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I’ll remember best of all, all the things we didn’t say

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The world is cold.

He’s not actually sure that’s the world, though. He remembers it, vaguely. The world was made of lights, he remembers, and occasionally darkness so deep and relentless that seemed to swallow not only every light but the sounds as well. The world was made of tears, it was made of laughter, and quiet moments that hung between sadness and happiness without ever deciding for one side or the other. He’s known cold before. But it was actually a cold so deep, so despairing, nothing like the cold he feels now. It’s cold and dark now, but it’s also sorrow and acceptance. The cold from before was hopeless, but in the end it became light and warm; a new and puzzling world.

He doesn’t remember much, and somewhere, distantly, he’s surprised by that. He seems convinced that he should have clear memories, but they are just distorted shapes that evade his every effort to grasp them, to give them a name, a place, a time.

The world is cold.

And then he opens his eyes.

 


**

 


Carol supports him, even if a more suitable term would be ‘carries’. He can barely feel his legs, and the bits he can feel are hurting as if thousands little needles were piercing his skin and twisting into his flesh, his muscles.

He knows this pain, it’s the pain of feeling returning after a long period of hibernation.

And he also knows that very soon it won’t be pain anymore, it will be full blown agony, agony that will make you want to scream your throat raw, will make you grind your teeth so hard you’ll be sure they’re going to be powder by time it’s gone. Agony that will lock all of your muscles in cramps.

He knows that, and that’s why he limps as fast as he can along the barely lit corridor. Carol’s arm around his waist is a solid and sure vise.

Behind them and in front of them he can hear shouting, shooting and noises that generally tell of vicious fighting, he still can’t see anything ahead of them. It doesn’t mean anything, though, because a few moments later he realizes it’s not the corridor that’s dimly lit, it’s his vision that’s blurry.

“What-” he croaks and coughs, and tries again. His voice is low and rough, barely recognizable. “What’s-”

“Everything’s gonna be alright,” Carol says, tugging him along with her. “Trust me, Cap.”


**


This time, when he wakes, he’s warm. That is soon explained when a cursory glance around him reveals that he’s currently lying in bed, wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants.

It takes him a moment to realize he knows this room. It’s one of Nick Fury’s safe houses.

His memories are of no help to him. He remembers running away with Carol supporting him, but running away from what? He remembers other things, as well. Things that don’t make sense. Sharon smiling, and then Sharon bent over him, a gun in her hand, and then Sharon crying.

Lights in his eyes and vague shapes getting closer to him and then darkness, cold.

And Iron Man’s back getting smaller and smaller in the limited vision enclosed by blue bars.

He lifts the t-shirt and looks at his stomach. No scars there, so being shot must have been… what? A dream? But even if vague and broken, the images in his head don’t feel like dreams. Dreams are slippery at the moment of waking, in the daylight, but memories lurk at the back of one’s mind unreachable and within reach at the same time.

He pinches the bridge of his nose and groans aloud, suddenly aware of the pounding headache.

He barely manages to take a deep breath when the door opens slowly and Peter and Jessica Drew poke in their faces, shyly.

“Hey,” he says, trying to come up with a smile for them, but ultimately failing when the headache wins over his effort to be reassuring. His voice is rough, but not raw. “What’s going on?”

“Um, Cap?” Peter asks hesitantly.

Steve notes he doesn’t enter the room, and neither does Jessica. They just observe him from the doorway with wide eyes.

“Yeah,” he replies. “Who do you think it is?”

Peter exchanges a glance with Jessica and then turns back towards him. He shrugs. “Skrull? Clone? Evil clone? Take your pick.”

He frowns. Right. So maybe Steve has some catching up to do.


**


What Steve learns is basically this: he’s been dead for almost two years. Meanwhile the world has gone insane.

In reality, things aren’t so clean-cut and simple.

Mostly, as Peter and Jessica have told him, it’s a life on the run. They’re not even in New York right now. For every question, every explanation he asks, he gets increasingly dark and depressing answers.

No more Avengers. There’s New, and Dark and Mighty and everyone is fighting against everyone else, with no regards for the innocent people they hurt. Other things have changed, too, and mostly for the worse. May Parker. Luke and Jessica’s baby. Jan.

Norman Osborn.

Steve lowers his head into his hands, rubbing his face, exhaustion and weariness ambushing him all at once.

“Er,” Peter clears his voice. He still hasn’t taken off his mask, and MJ is sitting on the other side of the room looking at him strangely. They used to be inseparable. “At least we got two Captain Americas?” he says, hesitantly.

Steve snorts despite himself. Right, Bucky. It looks like Tony read his letter, then.

Tony.

He remembers Tony’s silence and Iron Man’s impassible face staring at him when Steve bared his heart, when Steve told him just how much he’d disappointed him.

He remembers watching his back as he walked away, and knowing, in that moment, that it was the end.

Where is Tony in all this, then?

He raises his eyes to ask the others and he catches a glimpse of the TV. It’s always on when they’re in, the others have explained, even if the audio is turned off. They all have cell phones, Steve has noticed, and internet connections, laptops. He doesn’t understand much about twenty-first century telecommunications, but he’s pretty sure these kind of things can become a double-edged sword if you don’t want to be found.

Images move on the TV, and it’s eerie seeing Tony’s face, reading his lips as he speaks, expecting his voice pronouncing those words, but only receiving silence in return.

“Turn it up,” he says.

“Steve…” Carol starts hesitantly. She’s arrived together with MJ, her arms loaded with groceries, while they were talking. He has no idea where the others are.

“Turn the volume up,” he repeats, his voice allowing no room for discussion.

Peter grabs the remote and the moving pictures suddenly gather a context and a sense. But it’s not Tony’s voice that comes out of the speaker, despite the footage reel, it’s a female one.

- weeks since Virginia Potts, also known as ‘Pepper’ Potts,” and here Tony’s images switch to Pepper apparently giving a press conference, “became CEO of Stark Industries, there’s still no tangible proof regarding the whereabouts of former S.H.I.E.L.D. Director and armored superhero Tony Stark. Norman Osborn’s spokesman assures that several lines of inquiry are being considered at the moment, and that ultimately they could lead to the capture of America’s Most Wanted. Anonymous sources close to Mr. Osborn, however, have expressed their doubts, saying that Stark is either long gone or dead. The former Iron Ma-

The audio gets cut off and Steve’s head whips towards Carol, who is now in control of the remote. “I was watching that,” he says, his eyes narrowing.

“Steve…”

“Where is Tony?”

Peter scratches the back of his head. “We don’t know exactly, but-”

“Where is Tony?”

“Who do you think gave us the information we needed to free you?” Carol says abruptly.

Suddenly everybody seems to have somewhere else to look at.


**

Later they show him how it works. They explain to him that one day Tony contacted them with a list of secure places where they could live. From that day on, Tony has been their ear on the ground, so to speak.

Peter says that he’s ensuring they have secure lines at all times – and that’s a relief, something Steve doesn’t have to worry about – and he says that Tony is the one supplying them with all kinds of intel regarding Norman Osborn and his plans, allowing them to deal several serious blows.

“We have to do something,” Jessica Jones says, in a low voice. Her arms are conspicuously empty.

But this is guerilla, nothing more nothing less. It might be the winning strategy in certain occasions, but these are basically terrorist acts against the constituted power of a sovereign Nation. Innocent people could be hurt, may have been hurt already.

“Striking at random and hoping to gain something isn’t going to work,” he says. “We have to contact other superheroes that might be active against Osborn on a individual basis. We need a united front to fight this thing, we need organization.”

He looks up and notices everyone is looking at him with a faint smile.

Jessica Drew draws close and hugs him. “Welcome back, Cap.”

He smiles and nods at them. “I need to talk to Tony.”


**


Instant messaging is, apparently, the way to talk to Tony.

welcome back cap

He stares at the black letters on the white of the dialogue window for a long time, his fingers hovering unsure on the keyboard. Tony is that you? he finally types, carefully.

yes how are you

Tony’s manner of writing is puzzling, and Steve for a minute wonders what it could mean. Then he realizes Tony’s asked him a question.

How is he?

Confused, angry, sad, worried, lost.

Civil War and those days seem now so far removed in the light of this new threat that they feel like a dream, even though in Steve’s memories they’re still fresh, as if they happened the day before.

He’s lost so many things, and while he’s known with the feeling of waking up and finding out that the world has moved on while you were sleeping, there’s no getting used to it. He feels out of control. Not that he’s so self-centered to think that the world would have been much different if he were awake instead of hibernated for decades. Somehow, though, the fact that the chance of interacting with it, even just witnessing it, was taken from him just before the War had ended made him feel powerless when he woke up in a time and a place that weren’t his. Now that the same feeling of powerless is back and Steve doesn’t like it. At all.

After a moment, he types, I’m fine. And you?

fine


**


Bucky arrives one rainy afternoon.

The keys jingle in the lock, and Steve turns expecting maybe Peter and MJ, or maybe Carol with some groceries.

Instead, when the door opens, Bucky stands right there, dripping with rain and getting the floor wet.

“Hey,” Steve says, quietly.

“Hey,” Bucky replies with a nod. He steps in and closes the door behind himself and then stands awkwardly, looking at the floor.

Under his artificial arm he’s carrying something big and round, wrapped in dark cloth. Steve draws in a sharp breath when he recognizes the shape. Bucky follows his eyes.

When Bucky hands it to him, the weight of his shield is so familiar, and comforting in a way, that when he unwraps it, sees the stripes and the star, it feels as if something has clicked and the world is a little more right.

“He gave it to you,” he says, meeting Bucky’s eyes.

Bucky’s nod is curt. “You can say a lot of things about the man, but after you…” he trails off and Steve mentally adds the word. It’s been common practice with the other Avengers the past week. “Even an idiot could see how much he…” Bucky trails off again, but this time Steve isn’t quite sure what term should he fill the blank with, not without it being nothing but wishful thinking and, at this point, masochism.

Awkward silence fills the room, and Steve almost wishes they were back at the time of the war, where every day was like walking through hell, but at least he had somebody he could talk to, he could share things with.

This Bucky isn’t his Bucky anymore. He’s James Barnes, but Steve has no idea who that is.

“Where were you?” he asks, then.

“Rec mission in the city,” he says. “I was trying to contact Black Widow.”

“Any luck?” Steve asks, but he already knows the answer.

“No,” Bucky shakes his head. “But I found some leads, and I came back as soon as possible after Stark told me you…”

Bucky’s been to New York. Steve misses it, he misses the people, he misses the park. He misses getting up early to jog, he misses sparring with Tony, he misses their nights together in the Avengers Tower.

He could go, of course, he could walk under their noses. But it would be a useless risk, even with the appearance-altering holograms Reed Richards has given them. And what would he do, once there anyway?

The Avengers Tower is no more, Osborn’s set his claim on it.

“And you?” Bucky asks, then. “Stark said you were in some kind of facility…”

“Yes, they…” he trails off.

The others didn’t know what kind of place he was being held in when they broke in to free him, just that it was some kind of science lab.

Only later Steve received the whole story from Tony, during their first overnight session of instant messaging.

And so Steve has stared at photos, lab reports he understood only in part, he’s listened to audio files registered by Tony, and while Tony’s walked him through everything, explained things, reassured him, he still doesn’t understand.

He doesn’t want to understand.

“They what?” Bucky’s eyes are becoming steadily harder, and Steve remembers that he’s not alone in the world of human guinea pigs.

“They thought that Super Soldier Serum and Weapon X would make a wonderful combination,” he says lowly, but with a steady voice. “They knew about Red Skull’s plan and killed two birds with one stone. They had free reign over my body and the Super Soldier Serum, because no one would ever look for me after I was dead.”

Bucky is silent, but his jaw is clenched so tightly, Steve suspects it will start to hurt soon.

“They did the switch in the hospital,” he continues. “Apparently the wounds weren’t so serious. They gave me a healing factor and wanted to reproduce the Super Soldier Serum, but they didn’t make it in time because Osborn found me first. And then Tony found me, and called the others.” End of story, he wants to say, only it isn’t. But it should be, bad things happen and then a happy ending. They should have it, every one of them, they’ve earned it.

“Fuck, Steve,” Bucky’s curse is barely audible, even in the utter silence. “You spent eighteen months in there and we thought you were dead.”

“It’s alright,” he says, gripping Bucky’s right shoulder tightly. “I don’t remember much, anyway. They had me under cryogenic stasis most of the time.”

“What’s with you and ice?” Bucky mutters, almost annoyed, but then he surprises Steve by tugging him into a strong hug. “I’m glad you’re back.”

“Glad to be back.”


**


They move again, Tony supplying them with a list of safe places to stay, and the list of superheroes being hunted down by Osborn and the Dark Avengers.

All their names are on the list. The ones at the top have the most priority – Steve is in the top ten, along with Bucky, Peter and Thor.

“I always wanted to be considered like any other superhero,” Peter comments, reading. “And when it finally happens, I end up on the Most Wanted list. But this is me, what did I expect.” He sighs and gets up to go towards the kitchen.

Steve looks longingly at the laptop sitting on the table, but he has no idea when Tony will be able to reply. They haven’t talked about appointed chats. After several moments Peter evidently notices him.

“Go ahead,” he says. “He’ll reply.”

“How-”

“You know him, he never sleeps,” Peter shrugs. “He’s always connected.”

Steve frowns. From what Carol has told him, Extremis stopped working because of a virus. Maybe Tony was able to fix it?

He drags the laptop closer and opens the IM

Tony, he types.

is that you steve

Yes, he replies. Tony is using no punctuation, no lower or upper case letters. It bugs him, but he can’t say why. Surely he has more important things to worry about than the proper orthography of the English language. Where do you get all this information?

Everything’s scarily accurate, and mostly it’s things no one outside Norman Osborn and few others should know. Steve knows Tony is probably risking his life doing what he does.

lets just say im very close

Won’t you get caught?

theres no danger of that happening trust me

Make it surely risking his life.

And what’s more, Steve is sure that Tony is doing this out of guilt. Tony feels guilty for the strangest things. Apparently he doesn’t hesitate when it comes to building a Thor clone, but now he’s hiding who knows where, with the whole of America hungry for his blood, and risking his life because he feels guilty about Steve dying.

Tony hasn’t explicitly told him, but the way he always tends to avoid the issue whenever Steve alludes to it, and from what Carol has said…

Their differences during the whole Registration deal are not relevant right now, and anyway he misses Tony. He missed him during the Civil War, he was furious, and angry and wanted to hurt him badly at times, but he missed him. He missed- he misses his friend.

I miss you, he watches as the words come in to existence on the screen, black pixels on white background.
The answer is slower than usual to come, but it blinks up shortly.

im here i miss you too

Here. ‘Here where?’ he wants to shout, but it’s just stupid instant messaging. He looks at the words Tony’s written and has a sudden, deep longing to see him in the flesh, to hear his voice.

He almost writes that, as well, but Peter startles him out of his thoughts with an outraged cry. He turns to find him once again scrolling the list, a can of soda now in his hand, a back of chips close by his wrist. His mask is off and he’s scowling very intently at the screen of his laptop as if it had personally offended him.

“What is it?”

“Deadpool is in the Most Wanted list, too!” he exclaims. “He’s not even a superhero!”

Steve sighs and goes back to his conversation with Tony.

I want to see you.

not now too dangerous

Of course it is. When?

i dont know yet say hi to peter

And then Tony’s end is silent.


**


i think theyre getting suspicious

Something cold, very much like claws, grabs Steve’s stomach and squeezes. Are you in danger?

not for now i dont know

Steve’s fingers are frantic on the keyboard, as if taking a few less seconds to write would somehow save Tony’s life. Abort, he writes. Abort the operation. Get out of there.

cant yet dont worry even if they find out its me they wont do anything

How can you be so sure?

because im too valuable i know things

Get out of there, Tony. Wherever ‘there’ is.

dont worry bye

Steve stares at the screen for a long time.

The claws inside his stomach squeeze and squeeze and squeeze.


**


“We have to find where Tony is,” Steve says one night, while they’re having dinner.

They’ve all split up into groups to cover more ground now that they have to contact other superheroes, so there’s only him, Wolverine, Peter, MJ and Bucky at the table.

Everybody turns to look at him, as if he’s suddenly grown another head. Who knows, with the combination of Super Soldier Serum and Weapon X experiments he might grow one after all.

“Why?” Wolverine asks, around a bite of meat. “We could give away his position, if we look for him. And anyway he’s more useful to us wherever he is.”

Steve narrows his eyes at him. “I don’t care if he’s more useful,” he says, “I want him to come out of this alive.”

“You’re saying he’s in danger?” Peter asks, straightening his slouching position.

“Where have you been, bub,” Logan snorts at him. “We’re fugitives. We’re all in danger.”

“He’s in more immediate danger,” Steve explains. “He said they might be suspecting something.”

“They?”

“We should have expected that,” Bucky observes. “We always know where to strike and when to strike to the most damage. Of course, they’re figuring out something doesn’t add up.”

“Yes, I already took that into account,” Steve nods. “That’s why I want us to lay low while we recruit people.”

“Who are they?” Peter asks.

“And if Stark gets made,” Bucky continues, “they could trace him back to us, and then we’d be screwed.”

“Yes, but who are ‘they’?”

“The bad guys, Spidey.”

“I know that, furball, I meant specifically,” Peter says, throwing bread in Wolverine’s vague direction. “We don’t even know where to start looking for.”

“Uh,” MJ starts, raising her hand a little. “What about Pepper Potts?”


**


He’s gone to Pepper’s secretary under the name of Roger Stevenson, which may not be the most clever disguise in the world – as Peter has observed several times, loudly – but it does the job and they get bumped up the list of appointments for the day, so that only after half a hour they are received.

Steve’s phone vibrates in his pocket. He takes it out and opens the text message.

she doesnt know dont go to her she doesnt know everything dont please

Something uneasy stirs inside him, but the secretary arrives and motions for them to follow her, so he just stands up and puts the phone away.


**


Pepper stares at them for a long time.

Steve has often seen her behind Tony’s desk when she was his assistant, sometimes she did his PR job for him when he was down in the workshop, or out as Iron Man. Or too injured to function properly, which in Tony’s case usually means nothing less serious than a loss of limbs or a heart attack.

But it’s different now, because it’s not Tony’s desk anymore, it’s hers.

“Are you serious?” she asks after a long time.

Steve frowns. “I don’t see how that-”

“No, I mean,” Pepper raises her hand in a commanding gesture, “are you serious?”

Next to him, Peter fidgets a little and scratches the back of his neck. “You know when you start watching a movie from the middle?” he whispers in Steve’s direction, but the fact that he’s got a hand in front of his mouth completely nullifies his attempt at being inconspicuous. “Like Matrix. Of course, even if you watched Matrix from the beginning there’s no guarantee—”

“Shut up, Spidey,” Wolverine glowers from Steve’s other side.

“What do you mean?” Steve asks slowly, his eyes narrowing.

“Tony is dead,” Pepper says matter-of-factly.

Now it’s their turn to stare at her.

“But,” Peter starts and then stops. “But…”

“Tony isn’t dead,” Steve says slowly, almost dangerously.

If Tony’s dead who is the one that’s been keeping them informed about Osborn and the Dark Avengers’ movements and plans? Who’s the one that found Steve when he was lost? Who’s the one Steve’s been ‘talking’ to the past few weeks? Who is it, if not Tony?

But Steve is sure, that’s Tony, there must be a mistake. Pepper isn’t lying, but maybe what she believes isn’t the truth.

“The Registration Database,” she says, then goes on listing. “Repulsor technology, Extremis, Iron Man blueprints, every bit of Stark Industries research, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents personnel files. I could go on.”

“And that’s…” Steve prompts, trailing off when Pepper draws a long breath.

“That’s everything that Tony had stored into his… stupid computer brain,” she says. “He couldn’t let Osborn get his hands on that kind of data, but with the Skrull virus virtually cutting off all of his links to Extremis…” Her hands are trembling. Steve has the terrible suspicion he knows where this is going. “He had to delete everything before Osborn caught up with us, so he…”

“So he… What happened?” Peter asks, then. “Did he manage to delete it?”

“Spider-man.” Steve says, warningly.

“Because if he didn’t then we’re all in deep-”

Spider-man,” Steve repeats, this time turning to glare at him.

“I’m just saying, because if he- Oh,” he says then, in a small voice. “Oh.”

“He deleted everything,” Pepper says, looking at Steve straight into his eyes. “Everything.”


**


Who are you? Steve writes as soon as he’s back at the Avengers’ hideout.

The reply comes instantly, she doesnt know steve im really tony believe me she doesnt know

Who are you? Steve stabs at the keys angrily, imagining every letter to be a punch he landed on the bastard with the sick sense of humor.

tony, comes the reply. tony im tony tony tony iron man shellhead

And that does it, Steve slams down the screen of the laptop and gets up, out of the room, slamming the door behind him and the sounds it makes is more satisfying than taking it out on a fragile thing like a computer.

The living room comes alive around him, the TV turning on seemingly on his own, tuning on a another of those blow-by-blow post-invasion reports. It’s been months, and they’re showing and saying the same things all over again, Steve always wonders how they couldn’t know, couldn’t see the speed everything’s going to hell.

The footage they’re showing right now is of Tony in his Iron Man armor, walking away from the battle, and then Tony and Norman Osborn, Osborn smiling like a shark, Tony just… blank. And then photos and archive footage follow one after another, but Steve has no idea what this is supposed to mean, as the audio is turned off.

Then his phone vibrates in his pocket.

its me, a text message reads.

“That’s just a goddamned TV show!” he yells, throwing the phone at the TV. It smashes against the screen, right on Tony’s smiling face and tiny pieces of plastic and circuitry scatter around.

He grabs the remote and turns the TV off, but it soon comes back to life.

He bends down and unplugs it from the wall.

“Damn you,” Steve mutters in the sudden quiet darkness. “Damn you.”

And he doesn’t know if it’s addressed to the bastard pretending to be Tony, to Tony or to Steve himself.

He doesn’t know how long he sits on the couch, in complete darkness, but it must be hours before he hears somebody coming. The fact that the noises come from the ceiling makes it easy to guess the identity of the Avenger.

Peter drops in front of him and looks down at the mess he’s made. “Uh,” he says, confused.

“I need a new phone.”

“That kind of day?” Peter comments, knowingly.

“I’m going to bed,” Steve states abruptly, standing up and leaving Peter in the living room, staring at his retreating back. He can feel his eyes boring into his back.

Usually, he’s glad for Peter’s sense of humor and his constant chattering, even if most of the times he doesn’t understand everything he says, even if sometimes it gets annoying. He’s been fighting crime since he was a teenager, and not by choice, he needs some kind of coping mechanism. But not now. Now Steve needs to be alone.

When he shuts the door of his bedroom behind him, he notices he’s left the laptop running. When the screen flickers back to life he finds the Instant Message window still open.

its me its me its me its me, it says.

And then a few rows below, steve steve steve steve steve steve steve

The last message is of forty minutes earlier.


**


He gets up in the middle of the night, walks into the living room, grabs a laptop and sits down at the table.

If you’re not Tony, he types, I’m going to find you, rip off your arms and beat you to death with them.

Barely a moment later the reply comes, wow cap a little aggressive aren’t we

And if you’re Tony, what the hell are you playing at?

im not playing im tony

She said you were dead.

technically it was brain death

And with that, everything grinds to a halt.

Brain death.

It should have been obvious, though, when Pepper said everything, she actually meant everything. What did Steve think?

Honestly, he’s been clinging to the desperate hope that Pepper really didn’t know everything, as Tony’s text message implied. But this is almost obscene.

Tony’s beautiful brain, his genius, his memories, his weird sense of humor, his laughter, the light in his eyes when he smiles, the way he moves, the way he talks, the clever things built by his clever hands, the way his shoulders hunch when he’s sad and tired, the haunted look of his eyes whenever the subject of alcohol comes up. Everything Tony is and ever was, good and bad, wiped away indiscriminately.

Slate clean.

Tabula rasa.

No more Tony Stark, genius industrialist and armored superhero.

What have you done?

what was necessary

It always comes to this with Tony, then. What is necessary. Who will be the one to set just how high the price to pay to be? How terrible the sacrifice? When will he learn that the end won’t always justify the means.

What happened exactly? What is this? Are you really dead, then?

a funny thing happened

And that’s it, Steve’s heard enough. He doesn’t care, at this point he really doesn’t. He just wants Tony back, maybe knock some sense into him, but mostly he wants to keep him by his side so he won’t hurt himself anymore, so they can build something together.

A future, for starters, wouldn’t be a bad thing. A future free of Norman Osborn would be a very nice thing.

I’m coming to get you, Tony.

you cant

I can and I will. You want to help me and make things easier? Your choice. But I’m coming to get you.

its dangerous if they find out if they its dangerous it could put the mission in jeopardy

Steve stands up and goes back to bed.


**


The morning after, he opens his e-mail and finds blueprints and access codes to what looks like a secret basement floor in the Avengers Tower. He’s never heard of it before, and he adds it to the list of Important Things Tony Never Bothered To Tell Me. It’s been growing steadily longer lately and he plans on making Tony apologize for every single item on that list.

Apart from the blueprints and the codes, the e-mail is composed of only two phrases:

getting in is the easy part getting out is tricky youll need guns lots of guns and possibly explosives i dont really care about structural damage let that bastard osborn deal with it

And below that, im sorry

**


There’s a knock at the door.

Nobody knocks.

He and Bucky move as one, he with his shield, Bucky with his gun. While Bucky takes his position right behind the door, pointing his gun at the height where the average man has the heart.

Next to him, Steve takes a look from the peep-hole.

And deflates at once.

He tells Bucky to take a step back and opens the door, gesturing their ‘visitor’ in. “We were waiting for you last week.”

“Well, I’m sorry. I guess I shouldn’t have gotten killed, then,” Deadpool shrugs. “Healing your spinal cord takes a while, you know.”

“A whole week?” Bucky snorts, re-holstering his gun.

“I was lying in the gutters at the time, so it was a slow process,” he replies, then proceeds to mime the scene. “Yay! Another vertebra healed! Oh, shoot. Drowning again.”

Mostly he looks like a dying fish. And smells like one as well.

“That was a first, by the way,” he tells Steve, then.

Steve blinks. “Lying in the gutters with your spine in half?”

“Funnily enough, no,” Deadpool replies. “The knocking, I mean. Speaking of which, I totally expected Cap 2.0 here to shoot me and then ask questions later. I love pleasant surprises! Especially if they involve explosives, and especially if I have the detonator. That was totally a hint, by the way, my birthday is coming soon!”

Next to him Bucky frowns, annoyed. “I’m still in time to fulfill your expectations,” he says, his fingers hovering on the gun.

“Oh, don’t go out of your way. I’m used to feeling disappointed,” Deadpool replied, waving a hand at him and walking towards the fridge. “Also, I have no more clothes thanks to Mr. Green Goblin and his Sunshine Brigade. I could always go around naked but we wouldn’t have time to work this gig with all the flocks of people lining up to have sex with my awesome hot bod of hotness.”

Steve has to admit he’s impressed, as Deadpool seems to keep talking even as he’s drinking from the can of beer he’s stolen from their fridge. “I’ve seen you naked, and let me tell you I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”

Bucky apparently chokes on air, and Steve can feel the tips of his ears turn red. “No! What? He’s never seen me naked!”

“The Fixer has naked Avengers painted on the walls of his swimming pool,” Deadpool helpfully supplies.

Usually after a sentence like that a moment of silence is observed to ponder the full meaning of the words, but Deadpool hasn’t earned his nickname for nothing. He goes on chattering about quite literally – Steve is sure – anything that crosses his mind.

“Man, it’s like watching a penguin on acid trying to dance,” says Peter, from his crouching position in the far corner of the room. “It’s disturbing and wrong, but kinda funny at the same time.”

“You got a spider on the ceiling!” Deadpool exclaims, pointing.

“Ha ha,” Peter deadpans. “That’s, like, the first time I heard that,” he snorts, then he turns his attention to Steve. “So, he is your secret plan?”

“Hey, don’t knock me till you’ve tried! I was even an X-men once!” he frowns. “Is it X-man? And what about women? What’s the PC term? X-women?”

“No, Wilson,” Bucky rolls his eyes, “you weren’t.”

Steve sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Peter,” he says, for what seems like the hundredth time. “I told you, you should stay here. It might not be safe.”

“Oh, sure Cap, I’ve only been patrolling the streets since I was fifteen,” Peter snorts, then he sighs. “And… it’s for Tony, right?”

Steve nods, firmly. Peter is right, he doesn’t have to like it, but Peter is right.

“Great!” Deadpool exclaims, clapping his hands. “This is going to be just like an Avengers family trip! Only with mayhem, katanas and hopefully zombies. Have you guys met any zombies? Apart from the whole Earth-2149 thing, I mean. They’re awesome.”

“Shut up, I’ll shoot you in the head,” Bucky growls quite viciously. Steve thinks it probably feels very tempting at the moment, shooting Deadpool a couple of times and enjoy the blissful silence while he’s healing.

“And you were never an Avenger,” Peter adds from his corner.

“Oh, come on. Everybody and their moms has been an Avenger! Speaking of which,” he adds, slapping Steve on the back, “I hear you got yourself a nifty healing factor! Welcome to the ‘Weapon-X Has Screwed Up My Life’ club, you want the badge or the t-shirt?”

Steve just shakes his head. “Let’s get to work.”

Amazingly enough, they do.


**


Tony told the truth in the e-mail. Getting in has been relatively easy, stealth being the only issue, and while Steve’s been worried about Deadpool’s seemingly constant lunatic chattering, in the end the mercenary’s proven to be a professional.

They subdue and immobilize all the personnel on the floor. It’s not hard as they most seem to be scientists, and there’s not many of them anyway. From the information Tony’s given him, though, the guards have to check in every thirty minutes, so they have little time to find Tony and get out of here.

The area they’re in is lit with artificial light, imbuing everything in a eerie and harsh glow that cancels out almost any possibility of color. Everything is reduced to white and shadows.

They run down the corridor, Steve taking point, Bucky in the middle, Peter crawling on the ceiling directly above him and Deadpool bringing up the rear and apparently entertaining conversations with himself.

All of them in costumes, they must look a sight.

Steve kicks in every door that can be kicked and inserts codes in the small glowing pads when they’re thick steel ones. They’ve passed five doors until now, and no sign of Tony, only labs, a broom closet and more labs.

At the tenth door, Steve repeats the routine. He swipes the card he’s taken from one of the scientists and punches in the codes Tony has given him, expecting to find yet another lab.

Then his brain registers what his eyes are seeing.

And that’s when Steve realizes Tony used ‘you’ instead of ‘we’ when he wrote about the escape.

“Oh,” Peter says, in a small voice.


**

At first he doesn’t recognize him. He thinks it must be because they’ve completely shaved off his hair and goatee, but then he realizes that it’s because he looks nothing like Tony, his Tony.

A pale, frail human body is lying on what looks like a hospital bed, hooked up to all kinds of tubes. He’s got IV lines on the back of his hands, a tube shoved down his throat, electrodes all over his body, a heart monitor beeps steadily in the silence.

Bucky mutters a curse and then leaves the room.

“Is that,” Peter chokes, “is that Tony?”

Steve has the terrible suspicion that Peter is asking him, when really he has nothing to offer, no answer to give. He’s rooted on the spot, staring at the bed where there’s somebody who once was Tony, but now isn’t anyone anymore.

Bucky comes back into the room, his fists clenched, his eyes wild. “Irreversible coma,” he says. “Brain death, they’re keeping him alive with the machines.”

One of the computer screens on the other side of the room blinks to life.

told you you shouldnt have come steve

“Hey, you got little boxes too!” Deadpool exclaims, patting Tony’s too thin leg. The muscle mass is gone.

Steve thinks he might be sick.

Steve grabs him by his arm and shoves him away. “Leave,” he says, his voice low and more like a growl than a real word.

“B-but-” Peter attempts a half-hearted protest, but flees after Bucky and Deadpool when he silences him with a glare.

“What is the meaning of this?” he yells, encompassing the whole room, the computers, Tony’s body with a wide gesture of his arm. “Why didn’t you tell me!”

For a while there’s no reply, then the words start tickling on the screen.

i cant hear you you know i dont have ears only eyes say hi to the cameras

Steve growls and slams his fist down on the console. He does it several times, but he doesn’t feel better at all afterwards.

He sits down, all his energies leaving him at once and he stares at the Tony on the bed, as he breathes in and out, slowly, regularly. But you could never misunderstand it for sleeping, he looks more like a ghost. He is a ghost, come to think of it, he seems to be haunting computers after all. A strangled sound escapes his lips, he may be on the verge of hysteria.

He turns around and goes for the first keyboard he finds, he doesn’t know if it’s the right one, doesn’t care. Tony has the goddamned computer brain right now, let him sort it out.

Damn you, he writes. Damn you damn youdamnyou damnyou

careful youre starting to write like me

He looks at the lying body again, breathing in breathing out.

I’m going to get you out of here.

Bucky enters the room, Peter fidgeting behind him. “Time’s almost up. We’re on a tight schedule, Steve,” he says.

Deadpool pokes his head in. “You guys go, leave all the clean up to me,” he says, sounding serious for the first time since he first opened his mouth. “Guess what I got for my birthday?”

Steve nods at him and turns around to check the screen, but there has been no reply to his statement. To his promise.

Steve walks to the bed and apparently Peter sees this as an invite to get closer as well. “We have to get him and go,” he says.

“We can’t,” Bucky answers. “The machines are the only thing keeping him alive.”

“But…”

Steve looks down at what was once Tony, he takes off one of his gloves and brushes his fingers against one hollow and bruised cheek. It’s dry and cool, but not cold. Steve bends down and brushes his lips to Tony’s. It might not be Tony anymore, but it’ll be the last thing left of him that he can touch or kiss.

He stands abruptly and, ignoring Peter’s frowning expression, he looks for the cameras in the room. He spots them in the corner nearest to the door. He nods firmly, hoping Tony will get it, hoping he’s still watching.

He walks around the bed to stand next to Peter and he looks down at Tony’s body, counting his breaths, matching them with his own.

“Come on,” he mutters. “That’s why you brought me here, and I promised I’d take you out. Come on.”

Peter turns to him. “What are you—”

And then the heart monitor turns off. It takes a few moments for Peter to realize, and then he’s frantically trying to turning it on again, all the while crying a mantra of ‘no no no no’.

When he gives up on the heart monitor and just attempts to climb on the bed to reanimate Tony, Steve steps forwards and locks his arms around Peter’s, effectively blocking him, and he tugs him away.

Peter though doesn’t want to cooperate, and he screams and kicks and tries to wiggle free. Steve barely manages to keep his hold onto him. Peter isn’t as tall as him and slender, it’s easy to forget the strength that hides in his muscles.

“Let me go!” he cries and thrashes. “Let me go! Let me save him! Not him, too!”

But he soon gives up, falling limp against Steve, his body shaking as he cries silently.

Steve goes back to looking at Tony, counting his breaths. They’re already slow and shallow, it’s just a matter of seconds.

One.

Two…

Thr-

 

**

 


His laptop to chirps happily as Tony’s endless stream of consciousness pours into the IM window.

were gonna win steve, Tony says.

Tony is probably right, Osborn is a megalomaniac supervillain, and it’s only a question of time before something big happens and they’re called to clean up the mess. He wonders how many innocent people will have to pay this time for something that has nothing to do with them. But Tony hacks everywhere he can, and Steve gets everyone ready for the big battle. Lately it seems they do nothing but fighting wars, no victory in sight, while friends become fewer and fewer, and the dead pile up higher and higher.

Where are you now? He asks, aware that this kind of question has really no meaning when Tony is basically conscience travelling through digital signals.

if all else fails im considering a career as a fulltime spammer, Tony wrote a couple of days ago.

im here there everywhere

dont worry im relatively ok just glad im able to help in any way i can

osborn goes down everybodys happy right

Steve stares at the words on the screen and he becomes aware, only when the plastic groans in protest, that he’s been clenching the edges of the chair a little too tightly.

:)

He frowns at Tony’s last message uncomprehendingly, and just after a long moment of staring at it does he realize that it’s supposed to be a smile.

Something wild and not at all human escapes his mouth in the form of an angry shout and the desk shudders dangerously when he slams his fist on it.

“But I’m not happy, Tony,” in the absolute silence of the room it sounds almost like childish complaining. Even if he’s aware that Tony won’t hear him. Will never hear him again. “And you’re not.”