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the shadow of a dream

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Tony's hands are shaking. His vision is blurry. He's feeling hot all over.

He longs for a drink, forces the feeling deep down and puts the hammer down again, and again, and again.

He stops himself just short of actually breaking the metal instead of moulding it to his will. He wants to, needs to destroy something—but not this.

Maybe if he'd finished it in time, if he hadn't wasted all of his time drinking, Steve would—

He drops the hammer and barely notices it. Sobs wrack his body. He hates being so weak. Steve deserves more than that. Steve deserved more than that.

If Tony hadn't been passed out, unconscious from the booze, if he'd gone out to that street sooner—he should've listened when Steve told him to cut down on it. He should've been there with Steve. He should've kept him safe. What good is he for if he can't protect the one thing that counts?

The project won't take long. It had been almost done before Tony gave up on everything.

Why didn't he finish it?

Steve's voice waking him up, the blinding sun, the shot ringing through the air—

He wills the images away. He has to get up. He has to get back to work. He has to make it right—nothing will be right.

The crumbled piece of paper is on the floor, make it worth it in Steve's handwriting. Tony has no idea how it got inside the Vision machine, it must've fallen in when he was assembling it and he didn't notice—at the time it was just a note Steve left at his bedside when Tony arrived to Timely what feels like eons ago. It's as impossible now as it was then.

God, but he needs a drink.


He'll finish his work, and he'll avenge Steve if it's the last thing he does.

(Please let it be the last thing he does.)

He gets back up, and his legs are shaking, but he picks up the hammer again.


He wakes up with his face pressed into a piece of metal. His head threatens to split over, but it's not the hungover headache he's accustomed to. It takes him a moment to remember, and then he stumbles out of his house, to the street, to where—

There's still dried blood on the ground.

He throws up.

He's not sure how long it is until he looks up. Morning sun catches on something, hurts his eyes—

The sheriff's badge. Steve's badge.

Tony crawls over to it. He holds it as tightly as he can. It's sharp, it hurts his hand, and he focuses on this pain. It's better than thinking of why the badge is here, of why Steve isn't here to stop Tony from hurting himself.

Someone grabs his arm, and Tony turns in their direction, his eyes wide, because he just thought about it and it can't be—

It's not Steve. Of course it's not. It'll never be Steve again.

“Tony,” Banner says. “Tony, come on, you're bleeding, and if Fisk sees you—”

“I'll kill him,” Tony growls. He's broken every promise he's ever made already and it didn't count for anything. He shot that gun and it was too late.

He will finish his armour and he will turn it into a weapon and he will kill Fisk and Bullseye and free this town because Steve would want it, and Tony should've turned that gun on himself years ago if it would've spared him living through this.

“Don't say it out here,” Banner snaps. “You won't be of any use if you're dead too.”

He won't be of any use anyway; avenging Steve will not bring him back, but it's the right thing to do, the last right thing Tony will do.

He lets Banner pull him up.

“Come on, I'll fix you up,” Banner says.

“No.” Tony pushes him away. “No need, doc. I'm fine.”

The lie rolls off his tongue easily. Banner stays away as Tony stumbles back to his own house, the badge in his hand.

He rolls a rag over his palm and ties it the best he can one-handed. It's a good thing he's always been adept at using both his hands, he thinks as he picks up his tools left-handed and works on the armour again.


The cut on his hand heals. Pepper brings him food at what he suspects are even intervals. Banner comes by sometimes. Fisk's men leave him alone. He's not sure why. He's not sure he cares.

He doesn't drink.

The armour grows.


He's fastening the last screws when he hears a rustle. He spins around, his wrench in hand. He's too far to let anyone stop him now.

Steve's standing in the doorway.

Tony sighs and turns back. He sits on his chair and stares at the metal. “I would've expected you to show up sooner,” he says. “When there was enough alcohol in my veins. I am a drunk, but I'm not insane.”

“Tony,” Steve says.

“There are no ghosts,” Tony says. “And I must really hate myself if I'm hallucinating you. This isn't news, is it.”

There's silence. Tony doesn't dare turn back.

What if Steve isn't gone?

What if he is?

Tony wants to believe the illusion, but he's a man of science, and Steve is not standing in the door of his workshop. That Tony dreams of nothing else—it's not a reason to start seeing him.

Soft steps. Tony tenses. “Go away,” he says. “You're not really here. Why torture me?”

A touch on his arm. Warm. Solid. Real.

But it can't be.

“I am here,” Steve says.

I saw you die.” Tony's arguing with a figment of his imagination now.

The hand on his arm wanders higher, settles on his shoulder, and there's another touch on his other one. Steve—but it's not—starts to knead at Tony's muscles.

It's what he's always done when Tony worked too long.

It's what Tony's used to, that's why his brain summoned it. He shuts his eyes tight. “You're not here.”

“I'm sorry,” Steve says quietly. “I shouldn't have—I should've told you.”

Tony opens his eyes. Steve's badge is at the edge of his workbench. He grabs at it, and the sharp points bite into his hand again.

It doesn't make the touch on his shoulders disappear.

“Stop it,” Steve asks quietly. “It's me.”

Tony shakes his head. His eyes are burning. He's trembling.

Steve walks around him, settles between the bench and Tony, and forces Tony to look at him. He's pale in the dim light. Tony puts the star to his chest. It looks right.

“Remember Stephen Strange?” Steve asks.

“That charlatan?”

“I know you don't like him.” Steve chuckles before he grows serious again. “He owed me a favour,” he explains. “And—Fisk was going to hurt us both, so I disappeared.”

He shot you,” Tony says. The image is forever burned into the back of his eyelids.

“And I have a scar to show for it,” Steve agrees.

Tony reaches up, unbuttons Steve's shirt. Steve doesn't stop him.

There's a fresh scar over his heart. Tony runs his fingers over it and Steve shivers.

Tony thinks back to Steve's speech on that day—so very him, but so dumb to provoke Fisk like that. “You planned it.” It dawns on him, and it feels like betrayal.

“I'm sorry,” Steve repeats. “I couldn't tell anyone.”

“You trusted Strange.”

“I didn't want to get you hurt.”

Tony shakes his head. He leans forward until his forehead rests on Steve's stomach. Tears escape his eyes. A part of him wants to punch Steve for lying to him like that. A bigger part still doesn't dare he hasn't just gotten drunk again, that it's not a mad hallucination.

Steve's arms circle him.

“I thought you were dead,” Tony lets out, and then he sobs, and he's trying to say something else but he can't. Steve's running his hands over his back, through his hair, and he smells like safety and home, he smells like he's alive.

“You finished the armour,” Steve says over him. “I was afraid—but Stephen said you were building again, so I knew you'd be all right until I—“

“How could you do that to me,” Tony whispers.

Steve freezes, and then he goes to his knees in front of Tony, so they're level. His eyes are red-rimmed. “I'm sorry,” he says, and Tony's lost count of how many times he's heard it already. It doesn't matter.

Steve is here.

He's here.

Tony clings to him. He's not going to let him go again. He won't lose him again.

Steve kisses his eyes, left first, his lips barely a ghosting touch. Tony pulls him closer for that, to feel he's really there, and Steve presses a kiss to his cheek, and he's whispering apologies again. Tony lunges forward and crushes their mouths together in a bruising kiss, and it almost hurts, but it means Steve is really here.

“You're here,” Tony says and hates himself for how it sounds like a question.

“I'm here,” Steve answers, a promise.