"Eh, he's fine," Logan said, and he leaned over and sniffed Tony. "See? He smells fine."
Tony sat perfectly still in the remains of his armor, his feet dangling off the edge of the exam table at the tower's infirmary, and his only reaction was a fractional lift of one eyebrow, like that Star Trek character he liked.
"You smelled him," Steve said, flatly; it wasn't how he'd wanted to say it, but it was better than the sheer panic that his hindbrain wanted to engage in. "You want me to believe that he's fine because you smelled him."
Logan's lips peeled back in a snarl, and he raised his hand in Steve's direction in a motion that Steve recognized as a prelude to getting his claws out. "News for you, Cap. I'm not a goddamn doctor. And not even the doctors know what the hell the inside of his head is like now. So, yeah, I smelled him. It's the best I can do."
"Reed's coming over now," Jess volunteered from the corner, tapping away on her identicard. "I asked him. He might know something about Extremis, right?"
"Sure," Peter said, from the ceiling. "He can be our temporary replacement Tony. Like Tony, only stretchier."
"I'm fine," Tony said, for the second time. "Really, I feel fine. There's nothing wrong with me. Extremis' scans report no problems whatsoever."
Luke folded his arms over his chest and glared, an eloquent silence.
Everything had been fine. Everything had been textbook-perfect, the Controller and his minions buckling and weakening under the team's combined attack, and then Tony had said oh fuck, there's some kind of computer virus coming from the discs and pitched over backwards. When Steve had wrenched his helmet off, his eyes had been black all the way through. He'd stared at nothing, unseeing. He hadn't moved.
Steve had sat there waiting, crouched at Tony's side, while the rest of the team continued fighting around them. And then Tony had blinked. His eyes had turned blue again. He'd nodded once, tersely, stood up, put his helmet back on, and gone right on with the fight.
It was silly, but-- he'd barely looked at Steve.
He hadn't even said Steve's name.
"I'd feel better if you got checked out," Steve told him, and as Tony opened his mouth to protest, Steve gave Tony his best, warmest smile. It was always easier to encourage Tony than to order him. "Please?" Steve added, very quietly.
This was where Tony should look at him, should smile back. It would be the tiniest of smiles, a weary, self-deprecating quirk of his lips. He'd say something fond like since you insist, Winghead--
Tony nodded, once, that same jerky nod Steve had seen from him on the battlefield. He wasn't smiling.
"If it won't take too long," he said, curtly, and he was hardly looking at Steve at all. Again. "I'm very busy, you know."
Something was wrong here. Wasn't it?
Ten minutes later Reed got there, and Steve held his breath and waited to see what Tony would do. And everything... was fine. Tony nodded and smiled politely and was friendly enough with the greetings, and then the two of them started arguing with each other about Tony's brain, and Steve understood maybe one in ten words. Kernel panic. Core dump. Logfiles.
They were always like that, Reed and Tony, like nothing existed but ideas.
Steve exhaled in relief. Maybe Tony was okay after all.
He headed out into the corridor to wait. The rest of the team had already left, and Steve hoped that meant they were out trying to find the Controller, who'd escaped after they'd released the last of his victims from his mental thrall. Steve couldn't believe the Controller was out again; after his escape from the Raft, they'd literally just put him back in prison last month. He and Tony had helped Peter find him and bring him to justice. Oh, well. They'd find him again. The Avengers would find him.
He was going to wait for Tony, though, and then they could join everyone else.
He always waited for Tony. That was what they did.
After maybe another fifteen minutes, Reed came out first.
"He seems fine, Captain," Reed said, without preamble, but then his face softened in a smile; he didn't have the easiest bedside manner, but Steve would take it. "I'm hardly an expert on Extremis, but his internal scans all check out."
"But he said there was a virus," Steve insisted. "Reed, he passed out."
"So he fought it off," Reed said, in a tone of supreme unconcern. "All his diagnostics are fine. There's no need to worry." And then he smiled again. "But I do know how you worry about him," he added, and Steve didn't have the chance to ask him what he meant by that because Reed then lifted a flash drive, holding it up between thumb and forefinger. "So I convinced Tony to give me the logs of everything going on with Extremis during the attack. It will take me a few days to review them, of course, but if you're still concerned I can go in and make sure there's absolutely nothing."
Steve tried to smile. "Please. That would be kind of you."
"It's no trouble at all," Reed told him, with another smile, which was now three more smiles than he'd gotten from Tony since the incident. And they always said Reed was cold. "Honestly, though -- I really don't expect to find anything. He got it all. It's gone."
"Let's hope so," Steve said, and Reed nodded a farewell.
"I'll be in touch."
And then Reed was gone, and Tony was standing there in the doorway. He'd stripped off the actual armor and was down to the shining golden undersuit, the layer that molded itself over his muscular body like a second skin. Not that Steve was paying any particular attention, of course.
Tony glanced at Steve, and his gaze kept moving, taking in the rest of the hallway. Like it didn't even matter to him that Steve was here.
Steve cleared his throat. "Hi, Tony."
Tony was looking at him now, but not like he was actually paying attention to him. He was looking almost through him, distracted, like he was thinking about something else. Maybe he was listening to Extremis. "Oh," Tony said, and he sounded honestly surprised. "You're still here?"
"Uh," Steve said. "Yes?"
We always wait for each other -- he couldn't say that, could he? It was just understood. They had an understanding. You didn't go talking about your understandings, did you? It was just something they did.
Tony shifted his weight from foot to foot. It was an awkward motion, like he was trying to politely wait for Steve to leave and didn't want to push past him. "Did you need something?"
That wasn't how this worked. Tony didn't say did you need something. Tony said hey, how about a burger or come on, let's get these damn after-action reports finished together or you should come see what I've made you.
"No," Steve said. "I didn't need anything."
As it turned out, the Controller had gone to ground. None of the team had been able to find him. And the strangest thing was, Steve didn't think Tony had even looked. They'd split up, and they'd all hit up their own sources. Tony had never checked back in. It was nine o'clock now, the city dark around them, and Tony just... hadn't come back.
There was nothing saying he had to, Steve supposed. But it was strange.
Steve sighed, grabbed his laptop, and pulled up the mission files so that he could update them with his own (lack of) findings. Everyone else had tagged in -- and at the bottom, there was Tony. Finally.
His update was one cursory line long: Nothing from Stark satellites.
Well, at least Tony had looked. He'd reached out with Extremis, taken probably five seconds out of his day, and then typed this.
This really wasn't the amount of effort Tony usually put in.
He'd said he was busy, Steve reminded himself. Maybe he was just... very very busy.
Or maybe it was Steve, a tiny voice in his head said. Maybe he was upset with Steve. He seemed fine with everyone else. He'd been fine with Reed. Maybe it was only Steve that he was treating so strangely.
Was Tony mad at him?
God, no, Steve thought, and he pushed the laptop shut as he stared out his window, out the window of the room Tony kept for him here at the tower, at the darkened skyline beyond. Sure, when the team had disbanded, when Wanda had destroyed the mansion, it had been rough. But they were good now. He'd thought they were good now. They'd put a team back together. They were co-leaders. They worked together. They talked.
Had he done something to upset Tony? Maybe Tony had gotten some news via Extremis during the fight, some piece of information-- but what could it have been?
Steve hadn't done anything. Not that he knew of, anyway.
Maybe there was something wrong with Tony after all, then?
And, okay, Tony's reflexive reaction if there was something wrong with him was to hide it. Steve knew that. Everyone knew that. If there were something wrong with Tony, he wouldn't want to tell anyone. Tony was the man who'd hidden his identity from the team for years. Hell, the world didn't know who Iron Man was anymore. Tony was a natural at secrets.
Steve had thought they were beyond that now. It hurt, to think that they might not be after all.
He was being ridiculous. It was probably nothing. He could just go talk to Tony. And Tony was going to be fine, because Tony was always fine, and if he had some kind of issue with Steve he could just tell Steve what it was and they could deal with it. This was how their team, their new team, was going to work. Transparency.
He stood up, and he went to find Tony.
Tony was in the kitchen, and he'd commandeered the entire table. There were piles and piles of papers spread out around him, as well as a laptop, although honestly Steve didn't know why Tony bothered when he had a computer in his head. Tony was alone, and he didn't look up.
"Tony," Steve said, softly.
Tony jumped, like he really hadn't expected anyone to be there. He looked up. He still wasn't smiling.
It's fine, Steve told himself. He doesn't have to smile every time he sees you, does he? It's fine.
"Steve," Tony returned, and, okay, good, Tony did know his name after all. He was fine. He had to be fine.
"You got a minute?"
He knew what Tony would do now. Tony would smile. Tony would push the laptop away. Tony would say sure, of course. Tony would say what do you need. Tony would say anything for you--
Tony's face twisted into a regretful expression that was somehow bland. Polite. A slightly-distasteful moue, like he'd bitten into something he didn't like. "You know what?" he said. "I actually don't. I've got this really big project at Stark International. You know how it is, right? Deadlines."
Everything within Steve somehow began to plummet, a slow and unsteady fall. Maybe it wasn't personal, though, he thought, as he tried to salvage anything good from the response. It explained why Tony was so busy that he'd barely pulled his weight as Steve's co-leader. He had something else to do. Steve could certainly understand that.
And maybe this could be good news. Tony's financial situation lately had been precarious. Hell, they weren't even paying the Avengers right now. If Tony earned money at SI, then the team might finally have some funding. There was no way Steve could fault Tony for wanting to give them that.
So Steve took a breath and he rallied himself once more. "Well, when you're done, then -- maybe we could talk?" Tony made a face, and Steve winced inwardly. He didn't want to scare Tony off, phrasing it like that. They could hang out together and then Steve could broach the topic. That would be safer. "Maybe in an hour or two you could take a break? We could put a movie on--"
"Actually," Tony said, "I'm going to be busy with this all night. Thanks for the offer, though."
He said it like he didn't even mean it. Like thanks was just something you were supposed to say, an empty, phatic response.
"Oh," Steve said, numbly, and he could feel his mouth round in dumbfounded surprise as the rejection hit him like a blow, a gut-punch that had slipped in beneath his guard, because he never had any defenses when it came to Tony. He couldn't look up.
It felt like-- God, it felt like being fifteen and scrawny and no one he asked to the dance ever said yes. He remembered what it felt like not to be wanted.
Of course it wasn't like that in every particular, because they weren't like that, him and Tony. But the abject humiliation -- that felt the same. He was sure his face was bright red.
He needed not to take this personally. Tony was just busy. That was all.
"Okay," Steve said, finally. "Okay, I'll just go--"
He chucked a thumb behind himself, and when he finally lifted his head, Tony had already turned back to his papers. Tony wasn't even looking at him.
In Steve's dreams it was 1944 again, winter in the Ardennes. Steve struggled his way up out of the screaming and gunfire and into consciousness. He came up swinging and his nightstand tipped over onto the floor with a crash, spilling its contents everywhere.
At least he was awake now.
He glanced over at the clock. 5:57. Well, it was time to get up anyway.
Steve sighed, stood up, took a step forward -- and something went crunch under his foot. It felt like it was about the size of a credit card. Oh, no.
He lifted his foot, peered down, and his Avengers identicard was on the floor, blacked out, a crack running down the middle of it. It was definitely broken.
The day was off to a great start, wasn't it?
It wasn't going to be a problem, though. Tony would fix it right up for him. Of course he would.
By the time he'd gone for a run, showered, shaved, and come up for breakfast, it was seven, and the rest of the team was already in the kitchen. Logan's breakfast appeared to be two cans of beer, and the rest of the Avengers -- half of whom didn't even sleep here, most nights -- were divvying up a veritable mountain of scrambled eggs.
"Nah, I ate already, with Jess," Luke was saying, as he watched Peter portion the eggs out. "I'm good."
"Yeah, and I had breakfast with MJ," Peter said, "but, look, you never know when you need to web up a falling school bus, right? We all need the calories."
Jess -- Jess Drew, that was -- was the first person who noticed him; she nodded and smiled. "Give it to Cap," she said, nudging Peter. "He looks beat." She turned to Steve. "It's seven in the morning, Cap. How can you look like that already?"
Did he really look that bad?
"I'm fine," Steve said, "but I'll definitely take whatever anyone else doesn't want."
This, he thought hopefully, was where Tony would usually offer him some of his food. And he'd tell Tony that, no, Tony needed it more than he did, and after a few rounds of banter he'd take a bite of Tony's food anyway, and Tony would give him that satisfied smile, that look he got when he was taking care of people.
Tony had grabbed the first plate of eggs -- he must have, because he was the only one eating -- and he was shoveling forkfuls into his mouth as he paged through the newspaper, which he'd spread out before him. He was engrossed in the business section.
He hadn't even looked up. He hadn't so much as glanced at Steve.
Well, he was clearly very busy.
Steve eventually got the last plate of eggs and sat down, next to Tony, like usual.
"Hi," Steve said, wondering what would come of this, this time. Wondering whether Tony was just going to ignore him.
"Hi," Tony said, barely glancing at him and going back to his paper. "How's it going?"
The words, once again, were said like he didn't really mean them. But he'd asked. He must actually want to know. He always had before.
"Oh, you know," Steve said, with a smile. "Could be better. It's been kind of a lousy morning, honestly."
He waited for Tony to ask, but Tony said nothing, so instead Steve opened one of his belt pouches and took out his identicard. It was in two pieces; the whole thing had snapped when he'd gone to pick it up.
Across the table, he saw Jess wince in empathy -- they'd all wrecked a lot of gear over the years -- but Tony... was still looking at his paper. Steve supposed that meant he had to get Tony's attention.
"I stepped on my identicard," he said. "It's broken."
Obviously, what would happen now was that Tony would pluck it out of his hand. Tony would make some kind of joke, maybe. An affectionate nickname about his destructiveness. How much money do you think I'm made of, Cap, he might ask, with a grin. I'll get right on it, he'd say.
Tony spared him the barest glance before going back to his paper.
"Mmm-hmm," Tony said. "File a support ticket."
Steve blinked. "A what?"
Tony lifted his head and stared at Steve. There was an irritated curl to his lip, like he couldn't believe he had to take time out of his morning to explain this. "A support ticket," he repeated. "You know, with the rest of the gear requests and the IT troubleshooting? We have a system for this, you know."
This had to be some kind of joke. "We... we do?"
Steve glanced around. No one else seemed to regard this as anything out of the ordinary; they were all still eating and chattering away, like everything was fine.
"Of course we do." Tony sighed, a put-upon, aggrieved sound. "God, it's not like the team's even paying me. I don't know why you think you can jump the queue. Put in a support ticket like everyone else." He huffed out another sigh and then picked up the paper again.
Now Jess was nodding. "Don't worry, Cap," she told Steve, with a sympathetic smile. "He gave me that lecture too, last week, when I accidentally zapped my comm earpiece and needed it replaced. You have to put your name in the system or I'll lose track, Jess," she mimicked, her voice going lower, her accent more American.
They had a system? How did they have a system that Steve didn't know about? The system was that Tony just... volunteered to fix things. Wasn't that the system?
But that clearly wasn't how it worked for everyone else. Tony was just... giving him the same treatment as he gave everyone else.
Maybe Reed was done with the analysis of Tony's files. Maybe Reed had found something. Something was wrong with Tony, with the way Tony was behaving around him. Something had to be wrong. But how could it be wrong for Steve to be equal? Steve wasn't better than anyone else.
"I'll put in a support ticket," Steve said, glumly.
"There we go," Tony said, in between bites of egg, turning the page of his paper. "That's the way." He hummed quietly to himself. "I think I've got an opening in my schedule on Tuesday," he added. "Depends on if that R&D meeting gets pushed back. I should be able to get to it then." He said it like he was doing Steve a favor.
He was doing Steve a favor, though. He was. He just wasn't-- it wasn't normal. He wasn't doing him the right favor.
Feeling half-concerned and half-selfish, selfish in the most ridiculous of ways, Steve rose from the table, leaving his eggs untouched. "I'm going to go check in with Reed," he announced. "I'm not really that hungry."
"Whatever," Logan said, and he yanked Steve's plate toward himself. "Dibs on your breakfast."
"Don't forget about your support ticket!" Tony called after him, as he left.
At least Tony had said something. At least this time Tony had noticed he was leaving.
"So you're telling me," Reed said on screen, with one skeptical eyebrow arched, "that you think something is deeply wrong with Tony because he was too busy to watch a movie with you? And because he was also too busy to drop everything he was doing and fix your broken identicard immediately?"
Okay, so when Reed put it like that, Steve's reasoning sounded more than a little suspect.
"Yeah." Steve sighed. "Basically, yeah."
"Steve," Reed said, and he didn't even have to say anything else. That was a no.
"So I was hoping," Steve continued, "that the data you pulled from Extremis would--"
But Reed was shaking his head. "I'm not finished scanning it. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after. So far there's nothing, though. He's fine." And then he smiled, like he was trying to be kind. "Steve, can I give you some advice?"
Steve sighed again. "Sure. Go for it."
"Speaking as one of Tony's fellow scientists," Reed began, and then, frowning, he clarified, "I mean, as a man who has a fair number of personality traits in common with Tony, and a similar workload--"
Oh. Personal advice. Steve nodded and smiled. "Go on."
"If Sue wants me to watch a movie with her and I'm busy with an important, urgent experiment," Reed said, a little awkwardly, "I might have to decline because I'm busy. It just means I don't have time to watch a movie right then. It doesn't mean I don't love her."
The last sentence rattled Steve. The words went ricocheting around his brain like a tumbling bullet, snapping everything into sharp clarity. Love.
Was this about love?
Tony doesn't love me, he wanted to say. But that wasn't right, because Tony loved him. Of course Tony loved him. They had been the best of friends for a decade. There was no question that Tony loved him. But he didn't love him like-- like Reed loved Sue. He couldn't.
"Tony and I," Steve said, and an odd kind of desperation made his voice crack, "we're not-- we're not married, Reed."
"No, I know," Reed said, and Steve had the sensation that he'd missed the point somewhere. "I just thought that the two of you--" He paused. "Well. I suppose it's not really my business, is it?" He glanced away. "I'll keep working on that analysis for you."
"Okay," Steve said. "Thanks."
The screen went black, and Steve stared at it for a long time.
There was nothing, nothing for the rest of the day. Steve hit the streets, looking for word of the Controller. None of their leads panned out. No one had seen the Controller anywhere. Reed didn't call back.
And Tony... Tony wasn't even there.
When Steve came up to the main floor, hoping to see Tony for dinner, the only person there was Luke, and from the tenor of his conversation, he was well into a phone call with Jess (Jones, that was).
"Haven't seen him since breakfast," Luke said, lifting his phone away from his face for the minimum amount of time necessary to answer the question. "I think he had work."
It shouldn't be strange. Tony ran a company as well as the Avengers. Of course he did. Steve knew this. Tony had obligations to people who weren't the Avengers. To people who weren't Steve.
He wasn't going to let it get to him.
The ringing of Steve's phone jarred him awake. It was the tone he'd set as an Avengers alert, since clearly he was going to have to function without an identicard for a few days. He fumbled his way across his bedside table and grabbed it without even looking at the caller ID.
The clock on the wall turned 5:00; the sky outside Steve's window was streaked with the beginnings of dawn. It had to be Tony, it had to be Tony calling the team to assemble because they'd finally found something--
"Are we assembling?" Steve asked, as soon as he hit answer.
There was an awkward pause, a few seconds of silence.
"I don't know," Peter said. "Isn't that your call, Cap?"
It wasn't Tony.
Steve sighed and pushed himself up to sitting. "Okay. What have you got for me, Spider-Man?"
"Basil Sandhurst," Peter said, deliberately drawing out the Controller's name, "has popped up. It turns out Tony left the satellite and activity traces on him going, and I guess he didn't check back to see how they went. Me, I just came back from a night of web-slinging and foiling small-time crooks, and I found the good news while going through the automatic surveillance reports." And Peter didn't say that like he thought it was odd, like he thought Tony should have cared more. "Anyway, the guy's in Camden."
Steve blinked. "What's he doing all the way in south Jersey?"
"Hey," Peter said, "I'm from Queens. Do I look like I know why anyone goes to Jersey?"
"Guess not." Steve chuckled. "So is he up to anything?"
There was a typing noise, a brief clatter of keys. "Satellite says he's at a motel," Peter relayed. "He hasn't moved in a few hours. My guess is that he's sleeping."
Steve tapped his fingers of his free hand against the mattress and considered the options. They didn't need a full team for this. "Okay, thanks," Steve said. "I'm not scrambling the whole team for this one. You get some sleep too. I'll go wake up Tony, and we can rustle up a Quinjet. The two of us can handle it by ourselves."
He and Tony could be in Camden in ten minutes, easy, the way those Quinjets flew. Steve hoped Tony had finished the repairs on the current Quinjet since the Savage Land fiasco.
"All right," Peter said. "Good luck. See you later."
Peter hung up, and Steve pulled his uniform on in what had to be record time and ran down the hall to Tony's room.
He knocked on the door.
He waited ten seconds. He knocked on the door again.
"Hey, Tony!" he called out. "I need you on your feet, Avenger!"
The door swung open. Tony, wearing only a very small pair of black boxer-briefs, was staring bleary-eyed at him. His hair was rumpled, one side of it sticking straight up in the air. And now he was-- he was glaring. At Steve.
"What," Tony said. The word was a sleepy, annoyed bark.
What the hell was wrong with him? Whatever it was, now wasn't the time. They could deal with their feelings later. They had a mission.
"The Controller's been sighted in New Jersey," Steve said, "so I thought maybe the two of us could grab a Quinjet and--"
Steve stared, bewildered. "What do you mean, no?"
"I think the meaning of the word no is obvious," Tony said, archly, snippily, like he thought Steve was stupid, and that... that hurt. That stung, a sharp pain somewhere beneath his breastbone. Tony sighed. "Captain. It's ass o'clock in the morning. I was at SI until one, hammering out the last of these contracts. I am not going to New Jersey on four hours of sleep to chase a wild lead. You are more than capable of doing reconnaissance by yourself."
Steve took a shaking breath, and he pushed down the shame and betrayal churning in his gut. There is a mission, he told himself. Think about the mission. Focus on what the mission needs.
"Okay," he said, and the word echoed hollowly, like someone else was speaking through his mouth. "Okay. I'll go by myself. Can I at least borrow the Quinjet?"
"Nope. It's still broken," Tony said, and then he shut the door in Steve's face.
It wasn't until Steve had passed New Brunswick on the Turnpike, motorcycle thrumming beneath him, that he could finally think about that conversation with Tony with some semblance of rational thought.
Shame had given way to anger, which in turn had given way to something like shame again, a numb coolness that settled in the pit of Steve's stomach, like the icy water swallowing him up once more.
When he thought about it, when he actually thought about it, there was really only one word for what Steve had been: entitled.
He'd just assumed that Tony would come with him because he'd wanted Tony to go with him. He didn't actually need Tony to come along. His presence wasn't mission-critical. As Tony had pointed out, Steve was perfectly capable of doing this by himself. He'd just... wanted Tony's company. And he'd felt like he could demand Tony's company.
None of the rest of the Avengers would have done that. Steve couldn't even imagine, say, Logan turning up at Tony's door in the middle of the night, telling Tony that he wanted Tony to go with him to Canada or Japan or Madripoor or wherever the hell he went when he wasn't here. Logan would never have presumed to ask.
No, only Steve had the arrogance to do so. Only Steve had the unmitigated gall. People didn't say no to him. He was Captain America. God, Tony must have gotten so sick of him. Tony had never said anything before, but that had to be what it was. Every week, every day, every hour, another request: Tony, help me fight this villain. Tony, make me a uniform. Tony, find my shield. Tony, come to dinner with me. Tony, come sit up with me while I can't sleep.
And after a decade of these little requests piling up, Tony had finally had enough. There hadn't been one thing Steve had done wrong; there had been one thousand. And Tony had finally decided to start saying no.
It was about time, really, when Steve thought of it like that. Long past time.
Steve rode on and on, southbound. He tried to breathe slowly, in and out, to not think about anything except the road in front of him, the shield on his back, the villain that needed to be found. There was nothing else but this.
When he finally got to the motel in Camden, he found that Basil Sandhurst had already checked out, and the team had lost sight of him on all the surveillance.
Steve sighed, got back on his bike, and started the lonely ride home.
He often sparred with Tony in the afternoon. He knew better than to think Tony would show up today. Tony clearly didn't want to see him. Still, he might feel a little better working some tension out himself, he thought, so he changed and headed downstairs, and... there was Tony, after all. Like everything was normal, except it clearly wasn't.
Tony was off to the side of the gym, in shorts and a worn t-shirt. He'd taped up his hands, and he was methodically attacking the heavy bag.
Left, right, left, right. Thank God his form was perfect, because Steve honestly had no idea what Tony would say if he corrected him right now and he really, really did not want to find out.
After a minute or so, Tony finally seemed to become aware of Steve's presence, of the fact that Steve was standing there watching him, because he dropped his hands and stepped back.
The bag spun slowly on its chain. Neither of them said anything.
Tony was looking back at him, and he didn't look angry at all. If he was mad at Steve, if he was furious about the years and years of Steve's unwelcome impositions, shouldn't he have looked it? He didn't. Instead, his expression was perfectly neutral. It wasn't the mask that Tony put on for the crowds; that was a smile, that was all false happiness. Tony was just staring at him like... like he didn't feel anything at all, when he looked at Steve.
Tony must have gone to a lot of effort for this feigned nothingness. The observation sat there in Steve's mind, regretful and desolate. He couldn't think of anything to say. His head pounded.
"Yes?" Tony asked. He sounded... honestly confused. He sounded like he didn't even know why Steve was here.
He had to say something. He could do this.
He cleared his throat. "About this morning..."
Tony frowned. "What about this morning?"
"Look," Steve said. "I'm-- I'm sorry."
Tony regarded him blankly.
Steve held out his hands, imploring. Palms up, unarmed, in Tony's power. Tony could do whatever he wanted with him. Whatever he thought Steve deserved. "It makes sense, huh?" he said, and he tried to smile. It wavered. "I get that I've asked a lot of you over the years. I've demanded a lot from you. And I see now that you've been treating me... preferentially." His throat was tight. "So I'm sorry. I regret anything I've done that would make you think you owe me anything special. I don't need special treatment. I've never needed it, and I shouldn't have gotten it." His voice rasped, thick and hoarse; he could hardly speak. "I'm not more important than anyone else on this team, and I'm deeply, deeply sorry that I ever made you think I should be treated as if I were."
Tony was still frowning. His eyes were wide, his lips parted in utter confusion. Like he didn't even know what Steve was talking about. He squinted. "This is... because you woke me up at five?" he asked, and he said it like he was guessing, like this was the wildest of stabs in the dark.
Steve supposed he was going to have to lay it all out for him. Well, he couldn't say Tony didn't deserve an explanation, after how long Steve had spent just... using him.
"Not just that," Steve made himself say. "I expect things of you, all the time. Things you don't do for other people. Yesterday, I expected that you'd fix my identicard immediately. When you were working on that project the other night, I expected that you'd drop what you were doing to spend time with me. And I realize now that I've been doing this to you for years and I-- I'm sorry. I know I can't make up for what I've done in the past, but I can be better in the future." He lifted his chin, determined. "So I'm not going to ask you for favors anymore. I promise."
That was all Tony said. He blinked slowly. Once. Twice. His face was still blank. Steve just wished Tony would give him some clue, any clue, as to how he was feeling... but that was another demand, wasn't it?
"I presumed too much," Steve added, and he swallowed hard. "I just-- I know you don't owe me anything, I really do, and I know we've had our disagreements and our rough patches, but I-- I thought we were friends, Tony. And I wish... I wish you'd told me that this was how you really felt. I wish I'd realized that it was just you giving and me taking and taking and taking." He squeezed his eyes shut. His face was hot. He wasn't going to cry. Not like this. Not here.
"We were friends?"
The words were another blow, a deeper twist of the knife, and the worst thing was that Tony didn't even say them cruelly, or callously. He said them like he had no idea they could ever have been true, and somehow that was even worse, far beyond all of Steve's imaginings.
"I thought so," Steve said, miserably. "I thought you l-- it doesn't matter what I thought you felt. I was wrong about your feelings. About our friendship. Obviously."
"Our friendship?" Tony echoed.
When Steve finally opened his eyes. Tony was still staring at him. He still looked deeply, deeply confused.
"Yeah," Steve said. "Our former friendship, I suppose."
Tony frowned once more. The frown looked to be permanent by now. "We're not friends."
"Yes," Steve repeated, with all the bitterness in him. "I get that, thanks."
"No," Tony said. His brow was furrowed. "I mean, I've never been friends with you. I literally do not know what you are talking about. I'm not trying to hurt your feelings, I swear. We're teammates. We're co-workers. There's nothing wrong with that, right? I mean, you're not BFFs with all your teammates, are you?"
And Tony actually smiled, a little uncertainly, like he was trying to make him feel better. Tony hadn't smiled at him in days, and that just-- that really just--
He didn't know what Tony was trying to do. It didn't make any goddamn sense. Why was he acting like this? Why was he pretending that reality just wasn't true?
"We were friends," Steve said, desperately. "We are friends. Tony, we've been friends for a decade. What the hell do you mean, you don't know what I'm talking about?"
Tony was still staring at him, wide-eyed. "I meant exactly what I said. We're not friends. I think I would know if we were friends, wouldn't you?" He frowned again. "Are you okay? Are you feeling all right?"
Oh, God. The Controller. The computer virus. Extremis. There was something wrong with Tony after all. There was something deeply, seriously wrong.
"Tony," Steve said, and he struggled to keep his voice calm. "Give me your identicard. Right now."
Tony, the normal Tony, would have handed it over in an instant. This Tony just squinted again, suspiciously. Like he didn't trust him automatically and completely, with everything in him. Because he didn't. "What? Why?"
"Because mine's broken," Steve said. "And because we need a team meeting. Immediately. Because I know what's wrong with you."
"I feel fine," Tony said, stubbornness flaring in his gaze. "Extremis says there's nothing wrong with me. I promise I'm fine. And Reed agreed with me, remember? I am absolutely fine."
And then Tony sighed, and he fished the card out of his pocket and handed it over.
Steve keyed in the order to assemble. "No," he said. "You're not fine. You're really, really not."
At least, Steve thought, trying to take some comfort in the observation, at least Tony didn't look confused anymore.
No, Tony just looked sullen.
It was everyone else who looked confused.
The Avengers were gathered around the briefing room table. Luke and Logan's bare faces bore nearly identically dubious expressions of disbelief. Jess and Peter were both masked, so Steve couldn't exactly tell by looking at them, but they had jerked in their seats, startled, when Steve had made his pronouncement.
Tony was sitting next to Steve, armored up save for his helmet, which was on the table in front of him. His arms were crossed over his chest.
"This is ridiculous," Tony said. "Look, guys, I'm sorry for wasting your time. I'm fine."
"What do you mean, amnesia?" Logan asked. "Come on. Look at him. He doesn't have amnesia."
"Exactly my point," Tony said, his mouth curling in a satisfied grin.
Steve gritted his teeth. "He definitely has amnesia. I can prove it."
Logan, who was sitting on Steve's other side, leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, a nearly identical pose to Tony. "Oh?"
"Tony," Steve said, and the name snapped out of him, an order. "Tell me how you feel about Logan."
Tony wrinkled his nose. "How I feel? About Logan?"
"Yes," Steve said, as patiently as he could. "How you feel about Logan. The absolute truth."
"Fine." Tony scowled. "He's a pain in the ass. How's that for truth?"
Luke started laughing. Peter joined in.
"Thanks, bub," Logan said, sourly. "That's real big of you."
Steve held up a hand; the laughter died down. "Is that really all, Tony? I mean, you must have some other feelings about Logan. You wanted him to be an Avenger, after all."
He remembered that conversation on the way back from the Savage Land like it had happened yesterday. We can't afford not to have him, Tony had said. We're going to need someone to go to that place that we can't. And you know exactly what I mean.
Tony was nodding. "I did. I do." He smiled a small smile and then sighed. "Yeah, okay. I know I give you shit sometimes, Logan, but the truth is that I'm glad you joined up. I'm glad you're with us. It's an honor to fight with you. We need you." Obviously uncomfortable, Tony swallowed and glanced over at Steve. "Is that honest enough for you? I don't see what this is supposed to accomplish."
"Yeah," Luke agreed. "I'm not seeing any amnesia. I'm just seeing him telling us what he thinks of us."
Peter raised both hands in the air. "My turn next!" he crowed. "Come on. Me next. I want to know. I can take it."
Tony chuckled and shook his head. He was smiling, Steve realized. He smiled when he thought about the others. They made him happy.
Steve should have seen this. He should have caught this days ago, when it first happened.
It was so obvious.
And Tony was grinning over at Peter. "You're a good kid," Tony said, with a laugh.
"Excuse you," Peter said, with mock offense in his tone. "I am a grown man. I'm married. I have a real, full-time, adult job. I have an apartment. I pay rent. What more do you want of me?"
"Don't care," Tony said, and the words were warm, a joke, a game. "You're still a kid, Peter. You're still going to be a kid in fifty years. That's just how it works. It's like how Logan calls everyone bub." He was still smiling. "And, yeah, I'm glad you're on the team." The smile was even fonder now, tinged with the warmth of reminiscence. "You remember that time, years ago, when we tried to recruit you to the Avengers? We had that test for you. Told you you could join us if you caught the Hulk and brought him back. God, I guess you must have been, what, fifteen?" He shook his head in amazement. "We had no idea."
Steve hadn't thought about that day in years. That team meeting, the one they'd called to try to recruit Peter -- it had been the first time he'd seen Tony and the rest of the founding Avengers since they'd left the team, left him with Clint and Wanda and Pietro. He'd been so happy, he remembered. So happy to see his pal Iron Man again.
But Tony wasn't his friend anymore, and even if they could fix his memory, it wouldn't change how much Steve had already taken advantage of him--
Peter cackled, delighted. "Oh, absolutely, I was fifteen. You never asked. That's the great thing about superheroes, huh? Nobody cards you." He tilted his head and rubbed at his chin, in thought. "You know, I don't think I ever mentioned that I actually did catch the Hulk that day. I let him go, because I wasn't sure if you guys wanted to help him or hurt him. I decided to be a loner instead."
Tony's smile was bright. "I'm very happy you changed your mind about us now."
"Me too," Peter said, and obviously he was still on the nicknaming topic, "but, come on, I'm older now than you were when you asked me to be on the Avengers the first time--"
Tony was still grinning. "Nope. Still a kid. And I'm team leader, so what I say goes."
"Co-leader." Peter's correction was absent.
"Co-leader," Peter repeated. "You know, with Cap." He gestured at Steve. "The one who actually recruited me to the current team, if you want to be like that."
"Oh," Tony said. "Right. Yeah." He didn't even look at Steve. "I suppose."
"He recruited me too," Jess added.
Tony drummed his gauntleted fingers on the table. "Look, is there a point to this? Do you want me to tell you all my secret feelings about Jess and Luke, too?"
"No," Luke said, fervently.
Steve raised his hand for attention again. "There is a point to this." He met each of the Avengers' eyes in turn; Tony, once again, barely looked at him before looking away. "Would you all agree, then, that Tony's behavior with respect to all of you is normal? That whatever he feels about you is unchanged?"
"Yeah, sure, whatever." Logan waved a hand. "Stark's fine."
"He seems fine to me," Jess put in.
"He's definitely the same." This was Peter.
Luke hummed and nodded.
"Okay. We are in agreement." Steve turned back to Tony. "So, Tony, now I want you to tell everyone what you think of me. What you really, truly think of me."
"Oh, Jesus." Logan dragged his hand across his face. "I can't believe you brought us all here for this, Cap." He sighed. "Hey, Stark, you gonna tell him he has pretty eyes? Couldn't you two get a room? Couldn't you just do the marriage proposal in private?"
Steve was not going to think about that now, because it was obvious that Tony had never liked him the way that Logan was implying. Right now he had to focus on what was wrong with Tony.
Tony's face was twisted in confusion. "You're Captain America," he said, finally, reluctantly, like he was a student who had to put some kind of response down on the test and this was the only thing he could come up with.
"Yes," Steve said, trying to keep his voice even, trying to sound as encouraging as possible. "Go on."
"You're the Sentinel of Liberty. You were a hero of World War II. You're an Avenger now. You've been an Avenger for years."
It was a dry recitation of facts. There was nothing else in it. There was no feeling whatsoever.
Steve nodded. "Right. Do you remember how I joined the team?"
"We found you frozen in an iceberg about a decade ago," Tony said. "We defrosted you. You were still alive, obviously. We offered you membership." There was nothing of the warmth in his eyes that had been there when he'd been talking about Peter, or even Logan. Tony didn't smile. He didn't get even the slightest bit misty-eyed. He didn't call it the best day of my life. It meant nothing to him. Steve meant nothing to him. "So you see," Tony said, triumphantly, "that there's nothing wrong with my memory."
Steve swallowed hard. They were going to fix this somehow. They were going to make him better. Tony was going to remember that-- that he'd cared, once, that maybe he still cared.
"Those are all facts," Steve managed to say. "What I really want to know is how you feel about me."
"Oh, I think we all know that," Logan muttered.
Tony glanced wildly around the room, like he was hoping someone else would tell him the answer. "How I feel about you?"
"Yes," Steve repeated. "How you feel about me."
"You're really making me do this?"
Steve nodded. "I need you to tell me. It's important."
"Uh," Tony said. "Well." He shifted in his seat. The chair creaked with the weight of the armor. "You're... okay, I guess." His eyes darted back and forth. "That's it, really. What else do you want me to say?"
The rest of the Avengers were staring. Luke's mouth was half-open. Logan's eyes were wide. The exposed skin of Jess' face was pale.
"Oh, shit," Peter said, faintly.
"Sorry, bub," Logan said. "I didn't realize." He leaned over and clapped Steve on the shoulder, an awkward gesture of sympathy. "He smelled fine, though. Still does, for what it's worth."
Jess flipped her identicard onto the table. "I'm calling Reed."
Tony was still looking around the room, the picture of perfect confusion, like he couldn't fathom why what he had said had led to this. "I'm fine," he said, but his voice was shaking. "I'm fine. I'm a hundred percent fine. What the hell do you think I should have said?"
No one answered him.
"First," Reed said, grimacing, "I want to offer a sincere apology to you, Captain, for not believing you--"
Steve shook his head. "It's not necessary, Reed. Just, please, tell me there's good news. Tell me you can do something for him."
It had to be fixable. It had to be. Steve couldn't think about the alternative. They couldn't go on like this.
"I'm fine," Tony said, yet again, like it was a reflex, and he rubbed at one of the electrodes on his temple.
They were all back in the infirmary, all of them crowded into the room. Tony was still lying there on the exam table, unarmored now and bare to the waist, wired up to a machine Steve couldn't identity. Reed stood next to Tony's shoulder, holding a sheaf of printouts in one hand.
"There was a virus present in the Controller's discs, of a sort," Reed said, ignoring Tony's denials. "But it wasn't designed for Tony, specifically, and the effect it has had on him is a result of an interaction with Extremis that the Controller obviously did not take into account. As far as I can tell from Tony's logs, what happened was that he became infected with the operating software for the discs. In this way he's similar to the victims of the discs, except without direct physical contact. But Extremis intervened, and therefore he managed to mitigate most of the intended effect. The result was-- well, some unintended effects. As you can see."
Steve pictured the men and women he'd seen fallen victim to the Controller's discs. Slave discs, the Controller called them, and that was certainly what they did: his victims were coerced, held in mental thrall to him, their energy sapped by him. That wasn't what he'd done to Tony. He wasn't behaving like someone in the Controller's power. They all knew what that looked like.
Tony blew out an annoyed breath. "I'm absolutely fine."
"That," Reed said, perhaps more sharply than he needed to, "is actually one of the effects, incidentally."
Steve frowned. "What is?"
"The fact that he thinks he's fine," Reed said. "The fact that he loudly, vociferously proclaims that he is fine, even in the face of what you or I would consider overwhelming evidence to the contrary." Reed glanced down at his papers. "A common design element of viruses -- and of the discs' software -- is that they hide their traces. They delete files. They clean up after themselves. And this one is very elegant. I would have missed it, myself, if you hadn't insisted I look again." Reed had the grace to look embarrassed, at least. "But it was never coded with the expectation that it would interact with Extremis, with a human brain, with a person who had thoughts and feelings. And the way it seems to have manifested in Tony is... the belief that he's fine. The virus tells him he's fine. The virus tells him not to think about it. Not to look too closely or to run more extensive diagnostics. In short, he could have found the virus, but his mind conspired with it not to let him."
Steve tried to wrap his mind around this. Tony wasn't okay -- which they all knew -- but the virus had prevented Tony from recognizing that. It had changed him. What else had it done to him? God, what had it done? So many things could be wrong with Tony. What if there were more problems? What hadn't Steve noticed?
What if it was permanent?
"You said one of the effects," Steve said, and Reed nodded. "And you already know what it did with respect to me." He motioned at himself. "Were there other effects?"
Reed flipped to the next page of his papers. "Other than that and... well, you, there were no other unintended side effects." He stressed the adjective. "But there's still the primary, intended effect of the disc to consider. The slave program. Tony managed to blunt the majority of its effect with Extremis' antiviral defenses, but-- he wasn't entirely successful."
"What do you mean?"
A feeling that threatened to rise into panic clawed at Steve's gut. Was Tony one of the Controller's victims? Was he secretly enslaved? Had he been reporting back to the Controller, this whole time?
"Unmodified, it would have brought his entire mind into the Controller's sphere of influence, yes," Reed said. "But that isn't what happened. The effect seems to have been much more... subtle." He glanced down at Tony, then back at Steve. "You might not have noticed, but he is now more kindly disposed toward the Controller than he ought to be."
"I... hadn't noticed," Steve said, and he tamped down on the little tendril of despair, the one that told him he should have been better, faster, more clever, more observant.
Tony would have noticed.
He supposed there was only one way to test this. He stepped to Tony's side. He met Tony's eyes. He cleared his throat. "Tony, you remember that talk we were all having about feelings?"
Tony somehow managed to convey suspicion, wariness, and the intense desire to get the hell out of here, all the while lying flat on his back, unmoving. "Perfectly."
"How do you feel about the Controller?"
"How do I feel about the Controller?" Tony rolled his eyes; his voice dripped sarcasm. "Geez, Captain, will you give it a rest?" His voice rose into whining mockery. "Put a trace on the Controller, Tony. Look for him on the satellites, Tony. Get up and come to New Jersey and find him, Tony. Tell me how you feel about the Controller, Tony." He glared. "You have a serious obsession with this guy. Why not leave him be? He's not causing any trouble. There are plenty of other villains to chase. He's not even that bad."
Those were not the words that should have come out of Tony's mouth. Even setting aside Tony's newfound dismissal of Steve, Tony had fought the Controller for years. He shouldn't -- he wouldn't -- just set that aside too. He had a sense of responsibility keener than anyone Steve had ever known. He didn't just let supervillains roam the streets. He... he cared.
"You remember a couple years ago, when you went to that stress clinic?" Steve pressed. "The one that was secretly being run by the Controller? You remember that you took him down? You remember that you freed everyone who had been under his control?"
"Eh." Tony shrugged. "I guess."
He just-- he didn't care about the Controller. Like he didn't care about Steve. His feelings for both of them had clearly been brought to an identical apathy, albeit down for Steve and up for Sandhurst.
Steve raised his head to stare, horrified, at Reed; Reed's gaze was sad, knowing.
"I'm sure the Controller would have liked Tony's opinion of him to be even better," Reed said, quietly, "but as I said, Tony does seem to have successfully eliminated the overt loyalty and compliance. It is, however, not Tony's ordinary opinion."
"I'll say," Steve said, under his breath. "I suppose it's a good thing we haven't found the Controller yet, because this could really ruin a mission--"
And then he stopped, awful realization dawning, because it already had.
Not all of Tony's rejections had been personal. Not all of them had been about Steve.
God, he'd been so blind, so wrapped up in himself, that he hadn't even noticed.
"He never looked," he murmured. "Damn it, Tony never even looked for him. He never wanted to."
Tony had done the absolute minimum amount of work that the team had asked of him. He'd checked the satellites once, cursorily, and found nothing. When the rest of the team had been out pounding the pavement looking for the Controller, Tony had excused himself to take care of SI business. He hadn't even checked back with the satellite data or the results of the trace; it had been Peter who had looked. And Tony had refused to go with Steve to Camden -- which Steve had interpreted as personal, and maybe it had been, but it had also been about the Controller. Tony hadn't wanted to find him, because the Controller hadn't wanted Tony to care enough to look.
Steve had missed it. Steve had missed everything.
"No," Reed said, "I don't imagine that he would have."
Steve wanted to sink down, to curl up, to let the weight be on someone else's shoulders. But he was Captain America, and this was his duty, and his team needed him. Tony needed him.
So he pulled himself up, took a breath, and tried to focus. "And what about me?" he asked, and his voice came out of him low and hurt, wretched and despondent. "Why did Tony forget about me? What does the Controller get out of that? What possible benefit is there to that?"
Maybe it didn't have to have a benefit, Steve's miserable mind insisted. Maybe it didn't have to mean anything except pain. Maybe Sandhurst just wanted to hurt somebody. If so, well, it had worked, hadn't it?
"Actually," Reed said, his voice laden with apology, "I think that one's an accident."
Reed nodded. "The portion of the control program that attempts to erase its own tracks does a lot of work with memory, obviously; in Tony's case, his own working memory and a computer's RAM have certain similarities. When the virus tried to make itself untraceable, it did the same for--" he paused, delicately-- "the subject of Tony's conscious thoughts. It dumped everything that had been in his working memory and it tried to destroy the pointers to his long-term memory."
"You're saying," Steve said, unsteadily, "that at the moment he was hit by the virus, he was thinking about me. About what he felt for me. Which is why he doesn't remember it."
At least Tony cared. Had cared. That was worth something.
Reed's smile was weak. He nodded again.
From somewhere behind Steve, there was a sad, quiet bark of a laugh; he thought maybe it was Logan.
"Can it be fixed?"
Reed nodded once more, and Steve's heart soared, but then Reed bit his lip, obviously uncertain. "Theoretically, yes. I can restore him to normal. The virus didn't affect his actual long-term memory, only his ability to access it. But in order to come up with a patch, I'd need a copy of the virus."
"We can get you a deactivated slave disc," Steve offered, because the Controller had left them on all his victims. God knew they had plenty to go around.
But Reed was shaking his head. "It has to be live. I have to see the exact transmission that Tony picked up. I can't reconstruct it."
"So we have to find the Controller," Steve said, "and fight him, while you monitor us."
Steve sighed. He wanted to find the guy and take out every ounce of frustration on him, every bit of pent-up anger over what he'd done to Tony. It wasn't happening. "We haven't been able to find him," he admitted.
Reed raised his eyebrows. "Have you tried asking Tony?"
"He has access to an entire satellite network in his head," Reed said, almost enviously, "and the best pattern-recognition algorithms on the planet. The only reason you can't find the Controller is that Tony hasn't wanted to look. I'm sure he can find him. Faster than you can blink, he can find him."
Steve glanced down; Tony was scowling.
"I don't see why you care so much," Tony said, "but fine. He's in Brooklyn." He hadn't even paused. But he had the answer.
Brooklyn. Again. They'd just picked him up in Brooklyn last month.
Steve took a breath and looked around the room, gauging the readiness of the team, starting to run through tactics in the back of his mind. "Okay, Avengers. Everyone except Tony, grab your gear and suit up. Ten minutes. Reed, if you need anything, now would be a great time to get it. Tony, you're officially scratched."
Tony scowled again. "I am fine."
"You are not," Steve said. "You are not fine, and you are compromised, and you are staying here."
Tony opened his mouth and shut it again. He said nothing. Steve decided that must have been a yes.
Steve glanced over at Luke and Logan. "Are either of you going to change?"
Luke looked down at himself, at his own yellow t-shirt. "Why, what's wrong with this?"
"Slim wouldn't'a made me," Logan said.
Steve bit back about three different things he wanted to say concerning Scott Summers. "Okay. Never mind. As long as you're fighting and you bring comms, wear whatever you want." He glanced over the familiar faces: Luke, Logan, Peter, Jess, Reed. "It would have been nice to have a dedicated flier," he said, wondering as he said it how good Jess' flying was these days, "but we'll make do."
Reed glanced up. "I can get you a flier, Captain."
Reed's mouth quirked. "I'm sure you know my brother-in-law."
Behind Reed, Peter raised both fists high. He laughed, a joyous sound. "Aww, yeah."
At least someone was looking forward to this.
They could do this. They were finally going to get Tony back.
"Flame on!" Johnny yelled, loud enough to be heard even without the comms, and he soared through the sky above them, a bright spark of fire in the air, sailing between towering buildings, as the Avengers ran down the street, arrayed in a wedge with Steve at its point.
Steve's boots pounded against the concrete. He breathed deep, in and out, letting the rhythm settle into his bones, feeling the beat of his heart and the rise and fall of his lungs and the weight of his shield in his hand. There was no room to worry about Tony. There was only this: his team, the enemy, the fight.
Above and ahead of him there were flashes of red and blue, lines of pale webbing, as Peter swung himself along. He and Johnny had gone up first and had locked down the perimeter, had done basic recon. They'd bantered over the comms for a solid ten minutes, every exchange a variety of private jokes and nicknames so ridiculous Steve had begun to wonder if either of them actually knew the other's code name. He and Tony had been like that once, Steve had thought, and he'd started to smile at the memory before the cold edge of unwelcome reality sliced to his heart.
"You know," Johnny said, over the comms, "I don't think I've ever fought this guy before. Mind control, sure, definitely, but not this guy. How have we never met?"
"He's one of Iron Man's, flamebrain," Peter retorted, and Steve wondered how Peter had the breath to keep chattering. "Don't worry, he's a big softy. I've fought him three times this year already. We've got this."
"If he's a big softy," Johnny said, and the light-hearted tone of the banter lowered and turned dark, went deadly serious, "what's he doing in a metal suit? Ugh, would you look at that."
Steve tapped his comm with his free hand, putting himself on the team frequency. "Torch, have you got eyes on the Controller?"
The reply, when it came, was from Peter. "I see him. And he's figured out something's coming. He's in the street. He's got twenty, maybe thirty people in thrall. Unarmed civilians." A pause. "Some of 'em are kids, Cap."
Steve swore under his breath. That was going to complicate things.
"All right," Steve said. "We're moving in. We have to. Reed, are you in position?"
There was a crackle, and then Reed's voice was in his ear. "Affirmative. I have line of sight on the Controller and his victims. Network signal strength is good, but I'm not picking up any transmissions yet."
If Reed was where they'd agreed, he was on a balcony across the street watching, laptop open, connected to every feed he could get. A slower version of Tony. And he was ready to crack the virus, rewrite the code, save Tony's mind.
"Okay," Steve ordered. "Keep watching."
They were coming up on the Controller now. In his peripheral vision, Steve could just barely see Logan, Jess, and Luke, keeping pace with him. His team, waiting on his orders.
"This is what we're going to do," Steve said. "Priority one is no civilian casualties. Luke, Wolverine, I want you to do what you can to neutralize them without harm. He's going to turn them into weapons."
"On it," Luke said.
"I got it, bub," Logan added.
"Spider-Woman, see if your pheromones will break their control."
"Can do, Cap."
"Spider-Man, focus on retrieving the slave discs. Web them off the victims. Maybe they'll transmit something Reed can use."
"Aye-aye," Peter said, and Steve grinned.
Johnny's voice was eager. "Yeah?"
"Flame on," Steve said, and Johnny laughed in his ear. "And stay high. Keep an eye on the fight. I'll call for you when I need you." He lifted his shield; he addressed the whole team again. "The Controller is mine. I'm going to make him pay."
They turned the corner, and then suddenly everything happened all at once.
They were in the middle of it, where before there had been nothing. Now it was the thick of the fighting, and a row of dead-eyed men and women stood before them, silver discs gleaming on their foreheads.
"Avengers!" Steve yelled. "Assemble!"
The fight was the usual chaotic mess -- too many bodies in a tight space, the sizzle of Jess' venom blasts, fire overhead from Johnny, Peter's web lines strewn across the street. One of the Controller's victims, a burly man in a business suit, raised his hands and lurched forward like he meant to punch Steve, but Logan leaped in front of him and bowled him out of the way, at which point Peter swung down and yanked the slave disc off the unconscious man's head.
"Three down, twenty-three to go!" Peter called out, and Steve was grateful that someone was keeping track.
The slave disc sparkled; a light shone in the middle of it. Steve wondered if it was transmitting.
"Nothing yet, Captain." Reed's voice in his ear was patient. Calm. "I'm not picking up any traces of the virus."
"Keep trying," Steve said, and then he spun around and the Controller himself was in front of him.
All Steve saw was red. A noise came out of his mouth that didn't even sound human, a vicious snarl of rage and terror and grief, and he raised his shield. The Controller just smiled.
"Captain America," the Controller said. "We seem to be running into each other a great deal these days. Such a pleasure to see you again so soon." His gaze swept over the battlefield, showily, a king surveying his country. "You seem to have forgotten someone," he murmured, and the smile turned nasty. "Or is it that he's forgotten you, hmm?"
"Goddamn you," Steve said, and he was positive Captain America didn't say that but right now he didn't care what Captain America did or didn't say. "Goddamn you, Sandhurst, give him back to me."
He threw himself forward, shield ahead of him; he raised his fist and punched, with all the strength in him--
And the Controller reached out with one lazy hand and picked him up. By the throat.
Steve's feet dangled in the air. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't breathe, oh God, he couldn't breathe.
"I think you've forgotten something too," the Controller said, in a too-calm voice on the wrong side of sane, as Steve's vision went gray and sparkly. "I think you've forgotten that my slave discs enable me to draw on the energy of my victims. I think you've forgotten that that makes me stronger than you, Captain."
And then he threw Steve across the street and into a building.
Steve crashed hard into the brick. His ears rang, he saw stars, and there was an unpleasant wetness on his scalp that was probably blood. Breathing hurt. Everything hurt. He gritted his teeth and cracked his neck. Okay, nothing broken. Good.
Stand up, Rogers. You can do this. For Tony.
The Controller laughed.
The comm in Steve's ear hissed and crackled, and then there was an achingly-familiar voice, a crackling-static voice.
"Hey, there," Tony drawled. "How can I help?"
Tony. Tony was here.
The sound had preceded the sight, but only by a few seconds: Steve looked up and saw the familiar glint of red and gold in the skies, and his heart soared even as he realized that Tony had disobeyed his direct order.
"Iron Man," he said, only barely remembering to use Tony's code name. "You were grounded."
He tried to make himself sound stern, but he was sure it hadn't worked; he was sure Tony could hear the joy and relief in every word.
"You need me," Tony retorted, and Steve's heart skipped a beat. Oh God. He needed Tony. He did.
"Do you--" Steve began, his voice faint. "Does that mean you remember--"
"This great friendship we supposedly have? Still no." Tony was swooping down, closer and closer, and Steve thought he could see Tony shake his head. "But I remember the Avengers. I remember that I'm a superhero and that they're my team too. I remember that I belong here. And I'm pretty sure we don't have to be best friends for me to save your life, Captain."
He'd take it. God, right now he'd take it. Steve started to smile--
And then the Controller chuckled again. He was looking up too, looking up at Tony as the battle raged around him.
"How stupid are you, Iron Man?" the Controller asked, sneering. "I already took over your mind once this week. Even now the traces of my power remain inside you. And you came back?"
He raised his hand.
Tony dropped out of the sky, plummeting like a stone. And everything within Steve dropped with him.
Oh God, oh God, Tony was going to die, Tony was going to die and there was nothing Steve could do, Tony was going to die and they'd never even--
"I've got him, Cap!" Peter yelled.
A web line whipped through the air, whipped and wrapped around Tony, stretched and pulled taut, and Steve held his breath, waiting to see if the line would break. It stretched as Tony fell. It described the arc of a pendulum, a pendulum where one end was Peter clinging desperately to the side of a building and the other was a man in red-gold armor, tumbling through the air. The line above him hit a balcony and Tony still swung, falling, dangling in midair from a newer, lower pivot, away from the building now.
Tony fell and fell and hit the end of the line.
The line held.
Steve breathed out.
Peter slowly lowered Tony, web-wrapped, to the ground, out of the way of the fighting. Steve could see nothing else but Tony. The rest of the battle had faded.
He'd thought Tony was compromised? Ha. Steve was compromised.
Time to let someone else tag in.
Steve tapped his earpiece. "Torch, this is your time to shine."
"It's always my time to shine, Cap," Johnny said, with a laugh.
As Steve ran toward Tony, he was dimly aware of the air lighting bright with a fireball, of Johnny barreling downward at a hundred miles an hour and knocking the Controller off his feet. Everyone else could do this part without him.
Steve dropped to his knees next to Tony. "Spider-Man, go. Help Torch," he said, without looking up, and he heard the thwip-thwip of webbing as Peter obeyed. Tony wasn't moving, and he fought back horror and déjà vu, because they'd done this, they'd just done this.
He held his shield over both of them, for safety, for Tony's identity, and when he pulled Tony's helmet off, his eyes were black once again. Oh God. Not again. What was the Controller going to take from him this time?
"Captain," Reed said. "I'm picking up transmissions. It's the virus."
"Tony's passed out," Steve snapped, anger and fear churning in his gut, and he had to stay calm. He had to stay calm.
"Analyzing the virus now." There was a pause. "I'll need to lock it down, modify the code I have, deploy a patch--"
Tony's eyes were still empty, Extremis-black. His skin was too pale. And then he arched up hard, a motion that even the armor couldn't hold in check, and he started to shake. A seizure. He was seizing. This hadn't happened last time. Oh, God, Tony.
"I'm going as fast as I can," Reed said. "Coding now." Steve heard the rapid clacking of a keyboard.
"He's having some kind of seizure."
He could hear Reed gulping down air, an audible swallow. "I'm going faster."
Steve sat down hard on the concrete, fumbled with his free hand, and dragged Tony's head into his lap. Even if Tony didn't remember that they were friends, Steve was sure he couldn't fault him for this. Sweat beaded on Tony's sallow forehead; it ran into his hair and down his face. His eyes were still black; his cheeks were hollow. Steve brushed Tony's hair back. He was exquisitely, horribly aware that this was the most helpless he'd ever been in his life.
"Come on," he whispered. "Come on, Tony, please. You can beat this."
He'd do anything. God, he didn't care if Tony didn't remember him, he didn't care if this time Tony hated him forever. Tony just needed to wake up. He had to live. Everything else didn't matter.
Reed's voice intruded on his prayers. "Compiling now. Ten seconds."
The battle raged on around them. Steve let his gloved fingers run over Tony's hair, to his armored shoulder, down his arm to his hand, as if either of them could feel anything through his gauntlets. The remnants of the web line were tacky; they stuck to Steve's fingers. Tony trembled, still seizing, and his blackened gaze stared at the sky, unseeing.
"All right," Reed said. "It's done. I need to switch networks and push the patch through Extremis. Tony gave me temporary passwords."
Somehow the words penetrated the fog of pain and grief in Steve's mind. "You're going to put the thing you just coded directly into Tony's brain? Is that-- is that safe?"
He'd been privy to Tony's computer science rambling over the years, and he remembered words like development and debugging and QA and a ten-minute rant on the inadvisability of putting untested code into production environments.
"Safer than the alternative," Reed said, which meant no, and Steve swallowed hard. There was the sound of a mouse clicking. "Uploading now." A pause. "Uploaded."
Tony shuddered in Steve's arms, his body wracked with another seizure, and God, please, God, don't let him die like this--
"He's still seizing--"
"The code's not deployed yet," Reed said, and Steve wondered dimly how the hell Reed could be this calm. "I can't hot-swap Tony's brain. Extremis needs to reboot to install the patch. Shutting down completely in five, four, three--"
At the edge of Steve's field of vision, Jess zapped a man with one of her venom blasts; the pheromones clearly hadn't worked. There was still fire, fire blossoming everywhere.
And then Tony stopped breathing.
And the subtle low thrum of Tony's heartbeat, the staccato beat that Steve's super-soldier hearing allowed him to discern if he stretched his senses to the limit -- it shuddered to a halt. Tony was perfectly still, unmoving in Steve's arms.
There was nothing.
"Tony," Steve said, and there were tears in his eyes, tears blinding him, soaking his cowl. "Reed, oh God, he's not breathing and his heart just stopped beating, oh Christ, Reed. Tony, Tony, Reed, he's just not--" and he couldn't get any more words out.
"Well, of course he's not," Reed said, with that inhuman calm. "Extremis is what controls his brain, after all."
"Reed, goddammit!" Steve snarled, and he knew he shouldn't talk to anyone like that but Tony was dying, Tony was dead, and he was past any kind of self-restraint. "He needs his brain to live, Reed!"
"Restarting in three more seconds," Reed said, placidly. "Two. One."
Tony's heart pounded, one beat, then two, then tripping into a regular rhythm. His nostrils flared. And then his eyes snapped open.
They were dark blue. Normal. Perfect. The same eyes that Steve had seen behind a golden mask a decade ago.
And then Tony's gaze focused on him, and he didn't even have to say it. Steve saw it in his eyes. Tony knew him. Tony knew everything about him. There was fondness there now, affection, everything that had been missing, everything that Steve had never known how much he could miss, and his heart ached. Tony was here. Tony remembered. Tony cared.
"You're alive," Steve breathed. "You're alive, you're back, it's you."
There were still tears blurring his vision, and he wasn't quite aware of deciding to do it, but he must have dropped his shield, because it landed next to him. He was running his hands over Tony's armor, up to his face, like the only way he could prove to himself that it was Tony was by touching him.
Tony struggled up to sitting and stared at him, dazed, and he was smiling, he was smiling, and he hadn't smiled like that in days, and he was alive--
It felt like a dream, and in a dream he could give voice to so many desires, to everything he'd tried to bury, everything he'd never let himself be aware of. Steve wrapped one hand around the back of Tony's head, pulled him close, and kissed him.
Tony was warm and alive and real and Steve was-- Steve was kissing him. Tony's beard was rough against Steve's face, but his mouth was soft and sweet, his lips parted just enough that Steve could taste him. Oh God. Steve was really kissing him. What the hell was he doing?
He dropped his hands and twisted away, breaking the kiss.
"Oh my God," Steve said, horrified. "I don't know what I was-- oh, God, Tony, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to--"
All of his determination. All of his resolution. All of his promises not to take advantage of Tony, not to make demands of Tony, and what was the first thing he'd done? He'd grabbed Tony and kissed him. He'd practically forced himself on him. There could be no clearer imposition than that. He'd violated him.
Steve wanted to be sick.
Tony was staring at him, still dazed, wide-eyed. No, wait, he was staring through him: his gaze wasn't tracking. He licked his lips. "That was real, right?" Tony asked, and his voice was tremulous with uncertainty. "I mean, I'm not-- I'm not dead or dreaming or hallucinating or infected with another computer virus or something? You actually kissed me?"
Steve nodded, numb and despairing. "Yeah. I actually kissed you." His voice was dull.
"Uh." Jess' voice, suddenly in Steve's ear, was hesitant. "Before either of you say anything else, I think you should know you're still on team comms."
Tony put his face in his gauntleted hands. "Oh, for fuck's sake," he said.
Steve thought distantly that once, this news might have upset him, might have embarrassed him, but there was no room in him for anything other than the one, circling thought, a record needle stuck in a groove: oh God, what have I just done?
"Mazel tov!" Johnny put in, cheerfully.
"I knew you two crazy kids would work it out eventually," Peter said, laughing, like he and Johnny had practiced being a comedy duo just for days like this. There was another thwipping noise. "Oof. Hang on, almost done."
Tony didn't look up, which meant that he entirely missed Peter throwing the Controller through a building and into unconsciousness, which freed the last of the Controller's victims.
The fight was over. Tony's amnesia was gone.
But it was too late. Steve had already ruined everything. For good, this time.
Tony barely looked at him all the way back to the tower; he hardly glanced at him as he moved toward the pilot's seat of the Quinjet that the team had flown over without him. (The Quinjet was perfectly functional; Tony had flat-out lied to his face that morning when he had said it wasn't. Another thing to chalk up to the Controller's virus.)
He'd flipped the faceplate up as soon as the Quinjet's doors closed -- by some miracle, none of the civilians on the streets had caught on to his identity when Steve had pulled his helmet off -- and then he grimaced, like he wished he hadn't, as he walked up the aisle, and that was when he passed Steve.
Steve had hated the terrifying indifference Tony had displayed to him the past few days, but this was a thousand times worse. There was emotion on Tony's face now, a melange of feelings where before there had been nothing. Their eyes met for a split-second and Steve could see it all: anguish, pain, regret. And then Tony turned away.
Steve had done that to him.
The rest of the Avengers, arrayed in the seats around Steve, didn't seem to want to look at Steve either. They'd glance at him and then they'd guiltily look away. They'd known what they'd intruded on. They didn't know what to say to him. He didn't blame them.
Even Peter was mostly quiet, exchanging only a few hushed whispers with Johnny.
When they landed, Reed hurried Tony off to the infirmary, presumably to scan him and make sure the last traces of the virus were gone.
Tony didn't even look at him.
Steve heard Tony's voice echoing indistinctly down the corridor, low and dispirited, as he responded to Reed's routine baseline questions.
The rest of the team looked at each other, and then at him, and Logan eventually gestured in the direction of the common floor. Time for the superhumans with enhanced metabolisms to start refilling the bottomless pits they all had in place of stomachs. "We're gonna order some pizza, Cap," Logan said. "If you--"
He shook his head. "No, thank you. I'm not hungry."
He headed to his own room in the tower, where the late-afternoon sunlight was slanting through the windows, and he collapsed onto the bed with a sigh. Cap's sulking again, he could imagine his teammates saying. If Jan were on the team, he thought, a little wistfully, she wouldn't have stood for this. She'd have come in, perched on the edge of the bed, and just started talking. He'd never figured out how she did it, but by the end of it he'd feel better. If Clint were on the team, now, Clint would come jump on his goddamn bed and drag him out of the room--
Clint was dead.
The knife-slash of grief ripped through him, a sharp slice of pain and shame because it had been six months and he'd been there, he'd seen it, he'd watched Clint die for them all, and Clint wasn't coming back. How could he forget? How had he forgotten?
What right did he have to think he could put a team back together? Who were they now? Who was Steve anymore? Everything he'd done in a decade, everything he'd been able to do, had been clawed from Tony's hands. Tony's money, Tony's gear, Tony's mansion, Tony's tower, and Steve had just taken and taken and taken it all, and then he'd kissed Tony. He'd taken Tony, because he'd thought he deserved him too.
It was a wretched thought.
If Tony were here--
He had no right even to imagine that Tony should be here.
He shut his eyes and threw his arm over his face.
His phone rang. The ringtone was Avengers, non-priority; it was one of the functions he'd rerouted from what should have been his identicard.
It was clearly going to be a long time before he got another one of those.
Maybe he should resign from the team.
He sighed and tapped the answer button.
"He's all clear, Captain," Reed said. "There are no traces of the Controller's virus."
Steve's throat was dry. "Glad to hear it."
And he was. He wanted Tony to be well. He wanted what was best for Tony. And if that meant not him, never him -- he could give Tony that.
There was a pause. "He wants to talk to you."
He couldn't. He had to. At the very least, Tony was his team co-leader, and Steve had a duty to him because of that. He had to talk to him for the sake of the team. And he at least owed him an apology, personally. He owed him so many apologies.
Whatever Tony wanted to say to him, he'd earned it.
"All right," Steve said. "I'm coming down now."
He stood up, wiped his face off, and headed out the door.
At the end of the hallway was the infirmary, and Steve could see Reed packing the equipment he'd brought with him into hard-sided cases. Johnny was helping, which was a little odd, because Steve would have bet anything he'd have wanted to hang out with Peter instead, but he supposed it was because the two of them were leaving.
Reed snapped the last case shut, handed it to Johnny, and the two of them came down the hall toward him.
"Thanks so much for all your help, both of you," Steve said, smiling, letting the part of him that remembered how to do this take over even as the rest of his mind drowned in despair.
Reed nodded. "You're welcome."
Reed continued down the hallway, but Johnny stopped. Johnny was staring at him with an odd expression on his face, something strange, nervous and grave; they always said the Human Torch was a cheerful guy, a fella who didn't even know how to be serious, and the expression looked out of place on his face as he ran his free hand through his hair.
Steve frowned. "Can I do something for you, Johnny?"
Johnny glanced up and down the corridor as the elevator closed behind Reed. "Can I talk to you for a second?"
Curiouser and curiouser, as the quotation went. He wondered what Johnny wanted with him.
"Sure, of course," Steve said.
He was getting the idea from the way Johnny's gaze was darting around that Johnny meant in private, and Steve yanked open the nearest door, which turned out to be a room of filing cabinets. Good enough. Johnny followed.
Steve shut the door behind them. "So, what do you want to talk about?"
"Okay." Johnny let the case he was carrying drop at his feet and he spread his hands wide. "I was talking to-- to Tony, there, just now, and I was thinking. And I've got a metaphor. It's kind of a weird metaphor, but just go with it, okay? I'm not the genius of the family."
Steve squinted. "I-- I don't understand."
"When you were a kid," Johnny began, "did you ever get a piece of candy or a chocolate bar and save it? Maybe you'd save the last square of chocolate or the last bite of candy, and you'd wrap it up and you'd keep it? Even if it was really good. Especially if it was really good." He half-smiled. "Because if you ate it, see, it'd be all gone. And you'd keep it even if-- even if you were hungry." He frowned and shook his head. "God, this is stupid. I'm sorry. Geez, did they even have candy in the past? This is stupid. I should go."
He shifted his weight like he meant to move, to leave, and on impulse Steve put a hand on his shoulder. Johnny froze.
"It's not stupid," Steve said, and he didn't know what Johnny's point was, but he knew it was important. "And, yes, we had candy. Not that I had much of it. Or much of anything else. I... I was hungry. A lot."
Johnny blinked at him, slow and stunned, like he hadn't thought that Steve would be willing to take his metaphor quite so literally.
"I grew up poor in the Great Depression," Steve added. "And then there was the war, and I volunteered for a government experiment that, among other things--" he could feel his mouth trying to smile-- "gave me a metabolism four times higher than a baseline human. And there was rationing."
But he'd done that, he'd done exactly what Johnny had been talking about, too many times to count. He'd parceled out his penny candy on the rare days he'd gotten it, making every piece last, saving a piece just in case -- just in case there wouldn't be any more. When Steve was ten, a kind-hearted shopkeeper had given Arnie's family chocolate gelt for Arnie, for Hanukkah, and Arnie had brought Steve two precious chocolate coins. Steve had eaten one, because Arnie had been there, and he hadn't even dared to unwrap the other.
In the war it had been worse. There had been rationing Stateside. Do with less so they'll have enough, the posters had said. But after the serum, it had felt like Steve could never have enough, hunger always gnawing at his belly. They'd issued him more food, more rations than anyone else in the Army got, and Steve felt greedy and awful with every bite he took, taking away something someone else could have had. Knowing that his body needed it hadn't made him feel better. At least when he'd been skinny, he hadn't needed as much.
"And then," Steve concluded, aloud, "I woke up in the future and moved in with a billionaire, and I've never been hungry since."
"Nice work if you can get it." Johnny grinned, but his smile looked oddly strained.
When he'd first come to the future, when he'd moved into the mansion, his newfound freedom had been overwhelming. He could eat whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, and however much of it he wanted. He could order everything off the Chinese take-out menu at two in the morning and Tony Stark would pay for it all. He wouldn't be taking it away from anyone else. And Steve hadn't known what to do. No one in his life had ever offered him this.
He'd fallen back, hard, on the habits of his childhood, because they were the only rules he knew. He'd hoarded food. He'd made sure the rest of the team was fed first, even if that meant his portion was the smallest. He'd eaten all the leftovers, scrupulously, even if they were foods he hated, because he couldn't waste them, because he couldn't shake the belief that someday there wouldn't be any.
He hadn't dared to buy himself candy. It would have been an extravagance.
At first, no one had noticed -- or if they had, they'd assumed it was just some charming quirk, Cap will eat anything, some old-timey habit. And it had been a habit, indeed. But it was one he didn't know how to break.
About a month after he'd met him, Tony gave Steve a chocolate bar. He'd been on a business trip to Europe, he'd said, and he'd thought Steve might like this, and he'd pressed the candy into Steve's hand. It was good chocolate, Steve had seen on the label, real Swiss chocolate. And he knew then that he couldn't have any, because it would be gone and there would be no more and there was no point getting used to anything, getting used to this wondrous future, when he could fall into the ice again and wake up decades later, when it could all be taken away again--
He'd left the chocolate in a desk drawer.
And then a couple days later, he'd run into Tony in the hallway, and Tony had asked him if he liked the chocolate, and he, ashamed, had had to admit -- he wasn't going to lie to him -- that he hadn't touched it.
To this day, he remembered how Tony's face had fallen. Oh, Tony said, dully, and he hadn't looked at him. I'm sorry, he said. I'll get you something else next time. I didn't know you didn't like it. What kinds of things do you like?
Steve had gone hot and he'd stammered out an explanation. It wasn't that, he said. He liked it. He was sure he would have liked it. But then it would have been gone, and he didn't want to waste it and he couldn't-- he couldn't just waste food. He couldn't just-- let himself enjoy it, and he couldn't even manage to tell Tony that.
Tony had always been a genius, and he'd watched Tony then, as Tony put it all together. He'd watched him think it all through: the explanation, the way Steve had acted, the way Steve acted about all the food, and he'd just known. And then he'd looked at him, eyes wide and earnest, and he'd said, very softly: there will always be more for you. There will always be enough for you. There will always be enough for everyone. I promise.
He hadn't said it like he was boasting about his wealth, like he wanted Steve to know he could afford to do this. He'd said it like he cared. Like even then he wanted to take care of Steve, any way Steve would let him.
The next day, there had been two chocolate bars next to his door. And he'd eaten-- well, he'd eaten one, and then he'd offered the other one to... Iron Man, he remembered. Because he certainly hadn't needed two. But it had been a start.
Even then, he thought, Tony had been giving and Steve had been taking, and the once-warm memory went cold and ugly inside him.
Steve sighed. "But yeah, Johnny. I know what you mean, about saving things for later. I used to do that too."
"So you keep it, right?" Johnny asked, and something about his voice was too insistent. "You hold onto it, and you have it, not to use up, but just to think about. Just to know that you could. And maybe if you're having a lousy day, you think I've got that piece of candy, and just knowing that you have the option... it keeps you happy, right? It cheers you up."
"Yeah," Steve agreed, cautiously.
He was beginning to wonder what Johnny actually wanted advice about.
"But did you ever wait too long?" Johnny's mouth twisted. "Like, one day, you go back to it, and it's not there. Maybe your sister ate it. Wow, that doesn't belong in this metaphor." He snorted. "Anyway, it's not there or it's not good anymore and you can't. You've lost your chance."
"Johnny," Steve said, very quietly, "what's this about?"
Johnny met his eyes, and his usually-bright gaze was clouded. "Two months ago I found out who Spider-Man was."
Steve didn't know what he'd expected Johnny to say, but it sure as hell hadn't been that.
The story Johnny was telling-- losing his chance-- God, did he mean-- no, he couldn't have--
"I've known him a long time," Johnny said, and the corners of his mouth twitched wryly. "As long as you've known Tony Stark. Maybe longer. And I've known him in both his identities. He's been one of my best friends for years." He laughed, a dry chuckle. "He's been two of my best friends, actually."
Steve knew all about that one, boy, did he. "Yeah," Steve said. "I have some experience with that particular set of circumstances."
There was a terrible sadness in Johnny's eyes now, an empty resignation. "I thought I had Spidey," he whispered. "I didn't know. He was a guy in a mask. He could be... whatever I wanted him to be. And he was. For me, he was. I always thought I had a chance, and then two months ago I found out I actually didn't. I hadn't for years. I found out it was already gone." He half-smiled again, pained. "I waited too long."
"Johnny--" God, what was Steve supposed to tell him? It wasn't as if Steve was any kind of good example.
"I don't know if he ever would have," Johnny said. "It doesn't matter. That's not the point. I'm glad he's happy. I am. Mary Jane's great. I'll survive. I'm surviving." And then he swallowed hard and straightened up, and he looked Steve straight in the eye. "What I wanted to tell you was this: you have a chance."
Oh. Johnny Storm wanted to offer him advice.
Steve could barely force the words out. "It's not that simple."
"Have you seen our lives, Cap?" Johnny gestured around himself. "Nothing's simple. That doesn't mean it's not worth it."
How could he possibly explain any of this to Johnny? Sure, he'd known Tony for a decade, but not all of that had been good. They disagreed. They fought. Sometimes there had been actual punches. And now here they were, trying to hold a new team together on a foundation that maybe wasn't stable at all. Tony might have treated him poorly for the past two days, but Steve been taking advantage of Tony's kindness for ten years and... he didn't see a way to recover from that one.
Steve tried to interrupt him again. "Johnny--"
"I know, you're going to tell me it's not my business." Johnny's shoulders jerked, a shrug, acknowledging the point before Steve could make it. "And maybe it isn't. You're going to tell me it's complicated, and there are things I don't understand, or whatever. And there probably are. But I saw him."
"You saw him?"
Johnny nodded. "He loves you. You know that, right? He loves you and the whole world knows it and he's-- he's terrified of screwing this up. Not that he was going to say that. He kept asking us how you were, if you were all right, if we'd talked to you, how you looked, how you were feeling. And I just-- if I had a chance, I'd take it. That's it. That's all I wanted to say."
He bent down and he picked up the case.
The whole world knows, Steve thought. He thought about the looks on his teammates' faces when Tony had said he felt nothing for Steve.
"Johnny," Steve said, when Johnny had put his hand on the door and pasted a carefree smile on his face.
When Steve entered the infirmary, he didn't know what it was Johnny had said he'd seen. Tony was there, all right, perched on the edge of a chair, staring out the window. It looked like Steve had interrupted him in the process of getting dressed again. He had his pants on, and he was wearing socks, but his shirt hung open, unbuttoned, exposing a long line of skin. There was a bandage on his ribs and a bruise on his temple, and he looked up and smiled a weak smile at Steve.
If this was undying love, Steve didn't see it. Tony didn't look any different than normal; he was even, perhaps, more withdrawn.
"What did Johnny want?" Tony asked, and Steve realized Tony must have been able to hear the first half of the conversation.
"Actually," Steve said, "he wanted to offer me some advice. He said I should talk to you."
A smile flickered across Tony's face. "Funny, that's what he said to me too."
Johnny Storm, matchmaker. It had been a day.
"Tony," Steve said, and then he didn't know what else to say.
And Tony looked at him and he said, "No."
Tony was a futurist. And Tony knew him. Had known him for ten years. Tony had probably seen this conversation, mapped out in his head, a tree with a thousand different branches unfurling. He would say this and Tony would say that, and Tony knew, just looking at him, exactly how this would go. And he was denying it already.
"Not like that," Tony said, and apparently he could tell what was inside Steve's head after all. "I mean, don't start like that. Don't apologize. I see you thinking. You have nothing to apologize for."
"I am sorry, though," Steve said.
He found he couldn't make himself say I'm sorry I kissed you. He clenched and unclenched his fists, and Tony watched him fidget, in silence.
Tony licked his lips, and suddenly Steve couldn't stop staring at his mouth, and every thought in his head snapped into I kissed you I kissed you I kissed you, a cascade of shame and desire, and Steve was positive Tony knew exactly what was in his head.
"FIFO," Tony said.
"First in, first out," Tony clarified, though it wasn't much of a clarification. "Opposite of last in, first out. A queue, not a stack." He raised his eyebrows. "Means that we talk about the kissing thing last, because it happened last, and it's just -- it depends on too many other things, and it's all tangled up right now. And it means I'm going to apologize, because I've spent two days being an asshole to you."
His expression was both sad and triumphant; he'd beaten Steve to an apology. His fingers were toying with the buttons on his shirt, but he wasn't actually buttoning it.
"I know I told you this already," Steve said, and he could feel his throat tighten around the words again, "but you didn't treat me any differently than you treated anyone else. You don't owe me an apology for treating me the same as the rest of the team. And I-- I'm just sorry I didn't realize how much I've demanded of you over the years. How much I've taken from you."
He couldn't look at Tony. He turned. He went to the window.
There was the rustling noise of Tony moving, and when he spoke, he was closer than Steve would have thought.
"Steve," Tony said, low and wretched. "It's not like that, okay? It was never like that. It's been an honor to know you. To be your teammate and-- and your friend." That, Steve noticed, was clearly as far as Tony was going to go with naming what was between them. "Sure, I've done a lot for you. Maybe-- maybe more than I have for other people. But it was all willing, all right? You didn't make me do anything. I-- I like doing things for you. I always have."
Steve turned back. Tony was close now, at his shoulder, still watching him. "But you can't deny I've demanded things of you," Steve said, and Tony swallowed hard, and Steve knew he'd hit the truth. "That I've come to expect this... treatment... from you."
Tony's eyes unfocused; his gaze went over Steve's shoulder, and then he looked back, an intense stare, meeting fire with fire. Tony always did stand up to him. And then something about it went soft, gentling the tense lines of his face. "You expect a lot from people," Tony said, and his words were low and easy, the careful tone of a man who didn't want the words to come across as an insult. "It's who you are. It's not a bad thing. All of us, everyone, you make us want to be better. I don't know how you do it, but you make us be our best." He paused. "You remember, when we were putting this team together, how we talked about fate?"
How could Steve forget? "I remember."
"And then," Tony said, "and then when we asked Logan to join, I told you that we needed him because he was the spark. I told you that we needed him the way the first team had needed you. You were the spark for us then. We were a team before you, in a sense, but we weren't really a team before we had you. You made us what we are. You know what I mean?"
"For me, you still are," Tony said, and for the life of him Steve couldn't tell if Tony was proud of it or if he was confessing to a crime. "You've always been. My spark. Since I met you. I just-- God, Steve, I wanted to give you everything. Everything you ever wanted. I saw how you looked at me, how you've always looked at me, and I wanted to be the man you saw when you looked at me. I wanted to be him. That man, that hero. I wanted to be as good as you thought I was."
Oh, Tony. Steve wanted to reach out, to touch him, as if his touch could convince Tony of the truth. But that was a road he couldn't go down, because the less-noble half of him wanted to push the shirt off Tony's shoulders and run his hands over Tony's body.
"You are," Steve insisted. "You are, Tony, you've always been--" He paused and swallowed hard. "I only ever wanted you to be yourself. And what you are, that's amazing. You don't need to go to extremes. You're already what I wanted." He heard himself and thought about how he'd pulled Tony to him and kissed him in front of God and everybody and, apparently, done so while live on comms. Tony was what he wanted, all right. "I guess you, uh. You figured that part out, right?"
He watched as Tony's face went blank. It wasn't how Tony had looked at him with amnesia; this was the opposite. This was caring too much and then locking it all away. Slamming down the lid of the box and throwing away the key.
"Oh," Tony said, in a very small voice. "This is the part where you tell me again how you don't know what came over you and you're very sorry you kissed me."
His eyes begged: tell me that's not true.
He loves you and the whole world knows it.
That was why Tony had been upset. Oh, God.
He hadn't been upset that Steve had kissed him. He'd been upset that Steve had apologized for it.
"You think I don't want you," Steve said, slowly. "Tony. You're what I wanted, yes. I don't mean that in the past tense. You're what I still want."
Hope glimmered in Tony's eyes, and he flexed his fingers like he was trying not to reach for him. Like Steve was a mirage, or -- to use one of Tony's beloved examples -- Schrödinger's cat. Like Tony could only believe this as long as he didn't touch him. "Generally speaking," Tony said, and his voice was shaking, and his throat worked, "people who want me don't apologize for kissing me."
"I'm an idiot," Steve said, hoarsely, and he could hardly see and he took three stumbling steps forward and hoped Tony would be there to catch him. "I'm a selfish idiot and I'm sorry I'm an idiot but I'm not sorry I kissed you and I love you."
Steve found that those all-important last three words were muffled by the collar of Tony's shirt. His face was pressed against Tony's neck, and Tony's arms went around his waist, because Tony always, always caught him.
"Shh," Tony said, and then he tipped Steve's chin up with two fingers and kissed him gently, a sweet kiss, a comfort. He drew back and peered at Steve, and he seemed to like what he'd found, because he was smiling. "Shh, easy. There we go."
Steve took a breath and let himself relax into Tony's hold, leaning his head on Tony's shoulder. "Hey, Tony?"
"How do you feel about me?"
Tony's laughter was a soft breath of air against his skin. "I've been desperately in love with you for a decade."
"Oh." Steve found he was smiling. "Oh, well, that's all right, then."
The laugh now had a little more substance. "All right? I bare my soul and this is what I get? All right?"
"Maybe a little better than all right," Steve allowed.
"Well," Tony said. "Good."
They couldn't just stand here in the infirmary forever. Steve opened his mouth to suggest that they move on, and then he realized -- that was him making demands again.
He was going to do better. He was going to be better. Give. Not take.
"So," Steve said, "what do you want to do? You pick. Anything you want."
"Anything I want?" Tony asked. His voice went low and dark and suddenly there wasn't enough air in the room and, oh, Steve was going to like this. "I've got a few suggestions."
"You haven't even heard them."
"Still yes," Steve said. "I trust you."
And Tony smiled, took his hand, and led him away. And, for the first time this week, everything was actually fine. Far better than fine. Perfect.