Pairing: Steve/Tony, OMC/Tony

Disclaimer: I don't own The Avengers.

Rating: nc17/18

Word Count: 30583

Beta: General16

Summary: Tony wasn't surprised when Steve came one morning and told him Rhodey was dead.

0

Tony wasn't surprised when Steve came one morning and told him Rhodey was dead.

Tony knew he should have felt something more than a slight twinge in his heart, but he couldn't bring himself to care.

At first.

Two days later, it all fell down on him and Steve had to force him on a chair and lower his head between his knees because he was having a panic attack.

"You okay?" Steve asked, gentle blue eyes full of worry.

Tony nodded, feeling pale and shaky. "Sure," he murmured, straightening. He stood and walked to the bedroom.

"Tony…" Steve trailed off.

"I have to call Rhodey's mom," the smaller man answered without turning.

Steve sighed and rubbed his face vigorously. Just when things had started to be going in the right direction for them, this had to happen. He didn't know how he felt; angry, sad, guilty, dirty…he couldn't tell which one was stronger. Probably guilt. He knew he'd never really get over it for the rest of his days.

He paced the living room for a while before deciding to follow Tony. He quietly pushed the door and joined Tony on the bed. His lover was sitting on the edge, pen idly drumming on his thigh as he listened to the person on the other side of the line, scribbling in a tidy scrawl on a note pad balanced on his other leg.

He was writing with his left hand, Steve noticed. Figured Tony Stark wrote better with his non-dominant hand.

"Alright," Tony sighed. "I—we can be there tomorrow. Yes, bye. You too." He hung up and put the phone on the nightstand, face unreadable.

Steve opened his mouth to say something but Tony cut him off. "Can you call the others? Give them the details if they want to come. I'll have one of my planes ready for tomorrow at 9am in the morning."

He stood but stopped and looked down when Steve grabbed his hand. "Tony, I'm so sorry."

Tony squeezed Steve's hand once and nodded. "I know," he answered wearily, leaving the bedroom and walking to his workshop.

Steve stared at the empty doorway for a long moment before grabbing the phone and starting making calls.

Even if things were getting better between Tony and Steve, it was still strained between the other Avengers and Tony. They had all tried to apologise, Tony had listened but he was still wary. Steve didn't think he'd ever forgive them completely, not even Steve, but he was trying. It was harder on Tony. He'd found himself utterly alone and when things had started to get better and he'd found Harry, the man had died and unwillingly abandoned Tony all over again.

Sometimes, Steve didn't know how Tony could still function like a normal human being.

Man of Iron indeed.

0

Rhodey's mom slapped Tony when they all arrived, then she hugged him fiercely.

Tony didn't flinch.

During the wake at Rhodey's mom's house, he stood tall and proud, ignoring the whispers and not so discreet looks of contempt people kept giving him.

When people started helping themselves of the food from the banquet, Steve lost sight of Tony and realized about an hour later that Tony wasn't in the house anymore.

He walked down the front steps and joined Tony in the back garden. Tony was sitting on an old wooden swing, booted feet slowly dragging in the wet, muddy gound. The sky was low and thunder was growling, rain threatening to start pouring on them, and the atmosphere couldn't have been more oppressing. Steve understood why Tony had needed to get out. He felt angry at the way people were treating his husband but he was loath to start a scene when so many people mourned the loss of a loved one.

"Hey, Tony," he called softly, sitting on the other swing.

"Do you know why I didn't try to defend myself when the others thought I—" he stopped abruptly and clenched his jaw.

But Steve understood. "You thought they wouldn't believe you," he answered quietly.

Tony hummed and kicked his foot on the ground, balancing the swing higher. "Howard liked to blame me," he continued thoughtfully. "When things didn't work out, it was always my fault. I guess I got used to it and stopped trying to get people to listen."

Steve stood and stopped Tony's swing before enfolding him in his arms. "I love you, Tony," he told him, mouth against the smaller man's ear.

Tony stepped away and looked up at Steve, blue eyes curious. "I'm okay with it now," he shrugged. "I'm used to it."

Steve shook his head and cupped Tony's face in his hands. "I wish you weren't."

Tony smiled tiredly and pressed himself against Steve, relishing when strong arms closed around him, making him feel safe.

0

Things were slow to come to the point where Tony could stand Steve being in the same room as him. The trust he had in his husband had been so broken at times Steve didn't think it possible to overcome. But it hadn't been shattered beyond repair because Tony took him back.

Tony was so much stronger than him.

Steve didn't know if he really deserved what Tony did for him, but he was determined not to waste such luck when given a second chance.

It was hard on Tony, he could see it. At times, the man would look at him with such resentment and loss it was physically painful for Steve to look at him. But most of the time, Tony looked at him with curiosity. As if gouging him and waiting to see what his reaction would be at any given situation.

0

Steve was the one to propose they go see a psychiatrist. He saw Tony close up at the suggestion and didn't see him for two days after that. Then he came back one morning and agreed.

They decided to consult with a Dr. Cain, a very good doctor recommended, strangely enough, by Fury. The man didn't work for SHIELD but had helped a certain number of its members through the years.

Steve didn't know if Tony indulged him or if he believed they really needed it but, once more, he felt like he took from Tony without giving much.

0

Individual sessions were the worst.

"What pushed you to act?" Dr. Cain asked.

Steve swallowed painfully and shifted in his leather chair. The man kind of reminded him of Fury, with his no non-sense tone and straight face.

"I—I don't know," he finally answered.

The man stared and then looked down at his crossed fingers.

Steve found it strange that the doctor never took any notes but at least Steve felt better knowing the man couldn't write anything about him without him knowing it. He was sure the man kept notes somewhere in his massive office, but not seeing it reassured Steve.

"Somewhere, at a given time, the thought you entertained about cheating on Tony took ascendance and you acted on it. Something must have been the trigger."

Steve leaned over and put his elbows on his knees, staring at the plush floor while kneading his forehead with his hands.

"I guess…that day, I was mad at Tony," he breathed out. He found it horrible to blame the entire affair on Tony's shoulders when his husband had been so wronged by everyone.

Cain nodded once. "Do you blame, Tony?" he asked mildly.

Steve's head jerked up so violently he actually saw stars at the corner of his eyes. "What?" he whispered. It was as if he didn't have any air left in his lungs.

Cain tilted his head to the side, staring at Steve indulgently. "Do you feel like Tony pushed you to act? Did you sleep with James Rhodes to punish Tony?"

Steve let out a laugh that was bordering on a sob. "God, no. It was all me. I was mad at Tony because he was doing exactly what I asked him to do."

Cain's silent stare asked him to elaborate.

Steve took a deep breath. "I ordered Tony to retreat…we were fighting some kind of…I don't know, mechanical engineered robots and they had EMPs. I was scared they'd use it and do something to Tony's suit. I asked him to retreat. For once he did as I asked."

Cain nodded. "But something happened?" he questioned.

Steve closed his eyes. "Yes. We won the fight but…Natasha ended up with a broken rib, Clint a concussion and Bruce had had a hard time fighting the thing. Tony joined us at the hospital and I just—" He trailed off and rubbed his face, suddenly rising and stalking to the window. "I just blew up and blamed the whole thing on him. I blamed him for not being there and—" His shoulder slumped. "That night Rhodes came over. We talked about fighting, war…how it felt to lose men while on missions and…and we slept together. Tony came back and found us together. And after that everything just…fell apart."

Cain hummed and lifted an eyebrow at Steve. "Why did you blame Tony for your team being hurt when you specifically ordered him to step away from the fight? Did you think Tony should have stayed? To put himself in danger of compromising his suit and risking being hurt?"

Steve shook his head and linked his fingers behind his neck, staring out the window. "I was—projecting my fears. Because I hadn't been hurt while my team had. I felt like I should have been the one with the broken rib and concussion…and when I saw that Tony wasn't hurt either…it was like…" He stopped and rocked on the ball of his feet, hands in his pockets. "I wasn't talking to Tony," he murmured more to himself than Dr. Cain. "I was talking to myself and blaming myself."

Cain was silent for a moment before starting drumming his finger silently on his thigh. "Did you feel guilty for your team being hurt that day? Or for all the other days something like that had happened? Do you blame yourself for your teammates dying during World War II?"

Steve took a shaky breath and turned to look at the doctor helplessly. "I wasn't seeing Tony," he said in a pleading voice, as if he wanted to convince the man as much as he wanted to convince himself. "I wasn't seeing him at all. I was seeing my own useless face, knowing I hadn't been able to save him…Bucky, or even Peggy."

Cain pursed his lips. "Are you saying you didn't realize you were talking to Tony? Are you saying that when you decided to sleep with Colonel Rhodes, you weren't really yourself?"

Steve wanted to say yes. It would excuse everything. It would give him an out and alleviate the guilt he's shouldered since that fateful night but… "I wasn't seeing Tony at the hospital but…I knew what I was doing," he confessed.

Cain was silent and Steve felt the need to elaborate. "I wanted to punish myself."

The doctor nodded. "At that time, did you want to punish yourself for the hurt that befell your teammates or for the death of the people you knew back in the 40s?"

Steve shrugged and nodded, his eyes staring unseeingly at the space above Cain's right ear. "Both. I wanted to punish myself for all of that."

Cain stared at him, his warm hazelnut eyes boring right into Steve's soul. "Had you foreseen for Tony to find out? Was it your ultimate goal? Right by choosing to do that with someone that was Tony's best friend?"

Steve's face crumbled. "I wanted him to find us," he moaned. "God! I wanted him to suffer as much as I was suffering!"

Cain nodded and leveled him with an imperturbable stare. "Here, Steve, is where the real problem lays."

0

"Are you ever going to be Iron Man again?" Steve asked quietly.

Tony didn't look up from the circuit board he was welding. A panel situated on his right wrist was open, giving him access to the circuits, micro ships and cables fueling his artificial arm. The common Grafts that made it on the market were powered by hydraulics and a battery similar to a pacemaker, but Tony's was connected to the Arc reactor. Steve found it rather unsettling to see Tony working on his arm like he did with any other project he had, but he got used to it after a while.

"Uhm?" Tony hummed absently, grabbing a fine pair of pincers before grabbing a small wrench.

"I asked if you were ever going to be Iron Man again. I mean…use the suit?" Steve repeated.

Tony didn't answer at first but hissed when a particularly sharp gesture with the wrench made his right arm jerk with a small buzzing sound from the circuit boards.

Steve stood abruptly, concerned. "Are you okay?"

Tony nodded and sighed, closing the lid and welding it shut before slowly putting the artificial skin back on the arm's metal frame. "It's okay. Just a small short-circuit. The nervous terminations in the arm were a bit loose and I felt a bit too much…if it's possible," he muttered while putting away his tools.

After several coming and going across the lab, Steve finally grabbed him gently by the wrist and stopped him with a hand on his cheek. "You don't have to answer," he murmured.

Tony's jaw clenched and Steve could feel the tension in the smaller body. "I just don't know," Tony finally breathed out. He turned to look at Steve and his blue eyes were questioning but resolute. "I don't know what you want me to say. People keep buggering me about it, saying it isn't fair, that I shouldn't hold the tech if I don't intend to use it for good things but—" he stopped and took a deep breath, disentangling himself from Steve. "It's mine. I am Iron Man," he stressed. "I'll do whatever I want with my suit. If you're not happy about it—"

Steve stopped him with a gentle hand on his mouth. "I agree, Tony," he quickly reassured. "The decision is yours and you are the only one who'll make the choice about being Iron Man again or not. I'm not pressuring you in any way. I just wanted to know if you had thought about it, that's all."

Tony grimaced and stepped away from Steve. "Of course I've thought about it," he muttered. "You can't expect me not to when I see you guys keep fighting but—" He took a deep breath. "I can't work on a team with you anymore…I don't…I don't trust them enough."

Steve barely contained his flinch with a nod. "I get it," he said. "I wouldn't want you to work with people you don't trust. And we sure as hell never gave you any reason to work on that. We…we have to earn your trust back. And then…maybe…" Steve shook his head and stood up, gently wrapping his arms around Tony. "I'm just glad you can trust me again and that you're willing to forgive me."

It hurt, Steve thought, knowing that Tony might be trusting him with his already damaged heart but not with his life. Tony was willing to put himself through the motion of forgiving Steve, of trying to salvage their marriage but could not put himself through the hardship of completely and blindly trust him again.

Steve didn't know if he would earn that trust back one day, but he would damn well do everything he could to get at least a third of what he had back.

0

"You ever think about him?"

Tony didn't need to ask who she was talking about. "Everyday," he answered flatly.

Natasha looked at the piece of machinery he was twiddling with. "Things are...going okay with Steve?"

Tony looked up suddenly and stared, long and hard, face unreadable, even for her. "Is there a point of your presence here?" he asked. His voice was flat, but his eyes had turned harsh, cold. Unyielding. Like iron.

She frowned slightly, not liking the sharp pang of...something twisting in her guts. "I came to—" She stopped and pinched her lips so hard they turned white. Berating herself for her own weakness, and feeling a sense of confusion mixed with resentment at Tony for making her feel like this, she turned to face him. "To apologize," she finally admitted. "I was—too quick to judge and lately, I have discovered and seen things about you that I had not...wanted to consider."

Tony stared her down.

In hindsight, she was telling him breaking up with Steve and having a relationship with Harry was the best thing that had happened to him.

He felt elated and disgusted at the same time.

0

"I wanted—" Bruce stopped and fidgeted uncomfortably, twisting his hands, playing with his glasses so shakily and forcibly, Tony was afraid he was going to break them. Bruce was silent, looking imploringly at the smaller man. "Is your arm alright?"

Tony looked down pensively. "It's working," he simply answered.

Bruce licked his lips and they trembled a bit before he took a step closer to Tony. "Forgive me."

Tony startled. He hadn't thought Bruce would be so blunt, so curt.

And the man wasn't finished. "I'm a coward. A fucking, rotting coward. I proclaimed to everyone who would listen that you are...were my best friend, and all I did was to condemn you without knowing any facts and chop your arm off for your trouble." He shook his head so violently Tony was surprised he didn't get whiplash. "It should have never happened. I was supposed to be on your side. Spending all those hours talking about science and working with you. You saved my life. You offered me a place to live and finally be myself. You managed to make me accept who I was. You gave me so much and I—" He spread his arms in front of him, encompassing the whole workshop in a wild gesture. "I don't even know, I just lost my mind, conveniently forgot...I don't know." He took a deep breath and stared at Tony. "I ask for your forgiveness, humbly, sincerely. Knowing full well that I will never deserve it should you grant it to me...but I'll try to redeem myself."

Bruce stopped talking and nodded once, curtly. "I'll leave you to...ponder on it. If you wish. I know forgiveness can't be given easily. You need time. I'll give you all the time you need."

Bruce smiled weakly and walked out the lab, leaving Tony in a state of shock but also, dare he think it, admiration?

He knew Bruce hadn't been—wasn't his friend for nothing.

He'd think about it, nonetheless… because friends do make mistakes too.

He couldn't afford to lose everyone that had been dear to him in his life over sex. Over betrayal, sure.

But he was...willing to forgive.

Well, at least, he thought he was.

0

"I...came to offer my services."

Tony didn't respond and didn't look up from the pile of documents scattered on his desk. In another time, in another life, Tony would have jumped on such open invitation to sexual banter. "What makes you think I'd ever want you near me again?" he asked flatly, but saw her flinching out of the corner of his eyes.

She took a deep fortifying breath and steeled herself. She was a strong woman. She wouldn't be deterred. She had to do this. "I know you've been overworked lately. Steve is worried...he told me. And I also know you fired your sixth PA last week."

Tony finally looked up to stare at Pepper. "So you thought it would be a good idea to come back here and ask me for a job? After all that shit—" he stopped and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, seemingly regrouping within himself. "I'm so tired of people suddenly coming to me begging for forgiveness. It's—" He stopped, several adjectives coming to mind; too much, overwhelming, baffling, flattering, scaring...nearly unwelcome. "I think I can manage very well without you. I have been doing it for the last three years since you—" he trailed off and glanced at her sideways.

She was pale but determined. "You're not acting rationally. I know a lot of enmity came to break what we had...our friendship, your trust in me, but...I ask you for the chance to redeem myself. I recon, if you can forgive Steve and admitting him in your life again, I'd hoped, maybe, you'd be able to try and forgive me too."

Tony pondered that for an entire minute, silent and lost in thought. Deep down he knew she was right. It was selfish to forgive Steve and not the others...but Pepper was different. He had known her for so long he had come to trust her blindly, worse though, was the fact that out of all of the Avengers and his meager friends, she was the last he'd thought would betray him.

Steve...he came from another time. He had been overloaded by all the feelings he felt when he'd finally realized what he'd done. Steve had been literally unable to tell the others. More terrible for him, was the weight the whole image of Captain America put on his shoulders. Tony wasn't excusing Steve's deeds with Rhodey, but he could...sympathize. Steve was America's supposedly role model. The man had to be perfect in every sense of the word. To the public and to the other Avengers who put so much confidence and blind trust in the man.

The word became the center of Steve's life and he couldn't afford to lose that trust. Remaining silent and making the others think Tony had been the guilty party was cowardly, yes, of course, it had been, but it had also been a measure to ensure Steve wouldn't lose credibility with the Avengers and the public.

Of course it had all blown up in his face when the truth had escaped, Steve had lost a lot of trustworthiness from public opinion, and Tony had gained a lot of sympathy, especially after he'd hung up his superhero costume, but the facts still remained.

So yes, he could sympathize with Steve.

With Pepper and the rest, not so much.

He knew what Harry would tell.

He could hear him loud and clear, and the thought made his gut twist sharply, but also warmed his heart.

He was bound to Pepper and the others by his resentment. The only way to break it was to forgive.

This time, Tony wasn't sure he was strong enough.

0

"There is a verse in Hasgard; 'Any person is liable to err, only a fool persists in error'. It was a mistake."

Tony's eyebrow twitched at Thor's profound, regretful voice. Figured the god would try to apologize as...godlike as he could.

Tony snorted. "Yeah? How about; 'It was a mistake, but the cruel thing was, it felt like the mistake was mine, for trusting you'."

Thor recoiled like he'd been struck and closed his eyes. "I often forget myself," he admitted in a quiet voice, "I often forget that humans are not like gods. We are immortal. Feelings like hate, betrayal, even love can last...for a time. But never long. Hating, loving for eternity is simply...impossible. Humans are fickle in their emotions, but they are sincere. I know you will love Steve until you die, like I know you will also love Harold until you die. Your heart is shaped in two parts now. Anatomically accurate, I understand." Thor stopped to look into Tony's eyes. "Hate is...the ugliest feeling. It twists a person, it simmers and festers for months, years, decades, to finally explode and result in the most disastrous ways. I beg of you. Do not let yourself be consumed by hate. You are—better than that. Better than—"

"Loki?" Tony interrupted. "I'm better than Loki, so I should just have a great party and hug you all and embrace that...former life?" He shook his head and looked at the ceiling. "It will never be the same."

Thor nodded in understanding and it only exacerbated Tony's unease and annoyance. Because Thor was too sympathetic. Was too close to know how it felt. Worst, Thor knew. He knew, he knew, he knew. Even caged in Hasgard Loki was still fucking with Tony's life. "Hatred will consume you."

Tony looked away from the blue eyes of the god. So different from Steve's, which were softer, so different from his, which were more jaded. Thor's were...knowing. Wise, knowledgeable.

Betrayal wasn't new in the god's life. Even before Loki.

It was unnerving and reassuring.

It was not what Tony wanted to hear.

"I don't know how to let go," he finally said after several minutes of intense silence. He looked down at his leather gloved hand, the right one, the one Bruce had cut off, and made a fist. "Forgiving Steve has been...hard. Ruthless. Still...raw. It's—not like before. I don't—I don't trust him fully." He looked up and stared at a point above Thor's head. "I can't even forgive him completely, yet, I still let him back in my life, in my home, in my bed, in my...heart. It's...nearly easier to forgive him than all of you."

Thor nodded. "It has been easier to...forgive my brother than myself." Tony looked up sharply and Thor sighed. "I can forgive him. More than you humans of Earth can, because it is not my people he killed, but it will still be harder to forgive myself for allowing things to have...come to that." He shrugged "I am not sure if I can." He looked directly into Tony's eyes. "And I am not sure you can."

Tony jerked away from the too intense gaze and turned his back on Thor, crossing his arms protectively in front of him. "I don't—I don't have anything to feel guilty about. I'm not the one at fault!" He turned sharply and pinned Thor with his own intense gaze. "I didn't do anything wrong! He did...They did! You did! I don't have to forgive myself because—because—" he trailed off and his face crumbled before he raked his trembling hands through his hair. "Why should I, huh? Why should I feel guilty? It wasn't my fault! I didn't do that to Steve! I didn't...push him to—"

He stopped again and wordlessly screamed, throwing everything from is worktable on the floor, before pointing an angry finger at Thor. "I don't have to forgive myself! Steve and Rhodey, they did that to me!" he yelled, slapping his hand hard on his chest. "Why should I forgive myself?"

Tony's anguished tone, turned suppliant, begging for an answer, and Thor had it. "Because that's what good men do, Anthony," he said in the most sorrowful voice. "Because before blaming others...they blame themselves first." He shook his head, long blond hair flying around. "You are shouldering the blame of others. It has no reason to be, but that is how you are. That is why you are so strong, yet so fragile. Your unwillingness to forgive us comes from the deep monster inside you that do not want to forgive yourself. You are more scared of your feelings than of ours. You couldn't care less what others think. You have been too self-reliant and independent all your life to actually need opinions outside of your own. But I ask you, Anthony, can you live alone? Can you keep on hating yourself so much? Can you keep on thinking like that?"

Tony was shaking his head in denial and stumbling back away from the god who was advancing on him. "You're wrong," he snapped weakly.

But Thor wasn't finished. "What you had with Harold was exactly what I am trying to illustrate. What you had with him was pure, unadulterated love. Without after-thought, without question. It wasn't tainted with doubts."

Tony glared and uselessly pushed at Thor's chest, standing too close, his words too true. "You didn't know him! Don't you dare talk about Harry!"

Thor shook his head. "But it was true, wasn't it? No glory, just happiness. What you have with Steven has always been tainted with blood and hardship. You have always questioned your worth in your relationship. Asking yourself every day what you had done to deserve a man like Steve. But ask yourself this, Anthony: what has Steven done to deserve the privilege to have you? To have your love? You are worth a hundred Captain America. You are worth a hundred Steven Rogers. Because he has been weak where you have not. You have been brave, were he has been wicked. You deserve to be loved. By Harry, by Steve...by us. You deserve it all. Breathe Anthony, and embrace your worth, embrace yourself, forgive yourself."

Tears falling freely on his cheeks, Tony let out one single sob before Thor took a bold step forward and wrapped his powerful arms around the smaller man.

Maybe...

Just maybe...

...he could see a future not so dark after all.

0

"Describe your thought process."

Steve looked away. "There wasn't any. Just anger and...twisted satisfaction to have one over Tony for once."

0

"Hey, Shellhead."

Tony's hand hovered minutely above the contract he was about to sign and sighed. "Why do you all persist on bothering me while I'm working?" he muttered, resuming his work.

Clint shrugged. "Well, you're always working, so..." He trailed off and pinched his lips. "Well, here goes," he muttered. "I apologize for my behavior. It was shitty and...I was a bastard to you. I regret it. I don't...I'm ashamed of how I handled the situation."

Tony chuckled ruefully and shook his head, half amused, half annoyed.

What kind of apologies had he been expecting from Clint anyway?

0

Tony never really got to wonder what happened to Happy after he fired Pepper. His contract covered the driving of the CEO of Stark Industries, but when Tony took the company back, he didn't have a chauffeur. He got used to driving around, but shortly after meeting Harry, the man convinced him to take Roman as his driver and bodyguard.

Granted, Tony could defend himself perfectly well and didn't really need a bodyguard all that much, but it was always useful for moments where he had to get through crowds or drive him around when he needed to negotiate during car trips, phoning or doing paperwork in the back of the car.

After inquiring discreetly, he found out Happy had been unemployed since Pepper got fired. Further investigation showed that the man—while coveted by a number of firms—had refused any proposition and preferred to live in a small but comfortable apartment in upscale New York.

Tony didn't know what to do with the information.

"Did you know Happy wasn't working at all anymore?" he asked Steve nonchalantly one evening.

Steve looked up from his sketch book, seeing the smaller man staring intensely at the tablet he was holding, charts and numbers covering the digital screen. "After Pepper's...departure, I knew the company didn't renew his contract, yes. She told me," he answered carefully.

Tony hummed and was silent for a long moment. "He was a very good driver," he said casually. "Roman is too, but...maybe I could lighten his amount of work. He's a better bodyguard than he is a driver anyway." He fell silent and frowned at his tablet for so long Steve thought the matter was closed. "Maybe I'll pay him a visit tomorrow..."

Tony didn't see it because his head was still down, but the smile on Steve's face was so bright it could have lit up the entire city of Vegas.

The day after, Tony stood in front of a burgundy-colored door, a golden '84A' adorning it. He was uncharacteristically nervous and felt angry at himself for behaving so stupidly. Glaring at the door, he lifted a fist and pounded three times on it sharply. He heard shuffling behind the door before a casual clothed Happy opened the door and stared several seconds, completely dumbfounded.

"Mr. Stark," he stammered, "please come in," he said, ushering Tony inside when, the other man realized his moment of forgotten manners. "Uh...do you want something to drink? Coffee maybe?"

Tony was standing in the rather large living room, hands in pockets, looking around curiously. "No, thank you," he finally said, turning to look at Happy. "I just came here to talk."

Happy nodded and gestured towards the couch, inviting Tony to take a seat. After sitting, Tony leaned forward, his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped together. "I came here to talk about possible re-employment. It seems you haven't been working since—Ms. Potts was dismissed from SI."

Happy nodded carefully. "Yes," he confirmed.

Tony jerked his head curtly in what could pass for a nod and rubbed his forehead. "My current...driver is a former marine who did two tours in Iraq. He's got this thing about driving my cars like he's driving a tank around a minefield. I've stopped counting how much SI has had to pay for speeding and other driving infractions. It seems he's a better bodyguard than he is a driver and while his work ethic is commendable in protection, he actually doesn't like being chauffeur." Tony stopped and cleared his throat. "I am ready to offer your job back," he told Happy. "Well, your job as a driver. Roman will stay as my personal bodyguard."

Happy blinked in total surprise and then blinked again. In all the years he'd been working for Tony Stark, he'd never seen the man so uncomfortable or weary.

Happy hadn't seen him in the flesh since that fateful day at the airport. He'd been following Tony's incredible ascension and the sudden expansion of SI towards the medical branch, but seeing him on a screen, wearing make-up and groomed to appear perfect on TV was completely different to the Tony Stark now sitting on his couch. Tony was wearing casual but expensive looking clothes; a fitting pair of jeans, a white shirt, a grey jumper, a long black winter coat, black leather gloves and Nike shoes. He looked tired though, but strangely younger since his face had remained shaved. Happy wasn't used to seeing him look so...normal.

Human.

"I'd be glad to work for you again."

Tony blinked in surprise as Happy had been silent for several minutes. "Good," Tony nodded, standing up in one sudden movement. "That's good." He walked to the door and turned to nod at Happy. "Come to HR tomorrow morning at 8. Your paperwork should be ready."

Then he was gone and Happy was smiling for the first time in...too long.

0

"I never got Tony back. Not completely."

Dr. Cain nodded. "Explain."

Steve shifted uncomfortably on the leather chair facing Cain. "A part of him is still sitting in front of that grave," he said slowly, eyes staring outside the windows. From the third floor, the only thing he could see was the summit of the trees in the park surrounding the medical center. "Sometimes I think Tony is buried right next to Harry."

Cain linked his fingers together. "What do you feel when you think about Harold King? What do you think of his relationship with Tony?"

Steve took a long time to respond. "At first...I felt angry. So angry I couldn't see straight. I went to Tony's house in Malibu...I thought—" he stopped and took a deep breath, collecting himself and turning his head to look at Dr. Cain. "I thought Tony was going to come back to me." He smiled ruefully and snorted. "I was fooling myself. But...after seeing Harry in person, after seeing him around Tony...seeing him take care of him, I knew. I knew Harry was a much better man than I'll ever be. That Harry was...I dunno, perfect for Tony. I felt sadness engulf me, then...relief. Because Tony was in good hands. Tony was safe, loved...that relationship...what they had, it's probably the best thing that happened to Tony."

Cain hummed. "Do you feel like the ghost of Harold will always stand between the two of you now that Tony and you are back together?"

Steve took his time to consider the question. "At first. I knew Harry was always going to be there. Sometimes Tony is silent, like he's never been before. He's just...playing with his ring and thinking. About Harry. I know that. He...doesn't love Harry more than me, but he loves him as much. I think he's come to idolize what he had with Harry and put him on a pedestal. That's why Tony will never be mine anymore."

Cain nodded. "Do you think Tony is done grieving for Harry? Is his mourning over?"

Steve sighed and smiled a bit sadly. "I don't think Tony will ever get over Harry's death. But...he's strong you know," he said with a big smile, this time more sincere. "Tony's the strongest being I know. And I know gods." Steve nodded. "He's done mourning, but I don't think people can really get over the death of a person they loved. Tony has been willing to give me another chance, be it deserved or not...I don't care, I just want to make the best of it and prove to him how much I love him."

Cain gave him a small smile, but his eyes were serious. "Does Tony trust you again?"

Steve paused and scratched his forehead. "Not completely," he readily answered. "Colonel Rhodes's death shook him more than he wants to show, but...I know. He feels guilty too."

The doctor made a wave with his left hand, as if asking Steve to develop his train of thoughts.

Steve frowned and considered his words. "Tony...he's not petty, but he can hold grudges for a very long time. A part of him...feel that Rhodes's death was...deserved...and the other part of him feels horrified by the mere suggestion."

Cain narrowed his eyes. "You seem to know Tony very well."

Steve answered swiftly. "Yes."

The doctor was silent, waiting to see if Steve was going to add anything, but when the man didn't talk further he asked another question. "What did you feel when Colonel Rhodes hung himself?"

Steve closed his eyes. "Relieved and guilty."

The other man nodded before asking another question. "Have you and Tony talked about what happened?"

Steve frowned. "About—"

"About Colonel Rhodes's death," the doctor specified.

Steve nodded. "Yeah. It was hard on Tony. It brought up Harry's death and what happened."

Dr. Cain fixed Steve with an emotionless stare. "What do you call to what you refer as: 'what happened'?"

Steve looked away from the man's too intense gaze and rubbed his mouth. "I call it 'The Day I Killed Tony Stark'."

0

"You're back with him?"

Tony closed his eyes and sighed in exasperation. "It's been months."

Bruce Wayne snorted drunkenly. "You've always had poor taste in men."

Tony hissed quietly through his teeth and turned angrily from his position at the window. "How about you? What are you doing?" he demanded angrily. "What the hell is this? Holing yourself in here, not going out, drinking yourself to death, playing...I don't know what games! Look at you!" he snapped, eyes raking over Bruce's disheveled appearance. Greasy hair, unkempt beard, dirty clothes. And the smell. God, how long since the man had even taken a shower? "Why are you doing this?" he asked pleadingly, blue eyes begging for an answer. "I know it was hard on you, the whole Joker thing but… Bruce..."

Bruce stood shakily, limping to the alcohol cabinet and poured himself an entire glass of whisky. "You don't know what you're talking about," he snapped back.

Tony bit his lip and walked to his friend, fists tightly closed. "I know he killed Rach—" and before he could even finish saying the name, Bruce had swung his fist and crashed it into Tony's face. The smaller man stumbled back, hand immediately going to his eye. Going by the sting on his brow and the slick blood wetting his fingertips, Bruce had split it with the punch. Swallowing painfully, Tony wearily took a step back and grimaced. "I can't help you if you don't want me to," he finally whispered after a long while.

Contemplating the bottom of his glass, Bruce lifted his head and glared at him. "I don't want your help!" he growled.

Tony swiped at the wound as it kept on bleeding and nodded absently. "You don't want it, but you need it." He shook his head and his shoulders dropped. "I'll come back another time," he finally said.

As he walked to the door, he turned slightly, hand on the doorknob and heard Bruce vicious words. "Don't bother, Stark. You fucking bastard, I can't stand your face anymore."

Tony flinched and left, not saying a word. He remained stoic as he walked down the corridor and the main staircase. "Master Anthony," a gentle voice called behind him. Tony hesitated a moment, hand posed to open the door and leave before he sighed and turned, shoulders hunched as if he was trying to make himself smaller. "Hello Alfred," he greeted politely.

The man went down the last steps and walked to Tony, sharp eyes on the wound. "I must apologize for Master Bruce's behavior," Alfred sighed sadly. "He hasn't been himself lately. Not since Miss Rachel's death."

Tony blinked mutely and shrugged. "I get it," he murmured. "You don't have to apologize for him."

And with that he left.

0

"What happened?"

Tony shrugged and didn't turn from the computer screen he was intently staring at. If he managed to complete this new project, he would be in possession of the most elaborate and worldwide surveillance system ever created. And also the most dangerous.

"Steve, I need to get this done, please," he quietly but firmly demanded.

Undeterred, Steve pushed. "Where were you?"

Tony frowned harder at his file. "I went to see Bruce Wayne," he answered, tight-lipped. "I didn't know I needed your approval to meet with my friends."

Steve huffed. "Of course you don't need my approval, Tony," he answered harsher than he meant. "But friends aren't supposed to hit each other."

Tony clenched his jaw. "Husbands aren't supposed to cheat on their spouses, either," he snapped. They fell silent and Tony turned his head, glaring at the taller man. "Aren't you going to say anything?" he growled.

Steve was standing tall, face unreadable. "No Tony."

Tony pushed back from the worktable and started pacing. "Oh, it's gonna be like that now? Why? Are you just gonna take it? Stay silent? Play the victim and make me the bad guy? You're pretty good at that, aren't you? Are you going to take it 'till you hate me? Finally?"

Steve offered him a sad smile. "I'm never going to hate you, Tones. I love you. I'm not giving up on you. You can't push me away. Not when I finally have you back."

Tony spread his arms in a helpless gesture. "And what if you don't, huh? What if you don't have me back? Not completely? Half the time I wake up in the morning and I still reach for him, but it's you instead. And it makes me feel so sad, and so empty. And I wish he was still alive and I hate myself for wishing it'd been you. I loved him…still do, but he left me and he abandoned me like all of you! He's almost worse than you, because he's not coming back. Ever!" he yelled, pacing furiously.

"And it hurts so much and I miss him, and I'm starting to forget his face without looking at his picture, and I miss his arms around me and I can't remember what he smelled like! And I wish I had never met him, and I wish they would have never found you! That you'd stayed in the ice! Everything would have been easier. And Rhodey would still be alive! And I'm a monster. And I hurt! I hurt so much! I can't stop it! I hurt every goddamn minute of every goddamn day! And I don't know what to do! And I would have said yes. Did you know? I would have said yes to Harry. I would have married him and never looked back. No regret!"

He shook his head, tearing his hair. "And I think I died with him because most of the time I feel like I'm in a dream. Things happen around me and I'm floating and I feel strange. I can't feel anymore! I'm just empty. And I wish I could end everything right here, finish it off and disappear. I wish I had the choice, to quiet it down and stop the noise. That horrible noise always going on in my head and never shutting up. And I can't stop, because if I stop, I'll break down. I just want…I just…"

Steve stepped closer, wanting to draw Tony into his arms and calm him down, but Tony's viscous hiss stopped him. Holding his hands up, placating, Steve slowly approached the distraught man. "It's okay Tony. Just…calm down and breathe for me, okay?" Tony was trembling where he'd stopped mid stride, eyes locked in a thousand yard stare, and Steve knew Tony barely even knew he was there. Stopping a foot or so from the other man, Steve slowly reached up to place his hand on Tony's arm, giving a gentle squeeze. "I understand, Tony, and I'm so, so sorry for doing all of that to you. I understand your pain. But—" Steve hesitated and licked his lips as he mused over how to place his next words. "But if you'll allow me…I can try and help you make it go away. Please, baby, let me at least try."

He waited with bated breath and nearly collapsed with relief when Tony, at length, gave a jerky nod. Steve didn't hesitate to gather Tony in a crushing embrace, hanging on to Tony as much as Tony was hanging on to Steve.

Tony shuddered in his arms, and stifled a sob. "I don't know what to do."

Steve nodded and tucked the smaller man's head under his chin and his body in the cradle of his arms. "We'll work something out. Trust me…just trust me."

Tony was silent a long moment and just as Steve thought Tony had fallen asleep or wasn't going to answer he heard it. "One last time," Tony whispered. "I'll trust you one last time."

Steve closed his eyes against the tears and tightened his arms around Tony. It wasn't much, but it was enough. Now, he had to make it count.

He owed Tony as much.

0

Much later, after they both had calmed down, after Tony had finally stilled in Steve's arms and not even objected as he'd carried him to the bathroom and tended to the wound on his face, Steve made them a hot chocolate and sat next to Tony on the couch. "Why did he hit you?" he asked quietly.

Tony shrugged and sipped at his mug, grimacing at the overly sweet taste. "He lost…someone important."

Steve frowned slightly and turned his face away. "Haven't we all?" he muttered.

Tony nodded and absently rubbed at the butterfly band-aid adorning his face, just to have his hand interrupted by Steve's. "Rachel…was important to him. She…she was," he shrugged helplessly. "A part of him. He needs her…needed her." He sighed and rubbed his cheek against his shoulder, eyes lost in nothingness. "I don't know if he'll get over her death."

Steve pursed his lips. "Does he know about…" he trailed off but Tony understood and nodded.

"He helped me a lot. He's probably my oldest friend, aside from Rhodey…" He grimaced and sighed wearily. "He helped me stop taking drugs a very long time ago. He didn't quite manage to make me give up on alcohol, because you did that, but…he saved me. Took care of me. Helped me with rehab…" He turned and looked at Steve jadedly. "I owe him more than you can imagine. So…if hitting me can alleviate some of his pain, I'd let him do it more than willingly."

Steve sighed and leaned over, burying his face in his hands. "You're not a monster, Tony," he said from behind his palms. "You're kind and compassionate. I admire that about you."

Tony shifted uncomfortably and bit his lower lip. "I'm not so sure about anything anymore," he murmured.

Steve turned his head to stare. "Yeah?"

Tony nodded. "Yeah."

Steve snorted and smiled crookedly. "Then we'd better start to work on making you sure."

0

Tony calmly sipped at his cup of coffee not reacting when a suited man sat next to him on the bench.

"Friends at Langley say hi."

Tony snorted. "Yeah?"

The man gave a tiny smile. "Well…maybe," he drawled, his British accent very pronounced. "Last I heard from them, they were still pretty pissed. You did a number on them."

Tony snorted. "So…I guess he sent you here to…what? Coax me nicely into giving him exclusivity?"

The man sipped at his plastic cup after a chuckle. Tony knew he was drinking tea. "Something like that."

Tony looked at a group of joggers passing them and leaned back on the bench. "He's scared."

The man nodded. "With reasons."

Tony hummed pensively. "I'm going to destroy it. It's too dangerous."

The man nodded slowly. "Like the suit?"

Tony tapped his fingers against his coffee cup. "The suit's too damn classy to be destroyed. It'll break my heart."

The man chuckled. "You Americans like to show off."

Tony nodded slightly. "And you Brits are too damn phlegmatic." He paused before putting his cup down between his feet, linking his hands together. "It was a test. To see how far I could push it. Skynet will be destroyed tonight."

The man turned slightly and stared at him, grey eyes appraising. "Then we won't talk about it anymore," he said with finality.

Tony nodded, knowing the man trusted him to destroy the prototype. They both knew what could happen if Tony's latest creation fell into the wrong hands.

"Nice meeting you, Mr. Stark." The man nodded and stood, walking away.

"Nice meeting you, Mr. Bond," Tony murmured quietly in response.

0

When Tony decided to stop using the suit, he knew he'd never go so far as to destroy it, but he had grieved and mourned, and vowed to never resurrect his former alter ego.

He didn't regret that part of his life, but he had come to understand and accept that he didn't need the suit to be a good person. He'd thought Iron Man would be his way to assuage his guilt from his past deeds and his past indifference to the world's suffering and his part in it.

He now knew he had been wrong. Harry had been a major and vital help for him to come to such understanding.

Of course, not everyone could be struck by such epiphany and just accept that Iron Man didn't exist anymore.

He didn't know what to do.

He knew, deep down, the best thing was to tell Steve so he could tell the others and work on the problem, but Tony learnt the hard way that trust wasn't freely given and had to be deserved and earned.

The others had tried to apologize, but until then, Tony hadn't been willing to do so. He didn't want their mindless apologies. He didn't want to hear them repeat it, over and over again, how much they hurt for something they had done. What he needed…well, he wasn't sure he really knew.

But reading for the hundredth time the summon issued by the government, a presidential one at that, Tony didn't know what to do.

0

"Master Anthony, it is a pleasure to see you again."

Tony smiled wanly at Alfred and nervously covered his hands with his long sleeved t-shirt. "Hi, Alfred. I need to talk to Bruce."

Alfred nodded with a small sad smile. "He may not listen…"

Tony nodded with a sigh and rubbed his forehead tiredly. "I know, I just—" He stopped and bit his lip. "I need him."

Alfred nodded and led Tony upstairs, to the room which had become Bruce Wayne's hideaway since the whole debacle with the Joker. He hesitated briefly but finally entered without knocking. He walked into the semi-dark room and looked around swiftly, before his eyes fell on his friend's form, slumped into the armchair in front of the fireplace.

Tony swallowed nervously and gritted his teeth, steeling his resolve. "Bruce," he called hoarsely.

The man was hunched in the armchair, legs stretched out in front of him, his whole body the epitome of despair and desolation. He didn't move and didn't react as Tony walked to him and knelt down in front of him, timidly reaching a trembling hand to touch his knee. "Bruce, please," Tony whispered, "I need you."

Bruce's head jerked, his unshaven face turning and dark eyes glaring at the smaller man. "What the hell are you doing here?" he spat viciously, "I told you to leave and never set foot in my house!"

Tony flinched and hunched his shoulders. "I know, but I need you," he pleaded. He shakily grabbed the official looking letter from his front pocket and tried to show it to the apathetic man. "They want to take it, again," he hissed desperately. "They want to take my suit!"

Bruce snorted and leaned forward, hovering above Tony's hunched frame. "Why the hell should I care?" he spat. "Why the hell should I listen to your pathetic sniveling? I don't fucking care about you, Stark. I'm so tired of always being the one to get your pathetic ass out of whatever shit you dug yourself in!" he yelled, pushing Tony away and trying to stand to fill his empty glass.

Tony closed his eyes at the brutal words and stood shakily. Not believing his gentle and caring best friend could have become this hateful and violent creature. "Bruce, you have to listen to me," he pleaded once more. "This isn't you. You're drunk! You're—that's not you!" he screamed, not wanting to admit having lost his last remaining friend.

Bruce turned around so fast to face him, Tony was surprised he didn't fall on the floor in his inebriated state. "Why the hell should I help you, Stark? Why the hell should I do anything for you when you are never there for me?"

Tony looked down in shame and nodded. "I—I would have been here for you," he whispered. He took a deep breath and looked up to stare into the eyes of a man he didn't know. "I swear Bruce, I would have been there for you!"

Bruce stalked in his direction and grabbed Tony by the lapels of his leather jacket. "Then where were you?" he yelled in his face. "Goddamn it, Stark, where were you?!"

Tony grabbed his hands and pried himself loose from the trembling fingers, wrenching himself away from Bruce and his crazed eyes. "I was holding Harry when he was dying in my arms," he said in the sudden quiet of the room.

Bruce's eyes widened in shock and he took an instinctive step back. Tony glared at him, eyes bright with unshed tears. "Don't you remember? When we met at the gala a few months after I lo—" he stopped and took a deep breath, "after I lost my arm. We met, and we talked. We talked for hours. And you talked about losing Rachel. And I talked about losing Harry." He shook his head in misery. "Fuck, Bruce, have you been drinking since that day and you just fucking forgot?"

Bruce staggered and nearly fell before grabbing the edge of the liquor cabinet. "I—" he stopped and his shoulders slumped. His whole body seemed to sag on itself before he let himself sink down on the wooden floor, back to the cupboard. "I forgot," he whispered in total bafflement. "I forgot." His face crumbled and he brought his hands to his cover his eyes and let out one great sob before dissolving and giving into tears. "Oh god," he cried out, "I forgot!"

Tony grimaced and rubbed his face, before walking to Bruce and letting himself slide down beside him. "You're looking for culprits," he said quietly. "Anyone who isn't you. Because otherwise…well," he trailed off and sighed, absently massaging his artificial wrist with his real one. "You took the right decisions. It had monumental consequences, but you called the right shots."

Bruce sobbed harder and Tony draped his arms around him, hugging him fiercely. "No one told you, huh," Tony muttered. "You've been drowning in your guilt since that day." He closed his eyes and let his friend cry. "I'm sorry I wasn't a better friend," he whispered.

0

Tony stayed with Bruce and helped him through vomiting and fever induced nightmares. He stayed and helped him get off the worst effect of alcohol and the strong painkillers he'd been taking for the damaged nerves in his leg. It took Tony less than a glance at the leg to know his friend would never be able to walk normally without outside help.

He got an appointment with the best surgeon in the US, the man who was the first to graft an entire new arm on Tony, and had him examine Bruce. Doctor Woo was cautious and non-judgmental as he examined Bruce and quickly scheduled an operation to strengthen the nerves and replace some nerves with the new Stark technology.

Walking for the first time without a limp was nearly enough to crumble Bruce's firm countenance in front of strangers.

"As good as new," Bruce whispered, rubbing the neat pink scar running down the side of his leg.

Tony grinned and nodded, his heart lightening at the sight of the first smile he saw in return on his friend's face.

0

"Are you a jealous man, Steve?" Cain asked, his legs crossed at the ankles.

Steve rubbed the back of his neck. "No," he answered truthfully.

Cain hummed noncommittally. "Even considering Mr. Stark's, shall we say, more than debauched past?"

Steve glared at the man. "Tony's not like that! He's changed! So much. I wish people would just stop seeing him as the arrogant, selfish drunk he was, and see him as the wonderful man he is now," he hissed angrily, standing and pacing the office.

Cain looked at him thoughtfully. "Describe Tony for me, please."

Steve leaned against the window, arms crossed. "Sweet," he started. "Kind, and utterly, utterly, brilliant."

Cain crossed his hands in front him. "And yourself?"

Steve looked away and his shoulders slumped. "Unfaithful. Selfish. Undereducated."

The doctor tilted his head on the side. "Name three of your qualities."

The soldier gritted his teeth and frowned, glaring at the wooden floor. "I'd say…good to follow orders," he started slowly. "Reliable in the field during battle. Good leader."

Cain nodded. "And outside of battle situations? Three qualities?"

Steve shrugged. "Huh, patient?" he said in a questioning tone, even if he knew Cain wouldn't say anything until he finished. "Caring. Compassionate."

The doctor was still staring at him. "Name three of Tony's defaults."

Steve sighed and rubbed his face, pushing his hair back and keeping his hands on his head. "Impatient," he said with a small chuckle. "Reckless. Brilliant."

Cain nodded. "So you see Tony's genius status as being one of his greatest qualities but also as a flaw, is that correct?"

Steve nodded. "Yeah. Yeah that's it. Sometimes I feel so…inadequate. So small, standing next to him. Like being swallowed by all the intelligence just pouring out of him. It's endless. Never-ending. He's always thinking about the next move."

Cain narrowed his eyes. "You think Tony isn't really in the present?"

Steve grinned slightly. "Tony's a futurist. We can't stop him from dreaming and creating. He needs it like breathing. Stopping him would be like cutting a bird's wings."

Cain accepted his answer with a slight noise of understanding. "Do you wish he'd stop thinking so much about the future and instead think more of the present?"

Steve sighed and looked at the ceiling, putting his hands in his pockets and leaning against the bay window. "Sometimes I just want him to stop and enjoy the moment. When I have him in my arms I can feel him thrumming with energy. He's never relaxed, even in his sleep and it's exhausting. For him and for me. He's driven, I know, I knew it when we got together, and he just…he's such a good man. He's made such a long road to be the man he is now, but…" he sighed and shook his head in amused puzzlement. "He's hard work and high maintenance. But I wouldn't change that for the world. Tony…gave me so much. Changed so much for me…"

Cain stood and poured himself and Steve a cup of coffee and handed him a mug. "Have you changed?"

Steve looked into the dark of his coffee as if it held the truth. "Not as much as him," he murmured. "No nearly enough."

0

Tony was sitting on the floor of his lab when Steve stepped into it.

One of the Iron Man suits lay in detached pieces, and the strange, ominous hum echoing in the large room gave Steve an eerie feeling of emptiness.

"Hey, Tony," he said quietly, walking to the man slowly, so as not to spook him.

Tony didn't answer, and didn't acknowledge his presence. Steve continued to walk toward him and froze when he came around one of the worktables. Tony's arms were dripping with thin rivulets of blood and he held some sort of hypodermic syringe in his left hand. He was also wearing a pair of running shorts, and his legs were also bleeding.

"God, no Tony!" Steve exclaimed, running towards his husband and dropping to his knees, gripping Tony's wrists and shaking the hand holding the syringe. "What have you done?" he hissed. "Tony, what have you done? Please, you don't cut anymore! You haven't for months now, Tony," he pleaded, voice shaking, and holding back sobs threatening to break out.

Tony looked up at him slowly, blinking calmly. "I haven't been cutting," he said softly, voice strangely metallic, like he was talking through the helmet of his suit…without the suit.

Steve nearly recoiled at the sound, but grabbed a piece of flannel lying near them and carefully swiped the blood. He stared, dumbfounded, when the truth of Tony's words were revealed. There were no gashes, no deep bleeding cuts; just several small puncture points bleeding thinly along both Tony's arms. He did the same with Tony's legs and saw several, similar puncture marks.

"What's this, Tony?" he asked urgently. "What did you do? What's in the syringe?"

Tony's head jerked to the side harshly, it almost seemed mechanic. Like his voice. Steve's heart froze in his chest. God only knew what Tony could have done.

"They were going to take it," the man answered haltingly a few seconds later.

Steve looked around and blinked at the suit lying on the floor. It was the same he'd used during battles. But something was amiss. "What, baby?"

Tony's head jerked again, and it felt like his body was being electrocuted sparingly as it lurched and started in small fits. "Take it," he answered cuttingly. "They were going to take it. Take it. Couldn't let them. I had to stop them, stop them, stop them," he kept repeating flatly like a broken record.

Steve took a shaking breath, scared beyond anything by the creature he held by the shoulders and frantically shook Tony. "God, Tony!" he said loudly, "what have you done?!"

Tony turned his head to the side, blue eyes glowing like a hologram and his skin suddenly shimmering with hundreds of tiny scales under Steve's hands. The soldier let him go abruptly and jerked away, standing back in fear. Then, in front of him, Tony seemed to convulse, and his flawless, tanned skin flickered and slowly began to change form. Steve stared at it, like in a horrified trance, as Tony's body stared to change shape and parts of his body bulged and grew, before turning red and gold. The whole transformation took less than thirty seconds, but it felt like eternity to Steve. When it was over, Tony's entire body was sitting on the floor, dressed in the suit.

"What have you done?" Steve asked faintly.

0

Steve was pacing the length of the entire wall window, sporadically glancing at Tony being held in the large oval room that served to contain Loki, all those years ago.

The other Avengers were not far away; Clint sitting on a bench, Coulson leaning against the wall, Thor occasionally pacing with Steve, and Natasha loitering somewhere in the shadows. Bruce was intensely tapping away on a tablet, going over Tony's notes with JARVIS' help, who had, shockingly, been kept out of Tony's latest experiment.

Fury was sitting next to Clint, his fingers drumming against his thigh, the only clue giving away his anxiety. Steve knew—for all his gruff and harsh demeanor—that the man actually liked Tony. He wasn't sure when, or how, but Tony hadn't severed all ties with SHIELD. With the Avengers, of course, but Steve had been surprised when Fury, on occasion, had told him about Tony's contributions to some missions or equipment development for SHIELD.

Steve didn't know why he'd been so shocked. Tony had never been petty, not even out of revenge for what they'd done to him.

"This is…insane," Bruce finally muttered after an hour. "It's absolutely nothing I have ever seen!"

They all looked at him, as he rose, walking to the containing chamber, staring at Tony lying, sedated and hooked up to an array of IVs and tubes on a bed in the middle of the room. "Tony," Bruce breathed out. "How did you do it? How could you know it would work? You crazy bastard."

Fury stood and cleared his throat. "Banner?"

Bruce startled out of his staring and turned away, grabbing his glasses and twisting them in his hand, in the characteristic way he used when thinking intensely. "It's—he did something that is way above my level of expertise. God, I didn't know—well, I knew he was brilliant—freaking brilliant! But—" He stopped and had to rub his face to calm himself, and took a deep breath. " He must have been working on this for years. Hell, decades! Some of his notes go back to his years at MIT, even before. That's—if I hadn't seen what he could do with his body now, I wouldn't have believed it. It's just impossible."

Fury glared at him and jerked his head impatiently. "We've already established that the word doesn't work on Tony Stark. So now, explain. Please," he spat out like it was painful.

Bruce grabbed some notes from the desk and quickly scanned them. "He calls it Extremis. It's basically what we call a virus."

Clint piped up abruptly. "Wait, wait, wait. Tony's been injecting himself with a virus?"

Bruce nodded. "Basically, yes. Seeing the result, strictly speaking, it isn't. It's more like—I dunno. Tony's notes and algorithms actually started from the attempt to recreate the super-soldier serum," he explained carefully, eyes on Steve.

Steve was still near the glass, staring at Tony and glanced back over his shoulder. "That's what he did? Is he…like me?"

Bruce shook his head. "Not at all," he answered. "What he did is—far greater," he breathed out, still under the shock of the discovery. "Extremis is a nano technological serum—which interfaces with the brain's repair centre and directs the body to rebuild itself from scratch. The design for the new body is programmable prior to injection, and can involve superhuman abilities," he quietly explained.

Fury rubbed his forehead in annoyance. "What you just described is the super-soldier serum in a nutshell, doctor."

Bruce hissed and rubbed the back of his neck. "No, it's—" He stopped and shook his head. "You can't even start to understand what Tony did. That sort of technology is way out of my range! It's way out of anyone's range on this planet! It's hundreds of years of technological progress built out of shoddy experiment and erroneous data!"

Clint lifted his hands in a placating gesture. "Okay, we get it, big guy," he said, using Tony's nickname for the man unconsciously. "It's mind-blowing. But we want to know what he did to himself."

They all stared at Bruce in silence, eyes intense and worried. "Tony left a video log," he said quietly walking to the bank of computers on the desk. The all turned towards the screens, faces pinched with the anxiety they felt at what they would see on the video.

Bruce pressed a couple of keys and a new window opened on the screen. It was showing the lab Tony had in Stark Tower and Steve's breath hitched when they saw Tony walk towards the camera. He was only wearing the pair of black running shorts he'd been wearing when Steve found him and his face looked drawn and tired; eyes weary and scared.

"So…it seems like USA's government wasn't happy when I—when Iron Man retired. They shouldn't give a damn about it, should've expected it even—since the day I took War Machine back—their property…" Tony snorted, his thought about the matter clear in the sardonic expression flitting across his face."My property, since I destroyed it, they've wanted it back. They're not happy and now they have a government mandate backing them up."

Steve closed his eyes and remembered Tony's broken words repeating over and over in his mind. "They were going to take it." The suit.

Tony, on the screen rubbed his face and looked at something behind his shoulder. "I disconnected JARVIS. If anything goes wrong he won't be able to stop the process, or stop me." He lifted a hand and showed the camera a phial of bright red liquid. "This is Extremis. It's what could have been a replica of the super-soldier solution. If it hadn't mutated. The tube I'm holding is a bio-electronics package, fitted into a few billion graphite nanotubes and suspended in a carrier fluid. A magic bullet, like the original super-soldier serum—all fitted into a single injection. There is only one tube of Extremis. I destroyed all my notes about how to recreate the thing."

Tony took a deep breath and closed his eyes as if to fortify himself. "It hacks the body's repair centre—the part of the brain that keeps a complete blue print of the human body. When we're injured, we refer to that area of the brain to heal properly. Extremis rewrites that part. In the first stage, the body essentially becomes an open wound. The normal human blueprint is replaced with the Extremisblueprint, telling the brain that the body's wrong. Since Extremis has, at this point, taken over the brain, it's kinda important that the…subject is placed on life support and IVs."

They all paled at that, as Tony on screen continued talking. "For the next two or three days, the patient remains in a state of non-existence, alive but not.Extremis uses the nutrients and body mass to grow new organs…better ones," he said while trailing his fingers against the Arc reactor in his chest.

Steve raked both hands through his hair, his face contorted with fury and grief. "Why did he do that?" he asked no one in particular. "Why didn't he come to us for help?"

Nobody answered, but the truth was clear as crystal between all of them. Tony didn't trust them. He'd lost all that trust two years ago when they'd all condemned him wrongly.

"Effects of the Extremis process, apart from the changes specific from what I programmed, includes accelerated healing, boosted immune system, 'new, improved organs,'" this was said with a grimace. "My cardiovascular and respiratory system are going to be back to what they were before Afghanistan, though greatly upgraded."

He stopped and rubbed his face, eyes dull and lifeless. He looked like a man on the verge of suicide, with no way out. The Tony they knew was somewhat dead, replaced by that creature lying on the bed in the containing chamber.

"Extremis is a complete success," Tony continued, "I never thought I could do it, well, I knew I could, but I didn't know it'd work." He shook his head in bafflement and they had to smile amusedly at Tony's slight self-congratulatory commentary to his own genius. "The serum is a more advanced super-soldier serum. I twisted some effects from the Extremis compiler though. So, I'm not a super-soldier like Steve; what I'm aiming for is totally different. I've 'exchanged' the super-powers of the serum for the ability to interface directly with machines and my suit. If all ends well, it'll also affect me mentally, allowing me to process information faster…a lot faster. It's to help me cope with the direct, technological link I'll possess with my suit.

Tony fell silent. He hadn't looked at the camera for a while now, even during his explanation, and was staring down, not moving, a hand idly playing with the Arc reactor. His face crumbled slightly, as if he was going to cry, before he took a deep breath.

"Steve," he said in a broken voice.

Steve became rigid, face pale and drawn, guilt-ridden eyes brimming with unshed tears. His whole body was thrumming with tension, ready to snap like a twig. Hearing Tony describe what he had done to himself, to save his suit when he hadn't been able to turn to them for help because he wouldn't—couldn't trust them, was the most painful thing he had ever felt.

"Steve, the Extremis protocol will slowly re-write my DNA. When I wake-up…when I wake-up I'll be—" he stopped and closed his eyes, rubbing his chest where the reactor lay almost frantically. "I'll be a cyborg. The suit will be super-compressed and stored in the hollows of my bones. And, upon mental command, I'll be able to summon the sheath to grow around me from inside my body. With this, I'll be able to connect myself into any electronic system. Extremis will retool my genetic code, regrow organs, heal old injuries and make me stronger. It'll also rejuvenate my cells. In other words…I'll age at a much lower speed. I've estimated it'll take…God—" he suddenly stopped and put his head in his hands. "I won't grow old. But I have to do this. I have to. They're going to take it away, Steve. You know they can't. You know! Whatever you think, you and the others, whatever, I have to do it, because I am Iron Man. Not Tony Stark, not the suit. I am Iron Man. And they can't take it from me. Because you all can take everything from me but not that! Never."

Steve's entire body flinched at the frantic, manic look in Tony's eyes and closed his own.

Had he been so lost in his own drama that he had not seen Tony's descend in such sheer desperation? Had he been so untrustworthy that Tony had to abandon his humanity to protect himself? Was their relationship so beyond any hope of redemption That Tony had felt forced to take such extreme measures without asking for help?

"So when you find me," Tony's voice started again, eerily calm, his face emotionless as he stared at the screen, right into Steve's soul. "I'll be there," he said with a smile full of tears. "I'll be waiting…I'll be waiting for you. If you come for me. You'll find me."

The last words of the video felt like a soothing balm on Steve's battered soul.

"I love you."

After two years and a half, it was the most beautiful words he had ever heard.

It sounded like forgiveness.

At last.

0

Steve had been sitting at Tony's bedside for three days.

There wasn't any change in Tony's condition, except he still seemed to be in a deep coma.

His body jerked sometimes like he was having a fit; convulsions making the machines around him scream and Steve's heart stop in his chest.

He now understood that finding Tony partially conscious in the lab was one of Tony's incredible bouts of stubbornness. Even when his whole body was being transformed, when his DNA was reconstructing; his heart being repaired, and his arm re-grown, Tony shouldn't have been able to talk, much less be conscious enough to acknowledge Steve's presence.

If Steve was looking for a bigger proof of Tony's love for him he'd be unable to.

But still. He felt shredded to know Tony hadn't trusted them enough to ask for their help and had gone to such extreme. The sheer folly of Tony's desperate action left Steve reeling. From what Bruce had been able to decipher, Extremis was exceptionally unstable; the chances of it working gravitated around 3.5%, and the chances of leaving Tony in a vegetative state exceeded 95%.

For Tony to take such risk was incredibly uncharacteristic. Because for all his brash and reckless behaviour, Tony was actually someone who thought about everything from all angles. He was methodical, calm and logical.

Steve couldn't understand.

He startled out of his thoughts when he felt a presence behind him and looked incredulously at the man taking the other chair at Tony's bedside.

"Hello, Captain Rogers," the man greeted smoothly.

Steve willed his face to stillness and turned back to look at Tony. "Wayne," he answered coolly.

Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw the man cross his legs, his shiny black dress shoes glaring in the otherwise dimly lit containing chamber. "I believe you operate under a few misconceptions about my relationship with Tony."

Steve glanced at him, narrowing his eyes at the crooked smile the man was sporting. He wasn't even looking at Steve, but staring at Tony. "Oh?" Steve asked snidely, "enlighten me then."

Bruce Wayne turned his head slowly and stared at Steve, his black eyes boring into the soldier's blue. "I don't have any romantic feelings for Tony."

Steve glared harder. "I know," he hissed.

Wayne lifted an eyebrow at him. "Do you?" he asked, "haven't the thought never crossed your mind? Didn't you feel left out when Tony spent all that time with me, those months when he helped repair my leg? Has it never crossed your mind that we could be more than friends?"

Steve's gaze dropped and instinctively reached for Tony's hand, remaining silent while his body was rigid with tension.

"Did you know," Wayne carried on, "that he came to me with the government's mandate and asked for my help?"

Steve paled and shook his head, his face crumbling. "He didn't trust me enough," he whispered.

Wayne hummed in a similar way Tony did sometimes and shifted in his plastic chair. "Quite the contrary actually," Wayne said in a strange voice, as if it pained him to reveal the truth to Steve.

The soldier's head jerked in Wayne's direction, eyes pleading. "What do you mean?" he breathed out.

Wayne grimaced, and leaned forward, elbows on his thighs. "Tony's been working on Extremis since MIT," he revealed. "He fell in love with the idea of being one with technology. He even met with Charles Xavier at his school for mutants in New York."

Steve nodded. While he'd never met the man in person; he'd heard a lot about him. Even Tony spoke about Xavier reverently.

"Xavier told him it was impossible to become a mutant. You had to be born a mutant." Wayne chuckled. "It never stopped Tony thought. He's worked on this project for years basing his research on the little we knew about the super-soldier serum. He's managed more than one prototype but they've all failed. The project became more like a hobby in the 90s when he became S.I CEO. Something he could work on when he had nothing else to do, which you can imagine, is not that often."

Steve nodded, eyes fixed on Tony, but avidly listening to Wayne.

"Then Afghanistan happened, then Vanko, then Loki, then…Harry. Tony became obsessed with the idea of healing a body from anything."

Steve turned at that. "Why didn't I see it?"

Wayne shrugged. "Tony spends a lot of time in his workshop. Maybe you never thought he could be working on anything else than S.I projects?"

Steve bit his lip and nodded reluctantly. Admittedly, he'd never gotten into the habit of asking Tony what he was working on, and generally stayed clear of the workshop. "So Tony finalized the project."

Wayne nodded. "He finalized it two weeks before receiving the mandate from the Defence Secretary."

Steve frowned and turned to look at Wayne. "So…"

Wayne nodded. "With or without the mandate, Tony would have done it. It was just an excuse to actually go through with it now."

Steve nodded faintly. "Tony said 'I had to stop them'," he said after a moment in silence.

Wayne turned to look at him. "The suit is part of Tony. Even if Tony retired from being Iron Man, well, he's still Iron Man. No one can take it from him."

Steve huffed a dejected laugh as he rubbed his face. "I know that. I know. But why go that far?"

Wayne looked away, biting his lip, but Steve didn't miss the face. "What is it?" he asked angrily. "Damn it, Wayne, what is it?" he snapped, reining his temper when he wanted to shout.

Wayne's hand trembled almost imperceptibly when he ran it through his hair, but Steve had always had good eyes, even before the serum. He noticed. "His…Tony's heart was failing him," Wayne confessed hoarsely.

Steve felt his insides freeze. "What?" he breathed out.

Wayne turned to meet Steve's eyes dead on, face serious. "Tony's heart was weakening. The Arc reactor was doing its job by keeping the shrapnel from shredding it but…the damage was very extended. Between the time Ho Yinsen performed the surgery on him in that cave, Stane stealing the reactor from his chest, and the multiple hits he's taken in fights…the damage to his heart has increased."

Steve swallowed with difficulty and wondered, half hysterically, if the whole thing between Rhodes and him and then Harry's subsequent death, hadn't contributed to Tony's heart deteriorating. He knew, intellectually, that it hadn't made any difference, but he still felt like he was mainly at fault. Steve had broken Tony's heart two years ago, and today he was looking over Tony's attempt to piece it back together by changing his own body; by becoming a cyborg. By stopping being human. By becoming immortal.

I made him sick.

Once again, Tony was suffering from Steve's stupidity.

0

They sat at Tony's side for several hours, lost in silence and their own thoughts, before talking again.

"He'll still be the same." Wayne was the first to break the silence, startling Steve out of his thoughts.

"What?" he asked, caressing Tony's hand; the same he hadn't let go of for even a minute since he'd sat down at the other man's bedside.

Wayne nodded at Tony. "He may be a cyborg now, but it's only his body. His soul and brain haven't changed. "He'll be…even more intelligent, scary as it may be, and think at lightning speed. But…he'll be Tony." Wayne shrugged. "Think of him as a mutant from now on, that's my advice."

Steve frowned thoughtfully. "Why did Tony go through with it, if Xavier told him it was impossible?"

Wayne grinned. "He said people can't become mutants. They are born that way. Extremis, all in all, is more or less a mutant gene in a bottle. Tony actually reconstructed himself and rebirthed."

Steve nodded slowly. He could deal with Tony being a mutant. As Avengers, they had worked more than once with the X-Men and even dealt with terrorist mutants. To Steve it wasn't a problem, but he couldn't speak for the other Avengers. He didn't think they had any problems with mutants or agreed with those hating them, but still. He didn't know how the world would react when learning their sweetheart was now part of that particular group of people.

It didn't change a man, but it still left people scared.

Tony now being some kind of cyborg; not ageing, technopath, and inhumanly intelligent with the capacity to regenerate and summon his suit from his bones…he could see how people would get scared. If Steve knew HYDRA had such person in their rank he'd be scared. Wielding such powers would also be the target of many who wished to become like Tony. Steve couldn't fathom the number of people who would surely try to kidnap Tony and force him to recreate Extremis for them.

SHIELD was going to have a lot of damage control to do.

0

Tony vacillated between consciousness and unconsciousness for another five days before he was able to stay awake for more than ten minutes.

Steve hadn't left his side since then, and his eyes brimmed with tears when Tony's blue eyes opened and remained focused.

A shudder still ran up and down Steve's spine at the vision of his husband's eyes. If Steve still had doubt about Tony not being entirely human because of Extremis, he couldn't ignore it when Tony's eyes ripped with something akin to miniscule scales. His eyes looked like one of those circuit boards Tony like to work on so much. They looked like one of those tiny circuit boards Tony liked to work on so much.

"Hey, Tony," he whispered quietly, not wanting to scare him.

Tony blinked slowly, then his head jerked sharply—inhumanly, a voice whispered in Steve's ear—in his direction. Tony's gaze moved left and right, light fast, taking in his surroundings and processing the room, Steve and everything in between. Analysing, evaluating, classifying, Steve didn't know. He only knew the eyes looking at him were very far from the eyes he'd come to know and love. Still blue, yes, but not the same anymore.

Tony opened his mouth as if to speak but then closed it brusquely. His body jerked and his hands tightened, wrists pushing against the leather restraints strapping him to the bed. "Steve—Steve Rogers."

Steve smiled painfully. "That's right," he breathed out. "You stupid, stupid man," he added after a while.

Tony grimaced, then shook his head before trying again, and Steve saw it clear as crystal, Tony was trying to remember how to smile. "I had no choice," the man finally said, his voice clipped and still echoing with that eerie metallic tone Steve had heard in the lab. "I had no choice," he repeated differently, his voice tuning itself like a piano. "I had no choice—"

"Tony," Steve interrupted gently, closing his hands over Tony's, stopping his struggling at the same time. "We found the video logs. The ones where you explained what Extremis is. And…I talked with Wayne, Bruce Wayne, and he clarified some things." Steve shook his head and rubbed his face with his free hand. "God, Tony, why didn't you tell me your heart was failing?"

Tony blinked, and blinked, before jerking his head to stare at the ceiling. "Probabilities of dying were over 96%. I couldn't stop and think. I had to act. Quick, quick, quick. I had to protect the suit. I had to. Everyone would have stopped me. I couldn't wait. I had to—"

Ever so gently, Steve reached out and put a hand over Tony's mouth. With the other, he grasped Tony's chin, coaxing him softly until Tony could look Steve in the eyes. Steve nodded once. "I know. I've come to terms with that. I understand Tony, that it was never a matter of you not trusting me."

Tony nodded, blinked and tried to dislodge Steve's hand. The soldier smiled faintly and released Tony. "I'm the same, only better now. Not so flawed. I'm faster. I'm stronger. I will last longer than other humans. Same. I'm the same. Tony Stark. I'm still me. I'm still me. Steve. Steve I'm the same. You know, I waited for you. I waited so you could find me. I wouldn't have done that if you weren't coming back. I'm Tony. Tony Stark. Tony Stark. Ton—"

"Shh," Steve soothed lovingly, running a gentle hand through Tony's hair. "I know you waited for me. I know, Tony. I love you. And I know you're still you. We'll adjust. At least you're not dying anymore," he said with a smile, and his eyes full of tears.

Tony hummed and jerked his head right and left. "I need to adjust. I just need to adjust. After that, I'll be normal. I swear. I swear. I swear." It was like a bad record struck on a single sentence. "My brain needs to catch up. Steve. Steve Rogers. Steve. Steeeve. It's a metacrisis. It was a risk I was willing to take. Tell Bruce. Metacrisis. Metacrisis isn't definitive. My brain just has to process the information. Too much. For a time. It's like an update. Trust me. You have to trust me. I trust you. You. I trust you."

Steve leaned forward and pressed his forehead against Tony's. He couldn't stop the tears from falling and tightened his hands around Tony's. "Shh, breathe."

Tony nodded and did as instructed. "It'll pass," he assured Steve. "It'll pass. It'll pass."

Steve closed his eyes and nodded back. "I know."

Everything passed. Wasn't that what they said?

0

Steve was lost in thought and jumped when he felt a hand squeeze his shoulder. He looked up and nodded at Clint and Thor taking place on the white bench pushed against a wall of the containing chamber.

"Steve, get out of here. We'll look after him," Clint ordered, face unreadable. Steve was about to shake his head when the archer's eyes hardened into a stern glare. His eyes were firm and unyielding. "You won't do Tony any good by exhausting yourself. Go eat and take a shower, man. You stink."

The soldier looked at Thor, looking for some help but the North God wasn't looking at him. His intense gaze was fixed on Tony, and Steve could see a myriad of emotions flicker on the blonde's face.

"Alright," he conceded. "But if anything happens—if he wakes up—"

"We'll call you," Clint promised. "He's sedated, so it should give you a few hours. Now go. We're taking care of him."

Steve nodded and stood after kissing Tony's forehead and promising the sleeping man he'd soon be back.

Steve knew Clint and Thor weren't there just for his sake, but also for Tony; to start some damage control and maybe as a way to assuage their own guilt. They needed to know Tony was going to be okay and they needed to be near the man to do so.

Steve wasn't going to stop them.

He didn't have the right.

0

Biting into his dry sandwich, Steve wondered how he could have found the food in military canteens satisfactory. After tasting the best of food living with Tony, the idea baffled him.

He was eying Bruce—their Bruce—pouring over Tony's notes. The man seemed ready to pull his hair out, and the state of his crinkled shirt and wild dishevelled hair was proof of the hours he'd spent trying to decipher the mind of a genius.

"Are you sure, positively, 100% sure, he said metacrisis?" Bruce asked for what seemed like the hundredth time.

Steve swallowed his bite and nodded, chasing the sour taste of lyophilized ham with a sip of Coca Cola—at least some good things survived since the 40's. "Yes, Bruce, I'm sure," he pressed in exasperation. "What the hell is a metacrisis anyway?" he snapped, more annoyed than angry.

Bruce took off his glasses and rubbed his face. "I can't decrypt Tony's notes," he confessed somewhat shamefacedly, as if the task of offering solutions to their questions was his role.

But then, Steve thought guiltily, they had expected Bruce to be able to be the one with the answers. After Tony, he was by far the smartest of them. Once more, the fact a doctor of Bruce's kind was unable to translate Tony's work was proof of the incredible intellect of Steve's husband.

Steve sighed and traced the ring of condensation his coke bottle had left on the table. "It's okay, Bruce. I'm sorry," he apologized. "I get that you don't get all the answers and I'm sorry if we—if I—have made you feel like you have to understand everything."

Bruce chuckled dryly. "I've never been this out of my league, Steve," he breathed out. "Give me gamma rays every day, but this—" he said while spreading the hundreds of sheets of paper containing Tony's work, "this is inhuman tech. I can't even begin to translate his notes because this isn't any language I can think of. I recognize some binary codes, some Japanese and Russian symbols. Maybe some Swahili. But the rest…it's symbols and charts, and cyphers…"

Steve smiled sadly and traced his fingers on the symbols on the papers. Trying to feel Tony through them. "He's one smart cookie, isn't he?" he whispered.

Bruce let out a breath that was lost between admiration and exasperation. "Yeah. And can you imagine Extremis has made him twice, hell, ten times more intelligent now?"

Steve's face crumble. "I know he said he won't change, but…he'll be even more out of reach. So much above us mere humans. His brain is a machine now."

Bruce grabbed his forearm and squeezed it gently. "So, are you going to leave him?" he asked, not unkindly.

Steve's head jerked up. "What?" he asked incredulously. "After everything, you think I'll just up and leave him at the first sign of trouble?!"

Bruce smiled crookedly and let go of Steve's arm. "It's not some small trouble here Steve. It's life-changing alteration. It's Tony not being human anymore. It's your husband being a cyborg."

Steve glared at him. He'd never felt so angry at Bruce before. The mere thought of the man believing him capable of abandoning Tony now, of all time, was just—

"How can you believe I'd ever leave him?" he spat, his hand tightening around his glass bottle.

Bruce shrugged nonchalantly, face twisted in a little moue. "I mean, with your less than stellar behaviour in the past, it's easy to assume you'll—"

He was stopped by the sound of breaking glass. He looked at Steve's hand, now forming a fist around the shattered pieces of glass from the bottle of coke.

"How dare you?" he hissed.

Bruce blinked at Steve's narrowed eyes. "I think the metacrisis is Tony's brain trying to assimilate all the information his now cybernetic body is sending to it. His brain is processing, like a computer. Updating itself and getting on with the rest of his body. It was a slower transformation for the brain. His body transformed first, his cells, his DNA, his blood, his organs; his heart, his bones. But the brain was the last piece. I think he twisted Extremis so his body was first—to repair his heart and fuse the suit—then his brain. It's intelligent, but it's a lot of strain for his brain to go through the transformation."

Steve looked at him, eyes wide. "You knew…?"

Bruce grimaced. "No, I didn't, Steve. But at this point I can only speculate about how Tony's body will react. I told you, Steve, I can't even begin to understand. The word metacrisis doesn't even exist!"

The soldier bit his lip and opened his hand, wincing at the small rivulet of blood streaming on the table. "Sorry, I—I'm sorry Bruce. It's just…what you said, and then—"

Bruce nodded and grabbed a paper napkin from the middle of the table. "I know, Steve. It's okay. I just had to know. I needed to know how you were going to react to Tony's…new assets," he said, dabbing the liquid nervously. "I needed to know if I could trust you."

Steve paled. "You should—"

"—yes, yes," Bruce hissed between his teeth, anger just a mere ripple away, "I should. But at this point the Other Guy doesn't trust anybody with him," he said, and glared up at the soldier. "Anybody, Steve, including me."

Steve's face crumble. "It's been two years," he whispered brokenly, "I hoped—"

Bruce snorted. "It'll follow you to your grave, Steve, and from what I gathered from my researches on the super-soldier serum, your grave is very, very far away. Tony…he was right to do what he did."

Steve looked at him in incomprehension. "What do you mean?"

Bruce grimaced. "Come on, Cap, don't tell me you haven't noticed you're not growing older?"

Steve felt his insides freeze and swallowed nervously. "Do you think—"

The scientist snorted. "Of course Tony noticed, Steve. It all converged around you. It's always been you. Heart failure or not, threat from the government about his suit or not, Tony would have injected himself with Extremis anyway. For you. To make himself as durable and…more or less as immortal as you."

Steve lowered his head and put his face in his hands. They were shaking and he could barely hold on the traitorous tears threatening to fall.

Tony had given up his mortality, his humanity…

All for him.

That was probably the greatest proof of love in the universe.

0

"…and look at that, Tony, I brought the New York Times, the Gotham Daily, andthe LA Times," Clint said with a big smile, "and they all made a special Forbes. And guess what? You're first! You fortune's been estimated around $9.3 billion! Can you believe it! And be proud, you're totally owning that Wayne guy!"

Tony blinked, eyes not quite focused on anything. "You talk too much," he said disjointedly.

Clint stopped abruptly and stared at him, mouth open in complete disbelief. "Well," he sniffed haughtily, "see if I continue trying to comfort you."

Thor shifted on his plastic chair next to Clint and leaned forward, eyes riveted on Tony. "Friend Anthony, Clint was only trying to help."

Tony jerked his head, still not looking at them. "Help is not required."

Clint rubbed his face, elbows on his knees. "So, is it going to be like this for now on?" he asked powerlessly, a touch of anger in his voice. "Do you also drink oil?"

Tony turned his head slowly in their direction and stared impassively at Clint. "I should rephrase; I don't want you here."

Clint and Thor's face fell. "Tony," the archer breathed out. "Can't you forgive us?" he asked tiredly. "Are you going to hate us for the rest of your—forever? You're going to outlive me. I just need—I need your forgiveness."

Tony sighed and shifted gingerly, wrist pulling at the restrains. "I don't want to talk about it now," he finally snapped.

Clint opened his mouth to say something, but the door opened and Steve stepped in. "Clint, back off," he said non too gently.

Clint turned around and glared. "Easy for you to say," he hissed, standing up. "You've had his forgiveness from day one."

Steve's face darkened. "Pull yourself together," he ordered lowly. "Don't do that in front of Tony. Not now. This is not the place."

Clint was about to say something when he stopped, mouth clutching abruptly with Thor's hand on his shoulder. "Steven is right, Clint, it was not wise of us. Anthony is not able to hear us, now."

Clint made a frustrated noise and stalked of, pushing at Steve's shoulder violently. Thor shook his head sadly and gave an apologetic smile at the soldier. "I apologize," he said in a quiet voice, belittling his stature, "Brother Clint has been very adamant in his quest to win Anthony back."

Steve's face crumbled and his rubbed his face harshly. "I get it, Thor," he sighed. "But Tony isn't—now isn't the right time."

Thor nodded and patted Steve's shoulder before walking the same way Clint had gone, probably to go find the archer and comfort him.

Steve could only sigh.

0

"You should see what I see, Steve," Tony's voice woke him sometime during the night.

Steve wasn't exactly sleeping, but he wasn't awake either. He rubbed his eyes and gave his husband a fond look. Tony was lying completely awake, eyes staring at something the soldier couldn't hope to perceive. "What do you see?" Steve asked quietly.

Tony hummed and his fingers scraped against the bed sheets. "It's like…it's so bright."

Steve leaned over and opened the buckle restraining Tony's hand. Immediately, Tony's hand reached up, as if to touch something with his hands opening and closing around what Steve couldn't see. "It's beautiful, Steve. It's everywhere!" he whispered in awe.

Steve gently grabbed Tony's hand, and kissed the palm. "What is it?" he whispered back.

Tony chuckled in wonder, barely holding a sob. "It's lines and lines and lines of code! It's floating everywhere! It's pure tech, Steve! I can see it now! I can feel it in my bones!"

Steve tightened his hand around Tony's and didn't answer.

He hoped he hadn't lost the man he loved more than life itself.

0

Fury tapped his fingers on the glass table in front of him and quietly observed the Avengers sitting around. Glancing to his left, he observed Tony Stark typing inhumanly fast on a tablet computer. He seemed totally obvious to most of the eyes staring at him, or more likely, totally indifferent.

Fury cleared his throat and every eyes turned to look at him, sans the blues from Tony. He took a deep breath. "Alright, things have changed. Unexpectedly, I admit. Something we didn't expect. Today, the question is; what do we do with those new developments? Is the Avenger initiative going to continue functioning, and if so…" he trailed of and stared at Tony. "If so…do we have a new asset?"

They all shifted and stared at Tony, who had stilled in his seat, hands linked in front of him, eyes glittering like two bright lights in the dark.

Steve leaned over and gently touched Tony's arm. "Tony, do you want to come back as an Avenger?"

Tony turned his head to stare at Steve before turning back to quietly observe Fury. "I said I wasn't an Avenger anymore," he said.

Fury clenched his jaw and looked away. "I gather there was some misunderstandings."

Tony narrowed his eyes. "You didn't ask me to come back before. But now that I'm one with it, you suddenly consider me an 'asset'?"

Fury turned to look at Tony. He didn't glare. Tony had to accept willingly. "I will be honest, you have become too powerful to be left alone. I don't want you to think I want to have control of you. I just want you not to fall in enemies' hands."

Tony hummed and smiled slightly at Fury. "So you want to lock me away?"

Fury glowered at Tony, dark eyes alit with a gleam telling Tony not to push it. "I protect my assets, Stark. By any means possible. Read it how you want," he bit out. "Now, your answer?"

Tony frowned. "And if I refuse?" he asked carefully.

Fury clenched his jaw. "No action will be taken against you. I guarantee you, SHIELD will not be a threat and won't try to lock you up. But it would be…preferred."

Tony leaned back in his chair and narrowed his eyes. "I want my tech to be the only equipment used by SHIELD. Hammer's tech is giving me a headache, and you've been leaking information for two years now."

Fury's eyes sharpened, whole body going tense as he leaned forward in his seat. "What do you mean?"

Tony smirked humourlessly. "In your hissy fit to obliterate everything that was me from SHIELD, you accepted Hammer to become your main manufacturer. You didn't do the job properly. Or Hammer didn't. There's loads of information leaking to different servers across the planet via satellites. It's disgusting actually, there's this giant leak worse than a waterfall dripping from every single computer on the carrier."

Fury stood and grabbed the tablet Tony had been working on. "Can you stop it?" he barked.

Tony lifted an eyebrow. "What's the matter, Nick? Ears going deaf in your old age? Of course I can, I'm a computer now."

Steve winced. "Tony, would you stop it?" he asked sternly.

Tony stared at him before turning back to Fury. "I want insurance."

Fury narrowed his eyes. "What kind?"

Tony pursed his lips. "If everything goes to hell once again, and I'm the finger pointed culprit in the future," everybody winced, "I want to be able to take away what I gave. My tech won't be used if I'm not with it."

Fury pondered the question for a moment, exchanging a quick glance with Coulson before turning back to Tony. "You have my word."

Tony stared at him and tapped the tip of his fingers against the glass table. "Your words equals shit. I want judicial insurance."

Clint wasn't entirely successful at smothering the snorting laugh, Bruce couldn't quite hide his smirk, Thor nodded sagely in agreement, Natasha didn't even twitch and Steve wanted to bury his face in his hands. As one, they looked at Fury, waiting for his reaction. He wasn't happy, mouth twisted into a frown betraying his irritation. But, he was a pragmatic, and eventually gave a grudging nod. "Alright, Stark. Coulson will draw you a contract."

Tony looked at him straight in the eyes and stood with a nod. He walked to the door and turned before leaving. "You realize it's the last time, Fury, don't you?"

Steve frowned, not understanding what Tony was asking the tall black man and turned to look at the SHIELD director. "I am well aware of the consequences, Mr Stark."

Tony jerked his head in acknowledgment. "I'm glad to hear it, Director," he answered seriously, as if making a deal with one of his business partners.

And he left.

0

"You've changed since becoming an immortal," Bruce whispered.

Tony glanced at him out of the corners of his eyes, most of his attention focused on the microchip before him. "I'm not immortal per se," he answered flatly. "I'm just more durable."

Bruce grimaced. "I read your notes…I didn't understand most of them. I just hoped—" he stopped and took off his glasses, sitting heavily on one of the stool littering Tony's workshop.

They had all went back to live in the tower. Two years ago, living there without the man was out of spite. But after discovering the truth from Steve… Bruce tightened his fists. Living there was heresy. They had chased Tony away from his home. Made him feel so inadequate, so dirty, and above all, had dared taking what wasn't theirs to take. Bruce didn't know how he would feel if his friends had taken everything from him so cruelly.

"I just hoped you'd explain," Bruce finally whispered. "I know you were dying, but…"

Tony was silent and still working on his project as if he hadn't heard Bruce.

"Tony, please," the man begged, "I don't know what to do. I don't know how to reach you. You forgave Steve, why can't you forgive me?" he pleaded, his face a mask of anguish and body hunched in remorse.

"Do you know why I'm so angry at you, Bruce?" Tony asked out of the blue after several minutes of silence.

Bruce bit his lower lip. "Because I didn't trust you. I wasn't a good friend to you. I believed—"

Tony cut him of. "—because the day I married Steve, when you talked to me just before the ceremony, your eyes where green," he said calmly, hands working expertly on the circuit. "And you told me you wouldn't hesitate to unleash the Hulk on me if I hurt Steve."

Bruce winced and felt tears prickle at the corner of his eyes. "Tony," he choked out.

"And what pisses me off even more…You never did." Tony still wasn't looking at him, but had stopped working on his microchip.

Bruce put his face in his hands. "I'm so sorry."

Tony put an elbow on the desk in front of him, and rested his cheek on his palm. "And, you know. I get it."

Bruce's face crumbled.

"I get it," he repeated more firmly, as if he wanted to believe it himself. "I've always been…lacking. Somehow…something."

Bruce shook his head. "You've never been lacking, Tony!" he exclaimed. "We're the one who—all of us. We're the bad friends! You've always been great! You gave us everything!"

Tony snorted. "That's the point, Banner," he said in a strange voice. "I gave you everything. But tell me…what did you give me?" He stood and turned to stare at Bruce's stunned and still form. "You're a smart man, Bruce," he said gently. "Figure it out."

0

"Japanese scientists were the first to propose a procedure by which Adamantium could be bonded to a human skeleton," Professor Charles Xavier gently explained. "They took Howard Stark's findings on Adamantium and experimented. From what I could find in the files you provided me, Howard was founding them in the 40's, 50's and 60's. Their theory was practiced by the Clandestine Weapon X Program who subjected their former mutant operative to the procedure."

Fury frowned. "Wolverine?"

Xavier nodded affirmingly. "Wolverine's mutant healing factor allowed him to survive the process and induced molecular change in the metal, transforming it into a wholly new metal the scientists named Adamantium Beta. This one does not inhibit the biological processes of the bone and is also virtually infinitely more solid and resistant than pure Adamantium."

Fury frowned. "Where are you going with that?" he questioned.

Xavier rubbed his eyes tiredly. "From all the data gathered from Tony's notes and computers, it seems like the first thing Tony did was to reproduce the procedure Wolverine went through, except he used Adamantium Beta from the start. As I said, better than Adamantium but much more volatile. The percentage statistic of ever surviving that is around 0.1%. And Tony doesn't have regenerative healing capacity."

Steve paled at that and exchanged an uneasy look with Bruce before turning back to look at Charles Xavier. "So, how did he survive?"

The good doctor sighed. "From what I understood, and please, bear with me, I'm not an expert on molecular science; Tony's initial mutation was in his blood. I believe the early tests showed that his blood was actual liquid machinery." Fury frowned in incomprehension but nodded at the professor to continue. "His blood wasn't blood per se, not human blood. It was nanotechnology. Now it is in symbiosis with Adamantium Beta."

Fury pinched the bridge of his nose. "Can you do simple, doc?" he bit out between clenched teeth, clearly irritated. "What does it mean?"

Xavier nodded and tapped his fingers on the arm of his wheelchair. "Nanotech is…a living thing. It's an organism in itself. His bloodstream is full of nanobots."

Clint nodded. "Okay, so Tony's got some parasites in him?"

Charles shook his head. "No, no, no, the nanotech is entirely a part of him. It can't be dissociated. Where you have red cells and hemoglobin, Tony has nanobots. Tony is a bioengineered or biorobotic being now. His mutation is held on that…in a way, he is virtually identical to a human being but he has superior strength, agility and extreme intelligence," he explained. "If you thought Howard was smart, it's nothing compared to what Tony has. His brain is a computer."

Fury sighed and rubbed his bald scalp. "So…Extremis made him invincible?" he asked in disbelief. "He was already perfect on intellectual scale, but the procedure with the Adamantium Beta made him perfect physically too."

Xavier nodded. "That's it. It created the perfect weapon. Infinitely more efficient than the super-soldier serum and Vita-Ray treatment that made Captain America. When Tony's mutant gene merged with the Adamantium Beta, it made him a perfect being," he said in total bafflement.

"You said he has nanobots in his blood," Phil said after a long contemplative silence between the persons gathered in the conference room. "How is the rest of his anatomy now?"

Xavier sighed and faced the computer resting on the table next to him. He typed on the keyboard for a moment and showed them something on the screen. "His entire bone structure is made of Adamantium Beta, and his organs have—" he pressed his lips in search of his words, "have been replaced."

Even Fury paled at that. "What?"

Xavier nodded grimly. "His organs are machines now. The nanobots merged and perfected the initial organs into real organs made of nanotech."

Fury sat heavily on his chair and leaned forward, face in his palms. "What of the Arc reactor?" he suddenly asked.

Calling Charles Xavier and presenting him with all of Tony's notes and videos had been more than enlightening. As Tony refused to tell them what he'd done, Fury hadn't seen another solution than ask a man who could finally give him answers. Charles Xavier was an old acquaintance, and Fury knew the man and Stark had a past somewhere, so he knew the man was at least trustworthy.

Fury had contacted him three months prior, and Xavier had actually needed that much time to finally be able to decipher most of Tony's notes, for then to start learning what Extremis was really about.

Out of respect, Fury had still asked Tony if he accepted the professor to read his notes and help them understand, and Tony hadn't refused. He hadn't exactly given his consent either, but had never tried to stop them. Somewhere in that head of his, Tony had known they had to know what he had become with the Extremis transformation.

Charles sighed. "I believe it is a way to control him, if things were to go wrong."

Clint frowned. "What do you mean?"

Charles shook his head sadly. "The reactor…with Extremis, Tony didn't need it anymore. His heart is perfectly healed."

Steve leaned forward, gaze intensely boring into the professor. "Then why…?"

Charles looked at him with commiseration. "Now…it's nothing more than an endless permanent battery if you want. It works on Starkium. Another one of Tony's brilliant discoveries," he said painfully. "He won his Nobel Price thanks to it. Anyway, it's still linked to Tony's heart. In fact, it's the main source of energy for Tony's body. I believe it's the only thing that makes Tony still…humanoid I'd say, rather than plain machine, at least now that his bones are metal and his organs are machines. Take the Arc reactor out and it's like taking the battery out of an electrical device."

Steve stood and started to pace, hands in pockets. "So…does it kill him?"

Charles shook his head. "If you remove the battery from a mobile phone, does it break? No, it simply doesn't work until you put in a new battery."

Coulson hissed lowly between his teeth and crossed his arms in front of his chest. "What about his brain?"

The professor shrugged helplessly. "Same as the rest."

Steve stopped pacing and stared out the window, at the expense of the SHIELD base. Outside, agents and soldiers were bustling about doing their everyday assignments. "So…he's more machine than human now."

The telepath nodded sadly. "In a certain point of view," he confirmed.

Fury was silent for a long moment. "Is he still able to feel? Does he have emotions now?" he asked slightly uncomfortably.

Charles sighed. "It's difficult to determine. We can—subject him to the Voight-Kampff test to make sure," he suggested carefully.

Steve shook his head. "Uh-uh, no way. I'm not subjecting him to any other test, and I'm not letting any scientists near him, except doctors to take care of his wounds when need be. No, I refuse."

Feeling everyone staring at him, Steve turned to glare back at them. His anger dissipated, however, when he could only see pride and approval in his teammates' eyes.

"What I don't understand," Bruce said after a while, "is when you said 'Tony's mutation is in his blood'. Tony isn't a mutant…or wasn't…until Extremis." He frowned and chewed on one arm of his glasses. "You said liquid…?"

Charles nodded. "Liquid machinery," he provided. "It seemed, there was more to Tony Stark than anyone thought."

Steve shook his head. "Tony isn't a mutant—wasn't," he pressed, shaking his head, his eyes hard. "He would have told me."

Charles smiled gently at him. Eyes soft. "Tony didn't know himself, I presume," he reassured. "His mutation was hidden in his intelligence and his affinity for machinery."

Clint lifted an eyebrow. "You mean he's a genius because he's a mutant?" he asked skeptically.

Charles chuckled. "No. I meant he would have been a genius even without the mutant gene. It wasn't detected in his youth or later, because it simply was merged with his intellect. Howard Stark was a genius. His son being one wouldn't have risen any anti-mutant lobby."

Steve rubbed his face. "God," he whispered.

Fury snorted and stared at the ceiling. "Well, apart from Thor. We might have a new God now."

0

Tony liked high places. In a way, it gave him all he needed. Freedom, space and a sense of peace. Stark tower wasn't the tallest building in New York but it was enough. He just liked to stand on the guardrail of the balcony and simply contemplate. Sometimes he closed his eyes, sometimes he just liked to stare into nothing.

Hands in pockets of some stupidly expensive black suit, Tony let the wind blow across his face. He nearly wished he could sway with the wind, but, well, Adamantium Beta bone structure simply wouldn't bulge. He may look like an athletic and leanly muscled man, but he knew his weight really approximated 198lb. He always made himself weight about 121lb. It made him faster.

He was forty today.

As predicted, he hadn't aged since he injected himself with Extremis.

Morals had changed a great deal concerning mutants, but Tony wasn't as stupid as to believe people weren't scared shitless when they were in his presence.

Humans, hell, even mutants were all weary to face permanent beings. They were scared to face their own mortality and could only fear an immortal. He was a fixed point in time. Time would flow around him, people would die and be born but he'd still be the same. Simply running on batteries.

He could get rid of the Arc reactor and make himself immortal without a safe-conduit, but that'd only thwart his plan of throwing himself into the sea when all was said and done. He wasn't suicidal but he just liked the idea of having a choice. His life was based on him being stripped of any choices; controlling his immortality was not something he was ready to abandon.

Steve didn't like it but he understood.

Because even if the man had super-serum running in his veins; he was still vulnerable. He could die. Not from old age or sickness; but from any other deaths.

So, when the day would come, Tony was ready to unplug.

0

JARVIS was everything Tony needed.

Undivided, uncomplicated, faithful, unassailable, straightforward, undemanding.

He was nothing like the humans surrounding Tony day in and day out, always asking for something, always wanting more and more and more until Tony couldn't stand them anymore, couldn't believe he'd been like them once upon a time. Born like them, but somehow…somehow…upgraded.

Nothing disgusted him more than having to stand in a room full of people, drinking what they deemed expensive champagne, in pretty dresses and brand-new suits flaunting their money and hypocrisy at him. Women showing their boobs through flimsy dresses, not long enough to cover their asses and hoping to get a reaction out of him. They were painfully obvious in their ways to always reach a perfectly manicured hand toward him, brushing his elbows, his forearms, smiling brightly and simpering idiotic compliments, hoping, eager to get their claws on his money.

He didn't care for money.

It only allowed him to build his tower and isolate himself from the world. The three top levels were entirely private. No one could access them.

No one.

The building was entirely self-reliant with the new Arc reactor supplying its energy, and the building was now made by Tony's own nanobots, strong enough to sustain a nuclear holocaust. He'd just have to stand behind his large bay windows and admire the wirework.

Hell, he himself could sustain a nuclear bombing. Only his skin was his weakness…in a way. He could regenerate the skin but he still felt it when he got burnt or grazed himself.

And also, now that his heart was enveloped by the nanotech it wasn't even a weakness anymore. His heart had to be the single most protected thing on Earth.

So, yes, JARVIS was perfect.

0

The Hulk was interesting.

Tony had watched footage after footage of Bruce turning into an angry green monster and destroy everything in his path.

Later, after another Avengers intervention, Tony stood among the wreckage and burning military vehicles, looking around silently, barely acknowledging the SHIELD agents tending to their wounded fellow teammates and Fury yelling orders and instructions to them to clear the park of Brooklyn that'd been destroyed by the fight.

Tony had never felt so elated.

Of course, such excitement had to come down in a way.

Bruce Banner was nothing like the Hulk. He was common looking, plain, graying at the temples even if he was in his forties. His clothes where habitually too large for him, and often ripped by the transformation. Under them; they showed Tony a body slightly heavier than his, more bulky around the shoulder, slightly taller too but just marginally so.

He was wearily staring at Tony most of the time. Eying him and trying to catalog him and trying to predict his next move.

Sharp eyes, keen intellect. Begging forgiveness.

Tony didn't know what to do with his behavior.

He just didn't.

0

Clint was the kind of guy who didn't talk about the things that didn't go well in his life. He was the kind to ignore them and pretend nothing happened. For him; life went on.

For him, Tony wasn't this distant new creature; nearly unreachable and still pissed as hell at them all.

For him, Tony was his teammate. His friend.

Nothing else.

Tony didn't know what to do with him either.

0

Steve rubbed his face and glared at Natasha across the room.

Since Extremis, since everything changed; since even before that, maybe back to the day his life turned into a nightmare after his mistake with Rhodes, the woman had changed dramatically.

She became sour and bitter. And all that anger was directed at Tony.

In truth, Natasha was simple to figure out.

She never thanked Tony for providing her a safe place to live, nor for the money he gave them all; one bank account each with more than five millions dollars on it. Never thanked Tony for all the new updated equipment he made. Of course, she never complained when it was Tony who had to do all the PA related things with the journalists. Actually, Steve had heard her, more than once, mutter something about attention-seeking, egoistical men.

But the truth was, Tony always did more for them than they ever did for him.

They often forgot, sometimes a bit too easily, that Tony was the only one with a full time job besides the Avengers. That he was running Stark Industries: a billion dollars company with a worldwide spread.

Back when they first moved in with Tony, after New York and the Chitauri, after Loki, all those years ago, they hadn't been much. They hadn't been a real team. But…today it was different. They had become a family. And Steve knew they were all bad at showing Tony their appreciation, for making them coming together as a team, as a family. Even SHIELD wouldn't be what it was today, without Tony's support, tech and money.

Steve felt like enough was enough.

Natasha's attitude towards Tony had to stop.

He could appreciate a nice bantering with Clint, Bruce, Thor or even Coulson; but she aimed to hurt. She aimed for the weak spots. She observed Tony as a threat and had worked out his weaknesses and strengths. Steve couldn't let her demine and degrade him like that.

And Steve had started to believe she actually had a problem with mutants.

Before Extremis, Steve suspected she'd felt guilty for the way she'd acted towards Tony. But soon after Xavier's intervention she'd…changed.

He wasn't blind to the brief flash of disgust that passed in her eyes whenever she looked at Tony.

Steve knew he should have acted sooner. Hell, Tony was his husband, and he should be the one defending him. And also as team leader he should be the one to put a stop to every derogatory comment Natasha had ever made about Tony. He felt ashamed and lacking somehow. Tony was always great with him and he felt like he'd missed something; like he suddenly wasn't worthy of Tony's love and admiration. He was supposed to be the one protecting Tony and for the last few years he hadn't done anything.

Steve had thought he knew her. He'd never thought he could be so wrong about someone.

She had been so nice with him. Very supportive. Always kind and gentle. In a way; she almost reminded him of Peggy; strong but soft, loud but quiet.

And for once since awaking in this crazy world, since he nearly lost his entire life by betraying Tony, he finally felt happy. He had Tony's forgiveness and love and that was all he needed.

Sitting down in the armchair across from her, he kept his gaze steady. "What is your problem with Tony?" he asked calmly, voice even.

She lifted a perfectly sculpted eyebrow and stared at him, not answering.

Out of the corner of his eyes, Steve could see Thor, Bruce, Clint and Tony watching them from the kitchen. He felt Tony's blue eyes bore into him but ignored it for now. There would be a time where he would be able to take him in his arms and kiss him. But not now. He had to take care of this. "It's been too long. I can accept a nice brotherly bantering but I can't let you continue to scorn him like you've been doing. So you're either part of the family or you're out of here."

She glared. "You're going to choose him above me?" she asked angrily.

Steve shook his head in desperation. "There's no choosing," he murmured. "Tony is my family. The Avengers are my family. For once I feel like I belong somewhere. Don't you?" he pleaded. "Don't you feel safe? Loved? Here with us?"

She laughed mockingly. "Love is for small children," she snapped.

Steve nodded. "You're jealous," he stated calmly.

Natasha glared and sneered. "What?" she spat, standing up.

Steve nodded confidently and stood as well. "You're jealous of Tony. And what he represents. You could identify with him when you first met him; driven, sure of himself, violent in a way, lonely," he enumerated. "But now you can't; because while he's still incredible in dealing with his company, still so ambitious and so, so frighteningly intelligent and efficient, he also became focused. Thanks to us. Thanks to me. Because no one ever loved him like I do."

Steve could see Tony staring at him in absolute bewilderment.

Steve knew Tony never thought he had studied the situation so intrinsically. That he'd never thought he could be able to delve into the depth of his and Tony's relationship.

It made Steve feel humbled; deeply touched that Tony would acknowledge how he'd grown emotionally. How seeing Dr. Cain had made him so at ease in his own skin that he could clearly and unashamedly proclaim his love for Tony without hesitation.

"You feel alone," Steve continued, "scared, confused and angry. Because you don't understand why a man like Tony, so similar to you, can have what you can't. You thought if he could have it, then why not you? But it never came and you began to resent him. Building your rage and burying your emotions. You closed yourself even more and let a ton of opportunities go out the window. You prefer to concentrate on your hatred on Tony rather than look into yourself and change the things that would have allowed you to have everything he has. Tony's changed. So much it's nearly scary. In the nearly ten years we've known him it's been a crazy lot of life changing decisions he'd made, without including Extremis, but look at what he's accomplished!"

Steve took a deep breath and looked at the ceiling. It was too much. Saying all those things made him want to take Tony in his arms, pampering him with kisses and tell him how proud and how loved he was.

"So I repeat my question; are you part of the family or are you out?"

Natasha pursed her lips, face pinched into an ugly emotionless expression before she spat something in Russian and stormed out of the room toward the elevator. The doors closed on her furious stance and the room fell silent.

From the kitchen, Steve heard Clint heave a deep breath. "Christ."

0

"How would you describe your mutation?"

Tony gave a slanted glance at the man in the wheelchair approaching him and lifted an eyebrow, mutely staring.

When no answer came, Charles Xavier looked briefly at Steve standing behind him and turned back to Tony. "I would call it 'technopathy'," the professor provided.

Tony smiled silently behind his hand, glancing up at the ceiling, idly playing with the Arc reactor implanted in his chest. "I'm computer-friendly," he said in a quiet voice.

Wolverine snorted from the bar in Tony's penthouse and raised the glass of whisky he'd served himself. "Cheers!"

Tony grinned at him, a bit too predatorily to be human and looked up and down at the X-Man. Never said he wasn't human enough to require testing his own strength.

He wondered if he could break Logan's Adamantium with his Beta.

0

Tony was lying on the bed on his belly, bare-chested and only wearing black running shorts. He wasn't looking at Steve and was busy typing something on his Stark tablet, brows furrowed in concentration.

"What's with you and Logan?"

Tony snorted. "This again?" he asked with a smile.

Steve hummed and ran a gentle hand up and down Tony's back. The smaller man shuddered. "Serval and I have a running bet,'s'all," he confessed with a shrug, dropping the tablet on the linen and rolling on his side to burrow against Steve's side.

"Why do you call him Serval?" Steve asked, perplexed. "I thought his name was Logan."

Tony nodded and hummed when Steve ran a gentle hand on Tony's firm abs. "Yeah, but I call him 'Serval', you know, like that sort of little jaguar…"

Steve snorted. "Really? You nicknamed him after an animal?"

Tony nodded and purred like a cat. "Yeah, because, he's a real animal in bed—" he was suddenly cut off by Steve crashing his mouth against his and frantic hands roaming over the length of his body urgently. Tony chuckled but stopped and moaned when the soldier started licking around his belly button.

After that; they didn't talk about Wolverine anymore.

0

"I'm still human, you know."

Steve froze, pencil held in midair above his drawing book. He blinked dazedly for a while, the lines of Tony's portrait blurring together and thoughts swirling nearly too fast in his head. After swallowing painfully around the lump suddenly lodged in his throat, Steve said, as calmly as he could, "I know."

"Do you?" Tony swirled around in his stool and faced the soldier, face unreadable, eyes shimmering and flashing a moment before settling to their normal blue. "No, Steve. I think you don't."

Steve dropped the sketchbook into his lap, putting his pencil on the glass table at his elbow and looked at Tony, nodding. "I'm sorry," he replied at last. "You're right, I don't know. Can you tell me? Make me understand some things?"

Tony pursed his lips in a way so characteristic of him that Steve felt a weight lift from his shoulders. It was still Tony. He was still there; the body may be different but what made Tony Tony was there.

"A few years ago…I started working on a project," Tony started. "It was linked with some work I had always had in the back of my mind. Something about changing DNA, about changing a body and making it better. It was inspired by the super-serum and the Vita-rays Howard used to make you." He winced at his own words and gave Steve an apologetic smile. "I mean, you were already you, of course, but it made you Captain America."

Steve gave a reassuring smile and walked to take a seat next to Tony, taking a gentle hold of his hand.

"I wanted to make it so a human could be connected to technology. I had always wanted to actually understand my machines from the inside. So…starting from a stupid kid dream I actually put some work into it, but it was always as a kind of side-project. Never really upfront. Then came my parents died, then later Afghanistan, then Vanko, then Loki…anyway. I kind of forgot for a while."

He fell silent and Steve gently brushed his cheek with the back of his hand. "What made you go back to the project?"

Tony briefly smiled wistfully. "It was the Graft."

Steve frowned and looked down at Tony's right arm. The arm had been totally repaired by Extremis as now Tony's bones were Adamantium Beta, but Steve still couldn't help remembering that awful time they'd spent in the faraway Vietnamese jungle.

"It got me thinking about it again. I…I was hurting so much," Tony whispered. "I wanted it to stop and I thought…if I could make my project work, then it'd repair my arm. Completely."

Steve wrapped Tony in his arms and kissed his neck. "Go on, baby," he urged Tony lovingly.

Tony took a deep breath. "I had a breakthrough about three months ago. Things suddenly stared to add-on and I was able to complete the experiment. I started creating the serum and, well. It worked."

Steve sighed and nuzzled Tony's hair around his ear. "But you weren't sure it would work?"

Tony shrugged. "I didn't have time to make sure. I was…dying, and needed to act fast. The summon was actually the thing that gave me the balls to inject myself with Extremis."

Steve nodded, and didn't press him when Tony fell silent.

"I'm sorry, Steve."

The soldier tightened his arms around Tony. "Don't be. I—I'm mad as hell that you did it without telling me, but—" he took a deep, shaky breath, "I would have stopped you. And I get why you did it. It's just, you would have let me be the one to find you dead in your lab, Tony, and…GOD DAMN IT!"

He wrenched himself away from Tony and started pacing angrily, running badly shaking hands through his hair and tugging. "Of all the stupid, selfish things you've done in your life this must be the worst!"

Tony hunched his shoulders and absently rubbed the scar still marring the skin where his arm had been cut off. Extremis would heal his wounds now, but not the old ones. Those were actually written into his core DNA.

Steve took a deep breath, back turned on Tony.

"Are you going to leave me, now?" Tony asked in a small voice.

Steve whirled around, huge eyes on him. "What?" he asked faintly.

Tony looked at him desperately. It was probably the most emotions Steve had seen on his face since he woke up on the helicarrier. Tony hadn't been playing cyborg; he'd actually been hiding his feelings. Steve could see the burden of the enormity of what Tony had done weighting on him. Two months ago; Tony injected himself with an experimental serum, not sure it would work and had actually arranged for Steve to be the first to find him. If the soldier followed Tony's twisted logic; his face had been the last one Tony had wanted to see if he would have died.

"We have to stop doing this to each other," Steve said, voice caught between hysterical laugher and painful sobs.

Tony nodded and lifted his hands toward Steve in supplication. Two giant steps in his direction; Steve caught him in a crushing embrace. "God, Tony. Just thinking of losing you…"

Tony nodded in his neck. "I know. I—I thought I was gonna die, but then you came in the lab…and I knew. I knew I had to survive Extremis for you."

Steve closed his eyes and breathed Tony's smell. The feeling of his smaller body against his, the hard plane of his muscles under his thin tee-shirt, the sound of his breathing…all of that made Tony such an extraordinary living creature. So, so loved. So appreciated.

"I love you."

Whispered words, so soft, so full of meaning.

Neither could say which one uttered them as the feeling was unbreakably mutual.

0

"Alright, I think we need to clear some air," Steve said in a strong, authoritative voice.

Clint, Bruce, Thor, Tony and Steve were sitting in the living room; Natasha's absence noted but not commented on; and were waiting for the Captain to speak.

"Past events, good and…bad," he started, "have strongly weakened us. But today we are reunited."

The men gathered nodded, except Tony who continued to pout. He hadn't wanted this little gathering, but Steve had dragged him against his will. He liked how things were; him mad as hell as the others; the others trying and failing to get his forgiveness. He knew he was acting spoiled and immaturely; but he didn't know how to start the process of forgiving anyone.

And of course, trust Captain America and his Boy Scout tendencies to have everyone make up and be friends.

Steve continued. "So. Each of us is going to say what he wants. Whatever that crosses their mind. I want us to be open minded and…try to get along." He smiled at them, at their frozen expressions of bewilderment and perplexity.

"Sooooooo," Clint trailed off, "it's like an AA meeting, except…we know each other?"

Steve frowned at him. "Aside from the wording…yes. It's exactly like that. I want us to talk. Really talk."

Clint snorted but stopped when Steve glared. "Alright!" the archer conceded, showing his hand in a pacific gesture. "Chill, Cap."

Steve narrowed his eyes and nodded in the man's direction. "Why don't you start, Clint?"

Clint gaped but huffed out a sigh. "Okay," he moaned. "Well, at this instant, I'm thinking I'd like a big cheeseburger, with lots of fries and—" he stopped when his eyes met Steve's powerful glare, but the slight snort from Tony's direction (still with his back on them) was clearly heard by all of them. "Alright, Rogers. What I think is this: I want things to go back to normal, like before. When we were, y'know, friends…when I wasn't such an asshole." The second snort from Tony had him sighing in feigned annoyance. "Alright, an even bigger asshole than I was."

Steve nodded, and like he had learnt so well from his many sessions with Dr. Cain, started pushing Clint into speaking more about his feelings. "Why do you think you're an even 'bigger asshole' now?" he asked gently, using air quotes.

Clint shifted uneasily. "I thought—I considered myself a good friend, y'know. But when shit hit the fan I…discovered things about myself. Stuff I didn't like."

Steve kept his keen eyes on Clint. He guessed that all the people reunited in the room, had felt like Clint at one point since then, including Steve himself.

"And when the truth came to light…well, I couldn't stand myself," Clint continued. "That's why I try to make up for my shitty behavior, Tony," he said gently, not pretending to speak generally. "I made a mistake. A big one and I'll have to live with that for all of my life."

Tony snorted and glared at him. "You know, I actually considered forgiving you," he spat angrily, "but it always has to be about you: 'Tony forgive me, I feel bad. Tony, please I blame myself.' Do you think I give a damn about what you feel? Did you stop to think about what I feel?"

Bruce looked at Tony with agonized eyes. "Tell us. Please Tony, you have a right to be angry at us, to even hate us. Please."

Tony stood and groaned angrily. "It's always the same! I'm angry! I'm pissed as hell! I'm so, so broken over what you all did! And like always, me staying mad at you, me not wanting to forgive you makes me the bad guy! Can you imagine how many messages I received on my phone with Pepper begging me to forgive you, that it was stupid to stay mad? How many times Romanov threatened me to stop acting like a baby?"

The all froze and Steve's eyes turned dark. "Why didn't you tell us? Me? Why didn't you tell me." he asked.

Tony swirled around and spread his hands in front of him. "So what? Someone's been mean to me, and I have to run to my hero husband so he can make it all better?" He turned back and slammed his palm against the bay window. "I want to stay mad, I want to hate you all, but I'm getting so, so tired. But it still hurt to look at you, and…and remember. Remember Bruce threatening to unleash the Hulk on me, to punish me, remember Pepper chasing me out of my home, remember Thor turning his back on me, and remember Clint's fucking accusatory eyes." He took a deep, shaky breath. "But worst of all; remember Steve's silence. His silent condemnation. His complete, utter lack of words."

His shoulders dropped and he seemed to hunch on himself. "Look at you all, now, trying to get my forgiveness and pretending to be my friends when you were all too ready to send me to have my hide. You shouldn't have chosen Steve above me. If you really were my friends, you would have tried to understand what happened. Not jump to conclusion and accuse me! You should have been my friends! But you weren't. So, no, Clint. I don't want things to go back to the way they were before everything changed. Because, things were bad. Things were me against all of you, always justifying my actions, always having to give an alibi for things I didn't cause. It was you threatening me the day of my marriage. All of you, reunited as one to place future blames on me. The day that should have been the happiest of my life!"

Steve made a motion, as if he wanted to take Tony into his arms and shield him from the world, but Tony, seeing it for what it was, threw up a hand. "Don't," he said harshly, breath coming fast and hard as he tried to wrestle his emotions under control.

"I want to forgive," Tony lamented at length, when the tension, while still present in his stiff shoulders and straight back, had stopped making him tremble. "I just. I don't know where or how to start."

Having a hunch that it would be okay, Steve finally moved and didn't stop until he could wrap his arms around Tony and hug him close. Tony closed his eyes and let his head fall, forehead resting in the crook of Steve's neck and shoulder.

Bruce took a cautious step towards them, ignoring Steve's warning look as he tightened his arms around Tony. It was as if he was afraid Brice would hurt Tony even more.

"You're right, Tony. We've been shitty friends," Bruce acknowledged. "And I—" He stopped and licked his lips, as he was thinking about what Tony had just said. "And if you can find it in yourself to forgive us…we'll try damn hard to show you how sincere we are."

Tony remained still for a breathless moment before he slowly turned his head, peeking from underneath Steve's chin. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "Alright," he whispered. "Let's try."

The words weren't a promise.

But from Tony, it was worth everything in the world.

0

Steve pushed the rewind button and watched the video play again. He didn't know how many times he'd been watching it, rewinding it, and watching it again but he couldn't seem to stop. He'd missed one of Tony's greatest and most important moment in life, and the guilt, mixed with pride and regret were making him slowly hunch on himself.

He was sitting on their bed, DVD remote in hand and eyes intently fixed on the plasma screen sitting on the wall facing the bed.

Shaking his head and rubbing the back of his neck, he pressed 'start' again.

"Your outstanding discoveries for creating the new element denominated…Starkium," the camera showed an image of a quietly proud Tony sitting at a round table, Harry King's beaming face turned in his direction glaringly mocking Steve's absence.

"During these delicate studies, and particularly while studying the properties of certain types of steel, Professor Stark hit on the apparently paradoxical idea that it should be possible to produce an alloy free from this universal property of materials to change their volume at various temperatures. The long and difficult experiments performed by Professor Stark on numerous alloys and above all on metal references such as Vibranium and Adamantium to determine their expansibility, elasticity, hardness, changeability with age, and stability, ultimately led him to the important discovery of the Starkium alloy known as invar, the temperature coefficient of which is practically zero."

"These studies and discoveries have continued to give rise to new and significant practical applications. Instances are the use of Starkium in the design of new machineries fueled by endless clean energy. Lastly, chronometry is indebted to such discoveries and investigations for a new refinement, the use of the new alloy enables watches to be automatically and precisely adjusted to the atomic clock."

Steve smiled softly. He was proud of Tony. He had heard all those years ago that Tony had been nominated to the Nobel Price ceremony and later, learnt he had won the price, but seeing it now on DVD was filling him with such pride. It also filled him with confusion; he didn't know if it was hurtful or soothing to see his husband so successful after all the pain Steve had caused him.

"From the theoretical standpoint, too, Professor Stark's penetrating and systematic studies on the properties of Adamantium and Vibranium, thus stabilizing them, have had the greatest significance because they have confirmed Le Chatelier's allotropic theory for binary and ternary alloys. He has thus made an important contribution to our knowledge of the composition of solid matter. In consideration of the great importance of Professor Stark's work for precision metrology and thus for the development of all modern science and engineering, the Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded this year's Nobel Prize for Physics to Anthony Stark in recognition of the services which he has rendered to the physical precision technique by his discovery of the new element Starkium."

"On behalf of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, I congratulate you on your studies and on your discoveries which have been of the greatest utility and for that very reason deemed worthy of the Nobel Prize. I would now ask you to receive the prize from the hands of His Majesty, the King of Sweden."

After those words, and seeing Tony walk to the stage to receive his prize and make a speech, the video shifted from the big ballroom to a luxurious hotel room and a male voice, clearly the man holding the camera, spoke; "Mr. Stark—or should I say, Professor Stark," the voice laughed, "how does it feel to win a Nobel Prize?"

Tony appeared, just a white towel around his waist, grinning mischievously at the camera. "Wouldn't you like to know, Mr. King?" he asked seductively, slithering toward the camera. "I'd suggest you drop that camera, unless—" he trailed off and tilted his head to the side, approaching Harry and getting out of the camera view. The sound of kissing made Steve close his eyes; then the camera dropped and laugher, more kissing noises and moans replaced words.

Shaking himself and frowning at himself, feeling like nothing more than a voyeur, Steve rewound the DVD again and watched the ceremony all over again. He let himself fall on the bed, watching the white ceiling without really seeing it and letting the words wash over him. Every time the video went to the hotel room, he pushed rewind and just listened to the words.

He must have dozed off, because he woke when he felt the bed dip under him. His eyes snapped open, and he stared up at Tony, standing above him, feet planted on each side of Steve's hips. Tony was staring mutedly at him, and when his mind started to clear, the sounds coming from the TV registered. There was definitely more than kissing going on, that's for sure. He paled and struggled with the remote, only to have Tony wave his fingers and the TV screen immediately went blank.

The soldier closed his eyes and covered his face with his hands in mortification. "God, Tony," he moaned, embarrassed. "I'm so sorry! I found the DVD in the closet and it was marked 'Nobel Price Ceremony'. And I just—I just wanted to see it. And then…I promise I didn't watch what's on it after. I…I kept rewinding it just to watch you—" He stopped and all the air went out of his lungs when all of a sudden Tony dropped down to straddle his stomach, legs bracketing his sides.

Tony observed him for a moment before leaning down and kissing his eyelids then his forehead. He shushed him softly and sighed as he lay down, tucking his face into Steve's neck.

Steve automatically wrapped his arms around Tony and rubbed his back lovingly. He kissed the top of Tony's head and continued to gently run a hand up and down his back, his other hand gently playing with the hair at Tony's nape.

"You and Harry could have been great friends," Tony's quiet voice finally pierced the calm that had fallen on the bedroom. "You were very much the same. I think that's why I loved him so much."

After that, Tony didn't say anything else.

They spent the night like that; Tony sleeping peacefully, Steve's arms wrapped securely around his slender body. Guarding his dreams.

0

"Sir," JARVIS sophisticated voice said, muting the music automatically, "Doctor Banner is here to see you."

Tony hummed pensively, leather gloved hands deep into the bowels of the latest mine clearing robot he was building for the United Nations. "Override the protocol and lead him here. No detour. And save those graphics," he said shaking his head. "Hell, the transmission's only half operational this morning," he muttered.

"Evening actually," a soft, familiar voice said behind him.

Tony didn't jump, jerk or start at the sudden voice. He knew Bruce could be quick and it didn't surprise him that he was already up here instead of down there. The tower was big, yes, but the elevator was startlingly fast.

Tony lifted his head, mentally sending a command to JARVIS and the blinds on the bay windows, spanning the whole level of the workshop, lifted, showing a black sky and the lights of the city spread out like millions of fireflies. Tony sat back on his haunches and rubbed his forehead absently, smearing grease and other, mechanical fluids over his skin.

He ignored Bruce for a while, screwing bolts and welding cables and integrated circuits. He reached a hand to grab a wrench but his gloved fingers brushed something smoother and he turned his head slightly to the right to see the tool in Bruce's hand. The man was looking at him silently, brown eyes pleading as if asking him something and Tony took the wrench mutely, blue eyes unwavering.

"I—I wanted to apologize," he said after a while, taking his role of handing Tony tools very seriously.

Tony hummed and dismembered a part of the robot, feeling his nanobots flow under his skin and quiver happily at being solicited for such a hard engineering work. He could feel the technology he was building beginning to echo and communicate with him and it felt great. Such new moments were the ones he clung to when he felt life was passing by pointlessly. Tony frowned when he felt a part of the robot wasn't right.

"It's just—are you cold?" Bruce interrupted himself worriedly, ignoring Tony's deep frown.

Tony blinked and looked down at his arms. He had goose bumps. His maroon tank top wasn't much in the permanent cool air of the workshop, but Tony didn't feel the cold or the heat in this place, too used to work under harsh conditions.

"No," he answered curtly. "The carbon nanotubes holding the primary graphene are hurting," he answered, grabbing pliers to cut and re-link some components and weld other electrical cords somewhere else. He put his hands on the titanium casing and listened to his nanobots, nodding once he was certain the problem was resolved.

Bruce leaned over as if also trying to hear what Tony was hearing and lifted an eyebrow expectedly. "Are they okay now?" he whispered to Tony.

Tony stared at him in surprise, clear blue eyes wide in wonder at the perceived honesty in Bruce's voice and mannerism. The man wasn't making fun of him or humoring him. He was serious and not taking Tony for a freak.

The billionaire kept staring at the doctor in amazement.

Thought his face was lit by the Arc reactor's blue-white glow in the strangely muted lit workshop, Bruce couldn't decipher his expression. His friend's beautiful eyes were wide and shocked while the rest of his face was carefully neutral. Such contrast was very difficult for Bruce to face. He had to force himself not to look away from Tony's intense gaze. He felt the whole weight of many years of questions, repressed fears and smothered feelings in the deep set of crystal blue orbs.

It was nearly too much to bear.

Shadows filled the hollows of Tony's angular face, his sharp features perfectly designed.

The man was a new wonder.

Bruce felt elated, scared, awed, terrified, and so small. "You're incredible, you know that?" he whispered with a crooked smirk.

Tony tilted his head to the side and smiled slyly, a dimple appearing on his left cheek.

They stared at each other for a moment longer before Tony turned back to his robot and Bruce went back to handing him tools.

The silent agreement was loud and clear.

Tony had given him a second chance.

A last chance.

Bruce wasn't going to waste it.

0

"How does it work? What do you see?"

Steve glanced up from his notebook, lips thin and eyes narrowed at Clint's sudden question.

Tony gave a disinterested look at the archer and glanced back down at the electronic circuits he was tinkering with. His nanobots were shimmering under his skin and it felt good, familiar.

Barton was sitting on top of the kitchen counter eating a yogurt. It was like he'd forgotten Tony had perfectly comfortable stools to sit on around the kitchen counter. And if Steve's disapproving eyes were any indication, the soldier from the 40's felt the same concerning proper use of chairs.

Tony shifted slightly on his barstool and grabbed a component across the kitchen counter. He glanced to the side and caught Steve's lifted eyebrow. The Captain wanted him to answer. Steve had made it his mission to make Tony speak about Extremis and its results. Communicating and speaking to people about it was his primarily objective. Tony grimaced unwittingly, silently asking Steve not to make him do that but the man's blue stare was unflinching, unrelenting, uncompromising. Tony bared his teeth at him and glared back down at his work. "What do you mean?" he bit out, ignoring Clint's smile at his and Steve's silent discussion.

"The nanotech, how does it feel?" he asked, "does it…talk to you or something?"

Tony pressed his lips together and glanced worriedly at the microchip screaming at him because of the slightly bend peg on its body. He carefully righted it and sent a small wave of nanobots to heal and reinforce it. "It's—" he cut himself and grabbed a screwdriver. "It's like…I dunno. Water running on my skin," he said with a shrug, aware of everyone's attention.

Steve knew all of that of course.

Despite everything, the man was the only thing precious to Tony on earth. Steve knew him. Intrinsically. Steve was his heart and soul, was the reason for Tony to eventually unplug the Arc reactor. No question asked. No hesitation. No compromise.

"And when it doesn't work properly?" Clint pushed.

Tony blinked slowly and stared at the screwdriver in his hand before slamming the tip on the stainless steel of the kitchen counter and dragging it across it. A horrible screeching noise echoed through the walls of the room and everybody flinched and cringed, teeth clenched hard. "Nails on blackboard," he finally said and traced his fingers along the groove he'd made with the screwdriver and releasing some nanobots to fill the scratch.

Clint jumped from the counter and leaned over to watch the scratch repairing itself with millions of tiny little spider like robots. "So you constantly hear that when something's amiss?" he asked curiously. "In a world like ours it must be exhausting. With so much tech surrounding us."

Tony glanced at him, an eyebrow lifted. "You hear it too," he said flatly, "when a car collides with another one. You can hear the metal grinding and the glass breaking. I just hear it scream and call for help."

Clint looked at him with compassion, but Tony didn't understand why.

"With the way Midgarians treat their possessions, it must be a constant cacophony of pain and lamentation," Thor said gravely.

The atmosphere in the room shifted and Tony felt eyes on him again. He frowned and looked at Steve. The man was sitting on the chair across from him and seemed sad. His shoulders were dejectedly slumped. Tony didn't like knowing he'd made Steve feel like that. He stood and walked to the soldier, grabbing Steve's hand and wrapping it around his waist. The super soldier immediately pressed his chest against Tony's back and kissed his neck, nuzzling his nape.

At least he didn't look sadder. And Tony felt safer.

"I knew perfectly well what I was doing," he informed the assembled Avengers crowding the kitchen.

Bruce was watching him intently in understanding, Thor's face was set in stone, and Clint was almost as sad as Steve.

"Extremis rebooted my brain and made it possible for me to process all that data. It's not hurting me."

Bruce nodded. "On a daily basis, no, it doesn't. But overloading can happen."

Tony nodded. "Yes." Steve tightened his grip around him. If he'd still been human, with breakable flesh and bones, that would've hurt. But his new improved body, his new Adamantium Beta bone structure could stand Steve's sometimes over-the-top-overbearing-attitude. They had wrestled the day before, and Tony felt happy Steve didn't have to hold back so much facing him now. He wasn't a weak human anymore. He could hold his own and leave traces on Steve's body.

Tony considered it a small victory and nearly reason enough to endure all the pain the Extremis transformation had created.

"Yes, it can. Like Steve can be frozen. Like Clint can be mind-controlled. Like Thor can be stripped of his powers. And like you Bruce; contained."

They all pondered Tony's words and nodded in understanding.

They weren't happy with Tony having subjected himself to such dangerous procedure, especially without telling them, but they were deeply aware that Tony had been dying. Tony wouldn't be standing in this kitchen, in Steve's arms, if he hadn't changed himself so extremely.

"I'm not different," he continued. "I'm just a mutant now."

Clint snorted and shook his head, smiling brightly. "Well, Mutant Man, how about testing those new awesome features in a little friendly wrestling?" he asked.

Tony stared at him, Clint's hopeful blue eyes nearly pleading.

The billionaire finally nodded and stepped away from Steve's embrace.

He could see himself forgiving those people now. He didn't know if Extremis had helped clearing his thoughts, or if he was just tired hating. Wasn't what Thor had told him? To hate was something that consumed you from the inside, ate at you, and exhausted you.

He didn't know if it was linked but he had to try.

He had realized he was going to have to live a long, long time. He didn't think it was worth it to hate the people who weren't as durable. He knew Thor wouldn't die, Steve wouldn't age, and suspected Bruce had been in his forties for some time now, but it wasn't the case for Clint…or Pepper.

Maybe he ought to pay her a visit in the near future.

0

"It seems our boy wonder attracted some unwanted attention, once more," were Fury's welcoming words as the Avengers took their places around the conference table.

Tony didn't even blink. He just continued to stare at Fury. Next to him, Steve shifted uncomfortably. "What do you mean?"

"He means," a voice echoed in his ears, coming right from his mind, "that my old friend Magneto has taken a shine to young Mr. Stark," Charles Xavier smiled gently as he wheeled into the room, followed by several of his X-Men.

Steve stood automatically, greeting the man warmly, and Tony snorted from his seat. "What is it? Freak Show episode one?"

Wolverine snorted back and sat next to him without asking, rising an eyebrow. "You're the freak, bub," he muttered with a smirk.

Tony turned his chair around and faced the mutant. "I bet I can break your arm now," he taunted.

Wolverine laughed. "You kidding?"

Tony jerked his chin. "You scared, Serval?"

They were interrupted by Fury clearing his throat and they turned back to the conversation, Steve glaring daggers at Wolverine, and the others looking amused.

Clint sat back down after pulling Storm's chair out in a gentleman way and smirked at Captain America. Steve huffed, and sat next at Tony's other side, leaning slightly back so he could discretely glare at Wolverine over Tony's head.

"Jealous," Clint coughed and cleared his throat.

Steve turned his glare on him and pinched his lips. "Do you have something to say, Barton?" he snapped.

Clint chuckled and shook his head. "Nah, I'm afraid I caught some kind of bug…those long metal corridors can be so, so cold," he lamented.

Steve was about to snap back at him, but Fury was faster and interrupted again. "Ladies, shut up," he growled.

One look at him made the two men nod, but not before Steve could glare one last time at the archer, then at Wolverine for good measure.

Fury shook his head in exasperation and turned back to Charles Xavier. "I apologize, Charles. Sometimes I feel like I'm supervising a daycare center."

Charles smiled gently at him. "I know how you feel, Nick," he nodded in compassion, furtively glancing at Wolverine and Hank McCoy.

The two men mercifully stayed quiet.

"Let's get down to business," Fury growled. "Professor Xavier has informed me that recently, Erik Lensherr, also known as Magneto, has taken an interest to you, Stark."

Steve frowned, face pinched in worry. "Is he after him to join his cause?" he asked.

Charles nodded. "Yes. I believe he wants Anthony to join his Brotherhood and use his status as a high profile influent man to help and rally his cause. And…" he paused and exchanged a glance with Fury.

Seeing the silent communication, Steve frowned. "What is it?"

Charles looked straight at Tony. "I believe, in injecting yourself with Extremis, Anthony, you went from level one; your mutant gene nearly dormant; to level 4. Your powers rival Erik's and mine."

Tony frowned at him, ignoring the eyes falling on him. "I don't think I'm as powerful as you," he denied. "I can control technology, and my body is like Serval's…but that's all. I don't bend metal, I don't fly, I don't control people's mind…"

Charles smiled slightly. "Anthony," he said in a tone of voice so patronizing, everyone around the table cringed, "controlling technology in a world like ours…in my vocabulary, it's like holding the world in your hands."

Tony shook his head. "I just—"

Charles continued to smile and stare at him. "You can control everything, Anthony. A car is technology. A plane…a missile is technology. You can control any computer everywhere in the world without leaving this room."

The room was silent as if everyone present had suddenly realized the magnitude of Tony's true power right in that instant.

"Forty years ago, when you were born, your gift would have been nearly useless. But today it is the greatest weapon."

Tony shifted and licked his lips nervously, painfully aware of the eyes staring at him. Several long minutes of such scrutiny and he suddenly stood. "Don't look at me like that," he snapped at everyone.

Bruce shifted in his chair. "Like what Tony?" he asked gently.

Tony turned and glared. "Like I'm a bomb. Like I'm suddenly gonna go all berserk on you."

Steve looked stricken. "Tony, no, we're not—" He stopped and looked around the table. He could see it clearly now, like Tony surely saw it. Fury was eying his husband speculatively, Charles calmly but carefully, McCoy and Bruce with scientific but weary interest, Storm in barely disguised fear. Clint seemed indifferent, and Steve felt relieved. Thor looked ignorant, after all, their world's technology was a mystery to him. As he turned, Steve could see Wolverine's face. He seemed angry; but not at Tony. He seemed furious about everybody's reaction. He fists were tightly clenched as if he craved unsheathing his claws and rip everyone's throat.

Strangely, Steve felt relieved Tony had more than him in his corner.

Even if it was Wolverine.

0

The music coming through the speakers of Tony's workshop was enough to stop Steve dead in his track. He was used to Tony blaring bands like AC/DC or any other old rock bands, but this one seemed different from the other times.

It was more…or really, less Tony Stark style than anything Steve could have heard.

He carefully stepped into the workshop and his heart nearly burst out with love when he saw Tony standing on some kind of platform in the center of his workspace eyes closed and hips swigging with the rhythm of the song. Not wanting to interrupt what he dubbed as one of the few moment of respite for Tony, he slid quietly in one corner and continued to observe his lover.

It was in moments like this that he remembered how much and why he loved the billionaire.

When the man wasn't Tony Stark, or Iron Man, or number one in Forbes charts and Fortune 500; but just when he was Tony. Just a man with his faults and his flaws but also more. So much more.

The music marked a change in tempo and Steve looked up. Tony's now strange blue eyes were boring right into him. He felt naked, his soul bared and opened for Tony to read, but it was okay.

Tony used the music to slowly walk in his direction and stop in front of him, head and hips swigging alongside the music. He raised on his tiptoes and linked his arms around Steve's neck, smiling happily.

For that moment, there was only the two of them on Earth and Steve couldn't imagine himself anywhere else.

0

"Do it again," Bruce instructed firmly.

Tony nodded, running a slightly trembling hand over his sweaty forehead and closed his eyes in concentration.

For a moment nothing happened. But then his skin started to glow with a kind of pale light before starting to shimmer slightly. It was then that the characteristic gold and red started to appear. Tony's face was closed off in concentration, body now trembling violently before there was some sort of muted sound and the armor suddenly burst out of Tony's skin, a million, tiny scales which enclosed themselves around his body.

The process, which had seemed too long to Steve, when watching Tony's pain, had in fact only lasted a few seconds.

"Better, Tony," Bruce praised. "Ten seconds."

Tony's armored head nodded. "Have to be quicker," the flat mechanic voice stated.

Clint snorted from his perch on some of the cases littering Tony's workshop. "Yesterday it took you a complete minute. Today is ten seconds. I think you did pretty well."

Steve nodded in agreement. "He's right, Tony. You did very well. And you have to give yourself time to adapt. I'm not sure your body—"

Tony's head turned in his direction and for a moment, Steve wasn't sure who he was looking at. Since Tony had injected himself with Extremis, the armor seemed almost human, for lack of a better word. It was flesh-like, visceral to Tony. In fact, the armor was like Tony's skin now. It was disconcerting, disturbing, confusing, puzzling…wonderful.

The eyes of the faceplate weren't an artificial white light but actually the color of Tony's blue eyes, and the Arc reactor—Tony's battery. Tony's only weakness, a vicious little voice whispered in his head—was glowing more than ever.

Tony had achieved perfection with Extremis. He'd made himself the perfect weapon, but also the perfect human being. Immortal, solid, grand…beautiful. The irony wasn't lost on Steve. Tony had been all of those things and more before…before, but Tony going to such extent, to change his very nature, to save the armor, but also to be with Steve forever.

That.

What Tony did?

That was…

Mind blowing.

Epic.

Love and forgiveness in a syringe.

0

Steve casually sat next to Bruce at the kitchen counter. "Did you, uh, did you know Tony was a mutant? Before…Extremis?"

Bruce eyed him, hands holding his tea mug calmly. "No, I didn't. But I…suspected. There were signs. Tony seemed…weary every time mutants were mentioned, and…at times, some things he did, some things he knew…I mean…there's only so much a human brain can know, at his level it was nearly…inhuman."

0

Tony shook hands like it was an Olympic sports. Steve never knew how to behave in those receptions. He nodded, smiled tightly and always wiped his hand on his pants before shaking hands.

Tony was cool, sophisticated, bored.

Steve believed the secret was not to try to make an impression, but to actually endure.

Steve stepped closer to Tony as an older man stepped into the group of people amassed around Tony; like bees swirling around a tuxedo wrapped pot of honey and shook hands firmly with the billionaire. He nodded at Steve briefly before looking straight at Tony.

"Knew your father," the old man said with a sharp nod. "Right bastard, he was," he continued, ignoring his wife's horrified squeak, "but brilliant mind."

Tony looked at him sideways, blue eyes glittering ominously and smirked behind his glass.

"I guess the son was to outdo the father," the old man concluded with another sharp nod and lifted his glass in Tony's direction.

Now, not everything was lost on this evening, Steve thought.

0

In the end.

It wasn't a surprise that Magneto decided to attack in bright daylight in the middle of New York.

The city should be re-baptized, Tony thought. Maybe something like Ground Zero, or Land of Destruction. Something witty, and catchy, so any Hollywood producers who wanted to make a movie about it in a few years would be guaranteed the big bucks and a direct place among the box-offices top five.

Magneto was standing above Tony. He and his cohort of mutants had defeated the Avengers, the X-Men and Batman in less than an hour, and Tony wanted to see.

To understand.

Why? For what?

"Can you feel it, Mr. Stark, closing in on you?" Magneto's voice echoed against the buildings surrounding them. "Well, I can. I really should thank you for it, after all, it was your life that taught me the purpose of all life. The purpose of all life is to end."

Tony stood slowly. Magneto's powers were potent, and great, what Tony's weakness was. What was better than a man able to twist metal with his mind to his whim against an enemy who had liquid machinery inside his veins?

Magneto shook his head under his helmet. "Why, Mr. Stark, why? Why, why do you do it? Why, why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you're fighting for something, for more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is, do you even know? Is it freedom or truth, perhaps peace—could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Stark, vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the world itself. Although, only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Stark, you must know it by now! You can't win, it's pointless to keep fighting! Why, Mr. Stark, why, why do you persist? Losing is inevitable."

Tony looked at the crater under his feet where Magneto had forced him to his knees, beaten and subdued. "Because I choose to," he answered calmly.

Magneto jerked suddenly before dropping to the ground in a horrible screeching metallic sound. He looked dazed for a moment before staring incomprehensively at Tony hovering above him. "This is my world," the older mutant whispered. "My world!" he yelled and knocked Tony back against the side of a building, hard enough to make the entire structure rock.

Magneto paced and turned wild eyes on Tony. "Wait…I've seen this. This is it, this is the end. Yes, you were laying right there, just like that, and I stand here, right here, I'm supposed to say something. I say…'Everything that has a beginning has an end, Anthony'."

Tony got up slowly, staring at the man rambling madly. "What are you afraid of?" he asked.

Magneto turned in his direction and stared, shaking all over. "What have you done to me?" he whispered angrily. "What have you done to me?!" he shouted.

Tony lifted a hand and it shimmered a second before becoming red and gold. In less than a second Tony reached a hand and grabbed Magneto around the throat. "You were right, Lensherr. You were always right. I was inevitable."

Magneto looked at him in fear for the first time since the whole ordeal had started. "It's not fair," he whispered. "I only wanted what was best for us…for the mutants."

Tony nodded once. "I know. But truth is…mutants are also humans. And you, you are more machine than man, now. You are the machine. You forgot to live and feel. And I think, your past has never left you in peace."

It wasn't Magneto who was looking at him now. It was Erik Lensherr. Eyes full of tears and pleading.

"But now it's okay," Tony whispered leaning forward and gently pressing his forehead against Erik's. "You can rest."

Erik didn't have time to blink before everything went dark, but the last thing he knew was an overwhelming feeling of peace, forgiveness and love.

Tony gently laid down Erik's body on the ground and took off the man's red helmet.

He felt more than saw the rest of his group approach him. The mutants working for Magneto had quickly scattered and Tony felt relieved for that. He didn't want to hurt anybody else.

He felt Charles's presence in his mind before he felt his presence physically and helped the man get off his wheel chair to sit next to his former best friend turned archenemy. He stood and left the two men together before running toward Steve and crashing into his chest. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to feel safe.

Loved.

Human.

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"I don't think I need those sessions anymore," Steve told Dr. Cain with a smile.

The man looked at him for a moment before closing his notepad, nodding. "You're right. I don't think it's necessary."

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She looked older. Jaded.

Sad.

Tony hesitated but still pushed the door open and stopped in front of the simple but stylish wooden desk. She looked up, confused before her entire face crumbled and she put a hand over her mouth. Her eyes watered and Tony saw a tear trail down her cheek. She stood shakily, gracefully wiping her eyes with a tissue and looked at him nervously.

Her entire pose was tense and weary, as if she was scared of him.

He rocked once on the ball of his feet, hands in his pockets before taking a deep breath. "It took longer for me to forgive you because you were my oldest, most precious friend," he finally said. "We go way back before all of this," he murmured, waving a hand to encompass what he meant. "Way before the mutants, Extremis, Steve and Rhodey, the Avengers…before Harry."

He pursed his lips and looked away. A bird flew by the window and he followed it with his eyes. "Way back before this hell."

She nodded mutely, tears streaming down her face, body shaking with the strength to hold back her sobs.

"And I couldn't understand why…why you, of all people would be so cruel to me. Because I thought I'd changed. I…remade myself to be more…human, for Steve, the Avengers…for you." He shrugged. "It wasn't enough. People weren't satisfied…I think you all preferred to believe I was guilty rather than to ask questions. I think you were all waiting for me to make a mistake, to fall. You were all standing around with morbid eagerness to see me fail. And when the opportunity came, when what you thought had finally happened…I think you all rejoiced and thought; 'damn, we were right'." He took a deep breath. "You set me up to fail. It was never about me. It was all about you and what you so deeply wanted to see happen. Consciously or unconsciously, I dunno, you all breathed out a sigh of relief when you saw Steve clean those sheets and started blaming me."

He rubbed his face with a hand before putting it back in his pocket. "That's why it took so long for me to forgive you. Honestly, it was easier to forgive them than it has been to forgive you. They didn't know me like you do…did, so…intrinsically than you did. Except for Steve…they didn't know me."

She closed her eyes and sat heavily on the leather couch situated against the bay window of her office. "I understand," she whispered, trying to compose herself. Tony didn't need her tears. Didn't need to feel bad for making her cry like she knew he would. Deep down, as mad as he was, as angry, he still cared and loved, because that was the kind of man Tony Stark was. "And I'll spend the rest of my life making it up to you."

Tony looked at her before slowly walking to the couch and sitting next to her. "You don't have to. I think Extremis changed a lot of things for me." He took a deep breath and looked down when he saw Pepper's hesitant hand reach for him. Tentatively, he took it in his, squeezing her fingers. "I'm going to be around for a long time. Steve and I will outlast all of you…I can't…I can't allow myself to waste time for…I can't."

He closed his eyes and lifted her hand to his lips, kissing the back of it. "I forgive you, Pepper Potts."

She sobbed and wrapped her arms around him, kissing him on the forehead. "Thank you."

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Steve was sitting on the side of the tub observing Tony shave.

Watching his husband do that had always been an entertaining moment, because at a time, it had been a veritable state-of-the-art arty discipline, to see the intricate design of the man's beard and the neat and precise strokes of razor.

But now, Tony shaved everything to only leave clean and smooth skin.

"Why do you shave everything now?" he asked in the quiet room.

Tony was quiet for a long moment before rinsing his face and staring at Steve through the mirror. "Harry liked it," he answered softly.

Steve nodded, and waited soundlessly for the crashing wave of jealousy and resentment toward the dead man to engulf him. When it didn't come, he blinked and smiled softly at Tony's reflection. "Well, he was right."

Tony turned slowly and looked at Steve, searching his face for any sign of deception and deceit. When he found none he took Steve's hand and led him to the bedroom. They lay down on their sides on the bed and looked into each other's eyes.

Steve closed his eyes a moment, taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly. When he opened them, Tony was staring back. Steve lifted a hand and gently traced the smooth clean shaven cheek with the tip of his fingers. "Yeah, he was right," he whispered with a smile.

The one Tony gave him in answer was the most stunning thing Steve had ever seen in his life.

Tony loved him. Tony forgave him. Tony was here in his arms.

It was a rebirth.

Tony had risen from his ashes like the phoenix and taken everyone with him.

Tony was, is, will be, and had always been,

The New-born King.

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