Steve doesn't figure out something is wrong until they're fighting Norman Osborn.
He should have.
In his defense -- not that there really is a defense -- there was a lot going on. He'd fought his way back into his body again and found himself standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Bucky, shield in his hand again, and everything was so right and Sharon was there and, God, he was alive again, really alive, and the Avengers -- or what remained of the Avengers -- were gathered around him, and someone said something about Norman Osborn's Avengers, and suddenly there was a lot to worry about.
He never asks about Tony, never asks about the man whose last words to him were you're a sore loser, who stared down at him, hidden behind his armor. Stark's gone underground, he thought he heard someone say, as they sat in the safehouse, as he grabbed the hard-light shield, as Bucky slid on his Captain America uniform, as they readied themselves for patrols.
Good, he'd thought, and he'd exulted, just a little, the banked anger still ready to flare. Tony had done this to them, forced them into hiding. So if Tony has to hide too, if he isn't resting on his laurels as director of SHIELD anymore -- well, maybe that's fair. Maybe then Tony will understand what it's like for the rest of them. Everyone else has had a year to come to terms with what Tony had done to them. He remembers it like it was yesterday.
Tony has to have heard he's alive. He knows everything with that computer in his head, doesn't he? So Tony doesn't want to talk to him. Tony doesn't want to demand his apologies or forgiveness. Steve is perfectly fine with that. When he shuts his eyes, he remembers the sneer in Tony's voice, the way the glowing light from the cell bars glinted off the armor. I have powers you don't understand, Tony had said.
No, Steve isn't ready to forgive him. Tony is wrong and Registration is wrong and it got them this, superheroes cowering in shadows, helping people only in secret, and Osborn the madman in charge.
Then Norman Osborn besieges Asgard.
And Tony doesn't come.
The fight is massive, as these things usually are, but none of the people there are Tony. Steve is in the thick of the fray, hand-to-hand with Osborn's Dark Avengers, but when he looks up, there's no familiar glint of red and gold in the skies. Tony's voice isn't a reassuring presence in his ear, calling out tactics for the fliers. Tony... isn't here at all. And that can't be right, Steve thinks, as he jumps backwards to dodge a blow. Even if Tony were mad at him, Tony would still fight. The Avengers need him. No matter what's between the two of them, he would still fight. He would come out from hiding. Hell, Nick Fury has. But Tony isn't here.
Something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong.
"Hey, Steve!" Bucky yells from somewhere behind him. "Catch!"
Steve flings his hand up without looking and his fingers close around the rim of the shield. His shield. No, no, he isn't Captain America anymore--
Think about that later, he tells himself, or you'll get yourself killed again.
He brings the shield up just in time to block a repulsor blast. The figure standing in front of him is armored, eyeslits glowing, and the shape is so hauntingly familiar that Steve feels like his heart's stopped, because that's one of Tony's armors--
And he's just done this, hasn't he, he's fought Tony, just like this--
The colors are all wrong. The armored man is wearing red, white, and blue, a star on his chest, and Steve is pretty sure he knows whose good name that's supposed to be trading on. The man in the armor laughs, an insane cackle. Norman Osborn. Not Tony.
"Steve Rogers," Osborn snarls, "you're under arrest!"
"Funny that, Osborn," Steve says, keeping the shield steady, keeping his voice calm, trying not to picture another battle, another armored face, another war. "I was just about to say the same thing to you!"
"You're all under arrest!" Osborn cries out, but his voice is wavering, teetering on the edge of sanity. "You're all going to fry for-- for-- for treason!"
Osborn lifts his hands and blasts repulsor rays upward, where Carol's tangling with her counterpart Moonstone in the air -- and Steve has his opening. He swings out hard, an uppercut with the shield, and Osborn's head snaps back, armor creaking.
Steve knows how to do this part. He lunges forward and punches, punches again until Osborn sprawls back on the ground, and he brings the shield down with all his strength, cracking the faceplate at the seams. The eyeslits flicker, dim, and then crack with another blow.
Suddenly he sees Tony underneath him, Tony in the armor, bleeding and begging him to finish it--
He's done this before.
When the faceplate finally shatters, the face behind the armor now is painted green, and Osborn's mad, Osborn's lost it, everyone will know, and he'll be stripped of his power. Osborn is babbling, all incoherent denial.
Steve isn't the one who surrenders this time.
There is, as always, one last wrinkle, one last gasp from the dying plans of supervillains, and that would be the Sentry -- or rather, the Void -- the very unstable ace up Osborn's sleeve. The Avengers surround Steve en masse to help talk the Sentry down. Tony's still not one of them.
Something is definitely wrong.
He's still in his uniform, still covered in sweat and blood, still running hot, his thoughts still drifting back to the fight. They haven't debriefed -- Steve isn't really sure who's in charge and he has the creeping feeling that it might already be him again -- and he's still caught up in all of it. He's not quite down yet, not quite back in his head.
And then Pepper and Maria are coming up to him, and Steve blinks. He almost doesn't recognize Maria at first, out of uniform. She's in jeans and a t-shirt, and it is deeply strange not seeing her in a SHIELD uniform, but there is no SHIELD for her to be part of; he understood that much from the hurried explanations. Steve suspects they'll be up and running again soon enough, now that Osborn's fall will have taken HAMMER with him.
There's a gun on her hip. Definitely Maria.
Maria's face is grim, determined, and Pepper looks... afraid? Her face is pale, and she's biting her lip.
"Steve!" Maria says, sharply, her voice carrying over the din of chattering, post-fight Avengers. "We have to talk to you."
Steve looks at Maria, and then he glances back at the Avengers. Clint gives him a pleading look and... huh. Carol was just there next to Clint. Where did Carol go? Well, there's his hope for someone else to handle the debriefing all gone; Carol's been running the official Avengers these days, he was given to understand, and they probably have better facilities and equipment for that than the people who have been hiding in various safehouses. Right. Time to step up. Take command. Someone needs to tell these people what to do, and some of them are already looking to him.
"Can it wait?" Steve asks, pained. "I think I've got some business to take care of."
A wave of -- grief? sadness? -- passes over Pepper's face. "It's about Tony," she says, and her lips tighten.
Steve feels everything in him tense up, and the familiar anger begins to rise. Of course she'd feel bad having to mention Tony to him. If Tony has some excuse for why he didn't show up to the fight... well, he's really not in the mood to hear it, and certainly not to listen to it delivered by a third party. "Look," he begins, and he holds his hand out like he can cast it all back, make the war go away, "if he wants to talk to me he can damn well say so himself; you don't have to play messenger--"
Maria steps forward, and her hand locks around Steve's arm, and she's tugging him away from the crowd of Avengers, out of their earshot. "Steve," she repeats, and her voice is softer now. She doesn't say anything else, but he follows.
He remembers Tony's hand on his shoulder, as they stood in the ruins of the mansion. He remembers Tony's blue eyes bright with tears, Tony sobbing and asking what can I do to make it stop?
"You didn't see him on the news?" Maria asks. "Fighting Osborn?"
It's not like there's been a lot of downtime to watch TV lately. And if he had seen him-- well, Steve would probably have walked out of the room.
"Steve," Pepper says, and her voice catches and she's trembling, "there's been an accident."
The world grays out around Steve and suddenly everything is cold, all the adrenaline draining out of him, and it's like it's 1945 and he's falling from Zemo's drone plane and the water is rushing up to meet him and this is it, this is his death, this is all there is--
Maria's hand tightens on his arm and Pepper's got her palm on his shoulder, he realizes, numbly. They're holding him up. He's shaking.
"Is he alive?" he asks. He chokes on the words; he doesn't recognize his own voice.
If Tony's dead-- if he's dead-- then none of this matters, then everything they argued about was so petty in the face of this, then he was wrong, he was wrong after all. He's sorry, he thinks miserably. He's so sorry. He should have said something as soon as he'd woken up. He should have found Tony. He doesn't want Tony to have died thinking he was dead, to have died thinking Steve hated him, to have died only remembering the war between them.
Pepper gives a jerky nod, and Steve's heart starts to lift but Pepper's face is grave. "He's alive," Pepper says, and Steve exhales hard in relief even as Pepper keeps talking. "But. But he's not--" There are tears in her eyes. "He's never going to be the same again."
Steve's still shaking. "I have to see him," he says, roughly. "I don't care what he's like. I have to see him."
Maria is a little cooler, calmer, and Steve realizes she's slowly leading them away from the Avengers, off the battlefield. "We know," she says. "That's why we're here. But we have to tell you what happened first. It's better if you're... prepared."
Together they've coaxed him to a rough-edged stone block, rubble from the fight, about thigh-height. It's a makeshift bench, and Steve sits down on it, because that's what they want him to do, he thinks. He feels weak. Everything is unreal. Pepper sits next to him; Maria stays standing.
"Okay," he says, breathing in and out. He's not okay. "Okay. Tell me everything."
They tell him about Tony in the days after Steve's death, in the months afterward, Tony who wept at his funeral and couldn't speak, Tony who curled in on himself and came apart at the seams but did the job that no one else would, that he trusted no one else with: enforcing Registration. Steve tries not to think about Tony begging him to talk, to help, to join him. Tony would have trusted him with this. Steve tries not to think about how he'd put an electron-scrambler in Tony's hand and ruined all that trust. They tell him about the SHRA database of superhumans. They tell him about the Skrulls -- dear God, the Skrulls? -- and how their infiltration precipitated Tony's fall and Norman Osborn's rise.
"At this point," Pepper says, very carefully, "there was only one copy of the SHRA database left in existence, and it was in Tony's brain."
Steve shuts his eyes. Brain damage. God, no, not Tony -- Tony prides himself on his brain above all, his intelligence, his genius, and to think about something wrong with Tony's mind, to think about what Tony would think of it-- he can't. "What happened?" His voice is hoarse, rasping, broken. "What happened to him?"
Maria leans down and puts her hands on his shoulders, and he looks up, looks her straight in the eyes. Her gaze is unflinching: the commander who's made the tough call, the one that cost lives. Steve knows the look. "You have to understand, Steve," she says. "There were two options, and they were both shit. You've been in situations like that; I know you have. We were there with him. We talked it all over. We made what looked like the best decision at the time. No one could have known how it would actually turn out."
Horrified realization settles on Steve, and his stomach lurches. He wants to be sick. "You mean he did it to himself?"
He clenches his fist. Unclenches it. Next to him Pepper takes a hesitant breath and fits her slim hand over his.
"The database had to go," Maria says. "Osborn -- you know what he could have done to everyone whose name was on that list. He was chasing Tony across the world for it. He already had one of Tony's suits. We were destroying the rest as fast as we could. We couldn't let him have the database. We couldn't." She's still staring at him, even, measured.
Steve stares back. "Maria, what the hell did Tony do?"
"I'll tell you what he didn't do," she says, refusing to be cowed, because that's Maria Hill for you. "Option one was the catastrophic plan. Complete wipe. His brain was -- is -- basically a computer. He would have deleted everything, his entire brain, and reloaded it from a backup made at some point before he took possession of the database, so that when Osborn caught him there'd be nothing. He'd be missing some chunk of time, maybe a considerable chunk depending on when the backup was from, but he wouldn't have had the database."
Steve exhales hard. "But he didn't do that?"
Pepper shifts position on the cold stone next to him. "Tony's rather attached to his brain," she says, and he can just picture Tony saying that now, with a handsome, charming, brilliant smile, Tony gesturing wildly and explaining the plan, and Steve's heart aches. "He said there was a better option. Targeted deletion. He said it was riskier, but he was confident that he could overwrite just the database. It sounded better. It sounded like everything we wanted. We didn't know."
He can see the shape of it now. "Something went wrong."
Pepper's eyes are glassy, too wet, reflecting tears.
Maria nods. "I don't think anyone will be able to tell us exactly how or why, because only Tony would have known, and he can't--" She pauses and takes a breath. "We think maybe there were some unexpected associational linkages with the database material, or maybe something happened due to the head trauma in his fight with Osborn, when he triggered the final deletion -- he went down pretty hard--"
Steve winces. "He would have."
"Let's just say it was a good thing he left us the instructions for the first option," Maria says, grimly, "because he had to have major surgery just to get his autonomic nervous system up and running. We couldn't even fall back on that plan entirely, wipe and reload, because whatever the hell he did to himself has made him no longer compatible with his backups." She sighs. "He's-- there's really no easy way to say this--"
Steve's mouth is dry. "What's left of him?" He feels hollow. Empty. Tears sting at the corners of his eyes. He can't look at the two of them. "How much is left?"
Pepper's hand tightens on his. "It's... complicated."
"The database deletion interacted with his memory in unforeseen ways," Maria says, and she sighs.
"What does that mean?"
"It means--" Maria breaks off. Her hand tightens on Steve's shoulder, and reflexively Steve looks up again. "It means he remembers he's Tony Stark, billionaire industrialist and genius engineer."
"That doesn't sound so--"
Maria cuts him off. "But that's it. He remembers everything about his life as Tony. He knows that perfectly. But he remembers nothing else. Nothing about superheroes. The database is gone, and everyone in the database is gone, and everything in his head that somehow touched on that -- that's gone too. His brain is a mess. He doesn't remember being Iron Man. He doesn't remember being an Avenger. He doesn't remember that the Avengers even exist. Nothing."
Steve can't even understand what she's saying, at first. His brain refuses to make sense of the words. "How-- how the hell is that possible?"
She shrugs. "Extremis. I don't know. But, Steve, it's just not there."
"He doesn't remember me," Pepper says, and her voice is paper-thin. "Because I was Rescue. He doesn't remember ever knowing me at all."
God. This can't be right.
"He didn't remember Rhodes," Maria added.
"War Machine," Steve concludes. He gets it.
Maria nods. "But he knows me. I'm not a superhero. He recognized me, which was when we started suspecting something really strange was up. Granted, he doesn't really remember quite how he knows me, or what sort of things we did together -- I assume because so much of it involved superheroes -- but he knew me on sight and remembered my name and other details. Same deal for anyone he knows who isn't a superhero. He can tell you all about them. He remembers the names of all his old board members just fine. He's worried about his company. It's like he only ever ran a company and designed things, as far as he's concerned. It's like superhumans don't even exist to him. None of you exist." She sighs again. "God knows he's lived enough lives for two people. He's just forgotten one of them."
Steve realizes then what they're trying to tell him. Why they've told him all this. "You're saying," he says, dully, "that he won't remember me at all. Because I'm-- because I was Captain America."
Maria's mouth quirks, a wry, sad smile. "Yeah, Steve. That's the long and short of it."
"Have they--" he clears his throat, swallows, tries again-- "has anyone asked him if he remembers me?"
She shakes her head. "Not you specifically, no. He doesn't remember anything about Registration, which we determined when we were still trying to figure out if he had the database; I don't think anyone asked him about the fighting or mentioned your name."
What about the ten years he's been my best friend? Steve wants to say. He doesn't want to be remembered this way, as the man who hated Tony, who drove him to this. He bites his tongue.
"We're-- we're trying not to stress him too much," Pepper says, still careful. "I think you can see how just listing people and asking if he remembers them could be... frustrating. He's still Tony."
"But you'll take me to him? I can see him?"
Pepper nods. "Of course you can. We just... wanted you to know what to expect."
"Carol's there now," Maria says. That explains where she's flown off to. "She wanted to see him anyway as well, naturally. Not that he's going to remember her either."
"She might be lucky?" Steve offers. He knows when he says it that he's thinking I might be lucky. Tony might remember him. He might be lucky. Special. He's already miraculously alive. Twice. He might have survived in the foggy labyrinth of Tony's new mind. They meant everything to each other. Tony couldn't have forgotten it all. A decade of friendship. How could that just be gone?
Maria looks at him like she knows exactly what he's thinking. "No one's that lucky."
They don't end up at a hospital, but it might as well be; it's a home -- large, modern, and decorated in the elegant yet impersonal style that Steve thinks Tony pays people to create, for the properties he owns but doesn't spend a lot of time in. He's seen how Tony decorated the mansion and the tower, after all, and those were always full of portraits of the Avengers, even of Steve himself. All the people Tony loved. They were a family, and those were their homes. This is just someplace Tony happens to own.
He wonders if Tony even remembers the mansion and the tower.
In the living room, Jim Rhodes is perched on the edge of a couch, in uniform, and he rises when they come in.
"Steve!" he says, and his face is torn between a smile and a grimace, like he can't decide whether to be happy about Steve's existence when Tony has nothing. He shakes Steve's hand and then pulls him into a hug. "I saw you fighting on TV. You're really-- you're really back, huh? I can't believe it's really you. It's a miracle."
"It's really me," Steve says, and he returns Jim's hug. "I promise."
"I wish Tony could have--" he begins, and then stops, and a wave of sorrow passes over his face. "He would have been happy. He would have been so happy. You can't even imagine."
Steve's throat is tight. "Yeah," he says, and it hurts to talk. "I bet. You've-- you've seen him already?"
He knows the answer is yes, because Maria and Pepper said so, but he can't help hoping that he'll get a different answer, that Jim will say he saw him, that everything's fine, that Tony's just a little banged up, that Tony is in there insisting he is fine and ready for duty, just the way he always does--
Jim's lips tighten. "I-- yeah, I saw him. It's-- it's pretty rough."
He didn't know him. Of course he didn't know him.
"He wanted to see you again?"
Jim shrugs. "He doesn't know who I am. To him I'm a mildly interesting stranger that Hill assures him he knows. So... maybe?" His face twists. It's clearly painful. "I'm just here as Carol's moral support, right now."
As if on cue, heels clatter on hardwood and then Carol's in the room. She's still suited up from the fighting, uniform in disarray, sash knotted awkwardly. She's ripped the mask off her face, and it's crumpled in one hand. The skin around her eyes is blotchy and red; she's been crying.
"Oh, God," Carol says, thickly, not looking up. Her voice is clogged with tears. And then she does look up, and she sees Steve. "Cap, God, sorry, I know I ran out on the team, but I didn't hear about Tony until right before the battle, and then after I had to--"
And then all of a sudden she's got her arms wrapped around him and her face in his neck and he rocks back and forward into the embrace and she's actually lifting him up. She doesn't usually do that with her strength, with her power, unless-- well, unless she's extremely upset. She smells like tears and dirt, sweat and drying blood.
"It's okay," he says against Carol's skin. "I understand. The Avengers understand. I'm not even your team leader anymore, remember? You don't need to apologize."
"You were dead a week ago," she says, and the words end in a sob. "God, you were dead a week ago and Tony was--"
"Yeah," Steve says, wretched. "I've heard."
His feet are off the floor. He thinks maybe they're floating.
Carol lifts her head and looks down. They're about six inches up. "Shit," she says, and she drops them. "Sorry."
Steve lands hard on the floor, wobbling.
"It's okay," Steve repeats. The words are meaningless now.
Carol's eyes are bloodshot from tears. "It isn't, though. It isn't okay."
She shakes her head. "He didn't remember me."
Steve's hope, already low, sinks even more. "I'm sorry."
She gives a weak smile. "Yeah. So am I."
Maria clears her throat and gestures to the open archway. The hallway. "You still up for this, Steve? I'll let him know he's got another guest."
No, Steve thinks, bleak, terrified, because he doesn't want the inevitable disappointment. But he doesn't give up. That's just not who he is. He can't. He has to know for himself. So he nods. "Ready as I'll ever be. Are you introducing him to all his guests?"
She nods and starts to walk down the corridor; Steve follows. "Not all of them," she says, "but if I happen to be around, I'll do the honors. I figure that I'm the only person around here he knows at all, so it might help to have someone he remembers." She wrinkles her nose. "Even if I wish to God it weren't me. I can't stay with him forever."
"You're very kind," Steve tells her. His voice is hoarse.
She gives him a look.
And then they're stopped just before the last door on the corridor, a door that stands open, a room that smells of antiseptic. There's the familiar beeping of monitors within.
"Stay here," Maria says, tersely, pushing him behind her against the wall like this is some assault on a base, and these are their tactics. And then she walks in. "Tony," she says, her voice echoing, "I've got someone else who wants to see you. Another one of your friends. Do you want to meet him?"
"Sure," a voice says, and it's Tony's voice, God, it's Tony's voice and for an instant everything they told Steve about his condition has to be a horrible dream, because he sounds just like Steve remembers, so that means everything has to be all right, doesn't it? Tony's voice is dry, a little sarcastic, the way he is when he's sad or scared and trying to hide it. "I definitely want to make someone else cry today."
Maria falters. "I can tell him to come back--"
"No, no," Tony says. "It's fine. Let me at him."
Then Maria comes out of the room, turns down the corridor, gives Steve a tight grin. "He's all yours."
He isn't mine, Steve thinks.
Maria walks away, back to the living room. He's alone. Time to face this. He straightens up. Lifts his chin. Wonders if he should take the cowl off. It doesn't matter; it's not like Tony will recognize his face without it.
Steve breathes in and out and steps forward, into the room.
There's a hospital bed in the middle of an otherwise ordinary room, and Tony is lying on it. He's propped up, and there's a blanket drawn up to his hips. He's shirtless, and the swathe of white bandages wrapped around his chest doesn't quite block out the eerie blue glow from the middle of his sternum. Pepper and Maria had explained this on the way over: they'd had to implant a repulsor in Tony's chest just to be able to get his brainstem working. Steve feels a sympathetic pang in his own heart.
Monitors beep, and regular rhythms sketch themselves out on the screens in jagged waves.
Tony looks up, and his eyes -- dark blue, so achingly familiar -- go wide.
And then he smiles.
Hell, he practically lights up. Like sunshine. His grin is wide, wide, wide, a little shaky and uncertain, but brilliant nonetheless. And he's looking at Steve like Steve is everything good in the world. Like he can't believe what he's seeing. Like he can't believe Steve is really here.
Like he remembers him.
Tony remembers him.
"Oh my God," Tony breathes, amazed. He's still smiling. "Oh my God, you're alive. How are you alive? I can't--" the words are a little choked-- "I can't believe you're really alive. You're real. I never dreamed-- why-- how--?"
And Steve's grinning back, just as hugely, dizzy with happiness. He feels like he's floating again. Tony knows him. They were wrong, they were all wrong, and something remains, there in Tony's mind. Tony remembers him.
Steve takes shaking strides forward, one, two, three, until he's at the chair next to the bed, and he sits down. He's still smiling, and Tony's smiling back. He'd take Tony's hand -- is that too much? he wonders -- but Tony is still clutching the blankets, so he can't.
"It's a long story," he says, still smiling, still smiling down at Tony with all the fondness in his heart. Tony smiles back, and they can put everything behind them, can't they? All the fighting. The war. Everything. They have each other. At least they have that. "I can give you all the details later, but the gist of it is -- the bullets that Red Skull had me shot with weren't ordinary bullets, and I wasn't really dead, as these things go. Instead they -- well, a lot of things happened. They sent me on a journey through time, through my own past. Red Skull recovered my body and wanted to take possession of it. So I fought him off. While he was in my body he was fighting Bucky on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and--" he shakes his head ruefully, realizing how this must all sound, because Tony's eyes are going wider and wider-- "well, eventually we got him, and I got my body back, and here I am." He grins again.
Tony is staring at him, wide-eyed, like he hasn't understood a single word Steve's said, but he's still smiling that amazed smile. "Wow," he says, and his voice is almost dreamy. "I don't remember anything like that happening in the comic books at all."
This is the exact moment when Steve's heart breaks.
No, he thinks, and he wants to cry, he wants to sob, he wants to weep. He was wrong. He was so wrong. Tony doesn't know him. When Tony had said you're alive he'd meant something very different by it. God. No. No, no, no. How could this happen? How could any of this happen? It's worse than Tony not remembering him at all. It's so much worse. He had prepared for that. He had never thought of this.
Tony knows Captain America. Tony doesn't know Steve Rogers.
"Tony," he begins, and the name comes out halfway sobbed, and he has to shut his eyes for a second so he doesn't actually start crying. "Do you know who I am?"
"Well, sure, of course." Tony beams up at him, a little uncertain, and Steve should have seen it. He should have known. He's never seen that smile on Tony's face before. Tony wants to impress his hero. To give the right answer. "You're Captain America. You were a hero in World War II. You died in the war. Except I guess you didn't die." His eyes are still wide, his stare disbelieving. "Are you-- you're really my friend? You're really real? I really know you? I'm really friends with Captain America?"
Steve wants to run. He wants to get up right now and run far away and then curl up and pretend that this never happened, that Tony isn't looking at him like this, wide-eyed, adoring. It's a look he's seen on so many people, so many fans, so many people who didn't know him, and it's awful, it's terrifying, to see it on Tony's face.
Tony never looked at him like this. Not once. Not even when they'd met, a decade ago. Tony never treated him like this, like he was only some legend, some myth, some man on a poster. Yours was the first voice I heard, he thinks. Tony'd always known who he was, underneath the cowl. And now he knows nothing.
He's shivering. He feels like he's waking up out of the ice again, opening his eyes and finding that he's lost everything. He thought when he came back to himself, when he came back to his body, surrounded by his friends, that everything was right. That he could stand up and soldier on the way he's always done, with the Avengers at his side. But he's lost Tony, and it's like he's lost his entire world again. Nothing will ever be the same.
"Yeah," Steve says, miserably. "We were friends."
"Oh." Tony's mouth shapes the sound, a little exhalation, mild surprise. Like this is just some minor fact about his life, like his favorite color or his favorite food. Another forgotten friend, on the list with the rest. Ten years of friendship, gone. "They said I was a superhero, an... Avenger?" He frowns, like he can't quite believe the name isn't a joke. "They said I was... Iron Man."
Steve can't nod. He can't smile. "That's you. Iron Man."
"How did I start with the, uh, being Iron Man thing?" Tony sounds faintly embarrassed. Like it's some kind of strange hobby and not the calling he's devoted himself to for his entire adult life.
"You were captured overseas," he says, and to his surprise, Tony nods.
"I remember that," he says, and his eyes go haunted, faraway. "That was... ten, twelve years ago? Nearly got blown up by one of my own landmines. I was captured by a guy named Wong Chu. He wanted me to build weapons. There was another prisoner there, with me, Ho Yinsen, and we--" He falters. "We-- we-- I don't know what we did."
"Do you remember how you got out?" Steve asks. "Anything?"
Tony looks at him, and his gaze is brimming with a strange kind of hope. Idolization. Hero worship. "Did you rescue me?"
Steve can't hold back the sob this time. "No," he says. "You rescued me."
He can't do this. He can't be here. He pushes the chair back. He's shaking again.
Tony's still staring at him, bewildered and -- of course -- a little bit awed. "I'm sorry. Whatever I said, I'm sorry, really. You don't have to go. Captain? Cap?" Steve's heart skips a beat when Tony hits on the nickname, but Tony's only guessing, because then he frowns. "What do I call you, anyway?"
He's up, he's in the doorway, he has to get out of here. "Steve," he rasps out. "My name is Steve."
And then he's in the hall, staggering down the hallway like he's drunk. He has a hand on the wall to hold himself up. He doesn't make it. He's just before the living room when he slides down the wall and hits the floor, and he's crying, he can't breathe, he can't think. Everyone in the living room can probably hear him. He hopes Tony can't hear him.
Steve's pretty sure that Tony's hero Captain America doesn't cry. Ever.
Well, he's not Captain America anymore, is he?
He doesn't know how long it is before black booted feet appear next to him, and then Carol's kneeling at his side, putting her arm around him.
"Oh, Christ, Steve," she says, and he leans into her, and he's muffling his sobs on her shoulder.
"He doesn't know me," he says, and he's trying to explain.
It comes out wrong because Carol just embraces him harder, scrapes her gloved hand over his mailed neck. "I know," she says, but she doesn't, she doesn't.
"No," he says, shutting his eyes. "It's-- it's worse than that. He knows Captain America."
Carol's breath catches. "Steve--"
"He knows Captain America is a guy from a goddamn comic book. A dead guy he heard stories about. He was happy, Carol, he was so happy to see me, and I thought-- but he didn't-- it wasn't real at all. You should see how he looks at me, God, I can't take it."
Carol's breathing is louder now, shuddering. "Maybe it's a good sign," she says, hesitantly. "He remembers something about superheroes. That's got to be positive."
"I can't do this," he says, and he knows he doesn't give up, he doesn't ever give up, he doesn't stop fighting except when it's Tony, Tony lying under him, Tony begging for death, and Tony might as well be dead now. He doesn't know if he's pleading with Carol or the universe, but either way it's hopeless. Tony's gone -- the real Tony -- and that man in that room is what they have. A simulacrum. A shell. He's like a LMD. Steve wonders if this is what everyone felt like when the Skrulls invaded.
She sighs, breath warm against the exposed hot skin of his face. "There aren't any other choices."
Tony's always had choices. Always. Give him an impossible situation, and he'll carve out a choice that never existed. And he'll win. Put him up against a Hulkbuster armor gone rogue, and he'll stop his heart to save Steve. Let him fight a man who drops a car on him, and he'll inject himself with Extremis and live. Put him in captivity, badly injured, and he'll invent his own armor and break free. There's a dividing line that the man in that bed now has never crossed, a crucible that has never shaped him. Tony Stark went into that cell, and Iron Man never came out.
But Carol's right, and this is what they've come to. There are no choices left here, no more miracles, nothing left that Tony hasn't sacrificed. There's nothing Steve can do but live with this.
"I loved him," he whispers. It's a broken sob. It's the truth.
It was always the truth.