The gift was carefully wrapped in green and red paper. This was not the wrapping done in a shop. No, someone had left Tony a self-wrapped Christmas present on the kitchen table of their new temporary Avengers HQ, like they had known that Tony would swing by to do a little more work on their defenses when Christmas with his mother - he still couldn't quite believe that was going to be a thing from now own – got too much.
He wasn't exactly surprised to see Steve's very neat handwriting on the little tag, but had to admit his throat went a little dry when he recognized it.
They hadn't talked much in the last couple of weeks, both trying to keep their distance and get their respective lives back in order, but when they had talked it had been... good. And Tony had given Steve a sort of Christmas present in the form of a uniform upgrade and the pass codes for the new level of Quinjet. So a thank you like this while not necessary wasn't out of character for Steve.
“For Tony,” the tag said simply.
Smiling a little at Steve for not just passing him the gift next time they saw each other, he took the present with him down to his for now makeshift workshop where he hadn't yet set up even half of the things he needed.
He worked for a bit, his eyes straying back to the neatly wrapped package and wondered what exactly it was that Steve had gotten for him. And why was he wondering about it instead of opening it anyway?
Because it's a gift from Steve, he thought. And that makes you nervous, because he thought of you. Because you're thinking of him. You're just that kind of idiot.
His steps in the quiet of the work room were terribly loud in his own ears, but they didn't drown out the thunder of his own heartbeat.
It's just Steve, he admonished himself. He's just being nice.
Feeling strangely self-conscious he didn't just rip the paper, but slowly unwrapped the rectangular package. It was the shape of a thicker CD-Box and giving an old fashioned gift like that to Tony would have been very like Steve. But he found a nondescript black plastic box and a card inside.
“Happy Holidays, Tony. I thought you should know, because I can't stop thinking about it.” The card read and was signed “Steve.” It was his handwriting and Tony would have recognized it anyway, no signature necessary.
Inside the box he found a data chip of the kind that SHIELD still used. Tony studied it for a moment, before carefully taking it out to inspect it. Was this from SHIELD? And why would Steve give it to him as a Christmas present? If it was about something SHIELD was doing that Tony needed to be aware of, then surely he would have just told him?
No, he thought, this is something else.
He let a short diagnostic run before he actually hooked the chip up – more from habit than because he thought he couldn't trust Steve. If this was SHIELD though, all bets were off.
There were a couple of video files on it and Tony wondered what kind of embarrassing Avengers party videos Steve had dug up to share with him. All files were named “Tony” with some number designation following.
“That's a bit creepy, Steve,” Tony whispered to the empty room. He would have to tease him later for coming across like a creepy stalker.
He played the first, and his breath caught in his throat all fun thoughts of teasing Steve forgotten in an instant.
In his new-old Captain America uniform.
The one he'd worn when...
… he hadn't been Steve.
He was standing by a machine that Tony knew very well.
His own terrible sarcophagus.
He'd woken from it not too long ago.
He'd been told he'd slept in it while sharks tried to steal his company, while Riri Williams became Queen of Latveria for a moment – and while Steve Rogers had fought them all to remake the world in the image of his worst enemies.
Tony had seen the footage.
He had heard the stories.
His AI had fed him the data.
But this was that Steve; the Steve who had smiled at him at parties, and stood with him against Carol and then – soft spoken and always Captain America – had accused him of drinking when he needed to be at his most focused. He remembered that now, when the steel-blue eyes turned to the cameras and the man nodded, like he could see Tony on the other side of the screen watching the recording months later. Then that Steve opened the contraption that held Tony's body.
“You're not waking up, Tony. But I really need you to wake up.”
He unhooked the body inside the machine and propped him up. Tony could see his own slack face, while Steve held him. “I miss you. I hadn't expected this, but I really miss you. And I know you wouldn't understand. You'd fight me every step of the way. But you have no idea how much better this would be if you were here to actually fight back. I need that from you, Tony.”
Then the Steve in the video hugged him. “You arrogant bastard, why can't you just wake up? Crushing that AI you left behind won't be the same. I need it to be you. It makes me angry seeing you like this. How could you do this to yourself?”
Steve leaned down to kiss the unconscious form - him.
Tony's stomach dropped watching the recording of it.
Sweat broke out suddenly.
What the hell was this?
But he couldn't look away as the man – not Steve - kissed him, deeply and thoroughly, while was in fucking coma.
His skin began to crawl and he found himself on his feet, breathing hard.
Happy Holidays, Tony. I thought you should know, because I can't stop thinking about it. Steve.
“Sharon doesn't understand either,” the Steve in the recording said. “But she at least can learn. You can only learn when you wake up. So, wake up, damn you.”
The recording broke off. Tony felt sick, his hands were shaking.
Steve had kissed him.
Had kissed him when he was in a coma.
The wrong Steve had kissed him; the Steve that was still held in a secret cell somewhere because the real Steve was back now.
But not Steve.
A message popped up. “Play next?”
He wanted to click no. He wanted to take this and burn it.
His hands were shaking so damn badly that for the moment he didn't do anything at all.
I thought you should know.
He forced himself to at least look into the next one, because he knew not knowing would be worse. He would never stop thinking about it. Monsters lurked in the darkness and he was not going to give this Steve the satisfaction.
Past Tony, dressed in black underarmor, was lying on a pristine white mattress. He was still dead to the world.
“He,” the other Steve said conversationally, “always loved you so much. So much even, that he never had the strength to really put you down when he should have. He was too weak to do what was necessary. Now look at us.”
He was wearing the Captain America uniform again, not the green uniform of the Supreme Leader that Tony had seen in different pictures – pictures that had made the right Steve cringe hard at his side. Steve, their Steve, the real one... who had not left this gift for him.
“I dare you Tony,” the man with Steve's face and voice said with a note of familiar anger, “wake up. Stop me. If anyone would stand a chance to make this interesting, it's you. Give that much to me. You owe me. You owe everyone.”
Then his voice became a whisper and he leaned over the mattress, over Tony's body, kissed him forceful and angry, like he hoped putting more fervor into it, more anger, that it would actually wake him. Tony watched horrified. His hands were still shaking, but he felt like part of his mind had left the body to watch this from afar. He couldn't look away, as the man in the video who was not Steve joined Tony's unconscious form on the bed and touched him. “He loved you,” he whispered. “He loved you so damn much and he was always too much of a coward to even inspect his own need for you. I have every single of his memories, you know? You were always his weakness. You should think about that. You owe him that. Because this is the only chance you have to even get a piece of him. Because I'm not too weak to admit it.”
Then not-Steve got up, breaking the spell as quickly as it had started and the video stopped.
Tony swallowed. He wasn't sure he could stand to watch more of this.
He felt dirty.
He couldn't even remember, being kissed and touched and manhandled.
He'd been unconscious and helpless and suddenly he was hyperventilating, pressing his hands against his eyes and waiting.
All of this had happened.
All of this was true.
The next video was started with shaking hands.
The Supreme Leader, this time in part of the green uniform, was sitting by his side a familiar shard in his hands.
“Wake up,” he said softly. But Tony didn't stir.
He held up the shard and tried again. “Wake up.”
In the next video the shard had grown, a whole piece of the Cube had been formed.
“Wake up,” Supreme Leader said.
And Tony woke, naked, hands bound above his head.
He had no memory of it, no frame of reference for anything there. With a pang he realized that this could've been the first time or just one time in a number of times he didn't remember now. Was that even him? Was this a reality conjured up by the Cube?
“Steve?” he whispered, disoriented and confused.
“Yes, Tony, I'm here.”
He watched himself wake, melt into Steve, listen to the soft assurances of safety, watched as his own eyes widened when the Tony in the video found his hands were restrained, when Steve let him see the uniform, the Hydra insignia, the cruel smile.
“This isn't you,” the Tony on the mattress said defiantly, even as he was kissed and touched and prodded. “Steve, stop, you're under mind control or a spell or...”
“No,” Steve whispered against his skin. “You're just too blind to see it. This is me. This has always been me.”
It went on. Steve didn't stop or hold back. Tony tried to get out of his hold, but he couldn't.
“I could take that away,” Steve said softly. “The fight. The defiance. But I don't want to. He always loved that about you, too. He would have liked to have you like this and yet he would never have admitted it.”
He could see his own eyes widen even more. “I always loved him too, but not you,” he spat, trying for bravado.
A slap rang out, as Steve slapped him and then pressed him down into the mattress. “Too bad he never actually wanted you enough to make you come to heel, isn't it? But you want it, don't you?”
The voice was and wasn't Steve's.
With shaking hand he stopped the video. He didn't want to see or know the rest.
For an hour he just sat there staring, thinking about all the things he'd heard and seen. He knew there was more. He knew this was just the tip of the iceberg.
Feeling shaky, dirty, unclean, he got up to take a hot shower.
He'd never be clean again.
What hurts more that you know now or that I made you forget and trapped you back in the state you put yourself in?
He clicked it away and another popped up.
When he got back, a message on the screen read: What hurts more? That I actually was strong enough to have you or that he's still so weak that he can't even look you in the eyes and admit he wants you at all?
Tony bit his lip, frozen like a deer in the headlights. Panic was setting in and it was like from the darkest corners of his mind a voice was telling him of all the memories he didn't have.
“Everything all right, Tony?” Steve asked him and smiled.
His throat went dry; he had to look away.
That morning he'd received a card. Will you tell him? Will he turn away in horror? Or will he look at you and you'll see me?
Steve put a hand to his shoulder: “Tony?”
“I'm fine,” he lied, because he would be damned if he let Steve see what as going through his mind.