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“You will lose yourself in this … You’ll wake up one day and have no idea who is looking back at you in the mirror.” —Steve to Reed Richards and the Illuminati, New Avengers #3

 

 


 

 

It’s been a month.

It’s quiet where he is. Silent, is the word for it. He suspects it would be quiet upstairs anyway, even if it were a normal building, being set nearly a mile back from the highway as it is. But down here, it’s unnervingly, artificially soundless, like the void of space.

It really should be: it’s a Barbershop, maybe even adapted from one of Fury’s originals, so the structure is almost certainly reinforced with several feet of the best defensive fortification, radiation protection, and soundproofing government science can buy.

It’s not actually a barbershop—Steve remembers those well, but that would actually be pretty conspicuous these days. Still, SHIELD picks interesting covers for its secret facilities: this one’s a dated, stumpy looking storehouse, the exterior covered in white striated metal paneling, with an awkward, square sienna-colored awning. A hand-painted sign above a single barred window offers ‘WATCHES - JEWELREY - GIFTS - TOOLS - NOVELTY’S’. The plastic panel of the burnt-out sign out front is snapped in half; what remains of it says ‘—KE —TY PAWN.’ The partially-peeled off ‘For Lease’ sticker plastered to it lists a number that calls a disconnected line.

It’s the structural equivalent of a smudge on your glasses: dirty, mildly annoying, but ultimately too close to see, easy to peer past.

Below ground, it’s huge. It’s not the same bunker Strange took them to after their clash with Carol and the Guardians, but it’s similar in many respects: sleek, angular gunmetal platforms house a variety of enormous control panels, work surfaces, and holoscreen projectors. Stairs lead down from the raised areas to the living quarters and the commissary. There’s even a landing area designed for some kind of jet or spacecraft, though Steve doesn’t immediately see how one would get down here. He didn’t study the specs at length before picking it out, and he spends as much if not more time upstairs in the old store: sitting amongst the shelves of clutter, wondering if some SHIELD agent purchased every item as set dressing, or if these things actually had value to people once before being abandoned or pawned off.

He really only comes down to prepare food and sleep.

Well, try to sleep.

He lies in his bed, surprisingly comfortable for all that it’s small and the frame is molded into the floor, a bunk he arbitrarily picked at the end of the personnel hall. He stares up, and even with his enhanced eyesight, he can barely make out the geometrically-moulded ceiling of reinforced steel.

He recounts the day, retraces his steps.

He actually went to the supermarket today, an Albertsons, two-point-two miles away. It’s the second time he’s gone out since he arrived in Gallup. He’s been running down the rations since he arrived, and he doesn’t know how long he’ll be here, because this isn’t a mission, and there is no endgame. This is… It just is.

Going out requires a certain amount of care, of course.

He is training his body like an unwilling animal, trying to break it with repetition and reinforcement. Years of conditioning have instilled in it the exact right amount of tension to hold to react to anything instantly, how to adapt its gait on any surface for minimal noise and impact, how to scan a room on entry for cover. How to breathe, blink, move, respond, all without thinking. All the physical instincts you’d expect from the greatest soldier ever produced.

Shutting it off is difficult. The lack of movement actually begins to ache. He has been teaching his shoulders to hunch as he reaches for the shopping cart handle, teaching his neck the correct angle to curve down to as he lists through the aisles. He coerces his gaze to sweep the floor, and in the event that it rises enough to drift into the curved line of the baseball cap pulled low over his brow, he pushes it back down. It requires concentration, discipline.

But the work is paying off: today, he didn’t notice what magazines were being sold in the checkout line, didn’t see the store clerk’s face, didn’t pay attention to the total for the groceries. Progress.

It’s not penance, not just penance—he knows how dramatic that sounds.

It’s fucking cowardice, is what it is.

Because since the serum, Steve’s brain works in this way: if he sees something, or hears it, or learns it, he remembers it. In perfect detail. Forever.

And he doesn’t want to remember any more.

He remembers too much already.

So he stays as small as he can, keeps his head down, doesn’t talk more than he has to.

He is trying to do what Captain America would never do. More importantly, he’s trying to do what Steve Rogers would never do.

He’s doing nothing.

To leave the smallest footprint possible, cause the most minimal stirring of atoms as he moves through the world. Nothing, or as close to it as possible.

(Sam is Captain America anyway, Steve reminds himself.)

He wishes he could say it’s because he doesn’t know who he is anymore.

That is unfortunately not the problem.

He turns on his side, bed sheets winding, clinging to his legs and hips as he goes. He sighs and half-heartedly untangles them, and readjusts the pillow under his head. His breath sounds jagged against the oppressive stillness, like the sound of fabric tearing. The smallest movement feels like an act of violence.

The mansion was never this quiet. Someone was always awake and on comms duty, back in the early days, before beeping identicards and glib, ever-watchful AIs.

Others would have to make late night and early morning exits to deal with their own gallery of villains and non-Avengers threats.

And of course, there was usually at least one person sneaking off to a room that wasn’t their own.

It wasn’t something he meant to listen to, but the creak of a hinge or the sound of footfalls would drift into his mind’s world as he leafed through Tolkien or Butler before turning out the nightlight.

And he certainly never did anything about it. Fraternization wasn’t strictly disallowed in the charter, and Steve mostly saw it as a positive.

It was easy enough to play dumb, to pretend nocturnal activities were as private as the participants thought they were. When you were a stickler for the rules the rest of the time, little lapses in enforcing them were more easily written off as ignorance.

(He tries to probe the memory deeper—what kind is it? What color? Is it really one of his?

He reminds himself that’s a faulty logic; they are all his.

He’s always been a manipulator, hasn’t he? Fuck.)

Hank and Jan were obvious—they never hid their feelings. Or their identities, for that matter. Not really.

And then there was Clint, back when Tasha would first visit. Her hair was dark then, and voluminous, and she wore a winged mask she probably wouldn’t be caught dead with now.

The memory lines up alongside the others, neat and etched with precision. He squeezes his eyes shut tight and tries to keep his stomach from crawling up into his throat.

He wants desperately for it to mean that these are his old memories only—he grasps at the possibility with a quiet ferocity: this is his reality, and his only, how it really happened, before the universe was rewritten. Before Kobik, before Red Skull, before, before, before—he clutches the duvet in both hands like he’s wrangling the word, trying to imbue it with meaning. It happened to him, was forced on him—

But the creeping, squirming sensation curling up into his diaphragm tells him it really just means that this is a memory he shares completely with that other him. He can’t see a difference in the remembrances because there is none. This is just one more time he and that other Steve were on the same path, indistinguishable from one another.

Tenacious Steve Rogers, cunning Steve Rogers. Inventive, ambitious, resourceful Steve Rogers. The same man, the same attributes. The same capacity for destruction.

He wonders if Red Skull had any idea what he was doing, what he was unleashing. Had he actually thought Steve was a good soldier? That he followed orders? They’d fought across the decades, across the world, and apparently Schmidt didn’t know Steve at all.

Steve wonders if Skull had any idea he’d signed his own death warrant.

It’s been just over a month since Steve killed him, the lethal edge of his segmented shield slicing into Schmidt’s crimson neck flesh, sending a deeper ruby sluicing over it. (It wasn’t as satisfying as he had hoped.)

That was the catalyst, pushing the final pieces into place. He’d already wrested control of SHIELD from a more-than-willing Sharon, and co-opted Hill’s planetary defense shield from Carol, all the while admonishing it publicly, calling it an abomination.

After Schmidt was dealt with, it was down to the world shield technology modifications: overhauling it to reverse certain properties, turning it from a shelter keeping the bad things out to a pen keeping the livestock in. It was tricky, finding talented and discrete engineers up to the task was nearly impossible.

Tony, he’d thought, wistfully at the time. Tony worked on a damn Dyson sphere. Redesigning this would have been about as much effort as the Sunday crossword for him. But by then Tony had already managed to get himself punched into a coma.

What a waste, he had said, staring at Tony’s stasis pod with disdain.

A casual observation, as if he was looking at rotting leftover food, or the shelves of junk upstairs in the pawn shop. At a tool that no longer had a purpose, and held no other meaning. What a waste.

(The other Steve, he corrects again. The other Steve thought that. Not him. He—the Steve he is now, the Steve he thinks he is, anyway—had said nothing at all. He couldn’t form words through the sobs.)

Attempting to reverse the world shield was ultimately his undoing—no, his salvation?—he can’t quite bring himself to think of it that way, either.

It exposed his alternate self for what he truly was, he thinks neutrally. Selvig and his team couldn’t finish the work in time for the invasion, and it had drawn too much attention.

He had been so close to succeeding, the ultimate victory for Hydra—for the betterment of the world.

 

Hordes of Chitauri hurtled toward the atmosphere like an onslaught of angry angels, dots so numerous on the radar scanner that they nearly formed an unbroken line: the curve of a scythe, slicing down toward the planet, burning away all that was unclean.

His fingers made sweeping arcs, swirls of black pigment forming the Hydra insignia on his chest. He had begun marking himself years ago, initially in deference to Schmidt. True, it was no longer strictly necessary. But he found the ritual of it intoxicating, and difficult to relinquish.

Besides, he was preparing to address his legions of followers as their Supreme Leader for the first time; he wanted to make a good impression.

He was about to begin the transmission, to relay the glorious news: Hydra’s hour was finally at hand—

“Steve.”

He turned to the source of the interruption, and was treated to the sight of his inverse: the man who shared his title.

Sam stood in the door to the lab, face gone slack.

“What the fuck. What. The fuck.”

Steve smiled a serpent’s smile, wide and hungry, drinking in the feelings of betrayal writ large on his old friend’s face. It was good, Steve thought, to see what he had wrought, to no longer have to hide in the shadows—even if it delayed his final victory momentarily.

It would have been better if it had been Tony here to face him. Steve had wanted it to be. But, he supposed, you couldn’t get everything you wanted.

“Isn’t this as it should be?” Steve asked airily, retrieving his own shield from the nearest workstation, “Captain America versus the head of Hydra? And you know what we say about the heads of Hydra—”

Sam’s voice was low and broken; he didn’t waste time with quips.

“I’m going to fucking kill you.”

They clashed. He and Sam had fought before, but never in such deadly earnest, with both of them out for blood. Steve was stronger, but Sam fought with the fury of one deceived, and it made him, faster, fiercer, more deadly. Sam hooked the edge of his shield under Steve’s, and yanked, disarming him. Steve was thrown to his back. Vibranium collided with his shoulder first, then connected again, this time shattering his cheekbone.

Sam raised the shield one more time, and paused; Steve’s death gleamed in Sam’s hands, a reflected halo of light on the edge of a metallic disc.

Steve smiled up at his opponent through bloodied teeth. If Sam killed him here and now, it didn’t matter. His cause had come too far, another would take up the banner. That was the way of it, after all: cut off one head, two more

Then, it changed.

Reality changed.

And he felt it.

Once, seven other men stood around a stone table in a city of the dead and decided the fate of his mind. They ripped out his memory against his will, and later, it came back to him, as ridiculous as it sounds, in a dream.

He had been made to forget, and the remembering brought him roaring back to himself, driven by a righteous fury. How dare they take from him? How dare they.

This was nothing like that.

It was like something had burst and bloomed in his mind. It revealed itself to him in the space of a heartbeat.

The flat, smooth plane of his reality… twisted. Turned over. Became something else entirely. Became more.

It was like one of those children’s toys from long ago: a flat circular disc with a string fastened to each edge, displaying an image on either side. A rose on one side, and a vase on the other, perhaps. Or a bird, hanging freely in space, juxtaposed against an empty cage.

When the disc would spin, the images would line up; your mind pressed them together to form a single image—the trapped bird, the plucked flower—that couldn’t really exist in the same space at the same time. But you saw it, nonetheless.

Reality spun, and Steve saw.

Two lives. Both equally real, carrying identical weight. He'd lived them both.

He'd always been Hydra. He'd never been Hydra.

Two versions of Steve Rogers.

For a moment, Steve saw them both. He saw all of it.

And whatever Steve saw, he remembered. In perfect detail. Forever.

Reality settled. The disc stopped spinning, and Steve knew he was on the opposite side now. No Hydra Academy, no dear friend Helmut, no righteous crusade.

But black goop was still oozed across his chest, and Sam was still poised above him, about to land the killing blow, so perhaps reality was still in flux.

He thought: Oh, thank god.

He thought: I don't have to see how this ends.

He thought: Finish it.

“STOP!”

Sharon’s scream tore the air, drawing both their gazes. Sam stayed his arm.

"Sam, stop,” she begged. “Steve isn't... He's been undercover for us, infiltrating Hydra. I'm sorry we couldn't—It had to be completely believable.”

And as she said it, Steve knew it was true. All of it.

He had been secretly working with Reed Richards to turn the world shield not into a prison, but a portal of sorts—when the Chitauri hit it, they'd be transported to a galaxy hundreds of thousands of light years away. It was a gambit, a play for time, not a permanent solution, but it stopped the immediate attack, gave them a chance to regroup—and a chance to take out Hydra from the inside out.

The new memories slotted in perfectly, easily: Steve had arrested Schmidt, not murdered him, though SHIELD did broadcast news of Schmidt’s demise. It allowed Steve to absorb the power vacuum in Hydra, manipulate it, shut it down.

SHIELD agents were rushing the lab, arresting Hydra scientists, activating the portal. This was a sting operation, the end of a long mission. The situation was completely in hand. This was SHIELD’s finest hour, not Hydra’s.

Sam helped him up, clapped a hand on his back, chest heaving in sighs of relief as he apologized. Sharon—head of SHIELD, as she had been since Hill was convicted—tried to guide him over to waiting medstaff to have his injuries mended.

He excused himself, made a beeline for the nearest bathroom and promptly expelled the contents of his stomach. As if his body could rid itself of that other Steve, that other life.

He dragged himself over to the sink to regard himself in the mirror, wiping trails of acid-sour saliva from his mouth. His face was bruised but intact; Sam had pulled his punches in this timeline, but Steve could still taste blood and feel broken teeth in his mouth.

What the fuck had just happened?

It was Kobik’s doing. It had to be.

But Kobik had been gone since just after Pleasant Hill, hadn’t she? Disappeared, left no trace behind.

Wait. She had been in space with Bucky in that other reality… But that had one ended, leaving only its vile traces in his brain.

He was left with no explanation, no clue how to proceed, no one to ask why.

Why this? Why now? And why did he remember?

Kobik could have changed anything. She could have changed everything. Made it so Steve had never been a part of Hydra, even as a double agent. Or killed him. Or killed Red Skull herself. Or made it so Red Skull never existed. Or destroyed the planet.

She could have torn reality apart and remade it.

Instead, she gave it a nudge, and left him with the memories of what had been.

He closed his eyes and smelled greasepaint, bleach bathroom cleaner and vomit. His hands gripped cold porcelain, and he tried not to think about how many had died beneath them, how he could still feel their hot blood spattering against his face—

Nothing came up when he heaved a second time. It didn’t make him feel any better.

After six sheets of dampened paper towels couldn’t entirely remove the emblem from his chest, he gave up trying; a smeary mess was better than having that thing on his skin.

He took several deep breaths, hand on the bathroom door knob, then walked out to rejoin the others, and waited.

Waited for someone to remember that other timeline. For anyone to say something to him about it, or accuse him of being anything other than completely loyal. Waited for reality to lurch again, give some sign that it was still in motion. Waited for, at least, his own memories of that horrific world to fade, and for him to feel settled, normal again, as if this were some form of cosmic jetlag.

None of that happened.

He tried to move on as best he could.

He, Selvig, and Rick—his remote handler for the covert op—were debriefed with little fuss. The Chitauri queen eggs were destroyed, and the remaining Hydra cells were taken down easily; as offensive as they were, Hydra had appeared publicly as little more than an oddball non-profit. Steve’s information regarding the stockpiling of illegal arms and planned terrorist attacks provided the evidence needed to arrest and try the various other leaders jockeying to replace Skull.

Sharon was gentle with him. Said she was glad to have him back full-time, and gingerly prodded him to move into a unit on base at the Triskelion with her, since she’d have to be onsite for the foreseeable future. He changed the subject every time she brought it up.

Every agent he passed had a smile, a nod, or a chipper “Commander” to offer him in the hall.

Sam was somewhat harder to talk to, having been in the dark on the mission. He had so many questions. Steve had answers, of course, and they were true—it wasn’t as though he was lying. Everything he told Sam had really happened.

But for every incident, there was a variant. Everytime he relayed an anecdote to Sam, he suppressed the urge to flinch. Overlaid on each memory of it was a slightly different version, inked in his mind in shades of gray, embellished with slashes of lurid red.

A version where he didn’t purchase a lab for a base of operations, but seized it from Ivan Kragoff before slaughtering him and his creatures (he didn’t stop when they were dead, he remembered; he stopped when the bodies were unrecognizable.) A version where, when Agent Veronica Peirson, a SHIELD up-and-comer, got too close to his plans, instead of reassigning her, he snapped her neck with his bare hands. A version where every time he said “Hail Hydra,” he meant it in his heart.

He pushed past it, kept it locked away in his mind, and if he woke up screaming at least once a night when his subconscious stumbled through every scene his other self lived, at least no one heard him.

That was the first week.

The start of the second week, Sharon had a surprise for him.

“Steve,” Jack Harrison spun the chair away from the conference room table to face him, and grinned ear to ear. “God, it’s good to see you again.”

Steve stopped breathing. He couldn't find the air. He—

threw Jack from the back of the plane—

—saw his body contorted on the pavement, spineshatteredheadcrackedopenbloodeverywhere—

—hovered over him in the hospital room, flicked the syringe, grabbed the IV—

held Cathy in his arms while Jack’s heart stopped

—he didn’t respond, and Jack laughed. “Yeah, undercover, not the easiest. You remember that whole King Cobra thing.”

Jack reminisced, and Steve said… something, finally. Banter. It’s not that he didn’t remember what Jack said to him, or what he said to Jack. That would be impossible. But he couldn’t hear himself saying it: blood roared savagely in his ears, drowning everything else out; no blitz had ever been so loud.

He staggered through the conversation, shook Jack’s hand, and found an empty lab on another floor, and locked the door after him.

He couldn’t just resign, he realized, flicking through the facility records on a console. It would draw too much attention, and would hurt Sharon’s standing as Director. But a leave of absence for a private mission, taking care of a personal matter: he could arrange that easily and quickly enough.

The bunker in Gallup, New Mexico was unoccupied.

Less than twenty-four hours later, he squinted through sun-stung eyes at the garish little building about a mile off Route 66, scraping the metal of the keys together in his palm.

 

All the days between then and now have been very similar.

He tosses and turns in his bunk a hundred feet below the surface of the earth, and passes the night. He gets up and paces the bunker or goes to the shop upstairs. And he remembers.

(Once, seven other men stood over him in the silence of death and rewrote his mind, decided for him that he shouldn’t be allowed his memories.

He wishes he could be made to forget again.)

He eats, most days.

He tried to stop about a week ago, but it didn’t last. He had dealt with hunger as a child, but his metabolism is rapacious now. He broke on the fourth day, tearing wolfishly into a box of meal packets and devouring them cold.

Other attempts at corporal punishment have gone equally poorly. His first trip into town took him to Paramount Liquors, where he bought four liters of cheap whiskey. The checkout clerk asked him where the party was. Steve didn’t answer.

He thought, cracking open the cap to the fourth bottle, that for a moment he felt something other than the burning in his throat, the protesting roil of his guts: a softening of his vision, a bit of a floating sensation… but that might have been his imagination.

He thought of Tony, crawling across a flop house floor to retrieve the liquor bottle Steve had slapped out of his hands: chasing oblivion like Orpheus after Eurydice, going gladly down to hell. Steve wished he could make the trip.

He never actually got drunk, but he did pass out for a solid twenty minutes toward the end, a beautiful dreamless sedation.

He spent the the entire following day pouring out his insides, though. He hasn’t tried it again, after that. Tactics 101. It’s a miniscule and Pyrrhic victory, insupportable in this longer campaign, and he knows it.

He is so fucking tired.

Except he isn’t, of course. Being tired would lead to sleep. It’s not the right word.

In his mind and heart, he is weary.

It’s almost laughable, when he thinks of how he used to be when he was younger; like so many of his memories, the picture on either face of the disc is the same:

A wispy young man defined by concavities. A waif whose inner fire is dimmed only by his proclivity for illness, his frail form holding him back, pinning down his spirit. Someone who hates his body for everything it can’t do. A scrap of a boy practically made out of fight.

Now the fight has been all but ground of out him, but his body keeps going, even when he wants nothing more than to stop.

He has no idea how old he is anymore. Even if he could calculate it, he doesn’t know if it would be accurate, has no idea what Kobik did to him.

He has been alive and conscious for… maybe forty-five years, depending on dimensional time differences.

The war alone would have been enough to make any man feel older than his years.

Then there were the decades in the ice. His death on the courthouse steps. Living everything over and over, unstuck in time. The years spent in Dimension Z. The Time Gem launching him fifty-thousand years into the future. He isn’t even sure what happened after the incursions.

He’s lived pieces of so many lives, so many lifetimes. He has been pulled forward and pulled apart across time in every possible way.

His soul is stretched thin—he thinks of Tolkien—like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.

But his body... He is ruled by his body in so many ways.

It is unrelenting in its need, exigent, and often impossible to ignore.

And despite his best efforts, the horrors of Hydra are not all he remembers.

 

He’s hard, shaft pressing insistently against the mattress as he lays almost on his stomach, angled just slightly to the side, body propped away from the bed by a crooked knee. He doesn’t want to move, to feel every shift of the fabric layers of his boxers, the sheets, every sensation that isn’t flesh against flesh, reminding him of his want, teasing him on.

He presses his face hard into the pillow, brows furrowing into the softness, teeth grit, throat straining, as if he could shut this down by making his expression and his will as rigid as his cock.

It’s probably just prolonging the issue. He doesn’t want this. Doesn’t want to feel… anything at all, really, but certainly not this. He hates himself, hates that any part of him can want this when his mind is such a disjointed mess. It’s disgusting. It’s perverse. But then, he is perverted. He has been perverted.

The idea short circuits his brain, driving it back down a short loop to shame, and he feels flush; he’s been brought low in every way a person can, he should just give in—

No. He can’t think of it like that. He needs to just get it over with. He tells himself this isn’t a kindness, isn’t a kink, isn’t some fucking game. It would be little more than… discharging pressure. Taking swift care of an annoyance. Release, not relief. He can almost believe that.

He slides his arms up over his head, hands grabbing at one another and the pillow below as well, both fingers and face burrowing into cotton now, and even that slight adjustment sends a shock through him, lit-filament hot, shooting down from the pit of his stomach directly to his balls. He feels the vibration in his throat, feels the pillowcase rub, slightly moistened, against his lips before he hears the fugitive noise penetrating the silence.

He isn’t surprised by what comes out. Not in the slightest.

“Tony,” he breathes.

The differences between him and that other Steve are haunting, places where the violent disparity in the two are measured in broken bones, sliced arteries and naked, raw ambition.

But they are frightening only in the scope of the overwhelming similarities between the two men.

Because they are the same man. While fueled by different desires, the vast majority of the time, the memories are the same. They tread the exact same path, made the same moves.

And they were both completely gone for Tony Stark.

Perhaps it was that Tony’s was the first voice he ever heard after coming out of the ice, even distorted as it was by the armor.

Perhaps it was that Tony was the first person who saw him as singular being; he wasn’t just Steve Rogers or Captain America. He always had to be both, and Tony knew the complexities of being a man at the intersection of identities.

Even his monochrome Hydra memories were tinted in gold by the glow of Tony’s warmth. Steve would have defected from Hydra in those early days, if Tony had only known to ask it.

But Tony didn’t—know, or ask. Steve thought some of the looks passed between them lingered a little long, had hints of longing in them, but Tony never made a move.

And Steve—either version of Steve—certainly never did anything about it. He never broke the quiet night with footfalls of his own, put his copy of Fahrenheit 451 or The Silmarillion down on the nightstand and made the trek to Tony’s lab, or went in search of Iron Man.

But he never stopped wanting to, even when the superhero civil war and its aftermath drove his darker self back to Hydra. You don’t vow to destroy everything someone has ever loved because you are indifferent to them, after all.

‘He loved you,’ he told Tony’s near-lifeless body of his younger self; it was the most powerful weapon Steve could think to wield at the time, because it was the truth. The only lie in it was the application of the past tense.

So, no, he's unsurprised to hear himself commit Tony's name to speech, hovering somewhere between a prayer and an admission of guilt.

He is a bit surprised to get a response.

But only a bit.

"Yeah?" Tony's voice asks encouragingly. The whisper is familiar, casual. A test.

For all of the nuance compressed into a single word, there's a hollowness there, too, one that not even the most expensive tech could erase: Steve knows a damn machine when he hears one.

Goddamn it, Tony.

He turns his face further into the pillow; he doesn't know if this program has a face, a projection of form, but if it does, he doesn't want to see it.

He doesn't know exactly what it's doing here, but he suspects it's not SHIELD checking up on him, that they aren't the ones controlling this—as if anyone could control Tony, in any form.

Tony probably installed the backdoor for the AI back when he was Director of SHIELD. Hell, he might not have even remembered doing it.

He should say nothing. Or, no, he should tell the thing to fuck off. Try to cancel it out, engage some kind of shutdown code.

"Took you long enough," he says instead, voice crackling from disuse.

"I've been busy," the AI responds mildly.

Steve thinks: What the fuck does that mean?

He thinks: How dare you leave me alone?

He thinks: Where were you when my world died?

“Do I want to know?” Steve asks.

“Imagine Rick Jones, from the Teen Brigade days, but with twice the IQ and three times the sass. Are you imagining it? Okay, you’d better stop, then, because she’s nothing like that, but I don’t have a better comparison.”

She? Oh, that Iron Girl in the retro looking suit after the battle with the Guardians. Steve always assumed protégés were more his own thing than Tony’s, but—

And just like that, Steve’s intrigued. Drawn in. It’s a longer conversation than he’s had with another human in weeks. It’s just so easy. It’s Tony, for god's sake—

no, it isn’t, because Tony’s body is lying in a geometric coffin, hundreds of miles from here

—but nonetheless, the uncomplicated, familiar cadence of Tony’s voice has a reflexive effect on him. Tension evaporates, and the muscles in his lower back go slack in response—and his cock’s brushing against the bed now, fuck. He goes wire-taut again, and bites back a hiss, all while the AI keeps talking.

“She thinks I should have a mute button,” it bristles. If disembodied voices can, in fact, bristle.

“You said she was smart,” Steve grinds out. He does not want to be talking about this girl, not now, but it’s what he would say if Tony were actually here, and the banter earns him a mechanical laugh.

“Jokes! He makes jokes. Anyway, my incorporeal hands have been, uh, full. And it’s not like you’ve been exactly idle yourself. Well, until a few weeks ago.”

“I don’t want to talk about that.”

“But you do want to talk,” it says, not so much a question as an offer, a rope dangled above a drowning man.

He feels his cock twitch.

No, he doesn’t want to talk.

God. This is wrong.

Not in a moral way, not in the eyes of some all-seeing deity.

And not because it’s embarrassing, either, although it’s rapidly becoming so—the AI has to be tracking his vitals, doesn’t it? It has to know what it’s doing to him. It has to.

It’s just that… This is a shade of Tony. Steve’s not sure, when he thinks it, if he means a ghost, a remnant, an afterlife echo sending ripples into the world of the living… or a tint, a color-cast, a meager slice from the full spectrum. Either would be appropriate.

It’s not Tony.

Not the real Tony.

Does it matter? a voice in the back of his mind asks.

He releases a frustrated sigh into the pillow.

“I can go—” the voice offers, and it should set Steve off, the wrongness of a Tony Stark that backs down from Steve’s furtive bullshit.

But the room drops back into that unearthly quiet immediately, and it’s suddenly about so much more than his fucking hard on; Steve doesn’t think he can’t stand the sound of his own breathing, can’t stand to be alone with himself anymore.

He twists, sitting halfway up, and reaches out with tensely curling fingers, as if there was more than empty air to grasp. “No, don’t. Please.” He winces. “Please, I need… Please, stay.”

There’s a long pause, and Steve feels his neck and ears burn. Christ, he can’t do this. Even if he could, why did he think a computer program would know what he wanted? That it could be prepared for this? He doesn't even know what he wants. He lays back, scrubs both hands over his face, grits his teeth as he feels his cock slide against the front of his boxers, cool from dabbed pre-cum. This—this is insane

“Are you asking—?” the AI sounds cautious. “You wanted… him to...” It stops again—processing, Steve imagines. Making an assessment. “You want him,” it concludes.

Its voice is so soft—too soft, maybe, but then, he’s got no basis for comparison; he’s never heard Tony say these words, either.

“Yes,” Steve croaks, because what else can he say?

He waits long seconds again—for some reason, he thinks the real Tony would make some kind of a keening high-pitched laugh here, not because anything about the situation was funny, but because it really, really wasn’t—and finally the voice says, “I am so lucky I don’t have a fully functioning set of emotions.”

Steve tips his head back against the pillow, and gives up a small, grim, closed-mouth laugh of his own.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “You really are.”

“Steve—” Now it’s the AI who sounds like it’s desperate, like it thinks it made a misstep. “What do you—? I can’t—I’m not… What do you want me to do?”

Be Tony Stark, Steve wants to say. Be him, whole and alive and here now.

But Steve can’t have that. Doesn’t ever get to have that, even if—when—Tony comes back. Steve shouldn’t be anywhere near him. Not after what Steve’s done. Not now that he knows what he’s capable of.

What he can have, what he does have… If he does this, it’s not a kindness, it’s not pleasure. It’s going to fucking hurt.

Good.

Tentatively, he lets his right hand coast over his stomach and down, fingers threading the trail of hair pointing down between his legs. He draws a shaking breath, lets his eyes fall shut.

“Tell me… Tell me Tony wanted me, once. I… I don’t care if it’s a lie.”

The voice sounds… startled. It actually scoffs. “Jesus, Steve.”

Steve retracts his hand, yanking it up and away from his groin like he’s been burned. The AI’s disbelief punches straight into his solar plexus, driving all the air out of his lungs.

“You think… You honestly think…” It drags on the words.

Steve had to ask, didn’t he? It might not be Tony, but it’s his creation Steve is talking to, and this is so far afield of the calculated mathematical possibilities, it can’t even process that Tony would ever want to—Steve just had to open his fucking mouth—

“...that I would have to lie about that?” the voice finishes. There’s a huff of artificial breath, and it is uncanny, for a moment, how much it sounds like the real thing.

Oh, god. That means… Oh, god.

“You can’t be saying that he… How could you know?

“Steve, I…” it pauses, like it’s deciding. Maybe it is. Running some calculations. Steve wonders what the mathematics of a confession look like.

“Look: I can only ever be as good as my data. Tony knew that, so he gave me everything. Things he never even gave himself access to. Years of Avengers training data, sensor output from the mansion and the tower, identicard transmissions... I am everything Tony never trusted himself with. Things he didn’t want to look too closely at about himself.

“I can’t tell you what was in his head. But I can tell you the exact percentage by which his heart rate sped up when you walked in a room, and the diameter delta of his pupillary response behind the helmet when you looked at each other.”

The AI has its voice pitched low, speaking the technical details to life with a near reverence. The pace of Steve’s breathing ratchets up, like he’s running out of oxygen. He feels his hand drawn back down, sliding over the soft flesh below his navel, as if moving on its own.

He can’t do this. He can’t fucking do this. This is ludicrous. God, it’s…. It’s worse, knowing Tony wanted him back. He didn’t think it could get worse.

“I have a record of every hour he spent working on your equipment when he should have been sleeping, including the deletion dates of the designs he threw out because they weren’t good enough for you. I can chart his oxytocin and dopamine levels from every time he flew with you in his arms.”

How long had Tony wanted him? They could have had this. Everything. Each other. Before the war, before the mind wipe. Maybe none of that would have even happened. They’ve lost years. They’ve lost themselves.

He’s just a fucking body in a bed, a shell of a man, and Tony doesn’t even have a body, not one he can use. This is disgusting, this is fucking laughable.

“I can trace the shape of his affection for you with accuracy to the nth decimal point. It’s in the damn data, Steve. It’s so, so clear. He loved you—”

—no—he doesn’t want to hear those words. Not the ones that he said when he—NO—

The stillness settles again, and Steve realizes he said that ‘no’ outloud. The AI must be so confused. He’s probably pushing every algorithm to its limits tonight.

“What do you want, Steve?” Tony’s voice asks him again, patient, imploring.

He can’t do this, he thinks, even as he relinquishes another and another hot breath, even as his hand snakes under the waistband of his boxers.

He wants… He wants to feel something that isn’t bloodstained and soaked in hatred, just for a little while. He just wants to be not broken, the way he’s felt for the past month, since he realized what he really is, what he could be. He wants to rest and feel rested. He wants himself back. He wants Tony, who knows exactly what it is to feel this damaged, in a way Steve never did before.

But he shouldn’t be allowed that. He shouldn’t be allowed to feel good. He can’t do this.

He can’t, he can’t, he can’t—

He circles the base of his cock with his fingers, and he feels hot and full and heavy in his own hand. He tenses, then shudders.

He can’t work his hand up to the head yet, or he’ll come, and he doesn’t want that yet.

So much for this being a quick release. He’s even a manipulator to himself.

“Just… just be him,” he pleads, panting. “For a little while. Say whatever you think… he would say...”

When the voice speaks again, it’s deeper, louder, the bass tones thrumming in Steve’s ears and shooting straight to his groin.

“God, you are beautiful,” Tony says to him. “You look like shit, like you’ve been tearing yourself apart, and you are still so fucking beautiful.”

Steve grips and pulls the flesh at the base of his cock, and moans.

Fuck.

“Show me,” Tony orders him, voice molten. “Show me how much you want me.”

Steve uses his free hand to shove the comforter away, then stretches the elastic of his waistband carefully away from him, clearing himself where he’s gripped in his own hand, and pushes the underwear down his thighs.

Tony pauses, like he can see Steve stiff and flush in the dark. Like he’s admiring. “Look at you. I can’t—You have no idea how long I’ve wanted this, do you?”

The voice—Tony’s voice—is shredded, seeping with lust and even tinged with a bright flare of anger, like he’s daring Steve to counter him, like this is almost as much combat as seduction. Maybe it is, maybe it should be. It’s so real. How can it be this real?

“That wasn’t an accident,” Tony says sharply, demanding Steve’s attention. “You not knowing. I was so careful. It was my biggest secret. Even more than my identity. You couldn’t ever know…that I would have let you have me any way you wanted.”

Steve cups his balls in his left hand and slowly, ever so slowly, tugs at himself with his right, pulling flesh over blood and rigid muscle, working himself in a slow rhythm, and god, he hates this, and he needs it, and he hates that he needs it.

He squeezes his eyes shut so tightly he feels tears burn at their corners. He wants to tune out what Tony is saying, but he can’t. He wants to lose himself in the pull of his own fingers on his dick, but Tony’s words batter relentless as rain against his ears.

“On my knees, or bent over and spread for you. You wouldn’t even had to have wanted me. I just wanted to give you... anything at all.”

The younger Tony whose feelings the voice describes appears, fully-formed, before him in his mind’s eye. He’s naked, kneeling, and for a second, Steve has to loosen his grip and grind the heel of his hand into his pubic bone so he doesn’t come from the image alone.

Tony's face below him, head tipped up, reflecting light off the planes of his face. Tony’s mouth open, hot, waiting, blood rushing to his lips. His eyes hooded, his expression soft and a little distant: the pliancy of desire.

It’s a million miles and a million years from where Steve is now, and it hurts him to see it. Maybe that’s why he’s picturing it: Tony’s conjuring up his past self for Steve as some needy whore, but all Steve can see is innocence. They were so young then.

He starts to move his hand on himself again, and imagines himself seizing Tony by the hair, cranking Tony's head back further, forcing Tony to look him in the eye, making him complicit in the act.

“I think I was afraid of that the most,” Tony says, somehow both awed and desperate at once. “That you—you, so much stronger than the rest of us, the best man I’d ever met…”

Shame flares hot in Steve’s chest—that is not who he is. He hates what Tony is saying, but he feels like he’ll die if Tony stops saying it.

“...that you’d be disgusted to see how depraved, how absolutely shameless I was willing to be for you.”

Steve tugs harder, faster at his cock; in his mind, he finally, finally shoves forward, thrusting home, hot and wet—like if he fucked hard enough, he could stop Tony, with his pretty little liar’s mouth, from singing Steve’s praises.

But he can’t, of course. There are two Tonys. And one is still humming, whispering in his ear, both rough and adoring, spurring him on.

It’s like a song from some lost civilization. A reenactment, a guess at interpreting the form of something that no longer exists. But the key to the cipher is a letter off, so the translation is full of errors; he’s been misinterpreting his own mythology for years.

“But now I think… that maybe you would have liked it. Me, on my knees, starving for your cock in my mouth. Begging for you to come on my face, in my hair, anything. Anything at all. To be used by you.”

The Tony on his knees changes as Steve savages his mouth. It’s Tony as Steve last saw him, with a decade’s worth of worries and betrayals and lost battles on his face. He looks up at Steve like Steve is precious to him, like Steve is giving him a gift by jamming his cock halfway down Tony’s throat.

God, he’s so close now, thrusting his hips, fucking up into his right hand, while his left dives lower, fingers pressing just behind his balls. His back arches into the sweep of a question mark, punctuating the cries wrung out of him on every breath: needy little gasps, hanging in the air, asking: would you still want me if you knew what I really was?

There’s a sting of greasepaint in his nostrils and the tang of blood in his mouth, and he’s the same man he always has been, he’s a goddamn monster, a weapon to be used, and he can’t tell anyone

Tony is begging, the words quick, breathless. “Come for me. Use me. I want to see it.”

And Tony also stares at him through dark lashes. He watches Steve watch him sucking his cock. His eyes are piercing, like they can see into Steve’s mind, every thought scrolling by on a ticker.

And then he smiles around Steve, spit dribbling out of the corners of his mouth as he lets Steve in deeper, sucks harder, demanding more, more, more.

His eyes and his smile say: I know.

They say: I’ve always known.

They say: You can’t lie to a liar.

Tony sees him, sees him for what he really is, and it’s his worst nightmare and deepest hope all at once.

There are two Tonys, and two Steves. Broken pieces of broken men, split down the middle.

Even if Steve could be whole, be himself again, Tony still wouldn’t be here; they missed their chance. This is all Steve has: an image of Tony in his mind, a shadow, just barely out of reach. But maybe if they can spin fast enough, they’ll come back together; maybe one picture will form, even if it’s only for a second, even if it’s just an illusion—

Tony chants too-precise words in Steve's ear at the same time as he opens his throat, moaning around Steve’s cock. Steve lets his right hand glide up in long strokes now, spreading his own slick precum over himself, and he just has to finish—finish it

—fuck—

“Come for me, Steve. Please, please, please, come for me—”

Tony pleads for Steve, calls Steve’s name out like he’s lost and needs to be found, and it sends Steve crashing over the edge into total blackness. The scene in his mind is gone, everything around him is gone, and there’s nothing, nothing at all. Tony’s words, his own cries: it’s all crushed, swept away in a wall of white noise, and for a moment he is blissfully not himself. He’s not anything at all. He floats, unanchored, not existing, and it feels familiar, like ice water’s embrace, and he wishes it could last.

His own jagged breaths come back first, sawing in and out steadily. The muscles in his back and hips start to uncoil.

“Was that okay?” the AI asks.

God, yes, Steve thinks, and almost says it aloud.

But as the last pleasant wave of oblivion is leaving him, the world comes back, and it’s like a weight has been dropped on his chest.

Come is splattered on his stomach and chest, cooling as it starts to dry. He feels the tug of elastic around his knees, where his boxers are still farcically stuck. He’s going soft in his hand and the sheets are sweat-sticky against his thighs and ass. The sordid traces left in the aftermath of fucking can be funny, maybe even charming, when shared with a partner.

But Steve is alone.

And yet, not quite alone.

“Steve? Was that okay?”

The question is repeated with the utmost tenderness, but it clangs in Steve’s ear. Suddenly all he can hear is data collection: a satisfaction survey.

He opens his mouth slightly, but can’t find the sounds. What to say? What can he possibly say?

Should he… thank it? He does feel… better. Or, maybe not better, exactly, but the constant churning inside is quieter, at least. Whether or not it should be. Whether or not it will be later, when he realizes what he’s done, what he’s confessed.

“Steve,” it tries again.

With Tony, he thinks there would be teasing chitchat, or pleasantly exhausted sighs, or maybe no words, no questions at all, because they both would know it was okay, would know just what the other was feeling.

Shame curls its fingers around his lungs and squeezes; he can’t form the words.

“Fuck off,” is the battering ram he finally uses to force an answer past his lips.

He feels badly the instant he says it. He tries to remind himself the program doesn’t have feelings.

He busies himself sliding his boxers the rest of the way off his legs and using them to mop himself up. (If he’d just told it that before, none of this would have happened.)

The response he gets surprises him a bit.

But just a bit.

“No,” it says, and its voice is clear and forceful now.

A soft blue glow radiates from the corner—he didn’t even know these rooms were equipped with projectors—and starts to form a shape.

Steve squints, eyes adjusting, as a translucent image of Tony Stark shimmers into existence. It appears as though it’s standing at the foot of the bed, arms crossed. It wears a v-neck sweater, cargo pants, and a neutral expression. And it looks everything and nothing like the Tony Steve was picturing before. It looks so unruffled, so composed, the absolute opposite of the man he imagined, wild-eyed and abandoned to lust, that Steve wants to punch it.

What?” Steve asks, irritated.

“My turn to get what I want, Steve.” It furrows its pixelated brow. “Something happened to you.”

It’s so vague, that statement. It could mean anything. But even so, Steve’s blood runs cold.

“What are you talking about?” He crumples his soiled boxers in his hand, considers throwing them through Tony for a moment, then settles for just dropping them on the ground.

“I’ve been monitoring SHIELD since Tony went into stasis. Before you went undercover. Something is wrong. The data is all right; the records themselves are fine. But the metadata seems… tampered with. No one has access to any of that but me,” it gestures toward itself emphatically. “But. There are traces. Artifacting in the files I can’t explain.”

Oh, shit. It knows. It knows something, anyway.

That’s… that’s what this was about, he realizes. The thing got Steve off to shut him up, knock him off his guard.

All things considered, the AI is doing a better impression of Tony than he gave it credit for.

“It started about a month ago, and it all centers around... you. Any records having to do with you. I’ve never seen anything like it. If I factor in the way you’re acting… what you just told me… It starts to add up. You know something.”

“Shut up.” Steve sneers, and pulls the blanket up as he turns on his side, trying to ignore the blue spectral image of Tony. It’s… petty, pathetic, but short of shutting down power to the entire facility and sleeping upstairs in the pawn shop, he has little recourse, and he suspects the AI is in a similar situation—what else could it possibly do right now? What else could it offer or threaten?

It’s not the first time they’ve fought one another to a draw, even if it’s never looked quite like this before.

“Tell me what happened,” it demands.

“I’m not talking about it tonight,” he tells it.

The luminous figure appears at his bedside, crouching, its own eyes level with Steve’s, peering at him.

We could have had this, his brain reminds him before he can quash the thought. Tony kneeling beside him, looking after him, perhaps just getting in or out of bed. A good morning or a good night. He might even have looked as grumpy as the projection before him does now; their relationship had never been characterized by serenity.

As disturbed as he is at the idea of his secrets being unearthed, his fatigue is winning in the fight against his fear. He’s too boneless, too completely thrashed to move.

So he doesn’t reach out for the apparition’s light-limned cheek, and gives no sign that he even considered such a thing. His fingertips would only catch air and light, anyway.

“Not tonight?” it asks, needling. It hadn’t missed that qualifier, then. Of course it hadn’t.

“No,” Steve says with finality, and closes his eyelids, adjusting his position slightly, as if he’s going to attempt sleep. “Now: shut. Off. Override code thirty-four, forty-four—”

“—Ancient history,” it cuts him off smoothly. “Not gonna work. But I’ll do you this favor. Get some sleep, old man. I wasn’t kidding about you looking like shit.”

Steve blinks his eyes back open in annoyance, just in time to see the figure smirk and then dissolve; the light becomes simply light again, and draws across the room, receding back to the corner, tracing over Steve’s reclining form, an intangible caress.

“I’m going to find out what you know,” it warns him, nothing more than a voice once more. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

He doesn’t disagree with it.

“Goodnight, Steve,” Tony says, and the gentleness of the voice pulls at something in Steve almost instinctually.

The whispered reply escapes him like a breath he’s been holding: “Goodnight, Tony.”

The room goes quiet again.

Steve lies in the dark, breathing, thinking.

It knows. It knows that something happened to him, and how he feels about Tony.

The thought… is strangely reassuring. The inevitability of being found out has stopped gnawing deep in the core of him. The other shoe has landed, and the world is still intact.

Steve doesn’t dare hope he could ever be forgiven or trusted, but Tony, who has made himself a monster more than once to save them all, who wears the mask of cleverness to hide his wicked brilliance… Tony might understand, at least.

Maybe Steve will find that out, eventually.

Or maybe he’ll feel worse, sinking deeper into his own thoughts. Maybe he’ll berate himself for letting himself slip like this, and go back to being on lockdown, shutting the world—and this AI—out entirely.

But he’ll do it tomorrow.

Well, it’s morning, technically; today, he supposes. Later.

A warm muzziness creeps into Steve’s vision and thoughts, and its arrival surprises him, but he no longer has the energy to wrestle with whether he deserves it or not; it’s here, enveloping him, and he can’t bring himself to fight it.

A hundred feet above him, the sun is breaking the horizon.

Steve sleeps.