Atonement 2/3

(c)2008 gekizetsu


See chapter I for all warnings.

______________



/~~/


“...found him down in the garage. Like he was – ”


Steve only heard parts of it. Tony, down in his workspace, tumbled into one corner like a broken toy.


Bloody handprints on the glass walls.


Blood on the floor.


Knowing Tony, he had been trying to figure out how to follow the thing while it was still wearing Steve, but had proceeded to bleed out instead.


I forgive.


Sooner or later, someone was going to give them more than minor details about a collapsed lung, damage to every major organ and the fact that his blood volume had been replaced twice while they tried to hold him together. No external lacerations, anywhere, but torn up inside to the point where he shouldn’t have lasted as long as he had.


Steve had walked back into the house with Carol without remembering the last time he’d done it. He had left the house and returned to it that morning without a single memory of it, but he remembered everything after. It had let him watch and listen, and laughed at him when he railed against it.


There were lines of salt in front of every doorway that he had to cross. He wasn’t familiar with why that would make any difference, but if they thought it would help, he was happy to do it. No one was afraid of him, but they were wary, and watching, and they had every right to be. He submitted to every test they threw at him to try and prove he was alone in his own body.


He looked at the archaic symbols and the data that Tony had sent far and wide as a warning. They didn’t mean anything to him, but they had come with notes and minutia from Reed, who explained it as Biblical but was trying to approach it the way Tony likely had – from a scientific standpoint rather than ecclesiastical. He had verified that it had been a seal of some kind, but for what, no one was sure. If something had gotten loose as a result, it hadn’t presented itself.


No one had what Steve had: incontrovertible proof of what it had all really meant. The thing that had shoved his soul to one side and then used him for destruction had been evil in a sense that he had thought he understood. He had only understood it on a human level. He had fought people he would easily have designated as evil based on their actions, their disregard for others. This was something different. This was what it was like to harbor it, to breathe it in.


He had no problem believing that it was the same evil the Bible had warned of, and that it would try and do all it had said it would. They were involved in something world-ending.


He finally relented and let Carol tape up his forehead after the fourth time she offered, because the damn thing would not stop bleeding.


He changed his clothes because of the blood, and to get into something dry and warm because he was shaking with chills, and he wasn’t sure how much was reaction to being possessed and how much was just reaction to what had happened while he was. There was a low hum of panic under every breath he took, something acid and uneasy that he couldn’t shake. He could face damn near anything, he could fight anything and anyone, but there was nothing to swing at, this once. They’d been blind sided with a cruelty that there had been no ready defense against.


How were we so defenseless? How complacent have we become?


He didn’t mean to wander the house, or end up in Tony’s room, but he had to. He pushed the door open and stood looking at the smears of blood just inside the doorframe where Tony had likely gripped it while trying to get out. The panic welled again when he looked at the bed. The room reeked of sex and fear, and it made the fine hairs along his arms prickle in a mix of primal emotions that spilled over when he got close enough to see white sheets spotted with blood and semen.


He tore the sheets off the bed and pitched them into one corner. Then he sat with his head in his hands until he could stand again.


After that, it was all waiting. How many hospital waiting room hours had they all logged? How many times had it been this serious? He couldn’t remember.


More of the team had arrived in the intervening hours, leaving a skeleton crew in NY. Hank and Jan were there, keeping vigil. It was Clint of all people that had threatened the staff that there would be hell to pay if word got outside the hospital that Tony Stark was on life support in the ICU. It was Rhodey who backed him up and made not-so subtle hints that there would be legal penalties along the lines of charges of treason for it.


It was Pepper who calmed everyone down even though she was an inch from tears. She had heard the story from Peter, and had taken it with as much grim determination as any of the Avengers. She had headed straight for Steve, had stared up into his face, had been the first to say it wasn’t your fault. He knew she meant it and it still didn’t help.


She sat and held his hand on one side, and Jan sat on his other side with a hand on his knee.


“They’ll let you see him,” Jan said. “You should...talk to him. He might hear you.”


“You don’t know what it did, using my face,” he said without looking at her. “I can’t. I can’t be the first thing he sees, if he wakes up while I’m in there.”


Pepper squeezed his hand but stayed silent.


Tony was not likely to wake up, and they knew it, and it was too hard to acknowledge.


“Steve,” Jan said.


“No,” he said quickly, louder than he’d meant to. “There’s no way he’ll ever be able to look at me again. I can’t even...” He freed his hands and ran them through his hair, leaving fingers laced behind his head.


It would be a long, long time before he’d close his eyes again without seeing tears of pain spill over while Tony tried to tell him it was okay.


“It got into everything I am, without even trying,” he said, unable to hold the words in. “It...”


“Raped you,” Jan said, the horror and pity audible. “Steve – ”


He fisted his hands against his temples and bent double with grief, no voice given to the pain, ignoring the hands on his back. They didn’t know. They couldn’t.


The finger-shaped bruises on Tony’s throat were his. The bite marks had been made with his teeth. And everyone was worried about what the demon might have done, to him. That he had been...


He couldn’t even think the word.


When someone did finally come and admit that there was nothing more they could do, that the damage had been too extensive and that it was only a matter of time, there was only silence.


Here, at the end of the world.

 

/~~/


He could not stop apologizing.


No matter what he meant to say, the first thing that came out was another apology. Tony didn’t want apologies; not from him.


Pepper had power of attorney, and most of the Avengers were listed as next of kin to each other for cases like this, where decisions had to be made quickly. He was not going to make Pepper decide, if there was no hope left. He would offer to be the one who let the machines go silent.


Tony would have made some joke about the ghost in the machine.


I’m the one who killed him, anyway.


It didn’t matter whether he’d tried to stop it. He hadn’t been on his guard, and the result was a husk with negligible brain activity breathing shallowly through a ventilator in front of him.


My best friend.


“After all the things we’ve fought, this wasn’t how I ever imagined we’d end,” he said. He ran a hand down his face and tried to make himself really look at Tony’s, because it was the last time he’d see it. “There was always going to be something, eventually, that we couldn’t beat. I just thought...it’d be in the middle of battle.”


It had been a battle. Just not a fair fight. Nothing in the open.


He glanced around the room again because the chest rose and fell, but there was nothing recognizable left. He stood and leaned in, left hand over the glow of the arc reactor, right cupping the back of Tony’s head and lips brushing against forehead, afraid to touch but needing to.


“I have always loved and wanted you,” he whispered. “But it never would have been like that, and that’s not how you should have found out. You should never have found out.”


Then he sat with his head in his hands, elbows braced on the bed, waiting for the strength to move again. He shoved everything down, kept the sobs unheard, tried to deal with it the same way he’d faced down every other thing he hadn’t thought he could handle.


The rustle of clothing made him glance up.


Sitting across the bed from him was a rumpled-looking man with dark hair and blue eyes and a kind but intense face. He had his hands folded loosely on the bed near Tony’s elbow, and the sleeves of a trench coat were pulled up slightly above his wrists. He was dressed as a businessman, suit and tie under the coat, eyes weary, mouth set in a thin line.


“He hasn’t gone as far as you believe,” the man said.


Steve blinked at him. He hadn’t heard anyone come in, and this definitely wasn’t staff. He didn’t look like press, either. “Who – ”


The shadows in the corner behind the man seemed to coalesce a little, to draw up over the ceiling in sharp, dark patterns. 


They looked like wings.


Steve shot up, nearly tipping his chair over. This was more of the same, something else coming to finish off what the demon had started, and he wasn’t going down without one hell of a fight, this time.


The figure held a hand out toward him, palm outwards. “Your mother was Catholic,” he said, voice low and urgent. “You learned her faith and you know its tenets. You’ve already seen the demons. Am I so hard to reconcile?”


Steve stood frozen, trying to really grasp what he was being confronted with. “Who are you?”


“Castiel,” the man said.


“You were never named in the Bible,” Steve said, realizing it sounded childish and inane even as he said it.


“Very few were,” Castiel said. “Yet, that doesn’t negate the existence of the remainder of the Choir. You have taken many things on faith in your life, Steve Rogers. It’s important that you do so now.”


Steve sat back down, tense, watching the man’s hands. “What’re you here for?” he said. “Because of the demon?”


“Yes,” Castiel said. “And because what Tony did cannot be undone, but it can be atoned for.”


“What he...” Steve began.


“He opened a seal of his own free will,” Castiel said. “I know you have already determined what the symbols meant, and what the lore dictates. He brought us one step closer to losing this world.”


Steve stared at the angel – he had to go ahead and admit it, angel – with open shock. “He didn’t have any choice.”  


“There was a choice,” the angel said. “He chose to endanger the world rather than allow you to be harmed.”


“He didn’t even know he was endangering the world,” Steve said, trying to keep his voice and his temper down. “You’re here now, to blame him? After everybody he’s saved, all the good he’s done?”


“Only after it became impossible to do otherwise,” the angel said. “His initial reasons for taking action as a hero were ultimately self-serving and vengeful, Steve. And, he did know he was endangering the world. He didn’t destroy the stone or the symbols without analyzing them first.”


“And you know all that how, because you were there?” Steve said. “What kind of choice did you make, to not even try and stop any of this?”


There was a quirk of eyebrows. “Free will and destiny are not mutually exclusive,” Castiel said.


“I don’t...” Steve paused. The guy wasn’t even making sense. He took a slow, steadying breath. “‘And the priest shall make an atonement for the soul that sinneth ignorantly, when he sinneth by ignorance before the Lord, to make an atonement for him; and it shall be forgiven him.’ Remember that part?”


The eyebrows quirked again. “You are well versed.”


“If you’re really who you say you are, then you wouldn’t judge him,” Steve said, standing and laying a hand on Tony’s again. “He doesn’t owe anyone anything. He doesn’t deserve hell.”


Castiel tilted his head a little, concern in his gray-blue eyes. “We are not battling over his soul,” he said flatly.


“Then what are we doing?”


“It’s difficult to find those who are both able and sufficiently motivated to assist us,” Castiel said. “You are already involved, and you can provide the motivation. Tony is better able than most to keep the other seals closed.”


“It’s a little late,” Steve said, voice catching.


“Not if you don’t let go of him,” Castiel said, taking Tony’s other hand.


Steve blinked, and when he opened his eyes again, the man in the trench coat was gone and something was different in the way the machines sounded.


/~~/


Tony improved overnight to the point where he was breathing on his own. He wasn’t completely healed, but he was suddenly, miraculously, out of danger.


Steve didn’t tell anyone about the visitor.


He didn’t dare.


/~~/


Pepper awoke to fingers gently twirling her hair.


She hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but it had been two days, and she hadn’t wanted to risk letting Tony wake up alone. Especially since it was confirmed that he would wake up.


Something had happened after Steve had gone in to see him. They all knew it, and he wouldn’t say a word. In the end, it didn’t matter; had something gone wrong, Steve would have said. He still had their trust.


She lifted her head from Tony’s chest and blinked at him. When she saw that his eyes were open, she finally smiled.


“You’re okay,” he whispered hoarsely. “It didn’t find you.”


“Everybody’s okay,” she said, laying a hand against the side of his face, thumb stroking at the shadow beneath one eye. “You, too.”


Tony frowned, eyes moving to the ceiling as if bracing himself. “What’d it do...with Steve?”


“He’s okay,” she said. “He’s here. He got away.”


But when his eyes widened in panic, she knew it wasn’t going to be that easy.


/~~/


“I told him,” Pepper said. “Jan, Peter, everybody’s told him. He’s in there still not convinced that it’s really you, out here. He’s not going to get it until you talk to him.”


She hadn’t known Steve long, had not spent as much time with him as the others, but she had never seen him look so nervous. It bordered on fear.


“He’s already insisting on going home,” Pepper said. “Sooner or later, he’ll just unhook himself from everything and be out here looking for you anyway. He’s worried about you. Maybe just stand by the door where he can see you. I know it was bad, whatever happened, and I’m sorry if...I’m not trying to make it my business. But Tony’s my business, and I’m worried about you too.” She patted his chest almost hesitantly, eyes darting between his face and chest.


She hugged him fiercely and without reservation when he leaned in and offered her his arms.


/~~/


He stood in the doorway to Tony’s hospital room and stared.


The low light and grim mood of the night before in the ICU had been replaced with the washed out whites and blues of a room with a window that allowed more than enough light in. Tony looked slightly washed out as well, still pale but better, dark hair falling over one brow. The remote for the TV was in dozens of pieces on the coverlet, an apparent victim of boredom and concern.


Pepper had left with the promise of bringing Tony his laptop, and with it, a chance to quit fidgeting and to reboot Jarvis.


They were all alive and relatively whole for another day. That seemed like it should have been enough, and it wasn’t.


Steve didn’t shift his weight or make any noise that he was aware of, but Tony turned his head to look at him.


Their eyes met, and the look of sheer relief on Tony’s face shamed Steve in ways that a fleeting look of wariness or incrimination never would have.


Steve stepped into the room and paused near the foot of the bed, eyes firmly on Tony’s knees. They were both still and silent, watching, listening.


He’d meant to say something, but couldn’t. When he walked away again without meeting Tony’s eyes a second time, Tony didn’t try to stop him.


/~~/


Tony lasted until dark, then checked himself out and went home without telling anybody. He felt like he’d been thrown through a building or two, but he could tell it was only residual, the echo of the impact and not the injuries themselves. Even the incisions where some poor surgeon or two had wasted hours trying to save him were gone.


Time enough, later, to find out who had pulled strings. This was no miracle.


/~~/


Pepper and Happy were waiting for him, and he couldn’t even pretend to be annoyed by it.


/~~/


“It’s a what, again?”


Clint sounded low key about it, but the way he had his arms braced on the table said he felt otherwise.


Team meeting, main dining room in the house in Malibu so they could face each other around the table with coffee and unease.


“A demon,” Steve said. “It said it would be back, would want to use us, so I want everyone to be aware.”


“But you’re not sure how it...got in, in the first place,” Clint said, watching him.


Steve was not looking at any of them, and that was a first. But the weirdest thing was Tony, looking worse for wear but not as hey, dying over here as he had a day earlier, sitting as far out of Steve’s line of sight as he could get, off to one side, not even part of the group. He was staring a hole right into the back of Steve’s head but looking more contained than Clint was used to.


“No,” Steve said. “I don’t remember that. But I wasn’t really paying attention. There would have to be something...unusual, when it approaches. And there could be others. So we should take whatever precautions we can.”


“Meaning...lines of salt in front of all the doors, holy water in the coffee, stuff like that?” Hank said. “That’s very...traditional, but do we know it’ll work...?”


“We won’t really know until we have something else to try it out on,” Peter said. “Look, you guys...I saw how it behaved. We’re not going to have any trouble telling, even if it doesn’t pull the whole alien-eye thing. It wasn’t able to keep from giving itself away. It didn’t even really care. It fooled me for a moment because I wasn’t paying attention. If we keep an eye on each other...”


He glanced between Tony and Steve. He wanted to add Tony knew, Tony knew right away.


“It’s got an electromagnetic signature,” Tony said. “Like everything else in the world. Sound, light, matter, all the damn same. Jarvis scanned it, and I scanned it while I was in the armor, and I picked it up. I can make that signature part of our security measures.”


“But that won’t necessarily keep them out,” Jan said, looking at him carefully.  

 

“It didn’t want anything to do with the symbols in that canyon,” Tony said. “For what that’s worth. At least it has limits, and rules. It doesn’t like what certain things represent. So if you guys wanna wander around wearing crosses, go ahead, but I think there’s more we can do.”


“Reed made a few suggestions based on what Tony initially sent him, the type of symbols used and history of the region,” Steve said, eyes on the table. “It was intended to be a seal, one of 66, and when enough of them are broken, prophecy says it’ll be the end of the world.”


“So we’re dealing with genuine Biblical type stuff, here, am I right?” Clint said. “I saw the symbols, I can put this together, already. This Revelations stuff is a little out of our usual world-saving routine, so...what do we do next? How do we kill demons?”


It was somehow reassuring that Clint had gone straight to let’s kill them.


“We find a way to stop the other seals from opening,” Steve said. “I don’t think...demons can be killed. I think they have to be sent back where they came from.”


“And we figure out where the seals are by...I mean, we’re not going to get a map,” Jan said. “There has to be someone else aware of this who knows more about it than we do. There’s no way this is new.”


“There’s apparently an underground group of ‘hunters’ who do nothing but handle this type of thing,” Tony said, and the amusement was plain in his tone even if it didn’t show on his face. “So, yeah, someone’s already been on this for a long time, and they’re doing a bang-up job of it because the demons are still comfy enough to go grabbing anybody they see.”


“Reed has suggested several...amendments to deter demons of this type,” Steve said. “Not necessarily crosses or other religious symbols. There are wards that can be added to physical locations, to our uniforms...anti possession charms that can be worn.”


They all heard Tony snort. It wasn’t aimed at Steve from what anyone could tell, but his derision was plain.


“So if even Reed is suggesting this kind of stuff, then he’s seen proof or he’s at least got so much damn research that this makes sense to him,” Carol said, shooting Tony a look. “We’ve got some way of at least trying to keep these things off us so that we don’t end up running their errands.”


“Not that it really matters, because the world keeps threatening to end seven ways to Sunday on a weekly basis, but why these guys, and why now?” Clint asked.


“Apparently it’s always been happening,” Steve said. “It’s just being stepped up now because something’s changed, some balance is getting tipped in the wrong favor.”


“So what’s the endgame, here?” Peter said. “Seas boiling, trumpets sounding, what?”


“Yeah,” Steve said. “Uh...that seems to be the point. Hell on earth.”


“Really aggressive global warming,” Tony said.


There was silence around the table for a long moment.


“We need to make sure everybody’s alerted,” Hank said finally. “That they should keep an eye out for...this.”


“Reed’s going to put the word out without openly saying the Avengers were attacked,” Carol said.


More silence. Superheroes used as weapons against one another and the public at large was nothing new, but the randomness and the complete success it had had....that was. It had effectively killed one of them at its leisure. It wasn’t a good idea to let that get out.


“Steve,” Jan said gently, “...you know better than anybody what we’re dealing with, here.”


“Destruction for the sake of destruction,” Steve said, eyes on the table. “Anything it can touch, it wants to ruin. Once it’s in, you can try anything you want, but it won’t matter. You’ll watch yourself murder friends and family and go against anything you ever believed in, and you’ll do it until it gets bored and leaves, or until someone stops you. If you fight, it turns its attention to you directly and finds whatever is going to do the most damage. It’s real. So if there’s anything – anything – we can do to keep these things out, and to destroy them? We’re going to do it. I don’t care what that is.”


He got up and walked away.


One by one, the eyes of those still assembled moved to Tony. He had his chin braced in one hand, elbow resting on the arm of his chair, gaze resting on the space Steve had been in. He looked mildly stunned, which was more than anyone had expected to get from him.


/~~/


Peter, Jan and Steve spent the afternoon warding the house based on what Reed sent them, etching symbols into doorways and on the ceilings near the windows. Something Reed referred to as a simplified devil’s trap, a pentacle with additional symbols of protection drawn between the points of the star, was added with care underneath random doorways and at the top stair of any case. Once inside, demons were not supposed to be able to leave the confines of the symbol.


“Should we be, you know, screwing up the walls and architecture and stuff in here without asking Tony first?” Peter said from the ceiling.


Steve’s immediate response was low and ominous. “He wants to come up here and try saying anything about it.”


Steve asked Jarvis to look at Reed’s information and it was agreed that Jarvis could and would cause any of the symbols to be added anywhere in the house – not just the windows – as configurations of light, if necessary. Steve wasn’t sure if that would work, but Tony had said more than once that light and matter were just different aspects of the same scheme, ultimately, and not as different from each other as anyone might think.


/~~/


Tony ignored the symbols, the wards, the lore. He looked at the readings the thing had given off and began figuring a way to recognize and then counter it electromagnetically. There had to be a way of forcing them to give themselves away without waiting for them to get good and ready to do it. There had to be a way of repelling them.


Magic was not going to fix this. Superstition and paranoia were not going to keep the damn things from using their bodies like weapons. There had to be ways to turn the things on themselves without resorting to anything as ridiculous and ephemeral as hope.


/~~/


Rhodey kept staring at him.


“This is some interdimensional superhero thing, isn’t it,” he said. “They dunked you in a new formula, or displaced time or something.”


“I have no idea,” Tony said.


They were having lunch on base because Tony wanted out of the house but not bad enough to really be in public, and Rhodey was in the middle of overseeing a new batch of recruits. Tony was playing hooky; everyone thought he was down in his workshop.


Rhodey did not have the whole story on what had attacked Tony, and Tony was fine with that.


“Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you’re alive,” Rhodey said. “Because man, I’m telling you, you weren’t. I came in and said goodbye. Don’t make me do that again.”


Rhodey was the same guy who had personally looked for him for three months over hundreds of square miles of desert until it paid off, so Tony decided not to joke about it, for once.


“I just don’t know what you’re mixed up in,” Rhodey said. “Seems like somebody mixed you up in it, without you knowing, and stuff like that rarely turns out okay. You feel like yourself?”


“I feel like finding the thing that put me in the hospital, and then finding the thing that let me out, and bashing their heads together,” Tony said. He inclined his head slightly. “And then applying explosives.”


“Sounds like you.” Rhodey glanced at him again, but not as critically.


“Thanks for threatening to charge everybody with treason,” Tony said. “You know that’s my favorite.”


Rhodey grinned. “Mine, too. Anybody who leaked would have looked stupid by now, anyway.”


“You’re in my will, you know,” Tony said.


Rhodey grimaced. “Aw, don’t start that. Do you want an extra watch on the house?”


“I’ll spare the taxpayers this time,” Tony said. “I’ve got a houseful of Avengers, and that’s not changing anytime soon. I can handle this.”


An unwelcome voice in the back of his head said, liar.


/~~/


The next morning, Tony went back to New York separately from the rest of the Avengers, and went back to work as if nothing had happened. When he wasn’t in his office, he was down in the workshop that mirrored the one at the house in Malibu.


He knew they were warding Avengers Mansion just like the house in Malibu, and he didn’t care. Let them knock themselves out. If it worked, he’d be the first to cheer. But he wasn’t counting on it. None of it had worked when he’d tried to use it. He had his own recent death to prove that. He didn’t remember anything from that space between, but he’d been gone for a little while.


What he really needed was a way to track a demon down, capture it, and try a few things out. Aside from running around yelling here I am, come and get me, or waiting for one of the damn things to wander in again, it looked like his only option was to try summoning one. While he was technically curious enough to consider it, he wasn’t going to draw symbols in chalk on the floor and start up with the candles and blood and altar stuff. That was teenage Halloween bullshit.


Jesus, he hated magic.


He hadn’t stopped to try and think about how he felt about all of what had happened with Steve. That wasn’t going to do him any good. Moving forward and treating it as a solvable problem was what he knew how to do.


The demon had had no reason to tell the truth, about anything. It had used Steve to punish him for trying to get rid of it, and that was all.


That was all.


It was Carol who came down with the charm on a black leather string.


“This what all the kids are wearing now?” Tony said, glancing at it. He recognized the symbol. Anti-possession. He’d seen it in what Reed had dug up.


“Put this on, or I’ll put it on you,” she said.


“Oooh, as much as I like wrestling with you, it’s still not happening,” Tony said.


“You can pull the invincible act and pretend this is all no big deal,” she said. “And yeah, we all have targets on us on a daily basis as it is, with the business we’re in. But how much will it hurt to wear this around?”


“I’m coming up with something better,” Tony said.


“You’re scaring the shit out of Steve.”


“That’s supposed to sway me?” Tony said, finally turning from the monitors. “Steve can’t even look straight at me. But I’m not what’s scaring him, and you know it.”


“The way you’re pretending nothing happened is scaring him,” Carol said sharply. “And Jesus, Tony, it happened to him, too. You can’t humor us, a little?”


Tony stood and braced his arms against the drafting table, finally looking at her. “He’s the one avoiding me. And if one of those things wants in again, chances are, since it can throw people around by just thinking about it, then it can tear these things off pretty easily. I’m trying to be a realist, here.”


“Then draw it on yourself with Sharpie until you come up with something better,” she said.


“I suppose I could swallow it, but I’m not going after it later,” he said.


She didn’t throw anything at him, so he figured it was a good talk.


/~~/


Steve hadn’t originally planned to go to Stark Tower and just...show up. But it seemed like more neutral territory than the mansion, despite the fact that Tony would likely have his business face on. And public was out of the question. If it got emotional – and that was almost a guarantee – well, Steve didn’t want Tony getting that kind of attention brought on himself, whether Tony cared about it or not.


Security let him in with a pass once they realized who he was, and Steve already knew the way up to Tony’s office.


He heard Tony’s voice as he came down the hallway, and knew long before the words began to resolve that Tony was giving someone a hard time. It was in the cadence and tone.


“...out as plainly as plain gets,” Tony was saying into the phone as he paced. “Seriously, it’s all right there. I’m looking at it right now. The only way I can make it simpler is to redo it in Crayon. Maybe burnt sienna, I don’t know, are you colorblind? Because then I can avoid the reds and greens and browns, I’m as PC as the next guy.”


Steve tried not to smile. He was glad he didn’t work for Tony, because there was no way he’d tolerate him for very long.


There was a pause. Then, “I am. I really am. You know, if you need me to come down there and...no? C’mon, I’d love to, I can help you guys figure this out, I know you love it when I hover. I can always get a fourth grader from one of the local elementary schools and bring her down, and she can show you exactly how it works, that’s how great the schematic is. Throw a few sparkly stickers around the margins if that won’t be too distracting...no, no, c’mon, that’s...look, if your feelings are hurt, I’ll send cookies along with the fourth grader.”


He looked fine. He sounded fine. But neither thing really meant anything.


He left as quickly and quietly as he’d come.


He didn’t see Tony pause and look at the doorway as if he’d known someone was there.


/~~/


Whether by accident or design, Steve and Tony did not cross paths for three days.


Not until regular life crowded back in again when some idiot with a lot of firepower decided to threaten to raze the Museum of Natural History unless they were declared the High Emirate of something. Tony wasn’t exactly paying attention to what it was about; he was invested in getting out there after it.


“No way,” Steve said without meeting his eyes. “Sit this one out.”


Tony spread his hands. “What? What’s this?”


“Because I can tell by how you’re moving that you’re still hurt,” Steve said curtly.


“Quit looking at how I move,” Tony said. “I’m fine. C’mon, Fall Out Boy, we’re getting behind.”


Steve moved to step in front of him, face resolute, arms folded.


“Not the boss of me, Rogers,” Tony said, all pretense at amusement gone. “I’m not fragile.”


“I protect this team,” Steve said. “Including you. This isn’t enough of an emergency to pull the whole team out, and certainly not enough of one to make anyone fight while injured.”


“So now you’re pulling the overprotective crap because you couldn’t protect me before?” Tony said, but when Steve flinched, so did he, and he didn’t even try and hold his ground when Carol suddenly stepped between them and shoved him.


“Shut the hell up, Tony,” she said. “Right now. Just shut up and walk away.”


“My first instinct was to let you come along so that you didn’t get left alone,” Steve said softly.


“It’s you it’ll be back for,” Tony said. “I’m already dead, remember?”


Steve pulled his cowl up and walked away.


Carol looked at Tony like she might start yelling, but then her eyes softened before she walked away, too, and that was worse.


/~~/


After that, Tony tried several times to corner Steve, especially after Steve kept taking him off the training roster. Steve, forthright and fairly guileless but never in a naive or artless way, was dodging him. Steve, brilliant tactician and soldier, adept at stealth, was using pretty much everything at his disposal to avoid him, from what he could tell.


On one hand, Steve was likely better off. Period.


On the other hand, Tony missed him. A hell of a lot.


And it was screwing up the team because they weren’t talking.


And Steve was obviously having a really damn hard time, if it had come to the point where they couldn’t even be in the same room. He wouldn’t even look him in the eye. Tony hadn’t taken any number of chances to corner him and find out what he was really thinking, and he knew he should have. He wasn’t even completely certain that Steve remembered all of it, anyway, and –


Fine, that was bullshit. One look at Steve’s face had told Tony he remembered everything. He hadn’t needed the last team meeting to drive that point home. Steve already knew Tony didn’t blame him. He had to.


Usually, he was the one Steve always came to, to talk.


Mostly, he really missed Steve.


As stealthy as Steve could be, Tony was on home turf and capable of being awake for days without noticing.


/~~/


Steve choked to alertness, rolling to the edge of his bed and sitting up, grasping for the lamp.


The light did little to chase away the remnants of whatever had gripped him in his sleep. The taste and smell of ashes and blood, mixed with a cold so sharp that it burned, followed him into the waking world.


He left the room and checked the hallways, listened to the dark, waited for anything to feel less than secure.


And ran right into Tony.


“So, how long you gonna avoid me?”


The tone of voice was light and casual, but there was an audible demand under it.


“Until you quit chasing me,” Steve said, voice tight.


“So, this is about me,” Tony said in the same offhand voice, eyes half-lidded. “Can’t look at me because you blame me for a little of it, at least.”


“That is not true,” Steve said, hushed, looking anywhere but at Tony.


“I mean, I was the only other person there,” Tony said. “No one else to hash it out with, since we’re not able or willing to actually explain 75% of what went on to anybody else. Don’t worry, I get it. You feel guilty, and I’m a whore.”


Steve took a breath to steady himself. “This is not the time, or the place,” he said. “And that’s not how – ”


“What kind of sick freak gets off on being raped by his possessed best friend?” Tony said.


Steve grabbed him and shoved him into the wall with a fraction of the strength he could have, still mindful even in his anger that Tony was still healing. “Shut your mouth, Tony,” he whispered.


“This is what it takes to get your attention, these days,” Tony said, staring right into his eyes without blinking. In the dimmer confines of that part of the hallway, the only light came from the arc reactor, a muted blue under Tony’s shirt that made his eyes luminous.


Steve dropped his hands, realizing what he was doing.


“You’re allowed to freak out,” Tony said. “But if I’m the one telling you you’re in denial, and circling the drain, then you’re really fucked up. I don’t know how many times I gotta tell you it wasn’t your fault.”


“Not everything it said to you was a lie,” Steve hissed.


“Which things, Steve?” Tony said.


Steve ran his hands over his face and back through his hair.


Tony remained against the wall but he tilted his chin up a little. “What exactly do you think of me? Because it’s getting hard to tell.”


“None of it was real,” Steve said. “Not...it twisted everything around.”


“So you’ve thought about holding me down and fucking me,” Tony said. “Wow, great. Big deal. You forgive yourself for that, and for finally getting the chance, and I’ll forgive myself for coming on you.”


Tony watched the impact the words made when Steve flinched and took a step away.


“You wanna let that tear us apart, let that thing win because of what it got away with?” Tony said, keeping his voice low.


Steve’s rapid breathing was a response all on its own.


Tony leaned away from the wall and right into Steve’s personal space. “Then you’re a coward.”


Steve’s jaw tightened and his right hand twitched for a moment, and Tony knew without a doubt that at any other time, there would have been blows. His throat ached with the words as it was.


Steve walked away.


/~~/


“Did you try and talk to him?” Jan said when she called Tony the next morning.


“Yes,” Tony said. “It was very enlightening.”


There was a pause while she tried to process how deadpan his tone was. “That explains why the gym doesn’t have a punching bag anymore,” she said. “He...destroyed it.”


“I consider that a good sign,” Tony said. “Definitely making headway.”


“This isn’t funny,” she said. “I’ve never seen one destroyed with bare hands, before. You’re the only one who upsets him that much.”


“It’s better that he’s upset enough to destroy something than to wander around sulking,” Tony said.


There was a pointed moment of silence on the other end of the line. Then, with hesitation, she said, “You’re not having any trouble looking at him, but he’s avoiding you. So something...happened that he had nothing to do with, but maybe wanted, deep down. None of us are blind, Tony. The worship’s always gone both ways. You guys can’t just try and reason your way past this.”


“You suggest something unreasonable?” Tony said, keeping his voice carefully neutral.


She heard it. “Yeah. Finally.”


/~~/


Steve came in from walking and was grateful he didn’t encounter anyone on the way in. It was late enough for everyone else to be in bed, or at least in for the night. He doubted he was going to sleep, but he headed for his room anyway.


He didn’t notice anything at first, was half undressed when he realized the bed wasn’t empty.


Sprawled face down under the covers was Tony. Sound asleep, shirtless, hair disheveled and curling slightly at the ends, eyelashes fanned dark against still-pale skin. His hands were loosely curled and still for once.


Several thoughts landed immediately, the first being relief at just looking at him, safe and mostly whole. And of course, then there was the part about what a stubborn, presumptuous bastard Tony was and that it wasn’t fair for him to push as hard as he did. Next came the urge to leave, just turn and find somewhere else to sleep, but not Tony’s room because he never wanted to see that bed again.


The last was an urge to stay. For nothing more than to be close for a little while.


Tony was a master at forcing people’s hands, manipulating with extreme prejudice when cajoling didn’t work. But he wasn’t making a game out of this, and Steve knew it. There were times when Tony was capable of throwing off all the armor he carried around and just showing his hand. This time it was nothing more than I’m here, you can’t get rid of me.


Steve hadn’t lived through a war without figuring out how to deal with anger and guilt in ways that weren’t destructive. Or learning to back down before things went too far.


All he had to do was step back out into the hallway, turn his back and bring a final end to it. There would be no going back after that. He would be drawing the line. He could be an Avenger without sharing the same living space; find an apartment somewhere just far enough away to keep things safe but still get there if he was needed.


Then no one would be using him and Tony against each other anymore, not without some difficulty.


He wasn’t any better at lying to himself than he was to anyone else.


He left the lamp on and slid into bed, lying on his back with this hands folded behind his head, carefully staring at the ceiling. Tony breathed soft and slow beside him, undisturbed.


What surprised him was the sudden wave of longing and remorse that hit him. He rolled to his side, toward Tony, staring at his back.


I have no right to touch him.


Still, he leaned over Tony for a long moment before grabbing him by the shoulders and turning him onto his back, careful but quick. He tucked Tony in against his chest, one hand against the back of his head, tangling in his hair. He didn’t want Tony to open his eyes and panic, because it would break his damn heart.


Tony sighed and Steve felt him settle in, hands coming to rest against biceps and then down along ribs, the strangeness of a lightly bearded face nuzzling against his throat.


“Jeez, finally,” Tony said against his skin.


“How did you know,” Steve said. It was the only thing he could say. “How the hell did you know it wasn’t me, so fast, that morning?”


“I know you,” was all Tony said. He wrapped a hand in the front of Steve’s shirt.


They slept that way, held in close to each other, safe against the dark.


/~~/


“So, what really happened?” Tony said.


Steve had tried to get up to go jogging at dawn, and his attempt at escape was met with a tangle of legs and Tony very much in his personal space. They ended up sitting with backs propped against the headboard, shoulder to shoulder. Steve didn’t encourage it or try and get away; he let Tony dictate it. Tony was so damn warm, and the previous night had been the first without a nightmare since the demon had taken him over.


“I was dead,” Tony said. “I hacked all the hospital records before I even left. Essentially brain dead, massive internal injuries, mortal coil mostly shuffled. It was like I’d been dropped out of a plane. One of you was going to unplug me, am I right?”


“I really, really don’t want to – ”


“And then suddenly I’m not all that dead, so, don’t tell me if it was magic. I mean, obviously, it was magic, so just tell me who, because I’m sure there’s a price, and I can go kick their ass for getting involved anyway.”


“It wasn’t magic,” Steve said. “But I don’t think you’ll like it any better. You have to listen, though, or I won’t tell you.”


Tony cocked his head back and raised his eyebrows.


“Don’t interrupt me,” Steve said. “Let me tell the whole thing, because no one else knows, and it’s up to you how much anybody else finds out. We’ll have to tell at least part of the team, especially since the demon said it would be back. But not everyone has to be in on...the rest of it.”


Tony stared at him, waiting without comment for once.


It wasn’t as hard to tell as Steve had thought it would be. The weary looking man in the trench coat, the suggestion of blame, the insistence that they would be called upon to stop the damage from going further.


When he was done, Tony slid out of the bed and went to the windows, back turned. “When were you going to tell me?” he said softly, all flippancy gone.


“When you asked,” Steve said. “You wouldn’t have been ready to hear it, otherwise.”


“Do you really think...it was an angel?”


Steve wasn’t sure if what he heard in Tony’s voice was hope, dread, or both. “I think it was the opposite of the demon,” he said. “Maybe you don’t have to believe in angels the way they’re portrayed, but...the demon was real. I’d prefer to think angels were real, too.”


“So now I’m, what, in debt to this thing?” Tony said. The uncertainty had been replaced with a hint of outrage. “I opened a seal, and now I have to go running whenever this thing shows up again?”


“He didn’t say exactly that,” Steve said, rising. “And I never got the idea that he meant to blackmail us over it. He...said it was hard to find people who were as capable of keeping the seals closed.”


‘I don’t believe in any of this shit,” Tony said, turning, eyes hooded with annoyance.


Steve shrugged. “It believes in you.”


When Tony paled, Steve reflected that it might not have been the best thing to say. But it was the truth.


“I don’t owe some harp-playing wannabe anything just because a demon got me to blow up a rock,” Tony said. “Heaven and hell can figure themselves out, I’m not getting in the middle of this.”


He left the room.


Steve looked at the ceiling for a moment, gathered his patience, then followed.


/~~/


Peter watched Tony come out of Cap’s room shirtless and in sweats, looking disheveled, and pretended he hadn’t seen it. He just simply went back to getting ready for work. That meant proceeding to the kitchen to get coffee, and not assuming anything about anything, and just blanking his mind. MJ was in the main room watching the morning news, and the news was very very interesting. Interesting enough to focus on to the exclusion of all else. Something about a dog show.


Cap came out a moment later, looking chagrined, but he smiled at Peter all the same and followed him into the kitchen.


Peter tried to keep a surreptitious eye on both of them, looking for signs of...things he didn’t want to know. Apparently they were no longer avoiding each other. Or Cap was no longer avoiding Tony. Whatever, it wasn’t his business. They seemed fine.


MJ came out for more coffee, kissed him, and sat at the kitchen table to watch Tony barely get coffee out of the pot before he practically inhaled it. Cap was leaning against the counter by the oven, staring at Tony, looking like he wanted to say something but was waiting for someone else to break the silence.


“Well, we’re sleeping together,” Tony said.


Peter’s coffee came out his nose and mouth and sprayed across the table. While he choked, MJ divided her attention between patting him on the back, grabbing for napkins, and gaping at Tony in open shock.


Tony leaned away from the display, eyebrows raised, palms outward. “But, it’s just sleeping, in this case.”


MJ finally started to laugh. Peter tried very hard to stop drowning in coffee and to make sure he didn’t look at anyone else in the room while he wheezed for air.


“Are you gonna make it?” Tony asked him.


Unable to answer and not wanting to anyway, Peter kept coughing as he got up and left the table to go change his shirt. MJ kept laughing.


“Is he traumatized, now?” Peter heard Tony say to MJ. “Because if he is, that still doesn’t mean he gets out of training.”


“I may be a little traumatized,” Cap said, but he didn’t sound mad, just exasperated.


/~~/


Tony didn’t pull the same stunt again. The next move had to be Steve’s, if there was any move to be made, and they both knew it.



/~~/ /~~/ /~~/

Part III