Tony hears the whispers. When he holds the Gem in his hand, green mist wreaths around his fingers, and he hears them talking, and he hates it. Extremis reports nothing; the scans come out clear. But he still hears them talking.
It's more than whispers. It's scraps of overheard conversations, like hearing guests in another room. It's defiant cries. It's pleas. And at night, sometimes, it's screams.
He knows there are souls trapped in the Gem, but he fears what will happen to him if he prods too closely. This should have been Stephen's Gem, not his -- if anyone can handle mysticism, it's the Sorcerer Supreme. Tony is atheist enough that he prefers not to think about souls. He's pretty sure he doesn't have much of one, anymore.
That's what Steve would say.
He flips the Gem around and around between two gauntleted fingers, worrying at it in his hand.
And then he looks up at the gates and the ruined mansion beyond and taps his boots on with a wordless thought, sailing over the fence, clutching the Gem in his fist.
After Steve slapped an EMP in his palm during their first attempt to talk this out, Tony's learned to come prepared. He was weak. He was sentimental. He'd believed in Captain America's innate goodness. He'd held out his hand, and he'd waited. He'd thought he'd seen the future. He'd thought Steve would see the light.
Well, he's not going to make that mistake twice.
Hence, the Infinity Gem. Maybe not the one he would have liked, but it's what he's got to work with. There's no use wishing for things to be different. It's not like he has the Reality Gem.
Steve shows up a few minutes after Tony gets there.
He looks tired, Tony thinks. Weary. He doesn't want to fight either.
If Tony just knew the right words to say, this could be over. He can almost picture it, like how the future unfurls for him, but in his mind the words aren't there. He doesn't know what it would take.
(He does know. The words are I surrender. He knows that's not an option, for either of them.)
They talk. They walk in the garden, among the statues. They go inside. They talk more.
It doesn't go well.
"Join me," Steve says, one last plea. "Denounce the act and help me fight it."
Tony knows the determined gleam in Steve's eyes from a decade of Avenging: it's how Steve looks right before someone's getting themselves punched. This conversation's not going to go anywhere good.
He remembers kissing Steve, not that long ago, in the Quinjet on the way to the Savage Land. They'd been so happy.
He'd thought it was going to last forever.
Tony should have remembered that he never gets to keep anything he loves.
Does Steve really think it's that easy? To give in? "I can't," he says. "Even if I didn't believe in it -- which I do -- it's not about me. Losing me wouldn't stop it. Reed or Hank or someone would take over." He's not a symbol. Not like Steve. Steve's always a symbol whether he wants to be or not, a gravitational vortex, a sun drawing everyone else into his orbit. The SHRA isn't Tony. But the resistance is Steve. He has to know this. "But the resistance is all about you," Tony tries to tell him. "You can put an end to this. Join me, Cap. Help me change things from within."
"Within what? A cell?" Steve's mouth is hard, a thin, tense line. Tony remembers Steve smiling, Steve laughing, Steve's mouth pressed against his. It's never happening again. "Because whether or not you can see the bars, that's where I'd be. Where we'd all be."
"Damn you!" Tony snarls, and he slams his fist against the table.
Steve turns away from him. "We're not going to solve anything here." It's the same realization Tony had when Steve asked him to join him; Steve's only now catching up to reality. "I should go."
"No," Tony snaps, standing up. "We're not done."
And Tony reaches out, with the hand that holds the Soul Gem, the Gem he's had palmed for this entire conversation, and he presses it against Steve's mailed shoulder.
The effect is immediate, unexpected, and entirely alien to anything Tony has experienced in his life.
The now-familiar green mist wreaths around both of them. Steve turns back, wide-eyed, surprised, his gaze meeting Tony's--
And Tony is staring straight into Steve's soul.
It's not a metaphor. It's not pretty wordplay. And it requires Tony's cynical, atheist "belief" exactly as much as the theory of gravity requires him to believe in it in order for him to stick to the planet -- which is to say, not at all.
He's never really thought about it, what Steve's soul would be like, but somehow it's exactly right. Steve's soul is a bright, determined flame, a candle in the darkness, spark and spirit and everything that makes him himself, everything that lets him stand up and hold the line against the evils of the world. It's huge in a way that has nothing to do with his body. It's just... Steve. Perfect, pure, unadulterated.
Because Tony's nowhere near as good as Captain America, he'd been harboring secret hopes. The Soul Gem can revert people to their natural state; he knows that. He'd been hoping that the resistance to Registration was some blight on Steve that could be plucked out of him, like a cancer, but it isn't and it can't be, and thank God for that because Tony doesn't want to know whether he would have actually done it. Steve's views are part of him. Intrinsic. He believes in the rightness of his cause like he believes in breathing.
This isn't going to work. The Soul Gem won't save them.
Tony tries to jerk his hand back.
His arm won't move.
He's not the one calling the shots.
Mine, the Gem whispers. Mine, mine, mine.
The green mist swirls all around Steve, brightening, and the Gem in Tony's hand brightens too. Everything is bright, dazzling, green-white--
And then the mist disappears, and the light fades... and there's nothing in Steve's eyes. Not anymore. His body is an empty shell. Breathing, but lifeless.
Not lifeless. Soulless.
Oh God, no. What has he done?
This wasn't supposed to happen.
Help me, a voice whispers in Tony's ear, a voice from within the Soul Gem, and this time it's Steve's voice. I'm trapped. Help me.
If Steve wants a fight so badly, Steve can have a goddamn fight.
Tigra's their mole in the anti-Registration forces. She's been there for over a week, and it's thanks to her that Tony knows what Steve and his friends are planning: a good, old-fashioned prison break. They're heading to the Negative Zone via the Ryker's Island portal, with plans to liberate everyone in Forty-Two.
The thing Steve can't seem to understand -- and this really galls Tony, because it's not like he hasn't tried to explain this -- is that it's not a choice between freedom and imprisonment. It's a choice between imprisonment and death. Imprisonment and Project Wideawake. Imprisonment and collars and camps and Sentinels -- which, of course, is death, only slower. Imprisonment and seeing your best friends vivisected so their powers can be analyzed. It's Mutant Registration, a thousand times worse, a thousand times worse for everyone, and they all know Mutant Registration has been a shitshow in every timeline. The SHRA is happening with or without Tony Stark's involvement and he only has his own body to use to cushion the blow for everyone else. They're not above the law. They shouldn't be above the law. But the only way to make the law work for them is to get their hands dirty.
Sure, he'd pick freedom if it were on the table. Of course he would. But it's not, so Tony picks life. Everyone in Forty-Two is alive right now, which is a damn sight better than they'd be if Forty-Two had never existed.
Steve wants to keep his hands clean. Steve wants to stand up for what's right. Tony wishes he had that luxury. No, Tony's got to stand up for what's necessary.
But asking Steve not to fight for what he believes in is like asking the sun not to rise.
So it's come down to this: they're going to fight. Again. Tony's in his workshop, standing here in his undersuit, the outer armor pieces spread around him. One thought from Extremis and he'll be armored, armed, ready. He breathes in through his nose, out through his mouth. The call to assemble just went out. Five minutes until showtime.
He doesn't want to fight Steve. He loves Steve. He's pretty sure Steve loves him back. What's that worth, huh? Nothing. It sure as hell won't stop this. But if Tony has to fight Steve, he's going to win. He doesn't want to do this more than once. He needs this to be final. He needs all this to stop.
Tony weighs the Power Gem in his hand. It feels insubstantial, like it should be heavier than it is. It glows blood-red, reflecting off the golden undersuit that coats Tony's palm, that spreads across his fingertips.
He's never used it before. He's never going to use it again.
He'll be unstoppable. And then even Steve will give way, because he'll have to, and it will finally, finally end. That's what Tony wants. An end.
He's so tired.
One more fight. One last fight, and it will all be over.
He sighs, exhausted. All right. He can do this.
Armor order: assemble, he thinks, through Extremis, and as the armor plates float up to wrap him in a cold embrace he holds the Power Gem up and presses it against his sternum. The chestplate locks over it. Tony wants to smile, thinking about how this used to work, how the chestplate was his prison and his life preserver all at once, how narrowly his own existence hung on a single charge. But that's not true anymore. His heart's perfect. The chestplate is only a battery.
And it's going to be the biggest battery in the goddamn universe.
He carves out a space for the Gem, the armor reconfiguring in response to his thoughts, the Gem locked tight. The light in the center of the suit, the unibeam housing, goes red.
Everything in Tony wakes up, all at once, like he's chased a handful of uppers with three cups of coffee and probably a line of coke. Extremis helpfully displays a lemniscate next to the estimated battery charge. Infinity, indeed.
Tony whoops and shakes his head, feeling energy course through him. He's got power to burn.
He hits the jets, and he's in the sky in an instant.
Quicker than he would have thought, they're all in the Negative Zone, toe-to-toe, armies on a battle line. The spies are revealed. And, ah, yes, it's the usual bravado.
"Close your eyes, gentlemen," Steve says. "This might hurt."
The fight's barely started before they're all falling out of the skies outside the Baxter Building, and Tony's busy scooping up the non-fliers, running crowd control, locking the area down, because he's not a terrible human being. He's not. He only wants to stop Steve.
Eventually it's him and Steve, facing off.
"You and me again, Cap," Tony begins, and he wants to laugh, because isn't that the truth? It's always them. It's only ever them. "Just like last time. Let's hope I don't have to put you through all that pain again, huh?"
Steve smiles like he's got a trick up his sleeve. Tony loves him, but God help him, he's always had a shit poker face. "Well, things are a little different this time, Tony," he says, and he glances over Tony's shoulder, looking somewhere beyond him. "Vision..."
Proximity warning, Extremis says, and Tony's absolutely certain that in half a second Vizh is going to phase his arm through Tony's chest and short-circuit the armor. That sounds like a Steve kind of plan.
Good idea from the Avengers' best tactician. And it would even have worked, had Tony not been carrying an Infinity Gem.
Counter phase, Tony thinks, pushing the order out through Extremis, and his armor crackles crimson with power. Vision's fist pounds Tony's back, uselessly.
"No," Tony says, and he shoves Vision away. "You and me, Steve. I meant it. It's about us. You want this. Let's get it over with."
Even with the Power Gem he's tired. He's so tired. Let this be it. Let this be over. He doesn't want to fight anymore.
Steve raises his shield and strikes out--
Tony punches hard, with his left fist. Metal rings against metal, a tone purer than a bell, a sound Tony's never heard before, and as he glances down at his fist he sees the shield bowing inward. He can't quite process the fact that he's dented vibranium.
Steve's eyes go wide.
Tony has too much power. It's all moving too fast. He can't slow down. He can't stop.
Tony's still pushing, finishing the swing, and super-soldier strength is no match for the Power Gem. Steve staggers backwards, lowering his shield--
Tony's moving on instinct now, the instinct and training born of a decade's worth of Avenging. Steve's left himself open. And in a perfect move, a move that Steve himself taught Tony, Tony brings up his right fist and slams it into Steve's unprotected face.
Steve never stood a chance.
Flesh gives way beneath Tony's gauntlet. Bone shatters. There's blood everywhere, God, blood all over his armor--
The shield falls from Steve's hands, ringing as it lands. Steve tips backwards onto the pavement, an ungainly sprawl, and his skull hits the concrete with a wet thud. He doesn't get up. He doesn't move. He doesn't breathe. His eyes are glassy. Empty. Blood pools under his head.
Oh, God, there's so much blood.
Extremis gives him medical readouts: flatline. All zero. He's gone.
I didn't mean to, he thinks, and he rips off his helmet and doubles over, right there in the middle of the fight, curling up next to Steve's body. He's crying. Oh, God, Steve, I didn't mean to. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. I love you. I didn't want this.
He can't see Steve's face. He's crying too hard to see anything.
You were fighting a war, he tells himself. You brought the Power Gem to a battlefield. What kind of genius are you? What the fuck did you think would happen?
He doesn't have an answer.
Tony's not going to go.
He's got a list of reasons. Some of them are even halfway convincing.
Being the director of SHIELD is a hell of a lot of work. He just took the job. There are people to meet, papers to sign, more papers to sign, procedures to implement. Snazzy jumpsuit and high boots to try on. It's not like he's not up to his neck in work. And he is, for better or worse, the face of Registration. He's got to show up and shake hands and smile. He committed. He's got to stay committed. He has a thousand things he needs to stay on top of. Calm. Competent. In control. The new Tony Stark. Director Tony Stark. He's got business cards.
The whole affair is just going to be a media circus, and taking time out of his morning to show up is going to take time away from all the things he urgently needs to be doing. Like keeping the boots off his former friends' necks. They can all hate him. But they'll be alive to hate him. That's the only thing that's important.
And for another thing, it's not even a trial. Not yet. It's only an arraignment. Steve's going to stand up, enter a plea -- God, Tony hopes someone convinced that stubborn bastard to plead not guilty, but it would be just like him not to -- and, since he's Captain America, they might very well release him on his own recognizance. He might have to surrender his passport.
The worst thing that could happen, the worst possible thing, is that the judge will want to make some kind of example of him. They could set bail at some ridiculous amount of money and leave Steve to stew back at the Raft until trial.
That's no problem. Tony, conveniently, has ridiculous amounts of money, and he's more than willing to pay whatever they're asking for Steve. He can post bail for Steve. It's only money.
Okay, the absolute worst outcome of the arraignment is if they decide Steve's crimes are too serious for any kind of bail. He did commit treason, after all, even if he is Captain America. But it's okay. It's all right. Steve will survive. He'll be mad as hell, but he'll survive.
Steve's not going to want to talk to him. It's fine. It's okay. He doesn't have to. They're not friends, not anymore, but the world is safe. Everyone will be safe. It's worth it. It only cost one friendship.
They were more than friends. There's no point in thinking about that now.
I miss you, he thinks, and the thought is a tangle of regret and anger and something that, once, used to be longing. What he misses is the way they were. He remembers Steve last night, shouting at him through the bars of his cell. What he misses doesn't exist.
Tony stands up. His new office here on the helicarrier -- formerly Fury's office -- is spacious, richly-appointed. Windows line one side, revealing cloudy skies, and, far below, the New York skyline.
Steve's arraignment is in half an hour.
Tony paces his office. He's finding it hard to concentrate on paperwork.
And, of course, there's the real reason he doesn't want to go: Steve will see him. Tony will be there, in the courtroom, and he knows -- he knows -- that Steve will pick him out, unerringly, will find him in the vast and noisy crowd. Steve will raise his head. Steve's eyes will lock with his, across the room.
Call Tony a coward. Call Tony ten thousand different kinds of coward. But he doesn't want to see the expression that will be on Steve's face.
Everything has already been ruined. Tony doesn't want to make it any worse. He knows better than to pick at open wounds.
So he's staying here.
But it's obvious that he's going to have to give in and watch, anyway.
On, he thinks, through Extremis, and one of the other walls lights up, a huge flatscreen monitor. It's an instant's work to pull up the cable feeds with his mind, to shift through the stations until he finds one of the 24/7 news channels, camera trained on the federal courthouse, the Manhattan street swarming with protesters who are just barely contained behind barriers and a line of cops. Steve isn't even there yet.
Wait. There he is.
"And we've just been informed," the news anchor says, in a voiceover, "that Captain America is now arriving."
A huge armored vehicle is pulling up. It's dark, solid, the kind of van they always use for superhuman prisoner transport. A few marshals come around from the front; one of them yanks open the doors.
And then Steve steps out. He's wearing the same ripped, ruined uniform he had on last night, the cowl pulled back so everyone can see his face. They want to parade him. They want to make a spectacle of him. Tony's stomach roils. God, he's glad he's not watching this in person. He wonders who did this. He didn't authorize this. He should have gone and stopped it. He definitely will for the actual trial. Steve doesn't deserve to be treated like this.
Steve's surrounded by more men in riot gear, feds and a SHIELD detail, which is the barest of formalities; what's really holding him are the power-dampening cuffs locking his wrists together behind his back. Well, that and his sense of justice. Tony considers this. Mostly his sense of justice, actually.
After all, Steve had been winning that last fight. Right up until he'd dropped the shield and surrendered. He's here now because he believes it's the right thing to do.
Tony wishes it hadn't taken an entire war for him to learn that.
The marshals are hustling Steve forward, pushing him through a throng of reporters. Tony winces as a protester on the other side of the barrier throws an honest-to-God tomato at Steve's face.
Tony's fists clench on nothingness. But Steve doesn't protest, doesn't stop, doesn't look around. He doesn't do anything except keep walking, on the way to meet his fate. Every ounce of resistance is gone, the fight leached out of him.
This is what Tony's done to him. This is Tony's fault.
(You made this war, Steve snarled at him last night, through the bars. You birthed it into existence by sheer force of will.)
And then, on screen, Steve... stops. His head snaps up, and he turns away, glancing back the way he came, craning his neck, looking over the crowd like he's trying to find something. Like he sees something.
If Tony's learned one goddamn thing in the past ten years, it's that he should trust Steve's instincts.
In half a second Tony's reached out through the feeds via Extremis, grabbing satellite imagery, grabbing everything he can find, high-definition, multiple angles, now now now--
The red dot of a sniper rifle's laser sight is glowing on the back of the marshal closest to Steve.
Tony thought there'd be time. Time for apologies, time for pardons, time for healing.
There's no time now.
Fuck fuck fuck, why isn't he there?
In another half second Tony throws himself back out of the feeds and overclocks Extremis, thoughts running quicker than any human should be capable of, processing and adrenaline and reflexes and everything else he needs to do something right fucking now, to be faster than anyone else. Extremis flashes warnings, errors, messages about dangerous overloads. Hardware incompatibility. His body can't handle what he's doing to it. He can sustain about thirty seconds of this before he fries his brain entirely.
There's only one option.
On screen, in what is now blurry slow-motion, Steve's turning back and moving to shoulder the marshal out of the way, and of course he's going to take a bullet for him. He's Steve. That's what he does.
Tony slams his thumb on the reader and then yanks open the secure drawer. The Space Gem gleams, a serene purple. And to think Reed had told him he shouldn't keep an Infinity Gem in his desk. Ha.
He scoops the Space Gem up in his hand. No time, no time, no time. Not even enough time to armor up. Take me there, he thinks.
The world jolts out of place and then back in. He's in the middle of the chanting crowd, just behind the barriers, with a line of cops and reporters in front of them. No one knows anything's wrong. No one's realized it except Steve.
"Emergency!" Tony yells at the top of his lungs. "Director of SHIELD, Tony Stark, Iron Man, coming through, get out of my fucking way!"
The closest people to Tony turn to face him. He sees recognition begin to spread across their faces. And then he shoves them to the side and vaults the barrier like it's nothing.
He pushes between two of the reporters. He can just barely see Steve, still trying to shoulder the marshal to safety. He's got to know he's the real target.
The laser dot is on Steve's chest now.
"Down!" Tony yells. "Steve, goddammit, get down!"
Warning, Extremis says. Ten seconds until intracerebral hemorrhage. Yeah, well, it's not like he needs his brain anymore, is it?
He's running, he's shoving other people away, he doesn't care, he's almost there--
Tony jumps and throws himself at Steve. They collide. His hands catch on scale-mail. Steve's body, twisted, contorted, presses briefly against his, one last touch, and then Steve's falling, with the marshal trapped under him. Steve's down.
Good. They're safe.
Tony spins around. Where the hell is that sniper?
Extremis is flashing critical errors. Permanent brain damage, starting now. It's overloading. His body is destroying itself. He doesn't care. Steve's going to be okay. Steve's going to be alive. That's the only thing that matters. That's the only thing that's ever mattered. It's worth it. It's all worth it.
Tony glances down at himself. There's a red dot over his heart, standing out on the starched cotton of his white shirt. It's moving up his body. It's shining in his eyes.
Hey, genius, he thinks, you could have just teleported Steve away with the Space Gem, how about that? You could have just stopped the bullet.
It doesn't make any difference. It's too late for Tony, anyway. It's better this way. It's over. Like the line goes: game over, man.
Tony lifts his head and smiles. It's getting hard to see. His visual cortex isn't processing anything anymore. The right side of his body is frozen.
Shutting down, Extremis whispers, and then everything goes dark.
The factory grounds of Geffen-Meyer Chemicals look just the same the -- fourth? fifth? sixth? no, fifth -- fifth time as they did the other four times.
Tony doesn't quite know why he's bothering with this one again.
He tried the Raft first. He tried that goddamn nightmare conversation at the Raft, the last night of Steve's life, eight times in a row because he just wanted to see him alive again. The first time, he'd walked in sobbing his eyes out. Steve had lifted his head, glared at him, and said what. A very precise, highly articulated, devastatingly cruel what. The same way he had begun the first time. Tony said nothing. And then Steve didn't say anything else until Tony left.
Tony has that entire evening mapped out, every possible variant of every conversational gambit, and every single move ends in Steve's death. Steve just wouldn't talk. Steve doesn't care about him. Didn't care about him. Will never care about him again. On the eighth try, Tony bypassed Steve entirely and managed to delay the arraignment, at which point the Red Skull sent Sharon, still brainwashed, into the Raft. She shot Steve point-blank in the head.
So that's a no, then.
Thank you, Time Gem.
He tried their parley in Yankee Stadium. He tried their meeting in the ruins of the mansion.
He even tried to stop Stamford in its tracks once. He managed to kill the New Warriors and the kids in the resulting explosion. He supposes it's one of those key events. It's got to happen. And something would have happened anyway, if not that. The SHRA was always going to go through. There was always going to be an excuse. A reason for people to fear them.
He doesn't know what else to try.
So he's back here. The opening battle of the war. Back before anyone had thrown a punch. Back when he thought Steve might, conceivably, listen to him.
It didn't work any of the other times. Steve slapped an EMP generator in his palm every time. Tony wants to say that he's here because he's an optimist, but he's not, he's not, that was Steve--
Steve always made him want to be good.
One more try, and then he'll go back to his lonely room in his lonely tower, surrounded by his Extremis hallucinations, doing the job that's the only thing worth staying alive for anymore. Steve would have wanted him to make sure everyone else was safe. Even if they disagreed on exactly how to accomplish it.
The Time Gem's orange light fades, and Tony steps forward.
"It's a trap!" Cable yells, and via Extremis Tony cues SHIELD for the tranq darts for Cloak and Wiccan, once again. Steve's teleporters are out of commission.
"Of course it's a trap," Tony says, the same way he's always said it, stepping forward. "How else were we going to get you all in one place?"
He wants to send SHIELD away entirely, but he doesn't, technically speaking, have the authority. He's not the director yet. He won't be until the end of the war. This is Maria's op.
He watches Steve and the others glance around, look up, mark the positions of the SHIELD copters in the sky, register that SHIELD is holding back.
Steve's chin tilts up, for the fifth time. "Your paymasters going soft, Tony?"
He's still calling him Tony. That's good, isn't it? He'd mostly stopped, by the end of it.
Tony wants to hold up his hands in surrender, but he's wearing the armor, and that gesture means something very different when he's got palm repulsors. He's not actually unarmed.
So he lifts a hand and cracks the faceplate. He's maybe twenty seconds early for that. He doesn't think he's tried that particular variation here yet.
Time for something new: the absolute truth.
"Look, Steve," he says, and he winces when Steve's face goes hard. "I wanted to talk. That's why I'm here. There's something I have to tell you. Something you're not expecting."
"Stark," Maria says in his ear, "what the hell are you up to?"
Tony kills the SHIELD channels.
"Not really in a talking mood right now." Steve's fingers flex on the handhold of his shield. Even now, his hand is curling around the electron-scrambler. He's preparing to use it. He thinks Tony doesn't know.
To be fair, it had come as a surprise, the first time.
"Tough," Tony says. "I'm from the future."
Steve tilts his head and blinks at him a few times. He's actually shocked enough that he takes a step backward, although he still reflexively brings up the shield as he does.
"Well," Steve says, and Tony watches him lick his lips, completely at sea. "You're right. Congratulations. I wasn't expecting that at all."
"What the hell?" Peter says, awed, from behind Tony, because he's never quiet, and then the rest of Tony's Avengers start, and then Steve's side starts chattering--
Steve holds up a hand for silence.
Everyone falls silent, of course, because it's Captain America. It's what Steve does.
"How far in the future?"
"About a year," Tony says. The worst year of my life.
Steve eyes him narrowly. "Prove it."
Tony lets his gaze drift to Steve's fist. "In your right hand, you're holding a miniature EMP device. SHIELD once gave it to you to take me down if I ever went rogue. You're currently planning on sticking it on me, triggering it, and punching me while the armor goes dead. Payment for SHIELD taking out Cloak and Wiccan, there." He smiles mirthlessly. "Go on, tell me I'm wrong."
Steve's tried this four times so far.
Steve shifts his weight uncomfortably, from foot to foot, and he's not meeting Tony's eyes. Slowly, reluctantly, he transfers his shield to his left hand, and then, head down, he holds out his right fist. He opens it.
The EMP device is in his palm, metal gleaming against the worn leather of his glove.
"Yeah," Tony says, softly. "Exactly my point."
Steve exhales hard. "So," he says, "what about the future?" His smile is worn, joyless. "Come to tell me who wins?"
The truth. He needs the truth.
"There's Registration." Tony looks him in the eye. "You surrender." He can't tell him he dies. He can't. He can't just say that right here, like this, in front of everyone. "It's going to get bad. Really bad. I need you to surrender now, before it gets bad, while there's still a chance. No one's done anything yet. There can be pardons. Forgiveness. Please. Steve, if you've ever cared, I need you to listen."
And Steve laughs once, a harsh sound. "You came from the future to tell me to do exactly what you wanted anyway? It's always about you, isn't it--"
"No," Tony says, urgently, "no, Steve, it's not, come on, I promise--"
"Is this because you kissed me?" Steve asks.
This is not the way Tony wanted to come out to everyone he knows.
Someone behind Tony, he's not sure who, laughs a startled awkward laugh. There's a murmured obscenity.
Goddammit, Steve had kissed him back. They'd been together. They'd been together. Steve didn't need to talk about it like it was Tony's fault. Like it was something anyone could even be at fault for. Like he'd committed some kind of crime by loving him.
"Because you don't own me," Steve continues. "Do you think that because you have-- because you have feelings for me you have the right to dictate what I do--"
This is why they fight, this is why they always fought. They can't talk to each other anymore.
"Jesus, Steve, no," Tony tries to say, but Steve's plowing on like a battering ram.
"Do you really think I'd just abandon everything I believe in, with one word?" he asks. "Do you really think--"
"Steve, listen to me, goddammit!" Tony snaps. "I think you're going to die if you don't listen to me, okay? That's what I think."
And Steve pauses. He stops. He looks Tony in the eye. Yes, Tony thinks, this is it, this is where I finally fix everything, this is where I finally save your damn life, this is how we save the world together.
"Do you really think I trust you anymore?" he asks. His voice is just above a whisper. He smiles a bleak smile.
This is what heartbreak is.
This man, Tony remembers, was going to take Tony's hand, extended in friendship, and stick an EMP in it.
Steve thinks Tony is lying.
Tony's shaking. "It's the truth," he says. "Steve, I swear it's the truth, I swear--"
"Says the man who created a trap to lure me in. Says the man who just knocked out Cloak and Wiccan. Says the man who has SHIELD waiting to arrest me." Steve sneers. "Even now I bet you've got something up your sleeve, don't you?"
Thor's clone. Yes.
Tony hates everything he's ever done.
It hasn't gotten bad enough yet. Steve hasn't seen what they've done to each other, to the whole goddamn world. At this moment, Steve would rather die than surrender.
He'll never believe that he's going to do both.
"Sorry, Tony," Steve says. "This is how it's going to be."
He tosses the EMP. It lands on Tony's right shoulder, the same place Crossbones' bullet will pass through Steve's body.
Tony convulses with electricity as Steve steps forward and punches him in the face. It barely even hurts, compared to knowing that Steve's going to die again.
It's all going to happen again.
There's no way to stop it. There's nothing to fix. There's no point in time he can alter.
Tony shuts his eyes. He lets the Time Gem take him away.
Maybe he'll go stand at Steve's grave again.
Steve's a really good listener when he's dead.
"Could you give us a moment alone, please?" Tony says to the guards.
Steve is the only prisoner in this entire wing of the Raft. Tony takes security very seriously. This shift of Tony's hand-picked SHIELD detail will be on duty until morning, at which point the first shift will liaise with the feds and get Steve to the courthouse, hopefully without making too much of a scene. Steve deserves dignity, at least.
Tony looks at the two guards; Extremis pulls up their personnel files. Name, age, height, weight, bank account numbers. Tony doesn't bother accessing the full files. He vetted them already. The Gem clenched in Tony's left fist -- the one he can't really feel through the gauntlet -- offers its own suggestions for verification, a whispery, inquisitive tendril of power that he ignores.
"Sir, yes, sir," the first kid says. He's so young. Twenty-two, Extremis says.
Tony was an Avenger at twenty-two.
When did they all get so old?
The guards nod and leave, and he's alone with Steve.
With a single thought, Tony kills all the cameras in the room.
At the other end of the cellblock, behind the glowing energy bars, Steve hasn't even looked up. He's sitting on the bench in his cell, elbows on his knees, head down.
Tony walks across the room, with even, deliberate steps. The metal of his armor rings out against the floor. It's the only sound in the room.
He stops a foot away from the bars.
Steve's sitting there -- doubled-over, bloody, still wearing his ruined uniform. Steve looks up, and his eyes are fire. He's surrendered. It's over. And he's still angry. Of course he's angry. This wasn't what he wanted. It can't have been.
Tony wonders what Steve's endgame was.
"What," Steve says, too loud, too hoarse. It's not a question.
The Gem in Tony's hand sends a tentative probe in Steve's direction. Tony doesn't want to do this without asking, so he tries to pull back, to shield, but not before he gets the slightest of impressions, and even that is so shocking that he stops breathing, struck by a feeling he never expected.
Steve is sorry. Steve is wretchedly, miserably sorry. The image of Tony's own battered body on the concrete is spinning through Steve's mind, again and again. The feeling pours off him in waves, twisted, ashamed agony. Looking at him, Tony wouldn't have known.
Tony expected only anger, only defiance. He expected he'd have to come in here and tell Steve he'd won. Point out the rightness of his own cause. Show him everything he just didn't understand.
Tony's beginning to think he was wrong about that.
It wasn't about winning. It was never about winning. Tony didn't win.
It's time to get everything out in the open.
With his free hand, he jams two fingers into the manual helmet release under his chin and lifts the helmet off. He's sure the bruising on his face is still visible. He pitches the helmet at a corner, and it hits the wall with a crash. Steve doesn't flinch.
Disassemble, he thinks to Extremis, and the rest of the armor falls off in pieces, clanging on the floor. He lets the undersuit melt away from his head and his hands.
Here's Tony. Here's all of him, right here. He hasn't gone out without the armor in weeks.
Steve's looking at him, but his eyes aren't even focusing.
And then Tony flips the bars off with his mind. He steps inside the cell and sits down at Steve's feet. Here goes nothing.
Steve scowls. "Okay," he rasps. "Okay, I'll bite. What the hell, Stark? Are you insane?"
You're not going to hurt me, he wants to say, which is pretty funny given that they're sitting here, still covered in each other's bruises.
Instead, Tony tilts his head up and smiles, the mask he perfected long before he became Iron Man. And then... he lets it slip.
"This is the deal," Tony says, very quietly. "I'm not laying blame. I'm not here to fight. But this is how it started. We stopped talking. We stopped really talking, a long time ago. And then we stopped listening. And now we... don't. We don't communicate."
"I don't have anything to say to you," Steve says, with a breath that might be a laugh. He's lying.
"So this is what we're going to do," Tony tells him. "You've got ten hours until your arraignment. It's not as if either of us have anything else to do in the meantime. We're going to communicate."
"I don't want to talk to you." Steve's voice is flat.
Tony tries to smile. "I didn't say anything about talking."
He holds up his hand, and he opens his fingers. The Gem glows blue as it lies flat in his palm. The cell is lit by it. It casts smeary shadows over Steve's face. It's almost the same color as Steve's eyes.
Steve's raised eyebrow and pursed lips signal disinterest, but he's trying too hard. Tony knows the truth.
"Is one of the things you're going to communicate to me an explanation of why you have an Infinity Gem?" Steve frowns in thought, like he's trying to place a memory. "Which one is that, then?"
Tony meets Steve's gaze and wills himself not to look away. "This is the Mind Gem."
Of course, Steve gets it instantly -- and then Tony wishes he hadn't, because he runs in entirely the wrong direction. Steve laughs, awful and mocking. "Go on, then. Change my mind." He makes a tiny noise in the back of his throat. He gestures encouragement with his head. "I'm sure you'd like me to be on your side."
There aren't sides. There should never have been sides.
"Goddammit, Steve," Tony snaps, and this is why they don't talk anymore. "What kind of monster do you think I am?"
"You opened a prison in the Negative Zone. You came for our friends in their own homes. You let supervillains roam the streets." Steve's face is flushed; he's working himself up to another good shouting match. "So, tell me, why do you ask me that like you think you have limits? Like there are lines you won't cross? There are words for people like you, Tony."
Somehow not naming them makes it even worse.
He was going to ask first. He was going to ask, and wait for a yes, and then quietly, non-intrusively, think it through with Steve. Figure out what Steve was feeling. Work this all out.
It looks like he's going to have to go first.
He can do this. It's the only way. It's the only thing Tony has left.
"The word for what I am," Tony says, very softly, "is sorry."
Before Steve can react, Tony leans in with every Extremis-granted reflex, pushes the Mind Gem into Steve's palm, against bare skin where Steve's glove has torn away, and Tony covers it with his own bare hand.
And then he opens up, opens everything wide, and they're in Tony's mind together.
Tony's not new to telepathy. Charles, Emma, pretty much everyone he can name with psionic powers has gotten in his brain at some point over the years, some more deeply than others. But the thing is, they were all trained telepaths. They knew what they were doing. They knew how to communicate a message, or how to pinpoint a particular memory with unerring precision. They'd had years of experience.
But Steve's not a trained telepath, and neither is Tony. Neither of them know what the fuck they're doing. Tony thinks that sums up their entire relationship, these days.
Steve trips and dives through Tony's mind, falling back and back and forward, and-- God, no, Tony doesn't want Steve to see this, but he's already gone.
The clock ticks over to midnight, and the SHRA goes into effect. Tony's sitting on the couch next to Happy, and his hands are balled up in fists as he stares blankly out the window, wishing for answers that aren't there, wishing he knew if they were doing the right thing--
Steve-and-Tony, an inseparable unit, trip down the associational linkages of shame and grief.
Happy's in a coma, and he's never going to wake up again, and Tony's pouring himself whiskey on the rocks, not to drink it, not to drink it, but, God, he wants everything to go away and there's concern and dismay from Steve and Tony can't even take it and Sue Storm hits him in the face and he deserves it, Jesus, what doesn't he deserve, and Tony puts his fist through a window and there's blood everywhere. He dumps the rest of the whiskey down the drain, reaches out with Extremis, and Happy's dead and Tony's doing the right thing, he's got to be doing the right thing, because there's nothing else left to do but this.
There's an ache in Tony's mind that feels like Steve, a lingering sympathy that he'd never have for himself. God, Tony, Steve says, in Tony's head. I didn't know.
Tony's gasping and he can't breathe and he's already starting to cry. He's beginning to think he's in way over his head.
He supposes he'll just have to drown.
It's easy then, to fall into even older memories, winter cold and the drink numbs it all, and Steve's standing there trying to tell him to stop, fuck, guess he's always going to disappoint Captain America-- and then oh shit he sucker-punches Steve, he takes down the Guardsmen, he does what he wants, Steve was right, he always does what he wants, it rips him apart and he does it anyway, maybe this is how it started, maybe he was always going to ruin Steve--
Steve's hand is still wrapped around his, but somehow Steve's next to him on the floor, holding him tight, his other arm pulling him close, and Tony shuts his eyes.
I miss you, Tony thinks, harsh and despondent, but he knows kindness isn't for him, and then all he can think of is the day he'd kissed Steve, that first time, and they'd been so happy, and it hadn't been a lie, it hadn't, but he'd had to throw it away, for everything, for the world.
Steve's hand scrapes across Tony's face, rough leather catching on stubble, pressing into the bruises. When Tony opens his eyes, Steve's face is far too close, and there are tears on his cheeks.
"You think I don't love you?" Steve whispers. "You think I ever stopped loving you?"
You never said you loved me, Tony thinks, and he doesn't mean to think it so Steve can hear, but fuck fuck fuck, hey, here's some telepathy, now Steve will know exactly how needy he is.
Steve's voice is low and ashamed. "If I didn't love you, I think it would never have gotten this bad."
Steve traces a thumb across Tony's bruised cheekbone, looks into his eyes, and then lets the Mind Gem have him.
And there's Steve all right -- worn and afraid, afraid just like Tony is, afraid of himself and what he feels, afraid that there's so much of himself he's barely keeping in check, only knowing how to be angry anymore--
That's not true, Tony says, and Steve flashes through Tony convulsing with the EMP, Tony laid out on the pavement, bleeding out and waiting to die and this is it, this is the end, this is what Steve has become, the monster he fears, and maybe Registration is wrong, but God oh God, that doesn't mean Steve's right, what has he done to Tony?
In their memory, the shield falls and falls and falls.
Tony sees that first fight, at the chemical plant, through Steve's eyes; he sees himself punching and punching and punching, going after Steve with all the power of the armor backing him, standing over him, begging him not to get up, like it was Steve's fault this was happening, like the natural consequence of standing up means that Steve has to run into his fists. Sure, Steve threw the first punch. But Tony stood up, rebooted the armor, and kept punching. It took both of them to fight.
He sees Steve after the battle, bandaged, barely on his feet, and remembered pain -- Steve's remembered pain -- courses through him. He's bruised, he's bloody, and Tony did that to him.
I hurt you, Tony thinks, and it's so awful, and it's so stupid, and of course he hurt him, for fuck's sake, they were fighting. All he can feel is an aching regret, and he's not sure if that's him or Steve. Maybe both of them. Oh, God, I'm sorry.
He thinks he sees more tears now, on Steve's pale face, and in response, Steve offers him a memory:
The team's slipping away from him. He's failed at being Steve Rogers, he's failed at being Captain America and Tony winces as loneliness and regret pervade the memory and for some Godforsaken reason Clint's decided that what Steve needs is a pitcher of beer and an hour of commiseration at what has to be the scummiest dive bar this side of the Hudson. And then Steve looks up... and Tony's there. Tony tracked him down. Tony came to a bar for him. And Tony's looking at him, open and earnest and honest, and tells him they need to clear the air.
I remember this, Tony thinks, and there's something else from Steve then, his own sorrow and aching longing, as in the memory Tony tells him how he thought Steve had died on Hala, how there was no one he'd miss more, how he was an inspiration, an idealist in an ugly world--
Less of an idealist than I used to be, Steve admits.
You're still the best man I know, Tony thinks, instantly, and, hey, this way Steve knows it's the truth.
In the memory, they shake hands. In reality, they're still sitting on the floor of a prison cell, arms wrapped around each other. Tony's holding onto Steve, because he always holds on to Steve, because this is them, too.
They didn't always fight. They were happy, once. Somehow Tony had forgotten that. He'd lost his way.
It's going to be okay. I'll get you a pardon, Tony thinks. Come on, stand up, let's get out of here. Steve shouldn't be here.
I'm not above the law, Steve retorts. I might-- I might still disagree with it, but this is justice. I deserve this.
Fine, Tony thinks back, but I'm staying with you. All night. I'll be at your back the whole time.
I'm still angry, you know, Steve tells him, but the thought is contemplative. Quieter. I can't just turn it off.
Tony smiles. I know. I don't expect you to be anything different.
They know they care now. It's different. It matters. They're in this together.
In the morning, the guards find them still there, sitting on the floor of the cell, and Tony is at Steve's side for every step of the way.
The bullets bounce off Tony's armor. They're Avengers. They save each other. Things are going to be different now.
And they live.