“How are you feeling today, Tony?”
“That’s not what I asked, but I’m glad to hear it.”
Tony looks out the window to his left, through the snake plant and the aloe. It’s still outside, frosty and blue. Windless winter days are eerie; they warn of storms. He hasn’t been warm in a while.
“Tell me about your week,” Samson says. He shifts in his seat, the rustling of the paper on his pant leg is a familiar sound. Tony has been to enough therapists in his life to know that they simulate a routine. Routine is important; it makes people feel safe.
“You never feel safe,” Steve says.
“Normal,” Tony answers.
“That either,” replies Steve just as Samson says, “mind elaborating for me?”
Tony looks away from the window, the records swim across his field of vision.
“Thirty-four successful missions, seven failed; but no major injuries. No deaths. The president is pleased. Secretary Kooning isn’t. Maria smiled at me twice. Normal,” recites Tony.
“Normal is good, I’m glad nothing has gone amiss. How’s your sleep?” Samson edges, cautiously.
Extremis buzzes under Tony’s skin.
“I don’t sleep.”
Samson hums. He’s too professional to sound judgmental, but Steve isn’t.
“Farewell humanity, my old friend.”
Steve is lounging on the couch to Tony’s right, head slanted back, spread like a king on a throne, with uncaring grace. He isn’t in uniform. He looks proper, ironed blue shirt, neat hair, even his nails are filed and clean where they sit next to Tony’s shoulder on the back of the couch. It’s almost worse when he doesn’t have the bullet scars, when he doesn’t look dead. Tony keeps forgetting for one part of a second, and it’s the hope that does it; the minuscule moment of oblivion that shatters on the edge of logic and reason.
“That doesn’t sound healthy. Your mind needs a reprieve.” Samson sounds pleasant, kind in his worry, he sounds like a friend. “I know Extremis regulates your brain activity, but I do think you should take time to rest.”
Tony won’t sleep, he has too much work to do and too many ghosts to allow to roam. He nods at Samson. Steve flicks Tony’s ear with a small snort.
“I need to ask you a few difficult questions. I apologize for being direct, I know this isn’t easy for you,” Samson says.
Tony doesn’t cringe, although he wants to. He wishes he had the armor on, but psych evals with a physical shield between himself and the therapist tend to raise a few eyebrows.
“Have you, in the past month since our last check in, suspected you were seeing, or hearing things that were not real?”
“Do tell,” Steve says with exaggerated curiosity.
“No,” Tony lies. Steve laughs, loud, boisterous, and jagged like broken glass.
“Are you sure, Tony?” Samson asks gently. His pen is flicking on the paper, he isn’t rude enough to be doing it consciously, but Tony is getting on his nerves. Tony wonders how much ground professional boundaries cover. “I’m on your side. I know you don’t want to lose this job, but your health is more important than Shield.”
“Please say no, please say no, please say no,” Steve mocks.
Tony knows, somewhere deep within his logic circuits, that Steve never spoke to him like this, that this ghost-image is a failed imitation at best. He wonders where the fuck it comes from, where in his addled mind did he make up a Steve so childishly cruel and unforgiving.
“I am not lying,” Tony lies.
Samson sighs after a pause and continues, “All right, have you, in the past month since our last check in, had thoughts of harming yourself?”
Steve laughs again.
“No,” Tony replies absently. It isn’t a lie. Tony never intends to hurt himself, he doesn’t like pain, physical or mental, he never enjoys it. He thinks about the piece of his ankle that sits in a freezer in his lab. Hurting himself always ends up being the best solution, that’s all.
“Do you know what day it is?”
“February third,” Tony answers without pause, voice completely steady.
Samson nods, and notes something down. “How are you coping with the anniversary?” he asks.
Steve leans into Tony’s ear and bites at the cartilage. His breath is very real on Tony’s skin. Tony wants to scream, or cry, or just close his eyes and never have to feel anything but this ever again.
How is he coping? How is he coping?
“I think you’re doing a solid job, really,” Steve mocks.
“How do you expect me to reply to that exactly? I’m vindicated, triumphant! so I’m fine? I’m sad but determined to make most of this? What answer sounds the most stable to you?” Tony hisses.
“Oh, no need to strain yourself, that one was plenty stable,” Steve laughs.
“You sound frustrated. Take your time, would you like some water?” Samson is eerily calm, but Tony knows he has erred. He’s usually better at this. He’s usually not on such a short fuse. He rubs a hand over his face.
“Thank you. I know today is hard, would you like to tell me how you feel? It might help.” Samson’s question is kind, he is calm and professional in the face of Tony’s grief.
Tony stares. There is a painting behind Samson on the wall, shades of red splashed on it with rough brushstrokes; Tony thinks that he meant to decorate his office to go with his hair, but it looks like a crime scene instead.
Sorrow unimaginable. I feel like it was worthless. I feel like I want to die too. I feel like the world should be silent because he can’t make sound anymore. I feel like it was everyone’s fault. I feel loss. I feel guilt. Guilt. Guilt.
“Mournful. He was my friend,” he finishes.
“That’s very understandable.” Samson nods, and then after a pause, he continues on a new question: “Have you-” but Tony interrupts.
“Can we do this tomorrow?”
Samson’s mouth purses.
“All right, let’s stop for today.” Samson doesn’t look too pleased, but he does smile.
“Thank you for your time, Leonard,” Tony hears himself say on his way to the door.
“I’m glad you seem to be doing better, Tony,” Samson says from his seat. Tony nods once then moves to go. “Oh, and Tony?” Samson adds and then gets up and walks over to Tony. “I’m very sorry for your loss,” he says.
“Thank you,” Tony hears his voice answer robotically. He shakes hands with Samson and walks out.
“I love this,” Steve says. He’s walking beside Tony now, hands in his pocket, a contemptuous bounce to his step so utterly foreign to who Steve was that Tony wants to hit him. Steve stops to gasp exaggeratedly. “It’s my death anniversary . Nobody called, how tragic. Is this your aha moment? Will the narrative transform you from sad, lonely man into generous friend and good leader? Or, oh, gosh! Perhaps it will turn you into a dead man instead. Tragedies do take an audience by surprise.”
“Shut up,” Tony snaps.
“Oh great. Now, you’re talking to your ghost. Super healthy.”
Tony rubs fingers on the bridge of his nose, then accesses the security tape of his outburst and deletes it before Maria can come into his office with more evidence of his ‘emotional instability’.
“Classy, and illegal,” comments Steve. Tony sighs.
It’s a problem of code, he thinks. His brain must be malfunctioning, there is no other answer that makes sense. There is a rogue code tormenting him with his failure and it’s wearing Steve’s face. He’s a scientist and he designed himself into a superior state of life. He can control the firing of neurons in his own brain. He can connect to the world in the blink of an eye. Tony has made it so he is never alone. Even now, he is listening to three news stations, two podcasts and reading the major newspapers at a glance inside his own head. He has woven himself into the fabric of humanity.
Tony refuses to believe it’s mental illness.
He debates going to his office, checking on the active missions, ignoring his mandated day off, but as he thinks about walking the length of the helicarrier, opening his door and sitting in his chair for hours on end, reading over reports of the dead and the missing and all the evil this world throws at itself, all the evil he’s now helping perpetrate, he feels so bone-tired that he wants to reverse the Extremis sleep algorithm and sleep for an eternity.
He finds himself at the door of his bedroom instead. Steve still by his side, checking his cuticles as if he can be bored.
He gets into his bed. The sheets are cold, so he writes a code to fix that and then he can no longer feel their temperature at all.
Happy used to bring him doughnuts when he’s sunk this deep into depression. The sugary taste that fills his mouth unbidden is artificial and unsatisfying. He deletes the rogue code snippet - ‘memory > want > receive’ - and wants to sob into his pillow like a child.
“Remember last year, before the war?” Steve says. His voice is closer now, he’s probably sitting on the bed, but Tony doesn’t open his eyes. “When I ate you out for an hour and made you come with one finger? You howled so loud that Logan actually came knocking on our door. Damn, that was good.”
Tony’s chest feels hollow.
“It should be a tradition, you said. Your tongue is divine, Steve , you said. Do you remember? My hands holding you still and my mouth taking you until you were actually shaking?” Steve whispers, low and dark.
Tony swallows, his cock stirs.
“You’re thinking about it right now, aren’t you? Of course you are. Are you gonna touch yourself, Tony?” Steve is so close now, Tony can feel his breath on the shell of his ear. And he does. Fuck. It’s been so long.
Tony feels himself slipping down the headboard, arranging himself slowly against the pillows -- left side of his torso supported slightly more on them, his chest wide and open for deep breaths. There are habits that one never recovers from, not even with a brand new heart.
Steve hums and it tickles Tony’s skin.
There is a distant alarm in his head labeled Enabling A Delusion and it screams for him to snap out of this. He ignores it and sinks under the waves of Steve’s breath, alive and warm, on him. It’s just for a moment. One act of indulgence-- let him feel human again. No man can live on regrets and heartache.
He slides a hand into his uniform pants and wraps it around his soft cock. He imagines Steve on his right, body towering and large on the bed, following Tony’s movement with his eyes, intense on every muscle twitch and every intake of breath. He thinks about how easy it would be to erase the memories of the real Steve neuron by neuron from his brain, and then open his eyes and look at the ghost and believe him.
“Hey, shhh,” shushes Steve in his ear, and then Tony feels a touch on his hair, and he lets out a gasp and opens his eyes. “Come on, now, don’t fuck it up, Tony. It’s tradition!” Steve says and spreads his arms wide. Tony already misses the fingers in his hair like a limb.
“Show me,” Steve demands. So, Tony obeys.
He lowers the black fabric just enough to expose himself and moves his hand slowly, carefully over his cock. It’s been so long, the sensation is almost foreign. The firing of signals from his pleasure centers feels alien in his body rife with wounds and bruises.
They should have done this before, Tony thinks. Steve never experimented with how far Tony would let him push. Steve never realized how much more of himself Tony was willing to give. Tony would have done anything for him.
Too bad he never earned the same loyalty from Steve, he thinks, and almost cries, angry, burning tears that would melt his skin and eat him whole.
Instead, he strokes his dick in his own dry palm and directs his thoughts towards birthdays past, towards traditions, and days before the end.
He thinks Steve would have liked watching. Visual stimulation for his artististic eye. Steve would have set him up with a backdrop of red and blue sheets and stripped him until he lay, naked and vulnerable to be consumed by hungry eyes. Steve would have made him wait and painted him as he did it. There was a beauty to Steve’s restraint and discipline that Tony could never reach, so, Steve would have tied him up in it and observed, infected Tony with his ideals, corroded him with time and need, until Tony was right, was good.
The Steve he has left perches at the end of the bed and watches. Tony’s dick hardens in his hand under that gaze.
Steve sneers. “You were always a masochist, it’s almost endearing,” he says. “I do like seeing you like this, though. You make pain look elegant.”
Tony’s cock twitches and leaks in his hand at the words. He cradles the head in his palm and gasps at the spark of pleasure. He starts stroking himself in earnest. He feels his back arch off the bed a bit. God, he had almost forgotten the range of sensations his body was even capable of. It’s like waking up from a thousand years of sleep.
“Slow down, Tony,” Steve orders. Tony’s hand slows by its own accord and he hates himself for how much he loves this man. “Good, now tighter.” Steve’s voice is dark and hungry. Tony squeezes around himself and hears his harsh breathing filling the room.
A snapping sound. Tony looks. Steve does it again with two fingers, and then again, and again, in timed intervals. “That’s your rhythm, Tony. Now, show me.” Tony blinks, but he does it, he slows down and follows Steve. Up, snap. Down, snap. Like a trained pet.
He loses himself in the repetition, in the sharp sounds and the sensations on his skin. It’s mindless pleasure, so serene he wants to cocoon himself inside it and make a home there, outside of time. He runs a thumb over the head of his cock on every pass, his breath hitches at it every time, and soon enough, his movements are lubricated with pre-come and he’s fucking into his palm with the same rhythm as his strokes.
“Isn’t it curious how easily your guilt slips away when you get your fix, Tony?” Steve asks suddenly, his voice low and cutting.
Tony’s thread of pleasure snaps at the words. His hand stops moving. He wants to scream. The shame is about to swallow him. How dare he use Steve like this? How dare he feel frustration at the ghost’s words instead of stopping this disturbing charade of violation? Steve would be repulsed by him.
“No, I didn’t say you can stop,” Steve says, he punches the bed with one hand, startling Tony. His fingers don’t stop snapping. Tony breathes for a moment and then resumes his movements, but the current of endorphin has been cut, and Tony only feels ghosts of it running in his veins.
“You’re not mourning me at all, you do realize this, yes? Don’t stop!” Steve snaps. Tony closes his eyes against the barbs and the shame and strokes himself to their rhythm. “See,” Steve continues. “I think that you’re all fucked up because you lost, and now you don’t get to have me. Sad little Tony Stark, always wanted love. It’s really a tragedy how often you throw yourself off the wrong cliff for it.” Steve hums and moves up the bed to plant his fingers in Tony’s hair again. Tony doesn’t cry, but it’s a near thing.
“Did you think you were going to get to keep me after the war, Tony? Did you think you’d sneak into my prison bunk and cuddle? Or did you think you'd snap your fingers and get me out, director?” Steve waits a breath, playing with Tony’s hair in the meantime -- it isn’t him, it isn’t him. This is absurd. Tony’s brain is torturing him. Tony’s brain is malfunctioning. He needs to stop. He needs to troubleshoot and recalibrate before he ends up with a catastrophe… but, Steve’s fingers are in his hair. Fuck. “It’s fine, you don’t have to answer.” Steve finishes.
The snapping speeds up, and Tony’s hand with it. He’s on the edge of something, probably orgasm but his chest hurts too, he feels flayed open by it, dangling by the tips of his fingers over something dark and terrible. He hears his own sobs in his ear. Fuck, he didn’t mean to cry. How pathetic.
Steve starts humming a tune that Tony doesn’t recognize, so he listens to the voice that he loves more than anything and strokes himself to the tender note of it.
His orgasm rips out of him and leaves him open, spent. He sits in silence for a long moment, drying come on his hand and stomach, his body shaking imperceptibly.
“Oh, you did need that, didn’t you. Good. Consider it a bereavement gift,” the ghost says.
There are a million thoughts running through Tony’s head, none of them tangible. He sits on his bed, crying, his chest pulsing in the tempo of onset panic, and doesn’t know how he’ll continue living like this. There are a thousand anniversaries in his future and every one of them feels like a stab to his heart.
“What are you?” He whispers at Steve.
“Oh, Tony. I’m a figment of your imagination,” Steve says, softly.
Tony finds himself playing a game of ‘would you rather’ with his fate. A bug or Insanity. A bug or Insanity. A bug or insanity. On a loop in his head.
Steve smiles at him.