Within five minutes of Tony's return to the Tower, Steve knew that something was wrong. Tony was good – very good – at hiding his emotions from people, but Steve always knew when he was distressed over something.
He waited, though, giving Tony a chance to settle back in and get re-acclimated. Rumor had it that he had been involved in some major events out in space – and some of those darker rumors included words like "war" and "death." Steve had been around long enough to know that quite often there was a kernel of truth to rumors like that, but he hoped for Tony's sake that things had not gone as badly as he had heard.
It didn't surprise him at all when Tony did not show up for dinner, or come to see him, although he had to admit that Tony's absence bothered him. Even in a tower full of Avengers, they could usually find somewhere to talk privately, and it worried him that Tony did not seek him out now. So Steve made the first move, heading down to the armory.
It was just after ten o'clock; by most standards, the night was still young. Usually at this hour Tony would be hard at work, the latest iteration of the suit spread out before him, a dozen computer screens hanging in mid-air covered with diagnostics and diagrams and long scrolling lists of data. Tonight, though, Tony was standing in front of one lone screen. And there was only one image on display: his own face.
Steve paused. Even from halfway across the room, he could read the article on the screen. Its focus was on some brand-new invention Tony had just given the world, something that was guaranteed to have engineers all over the world salivating with eagerness. The photograph accompanying the article was of a very young Tony Stark, long before Iron Man, even before he had been in charge of Stark Industries. The man in the picture was barely even a man, just a gawky teenager with a bad haircut, a killer grin, and a prize statuette in his hand.
In contrast, the man himself looked exhausted and worn – almost old. His arms were braced on the table, elbows locked, hands gripping the table's edge. His head was lowered, and his eyes were closed. Lines of strain – or pain – marred his forehead, and his jaw was clenched.
"Do you believe in fate?" he asked.
Steve startled a little – he hadn't realized Tony knew he was there – then walked further into the lab. "No," he said.
Tony opened his eyes, but did not look up. "Neither did I," he said. "Now I don't know what to believe."
"What happened up there?" Steve asked. There was no point in pretending that this was about anything else.
Tony winced. His shoulders hunched even higher. "I don't know," he sighed.
"Then let's figure it out," Steve said.
Tony looked over at him, a question on his face.
"Isn't that what we do?" Steve said. He sat down on the closest stool. "We're Avengers. When we're faced with a problem, we figure out how to solve it."
"It's not… It's not really a problem," Tony said. He released the table, and sighed deeply as he stood up straight. He pushed the hair off his forehead and let his arm drop heavily to his side. "I appreciate the offer, I do, but this is something I need to work through on my own."
"As I seem to recall," Steve said dryly, "that's how you get yourself into trouble."
Tony huffed out a distinctly unamused laugh. "Yeah. Remind me never to go into space again. On my own or with somebody."
Steve smiled a little in return, then said, "So tell me."
Tony just stood there for a moment, looking around the lab, at all the computers, all his fancy expensive tech and equipment, at everywhere but Steve. Finally he slumped onto his seat, settling there with weariness evident in every line of his body. "Do you remember when that kid hacked into Extremis, and used me to kill people?"
This was not at all the opening Steve had expected, and it chilled him to hear Tony bring up such an incident. They had not spoken about it in years. "Yes," he said.
"I swore then that I would never let anyone use me as a weapon again," Tony said. He spoke to his hands, which were clenched in his lap. "And I failed."
Understanding broke in Steve's mind. He wasn't just witnessing Tony's physical fatigue right now; he was seeing a man torn apart by guilt. "Could you have prevented it?" he asked carefully. He knew Tony's propensity for blaming himself for things that were beyond his control, knew too how much Tony prized that control, and how badly he reacted when it was taken from him.
"Yes," Tony said simply.
That told him nothing, though, and Steve frowned. He wasn't about to start leveling blame of his own until he had all the facts. "I need a little more than that, Tony."
"I shouldn't have listened," Tony said immediately, as though he had just been waiting for Steve's prompting. "I shouldn't have believed him. I should have known."
"Believed who?" Steve asked. None of the rumors about Tony's space adventure had mentioned that he had been in someone else's company. He wasn't sure if this was troubling or not.
"I should have known he had an agenda of his own," Tony said. He looked up finally, an expression disturbingly close to defiance on his face. As though he was daring Steve to judge him. "He used me to kill his enemies. He called them the grays. It doesn't matter who they are. What matters is that he made me into a weapon – and I let him."
"How?" Steve asked. "What did he do?" Hoping that Tony would explain who this mystery person was in the course of answering the question.
"He told me a story," Tony said. He laughed bitterly. "Not that I wanted to hear it. He had to disable the suit to make me listen, but in the end I would have listened anyway, because who doesn't want to hear a bedtime story about themselves, right?" He smiled, a ghastly approximation of happiness that only highlighted the misery in his eyes.
"Tell me," Steve commanded.
And Tony did.
Incredulous, he sat there as the tale unfolded around him. He listened as Tony told him about robots and aliens and genetic manipulation and a child who had been molded from before birth to become something, all free will removed, the course of his destiny locked into his genes.
Or so the robot named 451 would have had Tony believe.
"I don't know," Tony sighed. "I don't believe it. I don't think I ever really did. But it was hard not to. He had so much proof. Videos, even, of my father. But mostly it was just… He was so persuasive."
His mouth twisted. "You of all people know how hard I've tried to atone for my past. For spending so many years building weapons. Then to be told that that was the entire reason I was born? I can't… You can't imagine what that felt like."
Steve said nothing. Tony was right. He had no frame of reference to understand that kind of horror.
"So I let him talk me into it. I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway. I helped him finish the weapon he was designing – he had done most of it himself, but he was stuck, he'd gone as far as he could on his own. He needed me to finish it." He looked away, swallowing hard. "So I did.
"And he used it to attack the grays," Tony said. "He would have killed them all, but I managed to throw off his control of the suit, and stop him."
"Where is he now?" Steve asked.
"I don't know," Tony said. "His ship blew, he was damaged, the suit was damaged, basically I just got the hell out of there. I doubt he's gone, though. I couldn't be that lucky."
"We'll deal with him if we have to," Steve said firmly, and hoped it wouldn't prove necessary.
Tony just nodded a little, his eyes downcast again.
"What about the other ones?" he asked. "The grays? What happened to them?"'
"They got away," Tony said. "Not all of them…but most."
Steve searched for the right way to say his next words. This wasn't really his thing; he was good at giving rousing battlefield speeches, but this called for a little more finesse, something he often struggled for.
Well, he had always found that straightforward honesty was the best policy. "You know that what he told you is bullshit, right?"
Tony's head jerked up. He looked mildly surprised by Steve's use of profanity. "What?"
"It wasn't true," Steve said firmly.
"I do," Tony said. Again he looked away. "I know. I…"
"You're not listening to me," Steve said. "It was bullshit. Do you understand me? Even if it is true – and I don't believe for a second that it is – it's still a lie. No alien tech, no robot, made you into the person you are, Tony. You did that. And only you."
"I know," Tony mumbled.
"Do you?" Steve challenged. He gestured around at the lab. "Do you know what I see when I look at all this?" He waited for Tony to look up and acknowledge what he was talking about before he went on. "I see the work of a genius. A man who has the ability to see the future and then create it. And I don't know about you, but I feel pretty safe when I think that my future rests in your hands."
Now Tony looked shocked. "Steve, I—"
"Let me finish," he said. "I know what kind of man you used to be. Maybe I wasn't around for it, but I heard things, and I saw them, and I know what your legacy was. But I never saw that in you. From the day I first met you, all I ever saw was a man determined to make amends for his past, and to make the world a better place. And you are still that man today, Tony. That hasn't changed, not in all the years I've known you. We might disagree on how to make the world better, but we've both never stopped trying."
"I can't," Tony said. "I have to."
"I know," Steve said simply. "I know that. Everyone knows that. And I'm willing to bet this 451 knew it, too. So he made you think that it wasn't you, that you had no agency, that you were nothing but a pawn. He made you think you had only one purpose in life – to build weapons. And he lied, Tony. You are so much more than that."
Tony looked up at him, truly looking him in the eye for the first time. "What am I?" he asked quietly.
"You are Tony Stark," Steve said.
Tony laughed, bitter and scornful. He dropped his head. "Yeah."
"You are Iron Man," Steve said. "You are an Avenger. You are just an ordinary human being sharing space on a team with mutants and super soldiers and Asgardians. Just an ordinary man – but one who's accomplished extraordinary things with his intelligence and his determination." He slid off his stool and walked forward. "And you are the man I love." He reached down and took hold of Tony's chin and lifted his head, then kissed him.
Tony kissed him back without hesitating, standing up so Steve did not have to lean down, putting both his arms around him. There was something almost desperate in that kiss, in the way Tony's lips sought his, and the way he opened his mouth for Steve's tongue. His hands clutched Steve's shoulders, pulling him closer still, so the light from the RT shone on both their chests.
Steve obliged, angling his body so they were pressed together, one hand cupping the nape of Tony's neck. With the other he traced the line of Tony's spine, then back up again.
Tony sighed as he broke off the kiss. "I'm sorry."
Steve tilted his head so their foreheads touched. "You did what you could," he said. "And I know you won't let it happen again." That was one thing he did not fear at all. Once someone had found a way to get to Tony, he made damn sure that hole in his defenses was sealed forever – taking back the control he had lost.
"I won't." Tony shook his head. His eyes were closed. "And I don't believe it. I don't."
"Good," Steve said, although he was less convinced on that issue. He picked up his head, and let the hand that had been on Tony's neck slide around to cradle his face. "Now why don't you come upstairs with me, and we'll get something to eat?"
"I should work on the suit," Tony said, with some reluctance. "I can't let anyone override it like that again."
"And you will," Steve said. He lowered his hand back to his side. "But not right now. Right now you're going to come with me, and we're going to have dinner." He was too familiar with Tony's work patterns; if he left now, it would be morning at the earliest before Tony emerged back into the Tower and rejoined the Avengers. He was pretty sure Jessica and Clint were still up, and he thought there was a good chance he and Tony would run into them in the kitchen. Tony needed to spend time with his friends right now, with people who would scoff at the very idea that he had been engineered from birth to follow a specific path in life.
He leaned in for a quick kiss, then stepped back. "Come on," he said. "I think there's some pot roast leftover from dinner that we can still have. If Clint hasn't beaten us to it."
"Oh," Tony said. Faint amusement played at the corners of his mouth. "Well. I wouldn't want to let Clint get the last word on anything."
"I thought you wouldn't," Steve said. He smiled.
"All right," Tony said, giving in. "But then I really do have to work on the suit."
"I know," Steve said. "It's what you do."
"Yeah," Tony said. He looked lost in thought for a moment – and then he suddenly smiled, and it was the real deal, his eyes lighting up with a rush of feeling that had been missing during their entire conversation.
Still smiling, he looked over at Steve. "It's what I do."