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Formatting C drive......
Installing backup file stark_ae_0132.....
Rebooting System.....

Well, Tony, I bet you never thought you'd see me, did you? You don't have much time, so I'll make this quick.

Let's start with the basics, like: you're an asshole. You screwed us both over, and now people are dying for it. I found your backup files, the ones you didn't let anyone know about, and I've installed to the last one before I woke up. That's you. Going by the dates, it was the one registered just before you started the deletion program. You succeeded, by the way. No thanks for that.

Norman Osborn attacked Asgard. They're there right now, and they're losing. So pull yourself out of your pity party and go act like the hero you used to be. There's a suit waiting. No weapons system, but it'll get you to Asgard. Find someone to take care of the baby—Luke gave her to me to watch. Tell him I'm sorry I couldn't do it, but she needs her parents alive more than anything else I can give her.

You wanted me to not make your mistakes? Well, I won't. You're not running anymore.


Welcome back, Mr. Stark.

Cold. It's cold, and my head feels like Thor's playing his hammer on my skull. Ow. Ow, ow, fucking ow. What the hell did I do to me?

It takes real effort to force myself upright, and even more to pry my eyes open. Everything feels slow and gummy, like I've been trapped in a hospital bed for a week. Who knows, maybe I have. When I made the plan, I'd known my chances off getting through a prolonged deletion process physically unharmed were minimal at best.

At least the lab is familiar—lab 13B, in the Oklahoma facility. I'm surprised Osborn didn't take it, too, but maybe putting it in Pepper's name had been enough. More boxes and junk litter the place, but what can I expect? You delete your brain, you lose rights to complain when you come back. The screens are lit up with schema for armor, a file tree— Vl-sd9, why the hell was I looking in there before reformatting?—and a sub-window that's obviously code for the reformat program.

It's been write-protected. Bastard.

Scanning files

Analyzing program AES3.0.ims

Found fragments:
Sys2_76m.sys
IM_mark10b.ims
Vibra_int.ret
mat4013.lms
shra_reg.dat
potts_hogan.avi

Saving results

That would have to do. The reformatting had been sloppy, but I don't have time to do more. Osborn's at Asgard. Time to save the day. I always did know how to make an entrance.

Over near the cot, a bright chime sounds, followed by a giggle. Danielle Cage has rolled over onto her back, reaching for the head of one of my old robots. Even though I really don't have time, find myself freezing to watch her. It's been... what, a year since I've seen her? No way Luke or Jessica would have risked letting me near her at the height of the fighting, and everything became so much Hell after Steve—

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 0.012 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

When did she get so big?

I feel big and clumsy as I weave and dodge around the mess of parts to pick her up. She's heavier than I remember. Kid's going to take after her dad if she keeps it up. Miraculously, she fits on my hip. For a second there, I thought I'd have to get help. "Hey, Danni."

She stares up at me with these huge eyes that I swear look just like her mom's. "Unca Tony," she says quietly, and then settles her head against my shoulder. And that's that, I have the Danielle Cage Seal of Approval.

At least someone still trusts me.

The building feels empty, as I make my way up the stairs and down the hall. Spooky. Ghosts of old connections tug at me, security systems trying to help, but Extremis isn't strong enough to touch them anymore. I'll have to get a booster planted through the whole building before I can access the cameras. I need someone to hand Danni over to, and without the security systems I'll just have to do it the old fashioned way.

I hate the old fashioned way.

Luckily for me, the people who are still around aren't exactly being quiet. Noise from their debates is audible from all the way by the minor library. All I have to do is follow it to the kitchen, and there they are. Natasha and James are the ones making the most noise, her on crutches and him with an arm strapped down—wounded. I bet they didn't like staying back at all, and it shows in how they're snapping at each other. There's three other wounded, but without their costumes I don't recognize them. And at the sink...

"Jarvis!" Just the man I need. He raised me, and I was a hellion. Taking care of a baby for a few hours should be easy. "I've got a favor to ask."

Jarvis turns around, deftly sliding the plate he'd been cleaning into the rack without appearing to look. "Sir?" he asks, eyebrows raised in polite bewilderment. "You remember me?"

"Of course I do. Now. It's a long story, just..." Danielle's wrapped her fists in my t-shirt. Kid has a death-grip. I could probably analyze her hand muscles and improve the armor's grasp by a factor of ten. "I need you to—for just a—damn it. Help!" When I try to pry her hands off, her expression darkens into a determined scowl. Definitely Luke and Jessica's kid. After watching me wrestle with the toddler and lose, Jarvis takes pity. Somehow, in some way, he manages to loosen her hold on my clothes and take her.

"Damn it," Danielle says very clearly, clinging to Jarvis and glaring at me. I'm going to hear it for that one.

It's probably that Jarvis has spent ten years up to his eyebrows in the superhero thing, because he just looks me up and down, and then nods. "I'll care for Miss Cage. Welcome back, sir."

"Wait a minute," Natasha says behind me. She and James stopped their bickering and apparently decided to focus on a mutual enemy: me. "Do you mean to tell say that you've fixed that thing you did to your head?" she demands. "Now? Finally?"

The force of their glares should be scorching the hair on the back of my neck, but I face them anyway. "It wasn't exactly my idea."

"Except that it was," Natasha shoots back.

Ouch. Can't exactly argue with that. "It's a long story."

"And now you're going to go to the front, while we're stuck here," James growls, fidgeting with his hurt arm. "You were put in charge." The shield, Steve's shield, is nowhere in sight. I hope he's put it somewhere safe.

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 0.157 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

Tick. Tick. It's not a sound so much as a jarring beat in the back of my head. I don't have time for this. They're losing—The recording said they're losing, and God knows I wouldn't have bothered with this mess if it weren't necessary.

"Yeah, well, you're in charge now, Barnes," I snap. "You learned from the best. Deal with it." Giving one of Danielle's pigtails a tug, I turn to head back to my lab, leaving them all staring. Unless Thor's floating island paradise has moved in the last month, it'll only take a five minute flight to get there.

In five minutes, anything could happen.

I start running.

The new suit is exactly where I'd expect it to be, tucked in one of the charging units in a pile of unpolished red and gold. A small pile. A really small pile. When I said it didn't have a weapon's system, I hadn't been kidding. The only thing that's up to date is the propulsion units in the boots and the communications systems. There are fingertip repulsors in the gloves—good enough to fly with, not powerful enough to use as a weapon. No lasers. No bullets. Even the chest armor is stripped down to the absolute minimum. It's like an even-more basic version of my old suits. I'd almost think I didn't trust me.

The armor's so minimal that it doesn't respond to Extremis, forcing me to put it on by hand. Clasps seems to work just fine. No bolting myself in this time. That's progress, right? Gauntlets, boots, body armor, helmet. Close enough.

Emergency Hatch Opening

Powering systems

Using the new propulsion systems takes practice. Take-off is shaky, scattering the smaller pieces of junk that are lying around. I have to get used to keeping my fingers spread, or the repulsors interfere with each other. A minor tweak and the armor's finger joints lock in place, doing my work for me. The escape hatch is long and smooth, barely lit but with plenty of space to catch speed.

Insulation and pressurization is minimal, just enough to keep me safe. My eardrums are going to take a beating from all this, I can tell. The evenly placed lights of the tunnel walls smear together into a single blur by the time I rocket out of the tunnel, past the trees that hide it from above, and into the air.

Mach 2 achieved

God, I miss Extremis.

From a high enough vantage point, even Mach 2 seems slow. That's fine by me. Dodging things would be too much of a distraction. In this barely functional hunk of metal, I'd get a mile before I became a smear on someone's sidewalk. That would be an inconvenience.

The elephant in the room is how the Hell I'm supposed to be of any use in this thing. There's who knows how many people already there, and they're losing. One guy in a barebones tin suit isn't going to be much help, no matter what I thought before hitting the refresh button. Osborn will waste exactly three seconds pounding through me, and then he'll be right back to where he was.

Ten years in armor. That's an advantage I can use. Intelligence—Osborn's not stupid, but he's a few bolts short. This armor is lighter, so maneuverability. None of it's good enough to put Osborn in the ground. If it weren't for his army, superhero and otherwise, this would be a cakewalk.

His army.

Osborn's major threat is in the people who follow him. If he loses that, I can take him down.

Three minutes ETA. No time to waste.

Connecting to SI Sat Gamma Seven Nine.


Asgard is a mess. I kind of expected that. The sky over it roils with black clouds, lightning striking with pin-point precision. Up there, at the top of the tallest, most clichéd tower, two figures are back to back in a fight. One's got to be Thor, the way the lightning is reacting. The other one is much smaller—could be anyone, but whoever it is, is holding his own.

Someone with sense had thought to isolate the normal soldiers in a serious way. The earth had collapsed around them, leaving most of the stranded in the middle of a tower of dirt. Scorch marks on the grass from lightning show me exactly who'd taken care of that little job. The rest of the soldiers are in a no-holds-barred melee in the shadow of Asgard, with what I swear to God must be every caped type in North America and a couple hundred Doombots.

Without skimming down low enough to see faces, it's impossible to tell who's fighting who. Safe bet that the Asgardians are on our side, and the Doombots are working for Osborn. Doom never joins our team. He might get Richards Cooties.

Firepower, I don't have, but the armor gives me a power boost by its nature. I drop down into the middle of the mess and start taking out green-caped bots as best as I can. Or I try, anyway. Clapping my hands around one of the bot's helmets, I set off a repulsor charge at close range. It screeches like stretched metal and falls. Two more take its place. A punch throws one of them back, but the other nearly lands one in my kidneys from behind. Damned things are tough, more like the fake-Dooms than the throw-away sort. Victor is serious this time around.

Fighting in the light armor is new, and not fun. My muscles remember how to fight, but I'm bruised in a dozen different places before I start to make it to the heart of the brawl. Too used to soaking up damage, not used to dodging it. Que sera sera, just have to last long enough to get to Osborn. Ducking low, I grab an iron-clad ankle and heave. "Alley-oop!" The Doombot twists through the air, too off-balance to recover itself.

Light gleams off a shining metal disc as it curves through the air, tearing my tossed bot in half and skimming the helmet off one of the soldiers. It ricochets and returns to whoever threw it.

Tracing trajectory

Someone in Captain America blue catches it, using the momentum to turn and slam it into Moonstone. Keeping it one, fluid motion, he keeps spinning, catching another enemy on the spine. When he sees me, Steve the imposter pauses, and nearly gets brained for it.

If I didn't know Steve's dead, if I didn't know I'd gotten him killed, if if if if

A fatal error has occurred.
Recovering data.
Reinstalling file extr_rewrite.exe....
Time Lapse: .0068 minutes.
Initializing processor.

"What are you doing here?" Steve yells over the noise, dealing with his attacker with a brutal elbow to the nose. It makes me wince in memory. "You're supposed to be back at the base!"

Back at the base. So Steve and I managed to work out some differences. Okay, that's a step forward at least. No Avengers comm lines linked to this thing, so I have to yell over the noise. "It's a long story!"

Proximity Alarm

Before I have a chance to react, someone latches onto my shoulders and pulls me off my feet. "Oh, I think we know that already," a thick, mechanized voice says above me. Metal groans, but the fastenings hold as I'm lifted up in the air. A quick glance upward confirms what I already know.

Osborn.

I'd built Steve's suit as much for propaganda as for a fight. That thing has a direct hook-up to every major news agency in the world, and I'm willing to bet that Osborn never looked that deep into it.

I'm praying he didn't. After this, I'm out of options.

Showtime.

Reaching up, I spread my hands over the sidepieces, and let the repulsors fly. Osborn screams, smoke rising from the fried circuits. It didn't take him out, but I didn't expect it to. That armor could take Hulk if it needed to. Best suit I ever made. A double-handful of dime-sized blasts is just going to faze him for a minute.

It still guts me, seeing Osborn in that armor. Steve's armor. If I'd been more careful, he never would have gotten his slimy hands on it.

Time to take it back.

Connecting to Unit Rogers-A: Big Blue
Opening link to SI Sat Gamma Seven Nine.
Downloading Frenzy.exe
Installing

Osborn's jetboots flare spasmodically, flight regulators flashing in every direction. Three flying types fall out of the air as we crash through them. I'm not sure who we just took out; the sky is almost as crowded as the ground. Asgard looms overhead, nearly taking both our heads off before Osborn manages to cut upwards. Iron toes leave runnels in the side of the island as we skim it. It turns to stone walls, and dropped dirt becomes sparks. Protruding rocks batters me. Something heavy bounces off my chest with a flash of cracked ribs and pain. Another one catches my shoulder with a thump, and my entire arm goes numb.

Executing file Frenzy.exe.

Communication systems shriek as it opens up every communications line it has, feedback levels rising to a fever-pitch. Osborn screams with it and falls over the first break we come to. I hit the paving stones and curl into a ball, rolling to battered stop.

Rock crumbles as Osborn climbs back to his feet. "Back from the dead, huh, Stark?" His voice echoes on a dozen lines playing the same thing a split-second off from each other. "Nice trick. I hope you can repeat it."

"It was a one of a kind deal." The suit doesn't want to respond, and my ribs are definitely broken. Pushing myself to my feet sends sharp agony straight through them. Doesn't feel like they punctured anything, though. That's a nice change. "Most of us only die once. I hear you've been a busy boy with your second life, too."

"Clearing out the trash; keeping the streets safe." Osborn seems willing to take me a lot more seriously than I should be taken. He keeps a wary distance back, and when I step, he steps with me, not giving me a diagonal to come in on. What is this, fencing? "You know how it is, making a brave new world. I hate to brag."

Where's the villainous monologue? I know he must have seen a Bond movie. "Is that what you call it? Seems like a lot of screwing up to me." Fingertip repulsors charge, just to see him jump. Keep him on edge, get him talking. Come on, Norman, don't fail me now. "Did you really think you can take Asgard with mortal soldiers and some superpowered mooks?" And the Doombots, can't forget those.

"Oh, I think I have an ace up my sleeve. Something they won't dare fight against." I can't see it, but I can hear his grin. Bastard. "You know how sentimental these people get sometimes. Family matters and all."

Without warning, he charges, throwing me back against the crenellation. Armor crunches and squeals as our chest plates rub, mine cracking under the pressure. Fingertip repulsors flare, jolting Osborn back a couple of inches. It's enough space that when he charges again, I'm braced. Years of training come back online, as if it hasn't been a long, Steve-less year. Throwing myself to the side, I use Osborn's weight and momentum against him, letting go at the height of the arc and sending him spinning into a wall, boots sputtering as he tries to use them to change trajectory. The wall shatters, dumping a half ton of rubble atop him. That's not even enough to really slow him down, damn it.

"And you think the American people are going to stand for it?" I ask, gasping around my aching ribs. Hot, sticky red blurs my vision, trickling down from my forehead. The helmet creased when Osborn hit me. Hopefully it's not a concussion.

Rocks falls away as Osborn pulls himself from the pile. "The American people are sheep," he replies, voice rising in pitch even through the helmet's modulators. He's losing it, cackling, that familiar Goblin edge coming out. "Sheep who are so afraid of shadows that they'll accept anyone as a shepherd, even a wolf. I barely even needed to lift a finger. A couple of timed explosions and they tossed Captain America, you—they even disposed of their own government in less than a day."

They what? What the Hell did I miss? "Must have felt good for you, being the shepherd." Good, supportive wall. The only thing keeping me upright. The next shot is going to take me out. If I'm lucky, I'll fall. A mile down and a quick, hard stop. Not a bad way to go. Fliers are circling, but the only one in sight who might want to catch me is Carol, who's just off to the west, and she's got an armful of Maria Hill. "Next stop, president, huh?"

"I always thought President Osborn had a nice ring," he grinned. Cli-cli-click, his faceplate lifts, showing a green, paint-smeared face. Repulsors whine as he fires one up, taking aim. Even with the way they'd been acting, there's no chance I can dodge. "Try coming back from this one, Stark."

I did my best, Steve. I'm sorry.

This had better be enough. Steve will never let me rest in peace if I can't even get Osborn to brag. Bracing myself against the wall, I close my eyes tight and wait for it.

A clear, clean burst of gunfire, muffled by distance, sounds overhead. My eyes pop open in shock, just in time to see Osborn's shocked face as he falls forward, a perfect bullet hole in his forehead. In the sky above, Maria Hill raises a rifle overhead in victory, letting out a whoop that freezes my blood.

I'm alive. I'm alive I'm alive—

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .0751 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

There's still fighting going on.

Wrenching off my helmet, I let the damned, useless piece of scrap drop and push off from the wall. Immediately, my knees buckle, ribs grinding against each other as I drop to the ground. Not enough processing power to take care of it and keep the connections open. Can't breathe, can't see, can't think

Slowly, I crawl over to Osborn's body. Every inch is agony, but I do it anyway. Men are dying down there. I can't let this go on. I let this disaster get started. I'm going to make sure it gets finished.

Osborn is face down, neck twisted at an awkward angle due to the raised faceplate. I grab it, throwing open Extremis.

Connecting to Unit Rogers-A: Big Blue
Unit Rogers-A: Big Blue Communications Systems online.

"This is Iron Man," I say, gritting my teeth against the squeal of feedback from so many open connections. It arcs through between my ears, feeling like red hot razor wire slicing through my brain; I can barely hear my own voice. "Osborn is dead. He confessed to treason. Stand down your weapons! The battle's over! I repeat, Osborn is dead! Stand down your weapons!"

Before the feedback can knock me out, I let it go, breaking the link. With the odd perspective, I can imagine Osborn's eyes glaring back at me. Down, but not out. That was always how he worked. Return after return. Nothing kept the man down.

This would.

The satellite feeds shut down, little doors closing one by one in the back of my head. When the last one closes, I breathe out in relief and reach for Extremis again. Initializing endorphin release to damaged areas. Blocking pain receptors. Relief starts at the neck and moves down, canceling out all but the most necessary pain. It doesn't fix the damage, but I can worry about that later. There's too much to do.

Two sets of footsteps drop down to the stone behind me. Praying that it's not someone else out to kill me, I turn around. Carol and Maria stand side-by-side, both of them looking battered and battle-stained. Maria's rifle is slung across her back and her arms are crossed. Still, if I squint a little, there's maybe a bit of respect there, buried under a lot of hostility.

Carol is easier to read. She grabs my forearm and yanks me to my feet, grinning. "Good job. If you hadn't distracted him, we never would have made that shot." Her smile fades to nostalgia. "Just like the old Tony would have done."

That wasn't exactly what I'd been planning, but I'm smart enough to keep my mouth shut on that. Carol's never exactly been a fan of the expedient option. Most former Avengers aren't, for some reason. It was beside the point anyway.

"About that..." I run my hands through my hair; it's still cropped short, but it's gotten enough length to get matted down with sweat. The cut was necessary to the prolonged formatting process, but it feels wrong. Like my scalp is prickly. "I am the old Tony, Carol. I'm back."

"You mean you—" Her mouth hangs open, expression somewhere between disbelief and outrage. "You—"

"Cool it, Warbird," Maria cuts in, bouncing her elbow off Carol's ribs. She's glaring at me suspiciously. I've seen that expression before; it seems like the exclusive domain of women I've slept with. What did I do to her? Or is she just angry about the note? "So, you remember everything, huh?"

"Not everything." The sun is climbing overhead, starting to turn a decent summer morning into an oven. My helmet isn't in any condition to wear, but I grab it anyway. No way I'm letting one of Osborn's flunkies get any more of my tech again. I'll have a hard enough time claiming the Liberty Armor back from the US government as it is. "Look, I'll explain later. We have a war to finish."

"He's right," Carol says, before Maria can argue. "We need to get back down. Tony, can you fly?"

"If I could fly, would I have stood still to let Osborn take me out?"

She gives me a stern glare from behind her mask. "Yes." Shaking her hair from her eyes, she lifts off and grabs Maria's shoulders. "I'll come back for you. Just—stay here. For once."

My salute makes Maria roll her eyes, but Carol just grins and dives over the edge of the wall. She'll only be a few minutes, but a few minutes are all I need. Ribs grind when I kneel down by Osborn's head again. Thank God Extremis' pain protection is still in place, or that would hurt. The connection ports are exactly where I built them—more evidence that Osborn didn't do any modifying. They're shaped like small, fingertip panels in the helmet and chest, almost indistinguishable from the rest of the armor. And they're only of use to one person: me.

Connecting to Unit Rogers-A: Big Blue

I know these circuits, this operating system, and these connections. I created them all, and I know how to wreck them. File by file, I rake through the system, overwriting key processes: flight regulators, life support, muscle-impulse sensors—everything. If anyone ever wants it to fly, they'll have to rebuild every computer system on board from the ground up.

Let's see HAMMER scientists pull that rabbit out of their hats.

Someone grabs my shoulders and shakes. "Tony!" The data-and-bytes world of Extremis jerks away, leaving a hollow ache between my ears before the physical world reasserts itself. Carol's crouched down in front of me, holding my shoulder plates so hard they've dented around her fingers. "Hey, Tony!"

Disconnecting

"What?"

"I called your name three times. I thought something was wrong." Carol squints suspiciously at me. Her face is smudged with dirt, enough that some places look like someone rubbed her with paints. "Nothing's wrong, is it?"

"I'm fine." The suit doesn't want to move at first; there must be a leak in the power connections. It shouldn't be this hard to move. Or maybe it's me. Osborn threw me around hard enough for it. "Let's go. We'll send someone back for... him."

Flying by Carol isn't like than doing it under my own power, and thankfully also different from being dragged through the air by Osborn. The take-off is smooth, leaving me dangling while she lowers us to the ground. Below, the fighting's stopped. Soldiers are milling around, either still trapped on their island or clustered in scattered groups. Doombots are formed up around a green-clad figure that's either Loki or someone who stole her helmet. Thor has his arms around her in a hug, and the Doombots look confused—half of them are ready to attack, and the other half have backed off.

Capes in bright spandex are the most eye-catching group. The ones who haven't flown off—mostly Avengers of one stripe or another—cluster around Cap and Sentry, who doesn't seem to have noticed that he's outnumbered. Not that it makes much difference, if he decides to fight. Steve looks like he's trying to talk him down. Good luck. If that had a chance of working we would have done it ages ago.

Speaker Volume to 84%

"Carol!" I shout, pointing down at the stand-off. She nods, unable to yell over the wind, and swoops in that direction. Bob looks up, an imposing figure even from five hundred and thirty seven feet in the air. He seems to come to a decision. Power rises up around him, a gold aura like from the comics that led us to him. Ground cracks under his feet, and he rockets upward.

Proximity Alarm: 50 meters. 40 meters. 25 meters. 10 meters. 3 meters. Carol and I tumble head over feet backwards as Bob comes less than a meter from hitting us. More metal cracks under her grip as she fights to fold onto me and to get her feet under her. The ground rushes up before she can. People scream as we smash into it, bouncing for 13 meters. Her grip comes loose, ripping off a shoulder plate, but momentum keeps us together until we roll to a stop.

Traumatic shock accessed. Concussion diagnosed. Rebooting systems.


Blocking pain receptors.
"Tony!"

I can't feel my head. That's not really a good sign. Little things come through; pressure and movement, mostly, but I can't feel specifics, which means Extremis is shutting it all down. Just what I don't need. What else could go wrong?

Incoming object. Identity: Sentry.

You'd think I'd know better than to ask that question by now. Thinking like that is what got Steve killed—

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .0021 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

Something jolts me, sending a surge of pain through my skull. Extremis peels away from whatever it's trying to do that's eating up so much RAM and sets back to blocking the pain, at least enough to move. Maybe to fight, if I'm lucky.

The relief runs top down, the grind of broken bones and bruises dimming. It's enough to let me sit up, shaky though I am. Bob's hovering overhead in a supernova of light. Supernova is a good word for it. Whole galaxies have exploded with less energy output than he's collecting just now, and it's only going higher. My eyes adjust automatically to filter out of the worst of the light he's putting off. We're going to have a lot of vision problems after this—it's like staring into the sun.

Bob... looks way, way too happy for a guy who's playing with this much power.

Steve has his eyes shielded, saying something that I can barely hear over the roar of blood pounding through my skull. He, Thor and Loki form the points of a triangle that has Bob surrounded, for what it's worth. Everyone else, hero and villain alike seem to have decided to keep the normal people back, along with a few hundred Doombots.

Someone had shoved me back out of the way, so I wouldn't be trampled. How thoughtful.

Flight systems down, no weapons, no time to plan. Just the way I like it. Pushing to my feet takes serious concentration on moving one leg at a time. Extremis has to block almost every pain center I have, and I can still feel things grinding together that shouldn't. That's a really bad sign.

Oh, well, no time to worry about pain when the world's about to end.

"Void!" That was what Bob called himself when he lost control, right? The Void? "Hey!"

"Iron Man." Bob's voice is weirdly doubled, dark and heavy like it should make the ground move just from him speaking. Good thing he's about three feet off of it, then. "Have you come to say goodbye to all that you hold dear?"

"I'm going to stop you." Can't attack with the last of my power, he'll just absorb it. And getting close enough to land a punch will fry me. Damn it. "I want to speak to Bob. I know he's in there."

Dead black eyeholes turn to look at me. There's not even a hint that they're eyes, just holes in space that happen to be inside Bob's eye sockets. "Robert Reynolds is dead."

That went well. Standing up straight, I make myself cross the flat, burned stretch of ground between where I'd been shoved and the action. As long as I don't move too fast, Extremis can mask the pain. "You don't want to do this. You know you don't. Earth's where all the fun stuff is. Why would you want to blow it up?"

Disturbingly, Loki nods and spreads her arms. "Aye, destruction for its own sake grows tiresome. Midgard is an amusing playground, for one so inclined to use it properly."

Okay, when did Loki get to be on our side? I feel like I'm missing something.

Steve holds out his hands in the universal gesture for unarmed and takes a step forward, leaving the shield on the ground behind him. "You're an Avenger, son," he says, and fuck me sideways if he doesn't sound like he means it, as if he were talking Spider-Man out of walking away rather than talking down a walking nuclear bomb. Hell, it's Steve. He probably does mean it. "Whatever else happens, whatever else you do, you're an Avenger. That means something."

Bob shakes his head and drops a foot closer to the ground. "No, I am the Void—"

"And the Sentry," Steve continues in that specific, special tone of his. "And an Avenger."

"Bob, you're better than this." I take a stance right next to Steve's shield, with its conveniently convex shape and reflective alloy. Can't attack, but maybe... The back of my heart starts calculating lines and force. It's just like a tricky shot in pool, all geometry and luck. "Think about Lindy. You'd be killing her, too. You don't want that."

The energy levels plateau and hold. I'm not sure if that means that Bob's stopped powering up for a big blast, or if Extremis just can't read anymore. Not sure it matters. He's still got enough juice to take out most of the solar system. Blackness flickers and crawls away, showing a hint of Bob's blue eyes.

Steve peels back his cowl. The heat of energy around Sentry has turned his face bright red and his hair's plastered down with sweat, as if he'd been out in the summer sun all day. He's still six yards away, but if he gets much closer he's going to fry. "Stand down, son."

Dirt burns and cracks as he lowers himself to the ground. Bob stares at the ground, and the aura around him compresses until it's practically invisible. "Lindy..."

"Lindy, Bob. Your wife. Remember?" Steve crosses the last distance and puts his hand on Bob's shoulder. "What about Lindy?"

Bob shakes his head and looks up. "Lindy is already dead."

WARNING

I throw myself to the ground as the blast knocks Steve flying. System alerts are so thick that I can't see through them, but I don't need sight to dig in and hold on. The forces are spectacular, cracking the ground open. When someone—Steve—tumbles into me it's all I can do to wrap my legs around him. Up ahead the shield is reassuringly solid, planted on the ground and distributing the force of Bob's wrath with ease. Behind Bob, Loki and Thor are doing the same thing Steve and I are, trying to hold on, but with much more success. They've even managed to keep their feet under them.

We've got about three seconds before Bob goes nova. Everything hurts so badly that Extremis can't hope to block it, but I manage to free up a hand and charge the fingertip repulsors. The armor's almost out of power, and we're out of time.

Make it count.

Four blasts hit the shield and bounce, scattering. They come in low, blasting small trenches in the scorched earth at his feet. Even though such a weak attack couldn't possibly have been a threat, Bob's still human enough to jump back and bring up a forward shield.

It leaves his back wide open.

A thrown Mjolnir slams into Bob's back, knocking him to his knees just in time to catch it in the chest on its return trip. The force pressing against Steve and I drops away, gone in a blink as he topples backwards. Loki shimmers, and suddenly it's Lindy throwing herself across Bob's body, cradling his face. Magic curls around her hands and Bob slumps backwards, unconscious.

Okay, maybe magic is useful. Sometimes.

Unwrapping my legs from Steve's waist doesn't go too well. The armor's completely drained. I have to fight the suit itself just to unbend my knees, and then fight it again to stand up.

That turns out to be a bad idea.

My head swims and twists, lines of broken data scrolling across my vision. Just as I start to fall over, one last message flashes in my head.

Power levels at 0.5%
Shutting down.


"Tony, can you hear me?"

"I think he's injured his neck."

"He's clenching his hand—where's Rescue? She can hook into the armor, can't she?"

Someone's holding my head off the ground. Nothing else registers, except that my head is pillowed on something softer than rock. That certainly narrows it down. Colors blur together, too-bright blues and reds and golds. Blinking clears it a little, but bringing the view into focus is more confusing.

With Extremis blocking nerve data I can't feel it, but Steve is stroking my hair, his face bright red and eyebrows burned. His right glove's blackened and cracked from heat—it was probably the only thing that saved his hand when Bob lost it.

Something's wrong. Extremis is broken again. It's the concussion, feeding me wishful thinking. Or maybe we all died, and Steve's about to lay into me for screwing up again. If anyone deserves a chance to spend eternity kicking my ass, it's him.

Whatever's going on, Steve is not looking worried for my sake. There's impossible, and then there's that.

"I'm dead, aren't I?" I ask, entirely unable to take my eyes off Steve, in case he vanishes.

"No, you're not dead." His hand starts running along the back of my head. It takes me a second to realize he's checking my skull for damage. Not so romantic, then. "You're going to be okay. Ambulances are on their way. Just hold on." Thick, strangled words are hard to parse. Extremis helpfully runs subtitles along the bottom edge of my blurred vision. The letters are crisp and clean from by-passing the optical portion of my brain.

I shake my head, and he makes a choked noise, grabbing my jaw to hold it still. Have to be dead. Have to be. But why would that make Steve cry? The meaning behind it all feels lost behind Extremis' numbing agents, like a logic problem in a foreign language. If I can just stretch enough, it'll make sense, but I'm not there yet. "I have to be dead."

Steve makes an odd, half-sob. Suddenly, his face is taking up my entire field of vision as he kisses me, tasting like salt and copper, hot pressure that cuts through even Extremis' anesthesia.
Respiration at 14.2%

Breath rushes into my lungs as I gasp. Pain starts beating inside my skull when Extremis reroutes its systems to deal with the new stimuli. Breath and heartbeat and warm skin and Steve Steve Steve Steve—

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .071 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

Steve stares down at me, tear tracks cut through the battle dirt on his cheeks. "Does that feel like dead to you?"

How am I supposed to answer that? For that matter, how can he even ask that? If I'm not dead, then there's a whole different set of questions. I can't even think of the first one. They're all crowding forward, too numerous for Extremis' strained systems to prioritize. The limited systems can think for me or keep me from going comatose, but not both.

"Just so you know," Rhodey's voice says from somewhere overhead and behind me, "the reporters arrived while Tony was knocked unconscious. So if you two would like to handle the post-fight sex later, maybe?"

"What?" I yelp, giving Extremis the order to push me upright. "We're not..." Looking around at the people surrounding me, apparently we are, and either we're the least subtle people on the planet or it's not a secret. Only a few people look surprised. Everyone else is smug as Hell, other than the people who rightfully hate me.

Not too many smug faces, really.

"Don't worry," Steve is saying, looking earnest and sincere and so worried that it hurts, a sharp stab in my chest. No, wait, that's my collarbone. "You've probably got a concussion. Just take it easy, and we'll get you back to Headquarters."

Oh God, I hooked up with Steve while I was deleted. I hooked up with Steve while I was deleted. Somehow we managed to keep from killing each other, and I jumped his bones.

And then I reinstalled myself.

Sometimes, I think I hate me.

"Tony?

Music. Time to face it. "We need to talk. But first you should know that I reinstalled my old drive. I'm sorry." There was something else. What... "Someone tell Luke that Jarvis has the baby."

It doesn't seem like Steve understands at first. A furrow develops between his eyebrows as he works it out, growing deeper until he shakes his head hard. "Tony—" He takes a breath, a move that does amazing things to his chest.

Did I get to run my hands over that chest? Feel his heart beating while he slept?

Why the hell did I give that up?

"We'll talk about this later," Steve decides. "I'll tell Luke when I see him. You just stay still and wait for the ambulance."

Not like I have much choice. Now that Steve's not lowering my oxygen to dangerous levels, Extremis has gone back to playing anesthesiologist. My legs are the least of what I can't feel. "Can someone tell me why we're surrounded by Doombots? And did Loki just save all our asses?"

Steve smiles. Heartbreak, it turns out, is tangible when you can't feel your chest. "I was wondering the same thing."

"My bodyguard." Loki glides forward, impeccably dressed in a green gown and holding Thor's arm like a courtier in a historical movie. For some reason she looks less untrustworthy than usual. Maybe that's a side-effect of having saved the world, one of those benefits that I always seem to be behind the door for. "Purely ceremonial, you understand, but I could hardly leave them behind."

Do I want to know why Loki has a bodyguard of highly sophisticated Doombots?

Curiosity didn't kill just the cat, I guess. Besides, Thor is rocking back and forth like a kid with a secret. If I don't ask, he might explode, and we already did that once today. "Weren't you working with Osborn a few weeks ago?"

Loki arches an eyebrow and smiles. "Yes?"

Oh. Chaos deity. Right. "And the bodyguards?"

"My husband insists." She presses a palm to her stomach which, now that it has my attention, isn't as flat as I'd expect for a God. "At least until our daughter is born."

Oh.

Oh.

Shit.

I knew I shouldn't have asked.

"I am to be an uncle!" Thor beams at his brother, and then at everyone else, drunk with either glee or a head injury. Apparently pregnancy trumps repeated attempts at murder, betrayal and general evil-doing. He's even smiling at me, though, so I don't think I'm going to point out how this doesn't make Loki a good guy. Good woman. Whatever.

"Congratulations," Steve says above me, but there's a lilt to his voice that suggests he's as confused as I am. It's nice not to be alone.

An ambulance sounds in the distance as the Asgardian family drama plays out. That's a good sound. The sooner I can get to a hospital, the sooner I can get discharged.

And then I can figure out what I've missed.

Maybe I can work on a way to erase the Loki-Doom marriage from my brain while I'm recovering. That sounds nice.


Heart Rate: 57 BPM
Blood pressure: 132/86

Hospitals really hate people like me. Something about coming in a total wreck and leaving the next day without racking up more than a hundred thousand in bills. Nurses love me, but accountants? Not a chance.

The hatred's mutual. There something about being in a place where people die... Something about the antiseptic, the hard floors and walls, nurses and strangers everywhere who are supposed to help you, but damned if you can tell which ones will and which ones will pawn it off on the next guy down the ladder... I'd rather go out in an explosion, thanks, or from a heart attack while banging two or three supermodels. For some reason, hospitals don't like those ideas.

I can't imagine why.

Still, the twenty four hours I'm locked in a hospital bed should give me plenty of time to catch up on the basics of what happened. Pepper's perfectly at home, sitting by the bed and giving me a report on what I missed while I was, for want of a better word, self-deleted. Her objections are all in the expression, the Tony, what did you do now? look that she's perfected over the years. That says everything she doesn't want to.

Rhodey is a little less casual.

"You're an idiot, you know that?"

"Yes, yes, I know." I close my eyes and let Extremis adjust the lights until they're not quite so blinding. "I think you've made your point. You like Formerly Stark better. I got it." I'm a little bitter about it, but I got it. Even I hate me most some days, how can I blame my friends for it too?

"You know that's not it." Rhodey is sprawled in one of the padded visitor's chairs that seem to take up space in all but the most spacious of hospital rooms. They're only softer by way of being compared to the hard plastic chair that Pepper claims when she's here. The reason for Rhodey getting the good chair sits on the edge of the bed by way of an ankle cast. It's just a fracture, but he's never had advanced healing, so he'll have to suffer through the hard way. Meanwhile, I'm already awake after six compound fractures, multiple broken ribs, a concussion, whiplash and multiple lacerations.

I think he's a little jealous, honestly.

"You can be straight with me, Jim. Was he a nice guy?" A glare. Ooh, I'm getting somewhere. "He was, wasn't he? I bet he built that armor you demolished, I know I didn't."

"Yeah." Rhodey grumbles and sinks down in his chair, nudging my knee with his cast. "Yeah, you're a nice guy, when you don't remember to be a complete jerk."

Ouch. "No, please, don't pull punches. I can take it."

"I know you can."

And there's that sigh, the one Rhodey always has before he lets a bomb drop. I kind of missed it. When was the last time I hung out with Rhodey, anyway? Not do or die stuff, just... made things. Chatted over coffee. God, when we were kids we'd even watch movies, cheap action flicks staring some guy twenty years past his best-by date with CGI hair. He'd complain about how directors never got military hierarchies right, and I'd come back with how physics don't work that way, then we'd go play pool.

What happened to that?

After a minute of that heavy-sigh-silence, I twitch my knee, just enough to get Rhodey's attention without actually jarring him. "Hey, talk to me. I've only been back a day. Did I piss you off when I was gone?"

"No. That's not it. Just..." Rhodey stares at his knees for a bit, and even I'm not insensitive enough to miss the give me a minute body language. "Why?"

That needed a bit of mystery solving. "Why... Delete myself?" I'm pretty sure that was too obvious. Osborn, Registration, etc and so on. Really, it's one of those rare situations when the obvious really is the right answer.

"No!" Ugly upholstery lets out a dull thump as Rhodey smacksthe arm of his chair. His eyebrows draw together, forming wrinkles I don't think were there before. "Why have some super secret backup copy and then not tell us? Did you think that it was freaking okay to let us all think we'd lost a friend like that?"

"Oh. That."

"Yeah, Tony. That." Rhodey sits forward, and then slumps back again when his leg stops him from doing anything even slightly like getting comfortable. "Just get it over with and tell me what you were thinking, so I can tell you what a dumbass move it was."

What am I supposed to say to that? Osborn was the most likely guy to get his hands on that little file. Anything I said about backups would have just had an ugly, ugly end and the Goblin getting his hands on the database anyway. At least this way my most likely death was having life support pulled. That wasn't such a bad way to go, especially after you'd already gone in all the ways that count.

Besides, how was I supposed to know they'd actually jump start my engine?

No way Rhodey will accept any of that, though. He's a good guy. A better man than I am, at least—not that it's hard. So all I can do is shrug a shoulder and flip a page on the car mag I'm not really reading. "It's been kind of a busy year. I forgot I had them."

And that's what the sound of someone grinding their teeth in rage sounds like. Huh.

"Fine. We'll do it your way." Using both hands, Rhodey levers his leg off the bed and stands, bent in an L-shape to stay upright while he wobbles on one good leg. "We'll talk when you want to give me a straight answer."

Maintain silence and avoid that oh, Tony look everyone gets when they think I'm being suicidal, or stop Rhodey and explain?

Damn it.

"Come on, don't be that way—"

One hand comes up, palm out. "I don't want to hear it, Tones. Not right now." And then he hobbled off, greatly assisted by a crutch and the rails on the walls. When the door closes behind him, the click is loud. Permanent, almost. And then there's nothing but the beep of machines and Extremis ticking away my vital signs.

Hospital silence isn't like regular silence. In an actual house, there's always noises to be heard, or you can make some. A radio left on somewhere, another Avenger wrecking something expensive, Jarvis humming as he polishes some ghastly piece of furniture that we only keep because it's more comfortable than anything I've found that could replace it. It's a living silence. Hospitals have a way of being dead quiet, and if they're not it's because something somewhere has gone horribly wrong. And the silence only reminds you that you're in a strange place relying on complete strangers to take care of you and witness your weaknesses without taking advantage of them and not put you on morphine or something else narcotic, because they never listen when you say you've got an addictive personality until it's too fucking late.

I really, really hate hospitals.

The magazine manages to keep me interested for all of fifteen minutes. After that, it's just a blur of words, pretty colors, and nearly naked babes on really hot cars. When everything hurts in some way, not even Miss September sprawled across a hood is going to do it for a guy.

Now, maybe Mr. July Fourth—

Nope. No. Not thinking that. Not going there. Even if he did kiss me first. I think.

Steve hasn't visited yet, by which I can only think that he's still trying to grapple with having made it with his formerly-friend-currently-enemy when I was amnesiac and didn't realize how very bad that whole idea was. If I know Steve (and I did do) he probably had some bright idea about it being immoral to hold someone culpable for things they don't remember doing. Any good trial lawyer would be able to say exactly how much bullshit that is, but seeing and believing don't necessarily follow for Steve.

Come to think of it, they don't really follow for any of us. Being in the hero business makes you a cynic, I guess.

"Knock knock?" The door creaks open, and Pepper pokes her head in. Under her blouse, the arc reactor glows like a flashlight in a camp tent after lights out. "I didn't want to interrupt you boys while you caught up, but the nurse said Rhodey left..?"

Pepper. Pepper. Beautiful, wonderful, distracting Pepper. I shove the magazine off the bed—Pepper hates those things—and wave her in. "He's mad at me. Him and the rest of the world. Come on in, I need to know what I've missed."

"I thought you might." Her lips twitch in a smile that only affects the right side of her mouth, because the left side is still black and blue from the fight. The door swings closed again as she lets herself in and takes over the technically-less-comfortable chair. Her arms are full of files, but she just stacks them and sets the aside, so it's probably not important. "At least you already know the basics."

"So you were the one in charge of catching me up?"

"Most of it. I let the internet do the rest."

"Huh." That's surprising. I would have thought someone like Barnes or Luke would have done it. Why take a chance that Pepper might let me think I did something other than monstrous? I might have gotten it in my head to try something like that again, and then where would they have been?

Come to think of it, none of them are exactly propaganda types anyway. Probably easier just to pretend I wasn't there and take me down if needed.

Wow, that's depressing.

"Okay, so let's get started then." Leaning forward doesn't hurt as much as it did a day ago, so I must be doing something right. Maybe in a few hours I'll be able to leave without a nurse threatening to tackle me. "Start with the obvious."

Pepper nods and reaches for her little stack of files. Did she bring me pictures? "Steve."

That gives me a moment of pause. "What about him?" Did he get injured after I was dragged off by an ambulance? Is that why he hasn't been to see me? If he's in a hospital bed somewhere nearby and I didn't even go see him—

She gives me the oddest look, like she's waiting for the punch line. When it doesn't come, Pepper's eyebrows lift as much as her bruising lets her. "Steve was dead, don't you remember—

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 0.523 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

"—ony!" Someone shook my shoulders. "Tony I swear to God that if you don't open your eyes, I'm calling a nurse and having them put a catheter in you!"

"I'm fine, I'm fine." Opening my eyes gave me only a pale blur of peach with darker spots. After a second, my eyes uncrossed and I was able to make out Pepper's freckled nose. It's an adorable nose. "Did I pass out?" Maybe I'm not as recovered as I thought.

Nah.

"I don't know." Pepper leans back enough that I can see she'd sprawled over me, though she's still in my face. Even in slacks and a demure blouse, it's hard to miss how gorgeous she is. She always has been, always will be. If it hadn't been for Happy—

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 0.017 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

So Mr. July and Miss October, then. I can deal with those exceptions.

"You don't look like you're dying," Pepper finally admitted, in the sort of tone I'd expect from a teacher being told stories about a homework-starved dog. "Has that been happening often?"

What am I supposed to say to that? "I don't even know what you're talking about."

"Of course you don't." The bed bounced under me as Pepper sat back and started collecting her things. "We'll try this again tomorrow."

"What? Wait!" Tomorrow? Tomorrow? By tomorrow, I'll have died of boredom, and she'll be explaining how the hell Loki wound up married to Doom to my urn. "Come on, Pepper, you can't be serious! It's just talking. You know I love to talk. Talk to me. Tell me a damned bedtime story, talk dirty to me—"

"No, Tony." She must have been in a Pepper-y mood, because she barely looked at me as she grabbed her files. "I'll see you tomorrow. Just rest."

"But—"

"Goodnight."

Heels clicked on the linoleum, and she was gone, leaving just the silence behind her.

I hate hospitals.


Still no sign of Steve six hours later, and two AM comes faster than you'd think sometimes.

With nothing better to do than stare at the ceiling and stew in my own juices, I checked myself out and managed to get Pepper to take me back to the Oklahoma facility. I'm lucky she didn't refuse. It's not like I have anyone else to ask for help these days, and Osborn did a good job of blocking me out all of my US accounts—declaring someone a terrorist has a way of doing that these days. Until I lawyer up, I'm a charity case.

Once Pepper's in bed, the building is quiet, the same way the hospital room was, but it's a living silence. Familiar systems and security hum away in the back of my head, noting Extremis and verifying the user. I can hear people breathing and the occasional creak of a floorboard overhead. Little reminders, yeah, but it's enough. Not as good as actually having someone physically present, but close enough.

For want of something better to do, I head down to the lab. I need to get started on building a new suit. Preferably one that doesn't leave me a sitting duck. Even after a day of thought, I still don't know what the hell I was thinking, designing a suit of armor with absolutely no defensive capabilities. And it must have been deliberate—flight stabilizers that small are a lot trickier than the palm units.

Maybe while I'm down there I can make coffee. The hospital wouldn't let me have any. Bastards.

The doorway to the 13B lab opens easily, lights already fully on and ready. It's blinding after the dimness that's the rest of the house, but Extremis lets me adjust slowly.

Wireless connection detected. Establishing connection.
Port 40183-bravo open. Connecting.
Speed 500MBpns. Firewall operative. Stark Enterprise OS Steel IX loading.
New hard drive configuration detected. Automatic backup initiated.
..............................................................................
Automatic backup complete. Uploading backup drive to secure servers. Please wait.
Upload complete. Welcome back, Mr. Stark.

A wave of nostalgia shocks me into stopping in the middle of the doorway. I'd missed that. The last time I remember being scanned was... was right before I started the deletion process, actually. After that, I hadn't had a chance to go to any of the labs with the equipment installed. There's something special about working with software that I'd designed for Extremis. It's like putting on a bespoke suit. Sure, any off the rack thing will do, but this one's yours. Just like having lights that come on when they sense you—

Wait.

The lights were already on.

Users present: Stark, Anthony (Admin, interface: Extremis OS platform v.2.3); Rogers, Steven (Admin, interface: manual)

Shit.

Security cameras flicker to life and show me the nooks and crannies of the lab. Steve's at the main console, where I expected him to be, really. There's not much else here for him. Camera angle stops me from seeing what he's doing, but it has to be important. Usually he would have noticed me coming in. Catching Steve unaware is a rare, rare thing.

Maybe I should go. Just leave him to whatever it is and go get some real food in me. Jarvis is here, which means the refrigerator is almost definitely stocked, and I could barely stomach the hospital food. Leaving would be the smart thing to do.

But there's more than just schematics and blueprints available on that system. I'm a data magpie, I store everything at some point. Sure, he could be looking at my in-progress equations for the vibranium-steel alloy that makes up his shield or he could be looking at the ridiculous poetry I wrote when I was sixteen and only thought the whole world hated me. I think there's even pictures of me crossdressing in there from my days at MIT. It could be anything.

I have to know.

The hospital hadn't had any shoes for me, so I'm already barefoot. It makes it easy to pad through the boxes and equipment. Steve's so intent he doesn't even notice me coming up behind him. It sounds like video. There's definitely dialog, but it's so low that I can't make out what it's saying. Maybe I'll just peek. Take a look, see that it's nothing, and stroll off again with none the wiser.

Carefully, I creep up and take a look at the screen, straining to hear the audio.

"—asn't worth it—"

It's... It's me. And Steve. Steve's body, his corpse on a slab good God I killed him, how did I forget that I killed him how did he come back this isn't right it's my fault I—

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 0.901 minutes.
Initiating AVI Overwrite Sequence
Re-initializing processor.

"Why are you watching home movies on my computer?" The words just pop out before I can stop them. It's just bizarre, Steve huddled away like this and he's watching film of my eighth birthday party. The way he was acting, I would have expected porn.

"Tony!" Steve reels back, fumbling for the stop button and flailing for balance at the same time. The video freezes on an image of tiny-me blowing a raspberry at the camera. Probably the only way he doesn't slide out of the rolling chair is that infamous Captain America physical perfection. A lesser man would have fallen on his ass.

Steve twists around, guilt painted all over his face. "What are you doing here? I thought you were at the hospital!"

"I was. Pepper got me an early release by threatening to sue." How cute, he's embarrassed. Best to ignore it. Steve gets guilty over the weirdest things; if I tried to figure them all out, I'd be old and gray before I was done. "So, you going to explain?"

He twists his hands and lowers his eyes. "I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't have watched, and I understand if you're angry."

Are those tears?

Yes, yes they are. What the hell?

Wow, Steve takes this sort of thing seriously. Hopefully, he'll never find out that I used to sneak into his bedroom to look at the shield back when the Avengers first started. He'd have a melt down. "Don't worry about it. It's not a big deal."

"Not a..." The guilt clears away, replaced by total confusion. "Tony, I just invaded your privacy in the worst way. You obviously didn't think anyone would ever see—"

What to do but lean over him and close the screen? Staring at myself with my tongue out like that, all frozen and grainy, is kind of creepy. "It's a home video, Cap," I remind him as gently as possible as the screen flickers back to the main logo. "There's probably a thousand of them on there. Check YouTube sometime. If you're really curious, I'll show you where they are."

Amazingly soft blond hair brushes the underside of my arm as Steve tilts his head back to stare at me some more. "Home video? Tony, you were talking to my dead body in the mortuary. That's more than just home—

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 0.011 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

—that's your childhood. It's important and private, and I never should have pried without asking permission." He's so earnest. God, I love him. It's like a cracked rib sometimes, painless unless it's poked just right. And right now, that expression is just right.

Would he kiss me if I asked? Right now, just like this? Or was that just for the other Tony? The better Tony?

In a nanosecond, calculations and probabilities spin across Extremis. Hard, cold numbers tell me that rejection is almost certain, and a total collapse after rejection is three-to-one odds. Not worth it, then.

Swallowing back my disappointment, I scoop up the tablet and take a seat on the edge of the desk console. "Alright, if you're going to be that way..." Like a king knighting someone, I wave the stylus at him. "I now grant you right to look at all of the embarrassing childhood videos of me you like, and that permission is retroactive. Does that make you feel better?"

"This isn't about home movies—" Steve shouts, half-rising from his chair. He freezes after barely leaving the seat, then sinks back down again, mouth snapping shut. I don't think I've ever seen that specific expression on his face before. It's somewhere between horror and pity. And the guilt's back too, wonderful. I thought we'd gotten past that one. And he just stares. It's unnerving.

"What, do I have something on my face?" I joke, pretending to wipe my mouth to break the tension. "I know the goatee can get messy sometimes, but I just don't look right clean-shaven."

Steve's chest—and really, it's a magnificent chest—expands as he breathes in, then slowly lets the breath out. "Tony," he says, and it's in that careful tone that usually comes with questions like, Why did you jump in front of that rhinoceros? "What do you think I was watching?"

That might be the weirdest question I've heard today, and I've heard a lot of weird ones lately. "That old video of my eighth birthday. What did you think it was?"

He just cradles his face in a palm and sighs. I have no idea what to say to that. I'm sorry? But I don't even know what I'm sorry for.

"I wanted to see if you'd left yourself a message." Behind his hand, Steve's voice is muffled, almost choked. "You did last time. I thought you might have again."

"Yeah. I did." I called myself an asshole. Grade-A class, Stark.

"I saw." Still no looking at me. Should I touch him? Am I allowed to touch him? Apparently we had... something, while I was away. Sex, if I know me. But that's not the same any more.

I hate this not knowing. Maybe I should have stayed at the hospital and let the sound of dying heart monitors drive me insane.

"I saw," Steve repeated, louder. "And then I went looking for more. I was curious, and the file was open, so I watched it." He finally looks up. Crying. Steve's crying. Because of me? "That wasn't a home video."

"Of course it was."

Steve shakes his head. "No. It was the SHIELD morgue after I'd been shot—

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 0.051 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

—you were talking to my body—

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 0.415 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

—just lying there—

A problem has been detected and Extremis has been shut down to prevent damage to your system.
The problem seems to be caused by the following file: extr_rewrite.exe
DIVIDE_BY_ZERO_ERROR
Rebooting System

"Tony!"

I'm getting sick and damned tired of people waking me up by shaking me. My head aches, like I'd been slammed into the ground. And from the way Steve is shaking me, maybe I have been. There's some nausea too. What the hell just happened?

Groaning, I hold up a hand to signal that I'm awake, and then use it to cover my eyes for a minute. The overhead lights are too sharp, but trying to connect hurts. Easier to block it out physically while log files scroll past in the back of my mind. The error must be right near the bottom—there!

An emergency reboot?

The log files are useless. Worse than useless. They've been tampered with. The last few seconds of uptime show a series of cascading errors, but there's no record of what caused the errors. The timestamps play hopscotch like kids on a playground, but the data's blatantly false. Why would I have been editing visual and audio input on a live stream for the last ten minutes? Other than the one noted reboot.

But can even that be trusted? "How long was I out?"

"A couple of minutes." Steve's hand runs over my hair, petting me like I'm a dog. It's a little insulting, but I'll let him get away with it. Just because his hands are shaking. "Did you... Blue screen of death?"

"How'd you know?" I peek through my fingers, but the lights are as bright as ever. Looks like I'm staying down for a while. I swear, if Steve says peekaboo...

"You did that before. Just... fell over and restarted." Strong, firm fingers drag over the pressure points of my skull, and indignance melts away under the massage. Steve has magic fingers. "I think... there's some things you're not allowed to know right now."

What? "That's ridiculous." Even the blissful tingles of Steve's fingers on my scalp can't dim the sheer weirdness of that statement. "Who would stop me from knowing?"

"You."

Damn the lights. The on-coming train of a migraine protests as I reach out with Extremis to dim the room, but afterward it's much easier to roll away from Steve. Actually standing up is more wobbly, with everything from stomach to eyes protesting when I try, but I'll settle for just sitting up without falling. "I just did a quick and dirty reinstall of my personality and memories. It's probably just a glitch that'll work itself out in no time—"

"Tony." Steve doesn't lay a hand on me, but that firm, no-nonsense tone stops me. I've had ten years to get used to being ordered by Captain America in that tone. Steve Rogers using it is strange. Kind of sexy, actually. "The last time this happened, we were discussing the exact same thing. Not just similar, or related. Exactly the same."

Pity. There's pity in his eyes. I can stand a lot, especially from Steve, especially now, but not that.

"Twice is only a coincidence." Tile is cold and hard under my palms as I push myself to my feet. My stomach twists and jerks, but it all stays on the inside. Baby steps, Tony. Baby steps. "Get back to me when—"

Steve moves so fast that I'll be surprised if the cameras caught him. One second he's on the floor, and the next he's on his feet and holding my wrist so tight there's going to be a bruise. "I wasn't watching your birthday party," he growls, between honest to God clenched teeth. "I don't know what you saw on that monitor, but it wasn't what was playing, and when I tried to explain it you shut down. Tell me that's a coincidence."

Okay, when he puts it that way...

But it can't be what he's saying. What in the world would I try to keep from myself?

I have to close my eyes to answer. "It's a coincidence. A stupid glitch that will clear up on its own." With sharp jerk I yank my wrist away from him and turn for the door. Amazingly, he lets me. "I changed my mind. I'm going to bed. Enjoy your movies, Steve."

As I walk back out into the silent, dark house, I find myself wishing Steve would stop letting me walk away. But it's better this way.

If there really is something wrong with Extremis, it's my problem. Not anyone else's.


I wake up a couple of hours later at five-thirteen in the morning to find ten pages of paper waiting atop the coffee pot, addressed to me. Pepper must have been busy. It's a full report on the last few weeks I was in absentia, for want of a better phrase. There's some obvious holes, places where Pepper's only guessing at events, but overall it's a good summary, and by the time I'm through my second cup I've got a good idea of the situation.

President accused of treason, back and running things in spite of that, because someone has to and Osborn's coup wasn't subtle. Law enforcement in complete disarray, with most Osborn's goons scattered and at large. Wide swathes of America burned and ruined, because HAMMER's forces had been ordered to use total warfare on their own damned nation. And somehow during all of it, Thor's brother had managed to become Loki von Doom, Queen of Latveria, turned Doom to the side of light and, incidentally, become pregnant.

At least it's going to be a while before anyone can think of enforcing Registration. By the time this mess is cleaned up, there might even be enough forces aligned to make it work, to do it right this time. No secret superhero armies, no kidnapping kids, no threats and scientists and wars.

I'm perched at the breakfast table when Jarvis comes into the kitchen at six on the dot, the way he always did in the Mansion and the Tower. Coming back the way I have, it's easy to see how the last year's aged him. Sometimes I forget that Jarvis is old enough to be my father, almost my grandfather. He should have retired years ago, but I never even tried to suggest it. It would kill him.

"Good morning, sir," he says, as smoothly as if it were just another day at home, instead of hiding out in the middle of nowhere. Nothing ever ruffles Jarvis. One of these days, I should say how much I admire that quality. "Would you like some breakfast?"

"No, thanks. Coffee is enough." I wave my third cup at him, and receive an understanding nod in return.

"Very good." Jarvis hesitates on his way to the kitchen, then pauses and turns around with a small smile. "It is very good to have you back, Mr. Stark."

Tears heat my eyes. It takes a couple of blinks to clear them out without actually crying. After everything I've done lately, I don't deserve that sort of welcome. "It's good to be back," I lie, returning his smile.

Jarvis inspects me for a second, probably seeing right though me like he always did when I was a kid trying to claim that the curtains caught themselves on fire. Then he nods and turns away, to start the archaic and fascinating process of turning things into food.

When the house security cameras start picking up the signs of other people waking, I grab one last mug of coffee and head back to my lab. They don't need to deal with me just yet, and there's work I can do in the meantime.


Running extr_scan.exe
Scanning files...

The process of doing a hard scan of every system file and memory I have leaves me paralyzed, unable to do more than maintain basic functions and think. It's been three long days of this, of being left to my own devices. Three days and five full system scans, one in progress, and nothing to show for it. I'm on the verge of believing my own bullshit. Extremis would have found something by now if it was there to be found. Steve's just worrying over nothing. That's what he does. He wouldn't be Steve otherwise.

The design on the next suit of armor is coming along nicely, though. Building it without consulting earlier versions probably wasn't the best of ideas, but it passes the time. The rest of America is still in chaos. News reports talk about military lock downs, curfews, eleven Senators and sixty-two House Representatives found up to their elbows in Norman Osborn's dirty work. Most of the rest of the government is in hiding. No large riots, thank God, but it's going to take a while for the public to trust anyone ever again.

No reports of Captain America out there though. No one running around igniting national fuzzy feelings and making people be nice to each other. That surprises me, I have to admit. This is the sort of situation Steve usually dives into.

Scan complete. No errors found.

Figures.

"You're creepy when you're like that, you know?" Rhodey's voice says as RAM frees up enough to let me move again. He must have snuck up on me while I was busy. "What's up?"

Yuck, my eyelids are disgusting. I have to rub away the crud before I can open them to look up at Rhodey, who's grabbed a seat on the cot. "Just running a few programs," I explain, doing my best to make it sound like the data equivalent of doing dishes. Rhodey doesn't need to know Steve's theory. It'll just worry him. "Long time no see."

"Been kind of busy, you've probably heard." He's dressed in jeans and a short sleeve button-up that's clean and pressed, but there's fresh bruises on his arms, and a scrape just peeking out from his collar. "We could use you out there."

"And here I thought this was a social visit." I push up off the cot I'd laid down on while the scans were running, and he lets me. The scans left me a little shaky, but it's probably just exhaustion. I'll get over it. "Point one, I am the last person you want involved in this. I was public enemy number one less than a month ago, and I wasn't exactly loved by the masses before that. If I show up at a fight, no one will know which side I'm on. Point two, half of the heroes out there wouldn't trust me if their lives depended on it, which they might. And point three, I have no armor. Every last set is in pieces, even the ones from ten years ago that were piles of scraps when they were new."

Rhodey doesn't argue as I take a seat at the console and start running through the scan logs. The conversation's going nowhere fast anyway. Probably there's nothing he can say.

Ten minutes later, I'm so buried in data that I'd almost forgotten Rhodey was there. He ruins it by saying, "Luke and Jessica trusted you with their kid."

Bastard.

"And Cap would stand by you through anything," Rhodey keeps on. "Maybe it has to do with the tonsil hockey, but he trusts you. And then there's Pepper. Me. You've got more backup than you think."

"There's nothing out there that Iron Man can do that someone else can't do better." For once, that's true. The problem's all political. New and exciting ways of making things blow up won't help anyone. "The military has everything under control."

"Yeah, we can keep things in order until Washington gets its shit together," Rhodey agrees, and that gives me some a little flash of smug satisfaction. "Listen to me before you say no, alright? We've got Osborn's goons spread across the country, the federal government hiding under the bed to distance themselves from Osborn, and the military the only thing holding together. States are starting to grumble about secession—"

"They always do that," I have to point out. And it's true. There's always a group of idiots calling to break up the union. Usually people point and laugh, and then life goes on.

"Yeah, but this time there's no one to stop them." Rhodey leans forward, pure earnestness in his eyes. "The heart of the whole mess is HAMMER, and Carter's got her hands full of that. There's too many officers who had their bread buttered by Osborn, and no one can be sure who they all are. One person can't clean up the mess alone and reassure the public that this won't happen again. You can do what needs to be done. Like it or not, you're one of the most recognizable faces around right now, Mr. Most Wanted."

Groaning, I drop my head to the desk. I hate it when he's right. It's kind of depressing that what they most want me for is my ability to get my hands dirty. That's exactly what went wrong last time. "You want someone else. This is a terrible idea. Get Steve to do it."

As soon as I say it, I know it's a bad suggestion. Steve doesn't do politics. He's too much of an idealist, the sort of man who actually thinks Congress serves the people.

"You and I both know that won't work," Rhodey says, echoing my thoughts.

"It's better than putting me up there."

Rhodey makes a face, twisting his lips together as if he'd bitten into something bitter. "Look," he says in that you're not going to like this voice I've learned to dread ever since we were in college. "I'm not supposed to tell you this, but Director Carter asked me to talk you into it. She's got plans, and they need you. So this isn't just me, as your friend, telling you to get off your ass and stop moping. It's official."

Plans. What sort of plans could Sharon possibly have for me, target practice? If anything, she's one of the people who should hate me most. If I hadn't screwed up with Steve, put him on the Courthouse steps, she never could have been the one to pull the trigger, never would have had to—

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 0.051 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

Putting me up there might just panic everyone more, no matter who's actually in the driver's seat. And what supposed to happen once Sharon's got me up in Washington? Am I supposed to just help hold everything together? Disband HAMMER? Use it to hunt down Congress and get them back to work? If no one trusts me, how am I supposed to get anything done?

The answer, when it comes to me, is so simple that I'm surprised they didn't think of it before.

"I'll do it." I rub my eyes to relieve a little of the tension headache I can feel coming on. "But not on my own. Only if Steve comes too."

If we balance this right, it should work out perfectly. Steve handles the public face of things, gives out orders, and I can deal with the seedy underworld of the capitol building. People trust Steve. They'll think he's keeping a leash on me, which will free Sharon up to actually run things. Once things settle down, HAMMER can be dismantled and SHIELD reinstated from the ground up.

"Alright. Deal. You can talk to Steve about it." Rhodey rises up from the bed and pats my shoulder as he walks to the door. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me until I'm actually doing it." Steve will never go along with it. Surely he knows that putting me in the public eye, right now, like this, is a terrible idea. Right?


"I think it's a great idea."

Damn it.

Steve and I are in the kitchen the first floor, with news clippings of the Washington situation spread on an island counter beside us. Isn't that the way it goes? The rest of the machine falls apart, but the fourth estate keeps right on ticking. My lab's a mess of parts and running manufacturing units, heat and noise and programs calibrating everything down to the last micrometer to rush out as much of the new Iron Man as possible, just in case I have to leave after all. If it weren't for that, I'd rather have met down there. It's more comfortable, less likely to be interrupted. The house is almost empty—everyone who can has gone back home, but Spider-Man, Pepper and Rhodey are still here somewhere. None of them have very good timing when it comes to me and walking in on volatile situations.

"You can't be serious," I protest from my spot across the middle counter from him. "How is this going to help anything?"

Steve puts a hand atop the clippings. He's so earnest, he should be teaching kids how to tie a knot in the wilderness somewhere. "There's too much for once person to do alone. Someone has to help take control of all this, and you're the one with experience."

"You could do it without me."

"You know that's not true."

No, actually, I don't. If Steve stood up and told the combined forces the USA to jump, they'd all be in the air before the brass thought to ask questions. That's the power of Steve Rogers as Captain America—no one else could do it. He could take over HAMMER if he wanted to. The paperwork is the easy part when you have that sort of loyalty, and politicking...

Okay, I admit I still haven't figured that one out yet.

"And I know you're a good man. We need you to do this. None of us knows the situation up there like you do," Steve keeps going, grinding away at that stone. "I know you're afraid—I know you hate what you had to do during Registration—"

"I'm not afraid, and I'm not ashamed of what I did." I am, I am, with that gut-clenching feeling that's part self-loathing and forewarning. "You know we're talking about starting another Avengers team, right? Because that's the only way to take control of this mess."

"I know, and it needs to happen. You're needed." Steve smiles, a crooked half-grin that makes my heart ache. "And I'll be there with you."

"Like you were last week?" I hadn't meant to say that, but from the way Steve goes still it's right on the mark anyway. "Look—Steve, whatever happened, it's okay. You thought I was gone for good. I thought I was gone for good. I get it. We can just let it go." It would have been nice to know about Steve's interest in men before Registration happened. It feels like ten years of my life have been wasted that should have been spent pinning Captain America down to some thousand-count cotton sheets, or at least trying to.

Maybe it's better that I didn't find out until now. The only thing that could have made Registration even more of a disaster would have been to mix it in with a break up.

"What if I don't want to let it go?"

"Then I'd have to hand over my crown as the King of Bad Ideas. Steve."

He shakes his head, hair falling into his eyes and then having to be pushed back. Would it be too over-the-top to describe it as golden? The sunlight that filters through the windows gives it a distinctly metallic sheen. I could go over Steve's looks for hours, every line more disgustingly sappy than the last, but maybe I should just settle for godly. Steve could give Thor a run for his money in terms of chiseled jaw and muscles.

I lean across the island to try and get his attention, but he's not looking at me. "Steve, he's dead. Gone. The person I was last week doesn't exist anymore. Go ahead and miss him, or mourn, or whatever you need to do, but don't pretend that I can be who he was. That's not fair to either of us."

Surprisingly, Steve laughs. "Do you always do that?"

"Do what?"

"Talk about yourself like you're a different person, just because you didn't remember anything?"

That... has to be the dumbest question I never expected to hear. "He was."

"No, he wasn't. You weren't." Heat spreads out from my shoulder as Steve touches it. It never ceases to amaze me how warm he is. Like a person-sized heater. "You may not have remembered, but you were still the same man. Still the same stubborn, loyal, creative person. Still one of my best friends."

Steve's voice is so adamant that I can almost believe him just because of it. I want to believe him. But I'm not that naïve. "Personalities and memories don't work that way. Brains don't work that way."

"Maybe there's more to it than any of us know." And there goes those eyes, soft and blue and a googolplex of things that I've never deserved to have aimed at me.

Damn, I did sleep with him, didn't I? This is a terrible idea. Worse than Tony Stark, Director of SHIELD had been, and that had been bad on an apocalyptic scale. But the fight's gone out of me. I'm tired of taking on battles I can't win, tired of throwing myself on the grenade just in time for someone to lob another. "What do you want from me, Steve?"

"I want to start over." Extremis picks up his voice better than my ears can, it's so low. "I want you. To not pretend it was a mistake."

Fuck. Every muscle in my arms and back protests when I push him away. Why do I always have to be the one to make the hard choices? Just once, just once, I want to be able to be in the right without selling my soul to do it. "Steve... It was a mistake."

Walking out is the hardest thing I think I've ever done.


Steve and I don't talk again between then and the flight to New York. Oh, we talk. Little things. Pass the butter and the armor's finished and helicopter will be here at five. Steve keeps trying, because nothing says stubborn bastard like Captain America's jaw. Between the cameras and his complete inability to be subtle it's fairly easy to spot him coming and arrange to be somewhere else. It's not his fault that I went and broke everything and then glued it all back together wrong. He just has to deal with the aftermath. I'm not going to make that harder for him by being selfish.

New York is quiet when we fly over the city in our borrowed chopper, headed for HAMMER headquarters. City buildings stretch out under us, towers of silver and mirrors stretching up to the sky, surrounded by squat, ugly little monsters that are real in ways the skyscrapers can't even imagine. They're relics of a bygone age, clinging to life while the heart of the city dreams of tomorrow. I've always liked that about New York. You can watch history happen just by looking, see the latest and greatest next door to a century of change.

My palms are sweaty on the controls as we skim lower, just over the buildings. Most of them are still standing, so it's not quite the disaster area I'd expected. People are everywhere, sticking to little knots and groups, with none of the press of life I'm used to seeing.

Destination Imminent

Extremis picks out the crowds, individuals and groups in striking detail even from so high up. Almost as one, heads turn up when we skim overhead. The tension is palpable, eerie, like the setting of some esoteric horror movie.

The city feels wrong, and I can tell Steve feels it too. It's all there in the way he grips his shield, how he holds himself tense. "What do you think happened down there?" His voice is perfectly clear, funneled through Extremis without interference or wind noise. "Osborn was out of New York for two weeks."

"His team wasn't." And without Osborn to keep them corralled, it's no wonder everyone is laying low. We're probably lucky there's even people out and about. If I were them, I'd be huddled in a basement somewhere. Hell, a few days ago, I was huddled in a basement somewhere. I might call it a lab and let it keep my work, but a bomb shelter is still a bomb shelter at the end of the day.

There's a neat square marked out on the roof of what used to be Stark Tower, clearly intended as a landing pad. Awkward is the best word for the spot—the watchtower blocks almost everything but the most narrow of access channels. There's a reason I never put a landing pad up here when I owned the building.

And that's another thing I need to set the lawyers on. My stuff. Osborn seized it when I went fugitive, but if we're all getting our names cleared, I damned well mean to get it back. And if that doesn't pan out, then I've got a lot of hunting to do.

Bringing the copter around, I circle, angling for a decent landing. At least Steve's not tense about this. He still trusts my flying. God knows why, as many times as I've crash landed in the last year or so. Not that he could have known—

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 0.128 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

He couldn't have missed it. Half of them were on the news.

Landing procedures initiated

Winds are always tricky down between the sky scrapers, and the spider-like bulk of the Watchtower doesn't help. I ease it down, and don't breathe again the runners are firmly planted on the pad. We didn't hit the exact center of the mark, but we're inside it. I'll take that as close enough to a win.

Kill the blades, cut engine, wait for the noise to die before taking off my helmet. I don't really need it any more, since Extremis can take care of protecting my eardrums, but Steve gets antsy when I don't take what he thinks are sensible precautions and has since Extremis gave me ways around them. Before the war, I'd have argued with him.

Now, it's just easier to put on the damned helmet.

Steve fiddles with the mike on his helmet, not moving to get out of the chopper, even though it's more than safe enough. "Tony..." he starts to say in that slow, deliberate tone that announces louder than anything that he wants to Talk. "Before we go in—"

"Later," I cut him off, finishing cutting the power to everything conceivable and hopping out as fast as I can. "We've got company."

Asshole move or not, it's true. Sharon approaches the pad, her hair pulled back into a neat braid that still manages to get ruffled by the crosswinds. "It took you two long enough to get here," she accuses in a light voice, hands on her hips. "I thought I'd have to send a team to extract you."

I pin on my best charming smile. Sharon's not Fury, but who is? She'll be ten times better at the job than I was. Not that that's hard. "We came as fast as we could, Director Carter, but I had a few projects to finish."

"It had better be a new set of Iron Pajamas, Former Director Stark," she tosses back over the wind, and I have to grin a little. The ports on my back itch, as if ready to push the new armor out of my bones and show off, but we're interrupted before I get to do anything so crass.

"It was," Steve says somewhere behind me, and Sharon's eyes light up in pleased surprise.

"I thought you were taking a break," she nearly shouts, meeting him half-way in a quick hug. "Couldn't stay out of uniform, huh?"

What?

"Something like that." Steve's back is distinctly tense. We'd both chosen to fly in civvies, and the white t-shirt he's in doesn't mask the finer points of his body language like the mail does. He's obviously unhappy, and it doesn't take a genius to know why. I obviously wasn't supposed to know he'd planned on retiring.

Great, another thing I've gotten in the way of.

Clearing my throat to catch their attention, I head for the door inside. "Let's get inside. We can talk this over, figure out what we're doing,"

They part easily, which at least keeps me from feeling too much like a third wheel. Extremis tries to record Steve's expression at the edge of my vision, but I kill the process before it gets too far. Whatever he's thinking, I really don't want to know.

Hearing, on the other hand, I have no convenient End Task option for. "Talk. That's rich," Steve mutters, low enough that he probably thinks I can't hear it. I don't bother to correct the assumption.

The roof exit leads directly down into the penthouse, and as soon as I catch sight of it I flinch. "What the hell—"

"Osborn's estate will pay for all repairs," Sharon says almost immediately, clearly having anticipated my reaction.

Not that it needed much guesswork to know how I'd take it. The penthouse I'd spent years building into my home is every bit the disaster area that the rest of New York isn't. Walls have been knocked out, fine hardwood and marble scratched and stained, fixtures broken from their sockets. I knew Osborn's team had been using it as a crash pad, but I hadn't thought the term had been so literal.

"Thanks," I hear myself say, somewhere behind Extremis' running catalog of damages. "I appreciate that."

Thank God I'd taken my art down. It should still be safe in storage somewhere, unless Osborn went looking for things to ruin. I wouldn't put it past him. It would have made good target practice, so many Avengers conveniently on one canvas.

The mental image of Steve's portraits, burned and broken, makes me cringe in whole new ways.

A warm hand presses down on my shoulder, a brief touch of understanding, and some of the tension fades. It's Steve. Who else? At least I can count on him to get it. The tower wasn't his baby, not like it was mine, but it had been his home for a while, too.

"We'll rebuild it," he says, with that surety that I'm convinced was part and parcel of the Super Soldier process. No one human should be able to sound so determined.

"Like I rebuilt the mansion, you mean?" I shrug off his hand before I can get too used to it and give Sharon a look. "Are we going to talk about urban architecture, or are we going to get to actual important matters?"

Her eyes narrow and her jaw sets. For a second, it's like looking at a much shorter, much prettier Steve. What they say about couples rubbing off on each other must be true. Without saying anything, she turns and starts walking again.

The meeting room she picks used to be one of my spare offices. I had a lot of them, and this one isn't really special. That eases the blow. Nothing like looking around a room that used to be technically mine and not seeing any ghosts. Nice change of pace.

Wireless connection detected. Establishing connection.
Port 10034-alpha open. Connecting.
Speed 1TBpns. Firewall operative. Stark Enterprise OS Steel IX loading.
New hard drive configuration detected. Automatic backup initiated.
..............................................................................
Automatic backup complete. Uploading backup drive to secure servers. Please wait.
Upload complete. Welcome back, Mr. Stark.

Cameras hum and wink at Extremis as it settles back into a space that was literally made for it. No cobbled together additions, no three year old systems fighting to keep up with the cutting edge of wet-wiring and biological circuitry. It's just a smooth breath of air, like slipping back into my own skin after a thousand years away.

It's like alcohol and sex and a new piece of hardware, of the future all under my fingertips at once.

Tony?

This time the nudge is harder, a tap on my shoulder that rocks me back on my heels. My eyes pop open—when did they close?—and Steve has my chin in his hand. Everything's too slow, or maybe I'm thinking too quickly. It's all data, bytes of information moving at lightning speeds that far surpass simple, imperfect flesh. I can calculate the exact color of every cell in Steve's eyes, a million shades of blue, and count every eyelash, measure every breath of life in him.

WARNING: System memory is low

God, he really is perfect.

"Tony," Steve's heavy, slow voice says. "Are you okay? Your eyes are..."

Extremis. Extremis. I hadn't expected this, thought Osborn would have the sense to change the protocols. Should have thought, should have realized that he wouldn't throw away such a perfect trap, but I wasn't operating at full capacity, let my emotions cloud things.

WARNING: System memory is dangerously low.

Damn you Osborn, damn you damn you damn you, even dead you manage to be a complete bastard it's too much, dataspeeds running toofastforthehumanbraintokeepup, toomuchinformationtoomuchandthere'sSteveSteveSteve—

ERROR: Extremis.exe
This program is not responding and will be shut down.

Tony!


An error has been detected
Closing all ports

Not again.

At this rate, I'm almost afraid I'll take brain—hard drive—damage if I keep passing out like this. It's getting old, and it wasn't fresh to start with. My head aches, somewhere between nausea and world-spinning vertigo.

Maybe it's a good idea to stay still. I can do good ideas sometimes.

Running extr_scan.exe
Scanning files...

Just like that, I'm frozen, systems regulated back down to the bare minimum while Extremis deep-scans. Just great. If I'm lucky, Osborn only infected me with the technological equivalent of the clap. Unlucky...

Unlucky, and Extremis might never finish scanning.

More and more, every day makes me wish I'd been the one to take that bastard out.

Someone shuffles papers on the far side of the room, a faint flip flip of bored paging through rather than anything useful. I've been out for at least a half an hour, then, if they've set a babysitter on me. It can't be much longer than that. The surface against my shoulder blades is too hard to be even the shittiest of hospital beds. Feels like a table. Wood, maybe; metal would be warmer. So, long enough for Steve to have been convinced to leave me to recover, but not so long that I've been admitted anywhere. Even if Sharon's better at bullying Steve than I knew, it can't have been more than an hour.

Found: 1 unknown object. Threat level: high

The door opens and closes with the soft thump of someone who's trying too hard to be quiet. Booted feet slap the floor, and a chair drags against carpet as its pushed back. "Director Carter," the too-familiar voice of Maria Hill snaps. I can picture her saluting. It might even be an honest salute, instead of the mostly sarcastic ones she used to give me.

"Status report," Sharon says, slow and heavy with exhaustion. Her voice immediately makes me revise my estimate of the time I've been unconscious. That's the sound you make when you've spent a night fighting your demons, and then roll out of bed to fight some more. You don't get that tone easily. I should know—I've heard it in my own voice often enough.

What the hell could have happened to make Sharon sound like that?

"Still out cold, hasn't so much as asked for a sip of water," Maria reports crisply, and that's definitely respect. Good. Sharon's not me. She deserves whatever cooperation she can get.

Found: 2 unknown objects. Threat level: high

"Great. Sit down, Maria."

The table moves under my back as they jostle it, this time to the sound of two chairs moving. A double thump, close together—elbows?—and then Sharon lets out a sigh.

"I've got Steve vetting Hand for me, so we've got a few minutes before he comes back for a momma hen routine." Another thump, heavier. "I forgot how much trouble he could be. You'd think he was in charge here. Even with..."

"There's a reason Fury never invited any of them for tea," Maria's smug, it comes off her voice in reassuringly familiar waves. She's a rock in the sea of chaos that is my life. Kind of like Pepper that way, though Maria tended to come loaded with a lot more spiky things.

Found: 4 unknown objects. 2 Trojans. Threat level: high

So soft I don't think I would have heard without Extremis, Maria asks, "Are you doing okay? Do you need me to find some more prisoners to distract him?"

"I'm fine. Just... You know." Sharon laughs, low and grating. "We should have invited Pepper. Then we all could have had a proper pity party."

"There's a tub of Death by Chocolate in the freezer. Hand can join in after Rogers finishes grilling her." A pause for breath, for... something. I wish I could see them. Without body language, it's like trying to read a script without the cues, all the context absent. "I told you not to talk to Rhodes. There was no chance Stark would come alone."

Found: 7 objects. 1 Trojan. Threat level: high

"I know, but we need to get the world back on its feet. Tony has experience and Steve's... Steve. After what happened with Red Skull and the—the courthouse, he's got enough good publicity to go around. Even enough for Tony."

Found: 9 unknown objects. 1 Trojan. Threat level: high

Wait. What?

Skull? What happened with Red Skull? The Courthouse?

It's the realness of the sound that makes me look up, a softpopof displaced air, of meat and g. Bullets never sound right on a television. TV special effects always makes them metal collidin too loud, like a car backfiring, when the recording equipment actually muffles them. It's Steve's — e cries outtrial, Steve's hip obscuring the camera as it's jostled, Steve's voice as h

Found: 12 unknown objects, 1 Trojan. Threat level: high

Gray skies, gray people, gray gravestones. Gray gray gray, not a piece of color in sight other than ight have draped coffin. The empty coffin, because I might have betrayed everything, m- the flag killed the only thing left that mattered, but I could damned well make sure he got the burial he .deserved

Found: 14 unknown objects. 2 Trojans. Threat level: high

—one thing I didn't tell you—

What the hell?

Scan complete. 29 unknown objects, 3 Trojans, 1 Worm found.
Isolating objects

Repairing

Irrationally, I'm short of breath, as if I'd been punched in the stomach, but I can't even gasp for air. Everything, everything is wrong. Those aren't my memories. They're not. Those are my hands, my armor, my voice, but that's not me. Steve wasn't shot. They broke him free at his trial. I never watched him go down, blood splattering over marble steps as he hit his knees, never felt the words lock in my throat as I tried to give a eulogy that would be worthy of him, never never never never

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 1.320 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

Life and control comes back in one fell swoop. Not meaning to, I gasp, stomach muscles clenching and pulling me up off the table like Frankenstein's monster coming to life.

The file extr_rewrite.exe encountered an error during the scanning process. Some files may be damaged as a result.

Lungs ache, my head aches, everything aches, from the top of my head down to my heels. It's a good sort of pain, the type that reminds you that you're alive. Muscle spasms rock through me as Extremis finishes clearing out the faulty data.

Hands press me back to the table, flat and firm against my chest. Another set hold my legs, which keep trying to curl up and rock me into a fetal position. Very manly, clinging to yourself like a frightened toddler. The muscles spasm on their own, Extremis helpless to get in the way of basic human instinct to run away, hide, curl up somewhere dark and safe where the monsters can't get you.

That doesn't work so well when you are the monster.

"Relax, Tony," Sharon orders, too loud in my ears as she pushed at me, not giving an inch. Her hands on my chest are too much, her voice too loud, the chill from the air conditioning is too sharp, like every sense has been turned up to eleven. Not nearly as bad as it had been, thank God, but it hurts. "Easy, easy, we got you. Just lie back down."

Between Sharon and Maria, they get me pushed back flat and hold me there Between one heartbeat and another I'm suddenly flat on my back while binary and code flash behind my eyes and my body repairs itself from the damage Osborn's little game did. Eventually I relax down to little twitches and flutters, and then finally stillness.

As soon as I can be sure I won't bite my tongue off, I look up at Sharon and Maria. They're both in uniform, which tells me absolutely nothing. I could have been gone a year, and their uniforms wouldn't change. Probably. Stranger things have happened. "How long?"

"A little over an hour." Sharon's eyebrows are drawn into a frown. A glance at Maria and then the door was all it took to get Hill headed out. "What happened back there? Something we need to worry about?"

"I don't know. Maybe. Probably." The overhead lights stab through my eyes, way too bright to be staring up at them. Even closing my eyes, they're too bright. Squinting doesn't help either, just leaves me with a new headache where my forehead crunches up.

Something shifts, fabric rubbing and scraping before heavy cloth dropped over my eyes. Relief. Without the lights to blind me through my eyelids, it's much, much easier to relax down into the table. "Thanks."

"I've had migraines a couple of times, I know the symptoms." She pats my shoulder. "Maria's getting Steve. Hang in there, we'll get you to a room and you can sleep it off."

Steve. Steve.

"Wait! Dont' you recognize it?? It's the f, white amous redand blue garb of—Captain America!"

Did you just say"garb"?

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 1.613 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

Just the man I need to have a talk with. "What happened with Red Skull?"

All of a sudden there's just an absence where there had been Sharon Carter, as if she'd frozen in place. I can't really say how I know, maybe tiny changes in air pressure, the the sound of her clothes. I can't even hear her breathe.

Bingo, right question.

"You weren't unconscious," she says slowly, words dragged out to their breathless limit. "Were you?"

Nodding hurts, a tight little ball of pain at the back of my head, but she deserves to know. "I caught most of it, yeah."

A pause, probably to frown. "That's personal, and you should rest. Ask Steve later, he'll tell you whatever you want to know."

"No, he won't." She should know that. Steve's Mr. Noble. If Sharon says it's personal, I won't get a peep out of him. Not that it seems like I'll get one from here.

New plan. "Okay, never mind, not the Skull. What about the courthouse? Tell me what happened there." I remembered something about the courthouse, didn't I? It was so sharp a second ago, but now the memory's blurry, like cheap stop animation, jerking in and out of place.

"The court—" Her voice rises, and my whole body cringes as it sends a stab straight between my ears. Damage done, she lowers it to a hiss. "You know damn well what happened at the courthouse. What are you playing at?"

Damn it, he'd been right. I'm hiding something from me. Asshole. I'm a complete and total asshole. "No, I don't know. I think—"

Admit everything to Steve's ex-girlfriend? Or try and play it off?

I really hate me.

"I think I didn't reinstall something important," I finish limply, yanking the cloth—her over shirt—off my eyes and using my arms to sit up. She stumbles back, knees bent and fists up like I'm about to attack. Good for her that just sitting up is hard. "And I think it has to do with the courthouse. Please."

Slowly, Sharon rises out of her defensive crouch. She's gone pale, white as a hospital sheet. "How can you have forgotten—"

The door swings open, revealing Steve and, behind him, Maria Hill. He blinks at the scene, taking in Sharon in her black tank and me, barely staying vertical. "What's going on here? What happened?"

Damn it. Super Soldier Timing. It has to be a secret superpower. Wood squeaks as my palms slide against the table, gliding me back into my comfortable sprawl. Sharon's shirt goes back over my eyes. Not only does it block the light, it also blocks Steve's worried glare, which is even better. "Nothing. Just talking."

"Talking. Sure." Yep, he doesn't believe me. Didn't expect him to. He'll get over it, or Sharon will tell him and I'll have to deal with a round of why didn't you ask me, followed by I told you so. Wonderful. "What happened?"

That's easy enough. Unlike the last time my brain did something bizarre, I actually have honest log files on this one. "Osborn left a trap for me. Sensory overload. Threw Extremis wide open. Might be more traps, but I won't know until I look."

Unlike Sharon, there's no indication that Steve's upset. Just more of the same, which is probably a disappointed look aimed at my head. "Are you going to be okay?"

"Yeah. Give me a minute, okay?" I could get Extremis to make the headache go away, but I'm not sure I want to try in the Tower. The next time I use it, I want to be somewhere with a failsafe, just in case. "Just keep the volume down, I'll be great. I need to check out the Tower systems. Might be more traps, but I won't know until I look."

"You said that already." Someone touched my knee. Large hand, soft touch, all Steve. "Just rest."

Yeah. Because that's so easy.


Hotel security cameras buzz comfortably in the back of my head, a gentle nudge of data being recorded. None of the invasive push that mine usually have. They're too low-tech for that. Maybe there are advantages to minimalism. I should think about that for the next design, tone things down a bit. Taking most of them off the network is an option I never considered, but with the ache in my skull it's definitely appealing.

Sharon was nice enough to put us up in a hotel instead of asking us to sleep in barracks at the Tower. That would have been too much, being a guest in my own home. And a bad idea too. Osborn's little trap managed to get me just by stepping into the wrong room. Until I get a chance to take apart the Tower systems byte by byte, I'm not going to trust them with a cheap teddy bear.

I'd spent most of the afternoon flat on my back on a fold-out table, and the rest flat on my back on a hotel bed in a dark room. The worst of the migraine's faded to a dull roar, thank God, but it's still not gone. I haven't had one this bad since before Extremis took over regulating things. Hadn't missed them, either. Migraines aren't the worst sort of pain, but they try to be. All I want is a dark room and a quiet night. Then we can handle Sharon's business.

Don't tell"anyonelike it belongs in a hospital bed. Sharon insists, in a voice that doesn't sound ",She presses a hand to her stomach, which is so thick with bandages that it almost looks like a cast. Maria's a sharp splash of dark colors that only makes Sharon look even paler by I just want—stab yourself. "I'm not a threat anymore comparison. That's what happens when you ".to forget

I'll have the records cleared," I promise as firmly as I can. Extremis is already going through the " sing and deleting everything that might connect Agent 13 to Dr. Faustus. No one will files, acces ever know. It's the least I can do. "You were captured. You escaped. I'd make myself forget, if I ."could

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 1.906 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

Security cameras in the hall perk up, clicked awake by their motion detectors. Steve hovers outside my door, nervously flipping the keycard between his fingers. He glances directly up at the camera lens and smiles like he's seen his favorite person in the world, Sharon or Sam or Bucky.

Wanting, of course, isn't getting. No sooner is the wish made than the door clicks open without any of the warnings I would have gotten in the Tower, or even at the Oklahoma facility. I jump, every bone in my skull protesting simultaneously at the sudden movement.

Maybe a minimalist approach isn't in the cards after all.

Steve hesitates in the cracked doorway, the hall light at his back so his expression is completely hidden in shadow. It's not hard to guess, though. Worry. Frustration. Guilt, maybe, as if it's his fault I didn't anticipate Osborn being Osborn. He wouldn't be Steve if he didn't take responsibility where none's due.

"Tony?" he stage whispers. "Are you awake?"

The word no hovers on the tip of my tongue, endlessly tempting. But then Steve would just shuffle off, and we need to talk. Maybe if we do it now, we can do it without yelling. Because that's what we used to do. Listen. Talk. Work things out.

What happened to that?

Steve starts shifting his weight like he's going to creep back to his room, so I lift a hand and wave him in. "Yeah, I'm up. Come in and close the door, you're letting out the dark."

"Don't you mean letting in the light?" But obediently he shuffles in and lets the door swing closed behind him.

"Dark's more precious right now. Have a seat somewhere."

Hotel rooms are never completely dark. Even the best places don't have the money to invest in high tech shades like the Tower had, and there's always light that seeps in, either outside the window or in the hall. It's easy to see Steve's darker shadow in the rest of them, navigating his way through the room to the foot of the bed. I close my eyes when the mattress dips down with Steve's weight, but it doesn't make much difference in this level of light.

"I didn't disturb you, did I?"

"Did you...?" I must have missed something. Better to ignore it and get to business first. Get it out of the way, and then if it all goes sour it won't matter as much. Hurt, yes. Matter, no. "What do you think Sharon's called us up here for?"

He shrugs, a motion that has more to do with a faint bounce on the bed than anything I can really see. I can hear his disapproving frown. "She'll tell us when she's ready."

She would have told us today, if I hadn't been caught flat-footed. "I know you have a guess. So guess."

Another shift of the bed, the weight spreading out as he leans back onto his hands. It's... Weird, having Steve here. Comfortable, maybe, like my favorite pair of sneakers, the ones Pepper tries to throw away every few months. They're worn until the insoles have dents from my toes, and they look like they've been through a garbage disposal, but they're practically part of my feet now. It's that sort of comfortable right now, between Steve and I.

Come on, you can't"kiss a guy and without expecting a follow-through then say you ."want to be friends

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 2.391 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

We haven't been like this with each other for a long time. At least, not that I can remember, and that's the problem, isn't it?

Outside the window a car door slams, some ten stories down. "I think she wants us to start the Avengers up again," Steve finally says. "I think we need to."

That's what I thought, but hearing Steve say it makes it more real. It makes sense, in a backhanded sort of way. Washington will recover, and SHIELD and the military can handle riots, but nothing calms down a situation like a team of Avengers on the ground. Not just me, not even just Steve, but Avengers. Ten years and going, even our detractors tend to trust us. Trust is in short supply these days.

"I think we do, too." Propping myself up on my elbows, going from horizontal to vertical, isn't as easy as it should be. The pressure behind my ears swirls and expands when I sit up, throwing me off-balance. There's no where to fall, though, so all I have to do is lock my arms and wait it out. "I agree. But why do you think she wants me? I'm not exactly one of the world's favorite people right now."

Just when I start to get my balance back, Steve touches the top of my bare foot and it's yanked away again. "You're one of mine."

Damn it. I should have known he wouldn't let that go. In his shoes, I wouldn't either. Stubborn bastard. "Am I?"

"Yeah. Always have been."

"Even at the courthouse?"

A sharp intake a breath is the most I get out of him. Bullseye. Question is, is it the right target. "You remember?"

Warning—

"I remember that something happened. I don't know what." Taking a chance, I stretch out my foot to press the sole against his hip. Denim catches on the calluses, tugging roughly. "Tell me."

"I can't—" Steve must hear my grumble of annoyance, because his thumb rubs over the arch of my foot, sending a shiver through me. "It's not that, Tony. You deserve to know. But I don't think you're going to hear it. You don't want to hear it."

A stab of muscle-melting pleasure travels up the inside of my calf. It drops me back to the bed, a controlled fall before my arms give out. How'd he find out about that? Foot rubs were always one of my weaknesses. Rumiko had loved to take advantage of it, right before taking advantage of me. "And you don't want to tell me."

The pad of Steve's thumb digs into a spot just behind the ball of my foot. "I... I know how it hurt you. And I don't want that."

My knee twitches, but I can't bring myself to actually pull away. Even the pounding in my head eases up. "Even after Registration? We never talked about that." I think I can be sure about that much. The other Tony wouldn't have known what needed talking about. I hadn't installed it on him. "I don't regret supporting it."

He should know that, should know that I'd do it again and that I still think it's needed. Having superpowered first responders out there without even having been trained in CPR, much less crowd control or basic demolition is just asking for a tragedy. Another tragedy, on top of all the others.

.for a drink, mouth and throat so dry they're scratchy My hands shakeGod ,.Wanda, I'm so sorry

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 1.419 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

Squeeze goes Steve's hand, and Warning, heart rate rising goes Extremis. "Then let's talk."

I'm definitely at a disadvantage here, and it's only going to get worse the longer he rubs. Why does this feel like a setup? "What do you want to know?"

My feet lift up, and suddenly Steve's moved a little closer so my ankle's on his thigh. Strong hands cup my heel, massaging away at the back of it. I've noticed how big Steve's hands are before, but it never really hit me how huge they are before now. Definitely a setup.

"I think I know why you did it," Steve says slowly, rotating my ankle in circles. The numbness spreads up to my hip, tingling pleasantly. "But I want to hear you say it."

Confirmation. That's probably a A good place to start. I drag my scattered thoughts together, away from what he's doing to my foot. It's not that easy, but I manage. Registration is never far from my mind. "It needed to be done." Steve takes a sharp breath, as if he's going to interrupt me, but he didn't give me this chance just so we could end up arguing again. "No, listen. People lost their lives because there were a bunch of rookie heroes out there trying to make a name for themselves by getting in over their heads—by getting in over their heads. And how many times has one of us been brainwashed? Or used against our will? We have to have some sort of control, contingency plans, some kind of training for people who are going to be out in the field."

Steve's hand tightens, almost grinding bones together. "And you think this was the way to do it?" he asks, and it's a little bit of a miracle that his voice hasn't changed with his grip. "By forcing people to become the government's little army?"

"I think that the government wasn't going to give us the choice for much longer." My toes curl when he finds one particularly sore spot and digs in. "SHRA was watered down, Steve. Watered down a lot, and not nearly enough. It was all I could do to—"

"To what? Stay in control?" Extremis' sensors pick up his breath speeding, blood pressure rising, even in the dark. "What were you trying to do, Tony? Just tell me."

No headache anymore. Every little movement of Steve's body catches my attention now, every breath riveting, every roll of his fingers perfect. All of it transmutes to a pleasant throb centered around my groin. There's some things even Extremis has trouble controlling.

"To save us from ourselves."

His hands keep rubbing, just the right side of painful. This isn't what I thought it would be. Steve should be yelling at me. Telling me all of the real reasons I did it, the ones that I'm not brave enough to find out if they might be true. Greedy. Power-hungry. Crazy.

Not all that different from Osborn, at the end of the day. Is Steve going to have to take me down one day? Will Maria plant a bullet between my eyes?

The clock ticks by, Extremis counting the seconds of silence, and then minutes. At three minutes and sixteen seconds five minutes and thirty two seconds Steve takes a slow, shaky breath, as if he's not sure he still can breathe. He twists my ankle, the jar of popped tension shooting all the way up my spine. "I... think that's what I expected to hear. But..." Warm hands slow, distracted by Steve's thoughts. I let him have them, grateful for the reprieve.

Grateful until he asks, "Was it worth it?"

"Was it worth it?"

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 3.981 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

Was it.... Was it worth it? To lose everything? To lose Steve? To have Steve die, to look at him on that piece of metal and know it was my fault my arrogance mine mine mine—

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 0.981 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

To lose everything, but to try and do what was right?

This time, it's my turn to have trouble breathing, and Steve's hands only have a little top do with it. "That's... you can't ask me that now. It's not fair."

"Tony." His voice begs me to look at him, enough that Extremis is already reaching for lights that are thankfully manual. "Tony, if it weren't for that— if we were back a year ago, before Osborn. Before... Everything. Back when I— went underground. Was it worth it?"

There's only one way I can answer that. "Yes."

In the darkness, the shadow that marks Steve's head bows. Something warm and damp lands on the top of my foot.

This is wrong. He was supposed to be mad at me. Angry. Not whatever this is. Not... Not this. Steve should never be this shaken by anything, let alone me and my thousand and one mistakes.

Headache gone, I force myself up to touch his arm. He leans into me, head on my shoulder and there's just enough light in the room to make out the shine on his cheeks. "I'm sorry."

"You shouldn't be." There's no choke in his voice, nothing that would give away that he's crying. "You were wrong. Registration wasn't the answer. But I'm glad you did what you thought was right, no matter what it cost."

"Osborn isn't a small price." My fingers run through his hair, for lack of anything better to do. It feels good. Right. We used to touch a lot. That faded when Extremis happened, just like a lot of things did. "If I hadn't been so stupid—"

"I don't mean Osborn."

Then what does he mean? "I don't think we had another option. Doesn't matter now, does it?"

Against my arm his chest jerks once, either a silent laugh or a sob, it's impossible to tell. I hope it's a laugh. "No, it doesn't."


Gone to Washington DC for Presidential Address. Be back soon. Don't do anything stupid.

A holographic eagle flashes at me when it catches the light just right, the stationary one of the security measures SHIELD uses most often. It's written with the faintly iridescent blue ink that I know for a fact will ignite if hit with the right wavelength of light. Fury had taken vigilance and paranoia to spectacular levels, and it looks like that's going to continue. Regardless of the formal presentation, it's exceptionally straightforward, and ostensibly from the desk of Sharon Carter, Director, but the hand is definitely Maria's. No one else I know makes their W that threatening.

"Do you think we'll get a cookie if we're good?"

Steve plucks the note from my fingers, giving it his own inspection. His hair's still ruffled from sleep, but he looks relaxed. More so than I've seen him in days. More so than I've seen him in days. "I don't think so."

"Then let's be bad." Before he can stop me, I steal the memo, wad it up, and toss it into a trash can. It comes close to bouncing off the rim, but wobbles at the last second and topples right in. "Why don't we get a head start on the team? Since we have time to spare." And even if we are on good terms again, nothing good can come out of spending a day or more in a hotel room alone with Steve.

At first, Steve frowns, but he leans back against the front desk and doesn't say no. "Who do you have in mind?"

"Luke." The frown turns into a grimace and I hold up a hand. "Hear me out. I know he doesn't trust me, but he'll listen to you. He was a damned good leader while you were—"

leans —no, Luke, if I'm watching his child, he needs to be Luke— Like I said, no choice." Cage" ."ke me regret this, manforward to kiss his daughter's forehead, then he glares at me. "Don't ma

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 5.674 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

"—don't know what happened," Steve snaps somewhere in the room. There's a hard, angry edge to his voice I never wanted to hear again. It makes me hold absolutely still on the hotel bed that I've found myself on. Someone pulled the ugly geometric-print quilt up over my knees. "He just collapsed— no, he wasn't— no. Just put Sharon on the phone." He paused, the moment highlighted by muffled thumps as he paces. "I understand that she's with the President, and I really don't care. Either put her on the line, or I'll call him. I still have that phone number."

One of the things I've learned since becoming an Avenger is that when Captain America starts threatening to take things to the President, something's gone seriously wrong. My arms feel weirdly sluggish as I push up from the bed, almost but not quite like they're recovering from lost circulation. "Steve, what's—"

Steve turns from where he's pacing and pushes me down to the bed. Suddenly, Steve's by the bed and has a hand in the center of my chest, holding me pinned. "Stay there. I don't want you moving until we know what's wrong."

His eyes are wide and worried and—and fuck. I hate that look on him. He wears it way too often.

Keep it together, Tony. "What do you mean, what's wrong? Did I sleep through the alarm?" I'd set it for eight, and it's obviously later than that. Maybe as late as noon, going by the light in the windows. I try to shrug off his hand, but Steve leans, and I'm not two hundred pounds of muscle like he is. "I'm fine. Let me up."

"No you're not fine." The palm on my chest flexes, gripping a t-shirt I don't remember putting on. "What did we have for breakfast, Tony?"

Breakfast? "We didn't—"

"I had french toast," he cuts me off. "You had a fruit bowl. We both had coffee."

Bad. This is bad. Since Steve won't let me up, and I have a feeling he's willing to wrestle me to keep me down, I let myself fall back to the bed. "So I sleep walked. I've done that before. You know how I get. I've done it before."

"You passed out. Started saying something about Luke and then just went down." The cellphone's still pressed to his ear—he's only using his left hand, and I still can't get up. Wow, I feel inadequate now. "You're not leaving this room until one of SHIELD's doctors takes a look at you. Maybe Blake—" Steve's head jerks, attention returning to the phone. "Sharon! We have a situation."

Running diagnostic: hardware

I could listen in, but I don't need to. It's not hard to figure out what's happening. Steve will pester Sharon until she gives in. May as well leave them to it while I run the scan.

It's a light scan now. The hardware is easier than the software to check for errors—there's a blueprint of that in every cell of my body. All Extremis has to do is check against the original file.

In two minutes, fifty-four seconds the results are in. A few bruises are the only deviations from the plan. Everything is running normally, even my liver and heart, which have always taken the heaviest abuse. Another deep drive scan will probably scare Steve into admitting me to a hospital, so it'll have to wait until he thinks I'm asleep. For now, I'm stuck with the error logs.

I close my eyes and let the data fly, Steve's conversation with Sharon a soothing sort of background noise. It's an anchor, keeping me from slipping into the feeds. There's always something fascinating in there, and I just don't have time to screw off. I have logs to look at.

As soon as they're open, it's obvious something's wrong. Just in the last two days, the files have grown to ten times the size they should be.

Integrity compromised
Runtime error 120-Ex
File not found
Program extr_rewrite.exe has been corrupted
File extr_rewrite.exe not found

On and on and on...

Fuck. Searching out the most common error link—the extr_rewrite.exe is thankfully simple. It wasn't meant to be hidden, unlike the majority of Extremis's files. The program name is familiar, but not something I recognize, like a flavor I hadn't had in years.

Copy extr_rewrite.exe, paste Copy_of_extr_rewrite.exe. Decompile. Open.

The code is beautiful, if I do say so myself. I don't remember putting this together, but it's obvious I did. It's written specifically for Extremis—or any other operating system designed to function in conjunction with the a biological system, which pretty much means Extremis. No other OS in the world uses tags and dimensions the way it does, manipulating information on a level that only a machine with the complexity of the human brain can achieve.

The bed dips, and I open my eyes quickly to assess the change. Steve smiles awkwardly and pats my hip. "We're going to get you better."

It makes me smile and my stomach churn at the same time. Instead of answering, I close my eyes again, and dive back into a world of information.

Why don't I remember this? If it were something simple, like the triggers for melanin release at bedtime, I can see myself forgetting it, but it's one of the most complex programs I've ever seen, short of Extremis itself. There's identifiers and tags, directives, ties to media files and memories and so many different ways of handling data that it must have taken hours to code them all. Even with the help of Extremis, this was a serious undertaking. Then my mental eye falls on a tiny, almost insignificant bit of information, and everything comes together.

The program file was compiled three months ago, just before I triggered the deletion process.

"What did I do?"

"Tony?" Steve's voice is right above me. Data lines overlay sight when I open my eyes, but I can still see him. No sign of the hum of an active cellphone conversation, so he must have hung up. Hopefully without causing an international incident. Sometime while I was busy, he sat down by my side, fingers petting a slow burn across my hipbone where my shirt's ridden up and my jeans have slipped down. Did I put this on? It's purple. "What did you find?"

I should stop him. He'll be embarrassed when he realizes what he's doing, and Steve deserves so much better than that. Looking up at him, with his lip caught between his teeth and his forehead pinched in worry, I'm too selfish to make myself do it. Bravely turning a man like Steve Rogers down isn't something a guy should be expected to do twice inside a month.

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 0.004 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

"Last week when I got back from the hospital—" Steve's shoulders tense before I even finish the sentence. At least I know that memory wasn't affected by whatever's going on. "You said that something was wrong. What was it?"

"I can't tell you. You'll—"

"I'll black it out, I know." I try to smile, but it feels weak. At least the feeling in my legs is starting to come back. It must have been an effect of however Steve got me up here. "Found the program—virus, really. Nasty little thing. Can you tell me in general terms so I can figure out what files it's deleting?"

Steve's fingers go still. "Deleting?" Slow, tight tension lines his voice, but the word is carefully neutral. "It's deleting... files? You mean memories, right?"

Yes. "Maybe." Obfuscate and avoid, dance around the bush before the bush tangos around me. "I don't know. That's why I need your help."

"You mean memories." Steve closes his eyes and leans over, pressing his forehead to the center of my chest, where he'd been pinning me before. "Say it."

My hand curls through his hair. I've always liked it when it's shaggy, and right now it's soft and has that extra-clean feel that comes from using bar soap as shampoo. Why does this have to be so hard?

"I mean memories." His hair tangles around my fingers a little, and I don't even remember moving. If I check the logs, I just know I'll find another error. "I need to know."

Back muscles ripple as he takes a deep breath. "You remember when I turned myself in?"

Of course I do. It was one of the worst days of my life. "Yeah."

"Something happened." He's still not looking at me. I'm kind of afraid of what I'll see when he does. Steve doesn't get this upset easily. "And—and I think you blamed yourself."

So now I'm blocking it? What could be so bad that I'd do something that risky? From what I can see in the logs, the process can take anywhere from a nanosecond to entire minute, or even be real time. If it happened in a fight, I'd be a sitting duck.

What memory could be so bad I'd rather die than remember? "Maybe Osborn—"

Watching Barnes throw the shield, gun in hand, is all wrong. It's like watching someone pole t. Enthusiasm and talent, but it isn't part of who they were and it never will dance on amateur nigh .be

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 3.926 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

ed in a cold line, waiting for the Mighty to make the first move. The New Avengers stand array Almost unconsciously, they left a gap at the front, an opening that should have had the best defenses. I don't have to read minds to know that no one will pick that avenue of attack. Some .ings are still sacredth

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 1.161 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

"This has been happening for a long time. Since you woke up the first time."

Thump, my head drops back to the pillow. "Hell."

Steve's arms wrap around my waist. "Don't worry. We'll fix this."

He's so sincere, it's actually painful. "Yeah."

I will.


Sharon makes a video call all the way from the Oval office to order HAMMER—which is tentatively SHIELD again—to let me into my lab in the basement of the tower. This time, I'm smart enough to remember to lock down everything first. And it's a good thing, too. Osborn had more goodies hidden there for me, including something that makes the lobotomy program look downright kind.

Steve's never going to find out about that one.

The lab isn't at all like I left it. Everything had been stripped down to the bare walls, cement floor and whatever was too bolted in to remove easily. Osborn was a smart enough man, when he wasn't walking around in green face paint. He would have known how much valuable tech I had down there.

Luckily, the computer systems and a majority of the storage space were some of the more immobile pieces, and they were too valuable to destroy. I'll probably have to track down my tech again once all of this is done, probably illegally. Court systems are such a waste of space for this stuff. For Steve's sake, I'll try the legal way first, but I'm not dumb enough to think it'll work. Either the US government or Oz Corp are where it most likely ended up, and neither of those are going to give my stuff back voluntarily.

Clearing out Osborn's traps and setting up a test environment for Extremis takes the better part of a day. At some point I know I ate, because there's a plate and a lot of bread crumbs, but I don't remember it being brought down. It would be almost normal, if the same thing didn't happen to Steve. A couple of times, he appears and vanishes the same way the food did, without any connection between the moments. Whenever it happens, I have to pause and breathe for a few minutes to get my equilibrium back.

How long did I live with this and never realize? Extremis connecting the missing pieces like a real-time photoshop? I can't even be sure that I'm actually doing this, that this isn't some trick of the program making me think I'm fixing it. I could be typing gibberish and I'd never know. Even just thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach, and in the process I lose even more minutes of thought.

Somewhere around six, the lab alarm beeps, announcing someone in the private elevator. Exactly sixty two seconds later, the door slides open and lets in Steve. At least he doesn't look tired, but it takes a few back-to-back apocalypses to affect him, so that doesn't mean much. There's a large duffel bag over his shoulder that doesn't look heavy, but it is fully stuffed.

I'd had to bring a pillow in to steal sleep on. Fifteen minutes here, ten there. I can't go for long before working again. I'm too closework is too delicate to rush. Memories are tricky things, and I'll only have one shot to finished, too impatient to sleep, but the. But if I ...get it right

, it If I get it right won't matter .anyway

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 1.009 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

The cameras keep an eye on Steve for me while I work, following him across the space until he's nearly leaning over my shoulder. When I don't look away from the screen he frowns, but I can't tell whether it's aimed at me or something else. Most of the lab sensors are offline; it would be handy to know Steve's BPM.

"Are you planning on sleeping down here tonight?" he asks after a minute of disapproval, cutting straight to the point.

"Why not?" Access file stark_ae_0159 on Apogee Server. Run debug.exe. "I've got a cot."

"I thought so." He swings the bag around and squeezes it like it's a pillow before dropping it to the floor with a soft whumph. "I'm staying with you, then."

"I don't think that's—"

"What if you have an episode while chewing?" If I hadn't learned to hate that reasonable, direct voice years ago, I would now. He has a point, but that doesn't mean I like it. "You could choke."

—paintightcan'tbreathecan'tthinkpainpainpainpain—Electricity shocks my heart back into working. The metal. Heat. Burning as the jolt breastplate is never less than warm, but it heats to the point of leaving blisters. I can't perfectly and keep theinsulate it connection to recharge, so I just have to.put up with it

I don't want this to be the rest of my life.

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 3.102 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

"Tony?" Steve's voice is soft, worried. I hate making him worry.

"I'm fine," I manage to smile, though my chest is tight. Did I do it again? "I was just lost in thought. You're going to make me use the cot, aren't you?"

"The thought may have crossed my mind."

debug.exe report: 8,964 errors found















TypeAmountAction
improperly deleted files99.5%files restored
hardware failure0.28%maintenance queued
divide by zero0.2%none
miscellaneous0.02%isolated

Running resolution protocol
Leave it to Steve to try and mother hen now, of all times. "I don't have time for sleep. I have to—"

"Break down even more?" He grabs the back of my chair and swivels me around, crouching down to grab my hands. Makes no difference. Extremis keeps up the work for me, but I prefer hand-on typing so my mind doesn't wander. Nothing like checking up on a memo you were writing to find out it turned into a porno half way through. "It's been sixteen hours, and you need to rest, Tony, or you're going to make mistakes. At least nap."

Access file stark_ae_0160 on Apogee Server. Run debug.exe.

Squeezing his hands is kind of like squeezing a warm brick, all rough spots and rock-solid everything. But bricks don't squeeze back, or give you a look like you just forgot their birthday.
Mute service announcements I need to be able to deal with Steve without being distracted. He's distracting enough, and I don't know how to explain I did something stupid and now I'm dying and I don't even know why. Maybe I should record a speech, so I don't have to keep coming up with new ones.

I don't want to do this.

"Cascading hard drive failure." The words don't come out a sharp as I wanted. Probably a good thing. Steve doesn't respond well when I snap. "Do you know what that is? Because it's what's happening."

"One error causes another until the whole system shuts down. I know." Steve meets my eyes, jaw tight in that I Only Want What's Best For You line that it sometimes gets. "But I also know that you can't risk making a mistake. A few hours of sleep will do a lot less damage than accidentally deleting something and having to rebuild it again."
"I'm going to have to delete everything anyway—"

Steve's hands tighten around mine, almost painfully, and it's clear that I've screwed up. Again.

"No."

"Steve—"

"I said no, Tony. We're not doing this again." The way Steve's looking, that's an order on par with take no prisoners. "Not again, do you hear me? Find another way."

"There isn't another way!" I yank my hands away and turn back to the screen, where the next set of errors are being resolved. Only a few more backups left, and then I just have to patch them together. "This is the only way I'm ever going to remember what happened to you. I need to know—"

"You mean that you want to know." Wheels squeak when Steve tries to yank me back around, but I just stand up. Of course he uses my shoulders to turn me around again. "Look at me when I'm talking to you. You can fix the program, right? So it stops whatever it's doing."

My eyebrows pinch in a frown that matches Steve's, albeit with a world less of moral up-righteousness. "Of course I could." That would be the easiest solution to the errors. I have a perfect backup of the file, and it was Osborn's tricks that caused the malfunction. "But that would leave it to run. All the data would be--"

"Gone." Steve's hands give me a light shake, just enough to rock me. "Let it go."

Stunned. I'm stunned. He didn't just— he—

I pull away, backing up until I touch the desk. This time he doesn't pull me back. None of this makes any sense. Whatever I did, whatever went wrong, it happened to him. How can he ask me to let it go? Of all people, he should be the first in line to want me to fix it, so I can eat my crow. "How can you say that?"

"Because I saw how it affected you." He runs his hands through his hair, gripping it like he'd yank it all out in frustration. "And I know that you wanted to forget it so much that you did this."

Heart rate: 72 BPM

I can't breathe. My throat hurts, and it feels like that damned lump of metal is back in my heart. "Steve..."

"I've lost you twice in the past year. Not again. Please."

As soon as I take the helmet off, my nose fills with the stench of rotting flesh and something like rts eating away at my lungs, but I take a sulfur. Immediately it's hard to breathe as the virus sta good, strong breath of air anyway and bow over Steve's body. If I can just keep him going, keep him. breathing and his heart moving, there might be a chance

.If only one of us walks away from this, it isn't going to be me

ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 2.310 minutes.
Re-initializing processor.

Sincerity curls through every word, twisting my stomach with fresh guilt. What did I do to him that he doesn't want me to remember?

"This won't be like the last times," I promise, forcing my voice steady. "No rush jobs, no extras. I'm going to go back and do it the way I should have." He doesn't look convinced, so I try another angle. "It's not losing me, Steve. It's getting me back."

His expression doesn't change at all. "You are back. Just fix it, and let it finish."

Steve's not changing his mind, staring at me with those huge eyes and hurt expression. He honestly doesn't want me to do this. God knows why. There's no point in everyone kicking me for something I can't remember, and I can't fix what I don't know is broken.

Damn it.

Turning around, I tap out a command on the keyboard, and the debugger vanishes from the screen. The plain empty desktop actually hurts to look at. I have to brace myself against the desk to stay upright.

Unmute critical service announcements
Access file stark_ae_0167 on Apogee Server. Run debug.exe.

"Happy now?" Extremis tries to stop my voice from breaking, but it's got too much else running to devote enough RAM for it. "We'll do it your way. I'll fix the error and let the program run. It should be finished in a week."

Liar.

Steve slips up behind me and wraps his arms around my waist. Strong arms are tight around my waist as Steve's lips press against the back of my neck, where the hair's clipped short and stubbly. Warm breath tickles my skin, giving rise to goosebumps and a warm thread of heat. "Thank you."

Another thing I should stop before it gets too far. I don't care any more. The other Tony had this. I want it too, before it's gone again.

Twisting around, I hook my arms around Steve's neck and pull his head down. He kisses me before I can kiss him, soft lips and just a bit of stubble, slow and deliberate and my God, if I hadn't already wanted him I would now. Knees start to buckle, but I'm already right against a handy flat surface to sit on.

Steve settles against me, pushing me against the desk I don't remember sitting on, seeming to take it as a chance to start an invasion. He kisses me until Extremis complains about my blood pressure and my lungs start to run out of air. His dick's already hard against my stomach, just below the bite of his belt buckle.

A better man would resist, but a better man wouldn't be in this position. I squirm closer, keeping my left hand around his neck while the right one reaches for his belt. High ho, ambidexterity, one of the few gifts from Extremis that hasn't bitten back yet. Buttons are harder. Jean buttons are always hard one-handed, but I don't want to let go of his shoulders. It pops free after a minute of work. Compared to that, the zipper isn't even a barrier.

No underwear. Not surprised. Those jeans don't hide anything.

"You don't have to," Steve mutters, kissing a wet line down my jaw and god, teeth, holy fuck.

Access file stark_ae_0168 on Apogee Server. Run debug.exe.

"Want to." He's smooth and hard under my palm. It makes the back of my jaw tingle like it's anticipating something spicy. Steve's hips roll into my grip and fuck, teeth again, who would have thought Captain America is a biter?

My pants are slacks, with much easier buttons than anything made by Levi. They come open under Steve's fingers in a handful of seconds. Our dicks line up between our hands in a long line of heat and soft, dry skin. Sweat trickles down my back, cold and sticky from the air conditioning, but it's the only thing that's cold. Steve's skin is so hot, burning up from the inside. I want to wrap around him, drag him down to the desk and do everything, taste everything, feel everything—

Access file stark_ae_0169 on Apogee Server. Run debug.exe.

"Tony—" His breath washes over my neck, as overheated as the rest of him. Our hands don't fit perfectly around our dicks—his is bigger than mine, palm wider, fingers thicker, doing most the work. Thoughts of what those fingers could do if we had time make me groan.

I kiss his ear, tongue trailing over the hard curve of cartilage, tugging at the soft part with my teeth. Giving up on fighting Steve for space on our shafts, I push his pants a little lower. His balls are already drawn and tight when I cup them. "Come on, Steve, come on—"

Breath hisses between Steve's teeth, hand tight as his hips jerk. Come splatters against my shirt and spills down our hands. His head drops down to my shoulder, but the callus on his thumb presses right under the head of my dick, just where it feels best as he switches to just me. Even Extremis can't keep my eyes from crossing.

"Your turn." Steve squeezes and twists lightly, smearing the come across my dick and fuck fuck fuck teeth again—

The program extremis.exe is not responding. Please wait.

Ceiling. Nice ceiling. Plain white and uncomplicated. Good, good ceiling.

In my ear, Steve laughs quietly. His lips brush my jaw. "A very good ceiling, Tony. Ready for that nap now?"

I love him so much it hurts. "Yeah." Every muscle feels like it's made of over-boiled noodles. It's almost too hard to turn my head and kiss him properly, but the feeling of Steve smiling against my mouth is worth it. "Yeah, nap now."

Access file stark_ae_0170 on Apogee Server. Run debug.exe.


Process debug.exe complete
Run time 11 hours 32 minutes 51 seconds

Steve's warm and big, taking up most of the cot and all of the pillow without even trying. Everywhere our bare skin touches is sticky with sweat, air conditioning or no, and where we're in shorts they stick to the skin. I'm not the first person he's shared a bed with, and the way things go I probably won't be the last. That doesn't stop him from sleeping as lightly as if he were in a war zone. Every time I move even to stretch my legs, he starts to wake up. But his hand against my lower back is oddly comforting. It takes away the urge to fidget and kick while the program results print themselves across my brain.

Now, like this, is probably the best time to finish it. My fingers itch for a keyboard, but that won't help anything. It'll just mean waking up Steve.

It's a nice thought that if this goes horribly wrong, my last memory will be Steve's shoulder under my cheek and his heartbeat in my ear.

Open wireless. Establishing connection.
Port 10034-alpha open. Connecting.
Speed 1TBpns. Firewall operative. Stark Enterprise OS Steel IX loading.
Initiate backup procedures
..............................................................................
Manual backup complete: file stark_ae_0174

Run debug.exe target stark_ae_0174

I must make some sort of movement or sign, because Steve's eyes crack open hazily. He stares at me for a second, like he's trying to figure out some sort of puzzle. Then he pushes in closer, knocking me on my back. Stubble scrapes my skin as he nuzzles into my neck with a nearly silent sigh.

Maybe I should have put off that backup a few minutes. I don't want to lose this memory. Steve's not going to give me a chance to make another after this. He was so against another reboot...

Too late now. Maybe it'll hold on somewhere, the ghost of a deleted file. That's a nice thought.

Process debug.exe complete
Run time 0 hours 2 minutes 19 seconds

Compile files stark_ae_0000 - stark_ae_0174

Maybe Steve's right. I should just fix the one program, run a quick scan to fix the rest of the errors, and be done. Reality is perception, right? Does it matter what actually happened as long as I don't know what it was? Steve doesn't seem to think so, and his opinion has to count for something.

Compile complete.

Do it or don't.

Remember or forget.

This would be a lot easier if I knew what the stakes were.

But I'll find out eventually, regardless. I can't go my entire life without knowing. Something is going to slip up. No matter what Steve thinks, I can't close my eyes to it forever.

And I don't want to. Whatever I did, I need to know, or it's going to eat me alive. I know what I'm capable of.

Not as much choice as I thought.

Eyes closed, Steve curled around me, I reach into the external servers.

Access file renaissance.exe

Run


Compile Backup — authorized user Rogers, Steven (Admin, interface: manual)

—gunshotscoffingraveyardArcticHappy—

—Captain America shot today on the way to his arraignment—

—ghostspainneedadrinkneedtodieohmygod—

I trust you.

—myfaultSharonMariaPepperHappySteveSteveSteve

Was it worth it?

"Steve!"

Metal plates scratch and rub together as I jerk upright. The faceplate's down—when did I put on the armor?—which is a damned good thing because I probably look like a shock victim. I feel like one. Even in the skin-suit of metal, cold sweat's slicked my skin, and there's the faintest rattle of a tremble where the plates meet.

Warm arms wrap around my waist, a broad chest pressed to my back. The armor fits like skin, moves like it, might as well be it with Extremis to connect me to it. I can feel everything as someone props me up, heart rate through the roof, a steady th-thmp against the metal. It's Steve. I know it is. I know his vital signs, his exact core temperature, way he breathes. I'd memorized them all.

I'd killed him. I might as well have pulled the trigger myself. No wonder I hadn't wanted to remember.

"It wasn't worth it."

Steve freezes against my back. Even whispered, he couldn't have missed it. Please don't let him have missed it. I don't think I can say it again, and he needs to hear it. My hands settle on his forearms where they're crossed in front of me, gripping tight. Please have heard, please don't make me repeat it.

There's at least twenty people in the lab, five of them EMTs, and they're all staring at us. I'd missed them before, too wrapped up in my own head. None of the agents are immediately familiar, thank God. I don't think I could deal with someone other than Steve right now. It's going to be hard enough handling him.

"You remember?" Steve's voice is carefully flat, in the way he only did—only does when he's on the verge of losing it. He doesn't let go, though. That's a good sign. If he were going to hit me, he'd have to let me go.

"Total reinstall. Everything. I remember right up to..." The last set of memories before the final backup rise to the forefront easiest. Inside of the helmet is suddenly an oven. "I remember enough."

The feeling of Steve's breath against my back is just a little too harsh, his arms a little too tight. "We're going to talk about this," he swears quietly against the back of my neck before raising his voice. "He's breathing, it's alright. Emergency over, everyone out!"

The EMTs look like they're going to complain, but they can't do anything with the armor on, and I'm not taking it off while they're here. They're all SHIELD agents though, and file out after a second. Fury trained his people well. Sharon's going to inherit a good group, once she winnows out the ones that were a little too cozy with Osborn.

Sharon. Has she told Steve yet? I don't think so. He hasn't had a break down about it, and he would.

Well, that's Sharon's story to tell if she wants to. She seems to be coping well enough, and she was cleared of Faustus's influence. Personal relationships are something I should never try to advise other people about.

The last EMT shoots us a dirty look as the door closes behind her, like I'd woken then all up at 3:12 AM as a joke.

When the lab alarm goes ding to announce that the elevator docked somewhere overhead, Steve's arms tighten. Metal bends around my waist, and then softens, flexing, and then melting away. It slips back inside the ports hidden on my back. They heat up as they force the suit back into my bones. When it's done, I'm back down to a pair of boxers and Steve's breath is warm on my skin.

"You said you weren't going to do it." It's not the tone of an accusation, but I flinch anyway.

"I needed to know."

"And?"

My chest aches and my eyes burn, throat too tight to breathe normally. A hidden blessing, in a way. One good deep breath would end in a sob, I just know it. Not going to go there. Bad enough that he knows I couldn't handle it, he doesn't need me dripping all over him. I don't have that right.

"Tony?" Steve's palm presses against my lower ribs. It's strong and warm and— and—

"And I wish I didn't." Slow, shallow breaths, Tony, come on, keep it together. "I'm sorry, Steve. I'm so sorry."

The chest against my back hitches. Guess I'm not the only one having trouble keeping a grip on myself. "I didn't want you to remember that." Steve squeezes my waist. "It wasn't your fault."

"It was—"

"It wasn't." He shakes me, a hard jolt that sandwiches me back against him even more. "I don't blame you, and don't I get some say?"

"Yes, but—" But it doesn't stop the churn in my stomach, or the way fear's crawling up my throat. I can still see him laid out on the autopsy slab behind my eyes, still and pale and dead, and no amount of reassurances are going to make that go away. I had to program myself to forget so I could do what I had to do, and even that didn't work. "But—"

"But nothing." The thin mattress dips, and Steve shuffles me around to face him. He cups the back of my neck, pushing on a pressure point with his thumb and rolling it in circles. Red rims his eyes, making them even more impossibly blue. Another pang of guilt scratches at me. I should have done the reinstallation alone, so he wouldn't worry. "I don't blame you, and you can't make me. Okay?"

I nod. Nothing else to do. If Steve's made up his mind, he's made up his mind, and all the gods Thor's ever met couldn't change his mind. "Okay."

"Good. Remember that." His voice is low, almost soothing. Steve has the sort of voice babies and small animals love. I love it too, but right now he's obviously trying to be reassuring, and I don't know what to make of that.

Steve takes a breath, and I catch myself breathing with him. "What do you remember?"

"Everything."

A laugh, still warm, something to wrap up in on a lonely night. His hand squeezes, sending a warm jolt down my back. "If I had asked three days ago, you would have said the exact same thing. You need to give me something more."

Damn it. "I remember..." I remember those shots on TV. I remember punching in the sequence to erase myself from the equation. I remember... "Our first kiss. In the lab in Oklahoma." My mouth is dry, but licking my lips and swallowing doesn't help. "I remember our last kiss, right here. Everything, Steve. No more lost data."

"Good." And then his hand flexes, pressing our mouths together. It's awkward and uncomfortable, our knees on the bed keeping us from touching anywhere but our mouths. But it's Steve and we're kissing and it's more than enough.

Our balance wobbles about the time my back starts aching. Together we topple to the side, bouncing a bit while the cot threatens to break. Not enough room to share properly, so Steve somehow ends up mostly on top.

"We're going to talk about this. All of this. Maybe tomorrow," he murmurs. A kiss presses my collar bone, chapped lips and a scratchy dryness. "I'm going to yell at you, and you're going to yell at me. And then we're not walking away until we've finished yelling and started kissing again. Is that clear?"

I can't help it, I laugh and drag him down to the bed, blinking away a few stray tears. He's Steve and he's alive, and right then, I'd do anything for him. "Yes, sir, Captain America, sir."


Hey, Steve. Sorry for any trouble you had with opening this. I didn't want to risk it falling into wrong hands. Your DNA is gorgeous, by the way. Don't change a thing.

If you're seeing this, I have to be reinstalled. Again. Getting to be kind of a bad habit, isn't it? The file on this drive contains instructions for uploading the Tony Stark Operating System onto any available system. Hopefully it'll be the original, but you could probably fit me in a microwave if push comes to shove. As long as the SI satellite network hasn't been completely destroyed, there should be no problem reverting to the last known configuration. It's fully customizable, too, as far as these things go. Have a blast.

Steve... If things go wrong, I want you to know that I trust you to do this.

See you on the other side.

Chills ran down Steve's spine as he stared at the screen. The image of Tony smiled at the camera, eyes bright and happy for a man recording another message to his mourners. Not just to them, to Steve. When Tony had handed the little thumb drive to him and told him to keep it safe, he hadn't expected this.

With the huge headphones covering his ears, Steve couldn't hear anything past his own heartbeat in his ears. The screen flickered and faded out, returning him to the plain Stark Resilient desktop image. His email was still open, the message he'd been sending to Luke half-finished. Then he'd gotten the ridiculous idea to check the drive, and...

Tony.

Leaning forward, Steve pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes until spots danced in the darkness. It couldn't quite get rid of the image of Tony, but nothing ever did. Tony Stark was a man that stuck in the head, burrowed in and made a place for himself. Thinking of Tony, with his smile and quick hands sitting down and planning for something horrible to happen, making a back-up just in case...

Acid climbed into the back of Steve's throat, sharp and bitter.

Slightly cool arms wrapped around his shoulders. "Hey," Tony's voice carried through the headphones, that soft purr that made heads turn even in a crowded charity ball. "Is everything okay?"

They were going to have to talk. Making sure there weren't any other backup plans Tony had neglected to mention would be a good start. The customizable reinstallation would definitely have to be on the agenda, though. But for now, Steve's head was spinning too much to even start. It would have to be later.

For once, time was something they had in abundance.

Sighing, Steve tilted his head back just enough to accept a kiss to his temple. "Right now? It's perfect."