There comes a time when Tony Stark is forced, yet again, to face his own mortality. He’s not in a warehouse, this time- he’s taking choked breaths of dusty air on the hard ground in a cave, somewhere in the godforsaken reaches of Afghanistan. A doctor sits beside him, hands deep in his chest, and a car battery is all that’s keeping the metal in his chest from finally doing the job five hundred others would have loved to do.
This time, he doesn’t think Steve’s going to bust in with a pistol in hand and murder on his face.
He lets the red dust settle in his lungs, hands scrabbling at the doctor’s- holding on, for comfort. And he draws blueprints for men who speak in angry tongues, who shove his head in buckets of water, who leer at him with broken teeth- who burn him with hot iron and furious expressions. He has never felt more alive, and he has never felt more dead.
And the days keep passing.
They want weapons. No surprise to Tony, because that’s all anyone wants. The military, the politicians, other countries, other people. Even the Howling Commandos- even Steve- they all want weapons, even when they don’t want the weapons to come from him. But these men, in their caves, with their knives and their guns and their incomprehensible words- they definitely want the weapons to come from Tony. They don’t have the same respect that Steve does for Tony’s reputation, for the fact that if Tony himself ever enabled criminals, he’d be ruined.
So he builds.
He builds, and he bangs, and he sweats vindictively in the light of the fire late at night (night, he thinks, because it’s darkest, but it’s always dark in the caves). The doctor’s name is Yinsen- he’s probably the antithesis of Nana, most all because he’s real, but also because he hates the violence that these men seem to revel in. He doesn’t fit in well with the Pantheon in Tony’s head- a row of godlike beings that remind Tony of every nasty personality trait he himself possesses, led happily by a smirking Howard Stark and backed by Nana’s swinging umbrella, but Yinsen joins them all the same.
The Pantheon begins to change, to shift in his mind, around the time that the faceplate takes shape. Iron, pounded out using Tony’s own horror at the bloodstained picture in Yinsen’s pocket and his anger at the man’s permanent frown.
He sees the weapons being used in ways that he never, ever spared a thought about, and all of the sudden things that hadn’t made him gag in months (the months since the red skull), are making him wretch violently into the very bucket they used to slam his head into. Does Steve-
He shuts his mind down and raises his hammer and lets the memory of Steve teaching kindergarteners how to draw a cat play on repeat for seven days and eight nights, until every bit of armor is stashed against the wall.
And then he begins on the reactor.
It’s on the news- they even make a documentary style expose about it, when he gets back. When he gets back to the good old US of A, when he stumbles out of the airplane and onto the strip to see Pepper and Steve with tears in their eyes.
“What did they do to you,” Steve mumbles brokenly against his shoulder.
“Glad to have you back,” Pepper murmurs quietly into his hair.
Nana just stands behind Steve, barely visible over the blond man’s shoulder, and shakes her head sadly, a glimmer in her crimson iris.
There’s press conference after press conference, until Tony just stops responding. He spends hours and hours in the workshop, banging out more and more metal with a sense of loss that resounds deeply inside of him, and Yinsen smiles dimly at him beside the rest of the false gods in Tony’s Pantheon. He can hear the doctor telling him that everything will be fine, late at night when he stares blankly at the new silvery faceplate, but Tony doesn’t believe him.
And when Steve finally cracks, unable to stand the distance, his fair hand slams down on the workshop table, crinkling blueprints under its force.
“I can’t even look at myself in the mirror, Tony,” He yells, as much as Steve ever yells, one hand on his own chest like his heart will fall out.
“It’s not your fault-“ Tony tries to say, but it just won’t come out right. And Steve won’t stop talking, either.
“I never ordered anyone tortured,” he says, deep voice cracking with a soul-thick pain. “Quick death or no death at all, shady dealings but minimal casualties.”
Steve’s deep breath shudders through his bent frame and Tony wraps himself around the larger man without a thought, the arc reactor bumping against his chest (will he ever get used to that? Tony thinks not.) “And this is why.” Steve says, reminding Tony once more that Steve draws his success from his alliances, not his enemies. “Because it breaks people and it broke you and I can’t do anything about it.”
It hurts Tony’s brain to think that the men he killed on the way out of the cave were maybe someone else’s Steves.
So he marches in and he shuts weapons productions down because he never wants to see another bomb go off or see another screaming child on the television. He pounds away in his workshop late at night and he cries into Steve’s chest when Steve’s asleep and he ignores Nana until she finally goes away and he can stop feeling misplaced guilt about letting her lead him astray, letting himself forget how damaging his own weapons can be.
The first time he flies in the suit, Tony feels alive again. Even more alive than down in the cave, which is a relief, and he soars over the New York horizon with a joy in his heart that he’d once thought himself incapable of. He destroys some missiles in the middle east, then a shipment of guns, then a few hundred grenades. He saves a school and a town and a hospital and a child clutching her doll as close as possible. And he comes home to Steve watching footage of him on the news, hands clenched around a pillow and jaw gritted shut.
“How could you?” He asks, sounding more frightened than he has ever before, even in the dark of that warehouse, even when Tony sprawled into his arms after being cut loose from that chair. “How could you risk your life like that ever again?”
“You do it every day,” he says, the faceplate up, still high on adrenaline.
“But I have-“ Steve starts, but Tony turns away. Because he doesn’t.
“You don’t. You’re every bit as human as I am,” he bites out, gauntlets thudding to the table. “And you scare me every time you go out too.”
There is silence for a long time, the both of them thinking about it. Steve doesn’t want Tony risking his life to destroy all those weapons- Tony doesn’t want Steve risking his life while using so many weapons. Tony feels it, acutely, the fear that Steve is emanating from the couch. He’s already lost Tony twice, and one more just might kill the both of them. And both of them know that neither of them is going to stop.
“I could give it up,” Steve starts, his bargaining voice in full force, but Tony just shakes his head.
“She’ll never stop loving you,” he murmurs, all the pain he doesn’t want to show evident in his tone.
“But I stopped loving her. Four and a half months ago,” Steve laughs bitterly, fingers sliding along the couch back as he gets closer to Tony, rests his hand on an armored shoulder and turns him for a chaste kiss. “When I realized that she couldn’t get you back.”
In the dark of the bedroom, hours later, sleepy and sprawled across one another, Tony makes a proposition that he never thought he’d make.
“Come to the dark side, Luke,” he mutters to himself, half asleep and silly with exhaustion, before he looks up at Steve. “You know, you and the Commandos could always start working above the law. For me.”
“Doing what?” Steve asks, thumbs tracing dragons on Tony’s back. “I’m not sure it’s ever above the law to hide bodies in carpets and dump them in the Hudson.”
“I bet Iron Man could use some back up, is all,” He breathes out against pale skin, fingers curling in Steve’s hair. “And I’d feel better with you by my side.”
Steve is silent for a long time.
“It could happen,” the larger man finally allows, a small smile twisting across his lips. Tony takes that as a yes.
A week later, the Brooklyn Loft is up for sale and the Howling Commandos are covertly on Stark Industries payroll under a very different name: The Avengers.