Tony Stark and Steve Rogers were in love, and on their wedding night they giggled as they entered their suite at the Dorchester. Tony wasn't drunk, but he might as well have been for how he felt.
"How does it feel to be Mr. Steven Grant Stark?" he asked.
"I don't know. You'll have to find Mr. Stark and ask him," Steve said.
"I'm crushed," Tony joked as he sat down on the edge of the bed and undid his tie. "Crushed. I can't believe you're not going to take my name."
"Oh, I don't know. Rogers Resilient has a nice ring to it," Steve said settling in next to his new husband. "It's alliterative..."
"Steve. Babe. You know I love you and I'm certainly not a big fan of previous bearers of the Stark name, but no. Tony Rogers sounds like either a country singer or someone who owns a fried chicken restaurant. Or both."
Steve chuckled and put a hand on Tony's shoulder. "Tell you what. I'll be Steven Stark Rogers."
"You're gonna put Grant in its tomb?"
"Well, not if you keep making jokes like that," Steve said.
"Anthony Rogers Stark," Tony said. "I can live with that if you can live with me."
Steve leaned in and kissed Tony gently. "I could live with you forever. Then I could do it again."
Tony kissed him back, softly at first but quickly building in tempo. Before long, they were tearing each other's clothes off as the makeout session caused both of them to start sweating. Steve fell back onto the bed and Tony gladly fell atop him. He nibbled at his nipples and Steve let out a small groan.
The small groans became larger as Tony made his way down his husband's stomach, stopping to suck at and kiss every inch he could. Before long, he had Steve's hard cock in his mouth and was going to town, savoring the soldier's moans.
He looked up to see Steve's face in ecstasy, but instead found that his husband had transformed. The face looking down at him was General Samson's, and he grabbed Tony's head and pushed himself in deeper.
Tony jolted awake in a sweat and looked at the clock. 7:00 PM. Christ. He'd only managed to sleep for half an hour. He twisted his wedding band around his finger, staring at it. It was still day 128.
128. 123. 116.
It had been 123 days since the funeral, and 116 days since the last dose of Extremis in the world wore off. Every evening, Tony went through the same routine: count the days, take half a shot of bourbon, lie in bed failing to fall asleep until his body gave up, wake up a few hours later in a nightmare-induced sweat, take another half shot. He liked the illusion of control. The numbers were his, and if he only took half shots, he had his alcoholism under wraps.
64. That was how many days he'd been back in Stark Tower. The new President and Congress didn't waste much time undoing some of the damage done by the last. They couldn't undo the fact that Tony had watched the love of his life die in a violent burst of blood and vomit. 128 days ago.
He rolled over. There was nobody sharing his bed. It was something he got used to in prison, but here it wasn't right. The penthouse that held uncountable memories would never make another. And why? Why did he have to be the one who survived? The last time this happened, Steve turned out to be alive--held captive by Red Skull. This time there was no hope. No quest to bring him back. There was no mission. Tony threw himself into grief as intensely as he threw himself into everything else and sobbed loudly into his pillow.
In dreams, anything could happen, so long as that anything involved either torture or his husband's gruesome end. Normally it was some pleasant memory--a walk on the beach, an evening cuddling in Steve's apartment, that time they pranked Clint's arrows--twisted so that it ended in blood and screaming. He settled back under the covers, but didn't make it to either phase of the dream this time.
The phone rang, in a sense. "Incoming call from Shannon Parker."
"Ignore," Tony mumbled.
He hadn't seen his daughter in over a month. On Day 78, he showed up for the wedding, walked her down the aisle, and immediately left so he wouldn't have to put up with condolences at the reception. She had called every evening since, to no avail. The thought of how angry she must be brought him to tears again.
Just as the tears began lulling him to sleep, there was a knock at the door.
At first he didn't recognize the sound. Nobody stopped by. It wasn't that they didn't want to, but he'd done his damnedest to drive Carol, Hank, and Janet away. When he heard it again, he sat up, wiped his eyes with a sheet, and muttered "What?"
"Nick Fury," the voice growled.
"Come in," Tony said. There was no point in arguing.
"Your door's unlocked," Nick stated as he entered the room.
Tony had rearranged the place so that everything he needed was in one room and he never had to go far. "Yeah," he said.
"You think that's a good idea?" Nick asked, taking a seat.
"Do you think I care at this point?" Tony's voice placed him somewhere between indifference and being ready to collapse in tears at any moment.
"Sure." He paused. "People don't stop caring. They just lock it up."
There was complete silence for a moment before Nick harshly changed the subject. "Nobody feels sorry for you."
"Thanks. Good to see you too."
"Nobody feels sorry for you," he repeated.
Tony wiped the moisture from his face once more and stood up with a slight wobble. He must have forgotten to eat again. He shook it off and approached Nick's seat with an irritated look. "Have I asked anyone to feel sorry for me?"
"No, but your face is pitiful. Quit looking so miserable, Stark."
"You act like it's a conscious choice."
"It is," Nick answered.
Tony was fairly certain that Fury had come here for the sole purpose of antagonizing him. Frankly, anyone who wanted to had earned that right. Tony took a seat on the couch where Nick had settled in and turned to him. "What do you want?" he asked.
"I want to give you a purpose other than raising Jack Daniels stock."
"You want to use me," Tony corrected. They had played this game before. Nick Fury never did anything without an ulterior motive.
"You're not wrong." He paused. "We need our next President."
"You want some money?" Tony asked.
"Look. We had a guy in queue. He's ... Not in queue anymore. Hume is put off by all the death threats and doesn't want a second term. I want you to run."
There was a beat, then Tony laughed for the first time in 128 days. It was a deep laugh that trickled into a chuckle. Nick stared at him, unimpressed.
"Are you serious?" Tony asked, noting the stare.
"I don't joke," Nick said.
Tony knew that, but he couldn't believe it. "Not intentionally..."
"Why is my idea so crazy?"
"Where do you want me to start? With the gay thing, the alcoholism, the numerous counts of murder? That I was a goddamn fugitive from the law? That I was responsible for my son's death? The Superhuman Civil War? My disastrous tenure as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D? War profiteering?"
"Are you done?" Nick asked.
Tony was never done berating himself. "History of womanizing, wanton property destruction, substance abuse in the form of a nanovirus..."
Nick interrupted. "I don't disagree with you on any of those things, and you forgot a few."
"See? You do joke." He reached out and shook Nick's hand, then stood up and turned toward his bed. "Nice to see you. I'll be in my bunk. Let me know if I can actually do anything for you. "
Nick raised his voice. "Despite all of that, people like you." When he saw he had Tony's attention, he continued. "Your speech at Steve's funeral..."
"Don't," Tony pleaded.
Nick stood, this time acting as the confronter. "You're going to have to get used to hearing his name if you're going to run for President."
"I'm not running for President..."
Nick continued, "You didn't hold back and it struck a chord with people. Where you and I see someone who's fucked up tremendously...repeatedly, your average Joe sees a survivor. They see someone who's dedicated his life to helping people..."
"You just used me to get someone else elected. Are you done?" Tony asked. "I just want to be left alone."
"So you can spend the rest of your life in bed?"
"Yes. And if I'm lucky, that won't be long," he answered. Based on appearance, he wasn't wrong. Tony appeared to be wasting away. He'd never regained any of the weight he lost in prison, and he may have actually lost some more. The circles under his eyes were strikingly dark.
"When have you ever been lucky?" Nick asked, playing to his insecurities. "You might have ten, fifteen, thirty years ahead of you. You haven't offed yourself yet, which makes me think you're not gonna, so what are you going to do with that time? Sit around feeling sorry for yourself or make some real change?"
"I've done enough," Tony snapped.
"I don't disagree, but you don't believe that. Nothing is ever 'enough' for Tony Stark."
The words were tinged with some bitterness at Tony's past actions. Tony absorbed them and recognized them to be true. Every day it ate at him how fucked up the world still was, despite everything the Avengers and his own company had done. If he had done something differently, he was sure the world would be a better place. But he didn't know what that something was.
"Think about it," Nick said. "If you want it, first step is to get your company back in order. Next is to write a book, keep yourself in the public eye."
Tony got his company back in order with yet another new focus: human (and superhuman) rights. He hired an army of attorneys to fight for people who'd been persecuted for the last twenty years. R&D went into helping people avoid surveillance. There was a great deal spent on new medical technologies to assist those who had gone uncared for in the last two decades.
All of this kept him busy. More importantly, it kept him distracted. But today would be difficult. Day 365. Tony woke up at 4AM after three hours of low quality sleep that followed an earlier hour of low quality sleep. The pain in his gut--pain that was always present but usually subdued--struck hard. He sat up and immediately doubled over. In six hours, he would be making an appearance on some morning show or another to talk about the book he'd written. Why he thought he'd be ready for this... on this day... He wasn't sure. It was clearly a mistake, and he was going to make a fool of himself.
Tony had tried to limit his public appearances. Every time he set foot outside, some pack of reporters surrounded him asking about every dirty thing they could think of. And he wasn't even running for President yet. "Yet" wasn't the right word. He was undecided. Nick had suggested he test the waters with today's appearance. If he couldn't talk about it now, after a year, he wouldn't make it. Tony was directionless enough to give it a shot.
He drank his bourbon and made his way over to the couch. "Channel thirty four," he said, and the screen appeared.
The morning news was already talking about him. "Remembering Captain America" said the banner. Someone Tony had never seen before was talking about someone he had never known.
"Remembering," Tony scoffed.
While many things had changed in the last year, cable news was not one of them. This was the True News Network, and it was as awful as ever.
"Without a doubt," the anchor said, "Captain America was a hero in World War II. But his judgment after he was thawed out? I think people are afraid to speak the truth. This guy spent three years being a hero and twenty five years pushing anti-American sentiment..."
"Not to mention the homosexual agenda," the co-anchor agreed.
"You're not being fair," a familiar voice said off-screen.
Then a box appeared with a familiar face. At the bottom was the caption "Janet Pym - Former Avenger."
"Without even talking about the Avengers, if you knew half the things Steve has done over the years to keep this country safe, you wouldn't be saying a word."
"Have you read this book, Mrs. Pym?"
She had. She was one of the first.
The anchor continued. "There are so many lapses in judgment in this thing it's almost comical. You're defending someone who just... forgives... the murder of his only son." Tony cringed. "Someone who values his boy toy over his family."
"You're right I'm defending him. In part because he forgave so much. He forgave this country for everything it did to him. That's not a character flaw, Mr. Cotnick. That's something we should all aspire to."
With a word, Tony turned the channel. He knew Janet would do a fine job talking about Steve, but he also knew it wouldn't matter and the anchors' accusations would only serve to make him increasingly angry. He didn't need that. Not on day 365. He leaned back and stared at the ceiling.
The worst thing about Steve being gone was the loneliness. There was nobody to vent about the news anchors to, nobody to share breakfast (not that he wanted any), nobody to assure Tony that his interview would go fine. His own mind certainly dropped the ball on the last one. Even though he'd turned the channel to some cartoon, he kept thinking about TNN. NewsDaily wasn't nearly as combative a show, but they were going to ask him questions like that and he didn't know how well he could handle himself. He took his second half shot of the day before heading out the door. That was it. He wouldn't get one later.
He drove himself five blocks to the studio to avoid the crowds outside.
Inside, NewsDaily turned out to be just as combative as TNN. After a brief apology to Tony for losing his husband and a short set of soft questions, Susan Mendoza asked him why superhumans shouldn't be punished.
"The thing you're forgetting," Tony said, "is that most of these people got their powers by accident. They didn't just wake up one day and decide to be vigilantes." He immediately thought of Peter but couldn't bring himself to recap those events. He thought for a second. "Look at Matt Murdock. Little kid gets splashed in the face with acid and suddenly he can hear everything. What would you do, Ms. Mendoza, if you spent fifteen years hearing every crime within a ten block radius?"
"I don't know, but nobody has ever proven that he had that ability..."
"Every time someone is hurt, raped, murdered, kidnapped... You hear it all and you hear the police failing to stop it. Or worse, you hear them perpetuating the cruelty. You call the authorities. It doesn't help. So you have to do something or all of this will drive you insane. You have to help these people, and all you want is to do that and keep your loved ones safe too. That can't happen if everyone knows who you are, and we all know how that turned out for Matt."
"But you sided with the SHRA. Surely you see the value in holding superhumans accountable?"
"Of course I do. But I also believe, as our justice system allegedly does, that people are innocent until proven guilty. Not until public opinion turns against them."
"But why should these people have special rights?"
Tony paused for a second. "You misunderstand. Anonymity should be the right of every American, not just superhumans. Everyone should be able to talk on the phone, or text someone, or surf the internet without worrying that some creep is watching, waiting to arrest them at the mere suggestion that they might do something wrong. We don't need cameras on every corner. We don't need the Orwellian nightmare. It didn't make us any safer."
"But who watches the watchmen?" she asked.
"Who watches our police force?" Tony asked back. "Who watches our military? Where do I go to get the men who tortured me in prison imprisoned? Yes, there should be accountability, but there's no entity qualified for that undertaking. The answer is that we try to watch our own. The first time we tried the SHRA, I tried keeping everyone's identities in my brain. I ended up wiping my mind and going into a voluntary coma to keep that information safe. I guarantee you the government does not and never will value privacy that highly."
"You mentioned your time in prison."
Tony swallowed. "Yeah."
"How do you respond to people who say you're a murderer? Even if we're to believe that the Iron Man who blew up Quantico wasn't you, soldiers died during your escape, Mr. Stark."
"Actually, I was so worn down that Steve had to basically carry me out, but you're right. If I could have killed them, I would have."
"And you have no problem with that?"
"There's a reason I received a Presidential pardon, Susan. When any animal is faced with its own death, it will fight to survive."
"You don't think that's a bit dramatic?"
"No. I think you don't realize how brutal this country became... how far gone. I'm not talking about prison with three hots and a cot. I'm talking about sleeping on cement for months and shitting in a bucket someone may or may not take out. Or they may dump it in your face. I'm talking about literal starvation. I'm sure you've noticed I'm a lot thinner than I once was. I can't bring my appetite back after being in that place."
"You're accusing our troops of torturing their fellow citizens. You have to know that's not going to make you any more popular."
"I'm not accusing. I'm telling you that's what happened. I'm telling you I was beaten, stabbed, burned, waterboarded, forced to drink nothing but alcohol..."
She interrupted. Ruthless. "Are you back off the wagon as a result?"
"No," Tony lied. "And that's not the point. The people who are supposed to protect us nearly killed me, and they did so without me ever setting foot in a courtroom. Spend a day being sexually assaulted with a rusty pipe and tell me you won't try to escape."
The unflappable Susan Mendoza had no response for that amount of brutal honesty.
"I'm not the only one," Tony continued, "People are coming out with stories. You can find leaked surveillance tapes. There's nothing accusatory about the truth."
"We're almost out of time," she noted, obviously uncomfortable. "But before you go, it's the one year anniversary of Captain America's death. Can you share a memory with us?" She wore the eyes of someone who couldn't wait to have Tony Stark break down on her show. Millions were watching.
"I can share something with you. Everyone is going to tell you a happy story and that's great. I have more of those than anyone. But I want to share something different." He took a deep breath. "Maybe fifteen minutes before he died, Steve and I were in bed talking. Something about the last Presidential election. But the thing that sticks out to me is I remember he said 'there's still hope.' And... That he said that and fifteen minutes later he was dead... Even if he had known how his own life would end, he would have said it. There was always hope."
"Do you believe that?"
"No," he answered immediately. This wasn't how Tony had practiced it. "But I wish I did. And the best I can do, the best most of us can do... is act in a way that perpetuates that belief. To be that hope." As soon as he said it, he knew he would agree to Fury's proposal. He saved the language in his mind for later announcement.
Susan Mendoza ended the interview after that thought. Tony sent a quick text then walked away through a wall of meaningless handshakes and shoulder pats.
Back at Stark Tower, Tony tried to work but found himself distracted all day. He gave up and retreated to the penthouse, shed his clothes, and crawled back into bed. He longed for the half shot he'd taken prematurely. It was only 3PM. Fuck it. He took a third half shot. Doing the right thing could wait until tomorrow, until day 366.
He woke up before that, however, to a familiar voice.
"What do you want?" Bucky asked.
Tony stirred, then sat up, visibly shaken. "You were supposed to come by before I went to sleep," he murmured. Since this counted as waking up, he took another half shot.
"It's 7:00," Bucky noted.
"Yeah, well... I sleep early."
"You did a good job today," Bucky said.
Tony wasn't sure how to respond. "Look, what I called you here for, never mind..."
"Shut up," Bucky said before asking the question. "Rough?"
All six times he'd received the text, that had been the answer. Within moments, Bucky was pounding away at Tony.
"Hurt me," Tony groaned, and the soldier obliged, grabbing his hip tightly with his metal arm. It was going to leave a hell of a bruise, but it wasn't enough.
"Hurt me," Tony repeated.
The other man knew what that meant. He looked away as he spoke. "You killed him."
"Mean it," Tony begged.
"You're the worst thing that ever happened to Steve," Bucky said, still thrusting hard, "and there isn't a person alive who wouldn't rather have seen you die."
That was good enough. Tears streamed down the side of Tony's face as he came and sank into the sheets. Bucky soon followed, and after he'd pulled out and given Tony a moment to recompose himself, he tried to talk to him again.
"You know none of that's true," he said.
"That's all," Tony said, his voice muffled by the pillow.
Bucky walked toward the door. When he looked back, Tony was taking yet another half shot before bed. That wasn't a good sign. Bucky wasn't sure what he'd gotten himself into, but he hated it.
Back at the Sanctum Sanctorum, Nick Fury greeted him with one question: "Did you get anything?"
"No," Bucky said.
"Last time he talked to you."
"Yeah, well this time he didn't. I told you I'm not comfortable with this."
"I'd be surprised if you were," Nick said. "But you're the only one Stark will confide in right now, and that's valuable."
Bucky wasn't sure whether that was a good thing or a very, very bad one. How the next time went down would determine that. Assuming there was a next time.
The next time Tony called Bucky was on Day 397, and he was sitting on the couch waiting for the other man to arrive when he did. Bucky wore the same uncertain face he usually did when he came to Stark Tower. His face became even more uncertain when he noticed that there were pieces of Iron Man armor lying around being tinkered with.
"Rough?" Bucky asked.
This whole thing was not something Bucky wanted to continue, but he was the only one let into Tony's inner circle on a regular basis, and he had promised Steve he'd look after him. If this was the only way he could keep an eye on Tony, so be it. He was relieved when Tony spoke.
"No. Sit down."
Bucky obliged, taking a seat next to him.
"I need to talk to someone," Tony said.
His own self-loathing made Bucky want to ask why Tony would want to talk to him of all people, but he decided against it because it wouldn't help. He settled for "What's up?"
"What do you honestly think of me?" Tony asked.
Bucky laughed nervously then paused. "I think you're fucked up." His answer made Tony chuckle. His next thought didn't. "We're all fucked up. Most of our friends are dead or insane. It's been a rough decade. I think..." He seemed to look straight through Tony's eyes into his damaged soul. "I think... You're a good man whether you want to believe it or not."
Tony hadn't expected Bucky to repeat Steve's words to him. He pictured his husband again--convulsing on the ground as blood seeped from his eyes and mouth--and he began bawling. Tony cried harder than he ever remembered crying until, after several minutes, loud sobs gave way to sorry whimpers. Bucky sat through this in an uncomfortable silence, unsure that anything he had to say would help.
Tony spoke abruptly. "I want to die. I want to die more than I've ever wanted anything. I want it more than I wanted Steve..." He put on the Iron Man glove that had been sitting on the table and pointed the repulsor at his face. "But every time..." He was now speaking more to the glove than to Bucky. "Every time I try, I can't go through with it and I don't know why." He took the glove off and threw it across the room. "Everything would be so much easier..."
He turned back to Bucky and continued rambling. He might have been drunk. "It's not that Steve didn't want me to. I've gone against more things Steve wanted than I can count. I think... Every day hurts, and I think I have to live that as many days as possible. I can't die because I want to die..." His voice slurred. He was most decidedly drunk. "And what if Thor was telling the truth and he sends everyone up to Valhalla? I'm just gonna tell Steve I offed myself?" Tony broke into tears again. "I don't know what I'm doing."
"I think you should talk to someone else," Bucky said. "I'm not..."
"There is nobody else. Nobody who gets it. But I have a feeling you do."
Bucky, unfortunately, got it. He remembered when he'd been outed as the Winter Soldier. He remembered the six months or so after his memories were returned to him--how he'd longed for death--and considered taking his gun and killing Tony right then. But that probably wasn't what Steve had in mind when he told him to take care of his husband.
"I can't hurt you anymore," he said, repulsed with himself. "I can't. I don't know what you need but it's not that."
"I want to get better," Tony said. "I do. I just..." His mind jumped to the next subject. "Fury wants me to run for President."
"I know," Bucky said. He would never pretend to know what Fury's long-term plan was, but he knew this was the short-term goal.
"What do you think?" Tony asked.
About a hundred synonyms for "no" ran through Bucky's mind before he thought of a way to temper them. "I think you're gonna get hurt if you do."
"I'm going to do it," Tony said. "I think maybe it will help..."
"Are you sure you're not doing it because you know it's going to end badly for you?"
Tony thought on that. "No, I'm not," he said, "but I'm going to do it."
Bucky said nothing. He didn't want to be discouraging, but jesus... Tony was hardly ready to go grocery shopping, let alone run for President. When he returned to report this meeting to Fury, he took a warmer stance than he ever had and ever thought he would toward Tony Stark.
"You can't make him do this, Nick. That man is hurting more than either of us will ever comprehend. He's not stable. It's..."
"I'm not making him do anything."
"You gave him an idea that would otherwise never have been there. They are going to tear him apart." He couldn't get the images of Tony bawling and holding a repulsor to his face out of his head. He remembered spending hours staring at his own metal arm trying to decide whether this foreign thing was part of him. "He doesn't need pressure. He needs treatment. He doesn't need your backroom dealing bullshit. He needs friends."
"He had friends; he alienated them," Nick pointed out.
"So we just abide by the wishes of someone who's suicidal? It's cruel."
"There's nothing more important than who becomes our next President."
"Yes there is. Treating people with some basic fucking human decency is more important."
"You sound like Steve, not a spy."
"I'm not a spy," Bucky snapped.
"I don't know what's gotten into you, Barnes, but you need to get it out. I'm almost outta here and I need you to be my replacement."
Days 398 through 729 were fairly uneventful. Stark Resilient kept up its efforts for positive change and Tony occasionally and briefly appeared at some major event to keep himself in the public eye. It wasn't quite time for the announcement. Soon it would be. The closer it got to the election, the less it seemed anyone with a soul really had a chance. More than one potential candidate had died under mysterious circumstances and that left two types of candidates: those who knew they had no chance, and the ones who parroted the opinions of Bradley Scott and called the new President a traitor for "changing his values."
Day 730 was the two-year anniversary. Every day was a little easier than the last, but it was never really easy. Tony woke up and followed his routine. Half a shot. He really followed it now. No slipping, if he didn't consider one shot a day to be slipping in the first place. A few months earlier, he had gathered the strength to put a picture of his family next to his bed: a photo from when he and Steve took the kids to the Children's Museum. He looked at it and remembered being happy, but he couldn't remember how that felt.
Tony was battling another cold--he'd been sick a lot lately--and opted to issue a statement rather than appear in public. It went something like this:
On the second anniversary of Steve Rogers' death, I ask everyone to remember his life. Treat each other with compassion because what we do defines who we are.
Something like that. Tony couldn't remember. He'd been drinking when he wrote it, but there wouldn't be any more slipping.
Today he was nervous. For the first time in two years, he was going to see his daughter. Shannon's phone calls were unrelenting and she had tried to visit constantly for the first six months after Steve's death, but she had given up after continued, painful rebuking. Yesterday she had called for the first time in a year and insisted on visiting. In his slightly softened state, Tony had agreed.
Shannon and Ben stood nervously in the doorway before Tony motioned them in.
"Sorry if you wanted to meet somewhere else," he said. "I don't like to leave very often... "
Shannon stopped her father's digression with a hug. "I'm so glad to see you."
"I'm sorry," Tony repeated. "I'm sorry. I saw you out there with your Avengers and I couldn't handle losing you too. I'm an idiot." He coughed and took a seat.
"We quit," Shannon said, joining her father. "That's why I needed to talk to you." She didn't hesitate to drop the bomb on him. "Ben and I are having a baby. We didn't know if today would be... We thought you might need some good news."
Her definition of "good news" differed from Tony's. He couldn't help but think about all the terrible things that could happen to Shannon and her family. All the terrible things that had happened to all of her parents. All the terrible things that had happened to Ben's.
"You were always in such a hurry to grow up," he said.
Before she could defend their decision, it became apparent that she didn't need to. Tony congratulated his daughter and hugged her, trying to ignore the bad feeling he had about this. "You too," he added in Ben's direction.
"Thanks," Ben said.
Shannon had Steve's eyes, and his stubbornness. She spoke matter-of-factly. "I remember what it was like growing up, back when we had a real family. I want that again. And I want you to be a part of it."
Tony couldn't say no to her. It was part of the reason he'd kept her away for so long. "Of course. There's one thing, though." He swallowed, unsure what the one person whose opinion could still make him nervous would think. "I... I'm going to be running for President."
"Oh, we know. Fury told us."
That was anticlimactic. Tony continued. "I won't do it if you don't want me to. I don't want to put you two in the spotlight and endanger..."
"Oh, stop it," Shannon said. "You're not responsible for my well-being anymore."
"My name is Tony Stark, and I'm announcing my candidacy for President of the United States." Those words didn't change anything about the way Tony felt inside, but they changed everything about his treatment in public. He was in focus now, and that focus was unrelenting. The questions kept coming.
"Are you still gay?"
"I'm still whatever I've always been."
"What would you say to people who are uncomfortable electing a single person?"
"I would remind them why I'm single."
"Why are you doing this?"
"Someone has to."
"How does your family feel about this?"
"If they didn't support it, I wouldn't be here."
It went on for ten minutes before he put an end to it and returned to his penthouse. There, he turned on the news and watched as the reviews of his performance came in. He sat down on the bed and took another half shot; he'd earned it. A voice in his head reminded him that this probably counted as slipping. He ignored it.
"Does this make sense?" the anchor asked. "This candidacy seems to be coming completely out of left field."
In the corner was a box with another familiar face. "Carol Danvers - Former Avenger." The True News Network didn't realize that their "former" title was optimistic. Tony could see where she'd skillfully covered up a bruise from battle.
"It may be out of left field, but it makes perfect sense," she said. "I've been his friend for twenty years, and I can tell you Tony Stark is a visionary. He likes to fix things. What we have is a country that's broken, and it makes sense that he would try his hand at fixing that too."
"You say he's your good friend. When was the last time you spoke to Tony Stark?"
"It's been a while," Carol acknowledged. He'd failed to return at least a dozen of her calls and the one time she showed up without notice, he hadn't said a word. It wasn't personal. It was Steve's birthday.
This time, he did say a word. Carol was standing in the doorway.
"Well, I guess that's not live," he said, and turned the television off as he walked toward her.
"Is this what you do?" she asked. "Sleep, drink, and sit around all day?" Her tone was more of concern than disappointment.
"Well, I can run the company remotely," he said.
"Can you run your friendships remotely too?"
He didn't have a good answer for that. Honesty would have to suffice. "It's been... difficult, but I think it's getting better."
"You have to stop drinking," she said. She knew. She hadn't even seen the bourbon on the nightstand, but she knew.
"This is why I don't have time for my friends," he sneered.
"That's too bad," Carol said, letting herself have a slight smirk.
"What did you do?"
From the doorway, his friends began piling into the room. Janet and Hank came in first, followed by Ty, Wanda, Vision, Jennifer, Luke, Eli, Jessica, Bucky, Sue, and Stephen. The last person to make himself known was Nick.
Tony knew what was happening, but he asked what he didn't understand: "Why?"
"We love you, Tony," Carol said.
That was something else he couldn't understand, but he decided to go along with it. To his surprise, he ended up enjoying conversing with his old friends. It was obvious, though, that everyone avoided discussing the past and Steve in particular. It was apparent when they talked about Shannon and Ben's child. It was apparent when they reminisced about old missions. The amazing thing was that they didn't have to. He thought about Steve the entire night and it was okay. For once, it was okay.
After several hours, when everyone had left but Bucky, Tony interrupted him as he was putting some food away. "I know you have some thing where Steve gave you custody of me or whatever, but you really don't have to hang around."
"Believe me, I have nothing better to do."
"You should be retiring to some eastern European country or something."
"That dream died with Nat," Bucky chirped as he closed the refrigerator.
"Still, there has to be..." Tony could still be too talkative when it came to people other than himself.
Bucky looked up with the smallest hint of vulnerability, a hint more than he ever dared to show. "Drop it," he said. After a moment spent thinking, he changed his mind about speaking. "Actually..." He struggled to speak more than he'd ever struggled with killing someone. "I need to talk to you about something else..."
Tony was taken aback. "Weird. Okay."
Bucky took a deep breath, ashamed at the betrayal he was about to commit. "I don't know how much Nick has told you, but I don't think his plan is for you to win this election."
Tony couldn't help but laugh at Bucky's serious face. "Do you think I'm stupid?" he asked.
"If I did, I'd be the stupid one," Bucky said. "I just wanted to make sure you knew."
"I don't pretend to know what Nick is playing at, but I'm absolutely sure he's manipulating me. I just don't care. I really, really need something to do, and this is something to do. I think it's been good for me."
Bucky felt relieved at that.
"I appreciate it," Tony said, "but why did you need to tell me?"
The correct answer was that the idea of playing someone as damaged as Tony just didn't sit right. He couldn't share that thought, though. "I guess I'm not a very good spy," Bucky said.
"Bullshit. You're the best."
Bucky scowled. "I don't want to do it anymore, but I'm not good at anything else. I wasn't great at the superhero thing. I can't be a soldier and fight the American people. There's nothing else I do..."
"You ever think about doing nothing?" Tony asked.
Bucky looked away. "Yeah, that was our plan."
"I know this is going to sound insensitive, but you could start dating again..."
"Could you?" Bucky asked.
"No," Tony admitted.
"I could." Bucky surprised him with that, but then it had been seven years since Natasha died. Bucky continued, "It's not that easy. You know people like us can't be with someone who isn't in it. And I'm old. Everyone's taken. Carol's with Jessica, Wanda has Vision, Luke and Jen, Sue and Stephen... They've all made their last chance matches. Everyone else is twenty years younger than me, and I don't even want to know what would happen to me if I tried to date Danielle Cage."
That was more than Bucky usually said, and it inspired Tony to ask, "You want to come work for me?"
Bucky scoffed. "Doing what? Killing your opponents?"
"I was thinking more researching them, but if you feel like you have to..."
Bucky thought about it for a long time. It didn't sound particularly appealing, but it did seem like a good way to honor his promise to Steve. "I'll do it," he said.
"You are officially the first member of the Stark 2032 campaign."
901 days after the death of Steve Rogers, his daughter gave birth to twins: Jane May Parker and Samuel Grant Parker. A few days later, they invited Tony up to the house to meet them.
Tony Stark had never and would never consider himself a baby person. Kids he was great with. Kids were interested in everything, and he loved talking, explaining things. That was partly why, when presented with a choice of who in his family to kill, he had chosen James. That event turned his disinterest in babies into unease bordering heavily on distress. They all reminded him of James. It was with hesitation that he visited, but he'd promised he would be there for his grandchildren and he would be.
"Doesn't she look just like I did?" Shannon asked.
She looked like a baby. "Yeah," he halfheartedly answered, then turned his attention to the person in the room who actually interested him. "How are you doing?"
"Tired, but fine. How's the campaign?"
"Good, I think." He wasn't really thinking about it. He was thinking that Steve would have wanted to be here. Sharon would have wanted to be here. Sam would have wanted to be here. Here he was, the only person still alive to be with Shannon and Ben, and he wished he were holed up alone.
Then something happened. As he droned on about the upcoming primaries and possible running mates, both of the twins began squawking at once. Shannon and Ben seemed to activate tag team powers. Each one grabbed a baby and swaddled it, and they shared an exasperated glance that Tony knew all too well. He'd never paid Ben much attention. He'd spent the majority of their courtship running from the law or being imprisoned. But he finally noticed just how much they loved one another.
They were young, sure. They were a little stupid, yes. But hey, when Tony and Steve were their age, they were too busy worrying about whether the other Avengers saw them kissing to notice that the world was on the fast track to being a total crapsack. All in all, Tony thought, his daughter was doing great. More importantly, he knew he needed to keep it that way. It wasn't boredom and needing something to do anymore. He was going to make sure those twins grew up in the best world they could. His legacy wasn't for him. It was for the four of them.
The campaign was officially personal.
Tony and Steve didn't vacation often. There was always too much work to be done. While they would both eventually come to regret not having taken much time off together, in 2011 they had no idea what the future held. There would always be time for time off. That's why, on a private island in the Seychelles with waves crashing and a soft breeze blowing, Tony Stark was fiddling with his phone.
"What are you doing?" Steve asked.
"I'm working." He was. Renewable energy. It was kind of a big deal.
"We are only here for one more day."
"Mmmhmm." Tony didn't look up. He was emailing some supplier or another.
Steve hopped up from his beach chair and stood above Tony's, casting a shadow over his phone. "Just a minute..." Tony started. Then he noticed that Steve was totally, completely naked. Tony dramatically tossed the phone over his shoulder and into the sand. "Point. Taken." He stood up and slid an arm around his partner. "I'm sorry."
This time, their kiss was interrupted when Steve began coughing blood, spattering Tony's face.
Tony woke up, his sweat having soaked through the thin hotel sheets. What he could only assume was a third or fourth knock at the door came. He took half a shot, then hobbled over to the door to open it. As soon as there was the slightest crack, Janet pushed her way in, carrying a cardboard filing box so large it looked like she would tip over.
She noticed that he was rubbing his eyes. "Were you sleeping?"
"Trying. Don't worry about it. What is that?" Tony asked as she set the box on the desk.
"Fanmail!" She answered cheerfully.
"Oh." Tony was no longer interested.
"Did you not hear me? Fanmail!"
"Did you take that from the mail room at Stark Tower?" He asked.
"It's not fanmail," he said.
"Yes it is. I read some."
"So have I. Trust me."
She insisted. "Just open one."
Tony grabbed an envelope, slid his finger underneath the seal, and pulled out a hastily scribbled piece of notebook paper. He read it aloud, unsurprised. "Burn in hell, fagot. With one g. See? I have looked at my mail before, Jan."
"Try another one."
Tony obliged, and again read aloud. "You ain't even enough of a man to keep your own name. I ain't voting for no bitch who takes it..." He stopped and stared at her, then sighed. "The American voter."
Her heart visibly sank. "Try one more. Please."
By now, Tony was visibly annoyed as he opened the letter. "Dear Mr. Stark. I've never liked you. You're arrogant and they way you used to treat women was appalling." Tony scanned past the list of his transgressions. "I've known I'm a lesbian since I was eleven years old. When I turned thirty, they put me in Presidio. Not a day goes by that I don't think about what happened to me there, and I can see in your eyes that's true for you too. Now I trust you. Anyone who has been through that will think about the consequences of their actions. Please win. Love, Solandra."
While this letter did have an effect on Tony, it wasn't the inspirational one Janet had hoped for. Having just lost Iowa, he was overwhelmed with the sense that he was going to fail everyone. He sat down and his eyes lost their focus on anything in particular. Janet sat down next to him and gave him a half-hug.
"Sorry," she said, frowning. "I thought you might need some cheering."
"It's fine. I know what you meant."
"Is what she said true? Do you still think about it every day?"
Tony answered indirectly. "It's been one thousand ninety one days since Steve died. Since then I've had one thousand five hundred seventy three nightmares about it." He still had his numbers, even if the only thing they served to do was make him more miserable.
Janet was silent.
"I have to win," Tony said. "And if we don't get New Hampshire tomorrow, I'm not going to. And then Solandra's going back to camp, my grandkids are stuck growing up underground, and at least half our living friends are going to end up dead."
"Okay, breathe," Janet said. "It's not going to get that bad. At worst, we still have half the Senate thanks to Nick. The House is a toss-up. But we keep half the Senate, and that keeps things from getting too bad."
"We need the veto," Tony said. "We need executive power. At least for one more term. Then we can make it so executive power isn't worth anything."
"If that doesn't happen, it's not your fault. I mean, you're going to vote for you when the time comes, right?"
Tony smiled. "Yeah."
"I think you've got this one. The speech earlier went over great and the polls are basically dead even. Plus, you're Tony Stark. I've never known you to go down easily."
"You clearly never asked Steve about that."
She chuckled. "I'm glad you can talk about him now."
He didn't talk about him any more that evening. It still hurt, but admitting that would just make Janet more concerned. Instead, they went through some more mail together, having a dismayed laugh at the sentiment and grammar of some letters and enjoying the support in others.
The following day, the people of New Hampshire handed the Stark campaign a victory. A week later, Nevada did the same. Then Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Tennessee and Vermont. By mid-March, he'd won enough states that victory was nearly certain.
The biggest appeal of the Stark campaign was Tony himself. People were used to liars, and they didn't like it. Because he'd written the book--A Stark Glimpse--and seemingly laid everything out, he gave the impression of being trustworthy. That's not to say that he wasn't, but if people knew some of the things he left out, they might feel differently.
He was candid about his time in prison, but stuck with the story that he had nothing to do with it destroyed. He was candid about his alcoholism, but left out the fact that he'd taken up drinking again. He was candid about many of his and Steve's struggles, but left out the whole Extremis addiction and the fact that he'd been prescribed and was again taking Seroquel for his mood.
On day 1194, Bucky caught him washing down his pills with a shot of bourbon.
"What are those for?" he asked.
"Nick insisted," Tony said. He left it at that. "Are we sure Barquero's the one?"
"Guy's been a Senator for thirty years. He managed to stay in office through all the bullshit. And we need the experience. Do you have any better ideas?"
Tony shrugged. "No, I get it. I just don't trust him."
"How long is the list of people you do trust?"
"The best part," Bucky said, "is that it's not controversial. We don't get another shit fit like we did when people realized the Winter Soldier was managing your campaign." He said it like the Winter Soldier was someone else.
"Do we know who Berle is picking?"
"Really?" Tony asked. "Miller's an idiot."
"They're under the impression that the 'female vote' is a thing. Put two women on the ticket and they'll ignore the fact that they want them to be incubators for the next generation Gestapo. It's pandering."
"And who are we pandering to again?"
"We," Bucky said, "are pandering to the idea that nobody wants to be pandered to."
"Lies. People love it."
"Okay, how about: we're pandering to people who like the idea that they can't be pandered to."
Tony chuckled. He stopped when he noticed that Bucky was giving him the serious face. It was different from his generally neutral expression and it usually came when he was going to either talk about Steve or ask Tony to compromise on something. In this case, it was both.
"We're coming up on Memorial Day," Bucky said.
"Do you know what you're going to do?"
Tony shrugged. "It's your job to tell me what I'm going to do, isn't it?"
"Would that it were possible for anyone to tell you what to do. My life would be a whole lot easier." Bucky hesitated to say the next words. "You need to visit Steve's grave."
They'd had similar conversations before, and Tony again reacted with a defiant "No." He wasn't going to exploit Steve. "It's one thing to talk about him. It's another to dole out photos of me at his gravesite like they're celebrity nudes."
"Look, I'm not proud of the idea. I'm just saying... You're gonna do the thing in D.C. Great. Berle and Miller are gonna do the thing too. You all bow your heads, wear a pin, and the narrative doesn't swing one way or the other." Bucky continued, "Now. If afterward, you fly back to New York and visit the Sanctum... maybe somebody just happens to take a candid pic. Favor swings your way, and you can claim disgust at having your personal moment publicized."
"Oh, I wouldn't just be claiming disgust. What do we gain? The election is five months out."
"We're not playing the long con anymore. What we gain is that, for the next week or two, Berle has no credibility on her 'support our troops' BS. Then we find something else to undermine. Then something else. Then it's the Fourth of July and we absolutely use that for our advantage. Then something else. Berle won't hesitate to do anything to tear you apart. I'm trying to do this as clean as we possibly can, but we can't be stupid. Your association with Captain America is an asset, and you're polling at 35%. You need to use that asset."
Tony bit his lip as he searched for the right words. He knew Bucky was right. They weren't going to be assassinating people or blackmailing them, but they couldn't hope for the American people to just listen and vote for reason.
"It wouldn't be the first time I did things I'm not proud of for a victory," Tony said, his voice dejected. "The last time I got involved in politics..."
Bucky interrupted. "I know." The SHRA. Hiring supervillains. Cloning Thor. Bucky knew, and a part of him just below the surface was going to punch Tony square in the jaw if he thought about it too long.
"You don't know." He stared Bucky in the eyes. "I knew where all of you were. I was going to turn in every single anti-reg in exchange for amnesty for Steve."
Bucky swallowed, choking back insults. "Well, let's focus on the fact that you didn't."
"The only reason I didn't is that I thought he was dea..."
"Stop." Bucky practically ordered him. "Stop trying to make me hate you. The past doesn't fucking matter. All I need to know is: are you going to do it or not?"
The photo--a tasteful image of Tony kneeling down with one hand on Steve's grave--was a success, even if Tony felt like a piece of him died when he saw it on the Daily Bugle homepage. The important thing was that it worked, as did Bucky's next attack, and the one after that.
It had always and always would be the case that American voters were split between normal human beings and unreasonable zealots. That continued to be the case. There was more hate mail. There were protests outside Stark Tower and anywhere else the traveling Stark campaign headquartered itself. There were death threats that amounted to nothing. There were bomb threats that never came to fruition.
Then there was one that did.
Carol and Janet were discussing the finer points of Tony's education policy when Hank hurried into the room and told them everyone was evacuating the building.
"Oh, come on," Carol said. "Another one?" She was positively fed up with leaving for no good reason.
"I know, but better safe than sorry."
He put an arm around Jan and began walking toward the exit, taking her with him.
There was a queue of low-level staffers--ex-soldiers, closeted superhumans, and students who'd been vetted by Nick Fury--heading single-file for the exit. Hank, Carol, and Janet took their places at the back of the line.
"Hey, where's Jess?" Carol asked.
"Oh! Probably still napping," Janet answered.
Carol sighed. "I'll be back. It's probably nothing, but I will never hear the end of it if she finds out I left her to die in a bomb drill."
The line marched forward, but Carol went the other direction. The Ohio office was small, but it did have a reasonable lounge, and that lounge's sofa was where Jessica Drew was last seen, snuggled up for a nap.
"Evac time," Carol said to a straggler who was typing away at a blog post. The young intern complied and scurried off, leaving his computer.
Jess was still there, and she was snoring. Loudly. Carol made her way to the sofa and gave Jess a gentle shoulder rub to wake her. As soon as the sound of snoring went away, Carol realized that the intern's computer was, in fact, ticking.
"What's going on?" Jess asked, rubbing her eye.
Carol grabbed her and flew toward the window just as the facility was enveloped in an explosion. The two women made it out scraped up and distrustful of Nick Fury's idea of "vetting," but they were alive. Two unfortunate interns were not as lucky.
Tony Stark was not afraid. He blamed and hated himself for endangering others, but he was not afraid. And when it came time for his press conference, he didn't point fingers or claim that retribution would be swift. He simply stated: "This is a reality of living in a world inhabited by human beings. There will always be terrorists. There will always be violence. My campaign will continue. I'm not compromising my beliefs out of fear."
As soon as the cameras stopped rolling, he grabbed a bottle. Two of his closest friends were very nearly killed. And the others... He couldn't even picture the two interns who were killed because they supported him. He had no idea who they were or why they supported him... and they were dead. He couldn't shake the feeling that he was on a path to get everyone hurt and killed again. So he drank.
What Tony took away from that night was a tremendous hangover. What the American public took away from it was much more positive.
The timing of Tony's speech turned out to be impeccable. A few weeks later, there was an attack on the American embassy in Cairo--an attack that Tony had a sneaking suspicion was carried out by the Berle campaign hoping for a boost in the polls. Having already reacted to terrorism against himself, it seemed genuine when Tony reacted similarly to this attack. What was meant to increase Berle's numbers had the opposite effect, and six weeks out from the election he was polling at 43%. At Bucky's suggestion, the Stark campaign began an ad campaign with a new tagline:
Unmatched, Unbreakable, Unafraid.
Tony wasn't so sure about the middle part.
Day 1329. The Second Presidential Debate. One month until the election.
The economics questions had gone well. No one who was currently a member of the US Senate could claim to have had success on that point, what with all of the trade embargoes and sanctions imposed on the country. The CEO of Stark Resilient could claim successes, and he did.
Now it was time to discuss the military. Margery Berle was very much in favor of getting the country further into debt on behalf of the Department of Defense. Tony was not, but that wasn't the form the moderator's question took.
"Mr. Stark, how do you address people who claim that you don't support our troops?"
If there was one thing Tony hated, it was fallacious questioning. "I'd say those people have forgotten who I married, who my best friend was, and who my campaign manager is." Fury had advised him to tone the snark down, but Bucky thought it set him apart from everyone else and, really, what else was there to lose? Being himself had gotten Tony pretty damn far. There was no reason it couldn't bring him all the way.
The moderator responded. "Some would say that's the same argument people who are against gay rights use when they say 'my best friend is gay.' Why can't you clarify once and for all that you support American soldiers?"
"Because the world isn't black and white, and that kind of thinking shouldn't have a place in it. All troops are heroes, all superhumans are dangerous, all gay people are immoral... The lack of critical thinking on these things has put this country at the bottom of the developed world. I've already told you what it's done to education. With the military..." Tony had an idea and began unbuttoning his shirt. The moderator visibly expressed concern but Tony waved a hand at him as he continued to use his ninety seconds. "President Hume has gotten rid of the SHRA, SPA, NDB... but those only decided who the targets were. It doesn't address the problem of the police being military, the military being police, and the government being in the business of defining morality."
The next bit was Tony's big gambit. He turned away from the podium and, with his back to everyone, dropped his shirt, revealing the scars that covered him. Bullet wounds, cuts, stabs, burns, and the spot just below his right shoulder blade where some American hero had hastily carved the word 'FAG.'
"When you ask me to support our troops as their current institution, you're asking me to support this." He pulled his shirt up and turned back around, re-buttoning it as he spoke. "I don't. I don't support using our armed forces against our citizens, and if I become the next President, the Department of Defense is going to go back to being just that."
"Mrs. Berle, you have sixty seconds to follow up."
She stammered. "I'm sorry that Mr. Stark had to face the consequences of his actions, but I find it troublesome that anyone can say they don't support our troops no matter what." Her stupidity continued, around and around in the same circular argument, but it was in vain. This debate was Tony's.
That evening, everyone was talking about the display, and nowhere was that more true than at Stark Tower. Janet gave Tony a champagne flute of apple juice and proposed a toast.
"To the next President of the United States." Glasses clinked.
"Is that so?" Tony asked.
"Believe it or not," Bucky said, "poll numbers are up."
"By how much?" Tony asked. He took a sip of the juice and made a disgusted face.
"Three points. Right now we have Berle up 49-46 with five percent undecided."
"That's not good enough," Nick said through his cigarette.
Janet chastised him. "You don't have to rain on the parade."
"The parade's going to be a funeral march if we don't get this," Luke said.
"No pressure, though," Bucky said to Tony.
Tony hated everyone talking about their expectations for him, so he changed the subject. It had always been one of his specialties. "There's no smoking," he said, grabbing Nick's cigarette and dropping it into a nearby glass of water. He turned to the others. "Why is he always smoking?"
Janet was not moved toward a different conversation. She continued and was, as always, optimistic. "We have over three weeks and one more debate. You've got the momentum. Maybe not a parade, but you'll let me plan the victory party, right?"
"If it comes to that," Tony said, forcing himself to smile. He then snuck off to the bathroom, pulled a flask from his pocket, and stiffened his drink. For good measure, he took a swig straight from the flask. As he put it away, he caught himself in the mirror.
He gazed for some time, tilting his head to one side or the other as if to confirm that the person he was looking at was actually him. He was only 54 years old, but time hadn't treated him well. In the past, he'd combated aging the same way he combated everything else: with Extremis. But every time it wore off, he looked worse than when he'd started. He wore a number of wrinkles and his eyes, once a vibrant blue, were washed out and greyed. He stared into them, squinted for a moment, then turned to leave the room.
"Go to hell," he said.
Back in the crowded living room, Carol looked up from where she was cuddling with Jess and locked eyes with Tony from across the room. She stood up to head his way and try to talk to him about the drinking, but was intercepted by Bucky.
"He won't be the first alcoholic President," Bucky said. "Hell, my namesake..."
"I know it doesn't seem bad right now, but it doesn't stay that way. If we can stop him before..."
"We can't. The only deterrent is dead. We just need to trust that he feels so guilty about it that he'll keep it under control."
Carol crossed her arms. "Are you proud of the fact that you're enabling him, or what?"
"Not at all." Truly, Bucky was ashamed of himself. "I'm proud of the fact that he's still alive, and that we're gaining on Berle. We're all in, so we have to take what we can get."
"You don't understand..."
Bucky couldn't take any more. He had the same problem he'd always had: being too moral for espionage and not moral enough for superheroism. No matter which way he turned, someone was questioning whether he knew what he was doing. For a group of people railing against the government making things black and white, they sure did a lot of it themselves.
"No, you don't understand. We don't win everything."
Bucky began to walk away, but Carol pulled him back to make her point. "We've made compromises for years. Now that we're in a position where we don't always have to, we have to do the right thing."
Tony overheard the louder end of that conversation, and he had a good idea what it was about. Rather than put up with hearing the version directed at him, he decided to step out onto his balcony for a while.
Nobody followed him out there, but there was still a smoking cigarette on the ground. He muttered "Damn it, Nick" and pressed it out with his shoe. Then there was a cracking sound behind him. Before Tony could process what was happening, he had a bag over his head and was being flown away from his home.
Tony awoke to nothing but pitch-blackness and an aching back. He was leaned against the wall in the corner of some room or another, and he didn't know what day it was. He'd been out, but for how long he couldn't say. 1329. 1330. 1331... 1330... Fuck. To make matters worse, the room had a heavy chemical smell that burned his nose.
"This is great," he said to himself, remembering a time when Extremis would have allowed him to call his armor. He checked his pocket for his cell phone, but it was gone.
He tried to stand, but soon found that the enclosure was only about five feet high and opted to return to the floor rather than hunch awkwardly. Keeping his hand on the smooth, glasslike wall, he crawled to his left. He traveled only a few paces before encountering another corner. Looking for something--a window, a door, a tiny crack--he moved his hands all over the wall. Nothing. He continued moving clockwise and after a few paces encountered another corner.
It was obvious enough that he was trapped in a box, but he opted to search the last corner anyway before inching his way into the center. He felt the wall, the ceiling, and the floor and there was nothing until he bumped into something soft and recognizable: a human arm. The last corner held another prisoner. Tony poked at the arm.
"Hey, pal, you all right?" he asked.
As there was no response, he decided to check for a pulse. As he moved his index and middle finger toward the general area where this man's neck would be, he brushed against something sharp and cold. His stomach could have sunk to the other side of the planet when he realized what it was: scale mail.
Tony's heartbeat increased and he started to feel like he couldn't breathe. He palmed through the darkness and felt a star shape at the center of the man's chest. It couldn't be him. It couldn't, but he had to know.
He moved his hand from the chest to the man's face. It was freezing cold. As he touched him, the room flooded with fluorescent light. Tony's eyes struggled to compensate, making out only a shadow. It couldn't be. When his vision cleared, he realized he was looking at exactly what he feared: Steve's body, partly decomposed.
It wasn't right, though. Steve died years ago. There shouldn't have been anything left. That thought made Tony feel sick, but it was true. Fucking illusions. Fucking magic. It has to be some fucking illusions or fucking magic.
"It's the real deal, I assure you," a young male voice said, anticipating Tony's words. "I picked it up a few years back and brought it into storage."
For Steve to be in such a condition, whoever spoke had to have stolen the body shortly after the funeral. As Steve was buried at the Sanctum, that took either talent or being in with someone who had it.
"He's not an it," Tony muttered, looking away. His brain wasn't entirely convinced of the body's veracity, but his gut was, and he had to avoid looking at it. At him. "What do you want?" he asked.
The voice seemed to come from nowhere in particular. Tony scanned the room, looking for anything and listening for any sign of who this person was. His cell seemed to be homemade, and it was sitting in the middle of an empty basement or warehouse. There was nothing of interest, but he kept scanning. There was no way he could look at the body--real or not--and keep his wits about him.
"Do you want to play a game?" the voice asked.
Tony groaned. His assessment was that this was some amateur punk who didn't want him to be President. He'd had some pretty serious help, but any real enemy would have revealed himself and taken credit for whatever this scheme was. Any real enemy wouldn't be so clichéd.
"Is this your first kidnapping? Because it's really not going to end well for you..."
"I'll ask the questions around here."
Ugh. This guy was just the worst. "What do you want?" Tony asked. "I've already had more than enough of your shit, kid. You want me dead, kill me. If you want to torture me, best of luck to you. There is nothing you can do to me that hasn't been done." He kept talking, kept distracting himself. "Ropes? Done it. Knives? Check. Burns? Yuh huh. You think I've never seen my dead husband before? I watched him die. I see that shit every night and you know what? I'm still kicking."
It was a moment before the voice responded. "I think you're lying. I think you're fragile. I think you're barely holding yourself together and all it will take is a push and you'll be drooling all over yourself."
Tony wasn't sure that the man was incorrect, but he knew his own spite would keep him going for at least some time--hopefully long enough for his friends to realize he'd been taken and find him. Eyes still averted, he awaited the man's reveal.
"There's a bomb inside that body."
"No. Not doing it," Tony snipped.
"Do you know where we are?" the voice asked. "We are in the basement of the Baxter Building, and I've packed this faggot here with an explosive that will level this building. You're looking at ten thousand lives."
"I want you to think about this," Tony said, his spite morphing into rage and his voice getting louder accordingly. "Right now you've pissed me off. If you put me through this, I will destroy you. Because the fact that petty little shits like you still exist to play these stupid fucking games that don't matter... Grow the fuck up. Look around you, get over whatever middle school trauma made you this way, and do something with yourself. "
"Big words from someone locked in a box." The worst. "Ten thousand people. Save them or don't. You have an hour."
Tony's bravado died down as he finally took a moment to just look at Steve--bluing, cracked, and resembling his living self just enough to bring Tony to tears.
He was powerless, and he practically whimpered. "Don't do this..."
There was no response. He already had his instructions.
Tony had the sensation of being removed from his body as he went through the motions of saving 10,000 people. Gloves. He needed gloves. They didn't want to come off of a cold body that was coming up to room temperature, but he made it work. He couldn't help put notice the ring on Steve's hand. Still pristine.
"I'm sorry," he whispered as he pulled apart the stitches on Steve's abdomen, unleashing a more potent scent of death and chemicals.
When he had done what needed to be done, Tony had one last thought:
For two days, Bucky found himself busy fending off all sorts of crazy accusations as to what Tony was doing outside the public eye, including one that involved an Italian circus. He couldn't admit that Tony was missing or speculate that he'd been abducted, so he settled on the old fallback of "tending to family matters." This enraged Shannon when she found her home surrounded by paparazzi. On the third day, she appeared at the Stark campaign headquarters in Washington.
"What the hell is going on?" she demanded.
"I don't know." Bucky repeated the words, letting them sink in. "I don't know."
"Where is my dad?"
"We lost him."
"What kind of campaign manager loses the subject of his campaign? How?"
"I don't have a good answer for either of those questions. Everyone we can trust is looking into it. And a few people we can't."
"There are dozens of news vans outside my house."
"Yeah, I'm trying to keep Barquero in the spotlight. Obviously it's not working. Jess and Luke are keeping an eye on your house. Nothing's going to happen to you..."
"Nobody's even supposed to know where we live. Do you get that?"
The stress was starting to get to Bucky. "Can you take this out on somebody else? Because I am running on three hours of sleep in the last two days and if I don't find my candidate soon, we're all gonna be fucked."
As if on cue, the phone rang, and Nick Fury had a lead.
In no time, Bucky, Sue, Hank, Janet and Wanda were on their way to the Baxter Building with Shannon tagging along. In the past, they would have suited up for such a mission, but it was no longer the Age of Heroes. All of them had given up their secret identities, just as Tony predicted they'd have to so many years earlier.
Even though Sue had sold the building off to some investment firm after Reed died, she knew how to get into the building without anyone noticing. And they did. Nick's tip said they needed to go downstairs, but the basement revealed nothing. Before anyone could complain that it revealed nothing, Sue tapped the wall in a certain spot. The cement wall parted, revealing an elevator with access to six levels of sub-basement.
The first sub-basement was a bust, as was the second.
When the door opened to the third, however, Wanda immediately felt uneasy.
"Something's here," she said.
"Whatever it is, it stinks," Hank said, stifling a sneeze.
With that, the group exited cautiously, their eyes rapidly scanning their surroundings. They were at a corner, and a long hallway stretched in either direction. Bucky, Sue, and Wanda went left. Hank, Janet, and Shannon went right. Both hallways led to the same open area that Tony had correctly identified as a basement. Both groups reached their destinations at about the same time, but the right group was closer to the transparent enclosure where Tony was hunched over and not moving.
Janet grabbed Shannon by the arm and led her back into the hallway before the younger woman could see what had happened.
"We need to go," Janet said. She wasn't even completely sure what she had seen, but she knew Tony and Steve's daughter didn't need to see it.
"What's wrong?" Shannon asked. "He's in there, isn't he?" She shook her arm free and looked at Janet with tears forming. "Is he dead?"
"I don't know, but you can't go in there. Please trust me." Jan was positively shaken.
"I'm not a child," Shannon said.
"Neither am I, but I'm not going back in there unless I have to."
Those words seemed to be enough to keep Shannon in the hallway. She and Janet leaned against the wall and waited.
"Shit," Bucky said. It was all he could verbally process. His mind raged against the unfairness and cruelty, but all that came out was another "Shit."
With a wave of her hand, Wanda made the enclosure disappear, and both Tony and Steve fell limply to the ground. With their liberation came the overpowering scent of chemicals, entrails, and the vomit that Tony had left all over himself. Sue choked on it, and added her own puke to the mix before excusing herself to the hallway. Hank was dizzy, and stumbled out to join her.
Bucky observed that he probably should have followed them, but he'd seen worse. He knelt down and felt for a pulse.
"He's alive," he said. "I don't know what's..."
"What's wrong?" Wanda asked, incredulous. "You don't know what's wrong?"
Bucky was silent. Of course he knew. The layout of the scene made it easy enough to put together what had happened. The perpetrator was nowhere to be found, of course, and there was no evidence of who it had been. The two of them leaned in and tried speaking to Tony, but he didn't react. He simply lay there, his eyes and mouth half open, frozen.
Bucky tried to keep speaking, but was interrupted by a coughing fit. "Can you do something about that smell?" he asked Wanda.
She closed her eyes and concentrated. When she opened them, she and Bucky were back in the foyer of the Sanctum Sanctorum.
"That wasn't what I meant..." she started. Chaos magic was...chaotic.
"It's fine." The others would mostly forgive them for leaving them below the Baxter Building with Steve's corpse. Mostly. He hoped they'd be able to keep Shannon away, not just because it would tear her apart but also because he would never hear the end of it. Assuming they could get Tony to spring back to reality.
Stephen appeared before them and, after a brief explanation, teleported Tony to one of the medical facilities downstairs. From there, he left things in the hands of Linda, the Night Nurse as he stood in the corner, concentrating and glowing a faint purple.
"What are we going to do?" Wanda asked.
Linda answered with another question. "Can you float the body for me?"
Carol picked exactly that moment to walk into the room. "Oh my god. Tony, are you okay?" Bucky shook his head.
Linda continued. "We have to get these clothes off him. If he wakes up and sees this..."
Wanda focused and removed the vomit, chemical, and blood-spattered clothing with her mind. When she did, she and two others in the room were horrified. They had seen his back--the whole world had--but they hadn't realized that nearly every inch of Tony's body was similarly scarred.
"Tony," Carol whispered, eyeing the cuts that traveled the length of his arm. Cuts that showed a desperate attempt at escaping his captors.
Bucky turned to Linda. "You examined him before. Why didn't you tell us..."
"That knowledge was absolutely not ours to share," Strange answered, breaking his focus. He moved closer to the group as Linda wrapped a hospital gown around Tony.
"Nice of you to join us," Bucky said.
"I was attempting to enter his mind."
"And?" Carol asked.
"He doesn't want me there."
Wanda lowered Tony onto the bed and Linda began inserting an IV into his arm.
Bucky spoke. "So he's fine? He's not brain-dead or something?"
"Relatively speaking," Stephen answered. "He's been traumatized into a catatonic state. We'll do what we can to bring him back to full health, but I have a feeling that's not going to bring him back to us."
"You have a feeling?" Carol asked.
Having just come back from Tony's mind, Strange spoke honestly. "It's not looking good..."
Bucky looked down at Tony's still body. "Send me in there."
"Do whatever you did, but make it me instead of you. He might talk to me."
"What makes you think that?" Wanda asked. His stare, with eyes that demanded she stop asking, told her everything she needed to know. "...Okay."
Stephen wasn't sure about the idea, but he explained how it could work. They would hook Bucky up to an IV and leave him in a room just like Tony. The difference was that his soul would leave his body. It was critical, then, that he not get his astral projection killed in Tony's mind. Bucky got the gist and it made about as much sense as anything else Doctor Strange did.
"Are you sure about this?" Carol asked as Bucky sank into his pillow and became dizzy under the purple glow.
"Yeah. Take care of the campaign if I'm gone too long..."
Bucky found himself in a place that was vaguely familiar. Probably a quarter of Tony's life had played out in his lab, but Bucky could only recall having glimpsed it.
The room was dimly lit--a reminder of the cave where he built the first Iron Man suit--and looked like the home of an electronics hoarder, which in many ways it was. In the middle of it all, Tony was welding something.
"I'm busy," he said as Bucky approached from behind. "Come back later."
"What are you building?"
Tony turned around and very nearly welded Bucky's arm. "Suit of armor," he answered.
"Can you stop for a minute?"
Tony pulled back his welding visor for a brief moment, revealing two very bloodshot eyes. "No. If I stop I'm gonna go crazy, so... I'm gonna stay right here." He was oddly chipper for the mental projection of someone traumatized into a catatonic state.
Bucky was still surveying the room as they spoke, and he realized that it had an exit: a steel door with a little black blind covering its window. "What's out there?" he asked.
In real life, the answer was a short hallway and elevator to the rest of Stark tower. In Tony's head, his answer was "nothing."
That answer wasn't satisfying, so Bucky approached the door.
"Don't open that," Tony demanded, audibly worried.
Bucky didn't open it, but he peeked behind the blind. Outside was Steve's corpse--cut open, jaw dangling--pawing at the door like a zombie. Bucky shut the blind.
"This is going to be great," he muttered to himself.
Tony's face dropped. He put his visor back on and welded with renewed focus.
Shannon was surprised to find that Strange didn't need to be present to work his magic. Her father's room was empty and silent--aside from the occasional beep of the heart monitor Linda had hooked him to. She sat down beside his bed, holding a tattered old book.
"I know you would think this is stupid," she said. "But you always read this to me, and I thought maybe it would remind you..." She wiped a tear from the side of her face. "I don't know whether you can hear me or not, but I'm going to read it to you..."
She spoke over the beeps. "This is the story of Rosie Revere, who dreamed of becoming a great engineer..."
He couldn't hear. In his mind, Tony was still in his lab, and Bucky was getting nowhere. He'd figured out Tony's plan: build a suit of armor for his mind that would keep his memories of Steve out. There were layers upon layers of metaphorical bullshit and Steve's corpse at the door, but that seemed to be the gist. What Bucky hadn't figured out was what his own plan was.
"You don't want to forget everything," he insisted. "It's not a weakness to have trouble dealing with the fact that you were forced to violate your husband's corpse."
"Isn't it?" Tony asked. "You wouldn't."
"Yeah, great for me. Did you ever think about what happened to me that rustling around in explodable corpses is routine? I would love to be totally traumatized, but the Russians took that away from me."
"Well I can take that away from myself."
"Fuck off," Bucky said, exasperated.
"It's my mind and I'll do what I want with it," Tony said. It was hard to argue with him when he was being this petulant.
"Okay," Bucky said, "But stop for a second."
Tony humored him and put his blowtorch and visor down for a moment.
"What?" he asked.
Bucky grabbed the back of Tony's head and pulled him in for an uncomfortable kiss. They had done this once in a moment of sorrowful desperation, but despite the similar sentiment it wasn't going to work this time. Not long after Bucky slipped his tongue into Tony's mouth, he pulled it out. They looked at each other, then away, each a bit unsettled and unhappy.
"Yeah, I didn't think that would work," Bucky said.
"What is wrong with you?" Tony asked.
"What's wrong with me?" Bucky was beat, and he went off on a rant. "There's no handbook for fixing you, okay? Sometimes you want to talk about Steve. Sometimes if you talk about him you end up drunk and crying. Sometimes you want me to fuck and belittle you. I don't know. I'm trying."
"I never asked you to try. And all of that is why I'm coming up with a solution."
"Your solution sucks."
"Good point. You've shown me the error of my ways and I'll change my mind now."
"I am thisclose to opening that door," Bucky said, gesturing with his fingers.
"I am not your mission," Tony said. "I don't care that you made a promise to do whatever you did. I don't care that you have nothing better to do. My mind is not yours to save."
"You're not my mission," Bucky repeated. "You're my friend."
The words tied Tony's stomach in knots. "I'm not your friend. I killed your wife."
"And I killed JFK, okay? You're not the only person in the world who's done something wrong. You're not the only person in the world who's had bad things happen to them. But you're the only person in the world locked up in a freaky fantasy basement with a Captain America zombie knocking at the door. And you're going to let me help you."
Tony hadn't been on the receiving end of that much devotion in a long time. He didn't know how to handle it other than to shut up.
"Tell me how to help you," Bucky said.
Tony was silent for a moment. Then he quietly muttered, "Open the door..."
Steve didn't come storming in dramatically. He didn't rush the two men and attack them. His body simply fell to the floor, dead and contorted with his final pain. Tony tried to avoid looking for as long as he could, but his eyes were drawn to the scene and, when they finally made it, he broke down again.
"It's going to be oka..." Bucky started. But before he could finish the thought, he awoke in a bed in the Sanctum Sanctorum with Stephen, Nick, and Hank hovering over him.
"What are you doing?!" Bucky jolted upright, unintentionally tugging the IV in his arm a bit too far from its source. "Mother of fuck!" he shouted as a sharp pain shot through him. Then he turned and shouted at the three men. "Put me back!"
"Calm down," Stephen said. "It's been two days. We woke you up to feed you. Unless you like the idea of having a feeding tube down your throat."
"It's been two days?" Bucky mumbled and Hank handed him a PowerBar. Bucky's head was throbbing, and he happily ate it.
"How long did you think you were in there?" Hank asked.
"About an hour," Bucky answered.
That added a complication. They had figured it would take a few hours to talk Tony away from the edge. If a few hours for him turned out to be a few weeks, they were going to run up to Election Day, and they were going to lose.
"God damn it," Nick said. He turned to Strange. "Backup plan: can you make him forget this ever happened?"
"Backup plan?" Bucky asked himself.
"I could," Strange said, "But it's best not to perform surgery if there's any chance for natural healing, if you understand..."
"That's great, but we need this election," Nick said.
"The election means nothing," Strange said. His work protected the very fabric of the universe, and he couldn't stand petty squabbling. The worst possible result for the United States was nothing compared to what would happen if Dormammu or Satannish had their way. At the same time, he had dedicated his life as the Sorcerer Supreme to doing the most good. He continued, “But I will do what is necessary."
"If I'm reading you right, you're gonna be fine with violating his mind?" Bucky asked.
"I do not need a lecture on making difficult choices from you."
"You're all out of line," Bucky said. Memory tampering was personal for him, and he snapped at them. "I can't believe you would take someone who's been violated so much and pile on top of it."
"You're out of line, kid." Nick glared at him. "Ever since Cap kicked it, you've been pretending you have his moral code. You don't. We don't need a Captain America, we need a Winter Soldier. The sooner you realize that, the better."
When Bucky didn't reply, Nick ended the conversation. "You have three days, real time," he said. Then he walked out of the room.
"Fuck," Bucky muttered. He thought about telling Carol, Shannon... anybody with a strong moral compass so they would unleash a shitstorm on Nick and Stephen. But he knew the two men were right, and that if he didn't succeed they were going to have to make this compromise. He was going to succeed.
After nursing a few more snacks, Bucky was ready to return. When he reappeared in Tony's mind, Tony was on his knees sobbing and hating himself for sobbing. Bucky knew the latter was true because some mystery voice projected through the room as if it were coming though a loudspeaker.
"Get up, get up," it said. "Stop sniveling and get up."
"Who is that?" Bucky asked.
"Howard," Tony said.
"Should I be concerned about that?"
"No, he's pretty much always there."
"I need you to work with me," Bucky said, his words coming much more quickly. Time was time, and they didn't have much of it.
"I can't..." Tony was not in a hurry. There was too much pain to think about anything else.
"We really don't have time for this. Every few minutes we're here is an hour we're not out there campaigning."
"We've already lost."
"Okay. No." Bucky hadn't dedicated his time to this campaign for nothing. He hadn't dedicated himself to Tony for nothing. He grabbed him with his metal arm and lifted him to standing position. Tony moved with little resistance but his eyes remained fixed on the body.
"Look at me," Bucky said.
"No. Look at me," he repeated.
Bucky pulled Tony out the door the corpse had fallen from. There, he found a seemingly endless hallway with hundreds of doors. "Great," he muttered. "Your mind is an episode of Scooby Doo." He looked Tony in the eyes. "What I said, I meant. Time is distorted here. We literally don't have time for this. You know I would go through every door with you, and I mean that, but can we skip the trip down memory lane and get to the heart of it?"
Right then, Tony knew that Bucky meant it. He would have gone through every door, relived every memory. Suddenly, they were in the middle of a war zone, and a much younger Tony was lying on the ground bleeding from his chest.
"I said I'd never hurt anyone again," he said.
The scenery rapidly changed to Steve, choking out his last breath in the hallway at the Sanctum Sanctorum.
"But everything I touch..."
They saw Pepper, dead among rubble.
They watched as James's tiny coffin was lowered into the ground.
"Everyone I care about..."
They looked at Spider-Man's body, crucified by the Green Goblin.
"I hurt everyone."
Rhodey. Sam. Happy. Reed. Clint. Pietro. Charles. Natasha.
The last one caused Bucky to avert his eyes.
"I am the one person," Tony said, "whose pain I can stop. If I get rid of Steve, get rid of the time in Quantico..."
Bucky interrupted. "You'll get rid of what makes you human. You'll get rid of the thing that makes you...you. You'll get rid of the thing that makes you the right person to lead this country. Come on."
"Help me understand how having mental breakdowns makes me a better person because I am not seeing it. I take two steps forward, three steps back. All the time."
"Okay. I know it's your mind, but can I show you something?" Bucky asked.
Now Tony was in an unfamiliar place: a safehouse. It was some time after the SHRA had passed and Clint, Peter, Jessica, Bobbi, Luke, Carol, and Logan were sitting around chatting about their distaste for Norman Osborn and his "dark avengers."
The Bucky of that time walked in wearing his Captain America uniform.
"Well?" Luke asked.
"Osborn doesn't know anything." Their identities were safe.
"You're sure?" Bobbi asked.
"I'm sure," Bucky said with little enthusiasm.
"Then why the face?" Peter asked. "Or is that just your face? I don't really know you and if that's just your face..."
"Stark..." Bucky started.
"Oh, Christ," Clint said, rolling his eyes. "What did he do this time?"
"He saved all of us."
"Huh?" Peter wondered.
"All of the information was in his head. He wiped it to keep us safe."
"It's a trick," Luke said.
"It's not a trick," Bucky said. "He's in a coma."
"It's a trick," Clint said.
"It's not a trick."
Their voices faded into the background as the present version of Bucky spoke. "That may be a bad choice of imagery since that was another time you put yourself into a coma, but I have to ask: what would have happened if you didn't care about us?"
Tony pointed out some distressing facts. "Logan packed up and headed off-planet. Clint, Peter, and Bobbi still ended up dead. "
"They did, but you bought them how many more years?" Bucky said. "You know how long a year feels. You know how much of a struggle it is to get through one. So you also know how big a gift each one is."
Tony had no response.
"Let me show you something else."
It was World War II. Tony knew not from experience but from how well Steve had described it during his war stories. An entire city, somewhere in Europe, reduced to rubble. The dust, even though it was just a memory, penetrated Tony's lungs and made him cough. What struck him more than that, though, was the color. Obviously he knew the world wasn't black and white during the war, but that was how he always pictured it thanks to photos and documentaries. To his left, a casualty of the bombing--a woman with a bright green scarf around her head--lay still and stained with her own blood. She was holding the hand of a child the rest of whom could not been seen under a pile of bricks and dust.
Bucky started to say something, but he was drowned out by the sound of an allied tank rolling by. He started walking away from the city toward camp, and Tony followed.
"Where are we?" he asked.
"Valognes, 1944." They kept walking.
Inside the tent was a much younger Bucky--too young to be exposed to all of this--and he was thrilled. "We did it, Cap!" the teen shouted.
"Nice outfit," Tony said.
"We haven't done anything," a twenty-year-old Steve corrected. "It's just one town, Buck, and it's one more town that will have to completely rebuild."
"Geez, what's gotten into you? Where's the harm in celebrating a victory?"
"Geez?" Tony mouthed.
Steve tossed a small toy--a wooden horse--at his partner, and the young Bucky understood. Cap always got like this when he'd seen children die.
"There is no victory," Steve said. "The only way anyone would win is if none of this had started in the first place."
"Well, I wouldn't go telling the rest of the troops that, yeah?"
"No, I won't take this from them," Steve said. He gazed at nothing, deep in thought. "We should have come here sooner."
"Isn't it enough that we came?" Bucky asked. The younger man was obviously concerned.
"We did everything we could do," Steve said. "But it's important to ask whether you did enough. It means you'll do better next time."
The older Bucky turned to Tony. "Can you honestly tell me you'd have done everything you have in the last three years if you hadn't lost Steve? Can you tell me you'd be even half the Presidential candidate you are?"
Tony shook his head.
"I know you feel inadequate because you keep thinking you've failed people. Everyone has thought that. Even Steve. It hurts, but feeling pain is the only way you know you want to stop other people from feeling it. And listen to me: if Berle wins this election, a lot more people are going to hurt. People will go to prison and they'll be tortured like you were. Other people will watch their loved ones die. Countless people will suffer. You can stop that. Emotions aren't something you defeat. They're something you use."
After a moment of contemplation, Tony spoke. "This is why I hired you."
"Yeah, well..." Bucky mumbled, almost embarrassed. "I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't believe in you."
Tony jolted awake at the Sanctum Sanctorum, five days from when he went catatonic. His back was stiff from not moving and his nostrils were burning from having to deal with a feeding tube. Nick, Carol, and Janet were the first to make it to the room when he came to.
"You scared us," Janet said.
"Yeah. I scared myself. Sorry."
A tired and agitated Bucky entered the room, sipping at a bottle of water.
Fury greeted him. "You took every bit of those three days, Barnes."
"What would have happened after three days?" Tony asked.
Carol and Janet looked at each other, unsure what Fury had meant.
"Strange has other business to take care of," Nick lied, "he'd have had to extract Bucky for a few days."
Bucky seemed to stare through him.
The next day, Tony returned to his penthouse despite a chorus of concern. Even though he had bathed at Stephen's house, the first thing he did was hop in the shower. He strongly felt that his catatonic state had left him with a general funk, and he was going to an interview in a few hours to discuss why he'd missed the last debate.
"Tony, are you in there?" A familiar voice called.
He just wanted ten minutes to himself. "Yes. God. I'm fine. No, I don't want to sleep with you."
Bucky poked his head into the room and rolled his eyes. "It's about the campaign, Mister Stark."
"Okay. What is it?"
"The people who locked you up..." Bucky hesitated, but Tony nodded for him to continue. "They kept footage. We think..."
"Leak it," Tony said without pause.
"Are you sure? People are going to ask questions."
"Leak it," Tony repeated. Exploitative or not, this was the key to a victory he now craved more than ever. Nobody could deny what he was going to tell them if they had seen the proof.
Nearly three years after Steve Rogers died, Tony Stark found himself thanking his husband in his victory speech. It could have seemed contrived, but he really wouldn't have been there if it weren't for Steve.
As he finished up, red, white, and blue star-shaped balloons fell from the ceiling and the room was filled with the sounds of applause and Tina Turner's "Simply the Best." Tony tilted his head to the side, eyed up a well-dressed Janet and mouthed "Simply the Best?" She shrugged with a smile and he couldn't help but smile back.
"Your taste in music is terrible," Carol said.
"And what would you have played?" Janet asked.
"Rocky theme. No question." She turned to Tony as he made his way offstage. "You'd have preferred the Rocky theme, right?"
He looked at Janet's wide eyes. "Nope. Tina's great."
"You're a liar and a terrible human being," Carol said, betrayed. "So what happens next?"
"We get to work," Tony said.
"We?" Carol asked.
"All of us."
A few weeks after the inauguration, Bucky found Nick Fury in an apartment in Hillsboro, North Carolina. When he knocked at the door, he noticed hesitation from the other side to open it.
"How the hell did you find me?" Nick asked when he finally let him in.
"Remember all that government surveillance your last President said we weren't using anymore?"
"What do you want? Chief of Staff, I figure you got more important things to do."
"I do," Bucky said, "but this will be quick."
Bucky closed the door behind him. He drew his gun and pointed it at Nick.
"If you just wait a month or two, the cancer'll take care of that for you."
As it turned out, smoking for over a dozen decades wasn't great for one's health. At least that was the story. Bucky knew it, even if he wasn't sure it was true. This wasn't about killing Nick, though. It was about making sure he knew why he had to die.
"I know what you did," Bucky said.
"Have I ever done you wrong, Barnes?"
"Not me, no."
Nick sighed. "You were fine with us using Stark for a long time."
"I knew you blew up HQ. Fine. Nobody got hurt. But the night he was taken to the Baxter Building, you said our efforts weren't good enough. Then you gather the Avengers and say you know where he is, just out of nowhere. We had no leads. Nobody saw anything. I started asking 'who do I know that could rip off the Sanctum Sanctorum?'"
"You got me, okay?"
"No. Not 'okay.' You dug up Steve..."
"It all worked, didn't--?"
"You dug up Steve and used him to torture one of our allies. Someone who is... just fubar inside and never would have been running for President if you hadn't goaded him into it."
"Torture wasn't the point. I got us the video that won the election."
Bucky fired. The first shot shattered Nick's knee and dropped him.
"'One and done' it, would you Barnes?"
"No." This was intentional. Bucky fired again, this time into Nick's abdomen. "No vitals." He would let the former director of S.H.I.E.L.D bleed out and he would watch. After all the deceit and manipulation, this was what he deserved.
Nick spoke as the pool of blood on his shirt spread. "You don't have it in you."
Bucky's eyes were damp and unblinking. Nick was right. He ended it with a shot between the eyes. Then he sunk to the floor, leaned his head into his knees and sobbed quietly to himself. A moment passed, he took a deep breath, and it was time to clean up.
It was day 17-something. President Stark was so busy that he'd lost count. Some part of him felt that he'd betrayed Steve by forgetting, but deep down he knew that was silly. Especially in light of the ways he was actually betraying him.
It was bad enough that he hadn't found the courage to attend Steve's reinterring. The way he was attempting to move on was worse. In the East Wing of the White House, the President and his Chief of Staff were lying in bed together. They often ended the day like this, drinking together until one or both of them fell asleep. Or until some urgent late-night matter required that they not fall asleep. Tony knew he could have called any of his friends to spend time with him. He also knew the rest of his friends would give him hell about sobering up. This...This was easier.
Bucky knew that Tony was an alcoholic but he never said a word. He understood, and as long as it didn't become an obvious problem, he didn't care. As it so happened, he also didn't care for the line of questioning he was currently facing.
"Never?" Tony asked. "Not even for a mission?"
"Well, let's change that."
Bucky laughed and took another sip. "Not a chance."
"I'm just saying..."
"If you want me to fuck you, just say so. You know I'm good for it. But it's not going down the other way." There wasn't a chance Bucky was going to put himself in that vulnerable a position.
"I bet I can change your mind."
"Just because you convinced Congress to bring back the 26th Amendment doesn't mean you can convince me that I want you in my ass."
Tony reached around Bucky and unbuckled his belt. He wasn't surprised to find that Bucky was hard, and he stroked his cock a few times to let him know that he knew. The pants slid down easily. Before Bucky could protest, Tony had slipped his tongue between the smaller man's cheeks.
Tony used his tongue like a master. It didn't take much probing before Bucky began wriggling and making soft groaning noises.
"Goddamn it, I hate you."
"Now do you want to find out?" Tony asked.
Bucky chugged the rest of his whiskey sour. "Yes. Goddamn it, I'm going to regret this."
Tony went slowly. With the first finger, Bucky let out a "Christ."
Bucky gradually began to do so as Tony gently stroked back and forth. With a second finger, Bucky anxiously tightened. Everything felt good, but he couldn't see what was going on and he hated that. He was trained against this.
"Relax," Tony repeated. "Do you have any reason not to trust me?"
"Yes, now that you mention it. Plenty. I..." His words disintegrated into a long moan as Tony's middle finger stroked him. "Fuck. Just do it already."
Tony slid himself in slowly. A soft groan became louder and Tony reassured him that the head was almost in. Bucky let out a deep breath.
"Is that it?"
He pressed deeper until he found the right spot, then caressed it for a bit while Bucky relaxed and began losing himself to pleasure.
"Okay. Fine. I trust you. Fuck."
With that, Tony thrust himself completely inside. He found a rhythm and soon Bucky was meeting that rhythm with his hips.
When he was getting close, Tony refrained and refocused on Bucky, hitting the spot over and over. For the first time Tony had seen, Bucky made a loud noise as he came. As his orgasm finished, Tony joined him and filled the younger man. They collapsed in a heap, both panting. Bucky grabbed the bottle of bourbon and took a swig, then passed it to Tony, who did the same.
"Jesus," Bucky said.
He took a moment to collect his breath. Then he leaned over and began kissing Tony. Really kissing him. Desperately. It was the first time in four years that Tony had felt any kind of passion, and he went along with it. For an hour they said nothing. They just kissed, pulled apart to look at each other, and resumed kissing. Eventually, they settled comfortably into an embrace. As Bucky ran his hand back and forth over the scars on Tony's shoulder, Tony broke the silence.
"What is this?" He asked.
"It doesn't matter." Bucky laid his head on Tony's shoulder and gazed off at nothing. He was fixated on the fact that he'd killed Nick, but revealing that and explaining himself would be of no value. He downed another drink and settled in to sleep.
At 3AM, Bucky noticed that Tony was awake and typing away at some hologram.
"Do you ever sleep?" he asked. "I mean really sleep. Not two hours here, an hour there."
"Hi, pot. I'm kettle. No. Not in a long time."
He noticed that Tony's attention had been drawn away from work. "I don't remember the last time I slept a whole night. Even when I was with Nat... " He trailed off.
Tony shut the computer down. "My dreams are vivid," Tony said, turning to Bucky. "And there are a lot of things I don't need to see vividly."
"What did they do to you?" Bucky asked. He didn't mean in general. He had the gist. He meant the core of what made Tony like this.
"You first," Tony said. He'd only ever heard about Bucky's past from S.H.I.E.L.D files and Steve, never from the source.
"I was eighteen when the Russians found me, arm blown off, basically dead." He bit his lip. "I remember being strapped down to a table and them just poking at nerve endings. Over and over, just seeing what was connected to what. Twelve hours a day. And the other half of the day I was just strapped there, just... stuck with my own mind. For a few months, I thought, 'any minute, Steve and the Commandos are gonna bust through the door and find me.'"
"Months?" Tony asked.
Bucky nodded. "Then I sort of started begging. Not for release or anything, because I knew that wouldn't happen... just begging for these people to talk to me. If they would have insulted me all day, that would have been great. But no human interaction at all. Just the prodding. And after a few more months, I figured I must not be a person anymore. I saw them welding this arm to me, and I closed my eyes. And that's the last I remember of being Bucky. They didn't have to do anything to erase me. It just happened. But then..." He swallowed. "You guys made me remember everything else. But I don't remember it, really. I just know that I did horrible things and I didn't care. So I dream that I'm Bucky a lot." He glanced down at his robotic arm. "Then I wake up and see this thing. I have a fucking souvenir that reminds me of all the things I did." He sighed. "I hate this fucking arm."
"Well, you've already seen my souvenirs," Tony said, brushing his arm through the air across himself as if he were presenting the scars. "And you read the book."
"Yeah, but that's not it. We can handle physical torture, but you lost yourself too. Why?"
Tony stared, unblinking, deep in thought. He hadn't shared this part with anyone but Steve, and he only shared part of it with him. But he knew Bucky would understand. "Uh... So... They kept telling me I was sinning, that we were awful. Adam and Eve, not Tony and Steve. All that jazz. Tried to make me think the torture was what I deserved. None of that worked. But one night they come in and they hold a gun to Steve and basically say 'if you don't suck off this room full of guys, we shoot him.'"
Bucky's lip curled in disgust.
"So I called their bluff. I figure they're not killing Captain America. Not like this. Not without some fanfare. I refused and they shot him. Then they shot him again, before I could even react to the first shot. And I basically dove head first onto a dick at that point. Three guys. They came in every day after that, sometimes three or four times a day. Then it was five guys. Then it was seven. It wasn't a choice, and I puked every time they left. I started cutting myself with anything I could find--the handle of a metal bucket, a pebble--just something I could, well, kill myself with. They never threatened Steve again after the first time, but if they had I might have let him die. I hated him. I hated the idea of him, cozied up somewhere recovering while I was choking on soldier dick twenty times a day. I hated everything about Steve, and..."
He paused so long it forced Bucky to interrupt. "What?" he asked.
"...And sometimes I still do. He gets to be dead and I'm here, mulling over whether I love or hate the love of my life." Tony paused. "I love him. But I love that you're nothing like him."
"You should have told Fury that. He insisted I was too much like Steve."
Tony made a sound that conveyed his disbelief.
Bucky continued, "Up until I killed him."
"What?" Tony asked.
"I need a drink."
"I can agree with that," Tony said. There was no better way to process the betrayal Bucky began explaining to him.
By the time Bucky had finished detailing how he figured out what Nick had done, why he had done it, and how he had confronted and then murdered him, they were both completely and utterly drunk.
After that night, the drinking wasn't intermittent. Nick's betrayal hit Tony hard, and his cold-blooded murder continued to haunt Bucky. They drank every night. By the end of Tony's first term, it had crept into daylight hours. The Secretary of Defense almost lost it when she saw Tony enter a Cabinet meeting holding a drink.
"I sincerely hope that's apple juice," Carol said.
The President chuckled. "Napoleon Brandy."
She slapped the drink out of his hand. It landed anticlimactically on the carpet with a soft thud. Her voice, on the other hand, was anything but soft.
"I didn't almost get blown to bits... I didn't almost watch Jess get blown to bits... So I could campaign for a total drunk."
"Calm down. It's fine," he said. The other Cabinet members awkwardly shuffled papers and avoided eye contact. They were there to talk about Haiti, not this.
"How many drinks have you had today?" Carol asked.
"Tony, it's 10AM."
"I've been drinking since I was fifteen. Do you have any idea what it takes to get me drunk?"
Tony's face wore every one of his 58 years and then some. Carol scanned it and answered with confidence. "One sip. It takes one sip."
"Oh, come on."
"After that, it might be a few months. Hell, it might be a few years. You may be great at hiding it, but that's all it takes."
"We're on a roll, Carol. The FGMA. The MRA. The SHPA. All gone. You really think there's a problem here?"
"I do. I really do."
She looked to Bucky, pleading for someone to agree with her. He was silent.
"What are you gonna do about it?" Tony asked.
Carol weighed her options. Enabling him wasn't one. "Tough love" would only lead Tony to one of his trademark lows--maybe lying in a ditch somewhere and choking to death on his own vomit. Leaving the White House would mean she couldn't keep an eye on him, but staying would surround her with drinking on a daily basis. Worse, she would watch one of her closest friends die. It wasn't worth it.
"I'm not going to watch you destroy yourself," Carol said.
She resigned the next day.
Tony was re-elected with surprisingly little effort, and he and Bucky continued spiraling downward, together. The public didn't know about the President's problems. The economy, finally, was decent. The police state was, for all intents and purposes, over. Of course, there were still cameras everywhere. Gay marriage was still illegal in most states. The police were armed to the teeth. Superhumans were still hesitant to do much of anything. But it was a work in progress. It took years for freedom to be chipped away, and it would take years to get it back. The sudden influx under Hume and then Stark, however, made people realize how much they had missed it.
In 2036, 68% of Americans voted, a percentage that everyone assured Tony was very impressive. All he could think about, though, was the 32% who still couldn't find it within themselves to give a damn.
Every night, he thought about that 32%.
It was Thanksgiving when Shannon noticed that her father was in a tailspin.
They should have arrived high on the recent victory. Instead, Tony and Bucky arrived at Camp David drunk. It was obvious in their slurred speech and the pungent whiskey smell in the air. At least it was obvious to the other adults in the room.
Shannon opted not to say anything in front of Jane and Sam. They were four years old now and were thrilled to see Grampa President, even if they had trouble pronouncing the second word. They ran up to him and each wrapped their arms around one of his legs.
Tony laughed. "Uh oh. I'm stuck. I'm gonna have to call in the Avengers on you two."
Disinterested in what was happening, Bucky made his way upstairs to the guest bedroom he was allegedly staying in. But whatever was happening between him and Tony was the nation's worst kept secret, and Shannon followed him.
"I can't believe you're letting him drink."
"Letting?" Bucky asked, setting his bag on the bed. Then he turned to her and pondered out loud. "Well, I guess Steve never did realize that Tony does whatever the fuck he wants. It just so happened he wanted to make it work with Steve, so..."
"And what does he want now?" Shannon asked.
"To be dead. Same thing he's wanted as long as I can remember..." He thought for a moment. "And for you all to be safe."
"And what do you want?"
Bucky glanced down at the metal arm that was holding a flask. "You know, I never figured that out."
"What happened to you--?" Shannon stopped mid-sentence and turned when she heard the door creak behind her.
"I didn't realize you were up here," Tony said.
"Where are the twins?" Shannon asked.
"With Ben. I told them I needed to unpack and take a shower."
"Do you?" she asked.
"Something like that."
Shannon didn't know half of what Tony and Steve went through when she was growing up. They shielded her, in some cases literally. As a result, she grew up to be a well-adjusted adult, but she could never understand the breadth of her father's problems. She'd read the book, hoping it would shed some light, but all she ever remembered was how incredibly happy her family had been, and she refused to believe that was a lie.
She left the room so she could continue refusing to believe it.
In no time, Bucky had mounted Tony and was pushing him deep into the bedding. Tony groaned harder with each thrust, and somewhere nearby the twins must have heard their grandfather. The door creaked open, and the two men dove under the covers.
"What're you doing?" Sam asked.
"Wrestling," Tony said. "You two go downstairs and I'll be there in a minute."
After they obliged, Bucky spoke. "Why are there no locks here?"
"Because FDR was a pervert?" He reached under the covers and started playing with Bucky's now-limp cock. "Don't be like that."
"Moment's gone," Bucky said. "You didn't want to be interrupted, you should have kept Steve from fucking around." He didn't mean to say that, but he wasn't self-aware enough to regret it.
"Oh, fuck you," Tony said, pulling more aggressively.
"You want something?" Bucky asked, leaning in so his face met Tony's. "Here." He grabbed Tony by the shoulders and pulled the President's face down to his cock. That was a tremendous mistake.
Tony's entire body flung itself backward and his eyes became sharp. He looked at Bucky with a mixture of primal fear and outrage. "No," he said. "I told you..."
"Oh, get over yourself."
Tony's lips thinned and he could feel the heat building inside him. Before he even realized what he was doing, he threw a punch that landed square in Bucky's jaw.
Bucky wasn't sober enough to rein in his words, but he knew enough to control his punches. If he wanted to, he could kill Tony, but he chose to hit him with his normal fist. It was still enough to make blood gush from Tony's nose. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and scowled at the man sitting across from him, then struck again. A hard shot to Bucky's rib that made him double over before grabbing Tony's arm and pushing it back to the cusp of breaking. He glared, and Tony sank back, giving up.
Tony sneered. "I wish you were Steve."
"I wish you were dead."
"Yeah?" Tony asked. "Stop wishing and start killing, then. You didn't have a problem when it was Fury." When Bucky's only response was a fixed stare, Tony finished. "Thought so."
He took a sip from the flask Bucky had left on the nightstand, then passed it along. Bucky gladly drank the rest of its contents.
"Sorry," he slurred, reaching his hand out toward Tony's shoulder. He wasn't sure why he was apologizing when he was fairly certain he had a broken rib.
It didn't matter. The halfhearted apology wasn't enough to calm Tony, and Bucky soon found himself beneath the other man, trying not to move and further agitate his rib. He found the entire interaction appalling, but he was already on edge from before they were interrupted, and he came quickly in spite of himself.
He was relieved when Tony opted to pull out rather than continue and inflict pain on him. He was less relieved when Tony stroked himself to finish on Bucky's face.
"Fuck you," Bucky said, wiping his eye.
"Same to you," Tony said, rubbing the blood away from his still-dripping nose.
At the dinner table that evening, Shannon held her tongue about the "wrestling match" her children had walked in on. They were young enough, she figured, that it didn't really matter. She held her tongue about the drinking. She could not, however, ignore that her father and Bucky had clearly been fighting.
"What happened to your face?" she asked, wondering whether her father would lie to her.
He didn't. "This asshole punched me," he said, shooting his eyes toward Bucky.
Shannon admonished his language. "There are kids in the room."
"Oh? I hadn't noticed," Tony said. "I don't give a shit."
Jane giggled again.
By this point, Bucky was considerably more sober than Tony, and he tried to diffuse the situation. "I think he means it's bedtime for the twins."
"That's not what I said. I said..."
Ben didn't quite have a Spider-Sense like his father, but he knew things were about to get nasty. "Yep. Bedtime." He grabbed Sam and Jane and scuttled them out of the room.
"What is wrong with you?" Shannon asked. She had never seen him this bad.
Bucky mouthed "don't" as she said it, but it was too late.
"What's wrong with me?" Tony asked.
"You're not some pathetic retired hero. You're the President of the United States, and you could act like it."
Tony scoffed. "You think I'm not aware of that? Why the hell do you think I'm drinking so much?" He stood up, ready to leave the room. "I am well aware of my obligations to every one of 360 million people."
As he started for the stairs, Shannon spoke. "And to your grandchildren?"
Tony turned back around. "I am not going to listen to a lecture about how 'with great power comes great responsibility.' Not from you."
"What does that mean?"
"It means you decided your greatest purpose on this planet was to shit out a couple of kids."
"Tony..." Bucky started.
"Shit out?" Shannon asked in disbelief. "I am doing what my parents--all of you--always wanted me to do."
"Oh, please. Sharon went bonkers before you were a tween. This is all about what Steve wanted for you. You spent years parading around in star spangled spandex when I could have had you in armor or a set of wings."
"And I gave that up. You'd rather me be out there in danger?"
"Everyone's always in danger. That's what you're missing. That's what's keeping me up at night. In our heyday, you know how many Avengers there were? Hundreds. And X-Men. Defenders. Fantastic Four. Hell, there was Excalibur." He stared at her. "You know how many there are now? A dozen Avengers if we use the word loosely. Everything else is gone. You'd better hope Doctor Strange can handle everything himself next time Thanos or Kang shows up." He continued his diatribe. "Say Ultron comes back. It's all on Pym, and god knows he's just great under pressure. If he's even alive when the time comes. But yeah, go ahead and help out by watching cartoons and playing with LEGO."
Shannon was silent for a moment, then stood defiant. "If there were a million superhumans, the world could still end. At least I'll be surrounded by people who love me if that time comes. You'll have nothing but a bottle."
Tony winced, but didn't say a word. He turned and headed toward his bedroom, bottle in hand. He wasn't going to have any of that 'love conquers all' bullshit.
"Are you okay?" Bucky asked Shannon.
"Are you? Your face..."
Bucky stood up, clutching his side. "I was trained by the KGB. Trust me when I say that Tony Stark doesn't hurt me unless I let him."
"So why let him?"
"I deserve it, for one. And he'll only stop drinking when he hurts someone other than himself. The conversation you just had coupled with my broken rib ought to do the trick."
He headed upstairs.
Shannon stood, gazing at the staircase and wondering why it took her so long to realize her happy family was a lie.
Months later, Tony was back to taking measured shots. Two a day. Just two. Unless there was a crisis in the Middle East or the stock market or anywhere else, which was often. His second term was quickly becoming more difficult than his first. The "foreign" acts of terror that had become a routine means of instilling fear under the Scott administration were gone. They were replaced by actual domestic terrorism from an increasingly angry lunatic fringe.
With President Stark's second Supreme Court appointment, the nation's first abortion clinic in twenty years opened in Burlington, Vermont. It was bombed within weeks. A trans health clinic in Minneapolis, a hospital in Tulsa, and an animal rights group's office in Columbus met the same end.
When Alisa Tager returned to Earth and started a School for Gifted Youngsters like the one where she'd been trained, it took less than a week for the Stars and Stripes to find the school and attack it. That didn't end well for them on account of the dozen mutants inside. The attackers were all seriously injured, aside from three who ended up dead. In an instant, "dangerous superhumans" were once again the topic du jour. Tony arranged a meeting with the closest friends he had left.
"What are you going to do?" Hank asked.
"If I knew what I was going to do, you wouldn't be in my house," Tony replied.
"You can't punish the mutants," Janet said. "They were defending themselves."
"No, I can't. Mostly because they fled the planet... again." Superhumans--mutants, in particular--were talented at making it look like they'd done something wrong when they hadn't.
Bucky chimed in. "The question is what to do about the Stars and Stripes. We've reached the point where a lot of police departments are turning a blind eye to them."
"I know you're not going to like this," Hank said, "But you have the power to send in troops. The Insurrection Act--"
"Out of the question," Tony said.
"It's worth considering," Bucky said. "It would take the focus off mutants and put it on you. That could keep Congress from doing anything stupid."
"Well we might have a majority in Congress if you hadn't murdered Fury."
Bucky snapped back. "Maybe you can handle it like you did the New Warriors and arrest all of your friends."
"Stop it," Janet demanded. She looked directly into Tony's eyes. "What is your heart telling you to do?"
At that moment, it wouldn't have been possible for Tony's face to look any more haggard than it did. "You don't want to bring my heart into it, Jan."
Bucky repeated his point. "Superhumans can't do anything or they become even worse off. It has to be regular people who take them out. I'd say it's better to just send in the troops and admit to it, but there are other options..."
"Are we talking about creating a sham terror group to take out the actual terror group?" Hank asked.
"We are now," Bucky answered. Hank shook his head.
"Are we still good with the FBI?" Tony asked.
"You haven't done anything to piss off the Director lately, so I would say so."
"Okay." He turned to Hank and Janet, who were speechless. "I need you two to spread the word. No avenging. No heroics. Nothing. Unless every world in the multiverse is going to collapse, I don't want to hear a peep from the superhuman community. Can you do that?"
Jan nodded. "Carol and Luke won't like that, but I think so."
"Can I speak with the President alone for a minute?" Jan asked.
Bucky and Hank nodded and disappeared. Janet took a seat and motioned for Tony to sit next to her. He obliged.
"Tony, this isn't okay."
"If you had any idea the things I've agreed to that aren't okay..."
"There have to be compromises," he said. "I'm just trying not to let it go too far."
"And the drinking?"
"I'm not stupid, Jan. You think I don't know I need help? I thought I could keep it under control. I couldn't. I'm trying."
"We could find a rehab program and..."
Tony's waved his arms around as he imitated his critics. "Hey, everyone! The President's a drunk! Don't you wonder what else he's hiding? How many people knew? Do you really want to vote for his party next time around?"
Janet bit her lip, then continued. "You health matters more than--"
Tony shook his head. "No, it doesn't. What matters is keeping the electorate happy before they start blaming all their problems on superhumans and queers."
"You don't believe that. Let me help."
"The best thing you can do for me is to keep running Stark Resilient. That's it. I'm sorry, Jan, but I'm not the man you wish I were."
She stared into a set of blue eyes that betrayed their owner's agony. "Yes you are."
When he was finally alone, Tony's head fell into his hands and he began sobbing.
It was a familiar position, and one that Tony found himself in again a few weeks later. This time, a quick succession of knocks ended his privacy before he could fully wipe his eyes. He remained sunken over his desk in the Oval Office.
"What are you regretting this time?" Bucky asked.
Tony snapped at the thoughtless interruption. "You know, if you hate me so much, you can quit."
"I don't hate you. I am resigning, though," Bucky said, his face frozen in seriousness.
Tony jumped up. "What?"
Bucky laughed. "I'm kidding. Like I have anything better to do." He dropped onto one of several uncomfortable couches.
"That's not funny," Tony said.
"It's a little funny."
"Where have you been?" Tony asked, approaching him.
Bucky tilted his head and stared at Tony. "Really? Do you want to know?"
"No." Tony didn't have to continue the line of questioning to know that the Stars and Stripes wouldn't be a problem anymore, and he only needed to look at the bruises on Bucky's neck to know he'd been far more involved in their destruction than he should have been. He sat down next to Bucky, a glass in one hand and a bottle in the other. "Drink?"
"Not right now." Bucky changed the subject. "There's something I can't figure out."
"You love taking down scumbags. You love fixing things that are broken. But--"
"You don't know me, Bucky, so don't."
"I think I do. I don't know what you want to call us--codependents, frenemies--"
"I'd go with 'train wreck' personally."
Bucky rolled his eyes. "...In any case, you've been my closest... whatever... for eight years now. I've made out with you and I've beaten the shit out of you and something's wrong."
"The first time we slept together was the night before Steve's funeral. Something's always wrong."
"Yeah, fine. Something's always wrong in a death wish sort of way. This is different."
"I'm just tired. Really."
Bucky's eyes locked onto their target and didn't let go. "Really?"
Tony took a sip of his drink. "You know I haven't dreamt about Steve in almost a year?"
"Far be it from me to know what's normal, but isn't that a good thing?"
"Yeah, sure..." Out of nowhere, tears poured from his eyes again.
"Oh, shit. What did I do?"
Tony put his head in his hands and wiped the tears to the side of his head. His hands came to rest on the back of his neck as he leaned backward in the seat and stared up at nothing in particular. "Nothing. It's nothing."
"No, really." Tony turned and looked into Bucky's eyes. "It's nothing. There's... nothing." He almost chuckled. "I have nothing. I don't even have the misery. Last time I really felt something was Thanksgiving, but I guess I shouldn't get that drunk again."
"Yeah, probably not. Do you ever..."
"Do you want to just resign? Barquero will be fine. We could skip out for some cabin in the woods and..."
The desperation in Bucky's voice was not lost on Tony. "We? What did you do?"
"I, uh, fucked up." He sighed. "One of those Stars and Stripes assholes got away. Pretty sure he saw me. I really did come here to resign but... "
"...I mean it. You're depressed as shit. I'm about to be a known murderer... again... Let's blow this popsicle stand."
"I'd love to, but I have to see this through."
Bucky's chin sank into his neck. "I figured." He looked up at Tony with misty eyes. "I'm gonna miss you. Really."
Twenty-two hours later, the President held a press conference.
"As you all know, the conflict between two domestic terror groups--the Stars and Stripes and the Statesmen--has recently grown violent. Yesterday, James Barnes, my Chief of Staff came to me and admitted his involvement with the latter group. At that time, I asked that he tender his letter of resignation and turn himself in to the proper authorities. He obliged, and is currently being held at The Raft. I am shocked by this course of events, but the White House will move forward..."
From that night on, Tony was alone.
Sometime after its spectacular failure to keep Tony Stark and Steve Rogers imprisoned, the United States reopened The Raft to contain superhuman criminals. That was where Bucky found himself, and it was where Tony dreamed he was speaking to him.
"Thanks for nothing," Bucky said.
"What?" Tony asked.
"Another life ruined, another day for Tony Stark."
"I'm inclined to agree," Steve said, still sporting an undead appearance.
Tony awoke, shaking. Again. It was 4AM.
When he was alone, he spent most of his time obsessing over what was being said in the news. It once meant nothing to him; now it meant everything. His new Chief of Staff was completely trustworthy--Janet had vetted her--but Tony could never be sure and he refused to rely on her for anything other than doling out tasks to low-level staffers. As he came to, the TV was still on, and TNN was still running through its repetitive news cycle:
Impressive snowfall for a La Niña...
Tax season is coming...
Was President Stark actually born in America or was he adopted?
Major League Baseball gaffe...
Reparations for those imprisoned under the Scott administration?
Say hello to the only panda born in captivity this decade!
New movie causing a controversy for its depiction of U.S. prisons...
Will the mutants return? One psychic claims to have the answer!
Tips for longevity from Queen Elizabeth as she approaches her 114th birthday...
How one man is fighting what he calls the "homosexual agenda"...
The new weight-loss pill that is sweeping the nation!
The U.S. hasn't been at war in six years. Are we prepared?
Next Monday marks the ten-year anniversary of Captain America's death...
"Shit," Tony muttered to no one. That explained Steve's sudden reappearance in his dreams. He grabbed a bottle and didn't bother pouring it into a glass.
"I hate you," Tony said to his dead husband who had woken him up three times tonight. He chugged.
"You resigned," the news anchor said.
"I did," Carol answered.
"But we're supposed to believe that you still support the President?"
Carol lied. "My resignation was for personal reasons. It had nothing to do with the President."
"There's been speculation that the President has fallen off the wagon."
"That's ridiculous. If it were going to happen, it would have happened right after Captain America's death. Not now. Not in a time of peace and prosperity."
She may as well have been standing in the room punching Tony in the face. She was right, of course. There was no reason he had to be on the path he was on. No reason aside from the fact that being self-destructive was in his nature.
He stared at the picture of his family, still on his nightstand. He thought about calling Shannon for the first time in... No, that was a bad idea. He just needed some sleep. Just a little bit.
Two years into his second term and after one very rough night, Tony went to sleep for the last time. This time, his dream didn't turn into a nightmare. He didn't get the chance to dream. One moment he was breathing, the next he wasn't. He actually hadn't meant to this time, but he drank himself to death. He would have been amused if he'd realized what had happened: all those years of wanting it and in the end, the only method of suicide he was capable of was unintentional.
Of course, he didn't realize what had happened. He simply awoke to find himself overwhelmed by light and sound. There may or may not have been a pegasus, but that was hardly the strangest thing. He was standing in the snow staring at a golden tree outside an enormous hall. In Asgard.
"Shit, he wasn't kidding."
Despite the snow and his lack of proper attire, he wasn't cold--a good thing since the path to the hall was longer than he'd anticipated. He glanced down and saw his reflection in a frozen pond.
"Still old," he muttered, disappointed. But before he could fully loathe himself, twenty years fell off the reflection. He felt at his face and noted the distinct lack of wrinkles.
"Huh. I want to be a horse," he declared.
"Pfft. Some Magic."
Tony approached the entryway that seemed to be the source of all the noise. It was the kind of calamitous chatter that could only be caused by a room full of Norse warriors and fallen superhumans.
When he entered the hall, it fell silent. Tony's eyes scanned the room but before he could find what he was looking for, it found him. Steve rushed him from the side and pulled Tony into an embrace that made most of their friends cheer and made Clint Barton mutter, "Well, party's over. Everyone go home."
Tony didn't hate Steve. Not even a little.
"I'm proud of you," Steve said.
Well, Steve clearly had no idea what he'd been up to. That was a relief. Soon he was surrounded. Pepper gave him a hug. Rhodey simply nodded. Natasha greeted him with an unexplainable side-eye. Peter gave something he called a "web-five" that left Tony's hand sticky and his stomach slightly unsettled. Steve tugged at his husband's waist.
Tony interrupted the commotion. "Guys, I appreciate it, but we literally have eternity to catch up." Steve tugged harder. "I'm gonna go find someplace private..."
Someplace private was a stone room with a heavy wooden door and a large, sparsely appointed bed.
"Is this the Asgardian equivalent of a shady sex motel?" Tony asked. "Because--"
Steve stopped his chatter with a kiss. "I've missed you."
"How long has it been?" Tony asked.
"Hard to say." Steve's eyes were wet. "Too long."
He meant it. While he certainly preferred Valhalla to nonexistence, Steve had spent what felt like years enduring a daily battle in preparation for Ragnarok. At the end of each day, new warriors arrived during the feast. At the end of each day, he waited for Tony. At the end of each day, he'd been simultaneously disappointed that he couldn't see him yet and happy that he was still alive.
"Judas Priest. 'Turbo Lover,'" Tony said, expecting some kind of afterlife magic to make music happen.
"That's not how it works," Steve said. "There's not really any technology here."
"Christ. I'm going to have to invent the internet."
Steve laughed as his husband paced the room gesturing.
"I'm serious. There are going to be some changes around here."
He stopped Tony in his tracks and pulled him in for a long kiss that seemed to last forever. It still didn't seem long enough when they pulled apart.
"I have to ask, though," Steve said. "You and Bucky."
Oh shit. "You, uh, know what was going on back on Earth?"
"Bits and pieces. Sometimes Heimdall shows us things."
Oh shit. That explained the death stare Nat had given him. She was going to slay him in his sleep. But it didn't explain something else.
"Wait," Tony said. "When I showed up here, you said you were proud of me. If you know what I've been doing..."
"If you know I've been drinking all day and fucking your best friend, that can't possibly be true."
"I can't possibly be proud of you for being elected President of the United States twice? I can't be proud of you for holding it together when the world was falling apart? I don't care about those other things. With the way things could have gone, you were amazing."
"I fucking love you."
They kissed again, and Steve began unbuttoning Tony's shirt. Three buttons in, he stopped and stared.
"What?" Tony asked.
Tony looked down. The scars were finally gone.