in his own situation, fresh from the ice, to mind too closely. But he had inquired after Iron Man's well-being constantly, despite the Avengers' shared agreement to not meddle in each other's personal affairs.
He realized he'd been staring when Tony cleared his throat.
“Let's try that again.” Tony smiled easily. “Oh, hey Cap! Didn't know you were back already. Could have let me know.” That was his Tony's smile, reaching his eyes. When was the last time Steve had seen that? The edged warnings and wariness in Reed's voice slid off Steve, the weight of the past few months swept along with them.
“Hey, Tony,” he said, unable as always to keep his own smile off his face.
Tony inclined his head. “Hmm? What's got you so giddy?”
“Nothing,” Steve said, savoring the actual response he got, no more glass between them.
If he was in Tony's memories, then he should act reasonably close to normal, and he was sure he'd never said something as sappy as how Tony's presence making him happy. Although he might have said something similar to Iron Man. Steve had always liked reaffirming for people the best parts of themselves, consciously and earnestly. With Iron Man, it had often felt like the words had just escaped him without thinking, jumbled and inane.
“It's like you're not even seeing me,” Tony said, waving a hand. “Plus, you're distracted enough to drop the formalities.”
Formalities? “Oh,” Steve had to backtrack – this person was the Avengers benefactor, Mr. Stark, geez, did he really have to act like he didn't know Iron Man and Tony were one and the same? “I didn't mean to presume – ”
Tony clapped him on the back. “Don't worry about it, Steve,” he said, with a sunny grin that knocked Steve off-kilter.
The last thing he expected on the other side, the cool, filtered air of the Helicarrier, was that he'd found. To be able to see what he did here: the relaxed, fond tilt of Tony's smile, the sound of his name on Tony's voice, was more than he ever dreamed possible.
But this wasn't how it was meant to be, nor could he delude himself into thinking just this is what he came for.
Steve peered at Tony from the corner of his eye. What was supposed to happen? He had to convince Tony he was still alive, but this wasn't out of the ordinary for this Tony. For this Tony, Steve had just practically come back from the dead.
When Tony had discovered the chronal tracers, when he'd believed Steve was dead...
Tony was still smiling at him, but Steve felt something in his stomach drop.
He didn't want to. But it wasn't out of moral outrage and objection. Not fear and trepidation, either, that had never stopped him before. Steve could get past being afraid. He didn't want to reach a point where he'd become used to fighting his friends.
He wasn't here to fight Tony, but Tony would think so. Their last conversation with each other – Steve had replayed it in his head so many times, but it never failed to make something coil up in him. Steve wondered if Tony regretted it, too. Would Tony remember that much?
But if Steve surrendered, already, surely Tony wouldn't be so willing to fight. If Steve was already down, Tony would stop himself. They would do that for each other. (Wouldn't Steve, for him?)
Maybe it didn't have to come to that point. Steve carefully patted down his pockets. His uniform wasn't what he had worn coming in, but the contents shouldn't have changed. His shoulders relaxed when they found what they were looking for.
A shrill beeping broke the silence, and Steve patted at his pockets again. Could being here have added to his repertoire? But he hadn't felt anything that he hadn't expected to –
“Oh!” Tony said, reaching inside his pocket and pulling out the identicard.
Steve looked between Tony and the card in shock, too many things he wanted to say jumbling together in his mind. “Why do you have that?” he decided on.
“Huh?” Tony frowned back at him “The question I want the answer to, why don't you have yours? You know how much of an issue it is when one of us doesn't carry their card around. I need to get to the armor.”
Tony looked increasingly incredulous. “You've seen me in it enough times, Steve, you know I'm not a robot anymore.”
The alarm bells were going off. “A robot?”
That, oddly enough, won him a small smile. “Do you think playing dumb will stop you from getting teased? A robot with the prettiest, bluest eyes you'd ever seen. I know you're into sci-fi, but even that goes a little far for just the imagination.”
What? Steve had never said anything like that. Besides, he didn't start thinking Tony's eyes were that pretty until after, but – that wasn't the point.
“You're Iron Man.” He tested the sentence out.
“Well, I'm certainly not Titanium Man.”
“We're on the Avengers with Thor, the Wasp, and Giant-Man.”
Tony's expression shifted from gentle exasperation to concern. He reached out, laying a hand on Steve's shoulder. Steve leaned into the warmth. But Tony hadn't been one for touch, at the beginning. He had always been oddly distant, for reasons Steve had learned later on had been due to the chestplate.
“You're not in 1945 anymore,” Tony told him, his voice gone soft. “You're in the 21st century now, and I'm sorry. But we'll be here for you every step of the way.”
Steve was too aware of his throat closing up, his tongue suddenly heavy and making it difficult to swallow. He had accepted his new world a long time ago, but not long enough to not remember how it felt.
A world where they were Shellhead and Winghead, and it was just the original team, before everyone left for the first time...the surge of nostalgia was too much. It was even worse than when he thought of New York back in his childhood.
Tony's hand tightened on his shoulder, and that made it harder. This was all some strange mix of memory, pieces slotted where they didn't fit, and Steve just wanted Tony to be able to tell the difference between the two.
How could he? How much of that framework had been wiped clean, and what was left was a mess of facts and feelings without anything to tie them together?
“C'mon now, we have to assemble,” Tony said. “There are...” he squinted, like he could read the air better if he did. “Doombots? In Manhattan? Is that the tenth time this month? Or maybe they're giant bunnies rampaging Central Park...”
Steve blinked. What? Tony was starting to move, and he had to try.
“Tony, wait – ”
He grabbed Tony's wrist as he made to leave.
“Tony! I'm back. I didn't die on that day.”
Even a pin drop would have broken the silence as they looked at each other, Steve's fingers loosely letting Tony go. Tony's eyes broke contact first as he stared into he distance over Steve's shoulder.
“You did. The world grieved for you.” Tony shook his head with a wry smile. “How could they forget? You stopped what was meant for us, at the cost of your own life. There was blood on the shield.” The smile collapsed, and Tony appeared stricken “That wasn't supposed to happen.”
A moment later, his face brightened. “But then we found you in the ice decades later. Nuts, isn't it? I'm glad we did.”
His smile grew fond, and Steve's heart grew tender in response. But that wasn't what was important.
“Tony,” Steve implored. “That's not what I meant.”
“Then what did you mean?” Tony shot it off like a demand, the urgency of the call to assemble drawn to a standstill.
Steve's throat went dry. “I surrendered. Fighting against Registration – I couldn't tell myself anymore that I was fighting for anyone when I saw how much damage was caused by my actions.” The words were lost on Tony, his frown becoming deeper.
“But, on the way to my trial, there was a sniper. That wasn't what killed me though. I don't know how much you know about this. It was actually – ”
Tony's hand grabbed his wrist, cutting him off. His expression battled between indignation and disbelief. It finally settled on scorn. “I don't know what you're going on about,” he said. “Whatever weird dream or vision some supervillain put in you – they can do that now, you know. Whatever it is, I've never heard of any SHRA, and I wouldn't let you die on my watch.”
“Tony,” Steve tried.
This wasn't working. Tony bristled when Steve said his name again, and he hated this, how it was closer to the Tony he'd been with at the end.
It'd been so easy just a moment ago. Was this really – No. Steve wasn't the type of person who wanted to live a lie, no matter how happy it made him. Don't lose sight of the goal.
“You know,” Tony finally settled on, “you aren't fit for the field right now. We'll handle it, and I'll be back soon.” He turned his back.
Steve brought what was out of his pocket and thrust it out.
“Can you look at this?”
If these memories were as anachronistic as they appeared, this should work. Even if this messed with his faulty memories even further, as long as Tony could be convinced...
Tony looked between him and the small black case. There were various things in there, brought in hopes of triggering something – what they could recover of Tony's memories, a sample of the chrono-tracers, a dose of Extremis, assorted news articles and video clips. Steve didn't open it yet, waiting for a reaction.
He imagined he could just brute-force the data, a direct line to Extremis from inside here. But it wasn't the same. The Tony in front of him felt real, already, and wasn't that what was holding Steve back?
Tony took a hasty step back, shaking his head. “Duty calls.”
Steve finally made to open the case, and he suddenly stumbled back a few steps, the case clattering to the ground. He looked from Tony's hand, that had shoved him backwards, back to his chest. Tony shouldn't have been able to push like that.
“Sorry.” Tony's eyes were wide, staring at his hand. Then he held it out. A gauntlet flew out from – who knew where? – and wrapped itself around his arm. Steve narrowed his eyes as Tony straightened.
“Stay here, Steve.”
“I can't,” Steve replied. He never could.
It was like Tony didn't hear him, turning away. The frustration came to a boil, and Steve stepped forward, willing to ram his head into this wall over and over as many times as it took, until he was stopped in his tracks.
The words floating in mid-air were backwards to Steve, but he could make out SYSTEM VERSION INCOMPATIBLE, ACCESSING, ______.EXE, LOADING....
When Steve tore his gaze away, Tony was gone – and an instant passed, and everything else was too.
Steve started awake, reeling where he stood.
Someone made a cutting remark, but Steve couldn't make out the words as they shoved roughly by him and walked away. Steve was ready to call out Tony's name, until he realized the man was half a foot too short.
That was enough to snap him to attention. His eyes darted around the room, swiftly noting the bottles lining a wall behind a heavy wooden counter, people mingling around a pool table, the stench of a room steeped in smoke and alcohol and a spilled drink too many to be scrubbed out of the floorboards.
He felt woozy, and not from the smell. Why had Tony put them here, of all places?
It was unlikely he'd want to know the answer. Just because they'd previously been in the safety of the mansion at a calmer time, didn't mean Steve wasn't still within the confines of Tony's mind. It was dangerous to let his guard down, especially after failing once already.
But it wasn't the adrenaline that made him feel trapped in a bubble, too aware of the air that clung to him.
He didn't want these memories to be dredged up, of a burning building, of someone he cared for brought to their lowest, of words he'd regretted as soon as they left his mouth.
What was he supposed to do then? Apologize? Run back to someone who didn't even want him? What had transpired after had made that much apparent. Maybe it was fitting to have to face this again, years later, and be reminded.
Steve tried to listen in on a conversation at the billiards table, but couldn't make out what they were saying. He could hear the clink of glasses set on tables, the cue ball scattering the pool balls on the break, but every time someone's mouth opened it was an indecipherable buzz.
Right, he recognized this place by now, and that was a rush of a relief, remembering where this memory slotted in Tony's history. His own as well – he'd been caught in his head, despite Clint's best efforts. There was no sign of Clint anywhere now, but –
“Steve!” The clarity of the voice caught Steve off, before he realized who it belonged to.
Tony waved him down from across the room. He sported a smile, let out an amused huff at the sight of Steve, crinkled his eyes. He did all the tells perfectly, but Steve saw how rote they came and the strain behind Tony's eyes.
“Mind if I join you?” Tony asked him, already leading the way over to an empty table. It didn't matter anymore that Steve couldn't make out the snatches of conversation of the groups they passed by. When they took their seats, Steve couldn't meet Tony's eyes as Tony spoke, repeating words Steve had already heard once, years ago.
What was he supposed to do here? Follow the script of the memory as close as he could remember? Would veering off-topic end up just like the last time?
“I'd like to clear the air if that's possible,” Tony finished off.
“So do I,” Steve agreed readily with shivers running up and down his arm. During the fight over SHRA, it hadn't been enough to try talking it over. Steve lifted his gaze carefully to Tony.
What had changed between them, when they'd first had this to now? Was it that they needed time that they couldn't have?
When Tony came back, they would talk it over like this, Steve decided. Make the apologies they needed, without snapping at each other from nerves and frustration. The SHRA would be behind them now, and their words didn't have to be so raw and used as barbs, justifications made in the heat of the moment too personal. Everything exchanged between them didn't have to feel like a mistake. In a place like that, they could agree to have things return to normal.
With renewed hope, Steve sat up, smiled and finally brought his full attention to Tony.
Tony smiled back weakly before sitting back, leaning his cheek into his fist.
“You sure this is alright, Steve? I know that what we did back with the Supreme Intelligence didn't sit right with you.” He huffed softly. “What am I saying? Of course it didn't, it went against your principles.” Tony sat back, sighed. “I understand if you don't want to do this right now. Maybe more time would be a good thing for the two of us. We can do this again later.”
He made to get up, but Steve reached across and stayed him with fingers on his wrist. A thrill went through Steve, that he could feel Tony, solid beneath his touch.
“No,” Steve said firmly, eyes locked with Tony's. “I think I've been waiting long enough.”
They remained in that moment. Steve kept his gaze steady, wanting Tony to understand him for once. Tony stared back, gaze just as intense, like he somehow knew the enormity of Steve's words and how they reached beyond here and now.
Finally, Tony nodded shortly, tugging his hand away and shifting his body under the table, away from Steve. Steve flinched, drawing his hand back, fighting the flush on his cheeks.
“Right,” Tony said a bit hoarsely. When Steve looked up, he noticed Tony eyeing around them in a rare show of nerves, tugging on a corner of the tablecloth with the other. It was louder than before, and the smoke irritated Steve's own eyes.
“I appreciate you coming here, of all places, to find me,” Steve told him. “This isn't really my kind of scene.”
Tony waved a hand at him, seemingly back in his usual spirits. “It's fine. Even after swearing off it, I still have to go through the wine-and-dine routine. Metaphorically on my end, but never on theirs.” He snorted. “An excess of liquor of the right caliber does wonders for getting a valuable investor on board. But no, I can handle myself around this.”
“Didn't doubt you could.” That was what it boiled down to, despite the persistent worry at the back of Steve's mind whenever he saw Tony around alcohol. When it came down to it, no matter how much temptation was present, Tony wouldn't.
Steve waited for Tony to start, resisting the urge to tap his foot. He recalled the conversation that had taken place here, years ago, and he wasn't about to demand his apology from Tony to start it off, nor did he want to show his irritation at an obviously apologetic Tony.
But it was true that he didn't want to hear it. No matter how badly he wanted things to be okay again, he would have to listen to how the ends justified the means, how much it made sense from Tony's point of view, but not from anyone else's, and that was why he hadn't bothered trying to explain until it was too late. Steve balled his hands into fists. The anger that he had thought dormant was at the surface.
Why? Why again?
Tony laughed quietly, running a hand through his hair. “I told you about what happened in Afghanistan.” His words asked for reassurance, eyes anywhere but Steve, too taken aback to answer immediately.
“You did,” Steve finally said. In vague hints and strange asides, a combination of Iron Man and Tony Stark that had only coalesced years after the bits and pieces dropped, but eventually Tony had come clean about what had happened in those months in the cave, and what had been left behind in its wake. “About Ho Yinsen, and how you built the armor together, and how he was shot when you were trying to make your escape.” He fell silent, the words his mouth had offered on auto-pilot at a halt. Tony had brought it up, there shouldn't be an issue in trudging up past traumas. But why bring it up in the first place?
Tony nodded. “He saved my life, putting me in that armor.”
“You needed it,” Steve pointed out. “You had that shrapnel in your chest.”
Tony's knuckles were pressed to his lips, and he snorted. “Of course.” He raised his head. “How could I forget? Too much stress, a bit of shock, a minute too late to the nearest power outlet, and there goes my heart, literally rather than just figuratively. It didn't help that I scraped by so often, back then. God, I spent years of my life obsessed with how close to death I was at any moment.”
“That's not true.” Steve's voice rose, stubbornness winning out. “You became Iron Man and an Avenger. That's the most selfless thing someone could do, especially when they thought they were dying.”
“That's just it, Cap,” Tony countered. “I thought I could die at any moment. I didn't want to make any long-term plans, get involved with anyone who would miss me after I was gone. I felt so sorry for myself. I wanted to think that if I imagined myself some tragic, heroic figure, it'd stave everything else off.”
“It usually doesn't help for long, no,” Steve agreed. “But you're not some character from a fairy tale, Tony. You really are strong, and brave, and brilliant, and not just because you're supposed to be. Your heart's better now, isn't it? But you're still doing the same things. If you're trying to pass this whole thing off as one last atonement, that's lost its meaning long ago.”
He tried to instill the faith he always had in his words, but he feared they ran too short. His chest tumbled, looking at Tony. He saw his friend trapped in a downward spiral, again, and he wasn't even drinking this time around. Steve itched to take Tony, shake him by the shoulders, talk some sense into him. Why would Tony discredit himself like that? Steve saw how much he cared, and changed things for the better because of it.
Tony sighed, rubbing his eyebrows with his thumbs. “You're not making this any easier.”
“From what I'm hearing, I'm not sure I want to make this part easy for you.”
“I'm trying to explain, somehow.” Tony shot him a look. “I told you I would, right? That I'm trying to prevent the worst from happening even if you don't believe it's coming. That if you just listened, then we'd talk it over. But I should have known that wasn't enough.” The bitterness stung. Tony sat back. “Sorry. I don't know what came over me.”
“It's fine,” Steve said, conceding. “I know that I can be difficult to talk to, when I don't want to listen.”
Tony's shoulders slumped. “I was rambling, anyway. I just think – from the first time I wore the armor, I was protected. Never forgot that feeling. When I think about it, I could have easily not made it. But I walked away from that place gone up in flames. The man who put me in the armor died, but not me. I was safe.
“Afterwards, whenever I took it off, I wasn't. That's what I obsessed over, at the beginning, and maybe part of why I kept it a secret. Iron Man could always be strong, but Tony Stark wasn't. I felt like I could do so much, as long as I had the armor.” Tony closed his eyes. “But it wasn't just me. Not all of the people who used my armors had people's best interests in mind. I could trust someone like – ” Tony waved a hand around – “Rhodey, of course I could. But the others, who would use it to hurt people, was what scared me. I knew that the people we fought had egos larger than life, but I hadn't put it together with my tech, that gave me my strength, that I'd made because I wanted to help.
“Turns out it wasn't dying that scared me the most. That was the worst-case scenario for me, that there was something I could have stopped but didn't, and innocent people suffered for it. That's why I decided the way I did for the Supreme Intelligence. I could do so much, so why not now, at the source? I'll be protected, but who else has that luxury?”
“Tony,” Steve said. He couldn't think of what else to add.
He'd known it was coming. Something in him shifted, settled, questions that Tony hadn't meant to answer cleared away from his mind for once in a long time. Steve swallowed. How did Tony always manage this, for his words to make Steve feel better? It made it so much easier to forgive him, when Tony bared his heart like that. Easier to put things behind him, and to get hurt all over again. But right now, all that mattered was that he reciprocated what Tony did for him.
“It wasn't your fault. If people used your technology, it was to further their own ends. You had no control over that.”
Tony's expression didn't change. It wasn't like Tony ever listened to others easily, either, and Steve squeezed his fingers on the arm of his chair.
“You're not responsible for everything,” he continued. “We uphold what we believe in is right where we are and wherever we can reach, but that can't be everywhere. Thinking like that doesn't help us or the people we want to help.” The thought took Steve as well sometimes, but it was even more dangerous to let it consume him. “The answer to that isn't to try to take on everything, everywhere at once, but to do everything in our power at this moment so that the people who we do inspire won't be afraid to do the right thing, either.”
Tony looked dubious, which was ridiculous.
“Don't give me that look,” Steve said. “It can happen. It does happen. Look at you! You were a normal person, who became a superhero of your own choice. Your story isn't so different from most of us. I know you'd never blame them, so why do you do this to yourself?”
Tony didn't meet his eyes. Finally he smiled faintly and snorted. “Are you trying to tell me I'm not special?”
Of course you are. Most people didn't become reinvent themselves to become superheroes after a traumatic experience. It was Tony, pouring everything in what he threw himself behind without a second thought.
“Not in that way,” Steve sighed at Tony's deflection. “I really do appreciate you sharing this with me, Tony. It means a lot that you care that much. I just wish you'd trust others more when this all leads to these sort of decisions.”
Tony blinked a few times, leaving his cheek on his hand. He hummed softly. “I should have said something, before going through with it and having things go to hell between us.”
“I wish you had,” Steve said truthfully.
“Honest question,” Tony said, perking up a bit. “What would make you feel better? To know I did it anyway after consulting you, or to find out after the fact that I did it without telling you anything?”
Not even a question of Tony changing his mind, Steve noted wryly. “I can't promise I won't get upset, but I'd much rather you tell me.” Steve knew that much, at least. “We're a team, and if it's that important – ” that you want to go and play the martyr – “then I'd prefer to be in the place to help you.”
“Is that so,” Tony said carefully, before flashing him a smile. “Well, I kind of figure that either way, I'll get you to yell at me anyway.”
But it hurt more when Tony didn't trust him, Steve thought. Did Tony even care, that Steve cared, that he felt betrayed every time?
There was doing something Steve didn't approve of, and then there was doing something that made Steve feel like he wasn't worth the time.
“It's easy enough to say it now,” Tony said, “but I do want to try.”
“That's all any of us ever asked for,” Steve said. “And...so do I. I want us to be better.”
“I'm really sorry that it came to it between this.” Tony wouldn't apologize for whatever he did, and Steve knew that already.
Tony was the one to reach out and touch Steve's hand this time. Steve resisted moving, anything that'd take Tony's hand away. “Our friendship is the last thing I ever wanted to sacrifice.”
Steve had a sudden vision, of turning his hand over and closing his fingers around Tony and if that'd make Tony reconsider his words. No need, because Tony pulled away, taking a sip of his drink.
“I can't believe I just poured my heart out like that,” Tony said, letting out a laugh. “I don't even know why I did that.”
“No take-backs.” Steve smiled. “Your deepest secrets are mine, now.”
“Well, if there had to be someone,” Tony sighed affectedly. “You'd rank above Thanos, probably.”
“Above Ultron, too, and you've got yourself a deal.” It was so easy to fall back into this. Steve leaned back. “I think we needed that.”
“Yeah. I've missed you.”
Steve could barely look past Tony's face, his eyes suddenly stinging. “I miss you too, Tony. And...I want you to come back.” You always did, before.
“I'm here now, Steve.”
Steve couldn't respond to that, could he? “That's not what I meant,” he finally said.
Tony blinked at him. “Um, I'm very much here.”
“No, I mean...” Steve leaned forward. From the inside pocket of his coat, he pulled out his case. “Can you look at this?”
Tony locked eyes at him, then slowly lowered his gaze to the box that Steve held out.
“What is this?” Tony asked. Steve listened for any suspicion in his voice but didn't find it.
“I don't know how to explain it,” Steve said. “But I think that if you see it, this conversation will have meant something.”
Tony raised his eyes to Steve, questioning. Slowly, he leaned forward, plucking the case from Steve's fingers. He brought it close in, so that when he opened it, Steve couldn't make out its contents. Steve's heartbeat pounded in his ears. Tony hummed, curiosity piqued, but there was no sign of shock. He had to realize that stuff was years beyond current technology, right?
“Interesting,” Tony finally voiced, closing the case and pushing it back to the middle of the table. Steve glanced between it and Tony, whose expression told him nothing. Tony's mask was good as the armor's, when he wanted it to be.
“I'm going to get a refill,” Tony said, already pushing his chair back from the table. “Is that okay?”
“Of course.” Steve sat back as Tony moved away to the bar, his stomach churning.
At least Tony hadn't rejected him out of hand this time around, but...this had been even more of a failure than the first time. Telling Tony wasn't enough, but the physical evidence he had brought in case his words weren't convincing enough had also turned up nothing. Steve needed to think of another plan.
He'd come in here with a goal, but no surefire way to achieve it, not without enough information on what the other side of the time bullet would look like. He had that now, Steve told himself.
This was the sort of moment he would want the Avengers with him. But, he'd gone through with worse before.
There was a clinking of glass, and Steve snapped to attention.
“Welcome back,” he said, looking up, and then turning in his chair when he realized Tony was standing right beside him. When did he get there?
“Hey there, Captain,” and Tony leaned in, wrapping an arm around Steve's shoulders, looking at him in a way that made Steve want to shudder, from some sick sense of want and repulsion, the stench of drink in his breath – what?
“Tony,” Steve said, “are you – is that alcohol?” He regretted it the moment the words left his mouth, thinking of the betrayal in Tony's face the last times he's been accused of the fact. But there was no denying Steve's senses in the overwhelming face of evidence.
Tony pouted at him, releasing him from his touch with a last linger. “And what if,” the slur exaggerated, “it is?” He swirled the glass around, amber liquid sloshing against the sides.
Steve gaped at him.
Tony scowled. “Oh, don't be such a hardass. You're not supposed to be like the rest of them, that playboy Stark, couldn't tell a drink from his own piss. Or maybe you are, you've just been good at hiding it.” Tony made a face. “Ugh, don't tell me that you actually are. Here's a bit of advice.” He leaned in, and Steve resisted the urge to pull away as Tony whispered. “Don't let people onto you. Ruining the image just makes you open. Vulnerable. Makes things harder for yourself.”
“Tony,” Steve said quietly, “I think you've had too much to drink.”
That was impossible. Tony had only been away for a few minutes at most. If he had drunk enough to get him like this in such a short period, it would have been more likely he'd be dead.
Tony scoffed, mortally offended. “I'm having fun, Captain Never'd-know-it-if-it-bit-him-in-the-crotch.”
You're not Tony, Steve barely held back from blurting. “You don't sound it.” Steve reached for the glass in Tony's hand, but Tony snatched it away, shoving Steve roughly back into the chair.
Even the few spare times when he'd seen Tony drunk, he hadn't been like this. Aggressive? Violent? (Interested in him?) Steve stared, dumbfounded.
These were memories, but they were also dreams. But if there was one constant in a dream, it was the dreamer themselves. There were just some things you couldn't change.
Was this what the data corruption had done? Reed had said so much, that the Tony he met might not be the same. But, not even two minutes ago he was talking to the one he knew, who would bare his heart and only wanted to indulge his sweet tooth when he'd left.
Steve tried to imagine it, Tony coming back and being like this.
It wasn't fair. He was supposed to be here to get his Tony back, not –
He hadn't even known who Tony had been, at the end. Luke had said it was Tony showing his true colors, but that couldn't be right. They'd had years where Steve hadn't needed to put up a front. How Mr. Stark and Iron Man had treated him from the beginning couldn't have been a lie.
Something crumbled in him, as he watched Tony circle around the table to roughly pull his chair out and collapse into it. If he managed to reach the Tony he'd known before everything had fallen apart, it just meant whatever Tony he got back wouldn't be the one he wanted, anyway.
Tony leaned his face into his hand, looking at Steve. Soon after, he scoffed and threw his hands up.“Oh, screw you, Rogers,” he said. “First you're acting like the greatest dick of two centuries to me, and now you're looking at me like you're trying to make me feel all sorry? If you want me to get on my knees and apologize so bad, why don't you just come right out with it?”
Steve got out of his chair. “I don't think we can have a conversation when you're like this.”
“Oh, that's how it is. Never should have expected otherwise. We can never have a conversation about when you're in the wrong.” Tony scowled. “It's 'cause you're so perfect. If you're the one who's judging me on what I've done, then how can I be in the right?” He took a long swig of his drink, and Steve resisted flinching.
Tony banged the drained drink back down – their table rattled. “Maybe I am wrong. But what I'm doing is right, and the only wrong thing about it is that I'm the one doing it.”
Steve couldn't bring himself to leave yet. “That's not true. You've always been a good man. Maybe you've made some wrong choices, but that's no different from the rest of us.”
Tony looked ready to argue, but Steve shook his head, stepping away. He was really doing this, really going to leave Tony again. Would he regret this later, too?
No – Tony was never like this. That made it marginally easier, but still didn't answer his question.
“I also know you don't drink,” Steve told him. “You haven't in years.”
Tony was out of his chair. “Don't pretend you know me.” Tony balled his hands into fists. He had raised his voice, but no one turned their heads. Like Steve couldn't hear them, he and Tony didn't really exist with the rest of them, off in their own little bubble. “You always did that, used every trick in your book, even after you were gone.” His expression fell apart. “But when it came down to it, you were the one who left me.”
Steve took a step backwards when Tony did, and he should have looked away earlier. There was no way now, not with Tony's expression. His teeth were bared and he looked ready to explode, but Steve had learned the difference between anger and desperation long ago.
He opened his mouth, ready to say something – I'm sorry or but I'm the one who wants you back, but then there was nothing beneath his feet. The floorboards split apart as he fell backwards through them, the ground, the air, his hand stretched skyward.
When he came to, Steve kept his eyes closed. He'd blacked out too quickly to remember the details, but the rush of air and weightlessness still lingered.
He really hated falling.
In, in, out. He focused on the rise and fall of his chest, but there was only so long before his mind could remain blank.
He'd been warned as much before coming in. He thought he'd hated that idea before, like it triggered something inside him that made him want to shut down. The technology discrepancies, Steve could chalk up to muddled memories and knowledge. The inside of the human mind was never quite so consistent. But – something so integral to Tony couldn't be a mistake.
What memories were those, that Extremis had pieced together for Tony, that could make him like that? Steve had heard the rumors of Tony, debonair socialite, passed around in higher society. Most of the allusions to impropriety on Tony's behalf were remarks on his prowess in bed, which were probably meant as compliments. Steve really preferred not to think about it.
The other rumors, the awful gossip rag versions of the Avengers, weren't even worth listening to. They painted Tony as a caricature of the worst kinds – a sleaze of loose morals whose motivations for funding the Avengers ranged from perverted hedonism to the greatest secret supervillaining scheme of all time. Some members of the team had delighted in reading about the speculation on supposed orgies taking place at Avengers Mansion, but Steve had never had the stomach for such slander.
He remembered one of the articles, a throw-away comment speculating on Captain America's deviant tendencies embedded in the wild lies surrounding it, and how his stomach had knotted reading it. The sentence had stood out among the paragraphs of deceit, the implications strong that such an idea was on the same level as Tony extorting their teammates, the adultery occurring on the team, or a teammate selling out their own body for membership.
Steve thought of Tony smiling at him, so easy and warm, minutes before, and how part of him had wondered why they couldn't just have this. Both of those Tonys were lies. He couldn't keep forgetting why he'd come here in the first place.
He shifted and opened his eyes. The tall ceiling, paired with the windows that took up the entire length of the wall, made the space airy and spacious. How modern, and not even unnecessarily so, considering how often teammates had taken residence on a wall or the ceiling. Steve brought his eyes down and resting on the painting that matched the room, filling the space around it.
It wasn't the same painting he'd seen in the mansion. The founders were still at the forefront, but now the rest of the canvas was filled up with dozens of other Avengers. You could have gotten lost in everyone, spent half a day explaining who was who and the history behind them. So many people that there were a number they'd lost. With a lump in his throat, Steve's eyes lingered on Scarlet Witch. Vision. Jan.
He rolled off the couch he'd apparently fallen asleep upon, feeling uncharacteristically dizzy as he landed on his feet. He made his way over to the window, the cityscape outside achingly familiar even though he'd only lived in this place for a few short months. Still, the sight out the window was enough to let Steve relax, the adrenaline slowly easing away.
In the Tower, on his off-time judging from the rare afternoon nap and the blue t-shirt and brown trousers he had on.
A muffled laugh came from behind him, and when he whirled around, Tony was lounging on the couch. He was sporting casual clothes like Steve, although his sense of casual was far less plain. His tablet hung loosely between his fingers, forgotten for the moment, as Tony smiled at him. Steve didn't know how to respond, or if he wanted to move from this spot. How long until the illusion broke, this time?
“You should have seen the look on your face when you woke up,” Tony said lightly, turning his head against the armrest.. “I assure you, the Tower is not a warzone.”
He sounded nonchalant enough, but Steve didn't miss his quickly averted gaze. Nor did he miss the drink on the coffee table, dark and filled with ice.
“I'm sorry to ask this,” Steve blurted, and Tony shifted, immediately on-guard. “What's in that drink?”
It was only a split second before the shock and hurt were smoothed over into a more palatable expression. “It's Coke. I haven't taken a single drink like that of my own volition in years.” It was so much easier to tell when Tony's voice wavered outside of the suit. “You believed me, when I gave that speech at the UN, and I said I hadn't taken a drink.” Rather than accusatory, his voice was resigned.
“I did,” Steve said, the wind seeping out of him. “I still do. I'm sorry.”
He could feel Tony's eyes on him. Steve chanced taking a seat on the couch himself. Tony made room for him, shifting upright so that they were sitting next to each other. Steve tried not to show his relief.
“I don't drink either,” he said.
Tony hummed low. “Makes sense.”
Steve had told him about his father, however obliquely, when he'd confronted Tony at the hotel. He'd always remembered if Tony had remembered, after the fact. At their last meeting at the mansion, Tony had, but who could say what memories this Tony had?
“I remember everything. It just numbs how I feel in turn,” Tony said suddenly. “Not the most productive thing, to keep running away from my problems.”
“I understand not wanting to, when it gets too much,” Steve told him. “But it makes you withdraw from everyone.”
“Really?” Tony toed Steve's leg with a socked foot. “I do that?”
Steve didn't hold back the grin. “I definitely don't understand the mad scientist schtick. At least then I can be assured you'll come back out, eventually, if only to show off.”
“Mmm, just trying to help.” Tony leaned over and playfully punched Steve on the arm. Steve leaned back into him, bumping their shoulders together. He hadn't felt like this in weeks.
“Steve,” Tony said after they'd settled back down. Steve was acutely aware of when their knees brushed as Tony shifted. “I've been meaning to talk to you about this new team.”
“Like what? Is something the matter?”
“Well, I'm going to embarrass myself, now. I wanted to thank you,” Tony said, tilting his head and smiling. “For convincing me to give this a shot.”
Even if Tony only got convinced because he wanted to. Steve hummed in acknowledgment, looking down at his clasped hands. “It's a good thing, isn't it? What we've built?”
Tony eyed him, eyebrow raised. Steve schooled his expression to neutral. Was it so strange, to ask for reassurance from someone where it would mean so much?
Tony leaned back, nodding absentmindedly. “The Avengers have always been good. Always can be sure of that.”
Steve had already known that, of course. He supposed that at the time of the war, they hadn't really been the Avengers anymore. Was it fair to ask something like that to the futurist who didn't know what was coming?
“Why were you so hesitant on starting the new team, then?” he asked.
He got a shrug in response. “So many things have changed. Could we really build what we had before? Would we live up to it? I couldn't feel like I was in the right place, then.”
“Circumstances may have changed, but we're the same people striving for the same things.”
“That's why I'm grateful. I don't know if I would have worked myself up to do it on my own, if it wasn't for you saying things like that.”
Steve didn't reply. Would the Tony before the Avengers disassembled have done what he did during the war? The one before Extremis? When had it become like this, questioning what he believed?
It was harder and harder to get riled up at the thought. His anger, a flame fanned by circumstances, had burnt for too long and charred the edges all away.
Tony glanced at him, then past him, out the window. “I wish I could be more like you about that. Of course I have to believe my actions are right, but even that can get hard.”
“I have doubts, too,” Steve protested.
“Sure, but you said that as long as you're the same person, you'll keep doing the right thing?”
Steve frowned. “I'm not trying to change myself, if that's what you're asking.”
He was met with a startled laugh. “So, what's that like?” Tony teased.
“But what I'm doing? My actions?” Steve asked. “Sure, I'd like to change. I'll be who I am, but it doesn't mean the world will react to me in the same way. Is what I'm doing really better for everyone? When I just assume that of course it is, I can be blinded. It's dangerous.”
Steve willed himself not to imagine a smashed faceplate, civilians hanging off his arm, holding him back. If he had really, really wanted to, they wouldn't have been able to stop him. It was what he tried telling himself after the fact, over and over.
Confessing, Steve found, didn't help much either. Not when the person who needed to hear it was...who knows? Was he even having this conversation with his Tony? What could you call the person here?
After a prolonged lull in the conversation, Tony cleared his throat. “So, what do you think the worst-case scenario is?”
“What do you mean?”
“You said it can get dangerous when you're like that. What do you mean?”
Steve shifted, running his hand over the leather of the couch, as he turned the words over in his head. “I can't ever think of just myself. So, it's easy to say I'm doing it for the greater good. It's not wrong, most of the time.” He wondered if Tony would react, but he just stayed put, intently listening, and Steve continued. “But sometimes I forget that a lot falls through the cracks, when you're so intent on the goal. A lot of people get hurt, who shouldn't have.” Steve took a breath. “I lose people that, as it turns out, I wasn't prepared to lose.”
Tony breathed out slowly. “I'm sorry,” he said, “that I couldn't help you out with the Winter Soldier, back when we found him.”
“He'll be fine,” Steve said, thinking of Bucky in the Cap uniform. How he'd build up a rapport with his own Avengers, affectionally nicknamed and teased like one of the team. Just like the Avengers had saved Steve when he'd first woken up in this century, they were doing good things for his old friend, too. “I wasn't talking about him, actually,” he added without thinking, and wincing a moment after. What was the point of that?
“Oh? Then who?” Tony asked, and it was exactly what Steve had wanted him to ask, but was too scared to answer.
“Sorry.” Tony looked away. “I shouldn't have asked.” Steve realized he'd been staring.
“No, it wasn't that,” Steve said. “I was just thinking about...I realized that I'm not the same person without them.”
Tony hummed, nodding, and he was looking again at Steve. “I get it. They made me a better person, so what am I without them? I can barely move on, let alone remember what they taught me, remember who I was when I was with them. Sometimes, I feel like I didn't achieve it at all.”
“But you can do it?”
“Give yourself some credit,” Tony said. “I didn't lose everything only to wake up in another time. You're doing great, yourself.” His expression was gentle, and it actually did something to Steve, who smiled back helplessly.
Tony could be surprisingly vulnerable, in a way that made Steve feel bared himself. It was different, from when people he watched over confessed things to him. For Tony, who was so many things at once that Steve couldn't do anything except marvel, to be like this with him. There was understanding what he meant to others and feeling proud of it, and there was realizing that he meant something, that made him feel soft and fond and disbelieving all at once. In those moments, it was only fair that he offer up his own words in return without judgment or questioning.
People were the heroes in their own minds, but Tony had made it clear it wasn't that for him. Steve couldn't doubt those Tony he'd talked to inside here of that fact. He was far more open, but if someone couldn't overshare in their own space, where could they?
What was the point of it? Would Steve rush through Tony's memories, wondering what was real and fake, searching for the truth?
It wasn't such an awful prospect. But would it bring him any closer to what he came here for? Right, he still had a job to do. He told himself he wouldn't forget. What was that he had said about running away from your problems?
Steve didn't need it to happen thrice to know it'd ruin the moment. His heart sank as he glanced over at Tony, who had leaned back on the couch, eyes fluttered shut.
By this point, Tony should have Extremis. Would that make a difference, somehow, to Steve's evidence? Steve motioned at the tablet set on the coffee table.
“Do you still need to use that?”
“Not really,” Tony admitted, opening his eyes. “You said it creeped you out when I was working but didn't look like it. Figure I might as well have something to hold onto while I do my work.” He winked. “And you said I couldn't compromise.”
“Ah,” Steve said. “Do you regularly update the code in your head? For Extremis, that is?”
“Uh,” Tony said, unsure of the sudden attention being paid to his new abilities. “I do check it over sometimes, but it's not like I'm getting bugged to restart to install updates all the time. It mostly works out on its own.”
“If there was something that you thought would be useful, would you add it to the code?”
“That's quite the endeavor. This is my brain, after all. But, did you have something in mind?” There was a glint in Tony's eye, and that was good, Steve had gotten him excited.
“Take a look at this,” Steve said, placing his contents of his pocket in Tony's hand.
“Hum.” Tony had pulled out the small chip of data. “You know, I can't just tell what's on here just by looking. I'd have to scan it, and that's a little – where did you get this?”
Usually, people who came from the future didn't exactly want the best for those in the present. If Tony found out now that Steve wasn't exactly who he claimed to be, that couldn't help. But Steve wouldn't just lie to him.
“I can't say.”
Tony pursed his lips at him. “You're really Steve, right? I didn't just pour my heart out to a Skrull?”
“I am. I swear to you.” Their eyes met and held.
Click, and Steve jerked out of the moment. The chip was inserted into the tablet. Tony smiled and shrugged at Steve's incredulous look.
“If someone else really could replicate that –” Tony gestured at him – “then, well, we're all fucked, anyway.”
Tony turned his attention back to the tablet, and Steve couldn't quite bear to look when he accessed it. If it worked, then Tony would remember he hated Steve. Or maybe it'd all backfire, and he would have to look at Tony again, drunk, spoiling for a fight, and that wrongness might have even been more painful.
There was a touch on his arm, and Steve didn't feel in his own body when he looked up, not knowing what lay a foot away from him.
Tony smiled at him, bright, and Steve's heart hammered in his chest. Tony reached over, and Steve tensed automatically, until Tony's hand slid around his own. He squeezed, like he was reassuring him.
That what, he didn't hate him? That it didn't work, and – but holding his hand was beyond even Tony's standards of casual intimacy –
Tony's eyes were on his, and then they weren't. Steve's gaze followed Tony's down to his mouth. They both leaned in.
Tony's lips were soft and perfectly smooth, like a counterpoint to the scratch of his facial hair. Tony leaned forward, like he knew that Steve wouldn't refuse him, even if this was their first kiss, even though Steve never thought of himself as obvious in hopeless pining. But even those thoughts were quickly put out of mind when their lips parted, and all that occupied his thoughts was him and Tony, like flaring up. He brought his hands up, bracketing Tony's face. Of course Tony was warm; underneath all the armors he wore he'd be burning. Tony's fingers trailed along the back of Steve's neck, leaving goosebumps in their wake. Steve shivered, the points of cold too vivid against the heat overwhelming him at the axis point where their lips met.
He reached over, needing to get closer, when he lost his balance. He couldn't remember the last time he'd done so out of clumsiness, eagerness – he couldn't bother to try, because Tony let out a startled, quiet moan as Steve landed atop him and if Steve thought he needed more before, it was nothing compared to now. Tony was just as overwhelmed as Steve, judging from the addicting noises he made. Steve didn't even know whether to take solace in that, when even the soft pops as their mouths met again and again made his blood race.
When they parted, Tony flushed and Steve panting, Steve realized, distantly, that he was hard. From the press of their bodies together, there was no doubting Tony's state, either. Steve scrambled off, feeling like he'd just been dunked in ice water.
What he had he just done? This wasn't...there was nothing he'd given Tony that should have done this. Was it because he was here, changing things, confusing Tony. And now he had just – ruined every last one of Tony's feelings and memories with him.
“You all right there?” Tony asked, and Steve tried not to hear how hoarse his voice was. “There's no need to be shy,” he said gently. “It's just the two of us.”
Steve jerked away almost on instinct.
“What's wrong?” Tony frowned at him, looking between himself and Steve pointedly. “I was under the impression you enjoyed that?”
“We're not – ” Steve tried, and when he started again his voice kept rising in pitch, the awfulness taking over him, “this isn't right. This isn't what you would really want. We're not together; we never have been.” And Steve hadn't needed to think of the possibility, of having Tony look at him like that all the time. Even once was more than he could have ever dreamed of.
“Did you see what was on the chip? None of that was real for you,” Steve bit out. “I...I'm making you change for me.” He was supposed to bring Tony back, not take advantage of him, molding him into someone he was not.
Steve didn't think he would have fallen for a Tony who was anyone else.
“I'm sorry?” Tony said. “We're not like that? But it doesn't make sense,” he continued, eyebrows pinched, voice oddly distant. “Everything I can find tells me you're important to me. I cried over you, didn't I? So much that I couldn't even deliver a speech in your honor.” He set his knuckles to his forehead. “When was that, again?”
Steve shook his head, a lump in his throat. “If you want to take it that way, then how do you explain us fighting? How do you explain me trying to – ki – hurt you?” He realized he was trembling.
“That's...” Tony remained silent. “I guess you wouldn't do that to someone you loved,” he finally said, and Steve wanted to cry.
Except Steve could. His throat was tight.
“You still don't get it,” Steve said. “The issue isn't about my feelings. I did do it to someone I loved, because I was so angry that I was right. I don't want to think if I should have. I don't want to consider if it was worth it.”
He closed his eyes, wanting to bury his face in his hands, willing the tears not to fall.
Steve's body lurched. His stomach protested; the sensation was almost as sickening as the earlier fall.
His eyes still closed, he took inventory. He was standing, and the air was brisk on his skin. He was wearing his costume again. No identifying sounds, or smells, or whatever else.
When he opened his eyes, the sight confirmed the little he already knew – he and Tony weren't in the Tower.
The silence became eerie. Here he was, surrounded by skyscrapers in the middle of a city street without the usual rumble of people, cars, and urban livelihood perpetually in the background.
All things said, that being the most jarring thing to Steve was not something to be proud of. But the rest of the scene just made him numb.
There were no civilians. There weren't even any superheroes. The wreckage of the place spilled over the buildings and the street. Fires had started in the distance, even if Steve couldn't feel any heat or smell any smoke coming from them. Steve knew, though, that the fires wouldn't cause any real damage. This was just the landscaping of Tony's mind, everything going up in flames.
Part of him had known this was inevitable the moment he began to wade through Tony's mind. Everything converged here, in the middle of New York, at their final battle that had ended in Steve's surrender, restrained by civilians willing to wade their way into a battle against superpowered people. Steve couldn't even call the people fighting then superheroes – the only ones who were heroes were the civilians willing to risk their lives to prevent a tragedy from happening.
The same civilians who weren't present at the moment to stop anything.
Steve knew he couldn't reach that point, anymore, but his own feelings didn't matter in this regard. Even facing his opponent, Steve couldn't muster anything up other than resignation.
Tony's armor was gleaming new, unlike the rest of the setting.
Steve took it back – that was the most jarring thing about this setting. He was holding onto his shield, and he had a sudden urge to drop it. Instead, his grip tightened. He thought of Tony's lips on his own, the sensation like a ghost.
“ – Tony?” he tried.
No answer. Not even a sign of movement. Steve thought that if he moved in closer, he could see his own face reflecting off the faceplate. He stayed put.
“What's happening?” he asked. Was this the same as the other times? Steve, dropped here in medias res, but for Tony, this was the moment all his memories had led to.
Steve had been so careful in how he acted before, Tony's memories too sacrosanct to do otherwise. A load of good not wanting to meddle had done. But here, he drew the line. He couldn't bear that, playing along with these memories.
“You broke the law,” Tony finally said. “You led an entire rebellion. To what end? What did you expect to happen? That the nation would just change its mind about superheroes after watching us all wreak havoc?”
Steve wouldn't do this. He curled his hand around the shield.. The shield wasn't even his back in the real world, and he didn't want it now.
Tony spoke again.
Steve jerked his gaze up at Tony, who lifted his arm. Steve flinched, but Tony just raised his faceplate, expression still unreadable.
“I don't know what's happening,” Tony admitted. “I know exactly what you did, and why I should feel so angry. But that's the problem, isn't it? I know, but even I can't be so objective about feelings. I'm not actually a robot.” He laughed, low.
“It keeps happening. I have these urges because I know I have to, somehow. I don't want to. I don't think I would, because afterwards I feel disgusting for giving in.”
Steve tried not to react. Of course Tony would feel that way, acting, feeling drunk when everything he'd lived through up to now had so violently rejected it. But a part of Steve whispered to him otherwise, that Tony was talking about what had just transpired between them, that he was talking about how much he didn't want to kiss Steve, that Tony found him disgusting. It made Steve feel weak and petty, equating a kiss with someone he didn't care for to feeling drunk, but neither could he tell the voice to shut it.
“Is someone wanting you to?” Steve demanded. If there someone behind this, forcing Tony to do things he didn't want to, then –
Tony shook his head abruptly. “When it happens, everything warps. It must be caused by a trigger. Then, I'm going through the motions, knowing it's exactly what I'm not supposed to.
“I didn't drink.” There was a plea in his words. “I hadn't, but my body told me I had, even though I knew perfectly well I'd been holding a soda when we sat down.” His eyes were fixed on the ground, and his voice grew angry. “What am I supposed to do if everything's telling me the wrong thing? If I can't even trust myself?”
“You're not the one who's doing this to yourself. You can fight this. I know you can. It's what you're doing right now.” Even if Tony's instincts told him that he should be aiming his repulsors at Steve, his arms were at his side.
Tony laughed, the last note too high-pitched. “It'd help if I knew what I was fighting against.”
“If you can't find someone to trust – ” Steve said the thing that sounded the most right – “then you can trust me.”
Tony attempted a smile, and Steve saw when that failed. “Of course I can. Where would we be if we couldn't trust Captain America?”
The sarcasm made Steve's skin crawl. That voice, mocking and belittling, hadn't come from a Tony he could brush off as unrecognizable, not the real Tony.
“But why are you here?” Tony finally asked. “How come, every time I turn, every time this happens, you're here?” He stared at Steve, demanding an answer that was good enough.
“You've guessed as much, that I have a goal in mind.” Steve patted his pocket, where the case sat. “I'm here to bring you back.”
Tony scoffed. “So, that's what it is?” He made a show of looking around. “Of course this is a nightmare dream world, especially considering you keep showing up.”
Steve tried not to show how much that stung. “You know this isn't real, then?”
“Well, I was perfectly content to not consider it until you kept reminding me.” The bitterness seeped into Tony's voice. “If you hate me so much, then why are you here?”
“You remember – ” Steve willed his voice not to shake – “I said I don't hate you.”
Tony glared at him, eyes calculating. “First you would come to haunt me and make me feel guilty, and now you're the one feeling guilty?” He sneered. “Can't you just pick a side, already? Or, for that matter, just leave me alone?”
“I can't,” Steve breathed. “If I leave now, and you decide to stay here – ” Tony snorted, and Steve raised his voice. “They're not going to let you change your mind. They're thinking of putting you into a coma. A real one, where you couldn't even dream like this.”
“Huh, that's not such a bad idea,” Tony said, and Steve's eyes grew unexpectedly hot.
“If we don't go now, you'll die. Doesn't that mean anything to you!?”
Tony made a non-committal grunt.
“No,” Steve decided. “You're doing this in the heat of the moment. You're not thinking clearly right now – ”
“Really? I'm the one letting my emotions get to me right now?” Tony sighed. “I already had to deal with slowly losing my brain! For weeks, I forgot – everything. I couldn't remember things I'd known like the back of my hand. Equations, armor specs, how to program an AI. People's faces, or their names, or even why I was so hellbent on doing this.” His voice became flat. “I wasn't going to come back from that. But I had already made my decision then.”
Steve's throat closed up. “It's not the same,” he insisted. “You thought you needed to do that to protect people. There's nothing like that here.”
“Right. Protect people. So I told myself,” Tony said, and the horror of those implications gripped Steve. What type of person would choose that, unless they were looking for it?
“Why didn't I just kill myself?” Tony asked. “That's what you're thinking right now. Don't look so appalled. You're not the first one to wonder.” He took a breath. “I figured, if I ever went out as Iron Man, it'd be in battle. Full-blown, adrenaline on high, side-by-side with my allies.” He gestured at the remains of their battlefield, and Steve's stomach twisted. Tony had told him in plain enough words at the end to finish it, and he'd been so close to doing so.
“I thought it was kind of horribly romantic. A scapegoat martyr.” Tony blinked too quickly, looked down. “But after everything, part of me would rather just run itself into the ground and expire. No one remembers someone like that.”
“Is that why we're here?” Steve asked. Slowly waiting out, in a dream that you didn't even know was one. It chilled Steve to the core, and he realized why Tony had been so angry that Steve had come and reminded him of the truth.
Tony sighed. “Even I wouldn't do something that useless. No, things are like this because I just can't help but keep fighting until the end.”
The answer stunned Steve. For the first time in a long, long while, he gritted his teeth, curling his hands into fists, barely able to control himself. “What are you even going about? Coming back is losing? What type of logic is that, that not wanting to get out of here means anything other than – hiding away!?”
Tony always tried again and again, to explain to Steve all the whys, but what Steve remembered now was how much he could hate it. Sometimes, it felt like Tony was mocking him somehow, laying it out all after the fact so that he could convince Steve that he had been thinking clearly at the time.
But then he always went and pulled stunts like this, where none of it made any sense.
“What's left? What could be that important?” Steve pleaded. More than Tony coming back? He could understand the thought process behind the database deletion, no matter how ill it made him. But Osborn was gone now. There was no pressing danger looming over them. Even if there was, they were better now. They had the Avengers again.
Tony opened his mouth, rethought it, and closed it. He tilted his chin up, defiant. “What are you going to do? Decide for me what I want?” He glared. “Isn't that what you hated me for during the war?”
Steve believed he had hated Tony once. But the facade had crumbled long before the war had ended. When Tony had called for him, Steve had come. When part of Steve had known, that this war couldn't end up anywhere good, he had penned that letter. The only, last apology Tony ever received from him.
But Tony had a point, no matter how thoughtless his reasoning was. If Tony would come back, it was because he wanted to. The idea that Tony wouldn't was – it frustrated Steve so much he was ready to cry. He'd learned long ago that there was only so far you could go to convince someone on your own. It made Steve feel smaller, more pointless than he ever had, before the serum, even.
Not even for me?
“If you're going to use that argument, I don't get it, anyway.” Tony shrugged, the gesture too affected to look natural. “I made all your lives worse. Happy died. Pepper lost her husband. Rhodey had to cover my ass too many times to count. Thor can barely look at me anymore, and that's after he struck me down once.”
This, at least, Steve could answer to easily enough. “That's not true. They made their own choices. Not everything we do in the name of what we think is right will turn out the best for everyone. Sometimes, a lot of the time it feels like, bad things happen to people who don't deserve it. But if we let that hold us back, how can we do anything?
“And I remember, Tony, you've said things like this before. I also remember, in all that time I've known you, you've never actually given up. Even when you told me you had, you didn't mean it. I don't think you've ever lost hope that you can make things better. It will get better. It has gotten better. You know, there's no more Registration?” Tony blinked, and Steve continued. “In the aftermath of Osborn, and HAMMER, and Asgard, the government decided not to implement Registration. It'd simply take too many resources while they tried to put everything back together. For the time being, we're operating just as we always have.”
“Oh.” Tony's brows furrowed. “I guess you won, then.” He tilted his head, a slow smile lighting his features. Something fluttered in Steve's chest, and he wanted to smile back. “I suppose that means, in a way, I did, too.” The smile was gone, or rather, it had turned ugly, bitter at the edges.
A half-hearted hand-wave. “I wanted them to see us as necessary. I don't think it's bad to answer to someone higher than us, still, to have some accountability system set into place for some oversight, especially for those of us who are inexperienced. It's the right thing to do.
“But a lot of people, some of them in very important positions of power, saw us, not as people, but as test subjects. If we stepped out of line, that was grounds to experiment on us, like we're animals that need to be put down.”
That was disgusting. Steve wanted to wash the taste from his mouth. “These are the people you worked with?”
Tony's head snapped up. “It's easier when someone else is the villain. Just look at us!” He made a wide gesture. “We show sympathy, yes, we try to reason with the bad guys if they can be reasoned with. But there are no qualms about striking them down if that's what it comes to. They're a danger, otherwise.”
“Avengers don't kill.”
“That's not the point!” Tony threw his hands up. “These were people prepared to paint you all as villains, despite all you've done. Do you think that the SHRA passed the vote because those Congressmen was sympathetic to superheroes and valued them over their own constituents?” Tony shook his head. “They were scared, and pressured by their voters. They thought we were dangerous. In that sort of environment, we needed someone who didn't think of us as villains.”
“No, you just had to take on that villain title for yourself, didn't you?”
“It was better than the alternative!”
“Why do you always do that!?” Steve shouted. He wondered what about that yell had finally stopped Tony in his tracks. Tony, who would go to any length for what he wanted, stood still.
With each passing word, Steve's voice seemed to echo louder. “Every single action is the point of no return. You know – we've seen, firsthand, what people do when they're desperate. When they're convinced that they're trapped in a corner, and there's no turning back anymore.” When there was no more room for forgiveness. “ We can see, though, that it's still not over. If you can tell that for others, then why do you do it all the time?”
Tony met his challenge, eyes locked on his. His voice, when it came, wasn't cowed, but it still wavered.
“Maybe it makes it easier to live with myself knowing I did all I could.”
Steve had expected as much. It fell into place with everything else Tony had said while they'd been in here, all those things that Steve had known but had never seen tested to their limits. It seemed there was no upper bound to what Tony thought possible for himself.
How was it, that even after understanding, it didn't hurt any less?
“You're one of the most brilliant people I know,” Steve said quietly. “But you're sacrificing your own well-being. How is crippling yourself doing all you can? You'd find the answer that no one else could.”
“They wanted to use Sentinels on us, Steve! I told you about Project Wideawake! I had to actually argue with these people and tell them there was no sense in hunting us down when we could work for them instead. But, you know, I'm sorry I didn't live up to your expectations. I'm really sorry, that I couldn't just work a goddamn miracle!”
Steve felt sick. “You didn't have to find a way on your own. We could have reasoned with them, or – ”
“I did ask people! Most of them rejected me outright, except Reed.” Tony had begun pacing, as Steve felt something twist in his chest. So, Tony had sought help (not from him), and ended up barreling through himself anyway. “And really, apparently Norman Osborn had to be in charge and consequently crashed to the ground before the nation finally pulled themselves together. I don't think that exactly proves your point. At least, under Osborn, the casualties were just – ” Tony stopped in the middle of his step, looking over at Steve – “me.”
“I saw the clips.” It was the last thing Steve wanted to be reminded of. He'd seen a lot of brutality in his life, but he had to force himself to keep his eyes on the screen for the entirety of the clip. But the main takeaway was that “you won against him, and you should get to tell the tale. You don't look dead to me.”
“Well, neither do you.” Tony squinted at him warily. “But you never do, besides.”
Steve frowned, not knowing how to respond. Tony had, without a doubt, seen his corpse. According to Reed, he'd overseen the autopsy. There was something Steve was missing.
“I'm not saying I don't have some regrets,” Tony said, “but what I did, all in all – it was worth it.”
It was the last thing Steve had ever said to Tony. But Tony mentioned it so off-handedly that Steve knew he wasn't answering the question.
“Then there's nothing that says you can't go back,” Steve insisted. “You said you're still fighting, in here, but isn't it over by your own admission?”
Tony frowned at him. “It's not. I just can't. It's – ” he looked frustrated, and Steve knew that he were out of the armor, if they were together, sitting in his lab, Tony would began tapping his fingers incessantly. A problem he didn't know the answer to, some of the variables still unknown.
Steve had assumed this was it, but he still hadn't gone far enough. This wasn't the person he wanted to talk to, something that made him not Tony.
“You're not going to fool me, or psych me out of this,” Tony finally said, scowling at you. “I'm not going to let a hallucination affect me like that. I've learned better than that.”
“I'm not a hallucination.” If his hallucinations acted like this, Tony's subconscious was even worse than Steve had imagined.
“Of course you are! Every time, you have been. You – you can't be real, because you – ” The frustration again, more acute, edging into anger.
“Because I died?” Steve offered.
Tony looked pained, and had begun taking deep breaths. “What?”
Steve's legs felt like they'd give out when he moved. He'd been standing for too long. (Five minutes across from Tony, compared to endless hours of combat, were what was enough to do that to him.)
“You remember, right? After I surrendered here,” Steve said, willing his voice not to crack. Tony wasn't even really looking at him, but past him, through him. He pulled the case out of the box, took something out. “I was being escorted to the courthouse. But, Red Skull had set up an assassination attempt for me.”
Tony shook his head. “I have no idea what you're talking about. You're not a hallucination. You must be someone using his face, how dare you, doing that after he – ”
Steve would rather be stuck in his own timeline again. Those battles all over again, sitting by his mother's deathbed and hearing her urge him to always remain good, falling so many times he couldn't remember anymore.
The case contained a holographic video tape of Steve on the steps of the courthouse on the fateful day. Tony didn't stop him when he turned it on and held it out.
Steve didn't watch it himself, but he saw the reflection in Tony's eyes as it played before him. The volume was muted, and so passed the most silent moments of Steve's life.
Tony staggered backwards when Steve clicked it off. Everything went dark.
A light came on above, its illumination stark against the dark corners of the room.
The orientation of the place was familiar, somehow. That let Steve place this room as somewhere aboard the Helicarrier.
A chill went through him when he saw what was before him. It hit him, how often he'd stood in this spot, in this position, looking in this direction. This was Tony's room, that he'd been kept in for the past few months. But instead of the sleek lines of a giant tube in the middle, there was a slab in its place, and, uncomprehendingly, Steve stared at his shield atop it, a bright red streak of blood staining it.
Tony was finally here and present, and even though Steve had wished for it so badly, he hadn't wanted it to come true like this. Tony stared openly at him, and it was worlds apart from earlier, from any time Steve could remember. Tony had never looked at him like this, like the very sight of him would redeem him.
“Steve,” Tony said, hoarse. His helmet was gone now, his hair sweaty and matted, and of all the emotions in his expression that Steve couldn't understand, he could at least discern the exhaustion.
Tony was staring at his hands, palms up. He wouldn't stop shaking. “I asked you,” he said, “why you were here.” His words were clipped. “I was annoyed, then, but now I'm – ”
He didn't look furious. He looked the exact opposite, wound up and shivering.
“If this is the real me, I don't want it.”
“You didn't actually destroy your memories,” Steve said. “They were here all along, weren't they? You were here all along.” His heart was being tugged in two, that this was really Tony, and that this was where Tony had been left, seconds away from tears.
Tony took several deep, rattling breaths. “I wouldn't just make a full backup like that. I hid it in plain sight. My knowledge could destroy life as we know it, but that's exactly why it can't just be lost forever.” The longer Tony spoke, the easier his voice came. As much as Tony did it, Steve knew he hated keeping things, and he urged him further.
“Extremis was trying to reconstruct your memories and personality. We wondered, why, of all places, it was using outside sources.”
Tony actually smiled at that, a self-satisfied smirk. “Only in cheap sci-fi can someone do something like scatter their personality across the entire world network. I thought that there'd be enough noise for safety.”
That was more than just noise, Steve thought, thinking of the alcohol in Tony's breath.
“Why?” Steve's voice rose. “You didn't want to come back. You were okay with continuing like this, with some – fake persona, constructed by some of the last people you would want doing that. Why would you accept that?”
“I thought you were the one who said I was unfeeling, “ Tony said, scathing.
“We both know that's wrong.”
Tony laughed, but like his anger, it came out near a sob.“You keep harping on me about this. I don't even want me back.”
“Bucky and Thor agreed to revive you, you know,” Steve said. “Pepper, Maria Hill, everyone who you needed to make this work. They all did what they could, just so that you would come back. Don't say no one wants you and discredit their choices.”
Tony didn't reply.
“I shot myself with the same bullet that killed me the first time around just so I could bring you back!” Still no answer. “What I don't get is how come you didn't include the last bit. Was it a joke?” It couldn't be, Tony wouldn't do something like that, but it still didn't make the awfulness he felt go away. “Was it because I was dead already? But why would you – did you just let them try to save you for nothing, knowing that would fail?”
“It should have worked if they tried to revive me,” Tony muttered almost under his breath.
“What about now? I thought this was what you wanted.” Steve felt hollow. “The reason you couldn't come back was because of the tracers, because I wasn't there as an anchor to this time. But I'm back now. That should have been enough.”
“You were reborn before they tried to revive me, weren't you?” Tony asked, seeking Steve's eyes out for once.
“Well,” Tony said, “that explains it.”
What? “You needed me.” Just in the wrong way. Steve's world swayed in place as the realization hit.
If he had never come back, Tony would have been revived. One for one, Steve without Tony like Tony had been without Steve. Tony had kept asking, insisting this whole while that it was Steve who hated him. But Steve hadn't truly considered the possibility that it could be the opposite. That he was the last person who should have come after Tony.
“You didn't need me alive,” he said, voice echoing off the walls of the room. “You needed me dead.”
Tony was stunned speechless, and the awfulness swirled around in Steve. Tony's expression twisted, and he let out a short back of laughter. “God, no. I needed a lot of things, but that was – the last thing. For me. For anyone. Maybe I would have come back, if you were dead, but that didn't even matter to me at that point.
“I just wanted – I wanted to save you. Didn't do anything in the end. Actually, I just screwed myself over, but that part might have just been karma.”
“You were doing what?”
“After looking into the autopsy, I'd realized that the assassination was more than just that.” Tony's expression darkened. “They wanted to use you after they'd already killed you, so I thought that I could do one last thing. I know how you feel about being brought back after you think you're done.”
It had taken a long time to not regret being in the future. Did Tony know, that Steve was okay now with being here?
“But I was told otherwise at the reboot. That Steve Rogers had been seen alive, that he was ready to lead the charge against Norman Osborn at Asgard. Later on, that he was now working to defend the nation. No matter how far I looked into it, it seemed real, that you were alive again, and that I had...even after what I did, the mistakes I made, that they could be undone.
“But I couldn't trust anything anymore. There were things that told me I was evil, that I loved people I hated, that I hated people I loved, that it was all about money, or sex, or my own ego. At the beginning, I could sort them out, but it became harder. I didn't know, after all. That was the beauty of my solution, that no one would ever be quite sure.” He tried to smile. “There's always a kernel of truth in any lie, isn't there?”
Steve just shook his head, but he couldn't let himself be dragged into this, circles of arguments with this man. He had to start at the beginning. “You were right, that the tracers were used as part of a plot to use me.” The ironic part of that is that it might have been what saved his life. “But the other end of that – the person pulling me back to our time that they tried to use – was Sharon.”
He saw Tony tense, like he was trying to hold back something, but failed, the startled laughter loud between them.
“Of course.” With each word, he got further and further away from Steve.
“I'm not finished. You did save me,” Steve said. “On those missions, when someone interfered at just the right moment, that was you, wasn't it? You were always watching over me.”
“And other times, the goddamn genius solution I'd come up with made me go haywire, and I used my powers instead to hurt people.” Tony shook his head hard. “I knew it. Maybe there's no use trying to reach the point where I've finally done enough to make up for everything.”
It wouldn't happen. Tony would never believe he'd reached that point. Steve stepped closer, and Tony threw his hands up. The sight of the repulsors made Steve still.
“And to think – ” Tony's voice cracked – “I just told myself I did it because I loved you.”
He glared at Steve, like he expected some reaction from him. Disgust, or anger, or rejection.
Steve's throat tightened. “What do you want me to say?” he choked out. Tony just wanted to manipulate Steve's feelings again to whatever he felt was the most appropriate. What would make him happy? Did he want Tony to be happy, now, with Tony staring at him with anger, contempt, scorn?
Of course he did. He wanted it more for Tony than for himself, even. His own misfortunes always made him close off again, shut himself from the world, but that was nothing compared to Tony making him feel ready to fall apart.
He couldn't lie, though. He couldn't say what Tony wanted to hear.
“Well, I know I love you.”
Maybe Steve should have typed it up, instead, a real love letter among the thousands of fakes out there in the world, conspiracies theories and gossip rags and the genuine ache in his heart never voiced aloud, never more straightforward than a fond sigh, or a laugh punctuated with Shellhead.
Would Tony had recognized it for what it was, when he was searching for himself?
“Fuck.” Tony bit his lip, but tears had finally begun to fall. “Even if you're in love with me, you can't accept me,” Tony said. “Loving me must be such a burden.”
“No. You try to make the world a better place. I can't always agree with your method, but I know your heart has always been there beneath it. I've told you this already, before, and I'll tell you however many times it needs. I trust in that.” Steve exhaled. “You told me that you were the worst thing that's ever happened to me. But, if that part's true, I have no doubt you're also one of the best things.” Without Tony, Steve wasn't the same Steve he'd learned to live with.
Tony tried to wipe his eyes on his arm. It looked sort of ridiculous in the armor. “Why do you assume everything will be the same?”
“That's why you're so stubborn about this. You want ol' 'Shellhead' and 'Winghead', just like the good old days, but it's not going to be like that.” Tony stared at him with red-rimmed eyes, cheeks still wet, but it was as much a challenge as any Steve had any received. “Do you really want Director Stark back? You said as much yourself. You can't bring me back, allude to all the times we worked together, without thinking about all the times we've messed each other up. I can't just smile at you, tell you it's all out in the wash now. Just being old pals isn't enough. You want this to be everyone except yourself, but at least answer me this.”
Steve was ready to retort, off-the-cuff, until he stopped himself. He'd been so obsessed, with the idea of getting the real Tony back, his Tony.
He thought of Tony at the mansion, and the naked nostalgia that had taken hold of him. He thought of Tony at the bar, pouring his heart out to him. He thought of Tony at the Tower, the easy smile he had just for Steve.
He thought of watching a Tony he couldn't recognize, put together by some propaganda, and a lot of projection, and so many other things he don't even want to begin to understand.
The only smiles he'd seen from this Tony before him were sarcastic. He'd questioned, disbelieving, and argued with Steve the entire time.
Steve looked at the Tony before him, and he still loved him.
“It won't be the same.” Something settled in him then. It was an answer to something unasked, for how long now, it was hard to imagine. Maybe even since the ice. “It can't.”
His answer was neither wide nor deep enough to fill in the edges of what was left behind. Maybe it wasn't meant to.
“And is that good enough for you?” Tony asked.
“I don't think that me just saying anything was ever enough to convince you,” Steve spared himself a smile. Maybe that was why Tony was so infuriating. Maybe that was why Tony was so important to him. “But I think it will be.”
Tony took a deep breath.
“How about for you?” Steve asked. “Is it enough for you?”
“It's more than I ever thought possible,” Tony said, and he was crumbling before Steve, the tears flowing freely. “How can I deserve this?”
“Convince me you do, then,” Steve said. “Come back, and convince me. Convince everyone. You told me once, that you just wanted to make me believe.” Part of Steve would forever want Tony to. All the other times, Tony had come back to him. It was why, when Tony hadn't, Steve had gone after him instead.
Tony was unwilling to move, so Steve did instead. He reached in, Tony not stepping away for once, and pulled Tony into a hug. The armor was smooth under his fingers, so he thought it'd be safe to squeeze them tight together, and to not let go.
This was Tony's mind. He could do anything he wanted. If he wanted Steve to go away, or expel him, it was as simple as a passing fancy. There were only so many times you could appeal to someone. It was a lesson Steve had learned long ago.
Tony raised his arms and wrapped them back around Steve
“You're alive,” he whispered into Steve's shoulder. Again and again, like a mantra, and Steve held him back.
“You're here,” he said in answer.
It wouldn't be what they'd had before, but whatever it was, it'd be worth it.
This was a hospital room that Steve waited in. Any softness and comfort in the folds of the bedsheets were offset by the military crisp edges they were folded with. Outside, Steve could hear the harried footsteps of the Helicarrier personnel as they shuttled by.
This was what he had expected, back then, where he would wait for Tony. Leave it to him to be the one who would catch him off-guard.
Steve looked over to the bed, the same sight not quite grown familiar, even if it was the main draw of his attention for the past day.
No more waiting for them. It was time to move forward and on, to all the ways they could wait for each other in the future. Steve was looking forward to discovering just how many ways they would.
On the bed, Tony opened his eyes.