Title: Resurrection, Reconstruction, and Redemption, 13/13
Authors: seanchai and elspethdixon
Rated: PG-13
Pairings: Steve/Tony. Various canon ships. Sharon/Winter Soldier, for your daily dosage of spy/assassin hotness.
Warnings: Denial fic. Blatant shipper fic. Captain America and Iron Man in a romantic relationship. One non-canonical het pairing. A dire lack of sex. Terrifying amounts of snuggling and angst.

Disclaimer: The characters and situations depicted herein belong to Stan Lee and Marvel comics. Also, some of the dialogue in chapter five was taken from Brian Michael Bendis's Civil War: The Confession. No profit is being made off of this derivative work. We're paid in love, people.

Note: For a rundown of where this fic departs from current continuity, see the notes at the end of chapter one. Familiarity with the events of Captain America #25 and Civil War is encouraged.

Again, thank you to angelofharmony and tavella for the wonderful beta job.

Chapter Thirteen

"We tried to get Doom locked up at the Raft," Peter was saying, "but apparently being supreme dictator for life of Doomvaria gives him permanent diplomatic immunity. That, and Deviant Lemuria threatened to declare war if we didn't let him go. Maybe he's engaged to marry their Empress or something." He made a face. "And I don't even want to think about what that wedding night would be like."

Peter was back in his old red and blue costume, and the bright colors made Tony's eyes hurt; his head was throbbing with every movement he made, and Peter's loudly excited babbling wasn't helping matters either. Tony tried to summon up a smile anyway; they'd taken down Doom, and New York was no longer in danger of being obliterated by chaos magic. And Peter had done well; he rarely went up against villains on the level of Doom, but he'd more than proven himself on this one.

He and Simon had only arrived back at the Helicarrier an hour ago, and he'd had just enough time to put on fresh clothing and wash the blood off his face before Fury had dragged him into his office for a full debriefing. Then Peter and Strange had returned to base. Fury was debriefing Strange now, or at least trying to. How much information he was actually going to get was anyone's guess.

He held a hand up, waving Peter to silence. All the muscles in his arm and torso protested at the movement. "That's fascinating, Peter. What actually happened?"

Peter launched off into a convoluted explanation, punctuated by excessive amounts of hand-waving. "… and then Matt had to smear his blood on the high altar, and then Dr. Strange did all this chanting, and then Doom showed up and it was all wizard duels and pink, glowy light, and then Dr. Strange had me web his mouth -- well, metal mask slit thing -- up so he couldn't summon dark forces anymore, and then Matt kicked him in the head, and then…"

Tony finally succeeded in producing a smile. "I guess you finally got the hang of the teamwork thing," he said. "Steve must be proud." Steve had always had faith that Peter would learn to be a team player eventually.

Peter trailed off, frowning at him. "How many walls did you get thrown through?"

"I'm fine," Tony said. Actually, he was exhausted and somewhat lightheaded, but there was no way he was admitting to that.

"You are not fine." Carol strode into the room, bootheels rapping sharply on the deck. "You were electrocuted. Twice. Why aren't you on a bed in the infirmary?"

Because if he lay down now, he wouldn't be getting up again for a long time. And he couldn't afford to let himself crash yet; they still had people out in the field. Steve was still out there.

The Winter Soldier had reported in to Fury, saying that they'd taken down Red Skull, but that was all Tony knew. Steve could have been injured in the fight. Or something could happen to him on the way back to the Helicarrier; even though they'd taken down the three most major threats, there were still left-over Doombots roaming around, as well as however many of the Mandarin's men who had simply turned tail and run from Luke and Danny. Or there might be a subway accident. It was statistically improbably -- there had only been a hundred and six accidents last year, out of hundreds of thousands of train trips -- but it was possible.

Until Steve was back, until he could see Steve with his own eyes, he wouldn't be able to really believe that Steve was actually all right. He'd spent the past two weeks expecting to wake up and discover that it was all a dream, that Steve was still dead, and with every minute that Steve was gone, it got harder and harder to believe that he'd ever really come back at all. Or, worse, that Tony hadn't lost him again.

The fact that this time Steve at least knew how Tony felt about him wasn't much of a comfort.

"Where's the Mandarin?" he asked Carol, dodging her question. He couldn't let himself focus only on Steve's absence. If he did, he'd really be no good to anyone.

Carol smirked, and tossed her hair back over her shoulders -- it was dry now, if slightly stiff from its immersion in the East River. "Luckily, there was a surgeon on call on the Raft. They yanked the rings out; he's drugged to the gills in post-op now. Which is probably where you should be."

"I don't have time for that right now," Tony said. He felt dizzy for a moment as her words sunk in; the Mandarin was finally dealt with. He'd spent the past two weeks expecting to find him lurking around every corner, and now he could finally stop worrying about that, at least. He reached out tentatively with the Extremis; he ought to re-open all those communication lines, let all the agents in New York know the Mandarin was no longer a threat--

Searing pain exploded behind his eyes, and he dropped the connection instantly. It was all he could do not to double over, head in his hands -- he remained upright only because Carol and Peter were watching. Okay, bad idea. Extremis clearly very much offline.

He'd been able to operate the armor earlier, flying back after after the fight. It had hurt, but it hadn't hurt like this. He'd hoped that the fact that he could still run the armor meant that whatever had been wrong before had gone away.

"Are you okay?" Peter asked. He stared up at Tony, head cocked slightly to one side, and frowned. "I mean, not that I care, but, um, were you really electrocuted?" The last few words came out in a rush.

"I'm fine," Tony repeated. "Fury will want to talk to you," he told Carol. "When Strange is done with him." He reached up to run his fingers through his hair, halting the motion halfway through. "I'll be in the communication rooms." If he couldn't monitor transmissions mentally, he could at least go see if there'd been any progress getting the satellites re-secured; now that Red Skull and the Mandarin were both down, their spy networks ought to fall apart pretty quickly.

Carol started to say something, and Tony left the room before he could hear what was no doubt another pronouncement that he needed to be in a hospital bed.

Everything was coming together. Fury had sent men to ransack Red Skull's apartment lair, and they'd uncovered files confirming that Red Skull had been getting information from Joe Dickstein's office. Even if the rest of HUSAC was only paranoid and close-minded, the fact that their chairman had sold out Captain America to a known terrorist was almost enough to make Tony believe in a benevolent god. He couldn't buy better bad press.

With Dickstein so thoroughly discredited, getting the Registration Act amended or even repealed suddenly no longer seemed impossible. Dickstein had personally attempted to blackmail Tony during the fight over registration, trying to force him into taking more severe action against unregistered heroes. He'd wanted "emergency measures", including genetic screening and lethal force.

Tony hoped he could be there personally when Dickstein was impeached and put on trial for treason under the Patriot Act. He wanted Steve to be there next to him.

Where the hell was Steve?

In the communications room, three people were crowded around the main monitor station, talking excitedly. No one looked up when he came in, so he walked over to stand behind the group, craning his neck to look over their shoulders at the data screens.

Several of the screens were live, and the mere sight of the code scrolling across them was soothing, even though the faint digital hum they emitted to the Extremis made the pressure in his head -- which had lessened once he'd stopped trying to access the communications feeds -- increase.

"You've gotten the code wrong in this line here," he said, reaching over a seated man's head and tapping the closest monitor with one finger. "But I see you've gotten the number twenty-seven satellite back up. That's good."

The assembled group of techs all turned around and stared at him. "How did you do it?" Tony asked. "Everything was still down an hour ago."

"Um, Director Stark, sir-" someone stammered.

The man seated at the main monitor station -- who, now that Tony looked closer, was barely out of his teens -- interrupted. "When the giant magic bubble crashed the satellites, it shut everyone out -- us, the bad guys, everyone. So we were able to reboot everything and reestablish a link up on a new frequency. You know, one that wasn't riddled with Nazi spyware. Or that crazy Chinese guy's stuff. And I know," he held his hands up, "we should have got permission before we turned it back on, but we wanted to test it, and, um, yeah."

That was… really obvious, actually. He should have thought of it days ago. Of course, with the Red Skull locking them out of the satellites, there'd been no way to shut them all down until Doom had done it for them, but he still should have thought of it. "Whose idea was that?" he asked.

"Carl's." The closest tech, a young black woman with corporal's insignia and dark hair in a multitude of tiny braids, jabbed a thumb at the kid in the chair. "Fury picked him up last year, after he was arrested for hacking Microsoft's company database."

Smart move on Fury's part. If this kid worked for Stark Enterprises, Tony would have written him up for a promotion. Or moved him to R&D. "Good work, people," he told them. "Especially you, Carl. Go report to Dugan; tell him you've got his comlinks back online. I'll keep an eye on things here."

The techs obediently started for the door -- except for Carl, who hung back, staring at Tony with a wide-eyed expression he'd previously seen only on Peter, and that not for months. It was vaguely discomfiting.

"Can you really spy on people through the security cameras?" he asked.

"Sorry, sir," the woman said. "We're leaving now." She and the third tech grabbed Carl by the arms and pulled him out of the room. As they walked away down the hallway, Tony could hear her saying, "Yes, Carl, Director Stark spies on you while you play Halo. And Colonel Fury is a robot. And the flying cars are actually Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. Why did you ask him that?!"

Tony dropped into Carl's recently-vacated chair, the movement jarring his ribs painfully. He rested his head in his hands, rubbing at his eyes with the heels of his palms. Everything hurt, and he still had no real idea where Steve was.

Making his eyes focus on the screens took effort, the letters blurring into each other every time he blinked. Tony sighed, and started bringing the other satellites back online. He'd spent the past fortnight running communications; he could do it until Steve got back.

Taking the subway from the Upper East Side down to the docks had taken an hour. Redwing had spent the entire trip in a disgruntled huddle of feathers, clinging to Sam's shoulder with a taloned death grip that had to have been uncomfortable. The other passengers had stayed far away from Sam, and from the obviously bloodstained Bucky.

The SHIELD agents who had picked them up at the docks had stared at Bucky's bloodstained clothing as well, when they weren't still watching Steve with slightly embarrassing awe.

It wasn't as if he was the only person who had come back from the dead. After all the things that kept happening to the X-Men, people ought to be, well, not used to it, but at least less likely to keep staring at him as if they were expecting him to pull a sword out of a stone or walk on water. No one had been in awe of Simon.

"I'll go talk to Fury," Sam said, as they all climbed out of the ferry car. He nodded at Steve's bleeding forehead. "You go get that taken care of."

Steve shook his head. "I need to go find Tony," he said. Sharon was already steering a now heavily limping Bucky toward the garage doors, taking him to get his leg seen to.

"You don't have time to get patched up first?" Sam asked, raising his eyebrows.

"I-" Steve started.

"Just go," Sam said. "Then get yourself patched up. The mini-assassin has more sense than you."

Steve was about to point that he had a tiny graze on his head, while Bucky had a bullet wound in his leg, when Carol burst into the room, making her way towards them around the rows of parked cars.

Sam clapped Steve on the shoulder, and followed Sharon and Bucky out of the garage.

"Are you all right?" Carol asked when she reached him, waving a hand at his forehead.

"It's barely worth mentioning," Steve told her. "What happened with the Mandarin?"

"Doom and the Mandarin are taken care of," Carol said. "How did it go with Red Skull?

"He's dead." Even now, it didn't feel real. Steve couldn't quite make himself believe that Red Skull was actually gone. "We burned his body."

"Good," Carol said decisively, nodding. "Is everyone all right?"

"Bucky caught a bullet in the leg. Sharon's taking him to the medical station now. Is everyone else--" he broke off, wanting to ask her about Tony, but afraid of what she might say. The last thing he'd heard from Tony had been that bloodcurdling scream broadcast over the Extremis.

"A little beat up," Carol said, "but mostly okay." She rolled her eyes. "Or we will be once you make Tony go to the infirmary. No one else will, because the tech staff is scared of him."

"Tony is--" Still alive, thank God. "What happened to him?"

"He got zapped by one of the Mandarin's rings. I think he did it on purpose." They were walking toward the door now, boots loud on the metal floor. "You'd think he would learn, after the number of times he's gotten the shit beaten out of him. At least this time, I didn't have to carry him back."

"The armor has an autopilot function," Steve told her absently. A feature Tony used entirely too often. If Tony had let himself be injured on purpose, it was probably for a reason. Probably. The fact that he had to qualify that was not something it made him happy to admit.

Carol accompanied him up the three levels to the control deck and walked him to the door of the communications room, then discreetly disappeared. Steve hesitated in the doorway for a moment; the last time he and Tony had spoken, Tony had told him that he loved him, and Steve had responded with… well, he hadn't really responded. And then there had been the screaming. In spite of what Carol had said, Steve didn't really know what shape he was going to find Tony in.

Steve took a deep breath, and pushed back his torn cowl, wincing as the thin leather caught on the bullet graze at his hairline, and tore the cut open again.

He stepped through the door, and it took him a moment to spot Tony. He was off to one side, sitting in front of the main monitor station with his head resting on one hand, lit only by the bluish glow of the computer screens.

Steve took another step forward, deliberately letting his boots ring on the steel deck plates, and Tony half-turned, looking up. Steve stood stock-still, suddenly feeling frozen in place, unable to think of anything to say; it had only been a few hours since they had been separated, but so much had happened since then, and now he didn't know what he was supposed to do.

"Steve." Tony stood, planting a hand on the console and pushing himself to his feet.

The sound of Tony's voice broke Steve's paralysis, and he crossed the room in three long strides, to stand in front of Tony. The monitor-light wasn't bright enough to see very well, but he looked tired and battered.

Tony frowned, and reached up to brush his fingers across Steve's forehead. "You're bleeding," he said, holding up his hand to display the small red smears on his fingers.

Steve smiled a little. "Yeah, head wounds tend to do that." He had survived Red Skull, and Tony had survived the Mandarin, despite whatever had him leaning on the console to stay upright. It felt like something fundamental had changed between them, though Steve wasn't quite sure what. They'd all been scrambling to keep their heads above water ever since he'd woken up in Strange's study -- maybe longer than that -- and now…

Steve reached out and cupped the side of Tony's face, the skin hot and dry under his hand, and Tony closed his eyes, leaning into Steve's hand, swaying forward slightly. Steve leaned forward in response, so that his forehead was resting against Tony's, and closed his own eyes. He could feel tension he hadn't even realized he'd been carrying draining out of his shoulders. He was home.

Their bodies weren't quite touching, but this close, Steve could feel the heat radiating off Tony. Tony's hand came up to rest against the back of his neck, thumb pressed against the pulse point under his ear, fingers sliding into his hair. It felt good and strangely intimate.

He'd been thinking of the Helicarrier as a temporary base, somewhere for them all to reassemble and get patched up. He still thought of the Avengers Mansion as his real home. But even the mansion had been nothing more than a place to spend the night when Tony hadn't been there.

He tried to think of a way to tell Tony that, but he'd never been good at that sort of thing.

Tony sagged suddenly, listing to one side. Steve's eyes snapped open, and he grabbed Tony by the elbow, guiding him back into the chair. "Sit down. I'll be right back," he said, squeezing Tony's shoulder. Tony had been in bad shape this morning, but he was obviously in worse condition now. Though he was nowhere near as badly hurt as Steve had feared, he clearly needed medical attention.

Out in the corridor, he found Carol hovering a few feet away from the door. "Are we taking him to the infirmary now?" she said with suspicious eagerness.

"I was going to go bring someone." It didn't look like Tony was going to be walking far under his own power.

Carol nodded toward the doorway. "Dragging him will be faster."

He'd only been gone a few moments, but Tony had already slumped forward, head pillowed on his folded arms.

Steve shook him gently by the shoulder. "Come on," he said. "We're going to the infirmary."

"I'm fine," Tony mumbled, not moving.

Steve pulled him to his feet, ignoring Tony's attempts to stand on his own, and steered him out of the room. He kept one hand on the small of Tony's back all the way down to the infirmary, guiding him along. Tony could probably have walked in a straight line without help, but Steve wasn't going to give him a chance. The touch wasn't only for Tony's benefit.

There were several people occupying beds in the infirmary, but Bucky wasn't one of them; they must have already treated and released him. A man in a white medical coat met them at the door.

"Director Stark, sir. We've been expecting you." He turned to Steve, adding, "Sit down. I'll stitch up your forehead as soon as I'm done with him."

"Carol told you to watch out for me, didn't she?" Tony asked, as the doctor sat him down on the nearest bed and told him to unbutton his shirt. Steve hovered behind them, ignoring the doctor's order to take a seat himself.

"No sir, Sub-director Dugan did. If you didn't show up in another half hour, I was supposed to go looking for you."

Tony smiled a little, working on the buttons of his white dress shirt. It fell open, revealing an array of dark bruises across his ribcage. He shrugged out of the shirt, wincing when he tried to move his right shoulder; it was dark purple with bruising, and already starting to swell slightly.

"What did this?" the doctor asked, peering at Tony's battered torso with professional interest. "The bruising is too evenly dispersed for a normal impact."

"Force beam," Tony told him. "There was electricity, too."

Half an hour later, after a full complement of x-rays and various scans with pieces of medical equipment Steve couldn't even identify, Tony was lying sideways across one of the narrow beds, ribs securely wrapped and right arm in a sling. The doctor had called in a nurse, who had started a saline drip in Tony's left arm; being electrocuted apparently did bad things to one's electrolytes. His legs were dangling off the edge of the bed, and he had one arm thrown over his eyes; he looked like he was mostly asleep.

The doctor snipped the surgical thread he'd been using to close the cut at Steve's temple, and began taping a square of gauze over it. "He might as well sleep here," he said, nodding at Tony. "I'd prefer it if someone kept an eye on him for the night."

Steve prodded at the bandage on his forehead. It was slightly sore; he'd turned down the doctor's offer of localized anesthetic. Painkillers never worked properly on him, not in normal doses.

If Tony had been awake, he would have been able to explain that properly, and maybe get something done about it, but Steve hadn't felt like arguing the point over something so relatively unimportant.

"I can't sleep here," Tony announced, eyes still closed. Obviously, he hadn't been as asleep as Steve had thought. "It's too loud."

The doctor stepped back over to Tony's side. "I assure you, Mr. Stark, we try very hard to maintain a calm atmosphere."

"I think he means the machines." Steve told him. Tony was rubbing at his forehead with his left hand now, frowning slightly the way he did when the Extremis was making his head hurt.

"They won't stop talking," Tony mumbled. He stopped rubbing his forehead and draped his arm back over his eyes. "Also, there are other people in here, and I can turn off life support with my mind."

Steve was not going to ask how Tony knew that, but if it was true, it was a valid concern. He stood. "You're sleeping with me," he said. "Come on."

"All right," Tony said. He failed to move, arm still over his eyes.

Steve shook him by his good shoulder. "You're sleeping with me."

Tony made a muffled noise of protest, but sat up. He pulled his arm out of the sling and tugged the IV needle out of his left elbow. "I hate these things."

The doctor frowned, but didn't say anything, obviously used to bad patients. Well, this was a SHIELD installation, and if the general run of SHIELD agents were anything like Sharon and Nick…

Steve shot him an apologetic look. He wasn't sure that Tony had been entirely conscious when the doctor had explained that the IV bag was a saline drip. As far as he knew, Tony had no problems with needles; it was drugs he didn't like. Unfortunately, this occasionally extended to antibiotics and even cough syrup. He had seen Tony yank IVs out before; after the Red Zone incident at Mount Rushmore, the doctors had threatened to put him in restraints if he wouldn't leave them alone.

The doctor raised an eyebrow as the two of them left together, but remained silent, turning away to check on a patient in another bed.

Steve didn't actually have a room on the Helicarrier, so he took them back to the one Tony had been staying in before. It was several corridors away, and Tony was half-leaning on him by the time they reached the door.

Tony raised his head, blinking at the number plate screwed to the wall. "This is the director's room," he said. "I handed the position back to Fury."

Steve bit back a groan. That was all he needed. Please, please, he prayed inwardly, don't let Nick have moved back in already. He pushed the door open -- it was unlocked -- half expecting to find the room littered with piles of dirty laundry, disassembled pieces of heavy weaponry, cigar stubs, and possibly a calendar with pictures of naked women on it. He'd shared a tent with the Howling Commandos several times during the war.

The room was empty and spotless, which meant Fury hadn't been anywhere near it.

Tony kicked his shoes off, but didn't bother to remove any other clothing, and collapsed onto the bed in a boneless sprawl. He was asleep almost instantly.

Steve stared down at him, feeling for a moment as if he were right back where he'd been two weeks ago; in this room, watching Tony sleep the sleep of desperate exhaustion and not quite knowing what to say to him when he woke up.

Then he pulled off his costume and climbed into bed next to Tony, even though it was only three o' clock and ridiculously early for sleep. He'd talk to Nick about Red Skull later.

Steve wrapped an arm carefully around Tony, who didn't so much as twitch, too deeply asleep to notice. He ought to hunt down Sharon and Bucky, though considering where he and Tony were, he wasn't sure if he wanted to know what his ex-girlfriend and ex-sidekick were up to. He ought to go rescue Sam from Nick's debriefing. He ought to go see how the rest of the New Avengers were doing.

All of that could wait a few hours; he'd go back to being a leader later. He'd almost lost Tony today, and right now he got to be selfish about this.

Steve didn't actually fall asleep, still too wound up from the fight with Red Skull. He was halfway afraid that when he closed his eyes, he'd see Lukin's dead eyes staring up at him, face distorted by pain. They'd burned the body, but for the last few seconds, it had been Aleksander Lukin who'd inhabited it. Those last words, whispered to Bucky in Russian, hadn't been the Red Skull's; Steve knew his voice too well to mistake it, even from another man's lips.

Lukin had been anything but a good man, but he hadn't deserved the kind of death that the Red Skull had. And if Red Skull had already been gone... No, it had been Red Skull. Lukin might still have been in there, but so had Red Skull; there was no where else he could have gone to.

Even though Tony was dead to the world, it was comforting to have him there, and Steve stayed in bed next to him for a long time, not really thinking about anything in particular, just enjoying the warmth of Tony beside him. Eventually, though, he got up and went into the small bathroom to shower.

The bandage on his forehead got in the way when he tried to wash the blood out of his hair, so he yanked it off. The stitches, when he inspected them in the bathroom mirror, were small and even, and the cut had long since stopped bleeding.

All of the civilian clothing he'd managed to accumulate over the past two weeks had blown up with Sharon's car. Luckily, Tony's clothes had still been hanging in the room's tiny closet; a couple minutes of searching had turned up a selection of the worn-out jeans and t-shirts that Tony wore in the lab. The jeans were tight on Steve, and the fabric of the shirt stretched taunt across his shoulders, but they also weren't covered with mud, soot, and Lukin and Bucky's blood.

He emerged, still toweling his hair dry, to find Tony awake again, sitting up on his elbows and blinking around the room blearily. "You left," he observed fuzzily.

"I took a shower," Steve said. "You'll want to, too. You have soot in your hair."

Tony's lips quirked; Steve could almost see him waking up. "From the Peking. I got the blood out of my beard; I must have forgotten to do something about that."

"Blood?" Steve raised his eyebrows.

"I used the Extremis to hack the Mandarin's lightning ring." Tony scrubbed his good hand over his face, then dug his fingers into his hair, making it stand on end even more than it already had been. "He'd made the rings part of his body, so I ran the current through the armor and back into him. But I think I shorted something out doing it; now I can't access anything through the Extremis except my armor."

Translation: Tony had used the computers in his head to electrocute himself, in the hopes that this would hurt the Mandarin along with him, and now they didn't work anymore. That still didn't explain the presence of any blood, and Steve could only assume it had been another nosebleed.

"I'm going to go shower now," Tony said, probably correctly interpreting the expression on Steve's face, which, if it matched the way he felt, hopefully conveyed the depths to which he thought Tony was a self-destructive idiot.

Tony climbed out of bed, then stood still for a moment, testing his balance. As he walked toward the bathroom door, he stripped the sling off again, followed by his shirt, giving Steve a clear view of the purple and black bruises on his shoulder and the bandages on his ribs.

Steve had known things had to change; he just hadn't known how bad they'd gotten.

No, that wasn't right. He'd never realized how bad things had been with Tony all along. He'd been able to walk away from today's fight, if only just, but there'd been other times when he hadn't been. He didn't seem to care how much damage he took, what alcohol, what his heart, what some supervillain's fists, what the Extremis might do to him, almost as if he were punishing himself for some indefinable failure.

It was tempting to blame it all on the whole Registration mess, on his own temporary death, but the drinking had been long before that.

When Tony finally came out, his hair still dripping, Steve was sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting.

Tony was wearing faded jeans, but was still bare-chested. He pulled a new dress shirt out of the closet and shrugged it on carefully.

"How long are you going to keep doing this?" Steve asked.

Tony looked up, fingers pausing on his shirt buttons. "What, waking up when you're gone? Until I get used to having you back, I suppose." He gave a one-shouldered shrug. "Um," he hesitated, "unless you're not staying? Then I won't have to. Get used to it, I mean."

Where in the hell would Steve be going? "No," he said, shaking his head, "I don't--" he broke off, then started again, "I mean trying to run everything until you end up running yourself into the ground."

Tony frowned, looking honestly confused and a little offended. "There was no one else who could do it." He wasn't just talking about the communications, Steve knew. He wasn't telling the entire truth, either.

Steve stood up; he wasn't having this conversation while looking up at Tony. "No," he said, "I don't think that's why. You've been doing this for years, for almost as long as I've known you -- I just never noticed." He hadn't wanted to notice. "Just like I didn't notice what was going on with Wanda," he went on. "Just like I didn't notice when Carol started drinking. You were the only one who picked up on that."

"I--" Tony started, holding one hand up as if to halt Steve.

Steve kept on talking, overriding him; Tony could claim the benefit of personal experience all he wanted; it had been Steve's job to know what was going on with his team, and he hadn't. "Bucky is the closest thing I've ever had to a little brother," he said, voice rising, "and he was a goddamn assassin and I didn't know until he'd been with me for months. You were supposed to be my best friend, and I didn't even notice when you started drinking until someone else told me." He hadn't realized how many things he'd let himself miss, how many things had slipped under his radar, until he started listing them. He was half-shouting by the time he finished, not sure if he was more upset with Tony or himself.

"That wasn't your fault," Tony protested.

Steve's vision actually went white for a moment, narrow and tunneled. He was more infuriated than he'd been since he'd seen the tape of Tony's 'confession.' "You were fucking suicidal, Tony, and I didn't even notice!"

There was a long moment of dead silence.

Tony's eyes were wide, startled, as if he couldn't believe what Steve had just said. Steve couldn't believe he'd said it, either; he wanted more than anything to take the words back, to have never said them, to make them untrue.

"I'm sorry," he said, very softly, dropping his gaze, all of the anger suddenly draining out of him, leaving him feeling hollow and drained.

Steve looked back up to find Tony attempting a smile, but failing miserably. "Why?" Tony asked. He stared down at the buttons of his half-closed shirt, fiddling with one. "You didn't say anything that wasn't true."

Steve was silent for a moment, feeling sick, as if the air had been knocked out of him. He had hoped that Tony would deny it, tell him that he was out of line and over-reacting.

"I will never understand," he finally managed, "why you hate yourself so much."

Tony made another painful attempt at a smile. "I thought this Registration mess would have given you a clue."

Steve caught his eyes, and said quietly, "I know you can do horrible things because you hate yourself. I just don't understand why." He dropped his gaze again, unable to look at Tony for a moment.

"I don't know either." Out of the corner of his eye, Steve could see that Tony was also staring at the floor, expression blank. "I mean, I've done things..."

"Now you have a chance to undo them." Steve looked up, meeting Tony's eyes again. "We all have a second chance." This time around, he wouldn't let himself be willfully blind to so many things; this time he'd do things right from the start. And he wasn't going to let Tony destroy himself again over this. Yes, some of the things he'd done were wrong, but he'd done them for the greater good; he didn't have to torture himself to try to make up for them. It wasn't fair to Tony or to anyone else. This was Steve's second chance, too.

Tony smiled again, but there was still no humor in it. "I think I've already used up more second chances with you than I really deserve."

Oh for God's sake. "I think I get to decide how many second chances you get from me," Steve said. He took a long step closer to Tony, so that they were only a few inches apart. Even with Registration effectively on its way out, he couldn't keep the superhero community together on his own. Without someone from the pro-Registration side, without Tony, everything they'd managed to patch back together over the past couple of weeks would fall apart again as soon as everyone realized that the immediate crisis was gone. "There are things we still need to fix, and I can't do them alone."

In the communications room earlier, the last time they'd been standing this close, the dim light had prevented him from getting a real look at Tony. Now, under the harsh fluorescent lighting most of the Helicarrier's rooms had, Steve could see the circles under Tony's eyes, every bit as dark as they'd been two weeks ago. His eyes were bloodshot and red-rimmed, so that he looked exhausted even right after a few hours of sleep, and he was too pale, though that might be because they hadn't gotten much sun lately. Despite all of it, he was still beautiful.

He also looked like he might shatter if you hit him wrong. Steve had watched Tony fall apart before, more than once, and he couldn't handle watching that again. Unlike Wanda, Tony had managed to keep his problems from affecting the rest of the team, but that hadn't made it hurt any less. He had to say something, anything to keep Tony with him, to stop him from going off somewhere to self-destruct again. He couldn't walk away this time, not any more, not again.

Steve laid a hand on Tony's good shoulder. "I'm not going to do this alone," he repeated.

Tony's lips quirked. "Steve, you're constitutionally incapable of quitting."

"I tried doing this alone, and I hated it," Steve told him. Even before the Avengers had broken up, things had never really been right when Tony wasn't there. And the fight over Registration had been the absolute worst two months of his life. "Don't make me do this alone again." It came out a hoarse whisper, as much plea as command.

Tony didn't say anything; instead he stepped forward, closing the last few inches between them, and placed a hand on the back of Steve's head, fingers sliding into his hair. Tony's other arm wrapped around him, hand coming up to rest between his shoulder blades, and then he was kissing Steve. He was very good at kissing.

Steve reached up and curved his hand over the side of Tony's face, tracing the line of Tony's cheekbone with his thumb, and Tony made that little humming noise in the back of his throat that Steve had already decided was one of his favorite sounds.

He wrapped his arm around Tony's waist -- carefully, because he remembered the cracked ribs even if Tony was determined to ignore them -- and pressed his palm against the small of Tony's back for a moment, before sliding his hand down into the back pocket of Tony's jeans and pulling Tony forward, so that their bodies were pressed together.

Steve still couldn't think of a way to say, "I love you", that didn't sound trite and silly. After Tony's confession just before they both went out to the battlefield, saying it now felt like an afterthought. He should have said it then.

Tony broke the kiss and began pressing open-mouthed kisses down the side of Steve's neck, while simultaneously working on the zipper of Steve's borrowed jeans.

Tony's shirt was still only half-buttoned, so it was the work of a moment to have it open again. If Steve said something now, Tony would think it was just an attempt to reassure him, to make him feel better. Or worse, he'd think it was some kind of ploy to make him stay. And he couldn't let Tony think that.

Steve let go of Tony and stepped back, then took him by the wrist and led him over to the bed. He sat, pulling Tony down with him, and leaned forward to kiss him again.

Steve ran his hands up Tony's arms, pulling his shirt down off his shoulders, mindful of the injured one, then pulled back again to kiss the mottled array of dark bruises on Tony's right shoulder.

Fortunately for both of them at the moment, Tony was left-handed.

Neither of them had made a sound since the first kiss, but somehow the silence made things all the more intense. Steve couldn't think of the right thing to say, the right way to tell Tony that he loved him, but there were other ways he could let him know.

Steve was leaning on one elbow, his arm a heavy weight across Tony's waist, hand warm against his back. Tony stared at him with half-lidded eyes, absently enjoying the sight of Steve's bare and slightly sweaty chest, which he had a very good view of from this angle.

Lying on his right side made his shoulder hurt, but lying the other way would have put pressure on his ribs, and they hurt more, with the dull, steady ache of knitting bone. Nothing on his body was as painful as it had been twenty minutes ago, though; that was the wonderful thing about endorphins.

Even the headache was better, although it would probably come back if he tried to do anything with the Extremis. If the Mandarin's rings really had permanently damaged something, that was going to be a problem, but Steve was rubbing small circles between his shoulder blades, and it was currently difficult to care.

For once, all of the nagging worries and thoughts that usually clamored for attention inside his head were distant and fuzzy, and Tony knew he was falling asleep again. "What are you going to do," he asked, his own voice sounding far away, "now that Red Skull's dead?" Everything was over and done with, and Steve could go where he wanted now, once they dealt with Registration, which actually might not be that difficult at this point, since things on the Hill were probably devolving into a mass of hysterical finger-pointing to rival Wall Street on Black Friday. Maybe some of the DoD people would throw themselves out the Pentagon's windows and stop bothering him about patents.

Steve frowned for a second, blue eyes going distant. "I honestly haven't given it much thought yet," he said, running his hand slowly along Tony's spine. It came to rest on his hip, thumb gently tracing back and forth over Tony's hipbone, and Steve's face relaxed again, back into the open, content expression he'd been wearing for the past few minutes.

"Mmm," Tony said intelligently, closing his eyes and shifting closer to Steve, who slid an arm around him again. Being this close to Steve was nice. He was such a wonderfully solid presence, and Red Skull hadn't killed him, and the subway hadn't blown up, and he was willing to overlook the fact that Tony was a self-destructive and generally worthless mess. The fact that Steve wanted him there with him was… there had been times during the Registration fight that Tony had been sure he'd succeeded in permanently destroying everything that had ever existed between them. But they'd both survived, and Steve actually wanted him. Steve hadn't needed to ask Tony not to make him do all this on his own; those two months without Steve, it had been like hell, worse than when he'd been trying to drink himself to death, because this time, there had been nothing to turn to to make the pain go away. Worse, so much worse, than when they'd been fighting, because at least then, he'd known Steve was out there somewhere.

He could never put Steve through anything like that. And right now, with Steve so close that Tony could hear him breathing, he couldn't imagine ever wanting to leave.

Steve leaned closer, pressing his cheek against the top of Tony's head and tightening his arm for a second before pulling away. "I haven't eaten since breakfast," he said, "and you didn't eat breakfast. It's…" he paused, "eight o'clock. If we're lucky, they'll still be serving dinner in the commissary."

"I'm technically still the Director," Tony said, opening his eyes. "If they're not, I can make them re-open the kitchen."

Steve grinned. "It's good to know people with power."

"In the Biblical sense, you mean?" Tony smirked, then sat up, stretching and carefully rotating his shoulder. It was stiff and the muscles pulled painfully when he moved it.

Steve blushed, but didn't stop grinning that slightly goofy grin.

Ten minutes later, they were cleaned up and wearing the same slightly-crumpled clothes they had worn for about five minutes earlier. Tony's hair, which had finally stopped standing up after the shower, was once again sticking up every which way. He'd given up on trying to make it do anything else.

The hallway was still darkened, lit only by security lights -- the Helicarrier had to conserve power while it was underwater. Steve hadn't said anything, but now that Tony was more awake, he could feel what had been said earlier hanging between them.

Tony wasn't sure how Steve had known; he'd never said anything to him. The only people who had ever confronted him before -- not about the drinking, which everyone had had something to say about, but about the reasons behind it -- were Jan and Happy. Jan had known what Tony had been trying to do to himself even before he had, when he'd still been thinking of alcohol as a temporary solution rather than a permanent one. Happy… had just been very, very good at seeing to the heart of things.

However Steve had figured things out -- maybe from that tape? He'd probably mentioned wanting to die somewhere on there, since it had never been harder to make himself keep going than it had been at that point -- knowing that he knew made Tony feel exposed, like Steve could see right through him to all of the broken and missing parts.

He didn't want Steve's pity. He didn't need it, nor did he particularly deserve it. If he ever hoped to regain Steve's respect, he needed Steve not to feel sorry for him. Which might be difficult at the moment, since he was pretty sure all of the bruises made him look fairly pathetic.

Then again, Steve hadn't seemed to mind them a few minutes ago.

Just as Tony was starting to smirk slightly at the memory, Fury and Dugan stepped out into the hallway in front of them.

"Rogers, Stark," Fury offered them a smirk of his own. "What a coincidence. We were just lookin' for ya."

If that was true, there was no way it was a coincidence, given the number of security cameras Tony knew the Helicarrier was riddled with. Every time they passed one, the faint hum of its digital transmissions caused his headache to flare up again. If the Extremis was going to keep doing this… He'd talk to Maya about it tomorrow.

Steve turned to Tony, ears going pink. "Tell me there aren't any cameras in the Director's room," he said.

"Not unless they added some while I was gone," Tony assured him.

"Nah, the Director's room is clean," Fury said. "Now, the flying cars, on the other hand…"

Dugan grinned. Even with the bright orange mustache, the expression was surprisingly evil. "I thought about telling you and Sharon about those a few time, but Nick insisted it was need to know."

Tony raised an eyebrow at Steve, who was now wearing the expression of a man who wished he were still dead. He loved Steve, but that was the sort of thing most people over the age of nineteen had the sense not to do. Granted, there had been that one time with Rumiko in the back of a limousine, but the limousine hadn't been a convertible, and hadn't belonged to Nick Fury.

"Was there any, um, particular reason you were looking for us?" Steve asked, pointedly staring at the wall several inches above Fury's head.

"The Mandarin regained consciousness an hour or so ago. He doesn't seem to have any powers anymore." Fury took a cigar out of his pocket and stuck it in his mouth, unlit. "We're still tryin' to figure out what to do with his rings."

"Put them in a lead box, and send it to the bottom of the San Marinas trench," Tony advised. That would probably only work for a couple of months, until somebody inevitably found them again, but they couldn't be destroyed, and sending things into space never worked long-term, either. They'd only end up coming back, probably even more powerful from some form of cosmic radiation.

"That's what Kennedy suggested, but yer crazy pet scientist wants to study them."

Of course Maya did. "Don't let her," Tony said. "They're dangerous." And Maya honestly couldn't recognize when technology might be a threat rather than a benefit. She hadn't understood why he didn't want further experimenting done with the Extremis, why using it was dangerous, no matter how many times he'd tried to explain it to her.

"I see at least one of you's been to the infirmary." Dugan nodded at the stitches on Steve's forehead. "Did you go," this to Tony, "or am I gonna have to have a talk with Dr. Simek?"

"I went," Tony told him. "The sling got in the way."

Dugan snorted. "Now that I think about it," he said to Fury, "things weren't all that different when you were gone."

"We're heading down to the mess hall," Steve broke in. "Do you know if the kitchen is still open?"

"All you capes are havin' a party in the officers' mess," Fury said, "so the kitchen's definitely still running."

Which meant everyone would be there. Tony felt a hell of a lot better than he had before Steve had gotten back, but he wasn't sure he was ready to face that. "Did you need to debrief me?" he asked Fury.

"Nah," Fury shrugged. "I can do that later. Go have fun; you've both earned it." He clapped Steve on the shoulder, then brushed past them and walked off down the hall, followed by Dugan.

"I guess this will let us see how everyone's doing all at once," Steve said. He nodded in the direction of the mess. "Do you think anyone's thrown a punch yet?"

"No," Tony said. "If anyone's planning on hitting things, they'll be saving it for me." Not that he'd blame them, but this wasn't the time to cause a scene.

Steve put one broad hand on Tony's good shoulder and propelled him gently down the hall. "Things worked out fine at the safehouse."

"There were compelling reasons not to fight then," Tony reminded him. "The Doombots and ninjas are gone now."

"Well they'll have to get used to working together again sometime," Steve said, in the determined tone that meant he had decided to stop listening to anyone else's objections. He was convinced that they needed both of them to repair the superhero community. Tony wasn't certain he was entirely right; everyone would follow Steve, regardless of what side they'd been on. It would almost certainly be easier if Tony weren't part of the equation. There were lots of people who had good reason not to trust him these days.

The officers' mess was brightly lit, and someone had strung red and blue streamers up along a few of the tables. It was strangely quiet, though, and the assorted Avengers were huddled into groups divided along New and Mighty lines. The only people from opposite sides sitting together were Sam and Jan, who were involved in an intense discussion with Agent 13 and Winter Soldier. Winter Soldier had one leg propped up on a chair, and was eyeing the rest of the room warily. He looked up when Steve and Tony came in, nodding at Steve.

"Looks like Bucky got his leg taken care of," Steve said. Tony belatedly remembered that he'd meant to ask what had happened when they'd taken out Red Skull. He'd have to bring it up once they were alone again.

Peter, who'd been sitting with the rest of the New Avengers -- MJ, the baby, and the two Jessicas included -- bounced to his feet and came to meet them. He wasn't wearing his costume. Most of the Avengers weren't, and it felt almost odd, now, to see everyone in plainclothes. "Where have you guys been? It's like an eighth grade dance in here, you know, with half of us avoiding the other half in case they have cooties." He frowned at Tony. "Wow. You still look awful. You weren't joking about the electrocution thing, were you?" Before Tony could answer, he turned to Steve and went on, "But you look okay. That's good. They," he nodded at Sam, Sharon, and Winter Soldier, "said your car blew up, and we were getting worried."

"Sorry," Steve said, shrugging. "There were things to take care of."

Tony blinked, still trying to process the stream of words. Last time he'd checked, he'd been pretty sure Peter hated him.

As if Peter's approach had been some kind of signal, Sam and Jan both stood and came over.

"Um, right, leaving," Peter said. "The adults can talk now." He returned to the New Avengers' table and sat backwards in one of the chairs. A moment later, he was involved in what looked like some kind of poking fight with Iron Fist.

"I see you got the doctors to look at you," Sam said to Steve as he approached them. "You couldn't even leave the bandage on for a day, could you?"

"It got in the way when I tried to wash my hair," Steve said, not quite defensively.

Jan took Tony by the arm and pulled him off to one side. "How are you doing?" she asked, frowning up at him.

"Fine," Tony evaded.

From Jan's expression, she didn't entirely believe him, but she didn't push, waving a hand and changing the subject. "We're going to need you in DC," she said. "Dickstein was arrested by the Department of Homeland Security this afternoon, and there's going to be a congressional investigation into the whole thing. SHRA, HUSAC, Cap's assassination, all of it. And now you," she stabbed a finger at Tony, "are going to get on the stand and tell them how you thought Registration was a bad idea from the start, and how you were only doing damage control when you supported it."

"I was trying to do damage control," Tony protested. Jan had objected to a lot of what they'd done while fighting Steve's people, and rightly so. But she had known him longer than almost anyone, and he'd hoped that, by now, she'd figured out what he had been trying to do.

Jan smiled sympathetically, and reached up to pat him on the shoulder. "I know. Now you need to tell people that. We're going to need to present a united front on this. For one thing, it'll keep people from trying to take you down along with Dickstein's bunch. And after what you've gone through to keep this from getting worse, you don't deserve that. And Steve sure as hell doesn't."

"Thank you," Tony told her quietly. He reached out and squeezed one of her shoulders gently. "I'll get down there as soon as I can." He paused, looking around the room. Steve was the only six-foot-plus blond in evidence. "Where's Bob?"

"Off with Lindy." Jan shrugged, and tucked a piece of hair behind one ear. "She decided this would be too much excitement for him." She nodded at him, then went to take a seat with Carol and Simon.

Tony, who could feel half the room's eyes on him, could sympathize. He turned back to Steve, who was still talking intently to Sam.

"I just hope you know what you're doing," Sam was saying.

"Trust me," Steve said, "I do."

This wasn't technically true, but Steve's ability to throw himself into things without stopping to think them through at all was one of his more endearing traits.

Sam rolled his eyes. "Whatever you say, Steve."

In an obvious attempt to change the subject, Steve gestured at Sam's shoulder and asked, "Where's Redwing?"

"In the room; he won't come out." Sam shook his head. "He still hasn't forgiven me for the subway. I think he's sulking."

"I didn't think birds sulked," Steve said, raising his eyebrows.

"Raptors do. Songbirds and pigeons aren't smart enough." Sam clapped Steve on the shoulder, then went to sit at the end of the New Avengers' table, next to Strange and Wong.

Steve nudged Tony with his shoulder. "Let's get food before someone else buttonholes us."

SHIELD's kitchen was clearly running low on supplies after two weeks hiding underwater, but they'd managed to throw together a halfway decent meal. There was no coffee, though, Tony noted with disappointment.

Steve loaded his plate with food, then looked over, frowned, and began adding things to Tony's plate at random. Tony sighed, but didn't object, even though he wasn't particularly hungry.

Steve took him by the elbow, towing him along to where Sam was sitting. As they passed the Mighty Avengers table, Simon toasted them with a glass of water. Carol, next to him, had her arms folded across her chest and was too busy staring sullenly at Jessica Drew to look up. Simon put his glass down, sighing, and looked from one woman to the other with a resigned expression.

At the New Avengers table, Danny had let off poking at Peter and resumed eating. Peter was now poking MJ with a fork; she was responding in kind.

"Come on," Luke held up a spoonful of mashed potatoes, waving it at the baby. "I think she's old enough for real food."

Jessica Jones protectively shifted the little girl away, snagging the spoon out of Luke's hand. "Our baby's first solid food is not going to be SHIELD mashed potatoes. They came from a box."

"I know." Danny said without looking up from his plate. "Aren't they great?"

Luke elbowed him in the ribs. "Thought you wanted lo mein."

Danny ducked away, shielding his plate. "All carbohydrates are good."

Tony kept his eyes down and followed Steve to the far end of the table. It was good to see everyone so relaxed, but he felt more out of place than ever amidst all the cheerful domesticity of the New Avengers. The Avengers had always been a family, but now it was no longer one he could be a part of; he'd given up that right.

He and Steve sat down across from Sam and Strange, with several empty seats between them and the Luke/Danny/Jessica/Peter group. They ate in silence, Steve intent on the food and Tony unable to think of anything to say with Sam and Strange both watching him. Tony shoved his plate away before he'd finished more than half of it; Steve, like most superhumans, had an exaggerated idea of how much normal people needed to eat. Wong, beside Strange, was staring at his own untouched plate with the disapproving eyes of a man who knew he could make better.

Tony sat back and closed his eyes, rubbing at his forehead -- the headache had come back, throbbing dully behind his eyes.

"Are you all right?"

He opened his eyes, smiling a little, to find Steve watching him with mild concern and a certain amount of suspicion. "Caffeine headache," he said. He wasn't going to admit that it was mostly the Extremis, and the fact that he hadn't had coffee in hours certainly wasn't helping. "Looks like you were right about all that coffee."

Steve shook his head, and his concerned expression shifted to one of amused exasperation. He shoved his empty plate away and scooted his chair slightly closer to Tony's. "So," he said, "what did Jan have to say?"

"Dickstein's been arrested. It's looking more and more like he set you up." When Fury's people had searched Lukin's apartment, they'd found a veritable gold mine of computer files, letters, and other incriminating evidence proving a link between the Skull's organization and Dickstein's office. "There's going to be an investigation," he went on. "I'm probably going to need to testify. You will too."

Steve frowned, blond eyebrows drawing together. "The fact that I was dead when you got me pardoned for treason should make that interesting."

Tony rested a hand on Steve's knee, under the table. "The pardon will hold. That was the President, plus an act of Congress." Because they'd all felt guilty and been acutely conscious of how bad they'd looked, something Tony had made certain to remind them of. "I didn't actually have anything to do with it."

Steve sat back, draping one arm casually over the back of Tony's chair. Tony could feel the solid warmth of it against his shoulders.

"I was technically guilty, you know."

"Yes," Tony said, "but you were standing up for what was right, just like you always do."

Steve tightened his arm very slightly, not exactly a hug, but the intent of one. "Thank you," he said quietly.

Tony closed his eyes for a second, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. His head didn't hurt quite so badly now that he'd eaten, but the low thrum of the Helicarrier's communication network, now back online, still grated painfully at the edges of his consciousness. He reached out tentatively to access the armor, safely stored back in his room, and felt a surge of relief at the lack of pain when the briefcase opened. He still had his armor. If everything else was gone, it was a more than fair price for having Steve back.

Even if he'd lost the armor, it would still have been worth it.

Two weeks ago, his life had been empty; even getting out of bed in the morning had been a struggle. He'd needed to run things, needed to make Steve's death worth something, hadn't had the luxury of getting himself killed, and he'd seen the prospect of years and years without Steve stretching ahead of him, a lifetime of hollow penance.

Tony was just as exhausted and run down as he'd been then, but with Steve back, he didn't feel empty anymore. He couldn't do this on his own any longer, didn't have the emotional reserves left, but he could follow Steve anywhere.

"Once things settle down a bit," Steve said, voice breaking into Tony's thoughts, "what are we going to do about the Avengers?"

"I-" Tony started, staring at him blankly.

"We need to reassemble a functional team," Steve went on. He grinned, eyes very blue, and rubbed at the back of his neck with the hand that wasn't draped over Tony's shoulder. "No epithets or adjectives, just the Avengers again. I want us to rebuild the Mansion. And I want my home back."

Tony was not going to cry. Not with Luke Cage watching. "That's going to take some time," he managed. "It's going to be a major construction project."

"I know," Steve said, looking sad for a moment. Then he grinned again, that wide smile that could light up an entire room. "But it will be worth it."

The End

Thank you to everyone who's been reading this fic; we hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it.

Now that this is over, we'd love to hear your opinions on the whole thing (too short, too long, too sappy, "God, I never want to see the Extremis used for that many infodumps again," ect.) Even just a line would be great, since we plan to keep writing for this fandom, and and your opinions count.

Now that this fic is finished, though obviously we have further plans for this 'verse, we are officially declaring it an open AU. Feel free to write prequels, sequels, tie-ins, and otherwise come play in our sandbox; our only request is that you keep the Steve/Tony pairing.