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For the third time this week Tony’s chest feels tight. He peels the creature’s fingers away from sweat-streaked skin, rolls out from the covers, and sits on the edge of the bed, clutching at his chest. It’s been forty five minutes without the chest plate tonight – ten minutes past the point of safety, maybe ten more before his heart gives out. Steve is curled up, sleeping soundly, a hint of drool spreading on his pillow, his fingers twitching in the sheets.

It’s beautiful and hideous. The Skrull looks like Steve, moves like Steve, talks like Steve. Sometimes Tony wonders if it’s trying to convince itself of their lie as much as him.

There is nothing in Tony’s life that isn’t made of lies.

If the Skrull knew who was in the suit, it would kill him in his sleep. If the Avengers knew what was hiding in Steve’s skin, he would lose even more.

Someday he’ll take the helmet off, show it who he really is. He’ll look Steve – it, in the eye and say, no more secrets. He’ll blast him in the chest until all that’s left is a burnt out husk of Skrull carcass. It will die knowing what it feels like to be lied to.

I’m Iron Man, he’ll say someday. The Skrulls are hiding among us. I love you, Steve.

But Tony doesn’t know how to tell the truth.

Every day, he tells himself - just one more day. Every time they fuck and he pretends the pain in his chest is just his heart struggling without the chest plate. It’s a sickness. An addiction, as bad as the booze - worse. Tony’s never been good at giving things up.

He’s had weeks of this. Weeks of pretending they’re really Steve’s fingers running across the scars on his chest, and asking himself if it suspects why he has them. Weeks of it kissing him like it wants to take away his pain, like they don’t both know its love is an illusion. Weeks of Tony turning the lights off and whispering fuck me, so he doesn’t need to look at it, pick out all the little thing and wonder, would the real Steve do that.

He has no right to think of the real Steve. Every time he lies it’s another betrayal; the team aren’t looking for him, because they don’t even know there’s anything to look for. Once, he’d thought Steve could love him, but Steve would only hate him now. Every day he needs this more and every day he deserves it less.

He’s addicted to this fantasy. To the sound the Skrull makes when it comes; to that beautiful desperation and the way it makes Tony’s name seem like it’s the only word Steve would ever want to say; to the late night I love yous and the early morning kisses. Now though, Steve’s arm, its arm, reaches out across the bed, like it’s searching for Tony. He lets himself imagine that Steve wants to hold him as much as he wants to hold Steve.

Sometimes this feels like something real. Skrulls were born to make you believe.

One day he’ll give it up. He’ll tell the truth. But for now, he’ll put the chest plate on, feels his heart returning to a normal rhythm, and do it all again tomorrow. He just needs one more day.

The rapid, strained beating of his heart sends twinges through his body with every beat. He tries to steady his breathing, but it only gets shakier. He could lie down again. Curl up with the thing under the covers and let his heart beat slow until it stutters to a stop. It would be a good way to die. He would never have to give this up.

He wonders what it would think, waking up in the morning to Tony’s cold body in its arms. Would it let their friends see it cry? Maybe it would comfort them before it kills them.

Tony staggers to his feet and moves slowly across the room. The Skrull groans in its sleep, and Tony pauses to look at it. He wonders if Skrulls can have nightmares. Maybe it dreams of Tony revealing its secret. Maybe when they fuck - when it wraps its arms around Tony and whispers lies into his ear - it’s dreaming of the day this will all be over. Maybe it has a wife and kids on that mothership. Tony hopes this is hurting it as much as it hurts him.

It’s smiling now. Maybe it’s dreaming of Tony’s blood dripping from its fingers, in a different way to how Tony dreams of Steve’s blood dripping from his. Traitor, would be the last word on the real Steve’s lips.

He leans against their dresser. One of Steve’s socks is poking out of the top drawer. He remember when this room was his alone.

It starts to snore and Tony times his own strained breathing to the gentle rumble of Steve’s. He leans against the doorframe and pushes the door open. It creaks. The Skrull doesn’t wake. Tony wonders what it’s like to sleep soundly.

When he closes his eyes he sees his friends’ faces as Steve chokes the life out of them. One more day, he begs them.

Was it worth it?

He hopes he never has to hear them ask.

One more day with Steve, that’s all he needs. He’ll tell them then. Use careful words that let them think he just found out. Let them comfort him when they question the Skrull. Let them think his anger is for it and not for himself.

The briefcase lies against the side of the couch where he left it. The city lights shine through the bay windows and for the first time in his life, he thinks New York looks ugly. There are people dying down there. There are murderers and monsters hiding amongst the neon lights and nightclub music.

Curled up in Tony’s bed is the worst of them.

He drops to the couch and stares out across the city. He just needs a moment. He breathes deep and thinks of the real Steve, out there somewhere. He wonders if he’s suffering. He wonders if he can call it love if the real Steve is out there somewhere and he still chooses this. Maybe he never loved Steve, just the idea of him.

He thinks of all the times he’s fought alongside the Skrull and they’ve both pretended to be someone they’re not. The Skrull is just another victim of his lies. Even in his fantasies, he’s a fraud.

He thinks of tomorrow morning, sitting across from it, sipping coffee in silence and pretending the way it smiles as it watches is the sign of something real. Sparring in the afternoon and wondering how much of it is Steve’s training and how much of it is alien. Fucking him for the last time.

He’ll hate every moment and he’ll commit every one to memory.

His fingers skim the handle of the briefcase. The chest plate is charged and ready to go and that’s all it would take to fix this. His fingers are tingling, there’s sweat on his brow. His heart can’t take much more of this. His fingers clasp around the handle, then he hears the familiar beeping of an Avengers identicard.

Steve’s card is on the coffee table. The Skrull left it there when Tony kissed him earlier tonight. I love you, Tony had said for the first time and pretended he was saying it to Steve.

Tony picks up the card and stares at the photo of Steve. The real Steve. He feels a tightness in his chest that is more than just the heart attack.

Distant sirens are blaring. There are lights in the night sky that aren’t airplanes or fireworks.

The red alert light on the card blinks and Tony blinks back. He’s been counting the days, counting the hours, but it still seems too soon. He wishes he could have his one more day.

He wishes he could kiss Steve. Say I love you. Fall asleep in his arms, just once. But he has never done any of those things.

He wishes he’d warned the Avengers weeks ago, days ago, yesterday. So many chances. He’s missed his last chance to do the right thing.

Footsteps echo in the distance. He hears Steve’s faint voice. ‘Tony? Where are you? There’s an emergency, I need to go meet the Avengers.’

Tony should put on the gauntlets and blast Steve before he knows. Let Steve’s heart stop beating at the same times as his.

Every moment with Steve was stolen. Every day he convinced himself he’d give it up tomorrow. Tony is a good liar and he lies best to himself. It’s too late for tomorrow now. He sees the Skrull ships on the horizon and wonders what the casualty count will be. How many will be by Steve’s hands. How much blood will be on Tony’s hands?

There’s no going back and no life left for him here. This is the best he can do now.

Tony grabs the briefcase and crawls across the floor. He hits the switch to tint the windows, then slumps against the glass. The briefcase locks seem fiddly with shaky fingers, but he works it open and pulls out the gauntlet, seconds before Steve walks in.

He can’t have a day, but maybe he can have a moment.

‘Tony?’ Steve’s holding his shield in one hand. He looks to his identicard, still flashing on the table, then to Tony, lying on the floor.

He drops the shield.

He’s by Tony’s side, feeling for his pulse, pulling him away from the glass and into his lap. ‘What’s wrong?’ Steve asks, and it sounds shaky, scared, real.

Tony reaches up with his left hand and rests it on Steve’s chest. He feels his heart beating, indistinguishable from human, indistinguishable from the real Steve. His right hand shakes in the gauntlet.

‘I love you,’ Tony says. He counts to ten. Feels Steve’s fingers wrapped around his, listens to the way he breathes and for ten seconds more, he pretends that it’s real.

‘Tony, please, tell me what’s wrong. Is that Iron Man’s gauntlet? Who hurt you?’

‘It’s okay,’ Tony says, because it’s not real and it never was. ‘I’m dying. You don’t have to pretend anymore.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘It’s over.’ This was always how it was going to end.

‘Please, Tony, I love you,’ the Skrull says. It sounds desperate. Tony wants to pretend that it’s a hollow illusion and he can see through to the monster beneath, but it plays its part as well as always - like this isn’t over, like Tony could reveal its secret with his dying breath. Like it wants this to be real as much as Tony does.

If Tony had any strength left, he would laugh. Instead, he reaches for the controller and turns the tint off the windows.

Steve stares out at the mothership. His fingers squeeze Tony’s harder, like he doesn’t want to let go. He says nothing.

Tony lifts the gauntlet to Steve’s chest. ‘What’s your name?’ He doesn’t want to know. He wishes he could die pretending.

The Skrull pulls Tony closer and lays a hand over the gauntlet. Its skin feels soft and warm and human. ‘My name is Steve,’ it says, and holds Tony as his eyes flutter shut. ‘My name is Steve.’