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This Isn't a Nightmare

Chapter Text

Something cracked inside of Tony. It might have been his heart, breaking while Steve walked away.

For a long time after they left, he sat there, leaning against the wall, trying to steady his breath. His eyes were trained on the fallen shield in front of him until intense pain registered in his mind. When he diverted his gaze to his chest he inhaled sharply as he realized why. The arc reactor was shattered, leaving Tony’s suit without power. Where Steve had slammed the shield, sharp metal was digging into his chest, hungrily slicing his body. Blood seeped between the metal plates and bolts staining the suit an even darker crimson. Friday was unresponsive and Tony was slowly losing feeling in his left arm, rendering the possibility of taking off the suit unrealistic. He would have to remove it manually, and he was no condition to do so.

He was trapped in his own creation.

Waiting to die, he sat there, leaning against the wall, hoping that someone would come looking for him. Trying to keep from thinking that no one would.

It took him a while to realize that he was slowly rocking back and forth, perhaps to stay sane, perhaps just to keep warm. He hummed an old lullaby too, one his mother used to sing to him when he was very little. He did his best to imitate her voice, a sweet and delicate sound, but his notes came out cracked and hoarse, nothing like what he remembered. Eventually he stopped trying.

It is so damp and cold down here. Melting snow trickled from above the archway and flowed freely, mocking Tony’s confinement. When the sun dipped below the horizon, the shelter was thrown into a darkness so black that he could barely see his legs splayed out in front of him. The entire night was filled with the sound of his shallow breathing and the howls of wildlife. If Steve hadn’t destroyed the arc reactor, I would have some light down here — some measure of comfort. The bitter thought plagued him, he couldn’t help it: the darkness felt suffocating, like it was crawling into his very being and making a permanent home inside of him. The cold made his entire body tremble painfully.

In a restless haze he flitted in and out of dreams featuring Steve. Tormented by memories tainted with darkness, Tony’s mind forced him to remember how beautiful Steve’s laugh was only to have him relive the memory of the shield being slammed against his face and chest. He kept dreaming Steve was holding him, only to fight him off moments later. He wasn’t sure which phantom touch hurt more.

After the first few nightmares he woke up disoriented, wanting nothing more than for Steve to abandon Bucky and come save him. They’d both apologize and everything would be fine. But when he lost track of how many nightmares had come and gone, when the night had blurred into one cruel punishment, he woke with strangled cries, fearing Steve’s touch. He still heard Steve’s cruel laughter and felt the pain of deceit long after the dreams ended.

At some point Tony lost track of what his nightmares were about. He wasn’t sure if his eyes were closed or open, if the monsters he was seeing were in his head or in the shelter with him. What is happening to me? Hours passed and his fear mixed with anger.

When the next morning came, Tony was hyper-aware of the situation. He felt how his hair was matted with sweat and saw that the suit was caked with blood. Beneath the metal his fingers itched with the urge to scrub clean. Is it strange that all I can think about is how filthy I am? Tony thought how if Steve were there, he’d murmur something reassuring and hold him tightly until he was warm. He is the reason I am stranded here, sitting in my own misery, but he couldn’t have realized this would happen…right? Still, Tony couldn’t help but wonder if Steve was okay.

Each time the new day arrived, he was forced to relive the battle. Scorch marks, blood stains, crushed wall and rubble marked the scene before him. A fallen shield and scraps from a metal arm. What the hell did we do? The snow added a reflective sheen to everything around him, as if this were all some nightmare he couldn’t wake from. Is this all my fault? Heat and ice coursed through his veins and his muscles throbbed. He lay there on the unforgiving cement, trembling, disbelieving, his gaze once again fixed in horror on the sight of the shield lying only a few feet away. Too close. It’s too close to me. The more he stared at it the more he wished Steve had taken the weapon with him.

The smell of iron filled his nose and he yearned to wash away the blood caked on his face. He wasn’t sure if it was from his own wounds, Bucky’s or Steve’s. The thought made him nauseous. “I didn’t mean it,” he whispered, unsure of who he was talking to, his voice rough and hoarse from dehydration and silence. He tried and failed to drag himself away from his father’s creation, away from the shield and out into the open where someone could see him if they cared enough to look. This is all wrong.

But that was a lie. He knew it, even before he thought it. Do you see how I take after my father? I had attacked someone I was supposed to love, supposed to protect, out of anger. And I had relished every moment. “I didn’t mean it!” he shrieked again, trying to drown out his inner voice.  But his words only came out in a thin, hoarse jumble. “I just wanted to— fix—I just wanted—to make things right—I didn’t—I don’t—”

Tony had no idea how long he stayed there. All he knew was that eventually the blood loss and dehydration caught up to him and he drifted in and out of delirium. When he next came to, his lips were chapped and cracking painfully and his cheeks were stained with tears. He tasted salt mixed with the metallic tang of blood as he drifted back into unconsciousness.

Some hours later, he woke up and his eyes focused on a new addition to the battle scene: the ghost of his father, keeping him company. After that, every time Tony woke up from a feverish dream, he saw Howard standing in the corner, laughing at him. You tried to escape from me, he said,but I found you. And still, you’re a failure, still pathetic. You couldn’t even avenge your own mother. Tony told Howard he was glad he was murdered, glad that he was dead. Tony told him to go away. But Howard stayed.

It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m sure I’ll die soon too.Tony gave up fighting his father. He gave up on trying to live.

It’s been three days, or maybe it’s been four. Actually, Tony had no idea how long it’s been, and he couldn’t quite remember where he was exactly. Steve’s coming, I think? But he should be here already…No — that’s not right.

Something streaked across his vision. There was a flare of light, a soft flashing sound, and suddenly a figure appeared in front of him. What is it?—no, it’s a man, he thought. Who is this? This man was not an illusion—Tony could sense his reality, the solidity of his figure that his father in the corner did not have. Yet when he felt a rough pair of hands grab him, Tony’s eyes surged open in surprised panic and he struggled with what little strength he had left. This isn’t real. This is a nightmare.

It wasn’t a nightmare. It was real.

In one swift move his armor was split open and removed, and Tony was dragged up causing a burst of pain to shoot through his entire body as he was moved from the spot he had been frozen in for three days. Immediately Tony collapsed in on himself, too weak to hold himself up. But the man caught him and lifted Tony effortlessly into his arms. Tony tensed, overcome with terror and unsure of what to expect. But he was too weak to protest. His head leaned wearily against the other man’s chest, too tired to fight. Though his muscles burned in agony and his head was throbbing Tony tried one final attempt to escape the solid man’s grasp. His surge of energy resulted in nothing more than a slight wiggle —  his body too fragile to struggle.

The man brought his mouth close to Tony’s ear, his breath the first warmth Tony had felt in too long. “Stay still,” he whispered. “And hold on.”

“I can walk,” Tony found himself muttering, but his words slurred together and he was too exhausted to think clearly. Maybe hell has a delivery system, his exhausted mind tried to reason. As darkness descended upon him the last thing Tony noticed was the peculiar attire of the mysterious figure who had saved him.

He was wearing a cape.

Chapter Text

The day had been one of bliss, but the night held something else in store. Acting on the hope of happiness, the boy had listened to his desires, had gone with his emotion. But he had been careless, and so he had been caught: his father had come home early from work to see his son on the couch, his shirtless body covered with a sheer film of sweat and lust, pressed up against someone else. Pressed up against another boy.

His father had been far from pleased.

Later that night, the boy had dared to sneak out of his room, where he had been condemned to spend the rest of his days, and crept out into the house, along the stairs, hoping to hear his parent’s discussion. The boy’s hand rested awkwardly on the staircase. His father had broken his fourth finger years earlier, thinking physical pain was a more fitting punishment than verbal abuse, and it had never healed properly.

But the boy knew all too well just how much words could hurt him. They had his entire life.

Yet somehow what he heard now was shocking him: talk of camps and programs, training and therapy that could somehow “fix” the boy. He already knew his father was cruel, so what hurt him the most was the lack of protest from his mother, a women he desperately needed to stand up for him.It will be all right, the boy tried telling himself. At least you can leave your father behind. It won’t be so bad.

He swallowed his emotions with careful practice and crawled back to his room. There, his gaze wandered around, settling finally on his window.The boy’s heartbeat stilled for a moment. Rain drew angry lines down the glass, but through it he could see the deep blue cityscape, the rows of towers and alleys.

He continued staring out the rain-slashed window for a long while.

Tonight. Tonight is the night.

The boy hurried to his bed, bent down and dragged out a bag. Inside of it was fine watches, signed memorabilia, tablets, tech, and anything he could sell for food and shelter. Just another thing for Father to love about me. I steal. He’d been stealing from around the house for months, stashing things under his bed in preparation for the day when he couldn’t stand to live with his father any longer.

The boy rushed to his closet and pulled out an armful of clothes, then hurried about the room to collect his electronics and notes. The boy worked in feverish concentration. He added the belongings carefully into his bag, hid it behind the bed, and pulled on his shoes.

He settled down to wait.

Hours later, when he was certain his father had left his workshop for bed and the house had stilled, the boy grabbed the bag. He hurried to the window and pressed his hand against it. Gingerly, he pushed the left pane aside and propped it open. The storm had calmed some, but rain still came down steadily enough to mute the sound of his footsteps. The boy looked over his shoulder one last time at his bedroom’s door, as if he expected his father to walk in. Where are you going? he’d say. There’s nothing out there for a boy like you.

The boy shook the voice from his head. Let him find me gone in the morning, if he even notices. He took a deep breath, then began to climb through the open window. Cold rain lashed at his arms, prickling his skin.

“Darling?”

He whirled around at the voice. Behind him, the silhouette of his mom stood in the doorway, still rubbing sleep from her eyes. She stared at the open window and the bag on the boy’s shoulders, and for a terrifying moment, he thought she might raise her voice and shout for Father.

But his mom watched him quietly. He felt a pang of guilt, even as the sight of her sent a flash of resentment through his heart. Fool. He grew angry that he felt sorry for someone who had watched him suffer so many times before. I love you, she used to say, when the boy was small. Daddy loves you too. He just doesn’t know how to show it. The boy wondered why he pitied those who were loved by his father.

Still, he found himself rushing to her on silent feet, taking one of her hands in his, and putting a slender finger up to his lips. She gave him a concerned look. “You should go back to bed,” she whispered. In the dim glow of night, the boy could see her worried expression, “You’ll get in trouble if he finds you.”

The boy wrapped her in a hug and squeezed her tight, then pulled back and let their hands touch. They stayed there for a long moment taking in the small amount of comfort they could give each other. It was something they had not felt often. Usually his mom would pull away from him, knowing that his Father did not like to see them close. This time, though, she clung to him. As if she knew that tonight was something different.

“Don’t say a word to him.” The boy pulled away farther. “It will be safer for you that way.”

She didn’t reply; instead, she swallowed and looked down the hall toward the father’s room. She did not hate him in the same way that the boy did, and the thought of going against his teaching – that her son was nothing, that to love him was a foolish thing – filled her eyes with guilt and confusion. Finally, she nodded. The boy felt as if a mantle had been lifted from his shoulders, like she was letting go of him. A few tears slipped down her cheeks and he wiped them away.

“Be careful out there. Stay safe. Good luck.” She offered meekly.

They exchanged a final look and he turned away, walking to the window and stepping onto the second-floor ledge. He nearly slipped. The rain had turned everything slick and his converse fought for grip against the narrow ledge. He made his way along the ledge until he reached a balcony, and there he slid down until he dangled with nothing but his trembling hands holding him in place. The boy closed his eyes and let go.

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His legs crumpled beneath him when he landed. The impact knocked the breath from his chest, and for a moment he could only lie there in front of the house, drenched in rain, muscles aching, fighting for air. 

His focus narrowed. He needed to get out of there and was about to do so, when his eyes landed on his father’s car. Temptation corrupted the boy. He wasn’t sure what demon possessed him: maybe it was the memory of his parents driving away in that car, leaving him behind yet again to go search for a fallen hero, or to go to some other trip the boy was deemed unfit for.

He had broken three windows and was pelting rocks at the windshield when he heard the sound of footsteps behind him.

The boy froze in his tracks, realizing the mistake he had made. At first the steps seemed distant, almost entirely muted by the storm, but then, an instant later, they turned deafening. The boy trembled where he stood.

Father.

Before he could think anything else, the boy saw him, a sight that sent terror rushing through his blood – his father, eyes flashing, materialized through the fog of wet midnight. In all the boy’s years, he’d never seen such anger on the father’s face. The man’s hand closed around the boy’s arm like an iron shackle. “What are you doing, son?” he asked, his voice eerily calm.

The boy tried in vain to escape the grasp, but the father’s hand only gripped tighter until he gasped from the pain. His father pulled hard—the boy stumbled, lost his balance, and fell against the man. Mud splashed his face. All he could hear was the roar of rain, the darkness of his father’s voice.

“Get up you ungrateful little shit,” he hissed in the boy’s ear, yanking him forcefully up.

The boy glared at him and pulled his arm away with all his strength. The grip slipped against the slick of rain—his skin twisted painfully against the man, and for an instant, he was free.

But then the boy felt his father’s hand grab a fistful of his hair and the other close around his chin. “So ill-tempered. Why couldn’t you be more like Steve?” he murmured, shaking his head and hauling the boy toward the house. “Where were you planning on going? Who else would want you? Do you realize how much humiliation I’ve suffered, dealing with a worthless son like you? Do you care at all that your romantic deviances hurt my legacy?  Do you know how hard it is for me, always apologizing for you?”

The boy screamed. He screamed with everything he had, hoping that his cries would wake up the people sleeping in the houses around him, that they would witness his father’s abuse. He wondered if they would they care. His father yanked his head back and clamped down on his throat, strangling the boy’s cry. “You’re coming home with me now,” he said, pausing for a moment to stare at the boy. Rain ran down his cheeks. “Good boy. Your father knows best.” His father tightened his grip on the boy’s neck and pulled his hair harder.

The boy gritted his teeth and stared up at him. “I hate you,” he choked out, barely a whisper.

His father stuck him viciously across the face. Light flashed across his vision. The boy stumbled then collapsed upon the doorway. Seconds later his father’s hand was back around his neck. I’ve gone too far, the boy suddenly thought through the haze of terror. I’ve pushed him too much. The world swam in an ocean of blood and rain. “I know who you really are. Who will ever want you? You’re a disgrace,” the father whispered in his ear, filling it with his smooth, icy rage. “You’re going wherever the hell I decide to send you, you’re going to fix yourself, and so help me, I’ll kill you before you can ruin my legacy.” He hit the boy again.

When the boy finally escapes the bruising and the beating at the hands of his father that night, he feels so much hate that he barely notices that every breath is painful. The next day, and every day after, the voices come. I am Tony Stark, the phantoms whispered that night, speaking his most frightening thoughts in a chorus of voices dripping with hatred — Tony’s hatred. I belong to no one. On this night, I swear to you, Father, that I will rise above everything you’ve ever taught me. I will become a force that this world has never known.

I will come into such power that none will ever dare to hurt me again.

The boy never forgot his promise.

Chapter Text

Stephen was there the first time Tony bolted awake, his face twisted in a silent scream. Immediately, Stephen sensed the confusion in the other man as he tried to discern where he was and watched as the man’s muscles tensed and his eyes widened in concern. He appeared to be half unconscious still, but Stephen watched as Tony tried to fight off the fog. When Tony’s eyes locked on to Stephen’s, his swollen face crinkled at the unfamiliar face. Tony glanced around the room, his bandaged body trembling slightly.

“Steve?” he asked weakly, the word slurred in fatigue. Stephen shook his head in a silent no and disappointment flickered across Tony’s face before being schooled behind a mask of indifference. Stephen watched as Tony nodded his head once – wincing with the sharp movement. He slumped back into his pillows and sleep took him once more. Stephen replayed the quick interaction in his mind. With one small nod Tony’s story seemed to unfold – his lack of surprise, but urgent distress at Steve’s absence. What happened between those two?

Another day passed with Tony flitting in and out of consciousness. Stephen stayed by his side, watching Tony struggle with endless nightmares. He could sense the darkness eating away at Tony’s rest. What monsters are you fighting Tony? They seemed to be living things, sucking away the warmth in Tony. It wasn’t the first time he had felt this dark presence, but Stephen still shuddered, a chill running through his body. Each time Tony woke from his personal hell, he was half-delusional, muttering about ghosts and promises. Still, each time he asked about Steve, and each time Stephen watched his heart break a bit. Until one time, Tony woke up lucid.

Stephen could tell Tony was fully conscious this time because his face was perfectly indifferent, showing no signs of the hurt or panic that Stephen had seen him wear in the days before. This time when their eyes met, Tony stared coolly back at Stephen, his face cautious and unreadable. Slowly, and without breaking eye-contact Tony reached for a glass of water on his bedside and downed the whole glass. Just as Stephen was growing peeved at the man’s lack of action, Tony spoke, his voice hoarse with lack of use: “You’ve got the wrong room. The fantasy role play convention is down the hall.” His eyes narrowed, “Or if you’re some new kind of paparazzi, you’ve really got the wrong room.”

Stephen refrained from rolling his eyes and watched as Tony shifted his gaze to a new topic. The bedridden man attempted to cover a wince as he tried shifting the pillows behind him to get more support. He would have helped Tony with that, but the man had just insulted his cape.

Instead, Stephen waited patiently as Tony struggled for quite some time, a faint smile pulling at the corners of his lips. Finally, when the fiasco was resolved Stephen spoke, ignoring Tony’s previous comments. “My name is Doctor Stephen Strange—"

“You don’t look like a doctor.” Stark told him blatantly, but his words were less confident than before, his breathing more labored. Damn, Stephen thought, realizing that the painstaking effort he just mocked had probably used up all the energy Tony had regained in his fitful rest. The man was starving and freezing to death only a few days ago, Strange. Not to mention the fact that he was severely dehydrated and delirious from blood loss when you found him.

Still, Stephen didn’t miss a beat in the conversation: “I'm well aware. I’m not your doctor.” He raised his shaking hands in his usual explanation. Tony didn’t say anything, his expression barely changed, but Stephen saw a shift in his eyes. Not pity, but something like understanding mixed with curiosity. It perplexed Stephen.

They stayed silent, each man sizing the other up, neither one wanting to make a move. Eventually Tony seemed to decide that Stephen wasn’t a threat and gave him a single nod, “Okay Doc.” He sunk down into his pillows, turning his head to the side. Stephen’s eyes traced Tony’s gaze to the small windowpane on the hospital door, his only link to the outside civilization. His face was cool and unconcerned, but Stephen could feel the pain and guilt radiating from Tony’s posture and shallow breath. Tony’s eyes strained as they searched for a familiar face they both knew he would not see. Eventually Tony passed out again, and Stephen wasn’t even sure he’d remember their interaction.

As he watched Tony breathing level out, Stephen contemplated what had just happened. The whole situation was odd. He had heard that Tony Stark was a force to be reckoned with, a sarcastic, talkative showman who could spin elaborate tales, calm or start a tempest with a flurry of words. He had been told that if he and Stark were in a room together, their maniacal egos would not possibly fit.

The guarded and reserved man before him was not what he expected.

There was some overwhelming grief, anger or fear that was clawing at Tony’s very personality and self. Stephen could sense an unnerving darkness ebbing underneath the beat of Tony’s heart and it concerned him. There was something dangerous about that darkness, and it was something Stephen did not think Tony could fight off alone. The fallout between Steve and Tony seemed to have ripped to shreds something essential to his survival.

Stephen shuddered. He would help Tony overcome this burden and piece himself back together, he decided. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if he failed.

Chapter Text

The next week passed in a similar fashion. Despite his protests, Tony never left the hospital room and, for the most part, no one was there aside from Stephen and the medical staff. Stephen had watched as Tony had shut out those who loved him one-by-one, at an alarming rate; Tony had no intention of allowing anyone to see the hurt within him and he methodically shut out anyone who decided to help.

Pepper had visited a few times, but Tony was so distant in their meetings that a tearful Pepper had told Stephen it was too hard to help him when he was like this. He doubted she’d be back. Agent Hill had visited several times, but Tony was just as indifferent with her as he was to Pepper: reluctant to offer any information on his wellbeing, and flat out refusing to discuss the events of Siberia or Steve. Rhodey had called several times, but Tony had told him that the next time they spoke should only be when Tony had found a way to get his best friend walking again.

By the start of the second week, when Tony had grown stronger and more self-sufficient, Stephen was Tony’s only companion. Still, neither was sure about the other. At first whenever Tony had talked to Stephen it was attempts to convince him to leave Tony alone. When that had failed Tony had sulked for a while, until he realized that Stephen could distract him with scientific theories and sarcasm.

Mainly, Tony would stay silent, writing down equations and designs on Starkpads and notepads and any surface he could get his hands on. Only when his fatigue took over would Tony break his quiet, asking Stephen to tell him about his time as a doctor or dispute theories and mathematics together.

Tony had yet to directly ask Stephen why he was spending all his time with him, and for that the doctor could not have been more grateful. “Because I’m afraid you are being consumed by darkness”didn’t sound like a promising answer.

By the time another week passed, most of Tony’s bandages were removed, and he could walk without assistance. The swelling in his cheek had disappeared, returning his face to normal. He looked dangerously thin, Stephen noted, and his thick hair was a mess of tangles, his beard unkempt. Several times, when Tony thought he wasn’t looking, Stephen caught Tony studying himself carefully in the mirror, watching how the hospital’s florescent light illuminated his gaunt face and scarred chest.

It was clear Tony was seeing a stranger.

“Have you heard of the Mystic Arts?” Stephen found himself saying one night. He’s not sure why he mentioned it, but it might have to do with being unable to take Tony looking upon himself with disgust so many nights in a row. Maybe an introduction to a whole new realm of thinking would give Tony some enjoyment.

“What, like magic tricks?” Tony looked slightly amused, if not intrigued.

Stephen slipped on his sling ring and performed a simple forcefield spell. “Definitely not tricks, Tony,” he said a bit smugly. He suppressed a grin as he watched Tony’s eyes light with wonder. Tony’s hand started feeling around his bedside table for his notebook, his eyes never leaving Stephen’s creation.

Tony looked at him with a maniacal grin. “You’re a wizard, Harry!” The Doctor groaned and disbanded the forcefield. Immediately an onslaught of questions poured out from the mechanic. It was exhausting to answer them all, but seeing Tony finally energized made Stephen believe it was worth it.

 *** 

With only one more night in the hospital remaining, Tony fiddled with some gears he had convinced Stephen to get for him, his voice broke the silence with unusual tenacity, though his eyes stayed glued to his hands. “How did you know where I was that night?” For a moment Stephen’s mind went blank as he struggled to think of possible reasons to give Tony.

The truth was not an option.

Neither of them had ever acknowledged that Stephen had pulled Tony from death’s icy grip, and Stephen had hoped the other man didn’t even remember that night. But clearly he did, and clearly Stephen needed to make up a reason for going to Siberia. He needed to do it quickly, too, because Tony’s eyes had shifted from the gears to Stephen’s face, and his furrowed brow signified he was searching for answers.

Stephen cleared his throat, “The AI in your suit sent a distress signal to the Avengers Compound before it stopped working. As half of your team is on the run and I had sent Thor to find his father, I knew the compound was unguarded and uncared for so I went to secure the building. That’s when I found the suit’s coordinates.” Stephen met Tony’s scrutinizing gaze, hoping his lie was deemed acceptable.

For a moment, it seemed as if Tony was going to call his bluff, but instead the brunette went back to fiddling with the gears. “So it was Friday who saved me then, and you’ve been taking all the credit.” A small smile danced across Tony’s face. “Here I was thinking you were my knight in shining armor this whole time.” He shook his head and resumed his usual silence.

The corner of Stephen’s mouth twitched in amusement and he settled back into his chair. But when he pulled out the book he had been reading, he ignored the words on the page. He didn’t know why it unnerved him that he wasn’t telling Tony the truth, but even so — he didn’t think the man should ever find out.

Chapter Text

When Ross walked into his hospital room, Tony didn’t know if he should be more worried about what the suit was going to say or the fact that Tony might punch him before he could finish speaking. Tony scoffed as Strange stood up to shake Ross’ hand. He doesn’t know whose hand he’s shaking.

“Glad to see you’re doing better Tony” Ross said without a smile, too lazy to try to seem sincere.

“Is there something you need, Ross?” Tony didn’t try to hide his displeasure. This man had been the leading cause of the so called ‘civil war.’ Tony would be happy if he never saw him again.

But, of course, that would never happen.

“Yes, Tony, there is. I’ll cut through the bullshit. I need you to clean up the mess that you created.” Ross held out an excessively large binder to give to Tony, throwing it down unceremoniously on Tony’s legs. “I’m placing you in charge of the Avengers compound. You’re going to make friends with the media, you’re going to fix the Accords,” his eyes narrowed, “and you’re going to get Steve Rogers and his deranged band of misfits back to the Avengers Compound.”

Tony gave Ross a practiced grin but his veins heated at the sound of Steve’s name. That single name thundered down around him, freezing him in place. Ross went on to say something else, but he couldn’t hear him over the roar in his ears. It didn’t matter what Ross was saying, though, because he was not going to play this game anymore.

Tony shook his head. “That sounds fun, but I think I’ll pass. I’ve been wanting to take a vacation, and it would be hard to do all of that from Italy.”

He had no idea where Steve had gone after he’d left him on the cement ground. And he didn’t want to wonder about it. He didn’t want to replay every encounter he’d had with him: every word they’d said, every look he’d given him, or every kiss they’d shared. Each memory hurt, behind his eyes, in his lungs, and in his throat, growing uncomfortably tight whenever he recalled their last encounter.

It felt like weakness to keep thinking of him. But Tony knew he’d have had to be completely unfeeling to have banished Steve from his thoughts after all they’d experienced. And Tony never wanted to be unfeeling. But he didn’t want to be consumed with him, either.

The tiny hospital room felt smaller than it already was.

He risked a glance at Strange, but the Doctor was staring out the room’s window, apparently not interested in how Tony’s life was falling further into pieces. In truth, Tony could care less about running the compound or being the punching bag for the media – he had basically been doing that his whole life. No, it was the idea that Ross wanted Steve and the others back at the compound that had Tony on the verge of a panic attack.

 “Quit playing around, Stark.”

“As much as I’m flattered, I prefer to play with myself in private.” Tony prided himself on his ability to hide his crippling worries with smooth sarcasm. Usually he didn’t even know what he was saying until he was halfway done saying it, but it worked out most of the time.

“Tony.” Ross warned.

“Yes ma’am?”

“Shut the hell up.”

“Only because you asked so nicely.”

Ross’ jaw twitched, the only sign of his irritation. “How’s this for nice? You are doing what I order you to do, or you’ll be locked up in the raft and when we find the others we’ll throw them in there with you. Don’t think I’ve forgotten how you completely disregarded direct orders, destroyed an airport, and allowed Rogers to escape with Barns.”

“If I had known you would take it so personally…” Tony grumbled. Inwardly his stomach was churning. He hadn’t had enough coffee for this conversation, and the idea that he had allowed Cap and Bucky to escape made his vision blur.

Ross gave Tony a wink and said, “I know you’ll make the smart choice Tony; you’re a wise guy, after all.” Ross laughed loudly. Tony hoped Ross’ wink was just a tic. He had never been overly fond of them. His father liked to wink, usually after he’d done something nasty.

Tony forced himself to laugh with Ross. He imagined putting the suit on and blasting him with a repulser, then watching his face turn purple and anguished with frustration; he pictured himself leaning over him, looking on patiently, with his chin resting in his hands, admiring his writhing body and the power of his own inventions.

Ross turned to leave, a triumphant look on his face. “You are an investment and a risk, Tony. In other words, you need to provethat you are worth something to me. Or you’ll be behind bars before you know it.” The door banged shut. Tony grabbed a pen and opened the binder.

You are worthless, boy, his father’s voice called to him. Tony signed the paper. They will never accept you. He turned the page and got to work.

Chapter Text

As Tony signed the papers thoughts tore at his mind. Questions about loyalty, truth and justice ate away at him. How could he fight to get the UN to forgive Steve when he didn’t even know his own feeling about the man? This is ridiculous. This is horrible. This is epic, epic bullshit. He carded his fingers through his hair and rested his chin on his fist. Shut up Tony. Ross was right, most of this is your fault anyway and all you have to do is fix things. You’re a mechanic it’s what you do. Tony fought down his rising panic and swallowed, burying it deep beneath his skin. Just fix your own mess and when Steve — no — when everyone is back you can move on.

“He betrayed you, Tony, so stop blaming this whole thing on yourself.”

Tony suppressed a small yelp. In his misery he had forgotten Strange was there. He silently cursed himself for not being more aware of his surroundings and formuttering your thoughts out loud, idiot.

When he registered what Strange had said, Tony frowned. “For there to be betrayal, there would have to have been trust first.” The words hung tensely between the two men, and both were surprised by the matter-of-fact nature Tony just spoke in.

Tony watched as Strange struggled internally and decided to ask, “I thought… were you and he—”

“You don’t know anything about me, Wizard.” Tony’s voice carried steel.

"Everything I need to know is written all over your face,” Strange contradicted.

"Right now the only thing my face should be conveying is that it thinks you're a jerk."

The doctor bowed his head as if to say, exactly. Though he was on edge Tony felt the corners of his mouth pull upward. Though he’d never tell the wizard, Tony enjoyed their verbal sparring; their wits were well-matched.

Tony did not want to ruin their banter with the past. He did not want Steve Rogers to taint this friendship.

Tony grimaced. Just the thought of his name was enough to cause Tony to feel intense emotions. Which emotions he felt, though, seemed to vary daily. Sometimes it was pity or remorse and other times disappointment. Recently, it had been anger.

Tony had hoped to reply to Stephen’s jab with something scathing in return, but to his horror all that came out was: “I want to pretend it didn’t happen, so I need you—I need you to pretend along with me. No reminders, no questions, no cautions.” He was disgusted that his voice held such pleading in it.

Stephen nodded in a silent promise.

Immense relief flooded Tony. He had too much pain in his past to relive it every day. Memories were dangerous things. You turned them over and over, until you know every touch and corner, but still you’d find an edge to cut you. I know what it is like to be trapped, and to watch ruination. Each day the memories weigh a little heavier. Each day they drag you down that bit further. You wind them around you, a single thread at a time, and you weave your own shroud, you build a cocoon, and in it madness grows.

Tony could feel something festering inside him. Something had broken inside him and its darkness was threatening to pull him under. He had seen so much suffering, endured so much pain.

He wanted it all to stop.

 *** *** *** *** 

Stephen was worried the darkness of Tony’s memories were going to pull him under completely; he could feel something tainting his soul. He was worried that the last remaining bits of humor and sarcasm might be sucked away entirely, leaving nothing but fear and anger. Stephen didn’t know why Tony was this way, how this happened — if it was just Steve or something else entirely. But he did know that he was afraid for Tony.

Stephen discreetly watched as Tony poured over the documents Ross gave him. His pencil was flying across the pages and he was muttering to himself as he often did when he worked. Usually Stephen loved to hear Tony’s rambling thoughts about various approaches or ideas behind his work, but this time it was different. Now, Tony’s mutterings were disparaging and weary, holding none of the curiosity and vigor that he usually worked with. This was not a project Tony wanted to have, but here he was, slaving away and giving it his all.

Stephen wasn’t surprised.

As Stephen grew tired watching Tony he decided to sleep there for the night; he’d be here in the morning anyway to help Tony finally leave the hospital. The chair was comfy enough and he had done it before. Stephen’s eyes lingered on Tony’s figure, taking in his weary eyes and drooping posture.

He wondered what it was like for him. He wondered if Tony thought he was going to be happy with the Avengers.

He wondered when he’d realized he wasn’t.

Chapter Text

Tony read the letter again. Then again. And again. His eyes took in each sharp stroke of ink, each wavy curve of Steve’s signature.

 

I’m glad you’re back at the compound, I don’t like the idea of you rattling around a mansion by yourself.  I know I hurt you Tony. I guess I thought by not telling you about your parents I was sparing you, but I can see now I was really sparing myself. I’m sorry. Hopefully one day you can understand. I wish we agreed on the Accords, I really do. I know you were only doing what you believe in, and that’s all any of us can do, it’s all any of us should. So no matter what, I promise if you, if you need us — if you need me, I’ll be there.

 

Since Siberia he had tried to feel nothing about what happened. He was afraid that if he began to feel, he wouldn’t be able to bear it. He was afraid that the emotion would be like a wave sucking him under.

It wasn’t the first awful thing he had endured and pushed into the back of his brain. That’s how he’d always coped, and if there was another, better way, he did not know it. He was trying his best to exist, and that was all he could offer.

Tony focused his attention on the floor until he could breathe evenly again, trying to make his panic dissipate.

A sickening feeling crawled from his stomach to the surface of his skin as his emotions clawed their way out. He instinctively brushed his hand down his arm, as if attempting to rid himself of a disease.

So Steve was sorry. Sorry, always sorry.What in the world could you accomplish with an apology?

They had both made mistakes. They had trusted both too little and too much. But, goddammit, I had tried so hard.He’d given it everything he had. He had always done the best he could, and yet, somehow, it had never been enough. No one cared what he did. They always turned their backs on him.

Why couldn’t he be like that?

Tony was suddenly angry. Why must I lose everything that I care for? Why is love such a weakness? He wished, for an instant, that he did not need such a thing.

Maybe he didn’t — hate could keep him alive where love would not.

He had tried to be better than them, and he had failed. Despite Steve being on the run, despite them leaving nothing but destruction in their wake, it was Tony who was being punished. Despite Tony being the one who sign the accords, it was Steve who the people wanted back.

If you cannot be better than them, you must become so much worse. The whispers that had accompanied Tony throughout his life surged with his anger. They were strange — something dark and vengeful, tempting and powerful. A weight pressed on his chest. He was afraid. Intrigued.

In a rapid decision Tony crumpled up the letter, taking satisfaction in the way it crunched and withered in his hand.

He would not give another thought toward Steve and his apologies. Steve was nothing more than the mission — a task on a to-do list that he would cross off when the time came for it.

He had loved Steve Rogers, and it had cost him everything.

It was a mistake he would not make again.

Tony ran his hands over his face, trying to wipe the frustration away. It was close to midnight, and as usual he’d had trouble sleeping. His dreams struggled to rival the horror of his actual life, but, since Siberia, the threat of his dreams had terrorized him to the point that he couldn’t calm down enough to rest anymore. He would toss and turn all night and all morning, his heart racing, finally falling into a headachy tormented sleep in the late afternoon, when the rest of the world had woken

He had taken to wandering the corridors of the compound like a restless spirit, entering various rooms, thumbing through different texts, fiddling around in his workshop. Usually Stephen or Maria would find him and guide him back to his room, telling him if he couldn’t sleep, then he ought to just close his eyes and lie still. That at least his body could rest, even if his mind wouldn’t. In the morning they were kind enough to act like they had never seen him.

He didn’t feel up to explaining the letter if either of them found him up now, however. Standing up from his desk, he tossed the note in the wastebasket. Yet when his hand moved to do the same to the flip phone he hesitated, his eyes narrowing.

Giving his head a soft shake Tony slid the phone in his desk drawer and made his way to his room.

Chapter Text

When Tony was 13 he was still naïve enough to believe that, if he tried hard enough, his father would come to love him.

He waited eagerly for his parents to return from their trip. They had been abroad for the past four months, and while Howard was off working hard to find Captain America, he had been working hard to make his father proud. He had studied hard in school and stayed out of trouble.

Tony had even made a whole array of robots with various functions. From bots that could fold his laundry to ones who could recognize tools and organize tools, he had created six bots that he was immensely proud of.

It didn’t make a difference though. After dumping off Captain America memorabilia in Tony’s room, Howard went to shut himself in himself in his workshop—not sparing a warm embrace or kind word for Tony. Just the comment that Steve would have made a great son.

Something in Tony snapped.

He tore at the red white and blue posters Howard had just put in his room. He picked up a replica shield and threw it at all the reminders that his father had given him to try harder, be better.

Be Steve Rogers.

His lamp crashed to the floor and the sound echoed throughout the house. Panic bubbled up inside him when he took in the damage around him.

Tony’s door flew open, the lock had been removed ages ago. Howards face was contorted with rage at the demolished room. Fear hit Tony like a cement block and he started to scramble away. He knew what was coming next.

But when Howard’s face turned into a sneer Tony suddenly didn’t know what to expect. Silently, Howard picked up the shield and motioned for Tony to come with him, and he followed his father to the work room. He couldn’t breathe out of sheer terror for what awaited him.

But maybe his father would see his inventions and be proud? Maybe Howard would see what Tony could offer and gain control of his anger.

But not even his inventions could save him.

Howard dragged Tony to a stop in front of his robots. “Why are your toys in my office, son?” His voice was ice. His words were salt on a wound that had been festering in Tony’s heart for longer than a child should know.

This was what abuse was: knowing you were going to get salt but still hoping for sugar day after wretched day.

Before Tony could answer Howard’s arm slashed out in rapid aggression. Tony flinched to avoid the attack — but he was not the target.

He cried out as his robot was sent flying across the room, pieces scattering everywhere. His hard work destroyed in one swift movement. “Honestly, Tony, I think you can do better than this crap,” his father mocked.

Howard clamped down on Tony’s arm and dragged him to the next robot. “A bit elementary, don’t you think?” As Howard smashed yet another invention Tony realized he was clenching his fists so hard he had drawn blood.   

Howard reached toward him and held Tony’s chin in his cold palms. A long silent moment passed between them. I’m sorry they’re not good enough, Tony wanted to say, I’m sorry I’m not good enough. But the words were choked by his fear, leaving Tony quiet, numb. He imagined himself disappearing behind a dark veil, vanishing to somewhere his father couldn’t see.

Howard’s gaze shifted to the few inventions in the room that hadn’t been demolished yet. “Go ahead,” he said, nodding at it. “Finish the job. Destroy them.”

Tony hesitated.

His father’s voice coaxed him on. “Come now. They’re worthless anyway.” His grip on Tony’s chin tightened until it hurt.  “Do it. Use the shield.”

Shaking, Tony did what he said. He grasped the shield in a hand slick with blood and sweat and lifted it into the air. His father smiled. Tears shined in Tony’s eyes. “I don’t want to,” he whispered, but his words faded away at the look in his father’s eyes.

Tony slammed the shield into the intricate creations he had spent so much time designing. He shattered and beat at the metal. Parts fell and bounced everywhere in the act of chaos. It made something dark stir deep within him.

“Very good, Tony. I like it when you embrace your true self.” He took one of Tony’s trembling hands in his own. “Did you enjoy that?”

Tony started to shake his head, but Howard’s eyes make him freeze. His father wanted something out of him that he didn’t know how to give. Tony’s shake changed to a nod. Yes, I enjoyed that. I loved it. I will say anything to make you happy, just please don’t hurt me.

Howard’s eyes narrowed, and fear flooded Tony’s senses. He squirmed to escape his father’s grasp, but the man held him tightly. “Of course you did. Because you always destroy everything I work hard for. Destruction is what you do best.”

Tony was confused. He didn’t know how to answer. “I’m sorry,” he finally manages to utter. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I just—”

Howard cut him off with a stern look. “Are you worthless like your inventions, Tony?”

Tony shook his head in panic. No. Please. Give me a chance.

“So prove it. Be something better.”

Then Howard broke Tony’s finger at the joint.

 

Tony woke with a silent scream on his tongue. His finger throbbed, as if it had been broken only a moment ago instead of decades. He rubbed it instinctively, trying to knead away the pain. Dark tides churned in his stomach, the familiar ugliness that his father liked to nurture.

He threw off his sweat soaked sheets and swung his legs over the edge of his bed, taking a moment to steady his breathing. He kept his eyes on the floor, careful to avoid the shadow of his father looming in the corner of his room. He could feel Howard’s eyes on him. He could feel the memory in his nightmare eating away at him. Worthless.

Tony stood up in a flurry and rushed to his bathroom, dry heaving into the sink. He supposed he should be glad he didn’t eat enough to actually vomit. But when the worst of it had past, he studied the scarred, damaged part of his chest in the mirror, the circles of exhaustion under his bloodshot eyes.

Then he picked up the soap dispenser and smashed the mirror into a thousand pieces. He stared at his cracked reflection until he could no longer stand it. Eventually he returned to bed.

Chapter Text

The next day Tony got to work. In between taking pain meds and going to press conferences he attacked his punishment feverishly, with the same intensity that one would hastily beat away a cockroach from their front door.

The work was suffocating, and each hour he was faced with some memory of Steve. He didn’t leave his office all day. It was better if he didn’t have to face others in his humiliation.

It took almost all of his energy to make it through the day, not because of the work he had to do—he’d been completing boring phone calls and paperwork for most of his life. No. It was his thoughts that slowly consumed him. The anger and confusion that burned inside of him tore away at his will to continue.

Late that night he staggered to his room. He was concerningly grateful that he managed to collapse on his bed and not the floor.

Then he woke up the next day and did everything all over again.

 

Two years passed.

 

For two years Tony slaved away, working feverishly on creating a way for the Avengers who were on the run to be pardoned. It was not a joyous existence. The media needed someone to blame the “Civil War” on, and they chose Tony. He was the face of everything wrong with the Avengers and getting Steve back would signify a new beginning.

It made him sick to think about.

After the first few weeks, after he had stopped being doped up on pain meds, his common sense had kicked back in. He had tried to fight Ross – he had disobeyed orders, appealed to the higher-ups and tried to lawyer his way out. But, as usual, nothing worked out for Tony.

During those three days in Siberia a lot had happened. They thought that he was dead until Strange found him – so they revoked his consultant status and made him an Avenger. Posthumous was better than not at all they had thought. Now, it would have been helpful not to be one; he wished he had his freedom back. In an act of desperation to keep the damage of the Civil War under wraps and prevent another catastrophe Ross had been placed at the head of a new government body – The Avengers Council – which basically gave him the power to make Tony’s life miserable.

But during the following two years, in the aftermath of all that change, the worst was how he had lost his two best friends. He had spent so much time pitying himself and dodging Pepper’s calls and company responsibilities that the board of directors pushed him out of the company. It was either that or she would lose her job.

To a board of directors and a team of bloodthirsty lawyers the only thing that mattered was money and image – loyalty had no place.

Tony had eventually faced Rhodey, but only after he had shirked all of his other duties for a week and built his friend a new way to walk. Rhodey had been thrilled and had offered to help Tony out with all of the management things he had to do now, but every single time Tony looked at him he was reminded of how he had failed to save his best friend. It was hard, but he had declined Rhodey’s offer — the man was off somewhere classified, saving the world without the dangerous help of Iron Man.

For two years Tony had watched as his life had fallen apart.

He rubbed at his face, trying to push away the exhaustion; his gut churned with anxiety and anger. Now, on top of it all, Tony’s hard work would be paying off with a cruel and twisted reward. He had finally gotten the UN to come to an agreement that would allow the Avengers who were on the run to return with very few consequences, but Ross still wasn’t done with him. Now he had to fix the Accords so that Steve would agree to it and make the media believe that they were all a team again.

Years with Howard had taught Tony to stop believing he could ever get away from the life people were eager to set for him. He didn’t know why he thought it would be any different when he had been officially placed in charge of the Compound.

In exactly a month, Tony would be living under the same roof as Steve. The Avengers would be reunited.

When Ross told Tony this news, he schooled his face into nonchalance, but it wasn’t easy. His heart beat like a trapped bird. There would be nothing easy about this.

Still, Tony flashed Ross a million-dollar smile, gifted him with a witty insult and strode out of the office like he hadn’t wanted to strangle the man.

He had braved worse things, and he could take this. A ripple of anger threatened to break free. What could he do? He had no power.

Yet,he vowed. He had no power yet.

***

     The month passed quickly.

     Each morning Tony dragged himself out of nightmares and found no relief in waking. Each new day meant he was another day closer to having to see the Avengers. His panic grew like a wound festering inside of him.

The night before the Avengers would be arriving Tony roamed the corridors. He wanted to enjoy the freedom of being able to not worry about what familiar face would would be lurking around the corner for one last night.

He had never wanted time to stop before, to slip into a crawl so slow that one heartbeat would take a year, a breath would take a lifetime, and a touch could last an eternity. Usually he wanted the opposite, for time to speed up, race ahead, so that he could escape any current pain and move forward into a new, unblemished moment. Time would heal all wounds.

But not this one. Not yet.

 

Chapter Text

The next morning Tony woke late, his eyes heavy with sleep and mind muddled by nightmares.

What am I going to do?

He tried, as he always did, to push his turbulent memories away. But what if he never could? Good, a part of him thought. Maybe he shouldn’t be allowed to forget the mistakes he had made.

The thought made his stomach flip.

What if he were to leave tonight? Go in to hiding and run away from Ross and the Avengers. He wouldn’t have to face Steve and the others, wouldn’t have to fight to suppress his anger and resentment toward himself and others every day. Stay calm, Tony, and think. It didn’t seem possible to stay off the radar all alone. They had finally honed powers and they trusted each other enough to work together—he was just a man in a tin suit.  

He contemplated his second option. Doing things alone hadn’t exactly worked out well for him. He needed to make some allies. A friend. He shivered when he remembered his reaction to the crowd of media after the announcement, how whatever had happened had forced a darkness from within him and brought it to the surface.

What if that was who he was? Be true to yourself, his mother had told him once when he was trying in vain to win his father over. But that’s something everyone said and no one meant. No one wanted you to be yourself. They wanted you to be the version of yourself that they liked.  

Fine. If he needed to be liked, loved, then that’s what he’d do. He’d get Stephen to be his friend somehow, and he’d continue to stay out of the way of the others. He would be the defeated and humble person they wanted him to be. He would make himself disappear like they all wanted.

By the time dawn finally crept into his room and bathed it in pale gold, he was exhausted. He stirred when someone knocked faintly on the door. With a groan he called out, “Come in.”

The door opened a little. It wasn’t compound personnel, but Stephen. Tony didn't remember when Stephen had started coming to his room and he thought that he probably should have been upset about it, but somehow he couldn't be bothered to care. Stephen had forgone his normal denim and a casual t-shirt for his wizard cloak and outfit. His hair was done perfectly, as usual, and the strands of grey shimmered against his darker locks. His jewel-toned eyes glittered in the dark light and he looked even more magical than Tony remembered. Tony turned away his stare in embarrassment.

“Good afternoon Tony.” Stephen started, hesitating as he decided what to say next.

Tony shoved a pillow over his own face, “Go away Strange, this isn’t your room” he tried to say, but it came out as a muffled groan of exasperation. 

“The others will be arriving shortly.” Stephen’s voice carried a heavy weight with it, as if he knew what type of burden he was placing on Tony.

“Thank you, Mr. Sunshine and Smiles,” Tony gritted out, peaking his head out from under the pillow. “And why exactly did you feel the need to tell me this?” He knew he was being harsh, but frankly he just wanted the conversation to end.

“I thought you might want to reconsider your decision.”

“No.”

 “Tony.”

“Fine. I’m considering…I’m considering… and — what’s this?” He threw the pillow at Stephen, “It’s still a no!”

Tony fell back in bed with an oof when Stephen threw the pillow right back at him. The man shook his head. “Sometimes I forget you have the emotional capacity of a child.”

“Better than the brain of one.” Tony shot back. Taking an exaggerated and labored breath, he groaned and forced himself out of bed. Pulling on a t-shirt he spoke, “They’ve all lived at the Compound before, I don’t see why I need to be there when Steve and his merry band of misfits return.”

 Stephen drew the shades open, making Tony wince as his eyes struggled to adjust to the rapid change of light. “It might make things easier for all of you if you try to start fresh.”

A bubble of scary laughter threatened to rise up in his throat, and Tony had to bite his cheek to keep it from coming. “Nothing about this is going to be easy, Wizard.” He tried his best to dismiss Stephen: “I’ll see you later. You can let me know how the welcoming party goes later if it will make you happy.”

Tony breathed out an exhausted sigh of relief when Stephen left without protest. So much for befriending him, he chided himself. But just because Steve and the others were returning today did not mean he needed to see them. Tony had been given the job of fixing the Accords — he would do that and no more.

Of course, Stephen wanted otherwise and seemed determined to have Tony quit his denial. He had no idea why. After two years spent working with Stephen, the man was still an enigma to him. It wasn’t’ that he was secretive or mysterious, it was his continuous presence. Throughout Tony’s struggle with Ross, the Accords and everything else, Stephen was still here.

He had stuck around.

It was something Tony didn’t understand. No one ever gave him their kindness without hoping for something in exchange. Why would Strange be any different? Weren’t they all the same? They all want to use you, use you, use you until they get what they want, and then they will toss you aside. Tony shuddered at the sudden viciousness of the voices.

This has to stop. His hands were shaking like Stephen had just told Tony he was about to strangle the life out of him. Nothing he had done up until now had proven Stephen to be anything other than kind. Hasn’t he shown me, time and time again, that he was willing to be my friend if I was willing to let him?

It had been so long since Tony had ever wanted a friend that he wasn’t sure he even remembered how to go about making one. He desperately needed someone on his side, and it seemed that Stephen genuinely wanted to help him. Tony just had to meet him halfway.

He wanted to trust him, but a lifetime of mistrust had made it impossible.

He needed to find a way. Otherwise he might not survive working with Steve, living with those who had betrayed him. He might not survive at all.

After a quick excursion to the kitchen to inhale several shots of espresso, Tony made his way to Stephen’s office. He walked slower than he normally would, and all of his senses were on high alert. Despite successfully making the trip unnoticed, his heart was hammering by the time he made it to Stephen’s office.

Chapter Text

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Tony, you heard me.”

“No. I heard you say that I would be attending a Welcome Back Gala tonight, and there is no way you just said that. So I ‘ll ask again: ‘I’m sorry, what?”

Stephen narrowed his eyes. “You’ve gone to countless boring parties before and pretended to enjoy them, I don’t see why this is any different.” He carded his fingers through his hair and tried to appeal to Tony’s rational side. “Besides, Ross told me to tell you it was mandatory, and, I quote, ‘Didn’t want to hear about you catching the bubonic plague like your last excuse.’”

Tony finally changed his stony expression, raising a single eyebrow in disgust, but what could he do? Stephen knew if Ross wanted Tony to go somewhere, he had to follow, like a dog on a leash. “I don’t like you right now.” He settled on saying.

“Oh, no, how will I survive?” Stephen gripped his chest like Tony had delivered life-threatening news. When Tony didn’t react he sobered his tone: “I’ll be there the whole time, Tony. We can just stand in the corner making fun of everyone and get hammered.”

The corner of Tony’s mouth edged up and Stephen thought he couldn’t have looked any less convinced. His eyes were dark, so dark that sometimes they seemed wholly empty. Like Stephen could fall to his death in them.

It took some time in silence, but Stephen felt the air between them ease from a guarded hostility to something that felt to him like acceptance. Tony’s shoulders were still bunched up with tension, but when he tilted his head toward Stephen, he saw it for the subtle invitation it was. He took a step closer.

Stephen tightened his lips, lost in his own thoughts, and then met Tony’s gaze again.

 “It will be fine,” he whispered.

Tony wondered what type of delusional world Stephen must live in to think such a thing.

 

***

 

“God damnit!” Tony swore after he stubbed his toe on the bed post as he tried to tie his bowtie and put on shoes at the same time. “I swear if I have to get ready for another one of these stupid events without Pepper ever again, I will throw all of you suits into a river and drown you in muddy —”

Tony heard a low, deep and unnervingly familiar chuckle.

He told himself not to turn around. Not to give into his curiosity. But being told no—even from himself—only made Tony want to do the opposite.

Stephen strutted into his room with amused eyes fixed on him. He was dressed in a sharply tailored suit, in inky shades of navy blue and gray. He looked both clean-cut and daringly playful. 

“Please don’t stop such an interesting speech on my account,” he said, returning Tony to the present moment. “I’m sure I’ve heard much more colorful curses.”

“Did you just insult my use of profanity?”

“I thought I asked for more dirty words.” Stephen’s voice pitched so low Tony swore it curled the laces of his dress shoes that refused to get on his feet.

But this was Stephen. He talked like this to everyone, flashing his devastating smile and saying wicked and beguiling things until he got what he wanted. Tony knew, because he used to be Stephen.

“What are you doing here? Why are you always in my room?” Tony asked.

Stephen’s eyes widened enough to betray surprise at his sharp tone, yet his voice remained pleasant as he said, “I’m picking you up, isn’t it obvious?”

“I don’t need a baby-sitter.”

“When are you going to learn that it is okay to ask for help, Tony?” Stephen’s voice had lost all of the humor it had previously carried.

“As soon as I need help, you’ll be my first call.” Tony didn’t miss a beat.

“Just a second ago it looked like you needed help putting your shoes on.”

Tony looked across the room at a shoe, lying where he had kicked it away in irritation, the other was on him, but united. But as soon as he looked away, he was spun around to face Stephen. Two shaky hands reached for his bowtie. Tony raised his head but refused to meet Stephen’s eyes as the other man tied his bowtie for him.

Just as Tony began to search for something to say Stephen broke the silence, as if he could feel Tony’s anxiety.

“Tony?”

“Yes?”

Stephen stepped back, admiring his handiwork. “I’m not going to put your shoes on for you.”

“I would fight you if you tried.” Tony shot back, grateful for the return to sarcasm.

After a few more quips and jabs Stephen left the room, telling Tony to be in the lobby in 20 minutes. Tony begrudgingly agreed.

Tony held his head. His thoughts would not focus, attacking him with hopeless memories of Steve and vicious judgements about what would happen when he saw the Avengers that night.

He could not help thinking that everyone at the gala would exploit any pity on his part, any weakness that he showed.

So he would not show any.

Chapter Text

Stephen and Tony arrived at the gala fashionably late — it was not something they had needed to discuss. They were Stephen Strange and Tony Stark, and they could do what they wanted.

The very second Tony entered the room every bone, muscle, and joint in his body snapped to attention. But as Stephen had said, they kept to the corners of the room and made dull conversation with dull people.

But boring was good; boring was predictable. If Tony’s world flipped on its head one more time, he would crack.

As the minutes passed, he grew slightly more comfortable and his breathing was less labored. He hadn’t seen them yet, but he figured if he stayed away from large groups of people he might not have to see his old teammates at all.

 But when Stephen had slipped away to the men’s room Tony realized that they had drifted to the middle of the room and any inkling of comfort he had, fled instantly. He suddenly became aware of just how many eyes were on him. Their interest clung to him as if he were the night’s entertainment.

  No longer were people looking at the Avengers. He swore their intrigued gazes and painted eyes had all jumped to him, to see how he would react when he first saw his old team.

  Tony had used to like attention, but he definitely never would have enjoyed this level of scrutiny. It made the stifling room feel small and cage-like. Slowly and with expertly manufactured calmness, Tony made his way to a corner of the room, until his eyes caught on the devastatingly handsome man on the other side of the room.  

Steve.

Tony’s already anxious stomach did another flip.

Steve looked more daring than usual, he’d traded out the old-fashioned suit he normally favored for a high-end cut in nevermore gray. But his tall boots and the silk tie around his neck were both deep shades of blue-black smoke. He looked like a freshly woken storm, or a beautiful nightmare come to life so he could personally haunt Tony.

Tony considered darting underneath one of the tables. He wasn’t supposed to see Steve. If anything, Steve was supposed to spot him from far away at the ball. He was supposed to be dazzled by Tony’s suave look, and jealous when he spied him flirting with another man. He was not supposed to see Tony nervously standing in a corner by himself.

“Relax,” Stephen murmured, sliding back in his place next to Tony. “We’re not going to convince anyone you’re carefree and happy about this if your eyes keep darting around as though you can’t wait to escape.”

“I think I’d prefer prison to this, you should notify Ross for me.” Tony tilted his head toward the ceiling above, where iron chandeliers swayed back and forth as if they, too, wished to flee.

“Don’t look at him. Keep those pretty eyes on me.” Stephen took Tony’s chin in his fingers, tremoring slightly, even with the gloves he was wearing to hide their shakiness. “Let’s give themsomething to look at.” Stephen’s eyebrows were raised with mischievous desire.

Around them, hissed words and torrid conversations mingled with softer sounds of flowing liquor, hushed laughter, and clicking heels. But when Stephen’s lips parted a second time, Tony only heard the melodic sound of his voice as he whispered, “I know it’s not just him that’s making you nervous, Tony.”

“You’re giving yourself far too much credit.”

“Am I?” Stephen dropped his hand from Tony’s chin to his neck, soft leather resting against his pulse. He stroked slowly, just a delicate brush of his gloves, which unfortunately made his cowardly heart beat faster.

“Relax,” Stephen repeated. “The only thing you should think about is that you’re more desirable than anyone else in this room. Every person in the room would kill to be here with me.”

“You’re definitely giving yourself too much credit now.”

Stephen’s laughter was surprisingly disarming. “Then tell yourself everyone wishes they were me, dancing with you.” With a grin Stephen must have stolen from the devil, he looped an arm around Tony’s hips and swept him onto the dance floor.

Chapter Text

For someone who had made it sound as if he was concerned about his reputation in his time as surgeon, it surprised Tony how much Stephen acted as if he couldn’t care less about what everyone else thought. Another dance was currently under way and he cut directly through all the other couples. He was completely disrespectful, yet far more skilled than anyone Tony had ever danced with.

Stephen’s every movement was carelessly graceful, matching the musical cadence of his words as he murmured in Tony’s ear, “The key to a charade like this is to forget it’s an act. Invite the lie to play until you become so comfortable with it that it feels like the truth. Don’t tell yourself we’re pretending to be a couple to make Steve jealous, tell yourself that I love you. That I want you more than anyone.” Stephen reeled him closer and ran a hand up the back of his neck, toying with the ends of his hair. “If you can convince yourself it’s true, you can convince anyone.”

He spun Tony around the floor again as the music changed to an upbeat swing dance. Bright dresses and twirling dancers seemed to cover the dancefloor with imitation magic as Tony and Stephen continued to whirl and twirl until everything spiraled into light laughter and haze, sharp cologne and fingers weaving through his hair. And for a moment Tony dipped his imagination into the treacherous fantasy that Stephen had described.

He remembered the first few months in which Tony had known Stephen. He’d thought the doctor was insolent and too clever, yet distractingly handsome. He could be devilishly mischievous and intellectually challenging, irritatingly nosy and charmingly careless.

In short, he and Stephen were uncannily similar. Yet it was his own lack of trust that had prevented them from growing closer. If he were not so isolated, he might have even wondered what it would be like to flirt with Stephen, what it would take to make him blush.

Then, for the sake of their charade, Tony imagined Stephen had felt the same attraction, and that from the moment they had their first battle of wits, Stephen had known he’d wanted Tony more than he’d ever desired any other person in his life.

Tony pretended love was a place he wanted to visit and tested out a flirtatious smile.

Stephen dazzled him with an uneven grin.

“I knew you could do this.” He brought his mouth to Tony’s ear and kissed the tip of it tenderly, as soft as the brush of a whisper. His chest fluttered as Stephen’s mouth dropped lower, and he kissed him again with a little more pressure, lips lingering at the delicate corner of his jaw and his neck. Tony’s fingers curled into Stephen’s back.

The music around them surged, violins dancing with harps and cellos in a decadent and debauched rhapsody, threatening to transport him to another time and place.

Every person outside the dancefloor was still watching them spin with rapt interest. The ballroom teemed with eager eyes and sneering mouths.

“Maybe we should give them something to really gossip about.” Stephen’s knuckles brushed his collarbone, drawing Tony’s attention back to him. “Unless they still frighten you.”

Tony gave him a wild smile, even as his heart leaped against his rib cage. He needed Stephen to know that he could do this. “They’ve never frightened me.”

“Care to prove that?” Stephen’s bright eyes fell to her mouth.

A dare.

The blood in Tony’s veins surged hotter.

Tony didn’t usually think before kissing anyone. One moment he just found their mouth on top of his, or his on top of theirs, followed by tongues seeking entry as hands fumbled around his body. But he didn’t suppose kissing Stephen would be like that. He had a feeling this surgeon’s hands knew exactly what to do, where to touch him, how hard to press. And Stephen’s lips—they were being playful now, but he didn’t know if they would be gentle with his mouth or a little rough, and Tony’s pulse raced at the thought of either possibility.

Stephen cupped his cheek and twirled her in another circle. “Help me convince them,” he whispered.

Tony didn’t know why he hesitated.

It was just one kiss.

Tony slid his hand up to Stephen’s neck. His skin felt colder, shivering beneath Tony’s fingers. Clearly Stephen was not as serene as he appeared.

“It seems as if you’re the one who’s nervous now,” Tony teased.

“I’m just hoping you won’t think of me differently after this.” Then Stephen’s mouth was crashing against Tony’s. He might have moaned against Stephen’s lips as his tongue slipped between his own and explored.

Every solid inch of him pressed against every piece of Stephen. His fingers knotted and tugged at his curls. Stephen’s hands roamed over Tony’s jacket, discovering the firm muscles of his lower back. It was the way people kissed behind locked doors and darkened alleys, not a kiss for lit dance floors where everyone in the city could see. Yet Stephen didn’t seem to care.

After what seemed like an eternity, they broke apart.

Tony swore he’d never witnessed so many intentionally loud whispers, covered up with artificial smiles, as partygoers pretended not to be scandalized by Stephen’s and Tony’s kiss. Though one person did not appear to be hiding how he felt. Steve.

Tony’s already mangled insides twisted further.

Steve stood casually with one elbow propped against a thick metal bar at the side of the room, but the rigid set of his jaw, the hooded sweep of his gaze, and the derisive line of his lips told Tony that he was far from calm. He looked furious.

Steve’s reaction shouldn’t have angered him. And his kiss shouldn’t have angered Steve, given that the blond was more than partly responsible for this mess.

“I think he still believes you’re his.” Stephen’s pale skin gleamed brighter as he stroked a thumb under his chin, looking as if he were coming up with a truly terrible idea.

Chapter Text

If Steve had expected Tony to live up to his suave, playboy persona on their first date, the man had certainly hidden his surprise well. Tony had been a complete disaster the entire night, so uncomfortable with himself that he had kept telling Steve that he didn’t have to do this if he didn’t want to. Tony had loved Steve Rogers from a far for a while, but now that something was finally happening, he was determined to mess it up on purpose before he could end it on accident.

By the time they had made it to the restaurant Tony had considered calling the Iron Man suit and fleeing to somewhere in the Caribbean. He’d been thinking of ways he could explain to Fury that he had to quit the Avengers due to embarrassment when Steve had pushed him gently against a wall.

“I don't know if anyone's ever told you this," Steve had begun. He didn’t blush, and his eyes didn’t dart away. Instead Tony had found himself staring into a pair of oceans. "You're very attractive."

Tony had been complimented on his appearance countless times before. But never in Steve’s tone of voice. Of all the things Steve had ever said, he didn’t know why this caught him off guard. But it startled him so much that without thinking he had blurted out, "I could say the same about you." He paused. "In case you didn't know."

Tony’s pulse had been rapid but looking into Steve’s sincere eyes he’d suddenly lost all insecurity from his past and fear about the future. He’d broken into a grin, slipped a callused hand into Steve’s and they made their way to the restaurant.

Later that night Tony had made Steve laugh so hard that root beer came out of his nose. The adorably mortified look on Steve’s bright red face had almost made Tony choke with laughter.

It didn’t end with a kiss — they had talked about taking things slow — so instead Steve walked Tony to his room and said, “This was one of the best nights of my life.”

A breath escaped Tony. God, I want you. I need you. I’m not worthy of you.

Steve opened his mouth in shock — so did Tony, since he hadn’t intended to say that out loud. It was a habit he tried to avoid.

Steve took Tony’s face in his hands and looked him right in the eyes. “You are worth everything to me.”

It was better than a kiss. 


 

The memory shattered around Tony and he registered how mad Steve looked. He watched as Steve set his drink down and got up from the bar. Tony’s stomach dipped, and his heart might have flipped, the same way it always did when he saw Steve.

Tony was barely aware of the fact that he had grabbed on to Stephen for some kind of support. It was not enough. Sensing this, Stephen slid in front of Tony, blocking Steve’s path. He had to peer around the doctor’s shoulder to see where Steve was.

“I can handle this if you want.” Stephen’s voice was a discreet rumble, yet it still held its mischievous tone.  He is enjoying this, he was enjoying flaunting me in front of Steve. Whether it was to make Steve jealous, or to show that Tony was okay, or to make a fool out of him, he didn’t know if he should be mad or grateful.

He didn’t know anything now, except the fact that Steve was walking toward him, looking angry, hopeful, uncertain and jealous all at the same time. He didn’t know what to do.

Tony had tried his best to get over Steve. He had really tried.

He wished that love could be simple, that it was always given and returned in the same measure, equally and at the same time, that all the planets aligned in a perfect way to dispel all doubts, that it was easy to understand and never painful.

But when it came to Steve, even his soul managed to hurt.

He didn’t know how he felt anymore. Maybe there was no one way to define it. Maybe there were as many shades of love as the blues of the sky. They had certainly loved each other, and they had been happy together. He thought he would be spending the rest of his life with Steve, even if that meant putting up with the blonde’s insufferable optimism and righteousness.

Yet when Tony had finally — finally — managed to let his defenses down and whole-heartedly love someone, he had been abandoned. He was tired of being cast aside. It was his turn to use. His turn to hurt. 

Finally, Tony knew what he felt as he stared at Steve coming toward him — it wasn’t love.

It was anger.

Stephen whispered something to Tony again, but he didn’t hear. He was too busy trying to put his emotions in check: Steve was right in front of him.

“Mind if I cut in?”

Chapter Text

Time stood still. Tony could hear nothing but the blood rushing to his head, the pounding of his heart like the bass drum in an ACDC song. Before his eye, everything good he and Steve had experienced together rushed around him, the images quickly polluting into a dark muck of everything horrible. Wasn’t this what happened when you were about to die? The question dimly resounded in Tony’s head.

 “Mind if I cut in?”  It was only a few words, but it was anything but a simple question. All of the fear and all of hurt that he’d ever experienced had only intensified in the last two years, leaving him with the always present feeling of being eaten alive. That was because of Steve, the voices screamed in his head.

Stephen would have stepped in front of Tony, but he stopped the man, answering Steve himself. “Yes,” Tony’s voice threw razor-sharp shards of ice, “I do mind.”

Stephen’s eyes widened; Steve took a step back, knocking into a couple dancing so closely that they could eavesdrop.

Steve fumbled an apology and tried again: “Tony, you can’t—”

“I am only dancing with one man tonight, Rogers.” He sneered the last word, feeling like the name of a disease.

“Oh, you two are—are you two?” His mess of words gave Tony more pleasure than he cared to admit.

“Are you seriously asking me that?”

Steve’s eyes blazed blue — the hottest kind of fire. “Tony, you don’t have to pretend with me.” His voice was pathetic, pleading and frustrated.

“Do you hear yourself? What would I be pretending?” Tony started to arrange a sweet smile on his face, but figured Steve would know it was false. He needed to convince him this was the truth. He twisted his mouth into the sort of smirk he commonly wore in his playboy days. “When Stephen and I kissed, did it look as if I was acting?”

Steve’s intense gaze remained frustratingly level, but Tony swore a muscle ticked near the corner of the man’s jaw. The anger and need in his voice couldn’t hide his emotions though “I’m not sure what you two are doing, but I don’t believe you could just get over what we had together. I haven’t and you haven’t either.”

“Believe it,” Tony commanded. “Believe that someone else could love me, believe I’ve forgotten who you are — that’s how insignificant you made us.” Coldness swept over Tony’s skin, he imagined his words sinking into Steve like claws. “Stephen and I may not be together yet, but do not think for one second that I will ever come back to you.”

     “We need to talk about —”

“You’re right.” Steve’s eyes widened. “We need to talk: we have a lot of work to do on the Accords, so you are more than welcome to schedule a meeting with me at the Compound. But as for me and you in any other setting except professional? We are done.” Tony’s voice had grown louder, and he could feel the crowd’s eyes crawling over him.

Ignoring Steve’s protests, Tony stormed out of the gala, pulling on a dark purple pair of glasses and calling for his car. He tried his best to ignore the small crowd of people who had followed him out of the building, just waiting to see what he would do next. The press hollered an onslaught of prying questions at him.

Beneath his sunglasses Tony kept his eyes closed as tightly as he could, but in his mind, everyone looked like Steve, Bucky and his father — and they sounded like them too.

I hate you all. He imagined his hands at their throats, choking, silencing them, one by one. He wanted peace and quiet.

Something stirred inside him; his breath started to come in ragged gasps.

He felt Stephen’s hand on his shoulder and heard his voice, but he didn’t know what was being said or how long it took them to reach a limousine, but it startled him when they did. He’s was so disoriented that he couldn’t open the door. Stephen did it for him, all the while making it look natural, like Tony wasn’t having a meltdown. Amidst his dark thoughts, Tony couldn’t be more thankful.

As soon as they reached the compound Tony fled to his room, ignoring the fact that Stephen was trying to follow him. A violent shock rippled through him when he got to his room. A wave of bitter fury.

Stephen shuddered, and Tony slumped against the wall, sliding to the ground. The whispers in the darkest corners of his mind sprung free from their cages and filled his thoughts with their noise. They brought a flurry of memories, of everything he’d already relived and everything he’d fought to suppress. His father breaking his finger, shouting at him, striking him, ignoring him. That night in the rain. The Avengers blaming him for Ultron. Steve’s mouth on his. Deep blue eyes. A metal arm. The shield.

Tony squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his hands tightly to his ears in a desperate attempt to block it all out, but the maelstrom grew thicker, a curtain of darkness that threatened to pull him under.

Stop. Stop. STOP. He would destroy everything in order to make it stop. I will destroy all of you. He gritted his teeth as his fury swirled around him, seething and relentless, yearning to burst free. Through the whirlwind, he heard his father’s harsh whisper.

I know who you really are. Who will ever want you, Tony?

His fury heightened. Everyone. They will cower at my feet, and I will make them bleed.

Then the shrieking faded. His father’s voice vanished, leaving memories of it trembling in the air. He stayed on the ground, his entire body shaking with the absence of his unexpected anger, his face red with exertion. Strange kept his distance. They stared at each other for a long time, until Stephen finally walked over to help him to his feet. Stephen gestured at the chair next to the bed. Tony sat gratefully, soaking in the sudden peace. His muscles felt weak, and he could barely keep his head up. He had a sudden urge to sleep, to dream away his exhaustion.

After a while, Strange cleared his throat. “Something blackens your heart, Tony, something deep and bitter, so strong it rivals even my power. It has festered inside you for years, nurtured and encouraged. I’ve never felt anything like it.”

His father was the one who nurtured it. He shivered, remembering the horrible illusions he’d seen throughout the years after Siberia. Even now, in the corner of the room, his father’s ghost lurked, partially hidden in the shadows. He’s not really there, he’s an illusion, he’s dead. But there was no mistaking it — Tony could see Howard’s silhouette waiting for him, his presence cold and haunting.

Tony looked away from Howard, lest Strange think that he was losing his mind. “What…,” he began, then cleared his throat. “What is there to do about it?” He wouldn’t deny it, he knew that there was darkness inside of him, but he didn’t let it affect him. Much. “I’m trying. I am a good person. I am—I am cleaning this mess up.”

Strange gave him a somber nod but stayed silent.

What could be said to a man who was losing his mind to darkness?

Chapter Text

A week and several boring events and requirements later, Stephen and Tony walked to yet another meeting.

“And you’re sure I have to lead these things?” Tony asked.

“You ask me that before every meeting.” Stephen sighed fondly. “You know the answer.”

They were almost to the door, but Tony was still in denial. “Maybe I’ve chosen to forget.”

“Denial does seem to be one of your strengths,” Stephen grinned, though he wasn’t joking. Tony grimaced and came to a halt in front of the room.

Stephen watched in wonder as Tony transformed in front of him. His shoulders straightened and his posture moved from tense and weary to loose and confident. He wiped his face with his fingers and as his hand came down, his fatigue went with it. His arm popped as he reached up to slap Stephen’s shoulder. “Time to Carpe the hell out of this diem.” He grinned and strode into the meeting.

It was disturbing how good Tony was at this charade.

Stephen took a breath and followed him in; Tony was already talking. “Okay everyone, let’s get through this quickly. If you turn to where we left off, the second section of the chapter, page 73, is mainly for those of you with equipment.” Tony was standing at the front of the room while the rest of the Avengers sat in the plush swivel chairs around the table.

“You’re going to have to pry my wings off of my dead body if you want to take them from me, Tony.” Sam snarled at him; Tony continued on, unphased.

“Well if you’d bother to read the introduction, you’ll see that I won’t be touching anyone’s body — no matter how nicely you ask.”

Stephen leaned up against a wall at the side of the room. He couldn’t help but observe that beneath Tony’s defiance was fear. He himself knew what it was like to say the clever thing because you didn’t want anyone to know how scared you were.

“What a surprise” Wanda scoffed. Stephen could see the insult rising to her lips. She was rolling it around on her tongue like a piece of hard candy. But before she could continue Steve interjected with a warning to stay quiet that sounded an awful lot like a disappointed father.

Tony nodded at Steve in a faint thanks. His mouth smiled but the expression did not touch his eyes, as if it were just another part of his costume. Steve didn’t seem to realize that Tony’s gesture of appreciation was not a real one. It was amazing to Stephen to think that Tony had actually been in love with a man that seemed so oblivious to his state of mind.

But none of his so-called teammates attempted to make anything easier for Tony. They all watched him with hawk-like eyes, looking at Tony the way a child might ogle his younger sister’s doll right before chopping off all its hair.

Or its head.

Stephen broke free from his thoughts. Tony had moved on to the next segment of the meeting, now covering a list of required events that the Avengers needed to attend.

He read the report like a eulogy.

Stephen’s eyes flickered across the room, taking in everything they could, and landed on the Black Widow. Natasha Romanov. Stephen had yet to get a read on her, she’d been strangely quiet throughout their encounters, her lips always pressed tightly together, but her face otherwise perfectly devoid of emotion.

Tony had mentioned to Stephen that he’d once thought Nat was concerned about all of the currents of tension that ran through the team, but as time went on, he’d seen that barely suppressed conflict didn’t bother her in the least. She liked it just as well as open espionage.

Stephen didn’t know what to think, but he would be keeping close tabs on her.

He tried to regain focus on the topic at hand. Clint had just been reassured that he would be able to keep his bow and all of his other toys and was laughing at a joke Tony had cracked. The two of them seemed to hold the least amount of tension between them, even though they had fought on opposite sides. Clint had a family to protect, and for some reason that factor made Tony excuse all of Clint’s actions. Stephen filed that away for further scrutiny.

The meeting finished relatively quickly and with only a few more jabs and glares. They filed out of the room, with the exception of Steve, who lingered behind with the hopes of talking to Tony. Stephen narrowed his eyes and blocked the soldier’s path. Tony was gathering all of his papers, seemingly oblivious of, but most likely just choosing to ignore the showdown that was occurring.

Steve opened his mouth to speak but Stephen beat him to it. “Don’t,” he cut in, “Your apology will not heal his wounds.”

“You can’t guard him forever, Strange.” Steve growled in a low voice.

“Pining doesn’t look good on you, Steve.”  

Rogers stalked out of the room, failing to catch Tony’s eye on the way out, who was most likely pretending to not have noticed their conflict.

Stephen rubbed at his neck. Steve was not one to give up easily, and when he did manage to find Tony alone—

He shuddered to think of the possibilities.  

Chapter Text

When the Avengers had first moved in to the tower Tony had been grateful; it was too easy to be lonely in his giant, empty tower. He had felt as if he was getting a second chance at a family, and he would have done anything for his family. But time passed, and things changed. What little trust they had between each other which kept them all together had been destroyed by Ultron – by himself. After Sokovia, things had never gone back to normal. He had felt trapped at the compound, surrounded by people who didn’t trust him – people he desperately needed on his side.

If he had thought that was an impossible living situation – this was unimaginable.

Now, he was forced into countless meetings with people who hated him, and at the turn of each corner he braced himself to face an Avenger who had something else to blame him for.

This morning he had practically ran into Wanda in his attempt to make it to his office unnoticed. He had covered his face with a fake smile, apologized and let her know that Steve and the others were training later that afternoon. When his usual word vomit ceased, he moved on. “Run away, little man,” she had drawled at him after giving him a look of death.

It had gone that way for a week now. Feeling suffocated from encounters with his old team that left him feeling hollow and cold.

But what they didn’t realize was this: Yes, they frightened him, but he had always been scared. He was raised by a man that abused him, reared in a land of disappointment and fear. He lived with that fear, let it settle into his bones and ignored it. If he didn’t pretend not to be scared, he would hide under his down covers and silk sheets in his empty mansion forever. He would lie there and scream until there was nothing left of him. He refused to do that. I will not do that.

They were wrong about him. He didn’t desire to become one of them, to be a part of the team. He did not yearn to be their equal.

In his heart, he yearned to best them.

This evening he was in the meeting room to prepare for the next day, when he had the nauseating feeling that he was being watched.

“Can I do something for you, Rogers?” he gritted out, not bothering with any pleasantries.

“Hey, Tony.” Discomfort engulfed the area. The room wasn’t large by any means. Steve was by his side in two steps, and Tony was in a full panic in two heartbeats.

He quickly stood up, not trusting Steve and himself to be that close. Steve’s eyes widened a bit, in their doe-like innocence, but he smiled hesitantly. “I was wondering if we could talk?”

Tony knew exactly what the super soldier wanted to talk about, but he wasn’t about to let him off the hook. “Did I not cover something well enough in the meeting?”

“Oh — what? No. It’s not about that.”

“Then I’m not sure how I can help you, Rogers” Tony moved to gather his paperwork.

“Tony.” Steve’s voice sounded pained.

Good, he thought.

“Tony, could you please look at me? Please?”

Tony set down his work with a bit more force than necessary. “Why, Steve? What could there be left to talk about? There’s nothing left between us.”

“Don’t say that,” Steve’s voice cracked, and he carded his hand through his hair nervously. “I’m sorry for what I did, don’t you understand? I screwed up and I’m sorry.”

For a long while, Tony was silent. He rolled Steve’s words around his mind. If he were a better man, he would find a way to forgive Steve. If he were a better man, he would admit to his own mistakes and make amends. But Tony could not find an ounce of forgiveness left in his body.

“That’s not enough, Steve. It will never be enough.” His voice was tired and simmering with the rage that he felt.

“What more do you want!?” Steve shouted in an outburst of exasperation. He took a few deep breaths and Tony took the opportunity to do the same. “I didn’t enjoy not telling you the truth, Tony. But it’s hard to stop once you start.”

“Is that how it is with you? You spend so much time lying you can’t tell the truth?” The words came out sharper than Tony intended, but to his credit Steve didn’t bite back.

“Tony, please. We both made mistakes, and I don’t know what else to do. What do you want me to do?”

I have nothing left to give you, Steve. You need to accept that I can’t love you anymore.”

“No matter what you think you can do to push me away, Tony, you should end this, before you get hurt.”

“Are you threatening me? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing!” Steve shouted, and then tried to regain his composure, “Nothing, Tony. Just tell me what you want me to say. I’ll do anything. I still love you, and I’ll do anything.” His voice trembled with his attempt to hold back tears. “After everything between us, Tony, you at least owe me this.”

Tony thought of all the things he would never say, all the things he wished they all knew. He had pretended to be okay for so long that he was sure he could do it for longer – he could do it forever. His father’s ghost smirked at him from the corner of the room.

But why should I?

“I don’t owe you anything,” he spit out. “But I’ll tell you what I want.” Tony marched forward, forcing Steve to take a step back. “I want you to stay the hell away from me and I want you to stop pretending that you care about me. I don’t know if you know this, Rogers, but when someone loves someone, they don’t lie to them and they certainly don’t abandon them to die.”

Steve opened his mouth to respond, but Tony wasn’t done yet. “So, when I say that there is nothing left between us, I mean it. I loved you Steve, but what’s worse is that I trusted you. You ripped that away from me, and I will not make that mistake again.”

Tony’s lip curled, but otherwise he kept his expression as masklike as he knew how, as cruel and cold as the faces that reoccurred in his nightmares. It was only as he did it that he realized who he was aping, whose face frightened him into wanting it as his own.

It was the face of the two people in the room.

Steve’s and Howard’s.

Tony’s heart was hammering so hard he felt sick.

Chapter Text

Tony wished he could say that he felt guilty for what he had said.

But he didn’t

His chest was heaving from the exertion of his anger and he stared at Steve with daring in his eyes. Steve clenched his jaw, twisting and turning as he looked for some way out of what was happening. All his pleadings swam in the tears that glistened in his eyes.

“God, Tony you are being ridiculous! Get over yourself, because I am not giving up on you!” Steve looked like he didn’t know whether he was angry or disappointed.

Tony couldn’t help but snort. Even when I shout, he doesn’t listen.“Get out of the way, Spangles,” Tony growled.

“Not until you forgive me,” Steve practically shouted, stepping towards Tony. “God, you’re being so stubborn! We’re not done here!” He yelled and grabbed Tony’s shoulders, pulling him away from the exit and flinging him backwards.

Tony flinched and flew backwards, trying to escape Steve’s grasp. For a moment he was back in Siberia fighting for his life; blood rushed to his head as he stumbled backwards, crashing into the chairs behind him. He slammed into the glass table in the corner of the room with such force that it toppled over. A vase shattered to the floor.  “Get out,” he tried to say, but his voice was choked off. He sunk to the ground and wrapped his hands around his knees.   

“Oh my God, I’m sorry—I’m so sorry—I—” Steve sounded agonized, like his guts were being torn straight out of him. Tony watched as Steve press his fist against his mouth, heard him try to clear his throat, but he couldn’t get another word out.

Steve took a step toward Tony, then backed away, then repeated the motion. Tony’s eyes were trained on Steve’s every move.

“Stop watching me like that!” Steve shouted, “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Still, Tony didn’t look away. His father loomed in the corner and the voices in his head grew louder with his own fear and anger. Watch you’re back, they whispered to him, Soldiers were made to kill monsters like you.

“Get Stephen,” Tony croaked out.

Steve’s mouth pinched at the corners. He was hurt, but he tried to cover it up, bringing his hand to his face to rub the underside of his jaw. “He’s not good for you, Tony,” he whispered, pained.

Tony’s eyes narrowed; his mood darkened.

“He doesn’t know you like I do, and he never will. He acts like he runs the place, and he acts like he adores you. But that’s all it is — acting. I don’t trust him, Tony. And you shouldn’t either.”

When Steve realized that Tony wasn’t going to answer him, he walked away. Tony didn’t know if it was the soldier or his father who had whispered, worthless, when he had left.

Still, Tony sat there. He tried to fight the panic, but a sickening feeling crawled from his stomach to the surface of his skin. You are a monster Tony.  

He instinctively brushed his hand down his arm, as if attempting to rid himself of a disease. There was no doubt that he was furious at Steve, but what he really felt, above all else, was fear. Fear for what loving Steve had turned him into; fear for what he was becoming. Of what was happening to him.

His father leered at him from the corner of the room. I know what you are Tony.

It was more than Tony knew.   

 

 

Steve had left Tony almost ten minutes ago, but his heart was still racing. He couldn’t quite grasp the venom that had dripped off of every one of Tony’s words. He leaned against the wall, trying to regain some of his composure.

He had told Tony what he had thought the mechanic would want the hear, but apparently it would never be enough. Tony would never understand that Steve could love Tony and Bucky too. He would never understand that he had done what he had to. Steve wanted to be with Tony more than anything, but he would do everything again to save his friend, to save the one person from his past.

He squeezed his eyes shut and banged his head against the wall, relishing the distraction the pain in his head brought. A distraction from the pain of being in love with Tony Stark.

There is something wrong with the man.Steve had realized that from their time together. Tony rarely had a night where he didn’t wake up screaming, he muttered to himself, and seemed to see things that other people didn’t.

But throughout all the crazy, Tony was kind and charming and funny. He tried to help other people, and he cared about people with his whole being. Steve loved him, and he wanted to protect him.

“Everything okay, Rogers?”

He fought to suppress a grimace as he was pulled from his thoughts; he knew who that voice belonged to.

After giving himself to the count of three, he cracked open his eyes and met Stephen Strange’s gaze. “Just fine, Doctor.”

Strange nodded and continued on his way a few steps before turning around and asking, “You haven’t seen Tony around, anywhere have you?”

Something hot and sharp flooded Steve’s body at Stephen’s concern for Tony. “No, I haven’t.” he said. The lie surprised him, and he sounded colder than he anticipated.

Stephen seemed to stare through him for a moment, before giving Steve a weary nod. “Alright, I’ll be on my way then.” He went to turn around but thought better of it for a moment. With a light smirk dancing on his lips he said, “We have plans tonight, so if you see him let him know I’m looking for him.”

Steve felt sick at the sound of Stephen’s cheery voice, and he silently seethed as the doctor turned to leave.

In a sudden decision, Steve hurried after the man, placing a hand on his shoulder to slow him down. His voice was pained, but firm: “Stephen, every one of his memories is laced with darkness. It is an infection of the mind. Something is very wrong with him. His sorrow has built up inside him, and the result is twisted and disturbing. He attacked Bucky, Stephen. You should be more careful.”

“You’re afraid of him,” Stephen murmured, intrigued, “or perhaps you’re afraid of your fascination with him.”

Steve’s jaw muscle twitched. “No. I’m afraid of your fascination with him.”

The gray strands of Stephen’s hair caught in the light. He cast Steve a sideways look. “Tony has the ability to protect the world, maybe even the potential to save it, to get us there—even if that potential lies within darkness. We’ve all seen what he can do.” Stephen’s eyes hardened with his last words: “He has no reason to turn on me.”

His words pierced through Steve with a cold, sharp pain.

Chapter Text

There were two things no one knew about Tony, he never told them to anyone. He didn’t even like to let himself think about them. Because he was a coward. But maybe knowing these few details about his past would make more people understand why he was the way he was. Why fear seeped into his marrow. How he learned to pretend any hope away.

 

1. 

He had been 14 when he had first killed someone. He’d been playing in the snow at his family’s lake-house when a group of kids had come up the road. Tony had seen them before and thought that he could be there friend, maybe. More than that, in a way Tony didn’t even understand, he wanted to be one of them.

The leader of the group, Colin, didn’t like him though.

They had looked him over, eyeing his rich-kid attire.

Tony had looked up boldly out at the frozen river, “If you go farther than I do, you can have my watch,” his words tumbling out before he could stop himself. His watch was probably worth more than Colin’s father made in a month. It was a good deal.

The kid’s eyebrows had gone up and his expression was sly. “Do you swear?”

“On my grave.”


The other kids had been impressed as he and Colin had slid along the ice. Though Tony had been confident in his steps, he had lagged behind. That was fine. He didn’t actually want to beat the boy since he was certain that if he did the other kid would get ashamed or angry, and Tony wanted to be his friend, not his enemy.

He had another watch at home anyway. Jarvis would scold him, but he would not tell his father.

They had gotten several body lengths from the river bank when a loud crack echoed around them. The boy froze.

Tony had slid forward a bit more, wanting to show his bravery: “The middle is this way!”

Colin had looked back, dark eyes flashing. He’d taken another few steps and, with a shattering sound, fell through the ice.

“Hey!” Tony shouted, edging toward the break. The boy bobbed back up, scrambling for a grip on the ice. Tony dropped to his belly and scooted forward. He could nearly reach his hands, but he heard the ice beneath him weakening.

Someone grabbed his ankle, yanking him back.

“Wait!” he screamed, holding out his hands to the kid, who had leveraged himself onto his belly but could not get the rest of his body out of the water. The boy reached for Tony but was too late. The boy’s eyes widened in terror, his face as white as the ice, as Radu was pulled away.

“Wait, wait, we have to help him!” Tony had tried to scramble to his feet but another hand took hold of his ankle and slammed him down. His chin bounced against the ice, teeth biting into his tongue and drawing blood. Then he was thrown onto the bank of the river, with his father slapping his face.

“What were you thinking?” he screamed.

“We have to help him!”

“No”

“He will drown! Let me go!”

Howard picked him up by his collar, shaking him. “You could have died!”
“He will die!”

“He is nothing! Your life is worth a hundred of his, you understand? Never risk it again for someone else.”

Howard was still shaking him, jarring his head, so he could not see the river, could not see whether or not Colin had made it. He tried to look back but Howard grabbed his neck and forced him to keep his gaze forward.

Later that night Tony had realized that was the first time Howard had ever let Tony know that he was worth anything. And Tony would have done anything to take it all back.

 

2. 

 

When he was with Steve, before everything had happened, Tony had wanted to show Steve how much he loved him. He didn’t know how to show that kind of love to somebody because it had never been shown to him. But after two and a half years of being together with Steve he needed to find a way.

So he had made a ring. Buying one was overrated.

He had put more work into that ring than some of his suits. It was a beautiful mixture of cobalt and vibranium, engraved with an intertwining symbol of their initials. He had thought about putting the shield and the arc reactor on it instead but decided that wasn’t right. Captain America and Iron Man were there for the world. Steve and Tony were there for each other.

Of course, it had been much more than just a ring. An AI program, AL, short for always, was imbedded into the ring, coded to respond only to Tony and Steve’s voices. AL was a simple program, nothing like JARVIS was. But it was there so that any time of day, Tony and Steve could contact each other. They would know their location and vitals—they would always be safe.

There was even a small robot built into the band. It was microscopic—though with Steve’s vision, he could probably see it. Tony hadn’t given it a name, knowing Steve would get attached and want to name it some horrible name like Fluffy or Uncle Sammy. It was small but packed a powerful punch.

It was a ring that protected Steve, yes. But more importantly, Tony needed it to show how much he loved Steve. He had wanted to tell him that he was lovely and brave and better than anything Tony deserved. That Tony was twisted, crooked, wrong, but not so broken that he couldn’t pull himself together into some semblance of a man for him. That without meaning to, he had begun to lean on Steve, to look for him, to need him near.

He had told no one of his plan. He knew that no one would be able to keep their mouth shut. He carried the ring on his person for months, not knowing when the right moment would come. The weight of the ring comforting him whenever Steve was gone.

But he had waited too long. And somewhere in the wreckage of their relationship was a ring that would never be worn.

 

∞∞∞

 

He didn’t like these stories, they highlighted that he was vulnerable. No matter how careful he was, eventually he’d make another misstep. He was weak. He was mortal. He was worthless.

He hated that most of all.

Even if, by some miracle, he could be better than the Avengers, he would never be one of them. A hero. A fact he was constantly being reminded of. 

Chapter Text

After Stephen had slinked away from the soldier, he went on a search to find Tony. Stephen didn’t believe for a second that Steve hadn’t seen Tony, but he couldn’t quite believe the man could be so jealous. There was something unsettling about the whole conversation.

After opening portals to the various rooms of the compound he found him.

“What are you doing on the floor, Tony? That can’t be comfortable.”

Tony’s face was pale, framed by limp dark hair. Even his surprise looked dull as he noticed Stephen. “I’ve been trying out yoga – this is the happy baby. Or was it the upside down dog?” Tony flashed a smile that might have looked charming to some, yet Stephen could see there was nothing remotely happy about it.

“Can I help?” Stephen offered him a hand to help Tony up, but the man just turned his head to the side. After a beat of tense silence, Tony got up on his own but winced with the effort. White and black spots danced before his eyes. Fat beads of blood fell from his hand, leaving fresh stains on the carpet.

Tony looked down in shock, slight pain finally registering on his wrist and hand where it had landed on the crushed vase when he had fled from Steve. A long gash ran from his wrist to the center of his palm.

 “I didn’t realize I was still bleeding,” Tony lied. “I accidently knocked over the vase earlier. I should probably go and get it looked at,” he said, with no intention of doing so.

Stephen reached out and grabbed his hand, “I can take care of it.” He yanked off his tie; his movements were terse, but his hands were excruciatingly careful as he fought to steady them, and he pressed the fabric to Tony’s fingers.

Tony’s breathing hitched.

Stephen shouldn’t have been touching him so tenderly, or pulling him closer with every movement, and I shouldn’t be letting him.He should have pushed Stephen’s slender hands away. Growled at him as he slowly wrapped the warm silk that had encircled his throat around his bleeding hand.

“I really don’t need your help.” Tony yanked his hand away, freeing it from the silk and spattering his t-shirt with blood as he broke Stephen’s spell before it could be fully cast.

Stephen looked as if he wanted to reach for him. If Tony’s legs so much as swayed Stephen’s way, he imagined the doctor would capture him in his arms and hold him so close that he’d willingly confess his every sin and secret.

But he honestly didn’t care. Like Steve had said, Stephen was just acting. Playing a role. Just like they had done at the dance.

He forced himself to take a step back.

A vein throbbed in Stephen’s neck. “Why won’t you let me help you?”

“Maybe I don’t want your help!”

Another bead of blood dripped to the floor.

Stars joined the spots in front of Tony’s eyes. And before he could take more than one step back, Stephen was there, holding his wrist once more, and maybe holding Tony a little more together, as the doctor finished the job he’d started.

Tony wouldn’t admit it to him, but he felt a little less light-headed as Stephen’s wide, warm hands wrapped his bloody hand inside his tie.

“I’d let you go, but you just admitted you need help.” Stephen’s voice was softer than before.

Tony groaned in defeat. “You looked like a private school dropout in that tie anyway. I’m doing us all a favor.”

“I was at a press conference, earlier.” Stephen explained with a grin, but it faded quickly. “I have some unfortunate news, while were here.”

“What’s new.” Tony muttered bitterly.

 “Sorry,” Stephen chuckled softly. “Ross thought it would be a good idea to hold a tournament.”

Fuck. “And why did he think that would be a good idea?”

“Friendly competition?” Stephen guessed halfheartedly “I think he’s just trying to give the media another show, trying to show them how we’re all a team again.”

“Like there wasn’t enough competition already.” Tony groaned. “Couldn’t he just replay the security tapes at the airport?” Tony ran his good hand through his tangled hair. “Fine. No problem — I can fight any one of them. I did it before, right?”

“Right.” Stephen gave him a weak smile and they walked out of the office together, not mentioning how poorly it had gone the first time.

“Are we sure I can’t just tell him to fuck off? I think that might be a better solution.”

Stephen smiled, a soft, sad thing. “That’s not the bad part Tony.”

“Of course not,” Tony groaned, trying to focus on the pain of his hand then the cruelty and pain of Stephen’s words: “You’ll be facing Wanda first.”

Chapter Text

When someone knocked on his office door Tony thought it was Stephen. The doctor had said he was coming to discuss strategies for the tournament, so Tony figured he had come a bit early to do so.

But it wasn’t Stephen who walked through his door — it was Natasha.

“Tony.” Nat looked at him with her hawk-like eyes. Her smoky voice filled the room with the sound of his name; it was said like an accusation, an apology and a question all at once.

Tony’s pule quickened and heat rushed through him. “Nat.” He said, like it was nothing but a name.

“You’re a hard man to track down these days,” she said as she sat down at his desk.

“Last time I saw you, you insulted me and threatened me. So, sorry if I didn’t want to grab lunch with you when you got here.”

“Last time I talked to you, we had both fought with the people that we loved — we weren’t exactly in the right state of mind.”

Tony’s jaw clenched, “It isn’t my fault you couldn’t pick a side. You were so accustomed to being a double agent that you couldn’t even see what you were doing.”

“And what was I doing?” Her voice was eerily calm in the face of his anger.

“You betrayed me —”

“We all betrayed each other, Tony!” Her voice finally cracking. “Or did you really want to fight everyone else? You’re telling me that you never had a shred of doubt? That you never wished you could do something differently? None of us — none of us — were happy with what happened. But we all believed we were doing our best.”

He ran his hands over his face, as if he could drag away his exhaustion. “That’s not good enough, Nat. We were supposed to be a team. Steve and I were supposed to be a team.”

Nat gave him a sad smile, “Desperation can make a person do surprising things. But he loves you. Really, he does. He’d love you even if it destroyed him.”

“He’s destroyed me,” Tony chuckled morbidly; his father’s ghost leered at him from the corner.    

“I never said he was good for you.”

Tony’s mouth pinched at the corners and he nods, biting the inside of his cheek. No one needed to know that his hopes were dashed. No one needed to know he ever had hopes at all. “My father would have said otherwise. He always wanted me to be more like Captain America.” He sighed, “But I’m done with him now.”

“Don’t lie to a liar, Stark”

“I don’t lie, I just bend the truth.” he tried to joke. 

“Spoken like a typical conman.”

“Actually,” said Tony, “I prefer to think that I’m a liar in a way that’s uniquely my own.”

Nat leaned forward, holding his gaze, suddenly returning to seriousness. “You’re not the villain in this story.”

As much as Tony wanted to agree, he couldn’t. Love was illogical, love had consequences — “I did this to myself, and I should be able to take it.”

“No, Tony — you don’t have to just take it. I want you to fix things with Steve and Wanda,” she said. “Steve has all of the power. There is no winning against him. No matter how brave or clever or even cruel you are, Tony. End this, before you get really hurt.”

Tony looked at her uncomprehendingly. Avoiding Ross’ and Wanda’s wrath seemed impossible. That ship had sailed—and burned up in the harbor. “I can’t,” he told her. Was it normal to feel like you were boiling from the inside out?

“It’s a blow to Wanda’s pride, and it hurts her status, you acting like you’re not afraid of her.” Nat leaned forward and took his arm at the wrist, pulling him close. He had to fight the instinct to pull away. “Tell her that she’s won, and you’ve lost. Tell Steve you forgive him. They’re just words. You don’t have to mean them.”

 “And what would that accomplish? The rest of the team would still hate me. Wanda would still go out of her way to make my life miserable. Steve would still try to get me to forgive him.” He shook his head. “I can’t do that,” he repeated.

“Don’t fight her tomorrow,” she continued, changing the subject.

“Like that’s an option,” he scoffed.

Natasha shrugged, “I thought you were the man who defied all odds? You’ll think of something.”

“I’m not going to skip the tournament,” he told her.

“Even if it wins you nothing but more woe?” she asked.

“Even then.”

“Do something else,” she insisted. “Find a way. Fix it before it is too late.” Nat got up and moved toward the door. “Be careful, Tony,” she said. This time, though, it felt less like a threat and more like genuine concern.

“Aren’t I always?” he smiled.

“No, I think the word for how you usually are is ‘reckless,’” she smiled softly and left him to his thoughts.

Tony thought of all the things Nat wanted him to dismiss, all the things he shouldn’t say. What I should do is continue to keep his head down. Be decent, but not memorable.

That is what he shoulddo.

Chapter Text

The team had been there for almost a month, and Tony ran himself ragged, consumed by paperwork and meetings, working to keep everyone happy—though happy was an unrealistic ideal. He walked around the compound, feeling like a part of him had never gotten out of bed.

Tony was so tired that he even fell asleep in the gym during a demonstration with Maria and Stephen right before the tournament. The sound of punching an grunts lulled him, apparently. It didn’t take much.

He woke on the stone floor.

His head ringing, Tony scrambled for some protection, not quite knowing where he was. For a moment, he thought that he must have fallen. For a moment he thought that he was paranoid, but then he saw Wanda grinning down at him. She pushed me off the bench.

Tony knew it just from the look on her face.

I have not become paranoid enough.

The others had moved to a different corner of the room, focused on Stephen and Maria. He was on his own.

Tony got up slowly, his eyes never leaving Wanda’s sneering face. Though she was only a kid, she seemed to tower over Tony.

“When will you stop pretending that you are part of the team?” Her lip curled up in amusement, “I’ll see you on the sparring mat, warmonger.” She spun around and joined the rest of the groups who had broken up into pairs to warm up.

Tony wanted to scream. But not just because he was angry, but also because he was afraid she was right – that he waspretending. His hands shook, and he grabbed the hem of his shirt to steady them.

By the time he had regained his composure and joined the others, they had formed a circle and were watching Natasha and Clint spar. Tony could feel Stephen’s eyes on him, no doubt shooting him a look of concern, but Tony ignored him, doing his best to glue his eyes to the map. He’d been on his own most his life, he’d be alone on the mat and so he needed to be alone now.

Today’s matches would be hand to hand combat only, without any enhanced abilities or weapons, followed by an analysis of the team’s weakness and strengths. The goal was to push the opponent off of the mat or pin them down, but with the agility and accuracy that Clint and Nat were fighting with, they needed no weapons to deal painful damage.

Tony’s eyes shot to the ground when he caught sight of Wanda grinning at him, like a raptor watching her prey. He drank some water set out for them all and began to warm up. His stomach was sour from going a whole day without food, but he didn’t feel hungry. He felt sick, eaten up with nerves. He tried to ignore everything except the exercises he moved through to limber up his muscles.

And then Tony heard his name get called out, and his breathing tightened. He could feel Steve’s eyes boring holes through his back, but he ignored it the best he could. Natasha was watching him too — intently, as though trying to warn him with his gaze. 

At the start he fought defensively. He avoided Wanda’s jabs and kicks, blocked and dodged her combinations. He figured if he played it safe Wanda would blow off some steam and forget about her life’s mission to destroy him and just try to win. She was too small to do any real damage without her abilities.

Maria caught on eventually and called him out, admonishing him for not giving it his all.

Wanda taunted him as they begin to circle each other once more: “You are docile today, Stark. Does Ross control you? Your handler desires our approval very much.”

Tony’s good intentions evaporated. His blood was on fire, boiling in his veils. It was true that he didn’t have much power left, but here was what he did have — he could force her hand. Wanda might want to hurt him, but I can make her want to hurt me worse.

And when she got sloppy, he would win the fight.

They were supposed to be battling, so he went to war. He fought as viciously as possible. His fists cracked through the air, his elbows banged against Wanda’s forearms so hard that she staggered back with each blow. When Wanda tried to retaliate, Tony arched as far as his back would bend. He’s still arched when Wanda strikes again, this time slamming her palm down with the force of a girl twice her size. Tony’s eye blurred with pain, but he threw himself to the side, rolling across the mat.

In one smooth motion, he rolled to his feet and thrust his arm upward, blocking Wanda’s blow. He pushed off his front leg and swung his arms for momentum, spinning through the air and using the motion to land a harsh blow.

He kept up his attacks with such speed that Wanda’s eyes widened. He attacked again and again, ignoring the pain from any blow Wanda managed to land. She had been pushed off the mat before he could even enjoy himself.

Stop pretending you’re a hero, Steve had said once.

Right now, it felt like he never could be.

Maria called it and raised an eye at Tony. He ignored her, and they broke off to opposite sides of the ring. Wanda, seething with anger, watched him throughout the rest of the drill. He could feel her eyes skinning him alive.

Tony started to tremble all over, the adrenaline was draining out of him and the exhaustion and terror seeped in. A few medics were waiting for them all, and they wanted to study his bruises and worry over him, but Tony shrugged them off, his shoulders slumped. This pain was nothing for him.

But Wanda was waiting for him when he got away from the medics, wearing her sneer like a crown. He looked around for someone that could help him. But there was no one, they were all busy with other things. Of course.

Stupid to forget I am always on my own.

Even though he had braced himself for it, he still wasn’t ready when Wanda’s magic slammed him against the wall, “Did you really think you could win against me?”

Tony swallowed hard. I did win.

 “No,” he said.

Her black eyes simmered with rage. “So, you’re not completely senseless. Who would have thought? Now, apologize.”

He tried to step away and tug, wanting to wrench free of her grasp. But her hold only tightened. She stared at him with hungry eyes and a small, awful smile.

Then, with a flick of her hand the red smoke vanished, letting him stagger free. Out of his periphery Tony saw Steve had stumbled upon them, looking at him pleadingly, as though he himself was the one who needed to be saved.

“Apologize for everything you’ve done to me. Apologize for creating the monster who killed my brother, for being the monster who betrayed all of us. Apologize, and make it worthy of the team.”

More people had noticed what was happening and were watching, hoping my demise will be amusing. He saw Stephen watching passively from a corner, some medics whispering and staring.

This was the show they’d been expecting to see since the Avengers had arrived. This wasn’t a mock battle. This was the real thing.

“Apologize?” He echoed.

Tony thought of the destruction Ultron created, and the time spent at Clint’s farm. He thought of his mother’s tearstained face, begging for her life to be spared. He thought of how he had spent the last two years trying to fix his mistakes and of how he had spent his whole life searching for a family.

There was no shame in surrender. As Natasha had said, they were just words. He didn’t have to mean them. He could lie.

He started to lower his gaze. This would be over quickly, every word would taste like bile, and then it would be over.

When he opened his mouth, though, nothing came out.

He couldn’t do it.

Instead, he shook his head at the sheer lunacy of what he was about to do. It was the thrill of leaping without being able to see the ground below, right before you realize that’s called falling.

“You think because you have these powers you can humiliate me, you can control me?” Tony said, looking her in those black eyes. “I think you’re a scared and senseless child. Since you joined this team, you’ve gone out of your way to make everyone aware of how awful your life is. Well guess what? Everyone’s life is a shit-show here; you don’t win any awards.

“Ever since you came back, you all have wanted me to feel like I am less than you. And to coddle your egos, I have made myself less. I have made myself small, I have kept my head down. But it wasn’t enough to make you leave me alone, so I’m not going to do that anymore.

“You keep reminding me that you have these powers. You may warp my mind and ensnare me in your freaky ribbons, but —”

“Tony!” His head snapped to look at Steve, the soldier’s face was twisted into a nightmarish form of horror and confusion.

But Tony wasn’t done. “You may be America’s favorite hero, Steve, but that means you have everything. Let me remind you that I have nothing anymore. But I will make sure you lose everything I can take from you on the way down. I promise you–this is the least of what I can do.”

Steve looked at him as though he’d never seen him before. Wanda looked at him as though no one had ever spoken to her like that. Maybe no one had.

Tony turned away from them and began walking, half expecting Steve to grab his shoulder and throw him to the ground, half expecting Wanda to invade his mind and make him beg for forgiveness. But they said nothing. He felt their gaze on his back, pricking the hairs on his neck.

It was all he could do not to run.

Chapter Text

Tony felt sick. The kind of sick where his heartbeat pounded throughout his whole body and his insides were a jumbled mess of knots pulling on each other to get out.

He didn’t dare to look around, but he caught a glimpse of Clint staring at him, open-mouthed. Sam looked furious; his hands fisted at his sides in mute rage.

Tony staggered past the entrance to the restrooms where he splashed his face with water. His legs felt stiff, and he was shaking all over. He bent to the ground, trying to gain some type of control.

He could care less about what Wanda did or thought. But the way Steve had looked at him — like he was a monster for saying those things, for standing up for myself. It was like Steve didn’t even see how Wanda had attacked him, like he kept expecting Tony to do something wrong and then was disappointed when it happened.

I hate him. I hate him, and I hate myself.

His legs felt stiff, and he was shaking all over.

“Are you all right?” Stephen asked, gazing down with his grey eyes. Tony hadn’t even heard the man follow him.

I am not.

I am not alright, but he can’t know that, and he shouldn’t be asking.

Tony thought of how Stephen had done nothing when Wanda had him tied up against the wall. “What do you care?” He said, spitting the words out.

The way Stephen was looking at him made him feel more pathetic than ever. He could never figure out what the man thought about him, and right now he didn’t have the patience to figure it out.

Stephen leaned against the wall, letting a slow, lazy smile grow on his mouth. “It’s funny, that’s all.”

“Funny?” Tony echoed. There was a time when he would have responded in the same way. Now, though, he is filled with anger – all the time. “You think that was funny?”

Stephen shook his head, still smiling. “No. It’s funny how you get under his skin.”

At first, Tony wasn’t sure he heard him right. He almost asked whom Stephen was talking about, because he couldn’t quite believe that someone was admitting that high-and-mighty Steve could be affected by anything. “Like a splinter?” he said.

“Of vibranium.” Stephen grinned. “No one else bothers Steve quite the way that you do.” Stephen picked up a towel and wet it, then knelt down beside him and carefully wiped his face. Tony sucked in a breath when the cold cloth touched the sensitive part of his eye, but Stephen was far gentler than Tony would have been to himself. Stephen’s face was solemn and focused on what he was doing. He didn’t seem to notice that Tony was studying him, his long face and sharp chin, his wavy hair, the way his eyelashes caught in the light.

Then he did notice. Stephen was looking at him, and Tony looked back at him, and it was the strangest thing, because Tony thought that no one would ever look at him like that again.

Stephen wasn’t just looking, he was noticing.

It was different that the ball; this wasn’t a performance, there was no one watching. He was smiling as if they were sharing a secret.

“Keep it up,” Stephen said.

Tony wondered at those words. Could he really mean them?

As Tony made his way back to his office he couldn’t stop thinking of Steve’s shocked face, nor could he stop considering Stephen’s smile. He wasn’t altogether sure which was more dangerous.

 

 

That night, Tony went to bed with a headache and woke up with a glossy fever fog over his brain. His voice was hoarse from his screams in the night:

Steve was always a little afraid of the snow.

When they had been sharing the same bed and a snowstorm rolled through, he’d climb closer to Tony, wake him, and curl his large body against Tony’s smaller frame. Tony would wrap an arm around the soldier and hum his mother’s lullaby as the storm raged on outside. He wasn’t proud to admit it, but Tony had always liked Steve’s helplessness in those moments. It made him feel powerful.

In those small moments, he was the better one.

This is how his dream starts tonight. A dark blizzard raged outside his windows. He dreamt that he woke in his bedroom to find Steve huddled beside him, under the blankets, his back turned to Tony, his body trembling, his chest rapidly rising and falling. He smiled sleepily.

“It’s all right, Stevie.” He whispered. Tony put and arm around his broad shoulders and started to hum. “It’s only a storm.”

It will get worse, Steve whispered back. His voice sounded strange, like a hiss. Inhuman.

Tony stopped humming. His smile faded. “Steve?” he murmured. He moved his arm and rolled Steve to face him.

Where Steve’s face should have been, there was instead, nothing.

Then the bed collapsed beneath him—and suddenly he was falling. He fell down, down, down. He falls forever.

Splash.

He struggled to the surface, gasping, and wiped the water from his eyelashes. Where was he? He was surrounded on all sides by what looked like rocky walls. Above him, where the sky should be, was more rock. Everything was almost too dark to see.

Afghanistan.

He’d recognize this cave anywhere. Dread filled his bones, making him colder than should be possible. The little light that was here, was dead, faint enough to keep everything in a constant state of gray, no colors, no sounds, only a quiet sea. He looked around the dark room. The sight sent a coil of terror through his stomach. Deep, black, endless, filled with the gliding ghostly silhouettes of people who Tony knew were dead. Filled with monsters.

Anthony.

A whisper called to him. He looked to the side. A child walked along the edge of the cave, his skin as pale as porcelain, his body skeletal under white clothing, his locks of dark hair spread out in a messy web of strands. In a flash of horror Tony saw that it was him, as a child. He wanted to scream, but no sound came out.

The young version of him walked closer. Where his eyes and nose and mouth should have been, Tony could only see skin, like someone had stretched cloth tightly across his face.

Fear is power, the creature whispered.

Then from somewhere behind him a bag was placed over his head and he was pulled further into the darkness.

Tony shot up in bed, trembling from head to toe. Everything vanished, replaced with his empty bedroom at the Compound. Snow slapped against his windows. After a few moments, he leaned his head wearily in his arms. As he fell back asleep, images of Steve lingered in his mind, fragments of ghosts. He wondered whether Steve was able to sleep in this storm, or if he too was awake in the Compound, thinking about the past.

Then he wondered why he cared.

Chapter Text

Sometimes, Tony felt like he was slowly floating away. He was constantly looking for something to grab on to so he didn’t lose himself. But now there was nothing and no one left to cling to.

No one but Stephen, who Tony couldn’t bring himself to trust.

The few weeks after the tournament had been a horrible test of pretending that nothing phased him. Not the hushed whispers that followed everywhere he went, not the cruel laughter when he was leading meetings. Not even the glares that Wanda gave him, the overt signals that she was biding her time until she could strike again.

It was tiring, making sure he was never alone — especially when there were so few people left for him. It was no surprise that he couldn’t last like that, existing as if he could outrun his shadow.

As if he could outrun Steve.

He had just stumbled upon Tony, alone. It was late at night, and usually no one but Stephen was up at this hour.

He and Steve were in some sort of silent competition now, staring at each other as though any sudden movement would send them to war again. Tony hated it. He hated the way Steve looked at him, hated the way he was looking at Steve.

Tony’s hand had reached to his chest, where the scars from his fight with Steve lined his chest. They were a reminder of their shared past. They made him feel all of his exposed nerves when he was trying so hard not to feel anything.

Finally, Steve broke the illusion of stillness, sliding into the kitchen where Tony was sitting, fondling a cup of coffee.

Steve set about making a fresh pot of coffee, rummaging through the drawers for the good coffee beans which he hid from Clint.

Part of Tony wanted to run, to fly as far from Steve as he could get. But he had announced in front of everyone that he was going to stop being afraid of them, that he would defy them with every step he took.

So he stayed there, only tensing when Steve gently reached over and took the cup of coffee from Tony, refilling it with the brew he had made. 

Tony knew that Steve had been holding back his words this whole time. Fear and hatred didn’t erase all of the time spent together, and Tony could still read Steve like a book. 

He wondered if part of him should miss this, if he should pretend that he was getting his cup of coffee from Steve like he did during all of those mornings they spent cuddled up together. Really, Tony just wanted to throw the cup at the wall.

Instead Tony took a sip of the coffee with his good arm, forcing himself to choke out a soft thanks.  

“I’m sorry about the tournament,” Steve said quietly, taking Tony’s false gratitude as an invitation to talk. “That should never have happened.” His eyes were staring at the sling around Tony’s neck. Clint had broken his right forearm in the game — an accident, of course — but one that had kept him from being productive in his workshop. 

It took a while for Tony to find words to say, when so many voices in his head were screaming at him to do so many different things. “I’m just so tired, Steve,” he settled on. Tired of being powerless

He ignored the disappointment that was caked on his father’s face, who’s ghost was standing in the back corner of the kitchen hoping for a fight.

Blue eyes darkened with confusion and worry. It made Tony’s stomach twist, but he continued.

 “I’m tired of being sorry and I’m tired of pretending.” He stared into the empty space in front of him, not really seeing Steve. “Aren’t you? Broken promises, broken bones — it doesn’t matter anymore.”

Shadows and light played on Steve’s face and the space around him, and Tony couldn’t tell if he found him beautiful anymore. Steve had taken even that from him; Tony didn’t know what he believed in anymore. Perhaps he had a kind of cruel beauty, the sharp edges of a siren’s face.

“I’m so sorry Tony. I don’t know how else I can say it. I don’t know what would be enough.” They weren’t talking about the tournament anymore.

“I spent a lot of time in the hospital, after you left me in that bunker,” Tony found himself saying, “I spent so much time wondering if you were okay, wondering if it was my fault that you hadn’t come to see me.” Tony lowered his head into his left hand. The other hung uselessly against his chest.

“How did we end up like this?” Steve’s voice was barely above a whisper, but the ragged quality to it made Tony think Steve was either going to scream or burst out into hysterical tears. “We used to be happy. We can still be happy. I love you, Tony”

Steve wanted to live in a house built on delusion, would rather believe in a million lies than face one truth. This wasn’t love. This was something sick and twisted, a cruel obsession chasing after both of them, trying desperately to tear out their souls with sharp, brutal claws. 

Protection. That was what this was about, wanting someone weaker than him. Steve didn’t want Tony for who he was. He had seen the real side of Tony and ran away with Bucky, left him in a bunker to die.

Tony had always done the best he could, and yet, somehow, it had never been enough. No one cared what he did. They always turned their backs on him or asked him to change who he was.

“I know in your heart that you feel something for me,” Steve said, after Tony hadn’t said anything. “I can protect you.”

Protection? Watching my back is the perfect opportunity to stick in a knife.

 That was what this was about, wanting someone weaker than him. Steve didn’t want Tony for who he was. He had seen the real side of Tony and ran away with Bucky, left him in a bunker to die. Steve was deluding himself.

Tony had made mistakes. He trusted both too little and too much. But, Jesus Christ, he tried so hard. He gave everything he had.

He had always done the best he could, and yet, somehow, it had never been enough. No one cared what he did. They always turned their backs on him or asked him to change who he was.

Tony considered Steve’s words carefully, pressing a hand to his chest to make sure that his heart was still there. It was such an odd thing, how people believed the heart was where true emotions were felt, when, really, it was just a fuck ton of chemicals mixing in the brain that determined what he felt. Love wasn’t anything but that, a chemistry experiment — one that had exploded in his face.

The heart was nothing but a bloody, beating piece of meat, a slave to the brain. It was another vulnerability of the human body, another thing Tony had failed to protect.

But wherever emotions lied, Steve was right. There was something Tony could feel deep within him, like a raging fire.

But it wasn’t love.

Howard’s face grinned at his realization.

Steve had tears in his eyes now. The sight was more than Tony could bear, he wanted Steve to know what it was like to not be able to cry anymore. How you could reach a point when you had to force yourself not to because all you are is pain, and if you let some of it out, you might cease to exist.

The soldier took two steps away from him and then turned back. It was astounding, that Steve was the one acting like a caged animal. “Do you even love me?” he asked suddenly.

Steve gripped the table with both hands. “I’ve said it to you before, and I still mean it. But I’ve never heard it from you since everything got in the way of our life together.”

Love and life. Things that could be given or taken away in single beat of the heart, all in the pursuit of power and happiness. Tony could not avoid his own spark of life, dull though it might be.

Love, however—

Despite his fears and fatigue and self-loathing that crowded Tony’s mind, he felt an uncustomary moment of pure elation that came with the kind of clarity he hadn’t had until now.

How could you love the man who betrayed you? Who saw you as fragile and broken and weak? His kindness was only meant to make later torments crueler.

Tony hated him. He hated him more than all the others. More than Wanda. So much that when he looked at Steve, he could hardly breathe.

“I Don't," Tony whispered. Steve flinched away from Tony’s cold and distant voice. He sounded like his father. “Who could ever love you?”

Those were the words his father had said to him that night in the rain, dragging Tony through the mud.

Tears were rolling down Steve’s face now. “I don’t understand, Tony. I need you — we can — I —”

Pathetic. Steve’s voice cracked when he spoke, and something in Tony broke along with it. Maybe it was the final few strings that had once tied his heart to Steve’s.

The freedom made air rush to his lungs — he could finally breathe.

Tony could see Steve crumbling. Growing smaller and younger and turning suddenly fragile. Only in his dreams had Steve been like this. Begging. Miserable. Powerless.

Tony had never known the mind of a wolf hunting a deer, but he imagined it must feel a little like this. The twisted excitement of seeing the weak and wounded cowering before you. The knowledge that, in this instant, you have the power to end its life or grant it mercy.

In this moment — serum be damned — Tony was God.

What could he become if he stopped worrying about fear, about pain, about anything? What would it be like if he stopped trying to belong?

He had been going about it all wrong, thinking that Steve could end his suffering. He was the poison, he couldn’t also be the cure.

Darkness pooled deep within Tony, coiling like a viper. “I hate you," Tony breathed through his mouth. "I hate you so much that sometimes I can't think of anything else.”

Part of Tony recoiled at the darkness inside of him. Why was he the way he was? There were no real answers. Why was he awful to Steve? Because he could be. Because he liked it. Because, for a moment, when he was at my worst, he felt powerful, and most of the time, he felt powerless, despite being an Avenger, a billionaire and the son of the esteemed Howard Stark.

Steve continued looking at Tony, as though he’d never seen Tony before or as though he thought he would never see him again.

Suddenly, Tony rushed from the kitchen. The coffee Steve had poured him sat on the counter, abandoned. He felt lighter than he had in years.

Tony didn’t know exactly where he was going or who he was looking for until he found himself knocking on the door of Stephen’s bedroom, barging in when he didn’t hear an answer fast enough.

Perhaps he’d been looking for him the whole time.

The look of surprise on Stephen’s face at the sight of Tony whisking into his room was nothing compared to the shocked moan that escaped the wizard’s throat when Tony’s lips came crashing down on his.

Tony had vowed to never love again, but he hadn’t realized until now that he didn’t have to love Stephen. He could give in to his desire for one night though and get it out of his system. He could have fun.

Chapter Text

Stephen’s skin was slippery with water and he smelled soapy, like the sea. He was shirtless, just out of the shower. The moment was perfect.

Tony’s shirt stuck to Stephen’s arms when he slid his hands around him. He pressed his face to Stephen’s neck and kissed him right above the collarbone, kissed his cheek, kissed his lips.

Stephen touched his cheek to slow the kiss down, holding his mouth on Tony’s so that he could feel every place where their lips touched and every place where they pulled away. Tony savored the air they shared in the second afterwards and the slip of his nose across his own.  

“Well this is a pleasant surprise,” Stephen murmured, his breath tickling Tony’s lips.

He couldn’t help but grin. Tony was still feeling light from severing himself from Steve, and kissing Stephen had made his head buzz with a pleasant warmth. He was almost high from the feeling.

Tony stood on his toes and stole another soft kiss from his lips. "Surprise attack," he said.

“Sneaky.” Stephen leaned down and kissed him back, his mouth lingering on Tony’s, teeth grazing his lower lip, making him shiver.

“What is it about your voice that makes me want to hear you speak?” Tony asked.

Stephen chuckled again, sending a warm shiver down Tony’s spine. “I wouldn’t think you wanted to talk right now,” he trailed off, his hands sweeping up Tony’s chest, teasing him.

“What gave you that idea —”

The words were barely said when Stephen’s mouth came down on his. And that was that. All the self-control Tony had exerted over the past weeks went, like water crashing through a broken dam. There was no more pretending away his feelings for Stephen.

Stephen’s arms came up around Tony’s neck and he pulled him against his chest. Stephen’s hands flattened against his back, and Tony was up on the tips of his toes, kissing him as fiercely as Stephen was kissing him.

Tony clung to him more tightly, knotting his hands in Stephen’s hair, trying to tell him, with the press of his mouth, all the things he could never say out loud. Tony’s hands slid down to Stephen’s waist.

But before he could get what he truly wanted, Stephen’s hand reached out and stopped him with a soft touch. He was staring at Tony, His lips were parted, his eyes wild. It was as if there were something he was trying to say.

There was almost something more intimate about it than touching. When Stephen looked in Tony’s eyes, he wasn’t watching the rest of the world. He wasn’t looking out for himself. He was risking part of his person to focus solely on him.

Dangerous. This is dangerous. The warning was fleeting, but it was enough to make Tony question how good it felt to touch Stephen — how right it was to not be thinking about Steve.

It occurred to Tony, suddenly, that maybe desire wasn’t something overindulging helps. Maybe he took a killing dose when he should have gotten used to it first, poisoning himself slowly, one kiss at a time.

Tony started to back away, realizing that Stephen cared far too much about Tony for this to be safe. But Stephen’s arms wrapped around his waist again, pulling him into his chest, hot and solid.

“Nope,” Stephen grinned wickedly, “Mine now.”

Tony wanted to say something witty or scathing, but to his horror all that came out was: “You should never wear a shirt.”

A laugh burst from Stephen, bouncing off the room. Tony forced out a laugh, the sound creaky and false in his ears. He liked to believe that he was doing okay here in the compound. He liked to believe that even though he was almost killed by a man that he once loved and had to see every day, that he was able to put that behind him. He was fine.

But if he couldn’t laugh, maybe he was not so fine after all.

Stephen pulled him over to the edge of his bed, leaning against the headboard and pulling his knees to his chest so his bare feet were pressed against the side of Tony’s thigh.

“I know it’s an awful question,” Stephen started slowly, “but —”

“I’m okay,” Tony forced out, giving him a lopsided grin. “I’m good.”

“You still don’t get it do you?” Stephen shook his head, a sad smile on his face, “I wouldn’t be fighting so hard for you if you were just good.”

Tony closed his eyes, trying to puzzle out Stephen’s words.

“And so what if you’re not good?” Stephen scoffed. “Good is the word people use to describe how their day was and smores fresh off of the fire. But you, Tony, are more like the fire. No one calls a fire good. Fires are hot, burning things that children are warned not to play with.”

Tony stared at the man blankly, “You’re doing an awful job at cheering me up.”

“Fire’s not bad either Tony. It’s warmth and its creation.”

“It’s a natural disaster — and a manmade one too.”

Stephen kicked Tony playfully, “You’re ruining my analogy,” he complained.

Tony held up his hands in a mocking apology, frowning when Stephen grabbed his hand and pulled gently.

Reluctantly, Tony slid next to Stephen, resting his head on the backboard behind him, glad to be out of the wizard’s scrutinizing gaze.

A million thoughts poured into Tony’s head, but like Stephen he stayed silent. There was so much to say, and so many things he can’t say.

He knows Stephen was waiting for him, waiting for Tony to give him something to work with. A reason why he was so broken. But did reasons matter when there was nothing to be done to change things?

Stephen wanted too much from him. And when someone knew your story, they knew you. And they could hurt you. Which is why Tony always gave his away in pieces, even to Steve.

A small voice tugged at the back of his mind in protest. And as though he could tell that Tony’s trust was faltering, Stephen murmured, “You can stay here, if you want. We don’t have to do anything.”

Tony turned his head slowly, letting his eyes trail over the sharp features of Stephen’s face, the wild curl of his damp hair. Tony’s fingers brushed against his hair, trying to smooth it down.

He realized what he was doing a full minute after Stephen had closed his eyes and leaned into his touch. Embarrassment flared up in his chest, but Stephen grabbed his hand before he could pull back and tucked it under his chin.

“There is still good in you, Tony. There is still hope for us.”

There is still good in you. Tony closed his eyes, not trusting himself. If you let hope inside, it would take over. It would feed on your insides and use your bones to climb and grow. Eventually it would become the thing that is your bones, that holds you together. Holds you up until you don’t know how to live without it anymore. To pull it out of you would almost kill you entirely.

“What do you hope?” Tony asked, still looking away.

 “I hope that you feel for me as I do for you,” he said, his voice like a sigh against his throat.

Tony fought against the warmth that filled his body. How could he let this happen to himself again? His fingers curled one by one until they were fists, the tendons of his broken arm tense with pain.

“Sleep, Tony.” Stephen whispered, still holding onto his other hand. “I promise I won’t leave you.” Stephen said. “Not like he did.”

Tony fought the fatigue at first, but there was something about the warmth of being held that lulls him to sleep. He didn’t resist when Stephen brought him into the cradle of his arms. His back fit perfectly against Stephen’s chest, solid and strong. There is still good in you.

Chapter Text

It should have felt like he was entering the usual, terrible slog of existence when Tony woke up. He should have felt groggy and swollen with nightmares. Instead his body felt whole and rested, and his heart was beating stronger than it had been in what felt like months. Wherever he was, this new universe was delightfully cozy and sweet, as if someone had tucked her into the center of a holiday. His inner clock, honed from years of sleepless nights, tells him it’s the early hours of the morning now, maybe four or five.

He was just about to turn over and go back to sleep — why waste this wonderful gift of a peaceful night— when the rustle of sheets beside him made him jolt. His reason kicked into action, and the memory of Stephen’s shaking hands gliding over his body the night before slid into clarity.

Tony was just beginning to consider the different ways he could sneak out without Stephen noticing when the sleeping man beside him mumbled, “You’re out of practice.” 

Tony struggled to contain a soft yelp — not sleeping then.

“Sorry?” He questioned, slowly turning around to face Stephen. They had separated in the night, and the wizard was now sprawled on his stomach, his head turned to Tony.

“I bet in the height of your playboy years, you could have snuck out at any time and the poor fool wouldn’t have been the wiser.” Stephen’s words were muffled against the bed sheets, but his grey eyes glinted playfully. 

“You’re the fool in this scenario, right?”

 “You irk me.” Stephen replied, plumping up the pillow and resting his head down heavily. “You’re irksome.”

Tony let out a breathy laugh, grateful for Stephen’s teasing. It gave him relief from his worry that this was getting too serious too fast.

“Tony?” Stephen asked.

Tony hesitated, sensing danger. “Yes?”

“You look terrified. Does this scare you?” Stephen’s barely murmuring now, not used to being up this early like Tony was.

Maybe Stephen wouldn’t remember his answer: “More than anything.”

“Why?”

 “Because I didn’t bring any mints,” Tony said, because maybe Stephen would remember.

“And now the real answer …”

“Because I’m afraid that once you catch me, the game’s over. You won’t like what you’ve caught.” And for just this once, Tony told the truth. And maybe, just maybe, it was because he wanted Stephen to remember. Because it was tiring to go through life alone and afraid.

But Stephen didn’t say anything again, and his breathing had evened out, soft and deep. And after a moment of deliberation that was worryingly short, Tony settled in next to the man and followed him into slumber.


The next time Tony woke, he found himself peering into Stephen’s grey eyes.

“You’re still here,” Stephen said softly, brushing a bit of hair from Tony’s forehead.

“Don’t press your luck,” Tony grinned, batting away Stephen’s hand and pushing himself upright. He was the kind of hot that you got when you went to sleep wrapped in blankets but woke up sweating.

Stephen was watching his every move, and Tony tried to get his thoughts in order, lest the wizard was able to read his mind, or something.

The corner of Stephen’s lips jilted upward in a sad smile,  “Your emotions make you human, Tony. Even the unpleasant ones have a purpose. Don't lock them away. If you ignore them, they just get louder and angrier.”

Tony narrowed his eyes, “You can read my mind?”

“I’m not a Jedi!” Stephen laughed. “I just know you.”

Tony took a breath, swinging his legs out of Stephen’s bed and planting his feet on the carpet beneath him. He must have kicked his shoes off at some point last night.

Slowly, Tony looked around the room, not wanting to see what would be lingering in the corners. Sure enough, not even Stephen could keep his father away. There he was, leering at him in the corner, whispering every insult that Tony always told himself.

“Tony?” Stephen asked, drawing his attention by brushing a hand along his back.

“Yeah? Sorry, I’m just thinking” He wiped at his eyes, suddenly feeling exhausted again. Would there ever be a time when he wasn’t exhausted? “I’m going to go change.”

“Don’t do that to me,” Stephen replied, staring Tony down with a look of almost hunger on his face. “We’re too much alike to pretend with each other. At least when we’re alone, let’s be who we truly are.”

To his horror, Tony didn’t move when Stephen came closer. The doctor spoke softly: “I have watched you punish yourself day after day for mistakes that you didn’t make. For two years I have sat by while you fought to bring home the people that left you behind. I know you made mistakes, I know you feel guilty and angry, but you have long paid your penance. You can set yourself free.”

Stephen gripped both of Tony’s shoulders and Tony tried to feel grounded in the moment, but it was impossible. Every time he thought he could be happy he remembered how his father and Steve — the men meant to love him unconditionally — had left him feeling hopeless.

“I can’t trust anymore, Stephen. I don’t deserve to either. I keep seeing them, hearing everything and everyone— and I don’t know. I’m so angry, and I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why I survived. I don’t understand why I am here.”

He knew that he wasn’t making sense, but he couldn’t seem to connect his thoughts to his tongue. That feeling, the heart-swallowing guilt, the sadness that took hold and never let itself be shaken free—how did you tell someone that? How could you put that into words?

Stephen’s lips parted but no sound came out for several minutes.

“The most important thing you ever did was learn how to survive. Do not let anyone make you feel like you shouldn’t have — like you didn’t deserve to be an Avenger. You are important, and you matter. You matter to me, you matter to the world, and you matter to the future—” His voice caught.

“I will never hurt you, or yell at you, or betray you. I will protect you for the rest of my life. I will never fully understand what you’ve been through, but I will always listen when you when you need to get something out. Do you understand?”

Something warm bloomed in Tony’s chest, even as his breath hitched in his throat. He wanted to say something to that, to thank him, to ask him to repeat it again just to be sure he hadn’t misunderstood or misheard him.

“I can’t pretend like it never happened,” he told Stephen.

“You shouldn’t—you should never forget. But part of surviving is being able to move on. There’s a beginning in an end, yeah? It’s true that you can’t reclaim what you had, but you can lock it up behind you. Start fresh.”

Tony understood what Stephen was saying, but after having his life broken down into battle after battle, the thought of dividing it up even further was unimaginable.

“I know you’ve been through a lot, so you don’t have to say anything now. Just know that you’ll be safe here with me.” He hesitated, and Tony swore Stephen could hear the rhythm of his heart pounding. “Know that I want to fall in love with you, and I need you to let me.” Stephen breathed out with a nervous smile. He bent down, gave Tony a soft kiss on his head, and left to the bathroom.

A feeling of freedom rose through Tony so fast that he had to chase it down to squash it along with his swelling heart. He knew what that meant. It was dangerous, but it just might be worth it.


In the bathroom, Stephen stood facing the mirror, replaying his conversation with Tony. He had promised many things to him, said he would be there for him always. And he had meant it.

Somewhere along the way, Stephen had gone from being intrigued by Tony to amazed, from wanting to keep him on the right path to wanting to protect him. Stephen might have been drawn to him out of concern for the world at first, but now there was a lot more at stake.

It was dangerous, maybe, to get more involved than simply being there for Tony, guarding and guiding him. But Stephen had a liking for danger and, apparently, for Tony Stark.

Chapter Text

Everyone had a different way of escaping the dark stillness of their mind, and with a broken arm, Tony’s method of using the workshop to escape was severely hindered.

That was why he had ended up spending more time with Stephen, Tony told himself. It had nothing to do with the warmth he had felt in Stephen’s bed and the safety he felt with his touch.

No one will ever want you, his father hissed from the corner, clawing for attention. Tony scowled and shifted in his seat, turning his head away from the illusion and focusing on Stephen’s words.

He was telling Tony some kind of magical experiment, but it didn’t sound very scientifically sound. Francis Bacon would have seriously disproved.

“Are you sure you’re not talking about a horoscope?” Tony grinned, loving the way Stephen’s brow wrinkled whenever he was subjected to Tony’s teasing.

“If you’re not interested in learning then I guess —”

“No — sorry. No.” Tony did his best to look innocent, and he did feel a little bad for zoning out halfway through Stephen’s lesson.  He focused himself.

“So the spell shows someone’s alignment to what exactly? Emotions?”

Stephen shook his head and completed an intricate motion with his hands. Several illusions of gems appeared before them. “The ancients believed that gems were lingering reminders of where the gods’ hands touched the earth during creation. Certain gemstones called out to specific types of energies in the world.”

Tony nodded, trying to put himself in the mindset of someone with no experience of proper science and technology. Things became a lot more believable when you started to look at the world the way someone with no conception of gravity, electricity, atoms or an infinite universe had.

“The early magicians used stones in their natural form to read people’s energies and test their alignments to the gods,” Stephen continued. “One for each of the gods and angels. Each person is called to some more than others.”

With another set of movements, the stones had vanished. “The mystic arts refined the process. The spell operates using the same understandings and principles of energy, but the rocks were abandoned. No geology now.”

Tony nodded solemnly. “The economy isn’t what it used to be.”  

Stephen kicked Tony’s chair.

“Hey!” he laughed, pretending to be wounded. It was interesting though. Energy, illusions, spells. It was stuff of his childhood, when he had spent time learning sleight of hand before moving on to manipulating circuit boards. Magic. It was the stuff of fantasy.

But this was something different than the spells of Harry Potter. What Stephen was doing was real and tangible. Which meant it had to have an explanation. It had to be science.

The rocks Stephen had conjured could be explained by the bending of light and air. Or maybe even manipulation of his own senses? And what was the energy that the spell targeted? Electricity or something else?

“Will you try it on me?” It was an easy way to gather more data.

Stephen hesitated, and for a moment Tony was sure he was going to say no. “Of course,” Stephen said, “but it might feel a bit weird.” He gestured for Tony to stand in the middle of the room.

Tony grinned as the rocks came back to life at Stephen’s command, arranged in a floating circle around him. “Ooo! I get the rocks?”

Stephen shrugged. “Makes for a neat visual.” With another movement of Stephen’s hands, the stones began to rotate around him, turning like the planets orbiting the sun. “Don’t fight it. Just calm yourself and let the energy flow.”

Tony hesitated at the sobriety in Stephen’s voice, then nodded.

“Now, I want you to relax. Clear your mind.”

Tony took a deep breath, then tried to do as Stephen said, trying to push away the clutter and thoughts in his head.   

Silence. Nothing happened. Tony stilled his thoughts, thinking of the calm flow of electricity, of the hum of an engine. Nearby, Stephen lowered his head in a nearly imperceptible nod.

Tony felt an odd tingling in his arms and at the back of his head. When he looked down at the stones, he saw that five of them had started to glow, as if lit from within, in shades of crimson, white, blue, orange, and black.

Stephen glided around him in a slow circle, his eyes alight with curiosity. The way he was circling him felt almost predatory, especially when he passed behind him and Tony had to turn his head in order to keep him in view.

Stephen flicked his hand, the motion sending away each stone that did not glow. With another wave, the five remaining stones moved to form a line in between them.

Diamond, roseite, veritium, amber, nightstone. Tony bit his lip, impatient to find out what the five mean.

Stephen tilted his head; the diamond floated the front.

Tony gasped. A rush of energy coursed through him, something strong and light that threatened to carry him off his feet. He steadied himself against the desk. A memory rushed through his mind, so vivid and bright that he could swear he was reliving it.

He was eight years old. His father has just returned from a monthlong trip to Italy. Tony ran to greet him in the driveway, a small engine he had made in his hand, but his father walked right past him, talking on the phone. Howard kissed his wife on the cheek, shook hands with Jarvis, and went to his office. Later that night, Tony studied his face in the mirror, the roundness of his face that made him look younger than he was, his curly hair, a bit girlish and out of control. Then he picked up the engine and smashed it into a hundred pieces.

The memory faded away. The bright glow pulsed inside the diamond for a moment before fading away. Tony took a shuddering breath, lost in a haze of wonder and guilt at the memory.

“Diamond,” Stephen told him. “For Fortuna, the goddess of Prosperity. It shows your alignment to power and ambition, the fire inside of you.”

Next was the veritium. It flashed a brilliant blue glow.

The memory that came to him this time:

Tony was twelve. His mother and he sat together in the library where she read to him a book cataloguing flowers. Roses are so beautiful, he mother sighed in her innocent way, admiring the book’s images. A while later, when she went off in search of Howard, Tony ventured out to the garden to look at the family rosebushes. He studied one of the roses carefully, and then looked at the finger his father had broken a year earlier.

On a strange impulse, he reached out and closed his hand tightly around the rose’s stem. A dozen thorns slashed into the flesh of his palm. Still, he clenched his jaw and tightened his grip as hard as he could. You’re right, mother. Finally he released the stem, staring in wonder at the blood that bloomed on his hand. Scarlet stained the thorns. Pain enhances beauty, he remembered thinking.

The scene faded. Nothing else happened. “Sapientus, god of Wisdom,” Stephen told him. “You align with veritium for the truth in oneself, knowledge and curiosity.

The same thing happened for the next stone, “Amare, god of Love,” Stephen said after Tony remembered how he had stood by and watched as his father had beat his mother in a terrible scene of streaming tears, choked words and broken things.   

Finally, Stephen gestured to the amber and nightstone. The amber gave off a beautiful gold-orange color, but the nightstone is an ugly rock, dark and lumpy and dull.

A violent shock rippled through Tony. A wave of bitter fury. Stephen jumped backward.

Tony gasped, then collapsed to the ground. The whispers in the dark corners of his mind now sprung free of their cages and filled his thoughts with their noise. The brought a flurry of memories, of everything he’d already seen and everything he had fought to suppress. His father breaking his finger, shouting at him, striking him, ignoring him. The night in the rain. His mother’s shattered ribs. The long nights in Siberia.

Tony squeezed his eyes shut in a desperate attempt to block it out, pressing his hands tightly to his ears. But the storm wouldn’t stop; the voices got louder and thicker. A wave of darkness threatened to pull him under.

Then the shrieking faded. His father’s voice vanished leaving the memories of it trembling in the air. Tony stayed on the ground, his entire body shaking with the absence of his unexpected anger, his face wet with tears.

Stephen kept his distance. They stared at each other for a long time, until Stephen finally walked over to help Tony to his feet. He gestured to the chair next to his table.

Tony sat, grateful, soaking in the sudden peace. His muscles felt weak, and he could barely keep his head up. He had a sudden urge to sleep, to dream away his exhaustion.

After a while, Stephen cleared his throat. “Formidite and Caldora, the twin angels of Fear and Fury,” he whispered. “Amber, for the hatred buried in one’s chest. Nightstone, for the darkness in oneself, the strength of fear.”

Stephen hesitated, then looked Tony in the eyes. “Someone has nurtured that darkness inside of you, Tony. I’ve never felt anything like it. I’m so sorry.”

His father was the one who nurtured it. Steve had played a part too.

Tony shook his head, trying to quell the voices and ignore the ghost of his father who had materialized beside him. “Well that was a bit intense for some party trick.” 

Stephen let out a tense laugh. “If I overstepped, I’m—”

“No,” Tony said. He didn’t want to dwell on what had happened anymore. “It’s fine. I asked for this. Just promise you’ll just make a rabbit appear next time I ask for a magic trick.”

A spark of understanding filled Stephen’s eyes, and he went with the change of subject. “You’re right, I’ll have to make it up to you.”

He was still trying to catch his breath, but he asked anyways: “What did you have in mind?” He immediately regretted it when he saw the scheming look on Stephen’s face.

Stephen was grinning. It was a wicked grin, the kind that made the blood in Tony’s veins run a little faster. “You want to go on a date?”

“A wh-what?” Caught off guard, Tony stammered.

“A date,” Stephen repeated. “Often ‘a boring thing you have to memorize in history class,’ but in this case ‘an offering of an evening of blisteringly white-hot romance with yours truly.’”

“Really?” Tony was not sure what to make of this. “Blisteringly white-hot?”

“It’s me,” said Stephen. “Watching me play scrabble is enough to make most people swoon. Imagine if I actually put in some effort.”

Somehow, Tony found himself agreeing.

“I’ll get you around 6,” Stephen said, setting his joking aside for the moment. “Dinner and a movie?”

“Sounds easy enough,” Tony managed to say, flummoxed by how close Stephen had gotten to him. His heart raced faster at the promise of his lips, the feeling of his hands, and the memory of a kiss, so flawless and so reckless.

This time, unlike at the dance and the last night, their kiss felt familiar. Tony knew exactly how they fit together, Stephen’s arm around his waist, his own hands on Stephan’s chest, the pressure of their lips on each other’s. After such few kisses, they had each other memorized.

Stephen’s soft mouth was crushing his. It tasted like the moment before night gives birth to morning; it was the end of one thing and the beginning of something else all wrapped up together.

It was exhilarating, and it ended too soon. Stephen stepped back, grinning. “Don’t be late,” he said, exiting the room and leaving Tony alone with his thoughts.

But though he didn’t notice, Tony wasn’t alone. Someone had been watching him and Stephen — and not for the first time.

Chapter Text

It had been a long time since Tony had gone on a date, and an even longer time since he’d been nervous about going on one.

He stood in front of the mirror, straightening the edges of his blazer. He couldn’t remember what people wore to these things. Was he underdressed, in dark gray jeans and a deep blue blazer, a simple white tee underneath? Should he have styled his hair differently? All he had done was run a towel through it straight out of the shower. It sprang from his head wild and thick, as though it had an agenda of its own.

Tony was questioning if he had he ever been a confident playboy when Stephen knocked.

Tony spun from the mirror to let him in, but a wave of nausea washed over him, suddenly gripping him with a nasty hold. He had to stop and lean against a wall while he took a deep breath.

For more than half his life, he’d been fighting down panic. Maybe it wasn’t the best thing for a constant rattle of nerves to seem normal, even necessary. But at this point, he wouldn’t know how to live without it.

He tried to control the shudder building up under his skin and pushed away from the wall.

When he opened the door he forgot the nausea. Stephen was breathtaking, in tight maroon slacks and an ink black button up. There was no other way to describe him.

 “You like what you see?” Stephen asked, holding his hands out to either side, gesturing to his attire.

Tony didn’t blush, but he could feel himself turning a horrible shade of red. “You’re alright,” he managed, brushing Stephen aside and closing the door behind him.

“Oh god,” Stephen groaned, “What have I gotten myself into?”

Tony pouted his lips for a second. “You’re not very nice,” he said, grinning.

“You’re one to talk,” Stephen said.

“Hey, I could be nice if I tried,” Tony mumbled, as they walked through the compound’s halls towards the exit.

“Hmm.” Stephen tapped his chin. “Say something nice then.”

Tony thought hard, scrunching up his face so that Stephen’s eyes lit with a smile. “You’re very good-looking.”

Stephen grinned, his teeth a flash. “I like this ‘nice’ thing.” 

Tony shoved him aside playfully but froze when he heard the voices of his old teammates in the room ahead of them. It shouldn’t have been surprising — they were about to pass through the common room after all, and not everyone avoided it as religiously as Tony did — but he was still caught off guard. He hadn’t realized Stephen had been leading him this way.

He looked up at the man with questioning eyes.

“I left my coat here,” Stephen whispered apologetically, understanding Tony’s hesitation.

He frowned for a moment, then his hands went around Tony, as if he’d come to a sudden decision. “Do you trust me?”

Tony took a ragged breath. When Stephen was gone he wanted him there. When he was there, he wanted him close. He liked the feel of Stephen’s hands and the sound of his voice. He liked the things he said, and he wanted to believe them. Tony wanted to trust him. He just wasn’t sure that he did.

“Yes,” he said, hoping that by saying the words it would make it true. “I do trust you.”

Something sparked in Stephen’s eyes, and with a nod, he swept them both into the common room, one hand still placed firmly around Tony’s waist.

The burn of four pairs of eyes engulfed Tony as he was ushered through the common room by Stephen.

The room was a big square, a U-shaped couch sat in the middle facing an excessively large TV that Clint had insisted upon. At the center of the room, sat a low coffee table; on it, was Stephen’s coat.

Maybe they wouldn’t say anything. Maybe the smirk on Natasha’s lips and the glare in Wanda’s eye wouldn’t turn to biting words. Maybe the suggestive wink of Clint would stay silent as they made their way through the room.

“Going somewhere?” Steve asked.

Tony summoned all the certainty and bravado he didn’t have. “Just felt like dressing up,” he deadpanned.

A flash of hurt passed through Steve’s eyes and was replaced by something hard and cold.

“I’m taking Tony out, actually” Stephen said, laying a hand between Tony’s shoulder blades. A sly grin was on his face, and he stared at Steve as he said the words, a cruel glint in his eye.

A thought passed Tony’s mind, that maybe Stephen hadn’t truly forgotten his coat here. Maybe he had planned to run into Steve, to parade Tony around like a prize. Tony had played his father’s distorted games all these years. He knew when he was being used. 

“You two?” Clint asked, chewing on some red vines, “I didn’t see that coming.”

“That’s because you’re oblivious,” Nat sang, giving Tony an approving wink, like they were in on some secret.

Tony felt twisted inside, nauseous, again, at being used by Stephen and glee at seeing the frantic, helpless look of Steve’s eyes darting between them. One side gave in.

He wondered if he should feel guilty for how harsh he’d been to Steve recently.

He didn’t.

A wicked grin crept over Tony’s face as the feeling of finally having power — the kind that actually meant something — flooded him.

He went on his tiptoes and kissed Stephen’s cheek. “Go get your jacket,” he whispered, letting his mouth linger by Stephen’s neck.

Tony took a step back slowly, meeting Stephen’s raised brow with innocent look.

“Definitely oblivious,” Clint muttered, throwing a red vine at Natasha in his defeat.

Stephen shook his head and chuckled, letting his hand slowly drop from Tony’s back as he made his way to get his coat.

Tony looked back to the room — back at Steve. The soldier had stood up at some point and looked like he couldn’t decide if he wanted to throttle Stephen or steal Tony away more. 

Stephen leaned over to grab his coat right in front of Steve, locking eyes in the process. “You okay, Captain? Look like you’ve never seen two people kiss before.”

Steve’s jaw clenched, twisting and turning as he tried to find some way out of this. His hands tightened into fists.

Do it, something dark within Tony sang, let’s see you try to punch your way out of this one.

“Did you ever think that in a past life Steve was an old woman with ninety cats who was always yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off her lawn? Because I do,” Natasha said with a laugh, having placed a hand on Steve’s shoulder, diffusing the tension.

“You two better get going,” she said with a pointed look.

“Wouldn’t want to ruin your date,” Wanda added, sounding as though the one thing she wanted most in the world was to do exactly that.

Tony gave her a lazy smile, doing his best to keep the hatred and fear inside. It became easier when Stephen slipped his hand into Tony’s, their fingers intertwining, tethering Tony to him.

“Of course,” Stephen agreed, and made for the door, pulling Tony with him.

When they entered the hallway again, Tony gave Stephen a knowing look. “Pretty interesting place to leave a peacoat, Stephen,” he said.

Stephen shrugged innocently, “I’m just careless, I guess.”

Tony knew that was a lie. Stephen’s plan to flaunt Tony in front of Steve had shown that nothing Stephen did was careless. If anything, Stephen was as calculating and powerful as the rest of the team.

Tony pouted his lips for a second, but then grinned as the pieces came together.

“That’s why you like me!” he exclaimed. “Because you’re not very nice either! It makes so much more sense now.”

Stephen gave him a playful smile and knocked his shoulder into Tony’s. They were still holding hands, and despite all of his fears, Tony felt an uncustomary moment of pure elation.

In that moment, Tony realized that Stephen, the sarcastic, mysterious man with no reason to give himself to Tony, owned part of his heart. Stephen was perfection, inside and out. He was the silver lining in a world of darkness. He was light.

“Tony?” A voice called out, shattering the momentary joy.

Steve. They both spun around. It is always Steve.

For a moment, Tony wondered who he would have been if it weren’t for Howard. If it weren’t for Steve.

Stephen looked to Tony, giving him control of the moment. “Go on ahead and pull the car around front, I’ll meet you in just a second.”

Surprise flashed through Stephen’s eyes but he nodded and went on his way.

Tony turned to Steve with cold eyes. “Do you need something?”

“He’s using you Tony, don’t you see that? Don’t you see him trying to get to me?” Steve’s eyes were wild, looking for some way out of a nightmare.

But for once, it wasn’t Tony’s nightmare.

I know who you really are, Howard’s voice hissed into his ear from nowhere, fueling the angry black cloud coiling in Tony’s chest.

“I know you didn’t mean those things, Tony. I know it. And you know how I feel about you,” Steve pleaded.

There was a time when those blue eyes held everything for Tony. There was a time when he wanted nothing more than to spend the whole day wrapped up in those strong arms.

“Feelings, my dear Steve, you will perhaps learn one day, can be the most costly thing in the universe.” Tony shook his head, filled with loathing at how pitiful Steve had become. 

Tony didn’t know how many times he had repeated Steve’s name when he had been dying in that bunker, starving and freezing, his body encased in metal and blood. He had said it like a prayer. A plea. A whisper. A good-bye.

Now, he said it like a curse. h

Somewhere inside of him was a merciful, forgiving person. Somewhere the was a man who tried to understand what people were going through, who accepted that people do evil things and that desperation lead them to darker places than they ever imagined.

Tony swore that person existed, and he hurt for the sorrowful boy he saw sitting in front of him.

But if Tony saw him, he wouldn’t recognize him. Why feel guilty for something that isn’t your fault?

Then Steve whispered — so softly that he barely heard it — “Please stay. Please forgive me.”

Tony winced, useless fury coiling in his belly. His anger curdled into something sour and tired.

“If we were together, I’d have to forgive you over and over again, and because your relationship with Bucky will never change, you’d have to forgive me over and over again too. So forgiveness isn’t the point. What you should really have been trying to figure out is whether we are still good for each other or not,” Tony said. Though that assumed that they had been good for each other at one point.  

“But I was the one that you decided was not needed, was not wanted. They sent me here because they knew you would never come back unless they made it seem like I needed you more than anything. And for a while I believed it.”

Tony was tired of being used, hurt, and cast aside. It was his turn to use. His turn to hurt. “Now you are not needed. You are not wanted.”

The giddy fury of what he was feeling might fade, and I he might regret what he has done. Probably, after a date with Stephen and a good night’s sleep, he might be horrified at the words he was saying to Steve.

But he did not regret it now. Having stepped off the edge, what he wanted to do was fall.

He met Stephen outside, and without saying anything, swept him into a hungry kiss. His fingers traveled over Stephen’s chest, greedily taking in the hard planes of his chest. He’d never been more frustrated at a cast, for it prevented him from wrapping his arms around Stephen. Still, heat pooled, low in Tony’s stomach.

When they finally parted, Stephen stared at him. His face intense and thoughtful. “What happened in there?”

“The ending to a story.” Tony said finally, stealing another kiss and savoring the taste on his wicked lips.

Chapter Text

Howard and Steve had taught Tony something that he couldn’t afford to forget: that to love is to destroy, and that to seek love is to be the one destroyed.

Maybe he was just afraid of love, because when he loved, he did it as fiercely as he lived. But after it all, wasn’t love the same thing as fear?

Jarvis — the real Jarvis — had told him that once, when Tony had expressed worry about his first crush. “To love is to be afraid.” Jarvis had said, “You are frightened, deathly terrified, that something will happen to those you love. Think of the possibilities. Does your heart clench with each thought? That, my friend, is love. And love enslaves us all, for you cannot have love without fear.”

But there was another side of love Jarvis hadn’t told him about. The kind that made everything seem like the planets had aligned, like life was always easy to understand and never painful.

That was why love was so dangerous. Love turned the world into a garden, so beguiling it was easy to forget that rose petals were as ephemeral as feelings, eventually they would wilt and die, leaving nothing but the thorns.

Tony wouldn’t let himself love Stephen.

Or, at least, he tried his best not to.

Their time together felt like a storm, like a wild wind and rain, like something too big to handle but too powerful to escape. It blew around him and tangled his hair, left water on his face, made him know that he was alive, alive, alive. There were moments of calm and pause as there were in every storm, and moments when their words forked lightening, at least for each other.

A week later, Tony had flown them to a beach. He lay back on a rock, wadding up his towel and putting it under his head saying, “You know, you’re the only person I can sit still with.”

“What do you mean,” Stephen asked lazily.

“I mean, I like to be in motion. I get antsy when I’m doing nothing. But you’re so good at it that I don’t mind it at all.” Tony teasing held genuine truth behind it. Stephen knew that even when he threw his towel at Tony in mock anger and tackled him. They both went rolling on the sand, the tiny grains sticking all over their damp bodies.

“You’re making me get sand in places that sand shouldn’t be!” Tony had howled in protest as he flipped Stephen over and sat triumphantly on top of him.

Tony chuckled, and an adorable red blush crept up his cheeks, “Guess we’ll have to spend some time in the shower fixing that.”

A brilliant smile crept on Tony’s face and his eyebrows wiggled with suggestion. Stephen took advantage of his momentary distraction and flipped them over again. His muscular arms trapped Tony’s head on either side, and electricity crackled in the small space between their bodies. Their faces were almost touching.

“You’re a naughty wizard,” Tony breathed out, his nose crinkling in an untamed smile. 

Stephen’s eyes lit up with mischief, and he didn’t even pout at being called a wizard. “You have no idea,” he whispered. He dove in for a kiss, catching Tony mid-laugh. His lips were soft and his breath was warm.

“I think I’m falling in love with you. I’m terrified, but I don’t want it to stop.” Tony said as they broke apart. For a moment Tony’s heart stopped— waiting. Love was a constant source of pain, and here he was, diving into it headfirst.

“I love you too.” Stephen grinned wildly, his eyes carrying a spark brighter than the arc reactor. “Even if you’ve been surrounded by people who didn’t notice, it’s what you’ve always deserved to hear” he said firmly, shaking all doubt from Tony’s mind. “That you’re whole, that you’re worth loving, that you’re the most amazing person I’ve ever known.”

Despite all of their wrestling, Tony’s eyes were now fighting back tears. He had finally found safety here — even if it was pinned between Stephen’s arms. 

Still, it was hard for Tony to share his thoughts and emotions. Though he could talk the ear off of any super villain, he had a habit of saying everything except what he was really thinking.

Tony knew he was really screwed a month later, when he told Stephen about Howard. He was starting to get comfortable in their relationship — and that was dangerous.

His distant looks and half-hearted shrugs when Howard’s name came up was enough of a clue for Stephen to stop asking, but Tony figured that he owed the man an explanation at some point. He just didn’t think it would come up while they were watching Lion King.

Granted, it wasn’t the best movie for someone with Daddy issues to watch.

“Tony, you can tell me about your father if you want to.” Stephen said softly after noticing how tense Tony was. They were on the couch together, with Tony’s head lying in Stephen’s lap, the wizards hands sliding through his hair.

“I know,” he replied softly, his muscles slowly unwinding.

It wasn’t until the movie was almost over that either of them spoke again. Tony’s voice was so Stephen had to strain to hear him.

“Part of it had to do with Captain America. He really loved him. I think he thought of him like a brother.” He took a deep breath and kept his eyes trained on the TV. “When I was little my father would bring in Captain America memorabilia and I’d watch his face light up with delight as he reminisced. He’d show me how to carry the shield like he was trying to groom me into becoming the next Rogers. He would tell me stories about him…it was the closest thing I could get to a kiss goodnight. He would remind me how amazing he were, how knowing him had been one of his greatest honors.”

Tony rubbed at the crook in his finger, the one his father had broken so many years ago. “It didn’t take him long to find out that I was the furthest thing from Rogers you could get. Eventually the stories were about how no one could love me like they loved him. How I would have been worth something if I had been anything like grand ol’ Captain America.”

Tony didn’t struggle to keep the bitterness from his voice, “Maybe there is something broken in me from growing up unwanted, or from watching my father build and praise weapons. Maybe my messed-up life turned me into something capable of doing messed-up things. But another part of me wonders if I actually was raised by Howard in his coldness and bloodshed. Am I like this because he was my father, or because he never acted like a father should?” Tony’s knuckles were white from gripping the edge of the couch in his anger.

“What an amazing father, everyone thought.”

Silence washed over the room despite the musical playing. Tony rolled over to meet Stephen’s eyes. The man opened his mouth to say something but stopped once he got a good look at Tony’s face.

Tony wasn’t sure what kind of expression he was wearing, but Stephen’s own expression seemed to dissolve entirely. His eyes widened into something that looked very much like pity.

Tony felt the hair on his neck begin to prickle, his fingers reached up and twisted his hair. The absolute last thing — the last thing — he wanted was to be pitied.

Regret washed down through him, flooding out even his anxiety and fear. He shouldn’t have said anything at all; he should have lied or dodged his way out of it again.

Whatever Stephen thought Howard was like, whatever he believed he’d gone through, it was bad enough to mark him as pathetic in his eyes. Tony could see it in his face. Stephen had thought he was with a strong hero, a rich wealthy genius who could build and fix anything. He’d taken in a monster instead.

Tony would tell him how he survived it. He could tell Stephen that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in things because he was afraid that they would be taken away. But that was when he made a list in his head of every act of goodness he’d seen someone do. It was like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than thirty years. But it was better, now that Stephen filled up the list. Things could keep getting better. There was no reason to pity him.

But as quickly as the pity flashed across Steve’s face it disappeared, replaced with something akin to a cold anger. “You should never love anything more than your own child.” He said softly.

When Tony looked away Steve’s hand caught his chin so that he had no choice but to stare into Stephen’s eyes. “He should never have loved anyone more than his own child.” He said it louder this time.

Tony’s insides twisted with a rush of sadness and relief. Maybe there was something broken inside of him from growing up abused. But maybe he could fix it. Maybe this could fix it.

“Hiding your scars might make you more beautiful,” Stephen said, “but reavealing them make you you.” Stephen nodded at him, “So wear them proudly. Even the ones we can’t see.”  

No, Stephen was not offering Tony pity, he was offering him pride. “You have survived, Tony. And like iron thrust into the flames of a forge, you are stronger for it.”

There was never enough alcohol in the house to keep Howard or Tony warm in a house like that. But here, in Stephen’s arms, it was a bit easier to forget. Wrapped in his warmth, it was a bit easier to pretend that he wasn’t so cold all the time.

Stephen could help Tony survive. Better yet, he might even help him live. 

 “You’re better than coffee, Stephen Strange,” Tony mumbled, the tension in the room somehow gone, snuggling closer to him.

Stephen’s laughter filled the room, “Let’s not say things we don’t mean, dear.”

Chapter Text

Tony had decided it was going to be a good day. He had gotten seven hours of sleep, had spent some time in the workshop yesterday, and he’d woken up with a ridiculous buzz of happiness in his chest — next to Stephen.

The alerts on his phone had a different plan.  

“Stephen, get up.” Tony said, staring at the data Jarvis had compiled on his phone, unsure if he should be pissed or not at the AI for not waking him.

Stephen sat up straight, hearing the concern in Tony’s voice. “What is it.”

“Nothing good.” Something that’s going to require more teamwork than the Avengers have to offer.

They assembled in a conference room, the same one that Tony had freaked out in months ago when Steve had cornered him. When Steve had told Tony that Stephen was using him.

The vase that had shattered had been replaced by a modern sculpture, the only sign that something had happened at all.

“I think we should act now,” Nat said, “Waiting isn’t worth the risk.”  

Clint shook his head in agreement, “We don’t know what it is. We should send a scouting team.”

“You’re just getting antsy with nothing to do here,” Steve said, not completely joking. “Whatever we do,” he said, more serious, “we shouldn’t provoke anything, this thing could be a friendly.”

Of course Steve would think it was a friendly — because history apparently hadn’t killed off his tendency to find the best in people like it had for Tony. It was a wonder that Steve still managed to be so surprised every time he was let down.

Focus. Tony stared, jaw clenched, at the holograms spread throughout the room. There was a surplus of energy pouring out of a hole in the earth just outside of New York City — enough to take out the power of the entire state.

It had just showed up last night, now a big, blaring red dot on a map that Jarvis had created. There was no indication of whether it was hostile or not, either. Luckily it was in a rural area, and the nearest town was 30 miles away.

 “You’re talking as though it’s alive,” Banner said to Steve, squinting at the data hovering around them.

“Every other threat we’ve faced has been,” Clint pointed out.

Nat shook her head, “Not that weird red ether Thor was talking about.”

“I think I remember Dark Elves in that story,” Clint countered.   

“And that ether sounded pretty cognizant to me,” Steve said.

A pause settled on the room — unusual for team meetings of the past. But now, there was a stark awareness of what thin ice everyone was on. This would be their first team mission since the fallout and the return of Steve’s team. This would be what determined if Tony had kept his word and had fixed everything.

“Could you send drones?” Steve asked Tony, being careful not to sound like it was anything other than an inquiry. Because who knew who was in charge anymore, really? Steve didn’t have the trust of the administration — or Tony.

Who could trust you? his father’s voice hissed.  Who would follow Tony into a battle? Stephen, probably. Natasha and Clint? Maybe.

Steve would. The thought nagged at him until he shoved it far away.

Tony weighed the options. Drones could work, but with the energy level being so alien, there was no guarantee that any equipment they used wouldn’t be interfered with. He told them as much.

“Wouldn’t want Iron Man getting fried.” Wanda said nonchalantly, though it sent a shiver down Tony’s spine.

“I don’t know,” Tony thought, speaking more to the room than her.

“Scheming face,” Stephen whispered to Natasha.

“Definitely,” she agreed.

Steve scowled, “What are you thinking?”

“I’ve never seen this kind of energy before.” He said, flicking his fingers in the air to pull up the stats of the energy level. It was reminiscent of Stephen and Wanda’s magic, but it was coming from so below the earth it was hard to tell what was real and what was interference. “It could be radiation, which means I’m not comfortable sending any of you out there for recon.”

“I’d love to help,” Bruce spoke up, “but the big guy’s not the best for surveillance.” He grinned apologetically.

“I’ve been working on a suit — one that’s immune to EMP blasts and energy like this.” Tony said, still running the numbers through his head. It was dangerous, but that was the job. “I can have it modified in a few hours to withstand radiation — I have that tech already designed. It would only be a matter of my ‘bots switching out some parts.”

No one protested. He had control of this room now, and everyone knew it. This was his technology, his information, his understanding. There was only so much a soldier could do off of a battlefield.

“Solo mission.” Clint frowned, and Tony couldn’t help but be warmed at his concern.

“You’ll be careful?” Stephen asked him, a bit of worry creeping into his voice.

Tony forced a grin, “As careful as I always am.”

“That’s not comforting,” Nat grimaced.

“You’re usually reckless.”  Steve chimed in.

Not anymore, Tony thought. That luxury had been stolen away from him. Still, he forced a laugh. “I’ve got Jarvis, and I’ll be connected on the comms.”

They all nodded and decided upon shifts so that someone would be monitoring the source through Jarvis’ interface at all times. Nat and Steve would be on the comms with Tony during the recon.

It was better that way, with only a few voices shouting directions at a time, but Tony would still feel strangely without Stephen there in some capacity.

It would be fine; just a simple recon mission like he’d done many times before. It was strange, that he was feeling this jittery about it, he’d saved cities by himself before.

But something about this felt strange. The image of the Avengers was riding on his shoulders yet again, and it should have been a familiar weight on his shoulders.

The next two hours were the typical rush of insanity that happened before a battle. There were group meets and individualized conversation, everyone tossing out their advice and warnings and completing their pre-battle rituals and warmups.

It gave them all something to do, even if it was only Tony who would be in the thick of it — though they assured him that they’d be there within minutes if anything looked rough. Clint, Bruce and Stephen would be waiting at the nearby town.

It was funny, having to rely on people he didn’t trust. 

Tony threw himself into his workshop, updating everything into the EMP suit and swapping out parts for ones which were impervious to radiation. He put the

The compound was a whirlwind, and so it was not surprising that they failed to notice who was watching from a distance, keeping tabs on everything they were doing — everything Tony was doing.

Two hours later, and they were ready to go. The sun was just about setting, and the darkness would give him the cover needed for a stealth mission.

“Be careful,” Stephen mumbled against his head, wrapping Tony into a hug.

“Is this your subtle way of telling me you’ll miss me while I’m gone?” Tony asked. There was real worry in Stephen’s grey eyes, and it filled Tony with the warm knowledge that someone cared about him.

Stephen kissed the tip of his nose. “It’s my subtle way of saying I’ll kill you if you get yourself killed.”

Clint made a gagging sound from behind them. “Alright Stephen, let’s get out of here before you make me puke.”

Stephen nodded and moments later, Tony was watching him fly away. They were going to the nearby town, prepared to storm in if necessary.

After a half hour of ignoring Steve, getting an unwanted talk from Natasha, and being thrilled that Wanda wasn’t there tormenting him, Tony pulled down his face plate and took off.

The wind was cooperative and calm so the flight was uneventful. It might even have been enjoyable if Tony hadn’t been thinking about all of the possible things that could be waiting for him.

He hadn’t anticipated coming upon a dilapidated barn, though. Satellite images had shown an empty field. Whatever energy this thing was emitting, it was enough to mess with radio and energy waves.

 “A barn?” Nat asked, sounding as confused as Tony was.

“And you’re sure it’s empty?” Steve asked in his Captain America voice.

Tony wanted to ignore the question. He wouldn’t have said it was abandoned if he wasn’t sure, but this was no time to be petty. “All of my scans show no sign of life. Can’t even bring back eggs for supper.”

“Be serious,” Steve said. “There could be something that your scanners can’t pick up.”

It was unlikely, but possible. The energy signal was so high powered that it might block out information that his suit could pick up on, even with the modifications he had made.

“I’m going to go inside.” He wasn’t asking for permission. “The energy signal is coming from inside.”

“Roger that,” Nat said. “Be careful.”

Tony touched to the ground and walked to the doors of the barn. Unlike the rest of the barn, which was deteriorating slowly, the lock on the outside looked brand new. A laser from the suit made quick work of it.

Before he opened the doors, he checked all of the specs on his suit. “How we doing, J?”

“Strangely alright, sir. The energy source appears to have no effect on your suit, and I detect no signs of radiation.”

Tony checked the stats on his suit. His tech was holding up fine, so his modifications must be working — not that he was surprised.

He pulled the doors open slowly; a harsh creak grated against the still sound of the countryside.

The barn was dark inside. The moonlight outside filtered in through cracks in the wooden boards of the walls and roofs, casting shadows in every direction.

The space was far from empty, rusting tools and tractors were scattered aimlessly throughout the room, and stalls for animals jutted into the space like the bones of a ribcage.

It didn’t look dangerous, but it sure as hell was creepy.

“What are you seeing, Tony?” Steve asked.

“No sign of what could be causing the energy spike. But there must be some way to get underground. The signal was coming from so far below that there has to be some way to get more information on what was down there.”

If there was anybody or anything around, Tony didn’t want to give them another clue as to where he could be. “I’m going radio silent,” he said.

Tony scanned the room, looking for any indication of a hidden room — a small draft, an anomaly in the architecture, anything.

A scuffle came from the back corner of the room, drawing Tony deeper into the shadows. He neared the corner, his heart beating quickly. Would it be some kind of alien? A piece of unknown tech? He stepped slowly and quietly, muscles tense for a fight.

Nothing.

A bang crashed through the air, making Tony jump, his ears ringing. He spun around; eyes frantic. What the hell was this?

He didn’t dare move, and so he waited, looking to see if he could find the source of the sound. But after what felt like ten minutes, nothing had happened.

His breath heaved in frustration. The mess of shadows and junk painted a daunting scene of sharp angles and hidden corners, but there had to be something more.

“Is there a localized point of the radiation?” Tony asked Jarvis, once he felt it safe enough to speak.

“Not that I can find, sir. But it does appear —”

Jarvis was cut off by Tony’s rapid intake of breath. He had seen a movement in the far corner of the barn. Not the big, shadowy figure of a person, but a small fluttering of a fraying tarp.

There was no breeze tonight.

Tony walked over, muscles coiled and ready for action. But what he was really looking for, was a trap door, some place where air was getting through.

“We’re sure there’s no radiation, yeah?”

“Sir, I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

“You’re not wrong J, but when has that stopped me?” Tony stepped out of his suit, hoping that he’d be able to trace the source of the breeze better without metal skin.

Instead, the moment he set foot on the ground a blinding light flashed before his eyes.

And then there was only darkness.