The sun is setting, streaking the sky with orange and coral. Most evenings Tony enjoys standing up here on the roof, looking out at the city that he likes to think is a better place because of the Avengers. Tonight, he barely notices the spectacular colors on display. Tonight, everything still looks just a little bit too purple.
"I don't believe that," Steve says, his voice ringing with conviction. "And I don't think it was a mistake that you forgot about the Vision. Or that you sent me to the mansion the night he woke. I think you were fighting the Purple Man the whole time. I think you hoped the Vision would free me. I know you believe in the future. But I believe in people. And I choose to believe in you, Iron Man."
Something warm uncurls in Tony's chest at that, momentarily overruling the all-encompassing shame and guilt he feels over what happened with the Purple Man. He couldn't really admit to himself just how badly he needed to hear that Steve doesn't hold recent events against him. Not until now, when the words still hang there between them.
"Thanks, Steve," he says. "That means a lot to me."
Steve gives him a crooked little smile. He wonders if Steve is thinking of the same thing he is: how the rest of the world has been so quick to forgive him, and yet they were just as quick to condemn Steve for what the Skrull imposter did while wearing his face.
"Are you going to be okay?" Steve asks.
No one else has asked that. There's another funny little twist inside his chest then, something that could almost be called pain. "Sure," he says, a little too casually.
Steve frowns a little. He looks almost embarrassed to be bringing this up. "I heard Director Fury saying something about wanting you to get a brain scan, to make sure there's no lingering--"
That kind of pisses Tony off. "Yeah, well, if you heard that, then you also heard my response. That's not going to happen. I'm fine. I'm me again. Just because I've had my head messed with twice lately doesn't mean I need any kind of scan. I'm fine."
"Twice," Steve says. It's not quite a question, but Tony hears it anyway.
"You know," he says. "When we lost our powers, thanks to Loki? You might not have noticed it because you were such a shrimp then, but I could barely even think." And damnit, he didn't mean for that to sound so bitter.
Steve doesn't take offense. He just stands there, tall and noble and sincere under the dying light of day. "I noticed," he says quietly.
Tony feels ashamed of himself. Of course Steve noticed. Because he's Steve Rogers. Captain America. Always looking out for his team. Doing a far better job of it, too, than Tony ever did.
And he makes up his mind right then and there that he's going to ask Steve to lead the Avengers. It's only fair. Steve deserves the job more than any of them, and definitely more than he himself ever did.
"Tony. Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm fine," he says again, as though he can make it true if he just repeats it enough. "I just… I hate this. Having my mind messed with."
"What do you mean?" Steve says.
"When we were under that spell," he says, trying to explain, "I thought that was the worst. Not being able to think straight. Knowing that I should know something, but coming up empty, no matter how hard I tried to remember it. Knowing that I used to be one of the smartest guys on the planet, but instead I just had to kind of stumble around in my own mind." Static, he had called it back then, and he wrestles back a shudder now to remember those horrifying feelings of loss and confusion.
"And now this." He sighs. "The exact opposite of what Loki did. The Purple Man took everything I wanted to do to help this world and twisted it into some sick parody. I got to be smart this time. Real smart. And look what it got us."
"No one blames you," Steve says for the second time that night.
This time, though, Tony finds no comfort in the words. "Maybe they should," he says quietly. He stares down at the rooftop, deliberately looking away from the blazing color in the sky. And looking away from Steve, too.
"Let's go in," Steve suggests. "I don't know about you, but it's been a long day and I'm beat."
He nods without comment. It's better that they don't talk about it. And he knows he is exhausted, although he doesn't really feel it just yet. Since the Purple Man took control of his mind, he's been working nearly non-stop. First building the satellite that made all this possible, then the Iron Sentinels, and all the while ruling the world from behind his desk. He could probably sleep for two days straight – assuming he's able to fall asleep at all, that is.
Steve leads the way off the roof. Tony glances up once at the sky, and then he goes inside.
The thing is, the thing Tony can't say and wouldn't say even if there was anyone he could say it to, is that he's afraid of it happening again. First the Skrulls and the terror of not knowing who to trust, wondering what monsters lay behind the faces he thought he knew. Then wandering through the subway system, lost and alone in his own head. Now this. Being controlled by someone else, forced to do their bidding while being completely unaware of it.
It's enough to make him wish he could move to one of those isolated Caribbean islands he owns.
But it's been a while since any of his wishes were granted, and it's not like he expected it anyway.
So life moves on. With swift speed. There's a virus unleashed on the mansion, and then Steve's past comes back with a vengeance. Hulk is there and gone again, and so is Kang, so fast it's blink-and-you-miss-them. Then it's the Kree again and they wind up on a whole new planet, and that's so damn cool that Tony would love to be able to take time out and explore, but of course there's no time for anything except fighting and fear and sacrifices. Then Galactus decides to eat the Earth for lunch and that's so not cool, but in the end they get rid of him too, and the planet is saved once again, and by now Tony's lost count of how many times this is.
For a change, things sort of settle down after that. T'Challa and the Hulk come back, but Hank goes away. The threats keep coming, but they remain homegrown. In a way it's like they've come full circle, back to hunting down those few criminals who are still at large from the prison breakouts that brought the Avengers together in the first place.
During these slower times, they tend to fall back into a routine, one that was established so long ago it seems like they've been doing things this way forever. Someone is always on duty (and if it's the Hulk's turn, then someone is always on Hulk duty). Someone is always designated first responder. T'Challa spends half his time at the Wakandan embassy. The Vision spends half his time over at Hank's lab. Jan and Carol are best friends. Clint and the Hulk are thick as thieves.
Tony and Steve work out together, and almost every night they go up to the roof to discuss the day's events under a setting sun. Tony looks forward to those talks far more than he should, and for all his intelligence, it takes him a long time to figure out the reason why, to understand that he is actually falling in love with Steve. Upon making that discovery, he spends almost an entire day and night locked in a quiet panic attack, before he just gives in and accepts it. He knows Steve will never reciprocate his feelings, and he isn't about to ruin one of greatest things he's ever had, so he tells himself to keep his mouth shut and just be happy with what he can get.
Amazingly, that even works.
And it's good times. Real good times.
Until it isn't.
Saturday and it's a clear, sunny day. He and Steve are in the training room. Working out, Tony calls it. Sparring, Steve calls it. Getting his ass handed to him, is really what it is.
He does better than he used to, there is no doubt of that. But he still has a long way to go and he knows it. Most days he's cool with that, accepting the fact that he'll never be as good at this as someone like Steve, or even Clint.
Today, he hits the mat hard, flat on his back. He looks up and sees Steve looming over him, and he sees red.
Enough. Earlier today they fought against A.I.M. and he feels achy all over from being tossed around in the battle. His head aches and he's had enough. He's sick and tired of this. Sick of Steve slamming him to the floor and standing over him, waiting patiently for him to get up, just so they can do it all over again. Sick of feeling bruised and battered. Sick of Clint and the Hulk watching, like this is better than TV, snickering and talking amongst themselves.
He picks himself up. "I'm done."
Steve just smiles a little, arms folded across his chest; he's heard this before. Most days Tony is ready to throw in the towel before he is. He doesn't look fondly patient today, though. He just looks angry and determined. "We're not done," he admonishes. It's not exactly a threat, but there is no mistaking the fact that he means every word. He has no intention of letting Tony leave just yet.
Tony punches him square in the face.
He'll never be stronger than Steve; the element of surprise is all he's got going for him. But it's enough. For the first time in all the months that they have been doing this, he lands a hit that not only catches Steve off guard – it knocks him on his ass.
And damn if it doesn't feel good.
"I said, I'm done," he says tightly. He turns on his heel. He deliberately does not look at Steve staring up at him in stunned shock, or at the upper balcony where Clint and the Hulk are gaping at him right now, blessedly silent for once. He just walks out, calm, cool, and collected.
It's not until he's in the suit and flying high over the earth that the anger drains out of him. He blinks and it's just…gone. He thinks about what happened in the gym, and he can hardly believe it.
"What the hell," he mutters. "What just happened back there?"
"I believe you punched Captain America," JARVIS answers, oh-so-helpfully.
"Yeah, thanks," Tony says. "I got that. I just can't figure out why I did it."
Unsurprisingly, JARVIS doesn't have an answer for that.
Well, running away like an ass isn't going to solve anything. He turns around and returns to the mansion. The only person he runs into is Jan, but she greets him without any noticeable difference in her behavior, so she obviously hasn't heard the news yet.
Fortunately he sees no one else as he makes his way down to the assembly hall. He has JARVIS issue Steve an invitation to join him, and then he waits, nervously pacing back and forth. He tries to rehearse some words, just to make sure he gets them right. He's almost got them memorized when the doors open and Steve is there, walking in to meet him.
There's no bruise, no red mark, no sign that less than an hour ago, Steve took a punch to the face. And somehow that just makes things worse.
"Thanks for coming," Tony says. He's got one of the computer consoles exposed. Not because he needs to use it for any reason, but because he kind of does need it. It's like a weird form of moral support. He runs his fingers over the keyboard, taking comfort from the familiar feel of the tech, from knowing that here is something he can do practically in his sleep, something he is good at.
Unlike, say, apologizing to Captain America.
Before he can fumble his way through his little speech, though, Steve shocks him by saying, "I owe you an apology, Tony."
He's too surprised to do anything except stammer, "W-what?"
Steve takes a deep breath. "I should have realized that I've been pushing you too hard. I apologize. That was never my intention. I'll do a better job of listening when you say you need to take a break."
Tony stares at him. He can't believe his ears. "I… What?"
"And I understand if you don't want to keep sparring together," Steve continues. "But I hope you don't feel that way. I'd like to give it another shot."
A million thoughts race through Tony's head all at once. His initial gratitude at Steve's apology is completely lost in a rush of disbelieving anger and amazement. So all this time, Steve has only been humoring him during their workouts, thinking that he's too slow, too weak. It's a wonder Steve doesn't join in when Clint and the Hulk sit up there and laugh. Probably the only reason he doesn't is because he comes from an era when he was raised to be courteous to others and he actually still believes in all that crap.
And is he really going to buy that Steve wants to keep sparring with him? Hell no, he isn't. Now that he knows the truth. Now that he knows that at best Steve considered it nothing but cheap entertainment, and at worst just a complete waste of his time.
"You know what?" he says, icily polite. "I think I'm good. I'm just going to stick to what I know best. Me and the suit. There's a reason I'm known as Iron Man and not Hand To Hand Combat Man. So thanks…but no thanks."
Hurt flashes in Steve's eyes. But he doesn't protest. He just nods, somewhat stiffly. "If that's what you want."
"That's what I want," Tony says.
Steve lingers for a moment longer, then he turns around and walks out. Tony tells himself that he's imagining the slight slump to Steve's shoulders – but a mean part of him hopes that it's true. He's tired of being the whipping boy, of being the one everyone turns to for help, but then shits on when things don't go according to plan. Let someone else take a turn getting their hopes dashed and being made to feel like shit.
It's not often that Tony gets to bed at a reasonable hour (meaning while it's still night of the same day and not the early morning hours of the following day), so it's also not often that he's up early enough to run into anybody else in the kitchen.
Lucky for him, this is one of those days.
Clint and the Hulk are seated across from each other at the table. The remains of their breakfast litter the table. They seem to be playing some kind of game that involves throwing leftover bits of bacon at each other. Or maybe they're just making a mess. With these guys, it's hard to tell the difference sometimes. All Tony knows for sure is that the table looks like a disaster area, and even though he's not personally responsible for cleaning it up, it's still aggravating. Just because they get free room and board doesn't mean they have to tear the place up. He has enough of that every week thanks to the damage done in their battles (along with the collateral damage that comes from their own arguments). He really doesn't need to add this kind of shit to the list.
"Well, well, well," Clint says. He chucks another piece of bacon at the Hulk. "If it isn't Mr. Grumpy Pants." He and the Hulk exchange a smirk. "Punch anybody in the face today?"
"Not yet," Tony comes back, quick as you please. And here it comes. The inevitable fallout from what happened yesterday with Cap. He's been waiting for this. In truth he fully expected it last night, but this morning works, too. "But the day's still young."
Clint's smirk vanishes. Now he looks kind of pissed off, the way people look after someone calls them out for a "joke" that was actually them just being a dick. "What, you gonna sucker punch me, too?"
"If you want," Tony says as he pours himself a cup of coffee.
"Like to see you try," rumbles the Hulk. He folds his arms across his chest; his massive brows draw in toward each other.
"Oh that's nice," Tony says to Clint. "So now you're letting your boyfriend fight your battles for you?"
Clint makes a face. "My boyfriend? Jesus, Stark, what are you, six? Grow up."
Tony's got a retort all ready to go, but before he can say it, their identicards start to beep. In unison, he and Clint pull the cards out.
It's Carol. "Guys, we have a situation at Trump Towers. Better get down here."
"We're on it," Tony assures her. He puts the card away and starts to follow Clint out of the kitchen. He brings his coffee with him – this certainly won't be the first time he's gulped it down on the run to the armory.
The Hulk stops him, poking at his chest with one huge green finger. He jabs hard enough to hurt, sending Tony staggering backward. Hot coffee sloshes out of the mug and all over his hand. Quickly he switches the mug to his other hand and shakes the burned one, hissing in pain. "Damnit!"
The Hulk ignores all this. He just keeps pushing Tony, forcing him to back up until the kitchen counter is digging into his back and he can't go anywhere. Even then the Hulk keeps the pressure up, and Tony is forced to lean back whether he wants to or not. "Better watch yourself," the Hulk rumbles. His breath is warm and unpleasant, but the force of the anger radiating from him is cold, very cold.
Tony says nothing. He might be angry, but he's not stupid. Also, he really needs to stick his hand under some cold water.
The Hulk glares at him for another long moment, then harrumphs and straightens up. He thuds out of the kitchen.
Tony waits all of two seconds. Just long enough to make sure he's really alone. Then he spins on his heel and throws his half-empty coffee mug into the sink. It shatters with a satisfying crashing noise, shards of crockery flying everywhere, coffee splashing the sink and counter and even getting on the floor.
He doesn't clean it up.
Carol's "situation" turns out to be twin brothers who are like mirror images of each other. One is dark and shadowy, the other pulsing with light that hurts to look at for too long. Tony's never heard of them before, and not too surprised when he finds out they were basically lab rats for A.I.M. before they broke out and attempted to steal from one of the richest men in the world.
The battle is brief, but intense. It ends the way these things always do, with the Avengers standing watch as SHIELD comes in for the clean-up.
"It is fortunate they did not attempt to steal from you," Thor says gravely as they watch SHIELD bundle the two brothers away.
"Yeah," Tony says. His hand hurts where he burned it, but he feels much better than he did this morning. Apparently he just needed to dispense a good old-fashioned ass-kicking in order to clear his head.
And now that he's had some time to think about it, he actually feels like a bit of a jerk. He knows he owes Clint an apology for jumping down his throat.
Which makes two apologies he now owes. Because he never did get a chance to say anything to Steve.
He frowns as he thinks back to their conversation last night in the assembly hall. In the clear light of day, his reaction seems way overblown. Steve doesn't think he's weak or slow. That's always been abundantly clear in the way Steve approaches their workouts. Granted, the Skrull imposter was needlessly cruel, taking delight in pinning him to the mat until he passed out, but the real Steve has never done anything like that, nor would he.
Right now Steve is talking with Agent Quartermain, supervising the transfer of the prisoners into SHIELD custody. Clint and Jan hover nearby, ready to lend a hand if necessary. As Tony looks over at them, Clint glances up and catches his eye – then quickly looks away.
"What ails thee, friend Anthony?" Thor asks with some concern. "Were you injured in the battle?"
"No," Tony says. "I just…" He squints up at Thor; the sun is reflecting off the wings on Thor's helmet and getting in his eyes. "You ever say something that you wish you could take back?"
"Many times, since coming to Midgard," Thor says. "It is still difficult for me to know when I have said something in error."
Great. A misunderstanding with Thor in a conversation that has somehow become about misunderstandings with Thor. And it's not even noon yet. Tony says, a bit morosely, "Yeah, that's not quite what I was referring to."
"I see," Thor says. And amazingly enough, he does. "You have spoken words that you feel should have remained unspoken."
"Yes!" Tony exclaims. "That's exactly it." It's kind of weird how it sounds so much better when it's said in such a formal dialect. Not just, Hey I was an asshole. Again.
"Oftentimes there are no words that can replace the ones that have been so thoughtlessly spoken," Thor says. His gaze is fixed on Quartermain and the SHIELD agents. "However, I have usually found that it is better to try to find them and fail, than not to try at all."
It's sound advice. Strangely enough, coming from Thor, it doesn't make him bristle or feel the need to defend himself. The Avengers mean everything to him. They are his family. He's already lost them once because of his inability to trust them. He's not going to lose them again – this time because of his idiocy.
He starts toward the little group standing beside Quartermain. They each glance up as he approaches. Clint's expression goes flat. Steve looks expectant. Jan smiles and flies out to meet him before he can get even halfway there. "Hey, Tony. Can I talk with you for a second?"
He falters. "Um." She looks at him hopefully, almost happily. Which means she isn't here to scold him about his recent behavior.
He glances over her shoulder. Clint and Steve have turned away; they're now following Quartermain as he leads the twins up the ramp and into the SHIELD carrier.
Which means his moment is lost. Tony sighs a little, then turns his attention back to Jan. "What is it?"
Turns out, Jan wants to bring Hank back onto the team.
This…is really not a good idea.
They talk about it as they fly back to the mansion. Jan has some compelling arguments, but Tony is still uncomfortable with the very thought of it. He lets her make her case, though, because he actually does kind of miss Hank. The guy can be a giant (no pun intended) pain in the ass, and his self-righteousness is incredibly annoying, but he's a scientist. Of all the Avengers, he's the only one who ever understood when Tony spent hours huddled over a lab table and a computer working on something, working until he got it right. He and Hank shared toasts over their successes, and commiserated with each other over their failures. It would be nice to have that kind of man back on the team.
But there is a flip side to that coin, as there always is. It's not until they get back to the mansion that Tony has the chance to interrupt Jan and tell her that.
"Look," he says. "I like Hank. Don't get me wrong. He's a great guy. But he's unstable now, Jan. You and I both know that. We can't have him on the team. Not as Yellowjacket. And he's made it clear that he doesn't want to be Ant-Man anymore."
"So what are you saying?" Jan says. She's back to her normal size now. She stands in front of him, her arms crossed. They're still in the main foyer; no one else has made it back yet.
Tony retracts the faceplate. "I'm saying, Hank is not coming back. That's final."
Jan gets that stubborn look on her face that means she isn't giving in any time soon. "In case you'd forgotten, Tony Stark, you aren't the leader of the Avengers anymore."
"Go ahead," Tony says, raising his voice a little. "Ask Cap. He'll back me up on this." He's 90% certain of that, too.
"Maybe I will," Jan says defiantly. She glares at him. "I don't know what's going on with you lately, Tony, but you need to—"
"I need to what?" he snaps. So apparently Jan does know about the incident in the gym with Steve. He should have known. It was too good to be true for the news not to have reached her yet.
They stare at each other, neither one backing down. It's kind of a nasty shock to realize that not only does Jan know what happened, but she's really angry with him about it, too. She just didn't let it show until now. Normally she wears her heart on her sleeve. He doesn't know if he should be impressed or worried that she's learning to hide her emotions so well.
"You know what," Jan says tightly, "forget it. Forget I ever said anything." She shrinks down to Wasp size and flies off.
Tony watches her go. He refuses to be sorry. He stands by his decision not to let Hank come back.
He hears the others coming, and he looks up just as Carol flies in through the roof skylight, carrying Cap. Thor is beside her. Hawkeye will be flying his sky cycle into the hangar, but he should be here soon, too. There's no sign of the Hulk, but that doesn't mean anything; he comes and goes as he pleases.
The instant Carol sets Cap down, Tony points at him. "We need to talk."
"Okay," Steve says.
Tony glances at Carol and Thor, then looks back at Steve. "Alone."
An awkward silence falls over them all. Then Thor says, "Come, Ms. Marvel. Let us celebrate our victory by sharing the delicious ice cream Wasp recently purchased."
Carol nods. "Um. Okay. Sure." She looks at Tony, then at Steve, then back again, like she's trying to decide if leaving them alone is such a good idea.
Tony stops fooling himself then. They all know what happened in the gym between him and Cap, and he was an idiot to ever think otherwise. "It's fine," he says. "We'll be fine. Just go."
Carol lingers for a moment, then she and Thor beat a somewhat hasty retreat to the kitchen. That leaves Tony alone with Cap in the foyer.
"JARVIS, close the skylight," he commands.
The panels close, the operation smooth and silent. Cap stands perfectly still, shield strapped to his back, arms loose at his sides. His expression beneath the cowl is hard to make out, but he doesn't look angry.
At least, not yet.
"What's up?" Cap asks, and it's strange how he's Cap now and not Steve. And Tony wonders if maybe he should have remained Cap. He should never have let himself hope that there could be anything between them other than a professional partnership. Maybe things would be different now if Cap hadn't ever become Steve.
Like maybe they wouldn't be standing here now having this conversation.
"I talked to Jan," Tony says. "She wants Hank to come back." He hadn't intended to start the conversation this way, but he wants to get his word in first, before Jan can go crying to Cap about how Tony was trying to be leader again and make the decision for the team. "I told her that wasn't going to happen."
Cap nods. "We've been over this before."
"Yeah, we have," Tony says. "I'm just letting you know." He pauses. "I'm also letting you know that I really don't appreciate you spreading our business around to everyone else on the team."
Cap blinks. "What?"
"You heard me," Tony says. "What happened yesterday. Everyone knows about it."
"I didn't say anything," Cap says. "And if you're looking to blame someone for the word getting out, you might want to consider that you were standing in front of two other people when you did it."
"Yeah, but I'm not talking to those other people, am I?" Tony retorts. "I'm talking to you."
Cap takes a step toward him. Just one step, but it's enough. "Do you really think I'd tell people what happened?" he asks quietly. "Is that what you think of me?"
"I don't know what to think about you anymore," Tony says. It's horrifying but it's true, he suddenly realizes. It's like that terrible day when Nick Fury told him about the Skrulls. He has that same sick sensation of vertigo in his chest, that same nausea twisting in his gut and pounding in his head.
He doesn't even know when it happened. That's the worst part. When Steve became Cap. When he lost his friend and gained a stranger. He thought yesterday was bad, when he looked up from lying flat on his back on that gym mat and saw the hard anger in Cap's eyes – but he thinks back now on how things have been between them and he sees only all too well how this moment has long been coming.
Maybe it was always coming, and he was just too stupid to see it.
A thousand stupid little things crowd in his memory. Cap looking at him twice before giving him an order in battle, checking to make sure he's capable. The way Cap always walks at his side or just behind him, like he can't be trusted to do anything alone. The endless debates on the rooftop, the way Cap always questions him, never believing anything he says.
"I don't even know who you are anymore," he says flatly.
Cap looks bewildered. "Tony. I don't understand."
"Save the act," he snaps. "You know damn well what I mean." He points one accusing finger. "But I see through you. I know what you're up to." It occurs to him that giving Cap the leadership of the Avengers was the worst decision he ever made.
Or rather, the second-worst. The single worst decision was ever including him on the team in the first place.
"You know why Jan came to me about bringing Hank back?" he says. "Because she knows I'm really the leader of this team. I'm the one in charge. And you know what? I'm taking that title back. From now on, I'm the leader of the Avengers. And if you don't like it, you can leave. I'm sure Nick Fury can find something for you to do in SHIELD."
Cap's jaw drops. "Tony."
He's done. He lowers the faceplate and gives the command to JARVIS. High above his head, the skylight opens up once more, giving him access to the sky.
He takes off. He doesn't look back.
There was a time when he would have visited Rhodey on a day like this, looking for someone to talk to, someone who understands him. That, however, is absolutely out of the question. Rhodey is jealous of his role as Iron Man, and would just love for him to be kicked off the Avengers so he can swoop in as War Machine and take Tony's place. There's not a chance in hell he's going talk to Rhodey right now.
So no Rhodey. And Malibu is too far. That leaves only one place he can go.
The flight to Stark Tower is a quick one. It's not near long enough, and Tony loops through the city, delaying the moment when he has to end it.
He loves to fly. Even before he realized the offensive potential of the Iron Man suit, what really captured his heart was its flight capabilities. He isn't like Rhodey, who flies jets for a living, able to take to the skies in an incredibly powerful machine. For a long time he was envious of that, but it doesn't matter now. He's got the suit now (the better suit.) He has achieved flight.
Usually flying soothes his nerves, makes him feel better. Today it doesn't really help. He is calmer when he alights on the landing pad atop Stark Tower, but only in the sense that he doesn't want to throttle someone anymore. He still aches with loss for his friend, and that sick feeling of mistrust and dread still sits in the pit of his stomach.
Pepper is shocked to see him, which only serves to remind him what a shitty boss and CEO he's been lately. After the incident with A.I.M. and the Technovore, he promised her he would do better and take more of an interest in Stark Industries, but he's failed to do so. Just one more broken promise in a string of them.
He orders Pepper to act as though he isn't in. No calls, no personal visits, no nothing. He might as well not be here. Disappointment flashes across her face, and for a moment he feels like telling her that maybe she should try being CEO if his absenteeism bothers her so much.
Instead he just shuts the door on her and stomps over to his desk. Still in the suit, he sits down. He takes off his helmet and the gauntlets, grimacing in pain as he flexes his burned hand. He spins the chair around so he can stare out the window and down at the city he swore to protect, the city that sends him a bill for damages accrued every time the Avengers go out there and save the world.
For all his claims of being a futurist, for all those times he foresaw a time when he would need to lead the Avengers again, he still has no idea what he's going to do next. Despite his anger at Cap, it pains him to think of forcing the other man to step down. But he'll do it, if it becomes necessary. If Cap won't voluntarily resign, Tony will make it happen.
He turns his chair back around to face the empty office. It's only mid-afternoon, but already it's been a horribly long day. He doesn't want to look at the bright summer sunshine, so at odds with his current mood. What he really wants is a drink, but also he really doesn’t want one. If he starts drinking now he'll just keep going, and that's not a wise idea. Not now. He's got to show the Avengers that he's the responsible leader. Showing up at the mansion when he's drunk would not be a good start.
He stares at the helmet on his desk. The blank eye vents stare back, blind and unseeing. He has a sweeping urge to throw it against the wall, but he's been there, done that, and anyway, this isn't like last time. It's not the Skrulls that are tearing his team apart. It's—
His breath catches.
"Oh my God," he whispers.
Everything becomes so clear then. Away from the other Avengers, with time alone to think, he can see it now.
It's all of them. They've all turned against him.
Cap, so mistrustful, always hovering around, always looking at him, always wanting to spend time with him just to keep an eye on him. Standing angrily over him in the gym, not even wanting to be there, humoring him with their little workouts.
Clint and the Hulk, best buddies, snickering at him, not even bothering to do it behind his back anymore but laughing at him right to his face. Trashing his house every chance they get.
Thor, pretending to give him sound advice about righting wrongs, knowing all along what would happen if he tried. Playing the "I'm just an ignorant Asgardian" card. Whining about mortals and how weak they are.
Jan, asking him to let Hank come back, even though he isn't the leader of the Avengers anymore. Mocking his fallen status, knowing full well that he doesn't have the authority to deny her, but goading him into doing it anyway. Knowing he would take his complaint to Cap, making him look like an immature tattletale.
T'Challa, always at the Wakandan embassy. Regretting his decision to remain with the Avengers instead of staying in Wakanda. Making his disdain for them all abundantly clear.
Carol… Only Carol maybe, is still on his side. He can't think of anything she's done lately to indicate that she wants nothing to do with him.
The thought fortifies him. Maybe there's still time to salvage things. If he can meet with Carol and talk to her, they can put their heads together and come up with a plan.
He feels immensely better now. He stands up, puts on the helmet and the gauntlets. He's never been one to wait around to put a plan into effect. Besides, the longer he waits, the more opportunities he gives the others to find a reason to get rid of him.
"Yeah," he says aloud. "That's not going to happen."
Unfortunately, when he gets back to the mansion, Carol isn't there. She's been called up to SWORD to assist them with something – Tony doesn't know what, doesn't care. The point is, she's gone and there's no telling when she'll be back.
More annoying than this, though, are the reporters and their camera crews camped out at the mansion's gates. They want to interview Thor. Apparently he was overheard this morning at the Trump Towers making a comment about hoarding gold. Or something. Whatever it was, Trump himself took offense, and now everyone wants to find out what Thor really thinks about American capitalism.
On this, at least, the Avengers are still united. Everyone knows that letting Thor get in front of a television camera is a terrible idea. They just can't decide who should do the dirty deed.
"Not me," Jan says. She makes a disgusted face and gestures to the TV, where there is live footage of the reporters as they stand in front of the gates. "They always just end up asking me questions about who does our hair and makeup. Girl questions."
"You do it, Stark," Clint says. "I'm always getting ambushed by those guys. I'm tired of it."
"I do not understand." Thor looks bewildered. "I was merely remarking on the value of gold in this realm, and how it is prized and collected by those who desire wealth."
"Yeah," Tony says. "See, that right there's the problem. You just called Donald Trump a greedy miser." He pinches the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger; it feels like he's been fighting off a headache all day. "I'll do it. Just… Be careful what you say, okay?"
Thor nods. "Thank you, Iron Man."
Tony goes outside and right away the reporters start shouting at him. He smiles his most charming smile and holds up his hands, forestalling their questions until he reaches the gates and they can all have a civilized conversation.
Not that it's ever really possible to have one of those with reporters.
"Mr. Stark, what do you have to say about the allegations Thor made this morning?"
"Tony, can you tell us what happened between Thor and Donald Trump?"
"Is it true that Donald Trump is going to buy out the Avengers?"
"Guys, look," Tony says easily. He's been doing this for years, calming reporters down, handling the press. "You all know that Thor is not from here, and that he has a tendency to say whatever's on his mind. All he was saying is that gold is a precious metal here on Earth, which is apparently not the case in Asgard. He meant no offense by it, and I'm a little bit surprised that you guys who use words for a living don't know the difference." He glowers at the reporter who offered the last question. "And no, Donald Trump is not buying the Avengers."
"Will Thor be making a formal apology?" asks the first reporter, a stocky man whose sport coat is about two sizes too big for him.
"Why would he do that?" Tony says. "I just did it for him." He flashes a quick grin at the cameras, and winks.
The reporters laugh. The guy in the sport coat says, "So you're never tempted to give Thor some pop culture lessons?"
"And miss out on the chance to talk to my favorite news crews?" Tony says. "Not a chance." He backs up a couple steps and starts to turn around. "I'm sure I'll be seeing you guys later this week." He gives them a quick peace sign, then turns around completely and walks toward the mansion's front doors.
As soon as he's back inside, the Avengers begin to applaud. The TV is still on; already the news station is recycling the interview footage while the anchorman talks over it. On the screen, Tony looks his usual charming self, like he'd rather be nowhere else than in the media spotlight yet again.
"Thank you," Thor says, "for defending me."
The sad thing is, it's not the first time he's had to go out there on Thor's behalf. And it certainly won't be the last. He was only half-joking when he told the reporters he'd be seeing them again soon.
And everything will happen just the same. He'll listen to Thor's abashed explanation of what he was really trying to say. Everyone will bluster and offer an excuse as to why they can't be the one to face the reporters. Someone (Clint) will say, "You do it, Stark," and he'll sigh and go out there the way he always does. Because he's responsible for them. Because the Avengers were his idea. Because he's been dealing with the media since he was a kid. Because he's Tony fucking Stark and somehow, somewhere along the line, doing damage control on an Asgardian thunder god became one of his job duties.
"Sure thing," he says, as smoothly and easily as talking to the reporters. "But just so you know, that's the last time I do this. You're on your own from now on. Get someone else to clean up your messes."
Jan's jaw drops. Clint's eyes narrow. Cap blinks in shock. Thor just looks contrite and apologetic, like an overgrown kid. "I humbly beg your pardon. It will not happen again."
"I hope you mean that," Tony says, pointing at him. "Because I meant every word I just said." He turns on his heel and heads for the stairwell.
"He doesn't mean it," Jan says in a stage whisper to Thor.
"Uh, yeah, I do," Tony says without bothering to turn around. He just keeps climbing the stairs. It's far too early to go to bed, and he hasn't eaten yet, but right now he just wants to be alone. He has a headache and he isn't in the mood to deal with any of the Avengers right now. Besides, there's enough tablets and tools and pieces of the suit strewn about his bedroom that he can work in there for a few hours before he will have to come out.
Behind him there is a short noise, like someone making a move that they quickly check. He hears Cap say quietly, "No. Let him go."
He pauses for just a moment, one foot poised above a step. Then he keeps going. He doesn't look back. He doesn't stop walking until he's in his bedroom.
Once he's safely behind the locked door, he shuts his eyes and leans up against the door. "JARVIS, how soon until Carol returns?"
"I have no information on that," JARVIS replies. "Shall I send her a message?"
"No," Tony says, because he'll be damned if he makes himself look weak in front of anyone. "No. Just…let me know when you hear something, okay?"
"Yes, sir," JARVIS says.
About half an hour later, there is a knock at his door. "Tony?"
He's barely started working, but already he's concentrating deeply. The sudden sound startles him badly, and he jerks in surprise and drops the small screwdriver he was holding. It clatters to the floor and rolls a bit before stopping.
"Tony?" Cap calls his name again.
With all the noise, he can hardly pretend that he isn't here. It's tempting, though. Very tempting.
He sighs heavily, sets down the motor he was working on, flexes the hand he burned this morning, and stands up. Three short strides bring him to the door. He stops just short of flinging it open. "What?"
"Can I come in?" Cap asks.
Tony hesitates. It's not like he can really say no, after all. If Cap wants to get in here, he will; out of the suit, there is no chance Tony can stop him.
But Cap respects his hesitation and does not push his way forward, or ask again. He just says, "Are you all right, Tony?"
"I'm fine," he says. He holds up his hand. "Got a little hot coffee on me this morning, but otherwise I'm fine. Actually kinda busy though, so if you don't mind…" He starts to shut the door again.
"Would you tell me if you weren't fine?" Cap asks.
That stops him cold. Would he?
Maybe once upon a time he would have. But that was before. When he was a different person. When he was the kind of guy who flat out asked his teammates if any of them were Skrulls. Before he had his mind messed with – twice. Back when words like mistrust and betrayal were still just abstract concepts, not pain he was intimately familiar with.
He looks at Cap. It hits him then that it was just yesterday when everything went sour between them. Yesterday.
It's amazing how much can change in just twenty-four hours.
"I won't ask again," Cap says. "I'll respect your privacy if that's what you want. But I hope you know that if something is troubling you, you can come to me about it." Something flashes in his eyes, a quick show of pain that is gone again as soon as he blinks.
Tony's lip curls. He has to hand it to Cap. Even though the guy clearly hates being here, he's still doing it. Acting the brave soldier. The good leader.
Pretending to care.
"I'll keep that in mind," he says, and starts to shut the door again.
"And if you want," Cap continues, "I will speak to the press next time. You shouldn't have to bear that burden alone. I don't think any of us realized before how much pressure that must put on you. We'll all do a better job of sharing that duty." He smiles.
"What, you don't think I can handle it?" Tony snaps. "Let me tell you something. I've been dealing with the press since I was six. Talking to them about Thor's latest little slip of the tongue is nothing."
Cap's smile falls. "It didn't sound like nothing," he says.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Tony demands. He's ready to slam the door shut – and a small, mean voice in the back of his head says that he should do it. Especially because if he does it now, he'll be smashing Cap's fingers where they have hold of the doorframe.
"It just means that you sounded pretty upset with Thor," Cap says. "That's all I meant." He's speaking now in the careful tones Tony has heard Hank use with some of the supervillains they deal with. The ones who might still be just sane enough to be reasoned with.
It's the last straw, hearing Cap talk to him that way. Like he's…like he's…like he's crazy or something. Someone who needs to be talked down. The urge to slam the door now is overwhelming. "Oh, I get it," he says. "I say nice things about Thor in public but I'm a jackass to his face. So now I'm a hypocrite. Well, I hate to break it to you, but you're about thirty years too late for that. The entire world's been saying that about me ever since they first stuck a microphone in front of my face and started shouting questions at me."
The shock on Cap's face looks practically genuine. "Tony, no—"
"You should really leave now," Tony says. It's the only warning he's going to give, and he figures he ought to be nominated for sainthood for giving it at all. He pulls the door back slightly, preparatory to giving it a good, hard slam.
Just in time, Cap pulls his hand back.
The door rocks in its frame. He locks it, and resists the urge to punch it only because he knows it will hurt like hell.
"JARVIS," he says, "you have my permission to zap the hell out of the next person who so much as breathes on this door." He looks up and narrows his eyes. "Or the windows."
"Very good, sir," JARVIS replies, his tone indicating that he knows full well that Tony doesn't really mean it.
It takes him a while to calm down, to tell himself – and believe – that he doesn't care what Cap or the other Avengers think about him. At last, his head aching, his hand throbbing, he sits down and picks up the motor he abandoned before.
But it's a long time before he actually starts working again.
He wakes up the next morning to find himself lying the wrong way across his bed, legs and feet dangling over the edge. His headache is still present and accounted for, his hand hurts, and now his back hurts from lying in such an awkward position. He groans when he sits up; he feels achy and battered, and not in a good way.
He starts to slide off the bed, but the room spins sickly, and he groans again and drops his head into his hands. God. If he didn't know better, he would think he was hungover. He presses the heels of his hands into his eyes, sending flares of deepest violet across his vision. "JARVIS."
"Lights off. What time is it?" It feels late, but he can't be sure.
"It is 11:38 a.m.," JARVIS informs him. "I have a message for you from Captain Rogers."
"Delete it," he commands. Cautiously he picks his head up and is rewarded when the room does not spin. "Is Carol back yet?"
"She is still on board the Damocles," JARVIS says.
Well, okay then. It doesn't matter. They might all be against him, but this is still his house. And he is still Iron Man, still Tony fucking Stark. He can do this alone. God knows he's been doing most things alone all his life. He let himself forget that, let himself get so caught up in the whole concept of the Avengers that he forgot that once upon a time he was just Iron Man and part of no one's team.
But he learned his lessons from the Skrulls.
He's not going to make the same mistake twice.
Over the next few days, he is careful. Very careful. He watches. He waits. He never takes the armor off. He stands cloaked in the shadows – but only when T'Challa or the Vision are not around to catch him.
And he listens.
Most of what he hears is of no consequence. Jan giving instructions to her fashion designers. Clint sharing stories of when he was in SHIELD. The Vision trying to understand "knock knock" jokes.
But occasionally he hears other things.
"All right, I gotta ask," Clint says one afternoon. He and Jan and Cap are sitting in the living room watching TV. The three of them are squashed together on the sofa, sharing a bowl of popcorn, reaching with greasy fingers for a fresh handful of kernels before they pass it to the next person in line. On the TV, some cheesy monster movie is playing, something about overgrown lab rats trying to take revenge for all the mazes they had to run in the lab. "Am I the only one who's noticed how weird Stark has been acting lately?"
"Thank you!" Jan exclaims. "I thought it was just me!"
"No," Cap says somberly. "I've noticed it, too."
The suit's sensors pick up every nuance of their voices. Cloaked in the shadows, Tony stands there and slowly curls his hands into fists.
"What is going on with him?" Clint says. He picks up the remote and lowers the volume on the TV – none of them ever remember that JARVIS will do that kind of thing for them if they ask him to.
"I wish I knew," Cap says.
"I don't want to be the one to cry 'Skrull'," Clint says. "But…" He doesn't finish, just lets it hang there.
"Tony is not a Skrull," Cap says quickly.
"No one's saying that," Jan soothes. She gives Clint a look though, one that says, We'll talk later, you and I. "But I can't even remember the last time I saw him out of the armor." She wrinkles her nose. "And I don't think he's had a shower recently, either."
"It's been going on ever since that day he socked you one," Clint says to Cap. "And that was over a week ago."
Tony rears back a little in shock. No. That can't be possible. There's no way it's been a week. "JARVIS, is that true?" He speaks quietly, although the suit's external audio is muted so no one can hear him. It's better not to take any chances. Especially in a room full of superheroes.
"I'm afraid so, sir," comes the response.
"That's impossible," he says flatly.
"It has been eight days and three hours since your – incident – with Captain Rogers in the gym," JARVIS says, with just the faintest delicate pause to indicate his thoughts on the matter.
Tony stares at the three Avengers sitting on the couch. He isn't even listening to them anymore; the suit is recording their conversation so he can listen to it later. For now, he's still trying to process the fact that he's lost nearly an entire week while skulking around the mansion.
"What day is it?" he asks.
"Today is Sunday," JARVIS replies.
"And what day did we fight the Serpent Society yet again?"
"That was Tuesday."
"And Titanium Man?"
He wracks his brain, trying to think what other major events have happened recently. Dull pain throbs in his skull, an unpleasant headache he's had for days now, something he hasn't been able to get rid of no matter how many aspirin he takes. "The poker game? You know, when the Hulk and the Thing destroyed my game room. Again."
"Friday night," says JARVIS.
Friday night. He remembers shouting, infuriated by this latest round of destruction to his home. Damage from supervillains he can deal with. It's the friendly fire from the supposed good guys that he can't handle anymore. There's just no reason for it, damnit. And he knows they laugh about it. They don't care. Why should they? They have a huge mansion to live in and an army of paid people to clean up after them. What's one more hole in the ceiling to them?
Still. Friday night. And today is Sunday.
And he can't remember anything substantial in between the poker game and now. Just a blur of working in the armory and stalking his former friends and teammates.
Something cold and horrible starts to seep through his veins. "Okay, next question," he says, and he hears the tremor in his voice, but he can't help it. "When was the last time I slept?" Because he honestly can't remember, and he's starting to freak out just the tiniest bit now.
"You slept for three hours and sixteen minutes on Saturday afternoon," JARVIS responds. As an AI, he's not supposed to do emotion very well, but there is no mistaking the disapproval in that computerized voice.
Tony has no recollection of that at all. "JARVIS," he says carefully, "I think I'm losing—"
Before he can finish that terrible thought, the conversation between the three Avengers grabs his attention again. It's not the words they're saying. It's the fact that Cap is actually shouting.
"I heard you the first time!" Cap shouts. "And I'm telling you, the answer is no. It's out of the question."
"Why?" Clint demands. "Give me one good reason."
For a moment they all stare at each other. They're all standing now, the movie still playing on the TV but utterly forgotten. Cap's brow is lowered, his eyes dark with anger. Clint looks like a bulldog stubbornly digging his heels in, his whole body tense. Even Jan's usual good humor is nowhere in sight as she mutes the TV and looks at both men.
"It's my call," Cap says tightly. "And I say Tony stays."
"Why does he get a free pass?" Jan complains. "We kicked Hank out and he was a lot less crazy than Tony is."
The temperature in the room seems to drop ten degrees. Tony knows that doesn't actually happen – the sensors in the suit indicate no change in the air – but it sure feels like it. Or maybe it's because he's been walking around with so much anger bottled up inside for the last eight days (eight days!) that he's able to sense it so easily. All he knows is that if he were Clint or Jan right now, he'd be slowly backing away from Cap.
The funny thing is, he's not even pleased by Cap coming to his defense. He wishes he had never heard it. The words echo in his brain, mocking him with their false sincerity. He knows Cap doesn't really mean it, that he's just being stubborn, just trying to save face with the others. That's Captain America to a tee: once he makes a decision, he stands by it to the bitter end, no matter what the cost.
"If this is about finding a new place to stay," Jan says, "I can get us somewhere. Don't worry about that."
"Screw that," Clint says. "This is Avengers Mansion, not Stark Mansion. He should be the one to leave, not us."
"No one is leaving!" Cap says loudly. "Now I think it's time we ended this conversation."
Jan's face goes white with anger. She throws the remote in Clint's direction; he catches it without even looking. "You know what?" she snaps. "I don't feel like hanging out here anymore." She walks swiftly from the room.
Clint and Cap gaze at each other for a long moment, each man challenging the other to speak first. Tension builds between them until it seems inevitable that they must come to blows.
And Tony has to admit he'd kind of like to see that, although frankly he isn't sure who he would root for.
Unsurprisingly, Clint breaks first. "Ah, forget it," he says heavily. He tosses the remote onto the couch and walks out.
Left alone, Cap stands where he is. He sighs, his shoulders sagging. He picks up the remote and turns the TV off. "Damnit, Tony," he whispers. "Why do you have to make this so hard?"
He walks away, his stride slow and measured, his head down.
Tony stays in the shadows. In the close confines of the helmet, his breathing is very loud.
At that particular moment he can't decide who he hates more. All things considered, he much prefers Clint and Jan's open honesty about their doubts. At least he knows where he stands with them. It's Cap's attitude that infuriates him most. He knows perfectly well that Cap doesn't want him around anymore than the others do. But now Cap is stuck defending an indefensible position, hating Tony for it but unable to show it to anyone else.
He's suddenly very glad that he's been avoiding Cap all this time. He knows what will happen if he lets himself get cornered in a conversation. Alone, without anyone else to overhear, Cap will find a way to twist everything around so that Tony actually volunteers to leave the Avengers. That way Cap can still legitimately claim that he didn't kick Tony off the team, but everyone gets what they want and everyone is happy.
"Sorry to rain on your parade," Tony says to no one in particular. Just himself and JARVIS. The way it used to be. The way it will be again, very soon. "But I don't think so."
Unseen by anyone, still cloaked, he goes down to the armory. "JARVIS, where are the other Avengers right now?" They can be tracked by their cards, and it sort of boggles his mind that none of them have ever seemed to realize that.
One by one, JARVIS reads off where they are. "Ms. Marvel is still on board the Damocles."
"Captain America and Hawkeye are each using the training room, although they appear to be on separate courses and are not working together."
"Keep listening," Tony instructs. "I bet they'll start talking about me again soon."
"Wasp is on the phone with a friend."
"Probably complaining," Tony says.
"Black Panther is at the Wakandan embassy, meeting with Simon Williams."
"What?" Tony exclaims.
"Wait! Where is T'Challa?" There's no way he heard that correctly. There is just no way.
A holographic visual appears in the air before him. He recognizes the building, and yeah, it's definitely the Wakandan embassy. The little red dot that signifies T'Challa's identicard is on the rooftop level. And there is a faint purple glow beside the dot.
He stares at the image in horror. The two symbols do not move. Neither does Tony. He is frozen still, shocked to his very core. He never imagined something like this would ever happen. Never guessed they would be so badly betrayed by one of their own. "JARVIS, scan that energy source," he orders.
"I have already done so," JARVIS says. "It is ionic energy. I have matched it to my profile on Simon Williams."
Simon Williams. Villain. Criminal. Member of the Masters of Evil. Off the top of his head, Tony can think of at least five times Simon has helped Zemo and his gang try to kill the Avengers.
And now T'Challa is meeting with him.
"What are they saying?" he demands.
"I cannot provide audio for their conversation," JARVIS says. "The Black Panther's card is not activated. Even if it were, there is too much interference along that channel for my sensors to pick up anything but direct speech into the card."
Interference. At the Wakandan embassy. Well, of course there is. T'Challa has never really trusted any of them. He's always been up front about that too, which Tony grudgingly respects him for.
He stares at the hologram, at that red dot, that purple glow.
"Oh, you son of a bitch," he snarls.
This is a thousand times worse than learning that the person he thought was Steve was actually a Skrull. Helpless fury burns within him. He wants to shout, scream, aim the repulsors at something and blast it into oblivion. He is looking at evidence of treason, right here in front of him. Even as he stands here watching, it is happening.
And he can't tell anyone.
He knows what will happen if he does. They will accuse him of overreacting. They will say that T'Challa has a good reason. They will say that this is nothing, that he is seeing things where they don't exist, that he is blowing things out of proportion, that he is wrong, that he is a Skrull imposter, that he is—
"Going crazy," he whispers.
He slams his gauntleted hand down on the table.
No. That's not true. He is not going crazy. It's not crazy when he has the proof right here in front of him. "JARVIS, tell me you're recording this."
"Of course, sir," the AI replies smoothly. If he didn't know better, he might think JARVIS even sounds affronted, like someone who's just been told how to do their job by someone else who can't do it very well.
"Good," he says.
He knows better than to show the recording to anyone. Not just yet.
He will, though.
But first, he's got some preparations to make.
"Okay," he says. "We've got some work to do, and not a whole lot of time to do it in. Give me what you've got on ultrasonic frequencies."
"Sir?" JARVIS inquires.
Tony smiles grimly. "We're going to catch an ionic man."
Time flies by, as it always does when he's hard at work. JARVIS interrupts once to tell him that Carol has left the Damocles and is on her way back to the mansion, then again a couple hours later to tell him that the Vision has gone to Hank Pym's lab. Each time Tony just grunts out a response and gets right back to work.
The device he's creating is small, reminiscent of Yellowjacket's microverse prison. It won't hold Simon forever, but it should contain his ionic energies long enough to take Panther out – and anyone else foolish enough to side with him.
He's not unaware of the fact that he's approaching this as a battle to be fought.
But somehow, he can't bring himself to care.
His identicard lights up; Cap's voice comes through loud and clear. "Avengers assemble."
JARVIS has already informed him that Simon Williams is in the mansion. There is no doubt then, why Cap is calling them to assemble.
The small prison looks like a disc. It fits onto the repulsor in his right palm and locks into place. "Okay," Tony says. "Let's give it a test run."
The disc lights up, turning the glow from the repulsor an almost pretty shade of purple. A new display appears on the HUD, informing him of the strength of the ultrasonic signal – as well as a few other ones that appear to be scattered throughout the mansion.
"Sir," JARVIS says. "I am picking up—"
"Save it," Tony orders. "Right now we have to worry about Simon Williams." And what to do about T'Challa's betrayal. But that's something he can worry about that once he has Simon safely put away.
The ultrasonic prison takes 2.3 seconds to power up. He's not happy with that response time, but it's the best he can do for now. If he had six more hours he could shave at least a full second off that performance, but he's simply run out of time. This will have to do.
"Tony? Are you there?" That's Jan, his card lighting up with her face.
He deactivates the device so both repulsors are their normal blue-white color again. It's entirely possible that Simon will be able to detect it anyway – or maybe T'Challa with the additional spectrums his suit can detect. Either way, he doesn't want to tip his hand until he has to.
"Sir," JARVIS says, "I've isolated three sources of ultrasonic energy in the mansion, and one in Stark Tower. I believe they are affecting your—"
"Later!" Tony snaps. He can't afford to be distracted right now.
"All right," he says. "I'm going up there. I'm probably going to need your help in neutralizing a couple of them," he says. Right now he's not sure who's going to be a bigger problem: Thor or the Hulk.
Not that it matters. If he has to, he'll take them all out.
The Avengers are all gathered in the assembly hall. Only the Vision is absent. They stand in a loose horseshoe configuration, with Simon Williams at the open end of the loop. On his right is Black Panther. Jan hovers beside him. Hulk is next to her. Thor is next, standing opposite Simon. On his right are Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye. Cap rounds off the group, standing on Simon's left. They all look wary and watchful, and clearly capable of defending themselves from an attack. None of them, though, appears ready to strike the first blow. For whatever reason, they have all chosen to allow a member of the enemy into this, their most private sanctum.
It's absolutely sickening. Tony has to refrain from shouting at them as he flies up. He positions himself carefully, somewhat behind Simon and to his left. This puts him near the large computer console in the center of the room, and also gives him a clear line of sight on every member of the group.
"All right," he says. He holds up both hands, repulsors whining and glowing, both of them trained on Simon Williams. "I'm going to give you one chance at this, T'Challa. Explain yourself. Now."
"Tony," Jan says. She sounds shocked and dismayed.
"Stand down, soldier," Cap says.
"I am not a soldier!" Tony snaps at him. He turns to face the group. "And I want to know why Panther has betrayed us."
"I have not betrayed you," T'Challa says calmly.
"Oh really?" Tony says. "Then would you mind explaining what you're doing, fraternizing with the enemy in my house?"
"Simon Williams is no longer our enemy," T'Challa says.
"Yeah, and if you believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you," Tony says.
"It is true," T'Challa says. He still sounds perfectly calm and composed. "But perhaps you should hear it from Simon himself."
Tony shifts his aim a fraction of an inch. Now one repulsor is aimed at T'Challa, and the other, the one with the ultrasonic prison disc, is aimed at Simon Williams.
"T'Challa is right," Simon says. His shape flickers at the edges, purple ionic energy that is never still, making him look almost like he's on fire. "I came here of my own free will. He says he can restore me to human form – and I believe him."
Tony can't believe it. The magnitude of the betrayal is shocking. Not only has T'Challa brought one of the enemy here, but he has clearly been working behind Tony's back while he creates a solution for Simon's condition. He wants to ask JARVIS if it's true, but there is no point. T'Challa has almost certainly done most of it at the Wakandan embassy, hiding what he was doing from everyone. But some of the work must have been done here at the mansion, and the fact that he did not know it was going on burns Tony almost worse than the actual betrayal itself.
"I don't want to be part of Zemo's little gang anymore," Simon says. "He crossed the line long ago. I always knew it. I just didn't know how to leave." He looks at T'Challa. "Now I have the chance."
"Let me guess," Tony says. "Now you want to help people. You want to be Avenger."
"If you'll have me," Simon says.
Normally this is the part where Jan would laugh in incredulous disbelief. But nobody laughs. And abruptly Tony realizes that she's not laughing – that nobody is laughing – because this is not a surprise to them. They were expecting this. They've already talked about this, before they called him here. Cap's call for Avengers assemble really meant Tony assemble.
He stands there, equally stunned and furious. He feels cold all over. The Avengers are supposed to be his team. His family. And instead they have let one of the enemy into their most private spaces and then discussed admitting him to their ranks. And they did this without consulting him, without even calling him.
He looks at each of them in turn, trying to decide when they chose to betray him. Jan looks vaguely puzzled. The Hulk and Thor are each frowning at Simon. Carol's expression is hard to decipher with the mask, but she shifts her posture just the tiniest bit so that she's facing Simon more head-on. Clint's hands rise a little, raising his bow. Cap hefts his shield as well, a salute from one soldier to another.
"I'm not sure—" Jan starts to say.
"Tell me you guys aren't serious," Tony demands.
"This isn't something we can decide here," Cap says. "We would need to discuss it."
"Yeah, and I for one want to see some proof that you've turned over a new leaf," Clint says.
"I understand," Simon says. "Please take as long as you need."
"Simon will be staying at the Wakandan embassy until we reach a decision," T'Challa says.
"Well, that's convenient," Carol says, her tone heavy with skepticism.
Tony turns toward her gratefully. He knew it! Carol is still on his side.
"I do not understand how you could be an Avenger if you were to regain your human form," Thor says. "Does your power not reside in your ionic energies?"
"Yes," Simon says, "but T'Challa says his cure would allow me to slip back and forth between the two forms as necessary. To be honest, I'm not sure I understand the science of it, but if it works, I could help you when I was needed."
"We already have someone who can help us with both his selves," Clint says with a significant look at the Hulk.
"Yeah," grunts the Hulk. He folds his arms across his massive chest and glares at Simon.
Totally bewildered, Tony just stands there watching them all. He doesn't understand this. They've already talked about it and reached a decision. Why are they pretending they haven't? What do they have to gain by this charade?
Nothing, he decides. Nothing, except to mock him and his exclusion. They made their decision without him, and now they just want to rub it in his face. This is their way of hammering it home. They don't want him on the team anymore. They want Simon Williams.
Well that's just too bad for them. He's heard enough.
"Now, JARVIS," he says.
"What are you doing, Tony?" Cap says. There is no mistaking the warning in his voice.
"Stand down, Iron Man," Thor says.
The disc embedded in his gauntlet glows purple. It's powered up and ready to go.
"Sorry, Simon," Tony says. "We're full up." He activates the ultrasonic prison.
For a split second Simon's ionic form remains intact. It's hard to make out his expressions, the way his shape is always shifting and blurring, but it's still very obvious that he's caught off guard. He starts to move, to gather himself – and in the next instant he simply isn't there at all. There is a bright purple streak of light and energy as his form is pulled into the ultrasonic prison, and then he is just gone. Vanished without a trace.
"What did you just do?" Carol cries in horror.
"Tony, how could you?" Jan exclaims.
He turns slightly, so now both repulsors are aimed at the center of the group. He can't fire the right one until he removes the disc, but they don't know that – and he isn't about to let them find out. "Stay right where you are," he says.
"You have just killed the only man we have been able to turn from the course of evil," T'Challa says.
"Good to know you guys have such faith in me," Tony says flatly. "He isn't dead. But he is out of the way. Which is what I'm about to do to you guys unless someone explains to me just what the hell is going on."
"Yeah?" Clint says, challenge in his voice. He pivots on his foot and brings his bow up in one swift move, an arrow already fitted to the string. "Why don't you tell us what the hell is going on, Stark? 'Cause this is way too crazy, even for you lately."
"I'm crazy?" he retorts. "I'm not the one who decided to let a known supervillain join the Avengers!"
"We didn't decide that!" Jan protests.
"No one's decided anything," Cap says firmly. "Hawkeye, Thor, lower your weapons."
Tony looks, and damnit, he hadn't even noticed that Thor is now hefting Mjolnir like he's ready to throw it.
Cap turns toward him. "Tony, please. No one has decided anything about letting Simon onto the team. That's why we're all here now. So we can talk about it."
"What's there to talk about?" he demands. "He's a criminal. He's tried to kill us. How is this even up for debate?"
"You let Ross onto the team," rumbles the Hulk.
Before Tony can respond to that accusation, T'Challa says, "I thought our mission was to help people. Simon Williams is not a bad man. He was—"
"Oh sure," Tony says acidly, "let's remind everyone that I'm the reason he became a criminal in the first place."
"That is not what I was going to say," T'Challa says with just the slightest edge to his tone now.
"If he's truly serious…" Jan says. She looks troubled.
"I believe in giving everyone a second chance," Cap says. "And I agree that Simon is not like Zemo. There is still some good in him."
Thor frowns. "Let us put him to the test, and see how he performs. A man should be judged by his actions, not his words."
"That's what I'm saying," Clint says. He's lowered his bow, but he still has the arrow nocked and ready, held still with his forefinger. "I won't trust him until I see him in action."
"No," Tony says. He can't understand why they are even having this discussion. "He belongs in jail, not on the Avengers. Am I really the only one here who sees that?" He turns to his lone ally, the only one who he knows he can count on. "Carol?"
She looks at him, then at T'Challa. She hesitates. "I don't know."
"Sir, there are power fluctuations occurring within the ultrasonic prison," JARVIS informs him.
That would be Simon attempting to get out. He's probably got another five minutes at most before the other man figures out how to escape.
"Come on, Carol," he says. "You know I'm right."
Her brow furrows. "The file on Simon Williams indicates that he's been wavering in his loyalties to Zemo and the Masters of Evil for months now. T'Challa has been saying for a long time that he thought he could persuade Simon to defect." She looks at him. "This could be really big, Tony. It would be a major blow to Zemo, and the information he could give us would help us out a lot. I don't think we can afford to let this opportunity pass us by."
And that's it then. All of them. Against him.
Carol's betrayal is slow to sink in. Maybe it's because he just doesn't want to believe it. For days now he's pinned everything on her, thinking that she was the only one who would still support him. He sees now how wrong he was.
How stupid he was.
He takes a single step back. All the better to get more of them in his sights. "Okay, then. I see how it is." He ejects the ultrasonic disc from the gauntlet. It lands on the floor on its edge and spins like a top, not seeming to want to fall. Now both repulsors are ready to fire.
"Tony." Cap lowers his arms to his sides, letting the shield come to rest against his leg. "Whatever you're planning on doing…don't."
Tony stares at him. Just one week ago he felt like Cap was the closest friend he had. Like there was even something there between them. Now he barely knows this man anymore.
He doesn't know any of them anymore.
And God, how has it come to this? When did they turn against him? Why did they do it? What did he ever do to deserve this?
The sheer injustice of it makes him want to scream. He started the Avengers because he saw the potential in a group of people all working together toward a common goal. Because he couldn't do it alone. Because he didn't want to do it alone.
So he brought them together. Gave them a house to live in. A training room customized to each of their specialized needs. He gave them everything they asked for, and some things they didn't, like upgrades to their equipment. He supplied the Quinjets, the tech, the gear. He never batted an eye at the cost, or told them to stop wrecking his house every other week. And he never asked for anything in return, not so much as a thank-you.
Well, this is it. His thank-you. Looks like he gets one, after all.
"I can't let you…" He starts to say. And then he stops. Because he doesn't know how to finish that sentence.
He doesn't want to do this.
He can't fight them. They might not be his teammates or even his friends anymore, but once upon a time he cared about them. He wants them gone, out of his house, out of his life, but he certainly doesn't want them dead.
The headache he's been battling all week flares up; sharp pain stabs through his skull. He gasps with it, badly frightened. This…
This might be serious.
"Sir," JARVIS says, "I am reading high levels of ultrasonic energy—"
"Yeah, yeah," he mutters, not even listening. It just means that Simon is close to breaking out. Well, he expected this. He knew it would happen.
Thinking of Simon Williams helps him order his thoughts again. The pain in his head subsides, settles into a dull throbbing that pulses in time with his heartbeat.
He's suddenly very angry.
How dare they? Who do they think they are? They've taken everything he ever gave them, and now they've taken from him the one thing he thought was inviolate, the one thing they couldn't touch: the Avengers.
All this time, and they still don't know him at all. Because whatever people steal from him – he takes back.
"I guess we're done here," he says. He might be feeling regret over it. Then again, he might not. He's not sure. All he knows for certain is that right now he hates them more than he's ever hated anyone in his life. "It was fun while it lasted."
He fires both repulsors.
Cap springs into action, incredibly fast, his movements almost a blur. He leaps high and brings the shield up, deflects the repulsor blasts before they can reach anyone else.
In a split second, the Avengers shift into battle mode. Panther pulls out his energy daggers. Wasp readies her stingers. The Hulk curls his hands into fists. Thor raises Mjolnir. Ms. Marvel holds up her hands, both of them glowing with power. Hawkeye has his arrow aimed and ready.
Tony rises in flight. "Fine," he says. "You want to do it like this? I can take all of you. Let's do it."
"No!" Cap shouts. "Everyone, go!"
A chorus of voices lift in protest, coming to Cap's defense.
"Out," Cap orders. He does not take his eyes off Tony. "This started with me, so it ends with me."
"Yeah, it does," Tony says. "And when I'm done here, if any one of you is still in the mansion, you'll be next."
"Go," Cap says loudly. "Now!"
It's clear that they don't like it, but they go. Each of them shoots Tony a look of venomous hatred as they leave the room.
He doesn't care.
"So it's just you and me," he says.
"I don't want to do this, Tony," Cap says.
"Really? That's too bad," Tony says. "Because I do." He fires.
Cap captures both blasts on his shield again. He ducks and rolls, displaying the agility that is his hallmark in battle. He comes up on his feet and runs, weaving back and forth, dodging the repulsor blasts Tony rains down on him from above.
This is nothing like their mock battles in the training room, where they used to square off against each other for hours at a time, laughing and joking in between trading blows. It isn't even like that day when the Purple Man ordered him to kill Cap, when he would have done it without blinking. Even then, when he had no choice but to obey that order, a tiny part of him was fighting against it, trying desperately to wrest control of his mind back.
Today, here and now, he wants this.
"Sir," JARVIS says in his ear.
Brilliant purple light erupts from the ultrasonic prison disc. Tony breaks off shooting at Cap and watches as Simon Williams' ionic form suddenly appears before him.
"Simon, get out of here!" Cap yells. "I've got this!"
"Better do what he says," Tony says, and fires at Cap again.
"I—" Clearly puzzled, Simon just stands there, unsure how to react.
"Get out now!" Cap hollers as he ducks from another repulsor blast.
Tony glances down at Simon – and then he grunts with the impact as Cap's shield strikes him squarely in the chest, sending him flying backward. It takes him a precious few seconds to regain his equilibrium, and by the time he accomplishes that, Cap has his shield back and Simon is fleeing and nearly at the door.
There is still time to stop Simon. He makes a split-second decision, chooses to let him go. Cap is the one he's really after.
He takes aim and is ready to fire – and JARVIS speaks.
Not to him.
But to Cap.
"Captain Rogers, there are three ultrasonic devices in the mansion. You must find them, quickly. They—"
A sudden burst of high-pitched squealing feedback makes Tony cry out and clutch his head. It's like silver spikes are being driven into his skull. He can't hear what JARVIS is saying, or what Cap says in response.
The whine of feedback ceases and he can hear again. He's not listening, though. Cap's words don't matter anyway. It's JARVIS that matters. JARVIS, his AI, the one he spent years creating. JARVIS, the voice who has been there for him through his triumphs and his failures, who was there when he woke up screaming and clutching at the arc reactor in his chest, who was there when he first flew as Iron Man. JARVIS, who knows more about his deepest hopes and dreams and secrets than anyone else – with the possible exception of the man he is trying to kill right now. JARVIS, who has shut him out and chosen Captain America as his new master.
The final betrayal.
Tony screams in fury, in agony, and unleashes the unibeam. Cap is almost too slow that time; his reactions are dulled, serving as proof that the shock and anguish on his face are genuine. But he does manage to get the shield up in time, planting his heels and holding it up with both hands as the force of the beam pushes him slowly backward.
An alarm begins to go off on the HUD, alerting him that he is draining too much of the arc reactor's power. He shuts down the unibeam and brings the repulsors to bear.
"You've got to find those devices, Clint!" Cap is shouting. "Destroy them!" Then in the next breath he cries, "Don't do this, Tony! I don't want to fight you!" And he slings his shield in a high arc.
It's child's play to calculate its trajectory. He lands on the shield, driving it to the floor and pinning it beneath one boot. "You can't stop me." He crouches over the shield, arms held out, smug in his victory.
Anyone with a brain would stand down now, recognizing that they are unarmed and unable to defend themselves. Good old Cap, though, he never knows when to accept defeat. He takes a running leap and then launches himself at Tony.
He fires up the boot jets and flies straight at Cap. They collide in mid-air, each of them crying out with the impact. Then they are rocketing forward, his arms wrapped about Cap's midsection while Cap batters at him with both fists. They fly past the computer console, all the way across the room, straight against the far wall.
Cap shouts aloud in pain as he is driven into the wall. But he doesn't stop fighting. Now that he's got something solid at his back, he's able to put more strength into his blows. He lands a good one under Tony's chin that snaps his head back. A second blow follows, and now he's arcing backward, falling, too stunned to get the thrusters online in time.
He lands heavily on his back on the floor. Dazed, he watches Steve jump down from where he's stuck halfway in the wall and land in a nimble crouch.
"Stand down," Cap says. "Please, Tony."
Still on his back, he fires a repulsor. Cap leaps and bounds across the room, coming toward him, tucking into a neat roll and somersaulting over his supine form.
Tony activates the thrusters, gets himself upright and flying. By then, Cap has his shield again.
"Tony, please. Stand down! I don't want to hurt you!" Cap pleads. "You're not in control of yourself. There are devices in the mansion that are affecting your ability to think."
Yeah, yeah. He's heard that before. And it's not going to work. "Actually," he says. "I'm thinking quite clearly. And what I'm thinking is that I'm going to kill you now."
"Tony, please listen," Cap says.
"Less talk," he says. "More dying." He fires.
Cap brings up the shield again in self-defense. This time, though, he manages to angle it just enough that one of the repulsor blasts is deflected right back at Tony. It hits him square in the face.
He staggers backward. The HUD shorts out and all the suit's systems go dark for a moment. It's only offline for a couple seconds, but it's still long enough to leave him completely vulnerable.
And that's when Cap attacks.
He can't see anything. There's just the thud of impact, fists and the shield striking the armor over and over, forcing him backward, then down to one knee. He takes a swing, but his fist sails through empty air. The shield slams down again, the sharp edge digging into the seam where the helmet connects to the collar. Metal crunches and he's driven to all fours, crying out in pain.
"Stay down, Tony. Please!" Steve says.
The HUD flickers. For a moment he sees Steve standing there, shield raised, agony in his eyes. Then the display crashes again and his vision goes dark.
But even that single moment of sight is enough. He lashes out with one hand, swiping at the place where Cap was just standing, and then to the right, knowing that's where Cap will be now, having leapt out of the way.
And he is rewarded with contact, his hand closing about solid flesh.
And the suit comes back online. All of it. Including the repulsors.
He doesn't even think. He just fires.
Cap cries aloud in pain and falls. He lands on his back. He brings the shield up over his body in an effort at self-defense. There is a black patch on his leg, smoke rising from charred fabric and flesh.
Tony gets to his feet and stands over him. He holds out his hand, ready to fire. His head hurts atrociously; it's hard to think. He can feel hot blood running down his neck. A damage status report flashing in the corner of the HUD confirms that the armor has buckled there from the force of Cap's assault.
"Tony. Please." Steve makes no move to attack him. He just lies there like a wounded animal.
God, his head hurts. He powers up the repulsor. The whining sound it makes is very loud.
"Will you look at me?" Cap asks. "Please. Look me in the eye."
He should just fire. Get it over with.
He can't remember why he wanted to do this.
He retracts the faceplate. Watches as Cap fumbles with one hand at his cowl, then pushes it back.
The repulsor burns brightly white between them. "I…I don't…"
"It's not you, Tony," Steve says. "This isn't you. You can fight this."
"You betrayed me," he says thickly. Yes. He remembers now. Cap betrayed him and now Cap has to die. He locks his arm, braces himself to fire.
"No," Steve says. "I would never do that to you."
"You did!" he shouts, but he can't remember why he thought that. He just knows that it happened. Somewhere along the line, Cap betrayed him. It happened. It did.
"You're my friend, Tony," Steve says. "I would never betray you."
"You all did," he whispers. "You turned against me."
"No," Steve says. "I'm on your side. I'll always be on your side."
The lights in the room seem to get brighter. He blinks. His head hurts, but it's not the grinding headache he's had for so long. This pain is cleaner, a result of his injury, nothing else.
His hand is shaking.
Hope burns in Steve's eyes. "Tony?"
Appalled, he looks at himself. At what he's doing. Standing over his friend. Death glowing bright-white in his hand.
He cries out in horror. He stumbles backward, away from Steve, away from the murder he was seconds away from committing. He powers down the repulsor and slaps at his chest, clutches at his head. He has to get out of the suit. This is not a helmet. It's a death mask.
Steve is on his feet, limping as he comes forward. He's still holding the shield, but it's lowered at his side, not poised for combat. "Tony. It's okay. Stop."
He pulls the helmet off and throws it to the floor. His stomach twists and heaves. He spins around and doubles over, hands on his knees. He retches, but nothing comes up.
God. Oh God. What has he done?
"It's okay," Steve says again from behind him. "Tony. It's okay." A gloved hand falls on his shoulder. He can't feel it, but he can see it.
"I can't… What have I done?" He straightens up. Steve's hand remains on his shoulder. "What have I done?"
"It wasn't you," Steve says. "JARVIS told me he found three devices hidden in the mansion. They were emitting some kind of ultrasonic signal that was affecting your brain waves. He couldn't detect them until you activated the prison designed to hold Simon Williams."
None of that makes any sense. How could anyone get inside the mansion? Devices? Who put them there?
And why? God, why?
"Devices…" JARVIS tried to tell him. So many times. And he ignored them all. Or was he manipulated into ignoring them?
How can he even know what's real anymore? What are his thoughts and which ones have been planted inside his head?
"We'll figure it out," Steve says. "I promise you. Tony, it's going to be all right." He pauses, and when he speaks again, the words are clearly not meant for him. "Avengers, stand down. We're okay down here."
"Roger that," Clint says. "We got 'em all here, and Carol's gone to the Tower. You guys okay?"
"We'll be fine," Steve says. "Just give us some time."
The past week snaps into dreadful focus. He understands what happened now with horrifying clarity. Everything he thought, everything he felt, everything he believed, it was all a lie. His every emotion, every thought, was all a manipulation. The Avengers did not turn on him.
He turned on them.
Steve walks around to stand in front of him. He bows his head, stares at the floor. He can't look at Steve. Can't see what he did.
But this is no better. Looking down gives him an excellent view of the wound in Steve's leg. A wound he caused.
He moans. Closes his eyes. Sways.
Steve's hand on his shoulder steadies him. "It's all right. I've got you."
Faintly, from far away, he hears himself say, "I have to get out of this."
"What can I do to help?" Steve asks.
Nothing, is the answer. He gives the command and fumbles at the clasps and joints. Bit by bit the armor falls off him until he's left standing in the undersuit. He's been in the suit for so long now that he feels naked without it. Cold.
Steve let go of him when the armor came off, but now he steps forward again and touches his neck. "You're hurt."
"So are you," Tony mumbles.
"I'll be fine," Steve says. His fingers brush Tony's neck. "We need to get this cut cleaned."
"I'll do it," he says.
"I'll come with you," Steve says. His hand slides down Tony's neck to grasp his shoulder and squeeze briefly, then he places it between Tony's shoulder blades, flat on his back. He exerts the tiniest amount of pressure. "Let's go upstairs."
He came within seconds of killing Steve. He does not deserve Steve's forgiveness, or his kindness right now. But the alternative is to stand here shivering, and so he picks up his feet and he stumbles a little before he remembers how to walk again without the weight of the armor.
Mutely he follows Steve out of the assembly hall. They ride the elevator up to the third floor, where Tony's bedroom is. Steve's hand remains on his back, a reassuring warmth he has no right to, but one he gratefully accepts all the same.
His bedroom looks unchanged. Half-finished projects and designs are scattered everywhere. The air feels cold and unused, though. And when Steve says, "When was the last time you slept?" he can't honestly remember, so he just shakes his head.
"The devices probably interfered with your sleep," Steve says.
Tony blinks. He frowns. "You said…" He closes his eyes, trying to concentrate. Thinking seems so much harder now than it did when he was under the influence of the mind-control devices. "There was one at the Tower?"
"Carol's gone to take care of it," Steve says.
"Oh," he says. "Okay."
He lets Steve guide him into his bathroom. The counter is cluttered with bottles of hair product and cologne. A fresh tube of toothpaste is in the sink. He has no idea how it got there. A chocolate brown towel lies crumpled on the floor; it's dry but taken on a stiff, wrinkled shape that indicates it's been there for days and dried where it lay.
"Sit," Steve says, and leads him over to the edge of the garden tub.
Compliant, he sits. He's vaguely aware that he is still in shock. He should be feeling things right now. Things like horror, guilt, shame.
Instead all he feels is a dull gratitude as Steve cleans the cut on his neck and wipes the blood off his skin. He doesn't move while all this is being done. "You won't need stitches," Steve says as he affixes a bandage over the wound. "That's good."
He nods a little, his gaze fixed on the empty towel bar.
Steve steps away. He plucks at the black undersuit. "Take this off," he says.
Tony blinks. He looks up. "What?"
"You need to sleep," Steve says. His voice is low-pitched, kind. He is still in costume, cowl hanging over his shoulders. He's removed his gloves, though. His hand is warm as it cups Tony's face, then touches his forehead. "You're not running a fever. That's good. I think right now you just need to rest."
He doesn't feel very tired, but he's not exactly sure what he's feeling. Mostly he thinks he's feeling nothing at all.
"Okay," he says. He stands up. The room tilts about him and he throws one arm out to catch his balance.
Steve takes hold of his elbow. "Steady," he says. "I got you."
He peels the undersuit off and steps out of it. He leans heavily on Steve to keep from falling over. In another lifetime, another world, he might have cared about Steve seeing him naked, seeing the arc reactor and the scars that surround it. Now he doesn't really think about it at all. It doesn't matter anymore. Now Steve knows his true ugliness is inside him, not on his chest.
Steve guides him back into the bedroom, that hand warm on his back again. He shivers slightly at the touch of Steve's skin on his.
"Get some sleep," Steve says. He's still limping heavily.
Tony climbs into bed and lies down. He's not at all sure he is going to be able to sleep.
"I'm sorry," he whispers. "I'm sorry."
He dares to look up finally, and look Steve in the eye.
He's not sure what he expected. Condemnation, maybe. Anger, or disgust. Possibly even pity. He's completely unprepared for what he does see in Steve's eyes: sadness.
"We can talk about it tomorrow," Steve says. "Right now you need to sleep."
"Okay," he says.
Steve's hand draws near his face. He steels himself, but does not flinch away. He deserves this.
But Steve does not strike him. Strong fingers brush the hair out of his eyes, then smooth down his temple. "It'll be okay, Tony. We'll sort it out."
He can't bear to look at Steve again. He closes his eyes.
Sleep rises to claim him almost immediately. Just before he gives himself to it utterly, he seems to feel the ghost of Steve's hand on his face again. But that can't possibly be right, and so he falls asleep, alone.
He feels no remorse for what he is about to do. No sorrow.
Steve has no one to blame but himself.
"You should have known," he says. He stands over Steve's fallen body. Both repulsors glow whitely. Steve's face is twisted in pain; smoke rises from half a dozen holes where the repulsors have burned through his flesh. "It was always going to end this way."
Steve lies very still. "What are you waiting for, Tony?" he says dully. "Finish it."
And Tony does.
He wakes with a scream trapped in his throat. His heart is racing; he's soaked in sweat.
He barely makes it to the bathroom in time. There's still nothing to bring up, though, just vile-tasting saliva that burns his throat and brings wretched tears to his eyes. He cups his hands under the faucet, rinses his mouth, washes his face. There's a fresh towel hanging on the bar beside the shower, and he uses that to dry off. His hands shake as he sets the towel aside.
He does not look in the mirror.
He goes back into the bedroom. The drapes are drawn, and the room is still mostly in shadow; it's early morning. It looks different in here, in a way Tony can't quite pin down. For a while he just stands there, trying to figure it out. He knows it shouldn't be this hard to find what's changed, knows furthermore that he shouldn't be focusing on something as superfluous as this, but it's all he dares to let himself think about. He's not ready for anything else just yet.
At last he sees what's different. The room itself is cleaner. Spare parts and tools have been gathered up in one corner, instead of cluttering up the entire bedroom. Clothes that were draped over the furniture or carelessly scattered on the floor have been picked up. A neat stack of DVDs sits on the dresser. His shoes no longer litter the carpet.
He frowns, trying to puzzle out who would do such a thing. And the bedroom door opens.
It's Steve, sneaking inside, doing his best to be quiet. His gaze goes straight to the bed, and when he sees that it is empty, his eyes widen. He looks around quickly, one hand clutching the door so hard it creaks in protest. When he sees Tony, he relaxes, his shoulders visibly sagging in relief. "Did I wake you?"
"No," Tony says. He's a little amazed at how steady his voice sounds.
"That's good," Steve says. He comes all the way into the bedroom. In his other hand, he carries a white paper bag with fancy green lettering on the side. Tony recognizes it as belonging to the bakery a few blocks down the road, and he blinks in bewilderment.
Steve follows the direction of his gaze and holds up the bag. "I brought breakfast," he says. "There's coffee, too. I was going to bring that next."
Tony just stares at him. Yesterday he tried to kill Steve, and now Steve is bringing him breakfast.
Steve walks over to the dresser and sets the bag down. He's hardly limping at all; if Tony hadn't known for certain that he had been injured last night, he probably wouldn't even see the slight hitch in Steve's stride.
"Why are you doing this?" he asks.
Steve does not respond at first. He looks down at the bag from the bakery, his head bowed, exposing the back of his neck. Then he looks up, turns around. "What do you want me to do, Tony?"
"I want you to…" Hell, he doesn't even know how to answer that. "I tried to kill you yesterday. And now you're bringing me donuts? I don't… How can you…?" He shakes his head. "How can you stand to be in the same room as me? How can you even stand to look at me?"
"Because I don't blame you," Steve says simply. "What happened wasn't your fault."
"I knew what I was doing," he says. Because as much as he would love to be let off the hook like that, he knows it's not that easy. This wasn't the result of some horrible purple mind control ray. No one was whispering in his ear this time. This was all him.
"You thought you knew," Steve says. "But you were—"
"I knew!" Tony shouts. God, why can't Steve understand that? "This wasn't like last time. Don't you get it? Nobody made me try to kill you. I did that on my own."
"No," Steve says. "You didn't. This is what I'm trying to tell you. Those devices, the ones that were hidden in the mansion and at the Tower, you're going to want to look at them. T'Challa is already working on one, and he thinks he's got it figured out, but I know you'll want to study one, too."
This much is true. For starters he wants to know who was able to get inside the mansion in the first place and plant the devices. And then he wants to know how they work and what they did, so he can make damn sure it never happens again.
He is so tired of having his mind messed with.
"T'Challa says he believes the devices worked on an ultrasonic frequency that was tuned in to your specific brainwaves. That was why they only affected you." Steve frowns. "He hasn't been able to figure out who left them, though."
He can hardly bear to think about T'Challa right now, and the accusations he made against the other man. Quickly he shoves the guilt associated with Panther to the back of his mind. He has enough to deal with right here, with Steve.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I know that's not enough." He stops, feels the crazy urge to laugh sweep over him. He said that once before, on a rooftop under a blazing sunset. I'll put it right.
Some things, though, can never be put right.
"If you don't mind," he says, "I'd like to be alone right now."
Steve looks like he wants to argue. Then he slowly nods. "If that's what you want."
And it's déjà vu all over again, remembering the last time Steve said this to him, when he nearly slammed the door on Steve's hand. "That's what I want," he says, and his voice is remarkably steady.
"Call me if you need anything," Steve says. He pats the bakery bag. "I'll leave this here for you. And the coffee is downstairs."
"Thank you," he says stiffly. He has no intention whatsoever of even opening that bag. And he certainly isn't about to go downstairs and get any coffee, where he might run into some of the other Avengers. But he knows if he even hints at any of this, Steve will never leave.
Steve lets himself out. Tony counts to sixty once, then a second time. Slowly he lowers himself to the floor.
He buries his face in his hands. His shoulders shake with the force of his sobbing – but he doesn't make a sound.
A timid knock at the door. "Tony?" Jan's voice. "Are you awake?"
The door opens a little. He closes his eyes, feigns sleep.
Silence. A small sigh. "Oh Tony."
The door closes again.
"Sir, the Black Panther is requesting—"
"JARVIS, command word: silence."
Voices above his head. A hand on his brow.
"Does he have a fever?" Carol. Anxious.
"Maybe a small one. Nothing to be worried about." An unfamiliar voice. One he doesn't hear often. Bruce.
"Is there anything we should be doing?"
"Just let him rest."
The creak of the door opening. He curls up tighter in the bed, keeps his eyes closed.
"Tony? You okay?"
"I feel as though we are intruding, Hawkeye. We should not be here. Let us leave."
"Yeah, all right. I just… Yeah. Okay."
Around midnight, he finally gets out of bed. The bedroom feels claustrophobic. He has no idea where he wants to go, but he knows he can't stay in here a minute longer.
He takes a long shower and washes his hair. He pulls the bandage off his neck and examines the cut left by Steve's shield. It seems to be healing fine, so he doesn't bother replacing the bandage. He shaves and brushes his teeth. He puts on some comfortable clothes, an old pair of jeans and a red button-down shirt. He feels human again, clean.
He does his utmost best not to think about anything.
Carefully he opens the bedroom door. He wouldn't put it past them to have someone stationed out here, keeping watch over him. But the hallway is mercifully empty. No one is there to bear witness as he takes the elevator down to the armory.
He inputs his passcode and steps inside. He breathes deep. He's not particularly fond of this house – too many old, bad memories lurk in the shadows – but here, in the places he can call his own, he's known contentment. Happiness even. Maybe.
Lights go on as he walks into the room. There are three suits on display in here; others, more specialized, are safely stored away. He sits down at the nearest workstation and contemplates the Mark VIII. He doesn't know who brought it down here, picking up the pieces from the assembly hall and leaving it here for him. He doesn't really care, either. The collar is crumpled inward where Steve's shield bashed it in their fight. Normally repairs on the suit would be one of his top priorities, but he can hardly bring himself to look at it, let alone actually work on it. He should let the damage stay, he thinks. A reminder of everything he did and everything he almost lost.
A shudder works through him.
He has to face this. He can't keep hiding, either by sleeping or pretending to sleep. Sooner or later he's going to have to look the Avengers in the eye and—
And what? How exactly is he supposed to apologize for what he did? Rationally he knows that the ultrasonic devices hidden in the house were responsible, but ultimately, it was his thoughts that were twisted and warped. His beliefs. And that makes him responsible, not whoever planted the devices.
He looks again at the damaged armor. He gets up, walks over to it. He runs his fingers across the metal where it has cracked and lifted. The edges are sharp and he almost cuts himself a couple times.
He lets his hand fall back to his side and steps back. He already knows he is not going to repair the suit.
There is no reason to.
"Avengers assemble," he says, and his voice cracks a little at the end. It's humiliating, but he can be forgiven for it. He hopes.
They arrive swiftly, as though they've just been waiting for the summons. Jan is first, flying in and smiling brightly at him. When he does not return the smile, she looks away, her expression troubled.
Steve is the last to show.
They stand in front of him in a group, Jan back to normal size, Hulk with his arms crossed. Clint is unarmed. Carol and Steve are in street clothes.
"Thank you for coming," Tony says. He was never given a chance to develop a fear of public speaking; even in childhood he was giving interviews and little rehearsed soundbites. He's had to give speeches he didn't want to make, and say things he didn't want to say. He's been shot at before while giving a speech, and witnessed ugly violence in the crowd that gathered to hear him.
But he has never known dread like this before.
He stands with the console at his back. He doesn't lean on it, though, or reach back to touch it for support. It's simply the best place to stand so they can all see him.
He should look them in the eye for this. He owes them that much. And he tries. He does. He looks at Thor, at Carol, at Steve –
He looks down again. "I'm sorry for what happened the other day. And before that. For everything I did. It won't happen again." He takes a deep breath. "Effective immediately, I am resigning from the Avengers."
There's a long moment when no one speaks. The silence draws out unbearably, and in that stillness he receives confirmation that he is doing the right thing. The knowledge is of no comfort. He knows it's selfish, but part of him desperately wanted to think that maybe he was wrong about this. Now he knows better, and the last of his hope dies.
Then they all start talking at once.
"Nay, this cannot be—"
"Hold it." Steve does not yell or shout. But when he speaks, everyone else falls silent. He holds up both hands, which is an unnecessary gesture, because now they are all looking at him expectantly, waiting on him.
Steve looks at Tony. "As leader of the Avengers, I do not accept your resignation."
"Well, that's too bad," Tony says. His heart is pounding so hard he's willing to bet that most of them can hear it, thanks to their superhero senses. "Because it's done. It's happening. I'm leaving."
"But you can't go," Jan says. "We need you."
The others nod and murmur their agreement.
"Jan's right," Carol says. "We need you to stay."
"No one else can provide what you bring to this team," Thor says.
"It's true," Clint says. "We already discussed it."
Tony stares at them and find himself almost wishing that he was still being manipulated by those mysterious ultrasonic devices. If that were so, he could blame them for the sick horror that floods him upon hearing the Avengers' arguments.
He's not sure what's worse. Learning that they've all talked about him already, or discovering that they don't actually need him. After all, there is nothing he can do that one of the others can't do as well. As for the suit, who needs a vulnerable man in a metal suit when you have an Asgardian thunder god who can handle things like gamma radiation and outer space without even breaking a sweat?
No, what Thor means, what they all mean, is that Iron Man is not needed. It's Tony Stark whom they need. Tony's mansion. Tony's money. Tony's tech.
They're all looking at him now hopefully, trying to will him into staying. Even the Hulk looks slightly less grumpy than usual. Only T'Challa's expression is impossible to see, hidden behind his mask.
After Steve, T'Challa is the one he wronged the most, with his accusations of betrayal. He looks at him now and says, "What do you think?"
"I think you must do what you believe is right," T'Challa says without missing a beat.
And that settles it.
He can never apologize enough for what he did, for mistrusting them, for believing the worst of them, for driving them away with hostility and anger. But at least he can begin to atone for it.
"All right," he says quietly. "I'll stay."
"Yay!" Jan says, beaming with happiness.
The Hulk harrumphs.
Clint nudges Thor, and they look at each other and smile.
Steve does not say anything. He just nods with approval.
Carol invites him to lunch. Tony declines.
Thor asks if he wants to take a run through the training room. Tony says no.
Clint says there's a James Bond marathon on one of the movie channels and gives him a significant look. Tony shakes his head.
To each of them he says he has work to do.
He goes straight to his workshop and gets started. He re-activates JARVIS and apologizes to the AI as well. Not just for silencing him yesterday, but for ignoring JARVIS's warnings about the ultrasonic devices.
"The Black Panther has left one of the devices here for you to study," JARVIS says. The best thing about an artificial intelligence like JARVIS is that he doesn't hold grudges.
"Yeah," Tony says. "I'll get to that later. Right now I want to see those specs for Hawkeye's sky cycle. I'm pretty sure I can improve on it." He can work on the ultrasonic stuff after he's done helping the Avengers. Now that he no longer has to worry about the Iron Man suit, he'll have plenty of spare time.
It's a relief to lose himself in mathematical equations and debates with JARVIS about velocity and g-forces. When he's done with the sky cycle he moves on to the next project without stopping. There's plenty to choose from. Upgrades he promised each of the Avengers at one time or another. New engines for the Quinjet that utilize some of Mar-Vell's subspace technology. A prototype shield design for the helicarrier. He chooses complex projects that occupy most of his mind, so he doesn't have time to think about anything besides the work itself. Part of him knows it can't last – won't last. He'll never be so lucky. But for now, the work provides the perfect escape, and he welcomes it gladly.
"Avengers assemble!" The voice breaks his concentration, and he jumps. The holographic screen he was moving to one side disintegrates into light and dust beneath his hand. Immediately adrenaline courses through his body. He's wired, tense, ready to spring into action. It takes effort to remember that the call is not meant for him. Whatever's going on out there, whatever prompted Steve to summon them all, it's not something he needs to worry about.
After the interruption, it takes a while for him to get back into the right frame of mind for work. He keeps wondering what's happening out there. Where the fight is. Who is involved. What the threat is. Twice he starts to ask JARVIS to turn on the news, but each time he manages to stop himself. He has to remember his role in all this now.
Eventually he's able to reconnect with the work, and he loses track of time again. He's got an idea about that portal he and Reed used to get rid of Galactus, wants to shave the creation process down to a manageable time frame. If they can open portals in a more timely fashion, a whole new array of possibilities become available for the Avengers. Not just ridding themselves of supervillains, but for simpler things like traveling back and forth between realms.
"Sir." This time it's JARVIS who interrupts. "You might wish to know that—"
Before he can even finish, there is an enormous smashing sound, and the far wall of the workshop suddenly ceases to exist. Stone and plaster crash to the floor and scatter everywhere; dust plumes upward.
The Hulk stomps forward, tossing aside everything that's in his way: computers, lab desks, the half-finished prototype for the Mark IX. He swipes at the holographic computer screens that hang in the air the way a person would swat at an annoying insect buzzing around their head. He stops in front of Tony and roars, "You!"
Tony scrambles off his high-backed chair and hastily backs up. "Um."
The Hulk stabs one finger at him. "You were supposed to be there!"
"Where was I supposed to be?" His mind races, trying to understand. "What are you—erk!" He stops talking in a hurry as the Hulk moves in, poking him in the chest. He backpedals rapidly until he's pinned up against the desk and there's nowhere else to go.
"Hulk! Stop!" Carol and Thor fly in through the hole in the wall. Jan is right behind them.
Tony looks up at them just as the Hulk bellows, "Hawkeye's hurt 'cause of you!"
All the strength drains from Tony's body. He stares at the Hulk in shock. "What?"
"Tony, no," Carol says.
At the same time the Hulk pokes him again, hard enough to hurt this time. "You weren't there!"
"Hulk, you must stand down!" Thor commands.
The Hulk bares his teeth and growls.
Tony looks at them all in utter bewilderment. From the rubble that was once his wall, Steve and T'Challa come running up, and that's all of them then.
"You said you were staying," the Hulk spits. "But you lied."
The realization slams into him. He looks at the Avengers, seeing the anger and bewilderment on their faces. Now they are the ones who look betrayed.
They also look battered. Thor and Carol just look somewhat singed, and the Hulk appears completely untouched, but they are the only ones who are unscathed. Jan has a painful-looking cut down one arm. Steve's cowl is pushed back, revealing a dark line of bruising across his throat. T'Challa is holding himself stiffly, favoring his side. And Clint?
Hawkeye's hurt 'cause of you.
"All right, everybody out," Steve says. He sounds vaguely hoarse; whatever choked him must have really had a good hold on him.
"Why?" the Hulk growls. "We should just smash him!"
"Nobody is getting smashed," Steve says testily. "Now go. I'll handle this."
One by one they turn and walk over to the elevator. The doors slide open and they step inside. Carol gives him a puzzled look before she vanishes from sight. Jan just shakes her head sadly. Then the doors close and they are gone, and now only Steve remains.
Numbly Tony watches him approach. The desk is hard at his back. His throat is horribly dry and tight.
He doesn't want to know. Doesn't want to ask. Asks it anyway. "What happened?"
"It was A.I.M.," Steve says. He sits on a chair opposite the desk Tony is currently backed up against. "MODOK is back. Or they made a new one. I can never tell anymore."
Tony fumbles for the closest chair and sits down. He's been avoiding this conversation ever since he woke up, but there's no hiding from it anymore. Especially now that he knows he is responsible for Clint being injured.
"Tell me about Clint," he says.
Steve looks somber. "It all happened so fast. MODOK used his mental bolt. Made Clint jump from his sky cycle. Carol and Thor were too far away to catch him when he fell. Jan did her best, but about all she could do was slow his fall. He broke his ankle."
Tony winces. It could have been worse though. It could have been his arm.
"Hulk is mad because he thinks if you had been there you would have caught Clint. I'm not so sure, though. They had a new Technovore," Steve says.
Involuntarily Tony flinches. One hand rises to cover the arc reactor.
"So maybe it's better you weren't there," Steve says. He pauses and takes a deep breath. "Why weren't you there, Tony?"
"I didn't…" He can barely bring himself to say the words out loud. "I thought…you didn't need Iron Man anymore. You only needed me for my tech." And my money, he thinks, but he still has enough pride to leave that part unsaid.
"What?" Steve sounds shocked. "Why would you think that?"
"It's what you said," Tony says. "No one else can provide what I bring to the team."
"Well, yes," Steve says. He still looks astonished, his eyes so very blue. "But Tony. Did you really think that meant we didn't need you as Iron Man?"
"Name one thing Iron Man does that someone else can't handle," he challenges Steve. And then, because he really doesn't want to have this conversation, he adds, "Don't answer that."
"We need you on the team," Steve says. "As both Iron Man and Tony Stark. I thought that was clear before. I'm sorry if we misled you."
He bows his head, pinches the bridge of his nose. Maybe he laughs, a bitter, sharp sound. Was he mislead? Or was he just so eager to punish himself for what happened when he was under the influence of the ultrasonic brainwashing devices? He just assumed…
"You don't have to apologize," he says. "It's not your fault. It's my fault. It's all been my fault. I'm the one who should be apologizing to you. I mean, are you really going to sit there and act like it doesn't matter that two days ago I tried to kill you?"
"It doesn't matter," Steve says. "I already told you that. I know that wasn't really you."
"It was me," Tony says miserably. He keeps his gaze fixed on the floor. If he has to look at Steve now there's a very good chance he's going to break down again, and he absolutely cannot let that happen. "This is what I've been trying to tell you. It was all me. Just like when the Purple Man had control of me. All those things I thought, they came from inside me. Nobody forced me to believe you were turning against me, or that you were traitors. I did that. No one else."
"You did that because you had no choice," Steve says. "Those devices were tuned to your brain waves, Tony. They affected your ability to interpret what was happening around you. T'Challa says he was able to isolate the frequencies used. The ultrasonic waves stimulate anger in a person's brain."
He doesn't say anything to that. Last week is something of a haze in his memory, and he lost time even while he was living it, but he does remember feeling angry all the time. Always irritated with the other Avengers, constantly seeing the worst in them, absolutely convinced that they didn't want him anymore.
And like a picture coming into vivid focus, he remembers that day in the gym. The incident that started this whole terrible mess. Lying flat on his back on the gym mat, staring up at Steve. Getting to his feet and announcing that he was done. Steve's determination to keep going. What he thought at the time was anger directed at himself because he was slow and weak and unable to keep up. But he's seen that look on Steve's face a dozen times before. He knows that look.
"You just didn't want me to give up," he whispers. "You wanted me to keep going. To improve my skills."
He closes his eyes. "God, how could I be so stupid?"
Now that he lets himself think about it, the memories come pouring in. Clint and the Hulk in the kitchen, the morning after he punched Steve in the gym. Just joking around with him. They weren't angry with him. Not until he opened his mouth and was an asshole to them first.
Talking to Thor later that same morning in the aftermath of the battle at Trump Towers. His mind clear for once. He was able to accept Thor's advice then because he was outside, away from the devices hidden in the mansion. It wasn't until he got back that he turned on Jan. And Steve. And Thor.
On and on it went. One incident after another. Ending in his firm belief that T'Challa had betrayed them, and his furious desire to kill Steve.
"Tony?" Steve sounds confused. As well he might.
"I'm sorry," he whispers. Everything that happened, everything he did…it was all his fault. Seeing things where they didn't exist. Misinterpreting people's words and reactions. Turning on his friends. Stalking them. Accusing them. Fighting them.
If Steve hadn't stopped him, he would have single-handedly destroyed the Avengers.
"I'm so sorry," he chokes out, and then he can barely breathe. He crumples forward, and Steve is there, surprising him because he didn't hear Steve get up, and Steve is the last person in the world who should want to be near him right now.
But Steve is there anyway, and he is just selfish enough to need this, so he accepts Steve's presence without protest. He presses the top of his head against Steve's collarbone and one of Steve's hands cups the back of his neck, and the other rubs his back. And when Steve says the words he so desperately longs to hear – It will be all right, Tony. I don't blame you – he cries quietly, hopelessly.
Crying is a luxury he cannot afford – and does not deserve – so he does not allow himself to indulge in it for very long. The pain is still raw, guilt and shame eating at him, but he forces it all deep down inside, where he doesn't have to think about it. He has too many apologies to make, too many wrongs to put right.
He sits up, but he keeps his head bowed, his gaze downcast. Steve lets go and steps back a little. "Better?"
In truth, no. Dull pain has settled in his temples. His neck hurts. The physical pain is nothing, though, compared to the guilt hollowing out his insides.
But he nods. "Yeah." His voice is rough and scratchy; he clears his throat. "Thanks."
Steve does not respond at first. The silence draws out between them, thick and uncomfortable. He knows he should say something, but he can't think of any words.
He glances up – just a quick peek – and then looks back down again. He wishes he hadn't. The sadness and frustration on Steve's face are too much.
"I…I'm not good at this kind of thing," Steve says.
"You don't have to do anything," Tony says. If Steve says I'm sorry to him, he thinks he might scream.
He forces a smile, picks his head up. "It's okay. Honest."
"Hmmm." Steve hums in disapproval, his lips tightened into a thin line. It's obvious he doesn't believe Tony.
Diversionary tactics don't really work on Captain America, but right now that's pretty much all Tony's got. "Where's Clint right now? I should go see him."
"He was taken to the hospital," Steve says.
Tony stares at him in shock.
"It's just a precaution," Steve says. Although he sounded hoarse when he first sat down to talk, his voice is already smoothing out as his body heals the injuries he received in the battle against A.I.M. "They say he'll be fine. He'll be home later today. He'll have to sit out the next few weeks, but otherwise there shouldn't be any problems."
"I'm sorry," Tony says again. "I should have been there."
"You being there is no guarantee that he wouldn't have been hurt. Most likely you would have been occupied with the fight, the same way Thor and Carol were." Steve's expression lightens just the tiniest bit. "Although I'm guessing that even if that were the case, we would still be sitting here with you blaming yourself, the way you always do when one of us is hurt in battle."
Tony huffs out a bitter little laugh. "Am I that obvious?"
Steve's face softens still further, into what is almost a smile. "Just a little. But then, I pay attention."
Tony blinks in surprise. A split-second later, Steve's cheeks redden slightly. Now he is the one to look away.
He doesn't know what to do with that, so he decides to just ignore it. "I, um, I should probably go apologize to everyone." If he's lucky, only the Hulk will take a swing at him. If not, well, he certainly deserves whatever they want to dish out.
"Give them some time," Steve says. "I'll explain what happened. And just so we're both clear: you are still an Avenger."
He nods. "Yeah."
"Which means," Steve says, "you better repair your suit."
Tony looks up to see Steve actually smiling this time.
And yes, he should do that. And he will. But first, there is something else he needs to do.
He walks over to a desk behind the one he was using. The work surface is covered in blueprints and scribbled notes. Right in the center of all that sits a round object that looks a little bit like a Frisbee, if a Frisbee were capable of emitting ultrasonic waves.
"What have you learned?" Steve says as he walks up. He stands at Tony's shoulder and looks down at the device.
"Nothing yet," Tony says. "But I'm about to."
It's a wonderful feeling, having something concrete to work on that isn't a penance or a punishment. It's an even better feeling to know that he's going to make sure this kind of thing never, ever happens again.
"JARVIS, initialize a scan. I want the full range of the spectrum, everything you can give me." He glares down at the offending object. "We're going to find this guy."
Steve puts a hand on his shoulder. It's such a natural gesture, something Steve does quite a lot with him, but it still makes Tony suppress a shiver. During those dark days when he thought they were all against him, he missed this. He just hadn't realized how much he missed it.
"That's the spirit," Steve says approvingly.
"Tell me everything T'Challa found out," Tony says. His fingers fly over the keyboard and swipe images off the computer monitor and into the air in front of him.
Steve's hand lingers on his shoulder for a moment, then is removed. "You'd do better asking him that," he says.
That's…probably not going to happen. He needs to apologize to T'Challa for accusing him of betraying the Avengers, but that will be all. Steve has already told him enough about the device, anyway. He can take it from here.
Thinking of T'Challa though, reminds him of what happened that night. "Where's Simon?" he asks. He keeps it light, casual. Like he's just throwing it out there, not truly anxious about the answer. "I'm guessing he didn't want to stick around after what happened?"
"He went to the Wakandan embassy," Steve says. "But he disappeared yesterday. We haven't been able to locate him."
Tony's hands still. So. They've lost Simon then. Probably for good. They were only ever going to get one chance to reach him, and it's gone forever.
There's one more failure that can be laid at his feet.
"Don't worry about Simon," Steve says. "He's not your problem."
"No," he agrees. "He's everyone's problem now, thanks to me."
"I don't think so," Steve says. "We were willing to work with him, to help him. That means a lot. My guess is that he just needs some time alone to figure out what he wants. It's a hard thing to ask for help. Not every man can do it." He pauses meaningfully, waiting for his words to sink in. "But he'll come around eventually."
"You really think so?" Tony asks, and he's not sure if they're still talking about Simon or himself anymore. Or if it even matters.
"I really do," Steve assures him. And he puts his hand back on Tony's shoulder.
He looks up at Steve. He has to turn slightly in order to do it. He swallows hard, past the sudden lump in his throat. "Do you remember," he says, "what you said to me after we arrested the Purple Man?"
Steve nods. "I said I believed in you."
"What about now?" Tony says. It's one of the hardest things he's ever done, but he keeps his eyes on Steve's face.
"I still believe in you," Steve says. "That never changed. Not even when we were fighting. I knew you were still in there, that I could reach you."
But you didn't, he nearly says. You were too late. If the others hadn't destroyed the devices, I would have killed you. And Tony is never, ever going to forgive himself for that.
"Tony." Steve's hand moves slowly upward, palm skimming his neck, then coming to rest on his cheek. His thumb brushes over Tony's skin. He starts to lean in.
Tony freezes. There's no way this is happening. It can't be real. He closes his eyes. He tilts his head just a little, leaning into Steve's touch, waiting for the impossible.
The air between them feels supercharged with electricity. Warm breath ghosts over his lips…
"The rooftop!" Tony exclaims.
His eyes fly open. He has a brief view of Steve's very surprised, very blue eyes directly in front of him, then they're both pulling back.
Steve drops his hand quickly to his side. "What?"
"I-- Oh God." He's suddenly, horribly aware of what he just did. What he just interrupted. "I didn't… Steve. I'm sorry."
"It's okay. Go on. What about the rooftop?" Steve says, and apparently he is pretending that nothing just happened.
That…actually hurts. A lot.
Not that Tony can say he's surprised.
He moves on, though. He can deal with their failed kiss later, and Steve's reaction – or rather, Steve's lack of a reaction. He's too on fire anyway, his thoughts already racing with possibilities.
"The rooftop," he says. "That day, after the Purple Man. We were talking about it, remember? And I said how much I hated having my mind messed with."
Steve nods. "I remember."
"That's it," Tony says. "Don't you see? Someone was listening. Someone heard me." He turns back to the desk, to the ultrasonic device sitting there. "Someone created these and tailored them specifically to my brain waves, then planted them in the mansion with the goal of breaking up the Avengers."
"Who?" Steve asks.
"I don't know yet," Tony says grimly. "But you can bet I'm going to find out."
It takes Tony less than an hour to dissect the ultrasonic device that messed with his head so badly that he nearly killed Steve – and another thirty seconds to figure out who is behind the attack.
Steve stays with him, sitting quietly off to one side. It's a little bit disconcerting. He's not used to having someone watch him while he's working, and he keeps forgetting that Steve is there. He's constantly looking up and catching sight of Steve out of the corner of his eye and doing a double take, before remembering that this is not new, that Steve has been here the whole time.
He doesn't ask why. He assumes it's because Steve is worried that he might re-activate the device by poking around in it. It's a valid concern, actually, and Tony can't begrudge him for voluntarily enduring baby-sitting duty just in case that happens.
But still. It's a bit frustrating.
Steve's presence makes it impossible to forget their almost-kiss. Even as he's running tests on the ultrasonic device, he finds himself thinking about what happened between them. He asks himself why it happened, why now, why here. Was it merely an impulsive act of pity? Or did it mean something? Is it even possible that Steve really meant it?
He never dreamed there was a chance Steve might share his feelings, that Steve might enjoy their time spent together just as much as he does. He wants to know – he needs to know – but he's afraid to ask. Afraid to find out it was nothing more than a gesture of pity, just an awkward attempt at making him feel better.
So he focuses on the tests and the device itself, and when he looks in their database of known criminals to find out who has the capability of building such a specific thing and comes up with the answer, it's such an enormous relief that he actually has to grab at the edge of the desk to keep from reeling. "Got it," he says.
Steve gets up and walks over to him. "Who?"
Mere inches separate them now. Tony tries to ignore the prickly heat that comes over him at having Steve's presence be so close. He swallows hard and points at the screen. "William Cross. Sometimes known as Crossfire."
"I've heard that name before," Steve says.
"We all have," Tony says. "He's the one Hank and the Heroes for Hire tangled with a few months ago."
Steve frowns. "I thought he went to prison."
"He did," Tony says. "He cut a bargain and was released early in exchange for ratting out his fellow criminals."
"And now he's come after you," Steve says. He crosses his arms. "Why?"
"My first guess? He hates the Avengers, wants his revenge. But I really don't know," Tony says. He's going to find out, though, if it's the last thing he ever does.
"You think we should go talk to Hank?" Steve asks.
He shrugs. "Up to you." SHIELD's file (and therefore Tony's file-as-a-result-of-hacking) on Cross is fairly comprehensive. He doubts there's anything new they can learn about the guy. "But," he adds, "I installed a Skrull detector in the suit once before. I'm pretty sure I can make one that can detect ultrasonic waves."
Steve smiles grimly. "I like the sound of that."
"He might not be that easy to find," Tony warns.
"He's probably gone underground," Steve muses. "I can't imagine he's very popular among the city's criminals if he helped get some of them arrested."
"Probably not," Tony says dryly.
"And he has to know by now that his plan failed, that we found his little devices and destroyed them," Steve continues.
"A smart man would run," Tony says. "Very far away."
"Anyone who's capable of this isn't very smart in my book," Steve says darkly. He's looking at the computer screen currently displaying William Cross's file, but he's not seeing the data; his gaze is distant, troubled. "Targeting the Avengers guarantees we'd all come after him."
"Maybe that's what he wants," Tony suggests.
"Mmm," Steve agrees. His eyes narrow. He looks over at Tony. "Feeling up to a trip?" he says.
"If the suit is battle-ready, that is," Steve says.
Tony glances over at the Mark VIII. The damage is mostly cosmetic. The buckled collar will probably rub painfully against his neck, but it's nothing that will impede his ability to kick someone's ass.
"It's ready," he says.
Steve gives him the faintest smile. "Avengers, assemble."
Right away, their plans are foiled.
They run into Jan when the elevator doors open up on the first floor. She's hovering in place, clearly just waiting on them. When she sees them, her face lights up and she holds out one small hand. "Stop right there!" Into her identicard she says, "I got 'em! Avengers, assemble!"
Steve frowns. "What's going on, Wasp?"
As if it isn't blatantly obvious. Tony wants to crawl under a rock and die. He let himself get too caught up in the thrill of discovery, and the idea of finding Crossfire and bringing him to justice. He forgot the whole reason they are going after Cross. He forgot he owes the Avengers an apology that can never even come close to making up for what he did to them.
"We kind of thought you might try something like this," Jan says. "Thor's covering the Quinjet. T'Challa's got the front door. Hulk is in the garage. And Carol is outside, above the roof." She folds her arms, looking smug. "You guys aren't getting away that easily."
There's really no choice then. And it has to be done. It might as well be now. Tony sighs. "All right, Jan. You made your point."
They gather in the living room, where in days past they sat together and watched movies or read books or just relaxed and got to know each other better. Now they sit or stand apart from each other, no one wanting to be seen throwing in their lot with anyone else and appearing to take sides. They're all still in costume, but those who have masks remove them. Even Thor takes his helmet off.
Except for Steve. He stands near Tony in front of the fireplace, facing them all, his shield strapped to his back. Tony himself is in the suit, but he holds his helmet under one arm, the better to look them in the eye.
"I owe you all an apology," he says. "Well, several." He takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry for what I did to you last week. And the things I said." He looks at T'Challa. "For the accusations I made. And I'm sorry I wasn't there today. It was…it was a misunderstanding." He glances over at Steve. "But that's been cleared up. It won't happen again, I promise. None of it will."
They gaze back at him, his friends, his teammates. Jan looks like she's almost in tears. Carol is smiling a little. The Hulk looks somewhat mollified but still grumpy. Thor is nodding. T'Challa's face is impassive, but approval shines in his dark eyes. Only Clint is missing, still at the hospital, but Tony plans on apologizing to him later, in private.
"What happened is as much our fault as anyone's," Steve says, shocking him. "We should have known something was wrong. And we all owe you an apology for that, Tony."
He doesn't know what to say to that, so he just stands there, awkward and embarrassed.
Thor says, "I blame myself for not recognizing what was happening. I allowed my offense at your unintended insult to blind me to what was right before my eyes. I humbly beg your pardon."
"We'll do better at helping out around here," Jan says. "I can help handle the media and that side of things. I feel really bad now, that we made you do it all by yourself."
"It's good to have you back," Carol says. "We've missed you." She smiles.
The Hulk harrumphs. "I promise nothing," he rumbles. "But I'll try not to smash in here."
"You are the one that holds this team together," T'Challa says gravely, echoing what the Skrull queen said to him once. This time, though, the words don't fill him with horror. They give him a strange sense of pride. "It is vital that you remember that, should you ever find yourself in doubt again."
Tony doesn't trust himself to speak. He knows they're just trying to make him feel better – but he would be lying if he didn't say it was working.
"We all know it wasn't your fault," Steve says. "Now it's time we find the man responsible, and show him what happens when he tries to hurt the Avengers."
Jan bounces to her feet. "Let's call Hank and Vision and go get this guy!" She makes a little one-two punching motion with her fists.
"Sorry, Wasp," Steve says. "You're sitting this one out. You all are. Iron Man and I will handle this one alone." He pulls his cowl up.
"Is that a wise plan?" T'Challa asks calmly.
"I say it is," Steve says. He looks at them, daring any of them to argue with him.
No one moves. The Hulk grunts and Jan looks crestfallen, but nobody rises to the challenge.
"We'll stay in contact," Steve says. "Carol, when are you bringing Clint home?"
"In about an hour," she says.
"Then we'll see you then," Steve says.
It takes half an hour of flying over the city to pinpoint William Cross's location. Steve follows below on his motorcycle. Tony takes quiet comfort from Steve's presence. Although the suit's sensors track him unerringly, he looks down often, wanting the visual confirmation that Steve is still there with him.
There might be a future in this, he thinks. A training exercise. Or maybe just a unique way to spend an afternoon. He knows Steve enjoys taking the bike out. And it's been a hell of a long time since he went flying for the sheer fun of it. Not since those early days when Rhodey was still learning the mechanics of the War Machine suit, and the two of them flew rings around each other for hours, laughing and dodging and playing around like kids.
He misses that. He misses his friend. When this is all over, he promises himself, he's going to call Rhodey and invite him out to a ball game or something. If he's feeling really brave, he might even confide in Rhodey about his feelings for Steve, and ask for some advice.
The thought makes him wants to laugh. Yeah, right. Just who is he kidding?
Not quite five minutes later, the ultrasonic detector goes off. JARVIS announces the location of the source. Tony relays this to Steve, and forget all about things like fun and games.
William Cross has chosen an empty office building as his new base of operations. As far as criminal hideouts go, Tony's seen better. It's not the size of the building that concerns him, though. It's the strength of the signal he's now tracking. Whatever Cross is working on, it must be enormous. The ultrasonic waves it's putting out are stronger by far than what the smaller devices hidden in the mansion were capable of. He might even be worried, if it weren't for the fact that he knows he and Steve can take Cross down before he's able to attune his newer, bigger device to Tony's brain waves.
They split up, each of them taking one of the two ways inside the building. Tony stands ready, waiting, and tells himself that he isn't scared, he really isn't.
"On three," Steve says.
"Yeah," he says.
Steve counts it down, and then they both move. Tony blasts down the back door and stalks in, both repulsors powered up and ready. Over the comm, he hears the sounds of Steve coming in through the front door, and now they've got both exits covered.
Carefully he moves forward. He's in a small kitchen area, where office workers could heat up their lunches or come for a coffee break. Right now though, there is no coffeepot in here, no refrigerator, no microwave. Just a bunch of crates piled high – and four anonymous people wearing the bright yellow beekeeper outfits of A.I.M.
"Oh, shit," Tony breathes, just as they open fire on him.
He understands a lot in that first second. Even as he activates the armor's shield and starts returning fire, moving on auto-pilot, his mind races, putting the pieces of the puzzle together.
William Cross was CIA once. A master at espionage and surveillance. There is no doubt that he was there the day Purple Man was taken down, lurking somewhere near the mansion, listening in as Tony and Steve stood on the roof and talked about what happened. Cross heard him complain about having his mind messed with, heard his unspoken fear that it would happen again.
And then Cross made damn sure it did happen again.
First he allied himself with A.I.M., probably as much for the raw materials they could provide as for the fact that they were undoubtedly the only group in town who would have anything to do with him anymore. He arranged for the attack that drew the Avengers out, giving him the chance to sneak into the mansion, elude JARVIS's detection systems, and plant his ultrasonic devices. He slipped out with the same stealth he used to get inside, and then all he had to do was wait.
And not quite six hours later, already falling under the influence of Cross's brainwashing, Tony and Steve had their workout in the gym. When Tony punched Steve in the face, thus setting it all in motion.
The knowledge makes him sick to his stomach. Part of him knew all along that he was just being used, that what happened really wasn't his fault. But it's not until now that he truly comprehends just what that means.
"Watch it, Cap!" he calls into the comm. "A.I.M. is here, too."
"I know," Steve says grimly, leaving him to wonder just what kind of scene Steve dropped into, at the front end of the building.
He doesn't have too long wait to find out. His shields are at dangerously low levels by the time he takes down the four A.I.M. scientists, but they are still holding. He hasn't taken any damage at all.
The office building isn't very large. From the kitchen he goes down a short hall and then finds himself in a large open area. This is where the employees would work, where cubicles and copy machines and printers would normally be set up. As in the kitchen, though, there is no office furniture in here. Just some cheap folding chairs, and a set of long folding tables positioned end to end, covered in a mass of wires and speakers and all the parts needed to create Cross's ultrasonic devices – and one large sphere, almost the size of a basketball, glowing with faint purple energy.
Smaller individual offices for managers open up off this central room, with one large, glass-enclosed office clearly intended for an executive. None of the offices are occupied, however. The suit's sensors inform him that only people in the room right now are three unconscious A.I.M. scientists, William Cross, Steve, and himself.
Cross is not a young man. His left ear is missing, replaced by a cybernetic implant. An infrared imaging device covers his left eyesocket. In his mug shot from just a few months ago, he is slender, and has a receding hairline. Now he's more bald than anything, and much thinner than before.
He's also smiling. "So you found me."
"Give it up, Cross," Steve says. "We can make this real easy, or we can do this the hard way. What's it going to be?"
Tony stares at him in disbelief. Giving a choice to a hardened criminal. What the hell is Steve thinking? You don't give criminals a choice! You just take…them…down…
He aims both repulsors at Cross's head. "I say we do this the real easy way."
Behind the cowl, Steve's eyes grow very wide. "Tony, no!"
"Mess with my head, will you," Tony says. "Mess with this." He fires.
"No!" Steve leaps. He slams his shoulder into Cross and shoves him aside. He catches both repulsor blasts on his shield and deflects them into the ceiling.
"Damnit, Steve!" He fires again, and again Steve gets in the way, knocking Cross to the floor and crouching over him, holding the shield up in defense.
"Don't do this, Tony," Steve begs, and Cross is laughing, low and excited.
"After what he did?" Pure rage sweeps through him, burning hot and bright. It feels wonderful, better than alcohol, better than any drug. He feels immensely strong, powerful. "You're going to let him get away with that?"
"Of course not," Steve says. He's still crouched low, the shield raised.
"Then move!" Tony shouts.
"This isn't the way!" Steve yells back.
Oh yes, it is. There's only one thing to be done now. Only one way to finally end this. To make Cross suffer for what he did.
"Move, Steve," he says. "Don't make me hurt you."
"Would you really hurt me again?" Steve says softly.
He wavers then, unsure. He hates Steve for getting in the way, for having to inject his ridiculous morals into everything, for turning something that should have been so simple into something so complicated and difficult. But can he hurt Steve to get at Cross? Can he really?
He looks at Steve from across the room, the repulsors burning white. Even at this distance, seen through the suit's faceplate, Steve's eyes are very blue.
Would you really hurt me again?
Oh God. Again. Because yes, he's already hurt Steve, hasn't he? Not just with that repulsor blast to his leg the night they fought. But with the callous way he treated Steve during that terrible week, with everything he said and did. Even knowing that he didn't mean those things, that he wasn't responsible for them, surely even that can't erase the pain of what he did.
And he knows then, he knows it with such a deep-seated certainty that he is amazed he could ever think otherwise, that he can't do it. He would sooner turn the repulsors on himself than hurt Steve again.
He powers them down. Lowers his hands.
Cross stops laughing. "No," he snarls.
With breathtaking speed, Steve pivots, still crouched down low. He punches Cross square in the face, then clangs the shield down on him, cracking the implant over his ear and rendering him unconscious.
It's good, but it's not enough. Tony powers up the repulsors again.
"No!" Steve shouts.
He takes aim, and fires.
The devices lined up on the tables explode in a flash of light and something that is almost audible sound, a terrible sort of droning hum just on the threshold of normal human hearing. Sharp pain flares in his skull, and he cries out – but he does not stop firing.
Not until they're all destroyed.
At last the only sound in the room is his own ragged breathing. Nothing remains of the devices Cross was working on except charred ash and melted metal. Smoke rises lazily into the air, curling in on itself in silvery circles.
Slowly Steve rises from his defensive crouch. He walks over to where Tony stands, and places one hand on his shoulder. "Stand down," he says quietly. "It's over. It's over."
He looks at Steve. "I wouldn't hurt you," he says. His voice sounds raw, unnatural. His cheeks feel wet, and he's suddenly aware that he is crying, or that he was.
"I know," Steve says. It's impossible to feel his hand through the suit, but Tony could swear he feels it anyway, a warm squeeze of reassurance. He smiles a little, just the corners of his mouth lifting. "I was counting on that."
He powers the repulsors down. Lets his arms fall to his sides.
"I almost killed you," he says dully.
"I knew you wouldn't," Steve says. "I believed in you."
"It's a good thing one of us does," Tony says.
Steve smiles again, and this time it is the real deal. "I told you once before that I choose to believe in you," he says. "And that is something I will never stop believing."
The sky is streaked orange and red and purple. There have probably been more spectacular sunsets than this one, but right now Tony can't recall anything more beautiful than this.
They sit together on the roof, wearing street clothes, the concrete wall warm at their backs. A newly-designed and hastily-installed sonic barrier arcs nearly invisible over the roof, preventing anyone outside that barrier from hearing anything that happens up here. When they first came outside, they discussed how SHIELD had taken Cross into custody, taking all of his work with him. None of it remained operational, but no one was willing to take any chances. And this time, Fury vowed, there would be no early release. Cross was going to stay behind bars.
But that was some time ago, when the sky was still mostly blue. Now it's awash in color, and Tony can't think of a single thing to say.
He's tired, and not necessarily in a good way. He slept very little during that awful week when he thought everyone had turned against him. And although he spent most of yesterday in bed, what sleep he got was fractured and not restful. He hopes this means he will sleep well tonight, but frankly he's not going to hold his breath.
He sighs a little, shifting his weight to find a slightly more comfortable position, and that's when Steve says, "Tony, about what happened earlier today…"
He freezes. Steve could be referring to just about anything. An awful lot happened today.
Still, he thinks he knows what this is about. And his suspicions are confirmed when Steve says, "In your workshop. Before we left. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. I didn't…I didn't realize—"
"No," he says. He doesn't want to hear the rest, doesn't want to hear Steve apologize for trying to kiss him. He looks at Steve. "You didn't make me uncomfortable. I promise you that. I was just… I was an idiot, all right? I suddenly had the idea that we had been overheard up here and I just blurted it out and I am really sorry I did, because, because, I really would have liked to kiss you."
He tenses, braces himself for the inevitable rejection. Steve being the kind person he is, it will be gentle, but it's still going to hurt like hell. He doesn't even know why he just said all that, except that his heart is pounding and it feels like it was the right thing to say, even if he doesn't quite know why.
And after a week of saying horrible things to the people he cares about, he wants to say the right thing. Even if it's just once.
Steve looks back at him, the sunset reflected in his eyes, and he smiles. "You did?"
"I did," Tony says. "God, Steve, don't you know that I'm in love with you?"
He winces a little, holding his breath. That was almost certainly not the right thing to say, but it's out there now, for better or for worse, and if he has to completely ruin everything between them forever, at least he picked a pretty night to do it on.
But Steve just, Steve's whole face lights up in a way that has nothing to do with the glory of the sky. "You do?"
Steve leans toward him then, and Tony knows where this is headed now, and it's everything he's ever wanted, for so long he can't even remember a day when he didn't want this. His eyes sweep closed and then Steve's mouth is on his, and they are kissing, they are really truly kissing beneath the sunset.
"I love you, too," Steve says. "I wish I had told you sooner. But I'm not very good with words." He looks down, frowning a little.
"It's okay," Tony says. "You don't have to say it." He thinks back now to all those things he remembered when he was unjustly angry at Steve, how he misinterpreted them so badly. He sees them now from what they really are. Steve looking at him twice before giving him an order in battle, checking to make sure that he's all right, that he's not going to be put in too much danger. The way Steve always walks at his side or just behind him, just wanting to be near him, taking pleasure in his mere presence. The endless debates on the rooftop, the way Steve questions him, challenging him to defend his beliefs and helping him to see other viewpoints on an issue.
The pain in Steve's eyes when he thought Tony was angry with him and wanted nothing more to do with him. The anguish of having to fight him and hurt him. The desperate desire to make up for it, cleaning his room and bringing him breakfast, resorting to material things when no words would suffice.
Believing in him when he couldn't even believe in himself.
"Well, I'm going to say it," Steve says, his jaw mutinous, ridiculously, adorably stubborn even now. "I think you need to hear it." He reaches up and lays his palm flat on the side of Tony's face. "I love you, Tony Stark."
"Wow," he says, swallowing past a knot in his throat. "I could get used to hearing that."
"Then you better get used to it," Steve says with a small smile.
"So earlier today," he says, because it's going to drive him crazy if he doesn't get an answer to this, "when I blew our chance at our first kiss, and you didn't even seem bothered by it…"
Steve's hand rises, fingers brushing at his temple, toying with the hair that tumbles onto his brow. "I thought it was more important to let you follow that line of thought and figure out who had done this, than to push myself on you."
Relief courses through him and he slumps a little. Then he smiles. "You know, you can push yourself on me any time you like."
Amusement sparks in Steve's eyes. "You mean like this?" And he leans in and kisses Tony again.
Their first kiss was sweet, almost cautious. This one is nothing like that. Steve's tongue sweeps over his, his mouth demanding more and more. His other hand rises and now he cups Tony's face in both hands, holding him fast as though to keep him from running away.
Tony has no plans to run. There's no place he would rather be. He gives himself wholly to Steve and that kiss, his arms wrapping around Steve and pulling him closer still. If he could find a way to eliminate even the molecules that separate them, he would do it in a heartbeat. Anything to keep Steve close.
He sighs a little as they break apart. He slides over, shifting his weight, and rests his head on Steve's shoulder. The sky is darkening above them. The sunset is nearly over; just a last burst of color remains.
"Are you going to be all right?" Steve asks.
He nods. "Sure." It's not that easy and he knows it, but he's starting to make his peace with what happened. Hopefully someday he'll even be able to truly convince himself that it wasn't his fault.
"Want to go in?" Steve asks.
"Not just yet," Tony says.
Steve slides an arm about his shoulders. "All right," he says.
Midnight finds them still on the roof, skin gleaming silver under the moonlight, the last of the space between them filled with soft sighs and murmurs.
Tony holds Steve close, and knows he will never doubt again.