Actions

Work Header

Protect, Defend, Avenge

Work Text:

hydracap-resized6k-FLOWER.jpg

art by ranoutofrun

Steve walks into his living room. A weird shiver goes through him, toes to head; for a second the world seems to be inverted; shadows where light should be. It’s gone as soon as it’s happened, and he keeps himself very still, trying to assess if there’s danger. The apartment seems quiet around him, his sketches thrown on the coffee table, a tablet to the side, the TV dark and silent.

Everything looks just like he remembers, but something is off.

He inhales, stretches his arms to the sides, tenses and relaxes his muscles one by one, shoulders to fingertips. He frowns. Something isn’t right. He raises his hands to his eyes. His hands look, feel the same as always, and yet . . . He’s dizzy. He remembers—he remembers being old. Helpless. At Tony’s mercy.

He remembers fighting Tony to the death in an armour of Tony’s own making. Tony has always been so good at designing his own downfall. But now Steve’s home. His body is strong and young. His mind is sharp. Maybe not like Tony’s, but sharp enough.

It’s like Steve met his end and woke up at the start again. He’s not sure what happened.

He remembers a lot. All of the joys and hurts of his life. Mostly, he remembers Tony. Tony giving him home—and Tony taking it away, Tony wiping his mind.

He digs his nails into his palms. He should put it in the past, where it belongs. They killed each other over it, didn’t they? The world was ending.

And yet, here Steve is.

It’s like with M-Day, when the world changed overnight and Steve didn’t even notice, except he’s noticing something now, an annoying, itchy feeling.

He thinks of Tony again—sometimes he thinks everything in his life revolves around Tony, and normally, he doesn’t mind. Tony’s . . . important. He can admit that much. (More than that, but Steve’s scared of even thinking that, because what if Tony doesn’t feel like that back? Or, worse, what if he does? They destroyed each other as friends, what would they do as more?)

Tony, smiling at him softly at the top of the helicarrier, restarting the Avengers with Steve.

Tony, saying what Steve thought himself: I’m not half as good at—at anything as I am when I’m doing it next to you.

Maybe that’s what’s wrong. Maybe Tony should be here, with Steve.

Tony—Tony found him in the ice.

Ice.

Ice, that he survived because of the serum . . . Ice, that was an accident, not . . .

“We’re losing the war, herr Rogers,” Red Skull said. “But you’re our perfect agent. You’ll go into hiding, and you’ll be back when we need you.”

Steve crashed his plane into the Arctic, trusting the serum would save him, hoping he’d be back to further Hydra’s goals.

Steve rubs his eyes. That had been wrong. He hadn’t known who he was for years. Luckily, he knows now.

He straightens. Red Skull is sitting on the couch when Steve looks up. There’s something glowing blue in his head—Steve blinks, and it’s gone.

“Supreme Leader,” Steve says, and kneels. Already, he’s thinking; and all his memories from the time after he woke up seem real. He’d made friends. He was on the Avengers. He’d fought Hydra and he’d fought the Red Skull.

It was the perfect cover, all of it. The best disguise is always the one you don’t even know you’re wearing. Except . . .

Steve won’t stop fighting Red Skull now. He’ll get better at it. But the Hydra he remembers fighting against is not Steve’s Hydra. It’s corrupted. And Steve knows Red Skull is at fault.

“Welcome back, herr Rogers,” Red Skull says. “For now, I would like you to continue as if nothing has changed,” he says. “I have plans that require time to set in motion. I will come for you when I need you.”

Steve bows his head. “Very well, Supreme Leader,” he says.

He doesn’t stand back up until Red Skull leaves, and then he walks to the window, opens it, leans out.

He looks at Stark Tower.

His memories of everything after the ice are real. And so are his feelings for Tony.

Looking back at all their interactions coldly, almost clinically—Steve can say Tony is in love with him. It explains a lot, actually.

He wants to act on it, and he immediately scolds himself for that. That doesn’t matter. But . . . If Tony could be convinced to join him . . . He’s a genius engineer and a great strategist. He could make the world great, together with Steve.

Steve smiles. That would be nice.

***

He goes to the Avengers meeting. He won’t be on the team—he knows Sam earned his position on it, and it’s not yet time to undermine him. Steve is supposed to act normal, after all.

Tony blanches when he sees Steve, but he pulls himself together as the kids slowly come in. They should’ve learnt the lesson with the Young Avengers, Steve thinks, but stays quiet as Ms. Marvel, Nova and Spider-Man all sit down, staring wide-eyed at Iron Man and two Captains America.

“Steve?” Tony asks, sounding unsure. “You said—but if you’d rather stay, I can resign, it’s not—”

Tony clearly doesn’t see the horror in his kids’ eyes, Steve muses, as he shakes his head. “No, Tony. You’re the best leader they can have. I came out of curiosity. The first team meeting is always something else.”

Sam looks at him. “Yeah. Did you change your mind about joining?.”

“No, you’re better suited for it,” Steve says. “I just thought it was okay for me to come and see. And . . . I wanted to see Tony. Could we talk, later, when you’re done?” he looks at Tony and smiles hopefully.

Tony looks apprehensive, but he nods. “Sure, Cap. For you, always.”

“Thank you,” Steve says, and leaves them to their meeting.

He doesn’t even have to pretend he’s impatient to talk to Tony. He knows maybe he should be angry—and deep down he is, because their friendship was real, and so was all the hurt, and betrayal after betrayal.

That doesn’t change the fact that Steve misses Tony horribly. He should act on it, right, if he’s to be normal.

It’s been two hours and four minutes when the Avengers start filtering out of the room, and finally someone stands in front of Steve. Except it’s not Tony.

“Yes, Sam?”

Sam squeezes his arm. Steve forces himself not to tense.

“It’s good to see you,” Sam says. “But I gotta say this: I’ve no idea what you want from Tony—he thinks you hate him. He’s probably right. You probably have reasons. But you really don’t have to hurt him more.”

Steve almost smiles at that. He looks up at Sam. “I’m not here to hurt him,” he says. “Quite the contrary.”

Sam looks at him for a longer while—Steve will have to pay more attention to him—but he nods and follows the rest of his new team.

Steve doesn’t have to pretend he’s nervous. He is. But he makes himself walk into the meeting room that Tony’s still in.

The Avengers logo is on the wall, supposed to bring hope, but Tony himself is hunched over his laptop, looking pale and tired. Steve feels a pang of worry.

“Tony,” he says quietly.

Tony almost jumps, takes a deep breath, stares at Steve. “Yeah?”

“Are you okay?” Steve asks.

“I’m fi—” Tony starts to lie, clearly, and then looks at Steve. “Why do you even care, Steve? You don’t have to pretend. I know exactly what I’ve done to you. And I’m sorry, I’m so very sorry, but I also know I’m sorry doesn’t cut it. I know I destroyed our friendship.”

Steve steps closer to him. “Let me decide on that, okay?”

Tony looks at him with wide eyes. “What do you mean?” he asks.

Steve sighs. He kneels next to Tony, so they’re at one level. “We both remember what happened,” he says. Tony flinches, but doesn’t deny it. Steve looks away. “Look, Tony. It’s a new world, isn’t it?”

“Seems so,” Tony admits. “Or—well, Reed’s nowhere to be found, but it looks like the incursions never happened, doesn’t it? General public doesn’t remember. Only the heroes involved.” He huffs a laugh. “I’d be happier not remembering either.”

“No,” Steve snaps, sharply. “You’ve done that once already, Tony. I won’t let you do it again.”

“I had to—”

“No,” Steve cuts in. He’s heard all the excuses before. I had to, to make sure the SHRA database was safe. I had to, to save us all from Norman Osborn. There was no other choice. I had to do it. I wouldn’t have done it if there were another way. Bullshit, every single one. “Come on, Tony. Tell me it was anything more than an elaborate suicide. You couldn’t deal with my death, and you found the perfect excuse.”

Tony stares at him. He stands up, moves away, until his back hits the wall, still wide-eyed, like he can’t believe Steve would say that.

“And as for me,” Steve says. “I had my memories stolen against my will. I’m quite happy remembering for once.”

Tony’s shaking. A part of Steve wants to apologise and hug him. Stupid instincts.

“What do you want, Steve,” Tony says, sounding as if he’s on the verge of tears.

Time to confuse him some more, then.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says. “I’m going about it all wrong.” He looks away. “I—I came home today, and I remembered all these things—incursions, everything before.” That wasn’t even a lie. “And, Tony, we’ve been through so much together. I was hurt, yes. But I know so were you. And . . . I miss you, Tony.”

“I’m having hallucinations,” Tony says weakly. Steve touches his cheek.

“I’m here,” he says. “I missed you. I miss being friends with you. That’s what I wanted to talk about, Tony. We survived the impossible. And—I can’t stay mad at you forever. I don’t want to. Can we start over?”

Tony is still staring at Steve as if he saw a ghost. “You want to be friends with me again,” Tony repeats.

“Yes,” Steve says with conviction.

“I—how. I betrayed you so many times—”

“And I remember!” Steve roars. He breathes fast. (The emotions were all real, he remembers, and it hurts so much.) “I remember,” he repeats. “But I don’t want this to dictate our future, Tony. We were given a second chance. You’re a futurist. Tell me we can’t make it work this time, when we know better.” The words seem to burn him, like they’re honest when they shouldn’t be.

Tony bites his lower lip, then looks straight at Steve. “I’m a futurist,” he agrees. “And in every future I see, you’re there. But not always with me.”

“I’m here saying I want to be,” Steve repeats.

Tony moves back to Steve. “God, Steve, I’d do anything to be your friend again.”

“I’m only asking for a yes,” Steve jokes.

Yes,” Tony says. “Yes.

Steve smiles at him. The joy he feels is real, too. “Thank you,” he whispers, and then Tony wraps his arms around Steve and hugs him tight, and Steve returns the hug.

Having Tony in his arms feels just right, and maybe, maybe Steve should’ve tried to get them together in a different way . . . But no. What if Tony didn’t really love him? What if Steve could widen the gap between them like that? Lose every chance he might have at convincing Tony to choose Steve’s side when Hydra rises? He could’ve been wrong in his assessment on Tony based on old memories only.

Steve doesn’t want to lose him.

“I know you,” Steve whispers into Tony’s ear, still embracing him. “You’ll go home and convince yourself you misunderstood me, that this couldn’t have happened. So I’m telling you, Tony, you’re the best friend I’ve ever had, and I want it to stay this way.”

Tony huffs a laugh. “I’ll convince myself it was a dream, then,” he says, but he’s smiling. “So, back to lunches together?”

“Sounds great,” Steve says, and finally lets him go.

***

Reconciling his memories—his fake memories—with what he knows to be true is both very easy and impossibly hard.

It’s not difficult to look at his team and think, targets.

But Tony, oh, Steve can’t stop thinking, friend. More. That makes Tony the most dangerous of them all, except—Steve can’t bring himself to do anything about it. Tony’s still home. And sometimes, just sometimes, Steve feels this is more real than anything else, than Hydra is to him.

He should report it, but he knows what would follow: a quick order, kill Tony Stark.

And Steve doesn’t want to be put in a situation where he has to do it, because he’s scared he wouldn’t be able to. He can’t afford distractions and weaknesses.

Except Tony. Tony’s worth everything.

***

Steve’s phone rings at 3 am, waking him up from deep sleep. He looks at the caller ID and sees Shellhead. Tony’s picture is on the screen, taken just last week when they were out for burgers and Tony smiled at Steve and said something about updating his phone.

Steve picks up. “Everything all right?”

“Oh.” Tony falls silent after that, and Steve starts to worry.

“Tony? Are you hurt? What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry,” Tony says. He doesn’t sound hurt. He sounds excited, even if it’s subdued now. “I—well, I forgot what time it was, and I wanted to tell you, and—I woke you up, didn’t I, I’m so sorry, Steve.”

Steve’s awake now, and he knows he’s not going back to sleep today. “Doesn’t matter,” he tells Tony. “You might as well told me what got you so excited.”

There’s a beat. “Actually,” Tony says, “I wanted to show you.”

“Show me,” Steve repeats, drily.

“I have a—”

“I’m coming,” Steve cuts in before Tony can finish. Logically, he knows there’s only one thing that can get Tony invested to the point where he doesn’t even think to check the hour, and he sounded so happy and carefree—it must be a new armour.

It’ll be good to know the specs of it, Steve thinks; and that Tony will be smiling, probably in a tight tank top, talking about it with his eyes shining—well, that doesn’t matter.

“It’s 3 AM,” Tony protests.

“Yup,” Steve says. “No traffic. Give me ten minutes.” He ends the call before Tony can say anything else and gets up to get dressed. He decides on civilian clothes—Tony said Steve, not Cap—takes his shield with him anyway, and gets on his bike. He misses the old shield, but he can’t exactly take it from Sam now. At least the holographic one fits in one wristband; it’s easier to melt into crowds with.

The Avengers Tower isn’t far, and Steve has the road memorised anyway; has had for years, through countless arguments and even more fights, the Tower being brought down, and always, always rebuilt.

Tony’s current company name is really more than fitting. He is nothing if not resilient.

Tony had shown him the blueprints for the Tower, all the security codes, and Steve knows that if he ever needs to bring down the Avengers, he can do it. He has the key to all of Tony’s creations. Tactical advantage.

He speeds, but no one cares at this hour, and he’s at the Tower in less than ten minutes. He puts in the code to the garage below, and the gate opens. It probably also alerts Tony to his presence—but well, Steve’s not hiding.

This time.

Steve parks his bike and heads for the elevator, presses in his code in again. The elevator moves without him choosing the floor number, and he chuckles, amused. Tony doesn’t have Extremis anymore, but he never really changes.

The elevator opens, and Steve steps out of it to the door before Tony’s workshop. He raises his hand to put in his code yet again, but this time the door opens as soon as he approaches.

“You really came,” Tony says, surprised and elated in both measures. He’s sitting on his swivel chair, and if Steve knows him, Tony was swirling around on it just a moment earlier, hyper on the joy of new discovery.

“Hey, you clearly wanted to show me something,” Steve says, smiles. “Am I not allowed to be curious?”

“At 3 AM?” Tony shakes his head. “I expected you to yell at me.”

Steve grows serious. “Never, Tony.”

Tony stands up, but Steve only walks closer to him, until he can put his hands on Tony’s shoulders and force Tony to meet his eyes. “I told you,” Steve says quietly. “I want to be friends. I know I hurt you—and I promise, never again.”

Tony’s blinking rapidly, so after a few seconds Steve lets him go and turn back. He can see Tony raises his hands to his face for a moment, composes himself.

“It’s impossible,” Tony says. “But I believe you.”

He turns back to Steve, and if his eyes seem red, he’s smiling widely.

“So,” Steve says. “Will you show me your armour?”

Tony pouts. “How did you know that?”

It’s not really a serious question, but Steve answers anyway. “Is there anything else that gets you quite that excited?”

Tony tilts his head. “Fair enough. Although,” he starts with an impish smile, “I do have a project for your new shield. See how excited I’ll be making it just for you.”

Steve considers it quickly. Tony Stark is the best weapon manufacturer in the world. He claims to be past it, but he keeps building weaponry for his friends. He’s a great engineer, too. But accepting any advanced shield from Tony would mean that Tony knows it, inside and out. Still, it’s not like his armour; even if Tony could disassemble the shield in seconds in his workshop, he wouldn’t have a chance at the battlefield.

And they aren’t going to fight each other, anyway. Steve will see to it. It’ll be them against the world, this time.

Steve smiles at Tony widely. “Okay,” he says. “Early Christmas gift? I’m taking it.”

Tony laughed. “Yeah, should be ready next week.”

“Thanks, Tony,” Steve says, gratefully. “You know I love your work.”

“You’d let me build you an armour if that was true, Steve,” Tony pouts. Then he smiles again. “Come on. My armour. It’s an artwork, Steve.”

“They all are,” Steve agrees, because Tony’s both a technological genius and a great designer.

Tony wraps his fingers around Steve’s wrist and pulls him through the workshop, until they reach another door with a pinpad. Tony rolls his eyes at it. “Tony Stark,” he says.

The door opens as a voice comes from nowhere, “Okay, boss, but you told me to insist on security.”

“I know, Friday, I’m just excited.” Tony pulls Steve in behind him, and Steve finally sees a—hologram? It’s a woman, pink and see-through.

“Steve, meet Friday. She’s my AI.”

“And I don’t get an introduction?” Friday asks, pouting. Steve wonders if she’ll pose a danger to him.

“You already know who Steve is,” Tony says. “I told you.”

“You have terrible manners, boss,” Friday says, and just disappears.

Tony smiles at Steve. “Don’t worry. She loves me. Well. Figuratively. I did program her . . . So she probably hates me, but either way—”

“Stop making it sound like I’m Ultron,” Friday says, popping back to existence next to Tony. “And my primary objective is taking care of you.” She disappears again.

Steve blinks. “Okay, Tony. I won’t ask if you know what you’re doing . . .”

“Because you’re sure I don’t?” Tony asks. “She can only show up like that in my workshop, with me. And, um.” Tony suddenly looks away, looking bashful.

“And?” Steve asks, raising his eyebrows.

“And I might’ve programmed in that she can trust you, okay,” Tony says. “I—you always get my security codes, Steve.”

Steve is speechless. “We fought,” he says carefully.

“Yes,” Tony says. “But I trust you to do the right thing. Especially after that disaster with Red Skull, and—inversion—and—”

Steve frowns. Red Skull’s plan wasn’t stupid, but he clearly didn’t know the people whose characters he tried to invert. No Tony Stark could ever be controlled.

Then it hits him, what Tony needs to hear. “It wasn’t your fault,” Steve says kindly. “Not the Extremis—and it’s gone, right?”

“Who do you take me for,” Tony snaps. “It’s all gone. All the project notes. All the samples. I’m never doing that again. Maya was right.”

Steve touches his arm to calm him down. Tony’s always been very tactile. He reacts to physical touch way better than to words. “So like I said,” Steve continues. “It wasn’t your fault. Not that, and not the drinking.”

“How can you know?”

“Because if it was your fault, you’d still be drinking now,” Steve tells him quietly, never moving away from Tony, keeping him close.

“Okay,” Tony says. He straightens up, and smiles a smile so fake it hurts. “You’re right. Okay. Let’s—I actually called you here because I was happy, not because I wanted to break down and cry over my past mistakes—”

Tony’s pale and has dark shadows under his eyes. He’s speaking too fast, and he is overly emotional. Steve wants to ask how long Tony’s been upright, he wants to tell him to lie down, rest—but it’s not important. Right now, he needs to learn about the armour.

“It’s okay, Tony,” Steve says. “I get it. So, armour?”

Tony laughs. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were more excited for it than I was,” he says.

“Might be,” Steve says. “I’m excited for you, after all.”

Tony’s expression is unbelievably soft for a moment. Then he nods, walks up to the wall, and presses his hand to it for a few seconds. Then he steps away, and the wall opens, revealing the armour inside.

Steve steps forward even without thinking. The armour is beautiful. He thinks it’s his favourite of Tony’s designs already. It’s smooth, yet strong; he loves the shape of the RT node powering the armour. The helmet is very Tony, that of a knight, and Steve smiles against himself. It’s a good armour. Tony’s right to be proud.

Then, the armour disassembles.

Steve’s annoyed for only a second, before he notices it’s immediately assembling again, around Tony this time, and Tony’s laughing, looking like it’s the best thing in the world to be put in an armour of metal.

“Isn’t she great?” Tony asks finally, his faceplate still lifted.

“I love the design,” Steve says. “It’s very beautiful, Tony.”

Tony nods. “Yeah. I’ve been thinking of something like this for a long time.” He grows serious. “Okay, let’s get this done and over with first. Do you remember your codes for my armours?”

Steve nods solemnly.

“They’ll work for this one. Friday can control the armour, but your override works on her, too.”

“Well. Let’s hope I won’t have to use it,” Steve says.

“Better safe than sorry, Cap,” Tony says. “Skull mind-controlled me not that long ago.”

Steve is more and more convinced it was a terrible strategy. And Tony is his.

“Okay,” Steve says. “Back to nice things, Tony. Come on, show off. Tell me what you can do.”

Tony grins widely. “Everything,” he says, and the armour morphs itself around him. And then Steve has to blink, because he’s looking at Tony’s classic armour, the one that Tony had spent so many years in.

hydrasteve-1.1 resize.jpg

art by ranoutofrun

“Cool, right?” Tony asks, and the armour changes again, and he’s in the Extremis armour. He looks down at himself and winces. “Okay, maybe not that one.” Another change, an explosion of colours, and Tony’s in the armour he wore after the Skrulls invasion.

“You said no Extremis” Steve asks again, because it certainly looks like it, and he has to be sure.

Tony sighs, and his armour reshapes itself again, back to the first one. “I told you, Steve. This has nothing to do with Extremis. It has a lot to do with me learning from past mistakes. The Bleeding Edge armour was too tied to my own body. That was dangerous. The modular armour was just dumb; I’ve no idea what I was thinking. I couldn’t change it mid-fight. This one takes the best from them both, with none of the disadvantages.”

Steve nods. He could press Tony for details, and he knows Tony would give them. But Steve knows he wouldn’t understand a word, himself, and while he certainly could remember everything and then dictate it to some Hydra scientist—it’s Tony. No one else deserves his armour.

And Steve has all the codes, anyway.

“So it’ll keep you safe,” Steve says.

“It’ll help me keep those we’re fighting for safe, Steve,” Tony says.

“That would be you, from my point of view,” Steve drawls.

“Funny,” Tony says. “I think it’s you. And I love the armour.”

“I’m gonna get jealous,” Steve says.

Tony snorts. “No you’re not, not when I know you sleep with your shield,” he says.

This is a familiar banter, and Steve falls into it easily. “No I don’t,” he says. “And not just because Sam has it now.”

Tony doesn’t say a word, but the armour disassembles from around him, and then assembles again in the hidden compartment of the wall. “Friday, secure it,” Tony says, leading Steve outside.

The urge to make sure Tony’s getting enough rest comes back, and really, Steve’s learnt everything he had to learn here. He stops Tony with a hand on his shoulder in the middle of his lab. “Tony,” he says quietly, “when was the last time you slept?”

Tony looks away, shrugs.

Steve knows that expression intimately. “Nightmares?” he asks with sympathy.

Tony laughs. “We killed each other as the world was ending, Steve. Forgive me if I’m not dealing well.”

“The world clearly hasn’t ended, Tony. I’ve no idea what happened, but I’m thinking maybe I don’t want the details.”

“I—”

“No, you can’t ignore it, I understand that. But is it worth it, thinking of the past when we don’t even know what’s real?”

Tony looks at Steve with an almost scary intensity. “You’re real,” he says simply.

“And I’m telling you, Tony, I care about you. I—I can’t help you with nightmares. But if you ever wake from them again, scared—call me. And I’ll tell you we’re both alive, and we’re not fighting; we’re friends.”

“This seems too good to be true,” Tony says with a self-depreciating smile. “But okay.”

Steve smiles. He gives in to the urge, and runs his hand through Tony’s hair—surprisingly soft, and longer again; Tony will probably want to get it cut soon. Tony leans into his touch, his eyes half-closed already.

“Come on,” Steve says. “Don’t fall asleep in your workshop.”

“Why not,” Tony says, slurring the words together. He’s obviously crashing, hard. “Do it . . . All the time.”

“I’m sure you do,” Steve says. He looks at Tony, considering. Tony looks about ready to fall down. He must’ve been running on pure exhilaration and adrenaline of finishing the project only.

It’s not a hard decision, really.

Steve scoops Tony up in his arms. He expects a protest, but Tony just blinks at him.

“I’m taking you upstairs,” Steve tells him. “You need to sleep.”

“Can walk,” Tony mutters, but makes no move to prove it.

“Sure you can,” Steve agrees, because he’s pretty sure Tony’s more asleep than conscious, currently.

The elevator opens on its own as Steve walks there, Tony safely held in his arms. “Thanks, Friday,” Steve says.

The floor selects itself automatically again, so Steve looks down on Tony. He’s definitely too pale, but Steve hopes the shadows under his eyes will disappear after a few hours of real sleep. He’s breathing lightly, and his head leant to the right, so he’s resting against Steve’s heart. His eyes are closed. He looks peaceful like Steve hasn’t seen in him ages.

He has no business doing this—but he likes the view. Likes it when Tony is happy.

Steve sighs quietly to himself. The elevator stops at the last floor. Steve goes straight to Tony’s bedroom. There’s another numpad next to Tony’s door, and Steve sighs, punches in his access code. The screen shines green, and the door open.

So it really is full access, Steve thinks.

hydracap-carry3-maybefinal.jpg

art by ranoutofrun

Tony doesn’t even stir in his arms as Steve walks to his bed and gently lays Tony on top of the covers. After a moment of consideration, he pulls Tony’s shoes off, and then carefully raises Tony again, just enough to slid the covers from under him and put them over Tony so he’ll stay warm. Tony doesn’t like being cold any more than Steve does.

Steve looks at the sleeping Tony, so trusting, and finds that he doesn’t want to leave him.

But he has to.

He sighs, goes to the bathroom and fills a glass of water. He leaves it at Tony’s night stand, looks around for a piece of paper. It’s entirely possible Tony just doesn’t believe in paper anymore and does everything on his tablet—but no, there’s a pile of post-its on the table in the corner. Steve grabs one and writes, Don’t think I’ll forget about the shield. Also, I expect you to take me flying, Shellhead.

He leaves the note next to the glass of water, looks at Tony again, sighs softly, and leaves.

***

“Where were you last night?” Red Skull asks.

Steve remains kneeling in front of his hologram. Red Skull is weak, a poor leader. But he has loyal followers, and Steve will have to deal with those first.

“Tony Stark invited me around—new team party,” Steve lies smoothly. “I took it as a chance to look at the upgraded building security, should we need it in the future.”

“Tony Stark,” Red Skull muses. “He can’t be underestimated. Maybe it would be best to eliminate him at the beginning.”

Steve doesn’t even stir.

“Tony Stark is . . . an asset,” Steve says after a moment of hesitation. “He trusts me unconditionally. Other heroes admire him. He will be useful, Supreme Leader.”

Red Skull is silent for a long while. “Very well,” he says finally. “If you think so, Herr Rogers.”

Steve bows his head even lower, until the connection breaks off.

Sooner rather than later, Steve will kill Red Skull.

***

Steve calls Tony a few minutes later. It’s to ask about the shield—he trusts in anything Tony builds way more than in what SHIELD equipped him with.

Tony laughs on the other end of the line. “Funny, I was about to call you myself,” he says.

“See, maybe I’m psychic now,” Steve joked.

“Are you busy?” Tony asks.

“Nope,” Steve says. “Do you have anything to show me?”

“So impatient,” Tony tuts. “Come and see, will you?” He laces his voice with invitation, and he ends the call.

Steve realises he’s smiling. Well, he’s clearly getting the shield, he has reasons to be happy. He glances at the clock, but it’s 4 PM this time. Rush hour. He sighs, not looking forward to waiting in the traffic jams, when something knocks at his window. He swirls around, ready to fight—and relaxes.

Tony’s outside, flying in his armour. He looks amazing.

Steve opens the window.

“I seem to remember I promised you a flight as well?” Tony says.

“That you did,” Steve says. “So, now?”

“Got something better to do?” Tony asks, and Steve shakes his head.

He’s playing. He can’t have Tony suspecting him, and he knows the Steve that Tony knows would want nothing more than to fly with him.

The problem is, he’s not sure how much is a role, and how much is true.

He steps out, manoeuvrers onto the windowsill—and then Tony embraces him around the waist, locks his armour joints to show Steve he’s not letting go of him. He didn’t need to do that, really, because Steve’s already stepping off the sill and leaning his weight on Tony’s armoured foot. They’ve done it a thousand times before. Steve’s body knows to trust Tony.

(Steve’s mind does, too.)

“Ready?” Tony asks, laughter in his voice, and Steve just nods.

They soar up, cold wind cutting Steve’s face—Tony slows down, and it’s still chilly, but manageable. Steve knows he won’t fly faster with Steve there, that on his own Tony could break the sound barrier.

Steve doesn’t really mind the slowe pace, though. Tony quickly takes them out of New York, over the Bay; looking at the water from high up is always something else. The sun reflects off the Bay with a myriad of beautiful colours, and the ocean opens before them, vast and infinite.

Steve has other, worse memories of hitting an ocean—but he doesn’t feel an ounce of fear as Tony brings them down, almost to the level of water, and then pushes up again.

Tony stops flying up, his repulsor jets only balancing them in place.

“Do you trust me?” Tony asks.

“Always,” Steve says without thinking.

“Good.” Even through the voice filter, Steve can hear Tony’s smiling. “Okay. Put your right hand on my left side—same with your legs.”

Tony keeps his arms firmly around Steve, and Steve knows there isn’t any chance of him falling as he changes his position, and ends up chest to chest with Iron Man.

Suddenly, he wishes the faceplate weren’t there, that he could—

He wishes no such thing, he tells himself. It’s a role. And he’s playing it. Nothing else.

“Ready?” Tony asks.

Steve nods, not trusting his words.

Tony flies a bit faster that time, and he leans sideways, and Steve lets out an exhilarated exclamation as Tony makes an eight figure.

Tony does a few more acrobatic figures over the ocean, and Steve’s high on adrenaline and loves every moment. He thinks, if I wanted an armour, he’d build me one—but no; Tony would be suspicious, and Steve can’t have that. Besides, he knows that it’s not just the flight itself, it’s the fact that he’s flying with Tony.

He reminds himself once more he doesn’t have time for distractions, because what else is this? He won’t kill Red Skull and build a better Hydra by flying around with Tony Stark.

But he doesn’t tell Tony to stop.

(That, as well, would be suspicious, he tells himself.)

“Okay,” Tony says. “Turn around.”

So Steve does, trusting Tony once again, and then Tony’s arms wrap around him from behind, and Tony flies, and Steve looks all the sky and the ocean in front of him.

“It’s amazing,” Steve says.

“It really is,” Tony agrees. “But what I have for you in the workshop is even better.”

For a moment, Steve thinks nothing can be better—but his shield. His weapon. Yes.

“I think you’d have to prove it,” Steve says, and Tony laughs and flies them to the Avengers Tower.

He only lets Steve go once they’re safely standing on the landing pad, and then ushers him inside. “It’s too windy out here, I can’t have you catching cold,” he says.

“You took me flying over the ocean,” Steve tells him.

“Were you cold?”

Chilly, maybe. But not actually cold.

Tony takes his silence as the answer, because he smiles. “My armour is the best.”

Then the armour disassembles, and he follows Steve inside, and further on to the elevator leading to Tony’s private workshop.

“Friday, play nice this time,” Tony says.

“I’m always nice,” Friday replies.

“Hi, Friday,” Steve says. He knows it’s better to play safe with AIs.

This time, they don’t go to the secret back room. Steve’s shield is lying on the table in the centre of the workshop, new and lethal-looking.

Steve thinks he might be in love.

“I considered the circular shape,” Tony says, “but I couldn’t make it from vibranium—you can talk to T’Challa if you really want one like that—so I went somewhere else. It separates—”

“It’s perfect,” Steve breathes. “Can I try it?”

Tony shakes his head, but he’s smiling. “Sorry, Cap. You have to listen to me babble about it first.”

“Cruel and unusual punishment,” Steve says, but he settles in to wait, glancing at his shield from afar.

The edges look sharp, and he doesn’t need to be an engineer to calculate the force of a blow with this shield.

“It separates,” Tony repeats. “You can get the bottom part apart, and, well—it’ll be more of a weapon, but it’s not as if you never used your old shield that way. This might be better in close contact, and you like to fight close.”

Steve nods. All true.

“The lower part can work almost like a blade—I can promise you it’s as sharp as it can be without actual vibranium being used.” Tony picks up the shield and separates it to show. “The upper part is more protective, but you can still hit with it, if someone gets too close.”

Tony brings the parts back together with one smooth movement. Steve looks, but he has no idea where one ends and the other begins. Like that, it’s impossible to guess the shield isn’t one part.

“I’m gonna need to get used to it,” he says.

Tony nods. “Learning curve. But knowing you, it’ll last an hour of training.” He hesitates. “I worried you’d say it’s too brutal.”

Steve tenses. Tony Stark is the person who knows him best. He can’t let him see through his at, not yet. “You said so yourself, Tony. I wasn’t gentle in using my shield. We can’t be, in a fight.”

Tony nods. “Yeah. So, will you accept an armour, or—”

Steve laughs and shakes his head. “I think this shield is quite enough.”

Tony smiles. “Okay.” He passes it to Steve.

For a moment, Steve only looks—and then he takes it from Tony, running his fingers over it, trying to feel as much about it as possible at once. It’s lighter than it looks, but sturdy enough. He knows he won’t get tired from carrying it. He puts his both arms inside and pulls apart, fast—and the shield separates seamlessly, so that his left forearm is covered and protected, and he has the sharply-edged part in his right hand.

Figures Tony found a way to basically give Steve a sword in his shield.

“It’s great, Shellhead,” he breathes. He looks up at Tony, smiling. “I mean it.”

It's perfectly balanced, and even without trying, Steve knows he can hit any target with it.

“Theoretically," Tony says, “the materials should allow for some kind of a boomerang effect—but it's not circular, so don't hope for anything like the old shield."

Steve could see that already, but it really isn't a problem. "That's why it separates, doesn't it? It's fine, Tony. More than fine."

“I played with the idea of adding a repulsor node—don't look at me like that, I knew you'd hate it."

Steve is intrigued, but much like with armour, he knows he can't say it. “Another thought like that, you'd give me a gun," he jokes. “The shield is great, Tony. Thank you.”

Tony smiles wide. “So, do you want to try it—”

“Tony," Friday says, appearing next to them. "You're—”

Tony pouts. “I told you to be nice.”

“You also told me to remind you about your dinner with doctor Perera.”

Tony blanches. “That's now?”

“You'll be late.”

“Shit. I didn't notice the time.” He wrings his hands, obviously worried. Friday dematerialises again, and Tony finally looks at Steve apologetically. “I—Steve—I like her, and—” he fumbles with his words.

“It's okay," Steve says, but it's not. There's a cold fury inside him and he wonders just who this Doctor Perera is. He wants to kill her. Kill anything taking his Tony time for themselves. And Tony likes her?

“We met on a scientific conference—she's very nice—I don't want to miss it, Steve," Tony keeps explaining, none of his usual confidence present.

Steve forces himself to smile. "It's really fine, Tony," he says. "It's probably my fault for taking up all of your time with flying around."

Tony smiles briefly at the memory. "Worth being late," Tony says. "But I really should rush now. So . . ."

"Charm her," Steve tells him. "I'll try the shield another day."

Tony stares at him. "Are you kidding me?" he asks. "The shield is yours. It's ready, there's nothing more for me to tweak with. Take it. Have fun with it. Don't sleep with it, if you can manage that," Tony jokes. "And give me a call if you feel anything is even slightly off, okay?"

"Will do, Tony. I'm sure it's perfect. Thank you."

Tony beams again. "It really was my pleasure," he says.

"Have fun with your date," Steve says, hoping Tony will correct him—but Tony only nods, and Steve walks out.

***

Doctor Amara Perera, as Steve learns, is a genius biochemist. So maybe that's the issue, that Steve doesn't have seven doctorates; maybe Tony does in fact laugh at him from afar, maybe—

Steve punches at Carol again, and she dodges, but she’s looking at him worriedly. "What got into you?" she asks.

"You wanted to spar," Steve reminds her. And it was a good thing, too: he doesn't have to pull his punches with Carol at all.

"Spar, not watch you punch your anger out," she corrects.

"Tell me how the Ultimates are doing," Steve says. He doesn't know the team very well, and they could prove to be an obstacle for him. He has to learn more.

"Uh-huh," Carol says. "No changing the topic, Steve."

"Tony gave me a new shield. It's great. Can we try it out now? Since it's sparring, Carol?"

She freezes, stares at him. "Tony," she repeats.

"Yes," he says. Has he done something wrong? Has he . . .

"You're acting like that because you're jealous? Wow, Jan would have a laugh."

"I'm not jealous," Steve says.

"Maybe you should've said something to him before," Carol says. "I swear, I've never seen a more idiotic couple than you and him."

"We're not a couple,” Steve lets out before he can think it over.

"And that's your problem, isn't it." She points her finger at him. “You never said anything to each other, and if he’s finally moving on, he bloody well can do it.” She’s glaring at him now, visibly angry. Steve has to tell himself to calm down. Breathe. Put off planning tragic accident with Amara Perera in the starring role for a later time.

That last thing is proving to be hard.

He’s angry at himself for this outburst. Would Carol suspect him now? She shouldn’t have any reason not to trust him, but she’s obviously annoyed on Tony’s behalf.

“I want him to be happy,” Steve assures her.

She deflates. “Yeah. I know. So, this shield of yours? Does it shoot repulsors now or?”

Steve smiles, honestly now. “Tony did offer that.”

They go back to sparring, but Steve makes sure to observe every Carol’s every miniscule reaction this time. He can’t afford drawing her suspicion.

***

“You seem distracted, sir,” a Hydra agent says, and Steve divides his shield in half and beheads him in one smooth movement.

“Any other questions?” he asks, blood on his cheek.

***

Tony calls him two weeks later, and Steve answers his phone before the first signal ends.

“Hi,” Tony says.

“Hi,” Steve repeats.

“We haven’t trained in ages,” Tony says.

“Okay,” Steve answers, probably a bit too quickly. “That is—I have time. Whenever you want, Tony.”

“Careful,” Tony says. “That’s like an invitation to supervillains.”

Steve’s amused. “Yeah,” he says. “Just let them interfere with our plans.”

“Scary,” Tony says. “I like it. How about noon tomorrow?”

“I’ll be there,” Steve promises. He pauses. “Tony—you’ve been out of touch for a while.”

Tony sighs down the line. Steve wishes he could see his face. “Yeah. Busy. Sorry.” He sounds unhappy, and Steve bites back the instinctive question, did someone hurt you, I will hurt them if they did.

He’ll see for himself tomorrow, anyway. “Okay. I’m glad you called. See you.”

“See you,” Tony answers, quietly, and hangs up.

***

Steve’s at the Tower early, but Tony’s sitting in the living room in his workout clothes already, flipping through something on his tablet.

“Hi there,” Steve says.

Tony looks up at him. His eyes are bloodshot, as if he hasn’t really slept much. Steve supposes it’s the norm for Tony, but it doesn’t stop him worrying. “Hi,” Tony says.

“You all right?” Steve asks.

Tony puts his tablet away, stretches his arms over his head. “Always,” he says, and it’s such an obvious lie. “It—it didn’t really work out with Amara.”

Steve carefully schools his expression not to show the initial wave of joy. “I’m sorry,” he says.

Tony shakes his head. “It’s fine. You know dating civilians is . . . well.”

Steve nods as Tony gets up. “I just—I needed a distraction from all this,” Tony explains. “Everything’s been—too much, lately. It was selfish of me.”

It wasn’t, Steve thinks. Tony deserves a break. He’s always overworking himself. Steve makes a mental note to check up on any villains who might’ve been bothering Tony lately. He can help with solving that issue, at least.

“And then Doom appears,” Tony says, walking to the elevator.

Steve stops mid-step. “Doom?” he asks.

“He’s pretty now, did you know?” Tony says, obviously distracted. “He says he’s turning over a new leaf.”

“I’m sure he does,” Steve mutters. “Did he hurt you?”

“What?” Tony looks at him. “No, no, he’s actually been helpful—I had Strange check me for any spells afterwards too, it’s all fine—but you know me. I hate not knowing.” He shrugs.

The elevator stops at the gym level. “I do know you,” Steve says as he thinks of all that Tony doesn’t know about him, can never know.

Unless, Steve thinks. Unless. He’ll convince Tony, in time.

“My genius,” he adds, and if it sounds like a caress Tony either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.

Tony isn’t distracted at all when they spar, all his attention focused solely on Steve, and it’s always been a humbling sensation. It’s not diminished by the fact that Tony’s currently trying and failing to bring Steve down to the mat. He’s a bit out of shape, and he smiles sheepishly about that.

“We should switch things up next time,” Steve says. “You need hand-to-hand training, but we haven’t trained in suits for way too long.”

“I suppose I should see that shield in action,” Tony agrees. “Friday, then?”

Steve thinks through his schedule quickly, and then nods.

***

Except Friday never comes, because on Thursday evening all the news stations show an explosion in the centre of Tokyo. It’s not related to any of Steve’s activities, and so he doesn’t care, just shrugs and turns off the TV.

He goes through his evening routine, and when he’s combing his hair after a shower, his phone rings. The caller ID says Rhodes and Steve frowns in surprise. They haven’t been keeping in touch lately. Maybe Carol took his phone accidentally? It’s late to call, but it’s not like any of them keep standard hours.

“Yeah,” Steve says into his phone.

“Steve.” It’s Rhodes. He sounds haggard.

Steve tenses. What can it be? “What’s wrong?” he asks.

“I thought you should hear it from me,” Rhodes says, hesitating after each word, his breathing loud and fast. “There was an explosion in Tokyo.”

“I know,” Steve says, but he has a terrible feeling he knows what Rhodes is going to say next.

“I’m sorry,” Rhodes says, and then, quietly, “Tony was last seen in that building.”

The silence after the statement is almost deafening. Steve tries to say something, anything. What was Tony doing in Tokyo anyway? It can’t have been planned, he would’ve told Steve . . .

“I’m sorry,” Rhodes repeats.

Steve forces himself to relax before he crashes the phone in his palm. “It’s Tony,” he says, lightly. “He probably started the explosion himself and forgot we’d worry.”

(It’s Tony, Steve thinks, so it wouldn’t be unlike him to start an explosion and get caught in it, either. But he doesn’t say that.)

Rhodey forces a laugh. “Steve,” he says after a moment. “I hope you’re right.” A beat. “But I’m there, and—my scans show nothing—” He stops speaking. His next breath sounds like a sob.

Tony’s fine, though. He has to be.

“Thanks for telling me,” Steve says, and ends the call. Then he stares at his reflection in the mirror, unseeing.

Tony’s more resilient than that, Steve thinks even as he’s deciding which Hydra cells in Asia he can use to investigate the matter. Tony’s fine, he has to be, but he might be captured or hurt and hiding, and Steve knows one thing: no one takes what’s his.

No one takes Tony.

(He doesn’t let himself think of what if Tony isn’t fine, because that’s just not in the realm of possibility: Tony has survived too much for an explosion in Tokyo to mean anything.)

Steve gets dressed with almost mechanical movements. He puts on his uniform, all thought of going to bed forgotten, and grabs his shield—doesn’t think of Tony’s smile when he handed it to Steve—and heads out. He hopes someone will attack him. Give him an excuse to hit back as hard as he can. There are too many damn heroes out on patrols all of the time for Steve to risk starting anything himself. He just needs to hit something, someone; see the blood; get distracted.

Violence is good for calming his mind.

***

It’s Sunday, and the Japanese emergency services have finished combing through the rubble.

No body was found, which is good enough for Steve; he ignores the note at the end of the report, saying the explosion was powerful enough nothing was left at the epicentre.

Tony Stark is officially filed as missing.

***

Jan calls Steve to ask how he’s holding up and forces him to meet her for coffee.

“You look amazing,” he tells her, because he can appreciate aesthetic beauty: she has a new haircut, slightly sharper than her old one, longer bangs in the front. She’s wearing a black dress that fits her figure—of her own design, as usual—and yellow necklace.

She’s also frowning at him, tilting her head to the right.

“Are you really going to pretend you’re okay?” she asks.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Steve asks lightly.

“Tony.” She punctures the word with her finger, stabbing Steve in the arm.

“Tony’s fine,” Steve says. “You know him. It wouldn’t be the first time he disappeared like that.”

“Ah.” Jan nods to herself. “Still in denial, then? Steve, you know he wouldn’t—he wouldn’t let us worry like this.”

Steve bites on his lower lip, trying to appear worried. He sent a team to investigate, and so far they’ve come up with nothing. He thinks he might kill one of them just to motivate them. But . . . “I know he has enemies,” he finally says. “And talking of first times, it definitely wouldn’t be the first time he got kidnapped. I know Rhodes is searching for him. And much as I’d love to be there—I don’t know Japan, Jan. I’d ask Logan for help, if, you know . . .” He trails off, not even sure what to say about Logan now. “Rhodes has Tony’s armour tech. If anyone can track him . . .”

He’s supposed to be acting, and he thinks he’s failing miserably. Everything he says feels too true to his own ears.

Except, he’s pretty sure that soon he’s going to fly to Tokyo and torture some answers out of anyone who gets in his way.

“Oh, Steve,” Jan says, and covers his hand with hers. “It’s Tony,” she says. “He’s strong.”

“Are you pushing me back into denial, then?” Steve asks, and she laughs sadly, shakes her head.

“I wanted to make sure you’re alright, and I’m terrible at it,” she says. She shakes. “It’s just—everything we’ve been through, Steve? And now this? Tony deserves a break. We all do.”

“Yes,” Steve agrees. And when his plans finally come to fruition, he’ll make sure no one ever suffers again.

But they’re long-term plans, and he can’t rush them. He knows he could ruin everything like that.

Waiting was easier when he could pass the time in Tony’s company, though.

“Okay,” he says, forcing cheerfulness into his voice. He straightens up. He should appear supportive, too. “New collection?” he asks, pointing at her dress.

“You’re not into fashion, Steve,” Jan swats his hand away.

“I do paint,” he reminds her. One of the few true things people know about him. The Avengers—Iron Man—were his favourite subject for a long time, until he found out just who was under the armour.

And since then, Tony.

It’s good, though. He’s spent a long time studying Tony, all things considered. He’ll know how to work him, to make him agree with Steve’s case.

When Tony’s back. Which he will be, soon. Steve knows it.

“Steve?” Jan’s voice surprises him, and he shakes his head, blinks a few times.

“Sorry,” he says. “Got lost in my thoughts.”

Jan doesn’t look convinced, and moments later she gets up. He thinks she’s going to leave, but instead she steps to his chair, leans down and hugs him.

“It’ll be okay,” she says.

“I know,” he answers.

***

“What do you mean there’s nothing?!” Steve yells.

The agent steps back in obvious fear. Steve knows her name and history, but it doesn’t matter now. He doesn’t need to reason with her. He wants results.

“There’s nothing,” she repeats. “We looked everywhere. Tony Stark is not there.” She’s confident in what she’s saying. Her words don’t stutter. She’s telling him the truth—or the truth that she knows. Steve needs more.

Steve takes a step forward. “He is there,” Steve growls. He clearly needs a better team.

“It was a big explosion. I don’t get why Hydra cares for this—but Tony Stark is dead. There’s no other explanation. Shouldn’t we rejoice?”

Steve sees red.

He punches her, grabs her by her neck and slams into the wall. “You’re not here to second-guess my orders,” he says, never easing off the pressure at her neck. “If I order you to find Tony Stark, you bring me Tony Stark, not rumours. Understood?”

Tears are running down her face. She probably can’t breathe; he’s squeezing her neck hard. But she’s still conscious. She nods weakly.

“Good,” Steve says nicely. “Good.”

There’s hope in her eyes as he lets her go—and then he shoots her in the head, before she can even get her breathing back to norm.

He really needs better agents.

***

Two weeks of similar reports later, and Steve isn’t sure if he wants to fly to Japan himself, everything else be damned, or if he’s starting to see that Tony maybe, just maybe is dead.

But he can’t be.

Steve swallows. It’s time for his weekly talk with Red Skull.

Steve takes a long shower first, makes sure his skin is clean. He dries himself and puts on his uniform pants. Finally, he reaches for the black dye, and in smooth, practised movements of an artist, he draws the Hydra symbol on his chest.

Prepared, he makes sure his home is on lockdown, goes to the empty room with the holospeaker, and kneels.

The light signalising that Red Skull has connected lights up the room, but Steve doesn’t raise his head. “Welcome, Supreme Leader.”

“Herr Rogers,” Red Skull says. “We’re supposed to lie low for now.”

“We are, sir,” Steve says.

“Then what is going on in Japan, herr Rogers?” Red Skull asks.

“I have plans regarding Anthony Stark,” Steve says. “I know him well. I will convince him to join us.”

Red Skull huffs. “He is a genius engineer, I’ll give him that, but I don’t think he’s worth all this effort.”

“We need good weaponry to win the war, sir,” Steve says. “I believe Anthony Stark could provide just that.”

“Very well,” Red Skull says. “Try to convince him. Kill him immediately if he suspects anything.”

“Of course, Supreme Leader,” Steve says.

The call ends.

Steve slowly stands up. He looks at his chest, at the Hydra symbol. Steve believes in Hydra. But Hydra isn’t what Red Skull stands for.

And Steve has to find Tony.

***

Steve stares at his ceiling. He should be doing something, anything—but he’s just thinking, what if Tony really is dead?

He can’t go on like this.

He thinks of the last time he saw Tony, alive and well, and smiles involuntarily. He always liked sparring with Tony. Their last session was pretty good, all things considered, but . . .

Doom. Tony said he was—pretty? Steve can’t really imagine that. But more importantly, Tony said Doom helped him.

Yeah. Sure.

Steve doesn’t know anything about magic, but he knows someone who does. It’s time he asked for help.

(Steve pushes away the part of himself that wants to wring Strange’s neck for what he’s done.)

He could call him, but he knows how Strange is with phones, and he needs to physically do something, anyway. Sanctum Sanctorum isn’t far, so Steve decides to just walk there. After a moment of consideration, he puts on civilian clothes. He doesn’t want to appear in any way threatening, just in case.

It’s already dark, and it’s slowly getting colder. Steve just wraps his jacket tighter around him and continues walking. He knows New York, he won’t get lost here. He jumps on a low roof, and then the next one, and then runs atop them until he reaches Strange’s neighbourhood. He gets back down—he feels a bit better for this minimal physical exertion, but the worry about Tony still dims everything else.

Slower now, he walks up to the Sanctum Sanctorum door, and knocks. And waits.

And waits.

Wong opens after a few minutes. “Oh, Captain. Welcome.”

“Is Strange here?” Steve asks. “It’s—it’s about Tony.”

Wong doesn’t appear surprised. “Come inside,” he says. “And wait in the living room, Captain, please. The rest of this house is dangerous.”

Steve has gotten the same warning every single time he’s visited this building, and so far, he’s heeded it. He doesn’t really want to meet demons from hell or giant magical insects or whatever else Strange might be keeping in his cellar.

Or maybe years with Tony “I hate magic” Stark have rubbed off on Steve.

He chuckles briefly to himself at this thought.

“I see the situation isn’t as dire as it was presented to me,” Strange drawls.

Steve turns to him, and sees Strange leaning against the doorway. He doesn’t look like the Sorcerer Supreme. He looks like a tired, sleep-deprived man. Steve doesn’t care.

“Tony’s gone,” he says.

“So I’ve heard,” Strange says. He sighs as he slowly steps to the other armchair in the room and sits there. “Clairvoyant spells aren’t my speciality, Captain, I’m sorry.”

Steve shakes his head, but makes a mental note to find someone who does these spells. “I’m not here for that. But—the day before he disappeared, he told me Doom was bothering him?”

“Ah.” Strange nods with understanding. He hesitates. “For what it’s worth, I doubt Doom had anything to do with it.”

Steve raised his eyebrows. “And what gives you this certainty?”

Strange sighs. “I haven’t seen him since—for a long time. But from what Tony told me, he really is trying to do better this time. He helped Tony with a demonic possession. He banished the demon without harming the host, an extremely difficult spell, despite there being way easier ways—which, incidentally, would kill the host.”

“So he did one good thing and you’re trusting him?” Steve asks with disbelief.

“I’ll tell you what I told Tony, Captain: if Victor wants to turn a new leaf, it can be done. And Tony and I know that better than most.”

Steve’s done with this. “Can’t you just track him?”

“No,” Strange answers.

“No, because you trust him—”

Strange sighs, impatient. “No, because he’s too good a sorcerer for that. Which brings me to my next point, Captain: Doom is a world-class sorcerer. If he wanted to kidnap Tony so that no one would ever know, he could’ve done it without losing his breath. He certainly didn’t need to make Tony trust him—especially since his actions so far mostly made Tony suspicious.”

Steve looks down. “You really don’t think it’s him.”

Strange nods. “I’m sorry, Steve. Tony’s my friend too.”

Steve makes his hand into a fist, until his fingernails are digging into his palm, hard. Yeah. Strange and Tony are good friends indeed.

Good enough Tony betrayed Steve for him.

Idiot, Steve chastises himself. You were supposed to let it go.

And he did—when Tony was around. Nothing seems to work when Tony’s gone, in one way or another.

“Thanks anyway,” Steve says, getting up.

Strange just nods at him, and Wong leads Steve out.

Steve considers his position briefly. He’s not sure who else he can ask for help. He could track Amara Perera, maybe—but she is just a civilian scientist. Why would she know anything?

His next thought is Rhodes. He called Steve first. If Tony suspects anything . . . Tony would never put Rhodes in danger. But . . . If Tony is indeed hiding, for other reasons—it’s possible Rhodes knows. Steve doesn’t like this possibility, because why doesn’t he know, then? It’s the best idea he has right now, though, because he will not consider the last option.

Tony isn’t dead.

Steve goes back to his apartment. Carol still lives in the Statue of Liberty, so he takes the flying car SHIELD gave him. Steve amuses himself, considering what it’d look like with the Hydra symbol in front. He might just redecorate it, when his plans finally come to fruition.

But first: he has to find Tony.

He rings the doorbell, and no matter how much he wants to just kick the door in, he waits. He counts his heartbeat and gets to sixty when a dishevelled, annoyed Carol opens it. “What the hell, Steve, it’s—” She stops, looks at him closer. “Steve? Is everything okay?”

“I don’t know,” Steve says, and the rest of her annoyance changes into worry. “I—is Rhodes here?”

“Yeah,” Carol says. “Come in. Rhodey, get decent!” she calls.

“I won’t take long,” Steve promises. “I just want to ask about Tony.”

Carol turns back, gives him a sad look, and then resumes her trek upstairs. Steve follows, thinking that getting up and down these steps every day would actually a good workout. Except, of course, Carol can fly.

When they reach Carol’s living room, Rhodes is there in loose pants and a USAF t-shirt.

Steve rolls his eyes at that and Rhodes grins. “Come on, you’d have done the same.”

“Fair enough,” Steve says. He looks at Rhodes closely. Under the joking attitude, he seems tense and tired—much like Steve feels, really. He’s got his shoulders squared, as if he’s expecting some bad news. Steve sighs. “Is Tony alive?” he asks.

Rhodes flinches. “Excuse me?”

“Is Tony alive?” Steve repeats. “Because—if anyone would know, it’d be you, and—I have to know, all right?”

“What the fuck, Steve?” Carol steps between them. “His best friend is . . . lost,” she says, and Steve knows both he and Rhodes noticed the hesitation and know what she really meant to say, “and you barge in here at midnight, with conspiracy theories and—”

“Carol,” Rhodey interrupts her. “Carol, I’m fine.” He gives a short, fake laugh. “I guess if the situations were reversed, I’d be at Steve’s door wondering the same.” He looks Steve straight in the eye, and Steve sees just how damn tired Rhodes is, really, his eyes red and eyelids dropping. “I called you, because I know you care about Tony, and I know what it’d do to me to get news like that from strangers. But nothing has changed since then, Steve. Don’t you think I would’ve told you?”

“Not if Tony asked you not to, you wouldn’t,” Steve answers, but he starts to understand Rhodes is telling the truth.

“And why would he do that?” Rhodes asks. “He can be annoying as hell, true, but man, Tony cares about you.”

But he might think it’s necessary, Steve thinks. That he has to hurt me for the greater good. It’s just like Tony, after all, keeping the SHRA a secret, wiping Steve’s mind, faking his own death—

Steve shouldn’t care. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is Hydra.

And Tony. He thinks he can stop denying that.

He nods. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I just—I hoped—I had to check.”

“I get it,” Rhodes replies. He doesn’t seem annoyed. Just . . . resigned. “I really do.”

“Thanks for not throwing me out the window, Carol,” Steve says.

She pulls a face. “I might yet.”

Steve starts going down again, and he hears Carol’s steps behind him. They stop before the main door again for a moment. He can barely see her in the dim light, but she seems serious, her posture straight, nothing light in her voice.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m worried about him too, but I have Rhodey. I guess that’s how I’m dealing.”

“It’s okay, Carol,” Steve says. “I shouldn’t have come so late.”

“But you couldn’t wait,” she says, without heat. “Rhodey already told you. He gets it. I get it. It’s okay, Steve. But . . . In the future, if you feel like this—call us. Or call Jan. Tony’s—Tony’s somewhere, but you’re not alone, Steve.”

No. He will always have Hydra.

“Thank you, Carol,” he says.

Carol catches him by his elbow when he turns to leave. “I mean it,” she says. “We’re friends, Steve. And if he is hiding, I’ll kick his ass for both of you.”

Steve laughs. But . . . “You don’t think so,” he says.

Carol shakes her head. “I’m not saying that,” she says. “Come on, Steve, it won’t help you to hear what I’m thinking.”

He nods, but he’s sure anyway: Carol believes Tony’s dead.

He—he can’t.

“I have to go,” he says quickly, his eyes stinging.

“Just be careful,” Carol says, and he nods and gets back on his bike.

Tony has to be alive.

But what if he isn’t?

What if—what if he’s dead, in Asia, some unrecognised body, what if he’s already buried in an unnamed grave?

What if the Hand got him, and they tortured him and finally killed him?

Steve feels sick at every possibility.

***

It’s two months of no news, of Strange shaking his head in defeat, of Rhodes sending him texts, still nothing, of more Japanese Hydra cells reporting nothing, nothing, nothing, of Tony Stark still lost on TV, of Tony’s board very publicly stating either he comes back and acts his CEO role or they fire him, that Steve finally understands.

Tony Stark is dead.

Tony Stark is dead, because there’s no way he wouldn’t be here, fighting for his company, because there’s no way he could hide from professional spies, and finally because there is no way he’d put his friends through it.

And Steve knows exactly, intimately what Tony can do to people he claims he loves—but this is too much.

So Tony’s dead.

And Steve still hopes his wrong. Because all this hurt, all this betrayal he’s feeling right now, all this anguish—all of it would be worth it, if only Tony was alive. If only Tony came back to him.

Steve punches through his mirror and startles; the bright red blood on his hands is more surprising than the pain.

The radio in living room is still saying, Stark Resilient stocks are dropping, and he wants to smash it, but . . .

He runs hot water over his hand and revels in the hurt, physical for once, not this gloom, dark, hopeless emotion associated with Tony is dead.

Steve doesn’t really scar, and he heals faster than a baseline human, but he has a first aid kit all the same; usually for other people he might want to patch up.

Now, he sprays the disinfectant over his fingers, hisses at the sharp pain. After a moment, he wraps his hand in bandages. He doesn’t need them, but he wants a reminder, something, anything, to ground him when Tony is dead.

Tony can’t be dead. He just can’t.

But he is. There’s no other explanation. He loves his company, he cares for his friends. He’s not a cruel man.

So he’s gone.

Steve tries to compose himself, but he can’t. He manages to reach his bed, in a few long, unsteady steps, and then he sits down, leans is head on his hands, his elbows on his knees, and sobs.

He wasn’t supposed to care. Tony was supposed to be an . . . asset. An experiment. After all, what else could he be?

Steve’s life is Hydra, and he still want to see Hydra succeed. But . . . Thinking of a life without Tony? He can’t do it. He simple can’t. He can’t even think of tomorrow, because there’s no tomorrow, easy as that. There’s nothing, if Tony isn’t somewhere, and Tony’s gone.

Steve should be stronger than that. Tony wasn’t even one of them. Wasn’t Hydra. Tony was a superhero: so an enemy, or a casualty. Steve thinks of Carol, of Rhodes, of Bucky. He could get the order to kill all of them and he would do it without batting an eye.

Why is Tony different? Even now, when he’s dead?

Steve can’t deal with it. He doesn’t imagine himself ever standing up again, doing anything. He just. Doesn’t.

It’s worse than waking up in the next century was, because Tony clearly was a part of Steve. And now he’s gone.

Steve can’t stop crying.

***

The next morning, Steve take a very long, very cold shower.

Tony is dead. So Steve doesn’t have more emotions to distract him. As long as he doesn’t think of why that is, he’ll be fine.

He can focus on Hydra now. He’s got orders. He should carry them out. Red Skull wants Selvig dead. Killing him doesn’t bother Steve, but . . . It’s such a waste. He’s really a brilliant scientist. Steve’s pretty sure Red Skull fears him, which is all the better reason to save Selvig. He might even get to kill Zemo in the process. That would be fun.

***

He kills Zemo and saves Selvig and lies to everyone about both. Captain America doesn’t kill; a Hydra operative wouldn’t kill such an important figure, what a sad accident. Selvig is said to die in an explosion, and Steve makes plans to secure a lab for him instead. He’s got plans, after all.

***

Steve’s reading the reports from his spies when one catches his attention.

New Inhuman in New Attilan, it reads. Hard to find out more; near Medusa or Karnak all the time. Some kind of psychic powers?

Steve frowns. That’s potentially worrying; more than that, it’s dangerous. He sends the agent the next order: find as much as you can, first priority.

He’s shielded against telepaths, but Inhumans’ powers are different, stranger. He doesn’t know what to expect from them. Psychic powers is a wide term, but he doesn’t like any of the possibilities. Maybe it’s time to encourage that quietly brewing war between the Inhumans and the X-Men into a full out, genocidal one.

Firstly, he has to call Red Skull.

He prepares himself, as he always does. The touch of the black skin dye on his chest is cold, but familiar like breathing; almost pleasant. Painting the lines comes easy to him, and soon after he’s ready. He starts the device, and kneels.

“You’re late,” Red Skull says.

“Forgive me, Supreme Leader,” Steve says. He has no excuse for that.

“Hm. That will very much depend, herr Rogers, on what happened in Bagalia?”

Steve remains calm. Doesn’t let any muscle twitch. He tells Red Skull the story Red Skull wants to hear, the story Steve has put in a report already. Zemo is dead, and Selvig with him. Steve protests against killing Selvig just enough Red Skull believes it happened, and then he apologises, bows down again.

“It sounds like we may consider this operation a success, then,” Red Skull says.

Steve hesitates. “There’s a new Inhuman,” he says.

“We should wipe them all out!” Red Skull yells.

“He might be potentially dangerous, so I sent my spies to learn more.”

“Very well, Herr Rogers.” Red Skull laughed. “The victory is at hand.”

The connection ends, and Steve stands up.

The victory is at hand, indeed. Just not Red Skull’s.

He suits back up, and goes about finding a laboratory for Selvig. He thinks it’s amusing, how all these lowly villains thinks he won’t harm them. He’s Captain America, after all.

They’re all, every single one of them, pathetic.

Steve cuts of Ivan’s arm, and the man still thinks he’s going to walk out of this alive.

Steve cuts off his head, and his screams finally quiet.

Steve smiles as he presents Selvig to his new laboratory and new mission.

Kill Red Skull.

***

Ulysses is a precog, cosmic catastrophe, warn Ultimates, the report says.

Steve considers this.

If he can truly see the future, he’s dangerous. Even if he can only see the glimpses of it, Steve can’t let him live.

But if there’s really a cosmic catastrophe coming, this takes priority. Steve doesn’t want to destroy the Earth, far from it. He wants to fix it.

A plan materialises in his head. He can help the Ultimates—they’ll probably ask him, really. If it’ll be a big victory that the Inhumans want to use, there’ll be a gathering after the fight.

And then, Steve can kill them all in one fell swoop.

Good, he thinks. Good.

***

Three months after Tony disappeared, Steve gets a text. He looks at his phone and almost crushes it in the next instant.

He’s back, Rhodes wrote.

Moments later, someone knocks on Steve’s door. Steve moves as in trance, wondering if the text is a joke, or if he’s really going to open his door to see Tony.

He does.

He doesn’t even think, he promptly punches him in the face, watches him struggle back. Is it Tony? Mystique? Or a Skrull?

Whoever it is, he’s picking himself up slowly, a crooked smile on his face. “I deserved that,” he admits, which is such a Tony reaction, it answers the question for Steve.

Steve’s mad at him for disappearing. He’s also terribly, painfully relieved.

“Come inside,” he says. Tony follows him with a sheepish expression.

“I thought you were dead,” Steve says. Please tell me you were held captive and not just hiding.

Tony winces. “I’m sorry,” he says. “It was necessary.”

Steve wants to hit him again.

“How,” he says instead. “How was it necessary?” He stares at Tony.

Tony looks away. “I—Rhodey knew,” he says.

Steve sees red. “Rhodey knew,” he repeats almost calmly, as if he doesn’t want to scream. “I asked him—”

“I’m sorry,” Tony repeats. “I really am, Steve. I—I promised myself to never hurt you again, and . . .”

“You didn’t think faking your own death would hurt me?” Steve asks. He wants to hit something, destroy things, but he can’t. He can only barely whisper.

Tony bites on his lower lip. “I know what you said,” he says. “About starting anew.”

“And what, you decided I didn’t mean any of it and actually hated you?”

“I wouldn’t blame you if you did,” Tony whispers. “I—I didn’t think you cared that much. I didn’t think it’d hurt you. I’m sorry, Steve.”

Steve closes his eyes. “Okay. If you knew that. Would you have told me?”

Tony hesitates. “Maybe?” he says. “Probably.”

“What were you doing anyway?”

Tony shrugs. “I still don’t know. There’s someone who can replicate my tech a bit too well. That’s—well, that shouldn’t be possible. I had to go undercover to get their trust—and, Steve, your hand-to-hand lessons helped me immensely.” Tony smiles, but it’s quickly gone. “I tried to learn what I could—but in the end there was nothing. I don’t know where these two women got the tech they had. I don’t know their plans. I don’t know what they need tech ninjas for.”

Tech ninjas? Steve frowns, but then he remembers a recording of Tony fighting . . . well, tech ninjas seemed to be a valid description: it was a group of men in high-tech armour, well-camouflaged and skilled in martial arts.

“So three months of your life, and for what?” Steve asks.

Tony slowly blows out air through his mouth, delaying the answer. “I’ll make it up somehow,” he says finally. “To everyone else.” He looks straight at Steve then. “But mostly, Steve, I’ll make it up to you.”

Steve shakes his head. He indicates at the sofa next to him, and after some hesitation, Tony sits there. Steve pulls him closer, until he can comfortably hug him. “Just don’t do that to me again,” he whispers.

Tony hugs him back. “I promise,” he says. “I promise. I’m so, so sorry, Steve.”

“It’s okay,” Steve says, even thought it’s not. “I—” he cuts himself off, because he’s pretty sure he was about to say I love you, and that—cannot happen. “I was worried,” he says. “I mourned you.”

Tony shivers over him, as if he’s crying now, but he keeps running his hands through Steve’s hair.

“I’ll never do that to you again,” Tony promises, fiercely, and Steve believes him.

***

Three days later, Carol calls Steve, and explains about a cosmic-level danger to Earth. Steve fakes surprise, and promises her he’ll be there. Tony calls next, asking if Steve wants to fly with him, Steve agrees to that as well. He wants nothing more, in fact.

He suits up quickly, takes the shield—it’s still not like his first shield and never will be, but he thinks he loves it anyway. It’s everything he needs and more, and it’s lethal. Tony’s truly a genius when it comes to weapons.

Mere seconds after Steve’s ready, Iron Man knocks on his window from outside. Steve laughs, happy to see him even, especially when the world is in danger again. He steps out on the balcony, and Tony lands there.

“What do you think it is?” Steve asks.

“No idea,” Tony answers, looking at the dark figure in the sky. It’s not in their universe yet . . . but soon it will be. “But making sure it doesn’t step in our New York seems like a good idea, doesn’t it?”

“Ah, Tony Stark, the strategist,” Steve says.

“Wasn’t that your title?” Tony smiles, then pulls the faceplate down.

“There’s a reason you’ve led the team so many times, Tony,” Steve tells him. Then he steps closer to Tony, embraces him around waist, and waits until Tony almost hugs Steve to make the lift secure.

Steve knows Tony won’t drop him, like he knows the colour of Tony’s eyes and his expression when Steve offers him a cup of coffee first thing in the morning.

***

The fight is hard, and Steve loses Tony almost immediately. His comms are fried, but sometimes he thinks he sees Iron Man soaring through the sky above him.

It gives Steve hope. It lets him fight.

At the end of it, most of them can barely stand, but Doctor Strange and his sorcerers contain the creature.

Steve leans on his shield, heavily. Tony lands next to him, his suit dented in a few places, but Tony himself is very much alive.

Steve breathes with relief.

And then Tony invites everyone present, Inhumans and the X-Man, Avengers and Ultimates, everyone, to a victory party in Stark Tower.

Ulysses will be there, Steve knows, and all the heroes; the perfect target. So perfect, in fact, that his people are already in position. The strike was planned even before Tony got back. Steve will have to leave soon. Except . . .

He follows Tony, to the quinjet this time, and is silent the whole way.

“Just tired,” he says when Tony asks. Tony looks worried, but doesn’t press. He lands in the hangar.

“Okay,” he says. “I love the armour, but it’s not party clothing. Let me just ditch it downstairs and I’ll be back.”

Steve nods.

He leaves the quinjet, slowly enters the Avengers Tower. Other heroes are already happily drinking and talking against a background of loud music. Kate seems to be dancing. Tony’s baby Avengers look at each other awkwardly. Inhumans and the X-Men seem to have fun, together.

That’s probably magic, though. Or Tony’s abilities to bring people together.

He can’t find Tony—until Tony walks in the room, and immediately gets everyone’s attention. He jumps on the table next to Carol and raises his can of coke.

Good, Steve thinks. He doesn’t want Tony to waver and fall off the wagon on a stupid party because they saved the world again.

His phone is hot in his pocket.

Tony toasts, and everyone cheers for him. And then Carol, finally, asks, “Medusa, how?”

Tony looks as curious as Carol, so Steve follows after them. He knows what he has to do. He knows. Except . . .

It’s exactly as he feared—the Ulysses kid can foresee the future. Carol wants to use his powers immediately.

Steve reaches for his phone, slowly, too slowly. He doesn’t—

Tony raises his hands high and says, “No. No way.

“What’s on your mind, Tony?” Steve asks, curious, stilling his hands again.

Tony looks at him at horror. “Nope. Uh-uh. I’m not going to have a morality debate with you, Steve. Those never end well for us.”

Steve looks at him, surprised, but can’t answer.

Carol cuts in, “Morality debate? Now this is a morality issue?”

Steve backs away, listening intently. Listening to Carol and Rhodey convincing Tony to give Ulysses a chance—and listening to Tony repeating No, nope, can’t.

“I thought you were a futurist!” Carol finally yells.

Tony turns to stare at her. “I am. To my core. That means I respect the future. I believe in the future. I worship at is feet. I’m saying: maybe we should be very careful about what our new buddy Ulysses here tells us and what we do about it. But I’m glad you’re all here, and enjoy the party.”

He storms off after that.

Steve looks after him for a long while, and then goes after him.

He finds Tony at one of the Tower’s ceiling-high windows, looking outside, deep in thought.

Steve wants to hug him. Tell him it won’t be that bad.

He reaches for his phone. Stand down, he writes, finally, as if he hadn’t decided he’d do it the moment Tony said party at my place.

It makes sense, he reasons. There’s clearly a new superhero war coming. They’ll kill themselves. And Tony will lead one side, will cast suspicion on Ulysses’ visions, and then, finally, will join Steve.

It really makes perfect sense. It’s not emotional.

He softly steps to Tony, wraps his arms around him. Tony tenses, makes a move as if to push him away, and then stills. “Steve,” he says.

Steve doesn’t think how close he was to actually losing him tonight. It’s not something he can face after only just getting him back.

Tony’s his. And it’ll stay this way.

***

“So what do you think?” Tony asks minutes, hours later.

“About?”

“Ulysses,” Tony says, like it’s obvious.

Really, it is.

Steve sighs. “See, Tony, what you said there, about getting into a morality debate? I don’t want that either. I don’t want anything to get between us this time. I won’t let it.”

He’ll kill Ulysses with his bare hands if that’s what it takes.

Tony’s staring at him. “You mean it,” he says, surprised.

Steve kisses him.

It's definitely not planned—if he paused to think, even for a second, he would've realised what a terrible idea it is. But Tony's lips are soft under his, still tasting like coke, and Tony's wrapping his arms around Steve and pulling him closer.

Steve thought Tony was dead for three long, hellish months, and he almost lost him now, again, and Tony's his, his only, Steve will never lose him again, in any way.

Tony kisses him back, and Steve opens his mouth, keeps Tony tightly pressed against himself, Tony's body hot next to him.

Tony's alive, Tony’s with Steve, and the world is like it should be.

They separate, finally. Steve has no idea how much time has passed. He’s almost dizzy with the sensation. But he can hear the music coming from afar, so the party is still on. Steve isn't sure if anyone should see them, but also definitely doesn’t want to move.

Tony's staring at him with wide, happy eyes, though, and Steve's pretty sure he's wearing a similar expression himself.

"I'm never letting you go again," Steve growls.

"Yeah, I doubt you could make me," Tony says, smiling and content. God, Steve loves him.

“But.” Tony studies him. “What was it, Steve? Did I just have to declare I wouldn't fight you, or . . . Because really, if I knew you—you—you wanted to kiss me," he settles on, and Steve laughs, because no, no, he doesn’t just want to kiss Tony, he wants to do everything to Tony, he loves Tony beyond anything else. But Tony continues speaking, "If I knew that—well, I would’ve preferred a welcome home kiss when I came back from Japan.” He grins at Steve.

Steve grows serious, because I almost gave the order to kill you is not something he can say.

"It's a part of it," he admits. "But then—you just came back, and I was hurt you lied, and I was overjoyed to see you; mostly, I was just confused. Here, now—Tony, I love you. And I realised I could've lost you in that room. Like I lost you to SHRA. And I couldn't—I couldn't go through it again."

Tony's staring at him, his eyes glassy. "You love me," he repeats quietly, as if he expects Steve to say that no, Tony, did you believe that, oh my god, I was joking.

"I love you more than I love anything else in this world," Steve says.

"Ah, we're not counting the shield?" Tony smiles. He looks like he's at the verge of tears and trying to compose himself, hide himself behind jokes.

"Tony."

"I love you, Steve," Tony says. "I've loved you for years. And it was okay, because I knew—you could never love me back. That just . . . doesn't happen to me."

"First time for everything, then," Steve says, and kisses him again, lightly.

Tony smiles at him, open and trusting, and says, "I guess." Then he frowns. "You're not concussed, are you? Are you mindcontrolled? No, Emma would’ve noticed. Any weird drinks?"

Steve laughs and takes Tony's face in his hands. "I've never been more myself," he says, "and I love you, Tony Stark."

Tony beams, and kisses him senseless.

Then Steve pushes him away, just long enough to say, “Bedroom, then?”, and Tony grabs his hand and leads him upstairs.

***

They wake up in one room, and Steve thinks this is great. Perfect, even. He needs it forever.

Tony's snuggling into Steve's side, still fast asleep, his RT shining bright. Steve smiles at the view. He never thought he could appreciate something quite that domestic. But Tony's beautiful, and the raw trust he offers in sleeping next to Steve makes Steve breathless.

He will never harm Tony. Tony is his.

Steve needs to kill Red Skull. Soon. Before he learns of this. Before anyone in Hydra does. Steve has to control Hydra, inside and out, to make sure Tony is safe.

And he will do it.

Tony stirs. Steve runs his hand through Tony's hair, gently, to settle him down. Tony moans, leans into Steve, and opens his eyes.

"Steve," he slurs.

"Good dream?" Steve asks.

Tony frowns, shakes his head. "Better morning, though." He hesitates. "Because I'm not dreaming right now, am I?"

"Well, that would mean I'm dreaming too," Steve says, and kisses him. It's slower, more gentle than their first kisses, and it's just as good as them. Tony is smiling when they separate, almost dreamily.

"I was—I was so scared yesterday," Tony whispers. "When I heard about his powers. But now . . . Steve, I always knew we can do anything together.”

Steve remembers another time when Tony said something similar. "I'm not half as good at anything as I am when I'm doing it next to you," he quotes, and at Tony's imploring look, he adds, "I’ve always remembered you saying that. But it goes both ways, you know. And you're right. We can do anything together.”

Tony's still smiling, and so is Steve. Maybe he'll keep smiling forever, too.

***

Tony’s busy trying to get his company back in order, so Steve sees less of him that he’d like. Another point on the ever growing list of things Steve will fix when Hydra’s in power, like it should be.

For now, Steve’s content with Tony calling him before work, just to say, Love you, content with surprising Tony after work with dinner and a welcome back kiss.

“We should be careful,” Steve says finally. “Uh. Private.”

Tony nods. “I was thinking about that,” he admits. “Don’t take it the wrong way, Steve—I’d like to tell the world now. Scream it from the rooftops. Tweet.” He stops talking, blushes. He’s adorable, Steve thinks. “But right now—Steve, you can see we’re at the brink of a war. With Ulysses . . . You give me strength, Steve,” Tony says, easily, like he thinks it’s silly to say he wants to share their relationship with the world, but admitting he leans on Steve is the easiest thing in the world. “You do. But any close relationships, and especially romantic ones, are seen as a weakness to exploit. And . . . Steve, I don’t know what I’d do if someone threatened you to get to me.”

Steve nods. “Much as I hate the situation, I agree with you,” he says. “I don’t want to believe anyone would use it, but . . .”

“I don’t want to believe anyone really wants to use Ulysses’ powers either, and yet here we are,” Tony says wryly. “It’ll end in a tragedy, Steve. I know it will.”

Steve raises a corner of his mouth in a smile. “Mister I can see the future now, is it?” he teases.

Tony rolls his eyes. “Historically, I’m awfully good at this futurist thing, Steve.”

Steve sighs. “You always see a tragedy.”

“And no one ever believes me!” Tony waves his arms in agitation. Then he closes his eyes, deflates. “Sorry, Steve. I’m just stressed.”

Steve walks behind Tony, starts kneading at his shoulder muscles. “I know,” he replies, as Tony leans into his touch. “You have a lot on your plate right now.”

“Yeah,” Tony says. “I’m—I’m glad I have you, Winghead.”

“Always,” Steve promises; he’s said it before, and he’ll say it again, so that Tony will always know Steve means it, every single time.

In Steve’s ideal world, Tony will never feel stressed again.

“I might not be around very much in the next week or so,” Tony says suddenly.

Steve’s surprised, but he doesn’t stop the massage. Tony’s muscles are definitely less tense already, but Steve has a suspicion that whatever Tony is about to say will ruin his hard work here. Tony stays silent, though, and Steve works on his back calmly, patiently.

“Tony?” he queries gently.

Tony sighs, tensing again, just like Steve feared. “I told you I was adopted.”

Steve nods, belatedly remembers he’s standing behind Tony’s head, and says, “Yes,” instead.

“I want to find my biological parents,” Tony says.

Steve thinks of what he knows about Howard Stark, and weighs his next words carefully. “I understand,” he says, “but, Tony—you have to know you’re your own person. You’re Tony Stark, and you’re brilliant, and I love you. Knowing your genetics won’t change that.”

Tony snorts angrily. He stands up to face Steve, pushing his hands away in the process. “I know that,” he says. He shakes his head. “Okay, I—I hope they’re better people than Howard, true. But . . . I just need to know where I come from, Steve. I want to know my own history. I want to learn if I have more family. If they gave me up for adoption—because honestly, I wouldn’t put it beyond Howard to kidnap a kid.” Tony laughs, but it’s a brittle sound, like he’s about to shatter. “I need to know, Steve, okay?”

“Okay,” Steve says. Tony’s a scientist. Of course this also plays a role. “But I want you to know that if you find yourself related to, oh, Doom, I will still love you.”

“Well, that would explain his sudden good looks,” Tony says.

“I still haven’t see that,” Steve says.

“Damn,” Tony says. “He’s really very handsome.”

Steve doesn’t like the sound of that. He’s not sure what his expression is like, but suddenly Tony laughs, says, “You really don’t need to be jealous of Doctor Doom, you know?”

“Well, you have common interests already—”

“Yeah, if I was into that I’d get with Reed,” Tony says and shudders. “So. No. It’s only you, Steve.” He tilts his head, looks at Steve for a moment, chuckles. “But it’s adorable of you.”

Steve’s not sure if planning Doctor Doom’s slow and painful demise is very adorable, but Tony doesn’t need to know that.

“Okay,” Steve says. “Back to the topic. Where will you go?”

Tony winces. “Europe, apparently.”

“You sure you don’t want me to go with you?” Steve asks.

Tony shakes his head. “I have to do it alone. I just . . . have to.”

Steve considers that for a moment. He doesn’t like Tony going on his own. He could be telling the truth. Or he could’ve found out about Steve. Steve can’t let him do that. Not so soon. He loves Tony and he won’t lose him. But . . . His override should let him track Tony’s armour. If he really goes to Europe, then it means he’s not lying.

(He doesn’t look like he’s lying, his emotions are too raw, too real, but Steve has long since learnt caution.)

“Okay,” Steve says. “Okay.” He hates to see Tony leave, but it will give him some time to finish with Selvig without making Tony question where Steve is going all the time.

They don’t live together, yet, but Steve likes to see Tony when he can. Finishing Hydra business now will give him time, and hopefully won’t make Red Skull suspicious of anything.

“Call me,” Steve says.

“Yes, mum.” Tony rolls his eyes.

“I really hope not,” Steve says, and Tony stares at him in horror before doubling up, laughing.

“That was terrible,” he lets out through the laughter, and Steve just nods.

***

Tony calls. Steve runs the tracking on Tony’s armour, and sees him in Bucharest. He smiles, and closes the program, listens to Tony not-really-talk about what he’s doing.

He doesn’t understand what made Tony so upset, but a few days later Steve learns from SHIELD gossip that Tony called them in to arrest Cassandra Gillespie, an illegal arms dealer and apparently Tony’s ex. The mission took place in Bucharest, further reassuring Steve that Tony wasn’t lying.

Steve asks about Cassandra the next time Tony calls. Tony, of course, doesn’t want to talk about it, and sounds subdued. Steve gathers it was yet another woman who took Tony’s love, when all she wanted was his money, ideas, possessions.

“I don’t know why she cropped up now,” Tony whispers.

Steve hates hearing him sad. He thinks of the map of Europe, smirks. “Well,” he says. “It looks like all your searching is taking you closer to Latveria.”

“Fuck you,” Tony says, but it sounds like he’s amused, at least.

Steve will take that.

***

Tony calls two days later again. “I’m flying to London,” he says. His voice sounds different. Both measures excited and scared.

“You found them,” Steve says.

Maybe,” Tony says. “I—” He stops, as if he’s not quite sure what to say. “God, Steve, I—” His breath hitches.

“It’s okay,” Steve says. “It’s okay, Tony.”

“I was—I was adopted from Bulgaria,” Tony says. “If—if it’s true, my mother was—is—English. I—I don’t know anything, Steve, I’m lost, I—I should know, isn’t that my job?”

“Shhhh,” Steve says. “Not here it’s not, unless you traced your roots to an AI.” He’s not sure if Tony’s in mood for jokes, but he never knows what to do when Tony sounds like this, panicking, losing it, especially when it’s not in a battle—because Tony’s always composed in a battle—but about something much more personal. Steve doesn’t have any experience here. He doesn’t know what to do. But he can’t say that. He has to be there for Tony.

“I kept saying please don’t be the Red Skull when I opened the file,” Tony says, sounding more composed. Or maybe he’s trying to appear strong for Steve. Steve hopes that’s not the case.

Then Tony’s words hit him.

“Yeah,” he says. “That would be unfortunate.”

“Steve?” Tony asks. “Everything okay? Did you have to deal with Hydra lately?”

Damn. Steve should really control himself better. “No,” Steve lies. “It’s just—I’m stressed. I miss you.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony says. “Do you—”

“No,” Steve cuts in. “Just . . . Never mind me, Tony. Go to London. Find your family.”

“Is that order, Captain?” Tony drawls.

“Yeah,” Steve says. “But Captain Britain is already taken, so please don’t find patriotism in the UK.”

“I don’t know,” Tony muses. “Captain United doesn’t sound bad? It stands for both, too . . .”

Steve frowns. Tony’s babbling a lot, and that in itself isn’t unusual, but . . . “Tony,” he says.

“Yeah?”

“You’re at their doorstep, aren’t you.”

There’s a guilty silence on the other side of the line.

Tony,” Steve repeats.

“Maybe,” Tony says. “What if I knock and it’s a room full of Skrulls?”

“Then you’ll bond with the Hulkling.”

“You’re a menace,” Tony says. He takes a deep breath. “Okay. Okay.”

“Good luck. I love you.”

“Thank you,” Tony says, and finishes the call.

***

Tony comes back two days later. He’s obviously tired, but he doesn’t look utterly sad and exhausted, for once; his eyes are shining and he holds himself straight. He’s still in the armour at Steve’s doorsteps, as if he came directly to him—which, he clearly did.

Steve lets him in. “The armour, Tony,” he reminds him.

Tony laughs, makes it disassemble, turns to Steve. His movements are a bit too fast and uncoordinated, and Steve suspects Tony hasn’t slept in way too long. He’s not going to ask yet, though, because Tony has news to tell.

“Coffee first,” Tony says, and Steve shakes his head fondly, but heads to the kitchen. He knows Tony’s favourite coffee, of course which is as many espresso shots as he can fit in his mug, but Tony is tired, and Steve wants him to go to bed, not be hyperactive for a few hours and then crash for a day. Instead, he takes Tony’s favourite mug—there’s some English singer on it Steve doesn’t really know, but Tony likes—and prepares decaf. Then, he looks in his fridge for something Tony will eat. He makes Tony a peanut butter sandwich—Tony will protest he’s not hungry, but in Steve’s experience, no one can resist peanut butter.

Prepared, Steve goes back to his living room and sets the food before Tony. Tony takes a look at it and suddenly starts laughing.

“Tony?” Steve asks, worried Tony is more sleep-deprived than he looks.

“It’s—” Tony can’t finish the word, instead points at the mug and keeps laughing, almost doubled with it.

“Do I need to call Strange?” Steve asks.

Tony shakes his head. He wipes at his eyes, finally calms down. “I just—did you know?” he asks.

“Know what?” Steve asks, confused.

“Okay.” Tony nods. “Okay.” He drinks half of the mug in one go, sets it back down and grins.

“Come on, I’m curious too,” Steve says, amused Tony didn’t comment anything off about the coffee.

“My biological mum is Amanda Armstrong,” Tony says.

Steve frowns. This sounds familiar . . . He looks at the mug and feels himself laughing too. “I’m—I’m sorry, Tony,” he lets out finally. “I really didn’t know.”

“I told her I liked her music,” Tony says.

“Well, here’s a proof if you need any,” Steve says. “I only keep that mug for you.”

“I know,” Tony says. He smiles, but surprisingly softly this time. “Thank you.”

Steve squeezes his hand, gently.

“She—she’s very nice,” Tony says. “We talked a lot. I think—I hope I’ll travel to London more often, now.”

Steve nods.

“One day I might even introduce you,” Tony adds.

“You don’t have to,” Steve says.

“No, but you’re an important part of my life,” Tony says. “You always have been. And—well, it’s thirty years. But I really want to get to know her, you know.” He looks at the wall, but seems unseeing. Steve pushes the sandwich into his hand and Tony eats it almost mechanically.

“Good trip, then,” Steve says.

“Good trip,” Tony agrees. “Hm. I’m surprisingly tired for the coffee I’ve just drunk.”

“You are,” Steve agrees happily. “It was decaf.”

Tony looks at him with a look of sheer betrayal. “How could you?” he asks, clutching at his heart.

“Better question would be, how tired are you that you haven’t noticed?” Steve asks back.

“Touché,” Tony mutters. “Don’t think I’ll forget about this.”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “Sleep, Tony.”

Tony gets up, and Steve hugs him tight. He missed him, he realises, he missed him terribly.

“Okay,” Tony says. “I flew over the Atlantic and I really need a shower first.”

Steve lets him go, and Tony disappears in the bathroom while Steve looks for pyjamas for Tony. All of his are too big, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy seeing Tony in his clothes. He takes out fresh towels and puts them in the bathroom. Tony’s standing under the shower, his eyes closed.

“Tony?” Steve asks. “Don’t fall asleep there.”

“I’m not,” Tony says. “Just tired.”

“Okay.” Steve reaches into the cabin and turns off the water, then wraps Tony in the towel. Tony lets him do it without any protest, so he must be pretty out of it already.

art by rai-kishi

Steve kisses his forehead, pats Tony dry.

Tony’s almost falling asleep standing, and it’s not the first time Steve’s seen him that tired—but it’s both first time when it’s this intimate, and the first time when Tony’s content, when it’s been something good keeping him up instead of nightmares and fights.

He likes it when Tony’s happy.

And he likes putting Tony to his bed.

He wraps the blankets tight around Tony and kisses him gently. “Sweet dreams, Shellhead.”

Tony blinks at him. “You?”

“I’ll come soon,” Steve promises.

Tony’s out like a light.

Steve looks at him for a moment longer, then sighs. He closes the door to his bedroom quietly, although he doubts anything short of Galactus attacking would wake Tony up now. He probably didn’t sleep long before going to see his mother.

Then, Steve locks his working room, and prepares himself to give Red Skull another report. Carol has kept using Ulysses’ visions, but there’s a growing list of superheroes uneasy with her methods. Steve knows everyone’s biggest fear, though, always at the back of their minds, no matter how much time passes: the Hulk. Connecting Ulysses’ visions to him will scatter everyone.

The report is quick this time; Red Skull seems distracted. That’s even better, Steve thinks.

“One last thing, Herr Rogers,” Red Skull drawls. “Make sure they destroy themselves.”

“Hail Hydra,” Steve answers.

He carefully disconnects the device, and hides it behind his sketchbooks. He doubts Tony would come snooping in his house, but he can’t have him finding it. He washes off the Hydra symbol, puts on pyjamas, and curls up around Tony.

It’s only midday, but he thinks he deserves this break.

***

Steve’s getting ready for bed when his phone goes off.

Caller ID: Maria Hill.

He frowns. “Yes?” he asks.

“Rogers,” Hill says, “have you got any idea where Stark is?”

Steve tenses. Tony’s not with him, and why is she asking him anyway? Their relationship isn’t exactly public. “No,” he answers, faking calm. “Why? What happened?”

There’s a pause. Then Maria Hill says, in a heavy voice, “Jim Rhodes is dead.”

Fuck.

Steve can only imagine what this news will do to Tony.

“Tony was here—he stormed off.”

“He knows?!” Steve snaps. “Where is here?”

“The Triskelion.”

“I’ll be right there,” Steve says, and ends the call.

He has one of the SHIELD flying cars parked in the nearby garage just in case, and he heads there now. His mind is reeling. What happened? He hasn’t heard of any fight, and if they’re at the Triskelion, something must’ve happened in the line of duty . . .

He starts the car and flies towards the Triskelion, fast. Even this late it’s still faster than taking his bike, though Steve tends to prefer less conspicuous methods of transport. He gets there quickly, and Maria Hill is already waiting at the landing deck.

Steve lands the car and gets out of it, angry. “What happened?” he says.

“Stark—”

“No, what happened to Rhodes,” Steve clarifies.

Maria Hill sighs. “Ulysses had another vision. The Ultimates set off to stop Thanos.”

Steve frowns. “He wasn’t on that team.”

“No, but he was visiting Danvers,” Maria Hill says. “Thanos is in our cells. She-Hulk is in a coma, and Rhodes . . . Rhodes is dead.”

Steve nods. This is good, he thinks. This is what they need to start the war. There’s really no coming back from effectively killing one of the biggest heroes in New York. Maybe Carol didn’t stab him herself, but she trusted Ulysses. Yes, Steve is pleased with it.

And yet . . . Rhodes was Tony’s best friend. Steve’s worried about Tony’s reaction. He might very well turn self-destructive, as he’s so often prone to. Steve has to find him.

“That’s—that’s terrible,” he says out loud. “Tony . . . Where is Tony?”

“We called him to tell him about Rhodes. Some idiot told his assistant instead of him. Stark flew here. Rogers, I’ll be honest. I haven’t seen him in such a state since you died.”

Steve obviously hadn’t seen Tony then, but he’s seen recordings of his own funeral, Tony breaking down on live TV, he’s heard rumours of Director Stark just losing it, he’s read all the reports of the straight out suicidal missions Tony’d run.

And then, of course, he came back to see Tony’s body with his brain wiped clear of all the memories.

Steve needs to find Tony, now.

He needs more information. “Okay. Did he say anything?”

“You should talk to Danvers,” Maria Hill says.

“We both know what Tony’s capable of doing,” Steve says. “Let me find him.”

“Captain Marvel is inside with Black Panther. They’re talking about this.”

Steve nods, all but runs into the base. He sees America Chavez curled against the wall and doesn’t pay her much attention. In the next room, Carol’s standing next to T’Challa, gesturing nervously. She looks like hell. She’s got cuts and bruises on her face, her suit is torn, and there’s a bandage over her left eye. Steve knows very well how much she can take. It must’ve been a gruesome fight.

Of course, it killed Rhodes, and crippled She-Hulk. That says a lot.

“Tony,” Steve says sharply.

T’Challa sighs. “Steve, have some empathy,” he says. “She lost someone, too.”

“Yes, and Tony’s alone somewhere,” Steve snaps. “Where is he?”

“He’s going to New Attilan,” Carol says.

Steve looks at her. “How do you know?”

“He said he wouldn’t let anyone play a god again,” T’Challa quotes. “Who else could he mean?”

Steve almost snorts at the hypocrisy in the statement, but he’s too worried about Tony right now.

He needs this war. He needs the heroes to destroy themselves. But not Tony. Never Tony.

“We warned Medusa,” Carol admits.

What,” Steve says through clenched teeth. “Whatever he’s planning, you know he’s out of his mind with grief. You know how important Rhodes was to him. You can’t let—you really can’t hold him responsible.”

“I know that!” Carol screams at him. “And I loved Rhodey too, but I know he wouldn’t want Tony to get hurt! So I left my friend’s bedside, called Medusa, and begged her to let the Avengers handle it!” She’s breathing heavily, her eyes almost shining with power and anger and grief.

“Did she agree?” Steve asks, because it’s the only thing that matters.

“She did,” T’Challa says. “They should be expecting him.”

Carol’s communicator goes off. She looks at it and blanches, answers it. Steve hears Medusa’s voice, agitated, but he can’t make out the words. He impatiently waits until Carol’s done talking to her, and then stares at Carol.

“Okay,” Carol says shakily. “So that didn’t go well. Tony’s gone.”

“What do you mean, Tony’s gone?”

Carol looks at him in terror. “No—not that. God, Steve, I’m sorry.” She covers her eyes. “I’m a mess. No. He’s—alive. But he took Ulysses.”

“Let me get this straight,” T’Challa says. “We warned the Inhumans, so they could prepare and apprehend him before he does anything dangerous—and Stark still got in their super secret city and kidnapped their most important Inhuman?”

“That’s Tony for you,” Carol says, but the joke falls flat.

Steve thinks of the codes to Tony’s armour he has and wonders if he should use them. Tony won’t actually harm Ulysses; Steve’s sure of it. If he took him, he also won’t harm himself, which is the part Steve really cares about.

But . . . What could Tony want with him? He kept telling Carol they had no idea how the powers worked, at the party three weeks ago. Could Tony be trying to study them? Steve needs that knowledge, too. And letting Tony stay hidden longer will definitely make the tension run higher.

“Any idea how to track him?” Steve asks, and watches them shake their heads.

Good.

***

Beast tracks Tony to an underground laboratory ten hours later, and Steve volunteers to help.

Carol’s leading them. Her suit is fixed up and all the injuries seem to have healed, but Steve can see she’s almost broken. And she’s more set in her ways than ever: Steve’s heard her talk about how Rhodes would want her to continue, to use Ulysses’ powers.

Everything’s going just splendidly. If only he could find Tony already and wrap him in his arms.

Soon, he tells himself. Soon.

Tony’s team babies are among the assembled heroes. Steve walks over to them, always the considerate leader. “We’ll find Iron Man,” he says.

Ms. Marvel looks at him uncertainly. “Is he okay? They didn’t tell us much.”

“He’s mourning,” Steve says. “But he has friends who will help him through it. He’ll be back to your team in no time.”

They don’t seem to believe him, not really, but also clearly don’t want to ask if Captain America is lying.

Steve mostly hopes he’s right, that he hasn’t made a terrible mistake in not finding Tony immediately. He has to trust in that.

They set out in five quinjets, superheroes and Inhumans together.

***

Ulysses is tied to a chair, but doesn’t appear hurt. That’s good, Steve thinks; whatever Medusa might’ve agreed to, he knows it’d be difficult to convince her to let Tony go if he actually harmed the kid.

Tony is the very opposite of okay. He’s clearly been crying a lot; his eyes are red and puffy, still wet with tears. He’s yelling, and it’s obvious at first glance he’s not controlling himself anymore.

Steve’s scared for him.

“Tony, just—let me help,” he says, going forward, before the other heroes.

Tony looks at him wildly, then hesitates. “Steve,” he whispers. “What if you’re next?”

Steve wants to answer, but he can’t—his vision goes red, and his head hurts terribly. He falls to his knees, and he’s not seeing Tony in a dark lab anymore.

He’s seeing the Hulk, out on a rampage, a broken Iron Man armour in his giant fist, covered in blood. He’s seeing the Hulk more out of control than ever, a world-killing force, he sees his own body crushed under the Hulk’s feet, and he can’t tear his eyes away from Tony’s broken armour, because he knows, he knows that Tony was inside it when the Hulk tore it in half.

He comes back to himself and gasps, looks around wildly. Tony’s picking himself up, grimly, and Steve’s not sure how he manages to stand up, but he does, and then he’s at Tony’s side, supporting him, checking he’s really there.

This is not what Steve expected when he decided to set the Hulk up. He’s shaken to his core.

“Did—did you all feel that?” Carol asks shakily.

“I felt it, saw it, tasted it—” Tony sounds broken next to Steve.

“He projects these images? I thought it was just a vision,” T’Challa says.

“No,” Tony interjects. “The projecting it into us—this is new.” He’s getting into his scientist mode, and Steve greatly prefers it to hearing him break down.

“Are we to believe that will happen?” Beast asks.

“I’m sorry . . . I’m so sorry.” Ulysses’ voice is quiet, but everyone turns to look at him. “The Hulk is going to kill you all.”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Tony snaps. “This—bullshit—”

Carol’s voice rings over his. “We have to find Bruce Banner,” she calls.

Tony turns on her. “Are you kidding me?!” he yells. “Bruce hasn’t done anything—he hasn’t even Hulked out in months!”

“So you’ll wait for him to kill you?” Carol asks back.

“Rhodey would be alive if you didn’t trust these visions,” Tony says, icy cold. “Do you want to kill Bruce now?”

“I want to check up on him,” Carol says.

“Yes, because that won’t set him off at all! An army of heroes, going there just for him! What could go wrong?!” Tony yells.

“Not an army,” Steve says. “Tony—you can see Carol will go. It’ll be better if you just agree to go with her.”

Tony looks at him. “Are you crazy too?”

Steve doesn’t let it show it stings. “You know I’m right,” he says instead. “You don’t trust anyone here—maybe rightly so. But it’ll happen whether you want to or not. So go with Carol and make sure it doesn’t go wrong.”

Tony nods, slowly. “I can do that,” he says.

“I’m not sure Tony here is the right person to diffuse any situation after he kidnapped Ulysses,” Carol says.

Steve glares at her. “Stop making things difficult, you two,” he orders, knowing perfectly well they’ll only escalate from now on. Chaos has come sooner than he’d intended, but he doesn’t mind that. “I’ll go, too. We can ask for volunteers. Talk to him, and leave. Not ambush him with a special ops team.”

“I hate it,” Tony says. “I hate all of this. My best friend is dead, and you want—”

“I don’t,” Steve says, “but I don’t see another option all of us will agree to.”

“Me neither,” Tony says, defeated, “but I hate this so much.”

Steve touches his shoulder briefly; it’s a friendly enough gesture no one should read into it. Tony looks at him gratefully for a second.

***

They’re in the quinjet, and Tony’s sitting in the back, next to Steve, not speaking. Normally, he’d be piloting; right now no one quite trusts him at the controls; least of all Tony himself, in Steve’s opinion.

“He’s dead,” Tony whispers. “I can’t make any sense of it. He’s dead.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve says. “And I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you sooner.”

“He’s dead,” Tony repeats. “There’s no changing that. He’s dead because of Carol and that Inhuman.”

“Tony—” Steve starts to say.

“No,” Tony says. “No. I’m not letting that go, Steve. I can’t. They’ll pay for their crimes. They have to.”

Steve sighs. “You wanted to avoid a war,” he says.

“And I didn’t start one,” Tony answers, vicious. Steve wants to kiss him. “But Rhodey’s dead. There’s no going back now, Steve.”

“Rhodey wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself,” Steve tells him.

Tony chuckles, dark and sad. “Shame he’s not here to tell me himself, isn’t it?”

I don’t want you to hurt yourself,” Steve says.

Tony’s silent.

Moments later, they land in Utah.

***

It goes better than Steve ever could’ve hoped.

He expected Bruce to lose control, hurt himself and everyone around him in the process—there’s a reason Steve made sure Tony was in his line of sight the whole time, to be ready to step in, protect him; some sacrifices are necessary, while others are unacceptable.

But Bruce doesn’t lose it. Not when they arrive, and not when Tony leads him out into the field full of superheroes.

For a moment, Steve considers his possibilities. He’s got a few ultrasonic devices in his pouches; he could try and set one off—but there are too many heroes around them, too many chances of being found out. But he can’t risk nothing happening, not when Carol could still be swayed. Steve needs them to fight.

Bruce’s still looking around at everyone assembled there—maybe enough of them to stop the Hulk; maybe not. It’s never possible to tell.

Tony’s talking, quietly, with all the calm Steve knows he doesn’t feel. He’s so well-meaning it’s almost painful to watch. He explain about Ulysses, he tells Bruce he has faith in him, and then Carol chimes in. “And I said we need more.”

“We need proof,” Tony says.

There’s nothing in the world that could prove Bruce isn’t a danger, but that wouldn’t be enough to stop Tony from hoping, of course. Steve loves that hope in him. He also has to extinguish it.

“He’s experimenting on himself,” Hank McCoy suddenly says, tablet in his hand.

Steve sees Tony go absolutely still. “Oh, Bruce.”

Maria Hill steps forward. “Bruce Banner . . . As Director of SHIELD, I am placing you under arrest.”

Bruce twitches. Steve wants to pull Tony back, but he makes himself stay in place, lets Tony repeat, over and over, “Bruce—Bruce, calm down!”

It’s not working. Steve’s tense, prepared to jump—

Bruce is yelling now. “What did you think—”

Steve moves for Tony, but he’s not fast enough. No one is.

The arrow comes from the forest, quick as lightning and just as deadly. It hits Bruce right in the heart, and for a brief terrible moment, Steve’s sure that’s it, the Hulk will come out, and close as Tony is . . . But nothing happens.

Bruce falls down, blood spilling from the wound.

Carol yells, “Thor, the trees!”, but Steve only has eyes for Tony—Tony, who’s looking on in horror, pale as a sheet, trembling already. He sways, and Steve’s at his side in an instant, an arm around his waist, holding him up. Tony doesn’t seem to notice, his eyes set on Bruce.

Steve looks over him to where Clint gives up his bow—of course it’s Clint, who else could’ve made that shot?

“Tony?” Steve whispers, but Carol says Tony’s name at the same moment, louder.

Tony shudders, bodily, and then pushes Steve away as he turns on Carol. Steve tells himself to calm down. Tony’s his. No matter what he does right now.

“I was here to help him!” Tony screams, pain in his every word. “He’s my friend!” His voice is shaking now, too, tears in his eyes. There’s something enchanting in how Tony breaks, Iron Man falling apart in front of everyone, no longer anything in him that cares about masks or appearances.

Steve follows his line of sight to Clint’s bow, and wonders, because Tony might say he’s out of the weapons business, but he builds weapons for who he considers friends often enough.

And then, sometimes, he just builds bombs to destroy the world; what’s one bow compared to that?

SHIELD agents put Clint in handcuffs, Steve knows at a look they’re designed to hold people much stronger than Clint. He’s not getting out of here—but then, he doesn’t seem to want to. He’s crying too, and there’s not an ounce of fight in him.

“Clint, look at me,” Steve says. He walks over, kneels next to him. “Why?”

There are easy answers to this question. To protect us all. To save lives. Because I was afraid.

But those would only work if Clint had gone there with them, if he hadn’t been hiding in trees like a sniper.

“Because Bruce Banner asked me to,” Clint says.

“No!” Tony yells. “No!”

Steve turns back to him, and sees T’Challa and Vision holding Tony back. Anger flows through him—no one touches Tony but him—but then Tony just keeps screaming, at Carol, at Clint, at himself. “We’re supposed to be guarding, we’re supposed to be protecting, defending, avenging! What was this?!

Steve sees movement out of the corner of his eye and moves in front of Carol. “Accountability!” she yells through him.

It’s chaos in its pure form, and it’s exhilarating.

Tony slides to the ground, not holding back tears anymore. Steve stares at Carol for a few more seconds, but she doesn’t try to move in Tony’s direction again, so he lets her go, and finally goes to stand next to Tony again.

“I knew something terrible would happen,” Tony whispers. “I keep telling her—why does no one ever listen?”

Soon, Tony, Steve thinks. Soon. In the ideal Hydra world that Steve will bring.

And the more broken Tony is, the more easily he will listen.

Soon.

Tony gets up, still shaking; would he demand his armour back, want to fly away? He’s clearly not dealing with being here—further evidenced as he only takes a few steps to Bruce’s body, almost falls down and cradles it against his chest.

An agents snaps at him about forensics. “Easy,” Steve tells him. “We all saw what happened here.”

Tony’s clearly not seeing what’s happening now. He’s rocking back and forth, and he’s holding Bruce tight, as if he could squeeze him back to life. He’s been denied this with Rhodes, Steve knows, with his body broken beyond recognition, the armour peeled off in pieces.

Not good enough, Tony was thinking then, and Steve can see what he’s thinking now, about Clint’s bow: too good.

Tony’s not calming down. He’s crying harder, if anything, and Steve sees everyone edging further away, awkward and unsure how to proceed. The Avengers are a small team these days, he’s not really anyone’s team leader here, the young heroes aside—but he’s been a team leader for all of them in the past. And for all of Tony’s very public mistakes, this is a whole new thing to witness, especially with everyone so shaken.

It’s good, Steve thinks; let them remember this. And then, then let’s see how far they’ll go to avoid it happening again.

“I’m sorry,” Tony whispers.

Right, Steve thinks. Time to stop. Before Tony could make his good byes, if that’s even a possibility for him. Before he could compose himself. That’s not what is supposed to happen here.

Steve kneels next to Tony. “Come on,” he says. “There’s nothing you can do anymore. The Inhumans are gone. SHIELD has Clint. Come on, Tony.”

Tony shakes his head mutely. Steve squeezes his arm, almost like a warning. He doesn’t want to forcibly pull Tony away. But he will.

“Tony,” Steve tries quietly again. “You’re not helping anyone here.”

Tony doesn’t look like he understands anything at the moment, doesn’t look like he cares, but when Steve urges him up again, he lets go; sets Bruce down, and follows Steve.

“We’re going,” Steve tells Maria Hill, and then beckons for Tony’s team to follow him. He doesn’t wait, but he knows Sam will get all the babies on board. Thor flew here under her own power, and Logan and Laura had arrived with the Avengers instead, so Steve indicates the quinjet to them too. Steve has to be more careful with them around—but faking worry about Tony isn’t hard, because there’s nothing to fake there. Strange frowns as Steve passes by him on the road to the jet, with his arm still around Tony’s shoulders, and follows them.

“Tony, if—”

“No, Stephen,” Tony says.

Strange nods. Steve wonders what that was about. Then Strange is talking again, “Can I fly back with you? I want to be full on reserves—”

Tony focuses on him briefly. “You know you’re always welcome.”

Is he, Steve wonders, but doesn’t say anything now.

He leads Tony into the jet and forces Tony down into a seat opposite the armour—still on lock-down; Steve doesn’t want Tony to have it back yet, no matter how reassuring it would certainly be for him.

The scary thing is, Tony doesn’t even try to fight him, doesn’t demand the armour to pilot the ‘jet. He just shrinks in the seat, no longer breaking with every breath, but still looking like he’s about to shatter into smaller pieces. He doesn’t react to Steve buckling him in. Suddenly, Steve’s grateful for Strange’s presence. He is a doctor. And Tony’s not okay in so many different ways.

Some Steve needs. Some he’ll fix. Others, he will have to fix, at the end of it all. But some of the ways Tony breaks scare even him. Steve has to take off with the quinjet, and he’s glad there’s someone here checking up on Tony for the duration.

“Everyone strap in,” he says, settling into the pilot seat.

He turns back to see them all obediently reaching for seat belts—Tony’s staring into space—and starts the take off procedures. Flying the quinjet is easy, and Steve knows why. Tony knows they might not always be able to have experienced pilots—that’s also why he always tries to teach everyone on his team. Considering Tony’s own armours and their fighting capabilities when he isn’t piloting them, Steve knows full well the quinjet might be able to take off and fly them all safely without anyone in the pilot seat—but it isn’t the standard procedure, so he goes on, starts the engines and checks the computers.

Safely in the air, Steve puts the jet on the autopilot. Tony must’ve sensed they were in stable flight; by the time Steve unfastens himself, Tony’s already pacing inside the plane, his face still streaked with tears.

Suddenly, he punches one of the walls, then leans against it, hiding his face. “In a way . . . In a really weird, perverse way . . . I’m almost glad it happened.”

Steve tilts his head. He hadn’t expected that, for Tony to lose it quite so completely.

“Just to show you all how screwed up this all is. They killed him! A founding member of the Avengers. Dead. A genius. An actual, honest-to-god genius. And that’s not a word I toss around. And they killed him. Because maybe . . . Because maybe something. Who’s next?” Tony turns to all of them. He looks terrible, his eyes are red, his face blotchy from crying. “You? Me? You?” he gesticulates around and it’s impossible to tell who he means. “How about you?”

“Tony . . .” Steve says quietly, trying to bring him down. Tony like this is nothing like manageable. He’s dangerous—and mostly to himself. Steve has to calm him down.

“Honestly, Banner is dead!”

“Tony,” Steve repeats, but it’s as if Tony can’t even hear him, spiralling further down into desperation with each word. “Tony,” Steve repeats, feeling helpless.

Tony doesn’t react at all. He sounds hysterical. “Does anyone else think Danvers put Hawkeye in that tree?!”

Steve touches Tony’s arm, gently. “Tony.”

“I’m sorry!” Tony snaps. Then he bows his head, whispers again, honestly, “I’m sorry.”

Steve knows he doesn’t mean his outburst in the jet. He’s not apologising to Steve.

“I’m really not having the best year. I’m sorry for yelling,” Tony says, calmer now. “But I mean what I asked—who’s next?”

Steve pushes him down into a seat again, this time seats next to him, wraps his arm around Tony’s shoulders. “Tony . . .”

Tony leans down and hides his face in his hands. “We’re dropping like flies, Cap.”

“I know.”

“We’re dying.” Tony sounds anguished. “All because of—oh, god. Rhodey. Bruce. I’m so sorry, Bruce. I’m so sorry.

Steve can’t bring himself to care what anyone there might think of it; he keeps running his hand over Tony’s back, trying to be reassuring, trying to bring Tony back.

He needs him desperate. But not like this. Never like this.

He wants to kiss Tony, see he’s okay; but that has to wait. So he keeps stroking Tony’s back, counting down days until Hydra takes over, until Tony doesn’t have to worry anymore.

***

Tony all but bolts out of the quinjet as soon as Steve lands it on top of the Tower; he doesn’t look at his teammates, at the kids under his care, he doesn’t look at Strange, and most importantly, he doesn’t look at Steve.

Steve doesn’t like it.

He can’t exactly run after him, so he goes through the after-flight routine as quickly as he can. The quinjet is in good shape, but they should refuel it before the next flight; Steve marks it down and finally stands up. On the bright side, everyone else has also left by now, so Steve lets himself walk a little faster in the direction of Tony’s workshop. He types in his override code intovthe elevator—the whole floor with Tony’s labs is restricted, obviously—and waits impatiently as it takes him down.

But then he steps out of the elevator, and he finds the door to the workshop closed, too. He frowns. Tony should’ve been alerted by now that Steve’s coming. He should’ve unlocked the door, at least. Steve emphatically does not want him to seek solitude or avoid him. Tony belongs next to him. And Tony makes dangerous decisions when left to his own devices.

Steve types in his override again, puts his hand to the scanner. When his biometrics get confirmed, the door slides open, and Steve steps inside.

He immediately finds Tony—he’s in front of his computers, but he’s not typing; he’s just staring at the screen. It seems like he’s unseeing, really, in the way he’s not moving, not even blinking; Steve has to concentrate to even notice his chest rising.

He looks at the screens, and ah, there it is, the schematics for Clint’s bow, and the arrow. The arrow, which Banner had given to Clint—had Tony hacked into Banner’s files already?

“Tony,” Steve says in a low voice.

“I—there were many dark scenarios I could imagine when we were en route, Steve,” Tony whispers. “But this?”

“It’s not your fault,” Steve says, knowing fully well it won’t reach Tony.

“How was it not?” Tony asks. “I failed Rhodey. I failed Bruce. I’d say it’s only a matter of time until I fail you, too—I’ve already done that before!” He gets up, paces around around his chair. His eyes are shining in the low light, his movements are loose, wide; his self-control non-existent. And he’d been sitting there, looking at those schematics, like an exercise in self-punishment. It’s so much worse than it was in the moments after Banner died.

He’d only been out of Steve sight for what, fifteen minutes?

Steve hopes—dreads—wonders if Tony’s drunk.

Or maybe he’s so broken it doesn’t matter anymore.

“Tony,” Steve says, doesn’t let the amusement creep into his voice, “you don’t actually control the whole world.” Yet. Because Steve will let him do anything he wants, when Hydra takes over, when Tony understands.

“Yeah, pretty sure I’d put it into atomic winter in thirty seconds if that ever happened,” Tony mutters. “God, Steve—it’s like a nightmare, but instead of waking up I fall deeper and deeper into it.”

Steve gathers him into his arms. Tony goes willingly, clings to Steve, still shaking like a leaf.

“I’m here,” Steve says. “I’m with you. I’ll always be with you.”

“I wasn’t always with you,” Tony says. His voice is muted, standing as he is with his face pressed into Steve’s shoulder, but Steve can still hear him well enough.

“No,” he says, and doesn’t think of their wars and betrayals, doesn’t, he’s past them—he’ll make sure Tony will never fight against him again. “But we’re stronger now. Better.”

Tony chokes back a sob. “I’m lost, Steve,” he admits, quietly.

Steve’s heart is swelling with the amount of trust Tony’s putting into him, now, finally, after years of . . . He’s not sure how to summarise their past, still.

Fight just one more war for me, Tony, he thinks, and he says, “What you do—what we do—is go on.”

art by rai-kishi

“I just—can’t she stop?” Tony sounds like he knows the answer, but there’s a horrible, hopeful note to his voice, too.

“You know she won’t,” Steve says. Or he’ll make sure she doesn’t. He wonders just what other visions he could put in Ulysses’ head, briefly, something to do with Carol herself, maybe . . . “I hate fighting our friends,” he says aloud. “But if that’s the price—if that’s what I have to do to protect innocent people—then it’s worth it.”

Tony takes a step back, looks at Steve. Steve holds his gaze calmly.

“Together, Tony,” he adds, and then Tony nods, and kisses him, like he still can’t believe Steve’s there, like he can’t believe anything’s real.

Steve can’t let him rest, not yet. But he can make him feel good, here, now.

The war is here, and Steve’s brought it, but he did it for everyone, and he’ll solve it for Tony.

***

The case against Clint Barton, for all that it’s covered by media in its every detail, is also very short.

Steve gives his testimony—none of us expected it, we’re still shaken, Clint’s a friend, but he committed murder, Bruce was a friend, too—and then watches Tony give his.

It’s a mess. The whole world sees Tony break down in the court room, on the verge of tears the entire time, yelling and blaming Clint. Tony, who’s a politician and a businessman, who can’t now make a coherent sentence, too overwhelmed with grief and loss.

Steve loves him when he’s strong and confident, but it’s possible he loves him even more now, with the full realisation that while Tony doesn’t and can’t know it, it’s Steve’s actions which brought them here. It’s like cutting him open to see his raw emotions. It’s addictive.

Clint will walk free, Steve’s pretty sure: the Hulk was too feared, too hated for there to be any other verdict.

And Tony, who can’t change it in any way, will blame himself once again.

Steve wonders what would’ve happened if Tony had been the one Banner had asked for help. He’s glad Tony wasn’t.

“I need a meeting,” Tony says as soon as he’s out of the courtroom; Steve looks around, makes sure there’s no one who could’ve overheard him.

That Steve has been pondering Tony and alcohol lately is one thing. He won’t let anyone else do it to Tony.

“Let’s go back to the Tower,” Steve says. Tony looks at him, surprised for a moment, and then it clearly sets in, where they are, how public it all is. He’s perfectly dressed, of course, but that’s as far as this composure goes; the grief and anguish in his eyes is visible to anyone who looks. He’s been off balance ever since Rhodes died, and Banner’s death just pushed him further out of control.

It’s splendid—but it hits Steve now that if something else happens, he might never be able to fix Tony.

It’s like a bucket of cold water. He’ll have to consider his next moves very, very carefully.

Tony sighs. He suits up once they’re outside—and while the public might not trust the heroes in general, it’s a good idea. It hides his face, the obvious exhaustion. In the armour, he almost looks normal. All right.

Steve can see all the signs proving he’s not, the way even in the armour he can’t stnd straight, is slumping, how even the voice filters can’t make him sound cheerful.

“Fly with me, Cap?”

They’ve done it a million times before as friends, so Steve nods (as if he could ever say no), and Tony embraces him tight. This time, it doesn’t seem to be a precaution against dropping Steve. This time, it seems like Tony’s seeking comfort.

It’s a short flight to the Tower, and Tony sets Steve down gently, then lands next to him.

Tony leans his forearm against the wall, puts his head on it. As if he can’t stand without help, even armoured up.

Steve waits.

Tony doesn’t take the armour off.

Steve sighs. “Shellhead. It’s only us. Come on.”

The armour opens, finally, and Tony steps out of it. He looks at it, bites his lower lip. “I feel safer there,” he says, which, yes, everyone can see that. “Stupid,” he scolds himself immediately. “How many times has it been taken over, Steve? And yet.”

“I feel better with my shield,” Steve says. “That’s normal. And how many times has it been stolen, replaced, used against me?”

Tony looks down. “Right. I told you it wasn’t an—”

“That’s what I’m talking about!” Steve yells. “It’s not an exact copy, but it is my shield. I trust it in the fight. Just as I trust you, Tony.”

“After all this . . . ?” Tony asks, as if he can’t bring himself to say the actual words. Like it’s all too much.

“I trust you,” Steve says, seriously. “Do you trust me?”

Tony looks at him, and it’s still obvious he was crying today, but now, in this moment, there’s not an ounce of hesitation in his voice. “Always,” he says, and Steve smiles.

Always. He can work with that.

“Come on then,” Steve says. “I don’t doubt you have work to do—you always do, after all—but tonight is for us, Tony. No TV, definitely no news reports, just us, relaxing.”

Tony smiles, uncertainly, as if it’s an alien concept to him. It might be. Steve kisses his forehead. “Let me take care of you,” he whispers, and Tony nods.

Tony can’t spend all his time thinking about the courtroom, about Banner, about Rhodes; he definitely can’t spend all his time thinking about Ulysses. It’s bad for him, clearly, worse than Steve had expected, but also—Tony is a genius. If he looks too far . . . He might find something out. Steve can’t let him do that.

“We’re doing a shit job of keeping us private,” Tony says once they’re in the elevator, up, to Tony’s rooms.

“Do you think with everything going on, anyone’s looking?” Steve asks.

Tony takes a deep breathe. “I don’t know,” he admits. “And it scares me. Would Carol notice? Would she use it? Would Ulysses pick up on something? What’s his goal, anyway?” Tony throws his hands up. “Steve, I—I’m an engineer and a futurist, but I need some data! And this—this is all chaos, none of it makes any sense, and our friends are dying, Bruce is dead, my—Rhodey is—” He stops talking.

“I know,” Steve says quietly. “I’m sorry, Tony—you were so much closer with both of them. I’m sorry. If I could help . . .”

“You’re helping,” Tony mutters immediately. “You’re here. You’re not fighting against me. You can’t imagine how much that means to me.”

The relief in his voice every time he mentions Steve being on the same side is so honest; Steve has every idea of what it means to Tony.

They’re silent after that, but Steve keeps watching Tony out of the corner of his eye. He’s not sure if Tony’s going to break down again or straight-up collapse. He’s clearly exhausted. He pulls Tony closer, just keeps him loosely in his arms until they arrive at the right floor. Then, he scoops Tony up and heads towards his room.

“If we ever get married, Steve, I am carrying—” Tony stops mid-sentence, raising his hand to his mouth. “You should probably set me down now,” he says, sounding terrified.

Steve chuckles. “You’d have to be in the armour for it.” He keeps going.

“Steve,” Tony says, still terrified.

Steve sighs, but doesn’t let Tony go, not when he so obviously itches to bolt and run. “I know you meant it as a joke, Tony,” he says, and Tony fractionally relaxes. “And it’s not a conversation either of us is ready to have now. But, for the record, I wouldn’t be opposed to it in the future.”

Tony stops fighting him then, he just stares at Steve with a small, surprised smile, like he doesn’t have any idea what just happened.

“Yes?” he asks in a small voice.

“Yes,” Steve confirms.

He wonders if he could officiate his own wedding after Hydra takes over. He likes that image. Tony his, forever, in the eyes of everyone.

Steve slows down so he can kiss Tony’s cheek, and then finally reaches his bedroom. He sets Tony on the bed, and then moves away.

“You need sleep,” he explains.

“I need to wake up,” Tony shakes his head. “God, Steve. I love you. I’m so worried about you.”

Steve smiles. “Then take care of yourself for me,” he says. Tony pulls a face. “Really, Tony. You can plan tomorrow, whatever you want. But you need rest. You’re too tired to think now.”

Tony nods. He mumbles something indistinctly.

“Tony?”

“Stay with me,” Tony mutters. “Not—just until I’m asleep, okay?”

“Of course, Tony,” Steve says.

Tony shrugs out of his suit jacket somehow, and Steve helps him undress the rest of the way. He doesn’t try and make it sexual this time, he just wants Tony to be comfortable. To get the rest he so desperately needs.

Tony’s looking at him with absolute trust, so Steve lies next to him, and keeps him in his arms. He has stuff to do—he should check up on Hydra—but he can take an hour or two just to take care of Tony.

It’s Tony, after all, who’s Steve’s true priority.

It takes time, but then, finally Tony’s asleep, his hands gripping Steve’s almost to the point of pain. Steve kisses him gently, and then extricates himself from Tony’s embrace.

He doesn’t want to leave, but Tony’s safe in the Tower—has to be—and so Steve goes.

***

He’s late, but sometimes he has to remind the agents who’s in charge. And if bloodless methods don’t work, well . . .

Not everyone needs both hands. Just ask James.

Then, suddenly, when he’s holding the shield over some agent’s neck, Steve’s Avengers card goes off.

He’d blocked the localisation option of it, of course, but he can’t silence the alarms—now that would be suspicious.

The agent under him relaxes.

“It’s not actually your lucky day,” Steve whispers into his ear, and brings the shield down.

When he finally answers the call, it’s Tony. He sounds more energetic. Like he has a plan. Good.

(Though a part of Steve immediately worried why he hasn’t told Steve before, through normal means of communication.)

“Hi, it’s Tony Stark. If you’re getting this message—which is sent to a really small group of people—I’d be grateful if you met with me. I’ll send you the coordinates. You all probably know what it’s about. Carol—I promise not to fight with you there.”

Know what it’s about. Small group of people. Fucking secret meeting.

Yes, Steve knows what it’s about, and his temper flares, because how much of a fucking idiot can Tony Stark be to reassemble the Illuminati? And he’s still expecting Steve to stand by him . . . ?

Not that Steve has a choice, now; it’s a way to keep the heroes divided, arguing, without a strong leader.

Do it, Stephen, and How much Stark laughed at you? You want to know the answer? It was a lot.

Steve shakes his head. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter when he kisses Tony and it doesn’t matter now. Why should it?

Blood’s dropping from his shield, but this too doesn’t matter.

Steve wipes his shield off, snaps it back into place.

He looks down at himself to make sure he looks presentable—it’s obvious he was doing something in the uniform, but he can just quote a late patrol. Something to settle his nerves. There isn’t blood on him, so he turns and walks away.

He only picks up his pace when he’s further from the (now ex-) Hydra hideout.

The coordinates Tony sent lead Steve to an old, run down office building. Steve’s worried about its structural soundness—but Tony’s picked the place, so it must be safe enough. Probably also screened against any wiretapping or digital spying. Good. Steve steps carefully anyway. The halls are empty.

“Here!” Tony’s voice sounds from upstairs. Steve follows it, jogging a bit; if Tony’s already here, there won’t be any traps in place. It’s dark, and there’s rubbish on the floor, and it’s not a place Steve would guess Tony even knew about.

He stops mid-step when he finally spots Tony in the next room. There’s a surprisingly sturdy looking table and some chairs—all of them empty so far. Tony himself is sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall heavily. He’s got his hands propped on his knees, and his forehead pressed into his forearms, as if he’s staving off a headache, or really, really doesn’t want to be there. Probably both.

What have you gotten yourself into this time, Tony? Steve wonders.

Tony doesn’t move, but he speaks, “Steve. I hoped you’d be first.” His voice is terrible, rough.

Steve squats next to him, touches his arm. Tony’s in his armour, but he should feel it anyway, or at least see the reason behind the gesture. Simple comfort. He always believes touches more than words, anyway.

“You could’ve told me you wanted—”

“I wasn’t hiding it,” Tony interrupts him, raising his head, panic in his eyes. “I didn’t—it wasn’t some elaborate plan, Steve, I’m done hiding things from you, I just—I woke up and you were gone, and I—I had this idea, I had to do something.”

Steve nods. He probably should’ve stopped Tony at some point, but listening to his excuses, how terrifyingly honest he is—Steve couldn’t make himself stop him.

“It’s fine,” he says. “I believe you.”

Tony doesn’t answer, staring at the wall instead, and Steve wonders what is it that made Tony call a meeting.

What is it that makes Tony so worried about Steve’s reaction.

It could be dangerous, to both of them. Steve squeezes Tony’s arm, once, and sits in one of the chairs at the table, the closest one to Tony. Just in case he has to protect him, or—just in case, and he leaves it at that.

Carol and the Inhumans come next; they all nod at each other and look at Tony, clearly uncertain of what’s going on.

There’s a vibration in the air. Tony winces. “Hi, Stephen,” he says.

Strange materialises in the chair opposite Steve. Steve tenses, looking between him and Tony, almost involuntarily. Tony wouldn’t go there again. He just wouldn’t.

But Steve’s still unsettled.

“Tony,” Strange says, pauses. He runs his eyes over Tony’s prone form, and winces. “Have you—”

“Not important,” Tony says.

Strange looks like he wants to argue, and Steve’s prepared to interrupt him, but then, silent as a whisper, T’Challa walks in.

Tony nods, opens his mouth as if to greet them—and then he doesn’t say anything at all.

He’s staring at his hands again, unseeing.

“Tony?” Steve tries.

Tony shakes his head. “I am so lost,” he says, and his words make Steve shiver. “I need your help.”

He keeps talking about Ulysses, and Steve’s heard him say it all before in one way or another. But never so . . . submissively. Never like he was begging them to agree. Never in a shaky, uncertain voice, sitting down on a cold concrete floor.

“I downloaded a copy of Ulysses’ brain,” Tony says, and Carol gasps. Steve shakes his head immediately. This is important. He needs to know. They can’t interrupt Tony now, and certainly not with morality.

Tony moves up, sheds his gauntlet—somehow, his armour immediately grows a new one over his naked hand, covering him safely once again—while the discarded gauntlet shines green, putting a holographic projection around them.

“See?” Tony asks.

“No,” Steve says, because of course he doesn’t see whatever it is in Tony’s bright green ball, and of course—is that why Tony’s here, to mock him—

Tony answers. “This is the kid’s brain.”

Steve sees it then, but the projection is still realigning. It’s vaguely unsettling, and then Tony stands up, basically holding Ulysses’ brain in his open palm. Steve wonders what Selvig could do with it. Plant more evidence, maybe? Make sure Hydra is never on the radar?

Tony’s still talking, about various energies, none of which Steve understands, about processing data, about what Ulysses does and doesn’t do, and it’s again, too much.

“You’re losing me,” Steve says, and he doesn’t wonder if he’s the only one at the table slow enough not to follow.

Tony doesn’t seem bothered by the interruption. “Everything in the world puts out energy. Everything and everyone. He takes it in and the kid—he spouts it back as us—in the form of these visions.” Tony shakes his head. “He’s not seeing the future, because it’s not there. He’s creating an algorithm of a possible future. Maybe a very possible future. But, and you have to hear me on this, it is only an algorithm. It’s maths. It’s guesswork.” He takes a deep breath. “And it terrifies me.” Tony looks at them all then. “You don’t get it? It’s profiling.”

Steve lets out a long breath. That’s . . . both good news and bad news. Tony will still hate it, and Carol will still say it’s the best they have. The superheroes will finish each other off.

But profiling, profiling based on a data Steve doesn’t understand, data that he doesn’t know how it’s being provided—that, that might be deadly dangerous.

He forces himself to stay still as Tony finishes his explanation.

Tony’s speaking very quietly now, barely a whisper. “So, there it is . . . You tell me . . . You tell me I’m crazy. You tell me I’m wrong. You tell me, and I swear I’ll give up. If you tell me to stop . . . I will. Because, I’ve learnt, finally, after all these years . . .” Tony’s incredibly blue eyes are set straight on Steve now. Steve has to swallow. He’s hot all over. He can’t tear his eyes away from Tony, either. Then Tony says, a certainty in his voice that’s been lacking through his previous speech, “I’m going to listen to Steve Rogers.”

art by rai-kishi

Steve smiles, and then he tells Tony exactly what he wants to hear.

***

Tony looks weirdly insecure when Steve steps into his bedroom that evening. He’s still in his armour, still lost.

“Tony?”

“You didn’t—what you said there, at the meeting.” He doesn’t say Illuminati and Steve’s grateful for that. “That I wasn’t nuts. That you agreed with me. Did you mean it?”

“Would I have said it otherwise, Tony?” Steve asks curiously.

Tony shakes his head mutely.

“Then what is it?” He walks to Tony, kisses him. Tony lets him, but then turns his head away, holds onto Steve’s wrist instead.

“I was so scared,” he lets out. “That you’d be mad. That—that this would break us.”

“Steve kneels next to him so they’re at the same level. “Well, I meant every word,” he says. “I trust you.”

I trust you to make more and more bad decisions, I trust you to destroy the superheroes from the inside, after all, you’re so very good at it, Tony, aren’t you?

Tony smiles, finally looking relaxed. “Thank you,” he says. “I love you, Steve.”

“I know,” Steve smiles.

“So,” Tony says. “That so-called Hydra operative Carol caught?”

The one Steve knows for a fact is innocent. He nods.

“The X-Men are with us. I say we have Nightcrawler teleport her out.” Tony’s eyes are glinting. He’s dangerous like that. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows this will really, officially, start a war.

He’s doing it anyway.

“You lead, I follow,” Steve says.

Tony stands up. “It was supposed to be the other way round,” he says.

“No,” says Steve. “I agree with you. And I trust you. Let’s do it.”

He kisses Tony before any more protests can arise, and then they go assemble the heroes.

***

The thing is, Tony doesn’t want to fight his friends. It’s what he says, and it’s what he feels, too. It’s very obvious to Steve. Going against Carol is killing him.

(But that means it also killed him to fight Steve, over and over, and Steve’s not sure what to make of this information.

A wisp of insecurity—or maybe he never cared for Steve as much as he says he does—and Steve punches Star-Lord straight in the face.)

Tony doesn’t want to fight his friends, but he will do it if necessary, and he’s good at fighting anyone. He’s worse at containing collateral damage. The Triskelion is on fire around them, and if they take the battle to the streets of New York, all bets will be off.

Steve considers it for a moment and then a portal opens; Lockjaw materialises first, the Inhumans after him.

Steve circles them carefully. He sees Black Panther holding Tony back again—then Carol attacking Tony, and yes, it’s what Steve wanted, the chaos, but not with Tony in danger. He’s leaping forward to pull her off him when wisps of energy surround him—and Carol, and Tony, and everyone around them.

It’s different to the visions of the Hulk killing them.

Mostly because this time, Steve sees his own body, impaled on the Capital Building’s stairs in Washington D.C.,, and Spider-Man standing over him.

It only lasts a second, he’s pretty sure, but when it’s over, no one moves for a while.

Then, Tony’s baby Avengers run to Spider-Man, but Steve can’t make himself move.

He should’ve—with how close he is with Tony, he should’ve known something—does it mean Miles will find out? Or was it an accident, did someone else attack Steve and Miles was there in the wrong place and the wrong time, in the future?

It isn’t something Steve can risk.

On the other side of the battlefield, Tony is very, very still in his suit, but Steve knows Tony’s eyes are trained on him. He forces himself to give a quick nod, but Tony doesn’t react.

But when Carol tries to arrest Spider-Man, Tony leaps to his defence in a second.

***

They’re in public. Steve knows exactly what he’s supposed to do, so he goes through all the motions: he reassures Spider-Man. He says he trusts him. He touches him, just to ground him. He smiles, but remembers to be serious.

They’re all watching him, and all seeing the perfect Captain America.

Inside, he’s calculating. Is Miles wary of him? Does Miles suspect? Is he a danger?

Right now, he looks only like the terrified teenager he is. And Carol’s trying to arrest him.

It’s good for Steve’s plans, it really is; Tony will stop at nothing to protect someone he considers his—but even now, Steve can’t help but think how insane it is to really accuse Miles of anything. He’s a kid, not a murderer.

And yet; Steve can’t trust him.

Black Panther backs up Tony, and Doctor Strange gets them out of there.

“T’Challa, I think I speak for everyone when I say: I’m kind of in love with you.” Tony’s face is open, still tense, but smiling.

T’Challa shrugs. “Well, you always have been.”

Steve makes his hands into fists. A joke, he thinks and he knows it, and Tony is only his and shouldn’t joke like that and Steve should teach him—he shakes himself. Time and place and bigger concerns, he knows—and bigger concerns still. He’s got a feeling he’s on borrowed time, like things are slipping between his fingers, like he has to act fast—but acting fast would only lead to showing his hand, and he can’t afford that quite yet.

The kid Avengers disappear, going to help Spider-Man. Deep down Steve thinks it’s adorable, and Tony seems to be sharing his opinion. But when everyone walks away, Tony steps to Steve, quiet, unsure. “You okay?” he asks, but Steve sees the truth in the question: the one who’s decidedly not okay is Tony himself.

So all his cheerful attitude was a mask, moments earlier. Steve’s surprised Tony had strength for that.

“I’m fine,” he says.

Tony shakes his head briefly, as if to push off some unwanted thoughts. “Steve—”

“I’m fine,” Steve repeats. He takes Tony’s gauntleted wrist in his hand. “Take this off.”

Tony’s surprised, but the armour dissolves under Steve’s touch, leaving Tony’s arm bare from his elbow to the tip of his fingers. So breakable, Steve thinks; what he does is to put Tony’s hand to his own chest, over his heart.

“I’m fine,” he repeats. “I will stay this way. You’re the one not trusting Ulysses here.”

Tony presses his hand stronger into Steve’s chest. “It’s harder to disregard it when it’s . . .” He trails off. “He’s wrong—I know he is—and yet, Steve—I’ve lived through this once already. I don’t remember it. There’s a reason for that.”

“I know,” Steve says, “and there will be nothing to remember here.”

Tony bites on his lip. “Tell me you’re not planning to do what you’re planning to do.”

Steve laughs, unamused. Sometimes Tony does know him too well. “What other way is there to prove him wrong?”

Tony darts a glance towards his monitors.

“Great,” Steve says. “You do that, and I’ll fly to Washington DC.”

Tony moves his hand up, so he’s gripping Steve’s shoulder instead. “Are you—”

“Tony,” Steve says, patiently. “You saw—we all saw it. Spider-Man and me. I want to talk to him, not freak him out. He wants to talk to me, too. You know that.”

“I wouldn’t—”

“I want to talk to him,” Steve repeats, “the way you wanted to talk to Bruce.”

Tony freezes next to him. His eyes go wide, like he can’t believe what Steve’s just said. He takes a step back.

“You know I’m right,” Steve tells him. “And if you go, who else? Who else on the other side will figure it out? Do you want another full out battle, this time in the capital?”

Tony shakes his head mutely.

Steve knows it, now; he has to go. He has to present himself as not a threat. He has to make it so that the only person anyone, any member of the public, any superhero, identifies as dangerous, is Spider-Man.

And Tony—well, Tony, left to his own devices, under pressure like this . . . Tony has a beautiful tendency to crack.

For now, he still looks unconvinced.

“He’s a kid,” Steve says. “He’s a kid on your team, Tony. Tell me—would he be able to hurt me?”

Tony shakes his head.

“See,” Steve says. “I’m going. You do your magic with computers. Find something. Finish this once and for all.”

“I’m scared,” Tony whispers.

“You said you’d listen to me,” Steve reminds him, making sure he doesn’t break eye contact with Tony.

Tony inhales sharply.

“This is the right thing to do, Tony.”

Tony nods.

***

Steve finds an empty quinjet he can pilot himself. He doesn’t want any witnesses for this—or well, not more witnesses than Captain America and Spider-Man will already get, standing on the Capitol steps like he plans to. Like he’s certain Miles plans to, as well, the sweet naive kid that he is.

The jet is quiet, almost too quiet, Steve doesn’t exactly want to be alone with his thoughts right now. He knows leaving Tony behind was the right choice—he’s not controlling any variables here, and back in the New York hideout is the safest place for Tony to be. But . . . Tony, even out of it as he is, grieving, is still a genius. He doesn’t have any reason to guess—but if he goes looking, who knows what he could find.

Steve sighs. Tony won’t look into Steve; maybe he’ll check up on Miles, if anything. No more than that. He rejects Ulysses’ methods, and he trusts Steve like never before.

Steve’s just worried, and he’s getting impatient. He put all his plans on hold due to the threat Ulysses poses—and he’s eager to move forward. To fix the world. To have Tony by his side, and stop worrying about the what-ifs.

Soon, he promises himself as he so often does lately. Soon.

Soon he’ll be able to gather Tony in his arms, a Tony who’s happy, a Tony who will say Hail Hydra to greet him.

Soon.

***

Spider-Man is on the steps, just as Steve knew he would be. The only surprise is that the police are moving away, leaving him be—Steve glances up and sees the tell-tale flicker of the Helicarrier invisibility shields. He’s worked with SHIELD for too long to be fooled by them. So Carol also guessed they’d come here. She shouldn’t be an obstacle.

Spider-Man starts talking. His whole posture is tense, but his voice is steady enough. “I know you know this, but I think it’s worth repeating—I’m not going to kill you. It’s not going to happen.”

“I know that,” Steve says, “but why are you here?”

Spider-Man tilts his head to the side. “Maybe the same reason you’re here? To prove it doesn’t happen.”

“Exactly right.”

“Thank you for believing me,” Spider-Man says.

Steve smiles at him. He takes a step closer. His shield is on his arm, but then, they’re both in full costume, and this kid is super-powered just like Peter. He doesn’t look afraid that Steve’s coming closer, if anything, his posture gets looser, more open. Trusting. Good.

Steve reaches out—and then an energy shield flickers to life around Spider-Man.

It’s good. There was no sign of it mere seconds ago. Steve pushes, experimentally, and it’s strong, too.

Tony had practiced with Sue Storm, back in the day.

But if it’s Tony’s . . .

Maybe it’s not. Stupid hope: Steve had been protected by similar shields often enough.

“Uh, I don’t know about this,” Spider-Man says, looking around, as the shield extends into a barrier all around him.

Steve grips his shield harder. Let this not be what he thinks it is. Let it not be Tony going against him. Anything, but that. Maybe it’s Tony’s crazy plan to save Steve, maybe . . . Anything, Steve prays.

“Tony,” he calls. “Aren’t you confusing me with Carol?”

There’s a loud explosion, like the sound barrier being broken. Steve swirls around, but not fast enough.

“He’s not,” Carol says, her fist already glowing with energy. Steve doesn’t even have time to raise his shield before she knocks him out.

***

There’s an explosion of pain, and Steve’s kneeling. Red Skull is in front of him, a bright blue gem in his hand.

You’re Hydra, he says, and in Steve’s head, his memories realign themselves to fit the lie.

Light follows, and for a moment there’s just a moment of whiteness.

Steve Rogers, a voice says—Strange, Steve thinks, but he’s not sure. Be yourself.

***

Steve comes to slowly.

He’s aware he’s conscious, but he makes himself not think. Instead, he checks—he can feel his legs, his hands—but there’s a weight on his wrists, probably handcuffs—don’tthinkdon’tthinkdon’tthink. His mind is clear, for what feels like the first time in months. Don’t think. He doesn’t open his eyes, but he can hear the rhythm of the heart monitor—must be his—and someone else’s breathing.

Tony’s.

There’s a certainty, here: Steve loves him.

But he . . . Don’t think.

Just don’t.

Not of following Red Skull’s orders, not of murdering people, certainly not of betraying every inch of trust Tony put into him.

Except, Tony’s here, and that means . . . Steve can’t pretend to be unconscious forever. He has to face what he’s done. He opens his eyes.

Tony looks terrible. He’s pale, with dark circles under his bloodshot eyes—he clearly hasn’t slept much—and thin, but he’s alive. He doesn’t have any visible injuries. Just signs of sleep deprivation and prolonged stress and exhaustion. That’s Steve’s fault, he thinks.

“Steve?” Tony asks, and the hope in his voice just about hurts Steve physically.

“Yes,” Steve say. “Me. Normal me.” As if anything can be normal again.

Tony swallows. “Hail Hydra. I’m with you. You can be honest.”

Steve almost rips the cuffs apart, turning to Tony. “Not fucking funny,” he growls.

Tony looks at him, unmoved by his explosion. “I should’ve checked that earlier, though, shouldn’t I?” he asks, quiet and sad. Like he really thinks he should’ve guessed Steve was—Steve—don’t think. Under all the horror, Steve realises there’s one good side to Tony never questioning him before, though.

“Earlier—I would’ve killed you.” It’s only the truth. He can’t think of how, and why, and—he can’t. Just the truth, the facts he knows.

“Would you?” Tony asks, still so very quiet.

Steve knows what he means. He shrugs. He wants to cry. He wants to hit something. He never wants to use violence ever again. He feels sick. He doesn’t understand.

Tony. Tony is a constant. Always has been.

Except not now.

Oh god, Steve can’t deal Tony leaving him now—but what if Tony never wanted him in the first place, what if Steve had coerced him, when—Steve doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t have a plan.

He remembers a lot of things, and mostly, he remembers planning how to obliterate all his friends.

He remembers Carol hitting him.

He regrets she hadn’t hit him harder.

“So you’re—my Steve,” Tony whispers in a breaking voice. “I mean—I knew that, all the tests said so—and the Mind Gem is with Strange now, so—it has to be you now, but I was so worried, and . . .” Tony trails off.

“Mind Gem?” Steve asks quietly. He closes his eyes again. He can’t stand the sight of Tony right now. Not after everything he said and did to him. He pushed him to start a war. He watched Tony break and revelled in it.

He loves Tony. This part was and always will be true.

You don’t do those things to a man you love.

What does Steve know about love, anyway? He’s a monster.

“I—probably shouldn’t be telling you anything, considering they wanted baby Jean to take a look at you first, but—”

But Tony will break rules for Steve. And he shouldn’t. Especially not now.

Steve shakes his head. “Don’t tell me,” he asks. “Please.”

“You . . . ?” Tony hesitates. It’s like neither of them knows how to proceed, now. “Okay.”

“Tony,” Steve says, because he might be feeling physically weak, and disgusted with himself, but this is important. “I’ll go through all the tests. And—if they clear me—we really need to talk.”

Tony’s voice is shaking as he replies, “Yes. We do.”

He touches Steve’s wrist on the way out; gentle as a butterfly; barely there.

***

Memory of that touch keeps Steve sane through his nightmares and other memories, the ones that make him sick, the ones that make him glad there’s nothing sharp in his general vicinity.

What have you done he asks himself over and over, and he knows none of it was his fault, and he knows yes, yes, everything was.

***

He’s always hated psychic tests, but he welcomes them now. He needs them. He needs to know he’s himself. That he can trust his own thoughts—but more than that, that his friends can trust him.

None of them is a stranger to mind control. But this feels so much worse. Hydra. He keeps scrubbing himself raw in the shower. It doesn’t help.

The SHIELD agent says he’s clean.

Baby Jean takes her time, delving into his thoughts, and he doesn’t mean to, but he keeps thinking sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry, every time she accesses one of his memories.

It’s painful and it’s arduous and it’s necessary, and so he doesn’t fight it.

He has to apologise to so many people, but first and foremost, he has to apologise to Tony—and then disappear from his life forever. It will hurt, but it’s the right thing to do, Steve knows.

***

“You’re clean,” Sharon says. “And it wasn’t your fault.” Her eyes are clouded. She has experience like this.

But it was Steve’s fault. The lines are all blurry. He wants to go home. He wants to be alone, possibly forever. He wants to be back in the ice.

He must apologise to Tony.

“Thank you,” he says to Sharon. He walks out of the SHIELD hospital. It’s a surprise, though it really shouldn’t be, to see Tony expecting him, holding the door to his car open.

Of course.

Steve gets inside without a word.

“Steve,” Tony says.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says, because he can’t wait any longer.

Tony swerves dangerously, swears. He straightens the wheel, and then says, “Friday, take the wheel.”

Steve’s not sure if that’s legal, but Friday also pilots Tony’s suits, which is probably a tad more difficult than navigating New York’s traffic at night.

Tony turns to Steve. “Okay, so. Talk. We need to. Um.” He worries at his hair for a second. “I know we have to do that, Steve. But first—listen to me. Can you do that?” he asks, sincere and serious.

Steve can do anything for him. He owes it to him. He nods.

Tony sighs. “How much do you remember?” he asks, quietly.

Steve bites his lower lip, somehow manages not to draw blood. “Everything,” he says in an empty voice.

Tony nods, like this is what he expected. “Okay. Now listen to me.”

Steve looks at him. “I am.”

“None of what happened was your fault,” Tony says, and Steve bristles.

Tony sighs. “I told you to listen to me.” He keeps looking at Steve, his blue eyes terribly intense. Beautiful. “Last year. When Red Skull inverted my brain. And I set an untested virus—”

“It wasn’t your fault!” Steve interrupts, angrily; it was the Skull’s fault, they all knew that, and he hated how Tony blamed himself, and—

“Okay,” Tony continues, distracting Steve. “And when I got Extremis for the first time and killed people—”

“That kid hacked your systems, Tony, you know it wasn’t your fault!”

Tony looks sad, but barrels on. “And when I killed that ambassador . . . “

“We all know the armour was remotely controlled, Tony, stop blaming yourself.”

Tony smiles. It looks fragile, like it’s made of glass. “So now that we’ve established that,” Tony says. “Red Skull had a Mind Gem. I’ve no idea where he found it—but then, do we ever know how supervillains get their hands on artifacts with way too much power? Last time, the Hood found a Gem by accident.” Tony rubs his eyes. “My point, Steve? Red Skull got the Mind Gem, and I’m sure he would’ve preferred Reality instead, but what he got was Mind, and he has years of built-up hatred for you. So he devised his perfect revenge.”

Steve inhales. Exhales. He was told as much. And he knows what Tony is doing, here.

“So let’s go over it again,” Tony says. “When Red Skull did—something to me, and I set Extremis on San Francisco . . .”

Steve knows what Tony’s doing, but he can’t stay silent. “It wasn’t you,” he says. “Stop blaming yourself.”

Tony nods, satisfied. “Right back at you, Winghead.”

Steve wants to cry. “It’s not that easy, Shellhead.”

“I know,” Tony tells him seriously. “I really do. It never is. But it starts here.”

They don’t talk any more, in the car. Tony drives them around New York, without any clear aim in sight, and then it clicks.

“Tony,” Steve says. “Where are you taking me?”

Tony closes his eyes. “Home,” he says. “If you want it.”

It’s obvious Tony doesn’t mean Steve’s empty, lonely apartment here.

Steve says yes before he can talk himself out of it.

***

The rest of the story, the hows and whys and whens, he learns from reports.

Tony’d found the Mind Gem radiation when checking something about Ulysses’ brain waves. That was probably what had sent the vision of Steve dying. He followed the signal straight to the Red Skull. The reports say T’Challa and Luke Cage both had to hold him back from killing the villain.

He did all that in the time it took Steve to reach Washington, and then made sure Spider-Man was safe, explained the situation to Carol, and Carol, bless her, trusted her old friend this time.

Steve will never be able to atone for anything he’d done.

***

Steve spends his days in the gym, trying to exhaust himself enough not to think. It never quite works. He can’t meet anyone’s eyes when he runs into someone in the corridor. He’s tired, he’s so bloody tired, it’s 3 AM, and he can’t sleep. He’s drinking water in the kitchen, half-dreading, half-hoping Tony will show up.

The Talk is still before them, but there’s only one thing Tony can say to him, isn’t there?

“It wasn’t your fault,” Tony says conversationally, entering the kitchen. “The war. Me and Carol. Rhodey.”

Steve looks at him sadly. “Bruce was,” he says, and Tony drops his glass. He takes an unsteady step forward and yelps, steps away, and he’s bleeding, and—Steve’s only making everything worse.

Breathe, he tells himself, as he reaches for first aid kit. Thank god for a building full of superheroes, with bandages easily available everywhere.

Though lately the superheroes in question seem to be just him and Tony. Another question he’s not asking.

“Can I?” he asks, gesturing at Tony’s foot.

“That’ll teach me not to walk barefoot,” Tony mutters. He jumps on one leg to the nearest chair and sits down. Steve kneels in front of him, takes a look at Tony’s foot. A piece of glass is still stuck in the side of his sole, but it doesn’t look serious. Just painful.

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispers, beginning to clean it up.

Tony tenses. It probably has nothing to do with physical pain. “That was me being a clumsy idiot,” he lies. He sighs. “Steve—you surprised me. That still doesn’t mean it was your fault. I know what you’re trying to do. I’m better at that game than you. I won’t let you push me away.”

Steve thinks to the time Tony was hurting and drinking, and how easy it was for Steve to walk away. He doesn’t deserve Tony. Not at all.

“I forced you—I made you sleep with me—”

A full body shiver goes through Tony, but he doesn’t try to jerk away. “So,” he says instead. “This is that talk we should have.”

Steve busies himself with finding bandages for Tony’s foot.

“I’m sorry,” Tony says, sounding anguished and honest, and Steve freezes, just looks at him.

“What for?” he asks, puzzled.

“You weren’t yourself,” Tony says. “And you just said what for. I kissed you. I—I had sex with you, I kept doing that, I didn’t notice you didn’t even want it—”

“I wanted it,” Steve admits, and it feels like he’s talking from far away.

“And I—” Tony trails off. “I beg your pardon?”

“This. You. That wasn’t mind control, Tony,” Steve admits. He wraps the bandage over Tony’s foot, tight enough so it’s secure, loose enough so it doesn’t harm him.

Tony’s staring at him.

It’s not as if Steve can ruin them more. “I love you, Tony,” Steve says. “Sometimes it feels like I’ve always loved you. This—this really had nothing to do with mind control. I—you were the only bright spot. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? I love you, and when—when I was Hydra—” and saying this still hurts “—I had convinced myself you might love me back. I forced you . . .”

Tony’s shaking his head, slowly. “Steve. Did it feel like you were forcing me to do anything?”

It hadn’t. But Tony couldn’t have wanted it, not—

Tony closes his eyes, then opens them, determined. “Steve—I thought everyone knew, really. I love you. I’ve loved you for years. When you—I was so happy that even with the war, I still had you. It was honest, on my part.”

“I used you,” Steve whispers.

“I know,” Tony says quietly.

“I loved you—I love you—but I still used you, and . . .”

“I’m not saying it’s easy,” Tony says. “But I used you, too.”

Steve closes his eyes. “I am not—I put that behind me.”

It’s a lie. Some days he can’t stop thinking about it. But he’s got a whole new load of nightmares now.

And he has forgiven Tony; it was easier than trying to stay away from him.

“We’re a mess,” Tony says, “and that’s something, coming from me.” He stretches his foot, winces, doesn’t try to stand up.

Steve takes it as his cue. “I’ll go,” he says.

Tony catches him by his wrist. “No.”

“No?” Steve asks. After everything he’s done . . .

“What do you want, Steve?” Tony asks, staring into space next to Steve’s head. “Not what do you think you deserve. What do you want?”

“As if you’re so good at answering that yourself,” Steve snaps.

Tony gives him an unhappy smile. “Fine,” he says. “Let’s be honest with each other, for once.”

“I want you,” Steve lets out. After everything, this is still the most important: Tony, with him.

“I want a lot of things,” Tony says. “But Rhodey and Bruce are dead and not coming back. But you, Steve, you’re still here. You—you didn’t do anything to me. The past weeks. It wasn’t you. And I want you, and Steve, I can’t have anything else I want—but you. You’re right here. And I want to be selfish.”

Steve kneels next to him again. He can barely breathe. “It can’t be that easy.”

Tony shrugs. “It won’t be anything if we don’t start something.”

Steve closes his eyes, and reaches for Tony.

Tony catches his hand, wraps it in both of his, squeezes tight.

(It’s easy, in retrospect. It’s impossible, in the moment.)

He doesn’t let go.