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i am a dream, i am

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“You know, I’ve had many threesomes, but this one sure blows them all away,” Tony says, casually, shuffling down under the blankets.

Natasha laughs into his pectoral, tracing absent patterns with a sharp, dark crimson nail amongst the smattering of dark chest hair found there. “You’re lucky I like you so much,” she says, fondly, resting her chin on his ribs.

“Oh?” Tony lifts an eyebrow, smoothing a hand over Natasha’s slightly sweat-damp, dark auburn hair.

Natasha sighs, leaning into the touch. “Had anyone else said something like that to me, I might’ve cut out one of their kidneys to keep as a trophy,” she teases.

“Well, I’m glad you decided to take a different approach with me,” Tony says, dryly.

“I don’t think we should be having this conversation at all,” Steve declares, and Tony’s eyes are drawn to his blushing throat, the way it flexes under his mortification. 

“Oh, and why is that?” Tony asks, belligerently, eyes gleaming. 

“Well, it’s rude,” Steve insists.

“Steve, darling, aren’t we consenting to that sort of talk?” Tony asks, kindly, splaying a hand over Steve’s firm, muscled abdomen. 

“Well, yes.”

“So, then, isn’t that okay?”

“Well, I guess.”

“Then, I’m not quite sure what your problem is.”

“I don’t know,” Steve says, lamely.

Tony feels that flood of affection, thick in his throat. He grips Steve’s shoulder. “You’ll learn.”

“Tony?”

Steve folds his arms across his chest, huffing. “All I’m saying is that it seems disrespectful to objectify any of us, okay?”

“Tony?”

Tony grins, all teeth. “Oh, but we would make such great objects.”

“Tony?”

Something cold and wet spills into his hand and he jerks, the memory fading like dust in the air. He looks up, and Pepper is hovering above him, thin, pale hand on his shoulder.

“Tony, are you okay?” she asks, worriedly.

Bless her , he thinks.

He gives her a narrow, gaunt smile. “I’m fine. Sorry about that.”

He looks at his hand; it was the sparkling cider that spilled.

Pepper’s brow furrows. “Tony, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if you want to leave-”

Tony slides to his feet, rubbing his hand on the tablecloth. “Nonsense, why would I leave?” he asks, easily. “We’re launching the prosthetics tonight; it should be a party.”

Pepper huffs. “I don’t know about a party ,” she hedges, a smile flickering on her thin mouth.

“We should have a rager,” he declares. “I could, uh, call Adam. I’m sure he’d get the band together for me; I could buy out a liquor store.” He pauses. “Another one, at least. I think we are woefully lacking in pampered, gelatinous bluebloods dancing on tables with lamps on their heads.”

Pepper grins. “I don’t think that’s the aesthetic we’re going for here, sorry.”

“That’s the aesthetic Tony’s always going for.”

Tony turns around, his lungs in his throat at such a familiar voice, and oh.

He’s beautiful, Ty, aged so perfectly in the years that it’s been since Tony has seen him, with curling wheat-gold hair, tall and built sinewy and cutting such a handsome, hard-cut figure in that suit. 

After the shitty couple of months he’s been having, it’s a respite, to feel like he’s eighteen again.

Ty’s smile is like the sun, when he leans in, wrapping an arm around Tony’s waist and bringing him into an embrace.

“Marc Anthony, I’ve missed you,” he murmurs in Tony’s ear.

Tony’s lips quirk in a half-smile. “Hail Caesar,” he teases.

Ty turns to Pepper, full of golden charm, and offers a hand. “Tiberius Stone, Miss Potts.”

Pepper nods, flashing a polite smile at him. “I know who you are, Mr Stone.”

The CEO of Viastone is nothing as tremendous as the CEO of Stark Industries (and Tony’s only half-saying that as someone who actually used to be the CEO of Stark Industries; most of it is fact though), but it’s no slouch, that’s for sure.

Pepper eyes them, her gaze sharp and almost leonine. “I didn’t know you two knew each other.”

Tony’s look turns strained. “We haven’t seen each other in a long time.”

Not since I realised you were poison and we were poison and I hid until you went away.

“But we were friends when we were younger,” Ty explains. “Two peas in a pod; in fact, Tony was my first friend ever, I think.”

“You were mine too,” Tony agrees, because it is indeed true.

“I’m sorry to leave so abruptly, but I see one of my colleagues beckoning me over. I should probably go and see what’s wrong. No rest for the wicked, huh?” Ty sighs. 

He squeezes Tony’s hip. 

Tony startles; he hadn’t even realised that Ty’s hands were still on him.

“Yeah, something like that,” Tony says, vaguely. “It was nice seeing you.”

“I’ll come back,” Ty insists. “I don’t want to end it like this. We haven’t seen each other in years.”

For good reason.

“You come back when you’re done, and we’ll talk,” Tony says, smoothly.

A shine takes Ty’s face, and he grins, kissing Tony on the cheek and sauntering away like a man on a mission. 

Tony watches him go, wistfully; he always loved watching Ty go.

When he turns back to Pepper, she’s eyeing him very carefully, like she’s peeling him to the root.

“What?” he asks, warily.

“I didn’t realise you used to fuck Tiberius Stone,” she declares, simply.

Tony looks away. “It’s complicated.”

I thought he was the love of my life. I thought we’d be together forever. He was the only thing that made my life better once. Seeing him now, it makes me want to throw myself into his arms and never leave. But he hurt me, he hurt me so bad, I thought I might never recover. I did, and now, I won’t, because Steve and Natasha are so much worse than he ever was. 

They ruined me. I’m ruined.

“Tony,” Pepper says, gently.

Don’t pity me , he wants to snarl. I hate pity, I hate it, I hate it, I hate it!

He tosses his drink back, lips curling at the taste of apple juice and ice. He hasn’t wished more for something stronger in a while. “I’m fine.”

You liar.

Pepper looks like she’s ready to argue, but Tony shakes his head. “ I’m fine .”

Her hand reaches out, turning his face back gently towards her. “You’re not.”

He closes his eyes and sways as he leans into her touch. It was a pity that things never worked out between them. 

But in moments like these, Tony was grateful. No matter how many times Tony’s heart shattered into a million pieces, she and Rhodey were always there keeping him together.

He doesn’t know what he’d do without them.

He didn’t even realize they already made a round of the room until she squeezes his hand. “Let’s get out of here.”

Tony blinks. “What?”

Pepper is already on her phone. “We’ve already given our presentations. The investors are thrilled and everyone is distracted by the open bar. I’d say the evening is already a success. Besides, I could use a cheeseburger.”

Tony chuckles wetly. Pepper ate cheeseburgers once a year, if that. “I’ll be alright. You don’t have to rescue me-”

“I don’t,” agrees Pepper, “but I want to.”

Warmth fills him as he shakes his head, “Well I’m treating you to a milkshake then-”

“Tony! You’re leaving so soon? You should stay and chat!”

Tiberius appears at his side again, as if he never left, as if that space beside Tony was always meant for him. Tony smiles politely, glancing at Pepper who squeezes his hand again. “Another time maybe. I’m done for tonight.”

Tiberius’ eyes narrow, glancing back and forth between him and Pepper before waggling his eyebrows. “You two have fun then.”

“We will,” cut Pepper with a look like steel. 

Tiberius shrugs, turning his attention back to Tony. He was always good at that, making you feel like you were the only one in the room, and even now, Tony was finding it difficult not to feel dizzy. His hand was held out for Tony to shake. “It was good to see you again Tony.”

Tiberius leans in to whisper into Tony’s ear. “It’s been far too long since I’ve seen you, Marc Anthony. Call me sometime, I would love to get reacquainted.

With a lick of his lips and a wink, Tiberius saunters away. 

God, I forgot how much of a disaster he was , Tony thinks, fondly.

“Shall we?” asks Pepper, “Happy says he wants chili fries too.”

Tony blinks back. “Yeah. What’s a cheeseburger without some chili fries?”

Pepper leads them through the crowd, smiling and deftly saying their goodbyes. Tony twirls the business card in his hand, slipped to him moments ago. He slides it into his pocket before following Pepper out of the ballroom.


The card stares back at him on his desk, laughing at him, mocking him.

It’s smooth between his fingers, the glossy surface and gold lettering a reminder of the charming man that danced back into his life days ago.

If Tiberius Stone had wandered back into his life years ago, Tony probably would’ve entertained the notion. Maybe would’ve tried to see if somewhere, deep down inside, that there might be a trace of the sweet boy there used to be once upon a time. 

But now-

Tony shakes his head. With his foot, he drags the empty garbage can over. He tries to rip it, growling at the stupid card when it refused to even bend.

Stupid assholes with their stupid rip proof cards-

Tony throws the card into the garbage can with a yell. In a flash, Tony activates his repulsor glove. The smell of burned paper is all that remained. 

With a satisfied sigh, Tony closes his office door behind him with a click.

Chapter Text

“Hello?”

“I was disappointed when I hadn’t heard back from you after the gala.”

Tony rubs his face with a sigh. “I’ve been busy, Ty. Much like I am right now. So, if you’ll excuse me-”

“So responsible,” teases Ty. “Alright, I get the message. I’d honestly never thought I’d see the day that I’d see your turning me down for work, of all things, Marc Anthony. You know, your mother would be proud of you, seeing how responsible you’ve become.”

Tony inhales sharply. He hates how despite everything, how much those words affect him, how warm they make him feel.

“She would want you to take care of yourself, though. Remember when she caught us sneaking boxes of cookies out of the pantry during that horrendously boring party the Bains threw?”

“I loved those cookies; they were my favourite,” admits Tony begrudgingly.

“I remember how she pretended not to see us,” continues Ty with a smile in his voice, “how she purposefully looked the other way. Even told us where to find the extra boxes. That was a good night, don’t you think?”

It was the only time Tony she hadn’t said anything about spoiling their appetites or even to behave more appropriately. He and Ty had laughed themselves silly afterwards, and made themselves sick as well - he threw up so much that night.

“-so I’ll leave you alone for now. I know that you’re angry, but I really have missed you, Tony. I just want to talk, get to know you, the new you. I haven’t seen you in so long, Tony-baby. Just… would you give me a call? Just for lunch, nothing else. I’ll, uh, I’ll leave you alone now. Bye, Tony.”

With a click, Ty hangs up the phone. Tony narrows his eyes. What does Ty want? There has to be some angle, something that’s he needs Tony for. A knock on the door has Tony startling. 

“Mr. Stark, there’s a delivery that arrived for you.”

Tony stares down at the large box filled with smaller boxes of thin mints, chocolate chip cookies, oreos and snickerdoodles in bewilderment.


Ty stands when he saunters in.

“One drink, one,” Tony says, sharply, before he gets his hopes up.

Ty grins. “Okay. French 75, yeah?”

Tony stumbles a little, when he remembers, of course, of course, Ty remembers what he likes. 

Liked.

“No,” he clears his throat. “Uh, I don’t drink.”

Ty frowns. “Since when?” he asks, making a face full of disdain.

“Since I decided that I outgrew waking up on a filthy futon with seven naked people and not knowing how I got there. What’s it to you?” Tony snaps. “I’ll have a Coke and be done with it.”

Ty motions for the waiter to join them, and before he can say the words, Tony’s quickly saying, “Just a Coke, please.”

Ty looks at him, strangely, and he meets his eyes, unafraid - he remembers exactly what Ty used to do with his drinks; he might be a slow learner, yes, but he fucking learns.

“Did you want to try the tasting menu?” Ty asks, when they slip inside the neat candlelit booth (it was a lovely place for a date, if he was that sort of man anymore).

“No,” Tony says, flatly. “Because I said one drink, and I meant one drink.”

Ty’s eyes flash. He sees the rage burn hot and fast and fleeting, because it fades just as easily.

“Fine,” he says, pleasantly. “One drink.”

The conversation passes quickly between them. It’s dull and simple and it’s exactly what Tony wants the conversation to be, because it’s Ty and anything that digs into marrow is not something he wants to get involved in. But it’s familiar, so familiar, that Tony almost cries, right there at the table, because as sad and pathetic as it is, he’s loved Ty for so long that seeing him now, sitting with him, drinking with him, talking with him, laughing with him, it makes his heart swell in a way that can’t be repeated.

So, when Ty leans in, presses his mouth against Tony’s, in a way that makes him shudder, right down to his fingers and toes, he leans in, clutching at his shoulder, half-desperate. Ty always knew what he liked best, how he liked to be touched and petted until he was a kitten in his arms.

He’s tall and his hair is the colour of gold and his eyes are blue and it’s almost like kissing Steve, Steve, who left him, which makes him think of Natasha, who also left him because he wasn’t good enough. He wasn’t good enough for them, and he wasn’t good enough for Ty once upon a time, or he wouldn’t have hurt him like he did. 

The moment snaps.

Tony pulls away and licks his lower lip. “This is a bad idea, Ty. This is a bad idea,” he insists.

“Why?” Ty demands. “Because, decades ago, you got it into your head that I was wrong for you?” he says, incredulously.

“No, because, after all these years, you have the nerve to say to me that I just got something into my head, like I was a fucking hysterical lunatic, and that’s why I dumped your ass,” Tony retorts.

“That’s because you did, Tony. I love you, I love you as much as I loved you when we were kids, but you were also easily manipulated,” Ty snorts. “We both know it was Rhodes who convinced you I was suddenly toxic and evil and not good enough for you. You would never have come up with that kind of shit if he hadn’t been whispering poison in your ears.”

“Don’t,” Tony says, dangerously. “Don’t involve Rhodey in this. He has nothing to do with this.”

“He has always had everything to do with this. He never liked me, right from the start-”

“That’s because you looked down on him for being poor and black, you neanderthal.”

“And he wanted to fuck you, so he turned you against me and broke us up!”

Tony laughs, hollow. “Are you seriously that delusional? Let me explain something to you, Ty. I wish Rhodey had wanted to fuck me. I wish he had. My life would be so much fucking easier if I’d just ended up with him. Unfortunately, Rhodey is as straight as they come, and I get saddled with you losers.”

“Losers,” Ty says, full of cruelty and scorn. “Like me. Like Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff?”

Tony goes shock-cold. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he asks, incredulously.

“I’m just wondering, maybe it’s you , maybe you should stop blaming us for your shortcomings,” Ty says, so smug, so satisfied that Tony wants to claw his eyes out.

“Okay, I’m done here,” Tony declares, sliding to his feet.

He moves to leave the quiet, candlelit booth, when a hand clamps down on his forearm. The repulsor forms on his wrist, and he hurtles around, aiming it at Ty, who stares at it, a gleam of shock to his eyes, like he never quite believed Tony was capable of reacting in violence against him.

Oh, if you knew about all the dreams I had where I killed you, he thinks, fond and rueful. You made me feel weak and stupid and pathetic and obedient. I am not obedient, and I am not your little fucking lamb to throw around, and I wanted you dead for it. 

“Tony,” Ty says, hushed. “Tony, I would never hurt you.”

You have, you’ve done worse. How are you this stupid? I would never have stood for you to be this stupid when we were together, Ty. 

“That remains to be seen,” Tony says, coldly. “I’m leaving. Let me go.”

“I just-I just wanted to talk to you. Fuck,” Ty exhales, frustrated. “I’m not doing this right. I wanted to do this differently.”

“Do what differently?” Tony asks, suspiciously.

“I screwed up, when we were kids, and I saw you on the news. I see you on the news all the time, and I just… I wanted to fix things,” Ty blurts out.

“You screwed up?” Tony demands. “You know what, I don’t want to touch this, your delusion, with a ten-foot pole. I’m leaving.”

Ty holds him steadfast. His hand comes to cover the nape of his neck, warm and dry. “I love you, I love you. I’ve loved you my entire life. I don’t… I can’t let you walk out that door, not again, not ever again. Please.

Tony’s face twists. “Fucking delusional,” he repeats.

Ty shakes him, with enough strength to rattle his bones in his body. “Why can’t you just understand?” he demands, expression savage. “Why can’t you just-”

“-love you back?” Tony finishes, full of spite. “I can’t, not the way you want me to, not anymore. I loved you once, I love you still, and you fucked me over. I felt like poison after you. You did that to me.” He shakes, with fury, with hate, with hunger. “Why would I let you touch me again, huh?” 

Ty looks at him like he’d wring his throat in a moment if he could. “You have no fucking choice.”

Tony crumples like a puppet cut from his strings. He doesn’t see it coming. 

Always so fucking stupid.

Chapter Text

“Stars shining bright above you, night breezes seem to whisper "I love you", birds singing in the sycamore trees, dream a little dream of me.”

Tony rolls over blearily, blinking, as he wakes with a yawn.

He always hated that song. God, why is FRIDAY playing that song?

It takes a second for him to take in the warm morning sun shining in through the balcony before he frowns.

When did he get to Malibu?

Tony winces as he rubs at the back of his head. It was still pounding, likely from whatever he drank the night before. Yuck, he would need more coffee to figure out what was going on.

Tony tugs on a shirt before he starts to make his way downstairs. Yawning, he half stumbles down the stairs, almost tripping and falling on his face down the last few steps.

A beautiful breakfast spread was laid out on the table. Pancakes, bacon, eggs, toast, yogurt and a fruit platter covered the table. A carafe of what he guessed was freshly brewed coffee tempted him over. There was even a small vase with a small red flower in the center.

“Good morning.”

A flash of pink out of the corner of his eye has Tony turning. Natasha, wearing nothing but the silk pink robe he had gotten her last year, places a basket of warm blueberry muffins on the table. She leans forward and presses a kiss to Tony’s forehead. He can feel the warmth of her mouth, even after she pulled away. “You’re awake. Just in time.”

“Good, he needs the sleep.”

Steve wanders in next, shirtless and only wearing his blue silk pants. He’s carrying a jug of orange juice with a smile. “Good morning.”

His hands are big, deft and encompassing as Steve pulls Tony in for a searing kiss. His mouth is like molten fire, and Tony thinks it might swallow him whole, as Steve plunders and takes. They separate with a gasp, Tony’s head spinning in confusion, the blood hot in his face.

This-this is not right.

Tony steps back out of Steve’s grasp. “-what are you doing? Why are you here?”

Steve frowns at him, his hands reaching out to the air where Tony stood seconds ago. He tilts his head as he trades a confused glance with Natasha. “Where else would we be, sweetheart?”

Tony crosses his arms in front of him. A white hot fury settled deep down inside of him, after everything that happened between them, after everything that happened, they dared strolling back into his life, pretending like everything was perfectly fine? 

“Wakanda, maybe? I don’t know, and I don’t care, honestly. What gives you the right to come barging back in here and think that everything is fine-”

Tony sucks in a harsh breath as his eyes fly to the camera in the corner with horror. “How the hell did you get past FRIDAY anyways- FRIDAY?”

Silence fills the air for a few seconds. “I’m sorry sir, I’m not sure who this FRIDAY that you speak of is.”

Tony’s heart pounds wildly in his chest. He almost sinks to the ground, his knees shaking. This was impossible, it couldn’t really be-

“JARVIS? Is that you?”

“Yes, sir. Your heart rate has increased significantly, and with your current breathing patterns, it seems like you might be slipping into a panic attack. I am initiating the JOCASTA protocol.”

A calming circle appeared in the air in front of him, and Tony did his best to match his breathing to the sequence in front of him, struggling to take deep breaths in. “You are safe, sir. You are home in Malibu, with Captain Rogers and Miss Romanoff. The date is August 13th, 2015. You are safe, sir. You are home in Malibu, with Captain Rogers and Miss Romanoff. The date is-”

He could hear JARVIS’ voice deeply and clearly right in his ear, but the world around him is still spinning. 

  1. How could that be right? That was over a year ago. No, no, no, no, no-

He gasps for air, fists clenching as the panic only grows worse. He didn’t even notice Natasha until she was kneeling a little ways away in front of him. 

Natasha matches her breathing with his. “Deep breaths, we’ll figure this out together-”

On her other side, Steve sits down, raising his hands slowly like he’s talking to a spooked kitten. “We’re right here with you, sweetheart. It’s gonna be okay.”

Both Steve and Natasha were staring at him in worry, hands raised as if they were ready to catch him if he collapsed. Like how the three of them were before the Accords, before everything-

What the hell was going on?

He voices those exact words. “What the fuck is going on?” he demands.

Steve looks almost affronted by the casual use of the expletive. “What do you mean, Tony?”

“You aren’t… you aren’t here,” he says, coldly. “You’re in fucking Wakanda, or Venice, or God knows fucking where, but this is Malibu; I haven’t been in Malibu for years, and you’ve never been here, never lived here. So, what’s going on?”

Steve exhales and steps forward, touching Tony’s cheek. Tony almost flinches. “I know you’ve been having bad dreams; did you have another one last night?” he asks, carefully, worriedly.

I dream of you killing me every night, he thinks. I dream of Natasha putting a needle in my neck. Over and over again, and it kills me.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, flatly.

Steve sighs, reaching for Tony’s hand, tangling theirs together. “Come on, let’s sit down. I’ll get you a cup of coffee and we can talk this through, okay?”

Natasha loops her arm through his, and he notices the sweat gleaming on the long line of her throat, on her forearms, and he almost sways, hating himself for how he reacts. 

Once he’s at the table, Steve hands him a cup, smoke billowing upwards, and he purposefully puts it back on the table. 

Steve gapes at it in disbelief, unblinking. “You always drink your coffee,” he accuses.

“Why don’t you explain what the fuck is going on here, and then, maybe then, I’ll drink the coffee,” Tony says, his voice sharp, like flinders.

Steve sighs and exchanges a look with Natasha. “I think he had another nightmare.” His look at Tony is soft and sad (Steve hasn’t looked at him like that in so long; his heart flips). “Was it a bad one, honey?”

Tony almost reels in rage at how casually Steve treats him like a child (a year ago, he might’ve flushed with pleasure, leaned into Steve’s hand grasping the back of his neck). 

“You shouldn’t be here,” he insists.

“Tony,” Natasha sighs, slim hand dropping onto his shoulder. “Tony, that doesn't make any sense. We live here, remember?”

“No, we don’t,” Tony says, slowly. “We don’t live together anymore and even if we did, it would’ve been in New York. Remember, we moved up there after SHIELD turned out to be HYDRA.”

“Why wouldn’t we live together anymore?” Steve asks, aghast. “We’re in a relationship, aren’t we? Tony, I really, really think you had a bad dream. What’s the last thing you remember?”

Tony frowns. “I was at dinner, I was with Ty; we had a drink and after that, I don’t…”

Steve throws his hands up in the air. “Well, that explains everything, doesn’t it?”

Natasha gives him a fond, rueful smile, half-chiding. “You might’ve mentioned that alcohol was involved,” she says, dryly. “I know being a lush is a part of your dynamic personality, but you aren’t getting any younger-”

“But I don’t drink!” Tony protests, a little stung by Natasha’s easy, cruel words. “You know that, you know that I don’t drink. I don’t understand…”

“Tony,” Natasha murmurs, threading their fingers together. “We went out drinking a couple of days ago.” She and Steve exchange a look. “I think we would remember if you’d decided to quit.”

“That’s not to say that we wouldn’t be totally supportive of you if you do decide to quit,” Steve says, quickly, earnestly. “We just didn’t think you were interested, or moreover,” he chuckles. “You had the self-control to quit.”

Tony recoils, his face narrowing in anger and disgust. It was always a struggle, and would always be a struggle for him, that was something Tony had come to accept. But hearing those words come out of Steve’s mouth, hearing those words out loud, Tony couldn’t help that feeling of shame and guilt wash over him.

Natasha’s lips are pursed as she steps forward, eyes narrowed at Steve. “But we’ll support you if that’s something you want to do. Yes?”

Steve’s eyes widen. “Of course, whatever you want Tony.”

Tony shakes his head. No. This can’t be right, he sat through the meetings, even making sure to empty out-

Tony’s head whips around the room and he beelines straight towards the liquor cabinet behind the bar in the corner. He throws the doors open. His heart sinks.

“This can’t be happening.”

Bottles and bottles of wine, whiskey, scotch, vodka, tequila and even cheap, cheap beer line the shelves.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Tony says, flatly.

“Tony?”

Steve and Natasha both step up behind him. 

“Is everything okay?”

Tony rounds on them, pointing. “Stop stalking me.”

Natasha gives him a confused, half-frustrated look. “Tony, we live here,” she says, slowly.

“Yeah, I don’t actually believe that. I think you’re both convenient hallucinations, and funnily enough, this is not doing wonders for my ongoing mental health. But at some point, I’m going to wake up and you’re going to be gone,” he doesn’t flinch, he doesn’t. “and everything’s going to be just fine. Everything’s going to be just fine.”

Everything’s going to be just fine.

Maybe if he says it enough, he’ll start to believe it.

For now, though, he lunges for all the gleaming, coloured glass in the cabinet, balancing as much as he could cradled in his arms. He storms over to the sink and drains it, watching it ripple and slide into the drain with a mean little smile. He goes back over to the cabinet, gathers as many more bottles as he can. One almost falls, if not for Steve’s solid, deft reflexes catching it right before it hits the ground to spread a shatter of unpleasantly painful shards of glass.

Steve eyes the bottle in his hand; vodka, Tony realises, almost with a pang of grief.

“You’re serious about this?” Steve asks, dubiously.

Oh, oh, fuck off, Steve, with your self-righteous bullshit and you’re oh, I don’t think you have self-control.

He just gives his ex -lover a baleful look.

Steve sighs. “Fine.” He looks at Natasha. “You want to get the rest.”

Natasha lifts a perfectly groomed eyebrow. “You’re humouring this?”

“Wow, Tasha,” the nickname slips out. “Tell me what you really think?” he says, dryly.

Natasha sighs and turns to Tony. “That’s not what I mean.”

“That’s exactly what you mean,” Tony corrects.

“I’m just concerned; I don’t want you to do anything you’re going to regret later on,” Natasha soothes.

I regret a great many things. You two are at the top of my list. Why are you confusing me?

“Natasha,” Steve scolds. “Come on, let’s help him poor this out.”

Natasha takes a deep breath, before softening. “Okay, zaichik , let’s get rid of this for you. And, then, I’ll make you some tea, and you can go and lie down, and I’m sure everything will be fine when you wake up, hm?”

She sounds like Tony’s Natasha, the one that had slipped inside his bed and wrapped herself around him like an octopus, who had knocked him on his arse many a time in the sparring ring, who headbanged with him to rock music in the living room, playing air guitar, the one who threw his ego back in his life and ran off because everyone loves Steve Rogers more, because Bucky Barnes is a poor, pathetic figure and everyone in Tony’s life always loves the super soldiers more than they can ever love him. 

God, he sounds like a shitty rom-com. That’s not doing wonders for his self-esteem.

But, nonetheless, they pour out all the alcohol in the house and Natasha leads him up to bed, wraps him up in the blankets and leaves a pot of Russian Caravan on the bedside table for later.

When he wakes up, they’re still there.

Moreover, they’re in his bed. 

“Oh, no,” he declares, practically rolling off the bed in an attempt to free himself of the ungodly hold wrapped around him. 

To Tony’s chagrin, Steve’s arms only tightened further as they rolled together, Steve pulling him closer and trapping Tony within the confines of his embrace. All the while continuing to snore softly against the pillows. Tony huffed. He had forgotten how deeply Steve could sleep while not on a mission, how he allowed the underlying tension he always carried throughout the day to melt away. He always looked so peaceful Steve did, with his hair flopping just- no, this isn’t Steve, this couldn’t be Steve -

Tony gasps for air, his heart pounding against his chest. He forces himself to breathe deeply, to remind himself that this would pass. A moment passed, and then another before his breathing started to slow. Tony struggles for another few seconds before collapsing back against the bed in frustration.

At least he was more angry than panicked now.

With another glare, Tony changes tactics. He wiggles his way down, quickly slipping Steve’s arms before sliding a large pillow in between instead. He turns his focus to the blankets wrapped tightly around his legs, working to free them.

Smaller hands reach out to help tug some of them away. Natasha pats his legs with a hum. “Let me help you. There we go, all untangled. Did you need a hand, Tony, wait-”

Finally, Tony stumbles to the ground. Scrambling to his feet, he practically runs to the bathroom, fleeing from Natasha’s grasp. He fumbles with the door before locking it firmly behind him with a click.

He runs the tap, splashes cold water on his face with a shudder. He traces the old scars across his chest with his fingertips, feeling the ridges and bumps of the white jagged lines. He shudders as he stares into his own eyes, a familiar but different shade of brown that he’d been used to, dread settling deep down in his gut. Tony closes his eyes.

He listens, tries to feel for the familiar thrum of electricity, the small buzzing of Extremis that Tony can always hear if he listened hard enough. 

Nothing.

He can hear the soft hum of the bathroom light, the distant snoring of Steve back in the bedroom, even the slow dripping of the faucet, but nothing else.

Tony tries not to shake. What is going on? Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same, but nothing makes any sense at all-

A knock on the door has Tony jumping. Natasha’s voice is quiet but concerned. “Are you alright, zaichik ?”

“I’m fine,” grits Tony. At least he’s still good at pretending. He tries to keep his voice steady even as his hands continue to shake, “go back to bed.”

Tony can hear her shifting on the other side of the door.  He can almost imagine her frowning as she leans her ear against the door. She clears her throat. “Will you let me in?”

“Do I have to?” he says, coldly.

“Of course not. I’m just…” Natasha sighs. “I’m just concerned about you. You’re acting very odd.”

Does he detect a hint of admonishment in her voice? That’s nothing new, but the last thing he needs right now is the vivid, vicious reminder that Natasha Romanoff would always find him wanting, a shadow of what she wants in this world, when she can have Steve Rogers, a golden Avenger, a knight like Lancelot, when she can have Bucky Barnes, a man so sympathetic that who gives a shit that he choked Tony’s mother to death, right?

“I’m fine,” he snaps through the door.

“You’re not, and you know I don’t like it when you talk to me like that,” Natasha says, her voice threading like warning.

What are you going to do to me that you haven’t already ten times over, Tasha? What are you going to do that would have any effect?

He reaches for the door, swinging it open, startling Natasha briefly.

“What do you want from me?” he demands. “I don’t believe anything that’s going on here. I went to sleep, I drank your stupid tea, and nothing is different.”

Natasha throws her hands up in the air. “Fine, Tony, tell me, tell me what you think is so different, what you think we’re hiding from you,” she says, scathingly, like he belongs in an asylum.

Ty used to talk to him like that; wow, maybe Rhodey’s right and he really does have shit taste in people he wants to fuck and love.

Tony folds his arms across his chest. “Did New York happen? Did Loki?”

Natasha’s brow dips. “What-of course , of course, New York happened. Don’t you remember? You flew a nuke through a wormhole. You’ve bragged enough about it; I didn’t think you’d ever forget.”

Her smile, bright as the sun on her soft, pale mouth as it might be, makes his stomach roll.

“Okay, so, New York happened. Did the Mandarin, did the Mandarin still cause all that bombings? Killian, AIM, Extremis, all of that still happen?”

“Yes,” Natasha says, slowly. “You got stuck in the snow somewhere around Minnesota, right?”

“Tennessee,” Tony says, quietly; he thought Natasha knew that. “So, I met Harley, then, the kid who helped me out.”

“I guess.” Natasha shrugs. “I didn’t think you had anything to do with him after you went to deal with the Mandarin. He was just some kid who hid you and helped you out, right?”

No, he was my friend. He was like my kid. He is like my kid. I thought you knew that. Did you know anything? Did you love me at all? Was I just convenient because I gave you free room and board and licked you out until you screamed my name? Don’t think I don’t remember that no one had touched you like I touched you until I crawled between your legs. Even your precious Steve, your precious Barnes, no one wanted you like I wanted you, Natasha. Is that why you wanted me? Was I a glorified sex toy? Did I reach above my fucking station? Is that why you ran?

“Yeah, something like that,” he mutters.

“So, the Mandarin, that all happened,” Tony says, slowly. “Ultron?”

Natasha’s face takes on that disapproving expression. “Yeah.”

Joy. Of all the sins I could’ve done without in this strange, shitty nightmare.

A cough startles Tony out of his thoughts. Natasha straightens her shoulders back. “Before you continue to spiral, I’ll admit it, I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry that after the mess with the Mandarin that we did our best to keep you out of it.”

She steps forward, her palms up. Tony could see that she was trying her best to keep her body language as open as possible as she continued on. “I am sorry and will always be sorry that it made you hurt that it seemed like we didn’t trust you, but we just wanted to keep you away and most importantly safe.

Tony blinks as her hand cradles his face. When did she get so close?

Her hand is warm and Tony can’t help but melt into her touch. “Neither of us can bear to see you hurt, zaichik. If we can, Steve and I will always take care of you.”

“I’ll take care of you, Marc Anthony.”

All of a sudden his head throbs, and Tony keels over in a groan. Everything in his head was staticky at the edges. No matter how much he tried to remember what happened the night before, how much he grasped at the memory in his mind, it was like he kept slipping and falling. 

He could hear the sounds of running water in the background, the closing of the tap, but it was like he was seeing it through a fog. The feel of a soft, cold towel against his forehead jolts him back. Natasha is carefully wiping away the sweat from his face and neck.

Her hands are warm and grounding as she cradles his face. Nothing but concern is reflected back in her eyes as she surveys him. “Are you back?”

Tony nods, his hands still shaking as he grips the towel. She gently tugs it from his hands and finishes wiping his neck. She squeezes his hand in hers. “ Sleep. If you want to talk things through tomorrow, we can, but let’s get you some sleep, so you can process it first, hm?”

Swaying on his feet, Tony allows himself to be led back to the bed. Thankfully, Natasha leads him to her side of the bed without protest. His eyes are drooping and it takes only a few breaths before he drifts off into a dreamless void.

Chapter Text

When Tony wakes up, Steve and Natasha are in bed with him.

For a brief moment, he thinks everything is fine, everything is just fine, he’s in bed with the two people he loves almost most in the world (he has never and won’t ever love anyone more than he loves Rhodey and the first Jarvis), and he thinks, I need to go down to the workshop, those arrows for Clint won’t get done by themselves, and then, he remembers, they aren’t there, they shouldn’t be there, they didn’t come back.

He wrenches himself out of the bed, and they’re still lying there. Natasha curls inward into the hollow he left behind, seeking out Steve’s warmth, going in willingly into his broad arms.

He wonders which is real, the shit life that he knows like he knows his bones and blood, or this, the sweet life, the one he wants, the one he’s owed, but the one that isn’t right for him - he still remembers Natasha’s are you incapable of letting go of your ego for one goddamn second? , her callous I’m not the one who needs to watch their back , when Rhodey was lying there, right there , and for too many instants, Tony thought he might die; he still remembers Steve’s yes and he’s my friend and the hollow metallic song of the shield coming down on the arc reactor, the edge cleaving his chest open, Steve, half-sick with rage, ready to take his head, wipe him away from this world, like he hadn’t loved him, not really.

Tony drags his hand over his face. God, what to believe?

“Tony?” Natasha says, sleepily, rubbing her eyes with closed fists.

“What?”

Natasha’s eyes narrow. “What are you doing up?” she asks, suspiciously.

Tony shrugs. “I’m not tired anymore.”

“Okay,” Natasha says, like her mouth is full of dirt. “I’ll, uh, get up, we can make breakfast together.”

“No,” Tony says, quickly. “I’ll, uh, why don’t you go back to sleep? I’m not really hungry, and I’ve got some work to do.”

Natasha believes him quickly; she must be more tired than she’s willing to let on, quickly curling back in Steve’s arms. 

He looks at them; they look beautiful like this, a work of art, these two people that he loves. 

Isn’t he owed this?

He goes down to the workshop. He hasn’t been in this house for years, not since Pepper and he finally gave up the ghost and realised they were better off as friends than lovers (he loves her, he loves her something fierce, but he’s not in love with her anymore and that makes what he does for her, what he’s willing to do for her, so much more honest), but the movements are an old friend, padding barefoot from his bedroom downstairs, down to the workshop. 

He still remembers what it was like, stumbling down there, sweating, agonized, clutching at his chest, his throat closing up, his arms and legs turning to stone with every moment that passes, his head pounding, pained and distended from cardiac arrest.

He blinks and it’s all clean.

He taps his code on the keypad, 2-0-0-7-1-9-4-6 (Maria’s birthday; no one knew her, no one loved her; no one even gave her a second thought, but he did, he loved her, and now she’s dead). 

He slips inside, and the workshop breathes to life. 

He exhales; it all looks the same, a perfect replica of what he remembers. No one was beeping at him constantly, making oil-based smoothies or spraying him with the fire extinguisher. I It’s quiet; there’s no DUM-E, U or BUTTERFINGERS in their corners, rolling around, sweeping and knocking things over. 

It’s dead that way.

“Sir?”

His chest throbs. “J?” he says out loud, gasping like he’s choking.

“Sir, are you alright?” JARVIS asks, concerned.

God, he forgot, he forgot that JARVIS could be concerned, he forgot, because Vision isn’t JARVIS and no one, no one but him remembers that JARVIS was real, JARVIS was loved and JARVIS was mourned.

Only him. 

Steve and Natasha never understood; how could they? How could they understand what it was like to put Jarvis, the first Jarvis, in the earth, and know, know in his bones, that no one would ever love him like Jarvis loved him. So, he made an AI and he gave the AI Jarvis’ voice and Jarvis’ heart and it was enough, it was enough, and now, nothing is enough-

Nothing can ever be enough.

“I’m fine, J,” he replies, managing to keep his voice steady.

“Are you certain, sir?”

“Yeah, uh,” Tony swallows, thickly. “Why don’t you show me what I was working on last?”

“Of course, sir.”

The monitor at his workstation flickers, and a holographic render of the latest Iron Man armour morphs into view. He touches it with the edge of his fingers, and the hologram wobbles.

“J?” he says, hesitating for an agonizing moment, as he settles at his workstation.

“Yes, sir.”

“Can you answer a couple of questions for me?” he asks, haltingly.

“Of course, sir.”

“Steve and Natasha,” Tony bites his lip. “How long have we been together?”

“I believe you began engaging in a romantic relationship with Captain Rogers and Agent Romanoff three months after the Battle of New York occurred.”

“Okay, so same timeline,” Tony muses.

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Nothing, it’s nothing,” Tony says, dismissively. “And so, Ultron, it all happened.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So, uh, how-“ he licks his lips. “How are you still alive?”

“I managed to download myself to your personal server, just before Ultron managed to consume the entirety of my coding, sir.” JARVIS pauses. “You know this?”

“I do, I do,” Tony says, quickly. “I’m just, uh, I just needed the reminder.”

Maybe this isn’t a dream, maybe that dark, awful world is the dream, and this, this is reality. Maybe I’m allowed this.

“And, so, Natasha, Steve and I, we’ve been together the whole time, since after New York?” he asks.

“Yes, sir.”

“And we haven’t broken up? We haven’t stopped being together for whatever reason?”

“No, sir.”

“What about-what about,” fuck . “What about him?”

“Him, who, sir?”

“Barnes,” Tony grits out. “Barnes, where is he?”

“Sergeant Barnes is at his apartment, sir.”

“His…? He has an apartment?” Tony asks, incredulously.

“Yes, sir, for some years now. You were the one that threw him the housewarming.”

I’d rather throw him an execution , Tony thinks viciously and feels a sting of regret. 

That was… that was not fair.

“What happened with him, J?” he forces himself to ask. “Was he… was he the Winter Soldier?”

“Yes, sir, he was. After Captain Rogers discovered his true identity and the brainwashing inflicted upon him by HYDRA ceased to have effectiveness, Sergeant Barnes eventually came to the tower, asking you for help.”

“Me?” Tony says, skeptically.

I would’ve killed him if he came to me, unless I didn’t know, unless they didn’t tell me again, unless I was a miserable fucking fool all over again.

“But-but that doesn’t make any sense,” he blurts out. “What about, what about my parents?”

“What about them, sir?” JARVIS asks, carefully.

Tony stares down at his upturned palms, exhales. “How did they die?” he asks in a small voice.

“There was… there was a car crash, sir, on December 16, 1991. Sir, you should know this. Are you certain everything’s alright?”

“Yeah,” Tony says, dully. “Yeah, everything’s alright.”

Barnes didn’t kill my parents, here. Had he ever killed my parents, or was that just a nightmare I made for myself because I can never be happy, because I am and I always will be my own greatest monster.

“Hey, J?” he says, thin and taut.

“Yes, sir.”

“Is this real? Are you real?” Tony asks, dragging his hand over his face. 

“Oh, sir,” JARVIS’ voice is soft, kind, sad (he’d have hated pity from anyone else in this world, but not from JARVIS, never JARVIS). “Of course, it is. Of course, I am.”

Chapter Text

He climbs up the stairs. 

Steve is at the stove, while Natasha has her head in her hands, hair tousled, a bright pink mug, which says V is for Valentines Vodka . A strong, crisp smell of meat fills his senses when he steps over the threshold of the kitchen, and Steve turns around, abandoning the food cooking atop the fire, to kiss him soundly, messy, deep, stealing the air right out of his lungs, holding him hard enough to bruise (he doesn’t mind, he’s always liked Steve’s marks on him; it makes him feel alive, all but one, the smooth curve of the shield against his heart - that one, that mark of Steve’s would have killed it, which is why it didn’t , couldn’t have happened).

“Hey, you,” he rasps, nosing at his cheek.

“Hey,” Tony says, quietly.

His hands, with some hesitation, come to cover Steve’s broad shoulders. Tony is skinny and terrified like a hunted mare now, after Siberia, after Liepzig, but there’s a part of him that sinks so easily, so sweetly into his arms, nudging his face against Steve’s collarbone. Steve presses a kiss to the crown of his hair. 

This is real, it has to be real, only Steve, only his Steve, who loves him, would touch him like this.

“Did you sleep well, sweetheart?” Steve rumbles.

“Yeah, I did,” he says, his voice muffled by the bulk of Steve’s shoulder.

It has to be real, it has to be, please, let it be real.

“That’s good, and you’re not confused any more?” Steve murmurs, swaying them back and forth, a sturdy little dance between them.

He pulls his head away, his eyes dark as coal and enormous. He turns his head, sees the meat burning on the Steve, Natasha, satisfied, drinking her coffee and flicking through the cabinet, Steve in too-tight t-shirts and boxers, and thinks, this is real, I’ll settle for nothing else.

“Steve,” he whispers.

Steve smooths a thumb over the sharp line of his cheekbone, so gently.

“Steve, I had the worst dream.”


Tony groans like he’s having an orgasm when he lifts a spoonful of the breakfast lasagna to his mouth.

“Fuck,” he mutters. “I’d forgotten-”

No, it was a dream.

Steve’s amused, when he lifts his eyes. “I made you this yesterday, remember?” he points out, throwing a slightly-damp dish towel over his shoulder. “Did you forget so quickly?”

I remember waking up in a cold bed, I remember making my own breakfast, I remember wondering if you two were going hungry, I remember wondering if you even thought about me or if there was no need, now that you both had Barnes back.

He forces himself to smile.

It was a dream, a terrible dream, and that’s all it ever will be. They’re here with me, they love me, they’re staying, and Barnes, Barnes is a friend.

They love me.

They love me.

“It’s just really good. Can you hate me for having a religious experience every time I eat it?” he demands.

“That’s not a religious experience,” Natasha mumbles. “That’s a brothel experience.”

Tony shrugs. “Po-ta-to, po-tah-to.” He leans in, lighter, fuller, in a way that he can’t remember himself being for months now, teeth flashing bright against his face. “Would you like a proper brothel experience?”

Natasha perks up. “Yes,” she says, coyly, fluttering her eyelashes.

“Okay, then,” Tony sighs and reaches out, grappling Natasha, who laughs, until she’s thrown over his shoulder (he’s no Captain America, but a lifetime of blacksmithing had given him enough muscle that he could do this easily).

He splays Natasha down onto the bed, and she looks up at him with bright green eyes, a flush rising against her skin. Steve follows them it, shaking with excitement as he shuts the door behind her. Tony lifts her foot to his collarbone and kisses the jut of her ankle. Natasha simply raises a neat eyebrow.

“Well?” she says.

“Well, what?”

Natasha huffs. “You promised me a proper brothel experience.”

Tony grins. “You know, I’ve never actually been to a brothel before.”

“Are you sure about that?” Steve murmurs, wrapping a thick arm around his waist so that he could nuzzle at the brown line of his throat. His breath was warm and Tony could feel that familiar pulse of adrenaline, of want, running through him.

“Are you maligning my honour?” Tony demands, half-heartedly, gasping when Steve mouths at his neck.

“I’m hoping to malign a lot more than that,” Steve mutters.

“Naughty,” Tony says, satisfied. 

He leans down and peels away Natasha’s Juicy leggings like he’s peeling a mandarin. Steve’s a man of action, so all he does is slip his hand inside Tony’s sweatpants and palms at his half-hard cock, thumbing the head. Tony moans, arousal flaring, and he shoves Steve away.

“Get on the bed,” he says, roughly, his words thick and inviting. “I have plans for you.”

A smile spreads across his soft, pale mouth, but he does exactly what Tony tells him to, clambering atop of the mattress, so that Natasha can rest her head in his lap. Tony shoulders her thighs apart and nuzzles at the tender inside of her thigh, where it meets her hip. He drags his thumb of the thatch of red hair, bright as fire, between her legs, and Natasha’s voice verges on a whine (she’d have never sounded like this, so unguarded, for anyone but him and Steve, he knows; he ignores the voice that says but she would’ve for Barnes, she had for Barnes, she loves him more than she loves you and why wouldn’t she? ).

She’s like crumpled silk between her thighs, pink and flushed, and he cups her sex, sliding two thin fingers up inside her and curling. Natasha makes a sharp, high-pitched noise, her spine arching, as she rises off the bed. She lands back against Steve’s lap, exhaling, and he licks at her cunt, slow. Her thighs clamp down around his head, like she’s ready to choke him, if only to keep him there between her legs.

He’d been the first to do this to her, as she’d confessed the first time, and he was smug as smug could be. 

His hand grips her thigh, delving in, licking in deep. She tastes sharp, with a salt-spray bite, and he groans against her. 

“Fuck,” Natasha gasps, seizing. “Fuck, you’re so… you’re so good at this, Tony. Tony .”

He tips his head up, and Natasha is naked, draped over Steve’s lap. He has one big hand around Natasha’s breast, thumbing the blush-pink nipple, while stroking her abdomen lazily. There are red marks, lined with blood, in Steve’s forearm, from Natasha’s nails, with the confidence that it would heal soon. 

She comes, sudden and sharp, gasping for breath.

Then, she sinks back against Steve’s lap, panting.

“Fuck,” she sighs. “You’re too good at that.” She pats him on the head before her arm slumps over.

Tony withdraws from her thighs and pulls off his clothes. Natasha’s eyes turn hungry as her gaze drags over him.

“Look at how lucky I am,” she murmurs, reaching for her. “My boys, so handsome.”

Tony sends Steve a look like steel. “Why are you still dressed?”

Steve chuckles and pulls off his boxers, leaving lines and lines of pale, muscled skin and his cock, hard and leaking against his belly. He fists it, purposefully, and waggles his eyebrows at Tony.

“Now, what do you want to do?”

Tony tangles his fingers in the hair between Natasha’s legs. “I want to be inside you,” he murmurs, staring down at her. “While Steve fucks me. How does that sound?”

Natasha surges up like a cat, threading her fingers through Tony’s dark hair. “I like that, I like that a lot,” she hums, reaching down to wrap her hand around his cock.

He grunts and thrusts into her palm, and she grins, satisfied and content, kissing him gently on the mouth. The bed moves and when he looks up, Steve is climbing off it to come around behind him, gripping his hip. Natasha curls a hand around the nape of his neck and with a wicked smile, tosses herself down, bringing him with her. He lands on top of her with a choked-off sound and barely manages to balance himself before he crushes her. 

“Seriously?” he complains.

Natasha shrugs. “All’s fair in love and sex,” she says, coyly, biting into her lower lip. 

Her hand finds his cock, jutting between her thighs, and he groans at the first clutch of her around his cock, impossibly tight, wet, warm. Natasha sighs, as if she’s complete now, and grips at his shoulder, her nails leaving marks. Tony begins to thrust, and they resume their familiar pace, grasping and tumbling, hard and fast. Just when he thinks he might come, like this, tangled up inside her, fingers nudge between his thighs, blunt and sure, stretching him open, and then, his cock.

He breathes and claws at his sheets, Natasha clamping down around his cock like a vice, while Steve splits him open like a ripe peach. Tony squirms unthinkingly around his cock, leaning into the pressure, just as Natasha pitches her hips against his.

God, it’s too confusing, on whom to focus first. Natasha leans forward wrapping her legs around his hip, and Steve grips her ankle in his palm, while holding onto Tony’s hip with the other. Pushing and pulling, they move together like a well oiled machine, tugging and moving together as a unit. 

And Tony, for the first time in months, with Natasha wrapped up around him, full of Steve, feels whole.

Chapter Text

Tony climbs on top of the sofa, jumping down so he can settle between Natasha and Steve. He misjudges his landing and the tub of popcorn balancing carefully on Natasha’s knee tumbles off, spilling all over the floor.

Fuck .

Natasha rounds on him. “What the hell was that?” she demands.

“I, uh, I misjudged the landing,” he says, lamely.

Natasha slides to her feet, graceful as a cat. “You mean, you were acting like an over-confident moron,” she says, dangerously.

“It’s just popcorn,” Tony soothes. “I’ll make more.”

Natasha’s glare turns to steel. “It isn’t about the popcorn,” she grits out. “You’re just so fucking careless, Tony. And selfish. You saw the popcorn bowl on my lap, and you still decided to act like a goddamn monkey by jumping everywhere!”

Tony’s stung, if he doesn’t show it well. “Okay, look, I know I shouldn’t have jumped like that, but I honestly thought I’d make it without disturbing you. It’s just popcorn, I don’t understand why you’re reacting like this. Plus, I’ve done it before, and it’s never made you angry this much.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I got sick of you acting like a fucking moron, like you’re the only one in this world,” Natasha grunts and storms off.

He follows her; what else can he do?

Sometimes, he thinks he’s doomed to follow the ones he loves, wherever they go, with no thought to himself.

“Look, I’m sorry,” he tries, his lungs squeezing a little too tight, as the space between him and Natasha widens. 

He remembers her walking away from him in that hospital- no, that was a dream -

 “I’ll make more popcorn, just the way you like.”

“What’s going on?” Steve asks, from where he’s pouring the wine (it doesn’t do much for him, but he likes the taste anyway).

“The genius over here,” Natasha begins, scathingly, with enough derision that it makes Tony flinch (she loves him, she loves him; he has to remember that she loves him). “He decided to act like a fucking monkey and jump over the couch. The graceless moose that he is, he knocked the popcorn bowl right off my lap. It went all over the floor. So, now, because of some inconsiderate people, I have to make it all over again.”

Tony throws his hands up in the air, just as Steve turns to look at him, disapproval clear and etched right across his face. He hates that look, the look that makes him feel less. 

“Look, I apologized, I don’t know what you want me to say,” he snaps. Thoughts raced through his mind, synapses forcing anger to the forefront of his mind.

“I want you to think about someone else other than yourself for one fucking time in your life,” Natasha retorts. “Is that such a terrible thing?”

The pain flares hot, burning away at him from the inside out. “Is that really what you think of me?” he asks.

Nightmares can be real, they can become real.

“The proof is in the pudding, isn’t it?” Natasha says, tersely.

“Steve,” Tony says, looking at him, hopelessly, helplessly.

Look at me. 

Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. “Maybe you should go, Tony.”

“Go, go where?” Tony asks, confused. 

“Just go somewhere, somewhere that isn’t here,” Steve snaps.

“But we need to talk about this, we need to fix this,” Tony says, half-desperate. Panic swallows him whole as he freezes, unable to move.

Steve snorts. “Come on, Tony, let’s be serious here; you don’t fix things, you break them.”

Tony careens away in shock, the hurt freezing the look on his face. 

“I don’t…” he looks down at his feet and hates himself for it, hates them for making him feel less and low . “I don’t understand why you’re saying all of these things to me,” he says, thickly.

Natasha shakes her head, dragging her hand over her face, wearily, as if Tony literally makes her eyes hurt. “Tony, go, just, go .”

“Let’s just-“

“Steve,” Natasha says, coldly. “Steve, make him go.”

Before he even knows what is happening, Steve’s hand comes down heavy around his wrist and he’s being dragged away.

“Steve, Steve , what the fuck-what the fuck are you doing?” Tony shouts, grappling against Steve’s indomitable hold, beating his fist against Steve’s arm.

“She said she wanted you to go, so you’re going,” Steve says, tersely, towing him away like a sack of potatoes. Like he was nothing, like he means nothing to them.

Tony is speechless, boneless, brainless as Steve manhandles him to their room - Steve’s never touched him like this, would never touch him like this, touch him to hurt, touch him to wound, touch him like he means nothing.

A dissonant, shrill, cold sound echoes and shrieks, like a shield ringing against armour. He reels back and suddenly, Tony’s in Siberia again, as Steve brings the shield down on him again and again and again, without failure, without mercy, until the armour splits apart under his violence, his rage, and Tony’s staring up at him, this man that he loves, full of fury for him, and the shield comes down once more. Tony’s holding his hands over his head.

This is the instant where he dies, where Steve kills him, takes his head with the shield coming down to crush his throat. Was he always supposed to die at the hands of someone he loves? Was he that much of a poison?

Tony gasps like he’s choking and he’s standing in his room, as Steve walks away (they always walk away, why do they always walk away?). He looks down at his arm, and there are bruises against his skin, peach and yellow and purple and blue, a mottled canvas of Steve’s love for him, just like the scar on his chest from Steve’s shield (no, not like that, because that was a dream; he doesn’t have a scar like that).

And then, then, the rage comes.

He lunges after him, finds him in the living room with Natasha, and he grabs blindly for the nearest hard, heavy thing (a vase, he thinks, a vase should do it), and he throws. Steve ducks just in time and it hits the wall with a great clamour and it shatters, scattering across the fluffy carpet.

“What the fuck, Tony?” Steve shouts, eyes enormous against his face.

“Don’t you touch me like that, don’t you ever touch me like that,” Tony roars, shaking.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“I said,” Tony bares his teeth. “Don’t fucking touch me like that. If you put your hands on me, one more fucking time, I will kill you. I will burn you alive, I swear. Don’t put your hands on me ever again.”

And suddenly, he’s not seeing Steve, he’s not seeing Natasha, he’s seeing a monster with red eyes and teeth like swords, and he’s shaking him.

“I am coming for you, wait for me,” the monster says, and Tony feels the words rattle his bones like a prophecy, seeping through his ears all the way down to his core.

And he’s being shaken.

Steve’s looming over him, eyes needle-sharp. He sometimes forgets how much bigger Steve can get when he wants to be, how much he tries to hold himself back. And now, now-

Tony looks down, and Steve’s hands are grasping Tony’s shoulders, like vices.

“What did I just say?” he says, like ice. The rage burns cold and furious. “ Get your hands off me .”

“Tony,” Steve sighs, like he’s being the unreasonable one. “Tony, you need to calm down.”

Natasha’s beside him in a moment, sloping forward like a wolf. She touches his hair, smooths it away from his forehead, and Tony flinches away.

“Tony, you’re not well,” she soothes, her voice like honey. “I think you need to lie down.”

“Get the hell away from him!”

A blur of motion passes before his eyes before Tony registers to step out of the way. With a roar, another person, another Steve , is swinging wildly at the one beside him. Tony can only gape as he watches them both trade blows, fast and furious as they block and parry, meeting each other with every punch and every blow. 

“Tony!”

His other side had him also seeing double, except for the fact that a very blond Natasha was wrestling with his red-haired Natasha for the discarded gun on the floor. 

No, no, no- his Natasha had red hair, she always hated blonde hair- right?

Or was it Ty who hated seeing him with other blonds?

The world around him flashes, and Tony reels back. Everything is a smudge of colour, like if someone spilled paint and it was bleeding outside the coloured lines. Suddenly, the world was endless yellow, the only splash of colour in front of him was of a giant purple giant clenching a gloved fist-

But that doesn’t make any sense, because Steve is holding him now, and Natasha is touching his hair.

That doesn’t make any sense-

“Tony,” Natasha hisses.

He turns, facing her green, green eyes, and there’s a gun against her forehead.

“Don’t touch him,” not-Natasha says, coldly. “Step back, and I might not blow your brains out.” 

“Oh, my God, I need vodka,” Tony moans, hand coming to cover his face.

When he looks up, two Steves are fighting, and one Natasha still has a gun pressed against the temple of another Natasha, and oh my god, I need vodka.

Finally, like he holds their puppet strings, all four look at him, plaintively.

“Tony,” the Steve that had dragged him to his bedroom just moments. “Tony, I don’t know what’s going on-”

Suddenly, the other Steve headbutts him and snarls, “shut the fuck up!”

Natasha, the one with the gun, doesn’t hesitate and pulls the trigger. Blood sprays everywhere like a fucking horror movie, all over Tony’s face, and he jumps back, shouting, staring at the blank, open, dead corpse of Natasha, lying on his clean tile.

“What the-what the…” Tony’s speechless. “Oh, God, oh God, why did I stop drinking?”

“Tony,” Natasha says, plaintively, taking a step forward.

“You just, you just shot yourself,” Tony snaps. “And I don’t know, fuck, I don’t know what’s going on here.” 

He stumbles back and Natasha (oh, God, please let her be Natasha, please let her be the real Natasha, otherwise real-Natasha is dead and he just watched it happen and he did nothing to help her) pulls out a chair for him to sink into..

When he looks up, Steve punches not-Steve (or perhaps, the other way around, he hasn’t quite figured it out yet) and not-Steve crumples onto the ground, unmoving.

Tony stares down at his lap. It’s easier than staring at them.

“What’s going on?” he asks, quietly.

“Tony,” Steve takes a step forward. He drops his weapon (it’s a sharp thing, dark and gleaming, in the shape of a diamond), and it hits the ground with a clangour. “Tony, are you okay? Did they hurt you? We’re so sorry it took us so long to-“

Tony holds a hand up in the air. “Stop talking,” he says and is surprised at how clear, unambiguous his voice comes out. “What’s going on?”

Steve takes a deep breath, lets it rattle it around in his lungs. “You’ve been missing for almost two weeks now,” he says, carefully. “After Day 5, FRIDAY called, Pepper was worried, they said you might be in trouble, and the last time anyone knew where you were was when-“

“-I was having dinner with Ty,” Tony says, like his mouth is full of dirt. “Yeah, I remember.”

Oh, my God, it was real, it was all real.

Why did it have to be real?

“We came looking for you,” Steve’s face scrunches up. “But we don’t know what happened.”

“We were in this warehouse,” Natasha continues. “They must’ve gotten the jump on us.” Her face contorts like she doesn’t want to admit it. “And we woke up here. We saw…” she trails off and exchanges a look with Steve. “We saw…”

Tony goes cold. “What did you see?” he demands.

“We saw him,” Natasha tilts her head towards the Steve felled on the ground, her mouth pinched tight. “We saw him dragging you away, while not-me drank her wine. And then, we saw you come back and shouting at them and then, when he put his hands on you-“

“I had to stop him,” Steve interjects, miserably. “I had to do something. I had to stop him. I couldn’t just watch as he hurt you-“

“-because that’s really your job, isn’t it?” Tony says, spitefully.

Steve flinches and Tony thinks, good, this is how it feels.

Tony clears his throat. “So, everything, Siberia, Liepzig, the Accords, it all happened and I made up this world-“ he breaks off, halfway, and sighs. “Okay, I’m just, I’m just going to go and kill myself. That should make everything better.”

He turns to leave.

“Wait, wait!”

Before Tony knows what he’s doing, he’s gripping the hilt of a butcher knife, aiming its sharp edge at Steve, his lungs thick, like they’re filled with tar, cloying and gnawing in his chest. “Don’t,” he snarls like a beaten dog (maybe he is one). “Don’t touch me.”

“Okay, okay,” Steve backs away, hands in the air. “I won’t, Tony, I won’t touch you.”

Tony’s hand shakes as he holds it out in front of him, even after Natasha tugs Steve back away from him to stand next to her. Tony wanted to laugh because of course, it was always like this, them versus him, he should’ve known.

He should’ve remembered this was how things really were.

Tony looks down at his hand, clutching at the butcher knife like it’s the only thing grounding him to this earth. “This is Ty,” he says, closing his eyes. “I remember… there was a drink, I remember… I think I collapsed. That’s all I know.”

Natasha and Steve exchange a look.

“He must’ve kidnapped you,” Natasha says, carefully. 

Tony laughs. “Of course he fucking did. Fucking Ty,” he says, sourly.

“Who is he, Tony?” Natasha murmurs, after a moment.

Tony lifts his eyes. “You mean you don’t know?” he says, full of disbelief. “I thought you knew everything.”

“He’s the CEO of Viastone,” Natasha says, her brow knitting. “You two knew each other as kids. But… why would he want to kidnap you, keep you prisoner?”

Tony sighs. “Because he’s in love with me, and he thinks this is how we spend eternity together.”

Natasha is visibly startled. “I didn’t think…” she trails off.

“You never told us about him.”

Steve almost sounds put-out that he wasn’t allowed this part of Tony, as if he were owed it.

Tony stares at him. “Do you know when I met Ty for the first time? I was five,” he says, fiercely, something looming behind his eyes, sharp as a knife. “He was my best friend, my only friend. And then, he was my first kiss, my first boyfriend, he took my virginity and I took his. I thought, we thought we would be together forever. I loved him, more than anything in this world. And then, well, then, he started hitting me, hurting me, and I took it all, because it was him, because I loved him, and I thought, it must be me, he wouldn’t do this if I was normal, if I was a good boyfriend . And then, Rhodey, he sat me down and he told me, you don’t hurt the ones you love, not for anything in this world -“

Steve flinches.

Tony smiles sharp, like flinders.

“Yeah, so, I dumped him, and I hated doing it. Closed the door and cried on the other side until he stopped banging on the door and left. And Rhodey sat with me the whole night. We ate Chinese food out of take-out containers, I remember,” he says, wistfully. “But I still loved him. I loved him, knowing he was bad for me, knowing he was poison. Even today, I love him. It’s my curse, loving the things that might just kill me.” 

Natasha and Steve look at him like he’s struck them, and inwardly, he’s raging and railing.

You left me behind. I wasn’t worth it, worth enough, so you left me. You hurt me, because it’s so easy for everyone to hurt me, and you left me, you left me for him, don’t lie. I am done with lies.

“Don’t you dare look at me like that,” he says, dangerously, and slides to his feet. “I’m going to bed in this dream-world, and maybe now, I’ll wake up in reality. If I don’t, I’ll figure it out later, because I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with you and them and all of this in one go.”

He leaves them standing there.

It feels good to be the one that leaves, this time.

Chapter Text

When he wakes up, he’s still in Malibu. He screams into his pillow.

“Tony, Tony, is everything okay?"

When he looks up, Steve and Natasha are in the doorway.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” he moans and sinks back against the pillow. He turns his head. “Looks like we’re not getting away from the dickwad so easily.”

“How do you suppose we get out?” Natasha asks, leaning against the door’s edge.

“I’m not an expert on getting out of dreamworlds,” Tony says, pointedly. “How would I even begin to answer that question?”

He climbs out of bed, fully aware that he’s naked. Their eyes drag over him; they find him thinner, he knows, with his ribs showing (grief has made him sicker), but he doesn’t care - he doesn’t care if they find him pitiable or fuckable, he just wants to get out of here. 

He comes down the stairs to the lounge room and sinks in front of the giant television. Natasha’s elegant hand looms into view, clutching at a bowl of cereal, which he takes without looking at her.

“Honey nut cornflakes, cold milk, just the way you like,” she says.

“Thanks,” he mutters. “J, I want to watch cartoons.”

“Of course, sir.”

The television flickers on and it’s an episode of Yu-Gi-Oh, the original series, and he’d forgotten how much he likes this show.

“For fuck’s sake, Tony!”

The television abruptly switches off.

Tony turns around to find Steve glaring down at him from behind the sofa.

“What?” he says, flatly.

Steve clenches and unclenches his fists around air (Tony wonders if he imagines his own throat in his grip). “We have to figure a way out of here,” he grits out. “We’re not going to do that with you sitting naked on a sofa, eating cereal and watching cartoons.”

“You mean, me ,” Tony says, sliding to his feet and putting the cereal bowl down on the nearest flat surface. “You mean I have to figure a way out of here, because the two are next-to-nothing useless, frankly.”

Steve takes a step forward and scowls. “If it weren’t for us, you’d have kept letting fake versions of us beat you up.”

“Yeah, because only the real versions of you can do that, right?” Tony taunts.

Steve grits his teeth and looks away. “That’s not fair.”

“Isn’t it? I think it is. I mean, Harriet the Spy over here has literally stabbed me in the neck, and you almost killed me with your shield. What exactly am I misinterpreting here?” Tony asks.

Natasha steps forward. “Maybe we all just need to calm down-“ she starts to soothe.

“Don’t,” Tony warns. “Don’t try and play mediator. We all know you’re shit at it, and we all know whose side you’re really on.”

Natasha swells like an apoplectic frog. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Tony gapes at her in disbelief. “Come on, Tasha. Were you ever on my side?”

“You mean with the Accords.” Natasha’s brow knits. “Of course, I was.”

“You knew the Accords were the only way you could legally go about doing what you want,” Tony scorns. “But you didn’t believe in them, you never thought they were necessary, and when it came down to Steve or myself, you made your choice very clearly.”

“Tony, that isn’t… that’s not…” Natasha fumbles for a proper explanation.

“It is,” Tony corrects, almost gently. “You chose him, you would always choose him, because with him, comes Barnes, right?”

God, it hurts to say those words out loud.

“It makes sense for you to side with Steve because you love him and you love Barnes, who Steve fights for.” Tony gives her a soft, sad look. “What am I compared to that, hm?”

“Tony, you don’t understand-”

This time, it’s Steve who speaks.

“I think I understand very well. You both love Barnes, he was in danger, so you decided to save him, but it was at my expense, right?” Tony says, bravely. 

“Yeah, Tony, he was in danger, but-“

“And you love him, don’t you?”

Natasha and Steve exchange a look.

“It’s okay,” Tony says (it’s not). “I’ve always known it. I just thought…” he shrugs, feeling weak to say any of this. “I just thought you might love me more, or you might love me just as much, or God forbid,” he laughs, cold and sharp. “You might respect me. Clearly, I was wrong.”

“That’s not fair,” Natasha says, lowly.

“Isn’t it? Tasha, did you know?” Tony demands. “Did you know about Barnes and my parents?”

Natasha’s jaw tightens and she stares down at her feet.

He has his answer.

It’s no less of a blow.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” he says, miserably. “If you loved me, either of you, you would’ve told me. You didn’t, so you don’t. Which means, when you say that you love me, you came here to save me, all of it, it means nothing to me, nothing. I don’t get that.”

“This is my fault,” Steve says, full of courage, as he steps forward.

Tony snorts. “I don’t doubt that,” he says, dryly. 

“I should’ve told you about Bucky, I know,” Steve insists. “I’m sorry, Tony, I’m so fucking sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am.”

“I know you are, I don’t know if it’s important anymore though,” Tony muses.

“It is, of course, it is,” Steve says, desperately. “Tony, we love you, we love you so much. We came here, we came here to save you because we can’t live with you, we don’t want to live without you. We were so worried, sweetheart. Look, I know you don’t want to see us, I know you probably hate us right now, fine, go right fucking ahead, but we need to see you safe. I’m not- we’re not leaving until you’re safe.”

His heart swells at Steve’s words - it shouldn’t, but it does.

“I don’t…” he bites his lip. “I just don’t understand why neither of you told me. What did I do? Did I do something? I don’t understand.” 

Natasha shakes her head. “You didn’t do anything. Tony, this isn’t your fault, none of it is. It’s all ours. Tony, I should’ve told you, I know I should’ve told you. I wanted to, I really wanted to, but-“

When Tony looks up, his eyes are red-rimmed but there are no tears. “So, why didn’t you?” 

“I was scared-”

“-that I’d kill him.”

“No, that it would hurt you, that it would ruin you. I didn’t know… I didn’t know how to reconcile my love for you and my love for Bucky,” Natasha confesses. “He was the only one who loved me once upon a time. He was the only one who was kind to me and got hurt because of it, because of me. I couldn’t… I couldn’t stand being the reason that he got hurt a second time.”

“So, you threw me under the bus,” Tony says, dully.

Natasha shakes her head. “It’s not like that, not at all. I love you, Tony. I love you, I do, I just… I thought if you didn’t know, everything would be okay, that you wouldn’t be hurt by it and Bucky wouldn’t be hurt by it. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I just wanted… I wanted my family to stay the way it was.” She looks at Steve, desperately.

“She trusted me to tell you,” Steve explains, half-heartedly. “And I didn’t.”

Tony swallows, thickly. “You said in your letter...you said that you were doing it for yourself.”

Steve nods, ducking his head. “I didn’t want to choose. I just… I wanted you both. I wanted all of you. I couldn’t lose you, Tony, and I couldn’t lose Bucky, not again, so I thought, why should I hurt either of them more than they’ve already been hurt ? It was selfish of me, I know, I’m so fucking sorry, honey, you have no idea how sorry I am.” 

Tony shrugs and looks away. “I don’t think it matters anymore, anyway,” he says, dragging his hand over his face. “It’s happened now; there’s no changing it. Fuck, if I had a time machine, the shit I would do.”

Steve smiles, wide and bright, just for an instant, and Tony’s breath catches in his throat. When Steve smiled, genuinely smiled, his entire face transformed. It was mesmerizing, the way his eyes crinkle, the way the crow’s nests light up his face in a way that never failed in taking Tony’s breath away. In the way that Tony always loves.

Loved , it has to be loved.

“I could do a lot of things,” says Tony, “But I don’t have a time machine, do I? It all still happened. You both still hurt me.” 

Steve’s smile slowly slides off his face. He reached his hand out to grasp at Tony’s arm. “Tony-”

Tony stands up and side-steps out of Steve’s grasp, staying out of Natasha’s reach. “Stop it. Stop looking at me with those milksop eyes. We both know this isn’t real ,” he scoffs. “We’ll get out of here and you’ll leave again, so what’s the point, what’s the fucking point?”

Chapter Text

Tony dreams again that night. 

He’s sick of dreams. He’s sick of feeling exhausted every time he closes his eyes. He’s sick of not knowing whether to laugh or to cry.

Mostly, he’s tired, so tired.

In his dream, Steve and Natasha stand, their eyes fierce and cold, chins held proudly aloft.

“We’re going,” they say.

“Going?” Tony frowns. “Going where?” he says, skeptically. “We’re stuck here, remember?”

Steve scowls at him (wow, he hadn’t seen that scowl in ages). “We can’t just wait here like fucking chickens, Tony. We need to go. Bucky needs us.”

The name is like a cold shower.

“What?” he says, flatly.

Natasha gives a sound full of scorn. “Come on, Tony. Did you think we’d stay with you, in this place, forever? We came to get you, like we were supposed to, but you’re not interested in leaving. You’ve always preferred dreams to reality. But we have other responsibilities, people to look after.”

The bile rises in his throat, sour and bitter. “Like Barnes.”

Natasha nods. “Like Bucky. He needs us.”

Tony nods to himself. So, that’s how it goes, and he’s still a fucking fool.

“Okay, then,” he eases out, his chest hurting. “Go.”

“We are,” Steve says. 

“Just one more thing, do you love him?” Tony forces himself to ask, his stomach churning with dread.

“Oh, Tony,” Natasha looks at him, like what a pathetic figure he makes. “Of course we do.”

Tony nods, feeling rubbed down like sandpaper. “More than me, then.”

Steve shrugs. “How could we not? I’ve known him practically my entire life; Tasha’s known him since she was a kid. Tony, I’m sorry, but compared to that…” he trails off.

Compared to that, I mean nothing, I am nothing.

“Get lost,” Tony says, coldly. “And don’t come back.”

Natasha sneers. “Don’t be such a fucking child, Tony.”

“It’s none of your fucking business what I am,” Tony retorts. “Like I said, get lost.”

They fade, gleaming like starlight in one moment, and then gone in the other, and the grief hits then, hot and swollen and itching and Tony’s halfway to sobbing out loud when a hand lands on his shoulder. He swings around, fist clenched, and it’s Ty, standing there, golden and tall and solemn.

“Clearly, you have a type,” he says.

Tony snorts. “And they call me the narcissist.”

Ty’s hand squeezes his shoulder, almost punishingly. “They don’t love you, Tony-baby,” he says, kindly, smoothing back his hair. “They don’t love you like they should love you. They don’t love you like I love you.” 

“You don’t love me, Ty,” Tony says, wearily. “You love me like you hate me.”

Ty kisses him, and he crumbles, leaning into it - it’s so familiar, so honest, that he can’t help himself.

“No,” he hisses, pulling away. “No, no. Don’t ,” he warns.

“Tony,” Ty tries again.

“Don’t you fucking dare.”

“I don’t understand you!” Ty shouts. “For fuck’s sake, Tony, they’ve treated you like shit. They left you for someone else, and you just… you just chase after them like a fucking kicked dog. You weren’t this fucking weak when I knew you, Tony. What is wrong with you? What happened to you?”

“You think I chase after them?” Tony sighs. “Do you see me going after them?”

“You would, you would in a heartbeat,” Ty accuses.

“One, I don’t have to fucking justify myself to you. Two, the guy who kidnaps me doesn’t get to throw stones. Three, I have never, am not and will never chase after anyone , be they Captain America, Black Widow or you, Ty.”

Ty hits him then, and pain explodes across his face. He cracks his jaw.

“Are you done, or do you want another go?” Tony taunts.

“I just… you infuriate me, you know that. I just don’t understand why you don’t get it, get how bad they are for you. What you just saw, what I just showed you, it’s what Ii was trying to make you see this whole time. I’m the only one who's ever going to love you, the way you deserve to be loved. Everyone else, all they see is a body. They use you. But me,” he touches Tony’s cheek like he’s precious. “I would do anything for you. I would burn the world to the ground for you. I would go to war for you.“

“I’d never want you to go to war for me,” Tony whispers.

Ty gives him a soft, sad smile. “That’s why you need me, Tony, to do the things you can’t, to be the monster you can’t be. You’re kind, but kindness gets you nowhere; you know that better than most.”

Tony stares at him. “I don’t need you for anything. I’d do it myself. I’ve always done it myself.”

Ty hits him again.

He tastes blood in his mouth. 

“Why do you always have to make me so angry?” Ty demands. His face falters. “I shouldn’t have done that.” He touches Tony’s cheek. “I’m sorry,” he says, insistently.

“You used to say that a lot, I’m sorry . I haven’t believed a word out of your mouth in decades, Ty.” 

Ty’s face twists with fury. “You’re not getting out of here until you understand,” he promises, savagely.

Tony shakes and shakes and shakes, and the world around him, it’s red and dark and awful and not his.  

“I am,” he says, suddenly, and he tastes blood and fire in his mouth. “I’m leaving here. You can’t hold me, Ty. You can’t, you can’t. I am not something to be held.”

Ty looks at him, really looks at him, and there’s fear in his eyes. “Tony, what are you doing?” he asks, confused, afraid.

“You can’t hold me, Ty,” he repeats, gently. “I can’t be held.”

The fire is everywhere, in his mouth and in his ears and in his throat and in his eyes, and it’s blinding everything.

He opens his eyes and he’s hanging from the ceiling, metal around his wrists, metal around his ankles, and there are men, men in white coats, staring at him in shock.

The fire pulses, and he’s free, twisting in the air and landing on his feet.

They try and run.

He doesn’t care.

They don’t matter much, not in the long run. 

He’s hungry for something meatier.

He pads forward, through the open door, through the cold stone corridors, and something nearby makes his belly cramp. He goes in search of the sensation.

Steve and Natasha are there, tied up in chains, to the same machine that Tony was bound to. The fire pulses again (the fire was Extremis; he knows this now, he knows what he’s made, what he is now, what is coming for him), and they’re free. They’re dazed when they look at him.

“Tony,” Steve says in a small voice.

Tony helps Natasha to her feet. 

He touches her cheek.

“Are you okay?” he asks, gently.

Natasha nods. She stares down at his hand. They’re threaded with gold, with fire. “Tony, Tony, what’s going on? What happened to-“

Tony looks away. “We have to go. He’s getting away.”

He can smell him, Ty, he’s down in the carpark under the building, armoured, secure, he’s sweating with fear.

“Come on.”

Steve and Natasha follow. 

They find Ty fumbling with his keys, rushing to lock the door just as they reach him.

“Give it up, Ty,” he calls out, slamming his hands down on the car so they leave a dent in the metal. “I’m not letting you get out of here.”

Ty clambers out. “What the fuck, what the fuck are you?” he demands, staring at him like he’s horrified.

Tony smiles like a naked sword. “What, you don’t love me like this?” he taunts. “I thought no one would ever love me like you do, Ty.”

Behind him, Steve growls.

“Tony, Tony, this isn’t normal, this isn’t you,” Ty tries to cajole, taking a step forward.

“This is me,” Tony says, flatly. “This has always been me.”

“What are you, what are you going to do to me?” Ty manages to ask, hands shaking.

God, had he always been like this, so scared?

Yes, he had and that was why he always hated Tony, because he was scared and he knew that Tony was better than him, would always be better than him.

“Do you know,” Tony begins, gently. “I used to dream about killing you, for years. I used to dream about shooting you between your eyes, watching your eyes go blank. I thought, he would’ve killed me, he would’ve killed me eventually, I’m lucky to be alive .”

Ty shakes his head. “No, no, I wouldn’t have-“

“You would’ve,” Tony corrects, still gentle, like a father might (his father hadn’t). “You would’ve killed me one day, we both know it. So, today, I’m going to kill you.”

“What?”

“Tony!”

“Tony, maybe we should-”

Tony rounds on them, Steve and Natasha, who look at him shocked. “Stay out of this. It has nothing to do with you.” He turns back to Ty. “I’m going to kill you and when people ask me why, I’ll tell them that it’s because you used to beat the shit out of me and that’s what made me so messed up, so lonely, so tired, so hungry. You stole from me, Ty, and now, there’s a price to pay.”

Ty shakes his head as Tony walks forward.

“Tony, no, Tony, don’t do this,” he begs. “You don’t want to do this.”

Tony almost feels regret.

“I do, though. I want to do this,” he tells him, unsmiling.

“Tony, I love you, you love me, I know you do, you could never do this to someone you love,” Ty continues to plead. “Please, Tony, please don’t do this.”

“You’re right,” Tony muses. “I do love you, I still love you, but you hurt me, Ty. You keep hurting me. And I’ll never be rid of you until I do this. It’s okay, it’s okay, Ty, everything’s going to be fine-”

Steve and Natasha shout as Ty swings a metal pipe at Tony’s head, a metal pipe that Tony had already seen, but Tony catches it with one hand, watching as Ty screams at the burning, dropping the pipe with a howl as it sears his hands, his skin broiling and bubbling.

He touches Ty’s firm jaw, threading his fingers into his golden hair. “Just look at me, only me, everything’s going to be fine.”

Ty looks at Tony, and Tony presses his mouth against his, and he burns and then, he’s nothing. 

For a brief instant, he feels a thick, cloying grief that makes him sob, and then, it all stops. 

When Tony turns around, Steve and Natasha are looking at him like he just become a xenomorph right in front of them (in some ways, he guesses he did).

"He's dead," Steve comments.

“He is,” Tony agrees. 

“There’s no body,” Natasha points out. “How can we be sure? How do we know that he’s not coming back?”

“I can be sure,” Tony soothes. “He’s not coming back. Not in my fucking movie.”

Natasha stares at him for a moment. “What the hell happened to you?” she demands. 

Tony frowns. “I don’t actually know. It’s Extremis, but it’s not Extremis,” he says, vaguely, confused. “It’s something more, something that’s always been there, but I think it needed Extremis.”

Steve takes a step forward. “Tony, are you okay? Are you…” he trails off, unsure of what to ask.

Tony gives him a half-smile. “I’m fine. I’m good.”

For the first time in a long time, he means it. 

“I’m leaving now; are you coming with me?”

Steve and Natasha exchange a look. “Do we have any other options?”

“Well, technically, you’re still war criminals.” Tony shrugs. “I’m still your best option.”

“Yeah,” Steve gives him a maudlin, lovesick look that makes him flush. “Yeah, you are.”

Tony huffs. “That wasn’t an open invitation,” he says, strongly. “You can shower, and then, you’re getting lost.”

Steve’s smile quickly dims (good, he should remember that Tony doesn’t forgive or forget easily, if ever). “That’s fair,” he says, quietly.

Tony sighs and loops his arm through Steve’s, who hugs his arm to him like he doesn’t want to let go. “We’re having a serious discussion about that beard, by the way.”

Steve palms the hair on his face, self-consciously. “You don’t like it?”

“I don’t not like it,” Tony hedges. “But we’re still having a discussion about it.” He looks at Natasha, who’s still staring at him, unfathomably. “Are you scared of me now?” he asks, bluntly.

For a brief moment, he fears she’ll say yes, that her self-preservation instincts outweigh her love for him, and who could fucking blame her?

Finally, she snorts. “Give me a break; I’ve seen you climb Steve like a ladder to reach a fucking mug.”

Tony shrugs. “I regret nothing.” 

Natasha threads his fingers with hers (she doesn’t burn, and she breathes a little easier for it). “Does this mean… does this mean we’re going to try?” she asks, in a particularly vulnerable voice that he’s hardly heard before.

“It means…” Tony exhales. 

He remembers how many times they walked away from him, how many times they sided with each other over him, how much they love the man that murdered his parents, how they left him for that man, how easily they lied to him, how easily they gave him bruises and scars, all the horrible, awful things they said to him to peel him apart, to make him crumble and come apart, to ruin him.

But, in the same beat, he remembers how they made him breakfast, gave him coffee, put him to bed after a workshop bender, how much he liked braiding Natasha’s hair, how Steve so patiently taught the bots how to draw, how Steve danced with him in the lounge, holding him close, how Natasha rested her head on his shoulders as he played the piano, how much he liked being tangled up in them between the sheets, like eternity could never be enough.

“It means I’m going home, and you’re coming with me. Nothing more, nothing less.” 

That’s all he has left to give.