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Hey Stranger (Dear Mystery Writer)

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Thor stood with a bound and gagged Loki surrounded by the rest of the team. They stood watching silently. Well, more like staring silently. Tony and Barton both wore shades and stood there like surprisingly life-like robots. Only the wicked smirk Clint gave after Natasha whispered something in his ear served to prove he was actually human. Natasha didn't need the shades the two men wore, her gaze comprised solely of ice daggers sharp enough to cut the tension in the air. Cap, as expected, wore a stern glare that would make even hardened criminals cower. Only Bruce seemed even slightly mellow, only present because the rest were there and he felt the need to not only support the team, but see their mission through to the end.

One minute the brothers stood there plain as day and the next Thor had twisted the cylindrical device Tony and Bruce had spent days developing, vanishing in an instant and taking the Tesseract with them. Satisfied Loki would cause no further harm to Earth, the Avengers slowly began to disperse. Barton and Natasha disappeared first, pulling a vanishing act almost as impressive as Thor and Loki's. Tony almost didn't see them go, but he caught them driving off in a sleek, black car just before they were gone from view. Bruce followed suit, occupying the passenger's seat of Tony's convertible.

Cap decided to be different. He approached Tony with determination and Tony thought he was going to get a lecture for a moment. Then Cap extended a hand. Tony recognized the combination peace offering and apology for what it was and, after a brief internal debate in which his prideful adult self argued with the still optimistic child he barely remembered, swept off his sunglasses and accepted the handshake. No words were exchanged, but they parted amicably, if not yet friends.

Tony turned away first, slipping his shades back on and striding confidently toward his car. He slid into the driver's seat easily and paused to say something to Bruce. What it was Tony didn't know. It was mainly a distraction so he could watch Cap surreptitiously in the rearview mirror. Rogers swung a leg over his vintage motorcycle and took off, heading out of the city. Tony watched until the man was out of sight, Bruce oddly silent the entire time. Then he started the car and turned to head deeper into the city and Stark Tower.

~*~*~*~*~*~

It took him almost a month to figure out a cure to Extremis, but to be fair, part of that time Tony had been imprisoned in the hospital. Returning Pepper to normal was more for his safety and well-being than hers. Tony couldn't remember the amount of times she had threatened him with her newfound fire power to keep him from sneaking out against medical advice. So, for the first time in his life, Tony sat meekly in his assigned hospital bed and tapped restlessly on the tablet Rhodey brought him until the doctors finally allowed him to leave.

Tony decided to celebrate by getting right back to work. The tablet, though the very best in StarkTech, left much to be desired in the way of computing power. Not even a direct uplink to JARVIS helped much since the hospital's network connection was so crappy. Tony nearly broke out into excited dancing when the doors to his workshop in the tower slid open and he stepped inside for the first time in months. He could finally get some serious work done. Okay, it was only two months, but that still counted as months.

While working on the Extremis cure, Tony also planned yet another stay in the hospital for himself, but a voluntary one this time. He had decided it was high time he have the arc reactor removed, and with it the shrapnel surrounding his heart. Sometime between both projects, Tony stumbled across the answer to his problems.

Cure to Extremis firmly in hand and arc reactor removal thoroughly planned, he called Pepper with the good news. She flew out from California that night, a non-stop flight straight to New York. Tony picked her up at the airport, chattering excitedly about the entire process the whole ride back to the tower, not noticing his girlfriend's unusual silence.

The cure worked like a dream. Pepper reported less pain during Extremis' removal than when she had been given it and JARVIS reported no permanent side effects from either the cure or Extremis. All in all, Tony was feeling pretty good about himself, readily moving on from Pepper's ailment to his own plans for the immediate future.

“I thought I'd make an appointment for next week,” Tony was saying. “Or I'd have JARVIS do it.”

“I am here to serve as always, sir,” JARVIS commented.

“I knew I was your favorite.”

“As you say, sir.”

“Anyway, I'm gonna finally get this nightlight out of my chest. Scarring's probably gonna be a bitch, though,” Tony rambled on. Pepper had to say his name three times before he realized she was trying to get his attention.

“Tony!”

Tony spun around to face her. “What is it, Pep? Questions? No need to be concerned. I made sure the instructions were simple enough even a third grader could follow them.”

“Tony, would you just stop talking for a minute? We need to talk.”

He frowned. “That's never good.”

Pepper gave him a pitying look that immediately put Tony on edge. He hated when people pitied him. “I'm sorry, Tony, but we can't keep doing this. I can't keep doing this.”

“Doing what? What are we doing?”

“Running from one life-or-death situation to another. I can't keep doing it, Tony. You're putting your life on the line almost constantly and I have to stand by and watch helplessly from the sidelines. And sometimes I get dragged into these fights and I can't do anything about it. I can't keep playing the victim, Tony,” Pepper said, hanging her head. She hurried on before he could get a word in edgewise. “I know it's not what you want for me or for us, but it's happened.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that I need to make a hard choice for myself. I don't want to be a victim,” Pepper admitted.

“You've never been a victim, Pep,” Tony said desperately. “You saved my ass in the fight with Killian.”

“Yes, but I don't want to be a superhero, Tony, and you do. Being Iron Man is part of who you are and I can't expect you to change that. It's what makes you you. However, I don't want that kind of life,” Pepper explained gently, the corner of her mouth twitching in an aborted smile. “I have enough on my plate running your company. That's where I want to be. It's what I'm good at and I like my job.”

Tony bowed his head. “You're great at it. There's no one better. And you'd make a great superhero if you wanted.”

Pepper smiled sadly. “Thank you, Tony.”

“But you're not staying, are you?” Tony asked.

“No, I'm not. I am sorry, but this is something I have to do,” she said. “I'm still your friend, but anything more intimate is too much. It will be hard at first, but we'll find our friendship again. It'll work out. You'll see.”

“Yeah, I'm sure it will,” Tony said, quieter than he had ever been. “It would probably be better if we got some space. SI's headquarters are in California, so I guess I'll stay here.”

“I think you're right. I'm taking the private jet back tomorrow.”

Tony couldn't shake the feeling that Pepper had already decided they would stay on opposite coasts and just led him in that direction so he would think it was his idea to begin with. That didn't change the fact that it was, actually, a good idea. He may care deeply for Pepper, but after this tragic ending to the best relationship he'd ever been in Tony couldn't bear to be too close to her for a while. The wounds were too fresh, too raw. Maybe someday they would be fine again. Until that day, Tony would stay in New York where the reminders of her former presence were slightly less than in California. Besides, he actually had a place to stay in New York, the beach house in Malibu still lying in ruins at the bottom of the Pacific.

“I guess this is goodbye for a while,” Tony said.

“It is. I'm sorry, Tony.”

“Yeah. me too.”

Pepper's heels clicked against the tile as she left without looking back, her spine straight and head held high. It was her defense in the face of difficulties, forcing an outward appearance of calm and strength, despite any inner turmoil, that had served her well since the early days of their acquaintance. Of course, Tony didn't see any of this. He kept his gaze downcast, avoiding the scene before him. Tony refused to allow his last memory of Pepper to be her retreating back as she walked away from him for the last time. No, better to remember the sad, but fond, look she had given him just before he looked away.

The door to the workshop slid closed silently and Tony was, once again, alone.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Steve woke up warm and dry, which was odd since the last thing he remembered was being cold and very wet. Bucky. Bucky had been there too. They'd fallen into the Potomac after Steve finally managed to switch the chip on the last Hellicarrier. He remembered an explosion, probably one of the other Hellicarriers firing on the one he was on, and then Bucky was on him again. There was no way Steve was going to fight his friend again and he remembered throwing away the shield and letting Bucky beat him. After that is was just cold and wet.

So where was he now? Steve opened his eyes, blinking at the sudden brightness. Unfamiliar music played softly in the background. He rested on a soft, uncomfortable surface, reclining, not flat on his back. A steady beeping sound layered over the music, just consistent enough to have fallen into the category of ambient noise and keep Steve from noticing it immediately.

“On your left.”

Steve recognized that voice, which was the only reason he wasn't leaping out of the bed he was in and scrambling for his shield. Instead, he turned his head to the left and let a quick grin spread across his face. Sam sat there grinning back, clearly pleased he got to get one up on Steve. Steve's grin turned softer at the familiar feeling of friendly camaraderie.

“Marvin Gaye?” Steve asked.

“No one better,” Sam confirmed.

~*~*~*~*~*~

When Steve finally got out of the hospital he found himself standing in front of a repaired Stark Tower. Well, mostly repaired. Apparently, Stark hadn't seen fit to replace the rest of the letters in his name, leaving only 'A' to mark his building. Steve was confused by this, wondering what reason his old friend's son could possibly have for not fixing the sign. Finally, he decided it was on Stark's to-do list and he just hadn't gotten to it yet. Stark had probably just been distracted by a more interesting project. The man certainly gave off that vibe, always in motion and chattering about nothing and everything.

Steve shook his head to clear it. The sign and the reasons for it's continued state of disrepair weren't important right now. He had other things to worry about. Namely, convincing Stark to help him. Taking a deep breath, Steve opened the doors and strode confidently up to the receptionist's desk. He waited patiently for her to notice him and smiled at her when she looked up from her computer.

“Can I help you, sir?” She asked politely.

“Yes. I needed to speak with Mr. Stark, please,” Steve said.

“Do you have an appointment?”

“No, I don't.”

“I'm sorry, sir, but Mr. Stark doesn't deal with clients directly anymore. Without an appointment, I'm afraid he won't be able to see you,” the receptionist said. To her credit, she did sound apologetic. Steve put on his most charming smile, the ones that had gotten women on his USO tours to swoon without fail. He felt a little guilty using it on her, but needs must.

“I'm not a client, ma'am. I'm a... colleague... of Mr. Stark's and it's urgent that I speak with him. Is there any way you could see if he's available?”

The receptionist looked skeptical, but she picked up her phone and began dialing. “May I have your name, sir?”

“Steve Rogers, ma'am.”

She didn't seem to react to his name, which meant she'd been living under a rock the past couple of weeks or she was just that good at keeping up a professional facade. Either way, Steve felt a small wave of relief run through him. The last thing he wanted to have to deal with today was someone asking him about SHIELD, the Winter Soldier, the Battle of New York, or the Avengers. Then again, she worked for Stark, so she was probably used to superheroes and treating them normally. The whole world had known for years that Stark was Iron Man after all.

“Sorry to disturb you, sir,” the receptionist said into the receiver. “I have a Steve Rogers here to see Mr. Stark.” She listened for a moment. “Yes, sir.” She nodded and hung up the phone, focusing on Steve again. “Mr. Stark is available to see you. Please step into the elevator to your right and it will take you to him. Have a nice day.”

Steve was just about to ask which elevator as he had noticed an entire bank of them on both sides of the lobby, but a ding alerted him to an elevator arriving. An elevator he hadn't noticed at first stood behind and slightly to the right of the reception desk with doors open. It must be a private elevator reserved for Stark's use and, apparently, the use of his visitors.

“Thank you,” Steve said and made for the elevator, slinging his bag over one shoulder.

The doors closed behind him and the elevator began ascending immediately without the sudden lurching motion Steve was used to in most elevators. Figured Stark would have even state-of-the-art elevators. Steve checked the wall next to the doors, looking for the panel with the floor buttons, but the panel wasn't there. That explained why the elevator had begun moving before he'd chosen a floor, but not why it would be automatic in the first place. Who could understand the Starks except for another Stark anyway? Certainly not Steve.

Another ding and the elevator doors open on a short hallway that widens into what looks like a sitting room. It is furnished with sleek, modern furniture that, nevertheless, is unobtrusive. The clean lines and neutral colors of both the furnishings and the room itself merge together naturally. The overall feel is not quite familiar, but it also does not grate against the memories of what he's used to. The pale colors and wall of floor-to-ceiling windows give the whole room a light and airy feel. Comfortable. Like he could maybe live here.

Curious, Steve steps off the elevator and walks down the short hall to further examine the obviously deserted room. He is confused and has just decided to get back on the elevator, but the doors have closed silently by the time he turns around. Steve doesn't have time to react before a disembodied voice has him leaping out of his skin.

“Welcome, Captain Rogers,” a no-nonsense British voice says from the ceiling. Steve squints around suspiciously, trying to find the source.

“Hello?” He tried tentatively.

“My apologies, Captain Rogers, I do not often interact with those who do not know who I am,” the voice said, again from the ceiling even though Steve couldn't see anyone around. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am JARVIS, Mr. Stark's AI.”

“AI?”

“Artificial intelligence. I am, simply speaking, an amazingly advanced computer program written by Mr. Stark to simulate human life. I live within the Tower itself. If you ever have need of me, merely ask for my assistance from anywhere within the Tower and I will be able to hear you and assist if I am able.”

“That's amazing!” Steve said. “What can you do?”

“Thank you, Captain. It is nice to be appreciated,” JARVIS said. “As for my duties, Sir initially employed me as a butler and lab assistant. Since the promotion of his personal assistant to CEO of Stark Industries and Sir's status as a superhero I now also perform the duties of his personal assistant and co-pilot in the armor.”

“You can do all that?” Steve asked, shocked nearly speechless by JARVIS' capabilities.

“Among other duties, yes,” JARVIS confirmed. He sounded quite proud of himself, which Steve thought odd for a computer program. “Is there anything else I can help you with, Captain, or shall I leave you to settle in?”

“Settle in? I came to speak with Stark,” Steve corrected, confused.

“Forgive me, Captain, but Sir has company at the moment. He should be available shortly. In the meantime, Sir has said that I should show you to your floor and get you settled in.”

“My floor?”

“Yes, Captain. Sir remodeled the Tower after the Battle of New York and added full apartments for each of the Avengers as well as several common floors for the team's use. This floor is yours. Sir also added that you should feel free to redecorate as you see fit. A line of credit has been set up for the Avengers, so you need not worry about money.”

“That is very generous,” Steve said cautiously, wondering why exactly Stark was giving them all this stuff. “But I can't accept it. I really only came to speak with Stark.”

Steve winced inwardly at his own refusal and, judging by the prolonged silence, JARVIS felt similarly. He hated turning down the offer, especially since it was part of the reason he had come to see Stark in the first place, somewhere to stay, but it looked like Stark had beat him to it. Steve didn't know what to make of it at all. All the more reason to speak to Stark as soon as possible.

“I am afraid Sir insists, Captain,” JARVIS finally replied. “Sir will tell you more when you speak with him, but he has plans to assemble the Avengers in one place as a team. As such, the team's leader should be the first to take up residence in the tower.”

Steve allowed JARVIS' words to sink in, mulling them over and wondering, yet again, how Stark had managed to beat him to the punch a second time. If he didn't know better, Steve would think Stark was psychic. Maybe they just thought uncannily alike. Or this could all be just a coincidence.

“Thank you, JARVIS,” Steve said eventually. “I guess I'll settle in, then. Please tell me when Mr. Stark is available to speak with me.”

“Of course, Captain.”

Steve tossed a small smile toward the ceiling and wandered off to inspect the other rooms of his apartment, dropping his one bag off in the bedroom at the very back. He'd have to go shopping sometime, for more clothes if nothing else. In the meantime, he'd occupy himself exploring until Stark was ready for him.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Tony never did make that appointment with the surgeon. Instead, he chose to split his time equally between his workshop and office, alternately tinkering with his latest invention and completing paperwork Pepper sent him via e-mail. He hardly ate, often going the better part of three days before he realized he hadn't eaten, and slept even less. The only rest he got was when he passed out from sheer exhaustion at his work bench or, less frequently, his desk. For some reason, this triggered a mother hen subroutine in JARVIS and the AI had turned into a huge nag. Tony wasn't sure why, though constantly forgetting which day of the week it was and that his employees did not work on the weekends when he e-mailed them with questions was probably part of it.

“My God, Tony, you look terrible,” a familiar voice said from the door to his workshop. “When was the last time you slept? Or ate something?”

Tony turned around, his eyes squinting automatically in an effort to bring the blurry figure into focus. The dark blob finally solidified into a frowning James Rhodes. Frowning, Tony forced his features into a half-hearted glare, too tired to manage more.

“Did JARVIS call you? Honestly, Rhodey, I'm fine. He's just over-reacting and being all mother hen-y.”

“No, Tony, JARVIS didn't call me,” Rhodey said.

“You came to visit all on your own?” Tony said, slapping on his broad, media grin. “Aw, honey bear, I'm touched. You know, we don't hang out enough these days.”

“Sorry, Tony, but no,” his friend sighed, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose. “Pepper sent me over.”

“Pepper? Why? Did I forget to send over paperwork again? Honestly, I've been trying to keep up with it. I swear!”

“No, you didn't forget any paperwork, quite the opposite actually. You've been keeping up with all the stuff she's sent you.”

“Wait, wait,” Tony held up his hands in a defensive gesture. “You're telling me Pepper's mad at me because I'm doing what she's been nagging me to do for years?”

“Sir?” JARVIS interrupted. “My apologies, but Miss Eckhart would like to know if you are available to speak with a Steve Rogers waiting at the front desk.”

Tony groaned and slid a hand down his face. “Not now, J.”

“I am sorry, Sir, but he insists on speaking with you. It is a matter of some urgency, I believe.”

“Fine,” Tony said after a beat. “Show him to his floor and get him settled in. I'm with someone at the moment and will be available shortly.”

“Of course, Sir.”

“First, Pepper is mad at me and now Captain America shows up on my doorstep with his no doubt righteously disapproving glare. Can't I catch a break?”

Rhodey sighed again. “She's not mad, just worried about you. Tony, you have to admit that this isn't like you. You hate paperwork almost as much as you hate doctors and hospitals.”

“Whatever, Rhodey. It's not important,” Tony waved a dismissive hand at his friend and turned back to his current project. Strangely, he couldn't remember what it was. “Now, if you're done, I have work to do and a super-soldier to settle in.”

“Tony! You can't keep going on like this! Look at yourself! You're a dead man walking!”

“Don't be so dramatic. It's not attractive,” Tony said without looking up.

“Dammit, Tony! Stop deflecting! Something's bothering you. Anyone could see it. Talk to us, Tony. Let us help you,” Rhodey pleaded. Tony refused to allow himself to be moved by his friend's begging.

“Nothing's wrong. I'm fine,” he said, but even Tony didn't believe the monotone denial.

“Fine. If you won't talk to anyone, then at least write all that juvenile crap you call emotions running through that genius head of yours down somewhere. If you keep it bottled up much longer there'll be highly intelligent pieces of gray matter splattered all around your workshop. Do you really think Dummy would want to clean his creator's brains?”

“Dummy's a robot programmed with certain tasks. He wouldn't care what it was he was cleaning up,” Tony muttered sulkily.

“If you really believe that, then you need even more help than I thought,” Rhodey said, turning on his heal and striding stiffly through the door. “At least consider what I said, Tony. For you own good.”

The workshop doors slid shut and Rhodey left. Tony sat staring at nothing for several long minutes until Dummy rolled up to him and plucked at the loose fabric of his pants. They had gotten looser than Tony remembered and he had to wear a belt just to keep them from sliding down his hips. Looking over, Tony absently took the glass of green goop Dummy held out to him, thanking the little robot.

“J?”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Send Cap down.”

“Yes, Sir.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

“Captain? Sir is available to see you now. If you would enter the elevator, I will take you to him.”

Steve glanced up at the ceiling, startled out of his examination of an extra shiny tabletop. He had found several oddly-shaped holes along the edges – Natasha had told him they were called ports and were found on computers so you could connect other devices to it, but he had never seen them on a table before. Or maybe it was a desk meant for computers? They had had glass computer desks at SHIELD.

“Thank you, JARVIS,” Steve said and followed the voice's directions.

He found the elevator doors already open for him and stepped into the car, turning around just in time to see the doors slide closed and the lighted numbers above them to begin counting down the floors. In no time at all, Steve found himself stepping out into a very futuristic hallway, all steel and angles with not even a smidgen of decoration or color. Somehow, he felt it suited the building's owner. The feeling only increased when he walked through the glass door at the end of the hall and right into the chaos of creation.

The room itself had been built in the same style as the hallway. Steve could see hints of clean lines and formerly gleaming metal. Workbenches littered the space, piled high with bits and pieces of machinery and tools Steve had no hope of recognizing. Three robotic arms on wheels wandered around picking up the things that had overflowed off the tables and found themselves on the floor. One even held a mop in its claw and was trying to clean up dark puddles Steve thought was probably motor oil.

In the center of it all sat Stark surrounded by faintly glowing holograms hovering in the air around him. For a second, Steve stared in awe, then he actually saw Stark and his expression morphed into one of horror. The man looked terrible, kind of like Steve used to before the serum. His elbows and shoulders looked far too bony and his clothes hung loosely on his frame, both symptoms of massive sudden weight loss. What muscle tone Stark had had before was shot all to hell. Steve was convinced he would be able to count Stark's ribs from across the room easily if he took off the grimy tank. Stark had deep bruising under his eyes like he hadn't slept for months, the manic glint of genius in his eyes hidden by shadowy, haunted look Steve found deeply disturbing. It tilted his world on edge when he had only just begun to right it.

Steve frowned, taking several determined steps forward. “Are you feeling alright? You look ill.”

“Not you too!” Stark shouted, throwing his hands up in the air. “Everyone feels the need to poke their noses in my business today! I'm fine!”

“Forgive me, Sir, but Captain Rogers has a point,” JARVIS said. Steve just barely kept himself from jumping at the sudden support. He hadn't expected to hear the AI here, but that was ridiculous. He was Tony's creation, of course he would be in Tony's space.

“Now you're jumping on the bandwagon?” Stark pointed an accusing finger at a small black dome hanging from the ceiling that Steve assumed was a camera JARVIS had access to. “You're supposed to be on my side!”

“I shall always be on your side, as you say, Sir. My programming dictates I take care of my creator especially when he will not take care of himself.”

“Drop it, J. I'm fine,” Stark insisted, dismissing his creation and turning back to Steve who had been distracted by one of the robotic arms swinging back and forth as if it was looking worriedly between Stark and JARVIS. “So, what brings you to my doorstep other than concerns over my health, Cap?”

Steve returned his attention to Stark, noticing the way he seemed to force himself to be light and cheerful. “I think you and I already have the same idea, actually.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

“I wanted to re-form the Avengers and make the team official.”

Stark stayed thoughtfully silent for a moment. “And what brought this on all of a sudden? You seemed perfectly happy to go solo after that last dust up.”

Grudgingly, Steve admitted to himself that Stark had a valid point. “Hydra's on the move again. I'm sure you already know they'd infiltrated SHIELD.”

“I head heard that,” Stark said. “Always knew there was something up about those guys.”

“Yes, well, Hydra didn't stop there. They're targeting people they see as a threat to their ultimate goals,” Steve went on. Stark raised an unimpressed eyebrow. So, he didn't know how close he'd come to death not so long ago. “You're at the top of the list. They almost blew you up about a month ago.”

“What? Little old me? A threat to the big, bad Hydra? They must be crazy.”

“It's not a joke, Stark,” Steve growled. Stark just stared him down.

“Who's laughing? What could I do by myself that would be a threat to such an obviously widespread organization like Hydra?”

“They clearly think you're a threat,” Steve pointed out sarcastically. “It probably had something to do with that mechanized suit of armor you built in a cave in Afghanistan.”

Stark looked surprised for a moment, but quickly covered it up with his usual brand of flashy arrogance. “Alright. Fine. I see your point and just so happen to agree. So, I'll hunt down the rest of the Avengers and have J send you their contact information. I seriously doubt they'd answer a call from me. But a summons from Captain America? They'd come running.”

“Thank you, Stark. I appreciate it,” Steve said politely and turned to go, but Stark stopped him.

“Cap? If we're going to be working on the same team, you might as well call me Tony,” he said.

Steve hesitated just the barest of moments, then, “Of course, Tony. You might consider getting some sleep before you dive back into work. It looks like you could use it.”

And he was out the door before Tony could protest. It was his own fault for pointing out the whole same team business. He was right, though. Tony was a member of his team and Steve took care of his own, whether they liked it or not.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Tony glared at Steve Rogers' retreating back through the glass separating his workshop from the hallway to the elevator. The jerk even dared to wink at him from the elevator when he saw Tony still watching him. He grumbled unintelligibly under his breath, not even bothering to form actual words that was how annoyed he was. Turning around, Tony busied himself with whatever project he had had in front of him before Rhodey had barged in and interrupted him. He still didn't know what it was. Maybe getting some sleep wasn't such a bad idea after all.

“I've gotta be crazy if I'm considering taking advice from a man who wears red, white, and blue spandex,” he muttered.

“I believe the first sign of insanity is talking to yourself, Sir,” JARVIS butted in.

“No one asked you, J.”

“Of course, Sir. My apologies.”

Tony heaved a sigh, dropping the whatever-it-was on the bench and secretly relieved it didn't go tumbling to the floor like the rest of his in-progress projects. “J? I need you to start a new file.”

“Of course, Sir. What shall I title it?”

“Just call it 'journal' and bury it in the deepest depths of my private servers. I don't want anyone stumbling across it by accident.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Great. Let's get started,” Tony said, taking a deep breath before continuing. “For the record, this was not my idea. A friend of mine, though 'friend' is looking to be something of a stretch, suggested I give this a try since I clearly need it. Jury's out on whether he's crazy or I am...”

~*~*~*~*~*~

Steve went back to examining the shiny desk as soon as he got back to his floor, wondering if maybe he could use it to draw on. After several minutes of pondering he remembered a rather important fact. JARVIS had said to ask if he had questions. Well, this qualified, even if it did make Steve feel a little stupid for having to ask.

“JARVIS?”

A short pause, then, “How may I be of service, Captain?”

“Could you tell me what this table is?” Steve asked, gesturing to it. He had seen the same black dome things in the ceiling in his apartment as he had in Tony's workshop and knew JARVIS should be able to see him.

“Certainly, Captain,” JARVIS replied. “That is your computer. Sir has installed similar ones on all Avengers floors.”

Steve frowned. “It doesn't look like a computer.”

“It is one of Sir's design, made to communicate directly with the Tower's servers and the other accounts on the system,” JARVIS explained.

“Oh. How do I use it?”

“Simply tap the upper right-hand corner to activate it. The rest is similar to more traditional computers.”

Steve did as instructed and found that the computer came on instantly. The desk glowed a soft blue, displaying a keyboard and projecting a holographic screen a few inches above the surface similar to the ones that had hovered around Tony in his workshop. The screen displayed what looked like a basic login screen with the username section already filled in: s_rogers. Above that a near perfect reproduction of his shield, only smaller, spun slowly. Below his name an empty box sat with blinking cursor, waiting patiently for him to type in the password.

Not knowing what the password would be and unwilling to ask JARVIS for further assistance out of misplaced pride, Steve took a stab in the dark and typed in 'captainamerica'. He hit the 'enter' key and was mildly surprised when the login screen vanished, a barren desktop taking its place. The usual icons floated in front of him: My Computer, My Documents, and Recycle Bin. An icon he'd never seen before also hovered there. It was a stylized block 'S' with a shooting star circling it diagonally labeled 'StarkNet'.

Another icon, a small version of a dog-eared piece of paper with the label 'Instructions for the old man' floated in the middle where he would be sure to see it. Chuckling, Steve rolled his eyes and ignored it, touching the hovering 'StarkNet' icon. He was pretty sure that was the Internet and he wanted to check his e-mail. Natasha had made him sign up for a personal e-mail account so she could bug him about getting a date outside of work as well as during. Steve had grudgingly agreed and, with her help, set one up with Goggles – or something like that. Apparently, it was the most popular site for e-mail and Internet searches, not that Steve could tell the difference or would care even if he could.

Steve logged into his e-mail account quickly, long since used to doing it daily, but was disappointed to see Natasha hadn't sent him any messages like he'd expected. So he fired a quick one off to her suggesting she take up residence in Stark Tower and bring Clint if she could find him. He briefly considered asking JARVIS for Tony's e-mail so he could let him know he'd already contacted Natasha, but decided the AI probably already knew and would tell Tony when necessary.

A new message was waiting when he got back to his inbox. Curious, Steve checked the e-mail address and saw that it was blocked, but the message itself was flagged as both safe and urgent. The subject line simply read 'Help'. Knowing this was probably a huge mistake and sincerely hoping Tony's system could defend itself against any viruses he might accidentally download, Steve opened the message.

 

For the record, this was not my idea and I will deny until my dying breath that I ever wrote a journal. A friend of mine, though 'friend' is looking to be something of a stretch, suggested I give this a try since I clearly need it. Jury's out on whether he's crazy or I am, but I just had a run-in with my childhood hero and even he noticed something was off. I haven't even known the guy more than a week altogether. Is that bad? Probably, but I wouldn't know. Interpersonal relationships aren't really my strong suit.

Anyway, I guess this all started a little over a month ago when my girlfriend broke up with me. She was the best thing to ever happen to me and I somehow still managed to screw it up. Hell, I thought it was going well, but she couldn't handle my chosen lifestyle anymore and called it off. Not that I blame her. She was right. She had to do what was right for her and what's right for her isn't me. I really wish it was.

To make it worse, she wants to stay friends. While I don't want her gone completely, friendship just feels too cruel right now, even a month later. I haven't even seen her since the night she broke up with me. She immediately flew back to the west coast and left me on the opposite end of the country. And she's still showing she cares about me! Dammit! She even sent my oldest friend over because I was actually doing my job and not putting it off in favor of more interesting pursuits.

I'm lucky I haven't started drinking again, but I worked hard to get away from the stuff and I'm too damn stubborn to go back so easily. At least, I hope so. My friends would probably kill me if I did and I wouldn't blame them one bit. That didn't stop me from throwing myself into work. Maybe that's why everyone keeps looking at me like I'm about to keel over. Huh... Interesting thought. I'll have to make a note of that. Don't they make make-up to help hide things like that? I'll have to look into it.

Right now I don't want to do anything. I just want to sit here and stare at the wall. You'd be surprised how interesting a wall can be when your life is falling apart at the seams. I don't have time for that. I have things to do. So many things to do and not enough hours in the day. That's why they invented artificial lighting, so people like me could stay up all hours of the night and work ourselves into oblivion. I wonder if that guy had girlfriend problems too. Although mine are more lack-of-girlfriend problems. Same difference when you think about it.

Looking back over this entry I think I sound too carefree about the whole thing. Somehow I don't think that's what my friend-not-friend was going for. Great. I failed both of them. I don't even care anymore. I give up. I don't want to do this. Just, shut it down.

He sat there staring at the anonymous message for a long time, trying to piece together what exactly he was feeling. The person writing had clearly not intended for it to be read, but they – he? – sounded like they were struggling and needed help. Steve found himself wanting desperately to help the man – because he was sure the writer was a man, the overall tone just screamed it – but it would be rude to admit to reading someone's private thoughts. Eventually, Steve's desire to help people won out of his politeness. After asking JARVIS if he could send his reply back to the original sender anonymously, Steve e-mailed the stranger back.

~*~*~*~*~*~

“Sir?”

“What is it, JARVIS? I'm a little busy,” Tony said absently.

“There is a message for you.”

“Who's it from?”

A pause. “The sender is anonymous, Sir,” JARVIS said.

Tony frowned. “Delete it. How did it even make it past your filters?”

“Forgive me, Sir, but I think you should read it.”

“J,” Tony sighed and looked up from his work. “I'm not opening an anonymous message that is probably filled with viruses.”

“The scans came back negative for viruses and other malicious software, Sir.”

“Alright, J, why do you want me to read this mysterious message so badly?” Tony demanded.

“See for yourself, Sir,” JARVIS said, displaying said e-mail directly in front of him.

 

Dear Mystery Writer,

I know you probably didn't intend to have your not-a-journal read by anyone, least of all me, but I couldn't help but respond.

I know what it's like to lose a girlfriend, though we were separated by something other than irreconcilable differences. I'll never see my ex-girlfriend again, but I found friends who helped me come to terms with it. I'm sure your friends are trying their best to do the same for you. You should let them help you. The world will seem dark at first, but it does get better.

In the meantime, I'm here if you want to talk. I know it can be easier to talk to a stranger than to your friends sometimes. Don't give up. You're not alone.

Sincerely,
A friend

P.S. Make sure you eat and sleep regularly even if you don't feel like it. You wouldn't want to scare your friends into thinking you've become a zombie, would you?

Tony stared at the holo-screen, speechless. Not a common occurrence in his life. Finally, he pulled himself together enough to ask the obvious question.

“JARVIS, how did this person get my journal?”

“I do not know, Sir. There are no signs of the servers being hacked and the file has not been accessed since you closed it an hour ago,” JARVIS said.

“J, run every diagnostic you can think of. Find out how this happened or I'm donating you to a community college,” Tony ordered.

“Yes, Sir.”

Tony went back to work, but his mind wasn't in it. He was still thinking about that message and the person who wrote it. How did they get his journal and manage to send a response to his personal e-mail anonymously? Whoever it was they had to be intelligent. Almost as intelligent as he was. The curiosity was driving him crazy, his mysterious message-sender calling to him. It wasn't the smartest idea he'd ever had, but it definitely wasn't the stupidest either. Probably...

“J, open a new e-mail. We're sending our new friend a reply.”

“Of course, Sir.”

Another screen opened in front of Tony and he began dictating:

 

Hello, stranger.

You're right. I hadn't intended to have my personal thoughts read by you or anyone, but since you have there's really nothing to be done about it. I am looking into this security breach. Rest assured, I will figure out what happened. I always do.

I don't know who you are or why you decided to write back to me, but I take it as a personal challenge to find out. Keep a look out, stranger, because I will find you no matter where you're hiding.

The game, stranger, is on!

Tony didn't have to wait long after he sent his response before the other person had e-mailed him back. The guy must have been waiting at his computer for Tony's answer.

 

Hello, Mr. Game,

You're more than welcome to try to find me, but as I don't know who you are either, I think we're in the same boat. Still, try to find me if you think you can. It sounds like you could use the fun such a challenge would bring. Working yourself to death wouldn't be fair to the people in your life who care about you.

Since you plan to track me down I think I'll do the same. Catch me if you can.

Sincerely,
A friend

A grin split Tony's face at the mystery person's reply, the first true smile he'd felt since Pepper left him.

“It looks like I made a new friend,” he said to no one in particular.

“Congratulations, Sir.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

A couple weeks later the rest of the team had moved into their own floors, even Bruce had come back from wherever he'd been hiding out. Thor was the last to arrive. Steve had put in a call to his human girlfriend, Jane, and left a message with her that Thor was welcome to move in with the rest of them and bring her along if he wanted. Tony hadn't expressly given his permission for girlfriends of the Avengers to move in, but Steve thought it would have been rude not to invite her after asking her to deliver the message to Thor. Tony probably wouldn't mind too much anyway. Jane was a brilliant scientist in her own right and Steve was certain she would be able to keep up with Tony. Besides, the man was in a better mood than he'd been when Steve first moved in.

Tony already looked more rested than he had two weeks ago and he seemed to eat more regularly too. He was still a far cry from his former self, but Steve no longer worried he would collapse suddenly and need to be taken to the hospital. The genius frequently ate meals with the rest of the team when they gathered to do so, usually at Steve or Thor's insistence, but would retreat back down to his workshop as soon as he could. When Steve asked about it, Tony just claimed he had work to do. Steve didn't quite believe that, so he asked JARVIS who said that Tony's behavior was well within the norm for him. Deciding he wouldn't get a better answer, Steve dropped it.

He's returning from a solo mission, checking out a lead on Bucky's whereabouts that turned out to be a dud, when he walks by what he thought was just an oddly-shaped piece of garbage along the sidewalk. Sadly, there were people everywhere who littered without care. It reflected badly on the city and its other residents, but there was nothing he could do about it. At least nothing that would be effective in the short or long term, so he resigned himself to walking by and just getting home when he noticed the garbage move.

Dark eyes blinked up at him as the dog raised its head to sniff the air near Steve. The dog whimpered pitifully and Steve's heart broke. He carefully moved closer and knelt cautiously in front of it, holding out his hand for the dog to sniff. Apparently, he passed muster, because the dog nosed at his hand then rolled over onto its back. Steve noticed that, not only was the dog a girl, but she had no collar and was severely malnourished. Steve could easily count her ribs. She reminded him a lot of Tony when Steve first came to Avengers Tower.

“Hey, girl, are you lost?” Steve said gently. She just nosed at his hand so he petted her head. She whined when he stopped, which only broke Steve's heart further. “You were abandoned, weren't you? Poor thing. Wanna come home with me?”

The dog seemed to know what he was saying because she did her best to stand on unsteady legs. Steve picked her up gently, watching for any sign that he was hurting her or that she didn't like it, but the dog didn't have a problem being handled. He wondered at that, but decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth and just cradled her against his chest.

Steve took her back to the Tower, slipping past the receptionist in the lobby while she was busy. He felt a little guilty not pausing to give her a friendly smile like usual, but the less questions about the Tower's newest occupant the better. Steve didn't want Tony finding out about his new dog from someone else before he had a chance to plead his case. Besides, not even Tony could resist her puppy dog eyes blinking hopefully up at him.

After settling his dog down and giving her some food – he'd have to go shopping for proper dog food soon – Steve settled down in front of his computer. He asked JARVIS for help finding a vet who could check her over and making an appointment then decided to write his pen pal. They'd been exchanging e-mails constantly for weeks and Steve was starting to feel drawn to the other man. Well, even more drawn than before. Steve liked him a lot and the feeling seemed to be mutual. It was about time he wrote his friend anyway.

 

Hi, Mr. Enigma,

Sorry I haven't written to you in a while. No, I didn't forget about you or abandon you or anything. I've been away on business and had a hard time making it to a computer. To make it worse, the trip was a bust. Oh, well.

You'll never guess what I found on my way home, though. A dog! I think she was abandoned on the street. She such a friendly dog, I can't believe anyone would abandon her. I brought her home with me and have an appointment with a vet for her later this week. She's sleeping now, all curled up on my bed. I think she'll be okay. She reminds me of a friend of mine who recently went through a hard time. He never did tell me what was bothering him, but he's gotten a lot better. If my new dog is anything like him, she'll bounce back in no time.

I hope you're doing well. No sudden crises? You didn't pick up a stray cat or anything, did you?

Sincerely,
A friend

Steve sends the message and goes to unpack. He comes back twenty minutes later to see a new e-mail from his anonymous pen-pal. Smiling, Steve opens it, not bothering to question what his friend could possibly be doing that he can stop at the drop of a hat to e-mail him back.

 

Hey stranger,

No, I didn't pick up any strays today. It must just be you. I know we haven't met in person, but somehow I can just see you bringing home a stray. It's sickeningly adorable. Have you decided on a name for her yet? You can't just keep calling her “my dog.” If she's like the women I've met, she won't appreciate that.

Fondly Yours,
I-haven't-forgotten-our-little-game

P.S. Are you feeling generous enough to give me a hint? Pretty please with sugar on top?

Steve laughed and typed out a quick reply:

 

Hello again, Mr. Little-Game,

I haven't thought of a name for her yet, but I'm open to suggestions if you have any.

Sincerely,
A friend

P.S. I haven't forgotten either. Believe me.

P.P.S. Still no hints. Good luck. XP

Mere seconds later, Steve was opening another reply, this one shorter than the others.

 

An interesting question, stranger. I'll think about it and get back with you.

Yours,
Imagining-you-cuddling-puppies-and-kittens-when-I-finally-find-you

P.S. I bet you're thinking about me right now. Tell me, how dirty are your fantasies anyway?

P.P.S. No fair! I'd give you one if you asked.

P.P.P.S. And don't stick your tongue out at me, you big meanie-face.

Steve rolled his eyes and laughed, waking his dog. He soothed her back to sleep and thinks his friend is right. He really needs to come up with a name for her.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Tony emerged from his workshop for the first time in three days in desperate need of coffee, but the kitchen was busy. Frowning, he wandered in, wondering why in the world all his towermates could possibly need to be in the kitchen at the same time. Was it even day anymore? The last time he remembered looking outside the sun was setting. How long ago had that been?

“What's going on here? And what time is it?” Tony asked, making a beeline for the coffeemaker and pouring himself a cup.

“Steven has brought home a companion and is introducing us!” Thor says in his booming voice. Tony winces.

“Cap brought home a girl?”

Clint snickers. “In a manner of speaking.”

A bark punctuates Clint's words and Tony nearly drops his mug. The two super spies move out of the way, giving Tony a clear view of the dog in Steve's arms. She's frail-looking, like she'd been living on the street for a while and didn't know how to survive that way, but was finally being taken care of properly. Tony didn't know what to say, so he stood there with his mouth hanging open and coffee clenched safely in his fist.

“You brought home a stray dog?” He managed, mind racing.

“Yeah. You don't mind do you?” Steve asked earnestly, batting those long, pale lashes at him charmingly. His dog even gave him a similar look. “She was abandoned on the street. I couldn't leave her.”

Tony was sure Natasha was staring sternly at him, daring him to refuse Steve, but Tony didn't pay her any attention. He wouldn't deny Cap his dog, not when it made him think of his pen pal and his new dog, also a stray. Just picturing his pen pal cuddling a malnourished dog like Cap was doing now did strange things to his stomach. Could Cap be his pen pal? The dog thing was a pretty huge coincidence and his pen pal did have a tendency to sound like Cap sometimes. Tony would never admit to finding the stern admonishments to take better care of himself alluring. But no, that was impossible. Steve didn't even have an e-mail address. It had to be a coincidence.

“Of course not,” Tony said, shaking his head to clear it. “Just make sure she's got all her shots and everything. Do you have a name for her yet?”

Steve frowned thoughtfully. “I haven't decided on one yet.”

“I think you should name her Liberty,” Natasha suggested amid a chorus of agreement from the rest of the assembled Avengers.

“It fits,” Tony put in, sidling toward the door and freedom. “Even if it is cliché.”

Steve scrunched his nose up and looked down at the dog in his arms. She stared back serenely. “I don't know...”

“Come on, Cap. You could call her Libby for short,” Clint wheedled.

That was the last Tony heard of the discussion before he escaped into the hallway and the relative safety from dog-naming debates.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Tony was sleeping when the call came in. JARVIS woke him three hours in to give him the message from Cap that Hydra had been spotted upstate. Tony rolled off the couch in his workshop and stumbled to his feet, asking JARVIS where the information had come from even as he let the suit assemble around him.

“Unknown, Sir. Captain Rogers did not reveal his source, only that it was reliable.”

Tony grumbled under his breath as he took off and sped out of the tower. “I assume they're taking the Quinjet?”

“Yes, Sir. The Avengers have assembled and are en route.”

“Coordinates?”

“On your display, Sir.”

Tony double-checked and, sure enough, the coordinates flashed in the bottom corner of his HUD. As he rose and adjusted his trajectory, Tony found himself flying alongside the Quinjet, Clint at the wheel. He opened a channel to the rest of the team.

“What've we got?”

“Hydra was spotted in the woodlands upstate,” Cap replied. “Our objective is to neutralize their base and capture any Hydra members for later interrogation.”

“Great. Do we know where this information comes from?” Tony pressed. Tellingly, Cap hesitated.

“An anonymous tip.”

“This better not be a wild goose chase,” Tony grumbled. “I got out of bed for this.”

“You should really give up on the beauty sleep thing, Stark. It's not working for you,” Clint quipped.

“Clever, Barton. We'll see who's laughing when I beat you to the Hydra base.”

“Like you could.”

“No one is racing anywhere,” Cap ordered sternly. Clint and Tony ignored him.

“How much you wanna bet?” Tony challenged.

“Kitchen duty for a month,” Clint said.

“Done! Last one there is a rotten egg!” Tony crowed and shot off.

“Tony!” Steve shouted over the comms. “Clint! No racing!”

They ignored him and eventually Cap gave it up as a lost cause, ordering the rest to hold on tight and threatening to hold both Clint and Tony personally responsible if the Quinjet crashed. Tony was too busy buzzing the trees and flitting through the air in front of the Quinjet tauntingly. Clint cursed at him more than once over the comms, but Tony only laughed at him. He touched down several minutes later in front of an old military-style bunker.

“I win! In your face, Barton!” Tony cheered.

“Cut the chatter,” Steve ordered. “We go in hot. I'll take point, Hawkeye brings up the rear, and Iron Man is air support. Bruce, you hang back with the Quinjet unless we need you. Go!”

Cap kicked open the door, surprisingly not locked or anything, and ran in, shield held in front of him. Widow and Thor took up positions on either side of him while Hawkeye followed, walking backward and keeping an eye out for any smarter-than-average Hydra agents who thought to sneak up behind them. Tony flew above the group, careful not to smack into the ceiling or his fellow Avengers. That wasn't really something he wanted to have to live down.

They met little resistance as they cleared the bunker section by section. Most of the occupants were scientists cowering in fear and scampering from shadow to shadow like rats. Scientific equipment was strewn everywhere, like someone had already been through and done their best to destroy everything Hydra had been working on. Tony noticed a bank of smashed computers that were still sparking, Whoever had gotten here first hadn't been too far ahead of them.

“Someone else was here before us,” Tony said over the Avengers general frequency.

“No shit, Sherlock! Any ideas who?” Hawkeye sniped, shooting a particularly brave Hydra scientist trying to sneak up on them at a rear angle.

“I'm a genius, birdbrain, not psychic.” Tony blasted a Hydra soldier lining up to take a pot shot at a distracted Cap. “Watch it there, Cap. These guys have teeth. Small teeth, but they're there.”

“Got it, Iron Man,” Cap said absently, throwing his shield at another soldier and catching it on the rebound as the sped down the corridor and down the stairs at the end. “Any theories on what happened here?”

“Beyond 'someone beat us to it'? No.”

“Okay. Keep an eye out for someone who's not with Hydra, just in case.”

“Roger that, Cap,” Tony said as he flew ahead to scout out the area.

One second he was flying through the empty corridor and the next he felt something heavy slam into his chest, knocking the wind out of him and sending him flying into the far wall. From there he fell to the floor, landing hard. Something heavy, probably the same thing that hit him, landed on his chest, pinning him to the ground and making it hard to breathe.

“Iron Man!” Cap shouted.

“What the hell happened?” Hawkeye demanded right after. Something Tony would like to know. Only Black Widow had an answer for them.

“It looks like he tripped a booby trap,” she said.

“Well, if someone had to get smacked in the chest with a flying boulder, better the guy with the armor,” Clint commented.

Irritated, Tony gasped out, “Can't breathe over here.”

“I've got you, Iron Man. Hold on,” Steve soothed gently. “I think we can lift it off of you. Thor?”

“Yes, good Captain?”

“Can you go around to the other side and help me lift this off him? We have to be careful. Whatever you do, don't drop it.”

Thor did as asked, walking around to Tony's other side and letting Mjolnir fall to the ground next to him. The shock jarred Tony inside the suit and made him gasp in pain. Luckily, no one commented, which he was immensely grateful for. He did really have the breath for any kind of explanation at the moment. Then the weight was gone and Tony could breathe easier, though no less painfully. Probably cracked ribs.

“Bruce, do you read me?” Cap was saying. They must have dropped the boulder somewhere. “Iron Man is down. He took a boulder to the chest. We're bringing him back out. Standby.”

“I'm fine, Cap,” Tony protested as the helped him up. “The armor took the brunt of it. Honestly, the worst I've got are a couple of cracked ribs max.”

“We're not taking any chances, Iron Man,” Cap insisted, slinging an armored arm over his own shoulders and helping Tony back up the stairs. “It looks like there's nothing here anyway.”

It took forever for them to make it back to the exit and the Quinjet where Bruce was waiting. Tony spent the time leaning slightly into Steve and wishing they had made him take the armor off before the trip so he could feel the warmth he knew radiated off Steve. All too soon, they reached their destination and Tony had to stand on his own, the pain in his ribs flaring briefly when he straightened.

“Armor off, Tony,” Bruce ordered when they got close enough. “Let me examine you.”

“I love it when you talk dirty to me, babe,” Tony quipped, but allowed the armor to disassemble and pile on the deck of the Quinjet after they led him inside.

Bruce sat him down on a bench while the others busied themselves for take off. Natasha even made sure to secure his armor so it wouldn't go flying around the cabin. Tony nodded his gratitude, though he made sure to keep a close eye on her in case she tried anything funny. Old habits died hard. He could still feel a twinge in his neck whenever he saw a needle coming his way.

“It's just three or four cracked ribs,” Bruce declared several minutes later. “The arc reactor looks fine too. I don't think you have anything to worry about. Just take it easy until your ribs heal. And run a diagnostic on the reactor too, just in case.”

“Thanks, doc,” Tony said, pulling his shirt back on carefully.

He leaned back against the bulkhead and relaxed for the rest of the trip back to the tower, ignoring the worried glances the team kept shooting him. When they finally got home he clambered out first, calling for JARVIS to bring the armor down to his workshop so he could work out the dents, and disappeared into the elevator before anyone could stop him. The armor needed fixing, but first, he needed to shoot his pen pal an e-mail.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Steve left the bathroom without bothering to put on a shirt. It was just him and Tasha in his apartment anyway and she wouldn’t care if he walked around half naked. She only raised her head from its position resting on her front paws to check that everything was normal as he walked into his bedroom. When he didn’t do anything out of the ordinary she went back to her nap. Steve shook his head at her. Tasha had been a scared and dangerously skinny thing when he had taken her in only a few weeks ago, but now she was spoiled beyond recognition.

The earlier mission had been another bust and it frustrated him. If Tony hadn't been injured, he probably would have kept going in the hopes of finding Bucky even though he knew the Winter Soldier would have long since fled the scene. He was a ghost, always three steps ahead of him, and it drove Steve to obsession.

Tony was another problem that kept popping up and driving Steve crazy. They got along just fine when they were together, which was good, but the man could drive a saint to murder. Who sequestered themselves in their workshop after being nearly crushed to death by a boulder? Apparently, Tony Stark did.

Turning his attention to other matters, Steve stared briefly at the painting currently on his easel, wondering if he should work on it some more, but he just couldn't come up with the motivation. He thought about checking his e-mail, but again, he couldn't find it in himself to sit at the table-computer. All he really wanted was to lounge in bed for awhile, then maybe go visit Tony to make sure he was alright. Glancing around his room, Steve's gaze fell on a solution. His laptop, courtesy of Tony via SHIELD before its destruction, sat on his dresser nearby and kept demanding his attention. Finally, Steve gave in to the obvious desire to check his e-mail, hoping for another one from the pen pal he had somehow managed to acquire.

 

 

Steve grabbed the laptop and sat on his bed, opening the lid and pressing the ‘on’ button. He was staring at a little envelope with a one in a starburst on its corner mere minutes later. His mystery pen pal had written to him! Inordinately excited for such a small occurrence, and wondering what it could mean that something so innocuous earned such a relatively large reaction, Steve tapped the little square below the keyboard to open the message.

 

Hey stranger, it’s been a while.

Kidding! Just kidding! Anyway, how’ve you been? Have you decided on a name for your new dog yet? I’m not good at naming things or I’d give you some suggestions. The only one I’ve got is Fido and that’s so cliché it’s bordering on painful. If you haven’t named her yet, please, for the love of all that is good in this world, do NOT name your dog Fido. Or Lassie. Unless she actually is Lassie. Never mind. Don’t name her Lassie either. I’ll hunt you down and make you change it if you do.

Steve chuckled to himself as he read. Tasha raised her head and looked at him curiously. “It’s nothing, girl. My friend has some strong opinions on your name. Fido and Lassie are both out, apparently."

Tasha snorted and gave him an affronted look as if to say, Of course you’re not naming me Fido or Lassie. Those are both horrible names. I’d bite you if you did. Steve just laughed again and went back to his reading.

 

Enough about terrible dog names. I’m pretty sure my assistant thinks I live in my workshop. She came by today and scolded me about something. I don’t know what it was since I wasn’t really paying attention. She didn’t realize she was standing right next to one of my blueprints and I got distracted thinking up more ideas. She gave me the Look when she left. I think she might think I’m having second thoughts about our break-up. Yeah, okay, not talking about that one again.

So, basically, I had a normal day today. Just a little scavenger hunt gone wrong. The group we were hunting got a little too clever for their own good and started flinging rocks. Pretty big rocks. I got the wind knocked out of me a little, but nothing too major. I'm fine, in case you were wondering. Anything interesting happen to you today? You gotta give me something. I’m bored.

You could tell me your name if you don’t have a story. How about it? Will you tell me your name this time? I know, I know, I don’t get yours until you get mine. Stubborn as a bull, aren’t you? Well, I’m even more stubborn.

Eagerly awaiting your reply,
I-am-going-to-win-our-little-name-game

Steve laughed out loud, clicking the ‘reply’ button and settling in to type his response.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Tony fiddled with a random bit of machinery that used to be part of the abdominal armor on his suit. He wasn't really paying attention to what he was doing, waiting anxiously for his mystery writer to write him. Honestly, it hadn't even been that long ago since they'd last talked. His writer had probably been busy and he definitely didn't know that Tony was feeling the need to talk to him after his hectic day. Giving his head a hard shake, Tony tossed the whatever-it-was onto his workbench and forced himself to walk over to the suit hanging in a corner. He would make his brain focus on the task at hand if it killed him.

“Don't think about it, Stark,” Tony muttered to himself. “You have other things you could be doing.”

“What are you not thinking about, Tony?” A very familiar and much missed voice said from behind him.

Tony spun around, dropping something with a loud clang, and winced. He hoped it wasn't to badly damaged beyond repair, whatever it was. That would just make his day. First, he gets smacked around by a rock. Then, a ghost from the past comes for a visit and he nearly destroys his own armor trying to repair it. Damn, Tony really needed to pull his head out of his ass or he'd end up buried under the rubble of his own tower.

“Pep? What are you doing in New York?” He asked. A pause, then, “Wait, what are you doing here?”

“Oh, no reason, just touring the New York facilities of your company,” Pepper said off-hand. “You know, that thing you were supposed to attend today and didn't.”

She came to a stop not far from where Tony had taken a seat on his usual stool, right next to a holo-screen showing the blueprints of the latest incarnation of the Iron Man armor Tony had had JARVIS display so he could check the damaged suit's integrity. Pepper launched into a lecture about taking better care of himself and not running headlong into booby traps in Hydra bases. It sounded well thought out, like she had planned everything she was going to say to him. Knowing Pepper, she probably had.

“I know we broke up a while ago and I have no right to demand behavioral changes of you anymore, but we're still friends and I still worry. And I'm sure your team worries too,” Pepper said, turning accusatory in the next instant. “Did you even spend any time with them before you hid away down here? They probably think you died.”

Tony sighed loudly, making sure Pepper heard it and knew he was annoyed. “I'm fine, Pep,” he said, yanking down the collar of his shirt just far enough so she could see the arc reactor, but not so far that she would notice the bruising around his ribs growing darker by the minute. “Look, reactor still glowing and everything. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a suit to un-dent.”

Pepper frowned at him, clearly not convinced. “If you say so, Tony. Keep in mind that you don't have to do everything yourself. There are several people who would be all too happy to help you if you needed it.”

“Thanks. Yeah, I'll keep that in mind even though I'm fine. I keep telling people that and no one ever believes me,” Tony rambled, flapping his hands at Pepper in a shooing gesture. “Run along now. I'm sure you're very busy and don't need to waste your time with an eccentric genius like me. See you later. Hasta la vista. Bye.”

Pepper huffed in annoyance, turning on her heel and striding out of his workshop like a queen. Tony smiled to himself after she disappeared into the elevator. She might be mad at him now, but at least she wasn't worried. If he was acting like an ass, he must be fine. Tony always did have a way with people. Everyone said he knew nothing about relationships, which was true, but Tony knew well how to deflect baseless feelings of concern and uncomfortable inquiries from his friends. She'd even forgotten to press him on the thing he was trying not to think about. Speaking of which...

“J?”

“Yes, Sir?” JARVIS answered immediately.

“Open a new message,” Tony ordered, turning to face the holo-screen that appeared on his left. “I feel like talking to my mysterious friend.”

“Of course, Sir.”

E-mail sent, Tony went back to work. He pulled the chest plate off the armor and took it to the least cluttered workbench, which he still had to clear off before he could do any serious work. An hour later and Tony was still hammering out dents and generally making all kinds of racket. Even without his customary music, it was so loud Tony almost didn't hear JARVIS trying to get his attention.

“Sir?”

“What is it, J?” Tony said absently, wincing at the sharp pain in his ribs as they protested moving out of his hunched over position.

“A new message from your mystery friend has just arrived. Shall I read it for you?”

“No, thanks anyway, J,” Tony said, trying and failing to keep the excitement out of his voice. “Put it up on the main holo-screen.”

“Of course, Sir.”

Words suddenly appeared floating in the air above his workbench. Tony made a beeline back to his favorite stool, leaning forward eagerly, and ignoring the twinge in his ribs, to read what his mystery writer had written.

 

Hi, Mr. Name-Game,

I'm well. How are you?

Don't worry. I didn't name her Fido or Lassie. Actually, I almost didn't get to name her at all before a co-worker of mine tossed her own name into the ring. For some reason, my colleague thought it would be amusing to name her Liberty. I thought it was a bit cliché, so I suggested naming her after my co-worker, Tasha. Turns out, she doesn't seem to care either way and will answer to both.

Tony threw his head back and barked out a laugh. “'Liberty?' Who are you? Captain America?”

The words rang a little too true in the silence of his workshop and Tony's good humor vanished. Natasha had suggested Steve name his dog Liberty not that long ago. Natasha was Steve's colleague. And didn't at least Clint call her 'Tasha' sometimes? Steve hadn't liked the name Liberty when she'd suggested it either, and had scrunched up his nose attractively.

Tony's earlier skepticism about Cap having an e-mail address was starting to sound a lot like denial. What if Steve was his mysterious pen pal? Tony liked Steve. Liked him a lot. The memory of Steve helping him out of the Hydra base after he'd been injured flashed through his mind and made his heart beat faster.

He liked his mystery pen pal too. They bantered back and forth easily, teasing each other about their respective insistence on remaining anonymous and exchanging hints of interest in a relationship beyond the friendship they shared now. Tony didn't think a message went by when he didn't suggest his pen pal just tell him who he is. The man never did, but it didn't stop Tony from asking or wanting almost desperately to know. But maybe he already knew his mystery writer. There was only one way to find out.

“J?”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Does Cap have an e-mail address?” Tony asked, fearing the answer.

“Captain Rogers has not seen fit to give me an e-mail address where he can be reached either personally or professionally,” JARVIS said.

Tony didn't know how to feel about that. So Steve didn't have an e-mail address. His pen pal couldn't be him. On the other hand, Tony would have liked to finally know who it was and meet him in person if only just to thank him. He didn't think he would have made it through his and Pepper's break-up without his mystery writer. The last time Tony remembered being this content was while he and Pepper were still together. He suspected his pen pal had taken Pepper's place, an anchor Tony had attached himself too. How could someone Tony had never actually met whether the storm that was his life when not even one of his closest friends hadn't been able to do it?

Shaking his head hard to clear it of heavy thoughts, Tony returned his attention to the rest of the message. For some reason, he wasn't quite as excited about it anymore.

 

Sounds like you've had a busy day. Also, I would suggest doing something other than work all the time. I'm sure your assistant knows you very well and if she's concerned about your work habits it might be worth considering a change. Even if it's a small one. It couldn't hurt to go out and do something fun, right?

It must be a day for giant rocks to fall out of the sky. A colleague of mine had a similar experience at work today. And, no, it was not the same person who tried to name Tasha. He said he was fine later, but I worry about him. The guy's crazy and never takes care of himself. Still, he'd do anything for the rest of us, no matter what it cost him. There's no one I'd rather have by my side, except maybe you. I wish you could meet him. He reminds me of you. I bet you two would get along great. Then again, that's probably not a good idea. I have the feeling that if I left you two alone in a room I'd come back to find you'd taken over the world in the five minutes I was gone. You could do it too, I have no doubt.

Why won't you just tell me who you are? I promise I won't hold it against you. You don't have to be afraid. How bad could telling me who you are be? You seem like a kind person and I'm rarely wrong in my judgments. Then again, I suppose I can't demand too much since I've refused to tell you who I am. Maybe one day we'll feel comfortable enough with each other to introduce ourselves properly? I hope so.

I look forward to meeting you in person, whenever that may be.

Hope to hear from you soon,
A friend

Tony shook his head sadly. “You really are optimistic, aren't you? I hate to break it to you, but I don't think we'll ever meet. Save that e-mail and close it, J,” he said, turning away.

“Would you like to compose a response, Sir?” JARVIS asked.

“Later, J. Later.”

Tony went back to work, focusing more easily than before.

~*~*~*~*~*~

“Steve.”

Steve looked up as Natasha walked into the kitchen, intent with purpose. The only other person in the room was Clint and he looked up too. Both men focused on Natasha, more curious than anything. Steve straightened from where he had been feeding Tasha a piece of cheese.

“You got something, Nat?” Clint asked, putting down his glass.

“We have him. The Winter Soldier is targeting a Hydra base in the city.”

“In the city?” Steve echoed. “How did we not know about it before now?”

Natasha shrugged. “They're good. All the most dedicated agents are based out of it. Preliminary intel suggests the Hydra agents who survived the fall of SHIELD regrouped there.”

“That makes sense,” Clint mused. “If the most fanatical members work out of the city base, they would be obsessive about keeping it a secret. How did we find out about it anyway?”

“There's no concrete evidence, but I have a theory. Keep in mind, I can't prove anything.”

Steve nodded his understanding. “Tell us.”

“I think the Winter Soldier wants us to know about it,” Natasha explained. “He found it somehow and leaked the location to my contacts who would be sure to tell me about it. The only conclusion I can come to is that he wants us there for some reason.”

He considered that. It certainly sounded like something Bucky might do if he wanted Steve to find him but couldn't talk to him directly. That didn't make sense, though. Surely Bucky knew where he was. Steve had made no secret of his participation in the Avengers as Captain America and residence in Avengers Tower.

“Why would he choose to do that?” Steve wondered out loud.

“Again, it's just my theory. The whole thing could just be a coincidence,” Natasha said. “The only way to find out is to try to catch up to him and ask him ourselves.”

“Let's do it. JARVIS?”

“How may I be of service, Captain Rogers?”

“Sound the Avengers assemble call. Coordinates to be given by Natasha,” Steve ordered.

“Of course, Sir. Agent Romanov?”

Natasha rattled off a set of coordinates and a more traditional address for good measure. As soon as she'd finished speaking, Steve's recorded voice sounded throughout the tower, a recent change Tony thought would be amusing, calling for the Avengers to assemble.

“Avengers assemble! Repeat: Avengers assemble!”

“I'll meet you at the Quinjet in ten,” Steve told the two agents watching him expectantly. “Take the extra time to brief the team. I have something I have to do before we head out.”

Natasha nodded and left, Clint in tow. Steve followed them a second later, but turned down the hall that would lead him to his private floor. Normally the detour to his quarters to change into costume and make it to the landing pad would take five minutes or less, but Steve had the feeling that something was going to go very wrong and there was one other person he felt obligated to.

Steve yanked on his costume in record time. Tasha watched from his bed, gaze bored. While he busied himself tugging on boots and gloves, Steve asked JARVIS to turn on his table-computer, glad he had discovered some time ago that the AI could do such things for him if he was busy. He strapped his shield to his back last and bent over the keyboard, opening a new e-mail and typing in a quick message to his pen pal. Just in case he didn't make it back, Steve wanted his friend to know that he hadn't been abandoned. Steve couldn't think of anything worse than going to his grave knowing this stranger who had come to mean so much to him thought Steve had rejected him.

E-mail sent, Steve sprinted out the door and into the elevator, allowing it to whisk him to the Quinjet and his waiting team.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Tony called for the armor without a thought as soon as the alert sounded, ordering JARVIS to save the progress he'd made on the designs for the latest incarnations of the Avengers' costumes. He'd been working on them in his spare time, but was running into roadblocks with the viability of some of the features he wanted to include. Why did they all insist on wearing such flimsy, skin-tight costumes anyway?

“What've we got, J?” Tony asked as soon as the faceplate snapped down.

“Hydra base in downtown New York City with possible Winter Soldier sighting, Sir,” JARVIS answered dutifully. “The rest of the Avengers have assembled on the landing pad and are lifting off now.”

“Excellent. Open a channel to the Quinjet.”

“You are now connected to the Quinjet, Sir.”

“Hey, guys! Local reptile infestation?” Tony joked.

“Wondered when you were going to join us, Stark,” Clint retorted before anyone else could get a word in edgewise. “Just the man we needed. You're familiar with pest control, right?”

“Do I look like an exterminator to you, Barton?”

“Actually, you look like a robot,” Clint said. Tony barked out a laugh.

“Beware the robots. We will take over the world. Remember Skynet?”

“Wouldn't JARVIS be a better comparison to Skynet?” Bruce chimed in. “He is the AI.”

“Shut it, Bruce. You're missing the point,” Tony pouted.

“What was you point? That you spent too much time watching science fiction movies as a kid?” Clint teased. Tony gasped dramatically, flipping over in the air in front of the Quinjet so Clint could see him press a gauntleted hand to his armored chest.

“You wound me! I would never have spent my childhood watching blockbuster sci-fi. I watched that movie last week.”

Clint laughed, but he didn't get a chance to respond before Cap was telling them to cut it out and focus on the matter at hand. The building they had learned served as a base for Hydra was already looking a little worse for wear. The doors stood open, one actually hanging from a single hinge, and smoke billowed out both the doorway and several busted windows.

“Avengers, incapacitate if possible,” Cap ordered. “Eyes out for the Winter Soldier. Consider him an armed and dangerous hostile. Take him alive and unharmed if you can, but don't go after him alone. Understood?” A chorus of acknowledgments followed.

Tony flew in before the Quinjet even touched down, blasting anything that moved with his repulsors. Several scientists cowered behind overturned desks. Tony wanted to yell at them that they were giving all scientists a bad name, the damn cowards, but he couldn't take the time. A squad of Hydra soldiers jogged forward to meet him as Tony landed with flare. He stood and aimed his repulsors at them, smirking behind the Iron Man mask when JARVIS displayed the rest of the team coming up behind him on his HUD.

“Surrender peacefully and no one will have to get hurt,” Tony ordered through the external speakers. No one took him up on his offer. “Whatever. It's all the same to me.”

The Hydra soldiers started firing, familiar energy blasts glancing off the armor and knocking Tony back several feet. He managed to stay upright and get off a few blasts of his own before he took to the air and got above them. The other Avengers leapt into action. They fought long and hard, but for every soldier they took down another two took his place. At this rate, the Avengers were going to get nowhere fast.

Hulk kept smashing through walls and ripping doors off their hinges to throw at the enemy. Thor seemed to have taken a leaf out of his green teammate's book and was doing the same with his hammer, throwing it at Hydra soldiers then calling it back to his hand only to smack someone in the chest with it. Natasha was a black blur punctuated by bursts of blue light as she stunned her victim. Hawkeye had vanished, but the occasional arrow would sprout in enemy chests if they got too close to a distracted Avenger. And Tony kept catching sight of a red, white, and blue blur flying past out of the corner of his eye. It was really distracting. After the fifth time he got tagged by a lucky shot from a Hydra soldier and returned it with a blast from his repulsors, Tony decided enough was enough.

“It's too cramped in here,” Tony said into the comm. “And these guys keep coming. Do they have some kind of cloning machine turning these goons out in the back somewhere?” He grunted as he was flung through a wall, landing on a small dining table in the restaurant next door and sending its patrons screaming right out into the street.

“You alright, Iron Man?” Cap demanded immediately after.

“I'm still alive, if that's what you mean,” Tony gasped out, breathing hard. “Not sure about the kicking, though.”

“New plan, Avengers,” Cap ordered. He barely sounded winded. “Lure them outside. Try not to get hit if you can help it.”

“Yeah, Cap, because we're doing it on purpose,” Hawkeye muttered sarcastically over the comm. Everyone ignored him.

They'd just barely made it back outside when JARVIS saw fit to interrupt Tony in the middle of dodging yet another blast from a particularly tenacious Hydra soldier.

“Pardon me, Sir, but you have a message coming in from your mystery writer,” the AI informed him.

“Not now, J. If you couldn't tell, I'm a little busy here,” Tony growled.

“My apologies, Sir. Shall I read it for you?”

Tony grunted as another Hydra soldier clipped him on the left hip, sending him into a wobbly pirouette before he straightened himself out and shot up into the sky. This one took off after him, a crude jetpack giving him the ability to fly. As if the first guy was the signal to the rest that it was time to unveil their new trick, a dozen Hydra soldiers rose into the air and locked onto Tony.

“Dammit! These guys can fly!” He shouted a warning into the comm. “Watch your backs.”

“Acknowledged, Iron Man. Need any help?” Cap replied.

“If someone could thin out the herd, that'd be great,” Tony answered, banking sharply to the right and immediately going into a steep dive. Out of nowhere the familiar shield came flying past him, taking out three of the goons. Another three dropped out of the sky with arrows buried in their jetpacks. Tony blinked in surprise. “Thanks.”

Tony pulled out of his dive at the last second, flipping onto his back and watching as another two crashed into the ground amid twin explosions. He activated the small anti-personnel missiles in the shoulder armor.

“J, target the remaining four jetpacks,” Tony ordered.

“Acquiring targets one through four,” JARVIS said. “Targets locked.”

“Fire.”

The last four flying Hydra soldiers went down in balls of fire. Fortunately, the immediate area was clear of civilians. They'd probably wised up when they heard alien weapon blasts and saw a giant red and gold suit of armor crash through a restaurant and had run for safety. Good. That was on last thing to worry about. Tony right himself again and took out a Hydra soldier trying to corner Cap as he flew past.

“Sir, might I remind you of your message?”

“Seriously, J? I'm in the middle of a battle here. Can't it wait?” Tony said, more than a little annoyed.

“I am afraid not, Sir.”

“Fine. Play the message if it'll stop you nagging me about it.”

“Of course, Sir,” JARVIS said and began to play the message while Tony blasted every Hydra soldier that wandered across his path.

 

“Dear Mystery Writer,

I hate not knowing what to call you other than that because you have come to mean a lot to me. I consider you a friend and, as my friend, I think you deserve to know the truth, or as much of the truth as I can freely tell you.

My occupation is a dangerous one. The closest I can come to describing it is a special police force trained to handle the criminals regular police can't. Like I said, it's a dangerous job, but someone has to do it and that someone is my team and I. They're a great group of people and I never fear going into a mission when they're at my back.

That's why I'm writing you. I've been searching for someone, an old friend who was led down the wrong path. I've been looking for him for a long time. He's always been two steps ahead of me, but I think I finally caught up to him. I won't let this chance slip me by even though I know the mission ahead will be difficult.

Why am I telling you this now? Because I've got a bad feeling about this mission and I've learned to trust my gut on certain things. This just so happens to be one of them. I don't want you to think I've abandoned or rejected you in case you write to me and I don't write back. If I don't write to you again, know that it is because I am no longer able.

Don't worry, though. Like I said, I have the best team in the world backing me up.

I'll write to you again soon.

Sincerely,
Your friend

P.S. You asked for a hint before to my identity. Just in case I don't make it back, here it is: Look for the star.”

“'Look for the star'?” Tony repeated as he rolled out of the way of another flying Hydra soldier. At least they weren't ganging up on him now. That probably had something to do with the Hulk batting at them like a cat might bat at dust motes. Someone might as well have fun. “What does that even mean?”

“I am certain I have no idea, Sir,” JARVIS replied. Tony ignored him as JARVIS surely knew he would have.

“I mean, that doesn't even make sense,” Tony continued talking to himself. Just then Cap's shield went flying past him, rebounding off a wall and returning to Steve's outstretched hand. Tony nearly fell out of the sky when his gaze landed on the white star emblazoned on Captain America's chest. “Steve?” He choked out, his heart beating excitedly out of his chest.

Cap paused in the middle of the battlefield, pressing a hand to his ear. “Iron Man? Are you alright?”

“What? I'm fine. Just– What the hell kind of hint was that anyway?” Tony demanded.

“What are you talking about?” Steve said, punching a Hydra agent in the face and slamming another in the chest with his shield. “Did you hit your head?”

“No, I did not hit my head,” Tony griped, dropping a foot to avoid an energy blast. “Does any of this sound familiar? 'Dear Mystery Writer... I consider you a friend... Look for the star... Hey, stranger...

A tiny gasp over the comm. “My God... Tony? You're the one I've been writing to?”

“The one and only,” Tony quipped. He couldn't keep his lips from curving into a smile behind the Iron Man mask. He'd been right after all. His mystery writer was Steve and Tony couldn't be happier about it. Well, maybe if he hadn't had to discover his pen pal's identity in the middle of a life or death battle...

“I don't know what's going on here, guys, but can it wait 'til later?” Clint butted in. “If you hadn't noticed, we're kind of getting swarmed by Hydra goons.”

“Says the guy in his nest,” Tony muttered under his breath.

“I heard that!” Clint protested.

“I meant for you to,” Tony shot back.

“Tony!” Steve called, successfully regaining Tony's attention.

“Yeah, Cap?”

“We are talking about this afterward.”

“Yeah. Sure thing. Looking forward to it,” Tony agreed, though privately he felt more nervous than excited. Why did people insist on talking about feelings?

“Good,” Steve said, and Tony could hear the smile in his voice. “Now, let's– There he is! At the top of the Hydra building!”

Tony jerked his head to the side so he could find out what Steve had seen. Standing several feet back from the edge stood a tall, broad-shouldered figure with shoulder-length dark hair. The man wore dark clothes that covered every inch of him except for a shining metal arm. After zooming in, Tony could also see that the man wore a mask that covered the bottom half of his face, leaving only cold, dark eyes exposed.

“Is that the Winter Soldier?” Tony asked, landing back-to-back with Cap and blasting a Hydra soldier. It was Natasha who answered.

“That's him,” she confirmed.

Then Steve was running, a breathless “Bucky!” falling from his lips as he dove back into Hydra's base.

“Dammit, Steve! What the hell are you doing?” Tony shouted. Hydra soldiers were swarming him again. He looked around for help, but the other Avengers were just as pinned down as he was. “Guys, Cap just took off. He's going after the Winter Soldier alone, which is in direct violation of orders I might add.”

“The good Captain surely knows what he is doing, Man of Iron,” Thor boomed over the comms. “Trust his judgment.”

“Easier said than done, big guy,” Tony replied.

“I'm sorry, Tony, but it's Bucky. I have to save him this time,” Steve said. Tony could hear the sound of a door being kicked open, then, “Bucky!”

Muffled words made it over the comms and Tony could hear Steve responding, but he was too busy punching, blasting, and throwing Hydra soldiers aside. The sound of blows being exchanged echoed in his ear. A pained grunt followed the sounds of fighting and he felt the bottom drop out of his stomach and his heart stop beating in his chest.

“Hold on, Steve! I'm on my way!” Tony yelled. “JARVIS!”

“Targeting remaining Hydra soldiers,” JARVIS replied immediately. Tony knew his AI was his favorite creation for a reason. “Targets acquired. Firing anti-personnel missiles. Targets destroyed.”

“Thanks, J,” Tony said as he blasted into the sky.

He was half way to Steve when he heard it, a choked, gasping sound, someone struggling, and then a red, white, and blue figure was being flung from the roof of the Hydra building. Tony cried out, calling alternately for Steve and JARVIS. His AI put on a burst of speed, pulling power from extraneous systems to increase thruster output, but Steve didn't respond. Steve's body fell limply through the air, crashing through the awning of the restaurant next door. Tony changed course and was only saved from being buried under the building by the Hulk's giant, restraining hand.

“No! Steve!” Tony screamed, but no matter how loud or how long he called for him Steve never responded.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Hours later and the Avengers had finally neutralized the Hydra threat, that branch of them anyway. It was a small victory, but one they sorely needed. The Hydra agents who still lived were being rounded up by the NYPD while fire department and other rescue teams began digging through the rubble in search of survivors. EMTs treated the few innocent bystanders with injuries. Clint and Natasha allowed another team of EMTs tend to their various wounds.

The Winter Soldier was gone, vanished into thin air and preliminary questioning of Hydra soldiers suggested this was far from the last base they had hidden right under their noses. But worst of all, Steve was gone. The rescue workers hadn't found any sign of a body yet, but truthfully, Tony wasn't sure he even wanted them to. How could he be expected to look down at the broken body of the man who had saved him, pulled him back from the darkness of losing Pepper?

Tony couldn't get it out of his head. Every time he blinked all Tony saw was Cap vanishing in a cloud of dust as the building collapsed on top of him. Tony had been on his way, burning his thrusters as high as they would go, flying toward where Steve was fighting... and losing. Then Steve was being flung off the roof by the Winter Soldier. He had been too late. Always too late. And now Cap was gone.

If I don't write to you again, know that it is because I am no longer able.

Tony stood there on the ground away from the rest of the team, but his thoughts were still in the sky an hour earlier. His helmet had long since been discarded because of extensive damage and bits and pieces of the rest of his armor lay scattered in the street. What Tony had still worn by the end of the battle he had already stripped off and thrown at his feet. There was no sense keeping it on if the fighting was over. Tony wished it wasn't. He badly wanted to blast something to smithereens.

“Tony, you need to see a medic,” someone, a woman, said next to him.

“What?”

“You're bleeding.”

Natasha. Natasha wanted him to see a medic.

“I'm fine. It's just a flesh wound,” Tony said, waving her off.

Natasha ignored him and waved one of the EMTs over. “Take care of him. And ignore his complaining. He thinks he knows everything, but he doesn't.”

On any other day Tony would have protested her insinuation that he was any less than a world-class genius, but he couldn't force the words out. The EMT began dabbing at the blood leaking from the gash in his temple. Tony barely felt the gentle brushes of the cotton square against his inflamed skin. He barely felt any of the pain throbbing throughout his body. His eyes remained on the street ahead of him, staring, unseeing, at the place where Steve would have landed.

That area of the street was mostly rubble with dust still swirling around in the air at the slightest touch of a breeze. An awning waved like a tattered flag, one of its supports snapped in half. Tony took in none of this, the fall replaying over and over again in his mind, trying to find something, anything, he could have done differently. The tech was talking to him, asking questions that Tony didn't pay any attention to.

“Mr. Stark,” the tech said more forcefully. He sounded like it took all of his self-control not to haul back and smack Tony in the face, but Tony didn't care.

All his attention was focused on the figure emerging from the dust cloud. At first Tony thought it was his imagination or, even more likely, a hallucination born of desperation, but everyone else fell just as deathly silent as he felt. The figure grew larger and more solid as it came closer. Slowly, Tony began to make out a familiar figure and even more familiar colors. A large disc hung from one arm, but Tony didn't need that, or any of it really, to tell who it was.

“Steve,” he breathed, pushing the tech's arm away.

Tony took a couple stumbling steps toward a now very recognizable Steve before breaking into a run. He didn't even bother to slow down as he got near, barreling into Steve's open arms. Steve dropped his shield with a clatter and wrapped his arms around Tony, clasping him tightly to himself. Tony buried his face in Steve's neck, squeezing hard enough to hurt, but Steve didn't complain.

“I thought you were dead,” Tony murmured against Steve's neck.

“It's alright now, Tony. I'm here. I'm still here,” Steve whispered back.

He pulled Tony's head up and kissed him right in the middle of the street. Everything fell away, the background chatter, the rubble-strewn street, even Clint's wolf-whistles, all of it just faded out of existence. For a brief, beautiful instant it was just the two of them, alone in the world, and Tony couldn't think of anyplace he would rather have been than in that moment with Steve.

 

 

All too soon the moment ended. Steve pulled back, gorgeous blue eyes heavy with emotion boring uncomfortably into Tony's.

“When you said we would talk, I didn't think you meant this. Not that I'm complaining,” Tony teased.

Steve smiled. “Oh, we're still going to talk later. I've been wanting to kiss you for a month. Now seemed as good a time as any other.”

“I knew your fantasies about me were dirty.”

Steve's grin turned positively lascivious. “You haven't seen anything yet.”

Tony's eyes widened involuntarily, earning a laugh from Steve and another kiss. Then they were swarmed by the rest of the team, Thor clapping Steve on the shoulder and sending him stumbling into Tony who just barely kept them both from becoming very friendly with the ground. EMTs hovered anxiously outside the circle the Avengers had formed around their Captain, waiting to examine him. Everyone was talking at once, demanding to know what had happened on the rooftop and how Steve survived. Clint even tossed in several questions about their relationship. Tony didn't know how to answer those. Fortunately, Steve managed to calm them all down.

“What happened to Bucky?” Steve asked. Everyone but Natasha avoided his earnest gaze.

“I'm sorry, Steve. He got away when we were distracted.”

Tony couldn't stand to see the depressed, kicked puppy look on Steve's face when he heard the news. He gripped Steve's chin in a gentle hand and tilted his face so Steve had to look him in the eye. “We'll find him, Steve.”

Steve gave him a small smile. “I know we will.”

“Good! Now let's go get you checked out before the EMTs' heads explode,” Tony said cheerfully, pulling away from Steve just far enough to grab his hand and lead him toward the medics. “Then I'll take you home and you can show me exactly how dirty your fantasies are.”

Steve laughed and followed him. The future was looking bright.