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Captain America was a good man

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People believed in Iron Man.

No one knew who was behind the mask, who risked their life every now and then to save the world or stop the costumed assholes endangering their life, but weirdly enough, the only ones who were bothered by that little fact were the authorities who occasionally demanded for Tony Stark to give up Iron Man's identity – probably because it would be easier, then, to keep them in check should the need arise.

Not that anyone would believe Tony if he told them he was Iron Man – a bit like in that novel by Dostoyevsky, he wasn't quite sure which one, when an old and respected man confessed to the murder of the woman he loved and no one believed him, thinking he had become mad with grief, except in Tony's case people just couldn't believe him to be self-sacrifying enough to be even a little bit altruistic.

Besides, that was only for the personal aspect of revealing himself as Iron Man, and even if, say, people were willing to believe him, a little self-satisfaction was definitely not worth all the other consequences. If there hadn't been quite as many super – or not-so-super, for the matter – villains running around, Tony might have considered telling the truth, but as things were, it would just attract even more unwanted attention onto SI, so, that was a no anyway.

That Iron Man was free of the expectations people had of Tony Stark meant he could do all the things people wouldn't trust Tony to do, that he didn't have to worry as much about friends getting caught up into his superheroics – and, well, that he didn't have to be Tony Stark when he was Iron Man was a welcome advantage, admittedly.

Iron Man was everything Tony could have been, had he not been an actual person with personal problems and emotional baggage. Iron Man was loved, respected, and trusted.

 

oOo

 

The Avengers were pretty new, barely a few weeks in, but they were already doing good, and they made sure that when only one of them couldn't handle a threat, the others would come and save the day anyway. Giant-Man, the Wasp – Janet van Dyne, it really was an open secret – Thor, the Hulk – that one didn't last, but the intention mattered – they were all good people. Tony wasn't exactly certain he had a place amongst them, but Iron Man sure did – as long as he remained only Iron Man, of course.

As for Tony Stark, well. The Avengers kind of liked him, but they weren't exactly friendly. It was just that, Jan aside, they didn't know him, and, for obvious reasons, Tony wasn't trying really hard for that to happen. He wasn't half-bad at this secret identity jig, but it wasn't like he never made mistakes – half of it was really that people just couldn't imagine him being heroic and so didn't even consider the possibility of him actually being a hero. If he could keep out of the way as Tony Stark, that was probably better for everyone, himself included.

So, Tony managed not to even greet the Avengers himself when he offered the mansion for their headquarters, using his Iron Man persona instead to extend the invitation, and only after that did he officially “meet” them. It was better that way: the less they saw him, the less context they could associate him with that would remind them of Iron Man... the less likely they were to discover anything – Jarvis probably caught on after a few months, but that was because Jarvis knew him better than anyone else who was still alive, because he was one of the rare people who actually wanted to believe in Tony, and it wasn't like the old man ever said anything. Jarvis, moreover, and unlike some other people, seemed to understand that whatever Tony's reasons were, he didn't have to explain himself to anyone about it.

The point was, Iron Man was an Avenger, and Tony Stark wasn't.

 

oOo

 

Things started going downhill pretty soon, though, even if most people involved wouldn't think so – things did get worse for Tony, if for no one else – as Tony saw his spirit waver, as his decision to keep himself out of the Avengers' lives took the first hit.

That hit came when he first realized that the frozen man the Avengers had rescued was indeed Captain America, and not some sick joke from a guy who'd thought it would be funny to go treck in Inuit territory in full Captain America regalia and had gotten himself frozen for the effort – weird theory, yes, but it wasn't like it was less believable than the actual story, considering Captain America should have been dead or very very old, and not in suspended animation inside an iceberg.

So, Captain America.

Tony, at first, let his inner fanboy be completely awed by this sudden and unexpected event. Captain America was alive, and that was incredible. His childhood hero – the one imaginary friend he had had whenever he felt more alone than any child should feel in the mansion – was alive, and right next to him, and...

Tony couldn't allow himself to reveal who Iron Man was, not even to Captain America – not because he didn't trust the man, but simply... Simply because a secret had to be kept secret to remain a secret, it was as simple as that. But...

Captain America was perfect. Captain A... – Steve Rogers liked people, and he tried to always see the good in them, not to let himself be prejudiced. Steve Rogers, moreover, didn't know anything about Tony's reputation, he didn't have, couldn't have unfair bias towards Tony Stark. Steve Rogers might be the one person who would give Tony a chance and not expect anything in return.

Steve Rogers was Captain America, after all, and Captain America was always fair.

That was why, as Tony – Iron Man, as far as anyone else was concerned – brought the undersea craft back to New York, as Giant Man and Jan were spending time with the newly-awakened Steve Rogers and Thor was nowhere in sight, a small, vulnerable bundle of hope appeared in Tony's mind, and no matter what, the engineer couldn't let go of it.

There was a bit of a scuffle with an alien who turned everyone but Captain America to stone, but mostly everything went right after that. Steve seemed to like Iron Man, and that was better than anything else so far.

It... It gave Tony hope – he could already envision the hard crash that particular hope would bring, because that never failed, did it? But he had to go on believing, to continue hoping the best of people, even while he couldn't afford not to be pragmatic about it – because if he didn't, what was keeping him from not charging his chestplate this time around and let himself be done with it? Why was he so intent on being a responsible person, on not dumping all of his responsabilities, if it wasn't in the hope that something good would eventually come out of it?

Captain America was a good man, and for him Tony would break his own word – for entirely selfish reasons, actually – and get himself involved in the Avengers' lives. Or, at least, in Steve Rogers'.

Perhaps Captain America would want to be his friend – if he didn't, who would?

Iron Man excused himself from the team as soon as possible, and came back as Tony Stark just as the others arrived. He was going to greet Steve Rogers to Avengers Mansion himself. The man deserved that, after all he had done for the world, after what he had lived through, after he had been told there wasn't anything left of his world for him to go back to.

The least Tony Stark could do was to respect Steve Rogers and greet him in person.

Tony barely managed to school his awestruck grin into a wide smile that he hoped was welcoming but not too familiar already – this was, officially, the first time they met – as he held out his hand for Captain America to shake.

“Welcome to Avengers Mansion...”

The words that followed didn't really matter – even if he didn't stop and went on anyway – because just after Tony opened his mouth to talk, he saw it.

His guts churned, and Tony wondered what he had done wrong – or if, perhaps, there just wasn't a way for him to get it right, not even when talking to Captain America, and wasn't that a comforting thought? Had he said something he shouldn't have, or made a gesture Rogers wasn't comfortable with...?

Why was Captain America looking at him like that, as if he just knew Tony wasn't trustworthy, as if...?

Captain America was a good man, though, so he didn't say anything – and perhaps Tony would have wanted him to explain what was wrong, what he had gotten wrong, because right now he felt like he was back face to face with his father, and Howard Stark was looking at him like there was something fundamentally wrong with him but he wasn't going to tell him what, and Tony couldn't ever get better when people just wouldn't tell him how...

But Captain America was a good man, and Steve Rogers was a good man, and the polite thing was not to mention whatever was wrong, and they shook hands, and the glint of distrust didn't disappear from Captain America's otherwise friendly face.

Tony wasn't going to let this particular failure stop him – not yet. Captain America was perfect, and he didn't judge people only on first impressions. If Tony tried again, if he showed Steve that he wasn't only that first impression, Steve would give him another chance. Captain America was always fair, after all.

Captain America seemed to like Iron Man, too.

Perhaps Tony Stark had a chance with Steve Rogers.

 

oOo

 

As it was, during the next few months, Tony barely had the time to even stop by the mansion for anything else than taking Iron Man's mantle, and when he did have the time he always ended in the workshop tinkering on the armor or taking care of something for SI that he had forgotten to do at the plant. He had exchanged, what, maybe twenty-three sentences with Captain America, and most of them were limited to “Hello” or “I hope you're doing well”. That was hardly going to make them friends.

He was trying to sound friendly, though, each and every time, but Steve just kind of gave him a weird look – the suspicious glint in his eyes from their first official meeting wasn't there, no, but it was echoed in that look and Tony wasn't sure what it meant yet. He was probably doing something wrong again.

Of course, he did spend a lot of time with Captain America, but that was as Iron Man, not as Tony Stark. So, for now, Tony Stark was neither Cap's friend nor Steve's, and he should really get to it if he wanted to have a chance. It wasn't like Steve seemed interested in befriending Tony himself, so obviously he'd have to take the first step.

It was fine. It wasn't like Captain America had to want be Tony Stark's friend – it wasn't like anyone ever wanted to be Tony Stark's friend, but with Steve, at least, Tony hoped he could become something more than an acquaintance. Not even a good friend, not a best friend, but... a friend. Just a friend.

Someone Captain America wouldn't be ashamed to admit to knowing.

Tony wasn't asking for much, or at least he didn't think so. All he wanted was to spend some time with Steve.

Which he already did as Iron Man, whenever Steve wanted to learn about the future – Tony had been tempted to propose to do it himself, but before he could manage to say it out loud Steve had tried to clap him on the shoulder, like he did to Giant Man or Thor, and...

Tony had panicked for a second that he would feel the chestplate under the shirt, and Steve had probably seen it in his eyes, the terror, and that, more than the fact that he had taken a small step back, seemed to anger him.

Tony wasn't quite sure what Steve had thought about it, because that was the thing, wasn't it? When you kept a secret: you knew what it meant, but other people always came up with their own explanation if you hadn't been careful enough to think one up beforehand, and Tony hadn't.

The theories some of the women he spent his free evenings with came up with were frankly ludicrous, and it always amused Tony when they told him what they thought after the third or fourth date and they still hadn't done more than holding hands or a peck on the cheek – at the beginning of his life with the chestplate, Tony had been worried that, on top of being unable to have a sexual and romantic life, it would keep him from having casual relationships with women, but he had found out soon enough that a lot of them actually enjoyed being able to just spend some time with him, with someone who would listen to them and not particularly expect anything out of them afterwards; and the few who didn't like not being able to get into his bed, he just didn't see anymore. Some thought he was way more old-fashioned than his reputation suggested, and was looking for the right person – which wasn't entirely false, as it was, but not the actual reason for him not sleeping with them. Some had theorized that maybe he didn't like sex and just wanted female friends – what was certain was that he didn't crave sex half as much as the tabloids implied, but no – or that he just didn't like women that way but still wanted female friends – Tony certainly wasn't gay, and hadn't, in fact, ever found a man sexually attractive even if he wasn't opposed to the idea and recognized that they could be aesthetically pleasing to the eyes. And those were only the more common explanations they had come up with. He never really tried to argue any of those, and apparently it had become a game between the circle of women who had become his “platonic dates” and not minded, to try and undo the mystery of Tony Stark.

Tony doubted one of those theories was the one Steve had himself come up with, seing the anger in his eyes – Steve was really good at acting civil, but he was also a terrible liar, and his eyes, more than anything else, never failed to convey how he actually felt about something.

The point being, Tony Stark had not, in the end, proposed to Steve Rogers to show him the future, but Iron Man had. So much for trying to befriend Steve Rogers as himself. It was safe to say that, all things taken into account, Tony hadn't really tried yet.

He had, in fact, almost managed to convince himself not to try.

But this couldn't go on. Iron Man just couldn't always be here, especially when Tony Stark was supposed to be present too. Only a few days before, actually, Tony had almost given up being Iron Man – risking his life over and over again – and while he had come to his senses, there would eventually be a day he wouldn't be able to go on being the armored Avenger – if he wasn't killed before that, or if his heart didn't just stop beating either. Or maybe, just periods of time when he would need to take a break and not be Iron Man for a while – as much as Tony was the king of denial, he did know, rationally, that never taking a break would just add to the pressure until he couldn't take it anymore, and then good luck in helping anyone, or even in taking care of his responsabilities.

Iron Man, at some point or another, just wouldn't be there.

Tony Stark, on the other hand, would still come by, would still be Steve's friend if he ever got there, even when Iron Man would be out of comission. And perhaps between the two of him – oh God, what a weird way to think – Tony would manage to be there for Steve every now and then. When “Iron Man” wouldn't be able to be available without it seeming suspicious, Tony Stark could still come into the library and speak with Steve when neither of them were able to sleep. If it came to that, Tony could even decide to live at the mansion all the time, instead of splitting his nights between SI, his penthouse and the mansion, if Steve really didn't get better and needed someone to be there constantly...

If... If Tony wanted to befriend Steve, he thought as his eyes fell on Cap in the kitchen, who, once again, wasn't sleeping even at 03:00 – and, yes, Tony obviously wasn't either, but it wasn't like anyone cared about that – now was the time to start. It had to be now or never, because if he didn't now, what told him he would ever manage to do it later? – because later would probably not cut it, because Steve didn't deserve to be alone just because Tony was feeling insecure.

Suddenly feeling overly tired – as if he had, say, not slept in forty-three hours and a half, juggling between his duties as an Avenger, a battle against some random villains he could barely remember right now, his work on the armor, and an important meeting for SI – Tony leaned onto the doorframe, needing the literal support before finally giving it a go.

“Hi, Cap.”

Oh God, he was tired. He had a feeling he was forgetting about something important, but what? He couldn't remember – what was it, about four obligatory hours of sleep a night to be able to function normally? Or was it three? No, three was from before he became Iron Man, when his physical and emotional activity hadn't been quite as strenuous even if his mental activity had been roughly the same – which didn't tell him what he was forgetting, just why.

Tony blinked, and focused back on Steve. He was... He was happy to see him. Steve might not yet be his friend, not exactly at least – not that Steve knew, if anything – but there was no reason Tony Stark couldn't enquire on how the Avenger was doing, right? Especially after what had happened with Zemo. It was normal, decent human behavior, and...

Steve squinted at him – not in suspicion or anything quite as negative at that, but more like...

“Uh... Hello?”

...like he couldn't even fathom Tony Stark being a normal, decent human being.

Tony felt his smile disappear, but forced it to come back. He had to be reading this wrong, he had to. There was no way Captain America was looking at him like that, like he was astounded Tony would even want to talk to him.

Not that Tony wasn't aware he wasn't perfect, that was, that he had never been Captain-America perfect, because he did know who he was, thank you very much – meaning, an industrialist, a weapon manufacturer, one of the top one percent and all that, and yes he had many flaws, and especially if you took out Iron Man's deeds he wasn't worth that much as a person, but he still hoped he did count as a normal, decent human being. As an industrialist, he tried to guarantee a fair salary to all his employees, and he tried to follow the ethics of the job as much as possible. And it wasn't like America would just stop manufacturing or needing weapons if he walked out of that particular business, so at least he was trying to provide with reliable weapons and army protections. And yes, he enjoyed his privileged life when he had the time, but it wasn't like he was doing it by oppressing others. He was decent enough, or at least he tried to be. Even if he wasn't perfect.

Perhaps Steve was just surprised to see him up and about at this hour. It wasn't as if the man had had the opportunity to really notice things about Tony's habits – thanks God for small mercies, because if he had then Tony's secrets would soon be up for sale.

“I was in the basement and I heard someone walking around above, and I thought I'd see, you know, who was up. If you... wanted company. How are you settling in, Cap? ...You fought Zemo, huh?"

Tony's hands were doing weird things as he talked, which was not usual, because usually he was in complete control of his body language but here he was trying to befriend Steve, and even if he couldn't be entirely honest with the guy the least he could do was not to mask his emotions right now. This wasn't a business shark, he reminded himself. It was Steve Rogers. Captain America.

Captain America wasn't going to try and wrench everything out of Tony to leave him miserable and beaten to a pulp as soon as he wouldn't need him anymore.

So there was no need to be – too – guarded.

At least not about being worried for Steve.

Tony took in the harried look that was apparent on Steve's entire being. Even if the supersoldier couldn't get physically exhausted so easily, it was clear that he was mentally tired. Tony wasn't sure there was something he could do about it, but that didn't mean he wasn't going to try.

Even if he, Tony Stark, wasn't really good at this – Iron Man, oddly, seemed to do better than him, but Tony knew the reason for that: people just didn't expect Iron Man to have ulterior motives, unlike Tony Stark. All he had to do was to show Cap that Tony Stark was genuinely concerned.

"You're feeling okay?"

Steve looked at him for a moment, lips pinched, as if he hadn't yet heard the question – or rather, as if someone had put him on pause the time to comprehend the question.

Steve squinted.

“Fine. Thank you.”

It was short, controlled. Wary.

Absolutely not interested in being friendly or on elaborating.

Mostly, it said that Tony Stark had no business asking about how Steve was.

Tony contemplated – sure, because contemplating made it sound like he was being so in control, so at peace with the situation, and in truth, he really wasn't – keeping the smile on his face this time too, but it was too late. Unlike the first time, there was no way he was misreading that particular answer. A bitter taste in his mouth, he let the smile fade, and even let some of his hurt show – that, on the other hand, wasn't quite as voluntary. He had decided to be honest about his feelings with Steve, at least as long as he was trying to be his friend, at least so long as there was a chance...

There wasn't a chance, that much was obvious, now, but Tony would be damned if he didn't bring this attempt to its end – even if said end was to be in less than five minutes. He was not going to shield his feelings, to manipulate his face until this ended.

Because the moment he did that, he would say goodbye to any sort of future friendship with Steve Rogers – as Tony Stark.

Iron Man didn't have to put on a mask, considering Iron Man was a mask to begin with.

“Oh. Okay. That's good. I, uh. I'll just... I'll...”

Steve didn't want anything to do with Tony Stark, clearly. Without really paying attention to what he was doing, Tony gestured at the corridor behind him, making it clear that he would just leave, then, and immediately followed suit.

He didn't stop to look back at Steve's face – like he could have done if he had, say, any hope that he was wrong, that Steve would be concerned with Tony Stark.

He wanted something to drink, to take away the disgusting taste of disappointment in his mouth, to be done with the knowledge that he wasn't even good enough to warrant a chance of befriending Captain America – that Steve had deemed him unworthy of his time and concern.

Except, it didn't change the fact that it was after 03:00 in the morning, and Steve wasn't sleeping, and Tony wasn't sleeping, and they did need to speak, and... And if Steve didn't like Tony Stark, he did like Iron Man. He would talk with Iron Man, and perhaps Iron Man would manage to make things better for Steve.

Tony went to the lab, put on the armor, and came back to the kitchen, all that without thinking about the fact that Steve was more comfortable being friend with the mask than with the man.

As if.

When he walked into the room, Steve already had a smile the approximate size of Texas on his face, having almost certainly heard him approach.

“Shellhead! I didn't know you were around tonight!”

He seemed so goddamn happy to see “Shellhead”, Tony almost felt like tearing the helmet off and throwing it onto the table, right before Steve's eyes, before storming off with a comment about how this was the one Cap wanted to talk to, obviously – but, aside from the fact that Tony absolutely had to keep his identity a secret, aside from the fact that it would be very immature too, Tony was almost certain Steve would somehow conclude the unpleasant Tony Stark had gone and taken Iron Man's armor because he was a jerk, rather than because he was Iron Man.

So Tony didn't do it, and instead just blinked while bitting his lips.

Yeah. I've been around.”

He had wanted to believe, perhaps, that Steve's rebuke had been, at least, heightened by the special circumstances of the day – read, Zemo not being dead and all that – and that Iron Man would get the cold shoulder treatment too. Probably not as much as Tony Stark, of course, but still.

But no, Steve was just that delighted to see Good Old Shellhead, wasn't he? Not even a hint of disapproval in his tone. No, the rejection was entirely due to Tony being Tony Stark.

Tony searched for something to say, to explain why he hadn't come up right away to spend some time with Steve, when the man so obviously welcomed it. Why he had appeared just after Tony Stark had left. Not that Steve seemed to even consider it possible for Tony Stark to be even a tenth of the man Iron Man was.

I wasn't sure you'd want to see me right now... You know, what with me having violated my suspension from the team.”

Which was totally not the reason he hadn't come before – because, you know, he had come before, he just hadn't been welcomed – but would probably be enough of a fake excuse. Steve always seemed to swallow up anything Iron Man told him even when it was a blatant lie – “my employer Tony Stark” being n°1. It balanced things out nicely, in the end, with Cap not giving his civilian identity the benefit of the doubt at all.

“It's really no problem, you came back to save people, Avenger. In my book, that's more important than obeying some finicky little team bylaw.”

Steve had his hand on the armor's shoulder, and Tony did his best not to look at it.

Tony was smiling behind the armor's face plate, grateful for the support in his earlier decision to come to the others' help nonetheless, and yet, at the same time he really wanted to hear it without the helmet on. He knew the smile was shaky at best, and if his eyes were gleaming, he wasn't quite sure if it was in happiness or in despair.

But no, he was Iron Man right now, and one of the advantages of having a secret identity was that he didn't have to be Tony Stark all the time. He could put all of Tony Stark's doubts behind, when he was Iron Man, and that included Steve's opinion of his civilian identity.

Tony wondered how long he would be able to continue fooling himself on that point, how long he would be able to pretend that Iron Man didn't have all the problems Tony Stark had, and the very fact that he wondered about it probably wasn't a good omen.

Focusing back on the conversation, Tony tried to come up with an answer to Steve's words, knowing full well that his own position on the matter was, in fact, the very same, but since he had brought it up he had to defend his “doubts” about Cap wanting him there.

Which wasn't that difficult, really. All he had to do was to think about what arguments people would use against him if he had phrased his own opinion like Steve had, about what arguments he himself always took into account when making a decision, because it was better to decide such a thing when you knew that there weren't any foolproof solutions, and only some more or less pleasant compromises.

Laws are important.”

He could already see Cap put on his stubborn-face, as the man reaffirmed his grip on Tony's shoulder, as if it would give his oncoming statement more truth.

“Lives are more important.”

Tony didn't point out that he was the one who had gone and broken one of the bylaws to help, to save lives, so there really wasn't a need to convince him of this. He didn't point out that laws existed mostly because following rules made for better efficiency, and that better efficiency allowed the Avengers to save more lives. He didn't point out that establishing a precedent because it was necessary could lead to team members not taking any bylaw seriously anymore – after all, why would they if there never were any consequences?

He didn't point it out, because in the end, it was true that lives were more important. It was true, and yet it still had consequences, but that part Steve wouldn't want to talk about.

He raised his hands and laughed a bit, weakly, not that he had any idea how that sounded from outside the armor.

You got me there, Winghead.”

“Glad to hear it.”

Tony nodded slowly, and hesitated.

He had come there to talk about Zemo, about Steve, hadn't he? Not to talk about himself.

You okay there? I know it was a rough mission. It can't have been easy seeing Zemo again.”

That was an understatement, if Tony had ever heard one. Zemo was literally responsible for Steve's stint in the ice. It was the villain's maneuvering that had gotten Bucky Barnes, Captain America's sidekick, killed. Without him, Steve and Bucky would have probably seen the end of the war – without him, Steve wouldn't be presently sitting in Tony's kitchen, and he might even be dead of old age by now, though it was possible that the serum would grant him a better life expectancy than most.

But that didn't matter, did it? Steve would have been happy, and not here trying to make sense of a new century, of several decades lost, of friends deceased.

Steve, however, didn't tell him about Zemo, or anything about the day's battle, and just frowned at him. Unsure of how to read that, thinking that perhaps, yes, in the end, no matter whether it was Iron Man or Tony Stark asking, Steve just didn't want to talk about it, he reached for Steve's hand, hoping that the pressure he could thus offer, if not the human contact, would be enough to convey his concern.

Hey, no, I'm sorry! You don't have to talk if you don't want--”

Tony should know; after all, he was the king when it came to not talking about things – and yes, sometimes it was a bad idea, but sometimes it was also the least bad idea in a bag of worse alternatives.

But Steve didn't look particularly unhappy with mentioning Zemo, and it was more like he had been thinking of something else, something different, but puzzling – and perhaps unpleasant enough too – to warrant that frown on his face.

“No, it's okay. It's just that Mr. Stark was just here, asking me the same question, and he... and I...”

Tony braced himself for whatever was going to be said now, half-afraid that yes, Cap was going to confirm his suspicion that there was nothing he could do as Tony Stark to get close to his already-but-didn't-know-it friend, half-hoping that at least this way he would finally know what he had been doing wrong, what he needed to correct to get a chance. If he knew what he was doing wrong, for once, he could do better from there.

But Steve himself didn't seem to fully know what he was trying to say, so Tony cocked his head, as if to encourage him to talk, just in case.

Yeah?”

He'd do with even half an answer, with something incomplete and vague, just an indication towards how to be a better man, a better friend – which, again, Steve didn't know about – as long as it meant he wasn't a completely hopeless case.

The question that followed wasn't one he'd expected.

“You like Mr. Stark a lot, don't you?”

Tony froze. Not as literally as Steve had during all those decades, but near enough.

What was that question? He couldn't even begin to untangle how he'd be able to gather any kind of hint on how to behave as Tony Stark around Cap from wherever this conversation would be going.

Also, what was he supposed to answer to that? He couldn't be honest with Steve on that, he just couldn't, because if he did that, if he answered honestly, he didn't even see how Captain America, of all people, could end up liking him, even just a little bit. Tony was the worst advocate ever to defend Tony's personality – if honesty was involved; if not, he could do a very good job of presenting himself as a somewhat passable human being, decent enough, but mostly recognizable because of his great efficiency. But that was all he was, in the end: a tool, perhaps a highly valuable one, one that allowed people to be saved or helped often and efficiently, but still a tool – no matter how valuable, a tool could be sacrificed if it was to save a person, and though the sacrifice could end up being costly, it was still justified.

Did Iron Man like Mr. Stark? He didn't, per se, hate him. “Mr. Stark” wasn't what he'd call a bad person... But he didn't quite like him – or, more accurately, he didn't like being him. He valued “Mr. Stark” as you'd value a great tool. And no matter how he could spin that answer, it was obvious that Steve could twist it back into a number of meanings, all of them bad, either for Tony Stark or for Iron Man. Given that Tony Stark was already on the man's shit list, and Iron Man wasn't, Tony knew which one he'd rather tarnish with his answer.

Tony tried not to lie too much to Cap, though, or at least not to unless it was necessary. Most of the time he delt in omissions and half-truths. Here, saying the truth would only be a recipe for disaster.

After a moment of silence, he carefully offered something that wasn't an answer, and wasn't a lie either, if you took it a certain – twisted – way.

He's my boss.”

As much as someone could be the boss of themselves, at least, and in the facts that Iron Man always followed Tony Stark's decisions.

Steve sighed, looking frustrated – not with Iron Man's roundabout statement, but seemingly more with his own inability to get Tony where he wanted with just these words.

“Yeah, but... you do like him, don't you?”

Cap was going to wrangle it out of him, if Tony let him, wasn't he? And Tony just couldn't have that. He needed to think, and be very careful with the way he was going to stir the conversation now. He stopped looking at his friend and started staring somewhere indefinite inside the helmet, because it was easier to think without the blue eyes of justice and honesty peering into his soul.

He was aware that the longest he went without saying anything, the more Steve was going to start assuming he had a difficult time finding something good to say about “Mr. Stark” – which was not necessessarily false, but not for the usual reasons you couldn't find something nice to say about someone. Hence why he needed to give Steve something good, so that the long silence could be explained away by the significance of the answer, rather than by a difficulty to find one.

Problem being, Tony had a hard time finding something really good to say about himself, without it sounding too desperate, or feeling completely dishonest.

Perhaps if he... Yeah, that he could do. He was more valuable as a tool than as a person, so he should present how efficient he was as a tool. That was how you sold a tool, after all: by flaunting what you could do with it, and not by lauding its inner beauty.

When I met Mr. Stark...”

Lie. He never “met” Tony Stark, but he guessed he could dissociate Iron Man from Tony Stark if he considered the creation of the armor as a meeting rather than an actual creation.

So, right. Iron Man speaking, not Tony Stark.

I was at a very low point in my life. I... I didn't think I was going to live. I didn't know how much time I had left.”

Oh, actually, it was like he was talking about Yinsen here. He could work with that. What did Tony Stark think about his encounter with Yinsen – that he didn't deserve to be the one walking out of there, that he should have found a way to get both of them out, not just himself, because who needed a tool that could save itself but not those it was supposed to serve?

Not that Steve wanted to hear about that.

Still don't.”

He was half-hoping he'd have a heart attack, right now, right here, to get him out of this conversation, but 1) Steve would then find out who he was while trying to save him, and 2) this wasn't about Tony, this was about Steve, and about helping him sort out his feelings after Zemo resurfaced.

So, continuing on with the dissociation, and the talks of imminent death:

But who does, really? And then I put on the armor, and that... he gave me something to live for. Something I could do. So I'm grateful to him. I'll always be grateful to him for that.”

Except this wasn't about Tony Stark, but about Ho Yinsen. Steve would have to do with that terribly twisted answer, though, because he had asked him a question he couldn't answer honestly without compromising himself. It just wasn't possible. Tony had to answer as Iron Man, and so the only way to explain why he was Iron Man was by using Yinsen's memory.

Disgusting.

And now about himself.

...He's not a bad guy, you know. He's trying. He wants you to be happy in the future. I'm sure of it.”

Even if he had no idea how to make that happen. Even if “trying” was hardly enough.

Steve made a face – not really disgusted, but slightly irritated nonetheless.

“He wants me to like him. I think. I don't know. I don't understand him.”

Which was kind of surprising, considering almost everyone Steve had met since he had come out of the ice, and probably even before that, had wanted the same thing. Everyone wanted to be liked by Captain America – or at least not disliked.

Tony laughed quietly, looking back at his friend.

You're Captain America, everyone wants you to like them... I could tell him to knock it off...?”

The truth was, he had already decided to do just that, the moment he had understood there wasn't a chance, and he didn't really know why he was offering something like that, when he knew how much it would hurt if Steve said yes.

“You'd tell your boss what to do? You do want to keep this job, right?”

As it was, Tony didn't particularly care if an employee mouthed off at him, as long as they did it with a reason – and Captain America not appreciating his offer of friendship was a reason, even if it wasn't one he liked to think about. But that was the whole problem, wasn't it? Tony Stark was the walking stereotype of the worthless and disdainful millionaire to Steve, wasn't he? And there was nothing he could do about that.

He snorted, choosing to rather focus on the fact that Tony could very well tell himself what to do without encouring any retaliation from the boss.

Okay, fine, you have a point.”

But he guessed he could still try and at least push for some indulgence on Steve's side. Even if Steve didn't want to be Tony Stark's friend... Iron Man could defend himself as being a somewhat decent human being in intention at least, if not necessarily as a result. It just wouldn't do if Steve started having ideas that were wrong about who Tony Stark was, even if he didn't like him.

Even if he isn't good at saying it, I know he wants what's best for you. You think he lets just anyone move into this place?”

Just thinking about it made him shudder. The security nightmare it would be, with all the old and new labs and the various secret projects that had been created in the mansion, both in his father's time and now... And of course, this was Tony's home, the place he had grown up in, the recipient of his – admittedly rarely that good – childhood memories. Tony didn't want random strangers to sully whatever was left of his mother's voice in his memory by speaking loudly all around the place, he didn't want them to make themselves at home when he hardly knew them.

The Avengers were good, but the Avengers weren't just anyone. They were Tony's – Iron Man's friends. The new memories of the mansion he made, with them in it, were just as precious as the old ones.

That aside, Tony could tell Steve wasn't convinced, and at that point he just didn't know what else to say. It wasn't like he could force Steve to give a damn about Tony Stark – not even just some basic human respect, and while Tony himself didn't necessarily think he deserved that respect, he would have hoped that, if anything, Cap could respect Iron Man's opinion, even without understanding it.

He'd have liked to say it didn't hurt. Then again, there were many things he would have liked to say didn't hurt, but life just didn't work that way.

“I don't know... What do I know about Tony Stark? He might turn this place into a hotel.”

Steve was smiling, and Tony almost wanted to point out that he had given him the opportunity to get to know about Tony Stark, and Steve had rejected it. But Iron Man couldn't know about this as far as Cap was concerned, and this conversation had been about making Steve feel better after Zemo, not about blaming him for not wanting to be the friend of a man who probably didn't deserve it anyway.

So Iron Man put his hand over his heart, forced a smile into his voice, and went with the joke.

You wound me, Cap!”

That he did.

But he could never know. For what Steve knew of the situation, it was only a joke, and Iron Man was simply complaining about Steve not trusting his judgment on his employer. No big deal.

Even if Steve really didn't – want to – understand Tony Stark. Even if Steve thought he understood Iron Man, when really there was nothing to understand, because Iron Man wasn't real, was only a mask for Tony Stark to hide behind.

So what if Steve didn't really understand, as long as he was happy? As long as he could laugh while with Iron Man?

As for Tony, well. He'd take Captain America liking Iron Man and not Tony Stark, if that was all he was allowed. It was better than nothing, really. Cap could have not liked Iron Man either.

 

oOo

 

He was bereft of clothes, without his chestplate, imprisoned in a magnificent example of a cell that he'd probably be looking all over with enthusiasm if he wasn't jailed in it, and about to die. And, hurting, but that went without saying, because even with the chestplate his chest kept hurting continuously, so there wasn't really a point in pointing it out.

The Illuminati – they hadn't called themselves that yet, only he did it, but that was essentially what they were – had decided to go and bring a little warning to the Skrulls – the Kree, at least, weren't hell-bent on stealing their planet, even if they didn't generally care much for Earth and its inhabitants. Of course, that had gone pear-shaped, but Tony wasn't particularly surprised here – everything always tended to get worse before getting better, and they had gone in without proper intel, so, there was that. And sure, you could call them arrogant for making that decision, but at the same time, was pretending nothing was wrong and the Skrulls weren't going to come back like goddamn ostrichs all that better?

Now they were all – Namor, Reed, Charles, Blackbolt, Strange and him – imprisoned.

The only question was, were they going to be able to get themselves out, or not? Tony knew he could probably cannibalize his very cell into finding a way out, but that was without counting on the fact that he was dying and might not have the time to wait for the perfect opportunity or to make something useful out of completely unknown tech before cardiac arrest. The others certainly had the same kind of problems, if obviously not the exact same problems.

It didn't matter. Either none of them got out, and they died, or one of them got out and managed to free the others. One way or another, an end would be coming.

Several skrulls – scientists? guards? maybe both – were standing on the other side of the energy wall, and Tony wondered what exactly they were planning to do. Leave him to die on his own? Try to interrogate him, to get him to do things for them – that had worked so well in Afghanistan, hadn't it? He wasn't a very “interesting” specimen of the human race, so they were unlikely to try and dissect him – though, at the same time, he was perfectly “baseline”, to a point where it was kind of surprising, how anyone could be so genetically bland? So in a way he was a very good standard to base their studies of the human race off. Which wasn't a positive way to think, but Tony had never been particularly positive, and generally didn't pretend to be.

A female skrull – at least that was what the fact she even had hair led him to conclude – appeared before the energy wall, looking directly at him for a change, and...

With the Iron Man mask in hand.

Tony heard a distinct click, as if a mic was being enabled, and indeed soon after that he heard her voice, though vaguely distorted by the device. You'd think high-tech aliens would have gotten rid of that inconvenience.

What exactly were you thinking, in coming to us, in attacking our empire so overtly? What kind of arrogance could have pushed you to think you could threaten us so, just the six of you, and get away with it?”

Tony considered answering, took a moment to watch the other skrulls who looked more annoyed by the woman's intervention than anything else, as if she was walking on their turf. As if her presence was preventing them from doing something actually productive.

As he wasn't answering, she continued on.

Or is there a bigger force out there, and you were only the scouting party, the announcement of a war? Did you truly think you could take us on?”

A skrull in the background made a face, and probably snorted, but Tony couldn't hear him from inside the cell, not even through the mic. Tony considered ignoring him, but he also knew how people reacted – and, as foreign as the skrulls were, they were still a form of people.

So he shifted his gaze to rest on said skrull, his face impassive – and thus ignoring the woman at the same time. She kept her cool, went on. The male, on the other hand, started looking angry, as if there was anything he could do to make Tony stop looking at him without bringing the energy wall down, which would be welcome but was not very likely to happen.

You are the only baseline human, not counting the sorcerer who is genetically baseline but has access to unexpected powers, in your little group. Do not believe we cannot get you to talk.”

That got a smile out of him – but it was cold, humorless and possibly a bit disturbing to see on his face; not that the skrulls cared about who he usually was.

A disturbing smile, and an answer.

“Of course you can potentially make me talk, Skrull. It doesn't mean you will succeed in doing so. It doesn't mean you would like what I have to say.”

The woman squinted her eyes at him, but she didn't look upset by his statement, unlike the other skrulls who looked positively fuming at what they surely thought of as defiance.

Tony guessed the truth could be a defiance.

My name is V'ra, Human.”

Tony's smile widened – rather, he widened it on purpose, because there was nothing to laugh at here – and he passed a hand through his hair. His heart was hurting him, and he was way too aware of it at this point, but as said earlier, he was used to it.

“You want the answers to your questions, V'ra, and I might give you some, or I could lie to you. It doesn't matter, though, not so much as the reason why we're here, why we've come, only the six of us, to 'attack' your empire. I cannot speak for the others, obviously, and you cannot trust me to be honest here, either, but you have to consider that, even if I wasn't being truthful, the reason I'm going to give you is a valid reason to do what we've done. It's a reason some people, if maybe not me in particular should I be lying, could use to do the exact same thing. It's the reason no one will judge us for, because they will not believe it, because it is easier to believe in arrogance and errors of judgment than to consider that sometimes, there is no sure way to do the right thing, and you have to make a choice, with the risk that you are doing the wrong one. Because it is easier to judge someone for what they did without acknowledging that you may not have done any better, worse even, perhaps, in the same situation, than to accept that everything in this reality is the result of a compromise. Should I endanger myself against a stronger opponent, should I have the arrogance to make a decision for others when a decision has to be made and no one has the legitimity to do so, I am still doing it with the hope that it will right a wrong, or at least prevent said wrong to be worsened. Everything has a price, and sometimes it is cheap, and sometimes it is not, and not everyone will agree on what is an acceptable price for what result, but those who are ready to sacrifice absolutely everything to save one simple thing are quite obviously missing some very basic logic. You can't not acknowledge that said one thing is part of the everything you are sacrificing. What good are principles if they do not protect anyone?”

He stood up – still naked, don't think about the aliens seeing absolutely everything, don't think about it – and walked to the energy wall, stopping only to stand at a few inches of the – very interesting, might he add – open end of his cell.

He and V'ra were eyes to eyes, now.

“The question, in the end, is simple: are you willing to sacrifice lives for a principle, and will you continue to argue that in doing so you are not betraying that very principle?”

V'ra had inched closer to the energy wall as Tony spoke, avid to hear more – and wasn't it telling that he had to be in a cell on an alien world for people to be interested in what he had to say? Now they were barely a breath away – and, an energy wall away, but who was counting?

“Assuming, of course, that said principle is benevolent and not divided in several sub-principles that would be the ones to contradict themselves, leaving the abstract first principle entirely devoid of sense but otherwise safe. Example: do not lie, and protect life at all cost. Someone tells you they want to murder one of your friends and ask you where they are. Do you lie, or do you protect your friend? Better, you've seen said friend beforehand, and swore to them that you'd protect them. Same situation again. Do you lie to the newcomer, or do you make your promise to your friend into a lie instead? Do you lie, or do you lie?”

You tell the truth, and disable the newcomer to prevent them from harming your friend. Thusly you have not lied to anyone, and protected your friend.”

V'ra didn't seem entirely convinced by her own answer, visibly waiting for more.

Tony put his hand only a few milimeters away from the energy wall, palm and fingers splayed as he'd do against a wall of glass. He could feel it sizzling, hot against his skin.

“Supposing that by 'disabling' you do not mean killing the newcomer, in which case you'd break the second sub-principle, I have to point out that the morality of such an action depends only on the result of said action. Should you be unable to disable your enemy, you would still have retroactively lied to your friend in that you were unable to protect them and still made a choice counting on your ability to disable the enemy, and you would still have failed to protect life at all cost. Worse, should that cost be your own life, should you not only have lied and failed to protect your friend, but also failed to protect yourself, three times would you have failed your principles. Your intent was good, but the result would not be.”

V'ra leaned a bit closer.

Then it is your fault for not being strong enough.”

The faceplate in her hand chirped, and sailed through the energy wall, right into Tony's hand – not that there was much space to cover, but, you know, energy wall. The cell's entrance shorted out – as did the electronics in the faceplate that had recognized his DNA signature, but as he'd said earlier, everything had a price.

The skrulls scrambled into... action, he guessed. Most of them weren't warriors – perhaps that guy he knocked out first, but that was it – that much was clear, and Tony's basic combat training – he was an Avenger, after all, and couldn't always rely on his armor's capabilities, thanks Cap for that – was enough to take them out.

Not for long, and only because they hadn't expected it, because Tony wasn't exactly in the best state right now, what with the imminent heart attack and everything, but screw it if that had ever stopped him before.

V'ra hadn't moved, herself, except for taking a step back, and now she was watching him as he stole a skrull's pants, one of his hands on one of their guns. She didn't look quite as assured as before, obviously, but she wasn't backing away. Wasn't attacking him either.

He took a moment to speak again.

“The point was, V'ra, that your fault or not, you have to deal with the circumstances you are given. And sometimes, those are such that you must ask yourself which principle you'd rather fail in order to uphold the other. Not doing so is either naivety or hypocrisy. I make my choices, and I hope that they were the right ones, but at least if they weren't, I know that I tried, and I don't regret having chosen one principle over another, though I may regret what comes out of that choice, though I may admit that I was wrong in how I acted on it.”

He pushed her and the other skrulls into the cell which had very formerly been his, took a minute to fiddle with the controls and raise the energy wall back up, and looked at her one last time before disabling the mic.

“My name is Tony Stark.”

 

oOo

 

He found Charles first.

Charles didn't comment on his identity, on the fact that he only had the mask with him and hadn't let go of it, or, later on, on the fact that he had a failing heart – after all, Charles himself was a cripple too.

Then came Namor, who did have comments to make. Mostly it boiled down to “Stark, really?” with a great deal of disdain thrown in, but that was usual for Namor, so Tony didn't feel particularly insulted.

Strange, who was also a cripple even if he didn't like being reminded of it – who did, really? – wisely refrained himself from acting like the doctor he was and saying that forcing on his heart like Tony was doing wasn't a good idea.

Blackbolt, unsurprisingly, didn't say a thing.

Reed was the one, later on, as they were on their way back to Earth, to ask.

“Who else knows?”

Tony shrugged, uncomfortable with the question and equally unwilling to let it show.

“Officially? My ex-fiancée, emphasis on the 'ex' and the fact that her knowing is directly linked to her not being my fiancée anymore. A couple of other people, friends. And I guess some others must have doubts. But that's it. After all, who would think Tony Stark could be a hero?”

No one had anything to say to that. Namor, though, snorted.

“Not even Captain America and your fellow Avengers?”

Tony's face twisted, and he tasted sourness in his mouth, as he recalled a day he had tried to make sure that Steve did know what he was surrendering by getting rid of his secret identity – turned out, Steve hadn't.

“Don't you know, Namor? I help the only way I can. With my money.”

 

oOo

 

Eventually Tony got ride of the chestplate, though not quite in the way he'd have hoped – the whole story involved a rogue “Tony Stark” LMD, him being kept prisoner, a heart attack at an inconvenient moment, a “Stimuloid”, Kang, the Avengers saving him because they were decent human beings who didn't let people die just because it wasn't their business – and got a new, synthetic heart, and a new life expectancy to go with it.

When he woke up from surgery, there were two SHIELD agents outside – considering how much he contributed to the agency, an agency he had created, thank you very much, blame time travel for that, he wasn't really surprised – the doctor who'd saved his life, and Don Blake and Jan. No one else.

Not that he had been expecting anyone else to be there.

Tony Stark now had a new heart, and apparently no use for it.

 

oOo

 

Tony steadfastly ignored the glances sent his way as they walked down the path of the dark dimension – how did it work, exactly? Obviously physics and common sense didn't apply here, but there had to be some sort of logic, some written rules by which the realm acted, or else it simply wouldn't be substainable, and people like Strange wouldn't be able to learn how to use magic because you couldn't learn without rules, however those seemed to the ignorant gaze, and no, he actually wasn't only ignoring the main issue here, namely that both the Avengers and the Defenders were now aware of his identity – though he guessed Strange could possibly whammy them all into forgetting about Don Blake and him, because hell, he'd done it with Fury's memory of the Defenders and that wasn't asking for much, was it?

Cap and the others had managed to evade the quicksand bog created by Dormammu before the demon got himself sucked into the Evil Eye, thanks Wanda, by the way, so when they'd made their way to Thor – Don Blake – and Iron Man – yeah, yeah, Tony Stark, old news and all that, could you not stare please, and why are you looking at me like that, Steve? – they'd found them not yet back into their other identity. In other words, Tony's armor was still who knew where, and Thor wasn't back to being Thor because his hammer had disappeared too.

Cap had not stopped staring at Tony, not even after the armor had reappeared right back on him – again, thank you Wanda – to the point that Tony was almost certain the supersoldier had purposefully decided to stay at the end of the queue they were making, just so that he could stare at Iron Man's armored back.

Tony may or may not have tried to hide behind Don when the others had arrived, and Steve had definitely made a face – shocked, disbelieving, possibly angry – when he'd eventually caught a glimpse of “Mr. Stark”. The next question had been “What are you doing here?” because he could obviously not process the fact that Iron Man was apparently “that Tony Stark”. Swordman and Vision had shared a look, looking like they'd rather not intrude on whatever had Captain America looking like he'd swallowed a lemon, but unable not to react.

Of course Steve had caught on. Quickly. Steve was far from being an idiot.

Except the look hadn't left his face, and when Tony had risked a glance at him and their eyes had met, Steve had looked away.

And sure, the man probably needed time to process, but still.

If Tony had needed one more reason not to divulge his secret identity, well – not that it mattered much, now.

It wasn't just Steve, at that. Mantis and the Defenders were giving him weird looks whenever they thought he wasn't paying attention – not Strange, though, because Strange was a bit too involved with worrying over Dormammu and him and Namor had already known, anyway. Speaking of him, Namor had looked at him, given the others a long look – especially Steve – and snorted without a word. Even T'Challa wasn't commenting, and Tony was reasonably sure the king had had his own guess on the matter. The only one who'd even bothered talking to him was Don, who was facing his own identity reveal with a forced expression of indifference and a glare at anyone who even looked at his walking stick while Tony helped him along the tortuous paths of the Dark Dimension.

Now Thor was back and Tony was hidden back in his armor, but he'd never felt quite as exposed in his life before – not even with Wong-Chu checking over his every move, not with the knowledge that Ho Yinsen had had his hands inside Tony's chest and Tony hadn't been aware of it until he'd woken up with a bandaged torso and pain and a sword of Damocles over his head, not under the constant threat of dozens of terrorists and war-lords and other murderers who'd come together in Afghanistan for no other reason than because it was convenient and they wanted to watch the world burn and guess what, Tony Stark could make that happen if they managed to force him to do their bidding.

Those people – except Yinsen, of course, Yinsen was another story – had been enemies. They'd been all over him, and he'd had a reason not to want them anywhere near him and his secrets.

The fact that this was true for people who weren't his enemies at all, who were supposed to be his friends, even, or at least his allies, was not a comfortable fact.

The fact that he could almost feel Steve staring at his back with a frown of distate hidden under his cowl was something he wished he could never think about again.

God, he wanted a drink – and for Strange to do his mojo and give Don and him the same opportunity to remain anonymous, but it wasn't like he could force the sorcerer into doing anything, was it?

 

oOo

 

Sometimes Tony wondered why he even bothered to come back into the Avengers' current team, why he agreed to burden himself with even more responsabilities over and over again. The answer to that, of course, was that he didn't care so much about the burden, as long as bearing it also allowed him to be with people who didn't expect anything Tony-Stark-related from him. He'd come to terms with Cap not wanting to be Tony Stark's friend – and yes, it still hurt whenever he remembered, but that was what alcohol was for, wasn't it? He'd made other friends, too, through the Avengers, through the most hectic part of his life.

Friends who didn't know he was Tony Stark, behind the mask, and so who didn't make assumptions about who he really was, about what he actually wanted out of all the superheroing. Tony Stark shouldered all the bad parts of his life, and Iron Man got not to deal with those.

Only Pepper and Happy knew that both men were only one, for now, and they had decided to leave SI – to leave him behind, because wasn't that how it always went, when people discovered that Tony wasn't actually an irresponsible asshole who didn't care about other people? – so that they wouldn't be hurt by that knowledge – read, because of him. Well, them, and Tony's former fiancée, Joanna Nivena – Joanna Finch, now, and wasn't that glorious too? And Whitney Frost, who was a villain most of the time, even if she did keep Tony's secret to herself. Probably Don Blake, too, but Tony and him were pretending they had no idea that they were each other's comrade amongst the Avengers, and he wasn't going to make it official any time soon.

I'm sorry, Tony, I admire you and your dedication to making this world a better place in all and every possible ways, but I'm afraid I can't take the pressure that comes with it, so instead I'll let you to deal with it, alone. You understand, of course.

And Tony understood, of course.

And Tony let them all go, and Tony always ended up alone, or with people who didn't really know, or cared to know, him. Only Whitney hadn't done that to him, but Whitney was a special case and they had other reasons why it just couldn't work between them, no matter how much they had wanted it to work back then.

The worst, of course, was that Tony understood. Which meant he couldn't even really blame them, and could only blame himself for doing something good and suffering because of it. No good deed went unpunished, indeed.

So Tony – So Iron Man went back to the team, whenever he felt he could afford the distraction, whenever the last break had lasted long enough, and sometimes he ended up on the same roster as Steve, sometimes he didn't. It didn't really matter, even if it was nice to fight with Captain America by his side, because no matter what, Iron Man was always Steve's friend, even when they didn't see each other quite as often – Steve had gotten himself another best friend, Sam Wilson AKA Falcon, but it wasn't like they had quite the same status, Iron Man and Falcon; Wilson was Steve's best pal or something, while Iron Man was Steve's oldest friend-in-the-future. There wasn't really a competition here.

Steve Rogers and Iron Man were friends. Always.

Tony also learned that Steve wasn't, in fact, perfect, that he could make mistakes and be goddamned stubborn, even more so when he was wrong, but it was some sort of abstract knowledge, that he knew to take into account whenever he assessed a situation, but that he didn't really believe, deep inside. Which explained why he couldn't let go – he could pretend, but denial never made anything real – of the fact that Steve Rogers and Iron Man were friends, and not Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, because Tony Stark was obviously not good enough.

If he could have brought himself to believe it, that Steve wasn't perfect, he probably wouldn't have been hurting quite so much.

Instead, he just went on and let Iron Man be Steve's friend, even as he knew that the contrary wasn't true and would never be, no matter what Cap thought on the matter – Tony, him, knew who Iron Man really was, and it was thus painfully obvious that Steve would never be Iron Man AKA Tony Stark's friend.

So Tony barely spent any time at the mansion as himself.

Iron Man, on the other hand...

Well. Iron Man still had to answer to Tony Stark's schedule, which was why he interrupted Steve as the man was reading his newspaper.

Postponing the team meeting, sorry. I can do tomorrow evening instead. Everyone else said they were okay with it if you were.”

If Iron Man's secret identity hadn't been a secret identity, Tony just knew that the answers would have been different, that he'd have gotten muttering about how he wasn't taking his role as an Avenger seriously enough and maybe he should try and figure out what were his actual priorities instead of wasting their time. But the miracle of a secret identity was that your reasons being secret and personal, hence completely abstract and vague, no one started nitpicking about them as long as you did your job – the moment the secret was open, though, everyone suddenly thought they knew better than you why you were a failure of a human being.

And people wondered why he didn't want anyone to know.

Steve grinned at him, and Tony decided to just enjoy the advantages of only being Iron Man, and not himself.

“Hot date, Shellhead?”

He laughed, and tried not to think about the way Steve looked somewhat angry, somewhat disgusted whenever the subject of conversation was Tony Stark's hot dates, and not Iron Man's. Steve would probably get along with Bethany, as it was, if they met out of any kind of context that related to Tony Stark – and once he'd find out who she was currently dating, Steve would probably make that face that said he thought someone was wasted on Tony Stark but he was too polite to say it out loud.

Oh yeah, the ladies can't get enough of this.”

Actually, Bethany didn't seem to like Iron Man, like, at all. She was one in a million, and shared that peculiarity with Pepper, back when the young woman hadn't known – if you didn't count the supervillains that Iron Man kept sending to jail, of course. Everyone else seemed to like Iron Man better than Tony Stark. He guessed that made another context in which Steve and Bethany shouldn't meet, if the two were to appreciate one another for their personalities.

But on the subject at hand...

Yeah, no, I have a thing. At the UN. The Carnelian ambassador wants to meet me, and the boss wants me to go as SI's official representative. Sweet-talk him, maybe. Get a contract.”

When he decided to continue being Iron Man, Tony certainly hadn't expected that he'd have to whore himself out in that identity too – luckily, all this “whoring out” was purely metaphorical, as the ambassador wasn't exactly his type.

Tony cracked a smile from behind the helmet, and prepared himself to do the same with a joke, which would hopefully be better rendered to his audience.

Hey, maybe it is a date.”

Steve had an odd look on his face, but it's nothing negative – perhaps a bit contemplative? – so Tony left the mansion with the comforting thought that Steve seemed happy with his life, and their continued friendship was apparently part of the reason.

It was better to be in a good mood when attending anything that could be seen as vaguely political or business-related, and meeting the Carnelian ambassador was definitely that. The day started well enough, and should almost certainly end the same way.

It wasn't everyday that Tony had a good day, and he saw no reason not to be content about this one, even if it wasn't yet completely finished. All that was left was the signing of treaty and a public meeting.

What could go wrong there?

 

oOo

 

Iron Man, tarnished.

The only part of Tony that hadn't yet been dragged in mud and blood was now just as disgusting as the rest of him. It didn't even matter that Tony had not, in fact, been the one with the intent to kill the ambassador – a man who had genuinely admired Iron Man, and what had Tony gifted him with except death by Iron Man's hands? It didn't matter because, while Tony couldn't be accused of having killed him willingly, he had still given the real murderer the tool to do it – and yes, even without Iron Man, whoever that murderer was could probably have killed Kotznin a number of ways, but it was Tony's armor that they had used.

More than that, the armor shouldn't have been hijacked. More than that, Tony should have been good enough to prevent that from happening – how many times had he worried about Iron Man being used for evil? How many modifications had he done to the armor to keep it from being used against his will? But it didn't matter, because the one way they had used, that one way, he hadn't seen it coming – worse, perhaps he had, and hadn't been good enough to properly shield the armor from that way. He guessed he wouldn't know about that until he found out who, how, and why.

It all went back to one point, eitherway: Tony hadn't done enough.

And Kotznin had paid for it with his life.

He gnashed his teeth. He had to do better. He had to be better. He had to...

Breathe. He composed his face, made his stance carefully blank of any emotions, of any strain – Iron Man was the one who had woken up from a nightmare, from blood on his hands, from the murder of an innocent man in which he had been used as a tool, this morning, not Tony Stark. Tony himself didn't have a reason to be in this state; sure, some tension, some displeasure, anger, even, at the events, at the way he'd have to deal with it, at the fact that someone had died, but Tony wasn't the one who had been used – false, completely false, because Tony was the one in the nightmare, Tony was the one who had blood on his hands, the armor was just an armor, the blood on it didn't matter, the blood, ultimately, was on Tony's hands, and Tony had been the one who had drunk himself to sleep the day before, not Iron Man, but no one knew that.

Iron Man had cost Tony a lot, but in the end, it had always been worth it – even if sometimes it didn't feel like it right away. But now...

He arrived in front of the living room's half-open door just in time to hear Cap, inside the room, telling the rest of the team that Iron Man was off the team for the duration of the inquiry, for obvious reasons.

Tony understood, of course. Whether or not he was truly innocent, the point was that Iron Man couldn't operate as well if no one in the public trusted him, and just couldn't operate at all as an Avenger without it tainting the whole team. He understood.

More than that, it was exactly what he had been about to anounce himself anyway. He had already turned the armor over to City Hall – minus everything that made it functional, of course – and put Iron Man in time-out, so to say.

Just another proof that Iron Man was a broken mask, now, though.

Steve's words made it all too clear.

“Assuming, of course, that he is vindicated.”

He could hear, in Cap's voice, that he didn't doubt Iron Man's innocence, per se. It was good – the contrary of what had happened with Bethany back in City Hall, and it had been awful, and he had said things he shouldn't have said, because Bethany didn't know, and Bethany disliked Iron Man, but she didn't dislike Tony – but still, it left the possibility that Tony wouldn't be able to prove “Iron Man”'s innocence, that no one would believe it – and it wasn't good, because, knowing Steve's opinion of Tony Stark, Cap probably didn't trust “Tony Stark” to defend Iron Man properly, and that, that hurt.

The thought, for all it hurt to acknowledge it, also made Tony want to prove Steve wrong, to try and show him, once more, that Tony Stark was worth something – maybe not much, but something. That, even if Steve Rogers didn't like Tony Stark, he could nonetheless trust him to have Iron Man's back, to believe in the same things Iron Man believed in.

Tony pushed the door wide open to announce his presence. Beast was the first one to turn around.

“Uh-Oh. I sure hope you like the taste of your own leather boot, Cap.”

Everyone turned to stare at him, and several of them made a move to come to him, Steve first.

“What... Oh. Mr. Stark. I'm sorry, sir, I didn't know...”

The fact that Steve still called him “sir” was enough for Tony to remember that Cap didn't actually care for Tony Stark, and was reacting so only because he was afraid of being rude – more likely, even, because he didn't want to sound like he didn't believe in Iron Man.

More than ever, Tony was aware of how he stood, how he looked, legs apart as if to reaffirm his control over the situation when really it was just easier to stay upright that way, jacket rumpled, shirt barely tucked-in, tie askew, hair done but still a bit unruly. It would be worse, of course, if they could all see what he'd concealed this morning, after having had a drink to carry him through the first hours, the dark shadows under his eyes, the stubble, the way it all told how he'd woken up on his chair instead of his bed, still dressed, an empty glass next to his hand, before he took care of it. Tony could look worse than he did right now, but he had never looked like that before, not in public.

Whitney had left. SHIELD, an organization that he had helped on so many degrees, had been trying to manipulate him and take over SI. Cap hated Tony Stark. Bethany hated Iron Man. Tony Stark could never afford to make a mistake, because when he made a mistake, people lost their job. Iron Man could never afford to make a mistake, because when he made a mistake, people lost their life. Both of him had to keep in mind all the ways he could potentially fail at something, while remaining aware that there was always a way he might not have thought of, lest he became overconfident and got someone's life ruined, or got someone killed – and he had failed at that, hadn't he?

Neither Tony Stark nor Iron Man could afford to let their doubts overcome them, either, or they would be unable to do anything, to help anyone. They had to act, even when they weren't sure of themselves, even when they knew there had to be a better way, even when that better way eluded them and left them with only a lesser solution.

Unlike many people seemed to think, Tony knew he could be wrong – no, more than that, he knew he could not be enough, while still being right. Seeing a situation for what it was, instead of for what you wanted it to be, didn't necessarily mean that you knew how to make it better.

Had he done a good thing, giving Iron Man to the world? He thought he had. But he had no way of knowing that for certain, and it ate at him, especially now that he had been given a very concrete example of how Iron Man could be made into a weapon of evil, instead of a tool of good – something he had always known, but that he had not, at first, really known.

What if he was wrong?

He couldn't help thinking of all the things that kept him awake at night, he couldn't ignore all the ways his creations, his actions could backfire, but he couldn't either not do anything. The worry, the guilt, the disgust at everything he had ever done possibly being turned against its purpose, the doubt would eventually prevent him from thinking clearly.

A glass of alcohol could make these doubts recede, at least partially, to let him focus on what mattered at the moment. It wouldn't be a problem, as long as he didn't let it become more than that, as long as he didn't drink enough to forget entirely the worries that kept him in check.

Of course, there was the matter of whether or not he'd be able to tell when that particular line would be crossed. Which was another set of doubts to add on top of the others.

But he couldn't let those doubts keep him from acting, could he? Or else he'd never do anything again.

Tony wondered if all these thoughts could be seen in the way he stood, right now, in front of the other Avengers.

Unarmored.

Or if all they could see, perhaps, was his inadequacy.

But he knew himself well enough, he knew how much he could control what he gave the world to see, and while he was aware that he wasn't in his best state right now, he probably gave away less than anyone else would. The Avengers would probably be able to tell something was wrong, especially those who had known him for some time already, but they wouldn't know what to make of it – no one ever did. People made assumptions about how he felt, about what he thought, about the fact that he couldn't have just as many problems as they did, and generally they were wrong in those assumptions.

But he understood. That was, after all, a necessary evil of his own choices. You couldn't be in control and at the same time expect people to see past the masks.

He understood.

“That's all right, Captain. You're only doing what you have to.”

He understood.

He agreed.

Steve took a step towards him, a look on his face that Tony – that Iron Man associated with Captain America looking at civilians and checking whether or not they were about to snap because of whatever had happened just before.

Cap would never look like that at Iron Man.

But Tony wasn't Iron Man, was he?

Unsurprisingly, Steve's expression suddenly turned sour. Eyes squinted, just a little, barely enough to be noticeable, but still, Tony was right there, in front of him, and Tony spent half his life reading people's reactions, of course he could tell. The curb of his mouth moved just enough to let disdain show – Tony was well acquainted with that facial expession, the one that said you had done something wrong and there was no respecting you for that, he used to see it often enough on his father's face.

He wondered what he had done wrong, this time, and almost managed not to care.

Well. It wasn't like Tony Stark ever measured up to Captain America's standards, anyway. Tony, for sure, had never pretended to; he knew himself, he knew how pathetic he could be, too well to think that. But once upon a time, he'd believed that Cap, being perfect and all, would not begrudge someone for not being as perfect as he himself was.

Maybe Tony's imaginary Cap would have been disappointed in him, but he wouldn't have been disgusted; he'd probably have told Tony he wasn't good enough yet, but that he could do better, if he tried hard enough; that there was still hope for him, that he believed him to have the potential to be more, that he wasn't a lost cause yet.

Steve obviously didn't feel that way – or at least, he never did when it came to Tony Stark. Everyone else, except genocidal supervillains such as the Red Skull, deserved a second chance, but not Tony Stark.

If Tony Stark failed once, it wasn't a fluke; it was a proof of his inadequacy.

He didn't force a smile upon his face, because this time at least the current events allowed him to look as grim as he was feeling, and held out a hand to shake Steve's.

“I'm sure you'll make a fine leader, Captain.”

It wasn't even a lie. Cap was a good leader, and had proved it many times. But Tony Stark had never been on the field with Steve, he couldn't know that, not the way Iron Man did.

Iron Man wasn't there, though. He couldn't be.

“By the way, may I see you in the gym for a moment? Alone?”

Steve might not like him, but he wouldn't let him open to attacks when directly asked, so Tony was almost certain he'd agree to this. Cap was a good man, after all.

Tony shouldn't have to impose himself on him, though, not even for one afternoon. But it was necessary, if he wanted to go after the real murderer, to clear Iron Man's name, even as it was impossible for him to go as Iron Man. He needed the self-defense lesson, to get Iron Man back. Steve didn't know that, of course, but in the end, that was what they both wanted, wasn't it?

To get Iron Man back.

If he had been able to tell Steve why he really needed the lesson without making it obvious that he was Iron Man, Steve wouldn't object, because then he'd know he was doing it for his friend – Steve would almost certainly ask to go with him, or even, he would want to do it himself, without Tony's help, for Iron Man, but it was Tony's problem. Tony's responsibility. And even without taking that into account, Tony needed to be there, to know what had happened, to make sure it would never happen again, and given how hostile Steve was to anything Tony-Stark related, he wasn't certain they'd be able to work together efficiently.

Steve looked puzzled, and perhaps a bit suspicious. As always, he was right to be.

“Uh. Certainly.”

They left the living room, going downstairs, to the gym. Tony fell into step with Cap without meaning to, as he elaborated on the – fake – reason he needed a self-defense lesson – while not telling Steve about the real reason.

He was lying to Captain America. Nothing new.

The situation was too familiar, though. He was almost starting to act like he was in armor, as if it was Iron Man talking animatedly, with a smile – no smile this time, but he remembered how that felt, and if Tony didn't manage to make the situation right, he might never get to smile like this again – and not Tony Stark, asking for help from a man who didn't like him one bit.

Tony didn't stop to think about how, perhaps, that was what the Cap-Tony Stark – lack of – relationship was missing. He had long decided not to go and try to spend time with Steve in the hope of making him see he wasn't so bad, really.

He wasn't sure why the small smile he gave the man, as he asked him if they could perhaps try and teach him the basic moves of self-defense, felt so hopeful on his face, considering that.

Steve almost smiled, but there was a bland look behind it, visible even under the cowl. Cap was only being polite, he was only helping out, because that was what he did.

He'd probably be happier if he could spar with Iron Man, instead.

That was what Tony was aiming for, to bring Iron Man back, so...

“I'd be happy to give you a crash course in the defense arts, Mr. Stark. For starters, why don't you take a swing at me.”

Tony could only be grateful to whoever had made him kill the ambassador – if grateful was even remotely applicable to the situation, which it wasn't – that they hadn't found the way to manipulate him so sooner, back when he still had the chestplate, back when he couldn't have done this without revealing himself to Steve.

Cap tugged at his gloves, and Tony wondered for a moment why the man even had the uniform on inside the mansion. Not that he could talk, with how he never got the armor off as long as he was posing as Iron Man, and not as Tony Stark. It reminded him, for a moment, that it wasn't Steve Rogers giving him a hand, but Captain America. Because Captain America was just and fair, and would help even Tony Stark, but Steve Rogers wasn't Tony Stark's friend.

Cap fell into position.

“Go ahead. Give it your best shot.”

Tony blinked at Steve, more than aware that it wasn't how any of Iron Man's training sessions had ever started, and knowing that Cap didn't expect him to have any kind of combat experience, or half as much strength as he did. Tony wasn't a supersoldier, and while he in fact was in very good shape, Steve couldn't know that – considering what he thought of Tony Stark, he probably expected him to be no more than a couch potato or any equivalent from the 40's.

Still, he did what he was told to, and tried to take a swing at Steve.

“Well, okay. But I don't see how... Uh?!”

Yeah, he couldn't say he was really surprised when Cap dodged, but he still didn't get the poi...

Steve grabbed his arm, and flipped him over and into a wall – not violently, no, but still, Tony ended upside down with his back against a wall and his head and shoulders on the mat, so.

“That's your first lesson, Mr. Stark. If anyone offers you a sucker punch, they've probably got a reason, so... don't fall for it.”

Tony had made a sound he would never admit to have made as he had been flipped over, and so was very intent on focusing on basically anything else. The fact that Steve looked so damn content with himself, for example. Punk.

Perhaps he could pretend he was Iron Man right now. The grin on his lips seemed to think so, if anything.

“Very educational, Captain.”

And he got up again, ready for round two.

As the afternoon went on, Tony absorbed the defense lesson – really, it wasn't that bad, as Iron Man he had to be fit, and mostly it was all about adapting himself to a combat situation where he didn't have the suit and its power. Of course, Steve was, and would remain, more experienced in hand-to-hand combat, fitter, too, because hey, the best of human fitness, which was definitely not Tony's state. But Tony held his own, and managed to gather enough self-confidence that perhaps, he wasn't going to get himself killed right away when he'd go and tackle the Iron Man situation – he had occasionally had to rely on his fists alone, and he was still alive, wasn't he?

Steve didn't seem to buy the tennis excuse, though – not that Tony was really trying to justify himself, at that point. That was not a thing he felt like he had to justify.

He thanked Steve at the end of the session. Mostly because he was grateful, but also because he knew Steve didn't particularly want to spend time with him, and yet had taken it upon himself to help.

Tony just hoped he hadn't behaved too much like Iron Man, too familiar, during the lesson. He might have a very good control of himself, of his body language, but he wasn't a robot either, and sometimes he slipped up, especially when there was no immediate threat to deal with and no one's life was on the line.

He was about to leave, but saw something on Cap's face, as if he wanted to say something, but didn't quite know how – or even what, for the matter.

Tony stilled, politely waiting.

“Mr. Stark... When I woke up in this era, I had no one, nothing. You gave me...”

Said with a different tone, Tony could have believed that it was really meant for him, this gratitude; but he wasn't deaf, and that was Steve's way to say something he thought he ought to say, not something he really believed in. It wasn't wrong, per se, but it lacked the intensity to be anything else but a formal acknowledgment of what Steve felt he owed him.

Iron Man was the one who got the heartfelt statements.

Tony finished Steve's sentence for him, because he didn't want to listen to him struggling to say something he didn't really feel, at least not in any way that mattered.

“Iron Man. I gave you Iron man, didn't I. And the rest of the Avengers.”

He was smiling, he knew it, but it didn't feel like it.

It didn't help when Steve agreed.

“Yes, Iron Man. He's been a good teammate and a good friend. So, thank you. I'd never have met him without you.”

...That probably was truer than Steve thought it to be, but.

It would be nice if Steve didn't think that only of the mask, but also of the man behind it.

See, Steve wasn't actually Iron Man's friend. If he had been, he'd have no problem being Tony's friend, too. Tony couldn't help but wonder about who exactly Cap expected Iron Man to be, about how disappointed he'd be if he was finally shown that it wasn't Iron Man at all, if one day, Tony had to destroy this idea of Iron Man that was in Steve's head because it was the only way to do what was right, even if Cap wouldn't be able to see that.

He wondered, too, if, perhaps, it was Tony that Steve had misjudged, and not Iron Man, if, in fact, he was worthy of Steve's friendship and Steve just failed to acknowledge it. But that would imply that Tony was a way better man than he knew himself to be, and so it couldn't be right.

Tony Stark wasn't as good a man as Iron Man; however, Iron Man was as flawed a man as Tony Stark, and Cap had yet to see that.

Tony looked one last time at Steve before leaving.

“Any time.”

 

oOo

 

He was almost out when he heard Steve calling him, for the first time, “Tony”. Not “Mr. Stark”, but “Tony”. It was stupid, but his heart was full of hope.

Tony always knew why he was so miserable; he couldn't help but be an optimist, even when he knew perfectly well that there were no reason to be anything but a pragmatist in this world. He was a freaking paradox of hope and despair, and he had never known how to fix that, one way or another – sometimes he wished he was more stupid, less of a genius, that he could believe in things because he wasn't be intelligent enough to really understand that wasn't how any of it worked.

He turned around, and smiled at Steve, for real this time, despite everything that was going on, despite how he had dreamt of blood on his hands and it hadn't even been only a nightmare, despite the fact that he couldn't go by without a drink a day, when it wasn't more.

“Hmm?”

Steve was just next to him, now, and he had that look in his eyes, the one that said he had absolute faith in his own words, in what he was going to say now. It had to be nice to be so certain of yourself.

“I have a message for Iron Man.”

And just like that, it wasn't so hopeful anymore. Sure, Tony was happy that Steve had a message for him, but... It'd have been better, frankly, if it had been for Tony Stark.

“Tell him I know he's innocent.”

Tony was almost happy that Steve thought so. Almost.

Because he knew the truth, didn't he? Iron Man – Tony might be innocent of having murdered Kotznin, but he was guilty of having let it happen. Tony wasn't someone who'd take someone else's responsibility for himself, he had no difficulty recognizing what exactly hadn't been his fault, what hadn't been his intent. But unlike most people, he was also accutely aware of everything that was his fault, if only indirectly, if only by what he could have done, and hadn't. The intent wasn't his, the decision hadn't been his, the act itself, even, hadn't been his. But the means, the opportunity, these he had created.

Iron Man was not guilty of murder, yes, but Tony Stark was guilty of negligence. And since Iron Man was Tony Stark...

Steve wasn't done, though.

“...And tell him if he needs anything, ever, I hope he knows I've got his back.”

It would be perfect, just the right thing to say... If it was true. But Steve had already done his part, by helping Tony Stark, and it was obvious that no, he didn't have Iron Man's back, not inasmuch as Iron Man wasn't only Iron Man, but also the man standing here, and that Steve clearly disliked that man.

Cap certainly meant it, when he said he had his back, but that alone didn't make it true. Steve had that image of Iron Man, perfect and unblemished, without any of the depth or of the hurt a real person had, and listening to him, it was like Steve was in love with the idea of Iron Man, with the abstraction of it, while demonstrating that he would never actually be able to even appreciate the man behind the mask.

They were shaking hands, then, and it was the end of it. It had always been the end of it, when it came to Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.

“That'll mean a lot to him, Cap.”

It did. It meant a lot.

If only it could mean a lot of good things, and not just whatever it was that Tony was feeling right now.

He waved as he left.

He didn't even want a drink right now, not after that, not now, and anyway, he had better things to do. Such as getting Iron Man back to Cap.

 

oOo

 

Bethany was the only one to hold his hand throught the fiasco of his alcoholism. Tony wasn't sure why she bothered, even if she did love him – and he did love her, too. Jarvis hadn't, and honestly, Tony didn't blame him, considering how Tony had treated the poor man that one time.

He was grateful to her, of course. He was terribly grateful that she hadn't left too.

He just hoped he wouldn't keep putting her into that situation, but even that he couldn't be sure of.

Tony wasn't as strong as Captain America, he didn't have the moral strength Steve did. He was going to fall off the wagon, at some point, he knew it – of course, he only thought that when it was the hardest, when everything was worse and unbearable, but the very fact that he thought it once, more than once, had to mean something – and he didn't deserve anyone if that meant they'd have to deal with it.

The only reason he wasn't cutting the chase and not wasting anyone's time, even as he was convinced he would fail to control himself again, one day, was because he was a stubborn fool who thought he could do some good in between today and that moment to come, a stubborn idiot who refused to give up and disappoint people right now, even while knowing he'd just disappoint them worse latter on.

Bethany believed in him, and Jarvis too, up to a point – whether or not Jarvis' way to deal with the issue, the fact that he had left, had been the right way to help him snap out of it wasn't in question; only his intent was.

They were probably the only ones.

 

oOo

 

There was a pattern here, he knew; Bethany learned he was Iron Man, and eventually she left him – not because of that reason, no, for a much better reason, because her husband who was dead apparently wasn't, and what could Tony do about that? – just like everyone else. He wasn't saying that this knowledge was always the cause of everyone's departure – let's be frank, it was often the case – but somehow it still seemed to matter.

He couldn't say he wasn't relieved when his armor did not disappear at the hand of the Molecule Man, like Thor's hammer did, like Steve's shield did, like the Silver Surfer's board did. For all he knew, they'd have learned who he really was, and then, somehow, for some unfathomable reason that didn't even have anything to do with Tony being Iron Man, but that would nonetheless follow the reveal, the Avengers would leave him behind, too – assuming they didn't care about the fact that he had a history of cardiac problems, which was unlikely anyway, or about the fact that he was, well, him.

Steve, most certainly, would, if he learned that his best friend Iron Man was really the man he couldn't even have a friendly conversation with, Tony Stark.

So yeah, Tony was relieved that his armor was still there, and not only because he was only wearing a red thong – what? He had wanted to try and see how it felt, just because you have to be informed to actually know what you were talking about, and it was virtually impossible to wear a suit under this particular model of the Iron Man armor.

 

oOo

 

Tony was still having trouble processing what had happened – a guy who could manipulate all molecules, really? What need did people have for science if that guy, who obviously had no idea what he was doing and might accidentally turn air poisonous on the entire Earth or something just as cataclysmic, existed? – when he heard Steve's voice and looked up. The Silver Surfer had somehow gotten them out of the maniac's crushing machine and on the floor below, and they really, really had to find a way to deal with the Molecule Man before he went all Galactus on the planet.

“So, I can't help but notice one of us is luckier than the rest of us.”

Tony almost looked at Don Blake, just to confirm what he had already known – and he wondered, once again, if the doctor had had the same suspicions, if, to Don Blake at least, that particular secret wasn't one at all even while the armor had held itself against the Molecule Man's frankly ridiculous power. He didn't, though, because that would be opening a door he had carefully kept locked for more than four years.

Instead, he looked back at himself, just to check that yes, indeed, the armor was still there, complete, and that his superpower of denial hadn't invented this particular fact.

The small laugh he gave then was more scared than he'd care to admit, but thanks to the armor's static voice he didn't have to admit to anything.

He wondered who Steve was imagining, under the Iron Man persona. What kind of man – certainly not Tony, that much was clear.

I guess that experimental forcefield worked, after all. Whew. He couldn't disintegrate the armor. Good thing, too.”

Not that he needed the chestplate anymore, but still. And that was only the last concern on a long list of concerns about people – even Steve – knowing who Iron Man was. The less important one. His continued survival, in itself, wasn't so important – no, he didn't particularly wish to die, thank you, but if he did, it wasn't like it would matter that much. Unlike many people seemed to think, Tony wasn't so full of himself that he'd think himself to matter that much in the grand scheme of the universe. The others things, when you came down to it, mostly boiled down to the fact that he wouldn't be able to work with the Avengers the same way anymore, if they discovered who he really was – if they were still able to work together at all.

Next to him, Steve seemed to have reached the same conclusion, but not for the same reasons.

“Yeah, you're the only one of us with a weapon.”

...Which meant that, ultimately, if they had to deal with the Molecule Man the hard way, Tony would be the one to do it. Great. Not that Steve was even considering it, at that point, or that he would one day, but that was an eventuality Tony had to consider – not one he was certain he'd be able to follow through with, but that he'd have to at least try, because there was nothing moral in refusing to kill someone without acknowledging that it'd result in many more deaths and that it'd be at least partly their fault.

Right, not thinking about it yet. Might not ever become a thing. He knew it could, and that was what mattered, not anything else.

That too. The other reason is that's it's laundry day, and you do not want to know what I'm wearing under here.”

If he winked, knowing that the eyeslits were large enough to show it – and he really needed to work on that, or else one of these days someone would recognize him just because of that, he was really surprised no one close to him ever saw it, then again it probably had to do with the fact that those who'd look Tony Stark in the eyes tended not to linger on Iron Man's, and vice versa – it was more to keep himself from thinking about all the reasons why it would have been a catastrophe, and that had nothing to do with his thong – which, by the way, was a definite no from now on, because it just wasn't practical with the armor. Being willing to try anything – within reason – did not mean he had to like it all.

“Shellhead!”

Steve looked a weird mix between rebuking and strangely... disappointed?

No, that couldn't be right. Steve was going out with a girl named Bernie Rosenthal, for starters, and Tony knew that Cap didn't fool around, and certainly didn't pretend he liked someone just to dump them afterwards. Moreover, Steve had never indicated that he could like men too – then again, considering how the 40's were about that kind of things... Also, Steve totally had the right not to say it out loud for everyone to know if he didn't want to. Still, Iron Man was just an armor; Steve didn't even know what he looked like underneath – wrong, he did, but he didn't know he did, and that was definitely for the better – except for the eyes, and Tony knew for a fact that having the helmet on made his eyes look a few shades darker, so, not even the eyes, not really.

Sure, Cap could, potentially, have fallen in love with Iron Man's personality and not care at all about his body, but that was a new hornet nest if Tony ever knew one, seeing as Steve didn't like Tony Stark's personality, not one bit.

There might be some of Iron Man in Tony's personality – Iron Man was all the good points, and none of the drawbacks – but obviously when you took the whole person, that bit of Iron Man wasn't enough for Steve to be willing to work with the rest of him. Cap wasn't willing to when he didn't know, and there was no reason for him to change his mind even if he found out – if nothing else, it'd just be painful for both of them.

Tony had to be mistaken, though.

But just in case, he'd keep an eye on their friendship, from now on, to see if it could actually fall into that category as well, or if he was just reading things that weren't here to begin with.

Because if he was right... Well. Tactically speaking, he had to know.

Personally speaking, he wasn't quite sure why he wasn't just deciding not to think about it, ever again, considering how painful it would be to discover that yes, dear, Steve Rogers was in love with you – or could potentially become so – as long as he didn't really know you and after having proved that he couldn't care less about the real you.

Not to mention the fact that Tony just didn't feel that way about men – at least not sexually; romantically, to be honest... he'd have to think about it. He had never fallen in love with a man, sexual orientation notwithstanding, but it didn't mean it couldn't happen at some point. He knew talks about sexual and romantic orientations had gotten very confusing in the last decades, and frankly he didn't want to label himself with one word or another when there wasn't even a way to know for sure what you were until it was to late too talk about it because your whole life had passed and thus you knew what did it for you and what didn't – the scientist in him mostly rebuked at the way talks of sexual orientation were just so vague and relied too much on identifying with a particular definition that no one seemed to agree on, and not actual facts, to be honest.

As long as you were happy – which he wasn't, but that also wasn't the point – what did it matter if you didn't call yourself one thing or another? Or rather, if it mattered to you, good, but if it didn't, you had a right to be left alone.

Not that any of this mattered, when Steve couldn't even bear to have a conversation with Tony Stark, and Tony Stark couldn't afford to let people know he was Iron Man.

He was Iron Man, and it was never going to matter.

It had to be good enough for Tony, because there really wasn't an alternative that didn't end in a catastrophe at some point or another.

 

oOo

 

Afterwards, when Steve and Tigra were busy talking with someone or another about what had happened, and the Silver Surfer had left, Don Blake grabbed Iron Man's arm.

Tony looked at him quizzically, but didn't say a thing.

Just looking at the other man told him it wasn't a conversation he wanted to have.

Don glanced at the others, at everyone who was here, just to make sure they were as alone as possible in those conditions, and let go of his arm.

“Don't you think it's time?”

Time to what? Tony didn't ask.

“It'll never be.”

Don might understand, because just like him, he was a liability on the field, but he also couldn't understand it all, because unlike Tony, Thor wasn't a liability on the field. Tony was still Tony under the armor, and all his problems were still there.

Problems that Steve was unlikely to ignore.

Under his breath, Don... pleaded?

“Tony...”

Tony just looked away.

Don let it go. Even if he didn't understand it all, he still respected that choice – mostly, Tony thought, because outing him against his will would do just as much damage to the team as not doing it – and Tony could trust him not to say anything, at least as long as it didn't become a threat to the Avengers.

 

oOo

 

The truth was, Tony did not think back on Steve's possible infatuation with Iron Man right away. Oh, sure, he kept an eye open, but he had other things to think about, and since there was no way for him to even envisage a functioning, less alone a healthy relationship on that front, Tony just ...didn't dwell on it much – for clarification, yes, he dwelled on Iron Man's friendship with Cap and the antagonism Steve displayed about Tony Stark, which was habitual at that point, but he didn't dwell on a potential romantic relationship.

Then things happened, and Hank lost it – there was something that didn't quite add up with the whole story, but given Hank's antecedents, and the fact that Tony had no proof of any foul play aside from Hank's, he had to admit, for now, that it really seemed like Hank had done it, this time.

For two brief weeks, and a vacation in Jamaica, Tony was almost content, as he and Jan started dating. Then it became more and more obvious that if it went on, he'd have to tell Jan who Iron Man was, because it was one thing not to tell his civilian dates, but it was another to keep it from a comrade in arms with whom he was in a relationship.

Thor took Tony Stark aside for a talk, but had no need to speak, for Tony had already made his mind earlier.

It turned out that Jan too was having reservations anyway, not because she wasn't happy with Tony, but because it was too soon after Hank – something that Tony understood too well, as another of his reasons for breaking up with her was also that he felt slightly guilty even if he didn't, objectively, have any reason to be.

It was only once this short-lived romance died down that Tony really thought back onto the subject of the possible crush Cap had on Iron Man. The few months since the not-an-incident-because-the armor-didn't-disappear had mostly confirmed what he already thought: Steve might not be on the market right now, but there were lingering feelings he had not acted on in his interactions with Iron Man. There was even – and that one was a surprise, frankly – sexual attraction, in the basest meaning of the expression; Steve wasn't looking for anything, but apparently Iron Man was his type. Somehow.

It had to be the eyes, because it couldn't be the armor.

As for himself, well. He might not have been sexually attracted to Steve so far, but he had mooned over Steve's eyes, hadn't he? Like, not necessessarily in a “Oh your eyes make me go weak in the knees” fashion, but definitely in a “Your eyes give me hope” fashion. Steve's presence could make Iron Man relax instantly... and put Tony Stark on edge right away.

He wasn't sure that kind of influence over him could entirely fall in the friendship-only category.

Tony went to sleep on that disturbing revelation and a disturbing – but expected by now – wish for a glass of brandy, and woke up with a headache – apparently hangovers could be had from not drinking, too – and a hard on, remnant from a wet dream that he wasn't going to forget anytime soon – it involved a lot of panting, mostly, because the images were foggy, probably thanks to Tony's lack of experience with men, but that didn't make it any less memorable when he could recognize Cap's voice and his own in that panting.

With some hesitation, Tony resigned himself to use the Internet to look for gay porn, to confirm or infirm what he thought was going on with his sexual orientation – he didn't really want to, but that was better than him deciding to try guys while wasted – should he fall down the wagon again – only to discover he wouldn't enjoy it, if he was right and this wasn't him just turning bisexual over the night and for no particular reason.

Conclusion: he was right. Gay porn didn't do a thing for him – it wasn't disgusting, per se; simply... not interesting – where straight porn still did make him react; not even gay porn with actors who looked loosely like Steve did it. Tony couldn't rightly call himself bisexual in front of these facts – now that he thought about it, Tiberius had tended to be very engaging back when they were in school... but such an idea had been so far from what he had had in mind back then that Tony hadn't exactly noticed.

Thinking of Steve – which was not a good idea, considering the current Rogers / Stark situation, the secret identity issue, and a number of other reasons, but Tony needed to know for certain what was going on with him, so once was a necessity – though...

That did the trick.

Tony wondered for a moment if it was possible to be mostly straight, and only demisexual when it came to men – if that was even the word, people these days were way too snobbish when it came to someone's sexuality and romantic attractions. Like, my type is women, and Steve because I have feelings for him.

Tony snorted at himself, reached for the nearest bottle, and contemplated drinking it now, even if he hadn't drunk anything since after the Carnelian ambassador.

Whatever his infatuation with Steve was, it wasn't like the man would ever return the feeling – not as long as Iron Man was Tony Stark. Steve's feelings were only for Iron Man, not for Tony. Dwelling on what Tony's own sexuality meant for their non-existant relationship was of no actual interest as said relationship was doomed to remain non-existant.

He put the botte back.

 

oOo

 

After that...

Things got increasingly worse, and Tony could tell someone was engineering the whole debacle, but at first he was missing key data, and his various responsabilities, his failures, his constant sacrifices kept him from investigating more, from thinking about it clearly. Even just going on with his hectic life meant he suddenly had to drink again if he wanted to be able to do anything at all – except breaking into pieces under the weight of it all, that he could do without the help of alcohol, in fact, it was the very thing he tried to keep away with it.

At first he didn't drink, as it was. Then he broke into pieces. Then he drank.

He wasn't in love with Indries – not yet – he could tell because, well, it seemed he had apparently gotten himself a sure way to assess whether the sentiments were that deep after the fact: whenever he was in love with someone else, he stopped thinking about Pepper or Steve in that particular way, except for the fact that he still knew the truth about it. He just... stopped thinking about it. When Tony was in love with someone else, Steve went back to simply being his most important friend, if not his best one – that was Rhodey, by the way – and Pepper went back to being Happy's wife and a friend, instead of a hopeless infatuation.

Indries hadn't yet replaced Pepper nor Steve, so no, not in love.

Not yet.

Well on the way to being in love, though. And just that was enough to send him down the bottle one more time, with her words simply confirming what he already knew: he wasn't worth anything – not anymore, maybe never before.

He was purely broken, this time, and there was no coming back from that. Especially not as coming back from it wouldn't just ask of him to get himself out of the bottle, but also to shoulder all his responsibilities again, no real time to adjust back to being Tony Stark, because that wasn't how it happened for him, never, he didn't get a break unless he'd planned it carefully himself and even then there was always the possibility of something urgent and life-threatening occurring during his vacation. The real world didn't allow for people to come back gradually, to get the time to heal themselves before being thrown out to the sharks again, or if it did, it also made an exception for him and it was either “be Tony Stark” or “be the drunk no one cares about”.

Right now he didn't have the strength to be Tony Stark.

So he'd be the drunk no one cared about.

At first Tony wasn't an alcoholic – no one was, at first. At first he drank socially, at first he could stop whenever he wanted. At first it wasn't a problem. Then something happened, and that period when it wasn't a problem was gone. He wouldn't be able to tell you which drink was the one with which he'd walked the line, but he knew there was one.

What he knew, too, was that he probably wouldn't have felt the need – that it wouldn't have become a need – to cross that line if more people had been there to help him, to shoulder some of the responsibilities for him, with him, but the facts were that those who were willing to do that generally weren't qualified, and those who were qualified generally weren't willing. Or worse, that they were qualified, willing, but not trustworthy to handle it the way it should be. So far, only Fury, at SHIELD, and the various chairmen of the Avengers were doing that as it was supposed to be done. And it wasn't like Tony could delegate his personal life, in order to have more time for the other things.

But it was alright. Rhodey would do well as Iron Man. Rhodey was the only one he could trust with the armor, with the skills of a pilot and the heart of a hero.

After all, Tony was trying to be responsible here: he might not have noticed right away that he had crossed the line, but the moment he'd actually endangered innocents because he was flying drunk, he decided to stop being Iron Man. He didn't wait for the second time it went wrong, he didn't refuse to accept the truth. He could obviously not continue being a reliable CEO for SI, so he was stopping that too. What was the point of fighting for your rights to something when all that would come out of it would be more hurt for everyone else?

In fact, he wasn't good for anything anymore, so he'd just take himself out of the equation entirely.

Tony Stark, useless at last.

It wasn't anyone's problem except his own.

It was the best solution, short of blasting himself in the head with a repulsor.

Steve – Captain Freaking America, the man with a plan, the one who will never fail you, the symbol you should respect no matter what – and Jan came by at some point, back when Tony was still at the penthouse, offering “help”. As if Steve cared, as if there was anything they could do. They couldn't revive the dead, could they? They couldn't undo his failures. Jan, he believed when she said she wanted to help him. Didn't mean she could.

What Tony needed was to be left alone. What they wanted to do in “helping” him was to get him back to do everything and anything to help people, to direct his enterprise, to... He wanted that, too, but it wasn't what he needed. If he even tried, it'd end up the same way, with him failing everyone because he wasn't good enough, because he wasn't strong enough, because he wasn't and couldn't be everywhere taking care of everything all the time but that was what people needed of him.

He finally realized he was – he used to be – good, that wasn't the problem.

The problem was that being good wasn't enough, that he could have been the best and it still wouldn't have been enough.

There was no point trying to be that good, it just wasn't possible, and Tony was tired of trying. All he wanted was to sleep.

And he couldn't, so he'd drink instead. At least that way, once everyone would be used to not relying on him for anything... At least that way he wouldn't be able to do more damage by trying to help in a situation where nothing would ever be good enough short of a biblical miracle.

Tony didn't believe in God anyway.

Just like he didn't believe anyone would understand – would even care to understand – why he was letting go. Just like he didn't expect anything except to be blamed for whatever would go wrong in the time of transition, the time SI would need to change its ways, the time Rhodey would need to adapt to the job.

Steve was probably going to assume something about him and the new Iron Man, about how it was all his fault, and he wouldn't be right about it, even if he wouldn't be wrong about Tony's responsibility in it. Let him make assumptions. It wasn't like it would change anything, anyway.

Tony wasn't the one ruining SI, he wasn't the one responsible, but it didn't change the fact that for now, he was unable to save the company, it didn't change the fact that he wasn't good enough. People depended on him no more, and he was acknowledging that.

If they couldn't, well.

Him not taking responsibility anymore wasn't selfish. You didn't accuse someone who had no hands of being selfish for not cooking you your meals. He simply couldn't take responsibility. Him still taking responsibility, when it was obvious that he couldn't handle it anymore – that would have been selfish, egotist, self-centered.

He wasn't able, and he acknowledged it.

He wasn't good enough anymore, and he acknowledged it.

He probably never would be enough anymore.

People would certainly assume that he didn't care about his responsibilities, that he thought only about himself. That he liked being this pathetic, useless shadow of a person, more than he cared. Let them make assuptions. It wasn't like it would change anything, anyway.

 

oOo

 

He disappeared as Rhodey – you know, the true, the new, the useful Iron Man – saved another person from the flophouse. The man would probably try to save Tony from himself, but he didn't understand that it was already what Tony was doing: obviously he wasn't any good as CEO, as Iron Man, as a person anymore – maybe he never had been – and without the booze, he'd probably kill himself, because he was no good if... well. If he was no good to anyone.

It wasn't a matter of drinking or being better, at that point.

It was a matter of suicide or a bottle.

Tony wasn't sure which choice was the best, yet, but as suicide was more definitive than a bottle, he was holding onto that solution as long as he didn't know.

 

oOo

 

When he woke up in the hospital, after a woman, after a friend had died in his arms, after barely managing to keep a newborn child alive – after having decided there was no point continuing, too – only Rhodey came to see him, which really wasn't a surprise. Pepper and Happy had left long ago, to live somewhere where they wouldn't be continuously endangered by Tony's superheroics – never mind the number of times they hadn't died because Tony was Iron Man, because the Avengers had been there to stop a catastrophe, because a villain wanted something and they were in the way regardless of Tony's superheroics, never mind all that, because Tony understood, because he knew he occasionally was a danger to them – but it didn't hurt any less.

He told Rhodey that his eyes had been opened, that if a baby's life was worth saving, his own was too, yada yada yada.

Mostly he didn't speak about the fact that, more than his life being worth saving, it was the truth that if he had been taking care of himself, if he hadn't let alcohol and desperation get at him, he might have saved Gretl too. He might have been able to get the baby to a hospital sooner.

It didn't matter that he had been ready to let it end because he couldn't bear it anymore – Steve would probably, if he cared, which he didn't, not when it was about Tony Stark, Steve would say something about life being beautiful and hope being the only thing you needed to live, and that Tony, sorry, Iron Man should want to live because of that. But as it was, Steve didn't care, and would in fact certainly agree with Tony that he had to live because he had responsibilities and no right to hand them over, no matter how much everything hurt.

He didn't say, in the end, that he was really trying again mostly because he had no right not to help, not to try his best to make the world a better place, not to bleed himself dry for the future – because that was what it would end up being, wasn't it? At some point, some day, he'd have to give more than he could, because how could he not, how could he put himself as an absolute first? He'd have to give more than he had, and somehow he would, because he didn't have the right not to do it, because no one else would be willing.

 

oOo

 

Tony gritted his teeth and said nothing when the mansion – his only true home, though he did appreciate his other residences – was destroyed by the Masters of Evil. Because he understood that this was the results of his actions, of his choices, of the Avengers' need for headquarters. He had painted a target on the mansion, by all but giving it away to them, because he could provide and someone needed to. The fact that it hurt him every single time a supervillain blew a hole in it didn't matter compared to that.

 

oOo

 

Tony had the phone in hand already, yet he couldn't help but stare at it for a long time before actually calling Steve Rogers.

He had things to do. Steve also had things to do. Those things were not likely to have them go the same way. In fact, they were very likely to put them on diverging paths, no, worse than that, to stitch their respective paths together as – he didn't want to think enemies, but what else could it really be called? – enemies.

Still, Tony's designs were out there, and bad people were using them to do uncautionable things. He had to do something about it.

At the same time, he had heard about what was going on with Steve, and his – he didn't want to call Steve his friend, because it was obvious that Steve didn't think as much of Tony Stark, but – friend, while entirely able to do the job without his shield, would still be more efficient and better protected with a shield. Steve had things to do, and a shield would make it easier.

In another version of this story, Tony mused, a version in which Steve actually liked him, he'd probably be convincing himself that he was giving this new shield to his friend so that Steve'd think about it twice before getting in his way. Not actually change his mind about all this, just, a moment of hesitation. Enough for Tony do what needed to be done – or, perhaps, but that sounded far-fetched, even in a version of the story in which Steve was his friend, enough for Tony to get the chance to explain, for Steve to propose an alternative that Tony hadn't thought about, because as often as he was right, he was also open to suggestions about how to do something better.

As long as a suggestion was given. More often than not, people were content with complaining about how you did things, without making the effort of providing an alternative.

But the thing was, Steve didn't like him, and so there was no point in pretending he believed Steve could be bought – a laughable theory in any version of the story, because Steve Rogers couldn't be corrupted, though he could be manipulated.

So, yeah. Let's be totally honest here: Tony was absolutely going to give a weapon to a future-former ally that wouldn't see a problem with using it against him if he thought he was right to, probably sometime in the next few days, even if it was a completely stupid move.

Still, it was the right move, wasn't it? To provide Captain America – sorry, the Captain – with a shield, so that he could battle against the forces of evil at top efficiency. Even if the man would almost certainly classify Tony himself as one of those evils, soon enough.

It was the right move, because that was what they were supposed to do – helping, even when it was at their own deficit.

It was the right move too, to take his stolen technology off the market. It didn't matter that nobody else saw it, because they weren't the ones whose powers were being used for evil – they didn't understand, anyway, because people with powers, or physical skills, were much more difficult to steal from than scientists or engineers like Tony Stark, who had no say about what their creations were used for afterwards. If Hank could get Ultron off the table forever and ever, Tony had no doubts that his friend would do what was necessary even if it broke a few laws.

Steve wouldn't see it like that, surely, but it wasn't like Steve ever saw what Tony was trying to do for what it was worth. If Tony had to count on something to make him hesitate, it wasn't Tony Stark's generosity that would do the trick, he knew it already – Steve was already convinced he was a slimy, opportunistic bastard.

Iron Man's friendship, perharps.

Except that, even if Steve hesitated, it wasn't like Iron Man could explain anything, could he?

So back to square one.

Tony had made a shield for the Captain, and that was probably going to come back and bite him in the ass later, but he still intended to give it to Steve, because that was the right thing to do.

Tony was also going after his stolen designs, which was also probably going to come back and bite him in the ass, because it was the right thing to do.

There was a pattern here, and it wasn't a new one, at that: anytime Tony chose to do the right thing, it came back and bit him in the ass, but he did it anyway.

Because it was the right thing to do.

So he dialed Steve's number.

He barely had to wait; Steve's voice resonated oddly through the phone – not enough that Tony's throat didn't constrict suspiciously at the sounds he had missed so much. Definitely not a Starkphone. He wasn't surprised.

Captain Ame... I mean, the Captain speaking.”

Tony wasn't sure why, but he almost wanted to laugh, right then. No matter what Steve went by – be it Nomad and his frankly revealing outfit, or the plainer Captain of today – you just coudn't take Captain America out of Steve Rogers.

“Hi, Captain. This is Tony Stark.”

The last time they had seen each other, Tony had still been drinking. The last time they had seen each other, Tony had been too weak to understand – actually no, he understood alright, it was just that he hadn't been able to cope – that even not being good enough anymore wasn't an excuse, that of course he wasn't good enough, that it was even more his duty to try and fail at being better, because at least, in failure, he couldn't be blamed for not having tried.

Tony wasn't going not to try ever again. He didn't have that right.

No matter the cost, no matter the outcome, no matter the blame.

At least he'd have tried.

He wondered what Steve was thinking, on the other end of the line, as a few seconds passed before an answer came.

Probably that Tony Stark had no business calling him, especially after how their last encounter had gone. He thought about apologizing, but it wasn't like Tony's word had ever been worth anything to Steve. It wasn't like Steve would believe he meant it.

What can I do for you, Mr. Stark? Is it... are you calling about Iron Man?”

Tony could hear the sudden change of tone, the urgency as the idea hit Steve square in the face.

What if it was about Iron Man?

One again, Tony had that urge to hurl the empty helmet at Steve Rogers and stomp away, but that was, once again, unpractical on so many points – secret identity, the fact that they weren't even on the same coast, and, again, the utter lack of faith in Tony's word – he had to bite down any possible retort.

Eitherway, Iron Man. What could Steve be meaning with that question, exactly? The quiver in his voice indicated it wasn't just about getting Iron Man's new number. Something was bothering Steve, some...

It couldn't be that Steve actually believed Tony's bodyguard had gone rogue, could it? No, of course not. Steve had no faith whatsoever in Tony Stark, so he had to suspect “Iron Man” was in fact acting exactly like Tony wanted him to. Moreover, had “Iron Man” really gone rogue and turned against Tony – logistically impossible, of course, but let's work with the hypothesis, since Tony was trying to figure Steve out, and Steve didn't know – the Captain would more than definitely side with “Iron Man” against the evil, amoral Tony Stark.

Tony could feed SHIELD all the bullshit he wanted about Randall Pierce being fired and responsible for everything – and yes, he had had to take the Mandroids out, too, even if they were working for the government, because 1) they could be stolen from the government, and 2) the governement had already tried to use them against the Avengers, and guess who had been blamed for it on both sides later on? – but Steve knew better, if only because he had no faith in Tony's word.

So, what was it? Steve wouldn't help Iron Man take care of his stolen technology, and Tony wasn't foolish enough to ask, he had to know that. Steve probably woudn't help Tony either if “Iron Man” had decided it was enough and it was time to take down his misguided boss, because Steve would definitely be helping “Iron Man” in that case.

Ah.

Yeah.

That sounded like something Steve would think, alright.

That Tony had gotten Iron Man into a mess he couldn't deal with alone, and now he was asking for the Captain's pity and his help to get Iron Man out of said mess. After all, Tony wasn't good enough to know what he was doing, was he?

Anyway.

This call wasn't about Iron Man, so, moot point.

“Actually, I was calling about you.”

Me?”

“Yeah, you. I heard about that business of yours, the government saying you can't be Captain America anymore. It has to be rough, huh?”

Steve had always defined himself by Captain America, for as long as Tony had known him. Even the moments he wasn't Captain America were defined by his not being Captain America, in a way. He had woken up in the future without much else left than his superheroics and the identity the army had crafted for him; for a long time, downtime had been about finding who was Steve Rogers, when Captain America wasn't on the job. Later, he had become Nomad because he didn't want to be a Captain America that represented, even unwillingly, a corrupted leadership.

The difference was that back then, leaving the Captain America alias behind had been a choice Steve had made for himself. This time he had been forced out of that role.

“I... I like to think I... know a bit about that. Not being able to be... someone you've... been, for a while.”

This wasn't good. This phone call hadn't been supposed to be about Tony, and yet here he was, making everything about himself. No, he had to stop it, he had to redirect the conversation...

It's not so bad. I'm managing.”

No question. Good. Easier to redirect.

And, obviously, no prodding, and a reluctant tone that meant Steve wasn't interested in knowing more – not that Tony'd have taken him on the offer, because even if he had had a lapse in judgment, this was not about him.

“Anyway. I had the idea I could help you out. You still need a shield, right? Even if you're not... Captain America.”

I... I guess so...?”

Of course Steve was surprised. It wasn't like Tony at all to offer to help with what he could, was it?

“Well, I'm offering. If you come to California, to SE here, I'll whip one right up. You can come try it out.”

He'd been toying with the idea for some time, but until now it wasn't like Steve had needed another shield, and Steve had made it clear he didn't want Tony's help, long, long ago, if he could do without. But now Steve didn't have a shield anymore.

And, it was totally possible that Tony would enjoy locking himself up in his lab for a few hours, to distract him from all his other problems, just the time for Steve to get there. Just... to get his mind off the fact that, right now, perhaps, someone was using some of his most powerful tech to...

Tech he put on the market himself was different. That was something he'd deemed “safe”, or at least, safe enough. The Iron Man technology wasn't something he had deemed safe, because it wasn't. And who knew what kind of things someone who didn't have his ethics, or worse, his skills, could turn his tech into – modifications he had thought about, for some, but that he had refused to make, or modifications that he hadn't been foolish enough to try.

A shield, though, even an adamantium one... Sure, he couldn't stop Steve from doing whatever he wanted with it – not even using it against Iron Man himself, if it came to that – but he trusted Steve's intents, and it wasn't like there was any tech worth stealing in it, even if it was wrestled out of the Captain's hands.

Yeah, that... that would be swell, Mr. Stark. Thank you.”

And even if Tony couldn't stop imagining Steve ramming that brand new shield in the armor, as the Captain would stand in Iron Man's way, even if he knew that, no matter what, Steve wouldn't even listen – not that Tony could explain and be believed – even if he knew he was giving Steve something that would be used against him...

He couldn't help the small smile as he finished their conversation.

“My pleasure, Captain.”

For once, it felt like the thanks were real – cautious, sure, uncertain and wary, but still, real – and not just a platitude.

 

oOo

 

When Steve walked out from behind the crates, Tony wasn't even surprised.

Sure, he had hoped. Sure, he had had that wild idea that, perhaps, Steve would have had enough faith in Iron Man to believe that he knew what he was doing, Tony Stark's orders or not. Sure, he had thought that, maybe, something more important would have come up and Steve'd have been too busy dealing with it to get in his way.

He'd hoped, but he hadn't believed it.

So, the Captain was here, Iron Man was here, and the Guardsmen were here too, unconscious, at Tony's feet. Not difficult to guess who Steve was going to defend.

If...

He'd have gone and proposed to the government an armor that only worked within the Vault – he'd have even upped the raw power of the thing, if they had asked for it as a compensation – but there was no way they'd accept that, not now that they already had the armors – which, too, had already been used against the West Coast Avengers when Quicksilver had decided he wanted revenge on anyone and everyone who had ever so slightly “wronged” him. If Stane hadn't sold the government the copies of the Guardsman armor...

But that, too, had happened because Tony had let it happen – not that there had been much of an alternative at the time, considering the state he had been in – so he had to correct it. The plan was to disable the armors, then signal SHIELD for them to come and make sure nothing happened with the prisoners of the Vault in the meantime.

Except that plan was obviously shot with Steve's presence, and later on Tony would admit that the problem of the prisoners left his mind not long after the stand-off started, which allowed them to escape and cause more damage, exacty what he had feared would happen with his stolen tech.

There, his fault on that point.

But they weren't there yet, and by then Tony was only vaguely aware that he was missing something important – not what, of course, because that was the point of missing something – so let's go back to their present, with Tony being indirectly accused of having control issues by a “friend” who thought he was someone other than himself.

The environmental scanners had already told him what his eyes confirmed when he turned around to see the Captain standing there, looking all – self – righteous, betrayed, and at the same time... What was it? It kind of looked like Steve wanted to help Iron Man – not Tony Stark, no, of course not. Terms and conditions concerning that help may apply, though, and Tony knew these weren't in his favor.

Condition One: turning on Tony Stark and forcing him to face responsibility for his actions instead of letting him pin everything on “Randall Pierce”.

Steve just didn't understand that this was Tony facing his past actions, the things that his weakness had allowed to happen while he was wallowing in alcohol. It was him taking responsibility for what he had allowed to be taken from him, and which could be used for evil.

No, it was easier to pin his actions on his “control freak tendencies”, which was frankly hypocritical coming from a man who thought that anyone who draped themselves in the American flag was their responsibility, especially if they did it while committing crimes.

Once upon a time, Tony had believed Captain America to be overall perfect, with his only defaults correlating to trauma and not actually being defaults, but that was a long time ago. As time went by – more than anything else, as he was constantly confronted to Steve's unwarranted distrust and general hatred for Tony Stark – he had learned that Steve Rogers was very far from perfect. Mainly he could be terribly judgmental, unsympathetic, hypocritical, self-righteous, and he totally refused to admit it except on an hypothetical, abstract level – Steve didn't pretend to be perfect, but somehow, whenever his point of view was questioned, no, this time he was right... and if no one questioned him, he rarely ever considered being wrong until after the deed was done and the evidence glared him down. If the evidence even dared to glare him down. Steve knew he wasn't always right, but didn't really believe it.

Tony, him, tended to go the other way – he knew how imperfect he was, but he still had to act, even with the knowledge that he could potentially be fucking it all up, because if he didn't and something happened anyway... He couldn't allow anxiety to freeze him. Even when he was right, though, he couldn't forget that no matter how rare it was, he could be wrong about that too.

Even when he knew he was right, he didn't really believe it.

Whoever was right, this time, Tony still had to act.

Because if he didn't, and something happened, it would be on him. At least, this way, he'd have tried.

And if Steve couldn't see that...

He bit his lower lip, hidden behind the faceplate, and felt tears rolling along the edges of his eyes.

I didn't want you to get mixed up in this. Please, Steve. Just go.”

The best thing that could happen would be for Steve to stay, to help make sure nothing went wrong, that there weren't any collateral damages, but that was about as likely as seeing Fury cross-dressing – cigar in mouth, still – for the aforementioned reasons, and anyway Tony wouldn't allow it because Steve would then be associated to this whole mess and his name would be stained too.

Steve could leave, though. The Guardsmen were all out, and no one else knew he was here – Tony intended to go and wipe the recordings that weren't focused on the prisoners before leaving, which he would be able to do if Steve agreed to just leave it, but would most likely be useless and impossible if he persisted.

Steve wasn't going to leave, and he wasn't going to help.

The adamantium shield was raised.

“You know this is wrong, Shellhead.”

No, he didn't know that. If he did, he wouldn't be doing it. Yes, it was a compromise, a precaution, but Steve was naive if he thought some things weren't compromises of some kind. Option A, Tony let his tech out there, and someone used it to kill people or otherwise destroy their lives, Option B, he went and got it back, at the cost of his reputation and a few bruises for the Guardsmen. Tony knew what he was ready to sacrifice, and it wasn't the lives of innocents.

Steve probably thought Iron Man was crying because he didn't want to do what he was doing, though, that he didn't want him mixed up in it because it was wrong, when Tony really just knew how a stain could come and mar a good name even when it wasn't deserved.

“But it's not too late to stop. You haven't done anything that can't be fixed. Put the negator down and come with me. We can still do this the easy way.”

Tony was almost tempted to say yes – somehow ignoring the issue that SHIELD would demand confirmation of his identity in the process of “fixing” his “misguided” actions and then Tony wouldn't be able not to show them the truth, which would result in a lot of unpleasant consequences, starting with the fact that Steve's promise would end up thrown with the trash – just to see, in a few years perhaps, a Guardsman going back home with his regulation armor and murder his wife and children because he was having an existential crisis and wanted to elope with his young mistress and become a mercenary, or a random villain gaining control of the Vault and mass-producing the armor to arm their minions, or whatever, because something always happened, and Tony knew he couldn't eliminate all risks, but he could minimize them and at least when something he had put on the market himself was misused, it was a risk he had agreed to. Then in that hypothetic future that would never happen, Steve and him would have a discussion about how it wasn't Tony's fault that assholes were assholes, to which he would answer that his fault or not, he could have done something about it and then the victims wouldn't be victims, which made the fact that they were dead partially his fault, and Steve's for having convinced him to not do it.

But Tony would never potentially endanger innocents just to stick the fact that he was right – on some point at least – under Steve's nose. That'd be arrogant and petty as hell.

Anyway, Tony being Tony – or rather, Iron Man being Tony, there wasn't an easy way, no matter what Steve believed.

A bitter laught escaped his lips.

I've got to, Cap. You don't understand.”

Sure, partly because Tony wasn't telling him everything – closer to nothing, really – but also because, even if he knew, he wouldn't want to understand anyway. The truth could be uncomfortable, and that wasn't something Steve Rogers was willing to admit most days.

“I understand enough. Mr. Stark is... he's... he's ordering you to do this.”

Right. Blame it all on Tony Stark, Steve. It wasn't like it was unexpected coming from you.

Steve wasn't finished, though, and with each word of how much he didn't actually understand a thing, he made it all the more clear that he had never believed in Tony. Not as Tony Stark – a given, at that point – and not as Iron Man. Or else he wouldn't be assuming that Iron Man could be forced to do anything “wrong” against his will, or at least not that he'd do it unless the lives of innocents were in the balance. Which, you know, was potentially the case.

“He's ordering you to break the law for him. He's made you into a criminal.”

It hurt, but it also made it all easier to bear with, in a way; the less Steve believed in him, the less he understood, the less Tony felt like a piece of shit for not agreeing with Captain America.

Steve hesitated a moment, but Tony saw the moment he thought he had a winning argument. Something about the relaxing of his jaw, visible even under the cowl, perhaps.

“He gave up your name to SHIELD. Your secret identity.”

Yes, of course, because obviously Tony couldn't be trusted with protecting his bodyguard's most important secret. Either Tony was a liar who couldn't tell the truth when asked, or he was a bastard for telling the truth, no middle ground. Damned if he lied, damned if he didn't.

Steve stopped for drama, then let go of the damned name.

“Randall.”

That's not my real name.”

Steve barely looked surprised. He did look angry – at Tony Stark – for a moment, though, before going back to trying to cajole Iron Man into changing his mind.

As predicted. Damned if he didn't.

“I don't understand why you're doing this. You can tell him no. You can walk away. Come with me. I'll make it okay. We can make it all okay.”

Steve obviously had no idea – again, Tony's fault here – what it was that he was promising here. An usual problem with secret identities, as it was.

Tony looked at his outstretched hands, inviting his trust, and laughed as he shook his head.

I can't.”

He didn't even want to try and explain the few things he could, not anymore. He was tired of always saying the same things and never being heard – because obviously Steve didn't believe him there, not even when he was saying the truth.

“Is it the money? Whatever he's paying you... God, Shellhead, I have money now, I have that back pay, however much you need, whatever you need... anything, anything at all, you can have it, just come with me...”

Tony listened, a bit bewildered at the desperate rush in Steve's tone, but no less aware of the fact that Steve wasn't anywhere near convincing because the things he thought were going on – at least he didn't seem to think Iron Man didn't have a good reason to “obey” anymore – were so far off the mark, the promises didn't mean anything at all.

It's not the money.”

Even if Tony hadn't been his rich millionaire self – considering the fact that he created a company, Imperio Techworks, from scratch with Tamara and Tyree Robinson while being homeless, it wasn't like it would ever be a permanent situation, but let's assume for the sake of the hypothesis – he liked to think he wouldn't willingly and knowingly endanger strangers just for his own sake – probably not even for someone else, depending on the level of threat and the number of people in danger.

He never worked for the money, though it could be considered a comfortable advantage, and it was a necessary tool to constructing anything worthwile.

Long ago, Cap had called him a mercenary while angry at something else, which was completely stupid because no simple mercenary would go through the constant danger and sacrifices an Avenger, or a superhero in general, had to live with, not even for all the money in the world – unless, perhaps, the money was to pay for something else, like, say, the medical fees of a family member...

That was the only time Tony could remember Steve ever apologizing to him, as it was.

But as he thought about that day long past, Steve had somehow reached another conclusion altogether, and Tony couldn't say he wasn't surprised at the horror in his tone, or even at said conclusion.

“Is he hurting you?!”

There was a shrill in his tone, and wow, okay, while Tony was kind of happy for the obvious concern, he was also more concerned with the fact that that was what Steve thought of him, and he shouldn't be surprised anymore at that point, but it seemed that his friend could drag him deeper into evilness than Tony himself could think of on his own.

Steve looked like he had a hard time not reaching out even more.

“We can... I can... we can protect you, the avengers. If it's blackmail, if he has something on you...”

He didn't point out that he wouldn't be stupid enough to put someone he was blackmailing into a walking weapon of mass destruction like the Iron Man armor, that would have just been begging to get murdered in your sleep. Or, in the scenario where he apparently was an abuser, how exactly he was supposed to hurt someone who, once again, had access to a hightech suit of armor.

Instead he just laughed, again – not bitter this time, just sad.

Maybe I like him.”

Ah. There was the bitterness.

Maybe I just like him. Did you ever think of that one? No, of course not. You can't stand Tony Stark. You can't imagine anyone would want to be his friend. I suppose I should have expected that.”

He was starting to defend himself, which never ended well, but he supposed there was only so much verbal abuse a man could take before snapping back. The problem being that Steve would probably use that as an excuse to escalate the whole thing. He always did that.

Tony didn't really care, right now.

Not only did Steve not even consider him – Tony Stark – worth anything, but he didn't even seem to think that other people could have another point of view than his own on him. After all, Steve Rogers was always right, wasn't he?

He observed his “friend”'s reaction, trembling a bit in anger inside the armor, ready to defend himself, again, from any kind of verbal lashing that was about to come, there was no other possibility, not with the way the Captain looked like he was going to go for the throat, when...

“Are you sleeping with him?!”

...

A second time today, Tony didn't know what to say of the fact that, again, Steve Rogers managed to think the worst of him, worse than even what Tony himself had imagined he could come up with to make sense of the situation, preferably to “Tony Stark”'s expanse.

The obvious reason, now that he thought about it, was that Tony had taken into account about anything Steve disliked about his civilian identity, but he hadn't thought about Cap having so little faith in Iron Man.

He hadn't taken into account Steve's jealousy, either, but that was possibly only because that particular factor only worked in the case of that particular guess from Steve, a guess he hadn't thought possible to begin with.

Jesus fucking Christ.”

He nearly dropped his negator at the frankly absurd idea that Tony Stark and Iron Man were an item. First of all because Tony Stark was publicly as straight as the razors of old, second because as Iron Man he had been careful not to be that enthusiastic when talking about his secret identity. When he even talked about it.

How... Why... What the hell, Steve...”

“Are you sleeping with him?”

Steve's voice had slipped in that frankly terrifying Captain America tone – you know, the one Tony was entirely not afraid of because he was all too aware of Steve's flaws, but that still hurt, like, a lot, to hear directed at him – as if he had any right to...

One thing Tony could say for himself was that he had never been afraid of Captain America, or of Steve Rogers for the matter. Clint often said Iron Man had the survival instincts of a lemming, which might be why he didn't react the way others did to Steve's judgmental assholishness – which was often deserved, but not always. Point was, whenever Steve tried to freaking judge him, Tony didn't back down. Maybe he apologized, sometimes he acknowledged that he had been wrong, but he did not shrink back.

Some people called it arrogance, he simply called it not letting people walk all over him – because if he did, he knew how the story ended, and that was with him being taken for granted and treated like shit every other day. Not everyone needed their survival skills the same way.

He narrowed his eyes, already knowing the answer to the question he was going to put forward. He still wanted confirmation, though, because he could be wrong, it happened, and he acknowledged it, and also because if he didn't ask, people didn't care that they met his exact expectations – disappointment or not – as they liked to believe themselves above such pettiness or whatever. As if them being assholes was his fault for not having asked, as if they would have done it differently if he had.

If I said I was... What would you tell me?”

Steve looked like he had lost his footing at the unexpected question, given how it glaringly involved him being put face to face with the fact that he, actually, had no right to comment on Iron Man's feelings, and that half the problem here was Steve's and not Tony's.

Then his face took on a bitter expression, and Steve obviously forced himself to answer something he absolutely didn't think and that as a consequence sounded just as hypocritical as it in fact was.

“I'd tell you that it's your body, and it's your business what you want to do with...”

Gosh, thanks for your goddamn permission...”

He was interrupted by Steve hitting his shield with his palm, forcing him to shut up as he couldn't deal with how he had been backed into a corner – either admit what they both knew to be true, that Steve was acting like a jealous, jilted lover, which he wasn't and therefore had no right not act like that, or say outright how much disdain he had for Tony Stark and that he thought less of Iron Man for not sharing his mind on the matter.

Steve of course couldn't see it with the faceplate – thanks God for the faceplate, at the same time, he didn't think it enough – but while Tony agreed to shut up – which he could easily have not done once the ringing finished – he wasn't any less defiant of Steve's self-righteousness for all that.

Survival instincts of a lemming.

“Mr. Stark made me this shield, and he gave me this shield to shut me up. So I wouldn't come here and find you and stop you.”

So he'd decided to go with the second option, then, dissing Tony Stark – just, without mentioning the last part about how Iron Man was disappointing him for not agreeing dumbly with Steve. Or perhaps Steve didn't think Iron Man intelligent enough to be able to make the distinction between what was “right” and what was “wrong”.

Tony thought about asking if Steve had even considered the possibility that perhaps “Tony Stark” had given him the adamantium shield even while knowing that he'd get in his way. He thought about looking Steve dead in the eye, and asking him if he truly believed Mr. Stark to be idiotic enough to think Captain America could be bought. He thought about asking Steve to follow that train of thoughts right here, before him and out loud, just to see where exactly that brought him.

But he didn't have the time, and he didn't have the heart to try and make Steve see, to show him exactly how Steve was very intelligent, but once he had an assumption he never let go of it and to hell with any evidence that didn't corroborate his view of the world.

Not anymore.

So he let him go on.

“He can be a kind man, a generous man.”

Tony wondered how much it hurt Steve to admit that – or if he was just saying it not to look like an asshole but without actually believing it.

“I'm not saying he's not. I'm certainly grateful for the things he's done for me, for us, for everyone.”

Just not enough for Steve to even consider that he might be wrong about some of his assumptions, right?

“But he does what he does because he wants what he wants and screw anyone who gets in his way. He wants everything and everyone to be under his control, exactly as he pictures it. That's why he's doing this, hunting down his technology. That's why he's making you do this. He's not stable. He's a flawed man. He's a drunk looking for a new addiction, and he's found it. Control. And he's never going to stop. He's not capable of it.”

Bold words from a man who couldn't even consider being wrong about his profiling of a man he had never agreed to get to know, from a man who had just demonstrated how much control he thought he should have over someone else's life and opinions when those didn't go exactly as he pictured it in his perfect little world.

After all, if Steve Rogers thought he knew why someone did something, there was just no way it was for any other reason, was it?

Never mind that Tony had stopped drinking, never mind that Tony had stopped trying to be Steve's friend, never mind all the things Tony – not even Iron Man, no, just Tony this time, just what Steve knew about, or, more likely, didn't want to know about in case it challenged his opinion of Tony Stark, millionaire asshole with no ethics and morals – had let go of because some things were more important than his own wellbeing.

After all, Steve Rogers thought he had an addictive personality – which, by the way, was barely an actual thing in the scientific field, even if there were common traits between addicts, which was, you know, something that happened between people of a same group at an alarming frequency – so Tony must actually have one.

Tony had known for some time that Captain America wasn't perfect.

It would probably help if he also believed it.

He didn't know why he was crying right now – well, he did, but he didn't know why now and not before, when Steve had been disgustingly supportive and condamning at the same time, whereas now he was simply being judgmental as hell.

Steve wasn't finished, though.

Because of course he wasn't.

“So if you're sleeping with him, I hope to God it's worth it. I hope he's the amazing lay that everyone says he is. I hope he makes you brilliantly, wonderfully, ecstatically happy. Because he has you exactly where he wants you, doing exactly what he wants you to do. And if you do this for him, you're going to end up in SHIELD custody. You're going to lose everything.”

Tony had already lost everything once, and it had been horrible, but what Steve didn't seem to get about him – aside from about everything else – was that he'd do it again if it was for the right thing. Of course Tony had weaknesses, of course there were things he didn't want to lose, but if that was the price for making sure even a few more people lived, well.

He'd even let go of a loved one to do the right thing if he had to. He wouldn't be happy about it, he might not even survive it, but he'd do it, again and again and again, because that would be worth it. The fact that he might not live with himself afterwards? The fact that he might fall to pieces if he ever had to sacrifice everything? It didn't matter. If the price was his own integrity, he'd give it out without a thought, because what was his integrity worth next to someone's life?

What was one life worth next to hundreds or thousands of others?

He was feeling numb, all of a sudden. No more tears. No more anger.

Steve might be onto something, there, a way to numb everything better than alcohol had ever managed. A complete, definitive desensitization.

Tony sighed and tilted his head. He didn't want to ask, but well. Collecting data for future interactions trumped taking care of his feelings, which were likely to resurface painfully once he'd be out of here.

And what would you say to him?”

Steve looked like he'd rather eat his shield than actually answer that one.

Which wasn't surprising, considering how he had never said anything face to face with Tony Stark, how he had never voiced his disdain for the man even though it had visibly dripped all over their non-relationship. Politeness, right. Or maybe Steve thought he'd be petty enough to take his support away from the Avengers if he let it be known. It seemed more than likely.

“I think that's between me and him.”

Like he'd ever say it to Tony without the mask on.

Liar.

Ah. Of course. Not that it would be any of your business if I were, but I'm not sleeping with him. For your information, Captain.”

He didn't want to know how he sounded, his voice distorted by the armor, but he guessed it didn't quite matter, because as usual Steve would interpret it however he wanted.

There was a moment of staring, of Steve just not knowing what to say as his perfect – belittling – theory turned into dust – unless Iron Man was lying, right, maybe he was thinking that too, after all it wouldn't be a huge leap to take after all the other assumptions.

Steve's next words sounded a bit – wobbly was a weird qualification for this, but wobbly it was.

“I... don't understand. If it's not sex and it's not money and it's not secrets...”

No mention of how it could have been love, no, just “sex” because of course it'd have to be crass.

Tony laughed, again. Here Steve was, making assumptions, as always.

He decided to give Steve a bit of a truth, a bit of a lie, just enough that perhaps, he'd make another theory out of it, of the real relationship between Iron Man and Tony Stark. Not that Steve'd get it right, because he never did, because he already had his blinkers on, but at least, he wouldn't be able to say he hadn't been given a hint.

I didn't say it wasn't secrets. I know a lot of his. He knows a lot of mine. I trust him. I trust that he's doing the right thing. Isn't that something you can understand? Trust? Decency?”

Things had gone on too long, now, and it was time to move on.

Steve obviously wasn't willing to listen, and if Tony had to knock him out, so be it. Steve would probably try the same thing, if Tony let him, as soon as the conversation ended and he realized there was absolutely. Nothing. He. Could. Do. About. Tony's. Decision.

Time to add one last personal comment, because it wasn't like anyone else ever dared to show Steve his own shortcomings, when Tony's were constantly thrown into his own face.

For one thing, he doesn't demand to know who I'm fucking. I find that positively heartwarming.”

Steve hadn't yet understood this was over, though, as his last attempt to corrupt Iron Man away from Tony Stark demonstrated.

“So trust us. Trust the Avengers. You're one of us. Be one of us. You can do the actual right thing. This is what you have to do. Don't let him make you take the fall for this.”

It was incredible to hear Steve argue about his own righteousness when he had next to no clue as to what the situation really was like, when he could barely judge what was going on because he only had a fraction of all the factors.

Like Steve hadn't asked Tony why he was doing what he was doing, like he hadn't offered to find another way to do the same thing but better, like he had only considered his own way – not doing anything and then saying it wasn't their fault when something happened and someone else died because Tony hadn't done what needed to be done.

Tony imagined taking the helmet off, right here – that was becoming a recurring potential scenario, he had to be careful not to actually end up doing it – and asking Steve how exactly he intended to do that, how he intended to help him with his problem.

It wouldn't work, though.

But you don't trust him, do you?”

He had barely spoken it aloud, because he didn't need an answer, because he already knew the answer.

Steve, blinking, didn't disappoint;

“Does it matter?”

Not asking why it mattered, of course. Barely not saying that it didn't.

Except it did.

And the fact that it did was the exact reason why Tony couldn't take Steve's offered “help”. Why he tazed Steve, in the end, and went on to do what he had started.

He didn't want to do it, but well. If it was Steve doing something considered illegal, because he thought it was the right thing to do, and Iron Man was standing in his way, trying to make him change his mind, Steve would do exactly the same thing, and he would be unapologetic about it.

Tony, at least, regretted that it had come to this.

He looked back at his friend one last time before leaving, and gave him a last hint, one that Steve, as usual, wouldn't even try to understand, which was why it wasn't dangerous to tell him.

Yeah, it does matter, actually. He does what he has to as well, you know. I guess that's something the two of us have in common. I guess we both do what we have to.”

He wasn't sure whether he was talking about Iron Man and Tony Stark, here, or of Steve Rogers and Iron Man. It didn't really matter, either way, because Steve wasn't going to understand, because he never did.

He'd probably think this was Iron Man choosing Tony Stark over him, when really, it was Tony choosing what he believed to be right over Steve. Picking what was right over Steve.

Not that Steve would see it this way.

 

oOo

 

Tony was wearing a hot pink vest with SUPERSTAR written on it, a mock-gift from one of his previous casual girlfriends – one of the rare ones who had actually cared that he wasn't dead in a ditch somewhere, she had always been too kind – which he was wearing anyway because let not it be said that Tony Stark couldn't rock everything and anything. The only times he didn't look perfectly good – if not fashionable – were usually when he was well on his way to “not fine”. Otherwise he'd probably be able to wear eyeliner and a potato bag and look good in it – not that he'd want to, but if he had to do it, no way he'd act ashamed and let anyone know he didn't actually like it.

Sometimes he felt like his life was “throw me in the worst situation you can imagine and I'll still come out looking better than you because I can't afford not to”, though occasionally it took him some time to come out of it.

Anyway, the comment about his attire was because Steve had eyed him judgingly – not that he wasn't used to it by now – when he'd had first caught sight of him, just so you know. Because yes, Captain America got to judge people on their clothes, too.

He thought about all the things he could tell Steve, how he could explain what happened with what had been christened his “Armors War” by the press, how much he could say without revealing that he was Iron Man, how much he could tell if he confessed, how he'd made a deal with SHIELD for a new batch of Guardsmen armors – more powerful, but also more secure – for a modest price – not even enough to cover the production cost – since it was “Iron Man”, a SE employee, who had destroyed the ones sold by Stane with Tony's negator, that he was paying for Stiltman's medical fees, that he had promised Stingray a life-long discount on anything SE – which, even though he was primarily a tech mogul, was actually a lot more diverse than you'd think – and that while he didn't like how the latest Titanium Man had died because of him he couldn't exactly regret it considering the guy wasn't an angel. How he had offered his help to take care of the escaped prisoners.

He thought about confiding that maybe, he had gone a bit overboard at the end, with the mandroids and the guardsmen.

But he also remembered Firepower, and how the government had been so willing to go after him with a killing order, with a suit using his designs – yes, Steve, those designs I was trying to prevent from falling into the wrong hands – and how the use for that particular project was obvious. If a hero died by Firepower's missiles – not much of a problem now, not with him having utterly destroyed the suit and not with the cost of it, thank you for your hard work, Iron Man – it wouldn't be on Tony, no, he knew that, but the fact that he could have stopped it? That would be on his shoulders.

And on Steve's, too, for his unwillingness to act and his having potentially convinced Iron Man not to either. Even if Steve wouldn't want to admit it.

Rhodey had been willing to go and tell Steve what exactly “trusting” the government would have resulted in, what they had done with Tony's work, how they had been all too happy to turn on America's heroes at the slightest difference of judgment, but Tony had told him not to, knowing all too well that, whatever Steve's reaction would be, it would turn into a problem more than anything else. Either he wouldn't believe it, because Steve only believed that the government could not be their ally when he was directly concerned – hence, Nomad and the Captain – and never believed that Tony Stark might have legitimate reasons to do what he did, or Steve would go and start a fight with the government – yes, another one, as if the one he was already in wasn't enough – when they really couldn't afford to lose any more diplomacy points on that front – yes, Tony recognized he had a hand in that problem, but the difference was that Steve had a choice here. Because Steve seemed to be entirely unable to consider that you didn't need to absolutely trust someone to work with them, and that it was perfectly understable for the government to want precautions against superpowered individuals, even if the way they had gone after Iron Man and Tony Stark was entirely out of line.

He remembered the adamantium shield in his office, where Steve had left it to mark his anger. Which was stupid, really, the “Captain” should better have kept it and done what was right with it, even if just to spite Tony – which, of course, wouldn't have worked, because it was the point of giving Steve a shield even when he knew it'd probably be used against him, but it wasn't like Steve would ever see that.

Eh, Steve probably thought Tony had gotten off scott free of the latest situation. Maybe if he hadn't been too busy hating him, he'd have seen that Tony was, in fact, dealing with the consequences, that he was, in fact, trying to help where he had made mistakes, that he had, in fact, a conscience. But no, Steve was, as he had always been, unwilling to look past the appearances.

And he wondered why Iron Man didn't want to tell him his secret identity.

Tony considered all that, and decided that no, he didn't owe Captain America an explanation, since Steve Rogers wouldn't believe it anyway. He was tired of trying to justify himself to people who didn't want to even listen.

So all he did was go on and let Steve think what he wanted. That Tony was a control freak. That there was nothing redeemable about him.

“It doesn't matter who's in the Iron Man armor. What is important is that I control him.”

Of course it did matter who was Iron Man. Tony had trusted very few people with the armor – Happy, occasionally, but not as a fighter, only for the two of them to appear at the same time, because Happy didn't have the training; Eddie March, but that hadn't lasted as the man had a medical condition that made it even more dangerous for him to go out there and fight as it had been for Tony to do it at the time; and Rhodey, who wasn't really at ease with being “Iron Man”, though Tony was toying with the idea of giving him an equivalent suit of armor with another name.

But what he was trying to say – without saying it – was that yeah, Iron Man did exactly what Tony told him to, because he was Tony Stark. Tony controlled Iron Man as much as anyone could control themselves.

Maybe he should have said something along the lines of “what's important is that he trusts my judgment”, or something like that. But again, he was tired of trying and never getting results – he would probably get over it soon enough, and try again, and regret it once more, but... not this time.

This time he would just focus on the fact that, one way or another, Iron Man and the Captain would have to work together again, and no matter Steve's feelings on the subject, they would have to make it work. At least whenever their goals would happen to be the same.

“That means that sooner or later, the two of you... and the two of us... are going to end up on the same side. It might be wise to keep our disagreements confined to the civilian world. Might help keep people alive.”

The face Steve did at that could barely pass for a smile to someone who knew him, and Steve might not be aware of it, but Tony did know him.

He wondered if maybe Steve thought he had let Iron Man be killed. Likely, considering that Steve didn't think him concerned with his “employee”'s welfare. Then again, Steve also didn't believe one word Tony could utter, so he might as well be thinking that Iron Man wasn't, in fact, dead – it didn't matter that it would thusly mean Tony was protecting Iron Man. Who knew.

“I'm a... practical man, Tony. I like to think I'm a just one as well.”

Steve was probably the less practical man in the world whenever it wasn't about how to beat up supervillains, but Tony didn't comment. He smiled, too, and unlike Steve, no one could see that it wasn't a real smile, because no one who knew him was there to notice.

They shook hands, and as they did, Steve added:

“If it comes to that, I'll lay my life on the line for Iron Man.”

And Steve still didn't get it. He still didn't get that the whole point was that Iron Man did what he had to do so that Steve wouldn't have to endanger himself any more than necessary, so that other people wouldn't have to pay with their lives for what he could have prevented, so that other heroes wouldn't have to dirty their hands when it was absolutely necessary and when he could do it instead.

Steve still didn't get, either, that Tony didn't want his pledge of loyalty or whatever it was supposed to be, but simply... some trust. The benefit of the doubt. For Steve to ask, before assuming.

For Steve to stop saying how much he believed in Iron Man, only to show how much he had no trust in his judgment, no intention to ask and understand why they might have differing opinions on something – Tony wasn't asking Steve to change his mind just because it was him saying so, but... It would be nice if Steve would be willing to consider he might not be entirely wrong.

But there was no way Tony could say that and be listened to, not without saying who Iron Man was, not while admitting who Iron Man was, either – at least, this way Steve still had some faith in Iron Man left.

So he smiled again.

“You can trust Iron Man at Cap's back.”

He wasn't sure how Steve would take that, but what he meant was that no matter what, Iron Man would defend Steve's life. Though, knowing Steve, he'd probably take it like it meant Iron Man would always agree with Captain America / the Captain. Which wasn't likely.

Steve made a face – again – but this time it wasn't quite as unpleasant as the fake smiles. It was more... uncertain. Maybe a bit happy.

“Thanks. I... would have liked to hear it from Iron Man.”

Tony simply stared for a moment, unwilling to point out that Tony was the one saying it because Iron Man wasn't here right now – which, lie, but whatever – unwilling to comment that this statement strongly implied Iron Man still was the same person and Steve knew it, unwilling to remark that once again Steve thought he was a liar – and not about the things he actually lied about, no, about important things, about doing what he thought was right, about protecting people.

 

oOo

 

Tony was alone – with his goddamn wheelchair, of course – in his office, unable to... Unable to do so many things, he realized, things he didn't even want to do to begin with, but that his new inability to even make that choice made suddenly appealing.

Well.

It wasn't like it was his first time being a cripple. It wasn't a new thing, per se, considering that being crippled extended to all sorts of physical handicaps, and cardiac problems as grave as the one he had had for three years after Afghanistan definitely counted.

But it was the first time it was so evident, so permanent. Even back when people had known about his health issues, even after he had been on the verge of dying in public, it hadn't been what people saw when they looked at him.

He'd give Charles a call, except Charles was in space lately doing who-knew-what – even if he wasn't, the X-men had their own problems to deal with – and it wasn't like Tony made an habit of complaining about his own problems to people who had it worse. That, and Charles didn't need a wheelchair anymore.

Speaking of which, he should start to look into doing more research on medical issues, starting with actually useful wheelchairs and robotic limbs – yes, he already had some people on it, and he had designed a few things, as Misty Knight could tell you, but there had to be a way to do more.

He also really, really needed to calm down and stop being so short-tempered with everyone. Sure, some slack could be given, considering his current situation, and the fact that he wasn't used to it yet – he hated that thought, but he had to consider it, because the possibility for him to actually find a way to walk again was... not that high. Some slack could be given.

But the sooner he'd learn to deal with this, the better, even if only for his entourage. Tony may have the right to be angry, to feel inadequate, and everything else, but it didn't mean Mrs. Arbogast deserved to be confronted to his flaws of character any more than absolutely necessary.

Especially as Kathy – Kathleen, not Kathy, not after what she had done – was apparently going for the angle “abuse victim”. Tony might have the clout to wither that attack, but it didn't mean it wouldn't hurt. More so when so few people would even believe he wasn't guilty – after all, he was a rich white man, glass ceiling and societal sexism were in his favor, but they also made him look more suspicious to anyone who had had to deal with that kind of bullshit. To them, it'd mean he could buy his way out of a lot – which was true – and the fact that he didn't need to buy his way out because he was innocent wouldn't prove anything to anyone who didn't want to believe it. He guessed he could only be angry at the assholes who did abuse their position so frequently, just like real abuse victims would have the right to be angry at Kathleen for making their claims seem dishonest.

He guessed, in a way, he was the abused – no continual harm, but permanent injury probably counted as abuse, right? He had been clear with Kathy about the specifics of their relationship – casual, unattached, and unexclusive. She had agreed. She also had priors of relationships that had ended poorly, even suspiciously – but Tony had been willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, of not judging someone on rumors alone, and look where that had gotten him. But even if her false claims were exposed, there would always be someone to doubt his word, to say he certainly deserved it. Because, as you all know, there was no smoke without fire.

He wondered how many of the Avengers actually believed he had been violent towards her.

If they even cared about what had happened to him. After all, he wasn't an Avenger, was he? He was just the team's benefactor, and as everyone suspected he was the reason why Iron Man had gone on his armors war, wasn't he? Of the West Coast Avengers, only Tigra had come by and left a bouquet of flowers, but he knew she had had a bit of a crush on Tony Stark. The East Coast Avengers hadn't even deigned calling Rhodey, or someone, anyone, to ask and learn if the news were true, when Tony had yet had to be operated on – he knew, of course, that some of them were in their own shit, so he couldn't expect them to have called right away, but he also doubted that any of them would do anything about it later on, after being finished with whatever they were doing.

Steve certainly wasn't going to.

Pepper hadn't either, nor Happy.

He wasn't exactly surprised.

 

oOo

 

The West Coast Avengers looked at him with suspicion, as he rejoined them, unsure if they would want him – again – but willing to try and prove himself – again.

It was John Walker, of course, who said what they all thought. US Agent, who answered to Washington just as much as to the Avengers, if not more. Firepower wasn't leaving Tony's mind any time soon, as it was.

“Who do you think you are?!? The rights and privileges of Avengers membership do not come with the armor automatically! Unless you'd want to claim those back, because the original Iron Man isn't quite as dead as Stark would have us believe?”

So Iron Man only said he was offering his help on Mr. Stark's behalf, if they wanted him.

Luckily a chance to prove himself came right to their doorstep. Tony wouldn't count it as a win, though, considering what transpired then and the cost to Wanda.

 

oOo

 

Steve never brought up the past problems between them. Iron Man, who wasn't supposed to be the old Iron Man, even if it became obvious that less and less of his friends actually believed it as time went by, didn't say anything either, as he wasn't supposed to know the exact intricacies of the “old Iron Man”'s choices and actions.

Steve didn't confront him about still being the old Iron Man. No one did.

Yet, after some time, everyone acknowledged that nothing had actually changed, that he was, in fact, himself. Even Steve did.

What was he supposed to do, in front of that? What could he even say? It wasn't like Steve actually wanted to hear the answers to all his questions, not as they were – not if they included Iron Man being Tony Stark. And well, they all did. So.

They didn't talk about it, because Steve wanted the truth but the truth wasn't something Steve wanted.

Except that particular approach to their problem only worked as long as it was their relationship in the balance, just like not talking about the elephant in the room – Iron Man's loyalty to Tony – had only worked as long as nothing bigger than the both of them had come in the middle.

Because right now there was another situation in which the both of them didn't agree, and neither of them could afford to agree with the other only to please him, because it was the easier, personal choice.

The Kree Supreme Intelligence decided it had to kick-start Kree evolution by getting rid of all those whose genetics weren't good enough to survive the freaking bomb – no wonder Steve had survived, considering, but at the time they had gotten there and seen the disaster, the Avengers hadn't known exactly what had happened except that the whole planet was devastated – and Steve was of the opinion that they should just let the damned thing turned on. It wasn't even a person so much as a melting of thousands of consciousness, an egomaniacal computer, and while a case could be made about it having an actual sentience, like Vision, it was still a mass-murderer – how many times had the Avengers destroyed a version of Ultron?

Steve, of course, had a discourse about not being judge, jury, and executioner on the matter. In the face of genocide, the hero of WWII would not even consider making sure this would not happen again. He hadn't been that righteous when they had told him about how the original Human Torch had killed Hitler – self-defense, sure. And Hitler, despite every horror he had done and ordered, was just a man, a baseline human, whom humans guards could have restrained and put away forever – maybe even a death penalty, who knew – if he hadn't died. The Supreme Intelligence wasn't something the Avengers could hope to contain with certitude.

Had Steve still been there for Hitler's supposed arrest, had Hitler been more than a baseline human, had he continued to be a threat of hatred and death forever and ever, would Captain America still have advocated for his survival?

Maybe. After all, while entirely aware that things did tend to go wrong every now and then, Steve still managed to somehow believe everything would go alright and to have faith in people.

It angered Tony to a point, as he looked around, at the ruins of Hala, at the corpses of men, women and children of the Kree that were visible here and there under the rubble, that Steve couldn't even begin to consider that something had to be done, morals be damned, or all this would happen again, on Earth, somewhere else maybe, and it would be their fault. And by upholding the foolish belief that they could not kill, Steve would have failed – and would have brought everyone else here to fail – in protecting the lives of innocents.

For a moment Tony felt a surge of rage and... and fear at what the aliens had done, at what they could do to the Earth after that if they wanted to, but that didn't make any sense, hell, he himself was more than able to lay waste to his planet with the right weapon, the fact that the Kree were aliens had nothing to do with that. Still, the fear receded – as in, still here, but logical, no more important than his fear that one day Magneto would manage to enslave all baseline humans or that AIM would end up opening a black hole around the Earth – leaving only the anger.

He wasn't entirely sure why he was so angry – he knew, of course, the reasons, but he didn't get the intensity, this was not... – but he didn't care. Not right now, not right here. If... If Captain America came up with a better idea, then good, they'd follow it. But as long as he didn't – and no, just leaving wasn't a solution, it was irresponsibility, it was... – they'd need to turn off the Supreme Intelligence.

It wasn't as if he was the only one who thought so.

Not that Steve listened to Sersi, the Black Knight, Vision or Hercules – on that matter, everyone knew this was not Thor with a new taste in beards, and what exactly had happened to his favorite norsen... – there were more important problems here.

Steve hadn't even had the idea to listen to Captain Atlas' last words, when the kree man was the only representant of their race who knew what had happened and actually had a say in what ought to be done, in what justice the Kree deserved.

He sent a repulsor blast just before Steve, both separating him from Sersi and making it obvious that he would not change his mind – knowing Steve, though, it probably translated as a threat of some kind, because Steve could never think anything wasn't personal when it came to the two of them... – this wasn't the moment to think about that.

Okay, that's enough. I'm the only original Avenger present... and I'm pulling rank, Cap.”

Not that it would decide anyone who didn't want to turn off the Supreme Intelligence to do it, because the whole point of the Avengers was that though there was a “hierarchy” of sort, everyone would still end up doing what they thought was right if they were convinced of it hard enough. But this was a way of reminding everyone who wasn't on Steve's side that he too had years of Avenging under his belt and knew what he was doing, just as much as Steve did know what he was doing, and hopefully, it would bring the others not to be blinded by the Cap Charisma and to believe in their own instincts, in their own conclusions.

Iron Man wouldn't force anyone to come and turn off the Supreme Intelligence with them. If they couldn't... That was their right, individually, not to do it. But someone had to, and he couldn't allow those who would to hesitate.

After all, Steve wanted to leave and hope that the surviving krees would punish the Supreme Intelligence themselves. As if they didn't have better things to do, right now, like organizing their survival, like they wouldn't just lynch the supercomputer if they knew, worse, like there would be anyone to tell them what had happened now that Atlas had gone kamikaze and after the Avengers would be “gone” – not that they'd believe the word of the Avengers more than the Supreme Intelligence's if they stayed to explain, just like Atlas hadn't believed it until Minerva admitted knowing all about it, and she was dead too. Like the Supreme Intelligence would be honest with the remaining krees and tell them he had happily slaughtered their families and friends – and even should the Shi'ar get there in time to do anything about the Supreme Intelligence, they would destroy it all the same; maybe they'd go through its knowledge in the most damaging ways beforehand, so it wasn't like anything better would come out of it.

All of that would matter, anyway, only if the Supreme Intelligence wasn't a genocidal supercomputer, which it was – wasn't it...? It didn't matter. It wasn't. If it had been, it'd never had done that.

He looked at Steve, jaws aching as he gritted his teeth, the armor reporting scans of hundreds, thousands of victims, and that was just in the vicinity. How could he not understand, how could he not see it?

I don't agree with you. The Supreme Intelligence is a machine, a soulless piece of hardware that we will destroy so that nothing like this will ever happen again.”

They destroyed Ultron each and every time the blasted AI made itself a new version and went on a rampage trying to kill Hank, eradicate Humanity, and the like. How was this any different?

They didn't destroy Vision, because Vision wasn't trying to become the next Hitler and invade the world with bots every tuesday, because he was trying to do good.

Who's with me?”

The ones who stood up against Captain America's misguided righteousness came with him, with the addition of Wonder Man, while Clint, Captain Marvel 2.0, Crystal, Miguel, Wanda and Starfox stayed behind. He refused Deathcry's participation, though, because – and while he understood the sentiment, he could not condemn it, not here, not for this – she wasn't motivated by the need to protect innocents from the Supreme Intelligence's next schemes, but by her anger at having been used, at having let her hands and her people's be so bloodied.

Tony wasn't surprised by Steve's decision, of course. Barely disappointed, at that. It wasn't like he didn't know the man, by now, and how bloody idealistic he could be even though he called himself a man of practicality.

Never seeing that in some extreme circumstances, not doing what had to be done was the same as allowing the next catastrophe to happen.

 

oOo

 

They got back to the other Avengers, the ones who wouldn't get their hands dirty – and why would they, when others were clearly willing to do it in their stead, when they got to be righteous and not worry about the consequences of not having acted, since someone else had done it for them?

They had the galls to be judgmental, never considering that the ones who did make a choice – who allowed them not to make one – could be judging them just as such.

Captain America looked at them in anger and disgust poorly disguised as... Tony didn't even known what it was supposed to be, but that was why it was a poor disguise, wasn't it?

“I see you all made it.”

As if he had wished some of them would die on the way, killed by the Supreme Intelligence in its last efforts of defense – which had been suspiciously weak, but that was a matter to think about later – as a punishment for their decision.

He probably hadn't, no, because Captain America wasn't that kind of man, was he?

But right now, he sure sounded like it.

 

oOo

 

Tony got there too late for Steve's “team meeting” – that was a lecture he thought to give, not a meeting of equals, that much was obvious, and in such a lecture he'd never have to even listen to anyone else's opinion, because Captain America was always right and righteous – but he'd have gone if he had been able to, if just so that Steve wouldn't hold this, on top of everything else, against him.

Also, because someone needed to remind Steve that his point of view wasn't always entirely right, if not entirely wrong, and that making a choice always meant jeopardizing something, no matter how much the man didn't want admit it.

Finaly, to apologize, if not for what was done, at least for the way it was done. He had not intended to get that angry, to be so... callous, even if he believed what he had done to have been necessary. He guessed it was seeing the results of the nega-bomb, the dead – Tony wasn't a seasoned soldier, not like Steve was, and if he had seen horrible things... they weren't quite the same kind as this. Perhaps, too, the fact that he wouldn't be alive to pick up the pieces if the Supreme Intelligence did it again, if it had to be stopped a second time, and while he didn't believe himself to be quite so important to the universe as to be the only solution against whatever would have come had he not destroyed it, he didn't want his legacy to be an unresolved threat.

Of course, he also had to take into account the very fact that he was dying. There had to be some stress, more unexpected and irrational fears to affect his thinking, a desperation he couldn't exactly quantify. Not that he was going to admit that to Steve. It wasn't like the man could do anything to help.

Apologizing, he could still do, but...

Well. Steve was in a dive with Clint, and Iron Man would stand out. Not only that, but Steve would almost certainly refuse to listen to Iron Man right away because he was stubborn like that.

At the same time, going as Tony Stark wasn't exactly going to get him any goodwill either...

Eventually he decided to enter the place as he was – not in the armor, not as Iron Man – because this might be the last time he ever saw Steve and even if Steve hated him he didn't want to die without one last face-to-face.

So he pushed the door.

His eyes first fell onto the alcohol – in everyone's hands, on the tables and counter, on the wall – and the first thing he thought was that a drink would be welcome to deal with this. The second was that he should put it all on fire.

But here, destruction was not necessary. Unlike on Hala, the only one in danger was himself.

His eyes settled on Clint and Steve, two of the blondest guys in this dive.

Barely a second later, Steve turned around and noticed him – full name.

He noticed Steve's face, and wasn't surprised to see his lips pinched. Anything Tony Stark did was bad in Steve's book, and never mind that the contrary of what he did would be bad too, if Tony was the one doing it.

“Mind if I join you?”

He didn't wait for an answer, and maybe Steve would think him arrogant or whatever, but at least that way he didn't get to tell him he minded, or worse, to lie through his teeth and say he didn't, out of politeness – because then lying wasn't a problem, was it?

Still, Steve had reasons to be angry – always taking everything personally, as his attempt to step down from chairmanship from earlier demonstrated.

So Tony gave him a tentative smile, as always.

“I'm sorry. I know Iron Man said there was a team meeting. It's my fault. I had Stark Enterprises business in LA and I'm afraid I kept him too long. He... he sent me to make his apologies. Clear the air.”

He wondered if, perhaps, Steve would wonder why exactly Tony Stark would let Iron Man order him around. Why Iron Man would think it a good idea to send Tony Stark of all people to apologize to Captain America.

If he'd take the hint, that something here didn't make sense.

Tony did not, as it was, expect to survive long. Sure, he had Erica and Abe's team working on cryogenic suspension, and a solution beyond that, but he also was painfully aware that the odds of that working in time were low. Experimental procedure for a condition without precedent, the fact that no one – except one supersoldier who couldn't be used as an example because of the serum – had been successfully frozen and revived, the possibility that even then he would just start dying again... He'd take his chance, because not doing it ended with him dying anyway, but that was it.

So really, if Steve ended up having doubts about Tony and Iron Man... If Tony died, it wouldn't change much of anything.

Steve just looked at him oddly while Clint excused himself.

Alone at last – Tony kind of wished he could have kept Clint around, after all he was a friend too, and... but this was between the two of them.

“With all due respect, Mr. Stark, it really is an Avenger matter. I'd prefer not to discuss it with you.”

Tony didn't say anything at first – what could he say, especially when he put himself in that situation to begin with? – and just watched as Steve refilled his beer, almost looking like he did it on purpose, to point out that Tony was an alcoholic on top of everything else, and just because of that he should just stay clear of the bar, out, far away from Steve and his righteousness.

He watched as Steve did it, slowly, as much because it was a drink as because it was Steve doing it.

Steve would never offer him a drink, would he? – if he did, Tony would probably do something equally cruel in return. Like, admitting at last that he was Iron Man, that he was dying, and that it was a damn shame Steve didn't want his apology. Then he'd leave.

It'd be terribly irresponsible of him, to himself, to SE, to Iron Man and to the Avengers, but it wasn't like he'd live long enough for it to become a problem.

But no. It didn't happen, and Tony couldn't imagine Steve doing that. Captain America, after all, was a good man, and would never do that.

He swallowed, imagined the whole dive going up into flames, the alcohol burning bright, and himself standing in the middle, entirely sober for the last time. His eyes left Steve's mug, and a smile pushed itself onto his face.

“If you won't accept his apologies, then maybe you'll accept mine.”

This was probably the last time they'd talk, after all. And if telling him who he was now would just be cruel, apologizing wouldn't. So he'd try, for everything he could think of.

Even if Steve didn't care.

“Yours?”

He thought back to the time they saw each other, just after the armor wars. When he'd decided there was no point trying to explain anything to Steve, because Steve didn't care for an explanation that he didn't agree with, even if it was the truth.

“I know we talked about what happened with the guardsmen, what I did... what I sent Iron Man to do. And I... know I tried to apologize, and I didn't really do a great job, but this is me trying again.”

He took a deep breath, passed a hand through his hair, pushing away the headache that was coming – he couldn't hear the gulps of scotch at the next table, he couldn't smell bourbon from the glass the guy behind him had in hand, he couldn't see the color of the beer in Steve's mug through it, but he could imagine it just right, and it was like he could, like he just had to extend a hand and everything would be back to the good old days, with a brandy and a smile as everything horrible in his life fadded away for a few hours.

“I... I believe the ends justify the means, and I know you don't... I mean, I guess, you never have.”

No one ever talked about the fact that the ends justified the means, only as long as the ends were justified too. Probably because it was more than difficult to be absolutely certain about whether or not the ends were justified.

Steve's answer was almost gritted out.

“No. I've never believed that.”

Tony didn't want to argue about that, though. It wasn't like Steve would ever listen to him, not really, not even enough to at least try and understand, let alone agree.

So he moved on.

“I know that we never got off the right foot, you and I. I don't know how, and I don't know why, but I know that whatever I do, I keep... compounding it. ...And I know I get these ideas in my head, and I can't stop, an then sometimes the only way to achieve the end I need is to ask Iron Man to do it for me.”

Which didn't mean that he was necessarily wrong, but... Perhaps he had gone too far, occasionally. Perhaps, if someone had been there, on his side – but Rhodey had been, so maybe it was more of a matter of having more than one single person believing in you – he'd have seen that, he'd have found a better way.

Steve never tried, either, he just judged Tony and decided that as a consequence, anything Tony did was wrong – but that was partly Tony's fault too, wasn't it? Because he wouldn't tell Steve why he should trust him; not that Steve would, though, even if he trusted Iron Man. In the end, all it would do was that Steve would trust Iron Man even less than he did now.

That is, not at all.

The look Steve gave him was full of resentment, and Tony wondered if the man even knew it.

“He was innocent.”

Tony wanted to laugh – not because it was funny.

His smile simply fell a bit short instead.

“Not as much as you think he was.”

Just as much as Steve thought Tony innocent.

That is, not at all.

But to go on with the topic... To finish it, once and for all, a last apology to go unheard.

“I got carried away.”

“It's alright, it happens to everyone. And I... I'm glad you've got such a loyal employee. We should all be so lucky.”

It was obvious how much Steve didn't believe one word of what he had just said, or at least, how jealous and disgusted he was that he wasn't the one who got Iron Man's unwavering loyalty – never thinking, of course, that such loyalty, such accord between Tony and Iron Man's ideals could only come from one thing.

Ah. No. Two things, he guessed. Brainwashing could do it, too. At this point Tony wouldn't be surprised if Steve thought that was the real answer.

It didn't matter. In a few months, a few weeks perhaps, Tony wouldn't be here anymore.

So he was asking. Let them at least pretend.

“I'd like bygones to be bygones. I know I don't deserve another chance...”

He held out a hand for them to shake, knowing full well how unlikely it would be that Captain America would ever need to act on that last chance. Unless anything big enough happened in the little time he had left, they could both act as if nothing had ever happened, as if Steve didn't hate him with all his soul, and they wouldn't actually need to show it.

He could let Steve lie to him, as the man pretended to agree, as they shook hands, because it would never get the time to actually become a lie in acts.

 

oOo

 

Still, Steve didn't want Tony's apology for Iron Man, so he guessed he had to go “in person” and deliver them. He hesitated a moment, but eventually turned on his heels and went to get the armor, back to the mansion. Jarvis told him Steve had gone back to his room, but just barely, which meant by the time Iron Man would get there he wouldn't have started anything – Iron Man wouldn't be interrupting.

The door wasn't even closed, and he stopped himself on the treshold.

So. I hear I missed a meeting.”

Let's try again.

Steve was sulking, rolled almost all the way into a ball of misery and self-righteousness. He didn't look up from his moping, head tipped down towards his knees.

“Doesn't matter. So did everyone else.”

By which he meant, everyone he thought needed a lecture about ethics, morality, and righteousness, by yours truly, Captain America. Because only Captain America knew what was ethical and moral and righteous.

Except Tony couldn't say anything about that, not right now, not yet, perhaps not ever, because if he did Cap would just close in on himself and sulk more.

No, Iron Man needed to get the moping mess out of his broodiness before even trying to talk about that, so.

Tony took a tentative step into Steve's room, hands held out in case Cap needed...

But no. Steve didn't make a move, and this time it wasn't because he was moping.

What was Tony thinking, believing that Iron Man, the murderer, could comfort Captain America?

Steve barely gave him a look, before shifting his eyes back onto his hands, fisted onto his lap, while his forehead went to rest on his knees.

Tony almost saw tears at the corners of his eyes, but he must have been mistaken.

A moment of uncomfortable silence, Iron Man with his hands still extended, but slowly receding against his body. Then Steve broke the silence.

“Would you say Mr. Stark knows you pretty well?”

Tony was pretty sure he had tried to convey that, in both his identities, as much as possible along the years, so no, he didn't really know where Steve was going with that.

I was... under the impression that you'd rather not talk about him with me.”

Always cutting short any explanation whenever it involved “Mr. Stark”, always asking “Shellhead”'s point of view, not “Tony Stark”'s. Getting angry as they inevitably ended back at Tony Stark, at the fact that Iron Man agreed with the man more than he did with Steve himself.

The problem, apparently, was that Steve didn't believe Tony Stark when he told him Iron Man was acting of his own volition even when that volition was the same as Tony Stark's, and he didn't believe it either when Iron Man himself told Steve the very same thing. And that, obviously, wasn't something Tony could fix. Steve would believe what he wanted to believe.

Well. Time to affirm – once again – what he had been implying for years, he guessed.

But... yeah. Yes. He does.”

As much as someone could ever know themselves.

Steve, somehow, managed to get even more withdrawn, even more hunched on himself. As if to keep himself safe from Iron Man's influence.

“He told me once that I'd always have Iron Man at my back.”

Tony almost took a step back, suddenly understanding where this was going.

“You know what I didn't have, on Hala? You at my back.”

He bit back an urge to point out that this worked both ways, that while he hadn't been at Steve's back, Steve hadn't been at his either. If they ever disagreed on something – like on Hala, like with the guardsmen – it would be because they both thought they were right, but at least one of them would have to be wrong – both, maybe – and neither of them would be willing to consider they were the one in the wrong. It wasn't just Tony, here. Steve was just as guilty of this as Tony was.

Or should he have let Steve's feelings pass before his own convictions? That wasn't a question Tony could bring himself to ask, no matter how true it actually was, because it was a cruel question, one that would either ask of Steve to reconsider his own certitudes, or of the both of them to part ways.

It wasn't what Steve needed, right now.

Steve...”

He didn't know what else to say, that wouldn't make it worse in one way or another.

It didn't matter, because Steve wasn't finished.

“Some days I feel I can barely do this, with you.”

Tony let out a strangled sound, partially hidden under the armor's voice modulator, and maybe he should just put an end to it, ask the forbidden question, make it obvious that this was all reciprocal and that Steve wasn't the only one in this situation, but.

It wasn't about him.

And it wasn't what Steve needed – let's be honest, Tony couldn't give Steve what the man needed, because what he needed didn't exist, not as such as Steve needed it, but he could give him the next best thing and hope it would be enough.

“But I... know I can't do this without you, Shellhead. I'm so sorry.”

He didn't quite get what Steve was sorry about – what he knew for sure was that Steve couldn't be sorry for what he actually should be sorry for, and that the only things he could mean here were things he didn't have to be sorry for, because that was how this shit worked.

What was Steve sorry for, though?

Steve?”

Then, Steve got up, not a protective ball of resentment anymore – still there, of course, but less... – and hugged Iron Man before Tony could react. Not that he could tell what exactly this supposed reaction would have been, or should have entailed.

As a man who knew he only had a limited amount of time left to live, he hugged back. That was what they both needed, right now.

One day, soon, he wouldn't be able to give Steve anything close to what he needed, so he did that now that he could, for as long as he could, as much as he could afford to.

He couldn't give Steve everything he wanted to know, but... He could at least say that.

When the rest of the team woke up... and we realized we'd left you on Hala, and the bomb had gone off... I... God, I though I'd lost you for good. I... I never want to feel that way again.”

Hopefully it wouldn't happen – at all – in the short time Tony had left.

He barely heard Steve's muffled response, with the way he had his head stuck to Iron Man's shoulder.

“I don't want to lose you either.”

Tony had no words for that, none at all, because he was dying. He was, there was no denying it, on the brink of death – again – and the odds that he'd escape it – again – were worse than ever – again.

But...

But he'd take his chance. Not because he believed it would work, but because he knew he could be wrong and that he had to try, just in case it worked – also, it'd allow Erica and Abe to have data and maybe refine the process; even if he didn't make it, it could be useful for others. No matter what the cost of that flimsy shimmer of hope could be to his mental state for his last weeks, no matter how tired he could get when faced with each problematic results, with each obstacle to overcome.

After all, if he died, he wouldn't care either way.

He'd take his chance, because if he didn't, then there wouldn't be anything left to try instead.

I'll try, Winghead, I'll try.”

And that, if nothing else, would be true.

 

oOo

 

Tony did die.

The cryo process worked, and Tony remembered that his father hadn't been quite that perfect either – something he'd known, but hadn't believed. That Howard Stark had had a drinking problem too – he wondered if, like Tony, it had come from too many responsibilities, too much strain on his shoulders, too many times when he hadn't been enough. Or, thinking back on Project Manhattan, maybe it had been because of the times he had been too efficient when it really hadn't been needed.

Eitherway, it all boiled down to the fact that Howard hadn't only been a drunk, but also a mean drunk – Tony couldn't say for sure, of course, but he was under the impression that, himself, he was more of a sad drunk and went mean only when pushed. Not that he'd ever ask someone for confirmation.

His father, as it was, had also been Tony's first contact with the hard truth that while people could be predicted, some could also react in ways that seemed illogical, in ways you'd never take yourself, if only because they had a different personality, and sometimes that personality made them needlessly cruel. That had been how Tony had learned people couldn't be trusted to be anything else than themselves, even if it didn't seem to make sense fundamentally, even if they should know better.

He had to wonder, too, if somehow Howard hadn't been afraid that Tony would be too much like him, the man who had made a small fortune on his ideas of destruction alone, when faced with the memories of his father pushing him out of the country of the mind, of directing him unsuccessfully towards a more material way of living. Only a businessman, not an inventor of death.

Of course, Tony, stubborn as he always was, had managed to be both, to become the first and stay the second. Which had put him through so much pain...

One of the very first – in chronological order – reasons why he had recently been frozen to 40 K, had had his nervous system – which had already not been the original one – been rewritten into a new function, and had spent some weeks reliving all his memories.

Why he was now barely able to move, secretly alive, and absolutely alone.

Rhodey had thrown the War Machine armor back in his face. Twice – he took it in the end, but still.

And Tony wasn't surprised, of course, but. The fact that it was the logical course of action, the fact that not only his life had been in the balance – any attack on him could have had casualties, destroyed facilities, jobs lost and what else – it didn't change the fact that it hurt. Rhodey was hurt, so it was normal for him to be angry and storm out. Tony was hurt, but that didn't matter.

He had told Rhodey he had been wrong, but that was not the entire truth, if only because Rhodey's own life would have been put in danger, if anyone had seen that hint he'd told him about, that Tony Stark wasn't finished yet, and had wanted to interrogate him.

Maybe he had been wrong not to tell Rhodey, on an interpersonal level. But at the same time he had also been right on a practical level, and no matter what Tony had told his friend practicality would always trump feelings, if only because you couldn't have feelings once you were dead.

In the end, he had told Rhodey he'd rather have risked his own life than their friendship, and that was true. Except this hadn't been the real compromise here, and Tony hadn't told his friend that, because for some reason no one ever reacted well to being told that you'd rather risk your friendship than their lives – with the potential lives of a few others on top of it in this case, but eitherway.

Still, he wondered why the pitch he gave Rhodey about the armor – he wasn't forcing him to use it, damn it, just telling him to take it and have the choice ready – passed for assholish, when it'd be called inspirational if it were coming from Captain America – Steve would probably add in something about it being your duty to protect when it was within your power, basically shame-forcing you into doing it, at that.

Tony knew, because he had been at the end of such a discourse, or listened to it even though it wasn't directly addressed at him, more than once, and no one ever resented Steve for it.

Not that he, personally, did.

Not at all.

 

oOo

 

Tony heard the door closing behind Jarvis, just as the older man said a low, whispered “Sir?”.

He didn't turn around, opting for simply staring out the window for now. The other Avengers – both West Coast and East Coast – were out there in, eating, discussing, arguing about whether or not the West Coast team should be terminated, on the grounds that they weren't “efficient enough”.

Of course that was what the East Coast team thought.

“Master Anthony.”

Tony's hand twitched. There went the pretense that Jarvis didn't know – Tony wasn't quite certain how many people did, now, but the number of people who had deduced it by themselves and who weren't enemies was ridiculously low, proving once again how many of Iron Man's friends did actually know him at all. Steve still hadn't caught on, and not because he was stupid, not because there weren't any hints, but simply because he couldn't fathom the idea, that Tony Stark would even sacrifice some of his time to make the world better, let alone all the other things he'd lost along the way.

He didn't take the helmet off.

Yes, Jarvis?”

Enough of a confirmation. He really hoped Jarvis hadn't told anyone – Steve, mostly, but anyone else would make it problematic too – to go and listen in through the door so that they'd finally realize, with the misguided hope that some honesty would make it all better or whatever. Unlikely, Jarvis was too loyal for that, and the older man understood that it wouldn't do any good to Tony, to be outed like that, because he realized that sometimes “logical” courses of action were no better than illogical ones, especially when it came to people and their reactions to the unexpected – but at the same time Jarvis was also loyal to the Avengers, and Tony knew for a fact that he'd throw him under a bus if he thought it was for the greater good, something Tony would never begrudge anyone for, at least not on that point.

“Don't you think... Maybe you should go out and tell them?”

So he was leaving him the choice – or was he? They could still be listening, just so that they'd know he had been given a choice, just so that they'd blame him if he didn't agree. But no, Jarvis wouldn't do that to him.

What would it accomplish?”

“They might surprise you.”

Tony snorted, and the voice modulator turned it into a short, static sound.

They might, but I'm more worried about them not surprising me. It's not about how they could accept me, Jarvis, it's about what it would cost us if they don't. Not just me, but us. The Avengers have to be united, at least to a point, if they want to work, and this? This isn't going to help, more than that, it might make it crash down faster, and I'm the one who will have to deal with the fall-out, not them, because I'm always the one who does. If something happens because we can't work together anymore... We're not blue collar workers, Jarvis, we're 'superheroes', whatever that means. When we don't make it, people die, several of them sometimes, and the occasions for that to happen are plenty.”

“The Avengers aren't being very united right now, sir.”

I'd noticed. That's why I'm here, to put an end to it. Listen to them. They're arguing, they're disagreeing, they're barely not at each other's throat, and somehow the West Coast team is the only one which is expected to bow down. Listen to them, Jarvis.”

Neither men could, of course, but they both knew what he meant. The arguments that had happened during the meeting, the arguments that were still going on when they'd left the “break”...

Let's take War Machine. Did he have to take his leave by the air, when he could have just walked out a door? And then I'm the one doing theatrics. I understand why he's angry at me, but it doesn't change the fact that he's acting like a brat. As for Cap, he wants me to 'talk it out' with the man, never mind that I already tried, never mind that you can't talk it out with someone who's unwilling to listen, and somehow it's still my fault, somehow I'm still the one expected to back off.”

Never mind that Steve had always done the exact same thing Rhodey was doing right now, and that, because he was still convinced he was right – always, without question – he didn't acknowledge it either.

As for the East Coast team, they blame the others for not 'always' succeeding, but what about their own flaws? What about the fact that they didn't prevent the mansion from being entirely destroyed, what about the fact that their people come and go too, what about the fact that some of the members take personal missions in between two Avengers outings too? We don't throw those back to their faces, do we? Wanda was right, we don't have a god, but it doesn't stop there: we don't have a god, and we don't have a tenth of the reservists they do. So of course, when someone wants, when someone needs time off, it's easy to replace them. Us? We can't. We have to deal with our own shit, and that kind of thing doesn't wait for you to have time off, it still happens even when you're busy. And we can't be reservists to deal with it, because there are no reservists to swap places with.”

He didn't say anything about how he hadn't even received an “invitation” to this meeting, how he'd had to hear about it through “Mr. Stark”, as “Mr. Stark” was the one who made it all possible – his mansion, his money, his contacts for the most part, his responsibility when it didn't work, and his blame when people thought it wasn't enough.

Then there's Sersi, who'd throw me out of my own house, not that she knows it's mine, but eitherway. Did you listen to her? And she's not the only one who looks down on us. This, it's not Avengers United. It just doesn't work anymore, and putting the two teams back into one? It's not going to work.”

“Are you saying you're quitting, sir?”

Tony didn't answer right away, not certain how to say it.

I... Jarvis, I brought the Avengers together just as much as Loki did, in that I made sure it actually became something. But there's no place for me here, not anymore. I'm not sure there ever was. I can stay and push others out, or I can leave first. Anyone who's here deserve to be here, no matter their personal failings, and I'm not going to force them out just so that I can have my own place.”

Tony heard Jarvis take a step towards him, but the older man stopped before he could – do what, exactly? What was there to be done, at this point?

“Isn't that the same as allowing them to push you out, though?”

He thought of giving a bitter smile, but he was wearing the helmet, so there was no point in doing it.

Jarvis... You told me you were torn between loyalties, between me, us, and the Avengers 'here at the mansion'. The West Coast team are also Avengers, though. They're supposed to be, at least until a decision is reached. I am an Avenger. And yet, that's how you formulated it. Maybe that's not what you meant, but... If that's how you said it, how do you think the others feel about it? I'm going to say it again: they're your family, now. And I'm not part of it anymore.”

“Don't say that, Master Anthony.”

Is it not true?”

“You can get into spats with family, sir. It just... It takes time, that's all.”

Tony shrugged, though that was barely visible with the armor on.

It doesn't matter. I'm tired of trying, Jarvis, I'm tired of being the only one who ever does. I'm tired of accomodating for everyone's grievances and of overlooking mine, and the sad thing is, I'd still do it if only there were results, if only it bought us the slighest advantage. But this reunion, today, here? It proves there are no results. It proves that no matter what I do, no matter how much I give, it's never enough to even change one thing. If they want me back, this time, they'll have to come themselves, and they'll have to face the possibility that maybe I won't want to listen, either.”

Not that anyone would.

 

oOo

 

He'd been doing paperwork – again, always, more and more – when Janet had busted his office's door open, her anger barely contained and plainly visible on her face, about to ask for answers.

“Tony, I really hope you have an explanation for...”

Her tone had been brisk and uncompromising, until the point where she'd just stopped.

It probably had something to do with the fact that – unlike usual, when he could hide it under his clothes or with make-up – the deep bruise on his face had no actual explanation for a businessman who did not endanger his life every now and then – actually, it was more like every tuesday and friday, but eitherway, now and then.

Tony considered pretending he wasn't actually injured, but his bruise was freaking purple and covered half his lower jaw, so.

He could have gotten away with it had it been a minor cut or a small ecchymosis, something that could happen to anyone if they, let's say, walked into a door or something, but it wasn't the case here.

Of course, he could have walked very violently into a door.

So he winced, and pretended it was just that, only he acknowledged it out loud instead of not addressing the issue.

“Not pretty, uh? Iron Man had to battle... whoever it was this time, really, and when he pushed me aside I ended up with a door in my face. But enough about me, are you saying you're having a problem? What is it, something wrong with the Maria Stark Foundation, maybe? Or did I sign something I shouldn't have without paying attention?”

Jan didn't answer right away, first looking... something in between dubious and enraged.

Eventually she took a step around his desk, and put delicate fingers on his – visible, because there were others, but she didn't need to know that – injury.

“Is...”

Tony could see the gears starting into motion in her head, and he wasn't entirely sure about what she was deducing exactly, but he sure as hell hoped it wasn't about how he'd actually gotten the bruise.

“Has someone been threatening you?”

What?

He forced himself to jolt back, as if in denial, as the situation sank in and he came to the conclusion that, indeed, he could get away with being injured if he passed it off as an actual attack against “Tony Stark”. It didn't even have to be anything Avengers-related, because people did threaten him on a weekly basis – at best.

Except knowing himself – and, more importantly, his public image – had that been the case, he wouldn't have admitted to it that easily.

“I just told you I walked into a door, Janet.”

Not quite what he'd said, but the slip was intentional, and of course Jan latched onto it right away.

“You told me you were pushed against a door, Tony. Not that you walked into it. So excuse me if I don't believe you. Now, tell me the truth: were you pressured into sabotaging my assets and otherwise bankrupting me?”

Tony just stared at his friend for the longest time, as no words or explanations came to him – he was pretty certain he'd know if he had been doing something like that to Jan, and since he didn't, and Jan wasn't one to lie like that, he...

His sight blurred for a moment, and he passed out – or did he?

 

oOo

 

Anthony watched the monitors as Kang had told him to, his attention unfortunately drawn to the moments of his life he liked the least, from the worst betrayals to the small reaffirmations that no one actually cared that much, not enough to stand by him, not enough to give him a chance, not enough to even try and understand. The times he hadn't been enough, too, and in general all the times he'd suffered.

There, Yinsen with his hands inside Tony's open chest, blood everywhere, and his heart visible as the man tried to save his life. Good thing he'd been inconscious for that one.

On another screen, his father telling him that what he had made wasn't “enough, Anthony, you've got to do better if you want anyone to look at it, to even consider you worth anything” instead of telling him how good it was that he'd made anything at all, least something that actually worked just as well as what already existed – and Howard was right, wasn't he, because people didn't care for solutions that were no better than what they already had, because people wanted perfection, they wanted progress, and they didn't like waiting for it, it had to come right away, an ideal already, with no drawbacks and a nice bow on it.

There was the time, too, when someone – he couldn't see who it was, the screen was too dark, it had probably been at night, and anyway that kind of discussion happened often enough to him that it didn't pertain to only one memory – had told him he'd have to trust someone at some point.

Two meters away on the left, three screens down, the video of how that very same woman – he recognized the voice, now – had proven that the person he'd have to trust was, obviously, not her, or else she wouldn't be trying to steal from him. Not particularly surprising, people loved to berate him when he didn't trust them fully and without question and then they acted as if it was his fault when he trusted someone – or not, for that matter – and it turned out they were snivelling bastards.

Emma Frost and himself standing outside the institute where Marianne Rodgers had been admitted after she'd lost her mind, and Emma telling him, without judgement, but as a warning that it could happen again if he wasn't careful in his choice of companions and the possiblity that they'd have unmastered psychic powers, “there's a reason mind-readers keep out of your brain, Tony, and despite what we all say, it's not because you're a disgusting individual”.

Steve, of course, saying it wasn't enough.

Why should we trust heroes, Mr. Stark? Why should we trust them, when we can't even say whether or not they are themselves, if someone hasn't stolen their looks to commit a crime and get away with it? Why should we trust them when they are just as prone to error as anyone else and still not monitored by anyone or anything? Why should we trust them to be perfect, even if we did trust them to have good intentions?”

Anthony, young, reading the dictionary – no one gets to judge, okay – and finding the definition of hypocrisy: “the practice of professing standards, beliefs, etc, contrary to one's real character or actual behaviour, esp. the pretence of virtue and piety”. Realizing that it was intricately tied with trying to be a better person, that you couldn't do one without risking the other.

There were thousands of moments going through the screens, as Kang's system searched for any intrusion in his timeline that could be attributed to someone trying to influence Anthony back into being the man he'd been before Kang had decided he'd mess with him – which, if his suspicions were right, wasn't quite what Kang himself had told him anyway, because since when were you supposed to be honest with the person you mind-controlled?

The most important, though, was probably the one screen where Tony's first encounter with Kang was being played over and over again. Anthony had no recollection of it, as the story on the screen confirmed – not long after he'd become Iron Man, Kang had walked into his home and had had a conversation with him, not that Tony had listened to any of it, and the time-traveller had then made him forget all about it.

Anthony was having doubts about whether or not that had actually been the “beginning” of Kang twisting him into someone he wasn't, mostly because the fact that it had happened didn't mean it had actually worked at all, and he hadn't been able to find any other interference from the time tyrant on the very advanced system that was checking over his whole life. Sure, something was influencing him, but he wasn't certain that thing was Kang's eloquence.

Speaking of which, Kang was being awfully sure of himself, appointing Anthony himself to watch over his own life and make sure no one interfered.

A screen in the top right corner of the control wall – the one that showed his most recent history – caught Anthony's attention, and he raised his eyebrows. High.

“Why don't you come over here and stop hiding?”

He had no idea how they had followed him to Kang's Chronopolis, but wasn't particularly surprised: heroes were nothing if not resourceful, and Jan didn't seem to have bought his excuse when he'd taken over right after Tony had failed to explain to her why her fortune was in jeopardy.

That she'd go to Rhodes for help, though, that was one thing he hadn't expected – Tony's last encounter with the man came to Anthony's mind, and he gritted his teeth as he remembered how much shit Bethany had given him over standing for his convictions when Rhodes had been taking an update of the War Machine armor for granted, no matter what he did, no matter whether or not Tony agreed with him on how he used the armor. Sure, Tony had given him the armor, and sure, he'd lied to him about his death – which, by the way, was barely a lie at all, considering the actual odds of him making it back – but that did not mean he owed him an armor upgrade no matter the circumstances. That did not mean Rhodes had the right to attack him at his own plant.

Because you deserved something never meant anyone owed it to you. It was true of trust, and it was true of weapons of mass destruction.

James Rhodes and Janet Van Dyne appeared from behind a pillar, cautious and ill-at-ease. Janet was eyeing Tony's armor – he didn't have the helmet on, but he was in the suit – with a sickening realization in her eyes, and Rhodes had his eyes constantly shifting from Anthony – wary of him, of course – to the screens displaying his lifestory bit by bit.

Janet was the first one to talk, looking a bit pleading but keeping her distance nonetheless.

“Tony... Why are you...”

She didn't seem to find the words, so she just took a deep breath and a look at Rhodes, who looked away and didn't comment on the fact that he hadn't told her Tony Stark was Iron Man – except the man's eyes fell on a recollection of him beating a defenseless, barely recovering Tony Stark with the Iron Man armor, and he sucked in a breath and looked away from the control wall as if he'd been burned by the sight.

Janet's jaw set itself, apparently deciding to ignore her unease with the situation.

“You're Iron Man.”

Anthony shrugged, and went back to watching the screens. It wouldn't do if someone changed something in his past that he didn't want to change, something that'd disturb the plan that had started to grow in his mind after he'd realized Tony's two friends were in Chronopolis. Kang had made sure Anthony himself would not do anything to compromise his plans, but had he taken into account what Anthony could say, if not do?

Janet took a step towards him, but her eyes were drawn to the screen where Kathleen Dare had just shot Tony and left him for dead.

She jerked back – and wasn't that a perfect illustration of Tony's life, he mused, as he saw her try to be there for him and immediately draw back because of something he wasn't responsible for.

“Is it mind-control? Is that why you've been doing... things... you wouldn't normally do? Or... Is he holding something over you? Can we... Can we help?”

Or will we need to take you out, was left unsaid.

“Not mind-control exactly. To be exact, Kang claims he had that idea some time ago to go back and start brainwashing me into being his mindless servant, and it just started actually working a few months ago, but I'm sceptic. I mean, okay, fine, I can understand the logic and why it wouldn't have been useful to him sooner, considering the crossing timelines and the fact that he couldn't start using that advantage too soon or it'd happen before he got the idea to do that and then we'd have a nice mess of unraveling timelines, which, for someone like Kang, can easily turn into complete annihilation. But it just doesn't quite work as an explanation, because I'm not entirely convinced of the bullshit he fed me, and if I'm not now, I don't see how he could have managed to 'brainwash' me earlier with the very same bullshit. My running theory is that he's been using my all-new, all-shiny hightech nervous system to mess with my brain and possibly my hormonal imbalance.”

Rhodes gave him a weird look, and Janet pinched her nose.

“If you're not convinced, man, why are you still doing what he tells you to?”

“True. Tony, if it's not mind-control... Why are you here?”

A very disturbing recollection of Thanos tearing Iron Man's head off – Nebula had gotten the Infinity Gauntlet afterwards and put everything back in place, Tony had gotten better, no need to make that face – interrupted the conversation, and Rhodes shifted on his feet.

“Seriously, what is this? Why are you... watching your...”

Anthony snorted, and turned back to the screens once again.

“Because I'm not entirely convinced by his bullshit doesn't mean I disagree with everything he says, be it because of what he did to me or not. Mostly, I'm unsure if he's telling the truth about how he got me on his side, but he is terrified of something and if it terrifies Kang the Conqueror then I want to know what it is.”

He paused a moment, then reached for the console, already planning how to get rid of the records for this particular conversation in case Kang came and had a look at his control system.

“However, I'm well aware that my judgement is compromised, and more than that, I loathe being manipulated; I'll take it if it's for the greater good, but if it isn't, I'm not going to let Kang push me around. Which is why I need you to do something for me.”

 

oOo

 

Tony was about to get into his car to get to a party – it was all becoming a bore, an annoyance, but Jan would be here and it wasn't like he had anything else to do – when two people walked to him and stood in his way.

He watched them with caution – she looked like Jan, except, older, and he knew Jan didn't have an older sister, and he was tall and black and looked at Tony as if he couldn't really believe he was seeing him here, like that, or whatever.

The man was the one who spoke first.

“Tony Stark?”

They didn't actually sound like they were asking – confirmation, perhaps, but no, not even that, it sounded like, like...

“Yes?”

The man looked him over – again, as if to ascertain that his eyes weren't tricking him – and muttered that he didn't remember Tony looking like that – “that young, that...” – when he'd gotten him out of Afghanistan, and Tony had barely been twenty-three back then.

Which was impossible, because Tony was twenty-two and had never seen the man before.

The woman-who-looked-like-Jan gave him a tight smile.

“How do you feel about time-travel, Tony?”

 

oOo

 

Tony was twenty-two and bleeding over here and his heart was beating like crazy and he was wearing an incredible suit of armor that apparently he'd been wearing for close to ten years – but shhh no one was supposed to know or at least not most of the people in here, Jan and Rhodes knew but for the others he wasn't sure – an armor that he had made himself and that he'd used times and times again to battle evil and his parents had been dead for eleven years – not one – and apparently – if he was to believe James Rhodes – his life was a succession of horrible injuries, betrayals, and deaths.

But Tony was also thirty-two and dying over there, in Captain America's arms of all people, and had been twisted into a shadow of who he was supposed to be – to become – by a time-travelling despot and he'd just been killed by himself – which felt disturbingly cathartic in a murder / suicide way but let's not talk about that – when he had been twenty-two and hadn't lived through all the physical pain he now knew – emotional pain was another question, obviously, and not one he wanted to talk about to anyone – and he really, really hoped the kid would have enough self-preservation not to get himself crushed by his expectations of Captain America and his actual relationship with Steve Rogers amongst a lot of other things.

Tony could see, on his armor's internal displays, that Tony-over-there was dying – and now, had died – as the older man synchronized their armors in one last effort, throwing all the intel he could into Tony's armor. He didn't have the time to finish, though, and his heart stopped beating.

Tony – who thought he was being weirdly detached from the fact that he'd just died before his own eyes if you asked him – took a tentative step towards Captain America – he really didn't know what to say to that, and right now it just wasn't the time.

He's dead.”

The man gave him a look and Tony had to refrain from taking a step back – and in his eyes, there was that question to which Tony couldn't answer, not at all, because yes, he was the same man as the one dying in Captain America's arms, but no, he wasn't him, obviously not, and how did he even start explaining that without mentioning that it was Tony Stark who had just died in – Steve Rogers, the files Tony-over-there had dropped onto him said – Rogers' arms?

“Who are you?”

The interrogation point was barely audible at the end of the Rogers' sentence, and Tony got the feeling all the other people here were thinking the same thing except Rhodes and Jan.

Jan, who saved him from an awkward explanation that he wasn't sure he understood himself – yet.

“It's Iron Man, Steve. War Machine and I used Kang's own door into time at the Mansion to go and get him from... from before Kang got his clutches into him.”

Tony debated waving awkwardly and decided not to.

Captain America frowned at Jan – the Wasp, right, Jan was the Wasp.

“And you didn't tell us about it?”

War Machine – Rhodes – and Jan shared a look, and obviously made a decision because they looked back at Rogers at the same time – and if the faceplate kept Rhodes' expression hidden, Jan's expression was telling.

“It was Iron Man's plan.”

They all looked back at the dead, armored man who had been Tony and yet hadn't been.

Then Captain America's voice rose up again, and sounded vaguely flat, as if he was trying to control his tone, not to let anything be heard of what he felt about that.

“You know who he is, don't you?”

Jan didn't back away, stood her ground.

“If I did, Steve, would it change anything?”

Tony could see this was going to get ugly – maybe not now, maybe not right away, but at some point, later, there would be resentment and anger, and he wasn't sure why exactly but he knew it, and if someone had to take it then it could as well be him.

He walked before Jan, in between her and Rogers, and stood his ground just as she had.

She doesn't. She came to me barely a few months after Mr. Stark hired me to be Iron Man, and I haven't let anyone see who I was since then.”

Listen to him, barely in this time for twelve minutes or so, and already lying to Captain America – then again, he was going to have to lie to a lot of people now, even more so than his older self probably did, because not only was he hiding that he was Iron Man, but he'd have to hide that he wasn't the old Tony Stark either, so really he was only taking a headstart at that point.

 

oOo

 

“And you really don't know what Kang was really doing?”

Tony sighed, already regretting having decided to pass by the mansion – which he had apparently lent to the Avengers at the very beginning of the team, to the point that sometimes people he didn't even know looked at him funny when he came by his very own place, come on – as Jan asked him the question a second time.

“From what I've understood, the timeline from which you plucked me out was aborted by the timestream as it was essentially this past with only one intervention from the future, a future that couldn't be if the past had actually changed. All that, Jan, means that I may be your Tony Stark, as in exactly the same Tony as the one you knew ten years ago, but I'm still missing those ten years. I've basically been catapulted ten years into my own future, so no, I don't know anything about what older-me did or didn't find out about Kang's plans. He... I mean, I managed to give myself some intel on this future-present we're in, but then it was too late and all I have is an incomplete guide into being Tony Stark, Nowadays Edition.”

Jan grimaced, then sighed.

“I guess I'm just going to be happy we somehow managed to salvage a version of you, then.”

She eyed him from head to toes, and shook her head.

“At least you do look like yourself, now. Must be the haircut.”

Tony gave her a wan smile and shrugged.

“It's not like anyone noticed I wasn't my old self.”

There was a pause, and Jan actually looked at him with pity, even though she tried not to show it.

“No one?”

“No one. I mean, perhaps they noticed I was a bit unsure of myself when we met again, or whatever, like, Jarvis did frown, but no one straight out asked me if I was alright because they thought something was wrong. Which is, you know, for the best.”

Jan looked like she wanted to argue, but didn't. Probably because she understood that it was, indeed, for the best – even if that best was shitty.

“Well then. I'll see you when I see you, I suppose.”

She left his office and Tony was alone again in his room at the mansion – he looked at the things on the shelves, at the files on his desk, at the pictures of him looking vaguely different with several women over the years, but none who stuck around, obviously, and two of him with friends, James Rhodes and Happy Hogan. He'd been learning his life back from the start, memorizing the people he'd met and the dangers he'd faced when he at least had something to tell him about it, looking at newspaper articles about Iron Man and trying to deduce what had actually happened, looking through the Avengers database and noticing all the things that went unsaid in the reports, things that he couldn't remember anymore and that were glaringly obvious in their absence.

Two days before a business partner that he didn't remember at all had joked and told him he looked like he'd found the fountain of youth, and asked when he'd commercialize it. It was telling, he thought, that a woman who didn't know him as more than an acquaintance could tell, when no one close to him had even commented.

Catching up with the scientific innovations took a lot of his time, but mostly he managed and he had yet to find something he couldn't eventually understand, so there was that. He just hoped Reed Richards wouldn't call to talk about anything above the fission of the atom in the next ten days because there was a lot he hadn't had time to read up on yet and he didn't think Richards wouldn't find it weird if Tony suddenly proved unable to remember how he'd delt – because yes, apparently Richards knew he was Iron Man – with the temporal interface in Central City. Sure, the man could be a bit obtuse when it came to human things, but it also meant he didn't know how to take a hint and he'd probably worry that Tony was losing his mind or whatever.

Which, yes, kind of him, but. Problematic.

In other words, it was terribly sad that no one noticed, but at the same time, it was good that no one did, because if they did they'd become suspicious and that wasn't something he could afford – not right now, while he was vulnerable, when he had no idea how to counter, and in a more general manner not never either.

Tony grabbed the file he had come for and left his office, a sour taste in his mouth and no one to blame for it.

But as he made his way out of the mansion he almost bumped into a tall, blond, muscular man – Steve Rogers.

Or, you know, Captain America.

Captain Freaking America.

The original – though you had to consider Isaiah Bradley, who, in a way, was the original Captain America even though he wasn't The Captain America, and here Tony was dragging out his teenage years of curiosity about the myth of Captain America and that wasn't good, he was supposed to know the guy and even if they apparently weren't friend they did know one another and Tony had absolutely no idea how to deal with that and pretend it wasn't the first time he met one of his idols.

So of course he did just that.

“Sorry.”

A carefully pleasant smile, not too open – Rhodes had made it obvious that they weren't close, not at all, even if Iron Man and Captain America were, when he'd told Tony about his relationships with the rest of the Avengers, or at least all he knew about it. Visibly relaxed, but not physically reaching out. A precise choice of words, made out not to sound willingly chosen.

Rogers took a step back, looking a bit awkward.

“Mr. Stark, I didn't expect to see you today...”

Tony wasn't entirely sure why other-him had never tried to become Rogers' friend – possibly, he had been too busy, he hadn't had the time to give the man that much time outside of being Iron Man – but now he had the time – kind of – and perhaps it was time to finally try.

After all, Captain America was a good man, and while Tony didn't consider himself a paragon of virtue he wasn't that bad either – and nothing in what he'd found about his “lost” years made him out to be an absolute bastard, even if he hadn't always been perfect. If Captain America himself didn't give him a chance, who would?

Of course, Rogers didn't have to spend time with him, but what would it cost Tony to at least try and have an actual conversation with the man? To give them a chance to get to know each other?

He thought of the first time they'd seen each other since he was in this time period, of the fact that Steve Rogers' best friend Iron Man had died in his arms – by Tony's hands, in more than one way, not that Rogers knew that exactly, but still.

“I...”

Inquiring about how he was doing, right.

“I thought you'd like to hear that Iron Man is doing alright. I mean, I know you've seen each other since the whole... Kang-thing, but he's not really one to tell when he's hurting, he'd be unlikely to tell you himself if things weren't good.”

Rogers flitted him a half-smile, but he still looked ill-at-ease and Tony had the unpleasant impression the man simply wanted to get out of here, away from him.

What had he done to be deemed unworthy of even bringing Captain America news about his friend Iron Man's well-being?

“Oh. That's... That's good, Mr. Stark. Now, if you don't mind, I have to...”

Tony's mouth formed a cool smile – understanding, apologetic, totally fake but not to the eye of those who didn't know him.

“Avengers reports, of course.”

Except there weren't any reports to be done because Tony had already looked at the files, just before Jan had come in, and Rogers had had barely logged out at the time, all the work done, and unless there was something he'd forgotten there wasn't anything left to be done.

Captain America gave him an honest smile.

“Yeah, that's it, Avengers reports.”

Honest, perhaps, in his contentment at getting away from Tony Stark, thanks to Tony Stark's own suggestion of a – bogus – excuse.

 

oOo

 

Tony was sitting in the dark, in their bedroom, alone, carefully not touching the brand-new, hotroad red chestplate that was now allowing him to stay alive – the Prometheus armor had not been meant for that, and yet here they were, one victim brought to his death and another unable to be physically out of the armor.

Nothing made sense, and he hated that, and he couldn't come up with an actual explanation to all this mess but he was still going to say it out loud for Steve because if he didn't and it turned out he was right and something was rotten in the state of Denmark, then he'd have deceived Steve and that wasn't something he was willing to do without an actual reason to do it, just because he was afraid of the consequences to himself and himself only.

His chest was hurting, jailed inside the chestplate, and though he couldn't actually feel that – he couldn't feel anything up there anymore, except pain, more pain, and yet more pain, and he didn't know if he was going to get used to it or if it was going to get better but eitherway he didn't have a choice so he'd deal with it and there was no point in complaining – his heart felt like it was hammering itself against his ribcage.

The door opened, and Steve stopped in the doorframe – Tony had no difficulty imagining him with his eyes fixed on a glint, somewhere on the chestplate, of metallic red, on Tony's unmoving form, as he wondered about what was happening and why there were no lights in their penthouse.

Tony stayed silent, immobile – didn't comment on Steve's arrival, didn't move to acknowledge his presence.

After a moment of silence, Steve carefully started walking to the bed – probably to come and sit next to Tony, he had to have heard about what had happened, or at least some of it, and Tony had asked Pepper to call him after he'd crashed her house in search of help, he had to want to talk about it, to make sure Tony was alright.

And that, once again, did not make the tiniest lick of sense.

Why would Steve care?

“Why do you care, Steve?”

The footsteps stopped, as if frozen in shock and incomprehension, for a few seconds, then resumed. Steve sat down next to Tony, and moved to put a hand on a shoulder – ultimately didn't, instead aiming for Tony's left knee. His shoulders were taken by the chestplate, he wouldn't have felt the touch.

“...I'm not sure as to what you mean, Tony. Of course I care.”

“Of course you do.”

Tony chose not to elaborate – not now, not yet – and if Steve really wanted to talk about it he'd have to wait, unless he didn't want to hear about what had happened with the Prometheus armor first, about why Tony was a prisoner of his own chestplate, why Pepper had called Captain America in the middle of a mission to tell him that something had happened to his lover and he had to come as soon as he was done with his current duties, why the second message had been more controlled but still clipped and noticeably tense.

“Pepper left me two messages, Tony, and she was worried and angry in the first and careful in the second, saying you'd fired her and disappeared, then that you'd been hurt. So, what happened?”

Tony snorted, and gave him a paperclip version of the events with Hydra, Bruce, the armor, and the fact that he was now a cardiac cripple because karma was a bitch and apparently he'd deserved it – but, surprisingly enough, not enough to outright kill him, when really, pain was a terrible punishment but it also meant he was still in a position to make more damage, whereas a dead Tony Stark would be utterly unable to do anything, good or bad.

That, he didn't say outloud, because Steve wouldn't stand by it and Tony was not feeling like arguing about the fact that he deserved to die or suffer.

Steve looked horrified, tense, and absolutely unable to punch the problem in the face, as he turned Tony around and took a good look at the chestplate – assuredly wondering about what it hid, about the damage under the metal, about how much it hurt, and that was not something Tony would tell him because they couldn't change anything about it and they didn't need more people to worry about it. It was bad enough that he'd had to tell Pepper and Steve about the problem at all.

“That... The chestplate is the only thing keeping you alive?!”

“Yep.”

A deep breath – Steve trying to get his head around the facts.

“You've got to see a doctor, a... a surgeon, someone has to be able to help.”

Even in the darkness, with only a few lights from the city outside, Tony could see Steve's stubbornness settling in, the man already convinced that there was a way out, a solution Tony hadn't thought about. And maybe he was right, maybe Tony had missed something, or maybe something would be invented soon that would make saving him possible, and that was why Tony would continue looking, but maybe he was wrong, maybe nothing could help Tony and nothing would be found to change that in his – admittedly shortened – lifespan, which was why Tony wasn't going to hope and be certain of his happily ever after.

He had to make sure Steve understood that.

“Steve... A doctor would have to take the chestplate off to even get a look at my heart. And if I take the chestplate off, I die.”

“But...!”

“I'm going to try, you understand, but the odds that anything can in fact be done are ridiculously low. That's all there is to it. Add that to the fact that I have to be very careful with the public knowledge of my medical condition, I can't just go and start demanding for a miracle.”

It wasn't about the money, because Tony had enough money to last him several lifetimes – something, again, that didn't make sense, and Pepper's words from the other night came back to him once more, “I've seen you go from the nicest guy in the world into... into I don't even know what you are now”, and the fact this didn't have an answer was yet another thing that made no sense. Or, he guessed, it wasn't about the money per se. He needed the money to keep him afloat as he'd work on the armor – Steve was bound to object to Tony's endangerment of his already-weak heart, but Steve had also been a medically unfit bundle of righteousness before the serum and that hadn't stopped him from doing whatever the hell he thought right so he had no right to complain – and, more than that, if the company flanked because people got scared or if someone took the opportunity to openly attack him, the employees would be the ones to suffer.

And that was only one of the reasons why he couldn't let anyone see the slightest weakness in his facade.

Steve tried to argue, or at least he wanted to, it was written on his face plain as daylight – except they were in the dark and Tony could only see some details of his facial expression, but even that was enough to guess the exact face Steve was currently doing – but he didn't seem to be able to find the words, so he just ended up holding onto Tony with too much strength – and Tony couldn't feel half of it, because he couldn't feel much past the general impression of pain and through the chestplate.

After a time, Steve – without stopping with the snuggling, of course – loosened his hold onto Tony and ruffled his hair.

“What did you mean, when you asked why I care?”

Tony failed to react, mostly because he wasn't particularly surprised that Steve wouldn't let it go. The man could be like a dog with a bone, and the fact that they'd gotten into a relationship had only made it even more actual with basically anything that pertained to Tony.

“Tony.”

He sighed, and the chestplate dug into his stomach painfully. The Prometheus armor had not been designed for continued use, he'd have to look into that and make it more user-friendly.

“Think about it, Steve. Nothing makes sense here, no matter how much I try to think about it, to remember why we're here together, I come up blank, and sure, I know what happened, but I don't know why it happened or how it would make sense for it to happen. So, obviously you care because you're a caring person, Steve, but... Why do you care about me in particular?”

Steve's arms around him stiffened, and Tony could already tell he was taking it wrong – not so much, in the end, but still, that wasn't what Tony had meant.

“If you want to tell me this is a mistake and we should... we should end it, I... I want more of an explanation than that. You can't just tell me we don't make sense and leave it at that!”

Tony thought about turning around to face his lover and show him that no, that wasn't what he was going on about, but by the end of this conversation Steve would have a decision to make and he couldn't influence him like that.

“We're good together, Steve, and I... I love you. But I'm not talking about the 'now', I'm talking about the 'then' that got us to this 'now', because that 'then' just doesn't make sense. The memories don't make sense, the decisions we took don't make sense, hell, even I, personally, don't make any sense, not even to myself. Think about it, Steve. How did we get here?”

Tony couldn't feel Steve's torso against his back, he only felt the supersoldier's breath against his neck, and the man's forehead resting against the back of his skull.

“I... I'd barely woken up from the lies the government had me living in. I was struggling to get my memories back and acknowledge that our present was my future, and when I left my flat for the first time after I'd moved, I thought about getting a drink. You were drinking coffee and you immediately recognized me, I wondered if perhaps SHIELD was keeping an eye on me.”

Tony snorted.

“Of course they were. Except I wasn't the one tailing you for them, I just knew a number of things they'd rather I didn't. You weren't there for Fury's visit right after we separated, but let me tell you, it was a lot of fun. Still, go on.”

Steve didn't answer right away, and Tony would have bet half his fortune the man was currently blushing. Honestly, the guy had no problem fucking him senseless but the moment he had to put words on it he went redder than a poppy.

“I, ah... We slept together that night, and you gave me your number in case I wanted... in case I wanted second servings.”

Steve had called him two days later, and hadn't that been a surprise?

Anyway.

“Yeah, that's what I remember too. But think about it, Steve. It doesn't make the slightest lick of sense. You don't do one night stands, and I don't do men. Still, here we are.”

Steve had tensed behind him, Tony could say because he felt the weird and fleeting lack of air against the back of his neck of a breath being sucked in and not let back out right away.

“What do you mean, you don't do men?”

This was going to be fun – not.

“I'm not... I've never been sexually attracted to men before, Steve, and even now there's just you. Like, I can tell if a man is 'attractive', of course I can, I have eyes, but I'm not attracted to them for all that. They're... aesthetically pleasing, not like women can be, because when women are aesthetically pleasing I also find them attractive. And even you, I don't know how to explain it because it just doesn't make sense, but I... Listen, I'm attracted to you, but not because you're a man, only because you're you and I have feelings for you, ergo I'm attracted to you. Except, it doesn't work, because I didn't know you back then and I still hit on you, and I'm trying, I'm really trying, but I don't know why I did, and I can't tell what I was thinking, it's like someone told me the story of my life and it almost fits but here and there I just have no idea why I've made those choices and why I took these decisions.”

Steve's answer was tentative, then, and infuriatingly understanding when it really wasn't about that.

“Tony... Are you sure you aren't just freaking out because you always believed you were straight and it turns out you're just a little bit bisexual?”

Tony's laugh was dry and hard to his own ears, and he almost feared that Steve would take it the wrong way, but right now they had more pressing problems and he had to make the supersoldier see that.

“I don't give a rat's ass about my sexuality, Steve, it can be as nuanced as it has to be and I'm not going to lose sleep over it, because people are going to talk shit about me one way or another. Not saying I want to broadcast it for the whole world to see, but I'm comfortable with myself on that point at least. That's not the problem here, the problem is that I have no idea what I was thinking in almost all of the actions of my life, including us getting together, and most times I can extrapolate but here I just can't. Can you?”

“I've always been bisexual.”

“You told me that already. I'm talking about the fact that you don't do one night stands, to begin with.”

Steve didn't say anything about the implication that there was more.

“I was barely awake, I was completely lost and you were... You were you.”

“Not falling for the compliment, Steve. And yes, maybe you did something different for once, you have the right to do that, of course, but what I want to know is if you actually know that you did it for those reasons or if you're only guessing.”

The silence was telling.

“You see, the other night I was at a party with Pepper, a party I'd thrown mostly to piss people off after I'd gotten away with yet another accusation of grey-bordering-on-black ethics, and she asked me when I'd become... that man. The guy who doesn't care about his employees, only about the money they bring in. The guy who isn't trying to better the world anymore, who's living in it and doesn't care if it's not perfect because he doesn't have to live in the wrong parts of the world. The genius who can see he isn't doing any good but just doesn't care. And the thing is, Steve, I had to guess. I had to tell myself about Rebel and what happened to him, I had to deduce that was why I'd stopped caring, but I didn't know that. I had to think about it, and I'm still not sure if it is it because I can remember the events but not what I was thinking back then, only what I did, and even extrapolating I can't make sense of everything I did. I mean, what's the point of being ridiculously rich if you don't use at least some of your fortune for the best, if you're becoming rich by abusing your workers and bankrupting others who don't deserve it? Even on an entirely practical point it doesn't make sense because if you go too far all the time there's an ever-growing risk of it blowing up in your face when people finally get fed up with your bullshit, so if you ever do it? It's because you have no other choice, because the other options are actually worse. More than that, what's the point of holding onto something, be it morals, be it money, if it doesn't protect anything else as a result?”

Tony extricated himself from Steve's embrace and turned around so that they'd sit face to face.

“Then there's you. I don't know why we're together on my end, and you don't know why on yours either. How did it happen? Not sure. We know how, but not why, and in the end that brings us right back to the 'how' being senseless. Not only you don't do one night stands, but I'm also everything you hate. I'm a shark, I tear into small and big businesses alike and I don't care who gets hurt in the process. My 'redeeming qualities' are my money, my brain and my good looks. If you look at what I did with my life, I'm trash, Steve, so why are you here, why do you care?”

“You're not...”

Tony gave the man a small smile at his knee-jerk attempt to find something good to say to counter all the accusations Tony was burying himself under – but the fact that he didn't actually have anything to say about it, in the end, said enough.

“I can't even tell you why I'm doing half the things I do, it's like I woke up the other night with a whole past I can remember but can't ultimately understand and it's a past that makes me a pretty shitty person. So, once again, Steve: why do you care?”

He watched as Steve took a deep breath – schooling his features into an encouraging expression, something that wouldn't let his confusion show and would make it all about Tony, just Tony, even if it really wasn't.

The supersoldier locked eyes with him.

Unable to escape.

“You're asking yourself these questions, Tony, and I think that says a lot about who you can be, about your values and your intent to be better.”

Locked back into the duty of forcing himself to become more, to give more, to try and be enough. Because anything less would be selfish.

“It still doesn't address the fact that you fell in love with me when you really shouldn't have.”

“I... You have to be right, there's something going on and we have to find out what. But, it doesn't change the fact that I love you for who you are right now, and that whatever the actual truth is, I'm not going to give up on you, you hear that? You said it yourself, we're good together. So, whatever this is? However it happened? I'm keeping it, and if there are problems with the truth we'll just have to do better, to be better.”

Tony leaned back a little, fell onto the mastress – he couldn't see Steve from down there, and maybe that was for the best.

“What if the real me is the asshole?”

The asshole, at least, hadn't had to rely on an armor chestplate to stay alive – he wasn't sure the asshole had been happy, for all that, mostly because he couldn't remember how the asshole had felt, how he'd thought, and why he had done what he had done.

Steve lay down next to him, and not long after Tony felt a hand searching for his, fingers entrelacing – and he went along, because no matter how selfish it might turn out to be, right now he couldn't deal with the low, dull pain in his chest and reject Steve's comfort at the same time.

“I'm not giving up on you, Stark. This is the real you if you want it to be so, and even if you revert back to that guy, I'm going to do what I have to do to convince him he's better off being you.”

Tony didn't want to argue back – not yet, not right now – no matter how many issues he could find in Steve's reasoning. He was too tired, too uncomfortable, and too distressed right now to continue.

Steve squeezed his hand for a moment before letting go again.

“I promise.”

 

oOo

 

Tony walked out of the court martial he'd called upon himself, upon Iron Man – now that he had the memories back, now that he knew well and for sure what had happened under Kang / Immortus' control, he couldn't have gone on without...

Without what? He just couldn't go on anyway, not like before, and even if he had to continue, if only to try and make sure he would make at least as much good in this world as he'd done bad, it would remain there; three lives, taken by his hand, as his mind had been taken away from him.

It was the Carnelian ambassador all over again, wasn't it? No matter how good the security he made, someone always ended up finding a loop-hole – and if it wasn't the armor itself being hijacked, well, why not go directly for the man behing it now? He was going to have to look into some tech to block mental control, or, if what Jan had reminded him of under her breath was right – in other words, if the crazier Tony Stark from back then was to be believed – into not ever letting any of his life-support tech fall into the hands of a time-travelling villain who probably had access to future reports onto said tech. Not that he shouldn't try and make sure to be immune to mind control anyway.

Of course there was always the issue that mind control came in various flavors, all of which didn't fall under the kind of threats he could protect himself from, but hey, no one ever accused him of not taking on a challenge.

Tony locked himself into his room of the Mansion, took off the helmet, and sat with his head in his hands.

He had almost all his memories of Counter-Earth, and he could barely live with that, too.

From what the Avengers and the Fantastic Four – thankfully Doctor Doom had not called Tony Stark to gloat and tell him he did remember what had happened and who he really was, though at this point Tony wouldn't be surprised if the man did suspect the truth, Victor wasn't an idiot after all – had figured out, Counter-Earth had been a construct of Franklin Richards' mind where the child had “salvaged” the Avengers who'd sacrificed themselves against Onslaught, and only Thor, Reed, Susan, Tony, T'Challa and Crystal, and possibly Bruce – not that anyone was going to try and interrogate the Hulk about it – actually remembered what had happened there in details. Also, while about one year had gone on on Counter-Earth, only three months or so had passed here, for some reason Reed and him were already squinting at thoughtfully, but he didn't want to think about it right now. Especially as three months had been enough for Morgan to make a mess, SE to be bought by Fujikawa Industries, and Tony to be declared dead – and of course, everyone was swallowing his excuse that Iron Man hadn't been able to come and save him after he'd been once again abducted by villains as the armored Avenger had been stuck in a pocket universe, hook, line, and sinker, because it was somehow easier to believe than to make the guess that maybe Tony Stark was Iron Man.

To be fair, Clint had given him – Iron Man-him, not Tony Stark-him – a look when, just after they'd all come back from Franklin's pocket universe, he'd gone and “rescued Mr. Stark” only to reappear two days later with the news that the concerned authorities had been given a temporary explanation and they would not be shot on sight for pretending to be the lost heroes of the battle against Onslaught – barely joking there, you never knew what people might shoot you for in this country.

On the other hand, no one else than Clint himself and those somehow knew who he was had noticed a thing, and wasn't that cringe-worthy?

All of this meant a lot of things, none of which made Tony feel good about anything at all.

First, the Tony Stark imagined by Franklin Richards had been trash – or, rather, the make-belive life story made up so that they wouldn't notice they had just been reincarnated into another world had made him a freaking bastard, and that? That hurt. Tony knew Franklin Richards – not well, but he'd seen the kid a few times – and he'd have hoped the child didn't think... that, of him. Because Counter-Earth had been made-up by Franklin's subconscious, so it held to reason that whatever false history had filled in the gapes of that world had came from some part of his imagination.

Tony had never bought out businesses only to break his promises and cannibalize them, he had never toyed with the line of what was legal and what wasn't just for the hell of it, he had never done anything that could land him in this category of assholes. And yet, here he'd ended up, as just that kind of asshole.

Of course, he knew how some people saw him. He wasn't exactly surprised that not everyone was willing to even give him the benefit of the doubt, that some always and without fail believed the worst of him – ugh, Firebrand – and made up their opinion of him regardless of any facts.

But he'd have hoped that a child, one whose parents he knew and met occasionally, as Tony Stark as well as Iron Man, would know better. Wouldn't see him as that kind of bastard.

Maybe not as an actual hero, but... just as someone decent.

Of course, if Captain America himself couldn't see it, Tony shouldn't have expected that from a child he barely knew either. What had he been thinking?

Second, Franklin seemed to know a little too much on other points, because somehow Tony and Steve's made-up histories had involved them being in a relationship – which had tipped Tony off that something wasn't right with the world, because it just didn't make sense, and perhaps he wouldn't have seen it so soon if there hadn't been that one glaringly obvious problem. And yeah, Tony was definitely in love with Steve, and Steve had a crush on Iron Man, but Tony Stark and Steve Rogers were not – had never been, would never be – in a relationship.

Mostly because Steve despised Tony Stark.

But apparently Franklin Richards had – at least – unconsciously caught on the lingering feelings – did that mean Iron Man and Cap behaved like his parents, for him to recognize it? Did they behave like a married couple? – between Iron Man and Captain America, because he'd ended up with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers being a happy – if nonsensical – couple in his mental creation.

And, great, perfect, except Steve didn't remember any of that, and all the faith in Tony the other man had shown back there had, once again, been swept under a rug to be forgotten.

I promise”, his ass.

Then again, maybe it was for the best that Steve didn't remember. Tony could review all – and he meant, all, the whole three sets – his memories of Steve, but all he found there was the fact that Steve was utterly convinced Tony Stark was the asshole, and wasn't worth being fought for, wasn't worth not being given up on. He'd made a promise as he hadn't realized any of this, and everything seemed to point to the conclusion that even if he did remember that promise one day, he wouldn't want to keep it – he'd see his mistake and would take it back.

Anyway, it wasn't like Steve would believe him if he brought it up – when had he ever believed Tony Stark? If Tony said anything, he's probably end up assuming something terrible about the engineer that not even Tony could have come up with, because he seemed to have a knack for that.

Besides, the man seemed happy with everything “back to normal”, so there was that. Maybe keeping the status quo was the best Tony could get.

Third, he now remembered murdering three innocent women while under Kang's control, and injuring Jan to the point that Hank had had to save her using weird science – yeah, at that point, even Tony called it weird science, not that he didn't do some of that himself occasionally – and while we were at it, murder / suiciding himself – not that it mattered much since he had been the only one injured there.

But, he guessed, at least now he had a perfectly functional body again – none of the ailments his three selves had had had remained with his return from Counter-Earth, weirdly enough. No hightech neural system, no damage to his liver, no failing heart, not even scars. Not that he expected it to last long, knowing himself and his tendency to almost die and end up with a crippling injury.

What a riot.

 

oOo

 

They were barely back from the Blue Area, and Tony was making a deliberate effort not to point out that once again the Kree Supreme Intelligence was doing whatever pleased it, not bothering with the cost of lives, as long as it was entertained, and hadn't that been the very reason they had gotten into a spat on Hala – and yes, Tony might have been a bit callous back then, but he had also been dying, had just taken part in a galactic war, and apparently Kang had started fucking with his brain and emotional responses so it wasn't like he hadn't had reasons not to be quite as diplomatic as he might have been – because Steve had been alright with letting that thing live no matter what damage it would be free to continue causing? – but first, they had to talk about Carol.

Steve closed the door behind him, and pushed the cowl down.

“I wanted to thank you, Iron Man.”

Naturally this made Tony tense inside the armor, and he found it sad that history had taught him not to like it when Captain America thanked Iron Man – mostly because it generally followed things happening that he really didn't want to talk about. Or Steve somehow managed to display his contempt for Tony Stark right after that without meaning to, but it wasn't like Steve knew, so Tony wasn't going to hold it against him – much.

Captain America was a good man, who always tried to be fair. The fact that he didn't always succeed was another matter entirely, and in this case it was on Tony for not giving him all the data – with good reason, but it didn't change the fact that he was witholding his being Tony Stark – and for not being a better person in general.

What for?”

Steve seemed to hesitate, then put a hand on the chestplate's shoulder.

“I... You're the only one who saw, for Carol. And I can't help but think, you knew because you'd seen it before. You saw your boss fall into that same hole, didn't you?”

Tony gritted his teeth, and refrained from taking a step back. Talking about his alcoholism with Steve was not on today's agenda.

I'm pretty sure neither of us wants to talk about it, Cap.”

Steve took a step back, assuming whatever he was assuming right now – probably that Tony had been horrible to Iron Man while drunk, or something like that.

“Alright, I just... Well. Thanks for having looked out for Warbird. She might not feel like it right now, but you've done her a favor. She can't get better if she doesn't admit she has a problem, and obviously she isn't admitting anything right now, so someone had to point it out for her.”

Tony didn't say anything – didn't even have to force a fake smile of uneasy approval on his face, because he was wearing a mask, wasn't that perfect?

If he really wanted to help Carol, he'd be on his way to talk to her, as someone who had a history of alcohol problems, as someone who knew what he was talking about. Except, why would she believe that Iron Man was an alcoholic? And if he went as Tony Stark, why would she care what a stranger had to say?

He could, of course, reveal himself, but given the state and anger she was in, it probably wouldn't do any good – it might even pit her against Iron Man even more than she already was, seeing as no one wanted to consider that Tony Stark could be a hero, so obviously if Iron Man was Tony Stark then it meant Iron Man wasn't a hero.

Tony looked through the window, towards the gates that Carol hadn't walked out through, preferring to take an angry take-off from the garden – he should have her meet Rhodey, when all this would be dealt with, they both had the same way of storming out when they were angry.

Maybe he could convince Henry to go and talk to her.

Then again, Henry didn't have a super suit of armor to protect him if Carol got a tad too angry – not that Tony expected her to try and attack anyone, but well, from what he remembered of his own time in the gutter of alcoholism, even his sad-drunk act had occasionally turned to angry-drunk when he was pushed too far, and there was no telling what kind of drunk Carol was, or how far too far would be for her.

He'd have to consider carefully which option was the best, the safest – for Henry – or the more efficient – for Carol – depending on who went to talk to her.

Maybe both of them.

 

oOo

 

T'Challa was taking care of the Red Skull in the background, while the hypocritical idiot spewed stupidities about “your kind” and whatever, as if not literally everyone fell into the same traps over and over again, as if, especially, nazis didn't – and wasn't that a laugh, when the Red Skull was always beaten back but never seemed to learn? – and Tony trusted the Black Panther to do the job adequately while he tried to, maybe, help Steve and Falcon stay alive.

The Red Skull had disabled about everything in the armor – and Tony wanted to blame Gyrich for not trusting the Avengers but making the mistake of trusting “Dell Rusk”, Secretary of Defense, but that wasn't possible, if only because it was normal for the government not to be completely trusting of so-called superheroes, or else things would go very, very wrong the day one of them snapped under the pressure – and walking was difficult. Tony was muscular enough – not like Captain America or Luke Cage, but really, most couldn't compare – but the armor was heavy. Very heavy.

At least his mechanical heart hadn't given out, as it wasn't directly linked to the armor. Small mercies, he could still be kind of useful.

Eitherway, Steve needed him to move, so.

He could hear the Red Skull babbling in the background, again – this time, talking to him, and Tony really hoped T'Challa could punch the guy out, like, right now.

“Your suit is nearly powerless, Iron Man. You are powerless.”

And that may have been true, but. Tony was freaking stubborn, and being told he couldn't do anything, well. It always encouraged him to find an alternative – for some reason, Steve, Pepper, Rhodey and Happy, depending on who was here to berate him afterwards, never seemed to like that alternative, especially when it involved self-sacrifice. Wonder why.

Tony dragged himself across the room, towards Steve – he could see Falcon being chained up, but, more importantly, safe from the red gas for now. Steve, however, wasn't.

Steve...”

He finally reached his friend, managed to sit next to him, to check on him, and...

Not breathing... Damnit... It's contagious. I can't... What... what do I...”

The supersoldier looked barely conscious, and that said something about the potency of the red stuff, but that really wasn't the moment to consider such things – except it was, because Tony had an idea and Steve wasn't going to like it when he'd wake up but at least he'd wake up and if Tony didn't make it, well, it wasn't like Steve would be able to berate him anymore.

Steve would be mad, anyway, whether or not he died, because he'd probably learn who Iron Man was, then – after they'd recover his body, there wouldn't be anyone left to keep it a secret, and if he survived, Steve might still get up earlier than him and rush to make sure that Iron Man was going to make it and then...

Steve would be too busy resenting him for being Iron Man – for being Tony Stark? – to really care about anything else, and by the time the anger would have waned, well, he wouldn't have any energy left to rant at Tony's grave about his self-sacrificial tendencies.

If he even still cared, after the reveal.

Tony glanced – turning his head was too difficult, what with the armor being off – at T'Challa and the Red Skull going at it, and yeah, the Black Panther was doing a good job, no need to worry about that, it wasn't like he needed Tony's help.

He had his hands on the faceplate when he thought of Rumiko, and his heart clenched, but.

It wasn't like things weren't problematic with Rumiko. She'd probably get over him soon enough. She deserved better than him, anyway. She deserved someone who didn't have so many commitments they could barely spend any time with her, someone who didn't put her in danger just by knowing her. Someone who weren't endangering themselves every saturday and didn't make her wonder if she was going to see them again each time they parted ways.

He had a small, dry laugh as he took the whole helmet off – breathing the mortal gas in, knowing full well was he was doing.

His eyes caught the vivid blue glint of Steve's for a moment, and he wasn't sure, but Tony thought the supersoldier might have been conscious – barely, but conscious.

Still alive.

He was going to keep him that way.

“Sorry, Tony... but Captain America's more important than you... I just hope I can keep him alive long enough for Panther to get him out.”

Sure, the company would have a hard time following his death, but it wasn't like you couldn't find someone to replace him. Tony Stark was good, but he wasn't unique. What he didn't invent, someone else would. Maybe not exactly how he would have done it. But it would happen anyway.

Steve... Steve was different. Steve inspired people. Steve inspired people, and was a good man, a man with principles, a man who wanted to do good, who inspired others to do good. There weren't enough such people out there. Steve wasn't replaceable.

Besides, Steve was a much better person than Tony, even if he wasn't perfect, so when it came to who deserved to live...

The choice was easily made.

He tilted Steve's head back, cleared his airway, and started CPR – wondering absent-mindedly whether or not he'd remember the feel of Steve's lips, later on, if he survived, because right now he was way too worried about keeping his friend alive to focus on that.

He was barely not falling to the ground, himself, but he kept going, because if he fell down, he'd fail, and if he failed Steve would die. They would both die. Tony had started this to save Steve's life, not to add his own to the victims count – admittedly, he might still die, but he wasn't going to let both of them die. At best they would both survive, and at worst – at worst, Tony would only accept an exchange.

A compromise.

He heard the Falcon's voice behind him, muffled through the glass, but still he heard it, the man was probably screaming something – and damn it, if he made it and Steve didn't wake up before him he'd have to track down Sam Wilson and have a chat with him to convince him not to say a word.

The sound of glass cracking, of feathers and wings – did Falcon manage to call in his special reinforcements?

Tony fell next to Steve, exhausted – his lungs, burning – and barely managed to bring his right arm over his face, not entirely sure why anymore, but it was important and...

 

oOo

 

Tony did wake up first, surprisingly, and T'Challa was there to assure him that, whatever he thought about the situation – the situation being, obviously, Iron Man's secret identity that T'Challa had known about for a long time already as they'd made clear during the situation with the White Wolf a few months ago – he'd made sure no one else knew. Tony would have bolted out of bed if he had had the strength, which he didn't, so he just asked about Steve.

Apparently T'Challa had been looking over the files from the bunker, and Red Skull had had two options at some point, and obviously he'd chosen the one that made the gas slightly more problematic for supersoldiers, just because. Nothing really grave, though, just, Steve would take some more time to wake up, so they were going to transfer him back to the mansion.

Tony sighed, made a show of pretending he'd just arrived from New York, and T'Challa and him went back to work with their various specialists on the disgusting gas of mass murder. Not long after that they signed a mutual scientific sharing agreement, hoping it would make them more responsive if something like that happened again – and, in general, making them more efficient researchers, even without catastrophic events involved.

After that, he went and thanked Sam Wilson for his hard work, assured him again that the Avengers would cover any medical bill he might have after the fiasco with the Red Skull, and gave him a blinding smile as he said that, obviously, there was no need to mention to Steve anything that could upset him. Just, if Steve asked and Iron Man wasn't around at the moment, mention he was doing fine, no further complication, nothing.

Wilson looked at him without saying a word for a long time, as if he was trying to make things fit in his mind and he didn't quite like the look of it.

Then the man brought forth a hand.

“Thank you for your continued support, Mr. Stark.”

And, just like that, they were shaking hands.

Of course, things changed right after they finished their handshake – and Tony couldn't even say he didn't like it better that way, because leaving things unsaid might make it look like they agreed not to talk about it, but more often than not it just turned out that one, if not both, of the people involved simply hadn't seen fit to discuss their decisions. That way at least he might have a chance to convince Falcon if the man didn't get it already – and if they couldn't come to an agreement, well... At least Tony would be warned.

“There's a thing I have trouble understanding, Iron Man.”

Confirmation, Falcon had recognized him even in the dire light and general lack of comfort offered by “Dell Rusk”'s hospitality – which, by the way, come on, Secretary of Defense? How? And what were the damages?

Cheers.

Tony did not pretend he wasn't Iron Man – at that point? – and did not confirm anything either – showing that he was uncomfortable with people knowing might bring the point across, who knew? – and did not turn around with a brisk smile and no intention to continue this conversation.

Though the last one was still tempting, in all honesty.

Instead he let his smile falter and his hand tremble for a second, then visibly withdrew on himself.

“Is this the part where I'm supposed to say I have no idea why you're calling me that?”

Wilson frowned, obviously a bit puzzled by Tony's attitude, but also very opposed to pretend nothing had happened and Tony Stark hadn't taken off Iron Man's helmet right before his eyes only to save Steve Rogers' life with CPR.

Superheroes did tend to be stubborn.

“I honestly don't get you. You'd have to be blind not to see that Steve thinks the world of Iron Man...”

Except for all the times Steve hadn't, of course. All the times he'd jumped on any assumption that made a terrible person of Tony Stark, even if by the same token it did shine poorly on Iron Man too, not even considering that, maybe, there was another explanation.

“...I mean, the guy doesn't exactly talk about his feelings, but literally everyone know he has a crush on Iron Man, I think only the Red Skull hasn't realized at this point...”

Tony winced. He did not want to think about the Red Skull using Steve's fondness for Iron Man against Captain America – also, nazis and homosexuals feelings didn't mix well.

“...and it's obvious you do care about him an awful lot, even if I'm not quite sure in what manner...”

To be absolutely honest Tony might have exposed himself to a deadly gas to try and save about anyone who had an actual chance of surviving it and wasn't a total scumbag, but he had to admit he might not have been quite as desperate about it for just anyone. Not that there were so many people who'd have had a good chance of making it without the supersoldier serum, but that was not the point.

Also, Tony was – vaguely, sure, there were things going on as always, especially after Temugin and the manhunt for Tony that had ended up reflecting on her, and how she hadn't liked him asking about Happy first thing in his call, but him loving her didn't mean he'd stopped caring about everything else in his life and at the time Happy's life had been in the balance, just... just like, him loving Steve didn't mean Iron Man would shrug off his responsibilities each and every time Steve didn't like it – taken right now, and the fact that Steve's crush was totally mutual did not erase his feelings for Rumiko. No matter that both relationships seemed to be doomed right now – but, maybe, maybe Rumiko just needed a little time, and...

Or maybe not. Maybe he'd still end up alone in the end, but at least he was trying.

Apparently that had shown on his face in at least some way, because Wilson stopped talking for a moment, squinted at him, before starting back.

“...wait, scratch that, apparently the feelings are mutual, great, why don't we just hook you two up? I mean, apart from the fact that you're having a very public affair with Rumiko Fujikawa and Steve hates your guts, wait, where was I already? Ah, yes. Exactly there. I don't get you. Steve loves you but he doesn't know it's you he loves so you just let him talk shit about you instead of, what, proving him wrong? Proving him you aren't an opportunistic dilettante who thinks he's always right and has a right to control the world without ever sacrificing anything?”

Tony forced himself not to falter under the strength of the moral hit, but couldn't stop himself from making a face – a pathetic one, at that, if the way Falcon winced afterwards told him anything.

“I mean, not that he ever said this in so many words, but...”

“But it's kind of obvious just watching him react to my very name, isn't it?”

The man looked away, and yeah, he was starting to get it.

Tony snorted, straightened his tie – he needed to do something with his hands, and holding a drink was out, so.

“I've learned a lot of things in my life, Falcon, and one of those is that you can prove people wrong all you want, it won't make them change their mind that often. Usually, they just get mad at you. The point is that everyone else gets to see it, not that they are proved wrong to themselves. You do it when it is necessary, when you need someone else's trust, when it's simply the normal, decent thing to do. But you don't do it for yourself, not with people who are close to you, because there it only ends up becoming worse than it ever was. Trying to make people see you when they've already made their minds, it's exhausting, rarely successful, and generally far from gratifying.”

Before Wilson could say anything along the lines of “but he could surprise you” or how Steve was a great man and not like everyone else, he added:

“I already tried once, Sam. I did, really. I tried to befriend Steve Rogers as Tony Stark, once upon a time, and I already know how that story ends. And maybe it's me, maybe I did it wrong, I don't know, maybe I'm the problem to begin with. Eitherway, I did try. I did, and it was exhausting, a failure, and not gratifying in the least. I'm not willing to try again. I'm just going to continue doing my thing, to try and be the best version of myself that I can be, even if it's not that good, even if Captain America doesn't approve, because I can't do more, and I can't afford to spend more time and energy trying to prove him wrong specifically.”

He'd have said something about how extremists and heroes had a thing in common, that they were always stubborn in their views of the world – and they had to be, or the first ones wouldn't be able to do the horrors they did, and the second ones would doubt too often to be efficient – and that meant that, the one time heroes were wrong they also were as unlikely to see it in time as terrorists were, but comparing Steve to those people was not something he wanted to do in any circumstances, so.

“Listen... I'm not going to threaten you or send lawyers after you if you talk, but before you do that, before you look Steve in the eyes and tell him that Iron Man really is Tony Stark, I want you to take into account the worst case scenario. The possibility that Steve won't take it well, at all. And the small consequences that could lead up to bigger, nastier ones. Sure, he tells me to get out and leave the Avengers, maybe I've deserved it, and it's not like I'm the only one who can help save the world here. Or maybe he doesn't get rid of me, maybe he swallows it up, but refuse to ever trust Iron Man again, and then we all realize I'm out anyway because I'm useless if the team leader doesn't trust me. And yeah, all that, we don't care, it's on me, it's not endangering the world. But one day something happens, Ultimo wakes up, I don't know, and I go alone against him because I'm not part of the team anymore and anyway I do that all the time. Except for once it ends badly, maybe I missed something or the Mandarin joined forces with Ultimo for some reason or I'm particularly banged up from my last fight already, who cares? Thing is, I die, and the Avengers step in. Everything goes smoothly from there, no problem, the day is saved. Flashfoward to one year later, my cousin Morgan somehow managed to wriggle his way back in my company and decides to sell the Hellicarrier's plans to, uh, invading skrulls. SHIELD is taken out, Fury is locked up inside his own Hellicarrier, and shit, the one man who knew the plans like he'd made them himself, that's me, by the way, is dead. I can go on a long time and on many different littles consequences, the point is, maybe the Avengers save the day again, maybe other heroes do, but in the meanwhile someone dies or lose their jobs because I wasn't there to do this or know that. Or maybe it doesn't change anything at all, how would you know, but the thing is, you can't know that and maybe me being there, alive, Iron Man being still trusted to be a hero and not just Tony Stark in a suit of armor, maybe it will make a difference. Consider that, Falcon, and if you decide the risk is worth it, tell Steve. If you're not sure you want to know how it could go at the worst, however...”

Wilson stared at him for a moment, then pinched his nose, eyes closed and brow furrowed, before shaking his head and exhaling loudly.

“Man, you're giving me a headache. I'm not promising anything, though. The moment I think we'd be better off with Steve knowing who you are, I'm spilling the beans.”

Tony's upper lip quirked up – it'd have been a smirk, if it hadn't felt so damn sad and lonely.

Maybe Falcon would tell Steve, but for now it sounded more likely that the man was going to slowly realize that indeed, no one would be better off, at any point, with revealing that particular secret.

 

oOo

 

Jarvis had just called him, saying that they thought Steve was going to wake up soon, and here he was, Iron Man – of course, not Tony Stark – sitting next to Steve Rogers' bed – Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, who'd been sleeping for something like fifty-one hours since Red Skull had gotten at him and Tony had performed CPR to save his life.

Beautiful memories.

Let's not do it again.

Steve's eyes fluttered open, and Tony could feel himself breathe freely again – worried, him? Ah! Obviously he had been. Not one month ago Happy's life had been threatened because of him, and now Steve was unconscious for days because of a deadly gas. They were all trying to give him a new heart attack, he swore – not that the mechanical heart would let it happen, not as long as it was charged, and, no, let's not think about that again, please. This was about Steve, anyway, not the moment to whine about his personal problems.

Oh, thanks God.”

Steve looked at him, slowly, and tried to reach for him – looking for what? Comfort, maybe? A comfirmation that no, he wasn't dead, through touch? Tony didn't really know, but he guessed he could indulge him, that, maybe it would be for the best if he did.

So he brought forth the gauntlet, and Steve let his – larger, were his hands always that large, what a thought, of course they were, honestly, Tony – hand fall into Tony's.

Steve tried to talk, after that, but his voice was hoarse, his throat probably dry, and it took a couple of tries before he could actually make sounds that seemed like words to Tony's ears.

“I... you... you... You saved me?”

And...

Shit. The kiss – no, the CPR. Damm it, how had he not seen that one coming?

Oh wait, he had. He'd just forgotten about it as he'd been worrying over the facts that, 1) Steve hadn't been waking up, and 2) Rumiko was still ignoring his calls. And, basically everything else, because of course someone had to look after SE and make sure no supervillains had the brilliant idea to attack whatever factory they wanted while Iron Man was worried about his teammate and Tony Stark was handling the disaster that had been the Red Zone alongside Fury, T'Challa and a few others.

But, sure, let's worry about CPR – or the fact that Steve totally didn't remember him without the helmet, did he, let's hope he didn't because if he did – Tony.

Yeah, Winghead. Good old mouth-to-mouth. That... was me. You started breathing again, I got my helmet back on, we both ended up with the Bloodwash antidote.”

Not entirely accurate, but who cared? Steve was alive, Iron Man was alive, that was what mattered and at least that way Steve would not be under the impression that logically someone had seen Iron Man's face. Not that Steve would track down said person – AKA T'Challa in this logical lite scenario – to force them to tell him what Iron Man looked like – good luck forcing T'Challa to do anything, to begin with, and anyway Steve did respect Iron Man's secret identity.

It was just that he didn't respect who that secret identity was, but eitherway, not the point.

Steve got a doopy smile on his face, then, it looked very weird and Tony was totally concentrated on Captain America being drugged – almost – out of his mind because the other thoughts available were mostly depressing and not something he needed right now. Or, like, ever, but that wasn't up to him, was it?

The sensors on the armor told him Steve was currently squeezing the gauntlet.

“Yeah, I... I felt when you... with your mouth...”

A sarcastic comment about how CPR was usually done did not make it past his lips for various reasons, the first of which was that indeed, Steve had been – barely, but – conscious at that time and Tony couldn't help feeling cold and clammy as he considered once again that maybe Steve remembered something – just enough to...

Just enough to get it once he wouldn't be on drugs anymore and his mind worked full time again.

Oh, hey! Apparently the witty comments were back on.

What, are you sorry you missed the makeouts?”

Like, yeah, of course, not that he didn't know about Steve's feelings for Iron Man, but there had been slightly more important things going on at the moment, and really, it wasn't like it was that important, a sloppy séance of mouth-to-mouth between two dying men when Steve had to have better memories of actual kisses.

“I'm sorry I missed the chance to see your face.”

Tony couldn't find anything to say. Of course, he knew he was handsome, and objectively even Steve might say it, but they both knew what Steve thought of Tony Stark, and it was no secret what mattered more to the supersoldier, between looks and moral values. Steve might be sorry, now, that he hadn't seen Iron Man's face, but Tony also knew he'd have been sorrier if he'd seen that face was Tony Stark's.

Steve was drugged, right now, a bit out of it, he reminded himself.

You're not missing much.”

Maybe one of these days Steve would finally believe him when he said that.

 

oOo

 

Everything was going... as well as it ever went, especially when you considered that Tony had had to take over “Dell Rusk”'s position as Secretary of Defense – a job he didn't want, but someone had needed to take care of the various messes left behind by Skull and Tony and the President had thought it was better to compromise and get him in the position than to have Stark Enterprise suing the government for using patented inventions without his authorization and while being grossly undercompetent with those and generally endangering the public – continue being Iron Man – yes, he'd told the President, and the President alone, compromise, you get it – stop being Tony Stark, CEO of SE – that one felt weird, to be honest – and be in an actual election – not that he was used to having people leering at him in hope of a scandal or anything.

Of course, Steve had squinted at him that one time they'd crossed path at the Mansion, probably thinking something about arrogant assholes who thought they could control the world, but Jan had unconpiscuously gotten in the way and steered Steve away so that Tony could go back to being judged by other people than Captain America.

Good news, though, Rumiko and him had gotten back together – until the media shitstorm had her going back to Japan, especially as people didn't like the idea that their future Secretary of Defense was being chummy with a foreigner, the assholes. And yeah, he could see their point, and yeah, he'd seen it coming, and yeah, Rumiko and him had talked about it, but shit he'd gotten a ring and it still hurt no matter how much you tried to rationalize it.

And now... Now Tony was in a room with the President of the United States and Nick Fury, feeling like he had the worse hangover in history, waiting for the results of the test that would say if he was actually hangover – and if he was, then there was an enormous problem because he hadn't drunk a thing and either someone had made him forget or he was losing time again, which wasn't something he wanted to repeat.

And if he wasn't, then there still was an enormous problem because that meant that, somehow, someone or something had managed to influence him into acting drunk without actual alcohol being involved.

The silence was horrible, Tony felt horrible, and whatever had actually happened would cause a horrible amount of problems to at least two people in this room.

Nick Fury wasn't one of them, and he went to get the results when someone knocked at the door.

Once the nurse left, he snorted at the piece of paper in his hand and looked Tony straight in the eye – difficult to stare someone in both eyes when you only had one yourself.

“Your honor is safe, Iron Man.”

“So we're not even pretending you don't know anymore, Nick?”

“Not with you being Secretary of Defense, no.”

The President coughed politely and gestured to get the report, which the Director of SHIELD gave to him with a shrug and a scowl.

“Apparently Stark is so freaking clean he could star in a health commercial, if he didn't have a freaking lump of metal for a heart, of course. No amount of alcohol, or anything else for the matter. However, his body is acting as if it had processed about two liters of Vodquila just before he got at the Latverian representative's throat.”

Tony groaned and caught his head in his hands, trying to squeeze the headache away, perhaps.

“What is it with foreign dignitaries that I always end up being manipulated to go against them?”

Nick rolled his eye while he played with an unlit cigar that the president was eyeing distatefully.

“To be fair you didn't say anything that wasn't actually true.”

“You've never heard of diplomacy before, have you, Nick?”

“I have others being diplomatic for me so that I don't have to.”

“Excuse me, but maybe we should address the actual subject here; what are we going to do to deal with this shit show?”

The Director of SHIELD looked back at the president, leaving Tony to wallow in self-pity for about five seconds.

“I'm just here because it's not like any of his superpals are going to stand up for his innocence, despite the fact that if we don't contain this situation carefully, the consequences aren't going to fall only on Stark. Basically I'm here to watch you do all the work and glare at anyone who tries to get in the way.”

Tony snorted – did not linger on the fact that, indeed, very few would be the people not to believe he'd fallen off the wagon again, and certainly Steve wouldn't because Steve never did. Wanda had offered to accompany him, so she could say he hadn't been drunk, but apart from her...

His neck cracked as he stretched, and the engineer went to do what he did best – handle crisis no matter the personal cost, until he couldn't anymore and he was the one breaking into pieces, rather than everyone else's lives and safety.

“I'm going to step down, obviously, offer an apology, and discreetly look into whatever happened. Weird things are happening lately, the Avengers are investigating too.”

“What about when people start asking for explanations?”

“Tell them the truth. Something happened, and I've been tested clean, but obviously I'm compromised so I'm stepping down. No one is going to believe it, but here at least they won't be able to find proof of an actual cover-up, because it isn't one. Anyway, that's what I do, don't I? I step in when someone has to, I hold the fort so that things can get better, so that they don't fall into pieces right away, until something goes inevitably wrong and I take the blame. It's not like it's new.”

 

oOo

 

The mansion was utterly destroyed – once again – and Tony couldn't take it anymore.

His childhood home, the place where his friends were invited to come, all gone up in flames and smokes, once again, and he couldn't bear it, but still he'd have rebuilt, if only because the Avengers needed it, but this time he literally couldn't – he had to make sure SE stayed afloat, he had to rebuild his reputation, he didn't have the cash, so, basically, the one thing he did for the Avengers that really mattered, he couldn't do it anymore.

He was useless.

One of these days he'd have to call Captain America and the others to tell them that not only they'd lost Wanda and Vision and Clint and Scott, but he couldn't bankroll the Avengers anymore – and that was it, wasn't it, he couldn't, he didn't have the capacity, but who would understand that, really? They never did. They hadn't, when the official story for his behavior at the UN had hit the medias. They'd think he just didn't want the hassle, that he was tired of paying – ignoring the fact that if it had actually been the case, which it wasn't, it would still be his right not to, even if it would be selfish, even if it wouldn't be the right thing to do, that he didn't owe it to them to bankroll the Avengers.

He had a responsibility to all the people he employed, and in this case, it came first. Especially as he couldn't bankroll the Avengers if the company went down and stopped alimenting the Maria Stark Foundation – he still was the main source of cash and influence for the Foundation, and this time there really was a lot to repair – because he hadn't been able to focus on it – then he'd have failed both the people working for him and the Avengers. Sometimes you had to make a choice, to save only one thing, rather than none at all because you tried to do too much.

There were other superhero teams out there, and even if he backed out, well. The others could still stay and do their thing, just, without his funding and his participation. For now at least.

He'd tell them himself, though, because if they were going to resent someone, at least that way it wouldn't be Iron Man. If he one day managed to get back in the game...

Tony Stark, useless.

Iron Man, not yet.

 

oOo

 

One week later, Tony was in Kyoto, apologizing to Rumiko's body – she'd come to see if he was alright, after Wanda and the UN, she'd come for him, she had been the only one, and for a second when he'd heard her message he'd thought, well, now we can be together again, now that he wasn't Secretary of Defense anymore, now that he wasn't an Avengers anymore, now that he wasn't even sure he could even bear wearing the armor ever again, they could put it all behind them, now that...

Except while he'd been thinking about the future they could have, Clarence Ward had been murdering her as one more way to slander Iron Man and Tony Stark's names.

And now Rumiko was dead, Tony was alone in Kyoto – Rhodey, Pepper and Happy had offered to accompany him, but they were needed back in the States if he wanted to take even one day off to say goodbye – there was no future ahead of them, and it was his fault, not because he was responsible for her death but because he hadn't been good enough to make sure it wouldn't happen.

 

 

Chapter Text

“This is exactly why there needs to be an Avengers team. If the old Avengers don't want to, if they can't, then let's try these new ones. Like we always have.”

Steve was here, on the Helicarrier, eating a bagel “Iron Man” had gone and gotten him, while Tony himself just stayed in the armor and listened to the man sell his speech about reforming the Avengers – never asking Iron Man if he wanted to, just assuming that he did, because no matter how many times Iron Man told him he couldn't do it, not right now, not ever, maybe, because he'd lost his faith, because he was emotionally and mentally washed out, Steve never listened, he pushed, and he pushed, and he pushed, until the person he was wearing out without even meaning to just walked out on him or gave up and agreed. And it didn't matter that Tony could be just as freaking stubborn as Steve, because Steve didn't even listen to him when he said no, when he said he couldn't.

And of course, Steve wasn't entirely wrong, but it wasn't like Iron Man was someone he needed to start a new team. Captain America might not have been an “original” original Avengers, but if he went out without Iron Man by his side and asked the others to join him and form a new team of Avengers, no one would stop him.

Steve didn't need Iron Man to do that.

Tony thought of pointing out that he didn't have the ressources to bankroll the Avengers again – he was still working on the Maria Stark Foundation, on putting it back afloat, and while he could pay for a team, because even broke he still was richer than most, he couldn't assure a continuous support – but mentioning Tony Stark right now would just make Steve even more stubborn, because that was how it worked.

Do you have any idea how much political clout, how much money it takes to make a team like the Avengers? There's a reason we weren't just another small powered team, and it's because we had the structure to make it work, to allow us to be efficient in all situations.”

Steve scowled, but at least didn't say anything about how selfish Mr. Stark was being right now, refusing to do what he'd always done and just make it happen. Had Iron Man mentioned it, though, then he'd have heard something about how they didn't need Mr. Stark's help – completely ignoring the fact that Iron Man's armor was entirely thanks to Tony Stark's good will, of course – because one way or another Tony always got it wrong, didn't he?

“We don't need a salary, or tech, or connections! No more politics, just us. No UN. No governments. All that, we never needed it.”

That was completely stupid, and never going to work, if only for a few dozens of thousands of reasons, starting with the fact that while Tony did not need the salary, that while Steve could make do without it, not everyone was in such a good situation and they might not want to commit to a team when they could barely make sure they weren't evicted by the next month.

Or the fact that actual vigilantes, those who didn't even try to acknowledge local authorities, those who didn't have political backing – or, you know, the fame and almost religious admiration Captain America tended to inspire – were constantly hindered in their work by people who doubted them – for understandable reasons. Hell, Steve didn't realize it, probably because he'd spent his first years as a superhero under the Army's protection, and even if he didn't always do what they wanted, they'd still known who he was, why he was doing it, and that in the end his principles existed to defend people, not to endanger them. After that, he'd woken up with about sixty years of fame and hero worship under his belt, whether he liked it or not, which meant that even if he went against the government a lot of people still trusted him enough to make it work.

No one doubted Captain America's good will – unless they themselves had some questionables morals and / or objectives.

Iron Man, on the other hand, had very often been subjected to criticism, if only for being Tony Stark's employee. And even there, Tony could protect himself, he could publicly defend himself – or, if the need came to be, he could “change” Iron Man's pilot.

Spider-Man couldn't, because he had a secret identity and no fame or fortune to back it up. Luke Cage couldn't, because he had an open identity and that meant he couldn't take time off from being his superhero-self.

Steve smiled at him, completely oblivious to all the truths that made his ambitions impossible.

“Just us, helping people that need help. The big problems. I can find us a place, if needs be. And then, we'll figure the rest out together.”

Tony gritted his teeth, not to say exactly what he thought of Steve's stubbornness.

He was going to let his friend delude himself, and because there were never enough experienced superhero teams out there, he was going to do everything that needed to be done for it to work behind Steve's back, instead of listening to him explain why miracles existed and how they were going to deal with the real world, because that was what Tony Stark did; he made things work.

Of course, he wasn't going to be able to sneak the Avengers back into the good graces of the UN and all other relevant authorities without Steve noticing, but he could still at least have a friendly talk with Maria Hill – God, at least with Fury at the helm both Tony and Iron Man hadn't needed to prove they were the good guys every two minutes, he should really have ordered a gigantic protrait of himself to remind them of who had started the freaking secret organization to begin with, but, time travel, secret identities, reasons, it hadn't happened and now... – and a few other of the people in power – Ugh, Gyrich; the man had good intentions but he couldn't help fucking up every now and then. He could offer up Stark Tower for HQ, he could finance everything – again – and in a few months he'd go back to distributing salaries while his quinjets would get wrecked every now and then. By then Steve would have gleefully forgotten that they “never needed it” and would just go back to eyeing Tony Stark distrustfully because obviously he had nefarious reasons for funding the Avengers.

Of course, that meant Tony was going to have to keep his business under a very tight grip, that he was going to need to invent at least three best-seller products by next month to assure that SE wasn't going to crumble under him and the Avengers, that he was going to have to accelerate the works on the Maria Stark Foundation so that no loose ends could come and slap them back in the head, all that while being Iron Man on a full-shift basis again.

But that was Tony did, anyway – he kept pouring himself into anything that was worth it, even if he didn't believe in it, even if he didn't believe it would work, just because he might be wrong, and, at least, if it didn't work, it wouldn't be his fault. It wouldn't be because he hadn't tried hard enough.

As a general rule, he refused to consider the fact that he somehow still ended up blaming himself whenever something went wrong, not because he thought he could have done more, but simply because even his best wasn't good enough, he should have done more – the fact that he couldn't didn't matter. Eitherway, he refused to consider it.

So yes, he was going to try.

Let me think about it.”

Steve gave him a smile that took over his whole face.

“Great. I'll go assemble the team.”

And, for the first time in years, Tony didn't answer to the enthusiasm with a smile of his own – granted, Steve generally couldn't see it because of the helmet, but still, usually when Steve smiled like that Tony managed to smile back, even if it was sad or not entirely honest.

 

oOo

 

A blue and red woman – mutate, probably, this was the Savage Land – had come and put them all to sleep, and – and what?

Tony blinked his eyes open, only to notice that he didn't have the helmet on – his heart made a leap, panicking at the idea that the others were probably here too, that they'd see – if they hadn't yet – that they'd know – and of course he didn't think that Captain America would leave him stranded in the Savage Land, no matter angry he would be, but there were other ways this could go, other consequences he didn't want to think about, and...

Except he wasn't with the other Avengers, he was alone in what looked like a crude cell made of dirt and iron bars, there were mutates all around him in other cells, his armor had been deactivated – with what, he had no idea, it just laid in a heap outside the cell – and the blue and red woman was talking with... with...

They were wearing SHIELD uniforms, but one of them – at least – was a skrull and Tony just didn't understand why a skrull was wearing a SHIELD uniform for a long moment of confusion – was it, perhaps, one of the expats who actually liked the Earth? There was one in London, he thought, so it was a possibility, but...

The blue and red woman left after one of the agents who weren't skrulls nodded, and soon after that two of them – including the skrull – headed to Tony's cell.

“What the hell is happening here?”

The second agent smirked and turned back into a skrull too.

Okay, no, definitely not friendly. Something was rotten in the state of SHIELD, and Tony was most likely going to end up dead or dissected – not that he was a particularly interesting human specimen, but who knew, maybe they'd changed their mind since last time.

“Anthony Edward Stark, isn't it?'

Why was he always in a cell whenever a skrull wanted to talk down to him?

“No need to answer, obviously we've done our homework. And I must say, it is impressive how few people do actually know Iron Man's secret identity. Humans are a really stupid species, aren't they?”

Tony snorted, and leaned back against his cage.

“Yeah, because skrulls are always so intelligent too. People only see what they want to, that's what it is, and you might argue to the contrary, but you probably are no better than us on that point. Now, moving on: what do you want?”

The two skrulls looked at each other with a smirk, and the first one drew out a – a what? It looked like a stun gun. Tony really, really didn't like it.

Not that it was anything new at that point, but, you know.

“We're a bit ahead of schedule, actually, but since you've practically fallen into our arms, we might as well proceed. So, you're going to come with us on a walk.”

The other one took a step back as the first one aimed his weapon at Tony's head.

“I mean, it's not like it would be difficult to get to you later on, what with literally no one caring about 'Tony Stark' and how he's doing, but since you're here...”

 

oOo

 

When Tony woke up next, he was feeling very, very weird, and everything was... green. Uh. Ah, right, skrulls. Tony blinked, hard.

There was...

“Shhh, don't say a word.”

Okay, so he'd actually seen double – triple – more than a couple of times, in between concussions and his alcoholic history, but that didn't usually involve another him walking around – or in this case, being all shifty and looking very anxious while hovering over Tony.

Though, skrulls.

Obviously.

Skrull-him caught his – admittedly weak – attempt at a punch with his – own – left hand and put the right one over Tony's mouth to prevent him from speaking.

“I'm breaking you out, Tony, so shut up, please, if you don't want the others to come here and find us. Just... Stay silent, for now, I promise I'm going to explain later.”

Tony wasn't sure he believed that – come on, skrulls, anyone? – but for now he didn't have much of a choice so he complied and did his best to get back on his own two feet – he was having a hard time with directions, he was probably still half-drugged, sue him. The skrull was probably trying to lull him into a false sense of trust so that he'd spill about... well, something. But, Tony did with what he had, and right now he didn't have a lot, so.

So he stared at fake-him for a moment, and eventually nodded. The skrull sighed – what was certain was that he was making a show of demonstrating his “worry” – before helping him up.

They were in a big room that was barely lit with a greenish ligth, and Tony caught sight of dozens of sleeping pods with – with people in them, as in, humans, not Skrulls, because why would they be sleeping in humanoid form if they were skrulls? Tony froze as they walked by – was that Hank? Oh God, it was Hank, and what the hell was happening – he really didn't want to consider what his brain was already trying to piece together, especially as they had measures against skrull-impersonation and if no one had noticed then it meant...

Skrull-him's grip on his shoulder got stronger, and Tony was dragged out of the room and into a small corridor.

“I'm sorry, I know you want to help them, but you can't, not yet, if something happens they will know, and I only had enough material to make a sleeping clone of you, not the others too. But, Tony, I swear, we're going to stop Veranke, we're going to free them, just, you have to wait. Now, please, don't scream.”

The skrull took his hand – Tony's hand, and how weird was that? – off Tony's mouth, a pleading look on his face – was that what he looked like, hidden behind the faceplate, when he tried to get Steve to understand something but the man just wouldn't listen?

“I want an explanation.”

Fake-him sighed, apparently relieved, and let himself fall against the nearest wall.

“Okay, so. Long story short, there's a secret invasion going on, Princess Veranke has been replacing people from Earth with sleeper agents, sleeper agents who think the thoughts of the people they're replacing, and who are shielded from direct scans. And, obviously, you're a number one prize, I mean, most people don't even realize all the things you do in your life, so becoming you without anyone noticing? Easy. You're a superhero, you have connections, influence. Perfect subject, really. So when you guys stumbled onto the operation in the Savage Land, well, it was a perfect opportunity.”

“The operation? And I'm not saying I believe you, or that I trust you, just to be clear.”

A wry smile, and the skrull pointed at his head – then at Tony's head, and really, what difference did it make if the alien was actually saying the truth?

“I think what you think, Tony. More than that, most of the sleeper agents just think 'like the originals would', because the originals are asleep in their pods, but I've woken you up, which means that not only I'm thinking 1) for myself, 2) like you, but also 3) in tandem with your thougths. So I'm not particularly surprised when you say you don't believe me, but.”

A deep breath, and they heard the sounds of footsteps coming their way. Fake-Tony's face tensed.

“Let's get out of here, I'm taking you back to the Savage Land. We'll talk after that.”

Tony squinted at him – self? – for the duration of the trip, but when they dematerialized from the spaceship and onto a teleportation chamber next to a big hole where mutates were being slaved into mining antarctic vibranium, he had to admit that, if anything, the skrull hadn't lied as to where they were going.

Which, by the way. He hoped Cap and the others were alright. They could handle themselves, and he had to find out what was going on here – God, Hank, and who knew who else was aboard that ship, who knew who wasn't who they were saying they were in his life?

“What do I call you?”

They were hidden behind the trees, now, and skrull-Tony had his armor by his side. As for Tony, he was observing the – seemingly – SHIELD agents who were doing whatever they were doing in here – and now that he thought about it, this all sounded a lot like the Deltite plot, and God he wasn't ready for another mess of that kind, especially not with skrulls instead of rogue LMDs. Where there even any real SHIELD agents here, or had they all been replaced? Maybe they didn't know their orders weren't legitimate?

“V'ra.”

Wait, what?

Tony turned around to look the skrull in the eyes – did he have that many eyelashes? He guessed, yes. Why hadn't he tried to bat his eyelashes at Steve, back when he had still been trying to get along with the man as Tony Stark? Oh, yeah, because Steve's disgust towards him had been blatantly clear very soon, never gotten there, and anyway at the time he hadn't realized...

Not the moment.

“You mean, that V'ra?”

A self-deprecating – very familiar – smile.

Tony pinched his nose.

“Okay, okay... First question first, it's completely stupid, but don't you feel... weird, being in a male body?”

She had a small smile, and shrugged.

“We're shapeshifters, we don't really care. And, sure, I'm most comfortable in my own body, but that doesn't make yours uncomfortable.”

V'ra frowned, and Tony wondered if she was thinking exactly the same thing as him – likely.

“Though, I can't say I like the mechanical heart. Or the prospect of recharging it by electrocution, for that matter. How do you bear with that?”

She closed her eyes, probably going through his memories now, and weirdly enough Tony didn't actually feel violated. Wasn't that something he should be feeling violated about?

Maybe he just liked the thought of someone who knew, someone who understood, to a point, even if that someone had basically stolen his mind and made an illegal copy-paste of it.

“Don't answer that, please. I... I get it. I'm sorry.”

Then, just before his eyes, she shifted back into her original form – green hair cut shorter than last time, actually.

“I'm sorry, I'm going to try and not pry too much. So, back to what I was saying. There are skrulls in about every group of power here, Hydra, SHIELD, some superheroes, political leaders, I don't know who they all are, but we're everywhere. For now, they're just sleeper agents, most of them, but when the plan will come into motion, we're all going to have to report. I'll borrow your face when I have to, but I promise I'm just going to pass myself off as a random human woman in the meanwhile.”

“What do you intend to do, exactly?”

“Identify the other skrulls, to begin with. The rest will have to wait.”

Tony still didn't see what V'ra could be gaining by doing what she was doing, and he guessed, maybe she was trying to help, but that wouldn't stop him from being cautious.

Which, considering, she probably knew.

“Why are you betraying your people?”

The question had her startled, and a look of pain fell on her face, but V'ra quickly got her countenance back. She escaped his gaze by fiddling with the armor, apparently looking for the device the other skrulls had used to put it off-line.

“Back on Throneworld, you said that sometimes you have to ask yourself which principle you'd rather fail in order to uphold another, and, well. We've lost Throneworld. All in all, our goal for coming to Earth, this time at least, isn't bad, but. No one considered simply asking for asylum. They just decided the planet was ours, and we were going to 'educate' humans, never mind that in order to do that we have to sacrifice some humans, and the superheroes in particular, nevermind that they only considered the option of putting ourselves as your masters, not as equals. So, when faced with the dilemma 'do we sacrifice our supremacy or other people?', I know where I stand. Even if... Even if that makes me traitress.”

A small grey box fell off the armor, and it assembled right back over Tony. With the helmet back into place, he could just blast V'ra unconscious if he wanted and not even be affected. Take her back to the New Avengers, a prisoner, and they'd figure it out from there.

It was obvious, from the look on her face, that she'd thought of that too.

Not exactly surprising, considering she currently had his mind in her brain, on top of her own.

Still.

Tony took the helmet off, and looked her in the eyes.

“You could be lying.”

“Of course I could be lying.”

No point for him to expose the hundreds of reasons why he might not trust her. She'd thought of those too.

“Something to convince me?”

Tony wasn't sure there was anything she could say to actually convince him, but he was giving her a chance.

Her upper lip twitched, and she made a weird face that looked way too much like his weird face – even in her own form – for it to be reassuring.

Before he could react she had a – spray, was that a spray? Tony wasn't feeling well, again, and considering that he'd still not felt that good and it was basically getting worse he really, really didn't like it – she was spraying his face and he felt wobbly for a moment.

He couldn't hear very well when she spoke next.

“I'd really, really like if we could work together on this one, Tony, but don't forget, I'm in your head. I know you're already overextending yourself between the Avengers and the company, and you're going to be busy trying to repel SHRA, or at least trying to contain it. I can't ask you to help me on that. So I'm just... I'm just going to make you forget about all that, and just deal with it on my own. I... Take care of yourself, Tony.”

But it didn't matter that he couldn't hear very well, because the next moment all he remembered was that one of the mutates had dragged him off and they'd ended up shuffling far from the others, but now he needed to get back to them and make sure everything was alright.

 

oOo

 

“Why exactly did you offer me a spot, Iron Man?”

Tony didn't turn back to look at Logan. He had a speech about how the Avengers could help him get his good name back – or, as Wolverine would probably think considering the situation, considering what Tony himself knew about blame and guilt, doing something with himself, something good, could be a way to atone for things that had been out of his control but had still happened by his hands. Of course he had a speech. If needed, he could probably spin a totally different one right now, right here, depending on how the mutant continued on.

There were hundreds of reasons, hundreds of justifications for every possible action in the world, and in the end, while they still held true to a point, no matter what you wanted to say about them, the ones you chose still held a bigger meaning than the ones you dismissed – supposing, of course, that you weren't a complete hypocrite.

Tony, himself, did all this for several reasons: because someone needed to, because why would it be someone else to have to sacrifice their comfort when he had the means, because he did help occasionally, because not doing it when he could was as much a decision as doing something when you didn't have to. Because he couldn't live with himself if he stayed on the bench when he did have the means. Because his own life wasn't worth more than any other life, and if he privileged it even over others – plural – then he'd be putting a price on their heads and on his own, he'd be saying that his right to live was higher than the right to live of numerous people.

Because he needed to be useful.

And some people would tell you, he did it because he was arrogant, because he thought he knew better than anyone else, because he decided who got to be the villain and who got to be the hero. Maybe they were right. Maybe they weren't. But one way or another, it wouldn't negate all the other reasons. It wouldn't change the fact that if he didn't do it out of fear or of his own arrogance, some people would be dead right now, and what right did he have not to help – not to try.

Perhaps, if he'd died back in Afghanistan, perhaps, if he hadn't ever become Iron Man – perhaps, if he hadn't been born at all – perhaps, if he put down the suit right now, some people would be alive, people that weren't right now. But what was certain, again, was that others would be dead, if only because he wouldn't have been there to stop the Mandarin, or because the hero who would have stopped him in his stead would not have been available to handle another threat.

Was it arrogant, to think that maybe he'd done some good in the world?

Maybe.

And maybe it was wrong, but maybe it was true.

Who was he, to say that he would not help, for fear of screwing up? Who was he, to say that his conscience was worth more to him than the potential lives of innocents?

So yeah, maybe he had personal, selfish reasons to do what he did. Maybe. But what was certain was that doing it was giving him a reason to live, a reason to go on and try, and maybe his selfishness would save a live or two.

He had dozens of speeches he could give Logan, right now, about why the Avengers could be a good thing for him.

But it was unlikely that, after what had happened with Hydra, after the brainwashing – again, Logan seemed to have at least that in common with Tony, a tendency to get controlled / brainwashed / manipulated into harming others – Logan wanted a reason that would be good for him.

Steve... I think you've fought together, back during WWII?”

A snort.

“Possible. Unfortunately, I'm a bit low on memories lately. Or, in general, for the matter.”

Tony couldn't say he knew the feeling, but there was always the possibility, the potential for him to have done something back when he still drank, something that he didn't remember. There were things he didn't remember doing, and the thing was, maybe they were of no consequences, but maybe they weren't.

Sorry. What I meant is that back then already, Captain America didn't kill. Then again, he didn't have to, because others were willing to walk behind him and eliminate the threats that could not be left to live. And here, the Avengers? It's the same story all over again. There's Cap, who's gleefully oblivious to the fact that sometimes not making a choice is worse than making a bad choice. There's Spider-Man, who's kind but all too kind and at the same time his banter makes him as many enemies as a fortune would. There's Luke Cage, who has suffered through the unfairness of life and tries to make it better but doesn't want to trust. There's Spider-Woman, who's still a SHIELD agent no matter what Steve wants her to be. Then there's me, and frankly it's a toss-up whether I'll have the guts to do what's needed or if I'm going to let Cap's optimism sway me. I'm not asking you to kill for us, that'd be hypocritical, but Cap needs someone to ground him into reality, just like he grounds Spider-Woman into not reverting to Fury's ways, and that can't be me anymore.”

Logan squinted at him, at Steve, and back at Tony – Iron Man.

“Is that the part where I'm supposed to pretend I can't smell who's under all that metal?”

Deep breath, Tony.

I'm not going to tell you what you have to do, Wolverine. You have the choice to go and tell everyone if you want. But the results? They will be on you. And stay with us long enough, you'll notice that Captain America has a deep dislike of Tony Stark. If he doesn't listen to me now, wait until he figures out that Iron Man isn't actually letting himself be controlled by his boss and that despite his better judgement.”

“You aren't exactly endearing me to being part of the Avengers, here.”

Fair enough. But every team had their own complicated structure, their own rules, and believe it or not, Logan knew how to be in a team – kind of, but still, just enough.

All Tony had to do was to find the right proposition for him to stay.

Alright, let me put it this way... I'm a very rich man. What do you want that you don't have?”

 

oOo

 

Wanda had a second break-down, then a third one, and she somehow ended up turning the world upside down each time – the thing was, when you turned something upside down twice it ended back up in the right position, except that everything in it had gotten shaken up in the meantime and maybe some of it broke on the way.

Basically, almost all the mutants in the world were depowered.

Now Iron Man, who fortunately hadn't been outed to those who remembered House of M – somehow – was with Carol, Luke, Peter, and Jen at the tower, and Peter was enthusiastically reminding everyone of the Tony Stark of House of M – in order not to have to think about his own life back there, the things it might mean and he didn't want to contemplate, surely.

Of course, that meant Tony had to listen to all the things about his other life back there – that he didn't remember, because he'd been outed to Magnus after the business with his father and thus Iron Man simply hadn't been available for the attack on Genosha, if Peter was to be believed – and consider the things it might mean about him and that he didn't want to contemplate anymore than Peter did.

But hey, Iron Man wasn't Tony Stark, thus Iron Man couldn't complain.

Peter turned to look at him – at Iron Man – with furrowed eyebrows.

“We couldn't find you, though, since no one knows your identity. I guess Tony hadn't hired you yet, anyway, he'd barely created the superhero concept of Iron Man back in that reality. A bit like how he started it out here when he was a prisoner in Afghanistan and wore it himself the first time, right?”

Tony would have shrugged, except he was in full-body armor and shrugs didn't translate very well.

As you said, Pete. I wasn't with you during the last attack, so I don't remember anything of House of M. Not even what my life was like, or how Mr. Stark created the Iron Man there.”

Steve wasn't with them this time, still busy with whatever mission was occupying all his free time lately – it was important, it seemed, because Tony wasn't sure he'd seen Cap this angrily focused since, probably, Zemo and Vespugia. He absently wondered about what he'd think of this story about Tony Stark's heroics, but ultimately he didn't think he actually wanted to know – what would it be this time, that there was nothing heroic in basic human decency, in refusing to kill Magnus, or perhaps that Tony hadn't not done it because he was a hero but because he wouldn't have had the guts to face the consequences?

Not that Steve would have said any of that out loud, no, but he'd have pinched his lips and set his jaw in that special way that told you exactly what Captain America thought of Tony Stark.

Jen winced as she reached for pizza, and Tony – Iron Man handed it over.

“I didn't exactly follow the whole thing, what with us being busy staging a rebellion, but what was the matter with the mutant / sapiens controversy and Stark exactly?”

Peter's eyes lit up – good, it was good, he'd looked sick for the first three days after everything had gone back to normal.

“Well, actually. Everyone knew that Tony Stark was the most successful sapiens in that reality, right? He'd brought his father's fortune over and into the highest spheres, he was even richer than almost every other mutant industrialists, and in that world, that said a lot. Like, if a mutant girl was going to marry a sapien, of course it'd been him. Except, his father and the Hank Pym from there were plotting to overthrow Magnus, which, okay, we were doing the same thing, but their approach was definitely terroristic while we were just, uhm... rebels, we weren't starting a reign of terror, if you get what I mean. And Tony, he got himself thrown in the middle, from what I understood in the news, or maybe his father was putting him there, I'm not really sure. Eitherway, Tony ended up in the Iron Man armor disabling genetic bombs with Johnny Storm, then going against his own father, and after that Magneto got here and...”

Peter made a face, and Tony reflected that he was really glad he didn't have any memories of House of M, because that sounded really like something...

Jen arched an eyebrow, and supplied:

“Yeah, that's kind of the point where it got confusing for me too.”

“No no no no, I got this: the point was, Tony Stark, sapiens, fighting against his sapiens father, both in armors, when Magneto shows up and more or less tries to peace-keepingly kill everyone. Howard Stark, already defeated, doesn't stand a chance, and Tony hurls himself in between his father and a flying lamp post. There, his suit fails, like, Magneto, everybody, and next thing you know, he's... Well. Skewered.”

Had he already thought about how glad he was not to remember any of this? He had enough memories of various painful injuries as it was.

“From what the newspapers were saying, Magneto got him right in the heart, but that might have been their usually melodrama. Anyway, Tony's injured, badly, and Howard Stark is insulting Magneto, which is not the way to do it when you're in a suit of metal, and Magneto's about to go on a rant about how it's Stark Senior's own fault that now his son is dying before him. Except, except, Tony's looking down at his injury, wide-eyed, blood dripping from his mouth, like he can't believe it, and, no, stopping looking at me like that, Carol, of course I'm extrapolating, the news weren't that informative, but that's not the point.”

“How about you do get to the point, then?”

“I was about to...!”

“Peter.”

“Right. The point. Tony's injured, badly. And that's when it starts getting wild, because he's babbling about how he's fine, he's alright, he's not injured, he's not going to die, which, okay, I would be panicking too, but the lamp post disappear and all of a sudden he's not injured anymore.”

Wait, what?

Luke was nodding next to Peter, so apparently he'd read that in the papers too, and of course Tony couldn't remember a thing but he did have a brain and...

Peter was nodding, too.

“Yeah, you heard it right. Sapiens Tony Stark says he's fine, he's alright, he's not injured, he's not going to die, and next thing you know, he is fine, he is alright, he isn't injured, he isn't going to die. Turns out no one knew, but he was a mutant, and no one had ever noticed, because he'd been telling everyone that he wasn't one, he'd been telling himself that he wasn't one, and apparently his mutant power was to affect himself into being exactly what he said he was.”

Made sense, you didn't want to be Howard's son in that world and be a mutant – Howard hadn't been, actually, anti-mutant, or racist, or sexist for that matter, at least way less than most rich white men from his time, but Tony guessed that in just the right context, with the right incentive, like becoming the oppressed minority, well, Howards might have gone that way.

And not saying who he was, and everyone believing his lies?

That did sound familiar, didn't it?

Iron Man, he reflected, might have to make a comment, here – after all, Iron Man wasn't Tony Stark.

I guess... Wanda turned most of the population into mutants, so I guess it makes sense that some of the people we knew, people who aren't mutants and who aren't part of Wanda's close acquaintances, got turned into mutants in that reality?”

Luke snorted, and bit into his pizza.

“You're probably right. Still, Tony Stark. Who'd have thought?”

Yeah, Luke, that was the point.

 

oOo

 

Tony was dying – again, by now he knew all too well what that felt like, he could tell.

It was difficult focusing on Maya's work, with the headache, the pain, the blood he could feel sloshing around in his body, in parts where it wasn't supposed to go, and the general knowledge that he only had this one chance or he was toast – sure, he had been thinking about taking Extremis, maybe, in the future, once it'd have been better tested, once... But no hospital could cover the damage, not this time – again – he knew, he'd been dying often enough to tell, and more than that, his scans were telling him so.

It was Extremis, or nothing.

Maybe even Extremis and nothing.

But at least, if he died, it wouldn't be because he hadn't tried hard enough.

Maya tried to get him to call the Avengers. He'd hesitated, he'd thought about not doing it at all, but ultimately he left a message to the database while he was changing things in Maya's work, a message that told them what to do if he didn't wake up, a message that would disappear afterwards, and might go unread as everyone was in their own shit at the moment, Steve still doing... whatever he'd been obsessing about lately, and apparently Peter was busy dealing with one of his numerous villains and Tony didn't exactly know about the others but their Identicards said they were engaged in important acitivities right now, like preventing people from being flattened by a villain and it wasn't like he could ask them to drop it to go and save other people from being burned alive instead.

That was the thing, with the Avengers. Usually when you got an alert you dropped what you were doing, whatever you were doing, to respond, but sometimes you couldn't for the simple reason that you were already busy fighting the good fight, or you hadn't slept in three days and weren't in a state to contribute, or...

It was rare for the entire team to be so indisposed at the same time, though. They'd probably see the message soon enough, and even if they didn't, well. It wasn't like Mallen was being discreet. Tony's message basically consisted of a resume about what he'd seen – almost no readings, not with the way the armor had been battered – and his destination, that Tony had figured out thanks to the map Mallen had graciously circled in red – seriously, who did that? Was he worried he'd forget he was going to D.C.?

 

oOo

 

Turned out, Tony didn't die, arrived on the scene first, and didn't have to explain why Tony Stark had died right after Iron Man took a beating to anyone – though, obviously if that had happened he'd have been in no position to explain anything to anyone, except maybe to other dead people, but he didn't really believe in an afterlife, so.

Spider-Man arrived about ten minutes later, looked at the headless corpse of Mallen, and disappeared right after having made an off-color joke – possibly to throw up.

Tony made sure the message had disappeared, and got Peter not to talk about it to any of the others.

No need to worry them, right? He'd been injured, but it hadn't been as bad as they'd first thought – he didn't comment on who were that “they”, and, by the way, now he was going to have to call up Nick's latest LMD and have Maya, yet another old friend, arrested.

Good day.

 

oOo

 

Tony arrived a bit late at his meeting with the Fury-LMD – which Tony was reasonably sure was working as much for Hill's SHIELD as it did for Nick himself no matter what anyone else thought on the matter – about the global summit, just in time to hear Dugan inform Nick-who-wasn't-Nick n°28 that Tony Stark had definitely blown a casket, and wasn't that worrying considering all the pies he had his fingers in and the fact that a superhero worked for him?

Not that he hadn't been called reclusive, secretive, and generally insane before.

Sorry I'm late.”

Fake-Fury dismissed Dugan, and Tony did not take his helmet off – in a SHIELD Helicarrier, with spies everywhere and the certainty that most of them didn't like him?

The LMD, hands in pockets, waited until they were alone before asking:

“You get all that?”

Tony chose not to comment, and immediately went for the reason of their meeting.

I got your security brief on the global summit. Tying up SHIELD agents to babysit 163 delegates for three days seems overkill.”

Fake-Fury squinted his eye at him, checked a device in his pocket, and looked back at Iron Man.

“Stark, that's not what I asked.”

Still not taking the helmet off – he could probably check for more things spying on them with his scans than the device could, anyway – Tony snorted.

Hi, Nick. Do you often hijack your own technological clones or is that specially for me?”

“I like to keep an eye on any piece of technology that walks around with my face, and anyway I need to make sure the world doesn't take on fire while I'm not available. Hill isn't a bad agent, but she's not cut for being at the top. Second-in-command, maybe. Still, my question. Did you get all that, Stark?”

Nick wasn't going to let it go, was he?

...Most of it.”

The LMD continued staring at him intently, and sure, it did look like the actual spy was here.

Tony sighed, and scanned the Helicarrier again, just in case someone had gotten closer or an enemy had started doing villainous things – it happened often enough, after all.

What do you want me to say, Nick?”

“To start with, what do you have to say in response to those accusations Dugan made? I hear Cap isn't that happy with you, lately.”

Tony made sure that his voice, even through the modulator, showcased how unimpressed he was with that argument.

Steve has despised me since we met, so what's your point exactly?”

Fake-Fury's face moved to look pissed-off, probably in accord with real-Nick's face wherever he currently was.

“You've become aggressive, paranoid, and angry at your teammates, since you've taken Extremis. Last time this happened, you started your armor wars and almost got killed by the government.”

Yeah. Like everyone else. No one seemed to even consider the possibility that, perhaps, he was simply in a bad mood, or that maybe he was fed up with never being given a chance.

So is this Extremis' fault, or is it mine? Do I need to remind you of Firepower, Nick? Do I need to point out that my 'paranoia' turned out to be entirely justified? Do I need to expose all the reasons why I might not be in the best mood lately, after the deaths of my girlfriend and several of my so-called friends? Maybe you should consider that this isn't me being changed by Extremis, just me being done with catering to the whims of people who can only be bothered to care about me as long as I do exactly what they consider right and within my purview. So if that's all you had to ask me, I'm leaving. I have to try and make to world a better place.”

They'd probably call the Argonaut program an arrogant attempt at controlling the world, but in the meantime they wouldn't complain about the rescue units saving people when no one else would be there to do it themselves.

It made him think of Steve, who scowled at the Tower but still accepted it as a HQ – since, you know, they needed one – while complaining about the fact that it wasn't the Mansion, completely disregarding the possibility that maybe “Mr. Stark” just couldn't take rebuilding it once more, just to see it being reduced to rubbles again and again. That maybe, the Tower wasn't a means to “lord it over people”, but simply a practical option in NYC that wasn't emotionally charged with pain and misery.

 

oOo

 

He was shivering inside the armor – again, always, it came back to this, Tony Stark in an ocean of blood, when he tried to do better, when he didn't, apparently it wasn't about his intent, not ever, in the end everything would still collapse around him, and goddamn it, this wasn't the moment to make it about him!

He'd done...

He'd done all he could, once again, to help, and this was his reward, wasn't it? To have blood on his hands, one way or another, because that was what he amounted to, a solitary figure who tried to help but only managed to stand by the deathbed of the agonizing – and perhaps, perhaps, if he hadn't been used as the weapon this time, supposing that was what was actually going on, perhaps they would still be dead, perhaps whoever was doing it would have done it another way, a way that wouldn't have bloodied Tony's hands any further, but that, that was the selfishness in him talking, wasn't it? Always making it about himself, about the consequences for him, when hundreds of civilians had died and he had been the one to kill them – he didn't particularly care about the criminals, those who had killed Yinsen, those who'd protected the murderers and certainly had a pedigree just like them, though he didn't approve, though there was a reason he didn't just condone revenge when you could do it differently, but the civilians, the innocent victims, those there was no freaking reason to kill them, and still, and still...

What if he wasn't being controlled by anyone – how, why, who? What if, this time, it was just him...

What if, in the end, that was what he amounted to? A man who tried to do better, but simply couldn't be better?

Tony knocked on the door, and only one question ran in his mind.

What was he doing here?

There was a moment of waiting, and then...

When Steve opened the door carefully, Tony still didn't have an answer, still didn't know why he had come here, to Steve's flat. What was he expecting? What could Cap possibly do here, what could he... It wasn't even as if Steve would ever agree to put him down if it turned out that he was the one with a screw loose, that this time it was all, entirely his fault, that no one was pulling the strings, that he needed to be put down.

In the end, Tony'd rather be shot down than endanger people.

Steve had the shield in hand, expecting – what? An enemy? Maybe that wasn't so bad an assessment. Tony wondered if Cap knew already, if... He imagined that shield falling down, a cutting edge – speed, people – against the armor's neck.

But Steve wouldn't do it, would he?

Would he not?

Wouldn't it be better if he did, if it just so happened that it needed to happen?

He could feel the tears rolling down his cheeks, the snot running down his upper lip, and when he talked next, he could barely understand his own words.

He remembered the heat from the desert, the fires he'd started as he'd gunned for Karzai and Lemar – no, he didn't, he didn't have any memory of the incident, of the, of the freaking slaughter, but he remembered Afghanistan, more than ten years ago, the heat, the fire, the pain, the death.

I... I killed them. Oh God, I was... was so arrogant. I thought it couldn't be me! I killed them... all!”

Sure, it wasn't like anyone would be arrogant to think they hadn't killed people they didn't remember killing, it was like, a basic reaction to that kind of accusations, but in the end, that didn't matter, did it? They were still dead, and he'd still done it, one way or another. It didn't matter that no one else would have reacted differently, because in the end he'd been wrong, and more people had died – Lemar, Karzai, he hadn't wanted them dead, but all in all it wasn't like they didn't deserve it, and surely a number of their troops too, but there had to have been idiots down there with them, people who thought they were doing what was right and hadn't yet been made guilty of anything, and all of them, all of them were dead, no exception, no second chances, just, dead.

When he'd called Nick and told him to put him in a cell at Fort Leavenworth, he hadn't thought it necessary because he was a threat, but because he needed to clear his name in order to be able to go back and stop whoever was actually doing the killing. Fort Leavenworth, because it was analog, and he wasn't going to give his detractors a reason to doubt that yes, he'd been jailed all along.

He should have asked for a freaking faraday cage, it might have stood a chance.

There was a terrible sound – the shield hitting the floor just the right angle, Tony knew that sound all too well by now.

Tony flinched under the armor, just as Steve reached for him, looking completely lost and still somehow alert, as if – as if there was anything to be done, anything he could do to help, and God, why did Tony even come here?

“What... What's going on? Killed who?”

As if that mattered. Killed “who”.

Killed someone – again, because that was what happened at one point or another, Iron Man could save as many people as he wanted, Tony Stark could pay for as many rescue efforts as he did, it would always come back to this – and wasn't that bad enough already?

But this wasn't about him, not this time – not ever – and he needed to... to stop it, somehow, and right now he didn't know how to but his feet – okay, GPS system, same thing – had brought him here, and perhaps Steve would have an idea, perhaps they'd manage to stop it, to make sure no one else died because of him.

He had no idea what they'd looked like, all the people who'd died in Iraq only a few hours ago, by his hand – by his armor, his personal weapon, his creation, everything that was supposed to make him able to protect people. When he'd gotten control back, most of them had just been charred remains – sometimes still fuming, and was the armor smelling of burned flesh, like after the Carnelian ambassador?

He needed to make sure this didn't happen again.

I killed them. I can't... I can't go to the Avengers, I can't go to Mr. Stark, they're going to look for me at the Tower, I didn't know who else to trust, SHIELD's going to hunt me done like a dog and I deserve it...”

A terrible thought crossed his mind, and it made sense, how could he not have thought of that, how did he not – Nick had to have informed people about who was in the Iron Man armor, now, it was the logical thing to do, hell, Tony would do the same just so that they'd put a bullet in his brain if it was so easy to make sure no one else got hurt, except you'd need a special bullet and who was to say that 1) he'd let himself be killed if he'd really gone mental, 2) the person who was behind all this, supposing there was one, didn't have other plans even after Tony was done for.

He took a step back, swaying a little, as the idea that maybe, Steve knew, Steve knew perfectly well who was in the armor – would he accept to put him down, now? – made itself known.

But no. Steve was shit at lying, at pretending, and if he'd known that Old Shellhead was Tony Stark, if SHIELD had told him, he wouldn't act like that, he wouldn't be concerned, he'd probably say something about how this was all Tony's fault, how he should have known better, how...

Maybe Nick had been busy doing something after their latest talk, and hadn't had the time to take control of his LMD to inform anyone of what was currently happening, of the fact that yes, Ma'am, he knew who was in the armor, who had done the killings, and wasn't it a bummer, Tony Stark had gone supervillain on them after all those years – not like it was the first time, mind you, there'd been that thing with Kang barely two years ago...

It wouldn't last.

Steve invited him in – how long would that last, he had to wonder.

“Jesus Christ, Shellhead, come in. Come here. Whatever this is, we can fix it, okay? I've got you.”

He should... He should give Steve the overrides. Pepper and Rhodey had them – he'd thought about Happy, too, but the man had said he wasn't good enough at estimating if it was actually needed or not, he didn't want to blow it, so – but they weren't here right now, and he didn't want to endanger Pepper while he wasn't even sure if he was sane himself.

Yeah, give Steve the overrides. Good plan. If it ever became necessary, then Steve would know, but at this point it didn't really matter, did it, and anyway it wasn't like Tony could put his secret identity before literal lives.

He was just... He was just going to need a moment. Just long enough to stop crying, to actually breath and not hiccup his way through survival.

Out of nowhere his legs buckled under him, and Tony ended up on the floor.

When he actually managed to stop feeling sorry for himself long enough to look back at Steve, his friend was holding a box of tissues and looking like he didn't know what else to do.

It almost started another panic attack – he'd have to take the helmet off, didn't he, hell, he needed to, he needed to wipe off the snot and the tears and maybe his sins while he was at it, and then Steve wouldn't want to help him, he wouldn't, and even if he did he wouldn't trust him enough to actually listen to him, and that was fine, Tony deserved it, but there was still the matter of finding out if there was someone behind all this, someone who'd still be dangerous even if Tony was taken out of the equation, and...

Steve visibly gulped, and pushed the box of tissues harder into Tony – Iron Man's hands.

“You can... You can, uh. I have a bathroom. Over there.”

He thanked Steve, not totally sure if it would actually do any good, but he had to try, didn't he, and if he didn't take the helmet off right in front of Steve maybe this had a chance of working.

The door shut, he took the helmet – his eyes went directly to the mirror, and here he was, looking terrible, but at least he was alive, wasn't he, unlike all the people who weren't and that because of him – and his left gauntlet off.

Tony didn't stop looking at his reflection for more than an instant, as he continued crying – ugly, but who cared? – as he eventually splashed water over his face – only closing his eyes long enough not to make it worse – as he wiped himself clean – and his reflection never looked away, always judging, always right.

Try as you might, Stark, but it will never be enough.

A moment to breathe deeply, to calm himself down – he didn't deserve to be calm, but he needed to be if he wanted to stop all this, he needed to stop crying, to start being useful again, he might be nothing more than an instrument in this story, but an instrument could be used different ways, and it was time to use it to determine what was going on.

He put the armor back on, and walked out of the bathroom.

Handed the tissue box back to Steve, though it was hardly necessary.

Steve offered him a glass of water and a straw, and Tony was stupidly grateful, too.

A bit doubtful about sitting on Steve's couch fully armored, though.

They'd talk about his weigth on Steve's furniture another time. They had – Tony had to talk.

Gorlovitch.”

He couldn't even remember, he had no idea how that happened, even though the SHIELD files could tell him, surely, but that wasn't the point, the point was that Tony didn't remember, and the last time it had happened it had been with Kang and his split personality – or whatever that had been – and the time before that was when he'd been drinking.

He was back to wondering, how many things had he done that he didn't remember, were there any other crimes to add to these murders, that he didn't even know about it.

Kellard.”

That was what the files told him. Gorlovitch, Kellard, Tanzerian, Karzai, Lemar.

Tanzerian.”

How many had not made it to the files, how many had died without a name, without a mention, because, because – because they hadn't been the targets, because there was no one to – or, who actually could – identify them after Iron Man had incinerated them, just because they were in the way?

How many of them had actually deserved such a fate, and that knowing that even then Tony wouln't have – or would he? Had he? – killed them unless there really had been no other choice?

Karzai and Lemar, just now. Oh, and a fucking Air France 747, let's not forget that. What is that, a few hundreds more civilians? I didn't even know it was happening, until the last one.”

He had no idea, no freaking idea how he could counter that. How could he counter something he wasn't even aware of? For all he knew, he'd been behaving exactly like usual during the time he was missing, just like with Kang, up until the moment he'd start killing people, so there was no point working on a program to lock him out if his behavior changed – not like with the drinking, at least. And locking him out of “killing people” was good and all in theory, but really dangerous in practice as it would mean denying himself the capacity to act as a last resort, which could be useful when you didn't have the time to work out a better solution and someone else's life was in danger anyway – and also because not every people out there required the same amount of strength to be killed, or even simply incapacited, and he couldn't exactly rely on files to tell his system who he ought to attack with repulsor rays and who should just be knocked out, that would be the equivalent of using drone-like Iron Men instead of an actual pilot, which was a complicated suggestion in general.

Tony looked back at Steve for a moment, then quickly looked away.

No missing time, subjectively... But you were right, I was missing twenty-two minutes. ...It was all... me.”

Maybe... Maybe he could make up something, a program that'd take everything he did in the day and put it in a summary that he'd go over at the end of the day, except he'd have to do it outside of Extremis, in case... in case he was the one responsible, because, as Kang's Tony Stark had demonstrated, there was always the risk that he was more or less conscious and therefore entirely able to undo any precaution he could make up.

Not that it'd be enough, since he'd still be out there killing people, but at least it'd tell him when he fucked up, that'd tell him when to throw himself into a Faraday cage instead of trying to prove his non-existent innocence.

It could be a start.

Supposing that, next time – was there really a point denying that there was going to be a next time, after everything? – he'd go back to himself to be able to do something about it.

Maybe an integrated warning for whoever had the overrides after a certain lapse of time doing questionable things? Of course that could get in the way of him actually getting things done when things needed to get done, so he'd have to think carefully about what constituted questionable things – aside from straight up murder.

With that thought, Tony looked down at his gauntlets, and almost started crying again. Steve couldn't see it – mostly because he wasn't paying attention right now, not to that, no, he was too busy worrying about Iron Man, when really Iron Man was the problem once again – but there were tiny smears of dried blood on the armor, here and there, Tony's sensors could pick them up.

Steve shifted on the couch, probably trying to think up something to say, and settled on:

“Who are they?”

He wasn't talking about whoever was doing this – what if it was Tony? What if he'd blown a fuse, finally, what if...

Except, it might not be Tony – was it? – but it still came back to him, didn't it?

Well, they've all got ties to Mr. Stark. I can tell you that much. They were Ho Yinsen's murderers.”

The ones Tony hadn't seen back then, the others who'd been in it with Wong-Chu – there really were a lot of people in Afghanistan, and most of them weren't even from around there, and all they usually wanted was an excuse to murder people and grab as much power as they could while blaming other people for their crimes – the ones he hadn't been able to protect Yinsen from.

He had to wonder, was it – if it wasn't Tony, if there was someone else behind all this – linked? Or had whoever was running this show only decided to use them because they were an obvious target for Tony Stark, criminals whom people might actually believe he wanted dead?

Was he an instrument, in all of this, or the target?

Steve frowned.

“You're sure Mr. Stark can't help you? If they're targetting people connected to him, it seems like maybe he ought to be involved.”

Tony froze, as he eventually came to a conclusion he really didn't like, pushed to it by his friend's words.

What if... If – again, a big if – he wasn't the one with a problem – aside from all the other problems the situation was causing him, that was – if someone was orchestrating all this...

Was it Tony Stark who was being manipulated, or was it Iron Man? If they'd gotten to him, which him had been reached? Worse, maybe. What if they knew? What if it was both of them?

What if it had been only Tony Stark, but the subsequent consequences had made them realize that he was Iron Man? Realize what kind of power they had access to?

He took a deep breath – he couldn't afford to cry, he couldn't, he didn't have the time, the more time he lost crying on himself was time he lost before the next blackout.

Believe me, if he could do anything, he would.”

Steve sounded hesitant with his next question, and Tony immediately understood why.

“This is like that thing, isn't it? With the Carnelian ambassador?”

No one liked to talk about that, and the fact that he'd thought of it first didn't make it any less hard to speak about out loud.

God, I hope not.”

It made him think – about things, things he hadn't thought of before, about the consequences, not for others, but for him, about the fact that last time he hadn't fallen back in the bottle, but that had more to do with the fact that despite everything young-him hadn't had the memories or the general tiredness that came with years of superheroing, of failing people and of not being good enough in general.

What would happen to him after this all got dealt with – assuming he wouldn't beg Nick's LMD to fry his brain in order to stop him definitely by then – wasn't that important, not compared to everything that had happened, that could still happen if it went on, not to the lives lost and the blood spilled.

Still, he had no idea how he was going to survive that – if he did survive that.

That was one of the worst months of my life, when I started...”

He coughed.

He couldn't tell Steve that, could he? If he did, Steve might finally make the connection, and even if Steve didn't... Tony had seen what he thought of him when he'd understood that he was an alcoholic. He wasn't sure he could deal with Steve treating Iron Man like that too, not now – maybe not ever, but the point here was that he needed to be efficient, he needed to put an end to this, he couldn't afford...

Anyway. No, that was different. That was the armor itself being manipulated. I was completely conscious at the time. That wasn't like this. I've... Mr. Stark checked. The armor's perfect. Flawless. It has to be.”

There was a look in Steve's eyes, just for a moment, and Tony's stomach turned on itself. He knew that look. That was the look Steve gave him – both of him, Iron Man and Tony Stark – when he didn't believe a word “Mr. Stark” said but had no actual proof to back it up, and so didn't say a thing.

And, of course, Steve did not talk about it next.

Not exactly.

“Well, if it's not the armor, it's you.”

Gee, thanks.”

It almost made him laugh, in a weird, slightly maniacal way, but Steve presumably couldn't hear it with the filters on.

It was, after all, what he'd been buiding up to all along.

“Brainwashing, right? Mind control?”

The fact that Tony knew the exact difference between brainwashing and mind-control – a brainwashed person didn't have to be under constant orders, because they'd been led to believe with all their soul, heart and mind that they were in the right, whereas mind-control failed the moment you let it down – and both from personal experience should have been terrifying.

At this point, Tony felt generally bad about eveything in his life, so.

There was an open file on the table, he finally noticed, and Steve was staring at it with his hands fisted, instead of looking at Iron Man.

What's that?”

He wasn't entirely sure whether he was trying to be here for Steve – the guy sure looked like he needed someone to be – because not everything was about him and Tony knew that, or if he was just desperate not to talk or think about his problems because he didn't want it to be about himself.

Steve looked like he wanted to eat his own lips rather than answer, but still spoke, just before closing his eyes – not to look at anything, especially not at the file, and possibly not at his murderer of a friend sitting next to him either, and did Tony know how that felt...

“Busky's alive.”

All the times Steve had believed this before came back to Tony, but he bit his tongue and did not blurt it out – yet.

Steve wasn't done, though.

“But he's... but he's...”

And suddenly it was obvious, the link between what Iron Man had been telling Steve and the look at the file, the fact that of course Bucky Barnes, should he be actually alive for once, would be out there assassinating people – that was what brainswashing usually led to, Tony had the statistics – on some villain's orders.

Still.

You're sure it's him. I mean... you've been wrong before.”

Tony wasn't sure what would be better, for Barnes to be alive but out there and somehow controlled, or for him to be dead and not under anyone's control. Of course, Barnes being alive meant that Cap might get him back, but as someone who'd actually been used again and again to commit crimes, Tony could say how cruel that would be for the – young? – man too, to come back and understand what – whatever – he had done in the meantime, what he'd been used to do. Supposing they ever managed to get him back, which was far from certain.

He wasn't sure what that said about him, that in the end, he hoped for Bucky Barnes to actually be alive, out there, being mind-controlled – at best, brainwashed at worst – for Steve's sake, when he knew exactly how cruel that would be for Barnes himself. Let alone for all the people he'd probably been set against during all those years, people who didn't necessarily deserve what had happened to them.

“It's really him. They brainwashed him. Wiped his mind. Made him into an assassin.”

Tony did not point out that Fury's report were clear enough on the fact that, well – Bucky Barnes had been an assassin long before whoever-it-was-this-time had gotten their hands on him. Steve didn't need that reminder, and there was the matter that killing during a war and for the good guys – presumedly – was not the same thing as being a hitman. Not that Steve usually made much of a difference between the two, but then again, Barnes had always been special.

Steve's back straightened.

“But I'm not giving up on him. I'm going to find him. Find him and help him. He's innocent.”

This wasn't the moment to make it about himself, Tony knew – it was never the moment, really, but sometimes you just needed to ask, you needed to make it about yourself if you didn't want to break into pieces, and Tony really, really tried not to, but he couldn't always, and... This time he needed it.

He needed it, to be able to go on and not... fry himself with a modified EMP or something.

Which, admittedly, would put an end to his immediate problems. No more Tony, no more murders on his hands. Of course, if there was someone behind all this, the murders might go on, differently, but still, go on, but what was certain was that it wouldn't be Tony's problem anymore.

Because dead people didn't have problems.

He couldn't look Steve in the eyes, though, when he asked the question.

And how about me?”

Maybe because he couldn't fathom looking at his friend when he'd tell him that no, he wasn't innocent – nevermind that Steve wouldn't do that, or at least, that he wouldn't do that with so little info. Maybe because he was ashamed of even asking, of making it about himself yet again.

Maybe both.

Except.

Except Steve didn't tell him that he believed in him, that he was innocent, of course, Shellhead, don't be like that, we're going to deal with it, you'll see, everything will be fine.

Steve didn't tell him the contrary either. In fact, he didn't say anything.

Tony looked back up, and then he saw the doubt on Steve's face, he saw...

Steve looked like he wanted to tell him all that, but he couldn't, because – because he thought it was true, except, not really, did he, not as far as...

Fuck. I can't believe this. You think... Jesus, Steve, you really think I...”

Not as far as Tony Stark was concerned, did he?

Not me. You think Tony did it. You honestly think I murdered everyone on that list because he wanted them dead. You think he hacked the armor and lied to me about it. You think he made me do it.”

Not Iron Man, but Tony Stark.

Good point, though. This time Steve didn't think Iron Man was doing things he knew were wrong – incapaciting the guardsmen, murdering people, the exact same thing, right? – willingly, no, he just thought “Mr. Stark” had done it all alone. See, progress.

There were literally dozens of reasons why that would have been one of the stupidest ways to go about murdering Yinsen's murderers, but Tony didn't think Steve really cared about that – about the facts that, come on, if he really wanted them dead he wouldn't have waited that long, and really it wasn't like there weren't any easier ways to do this than by hacking the Iron Man armor and somehow making “Iron Man” forget it all, or how it was a nightmare on PR, and did he say anything about how he could have just hired high-end mercenaries to do the dirty job?

The worse, in all that, was probably that Steve freaking lied to him then.

“No! I... no, I...”

Of course he did think that.

Because that was all it ever went back to.

Steve Rogers was viscerally incapable of trusting Tony Stark not to be an absolute piece of shit.

Tony couldn't – not this time, not again, not with everything else – do it. He just couldn't. Normally he'd have gritted his teeth and let it pass, but this time he just... He couldn't. He needed to get out of here. He needed to...

He needed to leave and go take care of his actual problems.

He got up from the couch, took a step away from Steve, as the man – his friend, right? – did the same and tried to – to what? Stop him from leaving?

“I care about you, Shellhead.”

Oh, Steve cared about you, Shellhead.

Too bad Shellhead didn't exist, wasn't it? Too bad that only Tony Stark was there, under the armor, and obviously Steve didn't care about Tony Stark.

You live in his fucking house, for ten years, you live in his house and you eat at his table and you take his goddamn money and you tell me you think he'd murder hundreds of people on a whim. You care about me so much, maybe you could try caring about him just a little, huh?”

Tony didn't even know why he was trying anymore, what with the way Steve was staring at him, looking like – looking like the mere idea was completely out there, like there was nothing less likely to happen than that, like it wasn't even the point and why was Iron Man even bringing it up?

He remembered thinking, long ago, that once Cap would get to know Tony Stark, just a little bit, just enough for it not to be a complete disaster, he'd... He'd tell him, maybe he'd show him.

That would go so well, now.

Steve didn't even respect him enough to consider that maybe he was, if not a good man, at least not a bad man.

That maybe, there was a reason why Iron Man worked for Tony Stark, besides the paycheck.

...I don't know why I even bothered coming here. I thought we were friends.”

Before he could berate himself for letting “Tony Stark” talk instead of “Iron Man”, Steve reached for him, hesitant, and Tony jerked back.

“We are...”

But Tony wasn't going to let him finish that.

You can call SHIELD. Tell them you've seen me. I don't care. I'm going to get my head examined before I murder someone else, if it's all the same to you.”

His eyes fell on the open file as he turned to around, and he clenched his teeth.

I guess you only really care when it's Bucky, huh?”

 

oOo

 

He'd found out what was happening – long story short, apparently Yinsen had a child from a first marriage who wasn't Toni Ho, and that son was angry because his dad hadn't loved him enough, cry me a river, Tony wasn't out there making terroristic points because Howard had failed to come to about 90% of his birthday parties when he'd been alive, and also Wong-Chu and Cie had apparently implanted him with a kill-switch that he was almost certain came from the Mandarin, hence why no one had ever picked up on it, makluan technology was just weird and alive like that, and no one had ever explained to the kid that the means justified the ends only as long as the ends were justified themselves.

Yeah, right, short.

Anyway. So he'd contacted fake-Fury and the Avengers – separately – proved his “innocence”, had to destroy his Argonauts – next time someone needed a rescue unit, Tony would just look at them and comment “what if someone turns it into a weapon of mass destruction?” as an excuse not to do anything, because fuck it – what was all and well if you forgot that the last one was trying to kill Steve because apparently his subconscious was just as aware of the fact that Steve mattered as his conscious was – yeah, that one was obvious.

Not that he wouldn't do it if it was anyone else, but.

Cap.

Deep breath – no time to be desperate, he was still angry at Steve for basically everything, but it didn't change the fact that the Hulkbuster argonaut was about to crush Steve's head and that was not something Tony was willing to let happen, so.

The ends justified the means, right?

Only one way to end this nightmare.

 

oOo

 

The sky was dark with hints of red, and everything else was grey with the ashes of destruction. Tony couldn't smell the burned flesh and various other olfactory remnants of the explosion, but his suit showed him the exact composition of the air around him.

Behind the mask, he gritted his teeth.

Not only was this something that would have happened – that had to happen, that he'd told them would happen, but of course since when did anyone listen to Tony Stark? – something that showed why they couldn't go on like this, but more than that, it was something impossible to spin into less of a catastrophe. There were proofs, there was footage, and while Nitro was obviously the most guilty party here, he also wasn't the only one.

This time, it wouldn't be about heroes having failed to save “everyone, without exception, because nothing but absolute efficiency would be acceptable”.

This time, the “heroes” were guilty too.

No mind control. No grey area like the Hulk.

Simple, pure stupidity, and not from a person with powers who was simply defending themselves or even reacting, no, from an actual group of heroes who were supposed to know better.

If at least the New Warriors had reacted to an attack by the four supervillains, instead of initiating it...

But no. There was no saving the situation.

Something had to give, or they would all be hunted and – at best – put in a dark hole for everyone to forget about them – at worst... either the country or the heroes would be utterly destroyed.

Tony watched – his scanners looking for something, anything – as Marvel Girl managed to get a few survivors out of the ruins of the school that had been at the center of the explosion. Cap was standing next to him, overlooking the rescue – so busy being decent about the burnt skeletons that lay in the dust that he couldn't see the dawn of blood Stamford would stand for.

Talking to him now wouldn't work. If the others hadn't wanted to listen to Tony – except Reed, but Reed was special, Reed looked at the consequences before anything else, just like Tony did, even if in different ways, they both took in account the possible results, and this time those would be terrible – there was no possibility that Captain America of all people would listen, at least not before he came to understand that the consequences were already here, and that this time there would be no sweeping them back under the rug.

Later, maybe.

Not that Tony expected Steve to listen, but he could still come up with plans – in case Steve did listen, even just a little, just enough for him to at least consider the situation rather than simply reacting at it.

 

oOo

 

When he passed the door, he immediately saw Kooning standing next to the president's desk, and Maria Hill a bit farther back.

He put on a smile.

He'd learned long back that when people asked him what he thought, they didn't actually want the truth, they wanted to hear what was the most convenient for them and what they cared about. Sometimes the truth was it.

Sometimes it wasn't.

“Stark.”

Kooning knew, that much was obvious. Even if Tony hadn't been monitoring his own hospital room after the Argonauts, he'd still know, just by the tone of his voice.

The new Secretary of Defense was probably waiting for him to deny it all. After all, Tony Stark was an egocentric megalomaniac and a pathological liar, wasn't he?

Then they'd have something to hold over him for SHRA – they did, anyway, but like hell he was going to let them get as much as they wanted.

The president, who'd taken the post only a few months prior, on the other hand... Tony wasn't certain his predecessor had seen the need to tell him, though it was entirely probable that he'd called him just after Stamford just to share the news.

He doubted Kooning had already told Hill or the president, not if he wanted this to be the power move Tony suspected he'd been planning with this meeting.

“Mr. President. Secretary Kooning. Director Hill.”

He put his suitcase down, and did not miss the way Kooning's eyes followed it warily.

“You've been busy, lately, Stark, what with all those press conferences and talk shows about SHRA.”

He turned around a little to face Hill. He remembered Nick's words: efficient second, shitty leader.

“I'm always busy, Director.”

It wasn't even a lie.

“Of course you are.”

This time it was Kooning, supposedly looking at him with a smile but really stealing glances at the suitcase. It was empty, of course – save for a faceplate that wasn't even metallic, but would do the job nonetheless. Not like he could get there with the armor put away.

The president spoke up, then.

“I have to know, Stark. With the situation as it is, with you being the most likely candidate to head Registration, I have to ask you.”

Of course he had to. If he didn't, that would be hypocritical to a point – Tony wasn't against hypocrisy when it got the job done, but you couldn't push it that much, or it simply didn't work anymore.

“Who is Iron Man?”

He snorted slightly. Gave Kooning a long look, before looking back at the president.

“No Randall Pierce persona this time, Stark.”

Of course the identity he'd set up to feed to SHIELD back during his armor wars was to be brought up again. Not that “Randall Pierce” wasn't dead and buried after he'd faked “Iron Man”'s death, but yeah, he got the point.

Hell, he'd anticipated the point.

He reached down, opened his suitcase – just so that Hill and the president couldn't see what was in it, though Kooning was angled just wrong, which didn't matter because he already knew. At least, that way, they couldn't accuse him of reaching for a weapon – which he'd have gotten in here how exactly, though? – unless Kooning lied about what he was seeing. Which might be a good thing, if he did lie and Hill shot him on the spot as a consequence, it'd give fodder to the voices agaisnt SHRA, if a superhero who had come to willingly give up his identity was murdered under false pretenses inside the White House itself – enough to put a stop to it, or at least push it back long enough for Reed, Hank and a few others to spin it better.

Of course, Kooning wasn't stupid enough to do that, and therefore Hill did not kill Tony.

Too bad.

Kooning made a face, though, as he understood what was going on, as Hill's eyes widened at the sight of the faceplate, as the president took a deep breath when he saw the undersuit creeping at the edges of Tony's business suit.

Since theatrics were a luxury that often did the job, Tony brought the mask right next to his face, hiding the left half of it under “Iron Man”, before stating what he had come to say.

“I am Iron Man, sir. And you are either going to give me the possibility to adapt SHRA to the supers with the most problematic positions, or you are going to put me in that database without my accord. Eitherway, you have Iron Man's identity. The question, now, is whether or not you want his cooperation too.”

Not that he'd back down from handling this catastrophe as best as possible, if they refused his conditions, because in the end he was trying to do as much damage control as possible, even if it ended up being at his personal cost – which, let's be honest, was a given. But one day, perhaps, he might not try anymore, and the fact that they couldn't know if and when it would happen was enough of a threat in itself.

“Adapting SHRA to the individual? That's... counterproductif.”

“Not really. Not all superpowers are useful to an officer of the law. Not every superhuman want to be a superhero. Some are not under our jurisdiction, on top of that. If they are willing to strike a deal, if I can give good enough a reason not to start an open war on all sides, it is in your interest to let them be, or at least to consider them reserves rather than soldiers. Take Thor, for example, or any of the other deities out there. If they come to the USA and we try to apply SHRA to them, we will be torn to shreds. However, they can generally stand as visiting foreigners, even diplomats, and thus be exempted.”

Kooning koffed, and Hill squinted at him, but that was alright. If he had to, he'd go against those who were too strong, too independent to agree, just so that the people at the top could see how outmatched they actually were. He'd take a beating – or a thousand – if that was what it took. At least, if he was the one going against them, he had a chance not to be flattened out of respect, though he'd definitely lose all that respect as a consequence.

It was alright.

He was used to being hated.

The president looked at him for a moment, and it was only when he stopped that Tony put the mask back into the suitcase.

“We'll see what we can cook up, but you'll have to provide the reasoning and the proof for each of them. Now, to get to the point: what do you want for yourself, Mr. Stark?”

It could have been worse. It could always be worse.

“You're talking about thousands of people giving away their secret identity, the fact that they have abilities. It's enormous. It's a lot of trust you're asking for, regardless of whether or not you have the right to ask for it. The access to the database has to be heavily restricted. I can build you a system that'll recognize a superhero without giving away their name to the officer checking on them, but you have to make sure that the person at the head doesn't have unrestricted access either. And if you still want me to head it, then there will be no records of Iron Man's identity. The head of SHRA answer to you and only you, in order to be able to defend the ones in their care.”

The president frowned, and tilted his head.

“Wouldn't it be better if people knew that you are one of them, that you understand what they are afraid of?”

Tony's smile was bitter as he answered, and he didn't try to hide it.

“They might like Iron Man, Mr. President, but what you have to understand is that most of them despise Tony Stark more than they like Iron Man. The PR campaign would go well with the normal folks, but it would be a disaster in the superpowered community.”

A moment of silence.

“I'll take your proposition into consideration, Mr. Stark.”

Everything was a compromise.

 

oOo

 

The night had fallen, no lights were on, and Tony had just gotten a call from Hill about – of all things to do, he couldn't think of many more idiotic moves to pull right now! – her attempt to arm-wrestle Captain America into rounding up the opposition. Which had ended about as well as you'd think.

He stared at the bottle of whiskey on his desk – the one he kept around just because it would tell him how close he was to temptation and when he had to do something about it – at the full glass next to it.

It was painfully obvious that Steve would never have agreed to what Hill was proposing – first of all because she didn't have the authority to do it, not yet, and even then he'd say no out of principle – but the situation would have been salvageable if she'd just said something about what a shame it was, and left him leave peacefully. But no, she'd had to go and try to get him arrested too – to get him killed, maybe, if he resisted too much – and now Steve had jumped off the Helicarrier and gone underground, which was a stupid, stupid move, and entirely understandable.

He looked around his desk, found a match, and gritted his teeth.

Steve's problem was that he still thought America was great, or any other kind of bullshit – or at least that their country held the potential to be great – no matter everything they'd seen along the way, no matter how much depravation he was confronted with again and again. He thought that the people would end up doing the right thing, just because it was the right thing to do, and that of course it would happen soon enough that nothing too important would be lost in the meantime. He didn't seem to understand that what mattered in life wasn't what you deserved – in this case, trust, respect, anonymity – but what people owed you – and they certainly didn't owe you the right to endanger their life on a daily basis on the ground that you supposedly knew better and had good intentions.

Tony lit the match, and stared at the flame for a moment.

He loved his country, really, he did. There was hope here, there could be progress. But unlike Steve, he also knew that the United States were not any better, in the end, than other countries. In general, of course, they weren't that bad a place to live in, compared to some other places, but it didn't change the fact that the people here were like everyone else. If you pushed them too far, too often, they'd snap and put you on a pyre, regardless of the long-term consequences.

Tony delicately put the lit matchstick in the glass, and watched as it slowly – at first – lit the alcohol. The fire was mostly blue, and it did not stop spreading until it was ligthing up the whole glass. He wondered how long he would have to keep his hand over it to actually get burned.

Of course he'd have to deal with the consequences of Hill's entire lack of experience handling Captain America – or superheroes in general – because that was what he did, wasn't it?

Deal with other people's messes, and be blamed for it as if he'd started those in the first place.

 

oOo

 

His phone – phone-app, he guessed, what with him having Extremis now – rang, and Tony blinked.

Steve's number.

Uh.

Maybe there was...

But, no, of course, it was Iron Man who'd been called. Even if Steve wanted to talk about everything, it would be the same as always: Steve's idea, Steve's incompromising principles, Steve's … – what? Steve's offer to fight the good fight against the evil overlords of accountability? How did Steve even think they would make that work, exactly? Using the armor while not expecting “Mr. Stark” to be able to pinpoint it, or at least to shut it down, was a ridiculous idea. Without the armor, though, Iron Man was useless – no, he wasn't, was he, but it wasn't like Steve knew that, and even then...

Was it...

Their destined opportunity to fight without the faceplate, the two of them against the evil, megalomaniac, power-mongering Anthony Edward Stark? No loyalty to Iron Man's employer to keep them separate, the two of them – plus or minus a few dozens of superheroes – against the world? The epic end of a love story written in the stars?

Right. Because that was totally going to happen.

Still. He had to give Steve a chance – or a dozen, really, even though the self-righteous prick would probably never come to see it that way.

Captain America was a good man, wasn't he? A bit too idealistic, and obviously way too optimistic about how this was all going to end, maybe, but a good man. And Tony might doubt that his offer would be met with anything but disdain, he might not believe that it'd do anything, but he had to try.

Steve's voice, indeed, sounding tense, but also slightly relieved that he'd picked up.

What, not even a thought that maybe “Mr. Stark” was monitoring their conversation?

Shellhead, are you free? I... I have to see you. As soon as you can. Please.”

Tony pinched his lips, wondering suddenly if a bullet had maybe hit Steve in his daring-and-absolutely-idiotic escape. Or... What if something else had come up in the meantime? They couldn't handle another major attack right now – well, no, they could, but the consequences would be terrible for absolutely everyone.

“Cap? Steve, what's wrong?”

He blinked, suddenly realizing it was the morning light that he'd had in the eyes since he'd opened them. He'd spent the whole night arranging things for SE, considering the dreadful possibility that he might have to orchestrate some minor – read, no victims, but always the potential for it to go awry – disaster to eventually get enough people to register out of worry for the future, checking on Logan's progress tracking down Nitro – the guy didn't like the idea of SHRA, and Tony couldn't blame him, but at least he seemed to understand why going against it openly would just end in pain – and considering the timetable on which he could actually push against some of the less savory aspects of Registration – but that, that would take time, and it would only work if the others weren't too busy giving heroes bad press left and right, either because of mistakes, or because they were slowly turning into superpowered domestic terrorists, which, well, was likely to happen, if only with the most problematic members of the community.

Checking on his internal clock – literal in this case – made it obvious that yes, Tony, you haven't slept in four days now.

I can't tell you like this. Can you meet me somewhere?”

He'd have liked to think that Steve's reluctance to speak on the comm – right, Avengers comms, Iron Man, not cellphone, Tony Stark – was due to the fact that Tony and thus Iron Man as his employee could very well be under scrutiny – which he was, but SHIELD didn't have access to absolutely everything yet – but well. He knew Steve, much better than Steve knew him.

The most likely explanation was that his friend feared that “Mr. Stark” was listening in – which, in all honesty, he was. On top of that that was actually a sound tactical precaution, barely even biased on Steve's part.

While he was thinking about all this, he had a meeting with the president – again – in ten minutes. At least he was already – still – in D.C.. That was that.

“Not right now. I can't... I have a meeting in ten... I mean, Mr. Stark has a meeting in D.C. I have to be there with him. But after, okay? I can go supersonic or suborbital; I'll be back in New York fast. Two hours. I'll meet you. Where?”

Steve probably wouldn't take it, but if he just gave him a chance to explain... Maybe they could orchestrate things, Iron Man on one side, pushing for SHRA to be somewhat acceptable, Steve and all those who didn't want it on the other side, protesting peacefully, legally, reasonably with the public and the political power, to take away even more problems even if they couldn't make SHRA disappear. Captain America's word, his refusal, but also his peaceful approach would go a long way to that, and he wasn't the only one who didn't condone the act.

Maybe... training, or at least an evaluation of people's powers and skills was necessary. But if they played their cards right, they could manage to keep enlistement an option, rather than mandatory, and perhaps a system of independent, but licensed, superheroes.

Avengers Tower. Team conference room. I'll head over there in a bit.”

He could almost fell the shadow of a smile, here, hidden under his worries. Steve might not trust Tony Stark, but there was still a chance. If there hadn't been, Steve wouldn't have proposed the Tower. Maybe... Maybe they could make this work. Iron Man could convince Steve to give Tony Stark's plan a shot – maybe he'd better frame it as their plan, Tony and Iron Man's, not just Tony, though.

They might not have to fight, this time.

“Okay, I'll see you there. Stay calm, okay? Whatever's happening, we've got this. Together.”

 

oOo

 

It took him a few minutes to take a breath, calm down, and force a smile on his face – not that the mask didn't keep it invisible, and the voice modulator would keep his tone covered, but Steve seemed to notice him being tense even in armor at the worst times – after he left the reunion with Hank, Reed, the President of the United States, and basically the whole Cabinet, and obviously Hill's choices and Steve's acrobatics had been half the conversation.

Which almost certainly explained why Steve was pacing in the conference room when he arrived, but it had been necessary as he didn't want to be too salty during the upcoming conversation, just in case there actually was a chance to make it work – alienating Steve right away would not do.

Hey, Steve, sorry I'm late. So, what's got you so rattled, huh?”

He had an idea, of course, but he still needed to ask, because maybe it was something else, maybe, hell, it was SHRA, but it was only a small part in particular that seemed so terrible to Steve, and then, then he might be able to talk about it, to get rid of it, if only Steve agreed to consider the rest of it...

He patted Steve on the shoulder, trying for supportive, not-too-worried friend. Just so that Steve would pick up his general confidence – which, okay, was way lower than that, but they could manage to make it work, they could, if only they both worked on it – and maybe realize that not everything here was a witch hunt, that there actually were important points raised by Registration.

Like the fact that they didn't actually have the right to claim themselves the best hands, to say they knew better all the time, without exception, and that of course if something happened they'd handle it themselves. Which was kind of ridiculous, actually, considering the Avengers had always more or less reported to higher authorities, at least when one of them had been involved in something dubious – or worse. Members had been pushed out when they'd done some problematic shit and didn't agree to even justify themselves, and some had even walked out by themselves when they'd thought they were endangering the team because something had to be done but someone would definitely pay the price for that. Steve should know, by now, that a level of cooperation was necessary for it to work – more than that, for them not to get arrogant. Wasn't it what he'd blamed Tony for, after the armor wars?

They sat. He couldn't help but notice that Steve seemed tired.

Not good. Steve tended not to want to consider the less shiny sides of living in the real world – instead of an idealistic one – when he didn't have the energy to bear with it.

Then again, he also tended to get stubbornly pigheaded when he had all the energy possible, so.

Maybe Tony should just consider that one way or another, when Steve was convinced of the evils of whatever-what-was-going-on-this-time, he never stopped to consider that maybe he wasn't right about everything – and, before anyone commented, no, Tony did consider such possibilities, he just usually ended up back to the first conclusion and so didn't change his course of action so often.

“It's the SHRA.”

And shit. There went his – unlikely, but you could always hope – idea that maybe Kang had done something – with Kang, there was no point extrapolating too much – with the timeline and that was what got on Steve's nerves.

Of course, Steve wasn't finished.

He's come to you, Tony kept reminding himself, he had to think they could do something, they could try, he had to, there was a chance, they could make it work without too much damage – Tony had, of course, plans in case he had to shoulder it all mostly alone, those were even the plans he was following for the moment, but if Steve agreed, if Steve could regulate the other side, it would be more efficient, there would be less damage, of course it could be better than if Tony did it all alone...

"I thought it was going to be like all the other red tape we've been tangled up in over the years. You know, the government makes a fuss, eventually we trim the team or we add whoever they want us to add. Or I get a new codename, or they give us a liaison and we spend a few months doing what Gyrich tells us and grousing about it. And we all play along until the next time Ultron wants to destroy everything. And then it's the same as always, because then they realize that we don't need these regs, and that maintaining them is getting in the way of us doing our jobs."

So Steve was starting to get how important this was all getting. But no, he still didn't realize it fully, and that was what was going to get them all killed, wasn't it? – because Steve couldn't fathom the very fact that it was going to get them all killed, if they didn't play nice enough, at least for now.

He also didn't seem to understand that they did need the rules, because it wasn't just the Avengers this time, it was everyone, and everyone included the guys who had a tendency to leave bodies in their trail, the ones who wanted to do good but really had a problem up there, the ones who didn't care about doing good but worked for the higher powers because it was easier than being a supervillain – or, you know, a minion. People Steve frowned at generally, but got away with tolerating because they weren't part of the team, because they weren't their responsibility.

They needed the rules, not for those who didn't need them, but for those who did. Just like they needed prisons, not for the law-abiding citizens out here, but for those who weren't.

Saying everyone was kind and nice was good and all, except some weren't, and while it might appear unfair to “punish” the heroes for what the villains did, what right did they have to put their own comfort before the lives of ordinary people, who couldn't even defend themselves if, say, one day, the Sentry had a break-down and decided the answer to Evil was to wipe out the planet. Which, you know, hit a bit too close to home. It wasn't like no hero had ever decided enough was enough, and repentant as they might be afterwards, it didn't change the fact that there had been consequences – and wasn't that exactly what they'd told him, after the guardsmen? Why didn't it apply to them too, then, why should it only apply to Tony and the likes?

If there was no one who could tell them when they went overboard, how could they trust themselves not to do exactly that? “We're heroes, we don't need your point of view” wasn't going to cut it.

Steve looked up from the table, looked him in the eyes – well, manner of speaking, but.

“But I went to see Hill yesterday. She brought up Registration, and I swear to God, Shellhead, she was about to have me shot when I said no. I had to jump out of the damn helicarrier to get away.”

Hill's idiocy, again, and Steve's inability to even lie – couldn't he have said, maybe, okay, and still not done it? Was his word worth more than the problems he'd caused here?

The credibility it'd cost them, back during the meeting.

Yeah, I heard about your disappearing act. Your name came up, in the meeting.”

Of course, now, who had to deal with Steve's unwillingness to even pretend, to even consider anything, to have the smallest amount of diplomacy involved? Hint: it wouldn't be Steve.

Hell, Captain America could have come right to the White House after the fact, confronted the president about Hill's ways in public, and the fallout would have been better than that. But no, Steve's trust in the american people's good nature only extended so far as to say they should all live in anarchy – okay, maybe that was pushing it a little, but the point stood – and not actually trusting anyone in particular to actually form a somewhat functional system.

Which might explain why he liked Iron Man so much, nameless superhero who bled for the people, and absolutely despised the actual man.

Easier to believe in an ideal than actually deal with the real world.

Not about him, though, so.

Steve seemed rather put out by his tone – and, alright, Extremis might have made the voice modulator sleeker, but come on, it still wasn't a human voice, how could he even tell?

“This one's different. I don't think it's going to go away. I don't think they're messing around this time.”

Tony froze. He could tell him right now, about the things they were considering – not for SHRA, but for what might come after, if they didn't get what they wanted – to force Steve to realize how different it really was, how important this was going to be, how grave it might become.

Except Steve would either not believe it – not yet, he hadn't seen enough yet, even as Tony could see the actual storm brewing on the horizon, he'd barely begun to believe – or be completely affronted, which would help no one, especially as that would probably be the moment he'd bring the mythical great american nature up again and still not take it like a serious menace.

Slow, start with baby steps, Stark.

Maybe Steve would be willing to listen, if they started with baby steps, if he managed to bring him around enough that he could not deny what was going to happen, and that principles only wouldn't be enough to save everyone, not this time.

“No. They're really, really not.”

He could see it, the moment Steve started to plan, after a pause, a moment to regain his bearing – and that, Tony could tell, was not Steve plotting something that would help, not at all, that was Steve planning an idiotic move akin to some kind of coup that he'd rather brand as a resistance, regardless of the fact that at some point he'd have either to surrender or get rid of the powers in place. A resistance, that sounded nice, didn't it? It sounded principled, justified, and absolutely great, except when it ended up happening against your own government and then the line between enemies and friends blurred so much you ended up convincing yourself you were the good guys, when really you were doing just as much damage as what offended you to begin with.

But, regardless of what Tony believed was going on in Steve's head – regardless of the fact that he was almost certainly right to think so – he would listen to Steve, at least long enough to confirm what he already knew. Because Tony, him, tried not to make assumptions and then just decide he was right regardless of the facts that followed. Because, even when he didn't believe in someone, he tried to give them a chance anyway.

As it was, he hadn't been proved wrong that often.

“Alright.”

Steve was staring at his hands, focusing on the problem at hand – and being consequently oblivious to all the other problems that would follow.

“Maria asked me for the names of people she thinks are likely to resist, and unfortunately I gave up Daredevil and Luke, so our priority should be to get Luke to safety first, especially because of his family. Jess and Dani need to be somewhere secure. The rest of the team can move out later. We've got two weeks. We can find them safehouses SHIELD doesn't know about."

Not wrong, but, Steve, and then what? They'd remain on the run forever and ever? If there really was a piece of advice to give Luke and Murdock, it would be to stick to crowded places, or at least to places where there would be people present to see whatever would happen, because even if Steve doubted Hill's limits – and, okay, she brought it on herself, and by association on Tony too, and wasn't that a riot? – he had to realize SHIELD would not gun them down in front of witnesses when they weren't even doing anything, at least not as long as Registration still had to pass. If he actually wanted to resist in public, it'd have to be by showing everyone that no, they weren't a threat, they could control themselves, and, more than that, they were trying to stay within the law, as long as said law wasn't completely out of it. Not by making them look like fugitives.

But Steve had plans, and his plans were about how not to bow down, not about what came next.

"If you know anyone who's good with communications tech... or, heck, maybe it could be you, we're going to need alternative comms. I'm going to assume these are compromised."

Tony glanced at the Identicard, and kept a sneer to himself.

It depended, he supposed, on what Steve meant by “compromised”. Of course Tony Stark had access to everything they said on it, after all, he was Iron Man, wasn't he? Now, if it was about giving it all up to SHIELD, surprise, that hadn't happened, and it wouldn't happen until SHRA was law, for the very simple reason that yes, he was cooperating, and telling Hill was she needed to know, but it didn't mean he'd hand her over his suit designs or that he'd report what he ate for breakfeast every morning. So, as long as Steve didn't decide to do something stupid – which was looking more and more likely, but, hey, giving the guy a chance – Tony wouldn't have felt obligated to tell Hill about it.

But, as they all knew. Steve Rogers absolutely trusted Tony Stark, and they went bowling every thursday.

Steve sighed, looked like he bore the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“I mean, I'm planning to denounce the act publicly, of course. If you stand up with me we might change a few senators' minds, but I think it's best to assume at this point that the SHRA is a done deal, and we need to start running the resistance.”

There it was. The resistance.

And after that, what, Steve? What would the surviving people would do, after that? What would they do, after having proven to the people that they would not listen to their concern, that they wouldn't even consider the fact that they were dangerous, that means to deal with them were needed in case something happened?

Tony closed his eyes, thinking of Firepower, years ago, of the fact that if they gave the people and the government the impression that they thought themselves above the law, there would be a reaction, there would be opposants who'd think themselves right to fear them, to herd them, and to kill them. And this time, everyone would be behind them.

Because they'd have proven them right.

Eh. Steve would probably think this was all about him, about how he'd betrayed him, about how he'd needed him and Iron Man wasn't there, was on the opposing side. And as always, he'd fail to see that this was a two-ways road. Because Tony needed Steve's help here, he needed him to make sure this wouldn't go overboard, he needed him to steady their weight on the balance of power, because people couldn't ignore Captain America.

But Steve wouldn't be here, no matter how Iron Man needed it, because Tony Stark did too and there was no way in hell that Steve Rogers would ever agree to work with Tony Stark.

His teeth hurt. Too much grinding them together, probably.

He cleared his throat.

Actually.”

There, if the world was fair and Steve was as perfect as everyone thought him to be, he'd ask him why. He'd give him a chance to explain. And maybe, maybe he wouldn't agree, but at least he'd hear him out. Before it was too late, before all the eyes and cameras in the world turned around and kept Tony limited in what he could say and promise aloud.

But Tony was more often the one giving Steve a chance than the other way around, wasn't he?

Steve tensed, looking ready to bolt, and his head snapped up to stare at Iron Man as if they were the only two components of this equation – which was so dangerously not the case.

“You can't! Don't do this to me, please!!!”

It was incredible, how the Sentinel of Liberty could make it all about himself, about what he called their friendship – friends weren't supposed to shun and despise you first thing, Tony believed, but what did he know, it wasn't like he had that many true friends anyway – whenever they disagreed on something that was very much not about themselves.

He'd almost ask, would you rather I chose to do something I thought was wrong just to please you, Steve, to make you think you were right and coddle our so-called friendship? Almost, because it wasn't like Steve could even consider that maybe there was an actual reason why Tony Stark and Iron Man supported the upcoming act.

Moreover, that'd just antagonize him, and right now Iron Man couldn't afford to antagonize Captain America. He was trying to give him a chance – not even a chance to join him, to help him, but simply a chance to ask, to believe in Iron Man, even if he couldn't believe in Tony Stark.

To give him the benefit of the doubt.

It's not personal. It was a hard decision. Believe me. It's bigger than you, bigger than me. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think this was the right thing to do.”

For the people, for their security, for their right not to wonder whether or not the superheroes would actually be tried if one day they decided they were done with being heroes, just for today, just long enough to ruin thousands of lives, just because they weren't in a good mood. For the heroes, too, because if there were no laws pertaining to them it would be way too easy to not treat them as human beings – or, more generally speaking, as people – if something happened, because if they weren't bound by the law then nothing would bind anyone who did something to them either.

Because, mostly, if they didn't accept some restrictions, at least long enough to let everyone calm down, they would suffer the consequences – and Steve had no idea of what that meant exactly.

Because lone heroes with no accountability whatsoever only worked as long as everything went right enough.

What we have, what we had... It's not working. You know in your heart that it isn't. We can't let Stamford happen again.”

Steve almost barred his teeth at that – and Tony was reminded of a thought he'd had, one day, that you always thought bad things only happened to others, until they happened to you and you had to deal with the consequences.

Steve, despite all the shit he'd dealt with, hadn't faced mind control like some of them – and sure, some of it was because he was mentally resistant to that kind of things, but there were so many ways to be controlled, not all of them were an affair of mental strength. More than that, his powers were, while above the usual human's, rather tame, so the physical damage he could do if he lost it – which didn't happen to Captain America, of course it didn't happen to him, until one day it would and then he'd have to face the music like everyone else, and because there wouldn't be any kind of regulations in place, maybe he'd get away with it, or maybe they'd just decide to execute him and be done with it – was minimal, compared to, say, what the Sentry could cause. Or Carol, when she'd been drinking. Tony, too, and surprisingly enough the damage from his drunken days was minimal, compared to the times he'd been taken over, because he'd been lucky and had stopped before it had gotten a chance to happen again.

“All the registration in the world isn't going to bring those kids back.”

No. But it can stop it from happening again.”

Okay, maybe a bit of an exaggeration. Things could always happen no matter the precautions taken. But it was true that the less precautions taken, the more things could go wrong. Steve had to know that. Rules weren't there to punish those who did nothing wrong, they were there to limit the power of those who did.

In itself, someone possessing an assault rifle wasn't doing anything wrong, and it wasn't a problem. The problem was that you couldn't know if that person wouldn't one day walk into a crowd and aim at people for whatever reason they thought justified their actions, especially not if you didn't ask any question when they'd gone and bought the rifle.

And sure, superheroes hadn't, for the most part, asked to have powers, they hadn't chosen to have an assault rifle in their hands, but the things was, they did have it, and deciding that their rights were worth more than the rights of others not to be threatened every day of the week by someone who had an assault rifle and no control over it – or worst, over themselves – wasn't any better than the contrary, and would just get more people killed.

A thought made itself known, and Tony squinted behind the faceplate.

Have you even seen the proposal?”

Or did you just decide it was wrong because you didn't like the idea, went unsaid. He didn't need to antagonize Steve. Steve hadn't yet turned around and slammed the door, so.

We're going to have teams, everybody trained up, so that if you want to go up against a villain there will be every assurance possible that you know what you're doing. We could never have done this with the Avengers alone. We're not big enough. We couldn't have cast a net wide enough. But all of us... Together, we can do it right. A system built from the ground up. No catastrophes. No more."

And maybe, maybe it wouldn't be enough. But it would still be better, and at that point that was more than what they had.

Together, they could do it right.

If only Steve could listen to the words.

Together.

If only he could care enough to look past what he wanted to see, what he thought was going on, and actually pay attention to what was really going on.

But the next thing Tony knew, his table had cracks and Steve's hands were the culprits.

“And how's Registration going to stop you from blowing a jumbo jet the next time someone hacks your brain?”

He looked back up at Steve, sharply, and there were so many things, so many things he could say about that one line, but he couldn't afford to antagonize Steve, not now, not ever, and none of those would cut the deal.

He could ask how much exactly Steve knew, and say that hadn't been what had happened, actually, because there was a difference between hacking and remote control, but how would Steve know, uh, since they hadn't talked about it, not after Steve's accusations of the day?

He could say that maybe he'd rather be shot down than have that happen ever again, not that it'd get there because accountability meant they might get a chance to act on it before it went too far, and not that Steve would ever get it because he had never been used like that.

He could, visciously, question whether or not Steve's refusal of any kind of authority above them had anything to do with the fact that he'd welcomed James Barnes back in the fold – not that the man deserved to be punished – without thinking it necessary to inform anyone of the Winter Soldier's true crimes and subsequent innocence, showing once again that Captain America might believe in the people, but didn't actually trust anyone enough to give a fair judgment of the situation.

He could, he could...

But he wasn't here for that, was he?

That's fighting dirty, Steve. I used to think that was beneath you.”

Steve's answer was biting and angry.

“Maybe I learned it from you.”

Which was, wow, so freaking untrue Tony didn't even have an answer to that. How many times exactly had he responded with such an accusation, even when he thought Steve was in the wrong, and Steve hadn't been the one to initiate it? How many veiled insults, in Steve's words, towards Tony Stark – and the fact that Steve didn't know he was Tony Stark didn't matter, not on this point, because what had Tony Stark ever done to deserve such contempt from Captain America? Tony might not think he was worthy of Steve's admiration, but that didn't mean he had no right to some kind of human decency and respect.

How many slights aimed at Iron Man himself, whenever the subject went back to Tony Stark and Steve just couldn't figure out why, maybe, Iron Man didn't hold the same contempt he did for his boss?

Tony didn't fight dirty, not with words, unless someone else started it first.

But, admitting that would be admitting that Steve Rogers could be petty and judgmental, and they couldn't have that, could they?

Fortunately, Steve went on before Tony had to find an appropriate answer to that.

Unfortunately, Steve only went on being petty and judgmental.

“So you want to talk about why you're really supporting the SHRA now?”

Still entirely unable to trust – no, to even consider that maybe, this was the truth – Iron Man's word, uh?

Excuse me?”

What could it be this time?

What did Steve come up with as an explanation to his friend's actions, that completely disregarded any illusion of respect for his capacity of judgment the moment said capacity of judgment did not endorse Steve's own?

Steve was almost snarling at him, as he went on.

“Cut the bullshit, we both know you do every goddamn thing that Tony Stark tells you to!”

That was it.

Always, always the same old song. Consistency at its finest. Steve, never questioning the reasoning he'd so carefully constructed over the years to explain why Iron Man didn't luw him as much as he did Tony Stark, no matter the hints that maybe there was a much simpler explanation dropped along the years – come on, after Counter-Earth, you'd think Steve, if no one else, would have questioned why exactly Tony Stark was nowhere to be found whenever Iron Man was whisked away to another world.

It was laughable, in a very painful way,

A dry laugh of anger and disbelief escaped Tony's lips.

Not good for not antagonizing Steve, that. Then again, it wasn't like the man didn't do his own part of the antagonizing well enough.

He took a steadying breath, and went back to it. Steve wanted an explanation, didn't he? Well, he'd get it – not that he'd believe anything of it, not that he would believe anything that didn't basically say “gosh, you're right, Steve, I have absolutely no self-esteem and even less of a capacity to make choices for myself and while we're at it did you know that Mr. Stark as a very nice ass?”.

He wondered, for a moment, how petty exactly it would be if he took the helmet off, right now, right here, and looked Steve in the eyes, with a fake smile and the words “interesting theory, Steve. Tell me more.”.

Except that might shut him up for a while, but that would also completely anihilate any chance of Steve ever listening to him, so – not that those chances looked bright right now, but he had to try.

So, not happening.

Just... Reasons. An explanation. Something, at least, that would show Steve how stubborn and hypocritical he could be.

Not in those words, of course.

"I can't ever win with you, can I? I take out the guardsmen, and you're telling me he's forcing me to commit crimes, you're telling me that I should do what SHIELD wants. Now here I am on the up and up, following the will of the American people, working with Tony, with SHIELD... and this isn't good enough for you either?”

In the end, with Steve, it wasn't so much “do what's right” than “do as I say”. Because what Steve said was right by virtue of having been said by him, wasn't it? If you didn't get the Steve Rogers Stamp of Approval, then obviously you were in the wrong. And, as Tony Stark would never – because he was Tony Stark, obviously – get the Steve Rogers Stamp of Approval, well.

Who died and made you the arbiter of right and wrong, Cap? What the hell is wrong with him this time, huh? How is he not good enough now?"

He didn't even want to hear it – not again.

But never let it be said that Tony hadn't given Steve all the chances he could muster up.

Had Tony ever noticed how mean Steve could look whenever the subject shifted to himself – to Mr. Stark? He didn't think so, but now all he could see was the disgust seeping through all of Steve's self-righteousness, as he started telling him – again, always the same story, and that from a man who'd never even made the effort to try and get to know him. From someone who's only consideration in his judgment was what he thought and how exactly he could twist the facts to fit into his theory.

"It's all the same thing with him. Don't you get it?"

He had to stop himself from standing up from his chair and take a step back as Steve leaned in to mock-whisper all his lack of trust and belief in Tony Stark in Tony's own ear.

"It's all about control. Back then, he wanted all his technology. Last year it was a Cabinet post. Now he wants to run Registration. He wants that list of names. He wants to have everything, to know everything, to keep it all under his thumb.”

Steve probably thought he was being a good friend here, that he was radiating confidence, righteousness, and worry for Iron Man. That he could convince Iron Man that Tony Stark was a bad influence, a disease to eradicate – and that it was for everyone's sake, for Iron Man's sake.

At one point, Tony might even have believed him.

Now it was mostly making him feel sick – and not with himself.

Steve's mouth twisted, as his gaze redoubled in intensity, fixed on the faceplate.

“You're included. He's an egomaniac on a goddamn power trip. This time it just happens to be legal. It's not as if he would care if it wasn't."

Considering that Steve obviously didn't care whether or not his actions were legal as long as he was doing “the right thing” – read, the one that only cared about the rights of superpowered people and not standard folks', the one that would either get them all killed or in a position of power above other people, because you couldn't trust non-powered gents to understand and therefore you couldn't let them in a position of power, because yes, Steve, that might not be what you had in mind but that was what it would lead to in the end – that sounded hypocritical as hell, especially as Steve didn't actually have any proof of what he accused “Tony Stark” of, no more than anyone on the outside had any proof that Captain America and his followers weren't just superpowered assholes who refused any kind of responsibility.

But of course, Steve could only see one side to this story – his own.

And no matter how much Tony tried – and he did, the strangled cry that escaped him was just another proof of how much he cared, even if now it only hurt, even if today it was only in the negative – Steve would never see that, would he?

"...Have you ever thought about asking him why he does what he does? Have you... ever thought about even trying to get to know him? Or did you just get this image of Tony Stark in your head and decide that was all he was ever going to be?"

He knew the answer to that one, of course.

Steve didn't disappoint – or, actually, yes, he did, much like he always did, and in that, he didn't disappoint.

"I know who he is, I know what he is. I've known a thousand men like him. My own father was like him. The only difference is that he's got more money than most. I know exactly what kind of man he is, and I don't see why I should sit here and let him play with my friends' lives because he wants to feel like he's worth something now that the drink's not telling him so, now that he's not pouring liquor down his throat.”

You'd think Captain America would be kind enough not to strike an injured man – but Tony knew from experience that when you were Tony Stark, that thought didn't apply. In fact, thinking back to Clint's Thunderbolts, to the mission he'd done with them as Cobalt Man, to the way Steve had shut down Zemo Jr.'s – genuine, for once – attempt at redemption – and okay, the man hadn't reacted well afterwards, but here was the point, afterwards...

In general, Steve treated Tony Stark the exact same way he'd treated Zemo back then. The moment something looked like it could maybe be something that wasn't actually an act of goodness but a plan of evil, Steve jumped on the opportunity to brand it an act of villainy.

Except Tony Stark had never been Helmut Zemo, had never been a villain, had never actively antagonized Captain America – or whatever other sin you wanted to pin on him – when they'd first met, and yet that was the treatment he got from Steve.

Steve, of course, wasn't done.

The supersoldier, sure of himself and of the righteousness of his judgment, looked at Iron Man with a pleading look, for him to understand and agree, to say that, yes, indeed, Steve, you know better.

“Hell, if it would save everyone else's lives, I'd hand him the goddamn bottle myself, without thinking twice. At least that way he'd only destroy himself."

Which, okay. Like, obviously, if it would work, of course Tony would do that too. If something had to be destroyed, and he could bargain for it to be only himself, instead of everyone else, he'd do it.

Except that wasn't what Steve meant, and what he meant was definitely not an acknowledgment of Tony's self-sacrificial tendencies.

He was barely not bolting out of his seat, as it was, but he would not be the one to walk away.

He would not be the one who hadn't tried hard enough.

For a moment, he wondered if Steve, confronted with a suicidal Red Skull, for example – which, of course, wasn't going to happen, but not the point – would say the same thing while handing him a gun to do away with him, or if Tony was just special like that.

"Well... That answers that."

He really, really wanted to throw the helmet at Steve, right now, and let him contemplate the exact depth of his words, but. None of this was about Tony, no matter how much Steve wanted to make it about him, and so he really couldn't do that, not unless his goal suddenly shifted to start a full-on war.

Barely listening at this point, he almost didn't notice Steve's next words – and in a way, he supposed it would have been better if he hadn't heard them.

"But I guess it doesn't matter what I think because when it comes down to it, you always pick him."

He had to wonder, really, how Steve could actually be so single-minded as to put it all on him, all the time, without failure nor remorse, and not even consider the possibility that perhaps there was a reason for it all, other than...

Well.

"Right now, I have to say he's a lot... kinder... than the alternative. ...He's still not fucking me, by the way, if you were wondering. Though it's a great theory. Keep it up. We'll make a futurist of you yet."

Steve looked like he wanted to strangle someone at that – possibly Tony, though he wasn't quite sure which one of him.

"I don't need to take this from you."

As always, unable to even admit that he was the one who'd started it.

"No, you don't. And you're not going to."

Tony didn't have much doubt about how this was going to be, when Steve had first called, but he sure as hell had hoped this would go better than this. Yet, there was a limit to what he could endure without definitely shattering Steve's illusion of righteousness and friendship with a single reveal that would make everything worse.

As he stood up, ready to show Steve the door – not that the man didn't know where it was – he reflected that yes, the definition of madness was indeed trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

He wasn't quite insane, though. He had hoped for, but not expected much better.

"Get out. You're not welcome here anymore, Captain."

Steve, being the asshole he was, did neither of the two things which could have made this bearable: instead of just walking out – disappointing, but not surprising – or demanding an explanation and refusing Iron Man's rebuttal – which would have been right in line with his general disregard of Tony's wishes and decisions but could have also led them to actually try and do something productive – he decided to mock their friendship.

Never able to leave things well alone, but just as unable to actually see them through.

"Ten years, huh? We had a good run, I'll say that."

Just not good enough to actually try and salvage it when it didn't go the way he liked.

Tony took in the sight of Steve, up and ready to leave, one last time in Avengers Tower.

"We did. I'm sorry it has to be like this."

Steve, of course, did not return the feeling.

Once more – a last one before leaving, Tony figured – the man who'd called himself Iron Man's friend for about eleven years decided it would be swell to just try and antagonize him a little bit more.

"If there are people who need help, I'm going to save them. And I'm not going to let any goddamn law tell me what I can and can't do about it. Don't get in my way."

Never considering that maybe, it wasn't his help that they needed. That maybe, their current fear of people like them would get in the way and make more damage than his help could cover.

That, more than likely, what he was going to do now was more along the line of fighting against others trying to help, because he couldn't be bothered with hearing them out when they said they had it. That, in the end, he would only be fighting for himself, no matter what he liked to pretend – and, that was fine, you had a right to fight for yourself, but you didn't get to say your were doing it for others when you just ended up doing more damage.

Steve glared at him as he pushed past and left.

Once again, Tony wasn't the one who left first.

Not that anyone would ever admit that.

 

oOo

 

You don't actually have to unmask on TV, you know.”

Peter jumped at Tony – Iron Man's voice, and turned to look at him with a deer-in-the-highlights look. Why exactly, Tony wasn't sure, but this was Peter. He got startled and looked vaguely guilty for no reason on a daily basis.

“I gave my word to Tony.”

He winced behind the faceplate, all too aware that people generally didn't understand exactly what they were engaging themselves to whenever they said that kind of things to him. What he meant by that. What it might cost them, too, and in the end they blamed him, because it was easier than to admit that they had made a promise without thinking it through.

I know you did. But he wasn't asking for your blind obedience, only for your trust. More than that, he wanted to know if you'd trust him enough not to throw him under the bus the moment things get difficult. You can still speak up, or even ask for an explanation as to why he does what he does, just, don't assume you know why he does things and that that reason is that he is a megalomaniac asshole who only thinks about himself.”

Peter made a face, and looked back at the city. The tower gave them the opportunity to see all of Manhattan, something that hadn't been possible with the mansion – of course, a number of the Avengers, whatever the incarnation of the team, could fly, and those who couldn't did board the quinjet whenever the mission led them far away, so it wasn't like the view was uncommon, but still.

“So, as we're definitely not talking about Cap here...”

Tony stared at the young man, and somehow his raised eyebrow must have gone through the mask, because Peter squirmed.

Not that they were talking about Steve here.

Or Steve's instinctual dislike and mistrust of Tony Stark.

“Do you... Do you really think he's wrong?”

Sighing behind the mask – and he really, really wondered what that sounded like, actually – Tony looked at the city too.

...Cap's problem isn't that he is wrong, it's that he's completely blind to all the things that will happen if we refuse any kind of accountability. Now, of course SHRA could be better than it is, but with someone like Captain America so vehemently opposing it, it's not like Tony has enough pull to make it all disappear with a snap of his fingers. Normal people, right now? They're afraid, and they're right to be. After all, what can they do to defend themselves against superpowered people who don't answer to anyone? So, this is happening, whether Cap likes it or not, and some of it is in fact something we do need. Maybe not all of it, but if we don't even try? Well. If we all throw a tantrum, we will prove them right. If we don't even try...”

There was a pause, before Peter spoke again, voice tentative.

“What about you, Iron Man? You've always been... anonymous.”

Tony winced behind the mask. This wasn't a question he could truthfully answer, but...

Yeah, except Tony has always known who I am, and he holds the key to the armor, which means he can cut me off if needed.”

Or, close enough. Now Hill, Kooning, and the President of the United States knew too. Which meant they could aim the weapons they would need to take him down if it came to that – weapons he was going to give to them, too, or at least some of them, just like Rhodey had others in the War Machine armor, just in case.

Of course, that also meant they could do it even without him having done anything to deserve it, but well. Everything was a compromise – in this case, between his safety and the safety of others. Between his rights and theirs.

Peter looked at him weirdly and bit his lip.

“No, I meant... Will you unmask too?”

Ah.

That's why I told you you don't have to do it on TV, Peter. If you think, if you really think the risk to yourself, to your family, is too high... Registration doesn't have to be public. Tony made sure the database remains highly restricted, and that anonimity is there on a general basis, just, not at the top, and not when you do something wrong. You can refuse, if you don't want to be the poster boy.”

Of course, that would make the whole PR thing more complicated, but...

Peter looked pensive for a moment, and eventually shook his head.

“Nah, it's alright. If that's necessary...”

It was necessary. Tony just wasn't sure whether or not it would be enough.

 

oOo

 

When he joined Happy for the ride to Westchester, Tony found a SHIELD agent – in her thirties, tan skin, brown hair almost as short as Hill's, dark grey eyes – standing next to his chauffeur and friend, who was watching her carefully.

“Director Hill has assigned me as your permanent liaison, Mr. Stark.”

Which meant she was here to keep an eye on him – which, considering Hill was finally starting to get a bit better at not doing stupid things in regards to Cap, was not that terrible, though potentially problematic if he wanted to try and foment a discussion with the bullheaded asshole.

Tony frowned at her.

“Your name?”

“Agent Vera Lockhart, Sir.”

Well. He'd have to plan around her. Then again, at least he knew where she was, and that she was here. He couldn't say as much for all the potential measures of surveillance he had to have set on him right now.

 

oOo

 

He wasn't particularly surprised when Emma and the X-Men in general – you know, that team which didn't exist anymore? – refused to join his side, but he had needed to confirm what he already knew, and more than that, he had needed to hear her declaration of non-interference. He could deal with people doing their own thing discreetly – as long as it wasn't made public, because then he'd have no choice but to react – as long as there was no open confrontation with SHRA, no statement of resistance.

He was taken aback, though, when her voice rose again as he made to leave.

“I heard you do not remember anything of House of M, Tony.”

His first name. What was her angle?

He didn't turn around to look back at her, but did not take another step.

“I don't. Your point?”

“I could have brought your 'friends' over, you know. I knew who Iron Man was, and everyone knew where to find you. You were, after all, 'the most successful sapiens' under a rule of mutants. But I didn't.”

Tony gritted his teeth, and did not move.

She'd come around to her point soon enough.

“And I thank you for that, Emma. But the fact that you protected my secret identity doesn't have any bearing on my stance here. Registration is happening, and you know why. Or would you pretend you aren't looking in my head right now?”

Also, even if Emma wasn't quite on the same scale of comprehension as people like Tony or Reed – though, for Reed, you had to point him towards it, because a sense of human feelings was not something he was comfortable with – she was far from stupid – and unlike Steve, she'd faced prejudice for so long she was never going to believe in the goodness of the american people when it came to ensuring mutant safety. She knew what was coming, and she might not agree with Tony's approach, but she wasn't naive.

“I told you already we telepaths don't really like dwelling in your thoughts, except maybe for the surface ones. Being in your head feels both terribly depressing and like I'm caught in a whirlwind. That aside, my point was, Tony, that Wanda had made a world where the people who had just tried to stop her were content enough that they wouldn't be trying too hard to change things. Captain America, for example, might not have liked the way that world went after WWII, but he'd gotten to live out his life and stand for what he believed in, which made it enough for him.”

A pause, then, and the sound of a glass being put down.

“Nevermind that his standing for his beliefs wasn't enough to make the world right again.”

Oh, he knew that dry tone. He heard it in his head whenever he thought of Steve's idiotic temper tantrum.

Emma wasn't done, though.

Because of course she wasn't.

“You, on the other hand... Aside from the fact that in House of M Tony Stark was actually a mutant who had convinced himself and the world he wasn't one, which I'm not entirely sure how to take, but eitherway, you were miserable in a world made to content us, and I have to ask: how much do you have to do, Tony, in order to feel like you deserve some peace?”

He bit his lower lip, took a breath, plastered a smile on his face, and turned back to look at her.

“I have no idea what you mean.”

Emma gave him a smile back that was about as fake as his own – there was a point, he mused, between people who wore masks, at which letting others see the falseness of the masks was as close an admittance of kinship and honesty as possible, and wasn't that a particularly unpleasant realization?

“Of course you don't. Just like mutant-you wasn't a mutant. Which, for the matter, brings up the question of whether or not you actually don't remember House of M or if you simply convinced yourself you didn't remember it.”

“That only worked in House of M, from what Spider-Man told me, because I was a mutant who said things about myself and made them true as a consequence.”

Emma squinted at him, and but did not – overtly – call him on the obvious evasion.

Overtly.

“And as we both know, you are not a mutant who makes himself into what he says he is, not in this reality.”

He offered her a self-deprecating smile, a shrug, and one last comment before leaving.

“If I was, how would you explain me being this miserable?”

 

oOo

 

He vacated a whole factory, put it on fire. He burned several of his favors and arguments for this last chance to convince the others to work within the system instead of bringing them in without giving them a chance – he wasn't sure he could ever offer another official chance if Steve refused that one, though that wouldn't stop him from managing to talk in secret if he absolutely had to, except he had a hundred spies on his back, and an agent at his side almost twenty-four / seven, and losing them the time to talk would mean losing some credit too, and he'd need at least some left for his global amnesty once this would come to an end.

Still, it was the first time they got to talk since – since SHRA had gotten official. He needed to make it count.

As with much of about all his attempts, though, he wouldn't be surprised if it turned into another one of those “at least I tried, unlike someone else, and therefore the failure is not my own” situations.

What a consolation.

Cable was the first one who noticed, and moments later the two teleporters – Wiccan and Cloak – were put to sleep by his side – nothing dangerous, nothing inhumane or whatever Steve would think of it, but they needed to talk and it wasn't like Captain America would let him say a word if Tony – Iron Man – didn't force his hand.

A trap. Right.

Of course it's a trap. How else were we going to get you all in one place?”

Terrible. Iron Man was clearly an asshole, a sell-out, a traitor, forcing Captain America to talk – not arresting him and his people, not framing them for the destruction or whatever, not killing them on sight, not... – he wasn't totally sure what else he could have done that would be worse, but, you know, not that.

Terrible trap, betrayal, how could you do that, Iron Man?

How could you force the great, the perfect, the virtuous Captain America to talk?

Or, at least, to listen.

We didn't come here to arrest you, Cap. I talked SHIELD into offering you one final amnesty.”

Steve scowled, and spit “A surrender!”. He didn't even look like he was listening.

He probably wasn't.

After all, Captain America was always right. If he'd decided that he was fighting this, why would he listen to what “this” was? It was wrong, because he said so.

Peter intervened, Steve made a spiteful answer about “principles” in a way that made it entirely obvious to anyone who actually listened that it wasn't, in fact, principles he was talking about, because while safety was a concern and anonimity a luxury in a world of heroes and villains, neither were freaking principles.

It might be a necessity – up to a point – but it wasn't a freaking principle, to keep your identity to yourself.

And yes, Tony hadn't given up his faceplate, but he'd also told the President, the current head of SHIELD, and the Secretary of Defense. Not that Steve had considered that, he was sure, because Tony / Iron Man being hypocritical made it sound so much better, even if for that you had not to take into consideration the fact that it simply couldn't work, wouldn't work in the current political situation, that the government would never have let him do damage control – not that Steve would see that, either – if he hadn't given them something in exchange.

So maybe he was a bit of a hypocrite, but hey, if that was what it took to make it work. He'd sell his soul if he had to – and if there was a guarantee that whoever he'd have sold his soul to wouldn't double-cross him, and since that didn't exist...

Not that he was the most hypocritical person here.

But this was the last try, the last chance before it was too late, before it got worse and Tony had to resort to more problematic solutions – on both sides of the equation, because there wouldn't be an offer left, and there wouldn't be a clean solution.

The public doesn't want masks and secret identities.”

Unless, of course, they knew those were monitored by someone, at least. The point wasn't to make everyone unmask.

He'd say Steve scowled again, but as his expression hadn't shifted an inch since the first scowl, it was really more of a continuation of that scowl. Handy, that. Couldn't actually accuse Steve of thinking Iron Man was a hypocrite and letting it show, as, you know, the scowl had already been there.

It made him wonder why Falcon hadn't told Steve what he knew – or, maybe he had, except Steve had never been that good an actor and he would definitely be doing something right now if he knew. Not that he didn't have an idea why, but.

Then again, superheroes were people too, and it turned out that everyone could disappoint Captain America – if he knew, which he didn't – and lie to him. Incredible. After all, superheroes were to be trusted, right, Cap?

You've known me half my adult life, Cap.”

Or, to be precise, almost all of it, from when Tony was twenty-three, to this day, almost eleven years later. But who was counting – who cared what fraction exactly of Tony's life Steve represented?

Not Steve, obviously.

And here came the part they both knew not to be true – though, as always, Tony really, really wanted Steve to prove him wrong.

Not that he would.

You know I wouldn't do this if I didn't believe in it with all my heart.”

And, sure, you could argue that Tony did not, in fact, believe all the aspects of Registration to be good and right and perfect, but believing in something wasn't necessarily that restrictive. He believed in SHRA being necessary, in a number of ways – not in it being good.

But sometimes, you had to go with what was possible rather than what would be perfect.

And that? That he believed in.

Steve wasn't saying anything – which was better than him calling Tony out on what he probably thought was actually going on.

He took a step, held out his hand.

We don't want to fight you. Just... give me the chance to tell you our plans for my twenty-first century overhaul.”

Steve looked pissed – as usual, then – gave a look at Iron Man's hand, at the helicopters above them, at the general scene, and...

He didn't smile, he didn't say a word, but he did shake his hand.

It was good. It was.

Good.

If Steve was willing to listen, to cooperate, if he showed SHIELD and the rest of the world that he could play, then Tony would be able to wrestle out even more good points for the heroes, more quickly, more efficiently. He could...

His whole body tore itself apart, the armor shaking around him – and he knew, he knew it wasn't the case, but it felt like the armor was the only thing keeping him in one piece – Extremis screaming in his mind, through his body, like a reminder of all the times he'd been dying, every single time his body had failed him, the times he did die, the times he...

But Extremis was repairing the damage already – no matter the damage, as long as there was a coherency to what was left behind, as long as his brain wasn't too damaged.

No matter the damage.

It was obvious that whoever managed to make this didn't know a thing about what they were doing, except that it would take him out – no matter the damage – or maybe they didn't care. Wasn't it humorous, uh? Apparently SHIELD itself – who? Nick? Sharon? – supplied Steve, from the man's own words. Did he know what he'd actually done to Tony – to Iron Man?

How ironic, really, that the one who brandished his trust in superheroics as a principle of goodness was here the one who first used a measure of restriction that could be considered an inappropriate use of force against someone trying to talk things out.

The look on Steve's face as he punched Tony – as he punched Iron Man in the faceplate told him enough. Steve could have done it because he thought it was necessary, but here, it was before all an act of petty revenge.

Not that Tony could actually feel anything as Steve decided to use him as a punching ball – not after the “scrambler” and its effects.

 

oOo

 

“And you, Tony, are you my friend?”

Steve had barely walked out of the room – barely decided that he wouldn't, once again, listen to anyone else than himself, and that his principles meant he couldn't be here for T'Challa and Ororo's wedding, which meant that Tony would have to back out of attending too, since Wakanda was “neutral”, as if Tony didn't know where exactly Steve's side got their tech, and having Iron Man but not Captain America here would not go well with that stance – and here was T'Challa, calling Iron Man by his actual name. If Tony didn't know any better – and as it was, he couldn't actually say he did know better, only that he hoped, only that he wanted to believe – he'd think this was all a ploy to let Steve overhear them, to let him know – except Steve was way too stubbornly sure of himself to not storm out like he just did... then again, he was also just about petty enough to listen in and uncover Iron Man's actual identity, if T'Challa told him what he'd intended to do beforehand.

T'Challa, however, knew who Iron Man was, and he had to have an inkling as to what the exact consequences to this particular revelation would have, even on his wedding day. Steve, for all his righteousness, had a tendency to take everything personally, and then pretend it was all about principles. Tony had to trust that T'Challa wouldn't go so far as to endanger his own wedding only for a ploy.

He took off the faceplate, and looked T'Challa in the eyes.

He could still remember one of their last meaningful conversations, and it made T'Challa's question sound just that much more manipulative.

Not that Tony couldn't appreciate some manipulation for what one considered to be the greater good.

“You decided this doesn't concern you, T'Challa, or at least that it doesn't concern you in this way, when you claimed Wakanda's neutrality.”

T'Challa, as a matter of fact, did not reciprocate the gesture, and still had his cowl on. A telling fact, considering his identity was more than public, and he had no reason to wear his battle suit right now, if not for the possibility that Steve and Tony could have let it come to blows – or that T'Challa didn't trust them, or, really, Tony, all that much.

It was alright, though. A man in T'Challa's position, a king, could not allow himself to make it personal, to hand out his trust so easily.

Still, it told a story, and because Tony understood, it didn't mean it didn't hurt – only that he could forgive it, on top of living with it.

“As a king I might not be in a position to comment, but I asked you, Tony, as a friend.”

A quiet snort, and the memories of T'Challa accusing him of thinking less of the one he called a friend than of himself, of doubting T'Challa's intellect, of having a superiority complex a mile wide – just after Tony had followed his blind lead on a mission that T'Challa had deemed too dangerous to explain out loud, which, fair, there had been a brainwashed / future-and-out-of-his-time version of Tony running around for the bad guys, but still, Tony, while he had second-guessed T'Challa's decisions, had still trusted him enough to play along, and had been appropriately uneasy faced with the knowledge that not only his so-called friend had cooked up a way to stop his artificial heart, but had also done it on the other Tony. That, and the fact that if T'Challa had come up with such ways to deal with the armor – just like Tony had thought up ways to deal with the Black Panther, because that was what people like them did, they thought, and they couldn't stop themselves – others probably had too, and it was really luck that T'Challa had been the first one to use those – not that it was surprising, Tony was good, but so were other people, and it only took that one guy that one time to think about the wrong thing that Tony did not think about for...

Tony, unlike some other people, didn't explain “Good” and “Evil” to people, as if he knew and they didn't, no matter what those people chose to think. He did, however, voice his concerns, and hope for an answer and an explanation.

But of course, let's put it all on Tony's ego.

He glanced at the way Steve had disappeared, only a minute before.

“I've given some thoughts, T'Challa, to our discussion back in Ontario.”

The casino had been an exercice in frustration, that was certain, but everything felt like that these days. People demanding his trust and respect, and failing to deliver back, even as they claimed to.

To be frank, T'Challa had probably been playing a role during that card game, but. As everyone knew, even in roles people tended to tell part of the truth, if they wanted it to stick and seem real enough to the ones who didn't know about the role.

“You accused me of never inviting you into my home, T'Challa, unlike you did, and maybe you were right, but you were also wrong.”

And after that, he'd probably be accused of “explaining the world” to people he thought of as less than himself. Impossible to defend yourself when people didn't want to see anything else but condescension in your words.

“Any of my friends could tell you I don't invite them home unless I am in a sexual or professional relationship with them, and even then I tend not to unless I have no other option. Sure, it could mean I don't actually have friends, and that I am an untrusting, egomaniac bastard. Or maybe, you could wonder about the fact that Avengers Mansion was, after all, my home, much more than any house I actually live in, and that every last one of you Avengers were invited in. Maybe you could take into account, not only what you perceive you did and I didn't, but also what I did and everyone fails to notice.”

He didn't wait for an answer – after all, he was never granted to be listened to, when he was the one being accused, so why should he let anyone have the opportunity to defend themselves right away when it was their turn? T'Challa could take some time thinking about it, just like Tony had, before immediately getting on the defensive.

Moreover, he still had things to say.

“But to go back to the matter at hand... You'll notice, I hope, that while I might not have extended a hand in this little stand-off you've arranged, I also wasn't the one who left first. Not that me trying to talk it out would have done any good, because he wouldn't consider anything but his own position, because I've already tried and it already ended this way, which means that the only way I could bring this to a personal end would be by grovelling at his feet and declaiming how right he was to begin with, and that 'Tony Stark' is the source of all evil while we're at it. As if that would resolve anything but his anger at 'Iron Man'.”

T'Challa, as it was, didn't seem like he had anything to object to that, or at least no direct answer available.

He had, however, more to say on the subject of Registration.

Good, because Tony did too.

“...I've listened to you, now listen to me. This... cancer, eating away at the soul of your country, has no place in Wakanda.”

Ah, yeah. “Neutrality”. Or, as he liked to call it, “you're wrong and you know it and if you don't then I don't care because I am right and you should know it”. Heroes, and poticians too, tended to get like that often enough. Tony wouldn't pretend he never got like that either.

This time, though. This time it made him laugh.

Not the happy kind of laughter, obviously.

“Interesting, isn't it, how you're one of us, T'Challa, one of the 'good guys', one of the super-people, and the king of your country. Even putting aside the obvious issue of power play, because while I'm certain Storm is acting out of concern for human and mutant rights, I also know that you cannot allow your personal morals to entirely overwrite your duties as a king... Even putting that aside, T'Challa, I find it interesting that a country whose king is one of us, and thus has the legitimity and the ability to deal with any superpowered issue, is rooting for the freedom of action of heroes.”

Tony squinted, tilted his head – he didn't doubt T'Challa knew all that already, that he was well-aware of the differences in their respective situations, because he didn't doubt T'Challa's intellect and awareness of the world, as it was, but he was also done with letting people get away with accusing him of things and not admitting any of their own reasons to act as they did.

“What would be your advice, then, Black Panther? Take over the american government and place Captain America as our king, maybe?”

Not that Steve wouldn't be a catastrophe – on both a personal and global level, because he'd hate the job and wouldn't have the flexibility to make it work – in that role, but hey, apparently that was what it'd take.

“That being said, you were crystal clear here. No place for my cancer here, huh? Give my regards to Ororo. Tell her I'm sorry I couldn't stay.”

And, as always, he'd be judged for not staying, for not being able to put aside his “personal” feelings for the happiness of the lucky couple, of the ones who called themselves his friends – Steve, though, Steve wouldn't get any heat for having done that first. Because Iron Man was fair game, but Captain America never did anything wrong.

He made to leave, but stopped – what the hell, he'd already said so much, he could go all the way, couldn't he?

He turned back around to look at T'Challa, because hell if he was going to let anyone think he couldn't say it while facing the ones he accused.

“I told you this was going to happen, T'Challa. I told you, and you called me and the others arrogant. Then I told them again, and they called it distasteful. Now? Now it is happening, and maybe it wouldn't have gone that far if you'd been willing to do something about it the first time I told all of you about it. You wouldn't get your hands dirty, but now they are asking for an arm, and if we don't give it to them, they will have our heads.”

Not that T'Challa, King of Wakanda, had anything to fear in that regard. He wasn't, after all, concerned. He was a king, he wasn't American, and he had the power and the legitimity to deal with his own country's problems.

This time again, he didn't wait for an answer.

After all, if T'Challa had really wanted to respond, he would have made it so that Tony would listen.

 

oOo

 

Happy was standing on the balcony of Sal's house, trying to cheer him up – or, at least, telling him that yes, Tony had reasons for what he was doing, and those were not a complete blindness to the evils of administration and powerful people, nor a power grab of epic dimension. At this point, he was probably the only one who actually cared to support him to his face for the actual reasons he was doing things, unlike those who did it because it'd help them personally.

“'Was thinking, boss... At first, I didn't get it. Why doesn't he tell them? Why doesn't he show them? But with everything going on... You're one of them, sure, as in, you're going around superheroing and risking your life for all of us poor sods just as much as any of them, but, thing is, I don't think they do consider you one of them. Or, you know, that they would, if they knew.”

Yeah, wasn't that a big part of the problem?

Happy made a face, which probably had to do with the fact that Tony was feeling like a double-whiskey and a 10000 volts charge to the heart might just do the trick, and it had to be showing.

“And, you see, because you do know the problems a cape has to deal with, and because none of them do stick with you in those problems, and because they don't consider you one of them, well. You have the outsider and the insider's view of the situation. So, I've got to ask: who else would make sure things are fair for both sides?”

Happy was simplifying the whole situation, Tony guessed, but he wasn't off the mark.

If nothing else, on the fact that none of those who could do it besides himself actually wanted to.

Not that Tony did.

But he'd still do it.

 

oOo

 

They were alone at the Yankee Stadium – or, at least Tony hadn't brought anyone; the proximity scans seemed to say Steve was alone too, except Steve's side, like Tony's, had teleporters. So, privacy was relative.

Nevertheless, he'd ditched Agent Lockhart, scrambled all communications around him at the time of the call, and driven around for a while before heading up to the stadium. This wasn't an official meeting, not this time. Tony wasn't going to get another chance at an official parley, not if he wanted to keep enough credit for the global amnesty he'd been discussing with the President.

The night was dark, and not far away, Happy was in a coma at the hospital.

Did you have anything to do with what happened to Happy Hogan?”

It wasn't that he thought Steve had done it, because he didn't believe that – but, as everyone seemed so fond of reminding him, he could be wrong, and sometimes the people he trusted were the wrong ones to trust.

More than that, even without putting Steve's morals in doubt, there was still the issue of those people he was currently associating himself with, who weren't necessarily as reluctant to do what they deemed justified when push came to shove, and, worse than that, worse than those of their mutual friends who could be a bit more pro-active than Steve himself... Well. Steve's principles were all and fine, except they wouldn't stop people from associating themselves with Steve and his ideals, even against Steve's will.

Just the other day, one of Tony's employees, Kenny, had tried to kill him – almost killed Jarvis, too – because he didn't support SHRA and the use of some of his designs in units which dealt with superpowered rogues. Yet another hypocritical stance, given the guy casually made antimatter bombs and thought there shouldn't be any kind of regulations at the same time. A fine mess which almost opened a black hole – well, not quite, but you got the meaning – at the top of the Tower before the guy got shot down by Lockhart. And sure, Steve probably hadn't wanted that to happen, especially not to Jarvis – to be honest, to anyone, but Tony Stark was special just like that, so he wasn't quite sure that, had he died, him and him alone, Steve wouldn't have simply shrugged it off, what a shame, but at least now it's done – except it had happened anyway, and it'd happened in Captain America's name.

Maybe Lockhart should have let him – after securing Jarvis, of course.

Whoever shot Happy probably wouldn't have gone through with it if Tony had already been dead – because, let's be honest, the odds that Happy had gotten the attention of someone willing to kill by himself, instead of because of Tony, were not great.

The look on Steve's face, as he answered, told him what exactly he thought of the question.

Seething.

“I would never order something like that.”

More outraged at the thought that Iron Man could doubt his morals – hypocritical, considering that he'd been doing the same to Iron Man and Tony Stark for the last decade – than concerned at the fact that, maybe, one of the people working for him might have decided to go ahead and not abide by the Steve Rogers Book of Rules. Probably not even considering it.

The thought that maybe Steve did order an attack – an abduction, maybe, but what would they want Happy for? – but it went too far, crossed Tony's mind, and he dismissed it. Though Steve had decided superheroes didn't have to answer to anyone except themselves, he couldn't yet be at the point where he would disregard something like that over his campaign against “oppression”.

Just as Steve's back-up blundered in – yet another proof that either Steve had lied, or he didn't have quite the grip he thought he had on his troops – Tony caught a look on his face. Understood that, of all things, Steve didn't see why Happy mattered, why they should feel concerned over his fate, not when “Iron Man” wasn't on his side to begin with, not when he'd been “betrayed” by his “best friend”.

Steve probably didn't think that, maybe, Happy was Iron Man's friend. Or Tony Stark's, for the matter, because as everyone knew, Tony Stark didn't have friends, only people he used and cast aside afterwards, as evidenced by Peter's current presence within Steve's ranks..

After all, that would mean this wasn't about Steve himself, or Tony Stark and Iron Man's unbelievable loyalty to the man – right back to Steve, who, as a consequence, came in second, and wasn't that inacceptable?

 

oOo

 

Sue had slapped the drink out of his hand – he'd been about to pour it from the top of the tower, but well, at least this way there was no temptation left – accused him of being insane, of puppetting Reed, of destroying their marriage, because why not, after all, Tony was the root of all evil, wasn't he?

Easier than to accept the truth – that sometimes you disagreed on things, even with the people you loved the most, and that you could only blame the two of you, because in the end, no matter the circumstances, no matter the influences, you made that choice, and the other made their choice too. Easier, of course, to decide that someone else was to blame for your divergent opinions, for your inability to reach a compromise, to give in, or to convince the other otherwise.

Tony knew the situation quite well. “Tony Stark”, after all, had been blamed for everything that went wrong between Captain America and “Iron Man” for years. When it was his fault, when it was because of them both, and when it was Steve's fault.

Everyone, here, was paying a price.

Susan sneered at him.

“Everyone but you.”

Right. Which was why he had almost no friends left, why a would-be-terrorist had almost blown him up the other week, why he was getting blamed for everything, why one of his remaining friends was comatose, why his only other friend had just asked him to kill Happy in his sleep, why Sue was here laying her problems with Reed on him as if Reed was completely unable to think by himself, which about took the cake.

Next thing he knew, he'd be accused of being behind Stamford.

“Right, Tony? You hire people to do that for you!”

He knew what she was saying, of course.

He'd still make her say it out loud, just to see if she'd have the guts to do that and still pretend this was all about righteousness and doing the right thing. Not that it wouldn't be painful to hear, but if being hurt was the price for realization, Tony would pay it a thousand times over.

“I was there, Tony. I was at the hospital. I heard that poor woman pleading with you, begging you to...”

The window broke against his fist, and he viciously wondered if Susan actually understood what Pepper had been asking of him, if she considered he had so little worth as a human being that it was a reasonable demand to make of him – that him not granting it would make him selfish in her eyes.

He felt Extremis starting to work around the bits of glass in his hand – he'd have to take them out for it to heal correctly.

Tony hadn't said anything to Pepper, because her pain at losing Happy overshadowed his, because her anger at the fact that this was most definitely an act against Tony – that the reason why Happy was all but dead was because someone wanted Tony, not Happy, not Pepper, but Tony, to suffer – was deserved.

But Susan wasn't Pepper, and she had no right to say this.

Happy may be Pepper's husband, but he was also Tony's friend. No one – except Pepper – got to doubt his loss, no one got to say he didn't care, and more importantly, no one got to reduce Happy's fate to an insult against him.

Happy deserved better than that.

“Get out.”

The look on her face told Tony that Sue had realized what she'd just said – some of it, at least. That she was ashamed, if not of anything else, at least of those last words.

Steve had never been, was his thought as he watched her leave.

 

oOo

 

Happy's life-support was beeping stubbornly next to him – except it wasn't, was it, Tony wasn't there, he was alone in his apartment, he was alone, he wasn't next to Happy, but still he could patch into the video surveillance, he could hear the beeps, he could be here and there, and most of all, he knew.

Sue wouldn't know, Pepper wouldn't know.

He would.

The beeping of the machines stopped.

Pepper wouldn't know.

He did.

 

oOo

 

He tried again.

He called Steve, again.

Not sure what good it would do, after everything. After all the times before. After all the failures to communicate.

Still.

He waited inside the mansion. The dead husk of his home, of the place where he grew up, of the house where his father yelled at him, and cried when he thought Tony wasn't here, where his mother tried to be there for both of them and eventually ended up not being there enough for either of them, least of all for herself, where Jarvis made sure that Tony lacked nothing, if for the presence of his parents. The place where neither Howard nor Maria came back after their accident.

A ruin left behind by the senseless betrayal of a friend they had failed to comfort.

The reminder of times past, when he still believed he might have a place to belong, should he only provide it to those who would accept him – turned out they'd rather take it and throw him out, but that was another story.

The room he was in showed the sky, and it wasn't through a window. He knew what it was supposed to look like, and yet he still couldn't quite remember it, as all that came to his mind was the catalogue of the various destructions the room had seen over the years.

He could pay for the reconstruction, now – unlike right after the disaster, when he'd had to keep an eye on his money and the fact that if he went bankrupt it would be thousands of people who would lose their jobs. Still, bringing the mansion back to its glory only to see it brought to ruins again felt too much like a certainty.

He'd probably do it, too, if he survived this.

A team portrait that had, miraculously, not ended up on the floor, was hanging on the far wall. Tony blinked, stood up, and went to look at it. It was one of the older ones, one from the very beginning of the Avengers.

One from before Steve made it clear that Tony Stark wasn't worth his time, even less his friendship.

He wondered if maybe he shouldn't just fry the thing with a repulsor ray.

Steve entered the room just then, and Tony – and Iron Man turned back around to look at him.

I wasn't sure you'd come.”

Not that Steve had disappointed him so far – though Steve did disappoint a number of times, he still ended up doing exactly what Tony thought he would.

He'd like Steve to prove him wrong, this time. But he'd have liked that the other times, too, and it never happened.

Still.

He had to try.

Steve took a moment to look around before answering. For a second he made a face – Tony wasn't quite sure at what – before his eyes fell back on Iron Man and locked themselves there.

“You know how it is, there wasn't anything good on TV.”

He wasn't sure if the fact that he warranted a joke was good, or if it just meant that this was what their friendship was now reduced to – what it had always been, a traitorous thought whispered.

His short laugh, without the voice modulator, would probably have illustrated the feeling.

Steve put his shield away, on his back – which was already better when he thought back on the guardsmen, but didn't mean much, considering that Steve had more than enough practice reaching it in no time to sling it at someone's face.

I thought we should talk one last time. I thought we could try to come to an agreement. Before anything goes too far.”

He went through the words without really hoping for anything, because as it was, everything had already gone too far, of course it had, but the thing was, it could still get worse. Stopping it here would prevent that – even if it would never be enough.

Tony could settle for less than enough, as long as it was more than nothing.

Steve, though, Steve would gamble it all, all or nothing, because he had no idea – because he didn't want to know – what “nothing” really was.

“Your people cloned Thor, and he killed Bill Foster, and you think maybe you haven't gone too far yet?”

Your people decided they were answerable to no one, that you being in the right meant the consequences of your actions were only for others to shoulder, that you could start a fight and pin the casualties on everyone else no matter your own part in it, that your rights trumped those of all the people who had no defense against you.

The blame lay on both sides, but only one seemed to agree to answer for it, as it was.

He didn't say any of it, of course.

Instead, he brought up his hands, in an universal gesture of defense – though the fact that he was wearing a suit of armor with weapons in the palms might make it rather not defensive...

Steve, I... This is... Okay. Alright. Things have happened that I regret. That wasn't supposed to happen. But I think we both know this could get a lot worse.”

He wondered, though, whether Steve would be able to say the same and mean it. To mean, not only that he'd rather Bill Foster was alive, but that he had a hand in his death and he regretted it.

Probably not.

For that he'd have to admit that maybe there was a reason to all of this, an actual truth behind the fact that heroes could make avoidable mistakes, and that wouldn't do, would it?

Still, Steve looked mollified – enough to listen.

Not enough not to fold his arms and look freaking judgmental.

It was alright. Same old, same old.

Tony took a breath, and – now, after everything, Steve had to be able to understand, to see where this was going, if only Iron Man could show him.

Steve, please, you... you have to know what you mean to people. You know you're... a moral compass.”

More like a landpoint of the island of Utopia, where everything always went well and everyone was perfectly kind, well-meaning, and unable to screw up, but hey. Sometimes you had to choose your words.

A guiding light. You know that most of the people on your side are there because you are. Not because they believe in your cause, but because they believe in you.”

Must be nice. No one would ever do things because Tony – or even Iron Man – told them it was the right thing to do. When they did, it was either because it benefited them, or because they'd thought about it and come to the conclusion that, indeed, it was the right thing to do. Not because he'd said so.

Then again, it could easily lead you to overlook the possibility of you being wrong – something that, ironically, Tony had often been accused of. It could make one wonder how much worse it would be for someone almost no one ever confronted about their screw-ups – because yes, Steve did have skeletons in his closet, but Tony had always been there to tidy up behind him, to take care of the political toes on which Steve kept stamping down, to make sure that despite Steve's utter lack of sensibility the Avengers, and heroes in general, could continue to operate without hell raining on them, and, more importantly, to make it so that Steve wouldn't notice how much work this really was.

Because Steve believed in the world, and had the problematic tendency of refusing to help it when it failed to reach his standards – not literally, of course, because if protecting had to be done, he'd do the protecting, no matter the circumstances, but if it had to go farther than simple protecting and that didn't sit well with him, well. Sometimes Tony wondered if Steve would watch the world burn if it disappointed him too much, simply by pretending that it wasn't burning.

The resistance is you. Join me. Help me. Work with me. I know Registration isn't how we've done it before. But it's the best way to go, I honestly believe that. Sure, we've never had it before, Maybe you didn't even need it, I'll admit that.”

Steve, after all, did not make mistakes in the field. The mistakes he made were of an entirely different kind, and because they didn't result in immediate deaths, it was all too easy to pretend they weren't mistakes to begin with.

Steve wasn't the only one concerned, though.

But... maybe it's not for you. It's for some kid who wakes up one day with powers and decides to stop the nearest villain from knocking over the corner store. It's for... everyone. You were trained. You've had years of experience. Hell, you've trained us. Maybe everyone else deserves the same help you got. The same help you gave us.”

Or would Steve argue that kid deserved to be free, and therefore it didn't matter when Carnage ate them for breakfast because they were in over their head?

It wasn't only about limiting the collateral damage, but also about providing some safety to those hotheads who would get there anyway. It made him think of Clint, who, when he'd first decided to do some heroing, had been mistaken for the very criminal he'd stopped and as a consequence had almost been lost to the dark side – also called Natasha Romanoff.

He didn't dare bring it up, though. He didn't want Cap to shut off and accuse him of using the memory of the dead to get whatever he wanted.

Steve kept looking at him for a time, and Tony couldn't quite tell to what point he understood what he was saying, and how much of that look was Steve twisting it around into a bogus explanation of Tony Stark's power grab – funny, that, how campaigning for handing some of the control over ended up with him being accused of being a control freak.

The next words, though, spoken softly, were a surprise.

“I could make you the same offer, you know.”

Tony frowned, made a non-commital, questioning sound, and already knew that he couldn't say yes, because all that would result in would be them all dying together as Sentinels laid waste to the super community, and accidentally the rest of the country as collateral damage.

Still, he kind of wanted to hear it, to...

To know why exactly, after everything, Steve still thought Iron Man could belong.

Not that he could, but.

“You say the resistance is me, but... Registration, you know that's you, too.”

Which was – okay, Steve didn't have access to his internal monologues, but he had to know that people didn't actually follow Iron Man like they did Captain America, right? – ridiculous, and he did want to know what gave Steve that idea. Like, it couldn't be because Cap believed in him like that, because it was obvious that he didn't, or else they wouldn't be here – and Cap was the one who cared the most about Iron Man, so. Why the hell would anyone else follow him just because they thought he was right?

He thought of the Incident with Thor and Doom, of Steve interfering and telling Thor basically the same thing Tony had been trying to get him to understand, and Thor listening to Steve like he hadn't to Iron Man, the whole thing ending with both Iron Man and Thor being accused of being too prideful.

What gave Steve that idea?

Tony was at a loss for words, which allowed Cap to continue, and...

“Tony Stark isn't one of us.”

Well, look at that. Happy was right – Tony too, but he could have been biased, personal feelings and all that.

The old fantasy of the helmet being thrown across the room, hurled at Captain America's feet, rose its ugly head, and Tony forced himself to stay still.

Cap, of course, wasn't finished.

“He's not a hero. He has no skin in the game. And his lieutenants, who's he got, Reed and Hank? They're scientists. You're a fighter. You're a superhero. If you turned, you'd take a hell of a lot of people with you, and you know it.”

There was so much there he could address, starting with the way Steve seemed so down with spitting on Tony's friends, on his own friends, who had risked their lives just as often as most other veterans superheroes, who deserved more than what Captain America was giving them here, no matter their flaws. True, on a rather more PR level, Reed and Hank didn't rank as high as Iron Man, especially as Reed was shit at human interraction, and Hank had Ultron and That One Time in his wake, but Steve knew next to nothing about PR, so this stung coming from him.

Anyway, Steve wasn't done. There was still the usual reproach, the one which ended every argument lately, the one Tony couldn't dispel for obvious reasons, and Steve thought voided everything else Iron Man could say.

“But, we both know you care about Tony more than anyone else.”

Not true, and even if it was, he could still argue that someone needed to, and he didn't see Steve – or anyone else, for the matter, not since Rumiko – volunteering.

That, however, would need him to take off the mask, and he knew how well that'd go.

So he just took a breath, bit inside his mouth.

It's not like you think it is, Steve.”

Who knew, maybe if he said it often enough, Steve would finally start believing.

He wouldn't count on it.

For once, Cap didn't immediately sneer a “right” at him, and Tony waited, warily, for what would come next. Maybe Steve was just biding his time. Maybe he was keeping the sneer for later, for a comment that he'd think particularly well thought-out, except it would be so far out the window it would just make Tony long for a brandy.

For now, though, Steve was licking his lips – perhaps the ghost of a smile, but so tentative and forced that it was unrecognizable.

“You make some good points, though. What if... What if I said I was thinking about it? What if I said that you could... convince me?”

Tony didn't move for what felt like a long time. Waiting for the next blow. For the explosion of anger, which wasn't coming.

Yet.

Maybe this was it. Maybe this was the time Steve proved him wrong. Maybe this was what he'd waited for all along. Maybe this was the moment Captain America gave him – Iron Man, not Tony Stark, but at this point he'd take it – a chance.

He didn't believe it, but he could be wrong. It happened.

Then I suppose I'd... ask what I could do to... convince you?”

“One question. The truth.”

Steve hadn't believed him, so far, whenever he did say the truth, but depending on the question, he could... There were things he hadn't told anyone, because no one cared, and those who did would almost certainly cause more harm than good shall they learn about it, but if that what it took to get Steve's ear, he'd say it. Hell, even if he asked something like, is it true Stark will go for the post of Director of SHIELD, he could say it, and the answer wouldn't be what Steve expected, but if he had to say everything, to talk about Kooning, to admit that of course this wasn't him who'd asked, that he didn't want to...

There were so many possibilities of questions, and some wouldn't change anything, because Steve would simply not believe the answers – whereas he might believe a lie, but that was obviously not the point – but some others could make it better.

Some could make standing in those ruins of everything that was and could never be again, worth it.

Anything. Anything, I swear.”

Steve looked at him, reached for his shield, and put it on the table between them.

He opened his mouth.

Asked.

“Who are you?”

It was a broken record, Tony realized. It always came back to that, and...

He seriously considered telling Steve, then. Not with a thrown helmet, not with a dramatic posture, not like the usual fantasy, just, taking off the whole armor, all of a sudden. Easy, with Extremis, to shut it down with a thought.

Letting Steve see for himself.

He imagined being the man who broke Captain America.

Just by answering his question honestly.

It made him laugh.

To be honest, thinking he could break Steve like that was very egomaniac of him. Steve would probably just stare at him, and storm out. Then it'd be all over the news, or at least, the whole community would know, in a matter of hours. Tony would sit back, let himself out of the game, and watch the world burn while they hurled insults at him, because there wouldn't be anything left for him to do, to salvage this mess, and the others would just end up having to face the fact that even without him to spearhead Registration, this wasn't going away.

Who knew, after getting public, maybe another Kenny would take a shot at him, and this time it would work.

He'd never been good at watching the world burn.

He wasn't sure he wouldn't just fry his brain with a repulsor ray once Steve stormed out, either.

...God. You would ask that. Oh, God, you would. Jesus. How is this my life?”

The repulsor ray to the head was still an option.

He hated crying in the armor.

He hated crying in general.

It happened all too often, actually.

He needed to sit down, and to explode his own skull with a – wait, shame there were no bottles of alcohol left around here, that would have been more than appropriate.

He only left himself do the first of those two things. Thing n°2 wouldn't help anyone but himself, and that would be selfish, wouldn't it?

He really wanted to be selfish, but. The price was too high – it always was.

Weird that he never put an automatic shutdown option in Extremis, it would come in handy in case of overwhelming suicidal urges. Or, you know, if someone tried to get him to do something terrible, to brainwash him into betraying everyone's secrets, to... Like, a thought, and lights out. No more Tony Stark.

Ah, right. That would give them – whoever they would be – access to a successful Extremis subject. Not good. Add in some self-destruct capability, then. His remodelled DNA crumbling on itself right after death. Nothing valuable left.

Yeah, but. He already has a self-destruct plan, in case the world went crazy and decided someone like, say, Gyrich, should be at the head of SHRA – not that Gyrich was, in facts, a bad man, but while he didn't hate superheroes his level of distrust towards them was generally so counterproductive it could overshadow any actual good intent – and Tony had to destroy the database entirely and hightail it out of here, and while he might not need the memory feature, depending on the situation, he'd still have to get rid of the various armors he had left around the world, just in case, and for that he couldn't go with a quick delete.

Anyway.

The problem, here, wasn't that Steve wouldn't believe him if he answered the question.

The problem was that, once Steve would know the answer, he wouldn't believe anything else Tony might say afterwards. Because, well, Tony Stark.

He tried to look back at Steve. Failed. Ended up looking somewhere next to Steve's left ear.

You know, you've never asked me that before.”

Not that way, at least. Not directly. There had been the Randall Pierce fiasco, and all those questions which answers all rounded back to the fact that Iron Man was Tony Stark, but never, never an actual question about his identity.

Steve looked uneasy, and yet determined.

“It didn't. It... didn't matter to me. But now, with Registration, with everything... You're standing for accountability. For transparency. And no one knows who you are. Not even the Avengers. Hell, even when I had a secret identity to the public, it was never secret to you. You've known my name from the beginning.”

Aside from the fact that Steve, once again, didn't even question how exactly Tony could have pulled placing Iron Man inside SHRA without giving his identity to anyone, how he'd managed to be put at the head of Registration without revealing who was his bodyguard, well. It wasn't entirely wrong.

If not for the fact that he wasn't for transparency per se, only for accountability.

But hey, approximations, and Steve's point still stood.

Kind of.

It wasn't like Tony wouldn't have let him keep his identity secret, had Steve not wanted him to know, had the situation allowed it. It wasn't as if someone knowing something about you entitled you to get the same information about them.

Still, he didn't see how to tell Steve that without getting punched, and anyway he'd promised – he should have known better, really, because obviously Steve would manage to ask the one question no one wanted answered, not even Steve himself, no matter what he thought.

He tilted his head, looked at Steve – for real, this time.

Cap went on.

“Your boss talked Peter Parker into outing himself to the world, and yet you're still a mystery. Even to us. Even to me. It doesn't matter to me who you are, what you look like, what your name is.”

Liar. Such a freaking liar. It was hilarious how much of a liar Steve could be, and still pretend he was a parangon of virtue.

Hilarious.

Tony would probably be sneering, if the voice filters weren't on and hiding that sound even from him.

Steve gulped, and Tony knew that what would follow would be the truth.

“But it matters to me that it's a secret. I... just think...”

Another gulp. It mattered even more, didn't it, that it was a secret from Steve of all people.

“...that it's fair. That you should put your money where your mouth is. I won't tell anyone. I just... I want the truth. For me. After all these years.”

There was a tentative smile on his lips, and Tony could admit that he yearned to see it turn into a ugly grimace as Steve would be confronted with the truth. Just to prove that for all his promises, Steve wasn't as good as he liked to think.

Selfish.

I... I... I...”

He was stuttering. Stop it.

Time to break the promise. To give Steve the truths he didn't want, because there were no truth he would want.

It wasn't like Steve's promise to consider it would be kept, anyway, even if Tony honored his end of the bargain. Ending whatever compromise whenever Tony Stark got into the picture seemed to be Steve's preferred course of action, as experience had taught Tony over and over again.

He stood up – heavy, his soul whispered, not that he had a soul left – and walk around the table. Put a hand on Steve's shoulder – saw when his friend's first reaction was rejection, thinking this was, what? A way to get close and kill him with a single blast?

What would Steve think, if he knew who Iron Man really was?

If that was what he thought of Iron Man...

As close as he'd ever get to touch Steve again, he thought – bitter, considering the most actual human contact he'd ever had with Steve was during the whole Carnelian debacle. He pat – with the armor on, difficult to do much more gentle – his way up to Steve's face, ended up cupping his cheek. Absently hoped it didn't hurt – not quite able to throw away the vicious wish that it did, at least a little.

Let's let it all out, then. The actual reason why Steve hated him so.

I know you're in love with me.”

It didn't look like Steve wanted to hear it, but tough luck. Nothing Tony could say was something Steve wanted to hear, if only because he didn't want the truth, and abhorred lies.

Here's a story. A secret. You won't like it.”

Tony didn't like it either, but what could you do. He met his friend's eyes, and wondered how his life would have been if he'd never met Captain America – not necessarily better, but almost certainly easier to live with. Less painful.

I used to be in love with you.”

At this point, he wasn't sure if that was still true. Maybe, maybe not. Depended on your definition of love, really. Lots of people went with the idea that love couldn't be selfish, couldn't hurt the one you loved, or else it wasn't true love. By that definition, neither Steve nor Tony loved each other, he supposed.

He was more partial to the idea that love was ugly more often than not, that it could push and burn and scar until there was nothing left in its wake but ashes and anger whenever the circumstances didn't allow for it to be peaceful.

Sounded more likely.

Or maybe that was more telling about Tony's relationships, romantic and otherwise, than of what true love actually was. One way or another, depressing.

...I tell myself that I used to be, at least. I like to think it helps me get over you. It doesn't, really. I... used to feel better about it, anyway. I used to imagine unmasking for you. I used to imagine you smiling. I used to imagine touching you. I... used to imagine I could make you happy.”

And, as time had gone by, as Tony had realized what exactly those feelings were, Steve had shown him again and again and again that it would never happen. That Tony Stark would never make Steve Rogers happy.

He still didn't understand.

“Please...”

Steve was almost – almost – crying, Tony could see the glints of salted water on the edges of his eyelids – and the question, in the end, wasn't one at all. The supersoldier still believed this could all happen. He still thought there was an “us” in this story.

Tony wondered if, should he unmask now, Steve would go back and burn anything he'd ever gotten from Iron Man.

After all, he'd really gotten them from Tony Stark.

He took a step away. Didn't stop looking at Steve.

But I know I can't.”

“You can...”

I can't. And I know you think you want to know, but you don't. I'm sorry.”

But Steve Rogers wouldn't be Steve Rogers if he didn't think he could make miracles happen if he was stubborn enough about what he wanted – just look at the current situation.

“Your face, no names, just... something, anything. Please.”

Again, unable to see the obvious. Unable to get that, if Iron Man refused to show himself, well. The most obvious explanation was that Steve did know him already. That Steve knew him, and didn't like him. Hated him.

“If I joined... If I joined you, what would I have? Would I have access to the superhuman database?”

Yeah, good idea. Then Steve could start hating Iron Man for having “forced” him to betray himself, his beliefs, and his ideals. Still, a price Tony could pay, if that was what it took. He could, after all, cook something up, and get Steve in a position as high as his own as far as SHRA was concerned. Not that difficult, if Captain America got his head out of his ass and agreed to it – Kooning and the President would love the PR.

...You'd have everything Mr. Stark has. You'd also be working very closely with him, you might want to keep that in mind. I know how you feel about him.”

He was aware he'd sighed, but it wasn't like this wasn't a particularly difficult conundrum. To tell or not to tell, but to fail either way.

Steve's next words were so quiet Tony almost missed them.

“Your identity is in the database.”

He couldn't breath. Always, always back to it. Steve wouldn't care that people did know who he was, even if Iron Man told him, even if those people were the President of the United States, Director Maria Hill, and the Secretary of Defense. As long as “Iron Man” wasn't in the database, he'd call him a hypocrite – which, depending on how you looked at it, wasn't quite false, except, in the end, this wasn't about the database, was it? It was about Steve's access to that database, about the fact that he wouldn't be able to go and look him up, about the reality that, in the end, Iron Man didn't want him to know who he was.

Tony opened a connection to the database through Extremis, a log, and contemplated adding his identity just to tell Steve that yes, he was in it, and then wait for Steve to go and look, despite Iron Man's express refusal.

You could trust Captain America with a lot – Captain America was a good man – but Tony doubted he could trust Steve Rogers with a way to find out who Iron Man was and not expect him to look. And, even if Steve proved him wrong, even if he settled with knowing that indeed, Iron Man was in the database – even if Steve acted on his principles here, and not on his personal anger – wouldn't that be cruel?

He couldn't take the risk, either.

Tony shut down the connection.

No. It isn't.”

You could say a lot about Iron Man, about Tony Stark, about hypocrisy and double standards, but you couldn't accuse him of lying here. Besides, hypocrisy and double standards were far from being his alone.

He saw Steve clench his jaw, and wondered if he was more pissed at Iron Man or at Tony Stark – because obviously this was all Tony Stark's fault, it couldn't be because Iron Man himself didn't want Steve to know. Which, fair, but not considering what Steve knew, and what he thought he knew.

“Well. You've made your choice, then.”

It was hatred in Captain America's eyes, as Steve picked up the shield and made to leave.

“The next time I see you, I'm not holding back.”

Yeah, because the scrambler had been holding back, right.

 

oOo

 

It got worse. Because it went too far, and still got farther and farther into insanity, the Thunderbolts were turned into a task force unlike never before, and Tony, still not Director of SHIELD, couldn't do a thing to stop Hill – still Director of SHIELD – from using them whenever she thought it necessary. 42, the Negative Zone prison, was objected to by Peter and Cap's forces in general.

Meanwhile, reports from Tigra about what ran the rumor mill amongst the rogues told Tony that the Punisher had killed two people – criminals, but apparently that wasonly enough of an excuse when Captain America said so – in the anti-registration side's very presence, and still walked away, because he hadn't put up a fight afterwards.

But, obviously, heroes could police themselves.

Then, of course, because it was the best idea ever, Steve and T'Challa had Cloak teleport everyone in the middle of New York, in front of the Baxter Building. They could have brought the fight to a field in the middle nowhere, but no, Manhattan was a much better idea.

Tony could understand fighting for your rights, but he drew the line at willingly endangering innocent people who had no means to defend themselves – when a supervillain started shit in the middle of a street, that was his fault, not the heroes', but here? Cloak had chosen the destination. And maybe he hadn't thought about it, maybe he hadn't realized what he was doing, but well, that was the exact problem of what had happened at Stamford with Nitro and the New Warriors, wasn't it?

Other option, he'd done it knowingly, and ultimately the one who'd made that decision – be it Cloak himself, T'Challa, Steve, or anyone else on that side – now held the position of the villain who brought the fight to civilians because they didn't care about the consequences except for themselves.

Then Namor involved himself and Atlantis, and knowing the guy, it wasn't out of the goodness of his heart. But nevermind, shady associations were only shady when it wasn't Captain America who made them.

Once again, Steve had his little, absolutely-not-questionable plan to take Iron Man out. Nothing better than to do the whole scrambler ruse again, except this time without ruse and with Vision's assistance instead.

Not that Tony was very conscious for that part. You know, same old, same old. Extremis tearing itself apart, the pain, the death, the unwanted survival. Steve starting to bash the armor in as soon as it stopped hurting enough for Tony to register what was happening.

Still unable to move.

Ah, well.

Steve was probably thinking about how this was all going to end if he went at it hard enough. Because it wasn't like Iron Man – Tony Stark – wasn't the source of all evil. Because it wasn't like there were actual reasons behind the Registration Act – oh look, New York on fire, wonder how that happened – and because it wasn't like there were other people behind this all who would take out the heavy artillery the moment Tony stepped down.

Striking repeatedly at the head – again. The hard sound of the steel-vibranium shield against the helmet – again. The sparks of violence – again.

Relentless.

Extremis flickered back into life, and...

Tony was tired.

He was on the ground, and Extremis was telling him that the faceplate was about to shatter. He could see the undersuit fluttering around his face, as if confused as to what to do, as to how to protect Tony to the best of its capacities. He really wondered why, considering his mind was supposed to be controlling it through Extremis, and he didn't actually feel the need to continue this at all. You'd think his subconscious would be more suicidal than his conscious.

Apparently not.

Captain America hit again. Both hands on the shield for that strike.

Tony was tired of trying.

Steve, one arm with the shield on it in the air again, aiming for yet another strike, froze. His eyes were wide open, his jaws working soundlessly.

The faceplate had fallen into pieces.

Eyes to eyes, Iron Man and Captain America, for the first time – not Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, not Captain America and Tony Stark, no, Iron Man and Captain America, eyes to eyes, for the first time. No faceplates, no eyeslits, no glass between their gazes.

It was everything Tony had expected it to be, down to the horror in Steve's eyes.

The question, now, was whether or not he'd hit one last time.

When Tony smiled, his blood pooled behind his lower lip.

When Tony spoke, it spilled over his chin and the lower part of his helmet.

“Surprise.”

It shouldn't be one, at this point.

It wasn't like there hadn't been any hints. It wasn't like Tony Stark had a tendency to disappear when Iron Man came around – though, okay, occasionally someone else was in the armor, and that was obviously enough to fool most people, but Steve, Steve should have known, if he'd really known Iron Man as well as he thought he did.

Hell, the Mandarin had gotten it, but Tony's own friends didn't seem to even consider the possibility until they were confronted with seeing Iron Man without the faceplate.

His sight blurred. Steve was only a silhouette of Blue, White, and Red, standing over him.

Captain America.

He coughed, felt the blood gurgling in his mouth.

“Here's... another story. I knew a guy, once. Used to be in love with him. He... gave me some advice, a long time ago. He taught me how to fight. And... he told me, if anyone... offers you a sucker punch, they've probably got a reason. That was after I hit him... He knocked me flat. That was after he told me... after he told me...”

There was a piece of the faceplate in his mouth, he realized, digging into his gum – Extremis was pushing it out, reconstructing the wound slowly, and that was the reason he knew, now. That was where the blood was coming from.

“Give it your best shot.”

Maybe, this time, Steve would understand what it meant to make a mistake for people like them.

Or not. But in that case, Tony wouldn't be here to live with it, and he couldn't quite bring himself to care for the consequences that he wouldn't have to face anyway if it came to that.

He'd tried, God knew he'd tried.

 

oOo

 

He was hurting all over. Extremis was reconstructing about half his internal organs, the bruising from Steve's blows, the nerve damage from Vision's attack. It wasn't visible anymore, not after the first hour of advanced healing, but inside was another matter.

Tomorrow the President would make him Director of SHIELD, and at the same time announce the global amnesty for all the rogue heroes, granted they weren't, actually, outright murderers like Frank Castle – Captain America, of course, wasn't in the deal, because Tony didn't make miracles, but what was certain was that there would be no death sentence, and, as long as Steve didn't act like his bullheaded self during his trial, as long as he admitted to having done some things he shouldn't have, even if he still stood by his beliefs, the most he'd get would probably be a few months and possibly a probation with the Thunderbolts – which would do them a lot of good, if even one of them could use their ears for something else than listening to their own voices.

Of course, if they kept superheroing without authorization afterwards, they'd go right back on the list, but Tony could manage a minimum of compromises within the purview of the Act. If no major catastrophe happened in the next two months, he might even succeed to push for a voluntary, default reserve statut.

He'd have to start looking for a suitable replacement for Director of SHIELD if Nick didn't make a brilliant comeback in the next few months. Which meant he also needed to take care of the Kooning problem – get him out, or get him in line, or at least make sure he wouldn't be able to dangle the next director the way he was trying to do it with Tony himself.

He couldn't do miracles, but if they all tried...

The sound of a glass being put down on a counter, liquid sloshing around, got his attention. He was alone in his private rooms at the Tower, Extremis hadn't picked on anyone through the security cameras, but with powered people – or even superscience – you could never be entirely sure.

Tony slowly turned around, waiting for the next attack on his life – or at least his physical well-being. Steve having surrendered didn't necessarily mean even the good guys all agreed with him. Or, the usual villains, but that had nothing to do with the current situation.

The man in his kitchen had a sardonic smile on his face, a perfectly trimed goatee, a thousands-dollars designer suit, a glass of amber next to him, and was, he immediately knew, Tony Stark.

Good work.”

He picked up the glass, took three steps to stand in front of Tony.

Raised the glass to their lips.

I mean it, Tony, good work. Of course, it could have gone better, but it could also have gone so much worse, and factually almost everything that didn't go well wasn't your fault, wasn't because you didn't try hard enough. So, good work.”

It smelled of bourbon.

Shapeshifter? His enemies were rarely supportive – not that his friends were either, but not the point. LMD? Nick might want to contact him that way, but this certainly didn't sound like him at all. Too polite, and way too supportive. Could be, however, a self-aware LMD who really liked him – sentient armor, hello – and had become self-aware – that too had already happened, which had kickstarted one of his numerous heart attacks, right before the synthetic heart.

Not exactly a good prospect.

Or...

He raised his glass in a gesture of victory, and smiled at Tony.

Bingo. You're having hallucinations, Tony. Or, at least for now, you're hallucinating me. Think about it, when was the last time you slept?”

Raised eyebrows, an actual invitation for an answer.

“Three days.”

One-hour naps don't count if they're not frequent enough to amount to at least three hours of sleep a day. You can't talk your way around your subconscious, Tony, and while I'm aware you didn't lie here, I am also entirely aware of the exact circumstances you're facing right now, so. More than the truth, because the truth is fickle, I want the actual answer to my question.”

It might not actually be a hallucination, maybe it was only pretending to be one, in order to trick him into lowering his guard. But, in that case, it was also a mind-reader.

Tony was going to play along, for now.

“Eleven days, five hours, and eight days before that, four hours.”

The other him snorted, put the glass back down. Tony wondered if he'd touch it, if he reached out, if the glass was real, if the bourbon in it was real, if the reality of the glass and the alcohol could tell him that the man with his eyes and his beard and his anxiety behind his controlled face who was standing in his kitchen was in fact real, or if the hallucination could make him believe it had been in its hand when it had been on the counter all along.

Better not to taste to make sure.

Yeah, and thirteen days before that, six hours, and all the way back to two months ago. What about eating, or drinking? How often have you pushed yourself past the human limit in the past, Tony, and how often since you've gotten Extremis? Extremis is good, but not that good. After a time, well.”

He spread his arms, as if to say, Tadaa! – here I am.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't blame you. You did what you had to do. And if the price was that we didn't have the time to sleep, to eat, to drink, to stop... Well. It was worth it. Still doesn't change the result, though.”

“Hallucinations, you mean.”

Hallucinations.”

Tony looked away from the glass of bourbon, and back at the self-proclaimed hallucination.

“A point to your presence, or are you just there to tell me I should go to sleep?”

A derisive look, a sharp laugh.

As if you could sleep right now, Tony. Don't try to play smart with me, I know exactly what you're thinking. So, no. I'm here because you've pushed yourself too far, which mean you've missed one thing, and well. Your subconscious, which is me, I'm sure you'd gotten that, but, still, saying it out loud, so, I'm here to tell you you missed something.”

A squint, and a scowl.

And no, again, I'm not blaming you, it's not like the others noticed either, and you were pretty busy, and you did a good job, so. But, now that it's finished, I should...”

The door opened at that exact moment, revealing Hank in civilian clothes, but with an unknown device in his hands, a dark look on his face.

Tony's eyes flickered one last time to the hallucination, that Hank didn't seem to see, which probably told him it was actually a hallucination, or at least not someone visible to anyone else than Tony.

“Hank, why are you her...”

Hank pointed the device at him, and while it didn't look like a gun, it didn't look like a water pistol either. A green dot was blinking in Tony's direction, faster and faster, until it blinked out, as if disappointed.

Hank – well, Tony had to say he hadn't seen that one coming, not from Hank of all people, but maybe that was what the other one had been saying, maybe this was what he'd missed, wait, no, what if he was an hallucination too – sneered.

“It took me some time to get it, 'Stark', but the moment I understood you'd gone biologic, I thought something was wrong. There was no way V'ra would do that, not while borrowing someone else's form, not on human technology. So, the answer was obvious; I have no idea why or how, but you're not V'ra.”

Before Tony could ask what this was all about – and yes, you'd think people who wanted your death and / or suffering, which was apparently Hank's case, supposing that was Hank, of course; you'd think they wouldn't answer, but villains, and ill-intentioned people in general, actually had a weird tendency to monologue – the dot on the device flared gold, and the world pulsed around him.

Not like the electron scrambler, or Vision's grip, but just as unpleasant. Still aware, though.

For now.

Hank's – or not Hank? – voice reached him through a veil of suffocation.

The other Tony had disappeared with a terrified look on his face, just as the device had been activated. Whatever this was, it was messing with Extremis.

“Who know, you might even be the original, though I have no idea how you got out if that's the case. So I'm telling you, as soon as I'm done with you, 'Stark', I'm going to look for V'ra, and I'm going to ruin whatever you were planning here. We're here, and it's too late, you can't do anything about it.”

The pressure on his mind was going up. Tony could feel his body almost vibrating under the strain, and the injuries that had still been healing since the fight at the Baxter Building were reopening. Other things were happening too – oh, feel that, the well-known feeling of death clawing at his innards – but with Extremis on the brink of shutdown he wasn't getting any notifications – or possibly, too many, and he couldn't consciously deal with the knowledge. If the other one had still been there, he'd probably be saying something like, Dang, Tony, that was your right lung giving in, you know.

Blood pooled behing his teeth.

Hank – not-Hank – turned a dial on his device, and...

The door slammed open, Tony saw someone who looked a bit like Agent Vera Lockhart pull a gun on Hank and shoot, except she was green and – oh, skrull – tears were flooding his eyes, except they were pink – crimson? – and he couldn't see right. One of his knees collapsed under him – left – and next thing he – didn't, because he was almost out at that point – knew his hand banged against the floor.

“No no no no no, Tony, stay with me, stay with me, don't, wait, I can help you, I can...”

His hearing seemed to explode on him, and he couldn't hear the rest, except the skrull who was very likely to be Agent Vera Lockhart – wait, V'ra, right, that was what not-Hank had said, and wasn't that the name of the scientist he'd met on Throneworld? – was kneeling next to him, trying to...

To what? Help? Why?

He could feel her fingers on him and then...

Then he couldn't – sense of touch: gone.

The last thing he saw was not-Hank reverting to skrull-form – so that was what the other one had been trying to warn him about – and trying to attack Lockhart – Vera – V'ra while holding onto her injured side. Tony couldn't feel his arm, his elbow, or his head, but he pushed himself on the first one, used the second to push the very-female-and-very-angry skrull away from V'ra, and headbutted her unconscious.

Then his arm – the one he couldn't feel, not that he could feel either of his arms, but considering that one was currently supporting him, it was a bigger deal right now – gave out, his sight did too, and there wasn't anything else left.