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The Survival of the Soul

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“No,” Tony said, and he could feel how thick his voice was, how it was wavering just on the edge of tears, how that wetness was seeping into it, but he couldn’t seem to do anything about it. He realized, belatedly, that he’d clenched his armored hands into fists. “No, no, you’re not him. You look like him, but—you can’t. It’s not—you’re not him. You’re not—” he could hear his voice break, as if from a long way away. It was humiliating, he thought distantly, goodness, Stark, but he couldn’t really care about that, either. “Steve,” he finished, and it came out brokenly, thick and wavering and hopeless.


The thing that couldn’t possibly be Steve, not really, but looked so much like him, sighed, and scowled, and propped his hands on his hips. He looked battered, and tired, there was a nasty scrape on his cheek, on his jaw, and his face was mottled with fading bruises all up and down one side. His clothes were torn, and he looked, well. Wan and drawn tight and honestly just terrible, his jaw set and bunching with muscle. He looked incredible, wonderful, like something Tony never thought he’d see again, but—he couldn’t be. He couldn’t be. “All right,” he said. “What will it take to prove it to you, Stark?”


Tony choked on his own breath, swallowed and felt it hang up on a knot in his throat. He wanted to say there was nothing, nothing that would convince him, he wouldn’t be fooled, wouldn’t be tricked, wouldn’t fall for it—but what if it was Steve. Stranger things had definitely happened, and if he just—what if it was Steve, and he was hurt and tired and Tony turned him away—


His mind started racing. But how would he know? Without a whole scan, of course, he’d have to do that eventually, to be really sure, but—something that had never been public knowledge, something that most people wouldn’t think or assume about Steve Rogers in a million years—


That was it. “What’s Steve’s favorite TV show?” he demanded, and his voice came out wavering, shaky but defiant.


Steve blinked, then turned a very slight shade of red, beneath the bruises and scrapes. “I. Uh. I like Days of Our Lives,” he said. “Why—what’s this about, really, you can’t honestly think—”


That was—the right answer. Tony swallowed, but his throat was now so tight he couldn’t even get it down. How could it—it couldn’t be—


“We had sex that one time, after that party for SHIELD—” he started, and Steve turned bright red.


“No, we didn’t, Stark, what are you talking about,” he bit out.


Tony felt his face slowly shifting into an incredulous grin, even as tears stung his eyes, and every muscle in his face felt odd, wobbly, like he was hot and cold at the same time, especially as Steve turned even redder and then hissed, “And you said you’d never mention it again.”


It was true, they’d never had sex—but there had been some hot and heavy makeouts, with heavy petting, before Steve had turned shy and run for the hills. He’d cornered Tony the next morning, and Tony had, regretfully, agreed never to mention it again. Hey, if it was what Steve wanted, who was he not to respect that. He prided himself on not kissing and telling in instances where it really mattered.


No one else could possibly have known that. No one else ever had known. Tony certainly hadn’t told anyone, and based on Steve’s set, tight, tense muscles, the humiliated tautness of his face and how it had been burning red, he certainly doubted that Steve had ever mentioned it to another living soul. He still wanted to run those tests, of course, had to, to be sure, but—




What if it was Steve? He looked like Steve. He did. And—


Tony took a step forward.


“So do you believe me now?” Steve demanded. His jaw flexed. He looked impatient, angry.


Just like Steve. Just like him. Tony took a deep breath, and it turned into a little sob somewhere in his throat. “You died,” he said, and it came out in a choked desperate tiny strangled voice.


“I know,” Steve said, with a strange, shamefaced expression. “It’s—well, it’s a long story.”


Tony’s fingers trembled as they took hold of his shoulders. He felt so solid under his hands, so real, sturdy and muscular, even if he was a little thinner. He even smelled like Steve, without his old fashioned aftershave, leather and sweat and skin, the way Steve’s skin smelled. “You’ll tell it to me sometime, right?” he managed to get out. His voice was shaking. His eyes burned, and he blinked, then again. He shouldn’t cry, he thought, don’t cry, Tony. He wasn’t even sure what he was feeling, but there was a tight, fierce kind of joy coursing through him, like taking hold of an electrical current, but better, like kicking off in the armor, but more, it was just—


Steve was back. Could it really even be true? And then Steve’s hands were settling on Tony’s shoulders, grasping tight, and all of Tony’s wavering control broke apart at the same moment. He knew he was about to cry, could feel the tears starting, and tried to stumble back, away, but then Steve’s hands tightened, and he pulled him in close, so he ended up with his face right in Steve’s shoulder, all brusque and rough and firm and impossible to pull away from. And it was so perfectly, perfectly Steve. The tears broke free in earnest, and he couldn’t even really try to push them back, because this was Steve’s warm broad shoulder under him, he was pressed up so close and tight against his strong, sturdy chest, he—


“Tony?” Steve said, and his voice was oddly hesitant, halting. His hand skimmed, uncertainly, over the back of Tony’s head.


“Shut up, Cap,” Tony managed to get out. “These are happy tears. And I’m still going to take you back to my lab, and scan you. And get takeout, we should get some takeout, there’s this great Vietnamese place that opened up since you—you’ll love it.”


Steve’s hands settled onto him, against the back of his head, hitching uncertainly down over his back and then pressing in. “Not sure I’ll love it, Stark,” he said. “Still not sure about all that spicy foreign food.”


“Damn it, Steve,” Tony managed to get out, and despite his tears, when he pulled back just enough to look up into Steve’s face, he knew he was beaming. “You’re back.”


“Yeah,” Steve said, and smiled, just a little, just starting to tug on the edges of his mouth. “I am.”