In [Paradise Lost] Milton imagines Hell as a Chaos. The demonic city of Pandemonium rises from the flames on a lake of fire as the fallen clamber in a loud, chattering army under that indomitable Satan who’d rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
Dante’s Hell by contrast is Ordered; its nine circles separated by retaining walls and gatekeepers, each sin compartmentalized and ranked. Satan squats in the inmost circle, a grotesque beast trapped in a lake of ice.
Which Devil the reader finds more frightening thus depends on their belief of the nature of Evil. Which do you fear more: that evil is somewhere out there, restless and free? Or that it is exactly where you left it, waiting?
— A Tale of Two Satans
Steve was on fire. His charred skin sloughed off in black flakes like bark off a tree, exposing raw nerve endings to the inferno to be instantly cauterized. The flames hogged all the air so the screams echoing in his head were trapped there. His tears evaporated before they left his lidless eyes. He could not remember why or who or how. Every bit of him convulsed in burning agony but something deep within him wouldn’t thaw. He didn’t want it to.
Steve shivered. The ice held.
And then there was Reed with an exhausted smile on his face. “Welcome back.”
Steve lurched upright to stare down at his burning limbs and found nothing but skin. The grey sky was now the dull concrete ceiling of the Baxter medical lab. Any heat he felt was imagined but Steve still might have screamed had the cool air not stolen his voice as readily as the flames.
Reed had already stretched himself away. “It’s been four days since your battle with the Celestials. You gave us quite a scare.”
The phantom sensation of burning retreated to a tingle under Steve’s skin. He looked down at his chest and instead of a Cursed wound there was only a pink line held together with staples.
Reed took pity. “You should go back to sleep.”
Where’s Tony?” Steve’s words came out rough and raspy as if the fire had burnt their edges. He could still smell the smoke.
A shadow at the threshold of the lab paused, not daring to come closer. Steve deliberately averted his eyes. He didn’t trust either of them. The distance between them may have well have been an ocean.
“Do you remember?” Steve croaked as the last of the inferno bled out of him leaving only ashes and ice behind.
The shadow hesitated at the familiar refrain. “Yes.”
Steve stared up at the grey ceiling and remembered a hell of their own making. He loaded the single word with contempt as he pushed it through his teeth, aimed like a weapon:
In the Ether, in the beginning, there had been a castle and a wound.
From the parapet of stone Steve had looked out over their empty kingdom. The meadows of brilliant green rippled in the non-existent breeze. The sky was an unnatural crystal blue the exact shade of Steve’s uniform and the sun was nothing more than a topaz gemstone hung at high noon. The moon, when Tony remembered to call down the night, was a translucent pearl on dark navy velvet. Steve took no credit for the landscape, Tony was in charge these days. They could not sleep in the Ether, they could not dream. They could only create and so Tony had built them a home: this castle, this meadow, this sky.
Steve spent most of his time in the castle, in the dungeons, trying to claw himself into a grave.
Today Tony had insisted Steve take a walk with him under the fake sun as if it weren’t just as artificial as the plot Steve had dug. There was still dirt under his fingernails. Tony was walking the top of the parapet in bare feet, balanced like a gymnast between the crenollations. Steve wondered if Tony was self-aware enough to notice his own mental state unraveling or if he was too preoccupied with Steve’s to notice.
“It’s beautiful,” Tony said gazing outward, like this place hadn’t been beautiful since the beginning.
A pulse of pain flared across Steve’s chest. The Cursed wound bled red through his white chemise as the Ether rushed to smother the pain, dulling it to a faint persistent whisper in his ear, like a breeze that never died down. It whispered things Steve already knew: that he should be dead already. That this wasn’t life, it was a waking nightmare before oblivion and Tony held the only key to the exit.
“I want to go home,” Steve pleaded, not for the first time.
Tony stopped pretending to smile. He hunched like a gargoyle on top of the parapet, beautiful and grotesque. “You’ll die.”
“I know.” The only flaw in this paradise was in Steve; in the oozing wound that stung and reminded him that mortals were never meant to live without death. “Send me back. Please.”
Tony twisted in anger and his beauty became monstrous. “No. I’m not helping you commit suicide, Steve. Fuck! Really?”
Steve blinked at the unchanging view. The wound snarled. “I’m not going to make it. I’d rather go on my own terms.”
“Of course you’re going to make it!” Tony snapped. Steve had no doubt about his mortal body, it was his soul that was wearing thin. Tony’s voice softened. “Just a bit longer, Cap. I’m not killing you and you’re not dying. Reed and T’Challa will have us out soon.”
He’s lying, sang the soft breeze. You have all the time in the world.
“Hey,” Tony whispered, his hands cupping Steve’s face, eyes searching his. “I love you. I’m not leaving you.”
Tony plummeted off the parapet soon after that. He hit the ground with a faint thud, legs sprawled on impact. The first death in paradise. It was an ugly sight: the fractured limbs clashing with the perfection around it. Steve was well and truly alone for the first time in a long, long while. He had stared at the body for ages before going down. There was no rush, he had all the time in the world.
When Tony had woken up not-dead, no one had been more surprised than Steve. Not even Tony, who hadn’t remembered any of it.
The Avengers threw Steve and Tony a Welcome Back party at the Mansion. The potluck table was laden with the offerings of busy people with unpicky palates. Sam had made meatballs, Jess had brought cookies. Glad you’re not Dead! hung from a giant banner as if death was the worst outcome any of them could imagine.
“Are you alright?” Sam asked shrewdly once Steve had made his rounds.
Steve was finally home, surrounded by his friends, utterly alone. “Where’s Tony?”
“Seattle. Business. He said you could use a break from him.” Sam raised an eyebrow. “He didn’t mention it?”
“No.” Steve hadn’t wanted to see him but instead of relief all he felt was old familiar anger. It was just one more decision Tony had taken out of Steve’s hands and had made unilaterally for them both. “Probably a good idea.”
“Hey man, I get it, a million years in that place with only Stark for company. I get why you’d need space. Eventually he would have driven me nuts too.”
Steve stared into his flat coke. “It got bad,” he confessed, “there were times I could have killed him.”
He held his breath, waiting. Jess snorted, Sam slapped him on the back. The rest of the team didn’t bat an eye. They didn’t know. Nobody did. The man who had gone into the Ether had come back as something else. He’d struck a bargain with the devil he’d found there and the price he’d paid for his mortal life was his soul. What had clawed out was a monster restrained solely by whim and a bright white star; a beast lying in wait for the fool who ventured too close across thin ice.
Tony had been right to run. It was he who had woken it in the first place.
In the Ether, time had been an internal construct. Without consistent physics or physiological cues the hours deformed like plasticine and the days followed suit. Keeping track had been a fool’s errand so they had simply given in and surrendered to the madness of endless existence.
“You’re late.” Carol was frowning at him, arms crossed. “You’re never late.”
That had been true before. It had been true in the Ether as well. This was after.
Here time flowed like water. It was a ticking metronome in the back of Steve’s mind and the constant drip lent itself to a different kind of madness. He wouldn’t suffer it. He kept irregular days: thirty-two hours, then twenty-nine, then thirty-four. The sun rose and fell and Steve didn’t notice. Keeping the days had been Tony’s job.
Carol’s eyes narrowed. “Have you eaten?”
Steve tried to remember. “Not yet.”
Hunger and thirst were unwanted intrusions; barely recognized. His stomach rumbled when he forgot to eat which was often. Sometimes he skipped meals deliberately to punish his body for surrendering to the marching orders of time. For all his lapses, his muscle tone never lessened, his skin never sallowed. The Cursed wound hadn’t even left a scar. There were no dark circles under his eyes to betray the long stretches he spent awake, patiently waiting for Tony’s return so their two-step could recommence.
“Have you slept?”
Steve avoided sleep. In the Ether it had been all he’d wished for and now it tempted him with its ease. Beckoned him to abandon the waking world for a dreamscape made of nightmares. He walked the city at night instead. The looming buildings hemmed him in on all sides and the air was filled with the rumbling noise of a dormant civilization awaiting the bugle call of the Reveille. The modern artifice of glass architecture reminded him not one whit of the infinite, open landscapes of Hell.
He had walked a lot in the Ether. He had traced out the boundaries, following the seams far off into the horizon as they curved ever so slightly in their perfect geometry. Nine circles, one encompassing the other, all them holding within wonders that flickered between horrific and beautiful in the eye of the beholder. He’d always returned to the same spot he’d started.
“Where do you go at night?” Bucky asked carefully one night when Steve came back.
The worry slid over Steve and left no impression. “Nowhere.”
There was no destination, there was only the space in between.
Bucky insisted on accompanying him and Steve didn’t object. Bucky took up Tony’s role as Steve’s permanent shadow and night after night Steve threaded them through the grid-like street of Manhattan, trying to find the gentle curve of his memories. The moon hung like a pearl above the harbour as Steve traced out the borders of his new prison, each nested one within the other.
Circles, circles, circles, and the awful number nine.
“Dreams tell us a lot about ourselves,” Wanda was saying, “What we fear. What we hope for.”
When Steve slept he did not dream, he remembered. He killed by deceit, by blunt force, by drowning. It was never difficult, not physically at least. Not with Tony who trusted him every single time. Steve had tried to be merciful, even after Tony had denied him peace time and time again. Tony had been the principal architect of the Ether, the man with the key, but he swore he’d die before releasing that secret. Steve had simply carried out the sentence.
The punishment never lasted. Death did not exist in Hell. There was no reprieve in the act of killing the enemy and no final damnation for the betrayal of a friend. Steve would sit with the body afterward and the Curse in his ears would die down to a rumble. Then Tony would wake, immaculate, eyes wide in perfect wonder. He’d make promises with utter sincerity and trip over himself to ease Steve’s discomfort. But those stretches of amnesia - of innocence - never lasted. Tony always remembered eventually. If the words existed that would have convinced Tony to let him go, Steve never found them. The final say was Tony’s and it was always No, I’m sorry, I love you.
Steve was never himself after that.
“I dream about the Ether,” Steve admitted and he congratulated himself on saying ether instead of hell.
“What was it like?” Wanda asked, curious. “I heard you built a world.”
“Tony did. I just lived there.”
The Ether held on to what each of them tried to forget. The bountiful meadows gradually withered as if an illness spread through the soil, leaching life from their roots until only mud or desert remained. The rivers were poisoned by blood and rust. The sun and moon abdicated; replaced by an indifferent grey cloud. Their castle was abandoned and the stones worn down to ruins. Reminders of death piled up around them: broken gravestones and mass graves. The sky rained cold fire as their world rearranged itself into nine concentric rings. The Ether was no longer a kingdom but a prison, and at the very centre Tony built them a new home: a frozen saltwater lake, Steve’s first grave.
And yet, “It was beautiful.”
It had been.
Tony had made their Hell a marvel and Steve could never forgive him for that.
Steve climbed into Captain America’s uniform like it was the rotting, discarded skin of a man who had been eaten long ago, still warm on the inside. Superheroics were a fantastic cover for violence. No one noticed how angry Steve was because the people he hit were on the other side. He ran in the Avengers in a tight pattern across the Hydra Compound and put himself at the fore, dispensing the low-level goons left and right without a thought. He wondered how many he could get away with killing before he lost the benefit of the doubt. If, like Tony, the team would trust him forever, their memories conveniently excising every deviation from sainthood.
“You’re too late, Avengers!” Sin crowed from the balcony above the melee. “In a few minutes I’ll have freed my father and you will all pay!”
“We should have guessed,” Spider-man yelled as he dodged gunfire, “Zombie Red Skull is, like, the centre square on my Hydra bingo card.”
Steve lept over the railing to face Sin and she turned, waiting for her cue. He was meant to call out that it was all over, that the Avengers had already stopped her plot and it was time to step down and come quietly. But this time Steve didn’t want her to come quietly. He wanted a reason. He let the silence stretch.
Sin’s tongue darted out to lick her thin lip and Steve was struck by her utter ridiculousness. He pitied her shallow, zealous evil. She was a Halloween costume; with her cartoonish red skull face and her parroted ideas. Her father could arouse the beast in men but his daughter had no such talent, only paid lapdogs. Steve had seen the face of evil and none of them wore her unfortunate visage.
She launched herself at him and Steve was waiting. He caught her by the throat, fingers squeezing automatically as she dangled from his outstretched arm. The toes of her leather boots made scritching sounds where they grazed the floor as she tried and failed to alleviate the strain. Sin was enhanced, she wouldn’t die. The act would have killed an ordinary human. It had. And it hadn’t. Because Tony was still out there, breathing. Alive and five thousand miles away because he hadn’t answered his Avengers alert, because now of all times Tony had decided to be merciful.
Sin stopped struggling and Steve dropped her to her knees and dutifully bound her hands behind her. She kept silent, studying Steve with a bowed head. Her eyes were so black he could see his own reflection staring back. He felt seen. He wondered if what she saw frightened her as much as it had frightened him.
The church next door was engulfed in flames and all the occupants were safely outside by the time Steve made his way over. Firetrucks had arrived and streams of water did nothing to dampen the raging inferno. The fire ate and ate and ate. The white paneling of the church became black with soot. The winds funneled the flames into a pillar reaching for the sky. The smoke rose as if the Holy Spirit too was evacuating the place. The roof collapsed piecewise, each crash causing fresh ashes and embers to kick up and rain down like fireworks.
The survivors were huddled under blankets as onlookers pointed and cried. They couldn’t see what Steve saw. The focal point glowing orange against the stunning landscape: the cerulean sea set behind, the manicured green lawn, the magenta of twilight, the raining fire, the absolute destruction. On the way into SHIELD custody, Sin looked back and smiled. She saw it too.
“ - Cap?”
“Yes?” Steve tore his eyes away, the saturated colours imprinted onto his retinas. “What is it, Jen?”
“Time to go. Are you okay?”
“Of course,” Steve said tightly.
He looked back at the fire only once and again the word came unbidden: Beautiful.
The next day Tony was interviewed on Seattle morning TV. He pledged the funds to rebuild the church in Virginia and thanked the Avengers for arriving in time to stop further damage. He mentioned Carol and Jennifer by name. He didn’t mention Steve at all. The interview lasted eight minutes and fourteen seconds. Steve knew because he’d watched it over and over again on mute so he wouldn’t be distracted by seductive words. He’d searched Tony’s face for evidence. He wanted confirmation that Tony’s sins had crossed with him from the Ether into this world too.
But there was nothing. On the screen Tony had been glorious in technicolour: fashionable and charming and untouchable. He’d smiled, lower lip curling slightly upward, a calculated ploy to draw his mark in. The interviewer leaned closer, unable and unwilling to resist the promise of more. For a moment Tony’s eyes flicked towards the camera and Steve had thought maybe Tony could see him. See how easily they believe, they seemed to say. On screen, his lips moved in a mute coup de grace and the interviewer reared back, her face convulsing in silent delight. Tony leaned back, a satisfied smile on his face.
Steve had seen that smile before. Tony had laid dying, triumphant and evil and beautiful, in his arms. He’d denied Steve’s pleas for release and then he’d denied Steve his retribution. Tony had always been inventive: he’d splintered a femur from the boneyard and found his own brachial arteries. Now warm blood ran down them both as Steve clutched him in his lap. La Pieta, plagiarized and perverted.
Steve had tried to save him. They both wondered why.
“Tony - ” Steve had murmured desperately as blood leaked through his fingers. “ - you can’t leave me. Don’t - “
“I won’t,” Tony had whispered, raising a bloody hand to trace Steve’s cheek. “I can’t. I love you.”
“No you don’t,” Steve had snapped, hot tears leaking down his face, “otherwise you’d let me go.“
Tony had weakly raised his head, lips trembling next to Steve’s ear only to croon: “Maybe next time.”
Then he’d smiled that satisfied smile and something icy in Steve had cracked. His grip slackened as he let Tony slip to the ground. Tony had bled out slowly, the greedy mud drinking it in. The blood would water the seed of a tree. It hadn’t been Tony’s first suicide nor the last, and by the end he’d made a forest of them. He’d hanged himself from handmade nooses, he’d drowned himself under the frozen lake. He’d once found the courage plunge into the boiling tar pit. He escaped into amnesia before Steve could send him there. Before Steve could kill him.
Which one of them Tony had sought to spare was unclear and irrelevant. Neither of them escaped.
It was unusual for Steve to attend mass on Sunday. He sat in a pew at the back of the vaunted cathedral and tried to find comfort in the familiar prayers or the simple presence of people gathered for worship. The children shifted in their seats, trying to hurry the sermon along. Half the adults followed suit. The priest’s sermon today was on Community Acceptance and Steve wondered when fire and brimstone went out of fashion. If Rome still taught that the Devil had horns and a forked tongue or if they imagined beautiful fallen Lucifer with blackened wings. If they warned you of that most magnificent of his lies: I love you.
Hell is the absence of God, Father McKenzie once told him when Steve had still believed in priests.
In fact, Hell was a half-baked compromise. Steve split the difference with an atheist and ended up in Dante’s Inferno. God couldn’t find him in the Ether, His Word hadn’t mattered. Tony’s did.
“Are you waiting for confession?” Father Lupuado asked discreetly.
The wooden confessional reminded Steve of a coffin as he climbed into the dark. “Forgive me, Father. It has been… a long time.”
“What’s on your mind?”
I lied. I committed murder, fraud, sodomy, treachery. I killed a man over and over and I took from his body what was offered in innocence. He won anyways. Didn’t have his own memories half the time but he won. And if I see him again I’m worried I’ll kill him to make sure it sticks. I’m worried I’m going to kill myself just to make his victory worthless.
Suicide, Father Lupuado might have reminded him, is a sin.
Suicide is a forest, Steve would have corrected. Murder is a plain of cairns. Betrayal is a frozen lake. Any divine Hell would be disappointing compared to the magnificence they had crafted themselves.
“I’m not the man I thought I was,” he confessed instead. “I’m not who I used to be, who I’m supposed to be. And no one knows.”
The confessional creaked. “Aren’t you forgetting someone?”
Steve closed his eyes. It felt like blasphemy to say his name in a sacred place. “Tony.”
The priest paused. “I meant God, my son. He knows you, and if you find it in your heart to repent, all can and will be forgiven.”
Steve lay back in his wooden coffin. “That’s just it, I’m not sure I want to be.”
The tipping point came in the form of a visitor. Steve had been lunching outside the cafe on French pastries that turned to ash in his mouth and hot coffee that did not thaw him. He watched the chaotic city pass him by: rushing to and fro, swearing into cellphones, stealing cabs, throwing tantrums. The July sun shone down on the liars, the greedy, and the malingering alike as the heat of the day built its way to a crescendo. Had Sol a sense of justice, New York’s population would have cooked like eggs on a sidewalk.
The man sat without waiting for an answer. Steve hadn’t bother giving one, escaping the Sorcerer Supreme required a skillset he did not possess. He had heard long ago - from Wanda maybe - that Dr. Strange had once visited Hell with Doom. Steve wanted to ask him if it had been as cold and empty as the Ether or as busy and sweltering as New York in July.
“Can I help you, Stephen?” Steve asked, still engrossed in the latest road rage pantomime being performed before them.
“Quite the opposite actually.” Strange flicked a wrist and the damaged cars moved 20 feet to the left so they no longer impeded traffic. “I was asked to meet with you to offer my services.”
Steve peeled his eyes away. “Asked by who?”
It was Strange’s turn to avoid a direct answer. “He told me you were struggling after your experience in the Ether.”
Some of the other Avengers had been starting to shoot Steve concerned looks but the overlap between those with the Sanctum on speed-dial and those with sufficient influence to get Strange to go against his non-intrusive nature was slim. Steve’s hand clenched around his ice water. He wondered what favour Tony had called in.
“Why are you here?” Steve asked harshly.
Strange pinched his nose like he knew this had been a bad idea from the start. “I’m here to make you an offer. One, I should stress, that you can absolutely refuse.”
He said nothing more and Steve almost blurted out get on with it before he figured out the answer. It was so audacious he couldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t have, had he not known it came indirectly from Tony.
“You want to erase my memories,” Steve bit out, the lid on his temper fraying.
“I want what you want,” Strange replied, remarkably even-keeled.
“Get out of my sight,” Steve growled when he had regained control over his voice.
Strange left without another word and Steve drew out his phone with furious, shaking hands and dialed. He hadn’t spoken with Tony in fifty-six days. The phone picked up on the first ring and it angered Steve that his call was expected. “Did you really think I’d say yes?”
Across the continent Tony sighed and the line didn’t even crackle. Steve swore he could feel the breath flutter across his cheek. “No, I didn’t. But I thought forgetting might be the better option.”
“Better,” Steve spat.
“Merciful,” Tony corrected. Steve hadn’t known Tony knew what the word meant.
“Did you let him erase your memories?”
There was a bitter laugh relayed in bits and bytes. “No.”
“Not that you know of. If he made you forget the things you couldn’t live with, you’d never know. You’d just trudge along thinking you were whole until one day you’d realize your friends betrayed you - ” Steve pulled up short.
Tony knew what that was like now. Steve had shown him. Over and over and over -
“You’re still pissed, message received,” Tony’s disembodied voice broke in. “Stephen just texted me your refusal along with an I told you so. That all you called me for?"
Steve’s grip tightened until the screen of his phone broke, breaks running from corner to corner like cracks through ice. “Yes.”
He didn’t hang up. With Tony’s voice in his ear Steve could pretend Tony was here with him. He could pretend he wasn’t alone in this new crowded Hell they just called life.
Avengers missions were routine but now they took on the flavour of monotony. Recon, raid, repeat. AIM, Roxxon, Hydra: they all bled red, and when Steve stripped his gloves off afterward the smears left behind never bothered him like they used to. He’d press a bloody thumb to the calendar on his desk, still turned to April despite it being late July. Time had run away from him but a row of red thumbprints marked the cycles.
Today the target was MODOK throwing a hissy fit in Times Square. He was delivering his monologue with his usual impotent vigor and Steve’s eyes glazed over. Who mattered little these days. Why matttered less. The chorus of Avengers and henchmen alike had paused to allow the villain his moment in the spotlight. They all knew their roles by now. Evil appeared, the Avengers were summoned. They clashed, they retreated, and lived to fight another day. Deja vu.
The sky was always grey these days.
Steve looked across the battle lines. They were some of the most powerful beings and minds on the planet and instead of making Earth a paradise they’d made it a hell where nothing ever changed. The dead never stayed dead, the villains never softened their hearts. Steve would never escape, none of them would. Not until they died and then Thor had promised he’d drink with Steve in the halls of Valhalla before they fought together in Ragnarök. Steve had thought it unbearably cruel of Asgard to save dead soldiers for a final, futile battle. A merciful god would surely let them rest.
Tony’s voice in his head sounded like silk: Maybe He loves them too much to let them die.
MODOK had launched his attack and Steve ignored the swarming robots. They didn’t bleed. MODOK would. He wasn’t hard to locate and Steve ran after him, dropping his shield to tackle the hydrocephalitic head. He hit the ground like Humpty Dumpty.
“No!” MODOK screamed.
“Maybe next time,” Steve spat through gritted teeth. MODOK was ugly, not beautiful. He was welded to his technology inelegantly, he didn’t wear it like a second skin. He was a wretched creature by design, not a Fallen one Steve had tried so many times to restore.
But MODOK smiled the same way Steve’s devil always had. His head wound didn’t bleed because this MODOK had been a robot too. From inside the fake-MODOK a white light started pulsing faster and faster -
Steve closed his eyes and hoped when he opened them the grey sky would end. He felt the heat from the explosion but the force was absorbed by someone or something in its way.
“You do remember you can die out here, right?!” Iron Man said as he tossed Steve his shield back. The glowing eyeslits of the faceplate were locked on him like the burning eyes of a demon.
Steve watched the armour articulate as Iron Man continued to blast their foes left and right, protecting them both. A whirligig of red and gold, of blood and money, of wrath and pride. The robot swarm closed in.
“Cap, we need to interrupt their - “
Steve turned and in one smooth motion used his shield to slice into Iron Man. The vibranium cleaved through the exposed thoracic seam as a garbled transmission echoed through the comms. Steve leaned over the downed suit and pried one of the mini-arc reactors loose. It may as well have been an armed grenade as he lobbed it towards what could only be MODOK’s broadcast antenna. There was a bang and then the robot swarm dropped to the pavement, lifeless.
The youngsters on the team gathered around the fallen armour, suitably awed. Miles looked over at Steve. “How did you know it was empty?”
Steve looked up at the grey, godless sky. “I know Tony.”
Too much. Too well. Too intimately. But never enough to make him stop.
Carol gave him a long, measured look. “You need rest, Cap.”
Steve closed his eyes and went back to the Ether.
Tony had stood with his back to the edge of the crevasse. The pit held the only true fire in this place and the heat rose in a hazy shimmer.
“I’m sorry, Steve.” He looked apologetic this time.
“What do you remember?” Steve had asked warily. This cycle had gone fast. Tony was unpredictable like that.
“Not all of it. Too much.” Tony laughed and shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.” He stared into the depths of the fire. “The body’s going to be a bitch to get back out, I’m sorry about that too.”
“Don’t do it.” Steve held his hands up. “I promise I won’t hurt you. I won’t ask you for the key ever again. Just don’t - “
“You can’t hurt me, Steve. Not physically.” Pain, like death, didn’t exist here. Not for Tony. “And we both know you’ll eventually ask again and I’ll say no and you’ll toss me into the fire yourself.” The words came out unbothered but Steve still flinched.
“Don’t leave me,” he rasped. Tony was always leaving him: slipping from innocence into remembrance and then into half-death once more. Steve was the one who stayed and counted cycles and retrieved bodies and built cairns. “You promised you wouldn’t leave me!”
“Everything’s going to be alright,” Tony said with perfect sincerity. Then he stepped over the edge into the heart of the fire as Steve screamed.
Tony had been right, getting the body out had been terribly difficult. Steve had paced like a lioness waiting for the retrieved corpse to wake to the new world in perfect innocence. Except in this version Sleeping Beauty awoke to a Beast instead of a prince.
“Steve?” Tony frowned. The skin of his entire left side was marked with burns he could neither feel nor remember. “Where - Where are we?”
Steve snarled and pushed Tony over the edge of the crevasse. Every bit of musculature stood out as Tony strained to keep himself from falling to a death he didn’t remember wouldn’t take. He was dangling from his fingertips, knuckles white with pressure. He had the most beautiful, terrified eyes Steve had ever seen.
“Steve! Cap!” Tony gasped. “What's going on?! What happened?!”
“You.” Steve slowly stepped on Tony’s right hand. “You happened.”
Tony’s right hand dropped, his left was all that remained. “I don’t understand!” he screamed. “What did I do?!“
“Which time?” Steve asked. He knelt at the edge of the crevasse and even this close to the heat he felt only ice. He was so tired. “I have so many to choose from.”
He didn’t do anything more. Tony’s strength simply gave out and he slipped silently into the hellpit. Steve didn’t remember any sounds it was all just… blank tape. The soundtrack excised.
Tony had been innocent that time. Or maybe he had been just as guilty as all the other men before him. Steve wasn’t going to let Tony get away with it. Tony had cheated his way out of giving up the key just like he had cheated his way out of the fallout from their Civil War, out of his stunt in San Fransisco, out of the Incursions. Sometimes Steve believed he was merely a projection of Tony’s, like the sun or the moon, and this was Tony’s Hell alone because Tony deserved it -
Steve didn’t really wake because he never really slept. He blinked up at the darkened ceiling of his bedroom. The sheets were cool. Tony was safe and sleeping well in Seattle. Presumably. There was no way for Steve to know. He tried to ignore the insistent ice between his ribs but the lingering images of death did nothing to dull it. It was Tony, always Tony.
Steve rolled out of bed in disgust and headed towards the shower. He stood under the spray of water, one hand on the tap, and remembered the frozen lake. He used to hate the cold but the ice water in the Ether had been so clear, so numbing. He had started to believe that Tony had indeed given him a gift. Steve slowly turned the tap all the way to the right, waiting for the cold to swallow him whole and take him home.
The water never dipped below mildly cool. Tony had designed it that way.
He was like that: kind, up until he wasn’t.
Steve was the only person to have ever survived a wound from the Cursed blade. There wasn’t even a scar, just blank skin, when he decided to re-carve it. The knife was sharp as he drew it lightly between his ribs, the welling blood marking its trace. An artist would be a fool not to sketch an outline first. The restless blade tip skimmed over skin like a dragonfly along the surface of a pond, never daring to go deeper. A last ditch preservation instinct.
Steve had experience overcoming those. The blade cut cleanly; through skin, through tissue, stopping short of organ. He exhaled and let the pain flow out and through him. It stung sharply but it wasn’t right. It didn’t throb like a secondary heartbeat that had a will of its own. Outside the Ether, pain was an enemy, not a companion. A pale imitation was all he could afford.
Steve grabbed an alcohol swab from the tools he’d preemptively arranged on his desk. He meticulously cleaned and sutured the wound. It took a long time. In the Ether Tony had done it for him, and Steve lacked the muscle memory and dexterity of eons of practice. When he was finished he admired himself in the mirror, his fingers skipping over the raised stitches. The general pain had dulled to a background roar.
Finally he slept. The ice quiet.
Sam was at breakfast the next morning. “Steve…. What is that?”
He looked down. He’d re-opened his stitches sometime during the night. The wound was bleeding sluggishly through his white T-shirt. The red reminded him of the colour of armour.
“I hurt myself last night,” Steve answered succinctly as he poured himself a coffee. He could lie very well with the truth these days.
“Oh? How? Target practice gone awry?” Clint asked before squinting. “You aiming at someone in particular?”
“Yes.” Steve helped himself to some pancakes too. Sam shot someone a warning look across the table, he couldn’t tell who. The crowded room sobered a bit but no one brought up the topic again. Hushed voices carried the conversation around him like a river around a rock.
A fly landed on Steve’s flapjacks, spoiling them. Its wings become saturated with maple syrup as it gorged itself before realizing it would never take off again. Steve watched it drown slowly in sweetness; a fitting end for a glutton. He could feel the blood leaking through his stitches, through his T-shirt.
He waited for the fly to revive but it never did. He went hungry.
By now everyone had figured out Mom and Dad are fighting. Peter had used those exact words but they didn’t come out as light as intended. Nor should they have: when Steve and Tony fought they tended to take the Avengers down with them. The team was unsettled like birds before a thunderstorm sensing the charging electric currents in the air. A hurricane was on the horizon and they instinctively took up their positions, choosing before being forced to. Luke began hanging around the Mansion more, Carol hung around less. Someone sent the cadets away early every day.
They’d done it all before. It was all variations on the same theme: life or death, future or past, red or blue. Steve could hardly blame them for picking up the oft-worn script. He’d spent lifetimes going through familiar motions even knowing it led nowhere and changed nothing. Walking in circles. Steve won’t damn them for the same. Maybe selective memory was the secret to sanity in such a system. Maybe it was the only way people could be happy.
He never figured out who’d sent for Sharon but suddenly she was in his study. Even dressed in white she had never reminded Steve of an angel. She was too grounded for that, too practical. Steve wondered how long she’d been sitting there in silence. He was skipping through time again.
“You aren’t sleeping,” she said. It was not a question.
“I am. It just isn’t helping.”
Steve grunted. SHIELD would have told her everything they knew. Sharon had once rescued him from a different pocket dimension. She knew every ugly part of Steve but she’d lacked that talent for dragging out worse, whole cloth, as they went. That singular distinction went to someone else.
She must have read it in his face. “Stark.”
Steve stilled to try to avoid giving away any details, be they intimate or of a darker nature. He could not be sure he fooled her.
She nodded as if silence were confirmation enough. “What do you need?”
Steve looked down at his hands and found he’d assembled a small cairn of knickknacks without thinking.
“Time,” he said finally. Time, his mind echoed. Did you not have enough?
Sharon tilted her head and studied him. It made Steve feel like a fly. “What’d he do?”
Steve has never wanted to die, he has only wanted to rest. “He saved me.”
“That a problem for you now?” Her voice rang out sharply.
Steve was bitterly tired of these paper people cluttering up this paper world. “Yes.”
In the beginning there was a castle and a wound. At the end there was fire.
But the middle - God, the middle - stretched forever.
It was a beautiful day in August when Steve’s nightmare came for him.
The Mansion door opened without triggering any of the Avengers alarms, the monster knew all the failsafes and passwords. He’d designed them himself. The team had frozen; a half-dozen wary stares following him as he wove his way through them without a word. He had come on a mission. His carefully curated suit was worn in the laissez-faire way only the truly rich could afford. His black, unruly beard was now a carefully groomed mustache, his hair was the perfect mussed that indicated mousse and not swamp water. Sunglasses hid the colour of his eyes but not their spark. The collar open at his throat exposed tan skin instead of the ropeburn of a noose, or the blue-black span of handprints.
The Devil stopped in front of Steve, a light smile on his face. He looked good. Well-rested, fed, alive. Flirty and seductive and in complete control. Steve wanted to annihilate him.
“Hello, Cap.” Tony’s voice was musical.
Somewhere deep in Steve’s chest, the ice cracked.
Everyone needs Satan to be clever because then they can pretend they were the unsullied who were led astray. If he isn’t, then evil is a latent beast we all hold in our hearts, trapped in ice and struggling to get out. We are born to it, not seduced, and we never escape it, we simply die.
- A Tale of Two Satans
The door of Steve’s room shut with a soft click of finality.
Tony spoke first. “Luke’s guarding the door even though I told him I left the armour behind.” He turned to face Steve. “That for my protection or yours?”
Steve didn’t recognize his own voice. “Yours, probably. He saw me nearly murder you in a street. You’re the one who forgot that.”
Tony’s smile dropped. “You sleeping?”
“Yes.” The truth slipped out from between Steve’s teeth. “I dream I kill you. I don’t like it.”
“You don’t like that you kill me, or you like it just fine and you don’t like what it says about you?” Tony asked like he already knew Steve’s answer. “Because if it’s the latter I give you permission. Kill me in your dreams as often as you like. Go on a spree.”
I still won, went unsaid. You’re still alive.
I still won and it didn’t destroy me like it destroyed you.
It was too much. The beast under Steve’s skin attacked. He barged Tony up against the nearest wall, uncertain if he meant to hurt him or scare him or kiss him. Steve wanted Tony to feel an inch of how horrible Steve felt every day. He wanted him to share the burden of being trapped in this crowded, shallow reflection of their perfectly balanced Hell. He ripped through the expensive shirt and was met not by the familiar sight of oozing stab wounds but by perfect, blank skin. Steve dug his fingernails in, dragging lines of red broken blood vessels across ribcage as if he could claw his way down into a man’s soul.
Tony let him. Steve wrapped a hand around Tony’s throat and wondered just how far that blind trust went. If the lamb would go to the slaughter willingly or like a billy goat and how Steve wanted to punish him for either. He pressed harder.
Some expression Steve didn’t recognize flit across Tony’s face.
“Avalon,” Tony rasped, the vibrations echoing through Steve’s fingers.
“That’s not the safeword,” Steve growled viciously as he sank his teeth into Tony’s collarbone.
“I know,” Tony’s voice hitched next to Steve’s ear. “…Avalon was the key. You never guessed.”
Steve went cold. It was what Tony never gave him. It was what he’d killed for. The single word that would have sent them home. It was obvious what Tony would have chosen, he’d shown Steve at the very beginning: a castle, a loyal knight, a wounded king. Avalon was the mystical place they took King Arthur as he lay dying, until his kingdom called on him to return.
That same unfamiliar expression flickered across Tony’s face and Steve only now realized it was pain. Before he could move there was a familiar zing and a repulsor was pressed against his ribcage, gauntleted fingers digging into Steve’s fresh wound, tearing the new stitches. The pain was real and the Ether wouldn’t save either of them from their mistakes this time.
“You left the armour at home, eh?” Steve grunted.
Tony was still pinned by the throat but he smiled because here, in reality, Tony had always been a much better liar than Steve. That was when Luke burst in. Steve dropped his hand automatically, Tony’s gauntlet likewise retreated, but neither of them turned to look at the interloper. They were the only ones who existed.
“What the hell - “ Luke started.
“We’re fine,” Steve said shortly. Tony rolled his eyes but didn’t dissent.
Luke clearly didn’t believe him. Steve and Tony had spent too long in the Ether. They had grown accustomed to seeing each other beaten and bruised, so the red marks streaking Tony’s torso were of no particular note to Steve. Neither was the blood leaking through his own shirt where his self-inflicted wound had been torn open. He would concede that to anyone else it looked damning.
Luke clearly thought so. “Stark?”
Tony gave a tight smile. “Believe me, this reunion is going much better than I thought it would.”
Luke shot them a sour look. “Well hands off. Next time I hear trouble I’m calling the cavalry.”
Steve dropped heavily into the chair as Luke retreated. His listened to the maddening drip of time ticking by before finally breaking the silence. “You remember everything so why aren’t you scared?”
Tony’s smile turned rueful. “Context. You remember a string of murders that didn’t stick.” His gaze was a million miles away. “I got to remember what I did to deserve it.”
Steve felt the broken ice roiling in his stomach. “But you were right. Reed got us out.”
“And I’m not dead.” But you’re still broken.
“You promised me I wouldn’t remember,” Steve’s voice cracked. That had been the final of Tony’s betrayals.
“I know. I was wrong.”
“Is that why you're avoiding me?”
Tony tilted his head slightly to the side and Steve saw through the layer of makeup to the tired blue underneath his eyes. The illusion of perfection slipping away. “You don’t remember how we were rescued do you?”
They had been on the plain. Tony had kissed him solemnly and smiled. Steve had thought him still innocent when Tony had whispered those three words he always said, ___ _____ ____, but this time they’d made Steve shiver. Then Tony had strolled behind the towering cairn and never came around the other side. Steve had searched the plain, the mud flats, the river, the swamp, the forest. He’d dived under the frozen ice and crawled into the trenches. Tony was nowhere to be found. He was gone. And Steve had screamed and screamed and if no one was around to hear him did he even make a sound?
Hell wasn’t other people, Hell was betraying every value you held and then being left alone deal with what you’d become. Hell was loneliness. Hell was empty.
“You left me there.” Steve found himself crying silent tears. “The Ether fell apart without you.”
Tony’s word had been law. His sanity had anchored it. Without him, Steve’s mind had run rampant. The forest of suicides went up in flames. Then the sky. Pain re-entered the world and the silence was replaced by echoing laughter. A Hell of fire and brimstone; punishment for his sins. But there was ice in him that never thawed. The flames had faded but the ice had followed Steve back from the Ether. That dam that held the beast back.
Steve’s head fell into his hands. “You promised you wouldn’t leave me.”
“I know. But you know the definition of insanity…” Tony’s head knocked back against the wall. “We couldn’t keep going around in circles, Steve. Something had to change. So I left. Reed was close to a solution. He just needed a first-hand account.”
It was an admission: they could have gotten out of the Ether much quicker if only Tony had left sooner. If Steve hadn’t begged him to stay even as he killed him. If Tony had loved his murderer a little less. Instead they’d done what they always did and stretched each other past breaking point until the worst had come to pass.
“I’m sorry,” Tony whispered, achingly human.
“I know you are.” The words caught in Steve’s throat. “But I’m not. I’m not. I wanted to die a good man and you made me…“ He stared into nothing. “You saved me, but I’m not me anymore.”
“Of course you’re you.” Tony sounded so sure and confident. Steve hated it.
“You don’t understand.”
“Seriously?” Tony’s laugh was unkind. “You remember me as well as I remember you. I did everything I could to keep you trapped in the Ether. I pulled every trick I had: sex, lies, secrets, suicides. It was breaking you, I could see it, and I thought to myself - it doesn’t matter, as long as he lives.” Tony’s head lolled towards him. “The difference between you and me, is we both already knew I was capable of terrible things. You didn’t know you had it in you,” his gaze fluttered to Steve, “and now you do.”
Steve’s swallowed monster strained at his ribs, threatening to tear him apart. “So what do I do about it?”
“Nothing.” Tony shrugged. “It exists. It’ll always exist. It’s part of you and it always was.”
“You’re wrong.” This, Steve realized, was the argument they kept having over and over again in running street battles and darkened rooms.
Tony’s lips quirked, mind decidedly unchanged. “Maybe. But we’ll never find out.” He got to his feet. “You’re not going to Hell, Steve, and I don’t believe in the afterlife. We settle our scores here or not at all.”
That was why Tony came: to pay his dues for his final sin. For leaving Steve behind and saving his life because for all of Tony’s talk of the randomness of the universe he believes in justice. Tony had been Steve’s keeper in the Ether but Steve had been Tony’s too.
Steve couldn’t quite manage I forgive you. Tony hadn’t said it either. Steve swallowed. “I’m grateful I’m alive.”
It was the best he could do. He was grateful to be alive. He was grateful for the pain, for the cold, for Sam and Sharon who he never thought he’d see again. He was grateful Tony left him behind to save them both and so Steve could burn for his sins. He was grateful Tony was standing here in front of him so Steve could finally, finally stop killing him.
“Rest,” Tony ordered and Steve noticed the stars were out as if Tony still held sway here and had called down the night.
Steve climbed into the bed and Tony followed, both of them fully clothed, under the sheets. It was a mercy, this peace, however temporary it proved to be. It was the long middle of the cycle before the wheel turned and they became their worst selves: succumbing once more to love and violence and treachery.
Steve still needed to know, his voice barely a whisper. “When we were in the castle, at the very beginning, how did you fall off the parapet?”
Was it a slip or a push?
Tony hesitated and Steve didn’t know how to read it in the dark.
“I don’t remember.”
Steve lay in silence and contemplated the mercy of forgetfulness versus the mercy of lies.