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Our Love Is a Ghost That the Others Can't See

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Tony is called down to the morgue.

He has imagined this moment ad nauseam. He has lain in bed and traced his fingers over the same places on his body where the bullets entered Steve’s, has imagined what it is to bleed out in four places.

He is expecting to be asked about arrangements; he is expecting to be asked about Arlington, about suits, about whether or not Steve should be buried in his costume. The questions that are meant for a lover. For Sharon. He is expecting to be told the arrangements are no longer up to him, that he has been removed as next-of-kin sometime during their useless war.

You don’t have to look at the body, he tells himself, and he pulls on socks with shaky hands. Don’t look at the body, he thinks, and he marches past the gym and the Director’s office and all the men and women in uniforms who whisper about him behind his back.

Steve is almost unrecognizable in death.

The curves of his muscles have been whittled away to almost nothing, and his body lays on the table, naked except for the sheet someone has thrown over his groin, his ribs poking up through his skin, his eyes hollow and dark.

He looks, finally, for once, like an old man, like someone who has died of protracted, relentless illness. Frail, delicate, weak. Those hideous gaping wounds in his chest, in his stomach. His outstretched arms like he is offering himself up to death. His mouth is open, in a scream. Tony thinks about Sal, how his body was torn open, how all they could really recover was gore. 

The technician tells him they don’t know why it’s happening, and Tony finds he doesn’t really care. Another mystery, another obstacle to closure he already fears will never find him. It’s fine; he nods in the appropriate places. They think he’s grieving. They think he is heartless. They think this is another chore for him.

He lets them believe it, and thinks he would not have survived the task of closing Steve’s eyes himself.

Sharon is late, so the technician wheedles on, wants to talk to him about the serum, and Tony drags himself through the familiar science of it. They move on to ballistics, and three slugs are deposited into Tony’s hand; the others, unrecovered. He rolls them around in his palm and uses Extremis to quiet his tremoring, traitorous hands. Imagines melting the bullets down, reloading them, inserting the rounds into a pistol. Imagines what that would feel like, in his chest. Would he die?

“Look at his costume,” Tony hears, like someone is whispering in his ear, and sees something red and black flit across his vision.

He blinks, turns. “Excuse me?” he asks the technician.

The technician looks up from her clipboard. “Sir?”

Tony turns back, and the room has changed. Steve’s body sits atop a slab, but the slab is one of the slide-out bench beds on the submarine from a lifetime ago. Water drips onto the floor.

“Steve,” Tony croaks, and it’s not what he said the first time, but the scene plays on.

He is able to tell Extremis to monitor his heart rate, because he remembers the first time something like this happened, remembers waking up with the lost time and a body count and stopping his heart to shut out the intruder for good. He can’t do that again, he can’t –

He lets the gauntlet slide back into his arm and puts his hand on the bare ice, crystalline blue, a jagged block and Steve’s eyes snap open in his prison, rheumy and bloodshot.

Janet says: it’s really him.

Hallucination dances across Tony’s mind, and Janet keeps talking. Thor laughs, and Thor’s deep booming voice puts fear in him, now, and Steve’s eyes are darting around like he’s terrified and he opens his mouth and Tony shouldn’t be able to hear him through the ice but Extremis picks his scream up because Tony is in hell and the decibel count goes up and up in the HUD –

“Director,” the technician is saying, because Tony has bent one of the struts on the industrial shelving lining the room. His hand is bare; he’s taken off his white glove. He’s put his hand over Steve’s heart; he’s got rust-stained dried blood on his fingertips.

Tony blinks. “That’s me,” he says.

“Please don’t touch the body, sir,” the technician says.

Tony looks back, and it’s just Steve’s withering body and deafening stillness and Tony’s ugly fucking grief.

 

- - -

 

In Tony’s dreams, he is back in the street, in a crater, the city on fire around him. Steve kneels over him and beats him to within an inch of his life.

It’s his favorite place to go, these days.

Dreams are different, now. Tony is using his whole brain; he has surpassed those pedestrian notions of the soul and the subconscious. Everything that’s ever happened to him is written in ones and zeros, available to peruse at his leisure. Tony can wander in regret and wallow freely.

It is an optimal use of his time as a breathing supercomputer, he thinks.  

He can see Steve again.

In his dreams, he feels blows to the armor as direct hits to his limbic system. The armor wasn’t that advanced when it was happening, but he has adapted so his subconscious doesn’t know the difference. He has just enough presence of mind to be grateful for that, that past-him didn’t fix it. He wants it to hurt.

This dream isn’t new. Sometimes the color of the sky shifts from the red-grey of particulate and smog to a bright bright blue. Right now it’s the golden hour of dawn, and the wings on Steve’s cowl are backlit by a halo of fledgling sunlight.

Tony never appreciated how beautiful Steve’s anger was.

He pins Tony and it feels like the edge of catastrophe, like Tony singlehandedly holds the power to make Steve do something unforgivable. Tony hasn’t managed to write out the thrill that comes from that, from knowing that they looking into the abyss together, that they are a few hasty decisions away from never recovering from this.

Steve’s face says he doesn’t really want to come back from this. Steve has always carried hurts in his bones.

Tony lies there. His body will be jerking in his bed as Steve breaks his body, as Steve’s shield flakes his armor away like it’s nothing. Tony prefers not to fight, here – he likes to watch Steve’s face. It’s a side of him Tony didn’t get to see until the end. Like all of his restraint and all of his patience had drained out of him all at the same time. Like Tony. No, this time he’s a silent observer. Steve punctures one of his lungs and Tony smiles through the psychosomatic blood in his teeth.

He has lived this moment enough that he knows to anticipate the moment when the faceplate breaks apart, when his nose fractures. When he can finally see Steve’s eyes with his own.

It’s time for his line. This is his favorite part – it’s like all the adrenaline rushes out of him at once, and he is left with Steve, and Steve is sorry and for one moment, Tony is vindicated.

“I love you,” Tony says.

As soon as it’s left his mouth, he knows it’s wrong.

Steve hesitates.

Steve’s shield crunches into his mouth.

Steve pulls him up and Tony chokes on his blood. He can’t find his breath, but he is close enough to feel Steve’s. Steve’s hair is poking through the cowl. Steve’s shield clatters to the ground. Steve’s hands are on his skin and Tony would live this death a thousand times just to feel it.

“No you don’t,” Steve says.

Tony feels his neck snapping and then he’s in his bed again.

He’s shaking. He looks at his hands. Looks at his chest, searches himself for scars, for blood.

He is perfect and useless and whole. He touches his throat, looking for bruises, but there’s only sweat in the hollow of his throat and his racing pulse.

“Fuck,” he breathes. “Fuck.”

 

- - -

 

Tony has money again, has a seven-figure salary and an empty skyscraper and ghosts in every room.

He renovates.

More accurately, he hires people to renovate for him because if he has to go upstairs, where he slept with Rumiko, with Maya, never with Steve –

He sleeps in the workshop on a cot that’s a foot too long for his 6’1” frame while the movers take each and every instance of Steve’s face down from the wall. He lies on his side and faces the wall and turns the thermostat down and the lights off and thinks that if he died down here no one would come looking for him.

He wakes up with the gold on his skin, his body perfectly calibrated for restful sleep, and punches a hole in the wall. He looks at his hands and is both disturbed and mesmerized by his new strength.

Steve stood in this workshop, not too long ago, and called him reckless. Said he was drifting away from humanity. Said he was losing what made him the man Steve was proud to stand beside.

That should have been the writing on the wall, in hindsight.

Tony isn't going to think about that. He turns on everything that can be turned on. Lights up his dank little corner of the world. Drowns his own thoughts out with the wailing of guitars, floods his limbic system with sensory input. Wires himself into the tower's electrical grid, just for fun. Strobes the lights until he is shaking and tired, and then writes code to override the sleep problem. Lets his messages pile up. Becomes tired of color, writes code that renders the world in black and white, just like one of Steve’s old movies. He’s read that people only dreamed in color after they invented color television.

He runs diagnostic after diagnostic and finds that there’s nothing measurably wrong with him.

It's actually shocking, after the Extremis incident on the Helicarrier. He invited a foreign neoplasm into his body. He didn't expect to live through it. It defies explanation. 

He throws his coffee cup at the wall and it drips onto his workbench, stains blueprints with a layer of dust on them. He picks his way through ceramic shards to look at whatever he’s ruining, whatever was working on a few weeks ago, half a lifetime ago before he was this and Steve was dead. 

The blue armor. Steve’s fucking blue armor. He leans over his workbench and puts a hand over his chest and crumples up the plans and rips them and throws them in the bin.

You’re so arrogant, someone whispers, and Extremis flashes an intruder warning for .00000013 of a second and Tony turns around with the gold spreading over his skin and his bare hands outstretched with his palms upturned.

He is alone.

“Show yourself,” he yells into the silence of his workshop. The air filter kicks on, but there’s nothing on his scanners, there’s nothing on the security cameras, there have been no electromagnetic disturbances.

All machines break down, the whisper comes again.

Tony sits on the floor. Once the armor has been called, once he has been swaddled in red and gold, he locks down the tower and brings the Faraday cage down and locks the workshop and scans and scans and scans.

It’s a glitch, it’s just. It’s a glitch.

He opens a laptop and watches shiny new code scroll out on the screen. It’s just maintenance. He will find the bug; he will go through every line of his own coding. He will be unassailable. He will fix this.

Tony would have made a good Sentinel: vigilant to a fault, unfeeling, cruel.

 


- - - 

 

Because Tony cannot abide his first home, he forces himself to think of the Helicarrier as a second one: no ghosts, no shadows, fluorescent lights in perpetuity, paperwork to occupy his hands while he goes away and lives in his head. Systems to inhabit. A mainframe to get lost in, when it all becomes too much. SHIELD has a link to SWORD and Tony wanders through their firewall for 16 hours one day.

Tony blows off a meeting at nine, and then a lunch at 1, and a briefing with the Alphas at 3:30.

He does paperwork. He ignores the Gadget situation, ignores Sal's death, ignores his most pressing failures, shunts them aside for another day. He signs his name over and over and –

Maria slaps him on the side of the helmet.

“How long have you been there,” Tony says.

“People are out there on the deck of your ship waiting for you. You can’t fucking reschedule a funeral, Tony,” she seethes.

The Alphas. His dead kids.

“Ok,” he says through the voice filter. “Ok.”

“Get your shit together and get your ass on the deck,” she says.

The funeral is bad. He doesn’t have the words. He is burying children. Steve was always the one who made the speeches.

The families of his employees glance at him, from time to time. He stands perfectly still, dips his helmeted head at the appropriate intervals.

Maria makes it clear she thinks it’s inappropriate, but what is he going to do? No one wants to look at Tony Stark. He’s growing pale, too much time in the suit. He probably has a dress uniform somewhere, but this is what he wore to all of his friends’ funerals, so it's good enough for his agents'.

It’s not a disguise, not really. It’s just an extension of himself. It’s what he tells himself in the dark. It’s how he’s able to face his day. Whatever works, he tells himself. He has removed himself from field duty. He continues to patch the holes in his code. He has tricked his body into thinking sleep is optional – eliminated the biological imperative, left the potential for masochism wide open and available.

He is a work of art that is ever-evolving. He is the cutting edge. His firmware will be his fortress. He will step beyond his biological imperatives.

Steve stands at the end of the line with the mourners, his hands in shackles and his hair dripping into his face. He stares Tony down, the rain turning his suit into a macabre dye-job, and Tony knows how to spot that glare a mile away.

Tony doesn’t look, doesn’t breathe, keeps his gaze fixed on one of the turrets and his suit locked down tight and tells himself this is just one hell of a bug.

Tony calls it rehearsal and locks himself in his office and lets his eyes go white and tells himself that one day he will be past this. Regret is a problem, just like grief. Just like shame. Every problem has a solution.

 

- - -

 

The day of the funeral, Tony carries a flask in his pocket.

He carries Steve’s LMD through the crowd and bears each and every one of Sam’s dirty looks. The crowd stretches on forever – a sea of black umbrellas. The rain runs off his jacket and the water crawls up his socks. Steve’s fucking statue towers before them. Extremis picks up the distant hum of the Helicarrier engines.

Carol keeps touching him once they sit down – a hand on his elbow, a touch on his knee. He is drifting, he is shaking. There's nowhere to escape; one smartphone is just like another. He has to pretend to be analog like everyone else here. He speaks right after the President, he has to pay attention. Tony has kept himself awake for 36 hours to write the eulogy, has memorized it, word for word. He fixes his tie, tries to ignore the way the wind whips around his legs and snakes up his arms. His suit is ill fitting. He is supposed to be better than this.

The steps to the podium feel impossible. He wants to climb right into Steve’s empty grave.

He looks out into a sea of strangers. Whispers run through the crowd. The front few rows he roped off, just in case, are empty. They’re not here. They think he’d arrest them for coming to Steve’s funeral.

Tony lets his filters come up, lets himself slide sideways. The feeling of the paper under his hands goes away, the weight of the crowd’s silence fades into white noise. He blinks and blinks and blinks at the microphone. He is very distantly aware that someone is taking photos of him.

He almost pulls the flask out of his pocket before he remembers he can’t and he grips it so tight that he feels the metal bending in his pocket.

The sun goes behind the clouds and Steve’s hulking statue casts Tony into shadow.

Four B-17s fly overhead in formation.

Tony’s head snaps up, because he said no flyovers. No interruptions. A sacred place. He barely catches the gold before it runs past the hems of his sleeves and creeps up his neck. This isn’t going to be a war zone.

Someone slams him into the mud.

He falls on his back, and the air is cut with the smell of forest and gore and metal and burning rubber. The mud soaks into his clothes, runs up his back – he blinks, his eyes are burning, he can’t find his feet –

He calls the armor, but there’s something in his hands already – a gun, a wooden thing, a Mauser. He kicks out, instinctively, like Steve taught him, but someone throws their full weight on him and there’s metal cutting into his cheek as his assailant slams him into the ground again, knocks off his helmet –

Tony drops his gun, holds his arms in front of him, curls himself in a ball, blinks sweat and dirt and blood out of his eyes, and catches a glimpse of bright shining blue before something connects with his head and he roars with pain.

Extremis is feeding him garbage and he tries to flip over and crawl away on his belly like a good coward, it’s what he should have done in the first place –

The shining blue thing comes down on his hand and Tony screams.

The man who’s trying to kill him flips him over, drags him through the mud, gets one red-gloved hand around his throat.

“Please,” Tony tells him.

Steve freezes.

Not Steve as Tony knew him, but Steve as Tony grew up with – leather jacket over burnished blue scale armor, his helmet painted differently, brown boots, brown pouches, blood on his knuckles and a split lip, his shield speckled with the ghosts of deflected bullets.

A split-second flash of recognition passes over his face and then there’s nothing but fury.

Steve bashes Tony’s face in with the flat of his shield.

Tony feels one of his teeth come loose, feels his cheekbone fracture, scrabbles blindly to put his hands on Steve’s body.

“Steve,” Tony gurgles, and Steve hits him again.

“God damn it,” Steve growls. “Get out of my head–”

“I’m sorry,” Tony says, “no, please, please , Steve–”

“Calm down, Director Stark,” someone is telling him.

He blinks.

A SHIELD agent is shepherding him through a wall of cameras. White gloves, black suit. Her weapon is holstered. They’re leading him to an ambulance. He tastes blood in his throat. His hands are shaking. His nose feels like it’s broken. He runs his tongue over his teeth: all in place, everything intact.

“What happened,” he asks her. Extremis is giving him garbage – four minutes of nothing when he should have been delivering Steve’s eulogy.

“You fell,” she tells him. “You just – you fell.”

There’s no mud on his jacket. The piece of paper with Steve’s eulogy is soaked through. His words look like they’re dissolving off the page. He balls it up and whispers it to himself under his breath.

 

- - -

 

He is taken back to the Helicarrier on a Quinjet, fussed over in medical, given time to call his armor and pull himself the fuck together, and then he is escorted to his mandatory psych evaluation.

Leonard is looking haggard. He smiles, tries to coax Tony into taking off the helmet.

Leonard reminds him of Steve, in a way – infuriatingly calm in the face of Tony’s chaos, brimming with quiet judgment. Rooted in firm moral ground. Tony’s never had that, not innately – he needs his anchors - work, alcohol, Steve.

His most reliable anchor is dead.

“Can you see how this looks,” Leonard says, in that kind way Tony despises.

Tony takes off the helmet and lets Leonard look at him, watches his face contort briefly into shock, and there is hot vindication in Tony. Let him see the circles under his eyes; let someone see him, let him have a reprieve from facelessness and heartlessness for even a moment. Let someone see how he is bearing his pain, alone.

“Tony,” Leonard says. The connotation is clear: incompetent, irresponsible. 

Leonard says other things. He has been watching security logs. He has been talking to Maria. Even now Tony is erasing footage from the past few hours, equally damning. Dissociative fugue, Leonard says, and Tony keeps his face from turning into a hideous mask of grief, uses Extremis to fix that because it has fallen to him to be keeper and if he doesn’t pass this stupid human exercise he won’t be able to protect this fragile ugly thing he’s built, the responsibility will be passed to someone else, someone who doesn’t understand, someone who will abuse the power, someone who will pay for the office and lobby to bring back Wideawake and Tony can’t do that –

Steve is watching him.

“You’re having a panic attack,” Leonard tells him, and leans forward, puts his hands on Tony’s knees.

Tony kicks Leonard’s arm away, stands, fires off a repulsor blast that goes through Steve’s chest and leaves a smoldering black mark scorched into the wall.

There’s a big hand on his shoulder, heavy and warm, and Tony spins around and gets his hands up and he’ll shoot Steve’s ghost as many time as he has to, the RT is hot -

Leonard raises his hands.  “Are you going to shoot me, Tony?” Leonard says, in that damnably calm voice.

“Sounds like you,” Steve says, back in his corner like nothing ever happened. “You’re all about executive decisions these days.”

“Go away,” Tony snaps, but his voice is unsteady. “Fucking leave me alone–”

“Tony,” Leonard says sharply. “I need you to sit down.”

 

- - -

 

The anklet is wide and golden and degrading.

His suits are already hanging on him, and he locks the Extremis armor in a case and hands it to Maria and casts his eyes away and climbs into a car that someone has called for him and goes back to his tomb. He is painfully aware of the way the thing glints when he steps, the way it is fully visible as his pant leg rides up.

It’s fitting, he thinks. It’s like the first time he took medication, after Afghanistan. He feels blunted and wrung and slow and he is a criminal among his own kind and he should feel the bright lash of shame for what he’s done.

The tower locks him out, even with his voice confirmation – he can’t use Extremis to interface and it’s a Friday and there’s no one to let him in because the movers are gone and Pepper despises him despite what she says about it and everyone is running from him and Maya is gone and Steve is dead –

Steve is nowhere, and Tony looks at his ankle and reaches for Extremis and feels a terrible empty maelstrom where nonstop data was before and imagines the taste of liquor.

Better than a wedding ring, he thinks, and laughs, and laughs, and laughs until sobs bubble up.

He sits on the curb and leaves a message on Carol’s cell phone.

 

- - -

 

Tony shovels takeout into his mouth because his alarm tells him it’s time to eat and washes it down with Seroquel.

He is a good enough liar that he has convinced Leonard that he wants to get better. He has agreed to everything, the administrative leave, the meds, the twice-a-week therapy, the grief counseling, the downtime.

The world spins on without him.

He slows to a halt. He calls the storage place and has all of the stuff from the memorabilia room re-packed and sent back to the tower. It sits around the door, untouched. A barricade. A collection of monsters. He thinks about opening the boxes but his keys are across the room and it is so, so much easier to sit here on this empty floor and let the sun go down and watch the Helicarrier fade into the horizon.

Two days later, he wanders down to his workshop. He looks at his old armors. They look like relics after the weightlessness, the rush of Extremis.

Steve shows up sometimes, watches from Tony’s couch, lies down on Tony’s cot like he’s bleeding out in the street again. Punches the steel-reinforced wall until his hands bleed like the rest of him is bleeding. He draws in one of Steve’s old sketchbooks, once, for nostalgia – greed , something in him answers – and wakes up to find the pages ripped out and thrown across the room.

Tony plays Poco at a volume that is almost certainly damaging to drown him out and works on his blueprints. His mind works slowly and some days not at all. He snaps pencils and redoes his math over and over again and doesn't return any of his phone calls. It is the only way he knows to carry on. This is his job: build himself a shell, again and again and again, tighter to his skin with every iteration to disguise what he’s cut out and left behind.

Fabrication is slow in analog: he has to drag cables across the floor and rewires some of the lines because almost everything is off for the renovations. He has to pour the metal himself, has to crank a generator to life with his own two hands. He crushes his hand in a vise and dials 911 manually and lies on the floor curled up in pain and grunts into the mouthpiece.

Steve looks upset. Like Tony should have let the thing eat his hand. Like he wasn’t properly maimed. He sits crowded into one corner of the helicopter and drifts alongside Tony’s gurney and looks at the morphine drip as if Tony’s forgotten he’s an alcoholic.

Tony rolls over and looks at the wall. “Don’t look at me like that,” he tells Steve’s ghost. “Don’t do that.”

“If you weren’t an alcoholic, I wouldn’t have to,” Steve tells him, and Tony closes his eyes as if he can will him away.

He adds a nerve-blocker to his antipsychotic regimen and lies in the dark in excruciating pain until he gives in and takes the Percocet they gave him.

He thinks that maybe Leonard is right. That maybe it’s not a problem with Extremis. That maybe he is just a useless, broken man.

He takes it upon himself to double his dose of Seroquel.

 

- - -

 

Tony’s dreams are no longer his own.

He is flying over the dark ocean. The ground recedes below him and Tony watches the snow-covered mountains fade into a single icy topography, pockmarked by outcroppings of bare stone.

This is not like flying in the suit, not even the first time - this is terror. His fingers are stiff where they grip bare metal, his heart is whole and beating like his life is about to end. His eyes are freezing open. He is being dragged through the air.

“Give me your hand,” Steve shouts over the roaring air.

Tony reaches out his hand, his blue pea coat is ripped – tries to lever his weight up over one of the drone plane’s wings, screams with the effort of it –

Steve throws himself on his belly, hugs the body of the drone; inches back down as they climb through a cloud. Tony can barely make out his shape, but then Steve’s hand closes around his, pulls him up.

“I got you,” Steve says, and then they’re out of the cloud, they’re in clear blue sky, and Steve sees him.

His gaze goes hard and angry and Tony can’t look away. Steve doesn’t have to move a muscle in his entire face, his eyes telegraph everything and anything Tony could ever hope to know.

And Steve looks at him like he despises him.

Steve sets his jaw. Swallows. Looks Tony right in the eye.

Loosens his grip. Lets Tony drop.

Tony wakes up right as the drone explodes in a fire burst several thousand feet above him.

 

- - -

 

The House Oversight Committee for Metahuman Activity gets wind of the whole mess with Gadget and Graviton and Tony Stark’s Unassailable Ego. His administrative leave quietly turns into ‘house arrest.’

They take his suits away. He is allowed to watch as they pack them up one-by-one and label them and put them in a SHIELD-secure location.

“Doesn’t feel great, does it,” Steve says, perched on the other end of the couch with his wounds staining the upholstery and his mouth full of blood. “Remember when you took my shield away and wiped my memory?”

There are SHIELD agents everywhere, so Tony puts his head between his knees and squeezes his broken hand until he’s alone again.

Tony isn’t allowed visitors, but Carol is registered and moving up in the world of SHIELD and shows up as a stand-in for his parole officer on a Friday afternoon.

“How are you doing,” she says.

I need a meeting is fast on the heels of I’m losing my goddamn mind.

“I’ve been good,” Tony says.

Steve sits in the chair on Tony’s left and frowns. The blood trickling out of the corner of his mouth is a fixture, Tony has realized.

“Do you feel like you need a meeting,” Carol says.

Steve is punching the wall again. Tony startles in his seat every time his hand makes contact.

“Can you see that,” Tony asks her, and points to the spider web crack Steve has left in the drywall.

“Tony,” she says. “There’s nothing there. Do you feel like you need a meeting?"

He looks again. She’s right. He laughs, leans right into his drug-induced lassitude.

“I’m fine,” he says. “I’m fine.”

“Your review is coming up,” she says. She ducks her head to try to catch Tony’s gaze. Tony wrings his hands under the table to stop them from shaking. She is kind enough not to use the word “trial.”

“She means your trial,” Steve says.

“If you wanted to go to a meeting,” she says carefully. “I could probably swing it.”

“No,” Tony says.

“You need to make an effort,” she says. “Tony, I don’t want – I don’t want you to end up in the Negative Zone, ok?”

“No,” Steve says. “Because you’re better than that, right, Stark?”

 

- - -

 

Steve appears to him one night in the workshop, shrunken and haunted and something hungry in his eyes, and Tony grabs the nearest thing – a tire iron – and swings at his ghost until he shatters the glass double-doors leading to his workshop and sets off an alarm that brings half of SHIELD to the tower.

Samson wants to adjust his meds and Tony answers everything in the affirmative just to make him go away. He holds a mug of coffee that’s gone cold between his hands as they clean up the glass and remind him that he’s wasting valuable SHIELD resources. Tony blinks and blinks and doesn’t cry and apologizes.  

Maria visits him hours later to check up on him. She is armed with words like ‘help’ and ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘acute stress syndrome’ and Tony yells at her until he is crying and two junior agents are pointing guns at him and Maria’s sympathy has evaporated.

“Do I need to have you admitted to the Baltimore facility,” she says.

“No,” Tony says. “No.”

They leave him with two guards at every entrance and a mandatory daily check-in and he lifts his foot for them to check that the anklet is still working and nods in all the right places and agrees to meet with Leonard three times a week instead of two.

“You’re turning into your father,” Steve says, because he always comes back and Tony is losing his fucking mind. He covers his eyes and rocks himself back and forth on the tile in the foyer and thinks of the taste of whiskey.

“Jesus, Stark,” Steve says, and kicks one of Tony’s workbenches hard enough that it collapses. “Will you stop fucking crying?”

“Just leave,” Tony hisses from behind his hands. “Just go away.”

 

- - -

 

Tony dreams of the first time he went out wearing the armor on American soil.

It’s different, with Extremis locked down. The shapes of his dreams burn brighter than his waking life does. He looks at his hands, feels the pounding of the foreign thing in his chest. Remembers the raw thrill of being alive like it was yesterday.

People used to love him. They called him the Golden Avenger.

A woman cowers in front of him. His shadow covers her face. She screams, she runs.

She fears him. He exists above her; he looks evil. All the gold paint in the world can’t make that right.

He tries to take his helmet off, his chest plate. Wait , he says, but she’s already gone.

Steve is laughing at him. “Look at you, terrorizing innocent civilians. You honestly believed people would just look at you and see their savior?” He steps right into Tony’s space, and a shiver of pure icy fear runs through Tony. Steve stands like he’s about to throw a punch. “Look at yourself.”

“I painted it gold,” Tony says weakly. “So I won’t look like a monster. So they’d trust me.”

Steve picks up Tony’s helmet and tears it apart as if it were made of paper.  

“Look how that turned out for them,” Steve says.

Tony wakes up to soaked-through sheets and pain in his chest that feels like a heart attack. He remembers what Leonard said and fumbles around in the dark so he can shake Klonopin into his unsteady hand.

Make it stop , he thinks, and crawls back into bed, shivering. Make it stop, make it stop.

 

- - -

 

Tony’s hearing is in two days.

He will dress himself in his best suit and he will go before the Committee and he will be asked to prove what an enormous hypocrite he isn’t. Jen says she has a plan. She has given him notes; she has given him things to memorize. He will deliver all of it perfectly and they will still strip him of his position and throw him to the wolves. He knows he’s violated the SHRA on multiple occasions. He wrote it.

He remembers addressing Congress. Zero tolerance-policy , he’d said.

His latest sins populate the news. People talk about him as if he doesn't remember what compassion is, so he must have lost it. Strangers treat him like a machine. As if he is beyond humanity.

“What are you gonna do with your last few hours of freedom,” Steve says.

Tony ignores him and strides past the stocked bar cart and down through the common area and stands before a pile of crates.

It’s packed up tight, but he has a crowbar and anxiety trying to crawl out of his stomach, so he tears the crates up and lines up the canvases, the framed letters, takes each piece reverently out of its container and smooths his hands over it, presses his face into the folds, imagines he can still smell cosmoline and gunpowder on Steve’s 90-year-old clothing –

He gets to one of Steve’s oldest helmets, holds it in his hands, brushes his thumb over the a rendered in lead paint.

He doesn’t realize it’s welling in him until he is shaking with violent, silent sobs. He puts the helmet down but it’s too late already, he’s already sitting back beside Steve’s body. He tips his forehead to the A like it’s Steve’s forehead and not some pathetic stand-in.

It takes him an hour, but he finds what he’s looking for in the bottom of the first crate.

Steve used to write him letters; way back at the beginning, when things were simpler and the future seemed bright and they all would have died for each other.

Tony kept them, every one. Even when Steve learned about email, he still sent them to Tony’s office, even before he knew he was Iron Man. His handwriting scrawls out across almost a hundred pages. Tony thinks this is the kind of damning primary source that historians publish.

Steve’s letters are peppered with things like I really want to try Ethiopian food and your form is better every time I see you and you’re one of the best things that’s happened to me in this century.

Steve always signed them Yours, Steve.

Tony is crying again. It just climbs up and spills out of him, like there’s no stopgap at all. Like he’s a poorly engineered dam, one flood away from catastrophe. He’s crying over letters. They’re not even love letters.  

Someone pulls the letters out of his hands.

When Tony's vision clears enough to look, Steve is sitting on the floor next to him.

“Those aren’t yours,” Tony sniffs, and lunges for them, but Steve is faster, and Steve isn’t encumbered by human weakness and bone-deep fatigue and mediocrity. He holds them out of Tony’s reach.

“I wrote them,” Steve tells him. “I think they’re mine.” He reads one, and Tony watches as his face starts to go hard.

“Give them back,” Tony says. He’s so fucking tired.

“You know, this is over, ” he says, and waves the stack of letters. “You’ve been lying to me for a year, Stark, we’re not friends. We’re not lovers, we’re not–”

“– You know, I didn’t ask for this,” Tony shouts over him, with his snotty nose and his hands balled into fists. “Let me have this one fucking thing, Steve –”

Steve rips the letters in half and throws the scraps at Tony’s feet.

“What the fuck did I do to you,” Tony says.

“You don’t get to have this,” Steve spits. “You don’t get to do this, you don’t get to wallow and feel sorry for yourself for what you did because it was so easy , Stark. All you had to do was talk to me and you didn’t because of your goddamn ego – ”

“What about your ego,” Tony says. “What about that time you decided I wasn’t worth the trouble, I wasn’t worth a five-minute conversation, and you looked me in the eye and smiled and lied to me, Steve–”

“I may have lied to you, but you’re a liar ,” Steve says. “Don’t act like you cared about me, Stark–”

“I didn’t,” Tony says, and he tries to sound hateful but his voice falls dull and flat in the cavernous empty space of the living area. “I didn’t then and I don’t now.” He closes his eyes, wills himself somewhere better. He thinks about his Infinity Gem. If anyone would bring it to him. If he would use it. He dreams about a world where he manages to hate Steve as much as Steve hates him. He dreams about a world where he never existed. 

Pain has never let him down, so Tony squeezes his broken hand as hard as he possibly can.

When he opens his eyes, Steve is gone.

“My name is Tony,” he says into the empty space.

 

- - -

 

Jen is kind enough to lie to him.

She tells him this is a formality. That he is an example and it will suck and he will hold his wrist out to be slapped and then he can run away to Seattle. She straightens his tie and puts an arm around his waist when Tony trips up the steps to the Capitol building thinking about the footage of Steve dying. The cameras swarm them; it’s all he can do to focus on his feet. People are screaming. There are protesters.

Someone is holding a hand-painted sign that says YOU KILLED CAP.

Jen herds him into the men’s bathroom and stands at his side like a sentry and puts one hand on his back and tells him to breathe and Tony does what people tell him to do, now.

God, how did he ever think he could handle any of this.

Tony takes more Klonopin and drinks the gross DC tap water straight from the sink and looks in the mirror. “I’m fucked,” he says. “It’s fine. You can say it.”

Jen tells him to stick to the cards.

He does everything right. He sits before the commission and doesn’t look at the cameras and he fits his face into a smile and he doesn’t lie: yes, he gave the order to enter Chinese airspace, yes, he allowed a malicious neoplasm based on an extremis variant to infect his hardware and therefore compromised national security, yes, he led the response team in Omaha that got three of his team killed, yes, he threatened Paragon with bodily harm in that hospital, yes, he neglected his duties as Director of SHIELD, yes, he concealed the deterioration of his own mental health and people died for it.

Maria’s testimony is fair. She can’t stay; she comes in full uniform and shoots him a piteous smile as she walks out the door. Dugan spends his time deflecting and insisting that there’s no one better to manage the Initiative and Tony feels an intense surge of gratitude. Dugan owes him nothing. Both of their testimonies are professional courtesy. Neutral. Dispassionate.

“Tony,” Jen is saying under her breath. “I thought you said Maya was off the radar.”

Maya Hansen is walking down the aisle, sitting down, shrugging off her trench coat, pulling a thick stack of files from her bag –

“Fuck,” Tony says. “Fuck, Jen, what–”

Director Stark injected himself with an untested variant of the Extremis virus, she tells them. She says words like reckless endangerment and experimental and unpredictable. It goes on. Tony told Steve what happened with Mallen but most of it stayed between them, so Maya is able to distill the whole situation with Mallen down to Tony’s ego. Tony’s arrogance.

Tony feels himself sliding out of his body again. He is vaguely aware of Jen, shifting beside him. She passes something to him hidden beneath one well-manicured green hand over his knee as if she means to ground him.

Someone is setting you up .

Tony balls it up in his hand. No shit, he wants to say, but he feels as though he has been bolted to his seat. Maya is saying Tony hired her to control the research.

“Our relationship was intimate,” she tells the commissioner, and Tony closes his eyes.

He takes his cards out. Shuffles them, drops a few. His hands are shaking. Everyone he lets in does this. At this point he wouldn’t be surprised if Whitney herself strolled in. He imagines what Carol is going to say. There’s no way they’re going to skate around his alcoholism, now, if Rhodey were here and not fucking missing he might have a friend but Rhodey knows all his dirty secrets, has cleaned up all his messes more than once.

“…series of events that led to the death of Captain America and Tony Stark’s ascension to Agency Head of the Strategic Homeland…”

“Hey,” Steve says, and smiles . “Don’t worry,” he says through a mouth full of blood. “I’m sure the justice system will pull through for you.”

He blinks and blinks and Jen is fully turned towards him, now, and he feels like his throat is closing up and there are cameras on him. He can’t do this here, but it’s like his whole body is seizing up, he reaches for the armor on instinct and finds nothing because they’ve neutered him and that fucking cuff is still on his ankle and Steve is putting his hand on Tony’s wrist –

Time contracts. Jen is herding him out of the room, into a hallway packed with reporters holding their phones out–

“Did you get a recess,” Tony hears himself say.

“They’re done,” Jen says. “You’re done. In here.”

They wait in a conference room and Tony feels dull and tired and middle-aged in his ill-fitting suit. Jen slaps his Klonopin into his hands.

“I need you to tell me who has it out for you,” Jen tells him.

A laugh bubbles out of Tony’s throat. “Are you fucking serious,” he says.

“Yeah, I’m serious,” she says. “Because someone wants you out of the picture, do you get that–”

“I get it, ” Tony mumbles. “It could literally be anyone, take your pick, I put half of the superhuman community in prison and I got Captain America shot and all my friends are dead and all my partners fucking manipulate me.”

“Your taste in partners is consistently terrible,” Steve agrees. He’s perched on the edge of the conference table, picking at the shreds of his uniform.

Tony puts his head between his legs and seriously considers re-crushing his hand between the table and the arm of the chair. He slips his hand into his pocket, instead, tries to fumble the lid off his prescription bottle and his little white pills go spilling out all over the floor.

Tony shakes three of them into his hand. “I should have asked Janet to come,” he says. “I should have.” He chokes the rest of it off, because there are so many useless shoulds that rest on his shoulders.

“This isn’t a trial,” she says. “And if – if we get there, I will personally beg each and every person who has ever been a rostered Avenger to come to bat for you.”

Tony imagines that and his whole body stills, because it’s a fucking pipe dream.

“I’m going to prison,” he croaks.

Jen is going through her briefcase. “That’s not what I said,” she says. “There’s no precedent for this hearing. You answer to Congress, you’re being scrutinized by the UN, they should have told us Maya was gonna testify, ok? You need to pull yourself together and we’ll deal with it, whatever happens, I’m not gonna bail on you. I’m on your side.”

“Do you think you can break this thing off my ankle,” Tony says. “I’d love some armor right about now.”

“Armor doesn’t play well,” Jen says. “It makes you faceless.”

“I think she means soulless ,” Steve snipes.

“I am doing the best I fucking can,” Tony roars at him.

Jen slides her chair over and slaps her hand on the table. “Do not,” she tells him. “Do not take your bullshit out on me, Tony. I get that you are in an impossible situation.” She draws the words out, crowds him, sets Tony’s heart racing again. “But you need to fucking check yourself,” she tells him. “You need to pull it the fuck together.”

There’s nowhere to go. He’s down to his base layer: Tony Stark, human. He’s been here before, he’s been here so many times. His life can be measured in cycles of kicking and screaming his way back to life. He thinks a year ago he might have had a contingency plan for this. He has dirt on half of Congress. He has suits. He had friends, until very recently. Friends he would die for. Friends who would have died for him.

He digs deep for that spark of self-preservation that’s always been his guiding star and comes up wanting.

 

- - -

 

They ask Tony if he wants to make a closing statement, and Tony slips up, sees Steve sitting in the front row of the Assembly next to the Wakandan ambassador, and he presses his lips together and blinks his eyes and feels like his chest is collapsing and shakes his head.

He knows he doesn’t deserve to sit in Nick Fury’s chair, knows it was supposed to be Steve, knows the situation has been sliding out of his hands for weeks, for months, but he doesn’t actually expect what comes out of the commissioner’s mouth.

“It is our finding that there is sufficient evidence to try Anthony Stark on charges of dereliction of duty. Furthermore, we have found Mr. Stark guilty of multiple violations of the Superhuman Registration Act. The defendant will be immediately remanded into federal custody. Mr. Stark, you are hereby terminated as Director of SHIELD, suspended of all rights and privileges granted under the SHRA –”

Tony finds himself sliding away and squeezes his hand to call up the pain of his broken bones.

He should be upset, he should be yelling. He should be giving CNN juicy footage of a sick man clinging to his broken fucking empire but the chamber is on its feet and Tony is all alone in the world.

Jen is standing up. This isn’t over, she’s saying, and armed SHIELD agents descend like they were waiting in the wings. Like everyone knew this was going to happen all along.

Tony holds out his wrists to be cuffed.

His eyes find Steve’s as he’s pulled away: sitting in the commissioner’s chair, turning the gavel over in his hands, judge, jury, executed.

 

- - -

 

Tony doesn’t know where they’re taking him, but they transfer him three times on the way to the airport and exchange his cuffs for the SHIELD-standard manacles that he designed for Steve. They pack him into a Quinjet knockoff that looks like it infringes upon several of his patents just as it starts to rain.

His SHIELD guard is small enough that he thinks he might have been offended a few months when he still had his ego. Shepherd, an asshole who wanted to be on the Alphas. Laila, Maria’s chief security officer.

Carol, in full uniform, who climbs in last and apparently counts as three civilians.

Steve is sitting in one of the chairs by the doors, looking like he has an axe to grind.

“Where’s your contingency plan, Director,” he says.

Tony shuts his eyes and rests his head against the bulkhead behind him.

Carol sits next to him and nudges her thigh against his. “Listen to me,” she murmurs.

“What a concept,” Steve says, and Tony grits his teeth. “How does accountability feel, Tony?” He stalks across the cargo area, proud and tall and pale as death.

He sidles into Tony’s space. “King of the world,” Steve says.

Tony sits there, frozen, with the silence stretched out between them, Steve just out of his reach. Blood sliding out of his mouth.

Steve climbs into his lap and Tony wonders if he died months ago and this is his hell.

Tony expects it to feel like ice, but it just feels like warmth and mass and hot blood against his dress shirt. Tony gasps aloud. His guards have been relaxing, but they retrain their weapons on him. Carol is asking if he’s ok, if he’s in pain, you’re scaring me, and the look on Steve’s face is one of shock and wonder and rabid, righteous fury.

“Don’t,” Tony breathes. He’s slipping, he wants to grip the edge of his seat but his broken hand is sealed up inside the cuff and he tries to match his breathing to the hiss of the recycled air–

“Look at me,” Steve says.

Tony looks at the parachutes hanging on the wall, if he waits it will stop, if the plane were to crash right now, if he could edit his code, it would stop –

“You climbed into bed with all those well-dressed men in Washington, Stark,” Steve tells him, and Tony blinks and blinks and blinks and wonders what the fuck he did to earn this, sees what’s left of his life stretching out before him and in every scene, Steve is there, a vengeful ghost, a friend he’ll never earn back, a specter come to drive him into his own grave.

“I know what you think of me,” Tony says, and his own voice sounds like gravel. 

“I don’t think you know anything about me,” Steve says, and Tony feels like he’s failed in every conceivable way. “I think you had one job and you just messed it all up because you’re an arrogant son of a bitch. You’re used to getting your way. You thought that thought just because you had some fucking vision, just because you could see some world where this worked out, just because you wanted it you could make it happen.” Steve huffs out a laugh. “I think you’re never going to change,” he says, “and now all those people you were supposed to protect are gonna end up dead, or incarcerated, look at me ,” he snarls.

Steve slides one gloved hand over Tony’s cheek and Tony doesn’t dare breathe. He can't bear it if it's real; he can't abide it if it's not. 

“I think I should have finished the job,” Steve says.

Tony closes his eyes and feels sticky leather wrapping around his throat.

“Maybe you should have,” Tony says at him. “Maybe you should do that, maybe you should put your fucking money where your mouth is,” he says, and he’s yelling now.

“I told you he was schizo,” Shepherd is telling Laila.

“I will put you on the Latveria detail,” Laila tells Shepherd.

“Tony,” Carol says. Like she’s embarrassed.

Steve’s thumb is right over Tony’s carotid.

“You know, the only person who’s been consistently right about the outcome of this little thought experiment of yours is me,” Steve hisses, and his face is so close and Tony wants out, exit left, panic button.

Steve is right.

“You can’t play the system,” Steve tells him.

“I’m trying,” Tony says because the justice of it all is paralyzing. He is too wrung for tears and too spent for anger and even in death, Steve has never lied to him.

Steve flickers.

“You’re not trying,” Steve says.

“Neither are you,” Tony croaks, because Steve is just resting his hand on Tony’s throat, as if he were able to measure veracity through touch alone.

“ – Danvers, is he ok – ”

“ – this crazy SOB was in charge–”

“Hey,” Carol snaps, and Shepherd visibly pales. “Don’t fucking test me. He’s schizophrenic and he’s worth ten of you,” she spits.  

He’s glitching. He’s not supposed to glitch anymore. He’s pieced himself together with patch after patch. He can't touch Extremis. He's been bound in every conceivable fashion.

Schizophrenic. He turns it over. He thinks about an eternity of drugs and restraints and Steve’s eternal vengeance. An eternity of people looking at him with impersonal disgust and the pity of bystanders.

“They should just hang me,” Tony says, but the joke falls dead on arrival and he feels lightheaded and like his limbs are prickling with pins and needles.  

“Tony,” she whispers.

“I need my meds,” he amends, his voice pitched into a hoarse whisper.

“Ok, I know. Just look at me,” Carol murmurs. Tony looks at his hands and reminds himself that his lungs can expand to fill his chest now, that he is mostly whole. That he is unremarkable with the fucking anklet and the situation has spiraled out of his control, he needs a drink, he needs a drink –

Steve flickers back, perches in the seat next to Tony, leans in and brushes Tony’s hair behind his ear –

“– not gonna lie, this is bad, ok, you’re lucky Maria pulled out her dick and took a page out of your book and found some obscure bylaw in your stupid fucking bill that gives her jurisdiction over convicted Metahumans–”

“Article 51, subsection E,” Tony mumbles.

“Cool, don’t give a shit – the point is the only reason they’re not sending you to The Hague is because Maya Hansen gets the last say on your powers and they’re saying you’re too dangerous to put in any of the ICC’s facilities–”

“Metahuman,” Steve whispers into his ear. “That’s a nice word for traitor.”

“They’re going to lock me in 42’s psychiatric unit,” Tony chokes out. “That’s the protocol–”

“Tony, I don’t think they care about the protocol any more,” Carol says under her breath. “They’re saying you merit a mandatory period of observation, they want a – a baseline. Your physiology is unique, the news really ran with the Extremis thing–”

Tony has heard that language before. In the bill for Project Wideawake. They want to test him. They want to do experiments on him. They want to know what he can do. 

Everything is collapsing.

He laughs.

“Do you think this is funny,” Carol snaps. “I don’t want to watch you go through this, Tony–”

“I need to talk to Samson,” he says. “I’m under his care, they have to let me talk to him–”

“I’m working on it,” Carol says.

“You know, we can hear you, sparkles–”

Carol stands up and her fists glow. “I outrank you, Shepherd,” Carol says. “I’m registered and I do have the authority to relieve you of your duty. Keep your fucking mouth shut.”

They’re not going to bring him Sampson. He will be surprised if he makes it to the Negative Zone. He thinks about the sea of faceless protestors. He thinks about the footage of Steve choking on his own blood with rotten fruit on his face.

She rubs his back. She’s not supposed to do that, he’s in custody. She says soothing things under her breath. Hang in there and Jen is on it and this isn’t over.

“You don’t deserve her,” Steve tells him. “You don’t deserve anything.”

“I don’t think I’m gonna make it,” Tony tells her.

 

- - -

 

Tony walks through the portal and across the bridge and through the dark that goes up and up and up. It’s what he imagines the galaxy feels like. The universe doesn’t care about you, either.

He’s never going to fly again.

Reed supervises his processing and pointedly doesn’t look at Tony.

Tony feels like his body is buzzing. Steve has solidified, somewhat. He stands in the corner while Tony endures a cavity search, while Tony holds his wrist out to be stamped with the sub dermal barcode they’d designed. He gives them his wallet with his pictures of Rumiko and that day the Avengers first saved the world.

“I need my meds,” he tells Reed.

“They’ll bring them to you once you’re situated,” Reed says.

Steve smiles something vicious that doesn’t suit him. “Guess you’re just a common criminal like the rest of us, now.”

Tony’s guards lead him into the main cellblock. His skeletons stare at him from hundreds of identical white cells. He hasn’t asked what’s going to happen to him. He feels simultaneous panic rising in him and the blunt edge of all that quetiapine lingering in his system. He would like to be screaming, he would welcome the gold. He would settle for the brutal shock of a half-functional heart plugged in just in time.

He shuffles along in his chains and squeezes his broken hand into a fist and thinks about that coin Daredevil slid him. Regret is sharp, regret is psychosomatic. You can’t damage a husk.

His guards take him deep into the bowels of the facility – they lead him past what used to be the edge of the facility and Tony feels insignificant and useless. They have redesigned expressly for him, they have made him an unsolvable maze. They pass a generator, maybe, what looks like another cellblock. He’s led down a dark hallway that feels like a canyon. They make him climb into a platform elevator and the dark presses down on them.

“Mr. Stark,” one of them says, and the guide lights fly by as they descend.

“Pay attention,” Steve’s voice whispers into his ear.

He doesn’t have time to react before he feels his cheekbone cracking.

He hits the ground, grits out a scream as he falls on his hands. He tries to kick but his feet are shackled together and all he manages is a pathetic little jerk.

He reaches for the gold before he remembers he’s been decommissioned. There’s no armor, there’s no Extremis, there’s no comm in his ear for Steve to tell him what to do.

He catches a glimpse of the red soaking through Steve’s uniform before someone is smashing his head into the floor.

He curls into a ball. He thinks about Steve and the mat and Steve’s smile as Steve extended his hand and laughed and told him not bad for a desk jockey –

“Stop,” he croaks, and someone kicks him in the throat.

He feels his blood pumping in his ears, tries and fails to bring his hands up to cover his head, gets a boot to the side of his head and a ring springs up and drowns everything out.

“Please,” he says, and there’s a baton cracking into his ribs.

The elevator stops and the lights don’t come on. They crowd him; someone is on their knees and putting their fingers in his hair. He bites someone’s bare arm and gets his face bashed into the tube wall for his trouble. They hold him there, his legs twisted under him, one of his eyes swollen shut, his breath coming in ragged wheezing gasps.

He tries everything, he grits his teeth and tries to drag Extremis up from in him but it’s like staring into a gaping wound, an open, empty port, a disassembled mainframe. He is a broken fucking machine and they put him on his back and Tony puts his shaking arms up and he’s back on the pavement, he’s going to die and he made this bed and he is crying heaving open-mouthed sobs and begging: please, please, please, please, please, Steve–

“My kid was in that school,” one of them says. “My fucking kid died because of you, Stark.”

King of the world, he thinks, and someone stomps on his good hand.

Steve, inscrutable – his arms crossed, that infuriating cold impartiality written into the lines on his face – is the last thing Tony sees before one of them steps on his wrist and he’s out.

 

- - -

 

Tony wakes up in the dark.

He tries to sit up and screams. His ribs, his wrist. One of his eyes is swollen completely shut. He shivers. He feels like he’s going to shake out of his skin. He feels like he used to feel before a cardiac event. He bites into his own arm and lets out an animal scream that echoes off the walls. He’s cold. He can’t feel his legs.

There’s enough of his blood on the floor that he can smell it.

Someone touches him and Tony flinches away. He knows he should fight but he is dizzy and cold and fumbling his way to death. He doesn’t manage it, he stays where he is, his face pressed to the concrete, his limbs chained together.

He lets himself have it. He acquaints himself with the concrete. He tries to still his racing heart. The thing on his ankle catches the light from the tiny slit in his door and shines.

Steve is sitting in the narrow beam of light, his legs crossed, his shield laid in his lap. He looks like he hasn’t slept in years: red-rimmed, dark-circled, cloudy dead eyes. 

“Tony,” he says, and Tony wonders if Extremis will let him die, this time.  

“Go fuck yourself,” Tony gasps. His hands are tingling. His heart skips and stutters, feels like it’s dislodged in his chest.

He doesn’t feel anything about it.

He imagines his funeral: closed casket, maybe a handful of people standing around a shallow grave if there’s any justice. He thinks about Steve’s.

It’s ok, he thinks. Let it happen. It's better. 

Tony stops trying to move.

“Tony,” Steve says again, and he sounds hysterical. Tony lets his eyes slip shut.

He hears himself screaming again, as if from the end of a tunnel. His body is being moved. Someone is gathering them into his lap. Running their fingers through his hair. Dripping on him.

“Stay awake, Tony,” he murmurs.

Tony leans back and reaches one hand up to feel the side of Steve’s cheek.

Solid, real. Warm. Sticky with blood.

Tony smiles to himself. His eyes are leaking. It shouldn’t hurt, it shouldn’t. He thinks maybe he is biologically determined to suffer.

“I used to think you were perfect,” Tony says.  

Steve nods, silently, and Tony feels the dripping again.

“I didn’t ask for that,” Steve croaks.

“I think this is ok,” Tony slurs. “I think this is good for me.”

“That’s stupid,” Steve says, and Steve’s hand is on his, Steve’s fingers are guiding Tony’s hand to an open, the shield strapped to his wrist. “You need to call for help.”

That isn’t right, the shield is locked in a storage unit on the Helicarrier.

“Am I dying,” Tony says into Steve’s leg.  

“Maybe,” Steve says. “Call the guard, Tony.”

Tony tries to flex his fingers, but his body is several inches left of where he thinks it is and the pain drops him back with an agonized scream. He feels like his brain is stuffed full of cotton. Like the world is a distant spinning galaxy and he is far into the stratosphere. Like he is watching himself fail.

“I don’t want you here anymore,” Tony says.

Steve’s hands are shaking. “Tough,” he says.

“I was in love with you,” Tony tells him, and Steve rocks with Tony’s head lolling back on his shoulder.

The silence is damning.

“Aren’t you gonna say it back,” Tony says.

A long silence. “No.”

Tony thinks that isn’t fair. He’s crying again, his tears are running sideways down his face and dripping off his chin.

“I’m why we needed this,” Tony says. “I explained this to you. Someone needs to watch the watchers, Steve.” He thinks most of it is unintelligible. He thinks he’s bleeding into his brain. He smells the metal of Steve’s scale and for a moment he’s able to imagine that they had this together.

“Get up,” Steve says. “Get up, Tony.”

“I can’t,” he mumbles.

“You have Extremis,” Steve says, and Tony feels his anger surge, like the air is electrifying. Steve’s grip on him tightens. It’s like Steve thinks if he can just hit Tony hard enough maybe he’ll shake the monster out of Tony.

Maybe that’s how they ended up here.

“Fix it,” Steve is saying, and Steve is crying at him. “Fucking fix this, Tony.”

“I’m just human,” Tony tells him.

“That’s not good enough,” Steve says in a hysterical whimper. “You don’t get to die, damn it –”

Steve punches the ground so hard he swears.

Tony thinks he might be drowning in his own blood.

“Ok,” Steve says, and lowers Tony gently to the floor. “I’m sorry.” He touches Tony’s face, so gentle, shaking as his fingertips ghost over where they put a hole in his cheekbone.

Don’t you dare, he tries to say, but all that’s in his mind is no and bereft and he is blind from tears and all he wants is to not be alone, all he wants is three words he’s never going to get –

Steve pulls his mangled leg out from under him and Tony bashes his head into the floor trying to overcome the pain.

“I know,” Steve is saying. “I know.”

Just kill me, Tony thinks. Just do it, just do it, just do it –

There’s just Tony’s wet moaning and Steve’s gasping sobs for a moment, and then Tony just catches the flash of Steve’s shield coming down in his peripheral vision, shining in that sliver of light.

There’s a tremendous crack as Steve breaks through his ankle and a metallic clink as the band falls away.

Tony’s vision goes white.

He hears himself screaming, he feels Steve’s hand stroking over his forehead, he hears Steve’s voice: I’m sorry , he says, I can’t, I’m sorry

Steve holds him until the guards show up. “You don’t get to leave me alone,” Steve whispers fiercely. “You’re stuck with me.”

That’s how they find him: propped up in one corner, lying in his own blood, his foot half-severed, shaking with laughter, his eyes white and blank.

 

- - -

 

 

Tony holds his hands out for chains through a hole in the barrier. 

His psychiatrist has four guards, today. They fan out behind her as she brings the barrier all the way down. They point rifles at his body. They wear armor. 

She checks the collar that sits around Tony’s neck before they start. It's a better design than the anklet. Increased durability, adaptive materials. It can't be removed because it's wired into his brainstem. 

It’s not difficult to pretend to be somewhere else. He is blunted and dull. His mind is slow. Extremis feels like a half-remembered dream. He is still dangerous, they tell him. He will always be dangerous. He is given pills and he no longer asks what they are. He has stopped measuring the passage of time. Sometimes they give him shots and he loses days. 

He is content to exist in this narrow absence of feeling. It’s not so bad.

“How are you doing, Tony,” she says, and Tony casts his gaze somewhere far beyond her.  

He laughs. Something old and ingrained lets him know that it’s inappropriate to the situation. Something about it must make the guards nervous. The meds are blocking the ugly things festering in him and his laughter is shallow, without roots. Unsatisfying. A mimicry of authentic wit.

“Any suicidal thoughts,” she asks. "Any hallucinations?"

Steve sits with his knees curled up to his chest on Tony’s cot. Something warm sparks in Tony when he recognizes his face. It’s a strong face. Like Steve has strength for the both of them.

Tony opens his mouth to say something about the tears leaking out of Steve's eyes and Steve gives a barely-perceptible shake of his head, holds one finger to his lips. Don’t speak.

Tony lets his face drift into a placid smile. “No,” he tells the psychiatrist. “There’s no one here.”