In the first instant after it happened, Steve thought that he had somehow been transported inside of the computers Tony Stark was forever using in his work. Everything was dark around him, except for a confusing chaos of numbers and data in his field of vision. He couldn't move; his entire body was surrounded by something hard and unyielding, holding him upright even when dizziness assaulted him.
He wasn't cold, but the immobility was too much like his nightmares of being trapped in the ice again. In sudden panic, he lashed out, his hands curling into fists, his arms flailing upward harder than necessary as he fought the constraints surrounding his body.
Instantly lights began to flash on the computer screen in front of him. He jerked his head to one side to avoid them, and another light began to flash.
He heard the voice and instinctively turned toward it. As he did, he saw data scrolling across the screen that was directly in front of his face. The lights continued to flash, and a computerized voice said, "Weapons systems at 100%."
But beyond the flashing lights and the endless streams of numbers and equations, he could see the skyline of New York. In fact, he had been staring at it ever since he had found himself in this, well, wherever he was. He just hadn't registered it through the panic and the bizarre nature of his current situation.
"Steve! Steve, you need to stand down!"
He turned again, seeking the voice – which sounded oddly familiar – and suddenly found himself staring at his own face.
"Steve," said the other Steve Rogers. The shield rested against booted feet. One gloved hand was raised in a calming gesture. "You need to listen to me. You've accidentally powered up the repulsors. You need to power them back down, or someone is going to get hurt."
He tried to see what was going on while also looking around at the city, needing desperately to know what was happening, why he was standing here watching himself -– and a pair of crimson metal gauntlets came into his field of vision.
Steve froze. He knew those gauntlets. He knew the glowing circles of white light in those palms very well.
And with that, he finally understood.
The other Steve Rogers – the one facing him – let out a long breath. "Yeah. It's me, Steve. Somehow we swapped bodies, and you're in the suit."
He remembered then what had happened, the way Loki had laughed as he swung his staff at them, and the blinding flash of light that had ripped right through him.
"Where is he?" He looked around quickly, checking the data on the screens in front of him for any mention of Loki.
"Gone," said Iron Man. "They're all gone. I'm not even sure where we are, to be honest."
Confused, Steve looked around again. "We're still in Manhattan," he said. The city skyline was exactly the same as it had been five minutes ago.
"True," said Iron Man. "But there's no people."
Startled, Steve checked – and he was right. There were no people in the streets. No cars, either. No one hung out of windows, calling down to the superheroes or recording them on their cell phones. No crowd had gathered, no police or firemen were holding them back.
"Where is everyone?" he asked in bewilderment.
"I don't know," said Iron Man. "But Steve, you need to listen to me before we do anything else. You really need to power down those repulsors."
Steve looked down again at the gauntlets covering his hands. "You said someone would get hurt."
"Yeah, I did," said Iron Man. He sounded a little sheepish, which was strange, hearing it coming from Steve's own voice. "And by that I pretty much meant me." He gave Steve a wry smile.
Steve smiled back before remembering that Iron Man couldn't see it because of the helmet. "Okay, what do I do?" he asked.
Iron Man walked him through the steps of powering down the repulsors and getting the weapons systems offline. Once all that was done, Steve breathed easier, although he was still tense and ready for battle. "We need to find Loki and get back to our own city."
"Agreed," said Iron Man. He gestured to the empty city. "I'm taking any suggestions."
"Well," Steve said, "if this place is real, then maybe there's an Avengers Mansion here. I say we head for there, see if anybody is home."
Iron Man hesitated only briefly before nodding. "Okay," he said. He picked up Captain America's shield and gestured at Steve. "Lead on."
Together they walked through the eerily deserted city. Steve discovered how to use the armor's navigation system on his own, and once he told it where he wanted to go, it led him onward unerringly. When he mentioned this to Iron Man, he saw the other man smile and duck his head, a gesture which looked very strange to see on Steve's own face.
"I knew you would figure it out," Iron Man said.
"It's a good design," Steve said. "Tony's a genius."
"Mmm," agreed Iron Man.
He didn't particularly sound like he meant it, which for some reason got Steve's back up. "I’m serious," he said. "The technology Tony creates, all those things he invents… I'm continually amazed by him. There's nothing he doesn't think of."
"I'm pretty sure he didn't think of something like this," Iron Man said dryly.
"But I bet he will now," Steve said with confidence. That was one thing he had learned early on. Whenever Iron Man encountered something new in one of their battles, the next time Tony Stark upgraded the armor, it had a fresh gadget or piece of technology to combat that new variable.
"You know," Iron Man said, "I think you're right."
Steve smiled a little to himself.
They walked on in silence. The empty streets put Steve on edge in a way he couldn't define. That uneasiness only deepened when they passed a storefront window, and he stopped to stare at their reflections.
In his time as Captain America and an Avenger, he had seen some strange things. But this was maybe the strangest one of all, gazing at his own reflection and knowing he wasn't the one casting it.
And what reflection would he cast? What would he see if he were to raise the faceplate of the helmet? Maybe he would see scars or some kind of deformity, something to explain why Iron Man never removed his helmet and showed his face. He knew so much about Iron Man's mind and his heart, but very little about the man himself. And he was a man, that much Steve had long known, dismissing any theory that Iron Man was just a robot. Even if he had held any lingering doubts, today's adventure would have forever laid them to rest, because he knew of no robot that grew facial hair.
That was the only thing he knew for certain about the body he now inhabited. Iron Man, whoever he was, had a mustache. Possibly a beard, too, it was harder to tell. But when Steve spoke, he could feel the tickle of facial hair on his lips. He didn't know if that was common, if whatever accident or trauma had forced Iron Man behind this helmet meant he had difficulties shaving, or if it was a result of long hours worked lately for Tony Stark with no chance to tend to his own personal needs.
And he wasn't about to ask.
He didn't want to know, Steve thought. Well, he did want to know, but not like this. He would not betray Iron Man's trust. If and when Iron Man ever felt secure enough to share his face and identity with Steve, it would be on his own terms, when he decided it was time. Not before then. Not now, when he would be forced to stand by helplessly as Steve took the matter out of his hands.
"Little strange, isn't it," Iron Man said with a gesture at their reflections.
Steve nodded. In the window, the red armor nodded along with him. It was a little bit exciting to wear the suit, he thought, especially now that he could see all of it. But that was something he could talk about later, when they were safely back in their own time and their own bodies.
"I won't take the helmet off," he said. He turned to face Iron Man, and stared deep into his own blue eyes. "I won't reveal your secret," he said.
Iron Man blinked in surprise. "I—I hadn't thought of that," he admitted. He looked anxious for a moment, and Steve felt a jolt go through him at the sight of that expression on his own face.
"You don't have to worry," Steve reassured him. "The helmet stays on."
"Thank you," Iron Man said. "But you know, if we can't get back quickly, at some point you're going to have to drink something. Or eat."
"I can wait," Steve said firmly. Keeping Iron Man's secret was more important than satisfying his thirst – something he hadn't even really known he was feeling until Iron Man had pointed it out.
"I know Steve Rogers can go for a long time without worrying about getting dehydrated," Iron Man said. He gestured to Steve's body as he said it, the body he was now inhabiting. "But that's me you're inside. And I can't say the same thing, unfortunately."
This blunt truth made Steve feel oddly guilty, like he was already harming Iron Man just by being in him. And maybe he was. He had never had anything like this happen to him before. He didn't know what kind of rules governed this type of situation. Maybe that strange tightness he felt in his chest was something he had brought with him, or some lingering vestige of Loki's magic.
Maybe they had better get moving again, and quickly.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, Shellhead," he said. He laid one gauntleted hand on Iron Man's blue costumed shoulder. "You keep my shield safe, and I'll keep your secret safe. Deal?"
Iron Man looked at him for a long moment, then nodded. "Deal."
They walked onward. And after several long hours, Steve began to get a very bad feeling about things.
For starters, they never seemed to actually get anywhere. The navigation system in Iron Man's helmet continued to point him in the direction of Avengers Mansion, but they never drew any closer to it. And although they had been walking for hours, the position of the sun in the sky never changed, and he did not have any sensation of evening drawing near.
He was very thirsty by now, and hungry as well, although that was easier to ignore. He remembered now that before this morning's battle (assuming it was still the same day), Iron Man had been away for two days doing work for Tony Stark. He had probably not rested much in all that time, and he hadn't been there for breakfast this morning either. A dull headache throbbed behind his eyes, and the tightness in his chest remained a constant unwelcome presence. It was a little bit like being a skinny asthmatic kid all over again, and Steve, who hadn't had to deal with such small physical hurts in a long time, did not cope well with them now.
He refused to say anything, though. He would not complain, he told himself firmly. He was a soldier. He would deal with it. What mattered most was getting back to the Avengers and their own version of New York and breaking Loki's spell.
He looked up and saw that Iron Man had stopped walking. They stood now on a street corner just like all the others they had passed today. Tall buildings rose on either side of them, empty shops on the ground floor, empty apartments rising into the sky.
"We need to stop," Iron Man said. He set the shield down at his feet. "You need to rest."
He hadn't said "we need to rest," Steve noted, because of course it was one-sided. Iron Man was now in Steve's own body, tireless and physically strong and fit. Iron Man could walk for days yet without having any problems.
Unfortunately Steve could not say the same thing. He had a new respect for Iron Man now. He thought back over the years, all the battles they had fought, all the physically demanding situations they had found themselves in, and he could not once remember hearing Iron Man complain or ask for a chance to rest. The armor probably kept him going long past a normal man's endurance, but even so, he had no super-soldier serum or Asgardian blood to draw upon. He was just a man.
But he was also one of the strongest people Steve had ever known, and not just physically, either. And if Iron Man could keep going through pain and discomfort, Steve could do no less.
"I can keep going," he said stubbornly.
Iron Man gestured to one of the empty shops that lined the street. They had gone in a few of them at the start of their journey, but it had been a pointless exercise; there were no people at all in this strange version of the city. "Let's get something to eat. We'll rest and regroup. Okay?"
Steve shook his head. Eating would mean taking off the helmet, and he would not take advantage of his friend that way. "No," he said. "I gave you my word and I mean to keep it."
"Steve," Iron Man said, and the tone of reproof in his voice was so pitch-perfect, so exactly the way Steve himself talked sometimes that he couldn't help but smile a little.
His amusement did not last long, however. "Besides," he added, "we don't know what the food and drink is like in this place. It could be poison."
"Or it could be stale," Iron Man agreed. "Or moldy. Or otherwise gross." He didn't sound annoyed with Steve's protest, though. On the contrary, his expression had lightened a little – as though he knew Steve was going to cave in. "But right now we both need to be in top fighting condition. We have no idea what to expect in this place, or how long it's going to take until we can get back. So I say we go in one of these shops and try out the water, see what happens."
Steve folded his arms, a gesture made a little more difficult than normal because of the armor. "No, Shellhead. I meant what I said."
"I know you did," Iron Man said. "And I…" He hesitated, then took a deep breath. "That means a lot to me, Steve. But it means more to me to keep you safe."
Steve looked at him, and saw that he meant every word. A faint flush had risen on his cheeks, on Steve's own pale skin. But he did not look away.
"I know you wanted to keep that promise," Iron Man said. "But keeping a secret isn't worth anything when measured against a friend's life." He pushed back the blue cowl and let it hang behind him, down his back. "It's okay, Steve. You can take the helmet off." He smiled a little. "And you can even look."
Even being granted permission, Steve still resisted. He had thought for a fleeting second that he could remove the helmet and just make sure he didn't look in anything reflective, so he wouldn't actually see anything. But Iron Man had foreseen this loophole, and neatly closed it up for him.
"Steve." Iron Man stepped toward him and laid a gloved hand on his shoulder. He couldn't feel it through the armor, of course, but he could imagine it, and a surge of warmth went through him. "It's okay." He smiled. "It's time you knew the truth, anyway."
There was nothing Steve could do then but surrender. Iron Man was trusting him with his secret, and to refuse that trust would be a betrayal of their friendship. Trying to imagine his life without Iron Man's friendship made Steve's throat close up and his chest feel even tighter than it already did. He could not let that happen.
"All right," he said. "If this is what you want."
Iron Man gave him a wry smile. "Well, it isn't exactly how I planned it, but… Yes. It's what I want."
Steve reached up, and then stopped. He huffed a little with laughter. "I don't actually know how to take it off," he said.
Amusement shone in Iron Man's eyes. He took another step toward Steve. Now the space between them was almost non-existent, making Steve's entire body feel flushed with more of that strange warmth. "Here," Iron Man said. "I'll do it." He raised his gloved hands and reached for the armor.
The helmet came free easily enough, and Steve blinked in the sudden onrush of daylight. He wondered if Iron Man felt this way when he took the helmet off – because surely he did, even if it was only in private. Then Iron Man moved aside, carrying the helmet in one hand, and Steve breathed in deep of the fresh air.
"After you," Iron Man said, and gestured toward the plate-glass windows lining the street.
This was it, then. The moment when he finally looked upon his friend's face and learned his identity. It should have been exciting, but instead Steve felt rooted in place as he slowly, reluctantly, turned toward the windows.
He caught just a glimpse of dark hair and a face with blue eyes, when suddenly the image in the window – and everything around him – was obliterated in a wash of blinding white light. Instinctively he threw an arm up to protect his eyes. He heard Iron Man call his name, and then all sound was gone, too.
It came back in a rush, though, just as that blinding light first dwindled, then died out altogether. In the aftermath, he blinked stupidly, trying to clear his vision. He felt something hard and metallic snatched from his hand, and he startled – and nearly tripped over the shield at his feet.
"Whoa there," said a voice. A very familiar voice. And at last Steve's sight cleared and he was able to see.
He was in Avengers Mansion. Standing around him were Hank and Jan, Carol and Vision. In one corner, Thor gripped the arm of a visibly chastened Loki.
And across from him, helmet firmly in place, stood Iron Man.
Steve reached up and touched his face. Everything felt perfectly normal, exactly where it should be. No lasting harm had been done, then.
"Are you guys okay?" Jan asked. She too was blinking a little, as were all the Avengers. They hadn't seen anything then, in those first few moments when he and Iron Man came back. No one had seen Iron Man without his helmet. No one knew how close he had come to having his secret revealed to them all.
"Yes," said Iron Man, and his voice was just the way Steve had always heard it, slightly modified to sound electronic, tone and emotion harder to hear than from a human throat. "Steve?"
"I'm fine," he said. He touched the shield just to make sure it was all right. "What happened?"
"My brother was having fun at your expense," Thor said darkly. "I am sorry, Captain. I have made him put things right, and I swear to you that it will not happen again." He gave Loki a hard glare.
The questions came fast and furious then as the other Avengers tried to find out just where Captain America and Iron Man had vanished to, and what had happened to them while they were gone. Steve knew he would have to answer them, and soon, but his experience in that deserted city was still fresh in his mind, and he knew what he had to do now.
"There will be time for explanations later," he said. "But for now, Iron Man and I must speak in private." Quickly, before any of them could intervene, he touched Iron Man's armored shoulder and began to walk toward the kitchen.
No one followed them, which Steve was grateful for. Nor was Jarvis in the kitchen; they had the large space entirely to themselves.
Without hesitation, Steve opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of water. He held it out. "Take this," he said.
Iron Man did not reach for the bottle. "I'm fine," he said.
Steve did not move. He had heard that line from Iron Man ever since he had known the man, and he had often greeted it with skepticism – but now he knew what a lie it really was. "Just take it," he said, softening his voice. "Please."
When Iron Man made no move to take the water bottle, Steve set it down on the counter. He turned his back and folded his arms. "Drink," he said. "And then we will talk."
After a long moment, he heard the faint sound of the metal faceplate being lifted. The bottle was opened. Iron Man drank. When he spoke, though, his voice was slightly distorted, and Steve knew he had closed the faceplate again. "Thank you."
Steve nodded, but did not turn around yet. He thought about those blue eyes he had seen so briefly. He knew he would be thinking about them for a long time to come.
"What happened out there will remain between us," he said. He spoke with uncertain formality, not at all sure what Iron Man was thinking right now, and not wanting to presume. There was every chance that Iron Man regretted his decision to share his identity with Steve, and was relieved that had been spared having to go through with it. If that was the case, Steve wanted to be sure he knew that he wouldn't have to abide by that decision now that things were back to normal. "Unless you see a reason to tell the others."
"Not a single one," said Iron Man.
At last Steve turned around. He was relieved to see his friend completely in the armor again, with no chance of revealing anything. "Back there," he said. "Before we left… I didn't see anything."
Iron Man nodded. "I know," he said.
"And I don't expect you to—" he started.
"It's okay," Iron Man said. "I know." Despite the helmet covering his face, Steve could tell that he was smiling. And yet there seemed to be something almost regretful in his modulated voice. "Some things should just remain a secret, I guess."
Even through the electronic distortion, there was definitely a wistful note in his voice. And maybe, Steve thought with something like hope, his regret wasn't that he had decided to reveal himself -- but that he had been stopped before it could happen. "It's okay, Cap. We're good."
Regrets or not, everything was truly all right then, and Steve finally relaxed. He had not lost his friend today, or broken any trust between them. Iron Man's secret remained safe, and it was still his decision when to reveal himself. And after today's misadventures, that was all Steve could want.
But he thought again of that fleeting glimpse he had seen in the window, and those incredible blue eyes staring back at him, and he hoped it would not be long before he did learn the truth.