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The Meaningless and All That's True

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No one had ever told him that insomnia was one of the side effects of dying, Steve thought irritably as he climbed out of bed. It wasn't yet three a.m., but he already knew he was done trying to sleep for the night. Tonight, like last night, and the night before, was a lost cause.

It was raining, a steady downpour he could hear hitting the windows facing west. He didn't bother turning any lights on as he made his way through the apartment. He knew this place well, even in the dark. There were times when he even pretended that he might be able to stay here for good, that Sharon would return from her leave of absence, and they would be able to pick up where they had left off.

But those were dreams, and he had no business indulging in them. The fact that they occurred to him during the waking hours and not in his sleep made them no less ephemeral, no less unattainable. Sharon had left because she needed to work through some things, because she still looked at him and saw the man she had been forced to kill, because SHIELD wanted to make sure her head was screwed on straight before they permitted her to return to active duty, and she couldn't do that while she was living with Steve. So she had left, while graciously allowing him to stay. And because he had nowhere else to go, Steve rattled around this empty apartment by himself, and suffered night after night of sleeplessness.

He walked into the kitchen and poured himself a glass of water. He stood at the sink and drank it all, focusing on the coolness of the water and the swallowing motion of his throat. It helped sometimes to root himself in the present with physical sensations. Especially on nights like this, when being alive still seemed a little too surreal.

The rain was tapering off. He rinsed his glass and put it in the dishwasher, then left the kitchen. The drink had helped, but it still felt like his body was a poor fit. He needed fresh air.

He slipped on some shoes, grabbed his keys, then as an afterthought, put on his jacket.

Since his return he had often come out onto the roof. There was something oddly soothing about standing out here, surrounded by the noise and bustle of the city and yet isolated from it at the same time.

Tonight, he wasn't alone out here.

His very first thought was one of annoyance, at having what he had almost come to think of as his private getaway intruded upon by a stranger. But in the next instant, irritation gave way to worry, because something was not right here.

The man was huddled at the base of the steps, his knees drawn up to his chest. He was wearing a suit that might have started out as any color, but now, soaking wet, it looked black. He did not look up as Steve cautiously approached, but continued to simply sit there, his arms wrapped about his body and his head tilted so one cheek rested on the concrete of the stairs.

Steve took another step forward, and then he froze. There was something horribly familiar about the man sitting there…

"Tony?"

The man did not look up, but that did not matter. Steve had positively identified him now. All caution lost, he hurried forward. "Tony?" He was more confused than worried. "What are you doing here?"

Tony did not react at all. Nor did he look up or respond in any way. It was as though he hadn't even heard Steve.

A quick look around ascertained that there was no one else on the roof. He had no idea how Tony had gotten up here, and there was no sign of the armor. Anyone could be watching, but right now his first priority was getting Tony to safety.

He hunkered down next to the stairs, one hand resting on the wet concrete. "Tony? Are you all right?"

Tony still did not reply, but Steve was close enough now that he could see the answer to his question. Tony was very obviously not okay. He was deathly pale and shivering. Water dripped from his hair and was puddled on the ground around him.

It was the look in his eyes that frightened Steve the most, though. Tony hadn't responded because he clearly wasn't seeing him or the rooftop right now. His gaze was turned inward, his eyes glazed with a terrible desolation that was somehow worse than anything else, because there were a hundred things that Steve could think of that might do this to Tony, and not a damn one of those things was welcome right now.

He raised a hand and waved it in front of Tony's eyes. "Tony? You okay?"

Tony startled – and then he flinched. Dull terror spread across his face, and he drew back, almost like he expected to be struck.

Steve felt oddly guilty to see that. "Easy there, Avenger." His first instinct was to lay a reassuring hand on Tony's shoulder, but he had the distinct impression that this would be a very bad idea, so he lowered his hand back to his side. "Everything's going to be all right."

Slowly Tony raised his eyes and looked at him. For an awful moment Steve thought he was going to cry, so intense was the grief on his face. "Steve?" His voice was hoarse, as though he had recently been shouting – or worse.

"It's me," Steve said. "Stand down, Tony. It's all right. Whatever happened, it's going to be all right."

Tony shook his head, a terrible, sad smile playing at his mouth. "No. It's not." The words were barely above a whisper. "It can't."

"Why?" Steve asked. He started to reach out, unable to help himself, and then froze as Tony stiffened as though steeling himself for a blow. "What's happened? Tell me."

Soaked to the skin and shivering, his eyes dark with horror, Tony looked at him and said, "I remember."

"Remember what?" Steve asked, even as he dreaded the answer.

"Everything," Tony whispered.

****

One Week Ago

 

Someone had once said, You know, it takes a certain type of villain to accost one of us in broad daylight. Tony couldn't quite remember who had said it, although when he thought about it, he envisioned the library in the mansion, so there was a better than even chance that he was the source of that quote.

What he did remember, perfectly clearly, was the response: Yeah, a batshit crazy one.

That little gem had come from Clint.

But it was true. And never more so than when a known associate of Doctor Doom (the accent was a dead giveaway) walked right up to you in a hotel lobby and actually put his hand on your arm before saying, "I wonder if I could have a word with you, Mr. Stark. In private."

Which was just wonderful. Because the only thing better than a batshit crazy villain was a batshit crazy villain who also had diplomatic immunity.

"Why don't you call my office?" he said, icily polite. "I'm sure my secretary can schedule you an appointment." Assuming he had a secretary again, that was.

The hand on his arm tightened just a tiny bit. "Come now, Mr. Stark. There is no need to involve other people – other innocent people – in this matter."

There was just enough stress on the word innocent to make his meaning abundantly clear, and Tony stiffened. "What do you want?"

"I want nothing," the man said. "I am merely the messenger." He dropped his hand and smiled, putting on a good show for the people in the lobby who walked past; they were starting to attract a few curious stares. "My lord can tell you more. But I have been instructed to tell you that if you do not come with me now, my colleague currently standing across the street will detonate a device he placed under the front desk of this fine hotel an hour ago."

"Killing me means depriving Doom of something he wants," Tony said, feigning a light-heartedness he definitely did not feel. "I'm kind of tempted to just say no anyway."

"Killing you will still achieve my lord's goal," the man said calmly. "And I am prepared to die with you if I must." He made a gesture that encompassed the entire reception area. "But would you really allow all these innocent people to die, just because you wish to spite one man?"

Tony looked around the lobby, seeing the businessmen with their briefcases, the staff moving around unobtrusively, the bicycle courier with his packet of important papers. None of these people knew they were standing next to a bomb. None of them had done anything wrong except pick the wrong hotel to walk into.

"Fine," he said curtly. "Where are we going?"

"A wise decision," said the man. "There is a car waiting outside that will take us to the Latverian Embassy. I must ask that you do not call attention to yourself, Mr. Stark, or try anything foolish. My colleague will remain in place until we reach the embassy and I give him the all clear. Do you understand all this?"

"Perfectly," Tony said through gritted teeth.

"Very good," said the man. "Before we go, may I have your watch, please?"

"Does Doom know his people are stooping to petty theft?" Tony snapped. He started to reach for the watch, using his anger as a cover to press the button on the side that would summon the armor—

--but before he could close his hand over the watch, the man's fingers were there, grabbing hold of his and preventing him from touching it. "Please" the man said. "Allow me."

There was nothing he could do except stand still and let the man take the watch off his wrist. "I don't know how well Doom pays his people, but I'm betting that costs more than what you make in a year. So you better handle it carefully."

The man smiled thinly as he pocketed the watch. "No harm will come to it. Or to you, Mr. Stark."

Tony snorted. "Yeah, is there a bridge you wanted to sell me, too?"

"I can assure you," the man said, "my lord does not wish to harm you. In fact, he does not wish to take anything from you." His gaze dropped to Tony's chest.

Involuntarily Tony's hand twitched upward, although he managed to stop the movement before it became a full-blown reach. He really didn't want to know how Victor von Doom had found out about the RT device in his chest, although he sure as hell hoped that Doom (and everyone else in the supervillain community) didn't know just how critical that little circle of light was. It was bad enough walking around with a glowing advertisement to his own vulnerability planted squarely in his chest. But if someone of Doom's status ever found out that killing the great Tony Stark would be as simple as removing that device… That didn't even bear thinking about.

The man standing beside him offered him another small smile, one that said he knew exactly what Tony was thinking. "No, Mr. Stark," he said. "I can promise you, my lord does not plan to take anything from you. He only wishes to give you something."

****

The car waiting outside the hotel took them to the Latverian Embassy. And despite the rather humiliating circumstances of his abduction, Tony had to admit that he was just curious enough that he was willing to see this through – wherever it might take him.

His curiosity changed to annoyance, however, when they did not actually enter the embassy, but merely changed cars. "No," Tony said as he stood beside the car he had just exited. "I'm done playing 007 here. Tell me what this is about."

Doom's man had dropped the friendly façade. He had also been joined by two of his colleagues. "Did you really think the rightful ruler of Latveria would be found here?" he said. He gestured to the waiting car. "Please, Mr. Stark. Just come quietly with us. You will save yourself a lot of pain if you do."

"Yeah, well, see, that's the thing," Tony said. "I have a problem with people telling me what to do."

"I am sorry to hear that," the man said. "Although not half as sorry as you will be, I think."

The sting on the back of his neck happened so fast there was no time to pull away. Instinctively he clapped one hand to his neck and started to turn around. Before he even made it halfway, his vision started to blur and his limbs began to feel heavy.

"Son of a…" His knees gave out and he sank.

Thick arms caught him. He heard a car door open. From very far away, someone said, "Call the airfield. Tell them we're on our way."

Then he was gone.

****

Waking up was not pretty. His head was pounding, his mouth and throat were painfully dry, and he was pretty sure he was strapped standing up to what felt like a hard metal table.

"He's awake," someone said in a thick Latverian accent.

Slowly Tony opened his eyes. He appeared to be in a lab – which was an unpleasant revelation, but not exactly a surprise, given who he was dealing with. There were two men standing nearby, each of them monitoring some equipment he couldn't see due to the bank of computer monitors standing between them and his current location.

And yep, he was strapped down, all right. The table beneath him was tilted so that he was nearly vertical, leaning back at just a slight angle. Thick leather straps encircled his wrists, ankles, and chest. More worrying, though, was the slim metal loop that crossed his forehead. That was the kind of thing that did not bode well.

Doom himself showed up pretty quickly, which was another bad sign. It meant they were getting right down to business. Still, Tony did his best to act nonchalant. "You know, a simple, 'Would you like to come to Latveria and see my shiny new lab?' would have worked, too."

The polished mask gave nothing away. "Unfortunately for you, Stark, this is not as simple as inviting someone to a dinner party."

"Yeah, I'm starting to get that," Tony said. He tried to tug at the strap securing his right wrist without making it obvious. "Also, your guy said something about not harming me?"

"That is correct," Doom said. Even just standing there, his cloak rippled a little in an unseen wind. Maybe it was some kind of electrical field, or a minor magic spell. Whatever was responsible, that nobly rippling cloak was definitely a sign of Doom's vanity – and his crazy. "I have not brought you here to harm you."

"Okay, well, I'm here to tell you that you're not off to a great start," Tony said. "No offense."

"You will cease your complaining at once. Your physical well-being is not the concern of Doom," Doom said. "This is merely a necessity for the procedure."

"Yeah, about that," Tony said, and tugged harder at the strap around his wrist. In spite of the casual banter, he was starting to feel a little bit freaked out about what was happening here, and he didn't really care if anyone saw him do it that time.

"Recently you traveled to the Nine Realms," Doom said.

"Um," Tony said, wondering just how the hell Doom knew that.

"Regrettably, you saved them," Doom continued. His hands were clasped behind his back; his cloak continued that mild rippling motion. "That, however, is not why you are here. Doom does not care about the Nine Realms. Doom cares that you have reforged your partnership with the Avengers."

Tony swallowed hard. "Okay," he said. "I was with you right up until there."

The eyes behind the steel mask did not even blink. "Doom cannot allow this. No, the Avengers must remain fractured, as you were before." A small smile crept into his voice, all the worse for being unseen. "Your pathetic little civil war was most amusing while it lasted. Rarely has Doom enjoyed such an opportunity; even Richards was too preoccupied to keep watch over me." He paused. "But then, you do not remember any of this."

Doom paced toward some equipment off to Tony's left that he could barely see; the metal band about his forehead wouldn't let him turn his head enough to really get a good look at it. "You used a most interesting tactic to defeat Osborn. If someone wants something you possess, you must ensure that they cannot have it!" He crushed one hand into a fist and raised it high, and Tony suddenly remembered hearing that Doom and Osborn had had a bit of a falling out over what had happened in Oklahoma.

"But then you also ensured that you cannot have it," Doom continued. "Pah! Such foolishness, Stark." He began to tap away at a keyboard Tony couldn't see. "This is a situation that Doom cannot allow to persist."

Oh God. Tony stared at him. He suddenly had a very bad feeling about this.

One of the lab techs stepped forward. He appeared to be holding a gun, but this gun had never come from any weapons manufacturer out there – including Stark Industries. Nonetheless, Tony recognized it with a sinking heart. He had read Sharon Carter's report, and he had seen the photographs. He knew exactly what he was looking at.

He only wishes to give you something.

"This is really not a good idea," Tony said. His palms were slick with sweat and his heart was racing.

"Doom does not care what you think," Doom said. "My devices do not fail. They worked on the great Captain America, taking him through time, sending him back into his own past self. They will work on you." The mask made it impossible to see his face, but he was definitely gloating now, smug as hell in his moment of triumph. "Now we shall see if you remain an Avenger."

"I'm really not," Tony said hastily. "This isn't—"

The lab tech shot him.

It wasn't like being shot with a real bullet. There was pain, but not as much as he had expected. The real pain came a split second later, as the metal band about his head whined into life. Wildfire poured through his head, worse than any electrical shock, worse than anything Tony had ever felt in his life.

He could not remain conscious under such an onslaught. Awareness began to splinter, to fall apart.

Doom's voice followed him into the black. "Remember, Stark. Remember what you did."

Then there was nothing.

*************

It's dark. That's the first thing he notices.

The second is that he's in the armor. He's sitting in a chair, staring down at the helmet on his lap.

"They're not coming," he says.

Only…

Only he doesn't say it. He can't say it. He can't, because he isn't in control of this body. This is himself, this is Tony Stark, but this is not his body, not now.

This is his past.

Understanding sweeps over him in a rush of cold horror. Like Steve before him, he's become unmoored in time, adrift in his own history. He has been reduced to nothing but pure consciousness, a spark of awareness in a body that has no clue he is even here.

Remember, Stark. Remember what you did.

Doom's parting words to him.

"Approaching." The armor's voice is flat and devoid of human emotion. There are times in the past – times he can remember – when he wished he could be like that, unencumbered of the burdens of emotions and memory. He knows now though, what that feels like.

He knows he was a fool for ever wanting it.

Tony – the real Tony Stark, the one who is physically here and present – stands up and puts on the helmet.

He is helpless to stop it. Where Tony goes, he goes. Not with any conscious volition, but because this is how it happens. Because this is what happened on this day, however many months ago it was, wherever it was.

This is what happened, and now he must bear witness to it.

The Illuminati gather together, some of them with more hostility than others. Charles Xavier is missing, and there is some discussion about his absence.

He read the report Steve filed with SHIELD after his miraculous return, probably more times than was healthy for him. He remembers the way Steve described being trapped in the past. Like I was just a passenger in my own body. Steve had believed he could take control of his former self, and change the way the past played out. In the end, though, Steve had decided against that course of action, and chosen to remain passive.

But he is not Steve, and he is desperate.

He can't do this. He knows he can't. There's a certain, terrible…comfort…that comes from not being able to remember what happened during the Civil War that tore the superheroes apart. It's not that he shouldn't be held accountable for what he did, because he must, he knows he must. It's that he knows he would never be able to look anyone in the eye again, if he should ever remember.

It terrifies him to think of what will happen to him now. He's not really getting the memories back – they are gone forever and nothing can change that. Instead he's creating new memories, seeing the past, but as something new. Reliving his own history, but experiencing it for the first time.

And now he will forever remember.

So he tries to make it stop. He envisions his brain as an enormous control room. There has to be a central console somewhere. If he can just…step up…and assume control…

But nothing happens. The Tony Stark currently standing in this room has no clue that he is sharing his body with another version of himself – an older, infinitely sadder, and definitely no wiser version. The armor, even with all its redundancies and scanners, does not recognize him as a mind control threat or even a blip on the neural interface.

He is powerless.

No, no, no. Please. I can't do this. I can't.

"I know we agreed not to do this anymore, but something larger than any issues we have is on the horizon," says the Tony Stark in the armor. The Tony Stark who claims to be a futurist, but who is about to walk straight into a civil war and get the man he loves killed. "And if I didn't come to you with it, I would not be able to live with myself."

Tony places a folder on the table for all the Illuminati to see. "This is an early draft of a bill that will hit the floor of the United States Congress in a month or two. It was slipped to me under the table. It's the Super Hero Registration Act."

There is nothing he can do as the meeting plays out the way it did once before. He listens to his impassioned plea to the men he calls friends and allies – and sees how it falls on deaf ears. Only Reed listens, but that's because Reed already did the math and made his decision. None of the others are swayed. One by one they leave, until only Reed is left.

"Well, I have to go home and fight with my wife about this for the rest of my life," says Reed. And he isn't joking. That's the worst part. He already knows he's going to lose Sue, because he did that math too – and that particular equation only has one answer. "It was fun while it lasted."

Then he too is gone.

Alone in that echoing room, Tony sits there in his chair, clutching the folder containing the draft of the law that is about to tear his life apart. The heavy weight of failure bows his head. He stares blankly at the floor.

"It really was," he says softly.

White light washes over the room. Sight is obliterated in that brilliance. He knows he won't be so lucky, but he hopes and prays that when he is able to see again, he'll find himself back in Doom's lab.

Please, he thinks. Please…

****

When the white light recedes, when he can see again, he is standing in front of an enormous fire. The suit's sensors inform him of the tremendous heat that rolls into the night. There is also a display indicating how many toxins are being released into the atmosphere as the petrochemical plant burns to the ground.

Tony stands in front of the flames, facing Steve. The firelight turns Steve's skin golden and is reflected in his eyes. He looks tired but determined. He holds his head high.

The sight of Steve standing opposite him, instead of alongside him, is like a kick in the stomach. Even though he is nothing but pure consciousness, he feels almost physically ill; for a moment he wonders if this body will pick up on the sensation. Maybe it will be enough to make the actual Tony pause, maybe whatever is about to happen won't happen, maybe he can change it…

"Cap, please," says Tony, and nothing has changed, of course it hasn't, because he can't change it, he can only go along for the ride as the past unfurls before him exactly as it happened once before. "I know you're angry. I know it's an enormous change from the way we've always worked, but we aren't living in nineteen forty-five anymore. The public doesn't want masks and secret identities. They want to feel safe when we're around, and there's no other way to win back their respect."

Steve does not respond. He just stands there, his silent presence saying eloquently his belief on this matter.

Even though this is all new to him, he already knows how this is going to go down. He is going to try (for the first time? one more time?) to persuade Steve to join him. And it isn't going to work. Someone will interrupt, or attack, or do something stupid, and he will lose this chance to explain himself. Steve will turn away and the war will carry on.

"You've known me half my adult life, Cap," Tony continues. The faceplate is up, and he's speaking so very earnestly. Truthfully. "You know I wouldn't do this unless I believed in it with all my heart. We don't want to fight you. Just give me the chance to tell you our plans for my twenty-first century overhaul."

Steve actually seems to consider it. His eyes narrow. He glances over his shoulder, to where his allies all stand watching and waiting, ready to take their cues from him.

Tony holds his hand out. And unseen and unheard, he prays: Please, Steve. Please.

The entire world seems to be holding its breath. Then Steve extends his hand, and Tony clasps it gratefully.

"You've got five minutes," Steve says.

"Five minutes is all I need," Tony says.

Cautious hope fills him. Is this it? Could it really be this simple? Maybe he has actually managed to change things. Maybe he did hear himself after all.

Then Tony looks down – and all the hope he just nurtured dies a swift death. "What the hell?"

The device is small and blue, and utterly unfamiliar to him. It lights up an instant later, overriding the suit and scrambling all the systems. It hurts like hell, but far worse than the physical pain is the sickening knowledge that it was Steve who betrayed him, it was Steve who stopped him from explaining, it was Steve who turned on him.

Tony reels backward, the suit out of his control. He's helpless as Steve slings the shield at his unprotected face. Blood flies, and pain jolts through him. This is not one of their sparring matches. This is the real thing, and Steve is not holding back.

He falls to his back and lies there unmoving. Battle rages all around him. Spider-Man leaps to his defense, but he barely notices.

Why wouldn't you listen? he thinks desolately as the white light rises up to claim him…

****

It's not fire this time, not outside, but a large room. A cafeteria. He's sitting at a table, Pepper seated in the chair across from him. There are dark circles beneath her eyes that not even her expert hand at makeup can cover completely.

Tony is in a suit, tie properly knotted, shirt crisply pressed. It's made of cloth, not metal, but it's still armor. He's starting to fall apart, but it's not yet to the point where other people can see. It's all still internal, where only an unintentional extra consciousness can tell.

At first he doesn't know what this is. Pepper is telling a story, something about a boxing club. He doesn't know why she's talking about boxers, or where they are, or why they are even here. He tries to look around, but the younger Tony's eyes are fixed on the table now, deliberately not looking at Pepper as she finishes her story. "Then Happy, he looks at me and I'll never forget what he said then. Not until the day I die. He said, 'Pep, I don' never wanna end up like Charlie McCoyle.'"

Horrified realization washes over him. A memory he's previously known only as a cold hard fact, suddenly confronted with the emotion of the actual event itself.

This is a hospital. And Pepper has just asked him to end Happy's life.

"No," Tony whispers.

"Please, Tony," she says. Her hand is covering his; the diamond on her ring finger catches the light and sparkles. "I'm not asking you to do anything. You just have to think it, right?"

He can't believe she's actually asking him this.

"It's still murder," Tony says dully.

"No," Pepper replies. "It would just be an equipment malfunction. A glitch in the respirator. One of those horrible, awful things that just…happens from time to time." She looks him in the eye. "But in Happy's case…a blessing. No one would ever know. Not even me. Not for sure."

"But I would," Tony says.

Without another word, Pepper pays for their meal and leaves. There is only one set of dishes on the table, though; apparently all Tony could stomach was a cup of coffee.

He can't blame her for leaving.

The hell of it is, he knows what happens next. He knows he does it. He just doesn't know when. He hopes he doesn't have to find out. It's enough to know that he did it.

The light is rising all around him, and all he can think is, Please don't make me relive it…

****

When the white light releases him next, he finds himself in the ruins of the mansion. He's facing Steve across a wooden table. He has no idea what room this used to be, but there is debris everywhere. There is also a picture hanging on the wall of the original Avengers.

"You don't like the Registration Act, Steve?" Tony says. He's in the suit, the faceplate up. Steve is in full costume, his shield strapped to his back. "Do you have any idea what the alternatives are? I do. I saw the plans, when I was Secretary of Defense."

And oh God. He did. He remembers now. That was one thing he didn't forget. He remembers those terrible government plans hatched in secret, given snappy little names and discussed in committee. Ideas that chilled his blood and kept him awake at night.

What he doesn't remember is why he never told anyone. Why he never told Steve. Why he never tried to stop it even back then, when there was maybe still a chance at stopping it, when there was still hope for them all.

"Have you ever heard of Project Wideawake?" Tony asks. "Imagine a sky full of sentinels hunting us down. Forcibly implanted inhibitor circuits in our brains, taking away our powers. Genetic testing of the entire population so any potential superhumans are under government control before they're even born."

"Never happen," Steve says with complete confidence. If he's shaken by these revelations, he does a good job of hiding it. "We'd fight it. We'd stop it."

Tony leans in. "What do you think I'm trying to do?" he shouts.

Steve blinks, somewhat taken aback.

Tony takes a deep breath, trying to get himself back under control. "From day one, I've been trying to keep this from getting as bad as I know it can be. And from day one, you've been fighting me. Now it's come to this. Bill dead. Old friends at each other's throats. Families torn apart."

It's no use. He's not getting any calmer. He's only getting more worked up, his breath coming in shorter intervals, tears stinging his eyes. His hands would be shaking if he weren't in the suit. "I know terrible things have happened, and I hate it. I hate that we're in this pattern of mutually assured destruction – you escalate, I escalate.

"Tell me, Steve!" Tony pleads. "Tell me what I can do!" He's crying now, unable to hold the tears back any longer. "What can I do to make it stop?"

It's a heartfelt plea, but that doesn't matter. There is no use hoping this conversation will end well. He already knows it won't. Of course it won't. Words mean nothing, and tears even less. They don't resolve anything here today.

He wants to scream, to throw himself at the barriers of his own mind until he breaks through and takes control of his body. If only he could speak! The past can be changed, he knows it can. All he needs is one chance.

Please, just one chance.

"Join me," Steve says. "Denounce the act and help me fight it."

Tony rejects that plan, as of course he would. Because he might lament that Steve is stubborn and digs his heels in, but he is guilty of the exact same sin. "I can't. Even if I didn't believe in it – which I do – it's not about me. Losing me wouldn't stop it. Reed or Hank or someone would take over." He extends a hand, a mirror image of the way he reached out in a peace offering once before, on the night of the fire, that night when Steve betrayed his trust. "But the resistance is all about you. You can put an end to this. Join me, Cap. Help me change things from within."

But already it's too late. Already he's Cap, not Steve. Tony is holding his hand out, but there is no bridging the distance between them.

Steve knows it, too. "Within what?" he says. "A cell? Because whether or not you can see the bars, that's where I'd be. Where we'd all be."

Tony slams his armored fist down on the table, hard enough to splinter wood. "Damn you!"

It's a childish display. And it does nothing to help the situation. Steve turns his back. "We're not going to solve anything here. I should go."

This is their last chance. After this, there will be no more talking, no more secret meetings. In desperation, Tony reaches out, grabs hold of Steve's shoulder. It's a risky move, but he's willing to take that chance. Anything to keep Steve here, to hold onto that slim thread of hope. "No. We're not done."

Grabbing Steve like that turns out to be a terrible mistake. Steve whirls around, his eyes blazing. "Get your hand off!"

There is genuine violence in Steve's eyes now. And yes. All right. It was always going to come down to this, wasn't it?

Tony doesn't even have to speak the command aloud. He just thinks it, and the armor falls away, clattering to the floor.

And inside his own head, he screams at his younger self to stop, please stop, not this, no, this is not the way.

"All right," Steve says. He tosses the shield to one side. It clanks to the ground. "Let's go."

It's not an evenly matched fight. How can it be? Yet Steve holds back, even though he doesn't have to – and probably shouldn't. Steve could end it all here and now, and it tears him apart to know that Steve must have made the conscious choice not to do so. That a part of Steve must have still hoped, even at this terribly late hour, even when all the evidence was against it, that there was still a tiny chance of salvaging the situation.

It ends with both of them rising to their feet and staring at each other. Steve looks away first. "We should have talked sooner."

Tony looks down, his knees wanting to buckle beneath the weight of the sorrow that overwhelms him then. "Yeah," he whispers. He knows, even this younger self, that this is the last time he will get to talk to Steve without their armies at their backs. This was their one and only chance – and it is gone forever.

He suits up. Steve picks up his shield.

They walk out of the ruins of the mansion and into the sunset, each going a separate direction.

The white light rises up, and he throws himself into it wholly, not caring where he ends up next. Anywhere but here, anywhere but having to see the way Steve's head hangs low as he trudges away…

****

Fire again, and for a horrible second he thinks he is going to have to relive Steve's betrayal again. But this fire is not contained to a plant, but rages all around him, in the city itself. These flames are the result of battle.

Tony is talking, and he doesn't know how much time has passed since their meeting in the ruined mansion, but Steve looks more worn down, even though the stubborn gleam remains in his eye.

"Well," Steve says, "things are a little different this time, Tony. Vision!"

He doesn't see anything. But suddenly a ghostly hand pushes through his body, only to re-materialize directly in front of him. The pain as that cybernetic arm partially solidifies inside him is excruciating. And while he's thus incapacitated, Vision sends a pulse of energy through the suit, and disables it.

Tony screams in agony – both the man and the consciousness. There's not a damn thing he can do as Steve says, "Now I'm fighting dirty," and bashes the shield into his helmet.

He goes down, hard. The armor is nothing but dead weight on his limbs. Extremis battles to repair the damage, but it's coming too fast, and it's too much, and Steve is like a man possessed. Over and over the shield slams down, and the faceplate first cracks, then shatters into pieces, exposing his face to the night air.

Steve looms over him, shield poised for one last, fatal blow.

This is it, then. This is how it ends. He isn't even afraid. He's ready for it.

He wants this.

If he could take control of his body, he would beg Steve to end it now. Finish it off. Smash his skull. End the war. Stop the fighting. Maybe it would be different then. Maybe Steve would stay alive then. Maybe the world would be a better place without Tony Stark in it.

"What are you waiting for, Steve?" Tony chokes out. "Finish it."

Hysterical laughter wells up within him, a crazy sound his other self will never hear. Because he did beg for it, he did.

And look what it got him…

****

The white light deposits him in a large room with many windows. He knows this office. He's been here before, but never in this capacity. At least, not that he remembers – which is, of course, the whole point of this exercise.

Today, right here and now, there is no sign of Nick Fury. The office is practically bare. There is nothing on the desk except a computer that isn't even turned on. Why bother, when he can tap into any computer on the planet that he wants, all in his head?

Tony is watching the live coverage of the trial from in here. It's on all the stations, cable and network TV alike. He doesn't even know which channel he's monitoring. It doesn't matter. The closest television is halfway across the helicarrier, but still the images play out in his brain, courtesy of Extremis.

The courthouse is surrounded by police and SHIELD agents alike. The media press against the barriers, shouting questions. There are regular people here, too, civilians who have come for the show. Some are there to support Steve. Others shout curses at him as he walks slowly up the seemingly endless stone steps.

Steve himself ignores them all. His head is up, his gaze fixed straight ahead. He shows no remorse. He is in costume, minus the cowl, all the better for the crowds and the TV cameras to see his face. His hands are cuffed behind his back.

Someone in the crowd throws a tomato. The rotten fruit strikes Steve in the face and splatters in a disgusting spray of red juice. It's like the old public executions they used to stage in the Middle Ages. Come on down! Fun for the whole family! Bring the kids! Watch a man's life end!

It makes his blood boil. How dare they treat Steve this way? The man might technically be a criminal, but he is still Steve Rogers, he is still Captain America.

They have no right.

Halfway up the courthouse steps, Steve suddenly stops walking. He half-turns and looks up. Then he's in motion, shouldering the SHIELD agent next to him off to one side.

The bullet rips through him from behind, from high up. A detached part of Tony's brain recognizes it as a sniper shot.

The rest of him is frozen in shocked disbelief.

The scene at the courthouse dissolves into utter chaos. People scream and run for cover.

Steve falls, slowly, so slowly. His hands are still cuffed behind his back. No one breaks his fall.

Alone in the office he doesn't want, never wanted, can't have ever wanted, Tony screams in horrified denial.

There are more shots fired. Enough people have scattered now that the TV choppers in the sky have a perfect view of Steve as he lies on his back on the courthouse steps, bleeding out into the morning.

The image sears into his brain, branded there indelibly. He's on his hands and knees, with no memory of how he got there. It seems impossible that he could have ever forgotten this. That he could have betrayed Steve by forgetting the moment of his death.

Steve is dying. Trying to speak. Sharon Carter cradles his head.

Tony hates her for that. For getting to do what he never did, what he will never get to do.

Running footsteps sound in the hall. SHIELD agents approaching. Wanting orders. Wanting to know what to do.

Needing him to tell them what to do. Because he's the leader now. Because he won, didn't he? He won and now he's in charge, and this is his reward. This is his prize for winning.

He screams into his hands, his mouth open wide but no sound coming out, silent in his agony.

Because he won. He can't be a sore loser now…

****

The white light releases him and he cries out as the helicarrier takes shape around him. Maybe Doom can hear him. Maybe when he screams, they can hear the sound coming from his physical body. Maybe if he cries enough, they'll take pity on him and let him go.

Tony is in the armor. Again. Still. He's starting to think his younger self simply never took it off. It certainly seems like something he would do – God knows he's been guilty of it before. And he can feel the weakening of this body, too long neglected. There's a very good possibility that the suit is the only thing keeping Tony upright and on his feet anymore.

The man standing guard outside the door tells him there hasn't been any trouble, then steps aside. Tony walks through the door – and he knows he doesn't want to see what's on the other side, what awaits him in that room. He knows it.

And still he walks through.

It's worse than he imagined, oh God, it's everything he's ever feared and dreaded and it's real, it's fucking real this is really happening and he screams and screams, howling out his grief and denial. And it doesn't matter that the other Tony, the one standing here, is screaming with him in silent harmony, because this pain is his and his alone.

Somehow Tony gets a hold of himself. He cuts off all the Extremis feeds and removes his helmet. In the polished gold faceplate, his reflected face is all sharp angles and his eyes are deeply shadowed. He is falling apart much more rapidly now, and it's no wonder he wears the armor all the time. It's his only defense, the only way he can hide it from everyone.

"And there you are," Tony says. He sits down.

It's too much. He can't do this. He can't. He can't sit here beside Steve's body, blood splattered all over the shield, and act like everything is ever going to be fine again. Because nothing is going to be fine. Because Steve is dead and Tony killed him, and it doesn't matter who fired that sniper rifle because it was his finger on the trigger and nothing and no one will ever convince him otherwise.

Tony is talking now, stumbling a little over his words. Trying to explain himself. Mercifully unaware of anything but his own pain.

"I knew that meant you and I would probably never speak again. Or be friends again. Or partners again. I told myself I was okay with it because I knew I was right and I—I knew it was saving lives." Tony is openly crying now, the grief finally too much to keep locked inside.

And it is, it's too much, he's sobbing because it just keeps going, there is no end to this pain, and he knows, oh yes, he knows why he deliberately turned his back on these memories. No man could live under the weight of remembering all this. He can feel his sanity starting to unmoor, to buckle under the weight of all this horror and grief and guilt, and it just never ends, there is always one more memory, always more pain.

He can't take much more of this.

"It was!" Tony sobs, so desperate to convince himself of what he knows, deep down, is a lie. "It was the right thing to do! And…and…and I was willing to get in bed with people we despise to get this done. And I knew the world favors the underdog and that I would be the bad guy. I knew this and I said I was okay with it. And--and even though I said… Even though I said I was willing to go all the way with it… I wasn't."

He can barely get the words out now, he's crying so hard. "And…and I know this because the worst has happened. The thing I can't live with…has happened. And for all our back and forth--and all the things we've said and done to each other… For all the hard questions I've had to ask, and terrible lies I've had to tell… There's one thing that I'll never be able to tell anyone now. Not my friends or my co-workers or my President. The one thing! The one thing I should have told you. But now I can't."

And he knows. Oh, he knows. There is only one thing it can be, this one thing he should have told Steve. The secret he's harbored for so many years, playing it off, pretending it wasn't real, telling himself that to act on it was forbidden, that it was worth the hurt just to hold onto Steve's friendship.

He's not sobbing anymore. The storm of grief has passed. Dull despair is settling in its wake. Tony stares down at his helmet, not really seeing it.

And he doesn't say it. Even now, at the end of all things, when there is no one to hear it, he lacks the courage.

"It wasn't worth it," he whispers…

****

He just wants this to end.

Please.

Surely there can't be anything more, what else can there be, nothing can be worse than Steve's death.

How wonderful it is to be proven wrong.

The white light fades away into the dull orange glow he's come to associate with the Savage Land. He's in the suit – again – still – but this time it's a good thing, because it's literally the only thing keeping him standing up.

Pain burns through him, a terrible agony that stabs deep in his bones and claws through his brain. It's an effort to move, to even think; his thoughts feel horribly sluggish. Some of that is the result of a high fever, but some of it…

Tony is trying to fix the armor. Or something. It's giving him a status report. "Starktech armor: complete system failure. Virus detected. All systems failing."

"Well," Tony coughs, "that's money well spent."

Virus detected.

Oh God. He knows what this is now. What is going to happen.

"Need to disconnect my bioware," Tony mutters. Talking to himself, to the armor, into the empty citadel. "The tech virus is hitting me like pneumonia. I have at least a hundred and two fever…"

A new voice speaks from the doorway. "How are you feeling, Tony?"

Tony looks up warily. Everyone is a suspect now. Anyone could be a Skrull. Even Jessica Drew. "Not to be impolite…but I'd as soon not talk to you or anyone till we figure this all out."

She leans against the doorway, one hand on her hip, perfectly at ease. "You can relax now. You did it."

Tony gives her a look, vaguely questioning. And inside his head, he's screaming at his other self to run, to get away while he still can, even though it's already far too late.

"Your work on Earth is done," says the Skrull posing as Jessica Drew. She walks forward, closing the distance between them.

Tony is understandably shocked. It's partly the work of the virus, clouding his mind and wracking his body with constant pain. But it's also months of unending stress and grief, of one horror after another. "My work? On Earth?"

"You will go down in our people's history as the greatest soldier the armada has ever had," Jessica assures him.

"Stop," Tony says weakly.

"And you will always and forever have my undying love," Jessica says. "The love of your queen." And she kisses him.

It's sickening. Her mouth is very warm on his, as though she too is running a fever. She closes her eyes, taking what she wants from him. She doesn't touch him in any way except to kiss him, but shudders of revulsion ripple through him.

At last Tony manages to wrench free from her. It takes far more effort than it should; he is frighteningly weak from the virus. "I'm not a Skrull!" he shouts.

"I know that's what you think," says the Skrull queen, still in her disguise as Jessica Drew.

"Stop!" Tony cries.

"That's what you were trained to think!" she says.

"Stop!" he pleads. It can't be true. It can't be.

She continues, firm, implacable. "You saved our people. You served selflessly. As I said to you the day you volunteered: I am so sorry it had to be this way."

"No," Tony whispers.

It's all a trick, of course, but even knowing that, he can see the appeal. The terrible wish – if only for a moment – that it might just be true.

"I'm sorry the truth had to be hidden even from you," she says. So gentle. So compassionate. Speaking to him in a way that no one has for many months now. Pretending to care. And he is so tired, tired of fighting, of acting like he isn't bothered by the venomous hatred from the people who used to be his friends.

It would be so easy, so terribly easy, to let himself believe that lie.

"S-stop it," Tony whispers. Shuddering with pain and fever. Thinking that maybe, maybe this is the answer. It would explain everything. The Civil War. The hostility between the superheroes. The death of Captain America. And although that explanation would be a terrible one, at least there would be an explanation.

Something other than blaming himself.

"Turning the heroes against each other, positioning yourself as the most important person in their world…"

"N-no," Tony breathes. Wanting to believe she is wrong. And a small, terrible part of him almost hoping that she is right.

And inside, he's sick with horror. Because he knows these words will haunt Tony for however much time remains before they are gone from his brain, willingly vanished along with all his other memories.

Now they are a part of him again. Remembered. Forever etched on his mind.

"But if not for you, my brave, brave warrior," soothes the Skrull queen, "this day would never have come. I do praise you and love you, Kr'ali… This is your day well-earned."

The white light is rising up, and he throws himself toward it with utter gratitude. If she touches him again, no matter what his body, his real self does, he's going to start screaming and never stop…

****

The wash of white dissolves and leaves him standing on the streets of Manhattan, in front of the Baxter Building. He's surrounded by superheroes, many of whom are talking quietly in little groups. They all look battered and tired, but there is an aura of victory about them, nonetheless.

"So, this whole Skrull thing," says the Thing. "Who's gonna take the hit for it, ya think?"

Trapped inside his own head, he laughs and laughs and laughs. It spirals upward and outward, expanding to fill the space in his mind, and how is it even possible that the younger version of himself, the Tony Stark who is actually standing here, can't hear him going insane?

Slowly some of the heroes are starting to drift away. It's easier now to single out the one he wants to see.

"Thor," Tony says, stammering in his earnestness, "we have so much to do. There's so much-- I'm—I'm just really glad you're back with us. I'm glad we can finally—"

Thor turns on him, jaw clenched. His hand is white-knuckled where he grips Mjolnir. "Don't misunderstand my intentions, Stark. I came here because I was needed. I told you I would never fight alongside you again. I told you I would never join thy ranks again."

The anger in Thor's eyes is almost a physical thing, filling the air between them, chilling Tony's blood. "I abhor what thou hast become and I'm sure I will not be the only one who finds the blame in all this to fall square on thy shoulders."

Thor hefts Mjolnir and rises into the sky, away from the scene. Tony just stands there, his head bowed beneath the weight of crushing guilt and self-loathing. He doesn't blame Thor for what he just said. After all, the thunder god has only voiced aloud what everyone must be thinking.

He catches sight of something blue out of the corner of his eye and he looks up. Cap is standing there. Not Steve, of course, for Steve is dead. This is Bucky Barnes, who took up the cowl and the shield at his behest, even though he doesn't remember (not yet, oh God this is something else he can look forward to being forced to remember) giving him those things.

Bucky does not say anything. He just turns away from Tony, too.

As they all must, in the end…

****

The white light bleeds into red, and for a moment he thinks it's another fire, but then the color resolves itself into the dying light of a beautiful sunset. He's back in his office. Or what used to be his office. What used to be Nick Fury's office, once upon a time.

Now, another man stands before the windows, gazing out at the city below. Perfect posture. Hands clasped behind his back.

"So," says Norman Osborn. "Your last day."

"Yes – ah – yes, sir," Tony says, stumbling a little over the unaccustomed title of respect. A title this man does not even remotely deserve. "I'm on my way to the departure scan and then I'm gone."

"Marvelous," Osborn purrs, still looking out at the sunset.

"Oh, come off it, Norman," Tony snaps, dropping the pretense of respect. "You and I both know that—"

"Ah-ah-ah," Osborn interrupts. He holds up one hand, but does not turn around. "Don't. Don't come near me. Because if you come any closer…any closer at all…" He turns around, and it's not anger blazing in his eyes but triumph, pure and simple. "I might just be tempted to break your neck, you traitorous scum."

It has the ring of a rehearsed speech, like it's something Osborn is saying because he knows he should be saying it. Tony is not impressed. "'Traitorous.' Wow. Okay, boss. As you wish."

"You have turned over all HAMMER property and removed all your personal effects, yes?" Osborn says.

That's a laugh. He never had any personal effects. Why would he? No one ever wanted him here. "Yes," he says. "When I leave, I'm gone. Everything that's mine will be gone, too."

"And you'll take nothing that belongs to me," Osborn says.

"To HAMMER, you mean," Tony says. It's not a wise move to antagonize Norman Osborn, but he's angry and humiliated and frankly he doesn't care. "It belongs to HAMMER, not you."

"Semantics," Osborn says. "And what about the database?"

"Database?" Tony says. "And which database would that be?"

"The superhuman registration database, Stark. You know the one I mean. Where is it? How do I access it?"

Sudden excitement grips him, cutting through the haze of horror and looming insanity that's been gathering for far too long. This is it. This is when he can truly change the past. He can step forward and take control of this body and finally, finally change things.

He knows exactly what to do. He will give a little speech of his own now, something designed to goad Osborn into arresting him right here and now. It will have the ring of defiance, but in actual truth it will be an act of surrender.

What comes after won't be pleasant, but he can withstand torture, especially when he knows his silence will protect and save people. He might not have Extremis anymore, but he can still consciously lock the information away so deep in his mind that no one will ever be able to get to it, no matter what they do to him. They can hook him up to every supercomputer in the world, carve his brain up into slices, even – and still never find it.

He will die, of course, and it will be terrible, painfully drawn out over time. By the end, whatever is left of him will no doubt be begging for death. But it will be worth it. He'll finally get to make something out of his life and atone for all the mistakes he's made.

So he tries. He focuses all his will on taking control. On stepping forward, on claiming his body. He can do this. He can do this…

"It's—ah—it's not—" Tony seems to be having trouble getting the words out, and he takes that as a positive sign. It means he's fighting for control of his body.

Come on! he shouts, straining for power, for the ability to move, to say his own words, not the ones that are scripted for him by history.

"Osborn. It's not your personal File-O-Fax," Tony says, firmly in control once more, completely unaware that for a few seconds he was nearly shunted to the side in his own body. He is angry, but doing his best to keep it contained. "You can't just browse it at your leisure."

Exhausted, defeated, he falls back. Curls up in the corner of his host mind. Unwanted. Unwelcome.

He knows he's lost.

There is only one thing left to do now. Only one way out of this…

****

He's in a…

He doesn't know where this is. It's a big space, echoing. Lights set high in the ceiling. A warehouse, maybe?

Something is wrong. Very wrong.

He's always before felt like he was curled up in the back of Tony Stark's mind. Just a passenger in his own head.

But now. Now the echoing, empty space of his physical surroundings is matched by the echoing, empty space inside Tony's head. There are enormous swathes of pure…nothing.

This is what it's like, he realizes, to lose his mind. Literally.

Oh God, is he going to have to bear witness to all of it? Will he be there at the bitter end, when there is nothing left? Will his be the only lucid thoughts left inside this mind?

The thought is enough to make him want to scream.

Pepper is there, holding a cup of coffee. She's naked except for a sheet wrapped around her, and he really, really doesn't want to know why, and please God let that be one experience he doesn't have to relive.

"I'm leaving myself notes," Tony says. He is indeed scribbling things down on paper. His writing is atrocious, his spelling even worse. "Y'know, for later."

"You've kept the secrets of the whole world in your head," Pepper says. "And now you're jotting them down on Post-Its? Sloppy."

"These are hardly secrets," Tony says. "More like… Like, 'Here's how to use a screwdriver.'"

"Is it…" Pepper looks like she can hardly finish her sentence. "Is it really that bad? Will it really get that bad?"

Tony does not answer. Not with words.

In the echoing space inside his head, he cries no and no and please.

Please don't make me go through this again.

"It's all happening now. Chunks of stuff just…go." Tony rambles on, likening the loss of his mental abilities to losing a superpower. It's a terrible metaphor, but Pepper lets him talk, sitting close beside him for moral support.

"I'm just like everyone else now, Pepper," he says. "I'm just…normal. And I hate being normal."

It's a horrible thing to say. And even Tony seems to realize that, for he slumps forward, his arms folded on his knees, his head down. "I'm sorry," he says. "I bet that sounded really awful and mean and condescending."

Pepper, God bless her, doesn't get angry. She just says, "We're all kind of used to it by now. It's okay." Which is even worse, actually, than if she were insulted. He wants to cry for how he's treating her now, for what he's putting her through, for making her do this, making her watch as he loses everything that makes him who he is.

The fact that she's still with him now, out there in the real world – if he ever makes it back there – is simply astonishing.

"Tony." She is in tears. "While I can still say it… And while you can still understand it… While it still means something…" She sniffles hard, trying not to cry – and failing. "Thank you."

"Hey," he says, taking her face in his hands.

She can't hold back the tears anymore. "No, Tony. You-- In spite of everything else – everything else – the highs, the lows, and all the rest… Thank you." She rests her hands over his. "Thank you for everything you ever did for Rhodey, and me, and Happy."

He can't stand to see her crying. Because he didn't do anything for her, or Rhodey, or Happy. He let them suffer. He let them die. All because they dared to call themselves his friends, because he let himself care about them and he let them into his life. He exposed them to danger just by being who he was. And now for every terrible thing that ever happened to them as a result, Pepper is thanking him.

"Hey," Tony says, alarmed by her tears. "It's okay. It's okay."

She nestles in close to him, and they sit together for a while, not speaking.

The echoing, empty space in his head grows ever larger.

Tony says, "Who's Happy?"

He's still screaming as the white light closes over him and whisks him away…

****

A desert. Sand everywhere. Scorching heat. Flames and a desert sun.

This is it.

(Please let this be it)

He is going to die.

He welcomes it. Opens his mind (ha ha have to have a mind first) to it.

Osborn is gloating. "Yesssss. Finally. Finally!"

Tony is knocked off his feet. Osborn is on him almost before he hits the ground, brutally smashing him into the cracked and glazed desert earth. "It won't feel so bad this way, Tony. You fight me back a little bit and I'm defending myself and not just murdering you in cold blood."

The words echo and bounce in the enormous empty chamber that used to be Tony Stark's brain. Deep inside, where he huddles and makes himself as small as possible, he hears them and understands them perfectly – but Tony doesn't.

And it's Tony who looks up and whispers, "Please." That Tony, the one who made the terrible decision to delete himself, doesn't even know why he says it. All he knows anymore is pain and fear and a horrible, desperate need: is it enough, have I paid for it all yet, is it finally enough?

Can I finally rest?

"That's it, Stark," Osborn encourages him. "Resist."

The blows land with stunning force. Metal squeals and shrieks as the ancient armor caves in beneath the impacts. The pain is horrible. He hears the sick sound of bones snapping, but he can't draw in enough breath to scream. All he can do is utter a terrible, tortured keening sound as Osborn slowly beats him to death.

"Quit whining," Osborn snarls. "Quit begging. It's not manly. It's not…masculine!" He yanks the helmet off and forces him to sit up so he's within easy reach. Now nothing stands between Osborn and his prize, the one thing he wants more than anything – Tony Stark's brain.

"You know what I hate most about you, Stark?" Now that he's got what he wanted, Osborn sounds almost congenial. Most of what he says is gibberish to Tony, but deep inside, the words resonate with perfect clarity. "It's not that you were the smartest guy in the room. It's that you liked it so damn much. So what do you have to say for yourself now, smart guy?"

Tony stares. He can't really think anymore, but he tries his best (he always tries, even when he should know better). It's terribly hard. Tony doesn't remember why he's here, or who this man is or why he hurts so badly or why there is blood on his face.

And it's only now, at the end, when there is not enough left of Tony Stark's brain to hold him back, that the final barrier falls, and he is able to step forward and take control. He barely even remembers why this is so important to him, why he's been striving all this time toward this goal. But it finally happens. Like settling into a comfortable chair, he finds his consciousness filling Tony's body. It's almost like waking up. He feels the pain of broken bones, the blood hot and thick in his throat, the weight of old armor on his limbs, the heat of the desert sun on his face.

But he can act now. For the first time since he found himself trapped in his own past, he can change his history.

He has no idea what he said when this moment actually happened. It doesn't really matter.

Osborn is still waiting.

Yet before he can say anything, before he can manage one last act of defiance, the moment is gone. Without warning he find himself shunted back into the depths of his echoing mind.

It's Tony, the one waiting to die, finding some last bit of strength from deep within himself. It's that same hopeful spark that never lets him truly give up on anything, never lets him close his eyes and just rest. Because he always believes that he will succeed if he just does the right thing, if he keeps at it, if he doesn't give in.

And it's Tony who smiles a little.

"I win," he says.

"You!" Osborn screams in thwarted fury. He holds out his hands, weapons sparking and ready to fire.

Brilliant white light bursts behind his eyes. This is not another time jump. This is brain death, coming to claim him.

He hopes – he prays – that maybe this time, it will be for real.

Maybe this time, his friends won't wake him up…

****

It's over, right?

Please God, let it be over.

****

It isn't over.

****

- He's standing on ice. Somewhere in the Arctic. Maybe it's the Antarctic. There is a casket in front of him. He is speaking. "I don't know if I can do it without you. I certainly won't do it as well."

- He's on his knees on the floor of his living room, sobbing into his hands, as two Daily Bugle reporters walk away

- He's staring down at what's left of Sal Kennedy

- He's in an arena, forced to try to kill his friends while they try to kill him, and the Hulk watches with a grim smile

- He's standing on a balcony talking to Peter and MJ, saying, "Every night I go to sleep, hoping that I'm wrong. God, let me be wrong."

- He's in an empty baseball stadium, facing Steve across the infield. "Did you have anything to do with what happened to Happy Hogan?"

- He's on his back, choking on blood. "What are you waiting for, Steve? Finish it."

- He's in a small room talking to a dead man. "The thing I can't live with has happened."

- He's in a dark suit at Arlington Cemetery. "It wasn't supposed to be this way."

****

- He's screaming endlessly, where no one can hear. Where no one would care, even if they could hear.

*******

Now

 

Soaked to the skin and shivering, his eyes dark with horror, Tony looked at him and said, "I remember."

"Remember what?" Steve asked, even as he dreaded the answer.

"Everything," Tony whispered.

Shocked, Steve just stared at him. His first instinct was to demand, What do you mean? But it was horribly obvious what Tony meant. Even if that single word hadn't been enough, Tony's stricken behavior was all the answer he needed.

He wanted to scoff, to deny it, to say that such a thing was impossible. There was no physical means for Tony to ever regain those memories. And yet, somehow it had happened.

It was raining again, lightly now, but that would not last. Tony was already thoroughly wet, but Steve had no desire to join him. He stood up. "It's starting to rain," he said. "Let's go inside. We can talk about it there."

"It was raining at your funeral," Tony whispered.

Steve stopped dead, the breath whistling in his throat. Had he known that? Had anyone told him that? He didn't think so. Since his return, an awful lot of people had been walking on eggshells around him when it came to certain topics, and his absence was one of them.

The greater question was, had Tony known it? He knew Tony had done his research since waking up from the surgery that had implanted the RT in his chest, but would he have bothered to learn a seemingly insignificant detail like that? With Tony it was hard to say. He was obsessive enough that Steve could easily see him wanting to know everything about that day, right down to the weather report. But he could also see it going the other way, with Tony choosing to avoid learning too much about things that were so painful.

The rain was starting to come down harder. They really could not stay out here. "Come on, Tony," Steve said. He tried to inject just enough reproof into the words to goad Tony into getting up. "We can discuss this inside." He leaned down and extended his hand.

Tony's breath caught. His eyes swept closed, his entire body going rigid as he visibly braced himself. Yet he did not pull away, as though he believed he deserved whatever punishment Steve was about to dole out.

That was now the third time Tony had reacted in such a manner to Steve's physical proximity, and it made Steve sick to his stomach. Even at the height of the hostilities between them, Tony had never flinched away from him like this.

Carefully he lowered himself to one knee. Immediately his sleep pants were soaked through where the fabric touched the wet rooftop, but he ignored that. He kept his hands to himself, and his voice quiet. "Tony. It's all right. Whatever happened, whatever you remember, I'm not going to hurt you. But we need to get inside, all right? Now can you do that, or am I going to have to carry you?" He presented this as straightforwardly as he could, trying not to make it sound threatening or humiliating.

Slowly Tony opened his eyes. In the rain and the dark it was difficult to tell, but Steve thought he might be crying. He looked around, dazed and blinking, like he was truly seeing his surroundings for the first time. A faint frown line drew his brows together. "I shouldn't…be here. I'm sorry." He reached out and grabbed the concrete edge of the steps. "I'm sorry."

Steve stood up and stepped back as Tony hauled himself to his feet. He said nothing as the rain came down harder and Tony stood there, swaying a little. He was ashamed to admit that he thought to wonder if Tony had been drinking. But he could not smell any alcohol, and he swiftly banished those thoughts to a dark place where they could not trouble him again.

"Let's go inside," he said. "We can dry off, get warmed up."

Tony looked at him, then quickly looked away. "I should go," he mumbled. "I should…"

"You should come inside," Steve said firmly. He was afraid he would have to physically herd Tony toward the base of the stairs, a move he was reluctant to make. Tony was obviously in distress right now, and the last thing Steve wanted to do was add to that.

But they really could not stay out here. So he headed for the stairs, hoping Tony would follow him.

And after an excruciatingly long pause, Tony did. His steps were slow and faltering, and one time he stumbled and nearly fell, but he managed to regain his balance and keep moving.

"You're doing great," Steve said encouragingly.

Tony looked up at him, and for a single moment he was his old self again, staring at Steve with a mixture of fondness and exasperation. Then his gaze shied away again, and he just silently followed Steve up the stairs and inside.

****

Even accounting for Tony's halting gait, it seemed to take forever for them to reach their destination. Steve moved ahead, opening the door and turning on all the lights, flooding the apartment with light.

Just inside the kitchen, they stopped. Water ran from their clothes and puddled on the floor. Tony was still shivering, and his eyes were glazed over again; he had retreated within himself, and he was clearly not seeing the apartment or anything around him.

Steve was momentarily at a loss. It had been almost two weeks since he had seen Tony, but that by itself was no cause for concern. While they weren't exactly actively avoiding each other, the plain truth was that things were still uncomfortable between them. The truce they had declared in Oklahoma was too new and too fragile, and Steve was in no rush to get into another argument. He knew too that Tony spent a lot of time these days in Seattle trying to rebuild his company – and his life. Steve himself devoted much of his time to his duties to SHIELD, while also trying to help Bucky in his still-new role as Captain America.

And though it might only have been two weeks, there was no denying that Tony had lost weight since Steve had seen him last; the angles of his face were sharply-defined than ever. More worryingly, Steve's eye was caught by the reddened marks on Tony's forehead and temples, as though something had been pressing down there, hard enough to bruise. They were marks Steve had seen many times over the years – the mute evidence of where a person had struggled against some form of restraint.

The sight of those bruises gave him something concrete to focus on. Whatever had happened to Tony, it had clearly been against his will. And that meant there was a very good chance that his current condition was at least partly a result of some physical trauma.

That was something Steve could deal with. He grabbed the nearest dishtowel and scrubbed at his face and arms, drying himself off as best he could. He tossed the towel onto the counter, then turned to Tony. "We need to get you out of those wet clothes. Can you do that?"

Unsurprisingly, Tony did not respond. Steve moved around to stand in front of him and reached for Tony's tie. The knot was firmly in place, as though Tony had just stepped from the boardroom. The wet material resisted his efforts at undoing the knot at first, and Steve had to tug a little more sharply than he had intended.

The sudden jerk on his neck pulled Tony from his trance. He startled badly and uttered a short sound of fear, both hands flying up to protectively cover his chest and the new device embedded there. When he did that, the sodden cuffs of his suit jacket slid down his wrists, revealing what Steve had sadly expected to find – more bruises.

"It's okay," he said. "It's just me."

Tony stared at him without comprehension for a long moment. Then he blinked, and recognition flooded his eyes. His shoulders sagged and his hands dropped a little, although not completely. He looked around, taking in the kitchen and the rest of the apartment. "Where is this?" he asked, still in that hoarse whisper.

"This is Sharon's apartment," Steve said. "She's letting me stay here."

"Is she…" Tony's gaze swept over the kitchen and living room.

"No," Steve said. "She's not here right now. It's just me." He licked his lips uncertainly. He felt strongly that he ought to be taking Tony to the hospital right now, but he was reluctant to do that just yet. Not until he knew what had happened, and what he was dealing with.

"Tony, I need you to get these clothes off. All right?"

Tony looked at him, then nodded, just a jerky movement of his head. His hands slid upward and he began trying to unbutton his shirt.

Right away Steve could tell it was not going to work; Tony's hands were shaking too badly.

"Here," he said quietly. "Let me."

Tony said nothing to this. He stood there, still as a statue, his eyes fixed on Steve's face, as Steve unbuttoned his shirt. He did not move at all as Steve removed his tie, then moved behind him in order to tug both the wet suit jacket and his white shirt over his shoulders and down his arms.

Steve let the jacket and shirt fall to the floor, where he could deal with them later. He came around to stand in front of Tony again, and froze in shock. "Oh my God. Tony."

He reached out for the wound in Tony's left side. It was healing already, and obviously old, but there was no mistaking it for what it was. "Who shot you?"

Tony looked down at himself in mild confusion. "Um. Doom. It was…" His eyes unfocused, his breath stuttered in his throat. "God." He shivered, stronger than before, almost a full-blown shudder. "They shot you. I saw. I couldn't…" He raised one hand and made to touch Steve on his abdomen, just beneath his ribcage. His shaking fingers did not make contact though; he stopped just shy of actually touching. "I saw. Oh God."

His knees buckled and he fell.

Steve caught him easily. In a way he was surprised it had taken this long to reach this point. Tony was clearly at the end of his rope, both physically and mentally.

He eased Tony down to the floor, then propped him up against the cabinet beneath the counter where Sharon kept her pots and pans. "It's going to be all right," he said. "I'm going to take you to the hospital, okay?"

"No," Tony whispered. "No. I should go. I shouldn't…I shouldn't be here. They said… They wanted me to… Steve." He shivered, too thin, still wet, and with a hole in his side that once would have been healed up within a day thanks to Extremis.

They said… They wanted me to… And he had mentioned Doom.

Steve made up his mind right then and there. If Victor von Doom was behind this, there was no way he could take Tony to a hospital until he was certain what he was dealing with. The possible repercussions could be disastrous. Doom's people had clearly brought Tony here and left him on the roof for a reason. And although Steve knew he was playing into their hands by taking him in and keeping him here, he also could not bring himself to refuse Tony, not when he so badly needed help. They might not be the friends they once had been, but he could not turn his back on him now.

"It's okay," Steve said. "Easy there, Shellhead." Deliberately he used the old nickname, hoping it would calm Tony down.

Tony just stared at him, his eyes still too glassy and stricken, and Steve felt his heart wrench a little in his chest. Despite everything that had come between them, Tony was one of his oldest friends. It hurt to see him reduced to this.

It also made him angry.

He stood up. "Stay there," he ordered. "I'll be right back."

He moved quickly through the apartment, pulling his wet T-shirt over his head as he walked. He wasn't too wet, thankfully, but he felt much better once he had changed into some dry clothes and put some clean socks on.

There was a narrow closet between the bathroom and the master bedroom where Sharon kept her linens. Steve raided this now for some sheets, two large towels, a thick blue blanket, and a first-aid kit. The couch in the living room pulled out into a bed, which he swiftly made up. He had slept here for a few hours on his first night back, when he and Sharon were still trying to figure out where they stood with each other. He knew from past experience that it wasn't the most comfortable bed in the world, but there were certainly worse options out there.

He returned to the kitchen with the two towels. Tony was right where Steve had left him, sitting on the floor with his legs stretched out in front of him. Water was pooling on the floor around him. His head was tilted to one side and he seemed to be barely holding on to consciousness.

Steve lowered himself to his knees and used the first towel to dry Tony's face, his arms, his chest. He scrubbed briefly at Tony's hair, trying to get the excess water off, then let the towel drop to the floor.

"It wasn't supposed to be this way," Tony whispered, almost inaudible.

"I know," Steve sighed. Everything had happened so fast after his return that there hadn't been much time to really think about it at first. But in the days since then, he had found himself dwelling on the past with increasing frequency, asking himself when and where things had gone so horribly wrong. Wondering if there was anything he could have done differently.

He pulled Tony's shoes off, then peeled off his dripping wet socks. He moved up a little, then hesitated.

Tony was staring blankly at nothing. Tears stood in his eyes, but he seemed unaware of them. He did not even blink as Steve reached for his belt.

Steve could not decide if that was better or worse. He made quick work of the rest of Tony's wet clothing, doing his best not to stare. He had seen Tony naked before, most recently in that skewed version of Jotunheim where he and Tony and Thor had battled to save all of the Nine Realms. But this was different. Tony was not going to crack a joke or give Steve a knowing wink. He didn't even seem to know where he was anymore.

He used the second towel to finish drying Tony off, then scooped him up in his arms. He was shocked and appalled at how easy it was, even allowing for his superior strength. It was blatantly obvious now how thin and worn down Tony had become during the months Steve had been…gone.

That was upsetting, but it made him angry, too. Why had none of Tony's friends seen what should have been all too obvious? Why hadn't any of them helped him? People like Reed and Carol, who had been there with him during the whole registration mess. Or Pepper and Rhodey, who were supposed to be his best friends. Why had none of them intervened?

Tony's head lolled against his shoulder. "Steve," he whispered. And though he was no longer soaking wet, still he shivered.

Steve walked into the living room, carrying Tony in both arms. He supposed he knew the answers to his questions, and that was maybe the saddest thing of all. Quite simply, he could not blame anyone else for what had happened. No matter how often they might have tried, Tony would not have accepted their help. He would have pretended that everything was fine, carrying on like he wasn't falling apart in front of them all, day by day, piece by piece. And in fact Steve recalled now that several people had told him that it had been rare for anyone to see Tony out of the armor during the fight over registration and the terrible months afterward.

Well, the armor was gone now. This was a Tony Stark who had been stripped of all his defenses, including the one that he must have thought would forever insulate him from the pain of the Civil War and Steve's death and everything that had come after. And for all the times that Steve had personally wanted to pummel Tony into the ground, right now all he felt was a terrible, helpless longing to protect and defend him.

He laid Tony down on the sofa bed. Immediately Tony curled into a ball. He stared blankly at the wall, his eyes dark wells of endless grief and guilt.

"Lay still," Steve said. He sat on the edge of the bed. "I'm going to do something about that bullet wound now, okay?"

Tony did not answer. He just lay there, trembling and staring at nothing. He barely even flinched when Steve used some of the antiseptic wipes in the first-aid kit to clean the wound. It was already healing over, and did not seem infected, but Steve was taking no chances.

When he was finished cleaning it, he taped a square of bandage over the wound. For a moment his fingers lingered on Tony's side, unhappily aware that it was too easy to feel the curve of Tony's ribs beneath skin that was too pale.

"What happened?" he whispered sadly. He meant just the past couple weeks, but in truth, the words contained an entire series of unanswered questions. What happened to us? How did we ever get to this place? Can we find our way back?

Is it even possible to get back?

Tony seemed to hear him. He stirred, one hand scrabbling weakly at the mattress. "I'm sorry," he whispered brokenly. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

It's okay," Steve said. He pulled the sheets and the blanket up, covering Tony. He wasn't even sure if Tony was actually hearing his words right now, or just the sound of his voice, but he had to try. "Just rest. We can talk about it later, okay?"

"Steve," Tony said. Not looking at him, though. Still staring at nothing, seeing a world of horrors in his mind's eye, things he had thought lost forever. "I'm so sorry. I never meant…"

Maybe there was a part of him that was aware of where he was. "It's okay, Tony. Just get some sleep, okay?" Without thinking, he reached out and brushed some of the damp hair off Tony's forehead and out of his eyes.

Tony moaned a little, flinching back, squeezing his eyes shut and turning his face further into the pillow. But he remained silent after that, and did not return to those terrible whispered apologies, which was a small mercy.

Cursing his forgetfulness, Steve clasped his hands in his lap hard enough to hurt. "Go to sleep," he said. "Everything will be okay." He felt like a fraud making such a promise when he had absolutely no right to do so, but he didn't know what else to say.

Gradually Tony's breathing eased from fearful gasps into a calmer rhythm. His shivering ceased and he lay still. And at last Steve carefully stood up and backed away, secure in the knowledge that for now, at least, Tony slept.

****

A few e-mails to some key individuals guaranteed that Steve would be left to himself today, with no SHIELD business interfering. After that, there was nothing to do but sit down and wait. He had no idea what would happen when Tony woke up, but he was pretty sure he knew what was coming before then.

Nor was he disappointed. It was barely light out when Tony began to twitch and whimper in his sleep.

Having fully expected this, Steve put his book down – not that he had really been able to concentrate on it – and approached the sofa bed. He thought he would gently wake Tony up, try to head the nightmare off before it got too bad.

He wasn't prepared, therefore, for when Tony suddenly cried out and scrambled into a sitting position. And nothing could have prepared him for the sight of Tony crumpling forward, his face buried in his hands, or for the terrible bone-wracking sobs that Tony uttered.

"God, Tony." Other men might have been able to remain unmoved in the face of that pain, but Steve was not one of them. He crawled onto the bed and reached out.

He half-expected Tony to flinch from him again, but that did not happen this time. Instead Tony turned toward him, blindly seeking the comfort he offered.

"It's okay," Steve said, stupidly, uselessly.

Tony clung to him with fierce strength, sobbing with abandon. All Steve could do was hold him in return, and try not to imagine the horror of being forced to relive so much grief and guilt in such a short span of time, and what that must do to a person.

Eventually Tony's sobs lessened a little, and Steve realized he was speaking. Just three words, repeated over and over: "I'm sorry. Please."

There was no guessing who he was talking to. To Steve, most likely. Or any other number of phantoms in his mind, people he now remembered having wronged. All of them standing in judgment over him, many of them deserving the chance to do so.

But things like judgment and punishment were for another day, when Tony was strong enough to face them. Right now Steve just feared for his sanity.

"It's okay," he said again. He knew it wasn't enough, but he had to say something. He had to try.

And then inspiration struck. "I forgive you, Tony."

Tony went rigid in his arms, and Steve knew he had heard.

He said it again, rubbing his hand up and down Tony's back in what he hoped was a soothing gesture. "I forgive you." He could not honestly say at that moment if it was true or not, but it was obviously something Tony needed to hear.

Whether it was the words of forgiveness or the physical comfort or something else entirely, it seemed to do the trick. Tony continued to cling to him and cry, but thankfully not with those terrible sobs from before.

He didn't know how long they sat there, how long it was before Tony finally cried himself out and slumped against him, boneless in sleep. All he knew was that he remained sitting there for a long time afterward, reluctant to let go.

****

Tony woke to the unwelcome sensations of pain and thirst. He started to open his eyes, and was immediately assaulted by bright light. With a pained grunt, he squeezed his eyes shut and winced away from the source of the light.

The movement hurt, but it did resolve one thing, at least. He was able to pinpoint the location of the pain now. Most of it was centered in his head, but there was also a dull hurt lower down, somewhere on his left side.

He could not think why he was hurting, could not remember what he had done to get in such a state. And no sooner had he realized this then the floodgates opened, and memory came pouring in.

Images of death and horror cascaded through his mind. Steve staring at him with anger across a battlefield. Thor strangling him in fury. Happy lying in a hospital bed. Steve's fist descending. Fires rising into the night. Jessica Drew kissing him. Bill Foster falling in slow motion. Steve sitting in a prison cell. A letter delivered from beyond the grave. Whitney Frost holding a knife to his throat. Jan surrounded by a cloud of lethal bio-energy. Steve shouting in the ruins of Avengers Mansion. Steve lying on the courthouse steps, bleeding to death. Steve looming above him, shield poised for the fatal blow, murder in his eyes. Steve dead on a slab with his blood-spattered shield covering the bullet holes in his body.

He cried out beneath the onslaught of memory, trying desperately make sense of it all. A year of pain and fear and desperation and grief all compressed into a horrid tangle in his mind. There was no beginning and no end, no linear narrative, no chronology. Only unrelenting anguish.

"Tony?" The voice came from far away, and yet it echoed in his mind, in a hundred, a thousand memories.

He looked up – he was sitting up and clutching his head but he didn't remember doing that – and saw Steve looking at him.

Steve.

Steve was dead.

But Steve was alive. Steve had come back.

Steve was cold and dead on that slab and he was sobbing as he tried to explain himself, always too late, always too useless.

Steve was facing him in the street, granting him five minutes to speak but already planning a betrayal.

Steve was sitting on the bed, looking at him with genuine worry.

Steve was choking him, looking at him with such blue eyes, telling him he was just a figment of his imagination.

Steve was all of those things, and none of those things, and he looked at the Steve sitting on the bed and he didn't even know anymore if that Steve was real or just a very vivid memory but he didn't care, because Steve was looking at him with such concern, almost as if he really cared, and he had missed that, he thought he had lost that forever, and he had, he had lost that, because Steve had died, Steve had lain there on the courthouse steps bleeding out his life and he had just watched it happen, but Steve was still looking at him that way, not with anger or hatred or shocked disbelief, but with worry and concern, and there was a bar of sunlight falling through the window, illuminating Steve's hand where it rested on the blanket, turning the hairs on his arm brilliant gold, the same sunlight that had speared him right in the eyes when he first woke up, and so he finally

finally

understood that this Steve was real.

"Tony?"

He swallowed hard and nodded. "Yeah." Forced back those other memories, trying desperately to assign them to a place in time, a context.

He looked around at the apartment, using the mundane visuals of furniture and carpet and drapes to further anchor himself. He had a vague memory of Steve telling him that this was Sharon's apartment – Sharon who knelt over Steve on the courthouse steps, Sharon who slapped him as they stood beside Steve's corpse…

"You okay?" Steve asked.

The question jarred him back to reality. He could feel his heart starting to beat faster as a new fear gripped him. Was it going to be like this from now on? Was he going to be flooded with memories at every innocuous mention of a person or a time or a place?

"I need some water," he said. The hoarse rasp to his voice was proof enough that it was true. But mostly he just wanted to get out from under Steve's piercing stare. He couldn't handle it right now. It was too much. He saw a hundred different Steves when he looked into those blue eyes – and the hell of it was, they were all real.

Steve did not say anything. He just got up and went into the kitchen. A cabinet door opened. Glass clinked. There was the sound of running water.

Tony pulled the sheet and blanket a little further up his lap and tried not to think about the fact that he was naked beneath them, or the dull pain in his side. He looked around at the apartment, focusing on the smaller things as a way of keeping himself rooted. The books on the bookshelves were arranged in alphabetical order. There were no plants, and very few personal effects laying around. Steve's leather jacket was draped over an armchair and his sketchpad was on the coffee table, which had been moved off to one side to make room for the sofa bed.

"What about food?" Steve asked as he came back. He held out the glass, and Tony drank gratefully. "Are you hungry?"

The water was enough. It tasted heavenly, soothing the painfully dry tissues of his mouth and throat. He shook his head and kept drinking.

"How's your side?" Steve asked.

He glanced down and saw the bandage taped there. He had no memory of Steve tending him. That would have scared him, except that it was such a minor concern among the thousand other terrors fluttering around in his mind that he could not bring himself to care. "Fine. Thank you."

"Yesterday you said it was Doom who did this," Steve said. It wasn't quite a question.

He lowered the glass and studied the little bit of water remaining in it. "Yeah."

"How long did he have you?" Steve asked. There was a strange note to his voice, one Tony couldn't identify.

"Um," he said. He didn't know. Couldn't remember. Which was kind of hilarious, all things considered.

"The reason I ask," Steve went on, "is that I found a needle mark in your arm. And you've lost weight. I think they must have fed you intravenously."

He looked down at his arms, and yes, there it was. "Oh."

"What's the last day you remember?" Steve asked. He still sounded funny, and Tony did not dare look up at him. Not yet.

He closed his eyes briefly, trying to recall. There had been a hotel. He knew that much. He had been in Boston, planning to attend a meeting with a small company that was creating some amazing new engineering software. "Monday," he said. The date eluded him, though, and he shook his head in frustration.

"Monday," Steve said tightly. He drew in a long breath through his nose. "Today is Monday. That means it was a week. They had you for a full week."

In spite of himself, Tony looked up. As he caught sight of Steve's expression, he instinctively drew back a little – and then stopped. Because he knew now what that strange tone was in Steve's voice. It was anger.

But it was not directed at him.

How long had it been since that had been the case? How long since Steve had been angry on his behalf, and not because of something he had done?

He could not remember.

Stupidly, he was suddenly in tears. To cover his embarrassment, he raised the glass and drained it, but he knew right away that was a mistake, because he had to tilt his head back in order to drink, and all that did was give Steve a perfect view of his weakness.

A dozen memories rose before him, each one more clear than the last. Steve in fury, blue eyes ablaze. Shouting at him. Fists flying. The shield battering at the armor. Imprisoned behind bars, but still free in his heart.

Was it worth it? Tell me!

A powerful shudder worked through him. He dropped the now-empty glass and covered his eyes with one hand. "I'm sorry," he said. Apologizing for being so weak, so needy, for being here at all when he had no business disrupting Steve's life like this. Steve had moved on, was trying to make a new life for himself. Tony had no right to be here, to force his presence on him.

"It's okay," Steve said.

He shook his head. "I should go," he said. It came out in a choked whisper, the best he could manage just then.

"No," Steve said. "You're going to stay here. And everything's going to be all right, Tony."

How could anything be all right? The last thing he had ever said to Steve was, Well, you're a sore loser, Captain America.

How could he ever look Steve in the eye again, remembering what he had done?

"I've had a lot of time to think about it," Steve said. "I know what Doom did. I know what it's like, being ripped away from everything you know and cast back into your own past. I know what it's like to relive horrors you thought were long gone. But I guess I had it easier. I didn't have to face those things for the first time all over again." His voice softened. "I can't imagine what you must be going through right now."

Tony shook his head, his hand still over his eyes. "Don't," he pleaded. "Please don't." He could not bear it. Steve was the last person in the world who should want to show him any sympathy. Steve had died because of him.

"Tony." Steve's voice was close.

Too close. He was only seconds away from Steve actually touching him.

The thought filled him with horror. He could not let that happen. Quickly, before he lost his chance, he scuttled across the bed, away from where Steve was just starting to sit down. The sudden movement sent sharp pain through his side, but he ignored it.

"Sorry, I just, I, um." The sheet and blanket were tangled about his legs, and he fought with them, pushing at the linens and kicking uselessly with his feet. "I have to, um." And it was true, in a sense. Drinking that water had woken all kinds of sensation within his body, including the increasing need to go, but mostly he just needed to get away from Steve.

"Okay," Steve said. He remained standing.

Tony finally got himself free from the sheet and he stood up. His legs were unsteady at first. His side was throbbing and pain flared in his skull, streaks of brilliant light flashing in front of his eyes. He swayed, and his leg bumped the sofa bed. For a terrible moment he thought he was going to topple over, but he pinwheeled his arms and somehow managed to keep his balance and stay on his feet.

"Well," Steve said dryly, "that was quite an interesting sight."

Startled, Tony looked over at him.

Steve was smiling a little, a quirk of his mouth. He made a little gesture, and abruptly Tony remembered that he was, well, stark naked.

"Oh," he said.

Steve's smile widened. His eyes shone with good humor.

Almost against his will, Tony found himself smiling back. From the earliest days of their friendship, he had never been able to stay stoic in the face of Steve's amusement. Usually this had meant hiding his own smiles behind the Iron Man helmet, with Steve never being the wiser. Now, though... It had been far too long since he had seen Steve smiling at him. Their recent adventure in Jotunheim had been the first time they had shared any kind of humor in many months. The sight of Steve smiling at him now, not mocking or derisive, but with genuine, honest amusement, was just too much.

"I can't," he gasped. "I'm sorry." Stumbling, almost tripping in his haste to be gone, he hurried from the room. He had never been here before, but it was easy enough to find the bathroom, to slam and lock the door, to slide down it and sit on the floor, to drop his head onto his crossed arms on his knees, and to finally let the tears fall.

****

Steve waited patiently for a good while before he began to get nervous. He knew Tony was in there crying, and he wanted to give Tony a chance to calm down and come out on his own. He knew how embarrassed he would feel if someone were to walk in on him while he was upset like that, and so he waited.

And the longer he waited, the more worried he became.

There was no denying that something was very wrong here. It would be horrible for anyone to be suddenly inundated with a year's worth of memories, but Tony seemed to be having trouble deciphering what was real and what was a memory. His continued flinching back from physical contact was disturbing, but worse was the way his eyes kept drifting out of focus as he lost the thread of reality.

Steve had not had that problem when he broke free from what Red Skull and Doom had done to him. He had been forced to leap straight into action, though, which could account for the difference in their reactions. He had not been given any time to think about what had happened to him, or dwell on the past.

But he also suspected the difference lay in what they had each been forced to remember. Steve had relived some of the worst days of his life over and over. Yet those events had not been new to him. At that point he had already spent years suffering from nightmares where he experienced those things all over again – Red Skull's torment had been terrible, but it had not really been anything new in that regard.

But Tony had forgotten all those things he had just been forced to remember. Those memories had been lost forever when he deleted his brain in order to save the superhero community from Norman Osborn's grasp. He had known about them, of course, but only because he had read about them. To him those events had been nothing but academic facts, like stating that Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. They had about the same emotional impact.

Now everything was changed. Tony not only remembered what had happened during the Civil War and the Skrull invasion, he was forced to acknowledge and accept the emotional weight of those memories. It was little wonder he could not seem to stop crying – one year later, and he was grieving all over again.

And that was precisely why Steve was worried. The Tony he had known in the past – in fact, even the Tony he had known two weeks ago – would have walked out of that bathroom with his head held high. He would have made a self-deprecating remark about what had just happened, and then he would have brushed it off.

This Tony could not do that. Maybe – hopefully – in time he could. But right now he was still too…

Steve sighed. He paced the length of the living room. He had folded the sofa bed back up and put the coffee table back in place. He had placed Tony's clothes, nearly dry by now, on the closest chair. And now there was nothing to do but stalk back and forth and try not to imagine what Tony was doing behind that closed door, in that room where Sharon kept a large bottle of aspirin and Steve's straight razor was laying on the counter.

No, he told himself. Tony wouldn't. He would never. If he hadn't done it during the past year, living through those terrible events the first time around, he wouldn't do it now.

And yet… His terrible desperate decision to delete his own brain. Hadn't that been a form of suicide, in its own way?

At last Steve could not bear it another moment. He broke off his pacing and walked up to the bathroom door. He put his ear to the wood, straining to hear anything.

The silence was unnerving. "Tony?"

He heard a sharp breath, like a sniff, then nothing.

"Tony? Are you okay?" He tried the doorknob, but of course it was locked. "Tony, let me in."

Silence, not even another breath.

He rattled the door. "Tony. Let me in or I'll kick this door down." He didn't want to do anything that drastic – Sharon would kill him, for one thing – but he wasn't above using the threat if it would get him inside that room.

At last the silence was broken. He heard a faint shuffling noise, another quick inhale, then the rattle of the lock.

Steve quickly gathered up everything Tony had been wearing last night, then counted to three. "Okay," he said. "I'm coming in."

He opened the door. He had half-expected to find Tony huddled on the floor, but to his relief, Tony was simply standing there in front of the sink. His eyes were red and bloodshot, and little tremors worked through him, but he was upright, which Steve took as a good sign.

"I've got your clothes," he said. "Figured you'd want to get dressed."

Tony nodded. He stared at the gleaming chrome of the sink faucet. "Thank you," he whispered.

"How about I make us something to eat?" Steve suggested. It was well past noon, and his stomach was growling, reminding him that he had not eaten yet today.

"I can't…" Tony shook his head.

Steve ignored this. He walked into the bathroom just far enough that he could leave the pile of Tony's clothes on the counter, then he backed out. "Get dressed," he said firmly. He shut the door as he walked out.

He listened, but there was no click of the lock this time.

He went into the kitchen and began heating up some soup and making a few sandwiches. Nothing fancy, just food that was filling and tasted good. He had been where Tony was before, having gone without real food for too long, and he knew that a man could not just start eating steak again after something like that.

The soup was done before he thought to look up – and saw Tony standing at the far end of the living room, about as far away as he could get without being backed up against the wall. He smiled. "Good timing."

Tony did not smile back. He had put on his black suit pants and the white dress shirt, but nothing else. Barefoot, with the light from the RT shining through the fabric of his shirt, he looked almost small. Nothing at all like the man Steve had known for so long. "Why are you doing this?" he asked, and his voice was still too painful and hoarse.

"Because it's what you need," Steve said. He carried the soup bowls over to the table where he usually ate his meals. It was half-covered in old magazines and stacks of bills, but there was still plenty of room to eat. "You need to eat, and you need to sleep. Give your mind a chance to sort everything out."

It was like Tony hadn't heard him. "I'm so sorry, Steve. For all of it. Bill. And Jan. And—and you. Your ba--" He broke off, his eyes wide. "Steve. Oh God."

There was no time to wonder what Tony had been about to say. With a faint sigh, Tony sank to the floor, just crumpling to his knees like he suddenly lacked the strength to stand.

Steve hurried into the living room. "Tony?"

Tony looked up at him, his blue eyes so full of pain that it made Steve wince to see it. "Why are you… How can you… Why don't you hate me?" He stared up at Steve, genuinely confused. "Why don't you hate me?"

Steve sighed. He did not want to have this conversation right now. They needed to, and they would, but not now. Not when Tony still couldn't even distinguish reality from memory.

Carefully he knelt down, noting with a sinking heart the way Tony tensed up, still expecting to be struck. He kept his hands on his thighs, and said, "Listen to me. I was angry, all right? I was very angry. But I never hated you, Tony. Never."

"You did," Tony said desolately. "I saw you. I remember, Steve." He laughed, and the sound of it chilled Steve to the core. "You see, I can say that now. I remember."

"You might remember it," Steve said, "but you don't know everything. Now come on, let's get you up." He leaned in and took hold of Tony's upper arms, so he could pull him to his feet if Tony could stand on his own.

Tony inhaled sharply, his entire body going rigid. He made no move to help himself as Steve lifted him up and set him on his feet. When Steve released him, he simply stood there, swaying a little, his eyes wide and slightly unfocused.

"Okay," Steve said. Clearly Tony had gone as far as he could under his own power. He bent down and picked Tony up and began carrying him over to the couch.

"Don't," Tony said. "Don't." He turned his head away, but he did not struggle or try to get free.

Steve laid him down on the couch. He wished now he had kept the bed pulled out, but it was too late for that. Instead he just made Tony as comfortable as he could, then spread the blanket over him. "Get some sleep," he said. "We can talk when you wake up."

Tony stared up at him, his eyes so full of pain and self-loathing that Steve could hardly bear to look. "Why can't you just hate me?" Tony whispered.

Steve stood up straight. He could not talk about this now. He could not. So much had happened between them, and for him most of it had happened just a short time ago. He barely even knew what his feelings regarding Tony were. He certainly could not stand here and talk about them. "Because you're my friend," he said tightly.

Tony closed his eyes.

He had to clear his throat in order to speak. "Go to sleep," he said. And then, because he did not trust himself to say anything else, he walked away.

****

It was dark out when Tony woke up. The room was cast mostly in shadow, with only a single lamp lit. The drapes were drawn, but he could hear rain striking the windows.

For a while he simply lay where he was, dozing a little still, not completely awake yet. He was on his right side, a pillow beneath his head and a blanket covering him from head to toe. The wound in his side ached, but the pain was tolerable. His head still hurt too, but gone was the clamor and chaos of memories without a home. For the first time in over a week, he felt reasonably confident in calling his thoughts his own once more.

A quiet sound caught his attention, and jerked him into full awareness. A sudden rush of adrenaline had him sitting up in a hurry, hissing a little as the pain in his side flared up.

Across the room, Steve was sitting in a gray armchair beside the lamp. He was reading – the sound of him turning the page was what had finally woken Tony up for good.

Steve set his book down. He was dressed in a plain blue T-shirt and jeans, socks but no shoes. The light from the lamp caught in his hair and showcased the line of his jaw. He smiled. "You're awake."

Tony just stared at him. He had very vague memories of what had happened since his arrival here – which was rather wonderfully ironic, given that memory was the whole reason he was here in the first place – but he had the sinking feeling that he had not behaved very well. He was almost positive he had broken down crying at least once, and there had to be a reason he was only wearing half his clothes and why he had woken up on the couch.

"How do you feel?" Steve asked.

The question pretty much confirmed his suspicions – he had behaved badly. He hunched his shoulders a little. "Better. I think."

"That's good," Steve said. He stood up.

"Thank you," Tony said. He stared down at his feet, too embarrassed to look Steve in the eye. "For looking after me. I don't think I was very…coherent before."

"Not really, no," Steve said.

Tony tried to smile; it ended up just being a miserable twist of his mouth. "Sorry about that. I should go."

"What you're going to do," Steve said, "is take a shower. While you're doing that, I'm going to heat something up for dinner. Then we're both going to eat." He paused. "Then we can talk."

Tony just nodded. There was really nothing he could say. They did need to talk. There was no sense in putting it off. He might as well get it over with, sever that last tie with Steve, so they could both move on with their lives.

"Okay," he said in barely a whisper.

"Okay," Steve agreed.

****

There were two of everything in the shower. Soap, shampoo, conditioner, puffy loofah sponges. One set clearly belonged to a woman. The other stuff was just as obviously Steve's. Tony stared at the various bottles for a long time, trying to decide whose integrity he would be violating more if he chose their product to use.

In the end it was the stupid, selfish need to hold onto Steve's scent that made him reach for the bottle of Steve's shampoo. He washed quickly, all too aware that Steve was out there waiting on him, waiting to pass judgment on him. It would not do to be late to his own sentencing.

He emerged from the bathroom with damp hair, bare feet, and a pounding heart. For a while he simply stood there in the living room and watched Steve putter around in the kitchen. It had been many years since he had witnessed such a sight, not since they had all lived in the mansion as a team. Before Wanda had torn them apart and destroyed the house. Before he had gained Extremis. Before the Winter Soldier, before the Superhuman Registration Act, before the Skrulls.

Steve's hands were deft and sure as he pulled apart a head of lettuce to make a salad. He moved around the kitchen, graceful on his feet, barely having to look up in order to reach for something, so confident was he of his surroundings. Watching him brought a lump to Tony's throat that had nothing to do with the knife-edge of grief that still cut through him at the thought of Steve's death.

He had to hold onto moments like this. Create new memories to join the hellish ones that were now a part of him again. They would be all he had in the years to come.

Steve glanced up and saw him standing there. He smiled. "Come on in."

In his mind's eye, Steve screamed at him. Was it worth it? Turned his back on him. We're not going to solve anything here. I should go. Bled out on the courthouse steps. Glared at him in fury. I'm saying that it was you who put this entire country in danger when you let a maniac like Norman Osborn have the keys to your armory! Stared at him expressionlessly from the bench in Yankee Stadium. What do you want, Stark?

"Tony?"

He shook his head sharply, shoving the memories back in their hole. "Yeah," he grunted. "Coming."

Dinner was simple. Salads, some bread, and a thick chicken soup. It was all very good, but Tony could barely choke it down. He knew he ought to be hungry, but the churning dread in his stomach would not allow him any kind of appetite. He did the best he could, though, not wanting to give Steve another reason to be displeased with him.

They did not talk while they ate. Long after the meal was over, they simply sat at the table. The silence thickened unbearably. Tony kept his eyes lowered, staring blankly at a few bread crumbs that had spilled onto the table's surface beside Steve's plate.

At last Steve cleared his throat. "How's your side?"

"Okay," he said listlessly. What did it matter? "Better."

"If you need a doctor—" Steve began.

He shook his head. "No. It'll be fine."

"All right," Steve said.

They sat in silence for another few moments. Then Steve said heavily, "Well, why don't we…?" He pushed his chair back and stood up.

Fear gripped Tony's throat. He could not speak, could only nod.

He followed Steve into the living room. His body felt strangely numb, almost detached from his brain. When Steve directed him to sit on one end of the couch, he did so immediately. To do otherwise was unthinkable.

Steve sat on the couch as well, on the far cushion to his left, leaving the space in the middle between them. It was still raining; the sound of it hitting the windows should have been soothing, but instead it just made him think about the way Arlington Cemetery looked in the rain.

He remembered sitting on a couch much like this one in his penthouse, on the night the SHRA became law. Happy had been with him, blissfully unaware that he only had weeks left to live. He remembered asking if Happy had heard from Steve. He remembered staring blindly up at the ceiling and saying, "Please let us be doing the right thing here…" He remembered thinking that he had never in all his life wanted so badly to be wrong – even though he had known in his heart that he was right, that everything he feared would come to pass.

What he thought now was that he had been the world's biggest fool. He had thought he knew what was coming, yes. But in the end he had been proven wrong. Ultimately he had been forced to acknowledge that he hadn't seen anything.

"I don't really know where to start," Steve said. "I thought I did, but… I guess I don't."

Tony just nodded. He could feel the tears wanting to fall, and he tried to breathe in steadily so he wouldn't alert Steve, because he had no right to cry, not when everything that had happened was his fault.

"I'm not going to ask you why," Steve said. "Or explain my reasons. You already know them. Or you should. Besides, we already had that conversation, and as I recall, it got us nowhere."

We're not going to solve anything here. I should go.

Dull clank of the shield hitting the floor. Fists rising.

All right. Let's go.

He nodded again. "I remember."

Steve glanced at him, then turned away again, staring out into the living room, much the same way Tony was. "Do you? Remember all of it?"

Like a movie sped up to a hundred times its normal speed, the images blurred before him. Fire and shouting and fists and Steve and death and blood and a cemetery in the rain and the Mandarin and cutting half his own foot off and Skrulls and Norman Osborn and Kazakhstan and stumbling lost and bewildered under a searing desert sun. He shuddered. "I don't know. I was only gone for a week, right? But I remember enough."

A whole year compressed into one week. What was missing? What hadn't made it onto the highlights reel Doom had forced him to relive?

Did he even want to know?

"I'm sorry," Steve said sincerely. "I can't imagine what that must be like."

He nodded, accepting the apology, because to do anything else would be ungrateful.

"What I want to know," Steve said, "is why you never told me. Why you waited until the middle of a battlefield to try to explain anything to me. Why you felt I was so unworthy of your confidence that you couldn't tell me ahead of time. Why you were so arrogant as to think that you could keep it all to yourself and make the kind of decisions that we used to make together, as a team. I want you to tell me, Tony. And I want you to be honest."

Steve didn't know that he had already done this. Steve didn't know about that confession he had made to a dead body. Pray to God Steve would never know.

"I knew it was coming," Tony said, slowly, haltingly. "You're right about that. I knew it for years. Not the actual law, but the war itself. I knew one day we'd find ourselves fighting each other. That's what I do, you know. I envision the future."

"You should have told someone," Steve said. "You should have told me."

"I did try!" he protested, momentarily stung into defending himself. "Over and over, but you never listened! And when I held my hand out to you, you lied to my face. You said I would have my chance, but then you attacked me."

Steve had the grace to look ashamed. "I'm sorry," he said stiffly. "That was a mistake. I never should have done that. I realized that later. But Tony, I'm talking about before the whole thing even began. We never even would have reached that point if you had just told me about it ahead of time."

"No one would have believed me," he said.

"I would have," Steve said angrily.

"No," he said dully. "No, you wouldn't have. You would have said I was being paranoid, that I was imagining things. That I was worrying about nothing. And you would have called me Shellhead and talked me into sparring with you and for a little while I could have pretended that everything was all right, that maybe I was wrong after all. But sooner or later, I would have had to face the truth again, and…and…and I would have hated you for that, for making me believe the lie, even for a short while. Because that would have made the truth that much more bitter."

He took a deep breath, still staring blankly into the empty space of the living room, seeing the past, and all those desperately lonely nights when he had lain awake for hours, trying to think of a way to combat the future. "So I didn't tell you. I did try, though. I met with people like Reed and Charles Xavier. I tried to bring us all together, so we could be ready. No one was interested."

"Reed. And Charles. But not me," Steve said.

"I couldn't…" He couldn't tell Steve that he had suggested Captain America's membership in the Illuminati, and that every single one of them had rejected that proposal. And rightfully so. Someone with Steve's morals did not belong to such a group. The things they had to do were beyond the pale. He could not in good conscience ask Steve to partake in that.

"Nick Fury was the one who told me about the Registration Act. As soon as I saw it, I knew. This was it. This was what would divide us. And I knew then, more than ever, that I couldn't tell you. Not when you would come down so clearly on the other side."

"If you would have come to me," Steve said. "Told me about it. We could have worked out a plan ahead of time. Together!"

"I tried to stop it," Tony said. "I did. I did everything I could think of."

"Everything except come to me!" Steve insisted, and it was just like him, to be so hung up on this one point to the exclusion of everything else. As far as Steve was concerned, that was Tony's biggest sin, that was what he deserved punishment for.

And to be fair, he was right.

"I couldn't," Tony said.

"You couldn't because you thought you could handle it all by yourself. You were too arrogant to ask for help," Steve said.

"I didn't want to drag you down with me," he whispered.

"Tony." Now Steve sounded shocked.

He managed a little smile. "It's okay. Someone had to be the bad guy. I knew it would be me. I didn't even care. I was saving lives, protecting people like Peter. He'd hate me for the rest of his life, but it was better than ending up on a dissection table."

He remembered the night he had first hinted to Peter about the Registration Act. Not naming it, but alluding to some looming ugliness in their future, shamelessly playing on Peter's hero worship in order to buy the young man's loyalty. Whatever it took to get Peter on his side, to save him.

Even Peter had asked him if they could tell Steve.

And he had said no.

"I was okay with that," he said. "I really was. Even though I knew we would never speak again, or be friends." He was repeating himself now, calling back to that dreadful confession he had made to Steve's dead body all over again, but what did it matter? The words were just as heartfelt now as they had been on that horrible day. "I told myself that as long as you stayed alive, and you were safe, that I was doing the right thing."

He saw it all over again. Steve's body arching as the bullet struck him. His slow fall to the ground. The way he lay there on the steps, his hands still cuffed behind him, unable to get up.

"And then you died," he breathed. "And I couldn't… I… I couldn't…" He began to cry then, unable to help it.

"Tony."

He buried his face in his hands. "Do you remember…what the last thing you said to me was?"

"Yes," Steve said quietly.

"It wasn't worth it," he wept. "It wasn't. It wasn't."

"Tony." The couch dipped as Steve shuffled closer. Steve's hand rested on his shoulder.

"Don't!" He wrenched himself away from that comforting touch, half-turning so he was facing away from Steve now. "God, don't. Please."

"If that's what you want." Steve moved back to his original spot on the couch.

He forced himself to take a deep breath. To get himself under control.

"All I ever wanted," he said, "was to keep you safe. All of you. You. Steve. And I couldn't. I failed. And nothing mattered then. I didn't care. I couldn't… Some days I could barely drag myself out of bed. And then they made me the head of SHIELD and what a laugh, I hated it, I hated it, and they all hated me too, and I couldn't blame them for it because I hated me, too."

"Tony, you don't have to—"

"No, you wanted to know," he said. "You wanted an explanation. Well, this is it." He wiped furiously at his eyes. "This is it."

He picked up his head, turned ever so slightly so he was staring back out into the living room. "I couldn't let you die for nothing. So I kept on pretending. Acting like I knew what I was doing. Moving ahead with the Fifty State Initiative. I didn't do all that because I was arrogant. I know that's what you think. It's what everyone thinks. That I won."

Because he won, and now he's in charge, and this is his reward. This is his prize for winning.

"But the truth is, I lost. Because when you died, I lost everything that mattered. And by then it was too late to tell you." Back then he hadn't been able to bring himself to say it. Even when there was only himself and that bloody shield, he had lacked the courage.

But if he was ever going to say it, ever truly explain himself, it had to be now. There was never going to be another chance. Not ever again.

"Because the truth is… I love you, Steve Rogers. I have loved you for as long as I can remember. And there is nothing I can do about it."

Steve did not respond. Not with words. But he heard the faint exhale, the shocked breath, and he knew Steve had heard.

"I know you don't feel the same way," he said. "And I'm fine with that. I really am. I made my peace with it long ago. But you asked me for an explanation, and I owe you the truth, for once in my life. I love you, and everything I did, everything I did, was to save you. From them. And…and…from me."

He bowed his head. "And now you know."

"Tony…" Steve sounded shell-shocked. "I don't know what to say to that."

He looked up, and over at Steve. He smiled. Pretending again, putting on a brave face for the world to see, like he had done on every single one of those days when Steve was dead and he had to struggle to find a reason to get up in the morning. "You don't have to say anything. It's okay. Honest. You don't have to say anything."

"I want, to, though," Steve said. "I just… Give me a minute, okay?"

"Okay," he said. He looked away, because he had always been very good at that bright smile, even when he was miles away from meaning it, but for some reason he could not keep it up now. Not when he had just confessed everything that truly mattered.

Silence stretched out between them. Tony rubbed at his eyes and willed himself to stop crying. He had to get it together. He owed Steve more than this pathetic display of weakness. Not after everything he had done.

"I wish you had told me," Steve finally said. "I wish I had known…before."

"Would it have made a difference," he said dully.

"Yes," Steve said. "It would've." He took a deep breath. "Because I would have done everything in my power to make you see that what you were doing was wrong. I would have made sure that you didn't hate yourself so much that you thought this was the only choice you had. And I would have made damn sure that you didn't face it all alone."

Tony just sat there, utterly still. He even forgot how to breathe.

"But we'll never know now, will we?" Steve said sadly.

"So what are you saying?" he whispered.

"I'm saying that I still believe registration was wrong," Steve said. "And I believe that what you did was wrong. But I also believe that you did it with only the best of intentions, for what you genuinely believed were the right reasons."

He nodded. It was more than he had ever dared to hope for. At least Steve no longer thought that he had supported registration because of Extremis and how it had affected him, or as a power play, or any of the other reasons that had been offered up as an excuse for his behavior.

"And I'm still trying to come to terms with everything," Steve said. "Not just what happened between us, but all of it. And the truth is…I missed you, Tony. You've always been one of my best friends, and when it seemed like I had lost you forever…"

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I know I ruined everything."

"Let me talk," Steve said.

He bit his lip and nodded.

Steve blew out a long breath. He shook his head; his hands were clasped between his spread knees. "When I thought I had lost you to the other side, I didn't know what to do. It hurt. A lot. I didn't expect that. I know I lashed out in anger, I know I said some terrible things, made accusations… I'm not excusing what I did. But I am apologizing." He looked up. "I'm sorry, Tony. For everything that happened between us. I'm sorry."

Tony was too astonished to respond right away. He looked at Steve, scarcely believing what he had just heard. Steve had died because of him, and now Steve was apologizing to him?

"No," he said frantically. "No, you can't. You can't… Don't say that. You didn't… It was me. It was my fault. I did it all. You don't… I'm the one who killed you, Steve. I did that, not you. So don't—"

"Tony. You didn't kill me," Steve said.

"Yes, I did!" he shouted. "Don't you get it? You were right! If I had told you, if I had just told you…"

"Red Skull is responsible for me being shot," Steve said.

"Because of me!" Tony yelled. "I might as well have been working for him!"

"Don't be ridiculous," Steve said coldly. "Remember who you are, Avenger."

The epithet was like a slap in the face. Tony reeled back in shock. "Wh--what did you just call me?"

"You heard me," Steve said. His face was pale, but determined.

"Am I?" Tony said. "Still an Avenger?"

"You never stopped being one," Steve said.

Tony just stared at him. Only a few weeks ago he had stood outside the ruins of Asgard and all but begged Steve for the chance to earn his friendship back. They had embraced, and he had walked away from there with Thor's arm about his shoulders and Steve at Thor's other side. For a few shining moments, he had felt accepted again, like the past could truly be overcome.

He should have known better. There was no escaping the past – even if you could not remember it. And now he did not have even that flimsy excuse.

"Maybe that's the problem," he said.

"What do you mean?" Steve asked, his brow furrowed.

"Maybe you need to stop thinking about me as an Avenger. It would make it easier on everyone. And…" He drew in a shaky breath. "And it's the right thing to do."

"How is it the right thing to do? What are you talking about, Tony?" Steve still looked angry and bewildered.

"I'm saying that I should not be an Avenger anymore," Tony said. "I don't belong on the team. I can't be trusted, obviously. And it's no more than what I deserve, after everything I did."

"So that's what this is," Steve said flatly. "A punishment."

Tony looked down. His mouth quirked. "Call it justice, if you like."

"No," Steve said, in that tone that brooked no argument. It was his Captain America voice, the one that said he would not be gainsaid. "Look at me, Tony."

He did not want to. This was already hard enough without having to look into Steve's blue eyes, to see the past rise up in waves every time he saw Steve's face. But this, too, was his just reward, and so he forced himself to look up.

Steve did not look angry anymore. If anything, he just seemed determined. "Removing you from the Avengers isn't justice. And it isn't a punishment. Yes, you did some terrible things, but it seems to me that you've already been punished enough. You lost your company, your money, your reputation, your mind, all your friends." He softened his voice. "I don't think those things matter to you, though. Not as much as they would to most of us."

There was nothing he could say to that. It had all happened before, it was true. And it would probably happen again. That was how his life went. He lost everything and he clawed and scrabbled his way back to the top, only to lose it all again. It was just part of being Tony Stark.

"Besides," Steve said, "I think you're already punishing yourself enough."

"No," he said. He shook his head. "It's not enough. Kick me off the team, Steve. Please."

"Stop that," Steve snapped. "You've paid for your sins, Tony, as far as I'm concerned."

"Have I?" he said. "You haven't even asked me yet about the Skrull invasion."

Steve blinked in surprise. "What do you want me to ask?"

The obvious questions, of course. Surely by now Steve had been filled in on such a major event. Surely he knew what had happened. "Don't you want to hear how it was all my fault? Don't you want to hear about how I got Jan killed, and countless other people?"

Irritation flared in Steve's eyes again. "No," he said. "Because I know those things weren't your fault. You didn't kill Jan. A Skrull posing as Hank Pym did."

"No, that's not true," Tony said. "I should have seen it coming. I'm a futurist, remember? And I worked with Hank. I should have known he was a Skrull."

"No one knew they were here," Steve said. "Not even Reed, and he was living with one for months. You can't blame yourself. I've heard enough about the invasion to know that one man alone couldn't have stopped it. Or caused it. They thought you were a threat, Tony. They went to great lengths to neutralize you and your technology. That tells me something. It tells me that they were afraid of you."

Carol had tried to tell him that once. It was a nice thought. Too bad it wasn't true. "It tells me that I was clearly in a position to be able to stop them, or else they wouldn't have been so determined to get me out of the way. And I didn't stop them. I failed."

Steve shook his head. "You might be a futurist, but you aren't clairvoyant. No one is. You did everything you could. And I know that people blamed you for the attack, but they were wrong. It wasn't your fault."

Tony said nothing. He knew in his heart that Steve was wrong. No amount of wishing would change that.

"And they were wrong to abandon you after that," Steve said with that same steely determination as from before. "For letting Osborn hunt you down like that, and for not coming to your aid. That's not what we do. We look out for each other. And you better believe that something like that won't happen again. Not on my watch."

Tony was too shocked to say anything. Of all the people to defend him, Steve was pretty much the last person in the world he would have thought of. Once upon a time, of course, that would not have been true. But now, after everything…

"And while we're on that subject," Steve said, "let me tell you now that if you ever decide to do something that stupid and dangerous again, you won't have to wait for Norman Osborn to hunt you down. I'll do it myself first, do you understand?"

Still reeling with shock, Tony mumbled, "There was no other way."

Steve shook his head. "I don't believe that. Because I know you. You always have a plan." Something indefinable flashed in his eyes. "No, I think you wanted this. You wanted to forget. To kill yourself, even. You didn't want us to bring you back, did you?"

He remembered now recording that message on his final day at SHIELD, just before that last disastrous meeting with Norman Osborn. He remembered sitting there and cracking that joke about being at an AA meeting, because even lame humor was better than crying. He remembered thinking that he was standing on a very high ledge, and that the fall had never looked so inviting.

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?

He had never really expected that they would. Why on earth would they? Each of them – Rhodey, Thor, Pepper, Bucky – had suffered because of him. He could think of no reason why any of them would want him back, why they would want to put themselves through all that again. They were better off without him in their lives constantly exposing them to danger and getting them hurt.

Steve seemed oblivious to the dark turn of his thoughts. He was getting more passionate now, his words clipped but his hands making expansive gestures. "God Tony, how could you do that? How could you be so selfish?"

Hearing it stated so plainly made him want to shrivel up and die of shame. "I know," he whispered. "It was selfish. I shouldn't have put them through that, having to watch me deteriorate like that. But it was the only way. I couldn't have done it by myself."

"No!" Steve said loudly. "Don't you understand? All you were thinking about was you. You never once thought about anyone else, and what they might think. You never once thought about me!"

"I thought about you all the time," Tony whispered.

Steve did not seem to hear him. He was almost shouting. "You never once thought what this would do to me. I'd already lost you before, and now you were going to make me lose you again. How could you do that? How could you do that to me, Tony?"

None of that made any sense. "I don't… You were dead. What are you talking about?"

"I'm saying, I love you!" Steve cried. "I love you, you idiot!"

The shock on Steve's face as he realized what he had just said was priceless. He blinked rapidly, his eyes very wide.

For his part, Tony could only stare. If it hadn't been for that white horror on Steve's face, he could have convinced himself that he had heard wrong, that his overtaxed brain had substituted those words of love for whatever Steve had actually said.

But it was real. The look on Steve's face was real. And that meant the words were real.

"Tony. I…" Steve clamped his jaw shut.

"It's okay," he said with a weak smile. "I won't hold you to it."

Steve groaned. "God. No. That's not what I meant."

He could not bear to see Steve squirming like this, trapped by his own thoughtless words. It was not at all like Steve, and it was not a pleasant sight. He was nearly overwhelmed by the urge to let Steve off the hook, to reassure him that nothing had changed, that he knew what had happened, that he was okay with it.

He summoned up his best, winning smile. It was incredibly painful, but he managed it. Somehow. "No, it's okay. Trust me. I get it."

"Would you just stop talking?" Steve snapped. "God. Why do you have to make everything so difficult?"

Tony flinched, and fell silent. Remembering his place. Remembering that he had no right to ask anything of Steve right now. Remembering Steve pointing at him in the gardens of the ruined mansion: …and when you get down to it, what you want has always come first.

Now Steve – and whatever Steve wanted – had to come first. He had long ago lost the right to make any demands of his own, back when he had decided not to include Steve in his plans for the future. So now he had to sit here and listen to what Steve wanted to say, and keep his mouth shut.

Steve took a deep breath. He bowed his head a little, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "You always do this. I never understood why." He looked up.

There had been many occasions over the years when Tony had felt pinned in place by Steve's gaze, but none of those times held a candle to how he felt right now. He could feel his heart speeding up, hear his rapid breathing.

It all came down to this moment. Nothing that had come before made any difference. Not his extended hand on the battlefield. Not the bittersweet, shared smile in the wreckage of the mansion. Not his confession to Steve's dead body. What Steve said now was the only thing in the entire world that mattered. Steve's next words would either break him or sustain him – and he did not honestly know which outcome he feared more.

"I think," Steve said slowly, "maybe now I do."

And to his utter astonishment, Tony did not break.

"How long?" Steve said.

It would insult them both to pretend he didn't know what Steve was asking. He swallowed hard. "I don't know. Years. It seems like I've always…" He inhaled shakily. "I've loved you for as long as I can remember."

"And you didn't think I loved you back," Steve said.

God, he couldn't do this. He turned away, seeking something in the open space of the living room to fix his gaze on. Something to stare at instead of Steve's face. "I hoped," he admitted. "I mean, as a friend."

"But not as a man," Steve said quietly.

"How could you?" he whispered. "Why would you?"

"Because you weren't good enough for me," Steve said.

He had never thought Steve could be this cruel, to make him say it out loud. "Yes," he whispered.

"So you just made the decision," Steve said. "All those years ago. For both of us. You decided that you knew my feelings on the matter, without even consulting me. And you never bothered to tell me."

He was close to tears now; the bookshelf he was staring at blurred and doubled in his vision.

"That's your problem, Tony. That's always been your problem. You just arbitrarily decide that you know best for everyone around you, and you never stop to actually talk to anyone. You just assumed that I wouldn't feel the same way about you, so you never even gave me a chance to consider it. And the same with the Registration Act. You just assumed that no one would support you, so you didn't tell anyone."

"I'm sorry," he breathed.

"This stops now," Steve said firmly. "No more, Tony. You're through making decisions for other people."

A thousand protests rose clamoring in the back of his throat. He couldn't do that. He could no more do that than he could give up being Iron Man. He was unique among the superheroes, one foot firmly in their world, one foot firmly grounded in the reality of the business world. He had a sense of perspective that no one else had. He was privy to information that no one else had. He was smarter than the rest of them. He had the tools to make the decisions that they could not. He—

He was an arrogant asshole and he was responsible for Steve's death.

"Because from now on," Steve said, "we're going to make those kinds of decisions together. All right?"

That was impossible. He couldn't have heard right.

"Tony? Did you hear me?"

Slowly he turned his head to look at Steve. "Why?"

Steve's jaw was set in that stubborn look that Tony knew only far too well. "Because," he said. A strange expression crossed his face – one that took Tony a long time to identify, mostly because it was so rare to see Steve Rogers scared. "Because I just realized that I love you, too, and despite everything that's come between us, I don't want to lose you again."

And he held his hand out.

Tony stared at that hand. He remembered a night set against fire and flames, when he had held out his hand and Steve had taken it, only to betray him. He remembered making the same offer in the ruins of mansion, in tears as he pleaded with Steve to join him. He remembered standing up after making his confession, reaching out with one hand to touch the blood-spattered shield for the last time.

Now it was Steve who reached out toward him.

He was helpless not to respond. His hand shook as he held it out, dreading the inevitable betrayal, the reveal of the lie – and yet hoping, the way he always hoped, the way he would always hope.

Their fingers touched. It was like an electric shock went through him, and for an awful moment Tony went rigid in terror, unable to believe that he had fallen for it again, that Steve could do this to him…then Steve's hand closed over his, and there was nothing but warm skin and the sensation of Steve's fingers entwined with his own.

Steve looked down at their clasped hands, then up at him. He gave Tony a somewhat rueful smile. "I'm not really good at this. I know I don't…say the right things."

"It's okay," Tony rushed to reassure him. "You don't have to say anything."

"No," Steve said, his smile vanishing. He punctuated that single word with an almost painful squeeze of Tony's hand. "That's exactly the kind of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place."

"Okay," Tony said. He looked down, at their hands, at the couch cushion, at the faded blue of Steve's jeans. Anywhere but at Steve's face. He still felt a vague fear creeping over him, kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under him.

This could not be real. It just couldn't.

Steve's fingers pressed his. "Although…I can't actually think of anything to say right now," Steve admitted.

Tony knew the right words. He had said them in Oklahoma, and he thought he might have said them last night when he was barely lucid, but they needed to be said again. He could spend the rest of his life saying them all day, every day, and it still wouldn't be enough – but he had to try.

"Let me," he said.

"Go ahead," Steve said, with another tiny squeeze of his hand.

"I'm sorry," he said. The tears were back, choking his voice, turning it into a mere whisper. "I'm so, so sorry. For all of it. I know I don't deserve your friendship—"

"Tony—"

"—and I don't expect you to love me, I don't, you don't have to, it's okay, but I—"

"Tony." Steve gave one mighty pull, and he was suddenly yanked across the couch to find himself pressed up against Steve, his face buried in Steve's chest, his upper body draped across Steve's lap. It was awkward and it was embarrassing and he flailed with his free hand as he struggled to sit up again.

Steve saved him the trouble. With perfect ease, Steve sat him upright while simultaneously sliding closer, so they were sitting with their thighs touching. Before Tony could do more than register this fact, Steve's arms were around him, holding him tight.

He stiffened, unsure what to do next. "Steve."

"Not another word," Steve commanded.

Tony remained perfectly still, sniffing back the tears and wondering what he was supposed to do now.

Steve did not speak again. They simply sat there, Tony with his cheek resting on Steve's collarbone and an almost painful tug on the wound in his side; Steve with both arms encircling him and his chin resting on Tony's hair.

He didn't know what he was supposed to do. Where he should put his arms. He wanted to hug Steve in return, but he didn't dare. What if Steve told him no? What if he screwed this up, this moment he had yearned after for so very long? He could feel himself trembling, and he knew Steve must be able to feel it, and his anxiety escalated into something terribly close to fear. He was ruining this, he knew he was, the way he ruined everything…

One of Steve's hands lifted, then began to rub his back. "It's okay," Steve said.

It was like being granted permission. Tony let himself slump against Steve, wrapped both arms around him and stopped trying to hold back the tears. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."

For a long while after that, there was nothing but the strength of Steve's arms, and the terrible tears he could not stop. He cried out his grief and loss, for all those long days and nights when he had stood alone with no one to turn to, for all those things he should have said but didn't, for all those things he should have done but failed to do.

Steve just let him cry. He did not say anything. But he did not stop rubbing his back, either, and eventually Tony calmed down enough to drag in a few shaky breaths and wipe at his eyes.

"Sorry," he muttered. He started to sit up.

For a moment Steve's arms remained tightly about him, then Steve let go, and he was able to sit up. Immediately he missed the comforting warmth of Steve's body, and he wished he hadn't moved.

It got worse when he looked up and saw that Steve's eyes were reddened. His cheeks were dry, though, so he hadn't actually wept, but it had obviously been close – and Tony hated himself for that, for doing that to Steve. He had been so wrapped up in his own guilt and pain that he had forgotten that Steve had only been back from the dead for a few weeks, that Steve was still struggling to find his way in a world that had moved on after his death.

Everything he said was wrong, and everything he had done since coming here was selfish. He had made tentative strides toward mending his friendship with Steve, and that was the most he could hope for right now. It was time to end this, to accept that for the moment, he and Steve had come as far as they could, and move on.

"I should go," he said, looking down at the floor. "Pepper's probably worried sick."

"I talked to her this morning," Steve said.

Surprised, he looked up. "You did?"

"And you're right," Steve said. "She was worried. But I told her you were staying here for a little while, that everything was under control."

Tony stared at him. He had only the vaguest memories of what had come before this evening, but still... "I was a mess this morning."

Steve nodded. "Yeah, you were."

He couldn't help it. "That's your definition of 'everything's under control'?"

A small smile touched Steve's mouth. "Well, it worked out, didn't it?"

Tony shook his head. "You took a pretty big chance."

Steve's smile slowly disappeared. "I knew you," he said simply. "I knew you were strong enough to make sense of it all, that you'd be all right."

"Thanks," Tony said shortly, hoping he didn't sound too ungrateful. "That means a lot."

"Tony. Listen." Steve took a breath, then held it. "About what I said…"

He waited. He knew what was coming, and he braced himself for it. Steve would be kind, but there was still only one way this could end.

"I'm sorry I yelled," Steve said. "You didn't deserve to hear it that way. But I didn't… I don't know… Maybe I did know. Maybe that's why I reacted so badly during the fighting, why I couldn't understand how you could be on the other side." He shook his head. "I'm not really good at saying things like this. But what I said… It's true. I meant every word. I don't know when it happened but… I do love you, Tony."

They were still sitting close enough that their knees were separated by a mere inch. There was no escaping the amazing blue of Steve's eyes, or the honest sincerity on his face. "But you--"

"No," Steve said. "Don't. Just…listen to me. I love you, Tony Stark."

Terrible, wild hope blossomed in his chest. Maybe it really was possible to start over. Maybe there really was such a thing as a second chance. And maybe, just maybe, this was for real.

For years he had dreamed of hearing Steve say those words, and imagined how he might respond. Sometimes he had pictured himself kissing Steve, or else just swooping him into a giant, laughing embrace. Other times he had imagined them staring at each other in silence, memorizing each other's faces with no words necessary. Never, in all his flights of fancy, had he ever guessed that it would happen this way.

"I love you too," he choked out. "I have, for so long. When you were gone… I need you, Steve. I need you in my life. I need you to be my anchor. To make me a better person."

"You don't need me for that," Steve said. "You may be pig-headed and arrogant and way too smart for your own good…but you're still a good man, Tony."

"I'm really not," Tony said. "But when I'm with you…" He thought of what he had said outside the ruins of Asgard, asking for another chance at earning back Steve's friendship. I'm not half as good at anything as I am when I'm doing it next to you.

And if this was real, if Steve truly meant it…

Slowly, cautiously, he leaned in. Just a little. Just enough that Steve would be able to read his intentions – if Steve knew what to look for. But not far enough that he could not still salvage the situation, that he couldn't pass it off as coddling his injured side, for instance, or any other plausible excuse.

Steve did not pull back. He just gazed at Tony steadily, with no disgust in his eyes, no twitch of revulsion at his mouth.

Tony leaned further in, and now there was no disguising it. He searched Steve's face for any sign that he should stop. His heart was pounding so fiercely that he was certain Steve must be able to hear it.

He closed his eyes, too near now to want to see anymore. Willfully choosing ignorance, the way he had once deliberately chosen to leave certain memories behind. He should have known better, of course. The past always caught up to you. It was inevitable.

But the future was unwritten. Or so they said. And even he couldn't see it all…

His lips touched Steve's. It was a chaste kiss, sweet and simple and full of the trembling fear of rejection. But it was a kiss, his first kiss with Steve, and he sent up a silent prayer of thanks to whatever forces might be out there listening. Because even if he never had anything else, at least he had been granted this moment.

He sat back, looking intently at Steve, ready to seize on any indication that Steve was unhappy with what he had just done. But Steve just looked at him, his eyes clear and blue, and Tony dared to let himself hope. "Was that okay?"

Steve gave him a little smile. "Yeah," he said. "That was okay."

Tony relaxed then, realizing that he hadn't just royally screwed up. "Okay."

"But," Steve said, and his heart sank.

"I think we should just…let it go for tonight," Steve continued. He dropped his gaze, and now he looked somewhat uncomfortable.

"Yeah," Tony said. The word seemed to weigh a ton, making him work extra hard to get it out. "Okay."

"We've talked enough, don't you think?" Steve said.

He nodded. "Yeah." He cleared his throat, hoping that would make it easier to speak. "I'll, um, I'll get the rest of my stuff and go."

Steve looked up. "Tony, no." For a moment he looked almost alarmed, and one hand rose to take hold of his forearm. "Don't leave. That's not what I'm saying."

Tony glanced down at Steve's hand resting on his arm, then looked back up. "Then what are you saying?"

"I'm saying," Steve sighed, "and apparently pretty badly, is that it's late. It's been a long day. I'm tired, and you must be exhausted. Everything we talked about…it's a lot to take in. I need some time to--to think about things. I'm sure you do, too. That's all." He paused, and said, "I don't want you to leave, okay? I want you to stay."

Relief swept over him, weakening every muscle in his body so that he slumped back. But he smiled, and it was genuine. "I can do that."

"Good," Steve said. His hand tightened on Tony's arm for a moment, then he let go. "Good." He smiled back. "We can talk again tomorrow. Figure some things out."

That sounded rather ominous, but Tony nodded, trying to take the words at face value, as he knew Steve must mean them. "Okay," he said. He made a gesture to the couch they were sitting on. "I'll just stay out here, then."

"Yeah." Steve nodded, then stood up. He looked around the apartment, then back at Tony. He smiled. "Well, good night."

Everything had happened so fast, the kiss and Steve's withdrawal, and he understood the logic behind it, and it was a lot to think about, but Tony still couldn't help feeling strangely bereft. It was almost like when he had first woken up from the RT surgery, missing a huge chunk of his life and feeling like he was running to catch up, not fully comprehending what was going on all around him.

It didn't take long to get ready for bed. He went through the motions on autopilot, using a spare toothbrush in the bathroom, pulling out the sofa bed and making it up again. The bedroom door remained closed, and he tried to imagine what Steve was doing, if Steve was lying there thoughtful and awake, or if he had already managed to fall asleep.

For his part, Tony lay still for hours, staring at the drapes pulled over the window. He didn't even know when it had stopped raining. Over and over he replayed bits of his conversation with Steve, remembering what Steve had said, dissecting the words for hidden meanings. He felt small and miserably ashamed of his behavior, the way he had made excuses and cried instead of owning up to what he had done and accepting responsibility.

Tomorrow they would talk again.

Tomorrow he would do better.

****

In his dream he's standing by his desk, the desk that was once Nick Fury's. There is no nameplate here, no framed photograph. Only a coffee cup that was maybe originally clean last week but honestly he can't remember.

He's watching it live, via Extremis and a satellite hook-up. The crowds. The reporters. The courthouse.

He never wanted it to be this way.

Steve is walking slowly as the SHIELD agents escort him through the crowds. He is still in costume, minus the cowl. Tony hates that, but there was no chance of getting street clothes for him. Going back to Steve's apartment would be like walking into a death trap, and he could not in good conscience have sent any agents over there.

So instead Steve is in costume as he walks up the courthouse steps. But he might as well be naked for all the good it does him. The scales do absolutely nothing to protect him when the first bullet rips through his body.

In terrible slow motion, Steve arches with the impact. His face contorts with pain and shock.

Slowly, slowly he falls.

And Tony falls with him.

Steve lands on the steps, his hands crushed beneath him. His body is still. So very still. Blood seeps into the stone.

Tony screams in shock. Denial. Horror.

This can't be happening. This can't be happening.

Steve!

No no no no

Steve--!!

****

"Tony?"

Steve was there right in front of him, eyes so blue and worried. Steve bleeding on the courthouse steps. Steve lying dead beneath his bloody shield.

"Tony!"

He blinked, and a thousand memories of Steve – dying, dead, screaming in fury, fist raised, was it worth it – coalesced into a single image.

Just Steve. Standing beside the sofa bed. Wearing a T-shirt and sleep pants. Hair messed up and falling onto his forehead. Looking worried and alarmed.

"Steve." He lunged forward and latched onto Steve's arms with both hands. Patting him down, squeezing his wrists, desperate for the feel of solid flesh beneath his fingers. Not a figment of his imagination, not a dream come to strangle him and offer up cryptic clues, not a hallucination born of grief and guilt.

"I'm here," Steve said. "It's okay."

"I should have been there," he said, still frantically touching Steve. The words came pouring out, all the recriminations and blame he had harbored for so long, once mercifully forgotten but now remembered again. "I should never have… You shouldn't have had to go through that alone. I should have been there. I could have saved you. I just watched… And it was too late… I couldn't… And you fell. You fell… God."

"Tony." Steve's hands gripped the side of his face, forcing him to look straight into those magnificent eyes. "Look at me. Look at me."

He did, staring into Steve's face, his hands clutching at Steve's upper arms. He could hear his rapid breathing, how shaky it sounded, but he couldn't seem to stop.

"I'm all right," Steve said. "I'm here." He uttered a short laugh, seeming to tremble himself a little. "I'm alive."

At last it sank in, and Tony realized what he was doing, how clingy he was being, how terrible this had to be for Steve, to be reminded so horribly of his own death.

It was like being doused with a bucket of cold water. Horrified by himself, he let go of Steve's arms. "Steve." He reached up and took hold of Steve's hands, peeled them off his face. "I'm fine. I'm sorry. I'm fine."

Steve lowered his hands. He bent his head. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah," Tony said. He felt humiliated and angry – and still whenever he blinked he saw Steve lying there, the blood so red on those stone steps. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to…" He raked his hair back and sighed. "You should just ignore me," he said harshly. "This is probably going to happen for a while until I get my head sorted out."

"It probably will," Steve agreed. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to ignore you." He looked around the darkened apartment – he had not turned any lights on in the living room, and the only light came from the hallway. "Would it help if you…if you slept with me?"

Startled, Tony looked up. "What?"

"In the same room," Steve amended. "Just as a precaution." He looked embarrassed, but his jaw was set in that stubborn look of old. Like he was determined to say all this, no matter what. "It's a king-sized bed. There's plenty of room."

Prickly heat washed over him, humiliation making him want to curl up and hide his face. He knew Steve was only extending the offer so his own sleep would not be constantly interrupted by hearing Tony's nightmares. But at the same time he couldn't deny that he badly wanted to accept that offer. He knew perfectly well that the nightmare would return. Maybe even this very night. As Steve had said, it might help to be able to look over at any time and see that Steve was there, perfectly all right, alive and well.

"Thank you," Tony mumbled. "And I won't… You don't have to worry about me trying anything. I won't make a pass at you or anything."

Steve flushed, color rising in his cheeks. "I know that," he said.

Tony nodded miserably. "Okay."

"Okay," Steve said. He backed away from the sofa bed.

Without a word Tony followed him into the bedroom. It was dark in here still, but the light from the hall cast enough illumination for him to find his way without walking into anything. He climbed under the covers and lay stiffly on the far end of the bed, trying to put as much distance between Steve and himself as he possibly could.

"Just…get some sleep," Steve said.

The clock read 3:37. Tony stared at the numbers and watched them change. He listened to the sound of Steve breathing, and tried consciously to match the rhythm, especially when it became clear that Steve was falling asleep.

But it was no good. He couldn't do it. He couldn't let go.

For a long time he simply lay there, staring at the shadowy lump that was Steve's sleeping form, listening to him breathe. He wanted to commit this to memory, fitting it in with all the things he remembered now, somewhere in between the flames and the battles and Steve falling and sobbing over Steve's body and the Skrulls and the horror of losing his mind piece by piece. Surely there was room in there somewhere for a good memory, for this moment here, when he lay in the same bed as Steve and listened to Steve breathe and knew that Steve was warm and alive.

Surely he deserved this. Hadn't Steve himself said that he had been punished enough?

The minutes ticked down. Steve lay still, sleeping peacefully.

And after a long while, Tony slept, too.

****

The morning had dawned bright and sunny by the time Steve woke up. He wasted a few seconds staring at the quality of the light and feeling disoriented before he remembered everything that had happened – and then he went very still.

He was lying on his back, so it was a simple thing to turn his head to the right. And yes, there was Tony, curled up on his side, the light from the RT just visible through the sheet.

Steve took advantage of this chance to just look at him. Even in the morning light, Tony was too pale and drawn, but he appeared to be sleeping well, with no sign of any distress.

It was strange to wake up with another man in his bed. Especially when that man was Tony Stark. And especially now that he knew the truth that had lain hidden in his heart for so long.

He sighed a little and stared up at the ceiling again. He had not been merely making excuses last night when he told Tony that he needed time to sort through everything that had happened. Not just what they had discussed last night, but all of it. The Civil War itself and his apparent death at Red Skull's hands were just the tip of the iceberg.

The plain truth was that he didn't know yet if he had forgiven Tony for what had happened. Until two days ago, Tony's rather convenient memory loss had meant that he had a legitimate reason not to dwell on the subject – why bother imagining a conversation that you could never have? Why raise the questions in the first place when you would never get any real answers?

But now all that was changed. Thanks to Doom, Tony did remember. And now there was a whole array of possibilities in front of them. Last night they had talked about a great many things, but Steve was not fool enough to think that they were done. There were still many more that needed to be discussed. The issues that had driven them apart in the first place would not just magically disappear now that Tony remembered. Those things still needed to be dealt with.

He would deal with them, though, in a sane and rational manner, no matter how often he might want to put his fist through the wall. Victor von Doom had deliberately done this to Tony and then dumped him in Steve's lap, knowing full well that the consequences of Tony regaining his memory would be catastrophic. It was meant to strengthen the divide between them, to widen the rift. He had been meant to cast Tony out of the Avengers and forever ensure that he did not return, thus weakening them all and making it easier for someone like Doom to further his own agenda.

Well, that was not going to happen. Doom might be an evil genius, but he didn't know anything about Steve Rogers.

Not, Steve thought ruefully, that he was doing much better. As it turned out, there was a lot about himself that he did not know.

He wondered how long the truth would have remained hidden even from himself. When Tony had first shown up in Oklahoma, wearing that old armor and ready to come to the Avengers' aid, Steve's heart had skipped a beat. At the time he had attributed it to worries for Tony's physical safety. After all, at that point Tony had only been awake for a couple days following the surgery that had implanted the RT in his chest and restored his brain function. It was only natural to fear for him.

And that was no doubt a part of it. But looking back on it now, the simpler truth was that he had been excited to see Tony again – and worried – and fearful – and angry – and too many other things he could not name. It had always been that way. Thinking about Tony Stark was always guaranteed to fill him with emotion, and more often than not he could not puzzle out which of those feelings were strongest.

Well, he knew now.

It still amazed him to realize that he loved Tony. He didn't even know when it had happened. Or why he had never discovered the truth. Not until last night, when he had nearly been at the end of his rope. The only thing holding him back from shouting aloud in fury and putting his fist through the wall had been the knowledge that if he did, he would push Tony back into that dark place he had been when Steve had found him on the roof, teetering on the brink of insanity.

So he had reined in his temper and he had forced himself to remain calm. And in the end it had been the best thing, because Tony had filled his silence with words, with the thing that Steve had wanted so desperately to hear: An explanation.

Not that it had helped much. Tony had known about the Registration Act, had claimed to know about the impending Civil War. Yet he had told no one.

If you would have come to me. Told me about it. We could have worked out a plan ahead of time. Together!

I tried to stop it. I did. I did everything I could think of.

Everything except come to me!

The words still had the power to hurt. Years of friendship, years of love, if Tony was to be believed, had meant nothing in the face of Tony's decision to stand in support of the SHRA. Because Tony had decided on his own that Steve would not stand with him. And in making that decision, he had ensured that it came true.

Was that the behavior of someone who supposedly loved someone else?

It was, he decided sadly, if that person did not believe they were worthy to love someone.

I know you don't feel the same way. And I'm fine with that. I really am. I made my peace with it long ago. But you asked me for an explanation, and I owe you the truth, for once in my life. I love you, and everything I did, everything I did, was to save you. From them. And…and…from me.

Steve looked over again at Tony, who hadn't moved in all this time. He was still asleep, a few locks of dark hair falling over his forehead, his lips softly parted. The bruises on his forehead and temples, evidence of how he had been restrained in Doom's lab, were turning green, showing their age.

Only Tony Stark would want to save someone he loved from his own circle of influence. Because only Tony Stark would not believe himself worthy of loving that person.

Steve had long suspected that Tony did not think much of himself, and last night he had finally confirmed it. Because you weren't good enough for me. Making Tony say it out loud had been a necessary cruelty, putting the truth out there between them where they could deal with it.

And yet, he should have known. He should have recognized the signs long ago. Over and over again through the years, Tony had acted selflessly to save him. Most recently there had been the biological attack at Mount Rushmore, when Tony had exposed himself to a fatal toxin in order to breathe for Steve. And even more recently than that, mere weeks before the terrible accident in Stamford, Tony had stopped his own heart in order to destroy the out-of-control Hulkbuster armor that had been killing Steve. That time he had actually died, and remained dead for thirty-seven minutes, an endless stretch of time that had seemed to last for centuries while Steve agonized over the fact that he had never even had the chance to say good-bye.

Did Tony remember that day? He realized uncomfortably that he did not know yet what exactly Tony remembered. He didn't even know how far back Tony's actual memory stretched, before that break came when everything just…disappeared.

It didn't matter though, whether Tony remembered it on his own or because Doom had forced him to relive it. The same held true for all of it. Whatever the source, Tony remembered now. They had to deal with that.

Somehow.

I did everything I could think of.

Everything except come to me!

In the end, that was what it all came down to. Just two simple sentences, yet in them he could see the seeds for their destruction. Tony's belief that he had to go it alone, and Tony's silence.

That silence still made him angry, but he told himself fiercely to hold it together. Anger was a luxury he could not afford right now. He had to keep his head. Because of what Doom had done to him, Tony was too unstable right now to be able to do that. Which meant it was all up to Steve.

His gaze drifted back to the ceiling. He sighed. Well, what was done, was done. He could not undo it. What he had to do now was ensure that it did not happen again. He had made strides toward that goal yesterday, but he had a long way to go yet.

Communication was the key. He could see that now. He could not let them fall into the trap of not saying what was important, of hiding behind silences and half-truths, using the miles between them and the practicalities of their lives to dictate when and where they spoke. Never again could he let Tony feel that he had to shoulder a burden like the SHRA alone. Never again could they let the silence come between them, forming a chasm that even now could barely be bridged.

You should have told me.

He knew the truth now, though. He knew that Tony loved him. And he had admitted that he loved Tony in return.

Would it be enough?

Could it be enough?

A sudden sound from his right grabbed his attention. He looked over in time to see Tony flinch in his sleep as he whimpered again. Behind closed lids, his eyes moved back and forth as he dreamed, obviously seeing something terrible.

Steve frowned. Last night he had seen flashes of normalcy in Tony's behavior, but it was still very evident that he was not yet recovered from what Doom had done to him. Hopefully today would be better, but only time would tell. At this point Steve didn't know if it stemmed from a brain that was still trying to make sense of this influx of new memories, or if his distress was more emotional in nature, a result of the sudden guilt that consumed him.

Either way, he couldn't let Tony just lie here, trapped in another nightmare. Common wisdom said not to wake someone up when they were having a bad dream, but he simply could not do that. Not when it was within his power to do something about it. And even as he sat up and reached out, gently shaking Tony's shoulder, he found himself wondering if he could bear it if this was what it meant to love Tony Stark, to constantly feel this overwhelming desire to protect Tony – even from himself.

"Hey," he said softly. "Hey, Tony. Wake up."

Tony jerked and moaned again, coming no closer to waking up. Steve shook him again, harder this time. "Tony! Come on. Wake up."

Tony came awake all at once, crying out shortly, his eyes flying open. In that first moment he stared up at Steve in blind terror, obviously not knowing where he was or even seeming to recognize Steve. And as Steve released his shoulder and withdrew his hand, Tony flinched back violently, as though expecting Steve to strike him.

And that, Steve thought, was why they said not to wake someone up from the middle of a nightmare. Still, he didn't regret it. Already he could see Tony's eyes clearing and recognition returning. He waited, giving Tony time to recover, and by the time he had counted to ten, Tony had started to relax, and a sheepish embarrassment was creeping onto his face.

"Sorry," Tony muttered, looking away.

"It's my fault," Steve said. "I shouldn't have woken you."

"No," Tony said. "I'm glad you did." He gave Steve a pitiful little smile that was really just a slight curving of his mouth. "It was… It was bad."

Steve just nodded, but kept his hands to himself. Already over the past couple days, he had seen Tony flinch from him far too many times. He hoped he would never see it again.

He threw the covers back and climbed out of bed. "Take your time," he said. "I'm going to take a shower and then make some breakfast."

Tony nodded. "Okay. Um."

Already halfway to the bathroom, Steve stopped and turned around. "What?"

Tony frowned a little as he gestured to his bare chest. "I don't, um."

"Oh." Steve got it then. He thought fast, then pointed to the closet. "Feel free to take whatever you need. I'm sure something in there will fit you." Tony was almost as tall as he was, but much leaner. Most of Steve's clothes would be just a little too big for him, but not enough to make them uncomfortable.

He hurried through a shower and a shave, aware that Tony was waiting on him. He had the irrational worry that if he took too long, Tony would leave without a word. So he was utterly relieved to find that Tony was still there when he got out, standing in the living room in front of the bookshelves, head tilted to the left a little, the better to read the titles on the spines.

"Anne Rice?" Tony said. "Really?"

Steve just shrugged. "They're not my books." It was the closest he could come to mentioning Sharon – and he felt a sudden pang of guilt to realize that he had not once thought about her since he had found Tony on the roof.

To cover up his guilt – and to keep Tony from bringing up the subject of Sharon, now that he had alluded to it – he said, "Your turn. I'll start breakfast. Anything you want?"

"Whatever's convenient," Tony said. "I'm not really into breakfast. As long as there's coffee, I'm good." He spoke with the same light, even tone that Steve was using. Pretending that last night had not happened. That none of it had happened.

"All right," Steve said. "I'll see what I can do." He smiled, a gesture as fake as his voice.

Tony walked toward him, needing to pass by him in order to return to the bedroom, where he had made a neat pile on the corner of the bed of those clothes he intended to borrow. As he drew nearer, Steve felt his heart start beat faster, and his breath came shorter. His whole body tensed up in anticipation.

But Tony just walked past him, dropping his gaze as he went. He turned the corner into the hallway, and kept going, on into the bedroom.

Steve stood still for a long moment. After a while he huffed out a small laugh and hung his head.

He had really thought that Tony would stop and kiss him again. He had been nervous – but he had wanted it. He would have liked to have that chance, to do more than just press his lips to Tony's.

He wanted more.

He sighed. It was too soon. There was still too much between them, too many things that needed to be said. He could not let himself lose sight of that.

And yet, as he began to strip the sheets from the sofa bed, he couldn't help wondering just what it would have been like, had Tony kissed him again.

****

When Tony emerged from the shower, his hair still wet, the cuffs of his borrowed trousers rolled up to accommodate his somewhat shorter legs, Steve had barely gotten started on breakfast.

"I got sidetracked," he said. He gestured to the laundry basket now sitting on the couch. "I thought we could wash your suit when we were done here. There's a laundry room on the first floor."

Tony walked into the kitchen. He smelled of Steve's shampoo. The shirt he had chosen was a deep blue that complemented his eyes. Together the fabric and color were enough to hide the light of the RT in his chest. "Okay," he said. He watched as Steve whisked away at the pancake batter. "Anything I can do to help?"

"Since when do you cook?" Steve said with a teasing smile. That one felt far more natural, and more importantly, he genuinely meant it.

"It's one of my more well-guarded secrets," Tony said. He glanced at the package of bacon sitting on the counter, then began opening cupboards. He found what he wanted on his second try, and placed the skillet on the stove.

Breakfast, as it turned out, was strangely like the battlefield. Together they moved around the kitchen, using words sparingly but coordinating their efforts. Despite the fact that he had never been here before, Tony found his way around the kitchen with ease. As Steve stood by one side of the stove, flipping pancakes, Tony stood in front of the other burner, keeping one eye on the bacon and the other on the toaster. It was all charmingly domestic, and Steve was struck by a wave of desperate yearning.

He wanted every morning to be like this. He wanted to look up and see Tony crunching thoughtfully on a piece of bacon he had stolen when he thought Steve wasn't looking. He wanted to twist gracefully to the side, holding a plate of pancakes high over his head, as Tony walked past, carrying two mugs of steaming coffee. He wanted to share a smile as they both reached for the same piece of toast, and then wage a mock war over who got to butter it – only to end up shredding it into crumbs instead.

And it could be like this. It really could.

If he made it happen.

They sat at the table just inside the living room, and they ate breakfast, and Steve thought about all those mornings past in the Avengers Mansion. He had never really appreciated them before. Not the way he should. Sitting there with a newspaper folded in front of him, Clint and Pietro bickering across from him, Tony swooping in to grab a cup of coffee before hurrying out again, Jan laughing as she told Wanda a story from her most recent fashion show.

He missed those days more than he would have thought possible.

He could never get that more innocent time back – too much had happened, too many people had been lost – but he had a new opportunity now. One he could not afford to lose.

And it struck him forcefully, painfully, that it didn't matter if he forgave Tony or not. They had both screwed up. They had both made mistakes. And they had both paid for their sins. What mattered now was what they chose to do with this second chance they had been given.

He loved Tony, and Tony loved him.

And in the end, wasn't that all that mattered?

****

They did not talk much as they ate breakfast. Steve commented that the day was forecast to be sunny and warm. Tony said the pancakes were very good; even better, he actually ate most of them, instead of picking at his food as he had done the night before. Steve wondered aloud where his stash of quarters were, for their upcoming trip to the laundry room, and Tony lamented the use of being a billionaire when you didn't even have fifty cents on you. Afterward they cleaned up, and again Steve saw it, the way they worked so well together, putting the kitchen back in order in almost record time.

This is how it could be. Every day.

Together they took the elevator to the ground floor, where the laundry room was. A few of the machines were running, but they had the place to themselves. Tony stood with his arms folded and watched as Steve first put their clothes in the washer, then fed it quarters until it started up.

And then there was nothing to do but wait. The silence between them now was strained and tense, nothing like the easy companionable one they had shared over breakfast. It was becoming all too clear that they were actively avoiding talking about the things they still needed to discuss.

But Steve drew hope from the fact that Tony was still here, that he had not once today offered to leave or reminded Steve that he had been missing for a week or pointed out that he should call Pepper and Rhodey and reassure them that he was all right.

He suspected this was because Tony was waiting on him. To pass judgment. Render a verdict. At the very least, resume their conversation from last night.

Or maybe Tony, like Steve, was remembering their kiss and wondering when the next one would be. If there even was going to be a next one.

Whatever the reason, he was pleased to see that Tony appeared to be very nearly his normal self. The haunted look had all but left his eyes, and the overall impression Steve had was of a man who felt much stronger today. Finally ready to face the last of the questions still hanging between them.

"It's a nice day. Why don't we go for a walk?" he suggested.

They had slept so late and taken their time over breakfast; it was already after eleven o'clock. As they left the apartment building and stepped out into the New York morning, Steve saw Tony wince just a little as the bright sunlight fell on his face. A headache, maybe, another lingering reminder of his captivity in Doom's lab. Or maybe it was something more simple, like having to face the world now that he remembered everything he had done.

The sidewalks were crowded. People hurried past, most of them with their eyes lowered, looking at their phones or their music devices or simply choosing to ignore everyone else altogether. Hardly anyone glanced in their direction. Steve liked it that way; it was rare anyway for him to be recognized as Captain America, and since his return, not one person had singled him out as the legendary superhero.

Tony was another story, though. Everyone knew who Tony Stark was. Yet whether because fortune was with them for once, or because Tony himself was avoiding eye contact with the passersby, no one recognized them or stopped them.

They walked aimlessly, with no destination in mind. Steve was mindful of their laundry back at the apartment, and fully aware that they would probably come back to find some annoyed tenant had removed their wet clothes from the washer and dumped them on a counter – but he couldn't bring himself to care. Even knowing that Tony's expensive suit would probably be ruined could not make him walk any faster, or suggest that they turn around and go back.

They crossed streets when the light was with them, turned corners when it was not. His arm hung at his side, as did Tony's. Occasionally their hands brushed.

Steve did not look at Tony when this happened. He did not know what Tony was thinking, or if Tony even noticed those slight touches. What he did know was that it felt like every nerve ending in his body was suddenly concentrated in his right hand, that every brush of Tony's fingers against his set off a burst of fireworks deep within him that reverberated down to his core.

He could do this, he told himself. He had fought in a world war. He had faced Red Skull, Thanos, Galactus. He had saved the world a dozen times over. He could do this simple thing.

He was still steeling himself to find the courage to reach out, when Tony's hand took hold of his.

He had been so focused on himself that the sudden touch startled him. Without thinking, he jerked away.

Immediately Tony let go. Steve caught his stricken look, then it quickly disappeared as Tony put on his public face, that blandly smiling expression he used with reporters, the one that said he was fine, everything was just fine, and who had the next question.

"Sorry," Steve said. His heart was going a mile a minute. He reached out and clasped Tony's hand.

"You don't have to," Tony said without looking at him.

"I do want to," Steve said firmly. "You just…you took me by surprise." No more secrets, he reminded himself. "I was trying to work up the courage to do it first." He smiled.

Tony looked up at him, studying his face intently, no doubt looking for a sign that he was lying. Then he smiled back, tentatively at first, but with increasing sincerity. "Okay," he said. "Okay."

Now holding hands, they walked on. Steve kept his head up, but he could feel the back of his neck prickling. It seemed now that more people glanced up at him as he walked past. He told himself that he was just imagining things, but it was hard to shake the certainty that he was attracting attention.

It didn't matter, he decided. He was with Tony and it was a gorgeous day. For the first time in months, he felt young and hopeful again. He didn't kid himself that all their problems had been solved, but he was confident that there was a warm future ahead of him – one he fully intended to share with Tony.

They were heading back to the apartment now, via a rather circuitous route. Up ahead there was a little coffee shop, a place where Steve knew they could sit and remain undisturbed. He pointed it out. "Want to grab a cup of coffee?"

"I will never turn down coffee," Tony said. This time his smile looked rather artificial though, and Steve knew that he was thinking about what the sudden invitation could mean.

On the spur of the moment, he changed his original plan. "To go?" he offered.

Instantly Tony relaxed. "Yeah, okay."

The barista in the coffee shop did not recognize him either. Tony waited outside, hands thrust deep in the pockets of the trousers he had borrowed from Steve, kicking at stones with his expensive dress shoes. When Steve walked out holding two steaming cups of coffee, he had to bite his lip to keep from laughing.

"What?" Tony said, having seen his amused expression.

"I was just thinking that you looked like a big kid just then," Steve said. He grinned and held out Tony's coffee.

"Ha," Tony said as he accepted the cup. "The joke's on you. I was never a kid."

That wasn't funny at all, and Steve had to fight to keep the mood light. "Well," he said as they walked away from the coffee shop. "There is a little playground in the yard behind the apartments. I'm pretty sure you'll still fit on one of the swings there."

"Please," Tony scoffed. "Do you know how un-aerodynamic those things are?"

"No, but I have the feeling that you're about to tell me," Steve said, as he sipped at his coffee. With his other hand, he reached out and found Tony's hand, then clasped it warmly.

Without missing a beat, Tony shifted their hands so their fingers were laced together. He kept right on walking and talking. "If you really wanted to get any lift on those things, you'd have to change the entire design of the swing set."

"Yeah?" Steve said.

"Trust me," Tony replied. "I've done this before. Got the suspension from school to prove it."

Steve laughed. "I bet you do."

And inside, his heart was soaring. Every day. It could be like this every day.

****

They returned to find the laundry room still empty. Miraculously, their clothes were untouched in the washer. Steve shoved everything into the dryer and threw a few more quarters at the machine, then they headed back up to the apartment.

He set his nearly-empty coffee cup on the counter, tossed his keys down beside it, and started to take off his jacket. Before he could do much more than lower it from his shoulders though, Tony was right there, kissing him.

Steve made a surprised, "mmph" noise into Tony's mouth as he was pushed back up against the refrigerator. This kiss was nothing like the chaste one from last night. Tony's tongue was in his mouth, licking him, tasting him. Tony's hands gripped his shoulders tightly at first, then one hand rose to cup the back of his neck, fingers slipping through the short hair just above his collar.

With his arms mostly pinned by his jacket sleeves, there wasn't much Steve could really do except cup Tony's elbows. And return the kiss.

Which he did.

He had never kissed another man before. He might have expected it to be awkward, but it was not. Everything about it was just right. Tony's lips were firm and strong, and he tasted like coffee. The scratch of his mustache was almost pleasant, sending a tingling over Steve's skin and making his lips feel even more sensitive. Tony's hands were warm on the back of his head and his shoulder, sending heat through him that seemed to radiate out to fill his entire body.

Tony broke the kiss and pulled away, just far enough so that he could gaze at Steve, his blue eyes very serious. Then he bent his head again and kissed Steve lightly on his mouth, then on his cheek, littering small kisses on Steve's skin as he nuzzled his way over to Steve's ear. He pressed one final kiss to that sensitive spot where Steve's ear met his jaw, and then he suddenly threw both arms around Steve in an almost desperate hug, crushing him tight.

A bit startled by all this, his arms still trapped by his stupid jacket, Steve returned the embrace as best he could. "What is it?"

"I love you," Tony choked out, his face buried in Steve's neck. "I love you. I don't…" He shuddered.

"It's okay," Steve said. He raised his arms, trying to force the material of his jacket higher so he could get back his reach. "I love you, too."

Tony shivered again. "You shouldn't."

"Too late for that," Steve said with a smile.

"I'm serious," Tony said. All at once he let go of Steve and stumbled backward, putting space between them again. "This is a mistake. I can't let you do this."

"No," Steve said firmly. "We are not doing this. Come on." He took hold of Tony's hand and led him into the living room.

Tony came with him willingly enough, but with obvious reluctance. Steve stopped in front of the couch. "Sit."

Tony shot him a rather dirty look, but he did sit. Steve finally took his jacket off and tossed it onto the closest armchair. Then he sat down, right beside Tony, close enough that their shoulders and knees touched.

"Listen," he said. He did not like the way Tony was staring straight ahead, his gaze fixed on the bookshelves like they were the most interesting thing in all the world. It was like this morning had never happened, like that amazing kiss they had just shared had never happened – and he hated that.

"I know we still have some things to work out," he said. "And I also know that there are things we'll probably never get worked out. But I'm here, Tony. I'm willing to give it a try, if you are."

"You shouldn't," Tony said, his voice just above a whisper.

"Last night you said that I made you a better person," Steve said. "Did it never occur to you that the same is true for me?"

"What?" Tony looked at him in shock. "Steve, no. You're… you're perfect!"

He couldn't help laughing at that – and hoped it didn't sound as bitter as it felt. "I am far from perfect, believe me. I'm too stubborn, I'm inflexible, and I have a hard time seeing other options beside my own. That's why I need you, Tony. To show me those things. To remind me that there is always another way. To remind me that I'm not alone."

Tony's expression softened. "I'll always be there for you, Steve. Always."

"I know that," Steve said. "There was a time though, when I forgot it. When I thought you were lost to me. But I remember it again – and this time I'll never forget."

He took hold of Tony's chin with one hand and leaned in to kiss him. Not a passionate kiss like the one in the kitchen. This was more like the one last night. Just a warm press of his lips on Tony's, while still managing to be a promise of things to come. "I love you."

Tony did not move. He said nothing, just stared up at Steve.

"I need you to understand something," Steve said. He could hear the stern note to his voice, and he knew he sounded a little bit too much like Cap then and not just plain Steve, but it was hard to change that. Trying to mitigate his tone a little, he stroked his thumb along Tony's jaw. "I do love you, Tony. I don't think you aren't worthy of me, or that I'm any better than you, or that you need to be punished for what you did. We both made mistakes. But all that's in the past. It's meaningless now. All that matters is what we have here. And what we do in the future."

Tony did not seem to have an answer for that. He just continued to stare at Steve, his eyes very wide and full of hope.

"We've been given a second chance," Steve said. "I don't intend to lose it. Do you?"

"No," Tony whispered. He shook his head rapidly, as best he could while Steve still held his chin. "No."

"Then let's not lose it," Steve said quietly, and bent down to kiss him again.

This kiss was long and slow. He took control this time, exploring Tony's mouth, tasting him fully, biting down gently on his lower lip. Tony made a faint little groaning sound when Steve did that, and Steve made a note to do that more often. He liked hearing that sound. He wanted to hear it again.

But when Tony reached for him and started to draw him down to lie on the couch, Steve resisted. He pulled away. "No," he said.

Instantly Tony let go. "Okay. Sorry."

"Let's just…" Steve hesitated. "I've never done this before, you know. So let's just…take it slow. Okay?"

Looking chagrined, Tony nodded. He sat up straight.

Obviously he needed to say more here. Steve hurried to explain himself, remembering his new resolve that they would never again let half-truths and miscommunications come between them. "We'll just...see where this takes us. Enjoy the journey." He smiled.

After a beat, Tony smiled back. "All right," he said.

"Good," Steve said.

"We've got all the time in the world, right?" Tony said. He was maybe trying a little too hard, though; the cheery note in his voice rang false.

Because they didn't, not really, and surely Tony knew that. Still, Steve knew what he meant to say, and he appreciated the effort. "We will," he said. "I need to do some things here first." It would be hard to talk to Sharon, to make official what had first started when she moved out, but it was necessary. And she would forgive him. In time.

"I know you have things you need to do, too," he said. "You've got a company to rebuild, and that's just for starters."

"You could come with me," Tony invited. "Seattle's a nice town."

"I can't," Steve said, and his regret was genuine. "I have duties to SHIELD now that I can't shirk. And I'd only be in your way up there."

"You really wouldn't," Tony said. "But I understand." He smiled a little. "Commander Rogers. I'd almost forgotten." His smile widened. "I like it. It suits you."

Steve shrugged. "It's just a title."

"A title that comes with a fancy new outfit," Tony said. "I like that, too, by the way." Now his eyes were shining with good humor.

Some mockery at his own expense was a small price to pay to see Tony looking at him like that, Steve decided. After the last two days – after the last several months – he would do just about anything to keep Tony smiling and happy.

Because in the end, that was what it came down to. He knew what was important to him now, what mattered and what didn't.

And he would never lose sight of that again.

****

"I want you to promise me something," Steve said.

"Anything," Tony replied. He meant it, too. He had been granted a miracle today. For reasons he still did not understand – would probably never understand – Steve had chosen to forgive him. Steve had chosen to love him.

He would do anything, anything at all, to hold onto that love. To be worthy of it. To never give Steve a reason to doubt him again. He did not believe that he was finished paying for his sins, was pretty sure in fact that he would never be finished, but he could face that harsh truth now with his head held high. He had received absolution from the one person who did not owe it to him, the one person who had the right to judge him.

We've been given a second chance, Steve had said, and as always, he was right. And Tony was determined not to waste it.

"I want you to call me," Steve said, "when you're in Seattle. Every day. I want to talk to you."

"Okay," Tony said. That didn't sound so hard.

"I want to know what went on in your day," Steve said. "Whatever you think might be important. And I'm going to tell you what I did, and what I feel you should know."

He nodded, accepting with silent shame the rebuke implicit in those words. His silence had caused so much of their misery. By not telling Steve about his fears for the impending war between superheroes, or about the Registration Act, he had doomed them to failure from the start.

Now there would be none of that. He saw Steve's effort at transparency for what it really was. And he knew that it wouldn't last, because even the best of intentions broke down eventually…but still they would try their best, for as long as they could.

And sooner or later they would find something new to fight about, because that was who they were, that was what made them Steve and Tony. But that was okay. Because even though they might end up fighting again, they would still remain Steve and Tony, together. That was what mattered, and if he had learned nothing else from the Civil War, he had learned that much. And that was one thing he knew he would never forget.

"We're not hiding behind silences and assumptions anymore," Steve said. "Not ever again. This will only work if we're open and honest with each other. Do you agree?"

"I do," he said. "And I'll start by saying that I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you, too," Steve said, a little mournfully. "I just got you back and now I'm losing you already."

"You're not losing me," Tony said. He took Steve's hand and held it tight. For all the futures he had envisioned, for all the potentials he had dreamed of, he had never been so certain of anything as he was of this. "I promise you that. And when I get back, we're going to do this. We're going to make this happen."

Steve smiled. "I know we will," he said.

 

END