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Tend Towards Decay

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It wasn't really Tony's mind, Strange had explained. That was gone, broken, shut down.

Tony's body was on the gurney. His brain was in the hard drive. Tony had been confident that bringing the two back together, and adding power, would be enough. Tony didn't really believe in the soul, which might have been his motivation for working so hard to change the world. He'd always seemed driven to leave a mark, for when there was no Tony and only his footprints remained.

But somewhere, somewhere lost, between meat and data, there was a soul, spirit,something that was Tony. It wasn't anywhere that could be defined by conventional methods.

Not yet, Steve heard, a whisper of Tony's voice that might have been imagination. But in this place, it might not.

Everything had to be somewhere, and things that weren't quite real went to places that weren't quite real. Strange had explained it with the kind of careful patience Reed Richards used when addressing Congress . This was a place shaped by Tony's mind, or his spirit, or perhaps it was inside his spirit - perhaps both - and didn't surprise him that it wasn't a very nice place. Steve had vaguely expected something futuristic and gleaming, a crystal city or a metal labyrinth, but there was no sign of Tony's seething creativity and innovation here. Just a bare plain, the far horizons smudging into the sky. It was dim and dusty, and for some reason Steve had appeared in his uniform, the only patch of colour visible in this faded place.

Tony almost blended into the dirt, dust darkening his pale clothes and lightening his hair. On his knees, hunched over, if there was anything else to see in this space Steve might have overlooked him. He didn't look up as Steve approached, intent on the hole he was digging, but when Steve's dim shadow fell over him, from no light source Steve could identify, Tony twitched and his head started to turn before he redoubled his efforts.

"Help me dig," he said in low urgent tones, and Steve frowned at him.

"Tony," he said, and Tony's head snapped round, wide eyes startlingly bright blue in his dusty face.

"Oh," he said. His face settled into lines of tired resignation. "It's you. They're bringing out the big guns, huh?"

"Who is?" said Steve, and Tony shrugged.

"Me, I suppose. There's no one else in here. I guess this is all me." He turned back to his digging, and Steve crouched down beside him.

Strange had told him that Tony would be likely be surrounded by phantoms of his own mind, artifacts of memory and guilt. There was nothing here that Steve could see, though, and Tony showed no signs of hearing voices or seeing things. He watched Tony's hands rake back the dirt. Odd to see Tony, without a single tool.

"So, I'm here," said Steve, and Tony shook his head, not looking up. "Strange sent me in. We're trying to reboot you, but you won't."

Tony's hands slowed, and he tipped his head.

"That's... possible," he conceded, and flicked a glance up. "I mean, except for you being dead and all. Were you a Skrull, then? I hoped you were a Skrull, but the autopsy - " his words tumbled out too fast, and Steve cut him off.

"No, I - I was - I was me. But I didn't really - it was a plot by the Red Skull." The thought of trying to explain that Sharon had shot him with time bullets - "It was complicated."

"Really?" said Tony, and his lips curved into a smile rich with disbelief. "It wasn't - it wasn't my fault, then." The smile died. "Although that's just what I want to hear."

"Well, it also happens to be true," said Steve. "I'm not saying that parading me through the streets in shackles didn't help - " Tony winced "- but I'm pretty sure the nemesis I fought decades before you were born would have settled for an assassination with less dramatic irony." It was hard to keep his tone even; part of him wanted to blame Tony, and the sensible part of him knew that wasn't fair.

"You know, I thought - you'd either want to kill me, or have forgiven me, if we met again. I mean, we both died. Kind of. Seems that should've ended the argument." said Tony.

"You'd think," said Steve. "But."

"Yeah." Tony sat back on his heels, and looked at the hole in the ground. Slowly, it began to fill itself in, matter from nowhere, like watching Wolverine's body deal with a gaping wound. Tony sighed, and picked at the dirt under his nails. "So they're going to repeal it, right?"

"The President says it's likely going to happen. I've been pardoned. We're going to be looking at ways to make heroes accountable, without forcing them to give up their identities."

"Well. Then." Tony gave him an assessing look, and then his mouth twisted in a smile. "I told you so."

"Told me - " Steve's fists clenched. He breathed, taking in dry warm air. This wasn't the time to get into an argument. There would be time later. There would - no, now "Did you - " he looked into Tony's eyes, saw the cynical amusement there, and his mind raced. I look at the future, Tony had said to him. Tony who'd lobbied against the SHRA until it was inevitable, and then - "You intended it to fail?"

"I wasn't expecting the Skrulls," Tony admitted. "They were unpredictable. But I always screw it up sooner or later, don't I? I couldn't see Registration going any differently. If the Skrulls hadn't - people were already starting to realise what they'd lost, were starting to look at me suspiciously. If Urich and Floyd had the journalistic ethics they pretend to - But then Osborn - " he shrugged. "That was a development that surprised me, but I made it work - without revealing any secret identities to him, I might add."

Steve put his head in his hands, trying to reassess the picture. He'd told himself, again and again, that he could forgive Tony, because Tony had been doing what he believed was right, was acting out of conviction, of dedication, or service to the people. The same reasons Steve was fighting. If it had all been an elaborate con game -

"Wait. All those things. The prisons. The supervillains. The - are you telling me you were deliberately - "

"I was going to be Osborn, I guess. People would eventually realise I was crazy, that I couldn't be trusted - that was why it had to be me, I have such a history of going off the rails. Who wouldn't believe it? But Osborn's even better, a full-fledged supervillain put in charge, that'll make people see - they are starting to realise, right? The footage got out - he's losing his grip, I've seen it."

"Yeah. Yeah, he's starting... " Steve trailed off. "Christ, Tony."

"Like I knew Stamford would happen, I knew the pendulum would swing and something too bad to cope with would happen in the name of Registration," Tony said. He put out his hand, and touched the back of Steve's gloved hand. "Please believe me. I never thought - I didn't think it would be you. But that was it, the step too far. I could feel things starting to turn. If I'd known - I wanted to tell you that! You asked me if it was worth it, remember? Before. And I couldn't answer you. Because it was, then. You'd be pardoned, or maybe jailed, and things would change -my crimes would come out, or a hero would die, or the supervillains would overstep the mark... or people would just change their minds. In a year or two they'd wise up and call you back to duty and get rid of the Act."

"But I was shot," said Steve.

"And it wasn't worth it. I could go so far, Steve, but I could never - I wanted to tell you..." Tony frowned at him. "You're not really here, are you?"

"I am."

"You turn up alive, telling me things I want to hear, giving me a chance - I was expecting it, during the Skrull invasion, you know. To have a Steve turn up. And I didn't know... how I would have told you apart. I wanted you to be alive. You're just another hallucination." Tony dug his fingers into the earth again.

"What are you digging for?" Steve grabbed a handful of the yellow dirt. It felt more like packing foam than anything else. He watched the dent fill itself in. Tony was just about keeping ahead of it, slowly enlarging the hole, the methodical procedure of someone who had long experience in construction.

"I don't know. More hallucinations. Oranges. What do oranges symbolize?"

"Christmas?" hazarded Steve, and Tony shrugged.

"It's not good, in here. I keep dying, and my subconscious is as subtle as a brick. My dad turned up to tell me I couldn't accept help. Thanks, Dad. What valuable life lessons do you bring?"

"Are you only going to believe in things you don't want to be true?"

"Maybe," said Tony doubtfully. "I haven't heard a truth I liked in a while." He threw a handful of dirt, studded with little pebbles that vanished when they hit the ground. "Steve. I miss you. I wish we could talk. I wish I could - "

Steve's spent too long skipping through his past; when he finds himself stepping over the wreckage, into the Avengers Mansion, he feels a giddying swoop of terror, the conviction he's still there, lost in time, that his return was merely hallucinatory madness. But when his eyes adjust to the light, instead of Tony, he sees - himself.

These aren't his memories. They're Tony's. The steady pressure on his skin is the underarmour, and the green traceries in his vision resolve into an HUD. There are things clustered at the edges of his vision, little alerts and status bars. Steve can't shake the feeling he's in one of those first-person shooter games Peter likes.

"Don't try to make this personal," he hears his earlier self say in a cold distant tone, and he feels the knot of pain in his, in Tony's gut tighten. His own face, glaring, and at first he thinks it's a little different becuase when he sees it, he sees it in the mirror. But that's not quite it. It's Tony's memory of Steve, of course, and it's a little embarrassing, because that's a taller, more handsome Steve. Unfamiliar. But the deep longing Tony feels, that's familiar, the need to repair their friendship, the need for his best friend. It hurts terribly, more than it should and he's vaguely aware that it's Extremis, hurting him, and that he needs to be calm. Clinical. Reasonable. Then Extremis will take its claws out. He breathes, and thinks of how to best phrase an appeal to Steve, and the pain subsides.

"I think it's a lot more personal than either one of us realised," Tony's voice says, and he sees the blond brows draw together. Steve wonders, suddenly, why Tony hadn't asked him to take the cowl down when he refused to talk to the mask. "You're the perfect man," Tony says, and there's a dark humour to the feeling that didn't seep through into the voice. A flash of pain silvers his vision, and he knows that Extremis is warning him. Be calm. Think, don't feel. Steve reaches past the pain and forces speech.

"I never liked Extremis," he said loudly, and the memory shattered away and the plain stretched around them, just him and Tony. He'd stopped digging, hands loose on his thighs. He didn't seem confused by Steve's remark; had he been in the memory too? Had this place changed around them, or had it all been in his head? He remembered the feel of the Extremis, twining through him like ivy through a tree, pain spinning along his veins. Why had it hurt? Tony had - "You loved it," he said, an accusation, and why did it hurt he wanted to say, but Tony's face was bleak and pained.

"I loved it," said Tony. "It fixed me. It made me better. I never had time, couldn't do everything - I was the CEO of an international company and helping run the Avengers and being head engineer of my company and keeping the armour upgraded - and - and I wasn't. As young. As I used to be."

He stopped, and took a breath, and another. Steve looked at his hair, thick and dark, and that wasn't quite right, Tony had been greying just a little. Steve had noticed when they'd sparred, he'd been losing his edge, but he'd thought Tony had been slacking off, but Tony was thirty-five now, and that wasn't young.

"I couldn't do it all anymore, and there wasn't anything I could stop doing. But with the Extremis - I could do ten things at once. I had all the time in the world. I could keep track of everything, every detail, cope with - but I was wrong, wasn't I?"

Steve doesn't really remember this moment, Tony fighting the last Argonaut, though he's seen video footage. He knows he - Captain America - lies somewhere underfoot, trying to cling to consciousness. There's a screen, an Extremis screen, showing him vital signs, and he can feel a thread of Tony's attention monitoring them; Steve's heartbeat is strong and steady; he can give his attention to the Argonaut.

The flickering race of information, projections of its movements, analysis of its attacks, his vision is filled with complex structures of light as Tony and the Extremis break it all down and rebuild it, trace the patterns, and he can counter every move it makes, but he can't find an edge. Again and again, and it's like shadow-boxing -

The puzzle falls neatly into place, he feels the realization, that this fight is unwinnable, and because he knows it the Argonaut must know it too. He takes off the helmet, and he goads the thing, almost absently, while running over his options; he touches briefly over Steve's vital signs, the comfort of his heartbeat, and somehow, in the complex feedback loops of their link, the Argonaut discerns the chink in Tony Stark's armour.

Screens flicker red, emergency signs flash up and data runs too fast to see; his eyes report a second later, the optic nerve a winding country road compared to the highway of Extremis, and Tony's terror rises as metal fingers tighten on Steve's body with the inevitability of an iceberg.

Steve can remember that, the feel of his ribcage creaking, his spine compressing. He feels Tony's panic-rage-terror stevestevesteve suddenly coalesce into a neat shining path, a problem solved, a simple equation. And pleasure, somehow, that he can fix this, the comforting certainty that dying is a small price to pay for Steve's safety, always has been.

He feels the flood of dazzling pain, and the familiar sensation that is having no heartbeat. He's aware of his brain shutting down. Hearing's always the first to go. Steve's never asked Tony what it was like to die.

It's an oddly clean feeling.

"Don't look at that," said Tony, curt. Anger, but there was hurt in the set of his jaw, and Steve stared down at him, feeling obscurely guilty. It was ridiculous, the number of times he'd seen Tony die.

"I'm not doing it," he said, and Tony looked up at him, eyes squinted. "I'm not doing anything." He hesitated.

Steve had always known Tony would go to ridiculous lengths for him. He almost never said no to Steve, however ridiculous or petty the request, from re-forming the Avengers to putting aside the paperwork and coming out for a burger. A combination of Tony's fierce loyalty and his respect for the icon that was Captain America.

"I - I don't understand. How could you - how could you go from that, to - "

And for a second he sees himself, in the first fight of their war, but Tony's not even looking at the screen that shows Steve in a mess of blood and rage, jaw broken. He's looking at thermal images, X-rays, line models, even raw binary code is sheeting down, but the visual inputs that would show him Steve are pushed to the rearmost layer of data.

Steve feels Tony's - feels nothing, because Tony's flying high and distant on adrenaline and can't feel a thing, just processing the clear streams of information, no bloodstains, only energy levels. He's looking so hard at the the things that aren't Steve, he doesn't notice Hercules dropping a fucking building on him.

"You beat me bloody and taunted me about it," said Steve, the wound suddenly raw. Tony hadn't even been looking at him. "You didn't even care. I couldn't believe it."

"It wasn't easy," said Tony, very quietly. "It's not like you held back."

"Bullshit," said Steve. "I couldn't - "

He smacks down onto his back, breath knocked out of him, and Steve rises up above him like the wrath of God, fist cocked - and he wants Steve to hit him, because right now, whatever he's told Steve, he hates himself, and he wants Steve to hate him, because if there's any chance Steve will forgive him he might just cave in - and Steve - doesn't hit him. Lowers his fist, and looks at him like he's going to cry, and Tony opens his mouth and then shuts it, as Extremis bites hard.

There's a fleeting memory of the time Steve taught him to fight, and a sweet sick lurch of feeling towards the young, smiling Captain America before he's lying in the wreckage again, watching Steve's bleak face turn away from him.

Steve remembered looking down at him, at the blank empty expression, and thinking that he was far away - that if Steve hit him, he wouldn't feel it. He'd been thinking, then -

"Are you - " he hesitated, but that ache of longing was all too identifiable. "You're in love with me?" Steve said finallly, and Tony shook his head. He turned around, and began digging again. Steve sat next to him, and waited.

"Not anymore," Tony said, after a while. "I gave it up. I had to."

"Gave it up? Like a bad habit?" said Steve. From the time with the Argonaut, to the first battle of Registration - weeks. Tony gave a one-shouldered shrug.

"I used Extremis," he said. "After - after I stopped my heart, when that thing was crushing you - I was so scared, I never told you, but the thought of one of my creations killing you was the worst thing I could imagine. Which is pretty ironic, the way things worked out. But I realised that I couldn't - I couldn't fight you like that, how could I? I had to give it up. Let go."

"I don't," Steve stopped.

"I couldn't exactly go to war with you if I was terrified of you getting hurt," said Tony.

"Why didn't you talk to me?" Steve burst out. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because you'd talk me out of it. I couldn't listen to you, not really, because I was afraid - you'd give me a speech, you'd make me believe, I'd have faith in you, and - I knew how things were. So I only talked to you when it was already too late for me to change my path. I thought maybe you'd - that you'd join me." He paused. "No, no I didn't. I knew it was too late. I just... hoped, maybe, you wouldn't hate me. I mean, I wasn't wrong. And after - all that happened, there will be greater accountability. It'll be better. That's what I wanted. And I hoped that you'd - that you could forgive me. I still want that. But at first, I couldn't risk talking to you. Because you'd say, come fight this with me. And how could I say no?"

"But how did - "

"I programmed Extremis. Every time I felt. More than I should. It blocked it out. If it couldn't block it, it - stimulated pain receptors. A little bit. It stopped me thinking of you. It worked so well, it wasn't long before I didn't think of you at all, and when you were there, I just - thought. I didn't feel."

Steve remembered the sleeting green walls of data, sealing him off from everything, the emptiness of a mind cleaned of feeling.

"I never liked Extremis," he said. Tony just dug harder at the earth. "Why are you still digging?" he said, and Tony's hands slowed. He peered into the hole, and then up at the empty sky.

"I don't know," he said crossly, and shot Steve an irritable glare. He looked just like Tony, tired and grouchy, as if it was the end of a long day and Steve would nag him to sleep and he'd nod and smile and sneak off to the workshop. So much time, knowing Tony, and never knowing that about him. That he'd loved Steve for years.

You're his closest friend, Strange had said. Maybe just knowing you're alive will be enough.

If not, you'll have to find something else.

Steve reached out, and touched his cheek, and he shied away, eyes widening.

Steve put a hand on his shoulder, gently pulled him in, settled him against his chest. Tony looked away from him, up at the sky.

"You don't have the Extremis anymore," he said, breathing deliberately against the skin of Tony's neck, watching him shiver. Not really here. Not even a real place. Would the real Tony feel like this? What would he have done, before, if Tony had said I love you?

"The point was it would train me out of it, like Pavlov's dog," said Tony. "It worked."

"Right," said Steve, letting scepticism fill his voice, and he wasn't surprised to fall into a memory.

It hurts, it hurts incredibly, pain and regret and anger, the desperate wish that it hadn't had to be this way, the conviction that nothing could have been worse than this.

Steve is dead. Bloody. Extremis is tearing at him, and every flash of love and regret is met with sharp pain, and that's exactly right, how it should be. Right now, it's as if his whole body is at war with itself; is this how it feels for Wolverine, his body fighting to eject the toxic adamantium, all the time?

He'd have blacked out from the pain if Extremis hadn't been keeping him conscious. He's fought battles shattered and broken, but there's never been anything worse than just standing here, knowing it's over, that he won, that history will look back and say that today was the day Registration was doomed. I can't say exactly, but something will happen- Not this, anything but this.

After this. He'll adjust the settings again. He can't afford to be feeling all this. Not now. Now, more than ever, he needs to make this work. He'll shut down - shut down the - he staggers, and grips the edge of the table. Breathes slow and steady through his nose, concentrating on the feel of the cold air in his throat, and there's a second's respite until his enhanced senses taste the blood in the air, and he wants to throw up.

He has to make it work. He can close down, redirect, build new paths for his brain which skirt all those memories and regrets and fantasies -

He can stop thinking about Steve. Stop thinking about the guilt, about all the things he's done to bring them to this point.

What's past, is prologue.

If it doesn't work, he killed Steve for no reason at all.

"You're ridiculous," said Steve, and Tony flinched away. "Don't you ever realise sometimes you just have to stop?"

He pulled Tony into his arms, held him tight with his arms pinned to his sides. Gratifyingly, even in this strange place, he was strong enough to hold Tony still. Maybe it was just because they both knew Steve was stronger.

He twisted, dragging Tony down on to the bare dirt, rolled him onto his back. Covered him with his own body and kissed him. Tony didn't even put up a show of resistance, just curled his fingers into Steve's hair and kissed him, making urgent noises.

"Steve," he crooned. "Oh God, oh God, you're alive," and he was mouthing at Steve's neck, at the pounding pulse there. "I didn't kill you."

"No, you didn't," Steve said softly. "It's fine, I'm fine." He put his hand on Tony's chest, and felt the smooth planes of unscarred muscle. The real Tony - no, this was the real Tony - the physical Tony had a repulsor generator set there now, in a starburst of fresh incisions. He'd hate that, he's always hated the articificial heart.

Sitting in Tony's bed at Avengers Mansion, every breath painful, the flesh still healing around the lump of metal shoved into his ribcage. There's urgent paperwork scattered over his lap, and he's ignoring it, because Steve's come to keep him company, sprawled on the end of his bed with a book, basking in the sunlight. He's just watching the light pick out fine golden strands of hair, and thinking about touching him. Not that he's going to; but he's had the week from Hell, and just thinking about it a comfort, knowing that Steve would give him puzzled look and maybe smile and he'd tolerate Tony ruffling his hair.

Tony groaned against his shoulder, and grabbed onto his hair.

"Wanted to - to touch you. For so long." At some point, they'd stopped wearing clothes. He wasn't sure how that happened, and the earth didn't feel like earth under his knees and elbows, it was weirdly spongy, but Tony's mouth felt real and vital. It wasn't, of course, this was a dream, a shared hallucination, a fantasy, but Tony's hands were flitting down his spine, grabbing his hips, fingertips walking up his ribs, never stopping. "Steve," he said. "Please, please be real - "

Clasping Steve's waist, feeling the the lack of tension in his body as they fly over the city, Steve's arm casually draped over the armour's shoulder as he gazes around him, a little smile on his face. Steve loves flying like this, and Tony loves it too, loves that he can get Steve all to himself, hold him close.

Tony held him so tight, twined and wrapped around him, that he couldn't really move, and they just rubbed together shallow and awkward. Tony was making choked noises, his eyes were unfocused.

Steve's big warm body, strong arms, as they hug, and wanting him is a warm and familiar feeling that's had all the sharpness of pain rubbed off; wanting Steve is just what Tony does, now.

Tony groaned, deep and throaty, lashes trembling but he didn't shut his eyes, kept staring up at Steve.

"Come home," Steve said, and Tony's eyes narrowed.

"No," he said. "No, it's better this way. I should never have left - tell them I'm sorry, okay? For that message. At the time - I'd just lost Extremis, I wasn't - working right. I really thought they might pull the plug on me, and that was dumb. I was just, I was sick of - deciding everything - tell them I'm sorry for that, at least. I should have just jumped in the volcano."

"Tony," said Steve. "We can - we can get better. There's not one of us who hasn't messed things up."

"Not on this scale," said Tony. "We can't just - kiss it better. If anything, this makes it worse. And it's not like it's new. I've done it before, haven't I? Decided I knew best. Made the decision. And I did know best, I did, I still believe that."

Standing in front of the big glass windows, staring out, thinking about Osborn - about the prison - about the things he's done, and how it's so close to falling apart. Tony's trying to crush down the surge of feeling, and he's not thinking about Steve at all, but Extremis is still punishing him. After the clone Thor had killed Goliath, he hadn't been able to look at it, and that was unhelpful, so he'd reprogrammed Extremis again, until he could look at the clone objectively. He's reprogrammed it so it crushes down all extraneous feelings, and he's distantly aware that that's becoming a lot of his feelings, that more and more things are being added to the list. But it lets him function. He can look at everything clinically.

His stupid, clumsy, selfish desires had fooled him so many times. He'd shut them out, so he could be purely intellectual. Tony's brain, his intelligence, his reasoning, had blocked him in to this. Him and Reed, carefully and logically painting themselves into a corner until the only way out was to bring down the house. Tony's not a machine, not for all his efforts.

Somehow, reason hadn't worked any better than feeling. He'd screwed it all up again.

"That's why you deleted your brain? Because - oh, Tony."

"It seemed like the logical option," said Tony. "But in retrospect, it was an overreaction."

"No shit," said Steve, and Tony grinned. Steve cussing could usually coax a smile out of him; it died quickly, though, and he turned his head away.

"I don't want to come back," said Tony. "I'm so tired of knowing best, Steve. I don't want to have to make decisions any more. I hate it."

Steve touched his hair, his neck, and Tony turned into his hand.

But Tony had to know Steve couldn't let him go. He knew Steve, and he knew Steve would never give up.

"I don't believe in you," said Tony, dreamily, and wrapped his arms tight round Steve's neck. "Steve wouldn't - you're not the real Steve. But God, I like you. You're better than the one Extremis made for me." The world flickered for a second, a glimpse of a blue shaded face, violence, and then settled back into Tony's smile, Tony's warmth. Comforting, a little, but when Tony's fingers curved around his jaw, Steve remembered the feel of his bones crunching under an iron fist. He could leave Tony here. He could shrug, and say, I couldn't persuade him. He could take the gentle path of persuasion, try logic, assail the wall of reasons why Tony should stay dead. Steve couldn't see the future, but he knew that a world with Tony was going to be painful and complicated. Dead Tony would recede into a fond memory, the pain blurred away. Alive Tony - was going to keep pissing him the Hell off.

But even if he's not Captain America, he's still Steve Rogers, and he's never been able to give up on a friend. And he's more than capable of fighting dirty.

"What would Steve say to you, then?" said Steve, and Tony winced.

"Shut up."

"You know me well enough, Tony. What would I say to you?" Tony's, always, harder on himself than Steve could be; because Steve's always been too fond of him to really hurt him. Tony has no such limits.

"You'd tell me... dying wouldn't fix things this time. That if I want to repair things, I have to go back and... repair things. Work for it. That I can't just abandon all the people... Pepper, my God, I took her repulsor generator and her suit, and I put Maria through Hell, and made Thor help me - "

"You going to make all that wasted effort?" said Steve. "Pepper had to have surgery again, and there'll be more to come." Cheap shots, and Tony shook under their impact. Time for the coup de grace. "Please," he said, and Tony flinched. "Tony, don't make me go back alone. Without you. Without this." He ran a hand down Tony's bare flank, lingering at his hip. "I need someone now, Tony. I'm so - I can't - Tony, help me. I need you."

"You - you forgive me?" said Tony.

"Yes," Steve lied, easy. Barely a flicker of guilt, after all the lies Tony had told him. "I forgive you. I love you. Come back to me."

"Asshole," said Tony, quietly, and his eyes fluttered shut. "Please be real," he said, very softly. Slowly, his body melted, and Steve rested his forehead on the bare earth. When he looked up at the sky, it seemed closer; the horizon, nearer.

He could already feel the stickiness of magic on him, that would draw him back.