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N.

DEMONS

 

Tony lands on the beach.

The sky is still blue here, though the faintest tinge of red’s started to creep in around the horizon. It could be sunset, maybe, if he didn’t know better, if the space-time continuum wasn't irreparably torn.

He dives, propels himself through air and water, plummets in through the dark mouth of the cave and blankets himself with the sea. He doesn’t even have to use the lights, it’s so clear. It is beautifully dismal, barren and fathomless as he jets through the crystal blue dark, as he races to the surface again and the rock walls rise up to meet him as he breaks.

“I’m your goddamn offering,” he says, rising into the air, palms downturned, the water riffling beneath him where he hovers. He’s alone, and his voice bounces off the damp walls, off the blue. He feels braver than he should, but it’s difficult not to when his voice rings clear and sharp and strong in the silence.

“Do you know who I am?” comes a bodiless voice echoing over the water.

Tony swallows and says, “I’m here to bargain.”

The air rushes out of his lungs then, and the fog swirls around his metal feet.

“You’re not the sorcerer,” the voice says, hard and smooth and almost amused, and something he can’t see slithers around him as he hangs, bright and shining, in the dark air.

“No,” Tony says, “I’m –”

“Mortal,” the voice says, and then it’s changing, the fog isn’t fog.

“Yes,” Tony gets out. “I’m here to offer you –”

A laugh rings out over the stone-silence, over the perfectly still water.

“What a fool you must be,” the voice says, and then Tony realizes he’s so very alone.

 

 

 

I.  

BRUISE

 

Asgard crashes to the ground in Oklahoma.

After the siege, after the smoke clears, after Norman Osborn is brought in chains to the Raft and Steve and Thor and Tony limp back from their misadventure through the nine realms, after the easy truce they had there slides into stilted silences and ignored phone calls, Steve shakes the president’s hand and decides he isn’t going to be Captain America anymore.

He is singled out, as he always is, by weary bureaucrats who relax at the sight of his face, who shake his hand like their lives depend on it. They tell him they need the world according to Steve Rogers.

He agrees. He’ll stand alone, he’ll do his best to fix things. It’s what he’s been doing all along, after all. 

He is given more power than he needs or wants or cares for, and he can’t help but wonder if this is how it starts. Great men with the trust of nations pressed into their hands. Heroes. No one thinks about the damage they can do if they screw up.

But Steve nods, says yes and puts his armor away and gives his shield to Bucky, shoulders the burden that Tony tried and failed to shoulder, and wonders if he’s going to fail, too.

He is awarded the rank of commander, and Carol grins at him and flashes him a thumbs up from behind the velvet rope, and all he can do is smile and look at the empty chair that’s been saved for one Tony Stark.

He goes Reed Richards to ask about polymers and Kevlar, a drawing clutched in his hand, shifting from foot to foot in his civvies and boots. He went to Tony about this stuff once upon a time.

“You should ask Tony,” Reed says earnestly, because he still hasn’t learned how to be around people. “Implementation is his area. I’m just hypotheticals.”

Steve lies and says that Tony referred him. That he’s busy.

Sharon and he don’t get back together. She’s changed, since he died (since she killed him). She smiles less. He suspects it’s because of him. “I think it’s better this way,” she says, and she goes up on her toes to kiss his cheek. “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” she whispers, and hugs him without any sort of rancor at all, and he stands in the hangar bay in his new uniform that Tony didn’t design and watches her go and wonders why everything feels so wrong.

Tony would say there’s no one better for the job. That it has to be you, Steve. You’ll make it right, Cap.

You’re the best of us, he’d say.

But Tony is gone, and Steve aches to feel the weight of the shield in his hands, and the words are hollow without anyone to say them.

 

- - -

 

“I want you on this team,” Steve says, the star bright on his blue-leathered chest, and smiles, and so Tony is an Avenger again. 

It’s better. He isn’t hiding in a cave, he isn’t running. The world feels less insane than everyone said it did, although he doesn’t have the memories to validate that either way. He does his best to move past the things the papers say he’s done. Tony is a thinker once more, a fighter. Not a scapegoat. He finds his feet again.

They’re sliding back into what they used to be, the Avengers.

Steve is elsewhere, and that’s probably how it should be. 

He works with them, sometimes, when things are dire enough, like with Kang, but not as an Avenger. He has his own team, he has a new uniform and more responsibility than Tony can wrap his head around. He’s moved on. Commander Rogers.

Something in Tony’s heart clenches every time he sees Steve without the shield, sees him proud and stable and effective on his own.

It’s something Tony’s never managed to do.

 

- - -

 

They sit around a table at Funtime and pretend they’re better than sprawling in their chairs from exhaustion. Their roster is the same, which is presently a problem to absolutely no one.

“He’s Commander Rogers now,” Tony says, cradling his helmet between his hands. It’s a show, it’s just biomatter rearranged into metal now, but it grounds him a little. “He’s head of world security. I think we should tell him. He’s going to find out.”

Namor snickers, and Tony is proud of himself for not even sparing him a glance.

“He trusts you,” Reed says, frowning. “I don’t think he’ll come looking, he wouldn’t have a clue what to look for, really. We’re helping him just by existing –”

“He’s not going to find out,” Charles says impassively. “His thoughts haven’t strayed this way; he’s living in a golden age. He trusts his colleagues. I suggest we worry about this when we have cause to. That isn’t now.”

Tony props his elbows on the conference table and thinks about Steve, in an office somewhere, doing this the honorable way. Making the world safer, one job at a time.

“All right,” Tony shrugs, like he doesn’t care. “We don’t tell him.”

 

- - -

 

Tony is just stepping out of the tower elevator as Steve walks out of the conference room and into the kitchen.

“You don’t live here,” Tony says, before he remembers it’s the sort of joke that would have been funny once upon a time.

Steve looks down at his own body and frowns. He’s in his Commandery uniform today. Tony compensates for this; somehow his eyes always seem to end up on the gloves, which are normally approximately crotch-level. “It’s headquarters. I’m doing stuff. With Maria,” Steve says, a confused little look on his face, like it should be obvious. “We do this every Monday.”

Maria chooses that moment to walk out of the dining room, stretching her arms up around her head like a cat. She grabs the carafe and pours herself more coffee.

“Hey, Stark,” she says. It’s almost fond. Something about having Steve as a superior officer has really cut down on the verbal abuse he’s grown accustomed to.

“Uh,” Tony says.

“We’ll be out of your hair soon,” Steve says, like he has to say that, like Tony isn’t hyper-aware of his absence every time the Avengers get a call.

“Well, help yourselves,” Tony says, feeling terribly like a guest in his own building. He drifts through the kitchen, just slowly enough to leer at both of them in their skin-tight leather and snag a turnover from the plate Jarvis must have put out this morning. Maria scowls at him (normal), and Steve turns a little like he wants to start a conversation to be nice, to prove they’re still friends, but it’s enough to set an uncomfortable ache swirling in Tony’s stomach and it’s easier to be off, tugging his tie loose and dragging his feet down the hall to his room for a shower.

“Tony,” he thinks he hears Steve say, but it’s fine. This is how it is. They occupy different spheres now. Steve is a professional. Tony is a clever, amiable jackass.

Steve doesn’t look sad. That’s extrapolation. 

Tony’s certainly not.

 

- - -

 

“How are they doing?” Steve asks. He’s rifling through the stacks of paperwork on his desk. His desk. That he owns. There used to be a plaque that said COMMANDER S. ROGERS until his arm knocked it into the trash one day.

“The same as they were doing yesterday,” Maria says, flipping through Sharon’s latest report, something about a psy-terrorism threat in South Africa. “You wanna go check up on ’em?”

“They’re your team,” Steve says, like it doesn’t hurt to say. “I’m just management.”

“Oh, bullshit,” Maria says fondly. “You’re an Avenger. You know that. They know that.”

The shitty part is, he does know it.

“We’ll meet on the Quincarrier from now on,” he says quietly.

 

 

 

II.

THERE IS NO “I” IN “TEAM”

 

You’d think, from the way Steve is scowling, that it was entirely Tony’s fault.

“How long has this been going on,” Steve is asking him, as they stand in the snow in Attillan with their friends behind them and all of Tony’s dirty secrets pulled to light.

“Long,” Tony says, because what else can he say. “Since Fury, since.”

The rest of them, Reed and Charles and Namor, stiffen. Medusa looks bored.

Steve looks like he’s about to rip Tony’s throat out, and Tony loses the rest of the bluster he was pretending to have.

The armor isn’t doing anything Tony wears it for. There’s a wall, a wall of Avengers come to see, and even the 50 meters they’ve put between them doesn’t feel like nearly enough to him. Luke is having this conversation with Stephen right now, too, but they’re sequestered away behind a fallen column of marble. He wants Steve to look over there, to see them all slouching, too. It wasn’t just him, Steve will realize, they’ll work it out, Steve will forgive him –

“I’m in charge of the security of the free world,” Steve is saying, like Tony isn’t painfully aware, like it needs to be said (and maybe it does) because Tony couldn’t ever manage the security of the free world by himself when he was in charge. Ego, Steve is saying. Disappointed. Behind my back, he says, and the edges of his words curl up like he can’t believe he has to say these things out loud. 

“Steve,” Tony says, already queuing up the thousand justifications he could offer, searching his vaults for the thing that will make this blow over long enough to fix this until he can maybe find some more permanent way to fix their friendship. This is blowback he never counted on, he thinks desperately, he doesn’t remember it and it’s still his to fix, and he needs something, something better than separate teams and different jobs and running away –

 “I vouched for you,” Steve says. Tony wishes he’d take the damn balaclava off, that he’d yell without his face obscured like this, that he’d be better than Tony and take off his mask. “I told Congress you had my confidence –

I don’t know why, he wants to say and doesn’t, and he wonders what’s worse, the fact that Steve actually thought he was better than this or the fact that Steve made him believe it for a bit, there, too.

But that’s how his failures happen, grandiose and spectacular and bigger than everyone else’s. He’s always fallen hard. He’s always the last straw. He’s always Steve’s breaking point.

“I know,” Tony says, and he’s going to lift the faceplate, he is –

“How am I supposed to trust you when you do shit like this,” Steve yells, and Tony breathes deep and keeps the faceplate down.

There’s nothing he can say. Yes, I know, we’ve been meeting for years, but we conveniently saved the planet a few times, so, you know, there’s that –

“What else,” Steve says, his breath fogging in the air. His mouth would be a snarl if it wasn’t so dead and cold and grim. He throws his words out just loud enough for Tony to hear. “What else have you lied to me about?”

Steve thinks he’s a liar.

“You can’t make these decisions!” Tony bellows back, because he’s just a little tired of Steve jumping to conclusions at his expense. He hasn’t lied. It was an omission. “You couldn’t!” He’d like to say what Steve really needs to hear, that he only lies to him and he’s never managed to figure out if that’s better or worse, that this is why he didn’t want to be on the Avengers again (he really did), that there’s no place in Steve’s life for Tony anymore outside these shouting matches and he desperately wishes there were –

“And you can?” Steve yells back, and everyone is staring at them, now. “Because of your giant goddamn brain? What gives you the right, Tony, what gives you the right to sneak around behind everyone’s back like you know best –”

“Qualified,” Tony sputters.

“The ego on you,” Steve says, “the unbelievable ego, Jesus –”

“It was important,” Tony says, and Steve looks like he might actually kill him for a minute. “No,” Tony snaps, before he can open his mouth again, “there are some things that are bigger than you, ok –”

“Stop trying to make this about us,” Steve snaps.

“I’m not –”

“You know, we’re not partners anymore,” Steve says. “I don’t owe you anything. I’m not beholden to you. I should arrest you right now –”

“Then arrest me,” Tony challenges, dizzy with wanting-not-wanting, trying to remember how to stall and failing utterly. “This is what I said, we don’t agree on anything anymore, Steve, I have been doing what needs to be done since –”

“I have been doing what needs to be done since before you were born,” Steve snaps, “and I do it better, don’t tell me about causality and risk, I’ve fought more wars than you –”

“Ok, Captain holier-than-thou–”

“What is your problem,” Steve says. “I’m doing my job, you’re the one being a complete ass–”

 “Then why do you keep expecting better from me?” Tony bites back. “You belong on this team, Tony? I lobbied for you, Tony, you’re a good man, Tony, put your money where your fucking mouth is, Commander–”

“–I did you a favor with Congress because–”

“Because you can’t move on either,” Tony says fiercely.

Steve’s face freezes. Everyone is staring at them.

Tony wonders if he’s becoming an embarrassment. He wonders if Steve actually thinks this can be salvaged.

He can’t decide if it’s better or worse that Steve knows exactly what he’s talking about.

There is a way to resolve this, he’s sure, one that probably involved him not being a jackass years and years ago, one that involved honesty and trust, but he’s losing, he’s losing and some bastard is on the loose with the infinity gems and Tony can’t help but notice how startlingly blue Steve’s eyes are.

“I’m not your kept man, Tony,” Steve hisses back, as if it proves something. “We’re not sleeping together.”

Tony looks at his boots, side by side with Steve’s in the snow. He feels him, senses the tension rolling off his leather-clad body in waves, how he’s bristling and proud and so much angrier about this than Tony ever thought he’d be.

“Well, maybe we should be,” Tony says quietly, and then there’s nothing but the wind. 

 

- - -

 

The Infinity Gauntlet is sitting on Steve’s bed when he finally makes it back to his apartment. 

Son of a bitch.

It’s warm in his hand, when he picks it up, it’s – vibrating, or something, giving off mystical energy he probably wouldn’t understand even if Tony explained it to him. He doesn’t know what to do with it. He supposes maybe that was the point. He thinks he wants to punch Tony in the face a little. 

Tony, who slumped away, alone, after saving them all and wishing it out of existence and into Steve’s private apartment, Tony, no inkling of his cockiness left at all, no parting words, no insults thrown Steve’s way, just the slump of his shoulders and the red of him smaller and smaller as he flew away home without another word.

Maybe we should be, Steve thinks, and he takes the steps up to the roof two by two, the gauntlet clutched in his hand.

 

- - -

 

When Tony finally walks out of the bathroom, he’s wearing a towel.

“This is the last time you lie to me,” Steve says, and he tosses the Infinity gauntlet on the floor between them.

Steve is calm, even as Tony’s face pales, even as his eyes go hard and shuttered. 

“Get out of my room, Commander,” Tony says calmly, and Steve doesn’t move.

“Did you mean it?” Steve says.

“Did I mean what,” Tony says, but he says it to his feet.

“Maybe we should be,” Steve says, closing the distance between them. He kicks the Infinity Gauntlet under Tony’s dresser, like it’s incidental, like he hasn’t been thinking about this since the moment Tony said it.

Tony stares.

“Do you know why I kept my distance,” Steve says. “After Osborn, do you know why I stayed away?” Tony closes his eyes in what’s probably shame. “Because I had a thought,” he says quietly. “Because I had a thought that you didn’t want us to be anything but colleagues anymore.” 

Tony has all but stopped breathing.

“That’s not,” Tony protests, “I thought.” His eyes dart around, he looks cornered. “You’re breaking and entering,” he says.

Steve stops with his hand on the twist of towel at Tony’s hip.

“Is that what it takes, Tony?” he whispers, certain that it’s only his heart pounding out of his chest that’s let him be this bold for this long. He traps him a little, leans an arm against the wall over Tony’s shoulder, leans in close enough to smell the spice of his shampoo. Steve’s touched him a thousand times, flipped his sweat-damp body onto foam mats and ripped his armor off to press his hands against his bare skin to staunch the flow of blood. But this, Tony with water beading on his shoulders and his face close enough for Steve to see every one of his eyelashes, Tony with dusky pink lips, his mouth slightly open, the sliver of tongue he slides out like he does when he’s solving a puzzle –

“What are you doing,” Tony says evenly.

“Answer my question,” Steve says, he hopes just as evenly.

“Your hand is on my hip,” Tony says.

“Yes it is,” Steve says. “Answer my question.”

“What question?”

“Did you mean it?”

Tony’s eyes settle on Steve’s collarbone.

“Why do you think I’m always lying,” is all Tony says, with a breathless little pleading edge to his voice.

Steve leans down and presses his lips against Tony’s.

He means it as an apology, maybe.

Tony makes a noise, soft and surprised in the hollow of his throat. He stands stock-still for the briefest of moments and then he’s moving, he’s bare skin squirming up against Steve’s chest and rocking his hips in a slow grind that makes contact somewhere against Steve’s thigh. It’s broken, instantly, the tension between them, it’s everything Steve didn’t know he wanted, and Tony’s mouth drags him in somehow, makes him forget that this is one of his crazier plans, and all there is in the world is the warmth of him, the slick of his lips that tastes like wintergreen, Tony’s tongue on his teeth –

Steve pulls away, just a little, to mouth at the corner of Tony’s mouth, to tilt his head forward and rake his lips across Tony’s temple, to breathe, hot, against his neck, to drag his teeth up to catch on his earlobe – 

“Is this what it takes for you to trust me, Tony,” he whispers against Tony’s ear.

“What is this,” Tony splutters around the ragged breaths he’s sucking in, “where is this coming from –”

“Me,” Steve breathes, “it’s coming from me.” He lets himself pull Tony in, lets himself feel the perfect curve of his spine, lets himself touch what he’s only ever touched in the capacity of friends and brothers and those are his fingers, dragging along the edge of the towel, those are –

“You’re not,” Tony pants, “you’re not gay, you’re, Steve, oh, just –”

“And you’re straight as an arrow,” Steve says, as Tony’s arms come up around his neck. “Do you want this,” he says into Tony’s neck.

“Why aren’t you arresting me,” Tony says, and Steve runs his thumb over one of Tony’s nipples. “I gave you the, why aren’t you – Steve –

“Commander’s discretion,” Steve says, and he runs the flat of his palm down Tony’s stomach.

“Are you,” Tony starts, his voice wavering like it never does, “are you making a pass at me?”

Steve’s hand stills.

“No,” he says. “I’m proposing a solution.”

And Tony is breathing in uneven little gasps, still, something caged and unwilling and bare in his eyes, and the tactician in Steve wants to use this, this unsteady Tony caught off guard, but he stops, he waits, because Tony needs to want this as much as he does if this is going to work, Steve needs to be starting something instead of holding out an olive branch that lasts all of tonight– 

“Yes,” Tony says helplessly, like he’s almost ashamed it’s been wrung from him. “Yeah, I meant it, but you don’t, you’re not–”

“You’re so damn stubborn,” Steve says, “you are the biggest obstacle, you keep talking about me, you keep talking about our friendship like it’s something you don’t deserve anymore, ever since I came back, like it’s something you have to earn back, Tony, it never was –

“No,” Tony says, “You’re just–”

“You have to let this go,” Steve says, “You have to stop doing this lone wolf crap, ok, when are you going to get that you –”

“I’m doing what I can,” Tony says sharply. “You don’t get it, you didn’t singlehandedly wreck the world, ok, I didn’t want to drag you into anything, I knew you’d be like this –”

“When will you figure it out,” Steve all but roars, “that you don’t have to do everything on your own? You have friends, you have me, you can come to me if you need help, no one is blaming you for anything but YOU.

Tony is quiet for a long moment. Startled, maybe, into silence. “You’re gone,” he says, looking at Steve’s shoulder.

Steve tilts Tony’s head up with one of his thumbs, and Tony lets him.

“I’m here,” he says. “I’m around all the time, you don’t want to see me–”

“–you don’t want to see me–

“I am right here,” Steve says, “trust me, ok–”

“You should be pissed at me,” Tony mumbles to his stomach.

“I am pissed at you,” Steve says seriously. “But I’m pretty sure this bullshit you keep pulling is symptomatic of a larger problem.”

Tony blinks. “What larger problem?”

Steve stares at him for a long moment before he murmurs, “You should be aware that I’m not acting entirely unselfishly.”

He means it to be slow, but Tony leans into it this time, meets him halfway and more, meets him with something wild and grateful and desperate. His hands are everywhere, stroking up Steve’s back and dipping down almost tentatively to feel his ass, and Steve can’t help but push forward, can’t help but rub himself against Tony a little, because they can have this, they’re going to have this, this is what they do to each other, he is why Tony is hanging on him right now, panting like he’s dying, raw touch and sweat and the certainty that this is right, for once –

“Ok,” Tony says breathlessly, “ok, I wanna, can I, can you–”

“No more secrets,” Steve says.

“No more secrets,” Tony repeats, and Steve rocks in, because Tony is clawing at him, Tony is panting and scrabbling his fingers at his belt with one hand and running a finger over the crease between his crotch and his thigh. “Who designed this,” Tony says, “help me, this is, just–”

“We don’t have to,” Steve says. “I just.”

“Take your pants off,” Tony says.

Steve reaches down to rip at his belt and slips a finger beneath Tony’s towel to tug it down.

The gauntlet gleams on the hardwood.

 

 

 

III.

ET TU?

 

Tony expected anger.

When Steve realizes what he’s just been betrayed to, though, when Stephen reaches out his hand and violates his mind and Steve locks his eyes on Tony’s like it’s a matter of honor, all there is in his eyes is helpless shock and volumes of sadness.

Really, it’s only after Steve falls that Tony realizes exactly what he’s just ruined.

 

 

 

IV.

LOVE IS JUST A BLOODSPORT

 

Lately, Steve’s dreams are overrun with shadowy figures that make them something more akin to nightmares.

It’s the same dream, always, tall men who tower over him with burning eyes in the dark. He can’t move, ever, he’s weak like he used to be, paralyzed as the creeping itch of fingers claws through his mind. He’d like to shudder, he longs to shake them out, but he’s rooted to the hard ground, and shocked, always shocked for reasons he can’t keep in the front of his mind long enough to understand.

Sometimes the fingers feel cold, like metal, and he tastes iron at the back of his throat.

He wakes, always, to Tony’s breathing, to the dark of the room and the heartbeat beside his that says you’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine.

 

- - -

 

Tony dreams about killing Steve, the first night, after.

He expects it to stop, and it doesn’t.

He wakes, night after night, never more than a few hours after he’s fallen asleep, drenched in sweat, his hands curled into loose fists around Steve’s. It's startling enough that he starts to keep himself up well into the early morning, because it’s too much. He tells Steve he’s working on the Avengers thing when really he’s going over the plans for the Dyson sphere, really he’s looking over the specs T’Challa and Reed keep sending him for Black fucking Swan’s missile, for triggers and fusion chambers and all the things he said he was never going to build again, really he’s going over and over and over the theoretical stuff and trying to find out how the universe has somehow decided to crack and splinter and collapse.

Steve falls asleep in his room, in Tony’s, too, occasionally, while Tony ostensibly does respectable things in the bowels of the tower. He works, until he can’t anymore, until his eyes are gummy and dry and making another pot of coffee seems like too much work, and then he toes upstairs, too, makes sure everyone else is asleep, and climbs in bed with Steve.

He lies there, his arm thrown around Steve’s waist, he thinks of how fucking lucky he is to have this, how he’s done everything wrong and everything that he never should have done and still, Steve rolls out of sleep and kisses him goodnight and tells him when he’s being snippy and smiles and ruffles his hair and sometimes when they’re having sex he’ll say I love you and kiss Tony’s eyelids and breathe out his name like it’s something sacred –

There’s never going to be anything Tony can do to make up for this.

It’s almost painful, to look at the brightness of Steve’s eyes when his face breaks out into a smile, the easy ecstasy he falls into when they make love, no idea that Tony is a traitor, no idea that he’s ruined him more intimately than anyone else will ever manage, no idea that Steve’s already walking around with his heart bleeding and it’s just a matter of time before he notices the cuts.

Tony buys him flowers. There are lunch dates. There are more stolen kisses, more potentially disastrous semi-public sex than they should really be having. But they manage it, and Steve never refuses him, and Tony’s heart jitters in his chest every time, because what if it's the last

The physical guilt is almost too much to bear, but he walks around with it anyway, because there’s nothing else he can do. He divides his time entirely between the Illuminati and Steve, spends his energy on shining new armor designs and lazy mid-day fucks on those rare occasions when everyone else is out of the tower and they can, lies curled into Steve’s side, sated and undeserving, until his phone beeps and he makes up excuses and Steve kisses his sweat-damp forehead and says go get ‘em, Shellhead.

He thinks, sometimes, that it might be better to let the world burn instead of stopping the next incursion.

It wouldn’t be so bad to die in a world where Steve can still look him in the eye.

 

- - -

 

“No,” Tony says. “We’re not booting him out, we’re not, we agreed, this is insane –”

He sounds hysterical even to his own ears. He’s the only one standing, and he hates it, he’s taken the helmet off   and still no one is taking him seriously. He’s so tired of the weary looks, of the unspoken condescension, like he’s a fool for backing Steve at all, like they’re so much wiser because they speak for nations, like they haven’t all been shouting themselves hoarse too –

“Be reasonable,” Reed says, and somehow manages to make Tony feel like a child, still.

“I am being reasonable,” Tony hisses. “He deserves to be here. Is this what it’s going to be every time someone disagrees? Majority vote and an icepick lobotomy?”

“Please,” Namor says. “He never should have sat at this table. This was inevitable.”

“Shut up, Namor,” Tony snaps. “You could stand to take a fucking lesson, you agreed to have him here, he’s a master tactician–”

“–and again,” Namor snarls, “your dear Captain has decided he’d rather wring his hands than bloody them.”

There is silence. Six pairs of eyes, upturned, expecting him to concede, to throw away everything he’s begun to fix, to overlook the fact that he’ll climb into bed with this man tonight having trampled all over everything they are (again) and no one will ever know –

“He’ll understand,” Beast says. “Eventually, he’ll understand.”

“No,” Tony says, “He won’t.”

 

- - -

 

Steve wakes up to flowers again.

He’s breathing hard. It’s slipping away, already, the dream-reality, terror and paralysis and shock, and there’s a vase full of lilies on the bedside table, catching the half-darkness of the dawn and fragrant enough that Steve rolls onto his back for a minute just to breathe them in.

They’re in Tony’s bed, today. He needs to get up soon, he’ll pretend he’s just come in from a run. Out late, back early. No one ever asks. Tony is still curled up, lost to the duvet. Steve slides out like he’s learned to do, figures he can get a workout in before Tony’s ready to wake up. It’s not even 6 o’clock yet. He levers himself up and barely makes a sound, but Tony stirs and apparently decides to risk eking one of his hands out of his nest to graze Steve’s bare back. 

“Did you get these for me?” Steve asks.

“No,” Tony mumbles from under three layers of blanket, “they’re for my rent-boy, bring me breakfast.”

Steve grabs Tony’s hand before he can pull it back and kisses his knuckles. He imagines he can see Tony smiling as he retracts it with a contented little mph.

He pads into the kitchen in his bare feet. It’s early enough that no one else is awake; the sun is just barely beginning to rise above the edge of the skyline. He rummages, digs out some spinach and mushrooms and cheese and a dozen eggs and goes about fixing them both omelets.

He’s getting ready to sneak back, trying to figure out how to balance his monstrosity of a plate and Tony’s more modest portion, when Tony’s arms snake around his waist.

“I would have brought this to you,” Steve says, and Tony presses his lips against the nape of his neck.

“I have to be up today anyway,” Tony murmurs behind his ear. He sounds guilty, and Steve is about to say so when Tony takes the plates from his hands and toes up to kiss him.

It’s nothing cursory, it’s the sleep-sweet cloy of Tony’s morning breath and all the investment he makes when he wants it to lead to sex later. Steve, as per usual, can’t help being pulled in deeper than he wants to be, and Tony’s sweats aren’t doing anything to hide the fact that he’s half-hard.

“This was our free day,” Steve murmurs. He can’t decide if he’s annoyed yet. He’s considering abandoning the omelet. He’s considering taking a shower with Tony instead.

“I know,” Tony says apologetically, and presses a kiss to Steve’s jaw to prove the point. “Reed needs me for something, I gotta work on this subspace anomaly generator he’s working on, he wants me to – mm–

Steve stops himself before he can’t anymore. “You said you wouldn’t schedule anything,” he presses. He settles for planting a hand on the small of Tony’s back, and Tony sags into him a little and presses his face into Steve’s chest. “Is that why you got me flowers?”

“That would be manipulative,” Tony says absently, reaching out a finger to poke at his plate. “Is this mine?”

Steve sighs. “Yeah, that’s yours,” he says, burying his face in Tony’s hair. “I guess I’ll deal with the Atlantis thing today, I – do you want to get dinner?”

“I want to have sex,” Tony leans up to whisper in Steve’s ear with a slow roll of his hips, and Steve can’t help himself from glancing around to make sure they’re the only ones up.

“Instead of dinner?”

“No, after dinner, but also now–”

“Will you be quiet?” Steve asks with a smirk he can’t suppress.

“Probably not,” Tony says.

“You have to be,” Steve murmurs, “Clint and Jess got back late last night.” That must be enough for Tony, because he plants a sloppy kiss on the side of Steve’s mouth and disentangles himself to duck under Steve’s arm and slide onto one of the stools.

“After breakfast,” Tony says, scooping a forkful of omelet into his mouth, “What Atlantis thing, why would you ever want to go talk to Namor–”

“I don’t particularly want to talk to Namor,” Steve says, “but your protocol calls for a response system, remember? Part of having people on call is having powerful allies –

Tony snorts.

“I could send you instead,” Steve says with a smile. “It is official Avengers business.”

Tony is silent for a minute before he says, “Groveling isn’t my style.”

“I was planning to insult him, actually,” Steve says. “That’s generally the best thing to motivate him.”

Tony swings his leg around on the stool. “It’s still a day off,” he says. “You should relax. Go for a walk. You need it. You’re tense. Forget Namor, I’ll talk to him, ok, you deserve a reprieve –”

Steve slides around the island to perch on one of the chairs. “Maybe,” he says. “I was looking forward to today,” he says quietly.

Tony’s fork stills.

“I’m sorry,” he says, running a hand over the back of his neck. “I wouldn’t – it’s important,” he settles for. “Reed’s useless without me.” He manages a thin smile, and Steve sighs.  

“You can make it up to me,” he says.

Tony nods, and resumes his feeding cycle. “I will,” he says solemnly. “You’re slacking, eat, I have big plans, chop chop.”

“So it’s a plan, dinner,” Steve says, and Tony grins wickedly at him with his hair falling into his eyes.

“Dinner and a show,” Tony says around a mouthful of omelet.

 

- - -

 

Steve won’t fuck his face.

He’s not engaging like Tony wants him to, he just stands there, towering and unmoving and solid against the walls of the shower while Tony picks up the grid of tiles and grout on his knees. Tony pulls at his hips, but Steve just strokes a thumb over his chin, over the corners of his mouth stretched taut where they’re joined.

Steve’s cock is on his tongue. It’s more than enough, just the first few inches, the heavy warm weight of it there, silk-smooth for him to lap at while Steve stays himself against the wall. Steve’s denying himself today, though, and Tony wishes he’d just fucking do it. Tony dips his head, once, with substantial effort, tries to take all of him as demonstration and has to pull back, spluttering. Steve pushes him back and firmly away, misses the point entirely. He holds Tony’s head with the tips of his fingers so he can tease, pulls lazily back a few times so he can just slide the tip of his cock over Tony’s lips again and again –

Tony very obviously clamps his mouth down around the head and sucks.

It feels a little too much like what he’s trying to pretend it isn’t, and he might be embarrassed if it wasn’t so blatantly obvious that Steve gets off on watching his mouth work instead of using him like a hole –

“Easy,” Steve says, apparently darkly amused at Tony’s impatience. He stretches one of his legs out to toe at Tony’s cock resting heavy and dark on the shower floor. “Give it up,” he whispers, “I’m not fucking your face.”

Tony lets himself be sloppy, then, because the battle is obviously lost. He uses his lips, stops worrying about making noise, sticks his tongue out of his mouth in an exaggerated swipe and glares.

Steve laughs and curls his hand in Tony’s wet hair.

“Relax,” Steve says. “We have all the time in the world.”

Tony presses his eyes shut and sincerely wishes that were so.

 

- - -

 

“We’re having trouble with the launch sequence,” Reed says, as soon as Tony steps off the platform.

The actual missile T’Challa and Reed are reverse engineering from Black Swan’s trigger mechanism is back in Wakanda. Reed’s got a holographic display set up just inside, an expanded view of the trigger mechanism revolving over his workbench. Reed’s launching into an explanation, already rambling about firing pins and adamantium fusion and nuclear yield. There’s a problem, he says, they don’t understand Black Swan’s power source, and Tony sinks into one of the chairs and settles in for the lecture.

Tony listens as Reed rambles on, idly taps his fingers against his chest where the reactortech’s settled just under his ribcage. He lets his gaze wander over the skyline a little, at the way the sun is smearing pink over the water in the distance. He thinks of how it would look on Steve’s bare skin.

He could walk away right now. He could come back tomorrow, he could let Reed puzzle through payload mechanics on his own. He could be in bed with Steve right now.

That’s one more sunrise he might not get again.

“How can I help,” Tony says dully.

 

- - -

 

Steve digs his easel out of storage and sets it up in Tony’s bedroom.

His room’s got the best light, a broad array of south-facing panels that can be darkened according to the controller’s whims. He’s not sure he’ll paint, but he’s restless when he wants to be tired. The sex should have worn him out, but Tony’s already left and he itches in a way he can’t explain, energy galloping under his skin, tension in his hands he doesn’t know what to do with. He putters around, makes Tony’s bed so he has an uncluttered workspace, fills up a mug with water.

He knows what he wants to render.

He sits himself cross-legged on the floor with a sketchbook. He doesn’t allow himself this, much, anymore. Since Jan came back, since Vision came back, really, it’s been one thing after another, most of it resting uncomfortably on his shoulders. But it’s his free day, he decides. He can do whatever he wants. He’ll be pleased, when he comes back. He’ll smile and preen because Steve is indulging his artistic side again. He’ll do a lot to make Tony smile.

He tries charcoal. This isn’t precision, it’s impression, it’s trusting his hand to make the strokes his mind can’t synthesize in daylight. He drags it over the paper, broad dark smears. He remembers how to drag images from the air, how to dull his eyes and the urgency for perfection, how to it fill itself in.

He gets polygons, loose outlines rubbed in, sheet after clumsily-filled sheet wrenched away. It’s shit, at first, nothing helpful, but he keeps at it, focuses on the movement of his hand and the silence he’s bought himself by barricading himself in the master suite. It’s restful, it settles into his bones, and he starts to get figures instead of blurred, sinister shadows.

He goes through two sticks of kohl by the time he gets frustrated enough to move to canvas. It’s the glide, maybe, that’s slowing him up, it’s possible charcoal is too confining, requires too much attention. Better to lose himself in mixing and loose brushstrokes. He can focus on the blend instead of the form. He needs a new approach.

He works in greens and blues, for a while. Everything is always washed out when he dreams it, he thinks. A dismal parody of reality. If he can get the light right, the rest will follow, perhaps. He tunes out, lets himself work, focuses on shadow and light, thinks –

It’s maddening. He stops for a time, sits back on the floor, the brush between his teeth, tries to step away, tries to close his eyes and moor himself firmly in his rampant imagination. It can’t be this hard, it’s just a dream, it’s the same dream all the time, it’s figures, four of them, towering –

His eyes snap open and he looks at what he’s done.

They still don’t have faces, but it’s –

Them. Four of them, looking down, mostly shadow, their eyes burning in the midst of their solemn faces –

He feels it in his stomach before he feels it in his brain, the itch, the feeling of digging, enough to send him reeling, enough to make him jerk away from the cold claw of shock and unease blooming in his gut. He lurches, dizzy, feels something snap in the front of his mind, and then he’s lying on the floor, he’s staring up, his eyes are open and he can’t close them, they’re standing over him and he wants to fight and he can’t –

– there are things he wants to say, things on his tongue, pleas, maybe, and Tony is standing just there, just beyond these rulers who’ve robbed him of this, why didn’t Tony stop them, Tony is standing there, Tony is – someone is standing there, someone, someone, an advocate, he has to remember, he’s losing everything, it’s leaking out of his mind, he has to –

“– push it back,” Tony says, “send it back, Steve, DO IT!” Steve raises his arm, feels volumes of power he never could have imagined welling up in him, points at the sky and pushes an Earth that isn’t theirs away –

“– the universe is collapsing,” Reed is saying. “Whatever started this, these incursions, whatever event, it started on Earth.” Steve breathes air into his lungs, and lets himself look at Tony, lets himself rest his booted foot against Tony’s dress shoes under the table –

“– Bolt’s was the time gem. It’s yours now,” Tony says, and presses it into Steve’s hand. He looks up, into Tony’s eyes, feels the way his fingers linger on Steve’s glove a little too long, feels the thing heat in his palm even as his damn heart is speeding up at the touch –

– Tony lays his head on Steve’s shoulder, panting, his hair slicked over his forehead. “I want to talk to you,” he says, carefully, so carefully, wiping his hand sticky with their come on Steve’s chest. “I - we need to talk about the Illuminati –”

 

- - -

 

When Steve wakes up, his face is wet.

It’s paint. He’s fallen over, mashed a bare forearm into his palette. He has to peel his face off the floor. It’s mostly dried, but it’s everywhere. Caked on his shirt. Smeared down his neck. On the rug. On Tony’s rug.

Tony.

The sun is setting. He’s missed their dinner date, maybe. The light falling on his painting now is dimmer, harsher, and his attackers are lost to the blue-black he’s shadowed in behind them. It’s just their eyes he can see. Just their eyes shining from behind their masks, just their faces, watching him forget, just thieves waiting for his mind to leave him and he was one of them

He stumbles into the bathroom, fumbles at the tap and ends up just sticking his entire arm under the bathtub faucet instead. His arm is so massive it wouldn’t fit in the sink anyway. He can barely see his arm, barely registers the water turning murky and dark as it runs away down the drain, can barely stomach the thought that hours ago, he was showering with Tony, he was kissing Tony against the wall, he was –

Tony let this happen to him.

There has to be an explanation, he thinks. He feels wild, his brain feels electric and overheated. They have enemies, both of them, there are a thousand people who would want to drive a wrench between them, telepaths who can implant false memories, Tony wouldn’t, he –

The paint comes off, and Steve’s shaking like a leaf as he runs a finger over the faint pink scar down the center of his palm.

 

- - -

 

Tony waits at the Thai place for an hour.

He’s late. They got caught up, Reed and him, fixing the dark matter injector. He tries not to be disappointed when Steve doesn’t show. He’s very late, after all, 25 minutes late, exactly. Steve probably left. It’s his fault, really. He lost track of time.

Damn it.

He flies back to the tower, pointedly doesn’t do a scan on Steve’s locator chip because that would be underhanded and they agreed. Steve has the right to blow him off for dinner when he’s being a jackass. He puts in an order for another months’ worth of flower deliveries and plans his apology. 

Carol’s eating something that smells delicious when he strides into the kitchen. “Where’s Steve,” Tony says in what he hopes is a voice befitting casual inquiry.

“He said he had errands,” she says with a shrug. “Think he went running.”

It sobers him, a little. He smiles and thanks her, and she looks at him like he’s insane and slurps. He slumps off to his bedroom, half-expecting to see Steve lying there waiting, but there’s nothing, just a dark room and Steve’s easel set up by the window and paint all over the rug.

There’s nothing standing on it, though, and Tony wonders idly what he was working on before he climbs, alone, into the shower, slick with paint.

 

- - -

 

Steve wakes him in the early hours of the morning. 

Tony’s lost himself in an easy sprawl, slouching halfway to sleep in the massive sofa in the common area in the penthouse when the clatter of metal on hardwood shocks him out of it. He’s on his feet inside a second, whirling around in his sock feet and his shirt hiked up around his waist, his hair still plastered sleep-warm to his head. He settles, when he’s sure he’s not in danger, when he finds his anchor. Steve is there, so all is well.

All is well, except –

Steve, who’s moving like he’s hurt, stiff and slow. Steve, who’s damp, just out of the shower, his hair falling in spiky little tufts over his forehead, the smell of his shampoo wafting over. Steve, bending to pick up his shield where he’s deliberately dropped it on the floor.

The palm of his hand is bleeding.

“You forgot something,” Steve says softly, and he tosses something tiny and metallic onto the coffee table.

Steve, with a betrayal so raw in his eyes it can’t possibly be anyone’s fault but Tony’s.

“I’ve been dreaming for weeks,” Steve says. “I couldn’t see you, but it was them, standing over me, you all…” He stops, to laugh, to duck his head like he’s ashamed. “I was painting, he says unevenly. “I was trying to put a face to what I was seeing. I was…”

No. No chance. Stephen said, said he wouldn’t remember, said –

“What happened,” Tony whispers, and Steve shoots him a look that chills him.

“What was supposed to happen?” Steve says.

Tony bites his tongue so hard he tastes blood.

“Tell me why,” is all Steve says.  

Tony doesn’t have anything.

Talk, Tony,” he barks, suddenly volumes of harsh that Tony isn’t ready to deal with, and Tony feels like he’s going to be sick.

He wants to be honest. He wants to say that he knew this would happen, as if that could make this better, that he fears and regrets, that he was wrong, that he’s desperately sorry. He wants to tell him that there is no why, that there were just impossible decisions and mistakes, but Steve has always been able to do this, prune him back to nothing and strip him bare, and there’s nothing his clever mind can muster.

Still, the instinct’s there, and he is ashamed for it. That urge he’s never managed to lose to lie, to save face, prolong the inevitable, offer something to placate, just for now.

Except Tony is choking, because there isn’t going to be later this time around.

“No?” Steve says quietly. “Tony Stark doesn’t have anything to say?

“I love you,” are all the words that Tony can come up with, and that’s when Steve upturns the coffee table.

“Ok, ok, just,” Tony says, springing back, hands up and arms out, suddenly terrified of this angry version of Steve, Steve who was in his bed this morning and made him an omelet, who’s perfectly capable of doing him real physical harm. He tries to steady himself, tells himself he’s been expecting it, he’s been clinging to this, to them, knowing soon he wouldn’t have it, but this –

This is different.

“I didn’t want to,” is all Tony can manage. “I begged,” he starts, and he’s going to fight, he’ll dig his heels in and cling, he will beg at Steve’s feet if he has to–

“Just stop,” Steve spits. “You didn’t beg anyone, we both know it, it’s exactly what you wanted, you’re doing exactly what I knew you’d do, you goddamned fucking hypocrite –”

“Steve, no,” Tony sighs. “It’s not what I wanted, it was necessary–”

“STOP LYING TO ME,” Steve shouts, and Tony wonders if Steve is actually going to hit him. “It was necessary? You don’t – like what I have to say, so you erase my memories and carry on?”

“Steve –”

“Because you’re so much better,” Steve is spitting, “you’re so much wiser than all of us with a conscience, Tony Stark knows best and fuck everyone else –”

“That’s not fair,” Tony mumbles, and he doesn’t even have the right to say it.

Steve, Steve laughs, and it’s only when he picks his head up that Tony sees he’s crying.

“You’re not an Avenger anymore,” Steve says. He’s staring over Tony’s shoulder now, glancing down the hall at their bedroom. His voice is tight and hoarse, and Tony already knows there’s nothing he can say. “You’re out.”

Tony doesn’t care about the Avengers. He only cares about –

“And we’re done,” Steve says, and his voice is strange, like he doesn’t quite believe it himself, like the words don’t quite fit the shape of his mouth. “You and me,” he gets out. “We’re done.”

“Let me,” Tony says suddenly, raising his face to Steve’s terrible affected indifference. “Let me explain, give me a chance, you know I wouldn’t–”

“I gave you every chance,” Steve says, and Tony thinks he’s never sounded so helpless.

“Steve,” Tony whispers, because Steve means it, Steve is about to leave and not come back, and 12 hours ago they were making out in bed, slow and lazy and it’s ending and he can’t help but feel hysterical, “please, I’m asking you, this is – it wasn’t just me, I, Steve –”

“I don’t want to see you,” Steve says, and slings his shield over his arm like it’s his anchor. “If we stop this,” he says, terribly quiet, “this incursion thing, if we make it through, I’m going to put you away.”

Tony might be crying.

“I thought,” Steve starts, but then he turns, decisive in this, too, as he is in everything. 

“You haven’t changed,” he says, as he lopes to the elevator, and it’s terribly obvious that he means it.

 

 

 

V.

WOUND

 

Tony is a singularly generous lover.

He lets Steve kiss him, kisses back with twice the ferocity, quivers and sighs as Steve learns the planes of him, like this is all he ever wanted, like nothing in the world could make him happier than Steve next to him (Steve jammed into the heat of his body, Steve with his hair failing into his face and his arms straining above him, Steve with a sticky hand on his thigh as he pushes–)

Steve isn’t sure what he expected, but the way Tony opens for him, the way Tony holds his breath when Steve slides into him and his eyes snap open on the exhale, bright and rapt like Steve is his whole world is –

Staggering.

There’s no other word for it, really. It’s humbling, how ten years of friendship and fighting and senseless quibbling suddenly make infinitely more sense when Tony is in his bed; it’s disarming and terrifying and sometimes Steve wonders if he’s being dishonest, if really he intended it to be casual when it’s turned into this wild, uncontrollable thing, if maybe he never had any control over it at all and it was always going to happen –

It makes Steve wonder what else he’s been assuming about Tony that’s wrong. About the two of them.

It’s Steve’s idea, in the end.

Tony doesn’t say no, but he moves slower, stops every few seconds to kiss Steve as he rolls him bodily over onto his back, drags his limbs and sits back on his heels and touches Steve so gently Steve wants to roll him back over and take, wants to wrap himself in Tony’s body and lose himself, wants to live in him, wants so wildly it terrifies him –

“I wanted to ask,” Tony says quietly, almost bashful. He’s trying to be flippant, but he almost drops the lube on the sheets as he tries to undo the top. “I didn’t think you.” He runs a finger over Steve, hesitant, licks his lips and fumbles, and – 

Steve pulls him down quicker than he can protest, gathers him flat to his chest and kisses him as deeply as he knows how. “Aren’t I allowed,” Steve breathes into Tony’s shoulder as Tony sucks at his neck. “Can’t I be selfish, oh, just – oh –”

Tony is wriggling up between Steve’s legs, letting Steve tangle his fingers in his hair and grasp at the firm flesh of his thighs as Tony presses his fingers into him. Steve tries to be stoic, to close his eyes, because Tony knows what he’s doing and he should savor, but he can’t bring himself to tear his eyes away from Tony’s face, the way the corner of his mouth quirks at the noise Steve is making, and he’s so obviously pleased that Steve is writhing further up the bed, he’s laughing, because that’s what he does –

Tony dips his neck even as he’s knuckle-deep in Steve’s body, and Steve will never not love that, the graceful way he moves, the flow of his shoulders and the way his neck cords up when he’s straining. He’s so impossibly gentle that it’s difficult to reconcile this with the waking him, the him that struts about like he’s got nothing to fear, nothing to lose, the Tony that wraps himself in red and gold and walks into battle beside him. Steve opens his mouth to Tony’s, because he always will, because he hasn’t stopped being relieved that they can stop snapping at each other’s throats, because Tony kisses him like no one’s ever kissed him before and it scares the shit out of him –

“Relax,” Tony says, and he hitches Steve’s knees up with gentle, sticky-slick fingers, presses his forehead to Steve’s, mouths at Steve’s eyebrow as he settles against him, as he pushes until he’s breaching, until he’s slotting in and Steve is making sounds he didn’t know he could make –

Tony settles above him, stills like he was meant to live in Steve, watches the expressions that must be playing across Steve’s face with something like wonder.

“Thank you,” he says breathlessly, propped up on his elbows, like it’s bursting from his mouth, and it’s just for him, it’s just for Steve, and his eyes are so bright –

Steve cups his face, grasps at him, because it burns, but it’s going to turn into a want, he knows it, he can feel it, he already wants –

“Don’t,” he gasps, “I want this, just, move, I want to feel you–”

Tony doesn’t move. “No,” he says, reverence in his eyes (that’s for Steve) –  “Thank you for giving me a chance.”

Steve wants to smile, he wants to cry, because how could he not, how could he not have this, and Tony is inside him and Tony is moving and he gasps –

 

- - -

 

It’s still dark, barely. The sky is a little lighter, messy and smeared with a grey that looks pink with all the light pollution. He can barely see the storm system over the seep of the lights glancing off the windshield in the pre-dawn, and he’s still resolutely on the wrong side of the storm, but the it’s there on the edge of the city, spitting rain all over the dash, out over the Atlantic somewhere where the storm’s come and gone already.

He’d smell the rain rising off the pavement if he were riding. He’d be there by now, wending his way through this mess that’s the beltway at 4 am, and it’s dumb, it had to be wall-to-wall tonight of all nights, it had to be a tractor-trailer turned over on its way to New Jersey in the middle of the night.

He’s leaning on the horn, he realizes. He leans on it more as he works his way east to Brooklyn, he’s that driver, he wants to be home, wants to slam the door behind him and drift through his empty apartment soaking wet, without turning the lights on so he doesn’t have to see the briefcase armor by the door or Tony’s jeans still in his hamper from last weekend or–

His phone is buzzing in the cupholder.

Again.

It’s just like him, it’s rude and inconsiderate and arrogant, does he not get it, he’s driving to Brooklyn in the middle of the night so he doesn’t have to sleep in the fucking tower, he hasn’t picked up the last 18 times, why would he pick up now –

“Stop calling,” he says. His voice doesn’t sound like his. Tony doesn’t get a chance to say anything before he cuts the line and shoves his phone under his leg.

He’s getting off 278 when it buzzes again.

He’s not even angry, he’s hungry, because he hasn’t eaten anything since breakfast, he’s tired and his hand itches like hell where it’s knitting back together, but he’s not sad either, he doesn’t get to be sad, that’s only for Tony, he’s sure he’s been feeling sorry for himself for hours now, and Steve can’t do that, he has shit to do, he has –

“Call me again,” Steve says, shaking with how fucking calm he is, “and I’ll take out a restraining order.”

He’ll do it. He will. He tells himself he’ll do it.

He parks on the sidewalk, because he has government plates, holds the phone to his ear and waits for Tony to be an asshole, but he’s just breathing, and then all he hears is Steve, please, tentative and pathetic and he can’t fucking believe him –

It’s nothing to open the door and throw his phone down on the sewer grate and stomp on it until it crunches.

He doesn’t remember walking the three flights up, doesn’t remember turning his fake keys or pressing his thumb to the keypad or dropping his sodden jacket by the door or kicking over the suitcase armor or stumbling into the bathroom where Tony’s underwear is still on the fucking floor –

He stalks out to the living room, curls into the couch like he’d like it to swallow him, and his hands are shaking when they should be deft and sure, mechanic’s hands, Tony’s hands, he needs –

It’s no effort at all to remove Tony’s Avengers ID card from the network.

It’s nothing to revoke his NSA clearance. His S.H.I.E.L.D. access codes.

(Gatekeeper, he thinks, it always felt like posturing before, it felt wrong, and now–)

It’s not nothing, and his voice trembles when he opens a terminal window, when he says armor override, Steve Rogers, 34-44-54-64 and his speech scrolls out in the window. He feels like a stranger in his body as he records his message, as his mouth says words he can’t believe he’s having to say, as he uploads it into Tony’s servers and changes the access codes to the Quinjet, to the Quincarrier, to the door on his apartment, to his office, to–

(Tony was expecting this, that’s why he gave him the code, that’s – he’d always been waiting, he knew and Steve didn’t and now Steve gets it)

He buries his head in his hands, he can’t think about it, can’t let himself, can’t bear to have his – idiocy dragged to light right now. He let this happen the minute he made the decision to give him a goddamn chance

He’s not going to care. He’s not. He isn’t.

No, he thinks, and digs his fingernails into his biceps until he’s giving himself bruises.

He doesn’t care.

He doesn’t.

He’s not going to care.

 

- - -

 

He realizes, after a time filled with his own shallow crying and the hiss of the dishwasher running somewhere off down the hallway and the alert that keeps asking him if he wants to turn off the blackout, that maybe he never learned to be a person.

The tower is empty. Or maybe it’s not, and he doesn’t know. It’s his building. He should probably know. Steve always knows things like that, he makes a point of caring how he –

Caring how he treats other people, Steve, not Tony, it’s easier not to do that and be surprised when you’re treated like a person, too. Tony hoards, instead, he’s put too much of himself in this one thing, that’s dangerous, right, people break up all the time (emotionally blackmail each other, lie to each other, violate each other’s personal integrity) and they do it without –

He’s terrible, and so sorry, and there’s never going to be anyone he can say it to that understands what he means–

This was going to happen, he knew, and it’s here, and it’s bad, and his chest aches and he can’t swallow right and his head hurts and he wants to stop crying and he doesn’t deserve to wallow like this because he’s arrogant and it’s just a thing that was always going to happen because he said damn you for making me do this instead of no

He wonders why Steve never told him this was a terrible couch. The upholstery is too firm, it’s all so impersonal and overdone, he stays firmly on it when he wants to be sinking into the space between the cushions, he’s been lying on it for 48 minutes and it’s four in the morning and he should be asleep, it should fucking be swallowing him, him and his tears and his snot, but it’s all just getting wetter under his face, and someone could walk in, whoever’s in the tower already, in the gym, (on the roof, fucking in their suites) could come out and see him and then they’d ask what’s wrong, and –

He should clean the glass up, even though there are people who could do that, Jarvis could, if it wouldn’t mean he had to bend at the angles his back can’t really handle anymore. He should clean it up, he did it, he needs to – he needs to find the chip, erase the evidence, erase – 

He finds it, and courtesy dictates he stumble to the bathroom to pick glass shards out of his hand so he doesn’t bleed all over the living area. He staggers into the bedroom, means to dump the flowers in the sink, too, so he doesn’t have to look at them, but his hands shake and he only ends up slinging the entire vase off the bedside. It cracks against the corner of the nightstand as it falls, sends shards of glass glittering onto the duvet and water all down Steve’s side of the bed, the lilies spilling out all over the hardwood.

He stands there like an idiot, because there’s broken glass all over his bed, and Jarvis will throw the duvet out and buy a new one even though Steve’s smell is still on it, even though the bought it to go with Steve’s skin –

He doesn’t know where the tweezers are, and he opens the drawers in the bathroom with his elbow and realizes he can’t rifle, anyway, realizes maybe he should just leave them, he can just curl up on the floor, here, he can – they’re his towels, they always come back white, what’s a little blood, there’s paint all over the shower anyway, there are brushes drying in muddy water in the sink that weren’t cleaned (Steve always cleans his brushes).

He curls up on the damp shower mat and rips his hand open reaching around in his back pocket for his phone.

He sets it on the floor, next to him, shuts the door with the back of his foot, tries and fails to focus his eyes and gives up. He wipes at his face, at his embarrassingly wet cheeks, with his wrist, and says, in a weary rasp, “Steve Rogers.”

It rings, for a while, because Steve had complained that it didn’t sound like a proper call if it didn’t ring. He could pick up any moment, he could come back and pick Tony off the floor and put him to bed and he won’t, that’s done, he won’t do that again–

“You’ve reached Steve Rogers,” Steve’s voice says, the volume way too loud for the number of hard surfaces in the room, and Tony closes his eyes and tries, tries.

“I couldn’t find the tweezers,” he says to Steve’s voicemail. Steve won’t understand it when he listens to it, he’s mumbling into a towel that smells like mildew. “I’m sorry. Come back and we can talk about it.”

He tries to fall asleep on the freezing fucking floor for an agonizing, lonely minute, and then he opens his mouth, and says, “Steve Rogers,” ashamed

 

 

 

VI.

CABAL

 

T’Challa meets him on the landing platform.

“Save it,” Steve says, pre-emptively, and T’Challa bows his head.

He’s mercifully (infuriatingly) silent as they weave through the outer chambers, down the wide stone hallway and past the cell where Black Swan sits, cross-legged, her eyes gleaming out at them. He gestures, wordlessly, into the meeting room with a wide arm, and Steve narrowly restrains himself from ripping his goddamn mask right off his face as he nods his head cordially and enters.

 “You’re under house arrest,” he says to Reed. “Henry, the mutant community would happily hang me out to dry if I even thought about touching you. You three,” he says, nodding at T’Challa, Black Bolt, and Namor, “are diplomatically immune. Congratulations.”

“It was my doing,” Stephen says quietly. “I bear full –”

“It’s like this,” Steve all but snarls over him. “It was all of you. I can’t touch most of you, and I won’t, because we have bigger problems to worry about, but let me make this abundantly clear – you erased my memories, violated my person, and are, right this very instant, conspiring without the consent of your affiliated nations to commit genocide.”

“We don’t require your permission,” Reed says.

Steve pulls out his phone and puts it on the table.

He pokes at it for a minute, swipes his finger over the screen a few times, and holds it up so they can see the screen.

“It’s Sue,” he says. “She’s on speed dial.”

Reed’s face loses about 5 shades of color. Namor, to his credit, looks like he’s about to sink into the floor.

“You wouldn’t,” Reed says, his face gone sallow, as if he might be about to melt, “you agreed, you were part of this –”

“Was, operative word. This is not going away,” Steve says, and he’s sure his knuckles are white under his gloves where he’s gripping the edge of the table. “You’re going to keep me informed, you’re going to let me in, every meeting you call in the middle of the goddamned night, every update on the missiles you’re building that you don’t think I know about, every lead you get the minute you get it, every word out of her lying mouth,” he says, pointing a thumb over his shoulder down the hallway. “You’re going to work,” Steve continues. “You’re going to find a solution, you’re going to look for a solution to this mess instead of throwing in the towel because you have antimatter missiles, you’re going to put your arrogant heads together and solve this problem under the purview of S.H.I.E.L.D. every hour of every day until we come through this. But when this is over, when we’re DONE, when you fix whatever the hell it is that’s broken, I’m coming after each and every one of you.”

“Steve,” T’Challa starts.

“Should you fail,” Steve says, “to keep me in the loop, if you lie, if you try to magic your way past my psychic shields again, I’m going to expose you.” Reed has sunk so far in his chair that Steve wonders if he’s just letting himself drip onto the floor.

All of them are stone-silent.

“I will hold you accountable for each world you destroy,” Steve says, pushing his chair back with a scrape. “And I’ll make sure the rest of the world does, too.”

“You’re not innocent,” Reed says quietly.

“You’re right,” Steve says, as he throws open the stone door with twice the force he actually needs. “You’ve made us all sons of bitches.”

 

- - -

 

Tony is perilously close to reaching past the cabinet with the melatonin and into the one with the Patrón.

He stands there in the kitchen, the rain pelting down on the wide swath of tempered glass behind him, feeling entirely too hungover for what the clock indicates is a painfully sober two p.m., and jumps three feet out of his duplicitous, unshowered skin when Peter says, “Why is there glass in your hand?”

Tony flees, because he can’t bear to do any more lying right now.

 

- - -

 

“Reed,” Tony all but bleats, “I fixed the antimatter injectors. I – firmed up the firing sequence, too, I have some thoughts on the fusion chamber.”

They’re excuses, and he doesn’t have any thoughts, so he cuts the transmission and flies.

It’s the middle of the day. Reed’s probably puttering. His chip is reading at the Baxter Building; he’s definitely there. He’s – oblivious, like he is, that’s what Tony needs, he’s damn near dead on his feet, he just needs to decompress somewhere with a mass spectrometer, somewhere that doesn’t particularly remind him of Steve, somewhere he won’t be grilled or mocked, somewhere blessedly silent, just for a few hours –

“Hey,” he says, as the doors hiss shut behind him and he pulls his helmet off, as if there’s nothing pressing and he isn’t stalling and his whole world isn’t falling apart a few blocks away.

Tony looks up to see Reed rising from his swivel chair. 

And T’Challa, and Namor, and Stephen and Beast and Black Bolt.

Tony thinks –

Tony –

“What’s going on,” Tony says. 

“Ah,” Reed says, one hand stretched absurdly to the monitor 4 feet away, “we’re – I – ah, I’m just getting your message –”

“So,” Tony says, and he’s barely letting himself breathe, “this is – you’ve been –” He stutters and trips, useless, he’s not ready for this conversation, he’s not ready to be in this room –

“We’ve reached a decision,” T’Challa says.

“You’ve reached a decision,” Tony echoes in his smallest of voices.

None of them sit down.

“You’re a liability,” Stephen says, because Stephen’s never been afraid to get to the fucking point.

“You can’t do that,” Tony says. “I’m a –” founding member, he wants to say, and doesn’t, collaborator would be better, pushover, certainly, traitor, is the most apt –

“You’re emotionally compromised,” he says, and Tony can feel the blood draining from his face.

“We’re aware of your situation,” Hank starts –

“– we’ve been aware,” Namor cuts in quietly, and he’s not even sneering, he’s not even capitalizing on all the jabs he could make at Tony’s expense– 

“– I’m under house arrest,” Reed finishes for all of them.

His skin is crawling. His stomach feels terrible, he should have eaten something, he’s lightheaded, he’s so disgustingly transparent and lazy and he shouldn’t have slept the day away –

“Was he here,” Tony says, “was he –”

“Yes,” is all Stephen says.

“So what,” he says, dull and tired and faint, “are you going to erase my memories, too?” Please, part of him is screaming, anything is better than this nausea that rears up whenever he thinks of going home

“No, of course not,” Reed says reasonably, “we need you to work on the Dyson sphere.”

Tony doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“You’re kicking me out,” he says. “this is how it goes,” (punishment) and he doesn’t know if it’s a question or not, “he – you fuck up,” he says in Stephen’s direction, “ and I’m the one who gets booted because of your mistake–”

“You’re the one that went to bed with him,” Reed says quietly.

“I agreed,” Tony says, feeling frantic, “we said, we said we’d, on the condition, you said he wouldn’t remember, you fucking said–”

“It was the proximity,” Beast says.

“WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN,” Tony snarls, “how can you blame this on me, my personal life is personal, you meddling fucks –”

“We said no wives,” Namor says. “No family, no erstwhile lovers –”

“Go fuck yourself –”

“Tony,” Stephen says. “It’s an insurmountable conflict of interest, you must understand –”

“IT’S YOUR TURN,” Tony roars, and swipes his arm over the table. Three monitors, five mugs crash down; holographic projections bounce and splinter and go dark as the nanoprojectors are scattered. “Fix it,” he yells, and hefts Stephen’s magical fucking book across the room. “You’re up,” he says, “why don’t you be the one, this time,” he’s spouting, “put your soul on the line, let’s try your goddamn solution –”

“This isn’t easy for anyone–”

“BULLSHIT,” Tony yells. “I’M NOT BUILDING YOU SHIT, YOU DON’T FUCKING WANT ME, I’M NOT ON CONTRACT, PULL SOMETHING OUT OF YOUR OWN POMPOUS ASS FOR A CHANGE.”

Stephen rises so quickly it’s almost violent.

“You selfish fool,” he hisses. “We’re trying to implement the best solution. Do you have any idea what magic is involved in my backup plan? You need to put this aside –

“You need to do something,” Tony says, “you need to pull your damn weight, I don’t see any of you excommunicated–”

“Nothing is free,” Stephen says, and Tony thinks he’s never looked so tall. “None of this is free, none of us are guiltless in this, it’s insulting to imply this is any less burdensome for us. Blood magic demands –”

“This is so useless,” Tony says. “All of you, you’re.” He backs up a few steps, tries to jam his helmet on his head with shaky hands. “Don’t call me,” he intones. “Don’t, just.”

He doesn’t remember kicking off the platform, but somehow he’s out in the rain again.

 

- - -

 

The flowers are still strewn all over the floor when Tony finally gets back.

It’s the only evidence. They hadn’t been sleeping long enough for there to be even the shallowest of divots in the mattress. The bed is perfectly made, as always, hospital corners that would put Steve’s to shame. There’s nothing to indicate he was ever here. There couldn’t be. They were always so discreet, looking over both shoulders and creeping out of each other’s rooms. Long weekends at Steve’s apartment in Brooklyn.

No one is ever going to know.

He throws himself onto the bed, still in the armor, and the bedframe creaks under his weight.

“This is effectively a cease and desist order,” Steve’s voice comes, as that message that wouldn’t play when he was in the air starts to play. “You’re grounded internationally. You’re still an American citizen, so there’s nothing I can do to keep you from moving around domestically. But if you try to sneak off to Wakanda, if you cross into international airspace without approval, the armor shuts down. I don’t care if you’re 20,000 feet over the Atlantic, you’ll drop.” A pause, and then, quieter, “I won’t come get you.” 

Shutdown code initiated, clearance provision 34-44-54-64, addendum 4, confirmation: Steve Rogers.

He recorded a message, he thinks hysterically, he sat somewhere and recorded that and didn’t feel anything at all, it’s over, it’s over, it’s over

Tony cries and cries behind the helmet until he can’t breathe and the HUD goes dark.

 

 

 

VII.

STAR-CROSSED

 

The tower may as well be a crypt.

He’s going to be discovered. He lives in fear of it; he stops checking his email because he knows his inbox will be empty, devoid of the hundreds of S.H.I.E.L.D. memos he gets daily, free of Reed’s dumb little brainteasers because of the gag order, none of Maria’s infuriating housekeeping bulletins, no tech upgrade requests, like he’s utterly expendable –

Erasing. That’s what Steve is doing to him.

It’s working. His heart thrums out of his chest, every time the alarm that marks an Avengers call sounds. He can hardly be called a resident, at this point. He sleeps in Bruce’s lab, because Bruce is away and it’s easier, this way he gets precious brief moments as he’s waking where he can pretend he’s working, he’s busy, he’ll go on the next call, he’ll make an appearance for dinner, he’ll put in some time in the gym –

And yet –

No one’s come looking for him.

 

- - -

 

He hasn’t spoken to anyone in days, maybe.

He doesn’t know what time it is, except it’s dark and there isn’t natural light in here and he was sleeping, but now he’s not, because someone is looking, someone has stumbled upon his cowardly little den, and then he smells Old Spice laid over leather and –  

Tony’s awake, now. 

“Shit,” he whispers, sitting up like he needs to impress, like it’s company and not the man he’s slept next to (on top of, inside) a thousand times.

Steve gives him the barest of condescending glances.

“Go back to sleep,” he says.

“What are you doing here?” Tony asks, and flips the light on.

He stops short when he sees the pile of shining blue and white and red leather slung over Steve’s arm, the helmet dangling from his finger by the chinstrap.

“I need you to move out of the tower,” Steve says.

Tony swallows and pretends he’s a rational person.

He queues up a lie. Of course, Steve. I’m on it already.

“What,” is all that comes out of his mouth.

“Please don’t make me say it again,” Steve says. 

Tony thinks not necessary and please don’t make me and forgive me–

There’s absolutely nothing he has any right to say.

“What about the incursions,” he says, so calm, he’s going to be so fucking civil so Steve won’t see how desolate he’s feeling, “My lab is here, I can’t work if I’m somewhere else, you know that.”

Steve pulls Tony’s Avengers ID card out of his wallet and crushes it into a ball with his fist.

“You’re not working on it,” is all he says. 

Tony feels like he’s going to puke.

“I have to work on it,” he says, mostly air, “I have to, Reed doesn’t – it’s our world, Steve, I want to fix this just as much as you do, how can you think I, why do you think I did this –

“How can I?” Steve growls, and throws all his shit down in a pile by the door. 

Tony swipes a hand over his face to make sure he isn’t crying.

“How can you stand there,” Steve says, and Tony can just see the shadow coming up on his jaw as he swallows, “how can you stand there and look me in the eye, you let them, you erased me, IT DOESN’T MATTER WHY.”

Tony quakes, and says, “Please don’t yell at me.”

ALL YOU HAD TO SAY WAS NO, Tony,” Steve bellows.

He feels his heartbeat pulse and skip in his throat. He turns away, makes a show of gathering up his stuff, moves so slowly he feels like he’ll never move again, tries to keep himself upright even though he’s reeling and his chest feels tight and there’s nothing Steve wants from him, ever again, there’s nothing to say –

“I never would have done that to you,” Steve says, and slams the door so violently the glass falls out of its pane. 

 

- - -

 

Steve breaks the agreement his other self made.

It’s a Tuesday. Most of them are around. Bruce conferences in. Thor is absent.

“We’ve been,” Steve says, and looks at his palm.

There are notes scribbled there. It’s so unlike him, but he feels scattered and frayed. It’s taking all of his effort just to pull the threads together long enough to stand here in front of them and do this. It’s starting to smear; he needs to stop clenching and unclenching his fists like he can will integrity into them –

“Shouldn’t we wait,” Carol is asking around a tremendous yawn. “Shouldn’t we wait for Tony?”

It roars up inside him, and he tells himself, again (again), it’s done.

“We’ve been lied to,” Steve says.

They look at him, blank, and he takes a breath.

“I’ve lied to you, too,” he says.

 

- - -

 

He wants a cigarette, he wants a drink, tranquilizers, anything to knock him out long enough to get a full night’s sleep. He has to see the things he’s made. He has to remind himself he’s good for something.

Normally, he would solve this by flying, but he doesn’t get to do that anymore, not unless he breaks into his own lab and smuggles out one of the old suitcase armors. He doesn’t know if he has the audacity to even try.

So he settles, because that’s what he’s set himself up for.

He bounces a hologram of himself to the other side of the sun.

It could be a planetary defense system. If he tried hard enough, if he lied, if he hadn’t thought “Sol’s Hammer” was hopelessly apt the minute it made it out of Reed’s mouth, if he hadn’t put Kevin there with every intention of using him as a weapon (just like Steve said, Tony gets exactly what he wants, Tony knows best, Tony knows, Tony doesn’t know anything –)

Steve’s had Kevin moved to 42. He’s ordered production suspended. His men pull the plates off one by one and carry them away like shining honeycombs, the golden frame of it left spindly and bare around the sun.

Here, too, he’s invisible.

He lingers, in his virtual shell, watches the panels get scrapped by Steve’s response team, sucks in breath after breath back in his Uptown loft, tells himself at least he gets to be this, he gets to hover in space with nothingness pulling at him and fathomless black waiting to suck his life away, and he’s more powerful than a god in his gilded shell –

(Anything, anything to fall back on –)

Steady, Steve would say.

Steve didn’t have to do anything. Tony’s clipped his own wings.

You never compromise, Steve would say, we just have to be steady, the minute you compromise, you lose yourself –

 

- - -

 

“You’re neglecting too much,” Stephen says.

Steve wishes he would get out of his damn office.

He’s stayed behind, after the rest of them warped out, floating about in his ridiculous cape. There’s so much to do, there are so many groups of people he needs to keep secrets from and so much paperwork he needs not to fill out if they’re ever going to get anything accomplished in this desperate calm they’re riding before the next incursion –

“We don’t have time to worry about our souls,” Steve says.

“You still don’t understand what that means,” Stephen says, and he cants his hands just so, strings of brilliant energy springing in a gossamer web from his fingertips. “This is a creature,” he’s saying, conjuring something that looks like a squid. “There are thousands of beings like this. Every world we destroy breaks down the barriers between our realities until they’re paper-thin and old things seep through –”

“Then keep them out,” Steve says.

“Our contingency plan demands I let them in,” Stephen says. “Our contingency plan dictates that I sacrifice my own soul to summon one and direct it to devour the incurring world, and after that they don’t stay out because I’m not here to defend you.”

(Of course it has to be more complicated than celestial bodies colliding, another problem he doesn’t know how to solve, can’t think about solving, it’s all too big, Tony was better at scale like this –)

But what’s one more soul, he thinks bitterly, what’s one more amongst theirs, now, they’re all guilty, they’re all going to be, if they live, he doesn’t care, he thinks, horrified (barely), he’d do it, and sleep, that’s all he has now, living to fight another day. He’s going out as a soldier. He’ll kick and scream until he gets there.

Commit.

“We’ll do what we have to,” Steve says.

That would have been harder to say, once upon a time.

 

- - -

 

He doesn’t even expect amends.

He owes it, is all. It’s penance for damages. He’s going to find the thing Steve is looking for, the thing that every cell in his body is screaming can’t exist on principle. He can work 20 hour days until he finds something. The projections suggest they have at least 5 days. He’s done bigger things in 5 days.

He can’t sleep, anyway. He feels ill all the time. He knows he’s losing weight, but it’s too much to drag himself out to get takeout; it’s so much easier to get stuck in the miserable loop between his bed and the living area and the balcony, when it’s not raining, to sit in silence and stare at his tablet like it will give him answers –

He designs things. Antimatter suspension fields. An ionic particle discharge focused through a generator shield, banking on years and years of Hank's research. A gamma wave pulse to rearrange the other earth's polarity, an orbiting field generator to draw it away–

After a while, they’re nothing more than incredible daydreams.

Fantasies, grander and more elaborate and more impossible all the time. He starts project file after project file, has to run out to buy a new box of moleskins, wastes away in the splendor of his sterile Upper East loft as the world hisses by below, unthreatened. There’s always another way, there’s always something he’s overlooked in the methodology, there’s always something he just hasn’t found yet, he just has to find it so Steve knows he’s willing to do this right, he’s willing, he is–

(he’d do anything–)

He just has to try harder.

 

- - -

 

There’s always a way to re-arrange the maps. The briefings, the data readouts. The casualty projections. There’s always a way to look at them so they give you better news.

Except.

The solid truth of the matter is, evacuations never work.

Sue Storm would die before she managed to push a mirror-earth even 3 miles away. They don’t have the infrastructure for this, not even S.W.O.R.D., it’s one thing to defend against a fleet, an invading force, it’s another to fight physics, it’s –

The truth of it is, he shot them all in the foot when he sent Tony away.

The more he dwells, the more he hates that Tony knew all of this, he knew, all of this he thought he could sidestep, it could never be Steve’s burden if Steve never knew until he was burning to death in Tony’s traitorous arms –

If they don’t send another earth bursting to its death, there’s another Steve Rogers, somewhere, that’s got balls enough to do it to them.

(There’s another Tony Stark, somewhere, that’s building a doomsday device, one that will find its target.)

He raises his head to count the votes, and feels the last of his drowning hope leaving him.

 

- - -

 

He gives up, and trashes the entire loft in a fit of abject despair.

It feels good, for about five minutes, and then it feels awful and it takes him an hour to come down.

It’s ok. There are other lofts. There are houses. He’ll swing down to Midtown before he goes – somewhere else. It’s ok. He needs some things. A download of the mainframe. His sunglasses. Food.

(He wants an excuse to loiter and pretend he isn’t irrelevant.)

Jarvis meets him at the door, smiles a smile entirely without rancor, takes his sopping coat and presses a mug of coffee into his hand before he disappears down the hall again.

He’s taken so much for granted, Tony thinks miserably.

The conference room door is closed. It shouldn’t be, it’s almost midnight, but there are shadows just behind the frosted glass. There’s enough of them that they’re leaning against the walls, full-up on standing room, and Steve will be in there, running the show, perfectly kempt even while he’s falling apart without sleep, he’ll be sitting and plotting and he pushed the button, he sent the call and they came and Tony never got it –

Tony presses his ear to the door.

“I was almost acting,” Luke’s voice comes. A dull thunk. “Almost, I just.”

Luke isn’t even an active member.

“You ripped it in half,” Danny says.

“What the fuck was I supposed to do,” Luke says. “Go back and ask for the rest?”

“It’s – fine, Luke,” Steve says with a sigh, and Tony backs a few inches away.

“Where you going,” Jessica says.

“I’m tired,” Luke says. “I don’t.” Footsteps. Shifting. “I wanna go home and kiss my wife,” he says quietly.

“What’s your vote,” Natasha asks.

“Abstain,” Luke says, and Tony backs around the corner until he’s on his knees down the side hallway.

“You can’t abstain.”

There’s a long silence, and then Luke says, “Offense.”

The door opens.

Tony’s already gone, already turned tail and run away into the suite that isn’t his anymore (isn’t Steve’s, either, by the look of things), already opening drawers he doesn’t need to open because he’s forgotten what he’s looking for, because Steve is lost, he’s doing things he shouldn’t be doing, Tony should do them, Tony was always the one who was supposed to do the awful things, they’re voting, they’re voting, he’s –

He spends an hour with his head between his knees waiting for them all to leave. 

When he comes out, his bag slung over his shoulder in his best impression of can’t-be-bothered, the door is open and the light is off. He can just smell Danny’s weird cologne down the hall, can just hear him whispering, Luke come on – and Luke’s equally hushed whisper of he’s a lying fuck and a crack magician, let go of me, Danny –

All of Steve’s stuff is still lying out on the conference table.

A list, on top, of votes, offense and defense, offense is winning. Diagrams, Reed’s diagrams, and his stomach starts to sink, Reed’s explained it all, specs, for the fucking – missile – and the Dyson sphere, as if anyone could build it except him (as if). Half of an ancient book in a glyphic language with Stephen’s notes scribbled all over the margins, the one he threw across the room, before, the one that smells like gunpowder and has a sticky note on it that says LAST RESORTS in Steve’s note-taking handwriting –

They’re doing it. They’re doing what Tony was going to do, they’re –

No, Steve, Tony thinks, because he won’t allow it, and shoves it all into his bag like a child.

 

 

 

VIII.

INSTINCTIVE DROWNING RESPONSE

 

 

His dreams take on the character of fire.

He remembers his mother talking about the Cold War, about Howard, cold and distant and down in his lab, remembers the look in her eyes when she said she dreamt about the bomb and worried that there might not be a tomorrow.

He dreams of dark things, of things climbing out of the ground, shadows that snarl and hiss and strangle the light in their paths. Sometimes they look like wretched copies of people he knows. Often, he wakes to an empty bed and the sheets kicked down around his feet and goes to stand in front of the window to imagine the skyline in flames.

He starts to seriously consider how he wants to die.

He missed a step. He missed so many steps. He has no faith; he’s trusted his heart to machines and shrouded himself in technology and pushed away all of the people that could possibly tell him it’s all going to work out (it’s not). He has no faith, no humility, just arrogance and hubris and all the things that fell great men.

He imagines them all meeting, and tries to remember what it’s like, being one.

The simulations show him. They’re all powerless, he suspects. It’s systemic. The crash of the multiverse. It’s crashing and violence, and maybe that’s fitting, maybe that’s how all earths are meant to end, clawing each other apart while they all scramble in arrogance, like they can fix any of it, like any of it is in their control, like they mean anything at all

They’re going to fail. It might take two incursions, it might take two hundred, but they’re going to fail.

The answer is simple. He doesn’t care how he dies.

He’s only ever cared how Steve does.

 

- - -

 

– Stark Industries down two hundred and sixty seven points on the Dow after rumors that he is no longer an active member of the Avengers, Mr. Stark has yet to come forward with a statement. I’m Kai Ryssdal, and this is Marketplace – 

He exists, for now.

He stands in his boxers, makes the coffee that Steve would have pressed into his hands before his body knew he needed it, once upon a time. Dreads the tasks that will inevitably crop up and force him outside. He shivers, his bare hip pressed against the granite, and peels a mass of waffle dough out of the iron, feeling absolutely wretched.

Arlington is unsurprisingly miserable. The apartment is a mess. He’d never intended to live here, it’s just a place (all of his homes were always just places), a place to come back and hang his suits and maybe screw with strangers after Senate hearings. It pre-dates Extremis, even, this particular crash pad. There are interfaces in every room (rendered useless by Steve’s team). There’s a briefcase armor in the closet with a half-inch of dust over the thumb pad that would probably handle like a Mack truck if he were so inclined to ever put it on again.

The bed goes unslept in, mostly. The couch is tolerable. He shares the living area with metal and wires and useless displays he’d given up on installing halfway through in fits of entropy.

There’s nothing he can do with it, anyway. The vibranium from the armory in Bethesda was missing from his shipment.

It’d taken two hours and five movers crowding into his entryway like Tony was still worth gaping at to haul up the entire load. It wasn’t nearly as much as it would have been, once upon a time, but he’s learned. He’s become economical. He’s run enough that he knows that he needs to make a lab.

He’d thought, like he does, assumed he had any sort of autonomy, pulled out a note on S.H.I.E.L.D. letterhead, neatly typed, kindly asking Mr. Stark to avoid breaking the conditions of his house arrest, including but not limited to requisitioning rationed natural resources for personal projects (armor), absconding with classified government information (his designs), failing to report to his S.H.I.E.L.D.–assigned probation officer (Maria) at designated intervals –

Yes, I noticed, it said.

Steve’s signature wasn’t on it, just his stamp.

 

- - -

 

He picks up new hobbies, as he always does when he’s despondent.

He feels caged, which only reinforces his suspicion that he’s incredibly spoiled. It starts as boredom, as the frantic sense that if he’s not doing anything, if he’s not building, he’s sitting, he’s waiting, he’s weak, A thing worth doing is worth doing right, Tony, Howard would say on the rare occasions he spoke to him –

This is a hobby, he tells himself, as it all falls out all over the floor, the bag with Steve’s notes and Steve’s plans and all the things Steve touched that still smell faintly like the tower. You can’t be a relic when you’re working, he thinks, as long as there’s breath and you have your mind. He fought his way out of a cave. He’s weathered worse than this.

(Relics, just like him.)

He thinks he’ll learn the language it’s written in, at first, spends a good 78 hours making a cipher, and then caves and runs it through the translator. He looks at the illustrations while it’s running. A Lovecraftian etching of a giant cephalopod consuming what looks like an M-class planet. Geometrically exact diagrams for conjuring. Unfortunate bastards who look to have crossed the thing, half-dead from agony, grasping at wisps of something leaving their chests.

Stephen’s notes are in the margins:

Directing the flow of spirit – heirlooms, essence, biomaterial, posthumous – creative works?

Look in B. of Eibon – principality repercussions?

“Blu’dakorr” from the Basque, for discussion with Clea

Tony imagines him, back in Brooklyn, taking tea in a dark room, acquainting himself with eldritch monsters for Scholasticism’s sake, seriously entertaining the idea of summoning this thing because he can – and just about ends up crying on the floor again at everything he’s lost and everything he can’t control.

His head aches like it’s splitting in two after the first day.

 

- - -

 

The book sounds like it’s whispering, sometimes.

There’s something about it, there’s something terrible and beautiful in the way the script is penned by hand and the paper is curling and tissue-thin, the way it smells like dust and heat and clay.

He learns about demons and gods. Deities he’s never heard of, names he couldn’t pronounce if he tried. He doesn’t understand some of it, the distinctions between realms. It’s nothing he was ever intended to read, he’s sure. He devours, ravenous, learns about the Pantheons, the Builders. The Faltine. The Splinter realms. Beings he can’t begin to imagine, powerful in ways he can’t begin to understand.

He imagines Steve doing this. Imagines Steve agreeing to ever entertain any of the things in here, imagines him laying his strong hands on the blood bible and deciding it’s the right thing to do.

The thought makes him feel like his world is about to shake apart.

It’s just a different set of laws, he thinks. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, he thinks. Rules can be learned.

(He feels unintelligent for the first time in a very long time.)

He can’t stop looking at it. He has to get it into him, he has to learn the hierarchy and agency and the character of the human soul. He has to learn this thing’s history, has to learn what it wants and where it comes from and how to get it to do what he needs. He wakes in the middle of the night and drifts out to the kitchen, shivering on the cold chair, far too engrossed to turn the heat up. He rests his hands on it as he reads the translation he’s printed off. He won’t sleep, anyway. He’s getting sick. He feels faint. He aches.

He wonders why no one has showed up looking for this yet. They probably don’t think he’s a threat. They probably think he’d never.

Tony is too arrogant, Tony doesn’t know what he even has, Tony would never stoop to magic when he’s got science.

Tony is a coward.

 

- - -

 

He makes a list.

He drives out to Funtime for the day, sits in the back office where the ceiling hasn’t fallen in completely with a ballpoint pen and a duffel bag and a notebook, the beams splintering silently into dust around him, the headache that hasn’t gone away building behind his eyes, and counts backwards.

It doesn’t work. They spill out of him on their own. And that’s how it should be, no sympathy for the wicked, he should have to suffer for this, it should be wretched –

Whiplash, Maya, Sal, Bill Foster, Obadiah, Happy Hogan, Mallen, Rumiko –

He needs forty. Forty fallen, called from wherever they are now, wherever he’s not going to make it to if he does this. He must have more than that, indirectly. He must have millions, if he’s honest. Faces that he’ll never know (but often imagines) that died violent and undeserving deaths before he got his head together and stopped.

Butcher, he thinks, alone in his crumbling empire, and the drywall absorbs his sobs before anyone could ever hear them.

Please let it be enough, he thinks.

 

- - -

 

“Are you even listening?”

Carol reminds him of an angry dragon.

She’s not the first, not even today. This morning it was Billy Kaplan yelling at him because Teddy Altman decided to go with Noh-Varr to see what the Kree know and you have a thousand shape-shifters to pick from, the world could end tomorrow, that is my fiancée you’ve sent off to Hala–

Steve spends a lot of time off the ground, these days. He has less manpower. He can’t blame the ones that that object for leaving. Less manpower, but enough (he knows it’s all thanks to Tony and his damnable foresight), more on call than they ever would have had back in the day, packs of them chattering away in his ear all day every day when he’s not taking his requisite 4-hour nap, and sometimes he just wants to unplug and stop and get on his bike and – do something. Leave, maybe. Walk away.

Yesterday, it was T’Challa and Namor, because apparently Wakanda is about to declare war on Atlantis and they both still expect Steve to care.

Good.

“Steve!” She kicks the base of his desk. “Who CARES,” she says, “WHO CARES if he brings back Kree intelligence, remember the time he tried to drop us all into the sun –

Tomorrow it will be Thor and Hyperion concerned about Galactus, it will be Reed and Black Swan telling him how much danger they’re in from her mapmakers, it will be Hank Pym wringing his hands and telling him that all of these earths have Ultrons, too –

Steve thinks he should say something about how excusing betrayal is something they have to learn to do, here, but all he can see is Tony’s lonely tracker dot moving steadily across the Pacific to Tokyo.

“I know you don’t want to hear this,” she says, “but if you’re letting Noh-Varr back in you might as well get Tony back here.”

Steve closes the window and forgets about it.

“You’re right,” he says. “I don’t want to hear it.”

 

- - -

 

The cherries are just blooming in Kyoto.

He lets himself in, out of the taxi, out of the rain, slides the paper door open and slips his shoes off. He could have taken something of his, something she wanted him to have, but –

Her smell is still here, the sandalwood she used to wear, and the ache in his chest blossoms like it’s new again. He settles for running his hands reverently (traitorously) over things she touched, once, lifts a pendant from her boudoir, trails the pads of his fingers over the dark wood, over the bed (cold), like something of her lingers if he wants it badly enough –

There’s a note on the back of a business card that isn’t his, still stuck in the mirror, scrawled in his handwriting.

Love you, babe.

He sits, for a long time, before he musters up the courage to leave again.

 

- - -

 

Tony is nobody now, so he flies into JFK like a nobody. 

It will be fine. In and out, Steve probably doesn’t even live in the tower anymore. He’ll be on the Helicarrier with Maria. He won’t be around to vet.

(As if Steve doesn’t know where he is, as if he doesn’t see everything Tony and his treacherous fucking heart get up to–)

He can’t bear to ask Pepper, so he spends the evening breaking in to Level 2 Storage to wade through memories he had no intention of ever revisiting. The only thing he can find, in the end, is his wedding band, and he takes it, feeling like a swine.

The villains are easier. It’s just a matter of hacking the database to secure the clearance he doesn’t have anymore and smiling like he belongs there and it’s still his purview as a consultant (Avenger). A wallet, a crumpled photo left in a dingy jacket pocket, dog tags when he finds them (rarer).

It’s infinitely more miserable to track things down from people he called friends.

One of Sal’s pipes, a small glass thing that’s still caked with resin. Maya’s access card and the dumb Berkeley lanyard she wore it around, dug out of a file drawer in his workshop. A chess piece made of sanded glass from Yinsen he doesn’t want to part with. Bill Foster’s Avengers ID card.

He comes up short, just one.

 

- - -

 

He finds them in the top drawer in his bedroom, all the way at the back, behind a bottle of lube and his ratty socks he wears downstairs and a handful of long-expired condoms. He plucks them out, just rests the weight of them in his hands, can’t wrench his eyes away from the brown blood spatter that’s long since dried over the embossed S.G. ROGERS.

He wonders if it counts.

These are the old ones, the ones Steve was wearing when he died. Steve gave him another set, long after they’d both forgotten about that, pressed them into his hand once as he peeled off every piece of leather one by one and maneuvered Tony onto his stomach and whispered, keep them, they suit you and ghosted his lips over the bumps of Tony’s spine –

He tries to think of what he’s given to Steve.

(Nothing of any import.)

He adds them to the pile, feeling wretched, because Steve is worth a hundred men.

 

- - -

 

After it’s become abundantly clear that no one is going to call him, Tony sits on the couch in Arlington and slices the chip out of his palm.

He cuts it out with a serrated plastic knife, because that’s what’s on hand from last night’s takeout. It takes a bit of prying, a bit of sawing, but he gets it, looks at it glowing in his other palm and thinks about Steve doing this, thinks about Steve hating him, panics because he has to make peace with this or he’ll be no good. He’s got to make peace with what he was and what he’s going to be and stop being terribly afraid of this thing he’s going to do.

Because Steve wouldn’t be.

It’s almost funny when he gets his blood all over the book, and it melts away to nothing on the page.

The ink, though, that grows a little darker. A little redder.

Blood price, Stephen said. Magic isn’t free.

He laughs. He knocks everything off the dumb puce Ikea table because if he doesn’t he’ll break into the liquor cabinet. He laughs, hysterical sniggers that feel like they’re ripping themselves from his body. He laughs until his cackling ebbs into the weeping he’s been staving off for days now, until he faceplants into the sofa and clutches at his hair and moans out desperate sobs into the cushions.

When he is wrung and boneless and utterly exhausted, he falls asleep with his fingers still between the ancient pages of Stephen’s tome, aching for Steve’s skin under his hands instead.

He dreams of darkness and clear blue water, warm in his lungs. 

 

 

 

IX.

SORRY

 

He’s shown into Steve’s office on the Helicarrier like a fucking tourist.

It’s dark. Bigger than Steve would ever ask for, a curved table set into the divot in the center, a wide expanse of dark glass wrapped around the perimeter. There are boxes propped against his desk, and his shield, half-obscured by the pile of blue scale that’s obviously been thrown on top of it. Steve is leaning, the broad planes of his arms stretched taut as he looks at the situation map display. He’s in the blue shirt he wears underneath the scale since the redesign. There’s the barest suggestion of shadow smudged over his chin, and Tony wonders where he shaves now.

(Is he living here? Has he consigned himself to the Helicarrier cafeteria and a full-sized plank of a bed in guest quarters? Does he keep art supplies in a box under the bed, or was that just a side thing for Tony’s consumption –)

Tony keeps his eyes on his feet, like maybe Steve won’t notice he’s here; maybe Steve will send him right back out again so he won’t have to say this, maybe Steve won’t notice what a fucking mess he is (who is he kidding, Steve doesn’t care, hasn’t he made that abundantly clear) –

“Give me a reason,” Steve says, and he doesn’t even look up.

He’s stiff. His hair is perfect, effortlessly disheveled in the neatest possible fashion. He takes up the whole fucking chair with his massive thighs, all 240 pounds of him pure confrontation, one hand with his fingers curled into a loose fist on the glasstop, the line of his mouth pulled into a snarl that only Tony knows how to see.

His voice is just like Tony’s been imagining it.

It tears the breath from his chest, and he stands there looking like an arrogant fool (accurate) while Steve pretends he’s better than fuming from behind his goddamned mahogany desk.

“What do you want, Tony,” he says, sharper, harried, when Tony doesn’t say anything. “I told you to stay out of international airspace.”

He does his best to look like a man whose world isn’t crumbling around him.

“I had to see you,” he says. “I made an appointment, the suit let –”

“This isn’t going to end in sex,” Steve says, his face entirely blank except for the steel that’s settled into his eyes. 

Tony stares.

“I’m,” he tries. “I didn’t. What?”

“I know you,” he says, offhandedly, like Tony is a loose acquaintance.

It feels unmistakably cruel. 

Tony looks at the door. “Thanks for your discretion,” he chokes, and he doesn’t know why his cheeks are burning, but they are.

“It’s soundproof,” Steve says, as if he can’t be bothered either way. He jabs at the display and it goes dark, looks up at Tony with something inscrutable and distant in his eyes. “You have no right to be ashamed,” he says.

Tony wilts a little more.

“Are you,” Tony says quietly, because he has to say something.

Steve looks him over like he’s making a fucking contact, like he’s talking to one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. drones that runs his ship.

“What do you want, Tony,” Steve says again.

“I want to talk,” Tony says (pleads), when he finds his words, as if wheedling has ever worked on Steve. 

“I don’t,” Steve says, and the ensuing silence is agonizing.

“I want to have a conversation with you,” Tony says. “I’m not asking for anything, I just, listen, please, ok, you need –”

“I have Reed Richards,” Steve says, speaking over him (Steve never speaks over him). He’s looking right in Tony’s eyes when he says, “I don’t need an arms dealer.”

Tony can’t say anything for a minute.

“That’s not what I – that’s not fair,” he says quietly, like he’s not about to fucking cry. He knows he deserves it, he knows he could handle it from anyone else but Steve. “You know that’s not what I do, Steve, that’s not –

“The mutually assured destruction thing has gone out of style,” Steve agrees. He looks up, a curt little twist to his mouth. “Except at the clubhouse, right?”

His eyes look cold for the first time Tony can remember.

“Why are you being like this,” Tony says faintly.

Steve drags his gaze away from his tablet and tosses his pen down.

“You know, you could be in prison right now,” he spits, and he’s so different, here, he’s so angry and callous and Tony feels like a stranger.

“Why am I different,” Tony asks, numb and terribly insignificant, “Why aren’t they in prison, Steve, why are they still on the payroll?”

Steve looks at him for a long time.

“They’re useful,” is all he says, and Tony beats down the urge to burst into tears.

“I wanted to say I’m sorry,” he spits back, and he’s inches away from devolving into snot and tears in front of Captain America. “I thought maybe we could stop hating each other long enough to do that, but I guess you’re too fucking busy.

“Yeah,” Steve says, “I’m busy. While you’re here, do you know where Reed is?”

Tony doesn’t even know what to say, but then Steve looks at him still expecting him to answer, and that’s always been enough.  

“The Baxter Building,” he chokes. “Why?”

“I want to discuss temporary stabilizing measures,” Steve says, all business and no warmth. “If he’s right, and there’s something wrong with the actual…” Steve fumbles for the words a little, even as he runs a tired hand through his hair. “If the mechanism of our reality is splintering, then we need time while we figure out some kind of solution –”

“What do you think we were trying to do,” Tony says, a little shorter than he actually means to be, but it’s getting fucking ridiculous, the endless what if’s, the hope that has no place in this operation, because he’s not listening. “Of course he’s right, it’s not ‘if,’ there’s something wrong. We didn’t call it ‘cascade failure’ for kicks, ok, it’s permanent and irreversible –”

“No,” Steve says, with the same tone he takes when he’s talking down to politicians, “you were reacting in desperation and now we’re about to do unspeakable things to that end –”

“Yeah, and you’d be dead right now,” Tony says, “we’d both be dead if we hadn’t reacted –

“Yeah, I was there,” Steve says. “We managed that impossible solution you claim doesn’t exist and no one died –

“– and there’s no way of recreating that, you broke them.” Tony snaps. “Do you want to take that chance? Do you want to sit on your ass and wring your hands until it’s too late, just blow up the damn planet next time –”

“–LISTEN to yourself,” Steve hisses, standing up so quickly the chair skids back a foot and a half. “You don’t even care, you’re talking about destroying a planet as if it’s nothing. You’re destroying yourself, you know, you’re destroying versions of our reality over and over every time you –”

“I KNOW,” Tony snaps. “It’s destroying alternate me’s and alternate you’s and alternate teams of Avengers, I KNOW–”

“Go develop your conscience somewhere else,” Steve roars, and jabs the button that makes the elevator doors hiss open.

“I’m not – we’re not done, Steve,” Tony shouts.

“I am,” Steve says, like he doesn’t care at all, already leaning over the table again, his brow furrowed in concentration like Tony’s not even there, already back to his stupid fucking holographic display, already punching the button that calls the security people to escort Mr. Stark down to the hangar bay again –

“And it’s Captain,” Steve says as the doors are closing, just loud enough for Tony to hear.

 

- - -

 

He means to disappear.

It’s a dive, somewhere with bass, somewhere he’s calling attention to himself in his fancy dress shirt with his tie just the right side of undone. There’s a strobe light and plenty of places to hide from the plenty of sets of eyes on him wanting to know if it’s Tony Stark. 

He tries on people he used to be.

Tony thinks his name is Jon. The guy yells it, once, over the subwoofer. He’s drinking something blue, and Tony’s too busy looking at his neck to ask him to repeat it. He’s built like Steve. He brings it up, of course. “You’re Iron Man, right?” He sips his drink, and Tony tries to remember how to laugh and gives him a coy little smile, like it’s funny and not excruciating.

Tony’s apartment clearly belongs to a ghost, and for once, he doesn’t try to make excuses. There’s a club thrumming away down the street, the occasional distant rush of traffic. He pretends to stumble, a little, tugs at Jon’s tie.

Jon smiles at him, grabs at his lapels. Bites his lip when they kiss.

He thinks he’s fierce, as gentle as he can’t manage to stop being. He bats Tony’s hands away, makes it damn clear that he’s going to be the one to undo buttons and manhandle Tony onto the bed and kiss him everywhere. He runs his hands all over, learns Tony’s stomach, his face rapt in the faint glow of the RT. He strokes up Tony’s back, slides his hands around down the front of Tony’s boxer-briefs, works around his hips to slide his fingers against him and no one but Steve has touched him there, and he –

Shouldn’t, but Steve doesn’t care he exists, anymore.

Tony tries to remember what giving himself feels like, giving instead of taking. Jon grips like he’s trying to leave bruises, but he keeps asking, is this ok, do you want me on top, you good? Tony wishes he’d just take what he wants, but he kisses him and kisses him and takes him in his mouth with one hand clasped in Tony’s like he really wants him –

Steve could have left bruises, if he’d wanted to.

Tony sleeps in, because he’s too depressed to get up most days. It sounds like Jon is puttering in the kitchen, using the pans Tony doesn’t think he’s ever touched. He wanders out, eventually, after an hour and a half’s restless tossing, and Jon smiles at him like he’s a good person and serves up a plate with a massive omelet on it.

“Cheddar, pear and caramelized onion,” Jon says. “Sleep well?”

“I’m gonna shower,” Tony says, and pretends he can taste anything, anymore. “You can show yourself out.”

Jon smiles a thin smile, like it doesn’t hurt, but Tony knows.

He wishes he were someone better.

 

- - -

 

Maria comes to wake him up sometime between first and second shift. “Go to bed,” she says, and shuts the monitor down before he can argue about it.

He walks outside, up on the flight deck instead of down in the bowels of the ship where there are men who look at him like they trust him. It’s chilly, but it’s clear out here, over Northern Canada. He looks at the Milky Way and wonders if he’ll ever look at it again without thinking of Tony and trips on an arresting wire.

Watch where you’re going, Captain.

He shouldn’t have said it. He shouldn’t have said any of it, shouldn’t have risen to Tony and his bait, shouldn’t have felt anything but nothing looking at him standing there in his jeans (he never wears jeans in public) so desperate for five minutes of Steve’s attention that he’d do anything –

He wishes he’d apologized. He wishes he weren’t miserable and bitter and mean.

He wishes a lot of things.

He traipses in to his terrible quarters, rips at his collar, gets his legs hopelessly tangled in his pants, the leather sticking to his damp skin. He itches everywhere, fumbles for the band on his underwear, dives onto the mattress and kicks his boots off onto the floor.

He doesn’t care, he doesn’t make sure the door is locked, just rips his headset out of his ear and throws it somewhere over the edge of his bed. He should be sleeping, as he wraps his hand around himself, he should be with his team, and he huffs into his pillow and spreads his legs apart and tugs at himself, he could call Sharon, he could – Carol would, maybe, if he was honest with her, he could call Tony and say I’m sorry, I’m sorry, come back

(You’re useful, he could say, because he knows that’s what Tony needs to hear right now more than anything –)

He rolls over, his eyes open to the pitch-black, lets his hand fall, can’t for the life of him conjure the virile thing in him that wants. All he can do is curl his knees up to his stomach and hate, all he can do is wait for the morning he doesn’t want to face without Tony, all he can think is how could you, how could you, how could you–

 

 

 

X.

PILGRIMAGE

 

When it goes off, finally (blessedly), the room is pitch-black.

It buzzes, the screen lights up on the table, and for a split second, he’s home. In the generous half-lucidity of waking, he stretches and sprawls and reaches for Steve –

Cold sheets.

Zagreb, Croatia, the thing is chirping from the drawer, 6 hours 59 minutes until incursion cycle is complete –

Tony gets out of bed for the last time and gathers his bits of shine.

 

- - -

 

He drives to the shores of the Chesapeake, because he doesn’t think he can keep his stomach or his nerves for the drive to the ocean. It doesn’t have to be a body of water, it just seems – fitting, given. He’s curious to see if it will manifest where he is, or somewhere else.

His hands shake out salt in a circle. The crystals stick to his skin and smart when he opens up his palm. He drips his blood all over the sand, smears it sticky over his his fingers as he mounds the sand up in tiny cairns over the trinkets he’s stolen from all the people he’s gotten killed.

It’s so contrived; it’s so wrong. It feels dangerous, like meddling, and for the first time in his life, he’s absolutely certain he has no idea what he’s doing.

By the book, clean lines. Geometry. He knows this. He’s studied. His hands shake, but it’s clear. He can be deft when he has to, he has to, he’ll – manage. The wind picks up as he’s finishing. His fingers are going numb as he snatches the pages out from between his teeth, as he digs in his pocket for the list he wrote out by hand. He despairs when the gusts over the lake snatch it away, but he has no excuse to pretend –

He knows them by heart, their names roaring in his ears, the sand seizing around their tokens as he invokes them, all of them, one by one, the howl growing into a wild thing that has no place beneath the sun shining like it is, all of them and at least he’s not alone, he’s got his ghosts, and they hate him, and he can smell ozone and pot and sandalwood and what has he done

“Steve Rogers,” he says, and for a minute, there’s another heartbeat alongside his, and then there’s –

nothing

He’s gasping, he’s panting and kneeling, and there’s something crunching under his pantlegs, something red, his blood turned to glass beneath his knees. He tries leaning over and that’s worse, there’s something in his chest, he feels wrong, there’s something in him, pressing on his ribs and wet in his lungs, slime in his throat, twitching against his heart, he, he, he should have listened, he wants Steve to tell him it’s going to be fine and then something pulls at him.

He doesn’t need a map to feel it blossom, its life appearing somewhere distant, across the world. There’s a catch behind his throat, the uncomfortable sensation of being pulled along. He closes his eyes and tries to breathe, but there’s something waiting, it’s waiting for him, he’s expected –

He knows it’s his own fault,

Get up, Steve would say, if Steve still cared about what happened to him. Get up and fight, Tony, get up –

Tony gets up to tug on armor he thought he’d left behind long ago.  

 

- - -

 

They end up having their shouting match in the hallway in the tower, where everyone can enjoy it.

“What the hell do you mean, ‘it’s not ready,’” Steve says.

The Avengers who are home congregate by the situation room door, and Steve can’t help but be pleased that they’re so thoroughly brazen about it.

“She – omitted,” T’Challa says, even-keeled and noble as the situation room flashes red down the hall with 18 different angles of the alternate earth that’s 6 hours away from obliterating them. “The device is unusable without a compound we can’t possibly synthesize in time.”

“Black Swan,” Namor says, like he’s being helpful.

They all stand there, solemn and useless with their palms glowing in a loose arc. Steve thinks he’d very much like to shoot one of them.

“Red or blue,” Steve says.

“Red,” Reed mutters.

“Fine,” he says instead, biting his tongue, reining it in (millions of lives, soldier), delegating like the black-hearted diplomat he swore he was never going to be. “What do you need to fix it,” he says, quieter, feeling thoroughly sullen.

No one speaks.

“THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO LIE TO ME,” Steve roars. “Do you not understand,” he says, “you have – an hour, tops, to fix this, and then we have to go over there and find their infinity gems and someone is going to die for – shit –”

Something moves through him, and his legs give out.

He takes the minute he can afford to take, clutches at his chest and the chill that’s still there, like someone’s speared him through with ice, gets himself to his knees as someone is materializing in a burst of light not three feet away, and none of them are on their knees, none of them are clutching at their chests and moaning –

“What’s wrong with you,” Carol says, slinging his arm over her shoulders, “what the fuck just happened –”

The air around him flickers as Stephen kneels next to him, the folds of his cape draping against Steve’s armored leg. He tries to shove him away, but Stephen is muttering something that makes the air spark with threads of color, and a warmth washes over his chest as Stephen’s face goes stark and ashen –

“Tony,” is all Stephen says.

“Does someone want to tell me what the hell that was?” Steve gasps, and Peter almost falls off the ceiling. “What about Tony? Tell me something useful –

“That was your soul being borrowed,” Stephen snaps back at him, and then the sun flickers out for a moment. “That was…a bad sign.”

Everyone’s heads whip to face the window.

“He actually managed to conjure it,” Stephen says, sounding mildly impressed, as the rest of them scramble to the glass to get a better look. “I wouldn’t think he’d be able to; it’s very advanced. He doesn’t have any training.” Steve wants to scream that this isn’t the goddamned time to be comparing egos, but then it happens again, the sun blinks out to a solid twilight for a moment, and then something starts to cross in front of the sun like an eclipse.

“The first rule of Tony is don’t underestimate him,” Steve snaps. “Should I be worried?”

Stephen must decide it’s time for an intervention, because he slides a hand around Steve’s elbow and pulls him aside as 17 angry, puzzled faces look on. “Listen to me very carefully,” Stephen says. “He did it incorrectly, he was – it was intended to be summoned on the other side of the incursion wall. He’s no magician, I don’t think –”

“How do we fix it,” Steve says, already on his way into the situation room to get Maria and Abigail Brand and Nick Fury on the conference line.

“I don’t know,” Stephen says, drifting after him. “It’s dangerous magic. I don’t know where he is; I can’t find him, and even if I could, there’s nothing I can do as a spectator, he’s the conjurer–

Steve swears enthusiastically, and then the S.W.O.R.D. distress calls start to roll in. 

“This is Agent Brand to Avengers Tower, we’re getting ridiculous energy readings, do you know anything about this –”

“Stand by,” Steve barks into the comm.

Steven, it won’t stop at the other earth, ours is just as appealing, it can come through –”

“Where are you going,” T’Challa says. “We have 6 hours, we need to be planning –”

“What is going on,” Carol demands.

“Tony made a tentacle monster happen,” Steve spits, fully aware of how ridiculous that sounds. “I’m going to find him so he can make it go away before it destroys the other earth and us, too. Carol, you’re in charge. Find Thor and recall Hyperion –”

“What do you expect us to do in your absence?” Namor asks, like he’s ever taken orders a day in his life.

“Stay here and fight like heroes,” Steve snarls, jamming a headset in his ear, and then he sprints off to the hangar to fix it.

 

- - -

 

“Where the fuck are you going,” Steve yells into the comm. 

Tony’s tracking over the southern tip of Greenland, 45 minutes out and 6 hours left; he has no reason to be going anywhere (thank god he’s still in the country, on the planet, on this plane –)

“Tony, pick up, I know you can hear me.”

Tony doesn’t pick up, and Steve pulls at the yoke to climb to 20,000 feet.

“I’ll shut you down,” he tries, and his stomach feels punched through with holes, “I’ll shut your suit down, Tony –”

Tony doesn’t pick up. His dot changes course, angles toward southern Europe, ignores Steve and his selfish pursuit, ignores the play-by-play he must be picking up in New York, ignores the dull blue smear that’s started to eclipse the sun on his radar, and Steve wants to scream it’s not just you

 

- - -

 

He sounds so angry.

“DAMMIT, TONY, I told you no –”

Tony could turn it off, but this might be the last time he ever hears Steve’s voice. He shouldn’t squander it. It’s the seventh call, and every time, he’s expected it; every time, Steve gets angrier with him (every right, he has every right). It’s ok, he’d take the override over a lot of ways to die. He’s flying, at least, he’d break his neck falling into the Atlantic before he’d drown –

“FUCK YOU, TONY, TALK TO ME –”

QUINJET 4 IN PURSUIT, the HUD blinks at him. FIRE?

“Cloak,” Tony says, his voice suspiciously wet even to his own ears, and he dips beneath the clouds as something enormous shadows faintly over the sun.

 

 

 

XI.

DEAR DARKNESS

 

The creature is making himself into a man.

He settles into something grey and thin. Tall. He floats in air like it’s nothing, dark emeralds for eyes and the slightest speckling of blue laid over rust-red, mottled upon his temples, on his wrists, trailing down his neck, over his bare chest. His skin – all of him – is grey and pallid and washed out. He cocks his head to the side and forms his face, grows hair that turns spiky and grey like the rest of him. He’s striking, proud and cold and cruel.

“Who are you?” the creature says, and he reaches up to touch Tony’s mask, and then the HUD disappears and there’s cold air on his face, and –

He gasps, because his mind roils with something.

“Iron Man,” Tony says, but his voice is shakier than he’d like it to be.

“Are you sure,” the creature croons, low and cold, and he wraps his wrists around Tony’s hands, and Tony looks down, at his bare wrists, at his skin, at the color leaving it, at the rosy flush creeping up the – thing’s arms and his armor dripping away, liquid and shining, into the water –

“Tony,” Tony forces out. “I’m Tony Stark, what are you –”

“Here to bargain,” the creature murmurs, and it’s whispering in his ear; his helmet’s gone, too. “What could you possibly offer me? The righteous man,” it sighs, and its lips are brushing against his neck.

“You must have me confused,” Tony says, and he can’t help but smile, because it’s terribly funny. “That’s someone else.”

“And arrogant,” it croons. It leans in, close enough to touch, close enough to overwhelm with the smell of salt and sea. “I’ve never heard of you.”

“I know who you are,” Tony says, as the creature moves around him, slime and air and fog. “I know what you, nnnh, ok, just – oh,” he says, because it’s touching him, it’s touching him and it feels like it’s under his skin, crawling around inside him, his mind is prickling and it’s touching him –

“Do you,” it whispers. “Do you know what they call me? Your Sorcerer would have summoned me, would he not,” the thing hisses, its bare thigh clammy against Tony’s, “It can’t have been difficult, with me – compromised,” it murmurs, “with the fabric between our worlds torn like it is –”

“What was,” Tony demands, “what did you.”

“I thought you were an expert,” it hisses.  “What do you know,” it spits. “What do you know of my origin, Tony Stark? My power?” It brings one of Tony’s hands to his mouth, brushes his lips over Tony’s knuckles and something terrible shudders through him, vibrates up his spine and spreads over his skin. “You don’t know anything,” it whispers, “your world is dying and you’re too foolish to understand why.”

“I know why,” Tony says, like he’s not choking, like he can’t feel the thing’s fingers on his throat. He always has to argue. “The incursions, one universe crashing into another, a cosmic domino effect –”

“You speak of philosophy as though it were nothing more than mechanics,” it spits, but its eyes are burning and blue and terribly, terribly amused. It strokes one of its foul hands down the side of Tony’s neck. “Your arrogance is unmatched, Tony Stark, in all worlds,” it says fondly. 

Tony loses his train of thought.

“How,” Tony chokes. “We’ve met, before?”

“One of you,” it says, “on another world, another earth, tried to kill me.”

He would, wouldn’t he. He wonders if he was standing side by side with Steve on that earth, wonders if they saved it (if they let it burn), stood like heroes together and –

Wonders if they’re dead now, too. 

“Your audacity,” it says, and reaches a hand down between Tony’s legs, and Tony jerks.

“Don’t,” he says pathetically, “please,” because it’s nothing he wants, this isn’t what he fucking signed up for, he can’t push back the nagging voice that’s screaming Stephen was right, you fucking fool –

“Please what,” it says,

“You’re a god,” Tony says. “You – a demon, that’s, you have nowhere to feed –”

“And yet,” it says, with a terrible smile. “Here I am.”

“I summoned you,” Tony says, and there is clawing fear where his pride might have been, once.  “That’s what you are,” he bursts, desperate to know he’s gotten it right, “a destroyer?”

The creature’s mouth curls into a smile. “I destroy,” it says. It tilts his chin up, a harsh jab of a thumb that feels like slime and ice on his neck, and Tony shudders and wishes Steve was here to lend him some of his strength. “You did nothing,” it says viciously, “you just opened the door,” it breathes, “you opened the door and called into the dark with no idea of what you’d invited in.” 

“I want you to,” Tony says, but he loses the words when it runs a slimy finger over his lips and traces his bare collarbone with its hand, he shivers when his blood turns to ice and his heart flutters and skips, he should run (he can’t run, he started this, he has to see it through –)

“To what,” it presses, and he’s so fucking stupid, he’s so alone, no one will know he was even here, that he died in a fucking cave being molested by this monster and it’s not fair –

“Destroy the other earth,” Tony chokes.

Its face darkens, and for a moment Tony finds himself seriously wishing for a lapse in control, for a quick death, even drowning, he’d take that, it’s better than losing his soul, maybe

“I won’t be bidden,” it spits. “You summon me and presume to control me, you arrogant filth –”   

“No,” he says, “no, I don’t, I just, you eat worlds,” Tony barrels on, because he needs to say this before he loses its attention (before he loses his nerve), because he won’t be distracted, “you, you need, I don’t know, there must be something unique to earth –”

“It’s the human element I crave,” it whispers. It slides a hand over what should be Tony’s armor and settles a chilly palm against the bare skin on the small of his back, instead. “I am not alone in that respect,” it whispers, enfolding Tony further still into its arms. “Your kind is much-sought, you see.”

“Souls,” Tony chokes. “That’s what you want.”

The creature smiles, and its teeth are filed into points.

“Don’t be coy,” it says. “You wouldn’t have dabbled if you hadn’t suspected.”

“I know,” Tony says, because there’s no point in lying now, “I, I’m – reckless, please, I’m – offering –”

“What can you possibly have to offer me?” it says.

Tony feels terribly, hopelessly inadequate.

“Me,” he says, “you can have me, you can,” and he’s looking at the walls of the cave, at the water, he’s so pathetic, he should be able to look it in the eye at least –

It makes a noise in its throat, slides its tentacles up his limbs in bands.

“You feed on guilt,” he says, before he can’t anymore. He wants to laugh, and ends up grimacing, a smirk he doesn’t feel. “I’ve got that in droves, I.” He makes himself meet its terrible green-blue-golden eyes. “Regret,” he tries, and the thing’s lips part, ever so slightly, its cheeks flush blue and Tony wants to vomit –

“You’re foolish,” it says, and squeezes, squeezes his throat until he can barely breathe, until his head spins and his eyelids start to flutter shut. “I can have all of them,” it says, and it’s shaking, it’s angry and Tony tries not to be terrified, “I don’t need you –”

“No, you can have me,” Tony says, (don’t fucking cry), “you take the other earth, and you get them, for an instant, right, you feed off them of them while they’re all screaming in terror. I’m telling you, you can have me, you can keep me, please –”

It presses more of itself to Tony’s skin, and Tony feels himself shudder, and the thing quiver, and doesn’t know how to separate the two.

He’d like to die already.

“I need a taste,” is all it says.

“Wait,” Tony says, as it pulls his arms firmly so he can’t move them, wraps tentacles around his ankles, around his waist, snakes them down between his legs. He wants more time, but it’s leaning in, wants more time and can’t have it, feels the bright rush of fear, the way his eyelids are constricting ever so slightly, feels the weight of the life he’s built sink and shudder and slide beyond his purview somewhere across the globe – his world –

He doesn’t have time to scream, doesn’t have time even to think any of the things he should be thinking, I love you Steve (as if it matters now, as if it counts), please let it be enough, please let me be enough – before the silk-slick of the thing’s hands are wrapping soft around his throat and it’s canting its neck and tilting Tony’s face up, and Tony just barely makes out the sheen of his unearthly eyes as he presses his mouth to Tony’s, and Tony wasn’t expecting this and barely manages to think of course before he can’t

think –

 

- - -

 

Tony throws the curtains open.

The light is warm where it hits his naked skin. The sky is redder than it was an hour ago, and a flutter of fear shakes through him for a moment, but Steve’s arms wrap themselves around his waist, solid as steel and feather-light where they brush his stomach , and he slackens and leans his head back.

“Close them,” Steve says, and he’s already turning Tony around, reaching up a strong arm to draw them shut again. Steve whisks them back, until their knees hit the mattress, until Tony is sinking down into the sheets. “We’re where we should be,” Steve murmurs, gathering Tony up, pulling them flush against each other. It’s too hot, it’s suffocating, the air, but there’s no way in hell he’s letting go now, they can’t have half an hour left. “We agreed,” Steve whispers into his temple. He wraps his arm around Tony’s chest, splays his fingers out over Tony’s heart

“I know,” Tony breathes, burrowing his face in Steve’s shoulder. “We’re so – god, I didn’t think I’d be here, ever, I always thought –”

“Don’t,” Steve says, “I know,” he whispers, so fierce and certain, like it’s the most important thing he’s ever said. “But I’m here, ok, we’re here, I’m not going anywhere, Tony –”

The building starts to tremble.

“Kiss me,” Tony says, trying to touch as much of Steve as he possibly can. Steve takes Tony’s glowing hand in his and presses his lips to Tony’s, swings his leg over Tony’s hip to draw him closer still and whispers I love you, I love you, I’ve always loved you, Tony

 

– the leaves stir beneath him, and the hot gusts pick them up, blow them into his face, grit between his teeth and dust in his lap. He claws at his tie, because it’s ridiculous, because the sky is red and it’s too hot, and he gets his jacket off and shrugs off his dress shirt and leans into the stone like it’s all he has.

“Do you think this would be different?” he asks. “Do you think you’d have a better solution?” He drags his fingers over the stone. It’s hot under his skin. He washes his mouth out with another swig.

“I came to say goodbye,” he says, and he lets himself look at the beautiful things, at the flowers, wilting, the same color red as everything else now, at the roots coming up under his feet, at the iron fence leaning askew a few meters in front of him. “I thought.”

He sidles closer to the stone, leans his forehead against the smooth side, because he doesn’t know what he thought. “I’m not gonna see you again,” he chokes. “I’m never gonna – fuck.”

He kicks the bottle away, and closes his eyes, imagines he’s sinking into the ground. “I hope you’re there,” he murmurs desperately to the stone that won’t speak back to him, “I hope you’ll forgive me when I’m not.”

Tony imagines, scrabbles his hands at the dying grass and the flowers that don’t smell like anything anymore, imagines Steve as he was, strong and brave and happy, not dragged down to his darkest, not beaten into the ground. Steve, moving on to greater worlds, to brighter things, to all the honor he deserves without Tony.

“I’m terrified,” he whispers to his knees, because he knows, if there’s any justice at all, he’s going to Nifihel and not Valhalla, “I miss you –” and then the sky rips open – 

 

“What,” Tony babbles, helpless, desperate, “what was that, that’s not me, I thought, we agreed, we agreed–

Tony,” it says, and gathers him closer, presses its darkness into him, and he feels himself slipping a little further out of reach. “It’s just you,” it croons, and strokes his hair back. “It’s all of you, all of them, I had to, to get you started. You’re all the same, you see.” Tony doesn’t understand, but he feels it all, he remembers it all even though it never happened to him. He’s flooded and he’s forgotten how to wade, and this is how it’s going to be, all eternity lost in the dark, because the only thing he’s worth now is regret – 

“I accept,” it says, with a coy smile, and then Tony’s scream gets lost in its mouth.

 

– “NO,” Tony shrieks, again, almost no air left in his lungs for the tentacle that’s wrapped tight around his chest, and it falls on deaf ears for the fifth time. “Take me, take me, take me,” he chants, until it loses the shape on his tongue, until he’s sobbing instead of talking and a barnacled tentacle winds itself around his mouth, too, and–

– it’s useless, he’s useless, and Steve is so fucking stupid, he’s thrashing and naked and the thing is sucking him dry and that’s him, that’s his heart, too, that’s Steve’s soul bargained away and it could have been Tony’s,  it could have been Tony’s instead if only Steve had trusted him enough to tell him, if only, if only, if –

“Sorry,” Steve choke-rasps, as the color of him bleeds away, as the thing shudders in pleasure and he kicks one of his enormous legs fiercely in one last throe and then he’s limp, he’s aspirating water and his eyes are growing strangled and dark when they should be blue and Tony can only suffocate  on his grief instead of howling it out in despair–

 

- - -

 

A scream echoes over the water.

It’s the cadence of Tony’s voice, split with desperation and raw with pain.

It shouldn’t hurt. He should have been better at not feeling, he shouldn’t feel Tony’s pain like it’s his anymore, he shouldn’t be springing to life and catapulting down the deck of the Quinjet. Steve abandons the noise coming through the comm, begs forgiveness from Carol and Sam and Thor and runs, follows the beach until it ebbs to bare rock bracketing deep water, looks, terrified, into the maw of the cave that feeds into the bay.

Tony sobs from somewhere inside, and Steve’s body is diving.

He leaves the shield on the beach and kicks off his boots (shoves the knife in between his teeth) and tosses his helmet. They’re heavy, they’d drown him, and the purpose of this exercise is to save Tony’s life, which he can’t do without first preserving his own. The water is warm, and clear, and he feels it, he realizes, his suit is – melting, disintegrating, something, sliding off into the water, and –

He kicks, feels the strong weight of water against his calves as he propels himself towards Tony, as the rest of his clothes melt off in a slick of blue and red and white, as they sink to the sea floor, as they run into Tony’s cast-off red and gold. 

And it doesn’t matter, because Tony is a few meters ahead of him, screaming screams that Steve shouldn’t be able to hear. He’s in the water, naked as the day he was born, and his shadow is dancing on the stone floor meters below. Tony is wrapped, blanketed by some kind of pale grey thing sunk into the water, breaking the surface every few seconds as his thrashing grows weaker, and he’s so pale

Steve breaks, gasps for air, and swims, pushes great armfuls of blue spray back with every stroke, and he’s too far, he’ll never make it (swim faster), what if he doesn’t make it, Jesus, it’s eating him or something, his armor is a shining slick on the sea bed and Steve has nothing to fight with except the knife in his teeth, and he’s doing it again, he’s doing it again for this terrible man he can’t seem ever seem to stop chasing–

He’s almost there, almost sucks in a mouth full of water in relief and breathes out, “Tony–”

The thing drags Tony under the water.

 

- - -

 

“– I don’t want to move,” Tony pants, even though it’s June and the air is broken, even though Steve’s scale is sticking to his back and he can’t tell the sweat dripping down his legs from Steve’s come sliding out of him. Steve sighs, throws the cowl on the workbench and eases them off, kisses the back of Tony’s neck, cradles Tony to him so fiercely he barely notices the jolt when they hit the floor, Tony’s thighs pressed to Steve’s, unwilling to scramble up on still-unsteady legs and lose the feel of Steve living inside him , still –

“What are you thinking,” Tony says, instead, the lazy tilt of his head falling sweat-sticky against Steve’s mailed shoulder.

“I’m thinking we always come back to each other,” Steve says, the quietest shock of reverence layered in his voice , “always–”

 

“We’re alike,” it says, and tangles around him, presses more of itself to him as it draws his heart out of him thread by tenous, miserable thread. “I’m like you,” it whispers, “we’ve been cut loose from what we knew.”

Tony thinks of Steve for the barest of moments, tries to remember his face, and then it’s ripped from him, too.

“I was abandoned, too,” it says. “My world died a long time ago.”

 

 “– you’re out,” Steve says, and Tony’s heart stops. “No more special treatment,” he’s snarling, and it’s for everyone to see, this time, he’s making an example of him at the edge of the world, in the ruins. “No more favors.”

“St–”

“You pay for your sins, Tony,” he says, and he walks away to fix this mess they’ve all made , the lies he’s spun strewn out over the snow for everyone to see.

“Prove him wrong,” Thor says, and Tony already knows he won’t be able to –

 

“You know you’re going to live forever, now,” it says.

 

“– I sleep in your bed,” Steve says, “I slept in your bed, Tony.”

“I know,” Tony says.

“Is this what I’ve been to you?” Steve says, and you’d never know he was crying from his voice because he’s so damn stoic. “Expedient? ” he says, and he sounds gutted –

 

“You see,” it says, “this is always how it ends for you. In the dark.”

It rifles through him, overturns what’s taken years to layer, what’s taken a lifetime to understand, and Tony doesn’t even have a body of his own to cry with.

“We’ll tear these worlds apart, one by one,” it says, and shudders out a laugh that shocks through what’s left of Tony. 

I won’t come get you, Steve's voice echoes in him, and then that’s not his, anymore, either –

“One world and a lost sheep is a paltry price to pay for me,” it says, and then Tony knows what it feels like when 8 billion souls die at once.

 

- - -

 

It’s all over him.

It’s almost translucent, everywhere but where it’s touching him. Lines and lines of mottled suckers laid over its ghostly flesh, its limbs buoyant and coiling where they aren’t digging into Tony’s bare skin, ring-shaped bruises where it’s been and adjusted its grip, the lovely tan of him fading to grey as a wash of crimson and blue runs into the thing’s limbs and creeps down into the enormous mass of it where it’s waiting, below them –

Steve treads, reaches for the fine coil of tentacles at Tony’s throat to rip them off, but they’re nothing, they’re water and air and they slide out of his fingers as soon as he’s made the barest of contact.He groans with the effort of it, flexes his hands and squeezes, hard enough to burst, if he does it right, hard enough to get through its skin and tear at its flesh. It rips under his strength, and his nails squelch into it, its pale blue blood leaching into the water, and –

A gash opens on Tony’s chest, and Steve pulls away, horrified.

Tony’s eyes snap open.

They’re wrong, unseeing, losing their blue like it’s been drained away. There’s something terrible under them, something cloudy and roiling and dark. Tony’s mouth falls open, and a lazy tendril of blood seeps out and disappears into the water –

Steve all but sobs and presses his hands to Tony’s cheeks, and he feels –

 

“–it’s not your decision,” Tony says, the bottle shoved under his arm in a brown paper bag, even though he hates this, even though he’s looking at it like he’s going to his death with this instead of buying them all the time they need –

“We’ll find another way,” Steve says desperately, and he tries to grab at Tony’s hand before Tony pulls it firmly out of reach, “Tony, we’ll find something else to offer Odin–”

“No, we won’t,” Tony says, and when he picks his head up, he’s almost crying –

 

Steve wrenches his hands away, feeling the space in his mind clear and ache where Tony was a second ago. Tony bucks in the thing’s grasp, struggles forward even as it’s pulling his arms behind his back and winding a tentacle around his chest, fixes his strangled eyes on Steve’s, and looks at him, pleading in his eyes.

Steve rushes to put his shaking hands back.

It’s hard to hold on, it’s harder to not pull away altogether. It’s Tony, it’s all of him and none of him and more than he ever was, somehow, it’s Tony, wretched and so palpably hurt and bare it aches in his chest. It’s too much, it’s too much for one person (too much for both of them), but Steve can’t possibly pull away, he has a responsibility (duty, his other self says when it’s such a lie), he can’t leave him to this, he can’t–

Something awful is seething just underneath the fading warmth, and he realizes with a jolt that the barrier between him and the darkness is Tony’s soul. 

What were you thinking, Steve says.

There’s a terrible, crawling silence before Tony’s voice happens like a whisper next to Steve’s ear.

This is your apology, he says wretchedly, like Steve could never accept his contrition. 

Tony, he pleads.

It’s like a mind meld, Tony is saying. He laughs, and it’s nothing like audible laughter, it sparks in his mind and wraps around him and it’s so heartbreakingly thin –

 

–Tony stares at the paper, at his handwriting that’s changed so much, the raindrops blotting up between the lines, realizes, dimly, that this is a public funeral (shouldn’t be), everyone wants to mourn, everyone wants to feel like Steve was theirs, him included.

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” he says into a microphone, because he’s never coming back –

 

Steve’s heart is pounding, because he’s right there, he’s right there and Tony is an open wound and Steve feels like he’s going to break in two with the unbearable weight of it all –

Tony, Steve says, and the darkness presses at them both again, and terror spikes in him, Tony’s, not his, Tony’s light goes a little dimmer, his body bucks and thrashes like he’s trying to send his mind away –

I fixed the incursion, Tony says, after a few moments’ silence. The rush of raw self-reproach that follows is almost enough to make Steve puke, but the creature, the thing, shudders and keens a low sound like whale song.

Tony’s ensuing scream feels like a stab wound to the chest. 

Help me, Tony says, and he actually mouths it, too, blood on his lips, inconsolable terror in his eyes.

What did you do, Steve says, feeling entirely too frantic for how he needs to be, you’re an idiot sometimes, you know that –

I just need you to help, Tony says, I know, I’m sorry, you can blame me, I thought it would stop, I’m sorry, I’m sorry–

You’re feeding it, Steve says, so far beyond blaming it’s ridiculous he even mentioned it. There’s acres of tentacle below them, now, it’s got to be spilling out into the ocean, it’s so much bigger and brighter and enormous, and Tony’s skin is pale enough to see all of his veins –

It wants our earth, now, Tony says. He sounds distant. He feels like an echo. I told it to eat the other one, it just wants –

He struggles, pitches forward and arches his back and fears Steve and his ire and what he’ll do, and Steve’s done nothing but yell at him, since, and Tony’s done nothing but hide –

You made a deal, Steve says, feeling drained, Tony, why would you do this alone –

He bites off the rest, because they both know why.

You have to, just, Tony says, dazed and unfocused and the blue in his eyes is gone –

Steve doesn’t know how he’s doing it, but Tony makes a face like he’d be screaming if there was any air and reaches as far as the thing will let him. His hands – both of them – close around Steve’s wrist, and Steve doesn’t know what he’s doing when he drags Steve’s palm to rest against his straining neck. Steve doesn’t understand, there’s nothing, there’s not enough of their skin to get a clear read but Tony’s trying, God, he’s still trying to brush their legs together, and all he gets is a distant please again, as Tony’s cock nudges his thigh and the thing tries to pull him further down into the dark, away from Steve, furling and unfurling its limbs in what looks a lot like ecstasy –

Listen, Tony gasps, and Steve just holds his hand there, can’t bear to take it back, feels the muscles in Tony’s neck clench –

 

“–hold my hand,” Steve says under his breath, and Tony can’t help but laugh, clear and bright and for everyone to hear.

“I’ll do more,” Tony says confidentially. He feels like fainting, and the air is heavy and dark on all of them, but his heart feels like it’s bursting as Steve reaches past his hand for his armored waist, and Tony so wishes he could feel it, the strength of Steve against him, his rock, the scorching blue of him– 

“It was an honor,” Steve murmurs against his lips, as the shade of a world hanging low in the sky starts to burn, as the battle around them ceases to matter, as they look to the rush of scarlet fire bursting to meet them –

“Love you,” Tony says, because he’s already home – 

 

The image bursts and scatters, and Tony’s pupils contract. His agonized groan bounces around in Steve’s skull, and Steve can’t do anything

Why did you show me that, Steve says, reeling, gasping, heartsick and so proud for these thems they’ve never met, these people they’ll never be –

I didn’t mean for this, Tony says. You’re fixing my mistakes again, I’m sorry–

You shouldn’t have done it at all, Steve says, furious with both of them, you always just decide – god, I’m so pissed at you right now – 

You need to do it, Tony says, you won’t be able to stop it soon –

Tony, Steve says, and somehow he’s on the verge of tears, because somewhere, they made it, Tony and him.

Ah, Tony gasps, it thinks – your motives are showing, you need to –

There’s another way, Steve says, just let me think –

This was the other way,Tony croaks.

Your ideas are terrible, Steve thinks, and realizes that nothing is secret from Tony, anymore.

Let it go, Tony says with all the strength he has.

Steve wastes a precious second and a half regretting, when he knows –

Please, Tony is saying, I’m sorry, you have to, you have a knife, Steve, you have to–

He does, clamped in his teeth, even though the handle’s melted away, even though the blade is starting to bubble up in front of his face, even though he can feel the pitting under his tongue. He has a knife, and Tony is telling him to –

Tony, no, Steve says, and something in him is slotting into place, something in Tony is changing, swelling in a surge of dismal finality –

Steve, it hurts, Tony says. Can you –

The rest of it gets lost, and Steve feels him fighting, feels how fiercely he’s pushing just to speak, feels how perilously brave he is (and how could he have ever thought him a coward) and the terror that’s threatening to overwhelm him–

Don’t be mad, Tony says, and his thoughts are so quiet and petrified Steve feels like he’s going to drown in them–

I’m not, Steve lies, I could never, I’m not mad, it’s ok, look at me, Tony –

Tony’s fingertips ghost the back of Steve’s wrist. It’s all he can manage.

He strokes his hand down Tony’s neck, like it’s ok, like it will be ok, like he’s not furious and terrified and this is any permutation of fair; he snakes a hand around Tony’s back like he still belongs to him, like they could be making love the way they did, once upon a time before everything went to hell, holds him because what else can he do –

I still love you, Tony says, and then he seizes in Steve’s grasp.

A tentacle wraps itself around Steve’s ankle.

I never stopped, Steve says, and slides his knife in under Tony’s ribs.

 

- - -

 

Tony’s heart feels like it’s blazing.

He’s in the dark with nothing in front of him, nothing stretching out forever, buried under the weight of his not-selves and the things he’s done.

He maybe should have planned for this, but still, he wants to ask, he wants to ask why Steve couldn’t have held on a second longer, couldn’t he have stayed with him until he was gone, at least –

(does he not even deserve that –)

And then he’s there.

Steve, warm and solid against what’s left of him, Steve, his body shaking with sobs and pressing his lips to Tony’s like there’s no one else in the world, like maybe he’s forgiven, like he’s something undeniably precious. Steve cradles him, thinks I love you, I love you, I love you for Tony to hear,gathers him to his heart and doesn’t let go.

He could kiss Steve forever. He wishes he’d known that sooner, what unconstrained joy like this feels like, wishes he’d treasured it like he should have, can’t bear to be sorry when he’s so damn grateful he has Steve’s soul flowing into his, soaring in him like this –

He lets himself drown in it, lets himself be in Steve’s arms. He’s so tired, and Steve is so warm, Steve is so good to him, Steve is kissing him into sleep and the thing around him is a distant pain about to be loosed. It’s seizing, wound about him, and its dim surprise and shock don’t do anything to keep it from withering. Tony feels it searching and confused and dismayed, feels it asking why

Steve says, it’s not you, and Tony’s chest is feeling cold.

It doesn’t matter, it’s not him, it’s just a husk of a dark thing and Tony’s second heart is beating right alongside his, scorching and bright even laced with grief as it is–

Tony, Steve whispers, and they’re so lucky, they’re so lucky they got to glimpse this, even once –

(All they ever had to do is let each other in from the cold –)

Thank you for saving me, Tony thinks, and wishes he could stay longer, wishes they could have had this earlier. He feels himself leaving. He wants to tell him everything, wants to say that he loves him more than he could ever convey, and maybe Steve has an idea now, maybe he’ll understand, some day, maybe he knows–

Of course I know, Steve’s voice comes in his ear, as Tony comes back to himself.

I love you, Tony tries to say, as the thing falls away into the dark.

I love you, he thinks he hears, his cheek pressed against Steve’s neck, and then he falls into the dark, too.

 

 


 

 

XII.

ORPHEUS

 

He watches Carol’s feet drift to the ground and sink into the sand by the water’s edge.

Steve doesn’t know how to explain, he doesn’t know how to explain how he’s managed to get a sunburn sitting here, or why Tony has sand crusted on his back, or the way his hair’s always been curly like that when it’s wet, or why there are bands of bruises on him, why he hasn’t been able to let go and move on like he’s supposed to do, doesn’t know how to explain that it was this or nothing, that it’s always going to be nothing, now, that he never wants to wash the blood off his chest, because half of his heart is gone –

He realizes that she’s saying Steve over and over again.

“Don’t touch him,” he says. “Don’t.”

He’s not allowed this. He has to get up.

Let it go. 

“Can I have a minute,” he says, shivering, the surf washing luminescent on their bare feet. “I just need a minute,” he whispers.

“Yeah,” Carol whispers. “You can have a minute.”

 

- - -

 

The twelfth incursion brings another him.

Steve has him restrained. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that he doesn’t know what sort of him he’s dealing with.

His heart can’t manage integrity today.

His other him is graying, around the temples. It’s something Steve never expects to see when he looks in the mirror. The skin around his eyes is worn, laugh lines that have long lost any semblance of their mirth. He has the look of someone whose kindness has been worn away. 

Steve watches for the reaction, waits for the dramatic exit strategy he would have pursued, once upon a time, if it were him. He waits for his other self to fight, to break his restraints and take him down with a roundhouse, steal his shield and consign them all to a quick death while he makes the escape back to his planet –

“Where’s Tony,” is all his double says, as he shifts with his hands chained behind his back. He won’t look away. He holds himself like a man possessed, a man who desperately needs answers.

Tony is gone, and Steve sits, and sits, and tries to think of how to say it out loud.

He can’t.

He looks up, sees the last bits of hope shudder and fade and die in his other self’s eyes.

“Yours, too,” his other self says, like he knew it already, somehow, his smile wan and shrewd and sad. 

Steve looks at himself for a long time, watches him glance around the room, anywhere but Steve’s eyes, watches him try to have the moment that he doesn’t want anyone else to see, watches a dam break and grief spill out all over again. “I thought,” his other self says, grimacing like he’s about to sob. 

Steve doesn’t have to ask what the other Tony did.

They all thought, didn’t they.

He raps on the double-paned glass. “Send him back,” he says.

His other self doesn’t struggle when they pull him up. His strides are wide, measured. He doesn’t fight.

Steve watches him go, his hand curled around the edge of the table, and just barely hears him sigh with grateful relief as he passes through the doors.

He just barely feels the curl of jealousy in his stomach.

“Tell me when you’ve fired,” he tells Maria. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

END.