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In Between the Dark and the Light

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The stars came out that night for the first time in eight years.

If you asked anyone in Timely, they'd say that there had always been stars. Of course there'd always been stars. A sun and stars in the sky, praise God-Doom -- no, the Lord. Anything else would be downright blasphemous. There was no god named Doom. Of course not.

Tony was awake, then, lying abed, awake and sober. He'd stopped drinking after-- after Steve-- after he made the armor (the armor? what armor?)-- after Steve--

He couldn't remember.

Something had happened to Steve?

Nothing had happened to Steve.

Tony sat bolt upright. He was soaked in sweat, dripping with it, and the night air from the open window only chilled him more. It was like he'd awoken from a dream, the worst of nightmares, fading too fast for him to remember, but leaving behind the awful conviction that it might be real.

But he'd been awake all this time. Hadn't he?

--the sun had been a man who glowed in the sky, and the nights had been black and barren, and somewhere far away, strangers had held up rainbow-gauntleted hands, and Steve had been-- Steve had been--

Steve had been lying in the middle of the street, prone and lifeless, blood soaking into the ground, his badge ground into the dust.

The image in his mind was horrifically vivid, too vivid to be a dream, and in an instant Tony was out of bed, pulling on his clothes, sliding into his boots, lighting a lantern and clattering down the stairs so fast he nearly tripped. He had to know.

The street was dark and quiet.

And there was a light shining inside the jail, and he turned and ran down the street, heading for it with all the strength in him.

Through the window of the jail he could see that the cells were empty tonight, and planted in front of them, sitting down at the desk, was a familiar blond-haired figure.

Steve was leaning back, his boots on the table, as he cradled a book in his lap and squinted at it in the wavering lamplight.

Tony was at the threshold and throwing the door open; Steve looked up at the sound, and for an instant his surprised face was overlaid by something that must have been a memory -- Steve, his features wracked in pain, clutching his bleeding chest, crumpling to the ground. It couldn't have happened, but somehow it had.

"Whoa, hey!" Steve said, like Tony was a skittish horse, and he tossed the book down and stood up, which was good because Tony stopped, staggered, lost his balance, and pitched forward into Steve's arms.

"Steve," Tony whispered.

"Another one of these nights, huh?" Steve asked, voice gone somber, and then he sniffed the air. "Wait, you're not drunk?"

Tony still couldn't quite get his feet under him. "You're here," he said, and he pressed his face against Steve's shoulder. "You're back." But that wasn't right. He hadn't been gone, had he?

"Me and Buck were up at the dam," Steve said. "We just got back. This evening. He's probably still reuniting with the missus."

And that wasn't right either, because Barnes was-- because he'd already--

They were dead. They'd both been dead. They'd died, and Tony had sworn vengeance, had sweated out all the whiskey in him and had built--

What in God's name had he built?

He wanted to run back to his workshop right now and see if it was still there. He could almost picture it, a suit of armor, but mechanized--

"No," Tony whispered, and he wasn't sure if he wanted it to be true, if having the fiendish armor had meant trading Steve's life for it.

Steve's hand came up, after a pause, to press against Tony's back. And while it wasn't precisely true that they'd never been like this, they'd never been like this when Tony was completely sober. There had always been excuses. I'll just see Stark home, Steve had said, when he'd started pouring him into his bed, and then he'd started staying.

And it wasn't like half the town hadn't known, either. They'd just pretended not to notice.

"Tony?" Steve asked, and there was real concern in his voice. "You all right? Do I need to get the doc?"

Banner had died too.

"Do you remember dying?" Tony's voice came out of him flat and harsh all at once, too much feeling and somehow not enough. "One of Fisk's men. Shot you in the street."

And then Steve stopped, and he pulled away from him. His hand went to his chest -- and Tony hadn't said where Bullseye had aimed -- and Tony knew he was searching for a wound that didn't exist. He pulled his vest open and then his shirt.

His skin was bare. Unmarred.

"I fell asleep on my book. I thought it was a dream," Steve said, hoarsely. "But-- you dreamed it too?"

Tony nodded. Swallowing hard, he dared to put his palm to Steve's bare chest, to feel his heart beat fast and wild and alive under his fingertips.

"You died," Tony said. "You died. We all-- we all went after Fisk, in your name. Red Wolf took your badge. And we-- we got them all." He chuckled. The sound was bleak. "I think I gave up the bottle."

"Well," Steve said, "there's one good thing about this mess. Always did think you drank too much." The fondness in his eyes was a little sad, now.

Where was Fisk? Gone? He couldn't remember.

The world had come apart, and whoever had put it back together -- they'd made it better. They'd taken away everything rotten and given them the good parts.

"You should see what I built," Tony told him, and then he couldn't remember if he had. "Maybe I'll build it again."

"Maybe you can show me in the morning," Steve replied, but it didn't sound like a brush-off, and then his hand locked over Tony's wrist, holding it in place against him. "Come to bed with me?"

His voice was soft, coaxing, the same way he sounded when he was trying to persuade Tony at his least sober to lie down. His eyes were wide and pale, and even though he sounded confident about it, his teeth worried at his lips. There was more on offer here than just a bed. There was a whole life. A new life. There was plenty of opportunity for the finest man in the west to pick someone other than a washed-up, haunted former gunsmith. But... Steve had picked him.

Tony stared.

"I came back to life, didn't I?" Steve asked, voice still soft, like he knew what Tony was thinking. His face creased in a smile. "Can't think of anyone else I'd rather start it with. You want to give it a try?"

"Yeah," Tony said, hoarsely. "Yes. Please. And welcome home."

Steve leaned in, and his mouth met Tony's, and finally, the nightmare was gone.