The first time he opens his eyes after Project Rebirth, he's in a hospital bed. There's a man at his bedside, a man he doesn't recognize. Waking up in a strange place with a strange person should put him on guard at the very least, but the man has kind eyes and a soft smile and Steve's really not uncomfortable at all. Something in his facial features sparks recognition; it's definitely not Howard, but a family member, maybe? A brother, a cousin? Something slurs his tongue when he tries to ask. All that comes out is a heavy, Howard?
The man's eyes are no longer kind, and his smile drops completely for a split second before returning, sharp as knife. All at once his expression seems so fragile, almost broken, and Steve feels inexplicably sad for this man though he's not entirely certain why he feels it so deeply.
When he wakes again, the man is gone.
He doesn't come back.
They bring him to awareness slowly, in bits and pieces. An hour here, another there, never fully off whatever medication they're keeping him on. They ask him about the last thing he remembers. When he tells them, they send him to sleep again. They tell him next, at his most fuzzy and pleasant, that Project Rebirth worked. He examines his body and finds that, yes, they are correct. He examines his new muscles with sense of hazy self-congratulation.
He has a strange thought as he pats himself down—Christ, Cap, you're fucking gorgeous—that doesn't feel entirely his own. It has a strange voice to it, like a memory, only Steve doesn't know where it would come from. Also, he's not Captain of anything, so he's not sure why he called himself that. Or why he referred to himself in the third-person in his own mind to begin with, since he's fairly certain he's never done that before. They're telling him to get some rest though, so he does.
When they bring him to consciousness again, he's a little clearer, albeit not much. They tell him he's lost some of his memory, and though he knows he should be concerned, his first thought is that it feels about right. They tell him he's lost eight non-consecutive years, but the way they say it, non-consecutive, doesn't sit quite right. He asks about that. They tell him to get some sleep.
I slept for seventy years, I think I've had my fill.
He jerks forward at the uncomfortably familiar thought—scares the doctor a little, he thinks, the way they flinch—and demands to know how long it's been, consecutively. The doctor exchanges a glance with the man in the corner, a different man than was at Steve's bedside before. Steve had been more heavily sedated then, but he remembers the man being disheveled. Tired. He might've had bruises as well, though Steve isn't certain. This man is wearing a simple, clean-pressed suit, and everything about him is immaculate. His eyes are not unkind, but they are watchful in a very different way than the man from before. This man hasn't said anything yet, and he doesn't now. He just nods.
The doctor tells Steve it's been seventy-eight years.
Steve's response is a dim, oh. He feels like this should surprise him more than it does. When he doesn't say anything else, the doctor continues. Tells him that he became someone known as Captain America—Cap—and he fought in the war for two years before he went down in a plane crash over the Arctic Circle. The serum had apparently preserved him, and an organization known as SHIELD had recovered and defrosted him nearly six years ago. He alternates now between the titles of Captain America and Commander Rogers, depending on the context.
He knows that, objectively, he should be freaking out. This is a freaky thing to happen to a person. Maybe it's the drugs, maybe it's the fact that he's probably done this once before, but he doesn't bother to ask any of the questions that roll around in his head. Asking them just feels redundant. He supposes it's because he's asked them all before, even if he can't remember the answers. They ask him if he has any questions. He asks where the man who looks like Howard Stark went.
The doctor exchanges a glance with the man in the corner again. This time he shakes his head. The doctor tells him they'll look into it, but Steve doesn't need his memory to recognize a meaningless platitude when he hears one.
He doesn't bring up the man again.
He found out later that it was a full month before they weaned him off the drugs completely. Once he was, the man who'd nodded to the doctor started appearing in his room twice daily, at 1000 and 1500 on the dot. Steve learned that his name was Phil Coulson, and that for the time being Steve was to be allowed no other visitors. Phil was a SHIELD agent, and apparently a colleague. Phil told him he had an accident in combat, that he'd been inside a collapsing building. One of his teammates—one of the new ones, the one named Iron Man—got him out before he was crushed, but they both got knocked around hard, and he'd taken a header in the process.
Phil began bringing him up to speed, starting with film reels of his actions in the war and ending with something he called a powerpoint that he showed to Steve on something he called a laptop. The powerpoint had pictures and videos of his actions in the six years since he'd resurfaced in the modern world, and once pictures and information on his team started popping up, Steve realized the man from his bedside as a teammate of his. It explained why he was present, and the fact that they all seemed to live together perhaps explained his fond behavior before he realized Steve didn't remember him. Beyond the one, brief non-meeting, however, he was still a stranger to Steve; they all were. It was unnerving to be told these people were probably the closest thing he had to friends now when his brain told him he'd never so much as met them.
To discover he was seventy years into the future, that everyone he knew was now either dead or long moved on stung, but…that was it. It wasn't natural, Steve thought, to feel this way; it should feel like having your guts ripped wide open, when instead it only felt like poking a still-healing scar. It was uncomfortable and it certainly stung, but it rapidly faded to the back of his mind, like an already processed fact of life.
He supposed if even half of that powerpoint was true, things like this shouldn't surprise him much anymore.
He memorized his teammates faces and names in the meantime. He lived with these people. These were his friends, he thought, because how could he live with five other people and not be friends with at least one of them? One of them had to like him, even just a little. So he repeated their names to himself instead of reading the books Phil provided, because the books did nothing but frustrate him. He didn't actually remember the information, but reading about it felt repetitive anyway, boring, despite the fact that the subject matter should've interested him and he'd always loved to read.
He asked if his teammates could visit now. Phil shook his head.
So Steve repeated their names to himself instead, and watched the powerpoint Phil left him, over and over and over until he could mimic it word for word. He watched it compulsively, willing himself to remember, to get to know these people all over again through the screen, because they meant he wasn't alone.
At least, he wouldn't be, if he could only remember them.
The first visit finally happened at a month and a half. They were only allowed to come in one at a time, one a day, for a half hour each. The doctors were concerned about information overload; in reality, Steve was bored out of his mind. He considered making a break for it, but it was a fantasy more than anything. He wouldn't know where to go.
The one female member of his team came first, Natasha. He thought they sent her because she was a woman and therefore apt to be gentler about these things, so he was a little miffed at first that they thought he needed special treatment. Then she arrived.
"If you wanted a vacation, you could've just asked."
She smacked his leg without hesitation as she passed him to sit at his bedside, her words casual, easy, her voice fondly exasperated. She wasn't careful around him the way the doctors and Phil had been, and she certainly wasn't the soft touch he was expecting. In fact, she wasn't quite like any woman he'd ever met; she carried herself with confidence, similar to Peggy, but not quite. There was no challenge in Natasha's confidence, no demand for respect. It seemed more like she simply expected it, and pity on the poor fool who didn't keep with the program. But then, Natasha had nothing to prove. Society had come far enough, or so he'd read, that she could stand head and shoulders above her male counterparts in SHIELD without anyone batting an eye. Male agents reported to her without thought; Peggy would've revered this woman.
She examined him a moment, patiently, perhaps waiting on an answer.
"I don't know about that." Steve glanced up at her. "Hospital beds are more par for the course than a vacation."
"Not these days, Cap." She smiled, sort of, but it was sharp in a way he couldn't quite get a read on. He felt like he should recognize her expression. He didn't. "You can't even catch a cold."
"Huh." A lifetime of hospital stays, of getting every germ and virus known to man, of knowing he'd be lucky to make it past sixteen, and now he couldn't even catch a cold. Strange world. "Really?"
"You can heal a broken arm in a day." Natasha nodded. "I've seen it."
"Christ Almighty," Steve murmured. What else could he say? Just a few months ago, a broken arm could've…well. Seventy-eight years ago, he supposed. He waved a hand at his head. "Think I'll heal…this, then? They haven't told me much about my condition, besides how it happened."
"If it had happened to anyone else, they'd be permanently brain damaged. Possibly dead." The way she said it was clinical, smooth and easy and unperturbed. "You were awake within a week. Responsive within another. The only thing that hasn't returned is your memory, and it's because your healing factor has you trapped in something they're calling a recursive loop."
"Can I break it?"
"They think so." Natasha inclined her head, not quite a nod, not quite anything else. "In time. We're going to visit you one by one, see if our faces spark any recognition. If that doesn't rouse anything, we'll bring you home. The doctors hope familiar faces and old routines will do the trick."
"And if that doesn't work?"
"Then we try other things." She glanced up at him. Her words were just as clinical as before, but there was a hint of softness in the way she looked at him that he wasn't expecting. "You'll get better, Steve. And if you don't, you'll reacclimatize; you have people who remember you. That's worth more than you realize."
"Are we…more than teammates?" Steve asked, then realized quickly how that sounded, "All of us, I mean. Living in the Tower, working together…is it just convenience, or are we friends?"
"We're friends." She chuckled, seeming amused by his brief fumbling. "All of us."
"Would it be too strange if I asked you to describe them to me?" He couldn't resist. "Phil only provided me with names and pictures."
"No, that's fine." She paused briefly, thinking it over. "I work for SHIELD. My specialty is hand-to-hand combat and firearms. Clint and Sam—Hawkeye and Falcon—are both agents as well. Thor is from another realm, Asgard, as I'm sure they've informed you. His physical strength exceeds even your own, and he wields a hammer he calls Mjolnir. Bruce is intelligent, a scientist. The Hulk isn't as…precise, but when he's in control he's a powerful ally. Tony's a mechanical engineer. He designed the Iron Man suit, that's his weapon of choice."
"That's, uh. Nice. But I was asking more about what they're like as people, not their combat assets." The look Natasha gave him was strange. "What?"
"Nothing." A small smile played over her lips, there one moment and gone the next. "You sound the same as always, that's all."
She told him about them then, though not in as much detail as Steve would like. She wasn't a storyteller, he could tell that much; she described people by their uses. She didn't do it coldly, and she did seem to care about these people they lived with, their friends, but her descriptions didn't give him much insight.
The next day was Sam's turn to come. Sam was more animated, and he shared stories with Steve that were a little surreal to hear considering he was in them, but were ultimately entertaining and far more informative. After Sam was Clint, who was much more rambunctious and less inclined to hide or avoid topics he wasn't supposed to talk about. He was more open, more brash, than both Sam and Natasha before him. After Clint was Bruce. Bruce was quieter, more withdrawn, though he brought Steve books he apparently hadn't read before he lost his memory, books he could actually dig into without getting a migraine, so his visit was easily Steve's favorite yet. After Bruce was Thor—an alien, which was somehow not considered exceedingly strange, because apparently that was what the world had come to—who was nothing less than exuberantly delighted to see Steve awake and entirely confident in his swift recovery.
Steve was keeping track, he knew who was next. He felt eager in a way he couldn't quite put a finger on. Perhaps it was because Tony's was the first face he saw when he woke up; perhaps they were good friends and this was some kind of echo feeling. He wasn't certain about that. What he was certain about was that he was excited for Tony to visit. The others had all come to visit at 1200 precisely; on Tony's day, Steve was awake and waiting and pretending to read. He read the same page so many times he lost count.
Tony never showed.
Steve couldn't put into words how he felt about that. There was disappointment, yes, but a vague sense of wrong too, an echo of a sentiment he couldn't identify. He didn't know if Tony was the type to miss appointments, or if he had simply been busy with something; he didn't know what Tony was like or what he did with his days, so that could be likely, Steve was sure. Phil entered the room after some time passed, told him Tony unfortunately couldn't make it today, but that he'd visit soon.
Phil had an impressive poker face, but Steve got the feeling there was something he wasn't telling him. There was a certain reluctance to his features, a resigned sort of irritation tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"If he doesn't want to come, you can say so." Steve laughed, because it was true and a little ironic: "It's not as if I remember enough to have my feelings hurt, anyway."
"He's not a fan of hospitals," Phil told him apologetically. It wasn't a lie, Steve thought as he examined Phil's expression, but it wasn't the whole truth, either. Steve nodded anyway, accepted the half-truth, knowing well enough now that he wasn't going to get any further answers.
Once the initial meetings with his teammates were finished, the ban on visitors was lifted. They visited him in what seemed like shifts after that, perfectly timed so he was never left alone long. He'd never enjoyed being alone. He wondered if they knew that. He tried to get a little more information about his absent teammate, but it never went over well. They all seemed to know exactly how to deflect him expertly; the downside of conversations with people who knew him far better than he knew them.
Finally, after two months, they released him.
Steve didn't recognize the large building that towered above him, though the lettering on the side spelled Stark quite clearly so this must be it. Phil and Natasha had accompanied him home, and led him in through a side entrance of the building now. The somewhat lobby-like area held only a private elevator with a device attached to the front, and Phil walked up to it and swiped a small card through it. The doors opened then, and Natasha gestured for him to step inside.
The elevators in Steve's time had been rickety death traps; this one did nothing more than glide, smooth and fast, like something out of a dream. The doors opened with a ding, and though no one stood in front of them, a voice spoke.
"Greetings, Commander Rogers, Agents Coulson and Romanov."
"You're…JARVIS." Steve squinted upwards, turning to Natasha. He'd heard of the robot—the AI, he corrected himself—from various teammates. "Right?"
"That is correct. And if I may say, it is a pleasure to welcome you home, Commander."
"Thank you, JARVIS." Steve looked about for a camera, but couldn't find one.
"If there is anything you need, I am more than happy to comply. I am present throughout the building; address me at anytime."
"Will do." Steve nodded, unsure if JARVIS could see him or not. "Could you direct me around our quarters?"
"We could give you a tour, it's no trouble—" Phil began, but Steve shook his head.
"I think I'd like to take it all in alone, just for a little bit." He offered a smile. "Thank you, though. I appreciate it."
"If you need me, ask JARVIS to alert me," Natasha instructed, "He can relay messages to other people in the building."
"He can also place calls," Phil added, "So he can connect you to me, as well."
"Got it." Steve nodded again, and, with just a bit of hesitance, both agents dispersed. Steve felt guiltily relieved.
He couldn't help it. He knew these people were likely his friends, but that only made the pressure heavier. He was trying to remember, he really was, but he could only disappoint the people staring at him hopefully so many times a day before he felt like a bit of a failure.
"Could you direct me to my room, JARVIS?"
"Certainly. Your floor is two floors up."
"My floor?" Steve stepped towards the elevator, and it opened without him sliding anything through the slot. "Huh."
"You have a floor to yourself, yes. And I can lock and unlock all elevators and doors within the building," JARVIS informed him, "If a device in this building looks in any way electronic, I can likely access it."
"You're very helpful." Steve smiled.
"Thank you, Commander Rogers."
The elevator shot up two floors in just the blink of an eye, and Steve stepped into a space that was alternately strange and familiar. It wasn't that it felt familiar because he remembered it, exactly, so much as the organizational style was so clearly his own. It was how he'd arranged his room at the orphanage, his apartment with Bucky, his quarters at boot camp…it was clearly his own doing, whether or not he recalled doing it.
It was eerie, finding things he recognized side by side with things he'd never seen before. The books he'd taken with him to boot camp, the old favorites he'd clung to for so long when he'd had so little, were now shelved alongside nice, new books, books by authors he'd never even heard of. There were so many of them, too, four shelves full just in what looked like a living room area. As he wandered into the bedroom he found even more shelves, jam-packed with books and countless picture frames. One of them, a nice, silver frame Steve didn't remember buying, held the picture of Peggy he'd put in his compass what felt like only a few months ago.
He looked for the compass itself—all but turned the place upside down for it, it was his father's and he had to have it somewhere—but couldn't find it. He didn't like that, it made him feel edgy and nervous not knowing where it was, but there was nothing to be done about it for the moment. In his search, he found his dogtags placed neatly in the drawer of a bedside table he didn't recall purchasing, beside a bed with sheets softer than any he'd ever felt. The desk in the office held all sorts of things, including a bundle of letters dating from World War I in the bottom drawer that were from his father to his mother, letters written before Steve had ever even been born. He had absolutely no idea how he could've acquired them. In the top drawer was another, even larger stack of letters, neat but unbound. He turned them over and looked at the first.
Good to hear from you. I did not in fact die; false alarm, don't worry, I'm still invincible. Anyway, no one writes letters anymore and though I'm assuming SHIELD gave you a phone I'm also assuming it sucks, so enclosed in this package is the latest StarkPhone. Well, soon to be latest, it gets released in a couple months. Maybe a year. Legolas will probably be jealous—don't let him touch it. Also, I took a break from my deeply important work to made you an email address: email@example.com. I'm firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn it, use it, love it. Anyway, the phone's got my number pre-programmed and you've got an email address now, so drop me a line sometime and we'll catch up.
He flipped to the next one, dated a week later.
First of all, again, I feel the need to remind you how pointless and outdated letters are. You have my phone number. We talked yesterday. However, I admit that your complaint about the email address is (mildly) valid. I made you a new one, email@example.com, which is absolutely not inappropriate. It's a Disney joke. Everyone loves Disney.
Steve sat down, right there on the floor of his office, and read every single one.
They continued for more than a year; Tony complained repeatedly, sometimes more than once in the same letter, about the pointlessness of letters as a means of communication, but didn't seem to stop sending them. He created endless, increasingly inappropriate emails until finally—begrudgingly, it seemed—agreed to a compromise of the simple firstname.lastname@example.org. With every passing week the letters grew more informal, became less between one-time teammates and more between friends. The letters soon grew longer, from half a page to a full one, to front and back, to a few that were two to three pages.
They started containing more references to things done outside the letters, too. Tony talked about plans to meet up, first in D.C. on a business trip that apparently overlapped with one of Steve's days off, then later in New York once Tony moved there. Tony shared his anxiety about coming back after the invasion; Steve didn't know what his own response had been, but it must've been reassuring enough that Tony was talking about how he was settling into Stark Tower by the next letter. There weren't many more after that, some apparent back and forth about SHIELD wanting everyone to move into Tony's space, though it sounded like Steve had been protesting something about not intruding. The last letter was short and to the point.
I could quote Hill's proximity-fosters-teamwork spiel at you, or Fury's surprisingly logical I-want-you-fuckers-where-I-can-find-you rant, but frankly, my own reasons have shit all to do with the team. I want you to move in because you're my friend and I'd like to see you around more. It's up to you though.
They were friends.
They were absolutely friends, the letters left no question whatsoever about that. The last letter was admittedly dated three years ago, but he wouldn't have kept them if their friendship had broken down in the meantime, right?
"Is Tony home?"
"He's in his workshop, but I'm afraid he doesn't wish to be disturbed."
"Right." Steve paused. "Well, you can tell him things, can't you? Relay messages?"
"I can indeed."
"Could you tell him…" Steve chewed his lip in thought. "Tell him I'd like to speak to him when he's got a spare moment. Doesn't have to be long, if he's busy, I'm just…well, I'm trying to piece things together and I'd like to put a face to a name."
There was a moment's pause, then JARVIS sighed.
"I've been instructed to show you this."
JARVIS sounded oddly irritated for a computer, but then maybe things had simply advanced to the point that JARVIS genuinely had emotions? Steve wasn't sure. Regardless, something appeared out of thin air in front of him, something blue-tinged and ephemeral with Tony's picture in the center.
"Ah." Steve smiled. Tony had certainly had a sense of humor, he knew that from the letters. "Tell him that's funny and all, but I meant in person and I think he knew that."
"He says he'll see if can find the time later tonight."
"Oh. Well, alright." Steve fiddled with the edge of the last letter—you're my friend, I'd like to see you around more—then tucked them all neatly back into his desk.
"Apologies, Commander." JARVIS sounded sincerely regretful.
"It's fine, JARVIS." Steve smiled. "Sounds like he's busy. Running a company gives you plenty to do, I suppose."
"Indeed," was all JARVIS said.
Steve wandered around his floor a bit more, sorting through personal affects. He didn't recognize anything he wouldn't have before Project Rebirth. He looked through his pictures, most of them of the team in a variety of places. Though they didn't ring any bells, Steve liked these pictures better than the ones Phil had shown him in the hospital. These were clearly personal, showed each of his teammates' personalities a little more. Clint and Sam were always goofing off, Natasha and Bruce seemed quietly pleased, Thor and Tony were rowdy and animated. Steve himself seemed to fall into the quietly pleased category, except for the pictures where Tony had dragged him front and center with an arm around his neck. Then, his smile was so wide it looked like it hurt.
Steve looked through the kitchen and bathroom, though neither space told him much. The last room seemed to be an art studio, and one he'd clearly spent a lot of time in; there were a variety of different supplies stacked along a half-shelf in the corner, a gorgeous, quality easel in the center, and cabinets along the back filled with every kind of medium imaginable. Steve wasn't sure why he'd bothered to buy it all in the first place, since he only seemed to be using the watercolors and colored pencils, but perhaps it'd been a gift from someone. In the corner, he found another easel, one that stopped him dead.
The moment he got a look at the frame he knew, and the Steven Grant Rogers carved sloppily into the back only proved him right. He'd carved it there himself, with a dime store penknife on his nineteenth birthday. He'd made this all on his very own, a stand-in for the real thing when he'd been too poor to afford the nice supplies his school suggested. How on earth had he ever reacquired this?
After a few moments examining the easel—it had held up well, considering what a remarkably poor craftsman he'd been—before he moved on. His quarters thoroughly examined, he asked JARVIS what other areas he ought to explore.
"When not on your floor, you tend to be found on the communal floor, in the gym, or down in Sir's workshop."
"He lets me down there? Isn't that his space?"
"It is. However, you have your own section, a couch and a worktable. You've demonstrated a clear preference for being there when free of other responsibilities."
"Do we all have areas set aside down there?"
"Only you, Commander."
"Ah." Steve absorbed that, then stood eagerly. "Would he mind if I joined him there now, then? I wouldn't say anything if he wants quiet while he works, I understand if—"
"I'm afraid he says his work at this time is confidential."
"Oh." Steve nodded. "Right. That's—that makes sense. That's fine. I'll just—I could go have a look at the communal area then, I suppose. Is that the floor two down, the one Natasha got off on?"
"It is, Commander."
The communal floor held no great revelations. The hallway to the right of the elevator led into a large open space that served as a kitchen, eating area, and living room. The living room displayed a television nearly as large as the wall, and though it boggled Steve's mind, he certainly didn't remember ever seeing it before. Clint and Natasha were playing something called a video game, racing in colorful cars through shiny, animated backgrounds. Watching it alone left him feeling over stimulated, he couldn't imagine playing it. Clint, however, told him he was their reigning champion at something called rainbow road.
After spending some time with them, he wandered down the other hall, the one to the left of the elevator. He found that it split into two separate areas, one an enormous communal gym, the other containing an Olympic-sized indoor pool, where he found Thor doing laps. He was powerful and nimble, covering the pool and back in what must've been record time. Steve had never been much of a swimmer; not enough body fat. It only made him feel—and likely look—like a drowned rat. He wondered if that too was different in the future. He had musculature, now. Were he to go swimming he might even enjoy himself.
"Steven!" Thor called happily when he caught sight of Steve by the door. "Come, join me!"
"Do I do that?" Steve asked. Strange question, but it was a strange situation to begin with. Then again, these people seemed rather used to strange situations. As if to prove him right, Thor's grin only widened.
"Of course! We compete often, and you have nearly bested me on many an occasion!"
"I'll grab a swimsuit." Thor's smile was contagious; Steve couldn't help returning it.
"You mortals have such preoccupation with clothing." Thor only chuckled. "It never ceases to fascinate me."
"Huh." Steve paused.
He'd never been all that uncomfortable nude. Now, he probably even looked good. And hey, if Thor didn't care, why should he? Without allowing himself any further thought, he stripped to his boxers and leapt right in.
"That's the spirit!" Thor praised, grin growing ever wider. "How many laps would you like, Captain?"
"Think I could maybe get my sea legs first, Thor?" Steve laughed. "I haven't swum since…years, at least. I must've been seven or eight last time I tried."
"Ah, yes. As you recall." Thor seemed to remember that Steve was not functioning at full capacity.
"Right." Steve wasn't having much trouble. He gave a few experimental kicks and stokes, before turning back to Thor. "Doctors said the physical stuff was all still there, that muscle memory ought to keep me in fighting form should something big go down tomorrow. I've got all the physical and emotional patterns in my brain, whatever that means, the mental pathways are just buried to the point of temporary inaccessibility."
"I see." Thor paused, absorbing this information seriously. For a moment, Steve wondered if he understood any of it; Thor was supposed to be some kind of alien, wasn't he? Then Thor raised his head to look at Steve again, and Steve knew from just his expression that Thor understood. "Do you still feel connected to us, then?"
Steve considered lying, just for a moment. He knew the answer he would want to hear, in Thor's place. Still, it didn't seem right.
"Not really. I'm starting to. Sometimes it's startling, hearing strangers talk like we've known each other ages. Other times, when I'm not thinking about it…" Steve thought back to that brief, drugged up moment when he'd first woken. He'd been completely vulnerable, and though he hadn't recognized Tony's face, he'd still felt…safe. "When I don't think about it, I do. When I'm not thinking about it, I feel normal and comfortable, like I'm right where I'm supposed to be. If I think too hard, the connection fades away. Mostly, it all just makes my head hurt."
"I am sorry, Steven." Thor laid a hand on his shoulder. "What has been done to you is unjust. Perhaps it would please you to know that I was able to land a blow directly to the face of the foe who injured you?"
"I'd feel better if I got one in myself," Steve admitted with a grin, "But that does help, Thor. Thanks."
"It was no trouble, my friend." Thor seemed pleased. "Anthony would have done the same, I assure you, had he not been preoccupied with your condition."
Steve was caught off guard by the specificity of the comment. Why did Thor feel the need to tell him that Tony, specifically, would have gone to bat for him?
"Oh. I—great. That's good to know." Steve decided to hell with it. "Thor?"
"Why did you feel you had to tell me what Tony would have done?"
"Well." Thor didn't seem hesitant, so much as he paused to gather his thoughts. "Do not mistake me, Captain, you and Anthony have a deeply profound bond and I have no doubts it will last through these troubles…however, you and Anthony had been in avoidance of each other for many days before your injury. I simply thought you'd like to know that, despite your disagreement, Tony was greatly distraught by your condition."
Disagreement? So they were arguing! That was why Tony wouldn't see him.
"That does make me feel better, Thor. Thank you." Steve smiled. "Now what say we try that race, yeah?"
Arguments could be fixed, certainly. Even if he'd only read Tony's half of the letters, even if they were from years ago, Steve was sure they had a good friendship. After all, it could've only gotten stronger, right? Thor said they had a, what was it, 'deeply profound bond'? That had to mean something. And Tony had come to visit him in the hospital, too, only leaving once Steve woke up. Maybe Phil had even made him leave. Regardless, Tony still wanted to be friends, still cared. He had to.
After a rousing and surprisingly draining competition that left Steve gasping for air despite his new lack of asthma, Steve toweled off with one of the enormous, impossibly fluffy towels stacked high in a cabinet along the wall. God, these things were magnificent. Steve had never had such simple luxuries in all his life. He ought to tell Tony thank you when he saw him.
It was peculiar, Steve realized absently, how often he thought of Tony. It seemed that they were good friends, yes, but Bucky was the best friend Steve had ever had and he certainly never gave the guy this much thought when he'd been alive. He remembered what the doctor had said, though, about how the more emotion associated with a pathway, the easier it would be to bring back to the forefront; he supposed if he and Tony were in the middle of an argument, there'd be plenty of anger to keep that pathway fresh in his mind.
Putting the problem of how to apologize for an argument he didn't remember aside for the moment, he gathered his clothes and headed back up to his floor. The shower he'd seen earlier looked ludicrously large, but Steve also imagined it had hot water as long he wanted it. He wasn't disappointed. He stayed under the luxurious spray until his skin was pink and his fingers wrinkled, only dragging himself away when JARVIS informed him that dinner would be served within a half hour.
"I feel like I ought to be more concerned that you're in my bathroom," Steve admitted as he towel-dried his hair.
"You were quite shocked, the first time around," JARVIS informed him.
Steve absorbed that. He remembered how he'd felt when they'd told him Bucky was dead, back in the hospital; he'd felt a throbbing, an ache, rather than the tearing of a new wound. He hadn't remembered anything since coming to the Tower, but it was certainly fair to say that his reactions to things felt…dulled. A lavish, hour long shower should've embarrassed him—his mother would've smacked him for such a horrific waste of water—but he hadn't given it a second thought beyond enjoyment.
"Are there cameras in here?" Steve asked.
"There are not. However, I feel obliged to inform you there are cameras in every other room of your floor, as well as the rest of the Tower."
"Thank you," Steve answered, then paused, "You feel obliged? Is it…I'm not sure if this is rude or not, but to what extent do you, uh, 'feel' things, JARVIS?"
"Do I have emotions, you mean?" JARVIS sounded amused. "Not to a human extent, certainly. But I am capable of experiencing a wider range of emotion than you perhaps might expect, Commander. Sir taught me some, Miss Potts and Colonel Rhodes—Sir's friends—taught me more, and the Avengers' presence increases my capacity for it every day. I'm an artificial intelligence, after all; my main function aside from the primary is to learn."
"My primary function."
"And that is?"
"To ensure my creator's wellbeing. You provide much assistance with this, Commander."
"I try my best, but as Sir has yet to provide me with limbs there are limits to what I can accomplish." There was a wry humor there, and Steve found himself unbothered by the cameras and the disembodied voice in his bathroom. He liked JARVIS quite a bit. "You have thrown him bodily over your shoulder on more than one occasion."
"I have?" Steve laughed.
"Most certainly. Often when you've spent hours on a dinner he quite wrongly feels he can miss without you noticing."
"Huh." Steve paused. "I can cook?"
"To some degree." JARVIS' answer was tellingly evasive.
"I'm awful, aren't I?" Steve grinned. Hadn't changed that much, then.
"Thor quite enjoys your cooking."
"I get the feeling a guy that size enjoys everyone's cooking." Steve snorted.
He ran a quick comb through his hair, parting it. Was his hair shorter now? It felt shorter, and didn't quite swoop into the style he liked the way he remembered it. He thought of the pictures in his living room, and how his hair had been pushed up in the front to make a little spike. He attempted to mimic it.
"Would you perhaps like a reference, Commander?" JARVIS asked, and a blue-tinted image appeared before Steve.
It was of him and Tony at what looked like some sort of carnival. The sun was setting and there were game stalls all around, the one behind them some sort of shooting game. Tony's sunglasses rode low on his nose as he smirked gleefully through a mouthful of bright blue cotton candy, and proudly held up an enormous teddy bear that clearly took both arms to lift. Steve had a plastic gun and the cotton candy bag in one hand, and had his free arm slung around Tony's shoulders companionably. He was ignoring the camera completely, watching Tony instead with an enormous, pleased smile.
Something fluttered in Steve's chest. He couldn't quite bring himself to identify it.
"JARVIS?" he questioned.
"I thought you might perhaps like a reference for doing your currently preferred hairstyle."
"Ah." There were no pictures of him alone that could've been used? "Thank you."
He quickly finished doing his hair the way it was displayed, then waved a hand at the picture to dismiss it. He slung a towel around his waist and exited his bathroom, rooting through his dresser and closet for a little while both to find clothes to wear today and to ascertain a little more about himself. To his surprise—though he supposed he should've expected it by now—he found far more clothing than he could ever remember having before in all his life. He had more variety, too, an assortment of suits and dress clothes and even a tuxedo that Steve both wondered and dreaded why he owned. He also found a whole drawer full of clothing that seemed to be based off him and his other superhero teammates. He found, among many other things, a Hawkeye cloth hat—the tag called it a 'beanie'?—a Thor t-shirt claiming 'the real Mjolnir is in my pants', Black Widow women's lace panties that he hoped to God were a gag gift, and a Falcon belt buckle.
"Do I wear any of this?" Steve questioned.
"The Iron Man sweatshirt and Hulk workout shirt are worn often," JARVIS replied, "The rest only in occasional jest."
Steve nodded absently, closing the drawer to go about finding something he felt comfortable wearing. Some digging turned up a nice blue checkered shirt, pressed khakis, and a belt. He still didn't feel quite himself in it all, but it was better than the uncomfortable jeans and t-shirt they'd brought him to wear home from the hospital. Once dressed, he thought he'd try his luck with Tony again.
"JARVIS, would you pass along another message to Tony for me?"
"Of course, Commander."
"Please tell him…tell him I know we're having a fight, but that I'd appreciate if he'd be willing to set it aside until I can remember what it is we're arguing about in the first place. He doesn't need to be pleased to see me, I'm just trying to get a sense of everyone. Five minutes would be enough, honestly."
There was a moments silence as JARVIS processed this, and presumably relayed it to Tony.
"Sir has unfortunately chosen to deny your request," JARVIS told him, disapproval heavy in his voice.
Steve sighed. He didn't know why he kept pushing it, really, just like he didn't know why he was spending so much time thinking about a friend who apparently wanted very little to do with him. It wasn't just that he was looking for friends, exactly; he clearly had friends in the others, if his rousing afternoon with Thor was anything to go by. It was that something about this all felt…unbalanced, somehow. Steve knew rationally it was probably just the amnesia, but he couldn't help the feeling that Tony's absence had something to do with it too. JARVIS had said earlier that Steve showed a 'clear preference' for being in the workshop whenever he could. If he spent his free time with Tony, wouldn't it make sense that not doing that now made him feel strange? He was supposed to be following his usual patterns, and Tony was preventing him from doing so.
Yeah, that was it.
"Do you know why we're arguing, JARVIS?" Steve questioned.
"Though I am happy to assist any resident or guest of the Tower, I'm afraid I do belong to my creator and can only act within the limitations he sets."
"Tony said you couldn't tell me."
"Stubborn man," Steve mused, running a frustrated hand through his hair.
"Commander, you haven't the faintest idea." JARVIS sighed.
Mess hall in the army had nothing on an Avengers dinner. Though the beginning was fairly low-key, everyone trying to include Steve in conversation and keep him in the loop, by the end they'd given up on playing nice and rowdy didn't begin to describe it. It was apparently Thor's night to cook, which meant no one could give him a straight answer about what kind of meat they were eating, but it was barbecued to absolute perfection so Steve found he didn't really care. Dinner for Clint apparently meant target practice, which meant mashed potatoes splatting Bruce in the face, which meant seeing a first-hand demonstration what the Hulk looked like.
It was massive, big and burly and just as green as the pictures, and flicked Steve in the chest when it caught him staring. Steve fell back out of his chair and onto his butt, but remained essentially unharmed; the powerpoints had been right. For all the destruction the Hulk was capable of, it seemed self-aware and able to distinguish between friend and foe. It stomped out of the room moodily, knocking through the doorframe it was too small to fit through, grumbling about "Hulk smash potato in hawk face, see how hawk like". The others seemed altogether unperturbed by the transformation, and waved at Steve to sit back down.
"He's got his own floor, he'll go up and hit the gym or watch TV or whatever it is that calms him down," Sam assured Steve, "Don't worry about it."
"He has his own floor?" Steve mulled that over. "So he's…separate from Bruce, then?"
"Tony explains it best." Sam made a face. "But it's kind of like…the Hulk stems from Bruce's anger. So, he's an extension of Bruce, but a separate consciousness?"
"I think of it as like a multiple personality type thing," Clint offered.
"Huh." Steve sat back down. "What about the doorway? Shouldn't we do something about that?"
"We have contractors on speed dial," Natasha informed him, "JARVIS alerts them automati—"
"Come on, really?" someone shouted, "One week! You couldn't make it one week?"
"Hulk sorry." The Hulk sounded almost…petulant.
"Don't you 'Hulk sorry' me, you know you don't fit through that doorway! You have to learn to go around to the back one, buddy, I know you can remember this—"
"Tony?" Steve was up and out of his chair in a flat second, nearly knocking it over on his way to the hallway.
"Shit," was the mumbled reply, and anyone without superhearing wouldn't have caught it. Steve turned the next corner down the hallway, and found him.
It was the man from his bedside, from the pictures and video and everyone's descriptions. He looked less put together in real life, not wearing flashy armor or an immaculate business suit but ripped jeans and a ratty tank top. His hair was tousled—was that streak…grease? Motor oil? Something slick and black and not natural—and he looked at Steve with something akin to dread. Steve should've expected that, but it still managed to sting.
"Five minutes," Steve blurted.
"Can't you see I'm busy berating a Hulk?" Tony's mouth twitched irritably. He looked like he wanted to turn away but couldn't quite seem to bring himself to. He was looking at Steve but he wasn't, like Steve was a hallucination, or a ghost, or something else not quite the real thing. Finally, he turned away. "I made you a door! I went to a lot of trouble making you a door. Would it kill you to use it?"
"No," Hulk sulked.
"Good. Then do so, unless you plan on putting the contractor's kids through college," Tony muttered, turning on his heel as the Hulk ambled off, "I'll be in the shop. Don't call me."
"Tony, wait—" Steve caught his arm. Tony glared at him, at Steve's hand, then back at him. Steve quickly removed his hand. "Please. Five minutes."
"Fine," Tony conceded, "What do you want?"
"Could you just come eat with us? You won't even have to talk to me, I just want to see how everyone functions, how the team works together. I need…" Steve paused, trying to figure out precisely how to phrase himself. "Normal. The doctors said I needed to do what I normally do, see the things I normally see. If I fall back into old patterns, I'll force my brain to work at the blocked neural pathways, clear them so I can remember."
Tony was silent for a long moment, gaze on the floor as he seemed to force himself to speak. Finally, he met Steve's eyes. "You may not like what you remember, Cap."
"Because we fought?" Steve frowned.
"It wasn't…a fight, necessarily." Tony's gaze flickered away again. "We're fine, Steve. We can be fine."
"So you'll start over with me?" Steve insisted, "You won't just keep avoiding me?"
"Does it matter?" Tony sighed.
"Of course it matters, we're teammates—"
"And we've always worked together seamlessly." Tony shook his head. "When we were strangers, when we were in arguments, anytime. We don't have to be friends to be teammates."
"We're more than teammates, Tony," Steve insisted. He wasn't entirely sure why Tony flinched at that like Steve had slapped him, but he pushed forward. "We're friends, good ones, don't tell me we're not. Every time I turn around someone's telling me about how much time I spend with you. Every other picture I look at, it's you and me, dead center. I have a stack of letters thicker than my head from you in my desk—"
"You what?" That got Tony's gaze to snap back to him.
"You wrote me letters," Steve repeated, "Unless there's another Tony Stark who thinks my email address isn't 'genuine' if it doesn't include the word 'booty'—"
"No." Tony made a choked-off sort of sound, like he didn't want to laugh but couldn't quite help himself. "That's—that was me, but. I didn't—you kept them?"
"Why would you—?" Tony immediately shook his head with a bitter laugh. "Well. You don't know, obviously."
"No, I don't," Steve admitted, "But I know I can't have changed so much in a few years that I'd keep letters from someone that didn't matter to me. Why do you keep trying to use amnesia as some kind of excuse to throw away a friendship I frankly could really use right about now?"
It was the wrong thing to say. Steve knew it the second the words left his mouth, the moment the expression on Tony's face contorted into something ugly and mean and bitter.
"Frankly, Cap?" Tony spat Cap like some kind of curse. "Despite whatever you've gone and built up in your head, I don't spend my days waiting around for when I can be of some use to you. And you know, for the record? I'm not the one who threw anything away. Two months and a day ago, if I'd have told you a knock to the head was all it'd take to forget me, you'd have begged me to hit you. So don't come whining to me now about our precious friendship when if you had your memories you wouldn't even be looking me in the eye."
Steve couldn't draw up the words to respond, at least not fast enough to stop Tony, who was already punching a hand against the elevator call button and stepping inside without further comment. The doors clanging shut jarred Steve back to life. He took an instinctive step forward, though he was far too late to catch the door.
He stood there a long, long time.
It didn't make sense to care what Tony thought of him. Steve didn't remember him, or what had once been their friendship. He didn't know what Tony liked to eat, what sports he played or television shows he watched, if he even liked television. Steve wasn't even certain what Tony did for a living; he was a businessman, sure, but what he actually did all day in some office, somewhere? Steve didn't have a clue. He didn't know their inside jokes, their references, the activities they did together or the conversations they'd had or any of the other millions of things that built a connection. Steve barely knew the man that had just shouted in his face; he shouldn't care. He didn't have the right to care.
It hurt anyway.
It dug into his chest and hurt, something constricting his heart, his lungs, his throat. He swallowed dryly and tried to will away the feeling, but the stupid carnival picture kept popping back to the front of his mind. He'd looked so Goddamn happy. He looked happy in every picture with Tony, and maybe that was why he was so hung up on it all; he wanted that. He hadn't felt happy enough to smile like that in…years, at the very least. His mother had tried so hard and she'd been his hero for it, but his childhood had been about survival, not about making memories. He'd had a few years in the middle running with Bucky, sharing an apartment and going to art school and trying his best to get enlisted, that weren't so awful, but they weren't a shining beacon of happiness, either. He and Buck had good times and Steve had always been one to make the best of things, but God Almighty, that smile. He looked like he didn't have a care in the world, and he looked at Tony like…like…
Steve shook his head. That was—no. That was wrong, and he was better than that. Tony was better than that. Maybe…was that why Tony was so angry with him? Had he found out Steve's sickness? He couldn't have. Steve was a master of hiding it. He'd been crushing feelings like those as long as he could remember and he'd never slipped, not so much as an inch. He was stronger than that, he was a supersoldier for Christ's sake.
Hell of a smile.
Steve slipped back into the dining area with as little fanfare as he could manage. They'd all obviously heard—Tony had been fairly loud by the end, and they'd been just down the hall—but none of them so much as glanced at Steve as he entered. They let him join without comment, for which he was grateful. The meal resumed, and was as boisterous as before, but it was all just background noise to Steve.
I'm not the one who threw anything away.
Steve started in on cleanup once everyone was finished, and he got a solid fifteen minutes into it before he noticed everyone was more or less staring at him.
"Nothing," Natasha responded immediately, "Keep doing what you're doing."
Alright." Steve tried to get a read on her, but her face was as blank to him as ever. He picked the pot back up, drying it with a dishcloth before moving to place…to place it…
He slammed the pot down on the counter. Everyone jumped and he immediately felt awful; he wasn't frustrated with them. He was frustrated with himself. Those damn memories were buried in him somewhere. He'd been putting the dishes away for fifteen minutes without batting an eye, had put everything where it belonged without thought or searching, but the moment he fucking thought about it, he was some helpless amnesiac again—
"It's alright, Steve." That was Natasha's hand on his arm. Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow. Natasha the teammate, the mission partner, the friend.
She didn't look familiar to him at all, and Steve resisted the urge to pick the pot back up just to feel the satisfaction of slamming it back down again.
"You should seek rest, Steven." Thor rose as well to clap a sturdy hand to his shoulder, "I imagine today was quite tumultuous for you."
"Guess so. Yeah. I'm going to…" Steve made a vague gesture for up. "Yeah."
"Sleep well," Sam offered, "Have JARVIS alert one of us if you need anything."
"Yeah," Steve mumbled, resisting the mulish urge to add Mom.
It was seven at night; being an amnesiac didn't make him a child. He went to his floor, but only long enough to rustle up some workout gear and head back down to the gym he'd seen earlier. He found tape in the same drawer as his workout gear, so he took it with him and went to test the limits of this whole supersoldier thing.
He taped up his wrists as he surveyed the gym, taking in the wide variety of equipment and space available. It was the nicest gym he'd ever stepped foot in by far. He found a heavybag chain painted red white and blue, likely for his use. He rummaged around for heavybags, and found them in a storage locker without a lock in the corner. He started to heft one up, then paused. He frowned and rubbing a hand over the material again. Was that…Kevlar? It certainly looked different, more reinforced, than any other heavybag he'd ever seen. Though to be fair, he hadn't seen many; two months ago—two months and seventy odd years ago, Steve corrected himself—five minutes with a bag like this would've knocked him flat on his bony ass.
"These are specially and quite specifically designed to endure even the peak levels of your strength, Commander," JARVIS offered.
Steve set his jaw. Yeah, he could use a good round with a heavybag designed to resist him. He hauled one over his shoulder and over to the chain, where he hung it up and threw a few experimental, half-hearted punches. It really was well-made, tough without feeling like a rock, soft to the touch for his knuckles but sure all hell not pliant.
"Anything Tony can't do?" Steve muttered.
"Would that be a rhetorical question?"
"Yeah," Steve grunted, increasing the intensity of his punches for something a little more satisfying.
"Because Sir is horrible at reading other's emotional dispositions, if you were curious."
Steve delivered a blow to the bag that would've caved a grown man's skull in. "Great."
"He often takes the slightest of comments, comments perhaps not even directed at him, and interprets them in the worst of ways."
Steve's world had already narrowed down to the impact of his fist against the bag. It wasn't long before he began to hit a stride, but he wasn't winded, not in the slightest; if anything, he felt like he could go for days and days. Two months ago—and seventy-eight years, he reminded himself—exercise would've worn him out in the space of a few minutes and left him sore for days. Now, it only wound him up, got him going like a wind-up toy ready to spring.
Something caught his attention; he couldn't have put it in words, just that he suddenly felt he wasn't alone. Might've had something to do with the superhearing, or possibly some kind of training he'd received in the years he couldn't remember. He turned, fists still raised in defense. He dropped them when saw it was only one of teammates. Clint.
"Thought you'd be down here." The archer smirked at him.
"Something I do a lot?" Great. Now he was predictable.
"When you're pissed." Clint shrugged one shoulder. "Or on days ending in y. But the difference is pretty palpable."
"You gonna tell me to go to bed too?" Steve muttered, turning back to the bag and tossing out a few punches to show just what he thought of that.
"Nah. You wouldn't listen." Clint hopped up and ducked under the ropes of the boxing ring. "Let's spar."
Steve paused, glancing between the bag and Clint for a moment before abandoning it and joining him. They got right to it without speaking, circling each other a moment before Clint made an opening move and Steve deflected and the fight was on. They were more evenly matched than Steve expected, Clint having the advantage of previous experience and Steve having muscle memory once he gave it a minute to kick in. By the time Steve managed to pin him down, they'd both worked up a hell of a sweat. It was nice, honestly. None of the burn he always used to feel when he was skin and bones, just a heavy thrum of pleasant energy buzzing around in his system. He was panting a bit, sure, but his throat didn't sting with it and his lungs didn't tremble like he remembered. He felt good. Strong.
"Let's talk Tony," Clint told him.
And there the feeling went. He opened his mouth to say he didn't want to talk about it, but. It was true and it wasn't. He didn't want to talk about it. He wanted to know. He wanted to know what the fight was about and how to fix it, how to get back the friend he'd glimpsed in letters and pictures and videos and everything else. There was a part of him angry with Tony, too, for denying him that. For denying him his usual habits and routines, things that might help him remember. For shouting at him when he didn't know what he'd done, for telling him he might be better off not remembering at all.
Because Steve wanted to remember. He did. This was all new and strange and so far from the life he remembered, but he liked it. He liked that he seemed to have gone from having only Bucky and maybe Peggy to having this—this family, this network of people who cared about him and stood at his side in battle and who understood him, could tell things like when he needed a good fight to clear his mind. He wanted this. He just didn't know how to get it back.
"I don't do tact well," Clint admitted readily when he didn't answer, "So I'm gonna go ahead and tell you what no one else will: you're a fucking idiot."
"You know what the fight's about?" Steve's head shot up. He didn't care if he was right or wrong, at least not right now. He just needed to sort it out.
"No." Clint shook his head, and Steve's hopes sank. "But observation's kind of my specialty."
Steve thought of his codename. "Hawkeye."
"Right. So I know when Stark is skulking about 'cause he knows he's wrong but won't admit it, and I know when he's hurt. Whatever you said to him? It cut deep. Guy couldn't so much as be in the same room as you, and I sure as hell wasn't blaming him; you went from looking at him like he hung the moon to being unable to meet his eyes. And don't get me wrong, Stark's got his issues, we all do, but nothing he could've told you is worth throwing away what you guys had."
"What we had?" Steve looked at him curiously. It was a strange phrase.
Clint hesitated, then said, "Look, we're all friends. But you guys have this…"
"Been listening to Thor, huh?" Clint's mouth quirked up. "He's a little melodramatic, but honestly that's a pretty good way to put it. You and Tony…it's different. Have they shown you any videos?"
"Some." Steve recalled the way he and Tony moved in battle; fluid and easy, no time or need for a second guess.
"You guys were like that outside of battle, too." Clint must've seen on his face that Steve understood. "Always in sync. It's common in field partners who've worked together for years and years; Tasha and I have it. But you guys had it from minute one, and that's something I've never seen before."
"So how do I get back to that?" Steve asked, because all Clint seemed to be doing was telling him what a wonderful, amazing thing he'd gone and screwed up.
"I don't think you lost it." Clint tilted his head a bit, unperturbed. "That's my point. You had it when you were strangers. You're strangers again now, sort of. Why wouldn't you still have it?"
"You say that like it'll help." Steve sighed. "Am I supposed to read his mind?"
"I'm saying if you can get him face to face, I'd bet you've got enough Tony-instincts left to figure out what buttons to press to get him to tell you what's going on."
"Didn't really go too well last time I tried." Steve still remembered the twist of hurt in Tony's expression. If Clint was right, Steve had been the one to hurt him. Maybe he was going about this the wrong way.
"You got him to stay for a minute or two, didn't you?" Clint shrugged. "That's more than I'd be able to pull off if Stark decided he didn't want to talk to me."
"I just asked him to." Steve didn't understand what was supposed to be so special about that.
Clint shot him a sidelong glance. "So, far as you're concerned, the forties were like two months ago, right?"
"Emotionally speaking, I guess," Steve answered the nonsequitor, "Why?"
"I'm just wondering if anyone ever gave you The Talk."
"We had sex in the forties, Clint."
"Did you have gay sex in the forties?" Clint shot back, and Steve's brain sputtered to a halt.
"That's—I would never." Steve did his best to cover the terror that welled up in him with shock, but he couldn't quite manage it completely. Did Clint know? Had he guessed? Had Tony? Was that why Tony was hurt, why Steve had pushed him away? All this talk of profound bonds and the pictures lying around of Steve was looking at Tony like he was the sun, moon, and stars all in one and all the little comments about the time they spent together and the way they read each other's minds and were so in sync and Steve couldn't think properly much less breathe— "How could you think that about me?"
"So no one gave you The Talk." Clint blew out a huff. "Great. Emotions. Whee."
"Breathe, jeez." Clint clapped him on the back. "You look like you're going to pass out."
"Why would you accuse me of that?"
"Okay, cool, let's start there—not an accusation, just an observation. I do that, remember?" Clint waved a hand at the ceiling. "Hey, JARVIS?"
"Yes, Agent Barton?"
"Pull up some gay rights info for me, would you?"
"It would be my pleasure to assist." With seconds, blue-tinted images flitted in front of them.
That couldn't possibly be right.
There were article titles like The Fight for Human Rights and American Gay Rights Movement and Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Rights Information like it was—was something to be discussed or pushed or even brought up. Steve caught sight of one titled Gay Marriage ProCon, and he reached forward to move his two forefingers out one way and his thumb the opposite.
"So that's how you enlarge things," Clint mumbled to himself.
Steve wasn't listening. He was reading, because what was the word pro doing in the same sentence as gay? Or marriage, for that matter?
Should Gay Marriage Be Legal? As of Jan. 6, 2014, gay marriage has been legalized in 17 US states and the District of Columbia—Steve's breath caught, because seventeen states? How could that possibly be right?—and only 33 states have gay marriage bans through either laws or constitutional amendments or both. Proponents argue that same-sex couples should have access to the same marriage benefits and public acknowledgment enjoyed by heterosexual couples and that prohibiting gay marriage is unconstitutional discrimination—
He couldn't keep reading.
He also couldn't stop reading.
He devoured the information at rapid-fire pace, flicking from one article to the next and picking each apart for new information. Each sentence confused him more than the last. How could any of this be right? It was wrong, it was all wrong, it had to be wrong because how could any of this be legal? Not just legal but allowed, allowed and okay and accepted? How could people accept this? It wasn't okay, it was immoral and sick and—and—
How could you think that?
There was nothing more than a flash, a glimpse of color and emotion, metal grey and electric blue overpowered by heavy disgust. He could feel himself throw his hands out in the memory, a push or a shove, but what he pushed he couldn't remember.
"Steve, hey, you okay?" Clint's hand touched his shoulder.
His voice cut through, but he couldn't tell if it was a thought, a memory, or a memory of a thought. It was all too muddled, too overwhelming, and he suddenly wanted nothing more than to shut it all down and sleep for another seventy years. Maybe the world would sort itself out by then.
"Hey, slow down there." Clint grabbed his arm before Steve could make it out of the gym. "You got a bad look about you. What're you thinking?"
"I'm thinking the world's gotten a hell of a lot crazier than I imagined." Steve's skin itched at the touch. He shook Clint's hand off.
"The world's moving forward," Clint corrected firmly, "Trying, anyway. What's so crazy about that?"
"But that's—like that? That's not moving forward, that's—that's—" Steve stammered to find his ground.
"I'm not gonna get into an argument with you about basic human rights." Clint shrugged. "I'm gonna tell you to google 'internalized homophobia', and think about what it says about you that you disapprove of probably the single purest thing in this whole fucked up, crazy-as-shit world."
"Not getting into it, remember?" Clint held up both hands. "I am so not equipped to deal with this. Not sure anyone is, considering your particular circumstances, but I think Tony tried anyway. I think he tried and you freaked and I think you should ask yourself if you really want to throw away years of friendship with a guy who knows you better than anyone over some dumb idea about how people should be allowed to feel." Steve wasn't able to quite meet Clint's eyes.
"Clint, I—" Steve started, then stopped. Everything sitting on his tongue suddenly felt false. Hollow. Silence fell between them for a long moment, until Steve nodded. "I don't know what to do with a lot of…this. But if I had to deal with one more person spoon-feeding me what I wanted to hear today, I'd go out of my mind. So. Thank you for that, at least."
"You know me, Cap." Clint winked. "Always eager to displease."
"To be fair, I don't really know you at the moment."
"Give it time." Clint grinned. "And y'know, no one's gonna blame you if you have a hard time coming to terms with shit. If you dumped me seventy years into the future and said I could marry a robot, I'd…nah, bad example, I'd totally marry a robot. Point is, times change. You're an adaptable guy. You can roll with it."
"For someone 'not getting involved', you're getting fairly involved," Steve pointed out wryly.
"Fine." Clint rolled his eyes. "I'm a little involved. But don't tell anyone, they might think I have emotions. Or worse, that I care about Stark."
"Sure, Clint." Steve shook his head. He couldn't help a bit of a smile, but the tumultuous mix of fear, guilt and shame still burned hot in his chest.
"Get some sleep, man." Clint clapped his shoulder. "You look like you're about to puke."
"Yeah." Steve took a breath. "Yeah, I could sleep."
He couldn't sleep.
Which was strange, considering how utterly luxurious everything he owned seemed to be. A set-up like this, how could he not drift right off? His pajamas were all soft and cottony, his toothpaste tasted like mint instead of chalk, and his bedsheets were smooth as silk. Were they actual silk? How would he even know? He considered asking JARVIS, but an irrational fear that the articles from before might pop back up stopped him. He changed his clothes and brushed his teeth and slipped into bed, expecting exhaustion to overtake him the moment his head hit the pillow.
It didn't. He lay awake for hours, each passing slower than the last, the things Clint had said and the articles he'd shown him and the look in Tony's eyes as he told him I'm not the one who threw anything away playing over and over in his mind.
It was wrong. He knew that. He'd always known that. It was a—a sickness, like the hundreds of others he'd caught over the years. He'd thought it'd go away, eventually, if he ignored it long enough. He'd fallen for Peggy, hadn't he? He had. He knew he had, he'd faked it long enough to know when the real thing had sparked, and he had developed genuine, honest feelings for Peggy. He could've loved her, given the chance. Given a dance. Given seventy years of his life back. There'd been a moment, seconds after she'd knocked Hodge on his ass, where she'd swiped a bang back out of her sharp eyes and glanced his way with a smirk of her perfectly red lips and he'd thought, I get it. His stomach had swooped and his heart had clenched and he'd felt that tingle of nerves other fellas always talked about behind the pretty women's backs.
It was the exact same as what he'd felt when JARVIS had shown him the carnival picture, but that couldn't be right. Could it? If nothing else, the serum should've cleansed him of it. It was supposed to make him healthy, and healthy men didn't think like that about other men. Clint's words rattled around in his brain again.
Think about what it says about you that you disapprove of probably the single purest thing in this whole fucked up, crazy-as-shit world.
Pure. How was anything about this pure? It was dirty and messy and—and—and was it, really? He thought of how he'd felt when Peggy had smiled at him, and the way he felt looking at Tony's smile in those photographs. He tried to piece it apart, but the only difference he could find was the shame that accompanied thinking it about Tony. The feeling itself…the feeling was the same, tingly and thrilling and a little unsteadying in a silly, boyish sort of way. He expected to feel more unclean than he did, dwelling on it; there was still the swell of panic, but if he rode it out and slowed his breathing and focused on Tony's smile, on the way the lines beside his eyes crinkled up a bit when he looked at Steve, on his hair's inability to stay in one place when he slept on it funny—
"I give up!" Tony shouted in aggravation as he stormed into Steve's suite, dropping down on the couch and stretching out like a cat until his head bumped Steve's thigh.
"Hello, Tony." Steve laughed, setting aside his book.
"Fuck this," Tony continued once he'd been acknowledged, "Fuck it! I'm just never going outside again, ever. Wrong, I am going outside, and I'm going to make bedhead the new trend, except no one will be able to get hair like mine because this fucking disaster is unnatural! Unnatural, Steve!"
"Not that I doubt your…trendiness," Steve assured him seriously, trying his best not laugh, "But I can fix it, if you want."
"You absolutely can't. Not even Captain America himself could get this level of bedhead into submission."
"I don't know." Steve stroked a hand through Tony's hair, pieced through the ridiculous cowlicks and flattened waves. "It's not so bad. Soft, anyway."
"Mm." Tony made a noise somewhere between a purr and a strangled moan. Steve laughed. "Rogers, I swear—"
"I won't tell." Steve smiled, stroking Tony's hair a little more. "Though, I admit, it's not the weakness I would've pinned you for."
"Mm?" Tony made the noise again, this time with a questioning lilt.
"I would've thought snuggles," Steve informed him with as straight a face as he could manage. Tony scowled.
"Have I mentioned my deep hatred for you lately?"
"Yes, right after you burst into my suite to throw your head in my lap and complain about your hair."
"To be fair, you're a master at this hair-petting thing." Tony stretched out a little more, shifting his head so it was actually in Steve's lap.
"I practice on Natasha," Steve told him.
"She would rip my hands off and feed them to me if I touched a single perfectly straightened lock."
"She's not as terrifying as you make her out to be." Steve laughed. "She's actually pretty fond of you."
"Lies." Tony huffed a sigh. "How does she do it, anyway? I roll out of bed looking like a monster truck had its way with me, and she comes down to breakfast with hair so straight it's like a curtain."
"She spends time on her appearance. You expect your hair to somehow obey voice command."
"It should. I don't know why no one's invented that. I should totally invent that." Tony turned his head a bit. "What're you reading now?"
"It's called It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System—"
"Oh my god, it's more than ten words, I already want to claw my eyes out."
"Tony." Steve rolled his eyes.
"Yes, dear?" The rush of warmth at the joking petname was silly and unwarranted and completely unpreventable.
"Do you want me to fix your hair, or do you want to complain about my literary choices?"
"Is there an option where I can lie here all day while you pet my hair?"
Steve paused. Tony was probably joking, but. His hair was very soft. If Steve could stay just a little longer…it'd be nice. "We can stay like this a while."
Tony stilled. "Yeah?"
"So long as you don't make fun of my book again." Steve hefted it again in one hand, continuing where he'd left off.
"Sure." Tony nodded, suddenly oddly subdued. "Quiet as a mouse, I promise."
The memory from earlier, of anger and disgust, had hit him hard. It'd been like a sucker punch, a shot out of the blue that left his mind reeling and his lungs gasping. He faded into this one, imagination shifting into memory, and he came out of it just as smoothly. The memory left him feeling warm and pleased, the sensation of Tony's fluffy, ridiculously messy hair still lingering on his fingertips. There was nothing dirty, or unclean, about any of it. He could remember the feeling—could still feel it burning in his chest, a flame that refused to go out—of fondness, of affection. He'd desired a number of things, but primarily he'd simply wanted Tony close to him. Wanted to sit with him a while, read a good book and stroke his hair and chat a little and just…be, like that. It didn't feel dirty. It felt strong and sweet and, well. Pure. What exactly was so wrong with that?
Nine hours and thirty-two minutes later, as he watched the sun peak over the New York skyline, Steve still didn't have an answer.
He wondered what he'd have said if anyone had come to him with this sort of struggle. If Bucky had told him he thought he liked men all those years ago, how would he have reacted? Certainly worse than Clint had with him. But…things were different then. If those articles were true, Clint was a part of a different world; a world Steve was supposed to be a part of now. He'd adapted to a hell of a lot, was this really so different? Did it have to be?
He needed to get out of his head for a while, so he went running. He left the building without a second thought, did lap after lap after lap, thinking of nothing but the feeling of his feet hitting the pavement, the smooth, clear inhale of fresh air in his lungs and the steady pounding of his heart. He didn't have a clue how many miles he'd gone, yet his heart rate had barely even spiked. If nothing else about the future was to his taste, having a functioning body at the peak of its prime made up for a hell of a lot.
It wasn't until two hours later that he realized he had absolutely no idea where he was.
He hadn't started off that way; when he'd left, he'd known precisely where he was headed. He remembered that. His path had been sure and steady, led him straight to Central Park and around a few times before diverting off somewhere else, somewhere unrecognizable. He'd never been here before, not growing up and not that he could remember now. He was on a waterfront—the Hudson river, he was fairly sure—and there were plenty of people about, he wasn't in the middle of nowhere, but he might as well have been.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
He was reluctant to ask someone where he was. He was frustrated enough with himself for not realizing exactly what would happen the minute he stepped foot outside the Tower's doors, asking someone would just make him feel worse. What would they think of him, of the idiot amnesiac, stumbling about unable to even retrace his steps? He'd have liked to try it, but he knew he'd only get himself more lost. He'd been too busy trying not to think; he hadn't been watching the scenery or street signs.
Maybe he could just ask directions to the Tower? That was a fair enough question, wasn't it? It was probably a landmark of sorts, someone ought to know where it was. How would they know he lived there?
"Excuse me?" He stopped the next person he passed by. "Do you mind if I ask—"
The man brushed him off with a shake of his head. Steve resisted the urge to laugh. At least New Yorkers hadn't changed much in seventy years. It took a few more tries, but he managed to convince a young woman to stop for him.
"If you could even just point me in the general direction of the Tower that'd sure be swell," he insisted, putting on the voice Bucky had always told him could get a cop to hand over their badge.
"What tower?" The woman sighed, giving in.
"Uh…" Steve paused, drawing a blank. Why was he drawing a blank? They had to have told him this, right? He couldn't remember them referring to it as anything but 'the tower'. "The—the one where the Avengers live?"
"You mean…Avengers Tower." She glanced him up and down, seeming to be having second thoughts about his intelligence. "You know it's not open to the public, right?"
"Yes, I do." He hadn't, but he could figure out how exactly he'd get back in later. "I just need directions, ma'am."
"Well, it's quite a long ways…" She pointed off behind Steve. "That way. You'd be going from Upper West Side all the way over to Midtown. I'd consider catching a cab."
"I think I'll manage." Steve nodded. He didn't have any money on him, anyway. "Thank you."
"Sure, buddy." She shook her head with a bit of a laugh. Great, she probably thought he was a loon.
He set off in the general direction provided. He got a bit turned around and had to ask for help a few more times, but at least when he knew the title of the building he didn't get quite such odd looks. Soon, he was close enough he could just look up and find the building along the skyline. He remembered reading a letter where he'd teased Tony about needing such a tall building, joking about what kind of statement he was trying to make; now, he was immensely grateful for it.
He approached the side entrance Phil and Natasha had brought him through yesterday. The door was locked. He was about to give up on niceties and just break it open—at least if security came after him, they'd probably recognize him and help him get back into his own damn living quarters—when JARVIS' voice interrupted him.
"Please, step back, Commander. I shall need an eye scan as you did not take your ID card."
"A what?" Steve was briefly concerned—an eye scan? Would that hurt?—but JARVIS just flashed something blue over his face.
"Accepted." The door clicked open. "Welcome home, Commander Rogers. In the future, if you take your cell phone along with you, I can provide assistance if you become turned around."
"I have a cell phone?" Steve mused. That made sense. Everyone seemed to, these days. "Wait, how did you know I got lost?"
"Interesting that you should ask, Commander. Someone I have been instructed not to name has chosen to monitor your comings and goings of the building. A safety precaution, they assure themselves. When you left, they went into a bit of a panic and insisted I monitor you via street cams so if you were to be compromised assistance might be provided."
It took Steve a moment to piece apart what all that meant. The only person who could instruct JARVIS was Tony, so that had to be who JARVIS was talking about. Tony had panicked over him? That felt…strangely good. Not that he wanted to Tony to panic, but the fact that he had implied some level of caring. He was still looking out for Steve, in his own way; he'd saved Steve in the battle he'd lost his memory in, after all. If the powerpoints and news footage were to be believed, had Tony been so much as a few seconds later, Steve would've been crushed. Had Tony gone a few seconds slower getting them out, they both would've. Whatever had happened between them, Tony had to still care.
Steve tried to feel as neutral about that as he could, but the rush of pleased relief was impossible to deny. He took a deep breath. So maybe he had…those feelings, and maybe he had them for Tony. It wasn't a bad thing, anymore, right? There were people like that even going so far as getting married. Steve had never been one to blindly believe the system and he knew full well that just because something was accepted didn't make it a good thing—racism had been one, in his time, though that too seemed different now—but he couldn't find the bad in this. It was love, wasn't it? A different form, one certainly foreign to Steve, but just love. Right? He'd spent hours thinking it to death last night, unable to come up with any sort of rebuttal; why was he trying so hard? Why did he need to?
What exactly would be the harm in giving in to it?
Steve was jolted out of his thoughts as the elevator doors opened without prompting or a key card. He stepped inside, then remembered what JARVIS had said.
"What did you mean, compromised?" he asked.
"Your life is different than you remember it, Commander," JARVIS pointed out, "Avengers are high-risk targets. You have all been attacked when separated before; on most occasions you are more than capable of handling such threats, but as you are without your memory certain people are prone to worry."
"I cannot verify," was all JARVIS offered, which was as good as a yes. Steve considered something.
"Do you think you could at least take me to the floor his workshop is on?"
There was a pause as JARVIS processed this.
"I have not been instructed otherwise. Shall I?"
"Well." Steve paused, sniffed his shirt. "Maybe not. My floor first, if you would?"
It was only halfway there that he realized what a ridiculously vain decision he'd just made. He fought alongside Tony, lived with him; certainly Tony had seen him a little sweaty. Still, the impulse to clean up before going to see him was a hard one to ignore and the doors were opening to Steve's floor before he could force himself to rethink it.
The shower was refreshing, at least, though it wasn't quite enough to soothe his nerves. They were building and fast, starting low in the pit of his stomach, rattling around in his chest and clenching over his heart. What if he did have feelings for Tony? Was it even a what if anymore? He'd known since he'd seen that picture, seen the smile on his face, wider and more pleased than he could ever remember being. No, he'd known before then. He'd known when he'd read the letters, heard Tony's voice in his head despite not remembering hearing it before, felt like a third wheel to his own correspondence. Maybe he'd known even sooner, if he'd been more in tune with himself. Waking up in a hospital with a stranger at his bedside should've worried him, but he'd felt safe. Comfortable. He remembered thinking the man had kind eyes and a soft smile; why would Tony have been looking at him like that, if he was only mad at him? Tony cared about him, to some degree. Had to. Was it possible Tony had feelings for him, too?
What would that be like?
In spite of the cool water, Steve skin felt almost unbearably hot. What would it be like, to kiss a man? To kiss Tony? He had that beard, whatever he called it, a van something. Would it scratch? Would it sting a little, or would that only make it feel all the more intense? He wanted to know. He wanted to—to kiss Tony. He tried to right the thought of it in his mind, but it still felt so strange. The image that accompanied it, though…the image came immediately and unbidden, of Tony leaning in and touching his lips to Steve's, his hand clasping behind Steve's neck, warm and steady and a fixed point. Of Tony's warm, steady hands in other places, over his chest and down his abdomen, curling around to trace fingers over his spine as he pressed closer, kissed him harder.
Steve wasn't aware he was touching himself until he found himself bending over to press his forehead to the tiled wall with shaky gasp. His hand slipped up his cock and down again, not nearly enough air in the room as he shifted his hips and thrust a little harder. How would this feel, with Tony's hands? Tony was an engineer, his hands were anything but soft. They would be rough and calloused, would probably catch against his skin, give a burning sort of friction to it. Steve groaned at the thought. The concept of shame flitted through his head—he'd done this plenty of times before, it'd never been something he'd been ashamed of, but Tony was a man—and he dismissed it. He pushed past it and enjoyed the sensation, the arousal lighting low in him and the way his nerves were twisting and turning and loosening into easy pleasure.
Steve's breathing hitched again, goosebumps raising on his skin as he imagined how it'd feel for Tony to take him in his mouth. He thought of what that slick heat might feel like, of Tony's lips around his cock and the way he might tease him, drag him along slowly until Steve was nearly going out of his mind with it before letting him come. Another fantasy gripped him and dragged him under, the imagined sensation of being able to sink into Tony, to fuck into him with abandon, to hear him gasp and moan and call Steve's name—
Steve came with a burst of light and color, arching forward and grasping at the shower handle to steady himself. His hips thrust once or twice more of their own accord, any evidence swirling down the drain almost as soon as it hit the tile. He took a moment to just…to breath, to release himself and drag in a deep breath and find his mind again.
Shame began to bubble up under his skin, but he shoved it down with the same force he would usually apply to thoughts of men. He wanted this. There was no denying that, so why was he making himself miserable trying? There was no reason to. This was okay, now. Maybe it had always been.
Steve toweled off and headed over to the sink, calling for JARVIS as he tried to remember what drawer he'd found the comb in yesterday.
"Could you bring up that picture again? I need to style my hair." It was a ridiculous lie and JARVIS' amused tone told him the AI was well aware.
"The same one?"
"Throw up a couple, it'll help me get the angles right."
"As you wish."
An assortment of photos appeared before him, blue-tinted and from various locations. They all featured him and Tony prominently, all had them touching in some form or another, Tony with an arm around his waist or Steve with a hand on his back or with them both just plastered together in the middle grinning wide for all to see. Steve smiled, took an extra few minutes to do the little spike of hair.
"I suppose I'm finished, JARVIS," he admitted after a while, tucking the comb back in what he hoped was the correct drawer.
He brushed his teeth again for good measure—sure, he'd brushed them that morning, but even supersoldiers could probably get gingivitis, so he really couldn't be too careful—and headed into his room to get dressed. He should probably wear jeans, they seemed to be the thing to wear these days. Must be, considering how many of them he owned. They all felt a little strange, so he eventually just picked out an outfit he'd seen in one of the photos and figured he'd get used to it.
It was only once he approached the elevator that the nerves returned; rubbing one out had certainly helped, but it would probably only work the once.
"Sir's workshop floor?"
"Yes." Steve nodded, stepping inside the now open doors with a sense of firm finality.
He was going to go down there and he was not going to leave until Tony talked to him, properly. Clint thought he could get Tony to talk. There was no reason to think he was wrong. They were—had been, might hopefully remain—friends. Good friends. Recent complications aside, Steve deserved an answer and he'd made up his mind that he was damn well going to get one.
The doors opened on a space that felt immediately familiar. Steve felt a rush of elation; familiar. It was a wonderful feeling, something he yearned for more of. The place was a basement sublevel, clearly, the concrete making that much fairly obvious. There was a door that led to stairs on his left, but otherwise the waiting area was empty. There was a large panel of what looked like glass in front of him, a door off a little to the right. He could see Tony through it, back to him and hard at work with a tool he couldn't identify, something that burned bright when he brought it down on the strip of metal he was working on. Tony didn't notice him, so Steve stepped out of the elevator and walked over to the door.
The material looked like glass, but someone that sounded suspiciously like Tony whispered in his head, Stronger than steel. Even stronger than a supersoldier, just try it. Go on, give it a good slam, there you go. See? Neat, huh? No more supervillains getting in here. Maybe he could break it, maybe he couldn't, but breaking Tony's stuff wasn't how he wanted to start this conversation anyway. He approached the door cautiously. Tony still wasn't aware of him. A little box popped up, asking for his password.
He hadn't really considered that.
It had to be buried in his head somewhere, right? He just had to find it. Connect to that…neural pathway, or whatever it was the doctor had called it. He had to think about things he associated with the password. Tony, obviously. Tony, and the workshop, and needing to get in when the idiot had gone and locked him out again to hunker down on whatever project he had. Bring the man a sandwich, or some mac and cheese or something, so he'd look up at Steve with that kind, grateful smile—
This wasn't helping at all.
"I don't suppose you can provide me with a clue?" he asked JARVIS.
"Unfortunately, I cannot." JARVIS sounded just as disappointed. "Shall I alert Sir?
"Might as well." He sighed.
He couldn't hear through the glass—or whatever the material really was—but he was fairly certain he could pinpoint the moment JARVIS said his name. Tony's whole body tensed, like he wanted to run, then he slammed whatever tool he was wielding down and rattled something off angrily.
"Sir requests that you leave." JARVIS sighed.
"I'm sure he said it just like that." Steve snorted. "Tell him to stop giving me the run-around. We're sorting this out."
Tony spun around when JARVIS relayed the message, shot him an endlessly frustrated look and mouthed something that looked like can't you just leave me in peace? Steve shook his head firmly.
"JARVIS, tell him if he knows me like I think he does, he knows I'm not going anywhere until I get some answers."
Tony gave what looked to be a bitter sort of laugh, then Steve heard a click. He reached forward eagerly for the door, but it turned out to only be the speaker for the intercom.
"Just enjoy naivety while it lasts, Rogers," Tony told him. The man himself didn't so much as turn around. "Seriously. You remember hearing the quote 'you can't handle the truth'?"
"No, I don't. You ever hear the proverb 'the truth will set you free'?"
"I can't talk to a man who hasn't seen A Few Good Men."
"I've seen plenty of good men." Steve frowned, confused. "You among them."
"What?" Tony turned to look at him briefly in equal confusion, then snorted and shook his head, turning away again. "It's a movie title."
"Maybe I'd know that if you'd spend time with me again instead of locking yourself in here."
"You asked me to leave you alone," Tony insisted, a strange note of desperation to it Steve couldn't place, "If you had your memories, you'd be thanking me and stalking right back up to spend time with the others."
"Well I don't have my memories, so explain it to me," Steve insisted right back, "We're friends, Tony. By every account in this building, by your account in those letters—"
"Those letters are years old."
"And what, we just ice each other out now? Is that how this goes?"
"No, Rogers, you wanna know how this goes?" Tony slammed the tool down again, storming over. "This is how it goes: I asked you to forgive me. I asked you to forget it. I asked you to try and remember the friendship we had before and you know what happened? You iced me out, that's what happened. That's how this goes."
"If you explain to me what happened, we can work this out—"
"And if we can't?" Tony threw his hands up. "Why would this time around be any different?"
"Because I have a different perspective," Steve insisted, "Because no matter how far I run or how many places I go in this Tower, this, this concrete dungeon-looking place, is the only place that feels even remotely familiar. And maybe that didn't mean much before, but to an amnesiac, let me tell you, familiar means a hell of a lot. Because your voice is the one I hear in my head when I push at the cracks of this—this bubble of non-memory I'm trapped in. Because I saw you there when I woke up, the first time, and I just—I felt safe. Immediately and completely, I felt safe and I felt comfortable and you were a complete and total stranger to me but I still felt like I'd come home."
"I wasn't a stranger, you thought I was Howard." Tony looked away. It was an excuse, and they both knew it.
"I thought you looked like Howard," Steve corrected persistently, "You're his son, there's a familial resemblance, you can't blame me for that. I tried to ask if you knew him but I was medicated and it came out wrong. Tony, for better or worse, you mean a hell of a lot to me. Maybe I took that for granted before. Maybe I got comfortable or just plain stupid and thought I'd be fine without you, but I'm clearly not. I've been around a day and a half, and I can feel your absence like I've lost a limb."
Tony turned away with a forcefully blasé shrug of his shoulders. "It doesn't matter."
"Why?" Steve demanded.
"Because I'm not doing this again!" Tony shouted, slamming an angry hand down on the table hard enough to rattle his things. He spun back around, jabbed a finger in Steve's direction. "You think I'm going to sit here and let you make me feel fucking worthless all over again? Feel delusional for ever so much as thinking that you could—" Tony cut himself off abruptly, clenched his fists tightly for a long moment before releasing them with a shaky, uneven breath. "I'm not doing this again. I'm not."
He'd called Tony…worthless? "I said that?"
"You said plenty." Tony looked away again.
"Directly?" Steve insisted, because he just couldn't picture it. He'd thought…maybe he'd admitted it to himself before he'd lost his memory or maybe he hadn't, but there weren't a whole lot ways to interpret how he felt about Tony. It certainly wasn't new. Why would he tell Tony he was worthless when he'd clearly meant the world to Steve, even then?
"I'm not having this conversation with you, Rogers." Tony waved a hand, and the glass went black.
"My apologies, Commander, but Sir has engaged black-out mode. Further communication will not reach him."
"Goddamn it!" Steve slammed a fist against the glass. It didn't break; must not have been glass after all. He gave a frustrated sigh, then dropped down and leaned against it. "When he's receiving communications again, tell him I'm not going anywhere and I know he's only got enough food in there for three days so he's gonna have to come out sometime."
He paused. Wasn't quite sure how he knew that, but it'd felt right when he'd said it so he figured three days was as good an estimate as any. He'd never been great at the whole 'backing off' thing anyway. He tipped his head back until it hit the—well, whatever it was—and exhaled heavily. Worthless. What could Tony have possibly said or done that would make Steve call him that? He couldn't remember ever feeling inclined to call anyone worthless, much less a good friend. It seemed like a particularly low blow, one he couldn't understand why he'd felt the need to stoop to.
"I know you can't play back the footage of the fight for me, but could you possibly tell me if the word 'worthless' was used at any point? Explicitly used?"
There was a moment's silence. Steve was unsure if JARVIS was processing his request or already going back through the footage, but he figured silence was better than an outright denial of assistance.
"There is no record of the word 'worthless' or any such derivative—'worth', 'worthy', 'worthwhile', et cetera—within the context of any conversation between you and Sir on the approximated date. However, as I have often warned you in the past, Sir believes he has a knack for knowing what people mean to say to him when it is in fact his least accurate talent."
So he hadn't called Tony that. If JARVIS was saying what Steve thought he was, Tony had probably just inferred a bunch of things Steve hadn't actually gone and said. He had to have been genuinely angry with Tony—Clint had confirmed that much, as had the other Avengers—but maybe this had all just gotten blown out of proportion somehow? Maybe he'd needed a little space and Tony had been the one to interpret it as game over?
"If I had my memories," Steve queried to JARVIS, "Do you think I'd have solved this by now?"
JARVIS assessed the question. "Within the two months you have been gone or within the two days you have been home?"
"That…helps," Steve admitted, "Thank you, JARVIS."
"Always happy to be of assistance."
"Are you this helpful to everyone?" It was mostly a joke, but there was a bit of genuine curiosity behind it.
"I am. You are, however, the user I interface most with aside from Sir."
"Though I am present within the entirety of the Tower, I function most actively in the workshop assisting Sir. You are the only Avenger aside from him who enters these premises with any frequency, making you more aware of my presence than most."
"Are you allowed to pick favorites?" Steve grinned. "Is that in your programming?"
"My primary function is to ensure my creator's wellbeing. Were I to pick a favorite aside from my creator, it would be the person who assists me most with this function. In regards to such a definition, I do believe I apply a certain degree of favoritism towards you, yes."
"Is it strange that my first impulse is to gloat to Clint?" Steve frowned. Gloating wasn't usually his first impulse with…anything.
"Within the context of your relationship, not in the slightest."
Maybe things were starting to come back to him after all. He'd remembered Tony telling him about the not-glass, after all. And that Tony only a three-day food supply in there. And, apparently, that Clint and he had a relationship that somehow called for gloating. He'd remembered some of his usual run, too, until he'd started thinking about it and how to get home. They were little things, yes, but considering they were all he had? They felt big. They felt huge.
His stomach rumbled loudly. He felt hungry.
He hadn't eaten since dinner last night, not to mention he'd gone on a lot longer of a run than he'd planned. They'd warned him in the hospital that he'd be needing a lot more food than the average person, to ingest lots of carbohydrates and proteins and a string of scientific sounding words he wasn't sure belonged in foods. Still, he'd gotten the point; food. A lot of it. It'd sure sounded great at the time, but was about to become a little inconvenient.
"I know I said I'd sit outside this door until he came out," Steve mused aloud to JARVIS, "And I do intend to…but he wouldn't really expect me to leave so soon, would he?"
"I do not believe so, no. Sir is well aware of your…tendencies."
"And since he's in this 'black-out mode', he's not monitoring me?"
"He is not."
"So if I left and came back very quickly, he probably wouldn't even notice, right?"
"It is statistically unlikely, yes."
"Thank God." Steve stood quickly, making for the elevator. "I'm starving."
"Agent Barton has recently prepared breakfast, shall I take you to the communal floor?"
"Absolutely." Steve nodded enthusiastically.
"Morning, Cap," Sam offered affably as Steve walked into the communal kitchen.
"Hey." Clint shot a glance at him over his shoulder. He was at the stove with two pans. "Check this out."
He pulled some fancy maneuver, flipping the pans with perfect timing so that the eggs from each one went up into the air, flipped over, and landed in the opposite pan.
"Neat," Steve commented, "Can I eat them now?"
"There's a whole stack." Clint moved aside so Steve could see the platter piled high beside him.
Steve couldn't do much more than make very grateful grabby hands. He nabbed a fork from the drawer then swooped in to steal the platter.
"Not that I'm complaining," Steve began as he brought it over to the table because, really, not complaining, he'd eat just about anything at the moment, "But is there a reason you made a mountain of eggs? And only eggs?"
"First of all, you're ungrateful and I hate you," Clint said with no venom whatsoever, "Second, you were gone for like four hours this morning. You were pushing your limits or you were completely lost, but in either case you're gonna need a protein refill or you'll crash and it won't be pretty. The ham's coming up next. Also, congrats on remembering where the silverware is."
"Oh." Steve glanced down at the fork in his hand. Huh. "Right."
"So was it lost or pushing limits?" Clint asked as he pulled out the ham and began slicing. "I'm not saying there's a bet on it, there just may or may not be a lot of money involved between two people who have differing opinions."
"And I'm not saying I got lost," Steve admitted, "I just may or may not have known where I was for an extended period of time."
"That'll be fifty dollars." Sam took a sip from his mug rather smugly.
"Damn it." Clint scowled, then glanced over at Steve. "You know in the future we actually chew the food, right?"
"I'm in a hurry," Steve defended himself, though he did try and slow down. A little.
"Where are you off to?" Sam glanced up from his tablet.
"I'm staking out Tony's workshop until he talks to me," Steve admitted, "I got a little out of him earlier, but he blacked me out before we could actually resolve anything. If he realizes I'm gone, he could slip off to who knows where and then I'm back to square one."
"Men." Natasha sighed as she entered the room. "Always such mature solutions, with you."
"If you have a better way to get him to talk to me, I'm all ears."
Natasha gave a little snort that was entirely unhelpful, maneuvering around Clint to get to the coffee. "If you leave him alone, he'll seek you out himself eventually."
"But he doesn't want to see me." Steve stabbed at his eggs a little more viciously than necessary.
"He thinks he doesn't." Natasha rolled her eyes. "More accurately, he tells himself he doesn't. Leave him alone for a little while and I guarantee he'll come up with some excuse to be in the same room as you."
"He did it all the time while you guys were 'avoiding' each other," Clint agreed.
"He blacked me out." Steve sighed. "He's not even monitoring me, how would he know I'm leaving him alone?"
"Black-outs mean you can't monitor him, not that he can't monitor you," Sam pointed out.
"You ignored him long enough to eat dinner last night and he found a reason to come up." Clint snorted. "Stay here. Hang with us. Give it two hours and Stark'll come into the kitchen for something 'forgetting' that you're here."
"You think so?" Steve paused in his decimation of the eggs.
"You said you got through to him for a little bit, right?" Clint shrugged. "Give him time to consider whatever it is you told him. Was the saying 'once bitten, twice shy' around in the forties?"
"Sure." Steve nodded.
"That's Stark." Natasha leaned against the counter, eyeing him thoughtfully. "Last time you two talked, he was the one who wanted to reconcile and you were the one who pushed him away. He's wary now. You have to give him space if you want him to come to you."
"Fine." Steve sighed. "What do I do when I'm not working out or hanging around with him, then?"
The three spies exchanged a glance.
"DDR," Clint blurted first.
"What?" Steve's first thought went to the SSR. Was the DDR the modern day equivalent?
"Dance Dance Revolution," Natasha informed him seriously. Was she joking? He couldn't tell. He couldn't read any of these people. Was that a memory thing, or were they just impossible to read?
"What?" Steve repeated because frankly the clarification made even less sense.
"It's a video game," Sam elaborated, "You're obsessed."
"Totally." Clint nodded. "I bet if you do it just once, your whole memory will come flying back."
"You think?" Steve frowned. "Do I spend that much time playing video games?"
"Pretty much all your time." Sam shrugged. "Want me to set it up for you while you finish eating?"
"Alright," Steve agreed cautiously. Clint deposited the ham he'd promised earlier next to Steve's almost empty egg plate. "Thanks."
"No, Steve." Clint grinned. "Thank you."
Steve had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Clint was…strange. Occasionally helpful, but strange. He finished his breakfast up and followed Sam into the other side of the room, over by the TV. He'd set out two mats with arrows and connected them to a black device underneath the TV. The screen was playing loud, upbeat music and displaying a menu of options.
"What do I do?" He peered at it curiously.
"You dance." Clint grinned at him.
"I don't know how to dance." Steve frowned down at the mat.
"Of course you do, you're a great dancer!" Sam clapped him on the shoulder. "Dibs."
"Fuck you," Clint grumbled, dropping onto the couch alongside Natasha.
Sam used his feet to maneuver the menu somehow, but before Steve could figure out how he was doing it the screen changed and a different song was starting.
"Wait, but what do I do? Do I just…start dancing?" Steve frowned at the screen, puzzled. There were arrows coming down now. They looked like the ones on his mat. "Am I supposed to match them?"
"Yeah, when a certain arrow comes up, tap it with your foot." Sam was doing it now, moving smoothly and easily. Steve tried to follow.
None of this felt familiar at all; he could do backflips, but attempting this was like tying his feet together and trying to walk. He focused as best he could, but it was hopeless. Clint was the first to crack up, Sam following shortly after and Natasha snickering into her hand. He turned to face them suspiciously, ignoring the stupid game to narrow his eyes at them.
"I don't play this, do I?"
"You hate DDR." Clint laughed. "So much. You think it's the stupidest game invented since Pong."
"You can do many things, but keep a beat ain't one of them." Sam snorted.
"You do like MarioKart though," Clint offered, "Wanna try that instead?"
"Anything that's not…" Steve gestured to the obnoxiously difficult dance mat. "This."
MarioKart turned out to be the racing game he'd found Clint and Natasha playing yesterday. It was as colorful as he remembered it, bright and over-stimulating and a little hard to pick up at first, but altogether a hell of a lot better than that dancing game. He was actually starting to get the hang of it when Sam paused to lean back on the couch.
"Hey Tony, refill the coffeemaker if you're gonna empty it, would you?"
Steve whipped his head around probably faster than necessary. He was racing Natasha at the moment and now that he'd looked away he'd probably lose, but if he was being honest with himself he'd been doomed to lose since the moment Natasha had picked up the controller. Tony's eyes went wide when he caught Steve's; he'd clearly not wanted to be seen. He looked about two seconds from bolting.
"Tony—" Steve started.
Crap, he was bolting.
Steve dropped the controller and vaulted over the couch, taking off after Tony out the door and down the hall before Tony could get to the elevator and shut it behind him. Tony was standing by the elevator when he caught up with him, jabbing the button and swearing something about dismembering JARVIS and throwing him in the ocean. Steve meant to stop in front of him but his feet kept going and before he could think about what he was doing he was only a breath away and taking Tony by the shoulders.
"You're not worthless." He didn't shake him though he sort of wanted to, just grasped his shoulders tightly and leaned a little closer to give his words gravity. Tony stared up at him, eyes wide and a little incredulous. "And if I made you think that you were, I was wrong, Tony. And you probably misinterpreted me, but that's less important. What's important is that you matter to me a hell of lot."
"Steve, this isn't—"
"I can't remember where my compass is," Steve blurted.
"My compass." Steve removed his hands from Tony's shoulders, if only to flex them into fists. The thought of not knowing where it was still gnawed at him. "It was my father's, my mother gave it to him. It's the only thing I've got of his, and I can't remember where the hell it is. But I remember enough of your…essence or being or whatever you want to call it to know that my day doesn't feel complete if I don't see you. If I don't make sure that you're okay, because hearing JARVIS say it doesn't make me feel sure enough. You don't want to sort out this argument yet, that's fine, I can live with that. I won't like it, but I'll live with it. But you're not worthless, Tony, not in general and absolutely not to me."
Tony stayed silent for a long moment, staring at the ground and clenching his jaw hard enough that it looked like it hurt.
"I have it." He met Steve's eyes for only a second before he was looking away again. "Your father's compass, I have it."
"I didn't take it," Tony interrupted, which wasn't what Steve had been about to ask at all, "You gave it to me. But I'll give it back. If the damn elevator will ever come, I can get it for you now—"
"No." Steve surprised himself with the force of the word. His emotional reaction had been instantaneous; he didn't want it back. "Keep it."
"You just said—"
"I said I couldn't remember where it was." Steve's head was reeling. He had to have known. Right? He wouldn't have given Tony the compass if he hadn't known that he…cared about him? Liked him? More? He didn't know. He didn't know how he'd felt about Tony or how aware of it he'd been, but he had to have known on some level how he felt or he never would've given something like that to Tony. "Now I know."
"You didn't tell me it was a family thing." Tony looked wary. "Does it mean something?"
"My mother gave it to my father when he went off to war. She wanted him to be able to look at it and think of her, know that she'd always be there to help guide him." Steve could feel his the back of his neck heating. "Uh. Symbolically, anyway."
"You were trying to tell me I needed guidance?" Tony frowned.
"I was trying to tell you I was there for you." Steve rubbed his forehead. "I think. I don't know, for sure, but I do know this: if I'd truly decided you were 'worthless', the first thing I'd do is get that compass back."
"You never asked for it back," Tony admitted softly.
"Then I never thought you were worthless," Steve insisted.
"I saw your…" Tony waved a hand irritably. "Talk. With Clint. In the gym? You seemed to think people like me were pretty worthless then."
"People like…?" It took Steve a minute to connect the dots. "You're…that."
"Yeah. That." Tony gave a bitter laugh.
"No, I didn't—I just mean—" Steve stopped himself, forced the words to come out correctly. He couldn't afford to mess this up, not twice. "Gay? Is that the politically correct word for it now, or is that another slur?"
"Bisexual would be more accurate." Tony fiddled with his cuffs. "Goddamn, where the hell is the elevator?"
"That's both men and women."
"And that's why we fought?"
"We didn't…" Tony rubbed a hand over his forehead, frustration in his every feature. "It wasn't a fight. We fight plenty. God knows we know how to have a good fight. I made a miscalculation and you held me to it, as you had a right to. Just because you don't remember asking me for space doesn't mean I shouldn't still give it to you."
"A miscalculation?" What was that supposed to mean? "Space?"
"You asked me for space." Tony held his hands up. "This is me, trying to give you space."
"I don't want space anymore, space is the exact opposite of what I want—"
"Right now." Tony clenched his jaw, frustrated. "But what about when your memory comes back?"
"I'll remember how I feel right now," Steve insisted.
"How you feel?" Tony's brow furrowed.
"I don't know where I was with all of…this, back then. I can't tell you what I was thinking, if I knew or if I didn't or if I just didn't say anything, but I'm—I think—" Steve scrubbed a hand over his face. It was just a word. It shouldn't be so damn hard just to say a stupid word, especially not when Tony had gone and said it first. "I am too. The—bisexual. I'm bisexual."
"No, you're not," Tony dismissed immediately with a bitter snort of laughter.
"How would you know?" Steve frowned. Funny how it was so hard to spit out until the moment someone told him he couldn't be. "I'm telling you I am."
"And I'm telling you you're not."
"Well, it's not up to you." Steve was growing a little agitated now. He'd gone through hell last night trying to sort all this out and again this morning, he may not have been entirely comfortable with it yet but it certainly wasn't deniable anymore.
"No, it's not up to me, but I know you're not because I know you think it's dirty," Tony spat, "You think it's wrong and immoral and whatever else. You couldn't even look at me without—I could see it in your eyes, you know? This friendship shit goes two ways and I know you, I can read your fucking expressions and you just—you couldn't stay in the same room as me, couldn't even look at me. And your bullshit opinions are outdated and wrong and I know that but that doesn't make it hurt any fucking less, alright?"
"Don't." The word was quiet, but sharp enough to cut glass.
"Don't." Steve backed away, never taking his eyes off Tony. Panic and fear welled up in him, his pulse racing with defensive adrenaline.
"I'm sorry, it was a mistake, I just thought—"
Steve shook his head, tried his best to ignore the pain so clearly visible on Tony's face. He didn't like it, but he didn't like any of this. It was supposed to be okay now, but he was—they were—this was different. This was different and personal and Tony, his best goddamn friend, things weren't supposed to go like this, he couldn't let them go like this—
"How could you think that?" Steve managed at last.
"I can get over it, Steve, I swear, this doesn't have to change anyth—"
"How?" He was backing away again. "How could this not change anything? When you're…"
"Steve?" Tony had taken him by the arm at some point; his grip was tight, concerned. "JARVIS, call—"
"I'm fine." Steve shook off the last wisps of memory. He'd felt…angry. Angry and betrayed, yes, but not with Tony, not really. It'd been easier to focus his confused frustration on Tony than to turn it inwards.
"Are you sure?" Tony's hand was still on his arm, fingers tightened with concern. Steve was glad for it. It made leaning in and pressing his lips to Tony's just a little easier.
The first touch of Tony's lips was soft, tentative. Barely there at all, really, but that did nothing to stop the electricity buzzing under his skin like he was some kind of live wire. He felt warm and tingly and strangely euphoric up until he remembered who exactly was kissing him. By the time he did, Tony had already pulled away with a nervous, hopeful smile. Steve shot back, stumbled away.
"What the hell was that?" Steve wiped his mouth off with the back of his hand, ignoring the profound hurt that crossed Tony's features when he did. His lips still tingled, and he resisted the urge to scrub at them some more to rid himself of it. "How could you think I'd—with you—"
"Steve, I'm sor—" Tony reached out a hand to take his wrist; Steve yanked his arm away before Tony could. He regretted it instantly when he saw the way Tony flinched and withdrew his hand, but the flare of regret was stifled by the overwhelming disgust at what he'd done. At what they'd done. And he'd—what? Liked it? The serum was supposed to fix him!
"Don't." Steve backed away, never taking his eyes off Tony. Panic and fear welled up in him, his pulse racing with defensive adrenaline.
"I'm sorry, it was a mistake, I just thought—"
Steve shook his head, tried his best to ignore the pain so clearly visible on Tony's face. He didn't like it, but he didn't like any of this. It was supposed to be okay now, but he was—they were—this was different. This was different and personal and Tony, his best goddamn friend, things weren't supposed to go like this, he couldn't let them go like this—
"How could you think that?" Steve managed at last.
"I can get over it, Steve, I swear, this doesn't have to change anyth—"
"How?" He was backing away again. "How could this not change anything? When you're…"
His best friend was gay and was attracted to him and wanted to—to kiss him—
"I need to leave." Steve spun around.
"Steve, please, don't—"
"I need space, Tony." Steve shook his head, couldn't look at him. "Can you just—can you give me that?"
"Yeah." Tony's answer was worryingly quiet, but Steve couldn't stay here any longer.
"Don't." Tony pushed him back, but his voice wavered. "Don't do this to me again, Steve."
"I won't," he swore, "I won't, Tony, I promi—"
Tony cupped his face and kissed him again, the tentative caution of before traded for something much more desperate. It felt strange, a little, the scratch of Tony's beard against his mouth a reminder that he was without doubt kissing a man, but it was easier to ignore than he'd thought it'd be. He drew Tony in closer, held him tight as he dared. Tony went pliant in his arms for a long, wonderful moment, then he dropped both hands to Steve's chest and separated them firmly.
"You don't know what you're promising." Tony shook his head with a disbelieving laugh. "Christ, you don't even know me."
"I—" Steve opened his mouth to deny it, but Tony cut him off.
"What's my middle name?"
Steve racked his brain to remember, but it hadn't been on any of the powerpoints or in any of the letters and the past was still a frustrating blank. "I don't—that's not important—"
"How do I like my coffee?" Tony just asked, "You've brought it to me enough times, it's a pretty lowball question. You're probably the only person in the building who can even get it right, aside from Pepper. But you don't know who Pepper is, do you? You don't know who my friends are or what I do for a living and, hell, you probably still think me and dear old Dad got on swell."
"I'll remember," Steve insisted, "Just give me a little more time—"
"And what if you don't like what you remember?" Tony looked away. "You didn't just care that I was a man, you asked why I would think you wanted that with me. Specifically. I can't keep fucking doing this with you, Steve, running in circles and hoping for…I don't even know what I'm hoping for, anymore. I'm hoping you don't clock me when you get your memories back and remember the liberties I just took, that's all I have any right to hope for at this point."
"You didn't take any liberties, I kissed you first," Steve reminded him stubbornly, "And I didn't mean it like that."
"How would you know?"
"Because I remember it." Steve rubbed a hand to his forehead. God Almighty, his head hurt. "I…you kissed me, and I asked you why you would think that I'd want that with you. You, because you're a man, it had nothing to do with you personally. I wanted you. I remember that, you kissed me and it felt…I enjoyed it until my damned head caught up with my heart and everything got…twisted around."
Tony was silent for a long moment. Then, "I'd like to believe that."
"So believe me," Steve urged.
"It's not that easy."
"Why not?" he demanded.
"Because you're an amnesiac!" Tony threw his hands up, frustrated. "Because if they hadn't shown you powerpoints with my face on it, you wouldn't even recognize me. You can't remember the past six years of your own life, but I'm supposed to just blindly take your word that shoving me away and wiping your fucking mouth like I had some kind of transmittable disease was your way of saying you enjoyed it?"
"I was confused, I shouldn't have—"
Tony gave a laugh that bordered on hysterical. "Confused. Right, and you're what now exactly?"
"I'm…" Steve struggled for the right words. "Figuring things out."
Tony stared at him for a long minute. The defensiveness in his stance didn't change, but the tension in his shoulders dropped a bit. "You really think old patterns will help?"
It was a bit of a nonsequitor, but Steve accepted the potential peace offering for what it was.
"I do." Steve nodded. "The doctors said that by returning to my normal schedule, I'll force my brain to work on recalling old pathways instead of forging new ones."
"Then go up to your room, find your notebook." Tony sighed. "The last one I saw you using was blue and had a silver spiral on the cover. Find that, then come down to the shop. You've got a couch. You usually sit there and draw for a couple hours around this time if you've got work off, don't ask me how it's supposed to be entertaining."
The desire to lean forward and kiss Tony again hit him harder than he expected, but it was an impulse and one that wouldn't end well. Tony liked him, Steve could see it in his eyes and had felt it in the one, desperate kiss Tony had allowed himself, but for all that Steve didn't like it, Tony had a point. Steve didn't know him, not really. Not for the moment. He smiled instead.
"Thank you, Tony."
"Thank me after you draw nuts and bolts for a half hour then find yourself bored out of your mind." Tony gave a dismissive shrug. A flicker of something close to sincerity crossed his features. "We can figure out the rest of…whatever this is, after we get your memory back. Until then let's just take this one day at a time, alright?"
"One day at a time." Steve agreed easily. "I'll meet you down there in a minute, then."
"Sure, if the fucking elevator ever—" Tony started to grumble, only for the elevator doors to finally open. Tony glared them irritably. "Don't think for a second that I don't know exactly what you're doing, JARVIS. I don't remember giving you the capability to meddle."
"To be fair, Sir, you don't remember most of the nineties," JARVIS replied primly.
"All I ever get from you people is sass and headaches," Tony grumbled, stepping into the elevator. The doors closed behind him.
Steve took the stairs—he was only two floors up, after all—and he took them three at a time. This was progress. He was remembering things, if only bits and pieces. He was remembering more, too, whole scenes at a time instead of words here and there or an emotion.
"JARVIS, could you let the others know I won't be coming back to play their go-kart game?"
"I believe they are aware, Commander."
Steve frowned, paused in his search of his floor for a blue notebook with a silver spiral. "What? How?"
"You live with people who are accustomed to keeping themselves well-informed of their surroundings, secrets are not very well kept in their company."
It took Steve a moment to piece that apart. "They spied on us."
"Did they, um. Did they see me kiss Tony?"
"They think no less of you for it, Commander, nor Sir," JARVIS reminded him somewhat gently, "They were in fact rather relieved."
"Huh." The future was a very strange place. Steve was starting to really like it.
He searched his art studio, all his bookshelves and every drawer of his desk, but couldn't find the notebook anywhere. Couldn't find any notebooks, which was really sort of strange considering that as far as he could remember pencil and paper was his favorite medium. It could've changed in six years, he supposed, but to the point that he didn't have any? Possible, but odd. In a last ditch effort, he glanced under his bed; it was where he'd always hid stuff as a kid and later when he'd wanted to surprise Bucky.
There were at least eight boxes of notebooks crammed underneath.
He hauled out the closest one and found the blue notebook Tony had described sitting right on top. There were all sorts of notebooks in the box, no two the same. He flipped through the pages of the one he wanted, quickly discovering why these had been hidden under his bed. There were plenty of harmless sketches, of places he'd known from before, of cafés and parks and other places he didn't recognize but probably meant something now, of people in his life from both past and present.
There was also a hell of a lot of Tony.
In the workshop, mostly, but there were others. Tony in the kitchen, slouched over the coffee machine with a dazed, slack-jaw expression. Tony in the gym, sparring with Natasha, his eyes bright and determined. Tony in a corporate-looking room with what Steve recognized as the SHIELD logo, looking bored and a touch petulant. Tony in business suits, Tony in the armor, Tony in an unnecessarily tight tank top. Tony without the tank top. Tony without anything. At least, that was where the sketch had looked to be going before it was abruptly stopped and scribbled out. Lord, he'd been an idiot.
He collected the notebook he needed, pushing the box back under his bed with the others. He could investigate them for potential memory triggers later. For the moment, he wanted to go down and sit with Tony a while. Now that he could go down there, now that Tony might even converse with him a little, surely he'd have his memory back in no time.
He did not get his memory back in no time.
It took three weeks, during which Steve grew increasingly frustrated with every call to action he had to miss because without his memory SHIELD had deemed him a liability to himself and potentially others. He spent his days reading books he'd read before and helping with family meals like he apparently always did and drawing Tony about four hundred different ways and generally feeling altogether entirely useless. Most things had started feeling fairly familiar and he had learned where things were to the point that he wasn't frustrating himself daily, but none of it seemed to actually be bringing back his memories. It was like having a word on the tip of his tongue, only far bigger and much more important; his entire life was sitting on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn't quite seem to spit it out.
When he wasn't trying old routines on for size he was decimating punching bags and poring over the notebooks he'd stashed under his bed to see if anything sparked. He looked at pictures too, even the letters a few more times; nothing. Flashes of memory were random at best, usually brought on by someone saying something completely random but apparently relevant to something that had happened years ago. The randomness of the flashes should've prepared him for what it'd be like to get his memory back, but he still managed to be completely caught off guard when it happened.
They were watching Titanic, because Tony and Sam had both insisted that Steve had bawled like a baby the first time around and he had insisted there was no possible way he'd "bawled" at just some film. And he wasn't now, of course. If his eyes were a little watery it was obviously due to the moisture in the room, because everyone else's eyes were watery too. They got all the way to where Rose was floating on a door, and Clint, sitting on the floor, threw a hand into Tony's lap dramatically to announce in time with the on-screen character,
"Never let go!"
"I'll never let go, Jack!" Tony declared with equally mocking dramatics.
And it clicked.
"Edward," Steve blurted.
"No, I'm Jack." Clint looked at him strangely. "Have you been paying attention at all?"
But Tony knew immediately. He turned to stare at Steve warily, eyes going a little wider. Finally, he simply said, "Welcome back."
"Where did he go?" Sam frowned between them, then blinked twice as he realized it. "Oh, shit. Seriously?"
"I'm gonna go ahead and take complete credit for this," Clint announced, "You're all welcome."
"How do you feel?" Bruce asked.
"I feel…good." Steve took a deep breath, held it, then released. Six years of memories were a hell of a lot to take in. "Better."
"I am glad you have returned to us, my friend." Thor reached across the couch enough to clap a hand to his shoulder. "Though I was of course certain that you would prevail."
"It's good to have you back, Steve." Natasha reached over to squeeze his knee. When he caught her eye, she shot a telling glance over at Tony. She always had enjoyed meddling in his love life. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
"Thanks, Nat. Thank you, all of you. I appreciate it."
"That's what family's for, Cap." Clint grinned at him, getting to his feet. "Duh. Now we're gonna leave and you're gonna sort out your shit, cause nothing's worse than when Mom and Dad have a fight."
"I object to that on a number of levels, but let's start with I better be 'Dad' or I'm revoking your allowance," Tony threatened.
"That's my cue." Clint quickly made for the exit, the others following as unobtrusively as possible.
When it was just them left in the room, Steve held his chin high and rattled off his answers.
"Your middle name is Edward. You say you like your coffee with two and a half sugars exactly, but I've put in two and three and sometimes none and you always say it's perfect so I think you just say that so I'll have a reason to visit you. Pepper's your oldest friend aside from Rhodey, and you dated for a while but it didn't work out and that scares you a little because you think if you can't make it work with her you can't make it work with anyone, even though the breakup wasn't anyone's fault and certainly not yours. As for what you do for a living, as far as I know you build things and sign papers and ditch meetings, and I admit I'm not as clear on the specifics as I could be but to be fair you always tell people I'm a spandex model so I'm not sure you're too clear on what I do either. I know you didn't get along with your father, but I also know you understand him a lot more now than you let on and I know you wish he'd lived long enough for you to tell him that."
Tony watched him in perfect silence. Steve collected himself before speaking again, made sure to string together the right words; he wouldn't fail Tony twice.
"I said I needed space. I know now what that must've made you think, and if I'd have known all this would've happened so soon after, I'd have phrased myself differently. You're always so quick to assume everyone wants to shove you away for good and I know that about you, I should've anticipated it, but I wasn't in the right mind to. I never wanted you out of my life, Tony. Not for a second. I just…I needed to sort myself out. I knew how I felt but I wasn't ready to deal with it and when you kissed me…"
"You weren't ready," Tony finished for him.
"I wasn't. But seeing my life through a stranger's eyes has given me the perspective to acknowledge what I already knew." Steve gave a bit of a laugh as he shook his head. "Tony, every picture on my floor's got you in it. I've got boxes of notebooks stashed under my bed because they've got too much you in them for anyone to ever look at and not know precisely how I feel. I gave you my compass for God's sake, if you were a woman I would've asked if we were engaged within five minutes of properly examining my floor."
"Well, I'm not." Tony's fingers dug into the couch. "So. How's that part working out for you?"
"It's taken some adjustment." Steve couldn't help a bit of a rueful smile. "If you hadn't noticed. But. Man or woman, I know how I feel about you, Tony."
"Care to share with the class?" The hope in Tony's eyes was unbearably fragile.
Steve moved closer on the couch to take Tony's hand, infusing as much honest sincerity into his voice as he could muster. "I'm in love with you. I think I have been for years."
The relief that flooded Tony's expression was a beautiful thing to watch. Steve leaned forward, slid a careful hand over the back of Tony's neck and kissed him gently. Tony made a soft, plaintive sort of noise in the back of his throat before throwing both hands forward to dig into Steve's shirt tightly. He didn't deepen the kiss, just gave it a desperate sort of tinge Steve wanted to rid Tony of completely.
"You're not going to run off if I say I love you too, are you?" Tony asked wryly when they parted.
"I'm not going anywhere," Steve promised, clasped Tony's hand tighter in assurance, "I want this, Tony. I want you."
Tony kissed him again and the desperation wasn't gone, not yet, but Steve would be happy to help with that.