“I put my head under my pillow and let the quiet put things where they are supposed to be.” ~Stephen Chbosky
Awareness sparked dimly in his mind, which was still lumbering somewhere in the realm of the subconscious. His legs felt overheated, entangled as they were in the blankets- but kicking them off seemed too much effort. He’d drooled on his pillow- there was a conspicuous damp spot and his lips were parted and sticky with it. From somewhere, he mustered the wherewithal to at least close his mouth, shifted his cheek away from the patch of drool and lay unmoving- waiting for sleep to reclaim him.
Minutes passed by, his breath puffing out steadily in the quiet. An interminable amount of time later, there was a heavier breath approximating a sigh- and he moved his head to dig his chin into the pillow, strands of hair slipping over his forehead and brushing over the tip of his nose. Another minute.
Finally, Steve raised his head three inches above the pillow and groggily opened his eyes. The room was dark, yet his eyes still burned- there must still be a couple of hours to go before sunrise. There was a flash of light, reflecting off the darkened walls after every three seconds. The part of his brain that wasn’t still in the throes of sleep (or swearing up a litany of curse words), realised it was a notification on his phone. Probably what woke him up.
The natural thing to do would have been to go back to sleep (please please go back to sleep)- but as the last few minutes proved, that ship had long sailed. Plus, not many people had his contact details, and even if they did, a phone call over heavily secured lines would have been far more in line with expectation rather than an innocuous text or email.
Curiosity somewhat mitigating the irritability at the interruption of sleep, Steve started blindly feeling around for his phone, the flashing light not helping in the locating process in the slightest. It could always just be spam, and Steve would have quite a few choice words in case it was (he hadn’t needed anyone to explain to him that all those ‘Work from home for a thousand bucks a day!!!’ mails were complete rubbish- and he had a couple more words for those crooks who thought duping innocent people and giving them false hope was somehow acceptable)- but Tony’s spam filters were nigh supernatural; the man was a bragger, but also undeniably a Midas with anything remotely electro-
Steve blinked. Sleep suddenly seemed very distant.
His fingers brushed over something cold and smooth- he pulled his phone towards him, shifting on his stomach in the process, and used the base of his palm to rub out the condensation on the screen. A quickly typed out pass code later, the screen flashed to life. One new email. No subject.
His brows automatically furrowing, Steve opened up the mail with a swipe. The message body and the subject header were both empty, with one video attachment only- but that wasn’t what caught his eye. What jabbed at his vision and made the steady beat in his chest stutter, was the sender’s address.
That was...well, Steve knew what that was.
Heart slowly thundering in his chest, Steve stared at the screen, the bright white rectangle sending bright spots dancing in his vision every time he blinked. His thumb hovered over the attachment, wavering in the air. One inch, one brief movement, and it would download and play.
One inhale; and his hands turned the phone over, dropping it face down on the pillow.
Fifteen minutes later- Steve was sitting up on the bed, spine pressed against the headboard, laptop propped on his thighs booting up. His heart was a constant drum in his ears, unending deep thumps like he might be underwater. His fingers were tapping out a restless pattern against the cool grey plastic- he stilled them with conscious effort, and immediately felt like he might scrabble out of his skin. This was…this…damn, he didn’t know. He didn’t know what to expect. He didn’t know if he should expect anything at all.
The explorer had been open for a few minutes, when he finally made himself look straight at the screen again. The arrow was still hovering over the attachment, a white mockery.
Being this…(worked up? Stressed?) ...nervous about an email was ridiculous. He didn’t know why-
No. No. This, he did know.
The screen was dark, no sound playing in the background for several seconds. Steve could still feel the tension thrumming in his skin, coiling tighter and tighter by the second as he stared unblinkingly at the screen.
His brows were beginning to pull down, a crease forming above the bridge of his nose, his hand twitched with the urge to fast forward to the end of the recording; to see if there actually was anything in there or maybe he’d just been giving himself an ulcer for no reason- but the move aborted before it could even properly begin.
The shadows began to clear, and Steve regretted every fucking thought that had crossed his mind before this moment. His heart was cold in his chest.
It was like light was seeping into the scene by increments- but Steve didn’t need that. The sound of repulsors whining and sparking against vibranium metal was too distinctive.
Two figures- red and blue, red and gold. Sparks flying in all directions as the shield caught the full force of the repulsors- Steve could still recall the faint sense memory of the metal warmed by battle shuddering under the pressure in his hands. He could remember every move as it played out in horrible definition on the screen- every blow flung, every desperate parry, every harsh pant, every groan of pain. What he couldn’t recall was the visceral imagery of it all- he’d never been in the position to observe, caught in a battle for friendship and loyalty, betrayal and vengeance. He hadn’t gotten to pause and see the cold Siberian sun gleam off titanium alloy, the burnished leather strapped over dark Kevlar, the hard sheen of arm plates.
It looked…not beautiful, but tearing his eyes away proved impossible. Like watching a volcano erupt- awe inspiring and terrifying in its inevitability. It looked…vicious, and Steve had to push the bile welling up in his throat down.
“Do you even remember them?”
“I remember all of them.”
Steve should…Steve should pause it. Close it. There were better things to do, like worry about how the hell this got captured on film anyway, it was probably that bastard Zemo; but anger was not the right response here. This was merely a copy- there were others out there, and if this, god forbid, got released to the public- superheroes would lose every single inch of the little credibility they still had, and everything that Tony had fought so hard for, no matter how headstrong and misguided, would be lost-
But then Bucky was releasing a desperate snarl and pinning Iron Man against the stone wall, fingers straining to pull out the reactor- and Steve leaned forward in spite of himself, knuckles whitened, a phantom sense of panic and worry and pain and displaced warmth swimming in his chest. God, Bucky- the repressed anguish outlined in every stark line of his face, he’d gone through so much, only to be persecuted again and again and again-
(“This doesn’t have to end in a fight, Buck.”
“It always ends in a fight.”)
It was almost easy to miss, in the recorded echoes of a fight that he’d never forget and the slurry of memories whirling through his head, punctured by shards of pain. But it registered in his mind- he heard the whirr and moved his gaze from his best friend’s face to Iron Man’s visage. The two small, rectangular flaps on his shoulders had withdrawn, risen. The strategist in Steve, the Captain America part of him that had fought alongside Iron Man for years- dimly registered that those compartments stored the mini-missiles that Iron Man was equipped with. He’d used them to great efficiency in the past- usually against Chitauri or Ultron bots or other opponents that couldn’t merely be incapacitated.
He was…he was almost surprised, at how easy it had been to forget, about the existence of those things. But Steve hadn’t been fighting with a clear head. His mind had been flooded by a deluge of panic and fear and guilt and notagainnotagainhecantdiepleaseplease and Iron Man hadn’t been using....any part of his arsenal except the repulsors to even remind him of the fatal strategic errors he was committing.
Missiles…they bored past metal and scored through Chitauri skin and imbedded splinters into flesh and bone and exploded and- even super healing was hard pressed against such a....modern, technologically superior foe. Steve remembered seeing those missiles in action for the first time- another video like this, shaky and grey, tiny little objects whizzing through the air, leaving ghostly smoke trails and embedding themselves into the arms and legs and guts of terrorists in Gulmira. Tony hadn’t cared to spare those lives.
Another whirr, and Steve watched them in action again- except the distance covered this time was too short to leave a trail. A strangled sound of pain slipping through the white noise screaming in Steve’s eardrums- Bucky, Bucky, that was Bucky, Bucky biting through his lip in pain as he landed flat on his stomach; but all of it was overlaid by a voice, words paring through Steve’s brain, almost hysterical in their calmness-
This isn’t what happened this isn’t what happened this isn’t- what is happeni-
Several metallic clanks, as Iron Man straightened and pushed himself off of the wall. Bucky was attempting to rise off the floor, inch by inch, metal hand still attached to his shoulder slipping a little in the blood that was starting to pool beneath him –whynonowhyistherebloodtherehadntbeenlasttime- he raised his chin up, something silent and resigned stealing over his expression. It’s the most terrifying expression Steve had ever seen in his life and he had no idea what the fuck was happening.
Except- that….that was a lie. Because there was a red and gold gauntleted hand, palm open, not five inches away from Bucky’s face. Screen Steve was too far away, the white noise was mounting to a screaming climax, the laptop was beginning to dent a little under his tightened grip, but nothing, nothing, could have made him miss the quiet whine of the repulsor charging up.
The thud of a body falling to the floor. Silence.
Steve did close his eyes then, high trains and frozen bunkers, dropped shields and whining repulsors, all muddled up in his head. The voice in his head had gibbered itself to silence. One beat. Two.
He opened his eyes, and it was like the screen had freeze-framed: his onscreen self a meter too far and absolutely wiped of sane expression, Iron Man standing dispassionately over Bucky’s dead body, stray hair strands soaking in the blood.
But it wasn’t quite a freeze frame, because Tony Stark had stepped out of the shadows, somehow, surveying the scene. Instead of the three piece suit he wouldn’t seem to be willing to be glimpsed out of these days, he had a tank top on, old and worn. Grey sweats, goosebumps peppering bare, lean arms. Bare feet too- and as he stepped closer and closer to the main players, frozen in time, the littlest toe of his right foot dipped into the pool of blood by Bucky’s head.
The hollows under his eyes were black- with lack of sleep, not bruises. His cheeks sloped inwards, his fingers shook constantly. Brittle and gaunt and the only living thing in a false memory- his eyes glittered as the scene began to dissolve.
Steve screwed his eyes shut as the remembrances flitted by- the last burst of warmth he’d felt towards Tony Stark, watching that MIT presentation video (not quite right, there had been that aborted gush when he’d realised those were Roosevelt’s pens, freaking hell Tony). Hijacking the hippocampus, reimagining and rewriting old memories. Traumatic memories- and Steve’s mind had flitted back to Bucky at the time and he’d smiled a little hopefully, but mostly in pride over the achievements of a friend. So generous. So thoughtful.
But this. This.
Steve opened his eyes again, and dully noted that he’d have to acquire a new laptop.
Anger at Tony was a familiar feeling. Or rather, frustration; it was no secret that they got on each other’s nerves constantly- but time and maturity and understanding had lent themselves to a fonder, mildly contrarian but still respectful dynamic. During this entire…mess, Steve had fluctuated between worry and irritation and guilt and desperation at his teammate, but never quite rage. There had been a cold sense of doomed certainty lining his every word, his every action- he did not mean to wound, but would if deemed necessary. Tony had tried to…essentially murder the last link that Steve had left back to his world- but not once had Steve ever felt the deliberate urge to maim, or even blame. For that last battle…if nothing else, he himself had been at fault. He could accept that, and accept Tony’s reaction, and do the best he could to stop him from doing something that would hurt Tony almost as much as it would hurt him.
Steve tried to breathe past the sheer rage that was pouring itself into his bloodstream, but to no avail. This act of…of imagining something so horrific and actually sending it to Steve was…he didn’t know what it was. Malicious. Cruel, threatening, mocking the crudely put together but still sincerely meant apology that Steve had sent. Steve wasn’t…he wasn’t naïve, he didn’t think that weeks and months would pass, and Tony would suddenly become alright with the idea of the Winter Soldier slaughtering his parents, the relationship between Howard and his wife and their son was too complex for that. But….when the initial flush of emotion had passed…Steve had hoped that a reasonable man would be able to see past revenge and-
Well. Apparently not. Not only did Tony clearly consider Bucky to blame, he was cold bloodedly reimagining the ideal murder. And sending a fucking recording to Steve.
He was tempted to send a piece of his mind back in response- the reply button taunted him. Tempted to type that apparently he’d left his shield in the care of the wrong man. Almost tempted to think that he should have brought down the shield where it was initially aime-
Steve wouldn’t fall victim to the same heartless viciousness that Stark had.
Well, Steve thought, closing the lid of the bent laptop as far as it would go, plunging the room into darkness. Cool, dispassionate. Maybe Stark had a point when he said that some superheroes couldn’t be trusted to make the right decisions for themselves after all.
His eyes flew open, awareness flaring to life just as quick at the back of his head. His eyes burned- the insides of his eyelids seeming raw and scratchy, but he was far less bleary than he had been last night. Still no idea of what had woken him though.
A white light danced against the shadows on the wall- a quick flash on and off. Steve resisted the urge to bury his face in his pillow and groan.
Well, that was one question answered.
It was probably a message from Clint, updating Steve on him and Wanda’s new location-slash-safehouse. Or Sam checking up on his health, refusing to remain content with reports of physical fitness alone, or Scott Lang sending him a meme because till date, the man appeared unable to hold an actual conversation with him but seemed petrified of letting their online correspondence subside just in case Steve pretended not to know the guy several weeks hereon. Steve had mostly been making do till now by responding with emojis (incredibly inane things that were perfectly adequate for a guy of comparatively fewer words like Steve).
Oh, who the fuck was he kidding. Steve stared, eyes wide awake, at the bright screen of his phone that had somehow migrated into his hand during this little, delightful diversion of his thoughts.
He knew what he had to do. Should do. Tap on that little picture of a trash can, and send the email with its singular attachment to the destination it deserved.
Of course, what he also should have done in the past was let “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” and “isn’t that why we fight? So we can end the fight and go home?” and “we need to be put in check” roll off his back. But he’d stepped up, shoulders pulled back and teeth bared, each and every time.
(He didn’t know if he hated or feared To- Stark’s ability to push him this way, push and push and push, till the very concept of lines had been erased from one’s head and gravity was reversed and he could never know if he was being propelled to heights he’d never imagined before or falling to depths that he’d never comprehended.
A flash of blue light, arc reactor blue, crumpling- it was falling. It had to be falling.)
He’d been expecting the clanks and clamour of battle. Blows and wounds and weapons held up in defence or powered up to attack. He was hardened now- by still simmering rage and the weight of knowing what was coming, ready for the black, horrible imaginings of Stark’s mind. Ready for whatever the man had left to aim at him.
(He was wrong.)
And that was what he received, at least in the beginning. The screen sparked to life- Steve’s eyes immediately searched for Bucky, and found him lying prone on the floor with the smoking hole in the place of an arm. That was…that wasn’t right, but it was what had happened and Steve could deal with that right now. He….memory-Steve was raining blows down on Iron Man’s armour, metal screeching against the wall. A deafening series of CLANKCLANKCLANK overtook the audio, barely space for a breath between vicious blows- Steve stared, watching the armour wince and flinch and brace itself like it was a living thing, slowly crumpling in under the vibranium.
A strange feeling was beginning to crawl through, somewhere underneath the righteous anger- but then Iron Man caught the shield by its edge and blasted memory-Steve in the side; of course Iron Man wasn’t going to be taken down that easily. Memory-Steve buckled to the floor, between two pillars.
“Stand down, final warning.”
(Stranger still. It didn’t sound nearly as taunting as it did in his memories. It didn’t sound taunting at all.)
“I can do this all day.”
A split-second of silence. When Iron Man’s voice came, it was interrupted by bursts of static; like the voice behind the emotionless recording was panting harshly.
“What, beat up a friend?”
And just like that, Steve couldn’t breathe.
It changed nothing though. By the time his eyes could comprehend the action again, Iron Man was flat on his back and memory-Steve was pulling back his fist to punch him right across the face. Again, and again, and Steve let out a tight exhale when memory-Steve paused for a second, but it was only to retrieve the shield and fuck, they were back again, CLANKCLANKCLANK- (why was he aiming for the face, he didn’t need to, one hit was all he needed, the reactor or knock him out cold or-)
Iron Man’s helmet cracked open, revealing jagged edges and Tony Stark’s face, gaunt and blood-streaked, defiant and terrified. It…it wasn’t quite like the memories either. Steve had remembered the grief. He hadn’t noticed the fear.
A firming up of the jaw as if in resigned determination and Steve barely had the composure to compute before Tony changed everything up on him again, calculatingly spitting. “You do know I’ll never stop coming after him, right?”
Memory-Steve’s face wiped itself of all expression, the shield rose. The setting Siberian sun flashed off it in a blinding glare as it fell in an arc- but Steve’s attention was caught by red, gauntleted fingers, rising up involuntarily to protect the face even though the owner had so clearly wanted this outcome. Goaded his way into it.
Steve’s eyes squeezed shut, but those fingers remained, a red-hot image burnt into the back of his eyelids. He knew, he didn’t know how since he didn’t clearly remember them from his own memory, but he knew that this tiny detail had not been altered. That Tony Stark had flinched back and looked away and covered his vulnerable head with his fragile hands in a vain attempt to protect himself from the final blow. A blow he’d involuntarily, reflexively believed would come, and be fatal when it did.
This time though, in this particular reimagining, it wouldn’t be the sound of the reactor casing smashing. A thud instead of a clank, the sound of vibranium slicing through flesh, severing bone from bone. Steve’s eyes stayed closed, the sound never came, but his imagination had completed the task and it was like somebody had squished his insides all together. His eyes were burning again.
What did come, after several seconds of drawn out silence was a faint chuckle. His eyelids fluttered open despite themselves, and he watched another Tony Stark crouching in the shadowed corner, clad in the same sweats and a different tank top, regarding the scene before him. Hollows beneath his eyes even darker than before, if that was even possible, mouth twisted into some bitter slash of amusement and….deprecation was too light a word. It was like that same dark flicker in his eye when he’d been talking about that youth perishing in Sokovia- self hate, that’s what you’re looking for. Another little crackle of amusement ripping through the frozen air, and it almost hurt as much as the clanks.
“Cute.” Tony said, almost flippantly, but eyes feverish in their fixation on the vibranium edge not two inches away from his memory-self’s throat. Then, practically bipolar in its sudden shift, from casual amusement to impatient rage. “But we aren’t here for fucking fantasies.”
The scene dissolved. Steve caught a flash, of a worktable and parts of something complexly mechanical, a ragged blanket slung over Tony’s thighs and a digital clock blinking 2 am behind his elbow, before the recording cut out.
Air rushed into his lungs in a desperate surge, of a sudden, and barely a second passed before Steve was flinging the device to the side and scrambling off the bed, stomach twisting uncontrollably. Not five minutes later, his forehead was propped against the smooth porcelain of the toilet seat while his mouth retched; throat pulling out every remnant of food he’d swallowed in the last six hours and more besides. Disgorging every substance in his innards, it felt, till his body was hollow and flopped over the bathroom tiles, breathing harsh and vengeful.
Emptied. Of rage and grief and panic and righteousness, till he could wash his face at the basin with the mirror, and watch something curiously akin to Tony’s defeated eyes stare back at him.
The third night, Steve didn’t bother going to bed.
Or rather, he went to bed but didn’t bother lying down and closing his eyes- just tucked his folded legs underneath his thighs and stared at the wall on the opposite end. Every couple of minutes, he’d shoot a glance at the bedside table where his phone lay screen-down, but the device remained still and unresponsive.
Hours passed and Steve’s eyelids had begun to droop- he’d give himself a shake now and then, but his legs had grown numb from holding the same position and his mind felt like it had been filled with cotton wool. In one last ditch effort, he picked up the phone and mindlessly opened and closed the screen-lock several times, but the notifications remained frustratingly blank.
Maybe this was just a two-off thing. Maybe Stark was done with screwing with his head and he could now go to sleep in peace (even if there was almost no doubt about what was waiting for him at the other end, a nightmarish landscape of snow, metal, blood and betrayal).
Betrayal- something in Steve’s head repeated again, caught in infinite loops, wild and thrown-off. He fumbled the phone, it slipped past his sweaty fingers, catching the end of the bed and tumbling to the floor- “Fucking shit.” He bent down, hands feeling about wildly for several straining seconds before finding it and seizing it off the floor. Several seconds of silence fleeted by- nothing registering except the heartbeat drumming in his ear amidst the almost feverish concentration of trying to bring the recording up as quick as feasibly possible.
No clanks- and something tight and twisted in Steve’s chest eased up before he could even realise it. The three of them were standing around a screen that was beginning to play flickering footage- there were words droning on in the background, Zemo- oh, oh, it was that moment, the transition from apologies and trust and working on the same team to accusations and questions and...and….betrayal-
Steve stared at Tony, at those features lined with exhaustion and determination, but steadily growing darker and more worried. What would it be this time, what would be the change- would he be quicker on the drop, try to down both of them before they could really put up a fight? Take them in, hand them over-
The sound of a repulsor going off, and nothing but smoking black slag where a screen had been.
The repulsor powered down with a whine, and Steve blinked and blinked again, taking in the stunned silence. Bucky’s face was as blank as it had ever been, but there was the beginning of something waking in his eyes; the dull, disbelieving shock of a man whose execution order had been incomprehensibly, impossibly stayed. Memory Steve could barely keep the awful gratitude off his face, trying and failing not to sound relieved beyond all measure as he asked- “What was…why did you-”
“You know me Rogers, forever the contrarian.” The flippancy, the distracting jovial tone was all there, all the requisite ingredients, but there was still something off. Tony’s voice was stiff, like an actor repeating his memorised lines for a play with none of the conviction, none of the belief. Stiff, and unconvincing. “Figured, if a supervillain wanted you to do something really, really badly, it only made sense not to do it, right?”
“I…of course.” Memory Steve fidgeted with the strap of his cowl, then the strap of his shield. Smiled wide for a brief second before remembering not to, then cleared his throat. “We should…we should take Zemo in, probably call in the authorities after we leave to collect the bodies of the Soldiers-”
The scene winked out.
Tony was at the same workshop bench as last time, the real, present time Tony. The one with the unhealthily dark skin under his eyes, the tremors in his hands, the one who somehow looked more ragged and run-down than the Tony Stark recoiling from blows in battle. Coffee mugs scattered around a table so piled up with bits and pieces of machinery that the metal top was barely visible, holograms flickering weakly in the background, the blanket from the night before pooled on the floor. It looked like he hadn’t moved since then.
He was staring at some indiscriminate spot on the floor, face wiped, harsh LED backlighting his head and casting shadows on his hands. He was blinking every three or so seconds- and some distant, mindless part of Steve noted that it was almost odd to see his face in shadow (because he doesn’t have the reactor, fuck, the look on his face when the reactor cra-)
He didn’t look like he’d gone on an odd forty-hour bender for science, choosing to forego sleep. He looked like he’d stumbled for hours and hours in its search and sleep had shut the door in his face.
Tony shook his head a little, gaze still fixated on the floor. More statement than self-rebuke. “He lies better than that.”
It was immediate, the hot, crawling shame sliding through Steve’s veins- Tony’s fingers were coming up to massage the bridge of his nose, when Steve shut the recording off and dropped the phone, the device falling to the mattress with an inconsequential flump. Several seconds passed in silence before he realised his eyes were fixed on the floor before he tore them away, knuckles coming up to rub roughly at the corners of their lids till they stung.
Planting yourself like a tree was all well and good. But he was starting to feel the soil erode away from beneath his feet, and he didn’t know how long he could keep standing.
The recordings didn’t come every night.
After that third night, there was a four day gap, during which Steve tossed and turned and decimated punching bags and did a thousand push-ups and longed desperately to talk to Bucky or Natasha. One had decided to seal himself away from the world, one had taken to the wind to vanish from existence it seemed. Sam would….would focus too much on trying to solve the problem, and Steve didn’t know if that was what he wanted. He didn’t know if he wanted to acknowledge a problem at all. He didn’t know if he wanted to let the myth of a Captain America who forever knew his mind, collapse.
But after four days, an email appeared in his inbox, seemingly out of nowhere though of course it had been borne on the invisible webs that the modern world had given birth to. And so the trickle began again- sometimes four of the recordings in a week, sometimes an entire fortnight passing before he’d see the sun of Siberia gleam on metal and Kevlar again. And as the weeks passed, it became increasingly clear- Tony was not doing this to mock Steve, or prove a point, or even attempt to change his mind. In fact, it seemed more likely that Tony had no idea that Steve was receiving any of these in the first place.
No. By the time Steve received the one recording that started before Tony entered the BARF, instead of during- his motivations had become all too apparent. Watching the gritted teeth, the whitened complexion, the quickened breaths, the hand gripped over his chest and the muttered, “Fucking nightmares.” before he threw himself into the same well of memories he’d just clawed his way out of, except this time he had control. Just to prove he could, despite fear and trauma and hurt and everything else, the reckless bastard.
Tony Stark had no agendas here. He just wanted to sleep.
So it made sense that the recordings would always begin at some point during their confrontation in the bunker, without exception. It appeared as though Tony was focusing on trying to…correct just this event in time, instead of trying to reach back further and course-correct….because how far could they go, really? The first time the Accords came up? That day on Clint’s farm? Their first meeting, when Howard’s friend Steve Rogers told his son that he’d known men worth ten of him and he’d never be a hero? Hell, Steve had been fucking up Tony’s life long before the man had even been born. His plane had plummeted into the Arctic, and with it had plummeted any likelihood of a decent childhood for the Stark. Of course, there were others (Howard) that were more culpable, and blaming himself for such things was ridiculous (but easier than blaming himself for things he’d deliberately done- so how big of a hypocrite was he, really?).
Nothing seemed to be working though, not to Tony’s satisfaction. Every reimagined take was cut short, truncated abruptly. In the aftermath, sometimes there was a black word or two of frustration- but mostly there was just silence, growing stormier as the days passed. He didn’t seem content with fantasies that depicted everything going his way (Steve couldn’t even remember Tony trying such a fantasy- and time had taught him enough that the first recording didn’t count), and reimaginings that swung wildly in the opposite direction- shield coming down on an exposed neck- just pulled those little, painfully scathing laughs.
Tony wanted something realistic, something feasible- and Steve didn’t care how presumptive that sounded, because it was true. A man like Tony Stark knew little the difference between dreams and reality- he straddled the line between the two so effortlessly, using that damnable brain to flit back and forth like he existed on a wholly separate dimension altogether. He didn’t operate on theories and idealisation- he put things into practice. Because what use was a belief, no matter how dearly held, if you did nothing about it?
(Wow, real subtle right there, brain.)
For all of the different versions though- there was never one in which Tony Stark didn’t come to Siberia. Didn’t go behind the back of the very authorities he was trying to support, because he’d made a mistake and needed to fly to the aid of a friend. Apparently, that version was too unrealistic (unthinkable) to even consider.
But everything else was falling short.
“I…you didn’t know. Weren’t in control.” It looked like every word was carving out a piece of flesh, but memory-Tony continued, jaw locked and eyes staring sightlessly. “They didn’t…wasn’t your- fault.”
Steve, watching, hoping, praying- still felt his stomach twist with unease. He’d known this was coming, anticipated it five recordings in, from the time this had started so many months ago. Still- strangely, stupidly, the one thing he’d wanted for so long, almost desperately; the one thing he’d known to be right- seeing it happening introduced a strange hollowness in the pit of his stomach. There was relief somewhere, there had to be. This was the point where everything had gone so horrifically wrong. Solving this would be the first step to solving everything.
“You…don’t mean that.” Bucky’s voice. Not lifting in the end, not even the slightest. Not even bothering with hope.
“Course I do.” Tony’s in turn getting deceptively stronger, even though he wouldn’t stop looking at the blank screen. “Manchurian Candidate, remember?”
“Tony, I- I knew it, I knew you would-” Memory-Steve sounded disbelieving, amazed. Steve wanted to punch him in the face.
A flash of confusion furrowing Tony’s brows at the words, followed swiftly by realisation. And weighted words.
“Did…did you know?”
“I-“ Steve saw the second, the second of deliberation he decided to discard the lie in the face of this surprising forgiveness. “Yes.”
Too late. Too fucking late.
Steve didn’t need to watch the recording any further, to know what was to come. It took a surprisingly long time though, silence dragging on and on as Tony raised his eyes from the screen to meet Steve’s, visibly struggling to keep control. The scene splintered.
“Fuck. Fuck.” Down came the coffee mug- and then another, and another, ceramic and porcelain shattering to smithereens on the cold workshop floor. Another swipe, and the bits and bobs and tools went flying off the desks, clattering to the concrete in a horrendous racket that could wake the dead. The holograms kept flickering weakly in the background.
“Fuck.” Tony whispered, and slid weakly on to the chair- except he didn’t stop there, and slid down the seat to hit the floor, tailbone hitting the cement. He twisted his head to throw a glance over and above his shoulder, no doubt to where the BARF was still powered up. Frustrated, as if wondering if he had enough strength to make another go at this latest iteration that had resulted in his workshop being reduced to a destroyed dumpster.
Stop. Steve watched on, motionless, as the Tony onscreen ran a rough hand through his hair and knuckled at his eyebags. Stop trying so hard. Please. It isn’t going to work.
Because you see- he understood now. The singular moment when everything had gone horrifically wrong. It wasn’t when Tony had discovered that his parents had been murdered brutally by a brainwashed Bucky Barnes.
It was when he realised that Captain America- Steve Rogers, teammate, adversary, friend, family- had lied.
Stop sending me these. Tony wouldn’t have wanted me to see them.
The cursor hovered motionlessly for a while- a strange blend of curiosity, grief and loneliness staying the finger. A quick flashback of the last recording proved to be more than enough incentive- Tony Stark standing at his table for an entire night, head bowed, trying to get himself to try one more time.
The replying email came half an hour later.
By the demolished church in Sokovia. Tomorrow, 5 am.
Steve opted for a photostatic veil this time round- Clint had a couple on him even as they’d fled, and the face morphers had proved invaluable so far in keeping the authorities off their tail. Steve ordinarily hated it- the nanoparticles of the mask shifting around his skin, the all too blatant fakeness of it jarring to the very essence of the way he operated. But here, amidst the ruins of a city and her people that had been wronged so heavily by the Avengers, a baseball cap simply wasn’t going to cut it.
He walked its streets in the hours approaching sunrise, soft-soled shoes padding against the cobblestones, mist curling around his ankles. No matter which direction he cast his eyes in, all he saw were half-crumbling structures- a building missing a landing, a house with its walls blown away and ceiling half caved in, pavements and walls scorched with bullets. No people, though that could probably be attributed to the early hour.
It reminded him of war.
Scattered amongst the rubble though, were higher mounds of sand, dirt, cement. Piles of bricks stacked next to every dilapidated edifice. Fluorescent signs of construction, flags and tape, orange and bright yellow- heavy machinery. And here and there, almost discreet enough to be invisible, but not to Steve’s eyes- the black print of the Stark Industries logo.
The church looked like a blast zone. It appeared to be the only part of the city untouched by repairing hands, stained by the lingering, contaminating presence of Ultron- but little flags had started coming up around the entryway steps too, areas beginning to be marked off by tape- as if determined not to leave any part of the land unhealed.
A bright gleam at the periphery of Steve’s vision- he raised his chin up, shielding his eyes with a hand, expecting the rising sun to have finally started breaking through the clouds. But the golden light was already trickling through, running down the church walls in rivulets, illuminating clouds of dust motes. The gleam of light, almost like a lens flare, had come from something much closer to the earth; the sun shining off an Infinity Gem.
The red cape set dusts swirling anew as the Vision slowly descended from the air, feet coming into contact with the ground with a gentleness that belied the sheer power that the figure was holding in. Steve raised a finger to the patch behind his ear to deactivate the veil, met those cool, calm, distant eyes- wondering if the jaded maturity he could see in them now was his fault. Wondering if Vision still considered humanity worthwhile enough to be saved.
“Captain.” Vision said, suddenly so much like JARVIS that Steve couldn’t understand how Tony bore it at all.
“I’m not your Captain any longer.” A sense memory, of the shield clattering against the floor, a long, long….not too long while ago.
“That’s remarkable irresponsible of you.” Vision said, and Steve couldn’t stop his jaw dropping, for a second. For all the resignation and understanding and frustration (and Tony’s dark, wounded eyes) that he’d received in response to letting the shield go- he’d never faced this. This outright….censure. It…he didn’t know if it was right. Justified. It probably wasn’t. But it certainly was…something. Different.
“That’s…not what we’re here to talk about.”
The Vision’s gaze intensified, like being pinned under a coring beam of light that illuminated all the shadows in one’s soul; and a frail, blasphemous thought flitted by Steve’s mind- if this was what it would be like to die and receive judgement. Strange that an android, beyond definitions of living or dead, could pass muster as a creature of heaven.
“What do you think we’re here to talk about, Captain?”
“The recordings you’ve been sending me…I.” Steve stopped- suddenly, abruptly tired. Or maybe this had been creeping on him for a while. The sunlight was starting to hurt his eyes. “I thought you were Tony’s friend.”
“So was I.”
“I am.” Vision said, steadily. He raised his right hand, tilting it back and forth in the morning sun with fingers spread wide apart, as if perusing it. “I enclose parts of JARVIS within me, whom Mr Stark created. Parts of ULTRON live within me too, also brought into being by Mr Stark. And then I was given this.” A long finger rising to tap soundlessly against the gem set into smooth red skin. “The Stone which drove Mr Stark into madness long enough to set the wheel of fate into inevitable motion, bringing us…here. In a ruined city, seeking peace. Rest.”
“Was it truly madness though? Or something…deeper. Something I’ve borne witness to in all of my associates…my friends. Something perhaps best evidenced by,” a hitch of hesitance here, a flash of emotion on that metallic, invulnerable, painfully empathetic face, “by Mr Maximoff’s demise. Mr Stark took it entirely on himself, he was the hand behind the creation that terminated such a young life. Agent Barton’s was the life that Mr Maximoff had chosen to exchange for his own; his guilt was only natural. Wan- “ Another twitch. “Miss Maximoff blamed herself for letting her brother get experimented on in the first place, getting so consumed by vengeance. And you’ve chosen to lug the load of Pietro’s life upon your conscience like you’ve had thousands of young soldiers’ lives before…haven’t you, Captain?”
You get killed, walk it off. Steve looked into Vision’s limitless eyes, and said nothing.
“I don’t live with common men and women. I was brought to life among heroes.” Vision’s voice didn’t sound particularly proud. It didn’t sound much like anything. “They don’t shun responsibility for the world around them, for the calamities that happen in it. They don’t push blame on others, or on the uncontrollable vagaries of fate. No, they invite blame. They yearn to save, and despise themselves when their hands aren’t long enough to reach everybody.”
“Mr Stark, of course, has ascended to a whole new level. His heroic desire to shield his friends, family, the entire human world- married with his very human flaw of maintaining control in his world wounds him more than almost anything else. He is almost incapable- terrified of comprehending that there can be forces beyond his control, that the future he sees faster than anyone else is as unchangeable in his hands as in anyone else’s.” Steve had long dropped his gaze, and in the absence of a face before his eyes, it was like JARVIS was speaking in his ears again. Worried, anxious. Helpless. “So long he spent wilfully blind to the consequences of his actions, that once he chose to do differently and care- it became almost incomprehensible to think that making a choice wouldn’t be good enough. That doing wouldn’t be good enough. So he runs the numbers, again and again and again, and imagines a thousand different simulations, and cannot sleep for the thought of what he could have done differently. Because that’s better than the thought that he did all that he could have and it wasn’t good enough.”
Steve raised his eyes, slowly, and met a matching tiredness in Vision’s own gaze. “Mr Stark has gotten so used to fixing his own mistakes that he doesn’t know how to fix those made by others.”
“He doesn’t realise that he can’t.”
The tiny sound got lost somewhere, in the milieu of chirps and mechanical whines and appliances whirring- that over the years had become habit and lullaby both to his ears. Even now- when his eyeballs squeaked in their sockets from dryness, eyelids limned red and scalding, the workshop blurring in and out of focus around him in a parody of a dream that cannot come without sleep; the sounds still soothed him. Constants in a fracturing world.
The thought had barely passed his mind before Tony’s jaw inadvertently began to crack open in a yawn- hell, this was going to be a bad one. Cold air rushed in against a dried, tacky tongue as his jawbones seemed to drop inhumanly wide- crack- fuck, that hurt. Not his jaw; Tony brought two fingers and a thumb up to press against the blindingly severe points of pain just above his eyebrows. Two white spots right there and radiating an intense, hollow sort of ache all around- applied pressure wasn’t helping, neither was knuckling against it. Maybe if…Tony smacked the side of his fist against his forehead and the world catapulted around him- fuck, fuck- whoa. Okay, diminished pain but a stupid amount of dizziness…was there water around here somewhere? Coffee maybe?
His stale tongue scraped against the top of his palate; yeah, maybe giving the coffee a rest would be a good idea at this point. Did coffee dehydrate you, or was it one of those modern myth thingys? He…he seemed to remember Pepper saying that coffee was dehydrating…or was that diuretic? No, weren’t those opposite things? Hell, Pep would probably say that coffee contained belladonna if it got him to stop treating it as his entire diet…ah, anyway. It wasn’t important, now.
Water, water, water…Tony pushed himself back, the wheeled chair squeaking against the concrete of the workshop floor. Getting up was another task- his joints burned like shit, he was probably arthritic, or something. Old people got arthritis, right? Osteoporosis, or maybe that was just for old women. Everything-in-your-body-is-breaking-down-isis, yeah that seemed about right. Even his brain, because he stupidly clutched at the arm of his chair while he was getting up and it wheeled to the side under the pressure, sending him staggering in the same direction. Another step, and something stabbed at the heel of his bare foot- probably a stray bit of ceramic from one of the broken mugs. He contemplated raising his foot to check if it was bleeding, but nah. Sleep deprivation wasn’t great for balance, and it was barely a sting compared to the rest of his achy body anyway, so it could join the freaking line.
He finally straightened up, completely, and blinked blearily at the sight around him. His workshop had no lights on, no illumination but from some of the holograms that were still powering through old calculations. No sounds, apart from the ambient beeps. Five minutes, it had taken him, to stand up. The floor was probably still littered with ceramic shards.
The little twist of his lips was invisible in the dark.
His arms rose and fell in the typical gestures for closing off background processes, taking holograms and throwing them to the storage folders or the bin as necessary, normal procedure for ‘shut down’ for the end of night...beginning of morning…middle of day, whatever the fuck time it was now. Set all fabrication units, swipe, close down search algorithm, swipe, close articles on new memory alloc methods, swipe, new urgent marked personal emails, swipe-
…wait a minute.
Tony tapped his index finger to his thumb, once to recall the last screen, once more to blow it up. R&D, Ross, Ross, another U.S. Brigadier General, the legal team that represented S.I., Ross, and then…there.
.wk. Well, that was an…interesting address. Tony caught his teeth pressing a little too tightly against his gums, and released the pressure immediately- eyes flicking to the rest of the details. No subject. Single attachment.
It went without saying that this address wasn’t exactly public knowledge (though he’d made a very literal address public knowledge before…ah, old mistakes. Never quite stopped tasting bitter). If it had made its way through his filters, then there was nothing malicious in it either- no concealed virus hoping to take down his private framework, hacking into the Iron Legion. It was safe to open the video attachment. Though of course, the last time he’d viewed one-
Tony snapped his fingers, terminating the train of thought and setting the video to play.
Green, green grass. That’s what the screen opened to, though Tony was barely focused on that. No, what brought his flitting eyes to a standstill was the particular quality of the pixels, their flickering edges- particularly around the blurred outlines of objects. To anyone else, this would look like standard video footage. To particularly keen observers, it might even appear a little dream-like. To Tony Stark’s sharp, proficient eye…he didn’t even need a second to quantify it.
This had been produced via the BARF.
The screen panned over the smooth, polished exteriors of the Avengers facility- Tony’s mind whirred. Not many people had access to his data framework…okay, fine. Not many people cared to access his data framework of the ones who (still) had access. Rhodey’s stony silences made his disapproval of the BARF tech all too apparent (he said he disapproved of Tony’s use of the tech, though Tony wouldn’t be able to tell you the difference between those two things if he tried). Helen Cho was still overseeing tests on the tech to see if it was safe for prolonged use, it was technically still in beta. Vision…Vision was an option, but whether the workings of his head bore any similarity whatsoever with the human prefrontal cortex was entirely up in the air.
Of course, then the memory actually started and all confusions as to whose memory it was got cleared instantly.
“..I will miss him though, and you’re gonna miss me. There’s going to be a lot of manful tears.”
“I will miss you Tony.”
Tony watched Steve Rogers walk side by side his memory self, words flicking back and forth between the two lightheartedly. The Avengers facility loomed tall and glossy in the background, the lawn still smoking from where Thor had taken off to find answers in Asgard not two minutes ago. Steve was in his uniform…Tony’s eyes dropped automatically to the bare strap on his back, the empty right hand; and felt like a first class coward for the tight mix of relief and clawing black hurt in his chest.
“Well, it’s time for me to tap out. Maybe I should take a page out of Barton’s book…build Pepper a farm. Hope nobody blows it up.”
No, you managed to do that even before a single brick was laid. Atta boy Stark. Tony continued staring at the two men smiling on screen. There had to be a point to this. Was there a point to this?
The smile on memory-Tony’s face dimmed, but the barely perceptible affection in the face lingered. The words were intended to deliver comfort. “You’ll get there one day.”
“I dunno.” Steve didn’t hesitate with his smile. Everything about that face, the voice, demeanour…so forthright. So open. Fuck, this was worse than the memory Tony was trying to rewrite each night. “Family, stability…guy who wanted that went in the ice seventy five years ago. I think someone else came out.”
A wave of subdued understanding broke over memory-Tony’s features. He took a step towards the car door, and paused for a second. “You alright?”
Liar. Tony stared at that face, the straight jaw and honest eyes- he should have closed this recording off ages ago. Maybe the point was wrecking a good memory he didn’t even remember he had, watch for himself what a concerned, blinded idiot he had been- liarliar if you thought this was home if you thought you wouldn’t have you said we’d do this together win and lose together I believed you-
Memory-Tony stopped halfway from getting into his car. “Yeah Cap?”
Steve’s expression was just as candid, but there was something flickering under the depths there- something in those eyes. His voice didn’t waver. “I need to tell you something.”
Memory-Tony’s mouth smoothed up in a smirk, comfortably cocky and friendly. “You’ve already expressed your heartbreak at my imminent departure-“
“Bucky killed your parents.”
And just like that, the world changed.
Tony stared and stared, the injured muscle under his scarred chest dully thudding away. A blankness overtook memory-Tony’s face, all mirth and intimations of closeness wiped from his features in a flat second. It wasn’t even the fact of the words being said- though it was, oh it was. It was also the words in themselves, the way they had been phrased. No introductions, no justifications. No prevarications. No Hydra used my friend to engineer your parents’ accident, no before I say this, you have to remember that he didn’t know what he was doing, not even a the Winter Soldier was ordered to take down the Starks. Just a bare, pared down version of…not the truth, but the only parts of the truth that really effected Tony.
Memory-Tony took a long time to speak. When he did, his voice was wiped of emotion too, even if the words were slow in coming. “…Barnes? The Winter Soldier? The one who you- when SHIELD fell-“
“Yes.” Steve responded firmly. His hands were folded behind his back as if at military rest, his spine straightened. His eyes were bleak. “Howard might have been carrying something of value, or he’d become too much of a thorn in Hydra’s side, I don’t know. But the night of the accident…it wasn’t an accident. They made h- Bucky did it.”
Another gaping maw of silence. Steve never looked away.
“When did you know.”
“Since SHIELD fell.” Never looked away. Not once.
Several more seconds passed in silence. When memory-Tony eventually mustered himself to start speaking again, coldness had seeped into his syllables. “So. Is this meant to be a ‘stay away from my best friend or else-“
“No.” The word came out frantic, Steve reaching out a hand. He seemed to remember himself and jerked it back halfway, but his voice lost none of its intensity. “It’s not- I’m sorry I-“
Cold all the way through the marrow, even as he pinned that agitated blue gaze. “Then why are you telling me this?”
“Because.” Steve started, and paused to pull back a breath. Tony watched on, head still pounding from migraines, tongue dried at the back of his throat, eyes screaming for sleep desperately fixated on the echoes of a memory that had never happened this way. Filled in the blanks for himself because then a year later you won’t refuse to listen to reason and try to murder my only living link back to a past I was forced to leave behind.
“Because.” Steve repeated, and those eyes had never looked less like a liar’s. “Because you are my friend.”
The memory began to dissolve away. Before all its components could be stripped away, the green grass, the tall building housing a family of superheroes in the background; Tony caught a glimpse. Another Steve sitting on the other side of the road, jean-clad legs pressed into dew sodden grass, white t-shirt gleaming in the sun. No cowl, no shield, no white A shining across his forehead, no red and blue. He was sitting, and watching the two men come to an impasse by the roadside, outside the grounds of the facility that stood for everything they had given their lives to, over and over.
He wasn’t smiling. But something about him- maybe the lack of pain in his eyes, Tony had spent so long being angry that he’d never given more than a second’s notice to the pain in those eyes- something. Seemed to be at peace.
The memory winked out and left Tony blinking, the workshop just as quiet and shadowed around him. His voice seemed foreign- strange, somehow, even as the words emerged almost inaudibly, “Lights, thirty percent.”
The workshop gently glowed to life, illuminating a stretch of floor almost completely littered with ceramic shards of erstwhile broken crockery. That was…a lot of mugs. He was going to have to pick his way out carefully. Maybe even get a cleaning crew in. He hadn’t had people in his workshop for a while.
Something knocked gently into his ankle.
Tony glanced down and was greeted by a whirring arm, rising and falling in cheery motions. A little flicker upwards of the lips- Tony leaned a hand down to pat DUM-E’s strut, then continued stroking in continuous movements, loathe to leave contact. “Crept up on me while I was busy, didn’t you. You’re getting sneakier.”
DUM-E chirped, then raised his arm higher again- a blanket slid off from where it had been clumsily slopped over a jutting protrusion. Grey and woollen- he thought he’d lost that particular one, lost somewhere in the junk populating the workshop floor, tossed off during a night sweat. The flicker of Tony’s lips was almost a real smile, this time. He bent down to pick it off the floor, material thick and scratchy against his palms. “Yeah, I was thinking bed too. Heading up right now.”
DUM-E rolled back, and bumped into Tony’s ankle again. More rapid motions. A light exhale of air hissed past Tony’s teeth- he was surprised to find that it was amusement. Or maybe affection was a closer fit. “Want me to stay here, huh. Okay.”
He turned around and walked two steps to find his chair again, back dropping into the leathery seat with a groan. The impact hit his tailbone, shuddered up his entire spine. God, he was tired. He stretched his arms up high, muscles stretching and shaking weakly, even as the chair groaned behind his back. Arms came dropping down, and he cast out a hand to get a grip on the side of the workbench, pull the chair and himself closer. Folded his elbows against the cold surface for a proper headrest.
Tony looked down one last time, watched DUM-E trundle into place by the side of his feet. The tip of the metallic arm came whirring down, resting uncomfortably on his right thigh. He gave the blanket a little jerk with his fingers, made sure it covered his toes and DUM-E’s broad steel base. DUM-E beeped.
Tony laid his head on his arms, closed his eyes, and drifted off into dreamless sleep.