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Ship of Theseus

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Steve used to like the afterglow.

He's always thought of himself as a kind and generous lover. He doesn't sleep with people he doesn't care about, and he likes to think that shows in how he treats them, during the act and after. He cares deeply about their pleasure. His favorite thing, really, is the affection of it, the closeness. Sometimes he used to think the afterglow was better than the sex. Maybe it's because, if he has a type, his type is strong and self-possessed -- the kind of person who has learned to regard softness as something that can be exploited and is hesitant to be unguarded. But even they won't begrudge him a few minutes of cuddling, of kissing, slow and lazy.

Tony is about as far away from him as it's possible to be and still be on the bed, and the covers are pulled up to his chin. He's staring up at the high ceiling like he wants to look through it. He's pale in the darkness, his profile sharp, lit by the reflected moonlight from the endless plain of snow far below them that is the only view any window here has.

Steve can still taste him.

"Are we going to talk about this?" Tony's voice is clipped. He doesn't look at Steve. He sounds like he's being interrogated.

The last thing Steve said was oh, God, Tony, that's so good, that's perfect, you're amazing. It's usually surprised Steve's partners that he likes to talk in bed. He guesses he doesn't look like the type.

At least he didn't tell Tony he loved him. Not this time.

He can remember the last time he did. He'll never forget it, which is a sentiment that would mean more if he were capable of forgetting anything. It was the last time Tony was in his bed, though he hadn't known it was going to be the last. He wonders if Tony did, but that's one of the innumerable things they've never talked about. They'd spent eight months fucking, and Steve should have guessed something was up from the fact that Tony never wanted to tell anyone, even though half the goddamn team had probably figured it out. He'd woken up from a nightmare -- Reed, Namor, Black Bolt, T'Challa standing over him -- and Tony had been there at his bedside. It had been one of those strange, liminal times when anything was possible, and maybe that had been why he'd reached for Tony with both hands. And Tony had smiled and slid into his bed. And he'd stayed.

It had been perfect, until the day Steve found out that his nightmare had been real.

They never talked about the two of them, about what they felt, not through the breaking of the world, not through the resurrection -- and of course, now Steve's been a monster on a scale Tony could never have dreamed of. Steve's never really considered love an option after that. Happiness is for people who haven't broken their friends' necks.

But here they are again.

Well, technically they've never been here, in Avengers Mountain, before. Steve supposes Avengers Mountain is a better name than Avengers Hollow Dead Celestial Corpse. It makes his stomach roil if he thinks about it too much. He tries not to think about it. T'Challa's people have done excellent work fixing this place up, and he's not ungrateful, but the North Pole would have been the last place on Steve's list to live. Ever.

They're both mostly clothed even under the layers of blankets, because it's that cold, and Steve supposes romance was never in the cards. His pants are still unzipped. It wasn't like either of them really undressed.

Tony had just come by to check on him, and Tony had looked at him -- and it had been like something out of a goddamn movie, the two of them just kissing, like they hadn't been apart for years.

And now this.

"We never talked about it before," Steve says. He's surprised that this is what comes out of his mouth.

Tony's lips curve. It's not exactly a smile. "I know."

Steve's not sure what drives him to keep talking. Hope, maybe. That's always been his problem. He pauses carefully. "Do you want to?"

He thinks Tony wants him to ask this.

God, he hopes he's right.

Tony's eyes slide over to meet his. Steve waits for yes, he waits for no, he waits for Tony to push himself up out of bed and walk away.

"Have you ever heard of the ship of Theseus?" Tony asks.

Well, that's not what he was expecting. He has no idea where Tony is going with this. "The guy who killed the minotaur?"

This is really not Steve's usual kind of post-coital conversation.

"Yes. No. Sort of." Tony has definitely captured all the options. "I mean, yes, but that's not the important part." Steve can hear his heavy exhale. "It's a philosophy problem. Imagine that the famous hero Theseus, he had a ship that he and his companions sailed in, for all their adventuring. And when he came home, the ship was preserved in the harbor. A museum piece. Okay?"

"Okay," Steve agrees, dubiously.

He wonders if Tony's talking about him. God knows Tony has made enough cracks about his age.

"But over the years," Tony continues, "the ship rots in the water. And as it rots, the rotten pieces are replaced, one by one. Brand-new. Eventually, after a certain number of years, it's all been replaced by new parts. Every original piece has rotted away. This ship, the ship of Theseus in the harbor -- none of it is original anymore. So the question is -- the philosophical question -- is it still the ship of Theseus?"

He wonders if this is some kind of test. If it's some kind of trick. If there's a right answer, and if Tony just wants to lord it over a fella who graduated from high school in 1938. He thought they were better than that. He thought they'd healed. But he also thought Tony would never be in his bed again, so it's not like he's doing that well at predictions. He's not the futurist in the room.

Steve licks his lips. He thinks his mouth is probably bruised. He can still only taste Tony. "I think so," he says, slowly. "I mean, if you're asking me what I think. I think it's the ship of Theseus. When it started out, it was the ship of Theseus. And just because it was refurbished over time doesn't mean there's a point where it stopped being the ship of Theseus. It is what it was in the beginning. You could take me to the harbor, point at the ship, and tell me it was the ship of Theseus, and I wouldn't feel like you were lying. It's not about the parts. It is what it is."

Tony's head snaps over, a jerky motion, and Tony is watching him intently. "That's what you really think?"

Okay, there's clearly something else going on here.

Steve dares to reach out. He slides his hand under the covers, lays his palm against Tony's clothed shoulder. For someone who just came five minutes ago, Tony is unbelievably tense, his muscles coiled.

"Tony," Steve says. "What's this about?"

Tony's gaze is somber. He bites his lip. "I-- I don't think I have a soul anymore."

The conversation has moved past unexpected and is now entering terrifying.

"What?"

"I don't think I have a soul," Tony repeats. He sighs. "The last gasp of Extremis fixed up my body when I was in that coma. All-new everything, physically. My memories are a bitwise copy of the hard drive that my brain used to be. Literally no part of me is original. If-- if souls exist, wouldn't there have to be something left? Wouldn't something have to be the same?"

This isn't what Steve was prepared to talk about, and he doesn't know if he can be what Tony needs. But Tony's here and Tony's asking and he has to try.

"Come here," he says.

Tony blinks at him.

"Come here," Steve repeats. "You look like you need a hug, Tony. It's like no one's touched you in weeks."

"Who do you think has?" Tony asks, under his breath, but he crawls into Steve's arms as Steve shifts the blankets to cover both of them.

The weight of Tony in his arms is familiar, comforting. He strokes Tony's back as Tony nestles up against him, his head on Steve's shoulder. He can feel Tony starting to relax, and he knows Tony needed this too, even though Tony would never have asked.

"Of course you have a soul," Steve says, softly. "For one thing, this isn't the first time you've started over with a brand-new body. This isn't even the first time you've started over recently." He takes a breath. "Or are you going to tell me we both survived the last incursion?"

They haven't talked about this, either. The only reason Tony didn't die at Steve's hands was that a helicarrier killed them both first. Steve is very, very far from blameless.

"No, but." The rest of the sentence doesn't come. Tony's hands tighten on him.

"If you don't have a soul," Steve says, "then I don't. Then none of us do. Genetically, my body hasn't been the same as the one I was born with since 1940. I've been pulled out of a Cosmic Cube and reconstructed at least three times. Or do you want to tell me that the version of me who decided to take over the damn country is more me than I am because he was here first?"

He has a lot of regrets about what that man did in his name. Of course he does. But he's never thought that monster was him. He can't think that. He can't let himself go down that road.

Tony makes a noise that's almost a laugh. "That's actually the other half of the ship of Theseus problem, you know. Then you say, well, suppose they saved every rotten piece of the ship, and then at some point the technology is invented to restore those and rebuild the ship with all the original pieces. And if they do that, and the other ship of Theseus, the new one, is still in the harbor -- does it mean the new one isn't the ship of Theseus?"

Steve tries to tell himself the feeling inside him isn't horror. He thinks about rotten planks joined back together, polished and painted to hide the broken hollows beneath. He thinks about the man sitting in a prison with Hydra's skull tattooed on his chest.

No. This can't be right. Whatever is true of Tony is true of him and Tony has a soul even though he's been through at least four different bodies, even though he's been mind-controlled and brainwashed and forced to hurt people. They both have. Just because someone in Tony's body did something Tony wouldn't doesn't make that guy into Tony, and it doesn't make the Hydra Supreme Leader into Steve.

To run with Tony's thought experiment, it's the ship of Theseus stolen and replaced with an inexact copy. None of those villains are them. And even before the Cube, Steve was real first. And Tony was himself first. It has to be true.

He has to believe it for both of them.

"Look at me," Steve says, and Tony obligingly raises his head, because after everything, after all this, Tony still trusts him blind. "You're you, okay? You're you and I'm me. I'm not a philosopher. I can't quantify this like you can. I don't have logic or theories. I just know."

When it comes down to it, Steve only really has hope.

"You think so?"

"I know so," Steve says, as firmly as possible.

There's no sound in the room except for their breathing. Steve looks out the window at the gray skies and feels his arms tighten around Tony. This feels more intimate than it has any right to. Their own world, warm and safe. It's ridiculous to think of that, given what they've done to each other. Steve still can't help but think it.

They always forgive each other. They do.

Maybe they can let themselves have this.

"I like being with you." Tony says it like an admission of guilt. "I-- I missed this."

"Yeah," Steve says. "I did too."

Tony lifts his head again. His mouth curves in a smile. He's gorgeous. He's always been. There's still nervousness in his gaze.

"If we do this," Tony says, haltingly, "if we keep doing this, the team is going to find out. We'll be grist for the rumor mill, just like Jen and Thor."

He knows that's Tony approaching the topic sideways, and what Tony means is I want to do this again and -- God help them -- I want to tell people this time.

Well, that's going to be different. Steve knows how the Avengers treat this kind of gossip -- jokes, affectionate ribbing, and above all, telling every single Avenger they know. It won't be a secret.

Steve's done with secrets.

He takes a breath. "I don't mind if you don't."

Tony smiles again, a little smile that makes his mustache twitch. Steve wants to touch him everywhere.

"Did I tell you yet that I liked the mustache?" Steve asks.

Almost self-conscious, Tony ducks his head and rubs his jaw against Steve's shoulder. "You don't think it's too old-fashioned?"

"I'm the wrong person to ask if you want the answer to that," Steve says, "but I like it. It's like what you used to have. It reminds me of when I fell in love with you."

Tony's mouth is parted. He doesn't say anything. For a second Steve wonders if it was too much, but Tony should know by now that he doesn't quit.

"You knew when you showed up at my door that I was going to be a bad choice if you just wanted meaningless sex," Steve says. "Come on. You're a genius."

Tony blinks at him. "Yeah, but-- still?"

"Always," Steve says. "We're always us."

He has to believe that.