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Enemy At The Gates

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Steve first met Tony as he was walking through the hallways of SHIELD Los Angeles.  

He’d been far from his best: Just over a week out of the ice and feeling windblown from that morning's history catch-up class with Agent Sitwell. The images Steve had seen in full Technicolor on the screen… the terrible footage of Chitauri devastation. All those lives lost...

As Steve continued down the sterile, sleek hallway that seemed to be the fashion these days, he caught a flash of movement in his peripheral vision. A man quickly reversed direction as they passed. Behind, Steve heard him double his pace to catch up.

With a resigned sigh, Steve braced himself. Here it comes again. More 'Such an honor to meet you, Captain Rogers.' and 'I grew up hearing your stories, Captain Rogers.’ and ‘You're the reason I joined SHIELD, Captain Rogers.'

It was nice. Flattering, even. But Steve had been awake for eight days, and he already felt weighted down by the expectations of the entire world.

Things had changed so much in seventy years.  So much death...

"I was thinking Mexican. I know a place," said the man as he matched pace with Steve.

Steve didn't glance over. Just stared straight ahead -- gaze in a whole other continent, another time. "Pardon?"

"Carne Asada, grilled beef," the man repeated briskly. "One of the delights of SoCal is you can get authentic Mexican food. It's loaded with carbs, but I hear you're down for that sort of thing. So?"

"Uh." Steve wasn't aware there had been a question. He finally glanced to the side, and nearly stopped dead.

The man wasn't a junior agent as he'd assumed. In fact, Steve’s quick-flash impression was that he was strikingly handsome.

He wore a finely cut suit in what had to be the modern style, a tie that stood out proudly purple against the dark three-piece, his brown hair artfully mussed, and aviator glasses tinted red for some reason.

"Tony Stark," said the man.

The name hit Steve like a punch to the chest, and yes, upon second look he realized the man had more than a passing resemblance to Howard.  Horribly, embarrassingly, Steve felt a lump grow in his throat. Yet another friend he'd never see again.

"Steve Rogers," he said, grasping onto the expected reply like a shield. "It's sure nice to meet you, Mr. Stark, but I'm not sure I'm up for—"

"Talking about my father?" Stark's smile was as sharp as a knife. "Me neither." Then he cupped a hand under Steve's elbow and started leading him to a rightward exit. "We're doing lunch. My treat. They let you out of here, yes?"

"I... yes." Steve decided that being driven outside the base for a medical evaluation counted. Besides, he was finished with his history briefing today. Still raw from it, and the pictures of decimated New York, but finished.

Fixing his mind on something else might do some good.

In any case, Tony Stark didn't seem to care about Steve’s hesitation. With the hand on his elbow, Stark led him down the glass-lit corridors and out to the bright Southern California winter sunshine, as different and alien from Brooklyn as Europe ever was.

 

 

****

 

"Mexican food" turned out to be not at all like Italian, which Steve had first supposed.

The tortillas and green 'verde' sauce were... odd, but Steve ate his way through a burrito, a large chili pepper packed with cheese, a tamale which seemed to be meat rolled in sweet corn filling. Stark insisted he try his menudo, but refused to share what it was made from. Either way, it was rich and flavorful.

Tony Stark was somewhat of a surprise as well.

He was a talker, and although it was terribly rude of Steve, it was easy to simply let him roll on with a mostly one-sided conversation.

Steve's mind was in other places, continually drawn back to New York. Wondering, despite how morbid it was, if much at all had survived of his old neighborhood. A wall. A slab of sidewalk. Anything.

"Were you there?" Steve asked suddenly, looking up from his third plate.

Stark stumbled to a halt (Steve thought he'd been speaking of advancements in motorcycle engines, but couldn't be sure). He raised an eyebrow at Steve, so Steve clarified, "In New York, during the Battle of Manhattan. I'm sorry," he added, seeing Stark blink at him from behind red-tinted glasses. "It's... I'm having trouble processing it. The whole island, just... gone."

Stark nodded once, then said almost blithely, "I wouldn't be here now if I had been there." As he spoke, set his fork aside as if he weren’t hungry anymore. "The portal opened practically over Stark Tower. It was one of the first buildings to go."

"...I'm sorry," Steve said again, feeling like a fool.

Stark shrugged and looked distant for a moment before he seemed to shake himself out of it. "I was attending a tech conference in Adelaide -- Australia," he clarified. "Hopped on the first jet back, but it's a long distance even by air. I got to watch the invasion on high def, like the rest of the world." He reached over to twist his glass of water between two fingers, as if he couldn’t stay still. "Naturally, the government started rerouting air-traffic and wouldn’t be bribed to reconsider. I didn't make it back to the East Coast for three days. By then, it was all over."

The world's first alien attack had lasted just over forty-eight hours. By the time the Chitauri were repelled and the portal closed, the death toll had been in the millions.

Appetite gone, Steve pushed away his plate. "Is that why you work with SHIELD? You… may have said, but I didn't catch it – what do you do for them?"

Stark smirked. "I'm their very expensive consultant, Captain. They bring me in for gear, to provide them with new toys, and advise on Iron Man."

Iron Man. That international terrorist had been a featured part of yesterday’s lessons.

Steve scowled. "I used to think we'd beat men like him in the war."

If anything, Stark's smile grew wider. "Comparing Iron Man to literally Hitler? I don't care what they say, Cap, you are adapting to this century fine."

"Um," Steve said, "Thank you?"

At that very moment, the flat TV screen hanging over the restaurant's bar fuzzed into static.

"Here we go," Stark murmured, so quiet Steve wasn't sure he was supposed to hear. "Speak of the devil, and he shall appear." Stark lifted an entire hundred-dollar bill from his wallet and signaled to the waiter.

Brows furrowed, Steve watched as the screen resolved into Iron Man's robotic visage.

Agent Sitwell had told him yesterday that Iron Man periodically did this – was somehow able to simultaneously hijack every TV station, internet stream, webcast, and radio frequency. Sure enough, around the restaurant, smart phones flickered to show the same image.

Then Iron Man's computerized voice boomed out, echoing out of multiple gadgets inside the small restaurant.

"Good evening! This is your bi-weekly state-of-the-world address. I'll make it short. I know you have places to be. I sure do -- specifically, Colorado Springs." He then went onto talk about the state of a place called Syria, and how the week-old truce was holding, subtly taking credit for it.

Well, people tended to do what they were told with advanced weaponry pointed at them.

It made Steve's blood boil. This arrogant jackass was holding himself up as some kind of worldly benefactor, and if Agent Sitwell's lecture was correct, a good portion of the population actually approved.

"Up and at 'em, Cap," Tony said, standing with the bill paid. "Fury will want you back soon."

"Why?" Iron Man was still speaking, gesturing to a map labeled 'Receding Antarctic Ice Shelves' and Steve wanted to catch it all.

Stark shrugged. "Because we have a major SHIELD facility in Colorado Springs—"

"Which means, Iron Man just threatened it," Steve realized, balling up his napkin in one fist. "SHIELD ought to do something about him."

"Not much they can do." There was an odd note to Stark's voice that Steve couldn't place. It might have been frustration. "He stole the nuke that would have stopped the Chitauri.”

Yes, that had been part of Sitwell's lecture, too. Seventy years, and it seemed Steve had left one war-zone only to enter another.

 

 

****

 

 

Iron Man didn't attack the base in Colorado Springs. It had been a ruse.

Word came to Steve two days later: Iron Man's bunker-busting missiles had taken out a little known SHIELD cell which had been operating out of Northern Croatia. Fourteen causalities.

"What were we doing in Croatia?" Steve overheard one agent asking another while he was dining alone in the commissary. The woman's voice was pitched low, and she probably thought her conversation wouldn't carry to Super Soldier ears.

Her companion's answer was grim, "Whatever it was, even the brass isn't publicly acknowledging it. I heard the President wants to keep it hush-hush." 

Nevertheless, the flags at SHIELD LA were flown at half-staff, and the mood in the whole facility was dour for a week.

Grimly, Steve set to his task of memorizing Sitwell's history lectures and all the new "martial arts" drills Maria Hill insisted he learn. He also destroyed five punching bags in two days, until new, tougher ones were hung in the gym.

They had the STARK logo stitched along the top – but they held out.

At night, he ate alone at a single two-chair table at the back of the commissary. To pass the time, he learned to use a smart phone to access a ‘YouTube channel’ dedicated to replaying Iron Man’s world broadcasts. He studied them, something feeling off, though he couldn’t put his finger on it.

It was probably nothing. When it came to this new, modern world Steve felt hopelessly behind.

 

****

  

The first time Steve had been let back out into the field, he came face to face with Iron Man. 

It was a disaster.

Two weeks after the incident in Croatia, an intrusion alarm went red from another SHIELD outpost -- Pickel Meadows, located in the high Sierra Nevada mountains. Both SHIELD and some specialized Marine Corps units routinely used the base for temperature conditioning ground teams.

It was also, Agent Rumlow informed Steve as they boarded a quinjet, a level seven backup storage for SHIELD servers. In case of a natural catastrophe (or a second alien invasion), the local hydroelectric dams would keep electricity running to the vast storage units.

In a world where no one put much to paper, Steve had learned that data protection was king.

Steve stared out the window of the Quinjet and tried not to think about how closely some of the Sierra's high glacial peaks resembled the Alps.

Several of the facility’s A-Frame buildings were afire as the jet touched down. It was late spring, but patches of snow still covered the ground in shadowy places, and Steve took a bracing breath of chill air flavored with cedar and pine.

"Which building holds the servers?" he asked Rumlow, hoping he was using the correct terminology. Stark had ribbed him a few days ago during a technology briefing when Steve said, 'The Google'. The memory still made his cheeks heat.

Rumlow consulted a thin tablet, then pointed to the middle, smallest building. "Over there. Basement level."

Steve's jaw clench. "All right. We'll search that first, top to bottom. I want two men behind on each floor after we secure it."

"Remember, if we get visual on Iron Man, our orders are to shoot-to-kill," Rumlow added, a bit unnecessarily in Steve's opinion. But around them, the other members of STRIKE nodded in grim satisfaction. They were all looking to pay back Croatia with a little hurt of their own.

"All right," Steve said. "Fall out."

The smoke was coming from the top floor of the three-story building, leaving the bottom relatively clear. Steve was in front, his shield in hand and eyes open. He didn't trust the elevator with a fire blazing above and took the short flight of stairs down to the basement level.

At the bottom of the stairs, a pair of heavy fire doors were wide open, revealing a room full of blinking computer equipment. The servers, he assumed.

Shield up, Steve was first through the door.

There was a hiss-scrape as the thick metal doors suddenly sealed just after he stepped in, instantly cutting him off from the rest of the team. Steve twisted back toward the doors in surprise. That was a mistake. There was a flash of descending metallic red behind him. A high whine pierced his ears.

And every muscle in Steve’s body locked up.

The shield clattered from Steve's nerveless fingers, and Steve felt himself pitch to the side, completely unable to stop himself.

"Whoa there," said a computerized voice. The same voice Steve had heard in the Mexican restaurant's television, and on the YouTube Channel.

Strong metal fingers caught the crook of his arm, and Steve felt himself being gently lowered to the concrete floor.

Steve grunted, trying, straining to move, to twitch a finger. To do anything. But it was as if every muscle was disconnected from his brain, and all tensed and strung tight as a bow.

"Not pleasant, but also not permanent," said the voice -- Iron Man. Steve couldn't twist his neck to look, but who else could it be? "I just need a few more minutes of download time. You're early, Captain."

He knows who I am? Steve's heart pounded against his ribs. His presence at SHIELD was supposed to be a secret from the public.

Leaving him laying on his side in recovery position, Iron Man clomped away, presumably back towards the computer banks.

Paralyzed, Steve could only stare at the wall a few inches from his nose and seethe. Anger was better than the terror threatening to overwhelm his good sense. He'd seen what Iron Man's repulsers were capable of. If he fired them on Steve's back...

Distantly, he heard the STRIKE team yelling and beating on the other side of the thick metal fire doors. They'd have to use explosives to blast through. He hoped they didn't -- he was laying just on the other side.

Little shivers of sensation were running up his arms and legs as Iron Man clomped back, a couple minutes later. Unceremoniously, Steve found himself rolled onto his back.

Iron Man looked just as he did on TV; the mouth-seam in the boxy red and gold mask hinting a perpetual scowl, the backlit eyes unreadable.

Steve stared up at him, anger boiling in his veins, and thought, You let the aliens destroy New York.

The rage must have helped him break through the paralysis. One balled fist jerked up, though the punch was slow and uncoordinated.

Iron Man caught it easily.

"You're recovering fast." Iron Man's computerized voice was completely unafraid. "But not fast enough. I've got what I came here for." One gauntleted hand patted his own chest, where a shirt pocket would normally be. "Now, Captain, you owe me a solid for sparing your life."

"Ugghf," Steve grunted, which was not remotely the curse he wanted to say.

Iron Man leaned so close the mask was an inch away from Steve’s face. Until all Steve could see was the glowing eyes. "Tell Fury I know about the helicarriers he's planning to launch. All three of them. Tell him the skies are mine, and I don't allow trespassers. He sends them up, I'm bringing them back down. On his head."

Steve strained to sit up. He swallowed, shifted his knees – all he could do while the rest of him was screaming to stand, to fight.

Iron Man tilted his head as if he'd received an answer. "Got all that? Good boy," he said and patted Steve's cheek obnoxiously. Then, standing, he backed a few steps.

Aiming the palm repulsors at the ceiling, he blasted. He flew up through the cascading debris.

Less than a minute later, Steve rolled into a sitting position and reached to the keypad to open the fire doors. The STRIKE team rushed in, but it was too late.

Iron Man was gone.

 

 

****

 

 

 

Tony Stark leaned back in his chair, frowning as Steve finished his report. "That sounds," he said, glancing at Fury and Hill, who sat at the other side of the conference table, "like you were hit with a sonic paralyzer." 

"So it's Stark Tech?" Hill demanded.

"Former Stark Tech," Stark corrected testily. "One of our old depots was raided by Iron Man after the invasion. I sent you the memo about it, in triplicate."

Steve was glad his clenched fists were hidden under the sleek table. It had been a long eighteen hours after the disaster at Pickel Meadows Complex. He'd been submitted for a full medical exam, then a private chewing out by Rumlow even though the man was supposed to be a co-captain of STRIKE along with Steve, not his superior, and now this meeting recounting the whole disaster.

Steve was tired, sore in both mind and body, and acutely embarrassed he'd let Iron Man get the best of him.

This isn’t gonna happen again, he promised himself.

"Did you see if Iron Man was holding anything in his hand?" Stark asked, turning from his sniping contest with Hill. "Small tube about two inches, bright blue end?"

"I didn’t catch it. He... snuck up behind me," Steve admitted.

Stark made a noise in the back of his throat. Steve wasn't sure if it was sympathy or laughter.

"Be that as it may," Fury said with a deep frown. "I've seen your hearing tests. You're not an easy man to 'sneak' up on. I don't like the way the wind is blowing here."

"He knew I was coming," Steve confirmed grimly. "And he called me Captain. He knew exactly who I was."

Hill and Fury exchanged glances.  Fury sighed and tipped his head in acknowledgement.

"We have a mole in the ranks," Hill said, speaking their private conversation out loud. "Or several."

“You’ve known about that?” Steve asked.

“Suspected.”

She was lying. He was sure of it.

Steve could swear a headache started behind his eyes. Something he hadn't truly felt since project Rebirth. "There was something else," he said to Fury. "Iron Man wanted me to pass along a message. To you."

Fury raised both eyebrows. "By all means."

"He told me to tell you," Steve had no trouble recalling the words, even though they hadn’t made a lick of sense. God bless the serum. "He knows about your helicarriers. He said the skies were his, and that he threatened to bring them down if they launched."

There was dead silence for a moment, then the audible squeak of a chair as Stark turned to Hill and Fury. "Helicarriers," he said. "As in, more than one?"

Fury's face was void of expression. "That's classified, Stark."

"Is it? Because I am your glorified mechanic, and, oh yeah, the proprietary holder of the orbital repulser tech--"

"Stark, now is not the time--"

"Exactly how many floating bases is SHIELD building?" Stark demanded, and Steve realized will dull surprise that the man was legitimately angry. Stark had always come off as a cool customer, glib and bemused by a world too slow to keep up. Now there was something flashing in his dark eyes, an inner fire that Steve hadn't noticed before. Like a piece of a mask had chipped and fallen away.  "A whole fleet? Enough to blot out the sun?"

Hill jumped in. "After the invasion, SHIELD needed a show of strength. Mobile bases are a proven deterrent--"

"Oh, because nuclear deterrents calm everyone down--"

"Enough," Fury said, cutting across them. "Stark, this project does not concern you."

“I’ll make damn sure it’ll concern my lawyers. We had an agreement for limited use—"

Enough,” Fury growled. He glanced at Steve meaningfully.

He wants to continue this argument when I’m not around, Steve thought with a touch of irritation.

Stark sat back with a huff, arms crossed.

Fury wasn't done with him. "What countermeasures do we have in case Iron Man uses the sonic paralyzer again?"

Stark hesitated, then shrugged, rubbing the side of his face. "Ear buds. I'll whip up some ear buds to block that specific frequency." Stark added, "Though Iron Man's not someone to pull the same hat trick twice."

"I'll expect those ear buds. Anything else?" Fury glanced around at the three of them. No one spoke. "Dismissed. Cap, take some down time. You look like someone ran you over."

No one had to tell him twice. Steve was first out the door. But like a rerun of two weeks ago, he soon heard rapid footfalls as Stark caught up with him.

"Did you know how many helicarriers they were building?" he asked.

Steve shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck, feeling tight and terrible. He may have looked like he was run over by a truck, but it felt more like it was a herd of elephants. He hated how he was getting used to not following conversations. If it wasn't the modern slang or pop culture references, it was common acronyms that weren't so common to him. He was catching up, but it was frustrating, and he was so tired...

Again, Stark made that low noise in the back of his throat. "C'mon. You, me, commissary."

"Stark, I really could use some rack time—"

"First, coffee. Trust me. It's my tech, and I know the side-effects first hand. The caffeine will help open your constricted blood vessels and ease that headache. Then a long steam in the gym’s sauna. But first, coffee. Double shot of espresso. Doctor's orders."

Steve squinted down through his building headache, not sure if he should be bemused or annoyed. "You're no doctor, Stark."

"Tony," he corrected, with a quick-flash smile. "And I happen to have several doctorates. And I should have one in... ha, pharmaceuticals."

Was he saying what he thought he was saying? And what did he mean that he knew the side-effects first hand? Surely, he’d never tested that menace on himself?

Before he could voice his questions, Steve found himself entering the commissary and realized he'd been effectively led. Again.

Stark -- Tony, bought Steve a double espresso, and one for himself. He sat him at the table in the corner -- Steve's table, where he usually took his meals alone.

This time, Tony didn't talk much. The soft chatter of off-duty agents was a balm to his overstressed nerves. Steve drank the bitter brew, and within a few minutes he started to feel a little better. The tight feeling in his neck eased as the pain receded.

He took another, less grudging, sip. "Thanks."

Tony waved it away with a flourish of his own espresso. "I invented it the sonic paralyzer, which makes me partially responsible."

"So," Steve said, feeling somewhat like he was emerging from a tunnel. He hadn't fully acknowledged how rotten he'd felt until he started to feel better. The lights in the commissary seemed brighter as his headache vanished. "What exactly is a helicarrier?"

Tony blinked, but to his credit he didn't treat it like the stupid question it probably was. "Think: big floating military base in the sky. SHIELD's one and only went down just before the invasion."

Steve tried and failed to imagine a flying Camp Lehigh. Then he pictured it falling. He winced.

"Iron Man's doing, I suppose?"

Tony barked out a laugh. "No. It was—" He stopped as if catching himself short, peered over his cup and seemed to chew the inside of his cheek. "The story is that agents went rogue."

"The story?"

He made a so-so gesture. "It always struck me as too much of a coincidence, a SHIELD mutiny bringing down the flagship hours before the invasion of Manhattan."

A little of the headache returned. "What are you saying?"

Tony widened his eyes. They were a deep shade of brown. Sort of pretty. "Moi? I'm not saying anything. These lips are sealed."

And suddenly, Steve found himself noticing Tony's lips, slightly reddened from the hot drink. He dropped his gaze.

It was, he realized, the first time he'd had the stirrings of anything resembling attraction since he'd woken from the ice.

Peggy, he thought, with a stir of guilt. But she'd moved on decades ago. Married a fine man and had children. Bucky... well.

Tony's liquid brown eyes couldn't be more different than Bucky's steel gray, but that was no bad thing.

Tony hadn't said anything more – unusual for him. And Steve realized the silence between them was lengthening.

"A mutiny," Steve mused. "What do you suppose inspired it?” The agents he’d encountered so far seemed dedicated, honorable. Not exactly happy, but joyful souls generally didn’t work for the government.

Tony tapped the table with the edge of his cup. "That, Captain, is the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question."

Yet another pop culture reference he didn’t understand.  "Steve," he corrected, taking a sip. "Not Captain."

The smile that spread across Tony's face looked genuine. "Steve, then."

They shared two more cups of coffee before Steve called it a night

 

 

****

 

 

Two days later, Steve received a notice on his SHIELD digital calendar to meet with T. Stark at 10 AM in conference room Gamma. 

He stared at the blinking update for a few moments, then poked the touch screen with a finger. It didn't change. He was getting used to the idea of paperless communications, and automatic syncs from SHIELD server were nifty. But sometimes he had trouble trusting technology. Especially when it gave good news.

Why a meeting with only the two of them? Perhaps Tony Stark was there to beat more technological terms into his blockhead.

Steve arrived five minutes early, and was surprised to see Mr. Stark – Tony – was already inside, laying out bundled squares of fabrics on the table. He'd gone without the red-tinted glasses and had shed his overcoat to reveal a lightly striped button-up vest. It fit him well, the lines snug around his torso and leading seamlessly to a tight rear end.

He turned as Steve approached, and Steve quickly snapped his gaze to Tony's face.

"We had a meeting?" Steve asked, forcefully keeping casual.

"That we did." If Tony had caught him looking at his ass, he didn't give any indication. "Fury mentioned no one had time to give any attention to your uniform. This should have been ready before you went to the field the other day, but I got... distracted."

Steve blinked. "Uniform?" He'd been given a standard black vest and black pants like everyone else on the STRIKE team.

Then he looked over Tony's shoulder at the laid-out fabric, and his heart seemed to stutter in a combination of want and shame. He cleared his throat. "Aren't the stars and stripes... uh, a little old fashioned?"

Even as he said it, a part of him wanted Tony to say no.

"Relax, Captain. There's only one star. You won’t be running around wearing the whole flag." With a quick flick of his wrists, Tony laid out the shirt. It was navy blue with three thick muted silver stripes leading to a single star on the chest. "I wanted to go more retro, but Fury said – and even a stopped watch is right twice a day – we can't have anyone other than Iron Man peg you as Captain America from one look."

Cautiously, Steve reached out and felt the fabric between forefinger and thumb. It was dense, yet supple. Somewhere between well-worked leather and the new plastics that seemed to be everywhere nowadays.

"Bulletproof, naturally," Tony said with studied disinterest. His eyes, though, were on Steve as if his approval were important to him. "Should perform well in all but the most extreme cold and heat. It wicks away moisture, and is impervious to ice build-up."

"It's fantastic," Steve said and saw Tony blink. "Should I try it on?"

"Sure. It should fit. I got your specs from SHIELD's files..."

Steve stripped off his shirt over his head, folded it, and set it to the side. He glanced up, noticing Tony had trailed off, and was staring openly at Steve’s chest and arms.

Tony quickly caught himself, and glanced to the side with a small throat-clearing noise.

Well, I’ll be.

A warm sensation rolled up Steve's spine. He pushed it away, not wanting to blush. But it was nice to be looked at. He hadn't had many occasions in Brooklyn, and there had been no time during the war...

So, only peeking at Tony from the corner of his eye to see if he was watching again – he was – Steve deliberately turned to the side, unbuttoned his pants, and casually slid them over his hips. He kept his briefs on, of course. They were SHIELD issue, tight, but breathable.

The new uniform went on easily – mostly zippers in place of buttons. To his surprise, Tony stepped up as Steve finished. His quick, deft hands ran over the seams, and Steve wondered if he were touching to assure the fit or touching him just because. Either way, Steve didn't object. Everyone seemed to hold themselves at a distance from one another in this time. It made a man feel lonely.

"How does it feel?" Tony asked, voice a little rough.

Steve smiled. "Like it was made for me."

“Well, you’re not wrong.”

Steve still felt adrift most days, surrounded by unfamiliar people in unfamiliar times. But he liked to think he'd learned a thing or two from his mistakes. He'd waited too long for Peggy, had literally let Bucky slip though his fingers.

For once, he wasn't going to wait.

Steve cleared his throat. "I hear the Dodgers moved to LA. They were my favorite team, you know."

"Really? You are basically every Brooklyn cliché." But the words had no bite to them. Tony’s fingers stilled on Steve's waist. Then he pulled away to type some kind of command in a hand-held tablet.

Steve tried not to let his disappointment show. "Brooklyn guff, through and through." He cleared his throat again, his bravado momentarily leaving him. "Might be fun to see if these new fellas are up to snuff. I... uh, hear there's night game this Friday."

Tony paused in his tapping. His fingers hovered a moment over the device, then he set it down on the table with a snap. "That's a spectacularly bad idea."

Funny how fast one's heart could plummet down to his shoes. Had he misunderstood the situation? Steve raised his chin. "Is it?"

Not bothering to hide it, Tony gave him a slow up and down. When his gaze met Steve’s his lips were ticked as if he were trying to hold back a smile.

"You don't know me from Adam," Tony said.

"I think that's the point of a---" His cowardly tongue fumbled over the word 'date' and substituted with "outing."

He wanted to kick himself.

Tony’s lips twitched. "It's a bad idea," he repeated, but before Steve could reply added, "Night game? Starts at seven, then. I'll pick you up at six -- Los Angeles traffic is terrible."

"It was my idea," Steve said, relief making him feel heady and brave. "I'll pick you up -- you know how to ride a motorcycle?"

He had the pleasure of seeing Tony pause. "Fury issued you a motorcycle?"

"They had one in mothballs." And it may have been one of the stipulations Steve had asked for when he'd negotiated his offer of employment.

Now there was definitely more than a little gleam of interest in Tony's dark eyes. "I'll bring my helmet."

Steve left the conference room a few minutes later, a new spring to his step.

His enhanced hearing caught Tony mutter to himself, "This is a terrible idea..." after the door was closed, but he didn't sound too upset about it.

 

 

****

 

 

Iron Man attacked a research facility in Los Alamos that Friday, at four PM local time.

Steve had to call Tony to cancel their “outing” as he and the STRIKE team were already loaded onto the Quinjet and flying inbound.

"Duty calls, Cap," Tony said, and to Steve's mild disappointment he didn't sound too upset. "I get it."

Steve still felt rotten. "We'll reschedule. Do I get a rain check?"

"Anything for Captain America." There was a muffled crashing sound in the background, and Tony cursed. "Gotta go. One of my experiments—"

"Oh... Of course."

He was about to hang up when Tony said, "Steve?"

"Yes?"

"Stay safe."

The line disconnected, and Steve stared down at his SHIELD-issued phone, hope and disappointment warring equally in his chest. It seemed like he was destined never to have a date.

One thing was for sure; he was going to give Iron Man a piece of his mind when he saw him next.

But Iron Man was gone by the time the Quinjet touched down, forty-five minutes later. Several scientists lay in unconscious heaps on the sandy soil outside of their research facility – several stiff and still paralyzed from the sonic attack. The windows of the nearby building were blasted out, and there was a hole the size of a grand piano on the third story.

"What did he take?" Steve demanded to one groggy-looking man in a lab coat. He was younger than the others by a decade and seemed to be coming around first.

The man looked from Steve's uniform, the single star on the chest, to Rumlow who stood over Steve's shoulder. The man swallowed. "I don't—we're a research facility. Robotics. P-prosthetics."

Steve frowned. Why in the world would Iron Man be interested in prosthetics? To enhance his suit?

He glanced to Rumlow, who had turned away and was speaking into his wrist microphone. Steve touched his own earpiece, which remained silent. He took it out and checked it. Was he on the wrong frequency?

There was sudden shouting from the building, and several STRIKE team members rushed out.

"Bomb!”

“Take cover!"

Steve took a few steps toward the building. They hadn't had time to evacuate the scientists. There were people still in there—

The crack of an explosion shook the earth between his feet. He raised his shield against a wave of heat and debris as an orange and red fireball whooshed out of the blown-open doors. The building collapsed in slow motion, leaving only a rubble of concrete and twisted metal.

And with it, all evidence of what Iron Man had been after.

 

 

****

 

 

Steve never got the opportunity to cash in his rain check. Every time he saw Tony around the base, it was while he was hopping from one hastily called meeting to the next.

Even those sightings were fleeting. Most of the time, he wasn’t around at all.

Steve, too, was kept busy.  He and the team went out on back-to-back missions -- subduing a pirate ship, a melee where the STRIKE team recovered stolen Chitauri tech from 'minute men' in Arizona, a high-level hostage negotiation in Miami where Rumlow took the lead.

Rumlow took the lead a lot, Steve noticed. The rest of the STRIKE team followed Rumlow's orders without question, while with him there was hesitation and looks exchanged when they thought he wouldn’t notice.  

The Howling Commandos they weren't. Then again, Steve had first won over the Howlies’ loyalty by breaking them out of prison. It looked like it wasn't going to be that easy this time around.

Steve was nothing if not stubborn. He was determined to set his nose to the grindstone. Complete the missions best he could. Serve. Eventually, they'd grow to trust his leadership.

The days bled into weeks, and Tony never made extra time for him. Steve took it for the hint it was.

In his rare moments of downtime, Steve told himself the empty feeling inside would fade.

Then, without warning, Iron Man popped up again. He and his small army of advanced robots he called the 'Iron Legion' made simultaneous attacks on the three largest cruise ships in the world, emptied them of both crew and vacationers, took the helms, and set them on course for the Horn of Africa.

"I don't suppose he’s in it for the all-inclusive vacation," Rumlow muttered during the emergency meeting scheduled when word reached SHIELD.

Maria Hill shook her head and turned to the large monitor set on the wall. "Current satellites have them on course for this Wakandian harbor. They're normally closed to outside maritime traffic, but our sources say a sizable docking fee has been paid to the government."

"Those are large boats—" Sitwell said.

"Ships," Steve corrected absently as he looked over the specs.

"Ships. Is that harbor deep enough? Or large enough?"

"If they dock one at a time." She indicated the monitor again.  "A few hours ago, paper fliers in English and Farsi were dropped on refugee camps outside of Gulmira."

With a tap of a button, a pink flier with Iron Man's logo filed the screen.

Steve read it and felt alternately angry and sick. "He's offering safe passage to any qualifying refugee to his Island Nation base."

"He calls it 'Resilient Isles’," Fury said. "As of right now, it's uninhabited. However, there have been several promising Vibranium deposits located on the big Isle -- several corporations were interested in mining the site. That was before Iron Man landed there with his stolen nuclear weapon," he added. 

And suddenly, it made sense. Steve had done a lot of catch-up reading on modern countries -- their imports and exports. "Wakanda is the only nation who knows how to process Vibranium, and they also have the means to export it. That's why they're helping Iron Man."

Hill nodded, and grim glances were exchanged across the table.

"How many people can those cruise ships transport?" Rumlow asked.

Hill consulted her tablet. "Each one regularly carries six-thousand tourists, and twelve-hundred crew on a weekly basis. We estimate the trip to Resilient Isles would take around fifteen days."

Steve felt the thin tablet start to bend in his hands. He placed it on the table with exaggerated care. "So in a little more than two weeks, Iron Man will have a populated nation. Thousands of workers to mine his Vibranium." He looked to Fury. "We can't let this happen."

"Gulmira is a sanctioned no fly zone, and as soon as those refugees cross the border into Wakanda, stopping them will be seen as an act of war."

“So we stop them from crossing into Wakanda in the first place. Hold them at the border,” Sitwell said.

“Colonel Rhodes is the commanding officer in that region,” Rumlow added. There was something off in his expression, like his lip wanted to tick upward in a sneer but he was holding back due to present company.

Hill frowned and tapped a few buttons on her tablet as if checking something. “Rhodes is Air Force, and the no-fly zone stands. We simply don’t have enough boots on the ground to plug all the holes at the border. Enforcing a block could easily become a humanitarian nightmare on our end.”

"So we’ll come at it from the other side. What about sinking the cruise liners before they arrive? " Steve asked. “If they’ve been cleared of tourists and crew there would be minimal causalities.”

Hill shook her head, and the monitor behind her expanded to show a satellite image of the three cruise ships. A cloud of miniature robots buzzed around them like flies. "Iron Man's legions are protecting it. And Iron Man himself has promised to launch a nuclear attack on any nation that interferes." She paused. "And there's the matter that these are already displaced refugees. They have nowhere else to go."

"We can take them in," Steve said. “The United States had room and the means.”

"In this political climate? That's... unlikely, Captain," Hill said.

Steve looked around and saw grim defeat on every face. "So we're doing nothing?" he demanded.

Hill pressed her lips into a thin line. "These ships are currently in international waters, traveling with permission to a foreign port. As of right now, our orders from the World Council and the UN are to watch and wait. There's nothing SHIELD can legally do."

 

 

****

 

 

SHIELD LA was a hive of activity – every available monitor, TV screen, and resource dedicated to a live feed of the three hijacked cruise liners as they closed in on the Wakandan harbor.

Refugees had been congregating for days; crowds of desperate people given supplies by solicitous looking robots. People who should have been cared for by their own government – by any valid government – instead forced to seek aid from Iron Man.

It made Steve see red.

He stalked down to the commissary with half a mind to fuel up on something starchy, then pound out his frustrations in the gym. He glanced over at his usual table in the corner, then stopped. For once, the seat was occupied.

Tony Stark was back on base.

Quickly, Steve changed his mind and went over to the self-serve coffee machine. Then, drinks in hand, he walked over.

Everyone at headquarters had been kept hopping, but as he drew close, Steve was shocked at the sight of him. The bags under Tony's eyes were so deep his eyes looked like pits. He sat at the table in “their spot” frantically typing on the little smartphone he habitually carried around with him. So engrossed was he, in fact, that he jumped when Steve pushed a cup of espresso under his nose.

“Busy?” Steve asked as he took the seat across.

“Habitually.” Tony finished off whatever he was typing and sat the phone down with a clunk. Taking up the coffee, he sipped and made an almost lewd groan.

Steve felt a blush trying to crawl its way up his neck. “It’s only coffee.”

“Right now, it’s nectar of the gods.” He took another sip and closed his eyes in pleasure.

“Fury got you jumping through hoops?” Steve guessed with sympathy.

Tony shook his head. "This is just where I landed. Have to make an appearance or else Fury will think I'm dead. Too many plates in the air, irons in the fire, buns in the oven? No, scratch that.” He waved his hand, then used it to massage between his temples. “Days like this, I really miss Pepper.”

“Is… that slang for something?” Steve asked.

Tony opened his eyes. “What? No, I forgot you never—No.” He shook his head again and his lips downturned wistfully. “My personal assistant. She was at the New York Stark Tower during—during the invasion.”

Which meant she was dead, and Steve just stumbled across a landmine. “Sorry." Steve said, and resisted the strong urge to cover Tony's hand with his own.

“She was a hell of a woman. Could organize a ten-ring flea circus. Tall, red-head with a temper to match. My God, she loved her stilettos…” Tony stared down at his phone for a moment, lost in thought. Then he seemed to shake himself. “Still, I’m not as busy as some around here.”

“You can say that again,” Steve muttered, glancing sourly at one of the flat screen TVs. They were all set on CNN and showed a flood of refugees pouring into the Wakandian harbor. “In a few hours, Iron Man is going to have thousands of human shields, then slave-workers for his mine.”

Tony made a non-committal noise. "Is that what they think he's doing?" Before Steve could answer, Tony's smartphone beeped, and he frantically typed into it before darkening the screen and setting it aside. He glanced up again at the TV with a frown. "Don't know how Iron Man’s doing it. The logistics alone make me itch."

Steve frowned and watched the throngs of refugees shuffle towards what they thought was their salvation, every Earthly possession they owned on their back. "Food and supplies?"

He barked a laugh that sounded just on the edge of hysterical. "Sure. that too. But look at those ships." Tony waved a hand towards the cruise liners. One had Allure of the Seas crudely painted over, and replaced with Iron Transport II, and was now flying the flag of the Resilient Isles. "That ship's not running on solar power. It needs a massive amount of fuel, a captain at the helm to run it – unless it's automated somehow. Fees to the Wakandian harbor, engineering specialists to run the onboard water desalination, medical personnel in case of accident or sickness – and that's just to start. Sure, those are refugees seeking a better life, but what if a few bad apples come aboard? Who is about to make sure six thousand plus people on each ship are behaving? No riots or food hoarding... desperate people do desperate things, alone at sea."

And at the end, they weren't going to find a better life. Just the vibranium mines at Resilient Isles. Steve let out a long, frustrated breath. "I understand why SHIELD needs to be in the clear, but I don't understand why the US Navy isn't doing anything, at least."

Tony took a measured sip of his coffee and rolled his shoulder in a shrug. “That’s the price of flying under Bahamian Flag, I suppose. You don’t get it both ways.”

“I… don’t follow.”

“Large cruise ships are officially harbored and fly under Bahamian flags for various legal reasons.” He wagged his hand back and forth. “Nice tax loopholes, lax maritime laws, cheaper harbor rates and environmental regulations. But they don’t receive US Naval support, especially when there aren’t any Americans on board. These aren’t American ships, or even European ships. Technically, no one is supposed to stick their neck out for them.”

“No one is supposed to, but SHIELD ought to.”

“And then where would all those refugees go?” Tony asked. "Back to Gulmira? Their homes are gone, Captain."

“Better where they are than under Iron Man’s rule. He's about to have thousands of human slaves while the whole world watches and does nothing. They're all too afraid of a nuclear missile. And,” Steve added, "I bet my bottom dollar he's not doing this alone."

Tony looked sharply at him. "What do you mean?"

"Even the Red Skull had a second in command. Zola." Steve indicated the three ships on the screen. "Iron Man has minions, or a team of lieutenants or specialists in their fields, to carry out orders. If we don't stop this soon, he's going to build his own empire."

Tony opened his mouth, then shut it again. He cocked his head, eyes unfocusing in thought.

“What?” Steve said.

“Not important.” Though it clearly was. Tony looked paler than usual, his lips pressed tight. He tapped something on the smartphone. Standing, he scooped it up into his jacket pocket. “I just remembered I have a thing.”

He turned as if to leave, but the toe of his shoe caught the chair beside him. He stumbled, catching himself with effort.

Without thinking, Steve stood and rounded the table. “You’re nearly dead on your feet,” he said, taking Tony's shoulder. “When’s the last time you had a good night’s sleep?”

Strangely, Tony didn't shrug off his touch. “I sleep.”

“In your bed?” Steve asked. “Or in your office?” Gripping Tony's elbow, the same way Tony had when he was leading Steve around, Steve steered him out of the commissary. “Where’s your room?”

“Don’t have one. I don’t live too far away.”

“Well, you’re not driving like this.” Tony was rich, wasn’t he? “You have a driver?”

Tony seemed to sag. “Happy was with Pepper, when…”

Poor man, he thought. And he never replaced him? That had been nearly a year ago. But it said something that Tony had called his driver by his first name.

“You'll sleep in my room, then,” Steve said firmly, and directed him down the right hallway.

“I have a house,” Tony groused. “A big one. In Malibu.”

“My room," he said firmly.

“Steve, I’m not throwing you out of your bed.”

He wondered if this was what Bucky had to go through when Steve was sick but too stubborn to accept help.

"You need rest more than I do. Besides," Steve added, "I don't need that much sleep anymore."

They came to his door, and Steve opened it with his free hand. To his credit, Tony didn't so much as pause at Steve's spartan room. A simple twin-size bed made neat with the corners tucked in, a desk, and a small en-suite bathroom.

Tugging out of Steve's grasp, Tony made a beeline for the bed, reaching up to loosen his tie. “Fine. Wake me in three hours.”

“Eight,” Steve said.

“Five. Not a minute more. I’m setting the alarm.” Tony glanced around as if to find one, then shrugged and took out his smartphone.

Steve rolled his eyes, but reached over to shut off the lights. "Goodnight Tony."

He closed the door and stepped outside, letting free a long breath. Neither had mentioned the delayed 'outing', and he was firmly not going to think of Tony sleeping in his bed.

Steve was being a friend. That was all.

He hovered around the hallway for a good forty minutes to make sure the man wouldn't scamper off. But he had duties as well, and so eventually left. When he returned four hours later, the lights were on and his bed was empty. The blankets were remade -- sloppily. There was also a hastily scrawled note left on his pillow.

 

Thanks,

 T.  Stark

 

 

 

****

 

 
Waking up to an emergency alarm was becoming so common it was almost a routine. It didn't take any time at all for Steve to pull on his uniform.

Scrubbing a hand through his hair, he wondered wearily what Iron Man was up to this time, and why was it that SHIELD was always one – no, three steps behind?

Back in my day, we used to go to where the bad guys hid out, he thought. We didn't wait for them to come to us.

But then again, good men fought and died in wars. And as long as Iron Man kept his attacks to mostly Military and SHIELD bases, he could see the logic in not storming his Island Nation.

Yet that logic seemed thinner and thinner every time an alarm went off.

This time, Iron Man's target was a SHIELD holding facility (Maybe Steve was feeling nostalgic, but he missed the days when they just called them prisons). This one, The Raft, was located in the North Arctic sea, and housed some of SHIELD's most dangerous, ruthless criminals.

Steve, Rumlow and the STRIKE team had just loaded into the Quinjet with the ramp retracting when a lithe figure ran across the airstrip. She ducked under the closing hatch just as it slid shut.

"Romanoff." Rumlow sounded mildly annoyed. "What are you doing here?"

"Fury's orders." She smoothly handed him a tablet and turned to nod to Steve. "Natasha Romanoff."

"Steve Rogers," he said, and since he didn't see a reason not to be polite, added, "Welcome aboard. Who's team are you usually on?"

Her lips pulled to the side in a smile. "My own."

"She's an independent agent," Rumlow said and handed the tablet back to her, ignoring Steve. "Don't get in our way."

"Only if you don't get in mine," she said coolly.

Well, this wouldn't do. They were about to be facing down Iron Man (if he hadn't scampered by the time they got there.) They needed unit cohesion. "ETA is forty-five minutes," Steve said, stepping between the two of them. He gestured pointedly to an empty seat.

She looked amused, but did as she was told, sliding silkily into the indicated chair. That was good enough for him. Steve spent a moment double-checking the weapons he was issued. Then, casually, he walked over to Rumlow.

"What's her story?" he asked lowly.

Rumlow snorted. "Former KGB." He glanced at Steve and added, "They're—"

"I know what the KGB was," he said, annoyed. Rumlow had the habit of treating him like an idiot. "How is she in the field?"

"Deadly." He glanced over to her and added lowly, “Her last handler, man named Coulson, got stabbed through the heart. No one could pin it on her, but you want my advice, you don’t turn your back."

He moved off, leaving Steve frowning.

 

****

 


Agent Romanoff fought like nothing Steve had ever seen before. Every movement was liquid grace. Like a dancer made deadly. He'd never imagined a lady's thighs could be quite that... versatile.

Even against an army of Iron Legion robots, she was effective.

The Raft was built on top of an ocean rig, every surface damp from cold spray and humidity. It seemed like the skeletal Iron Legion was having trouble, too. Steve saw several robots stumble as their metal boots slid on slick surfaces and delicate electrical equipment shorted out.

Every cell door had been opened, and soon Steve and the STRIKE team were fighting rogue prisoners armed with improvised weapons – whatever they could create or steal from overwhelmed prison guards.

Steve let his shield fly to strike a robot and knock down a prisoner wielding a tire iron on the rebound.

He caught a glimpse of red and gold retreating down a far hallway. "I've got eyes on Iron Man," he yelled into the earpiece. "Level four, heading topside east."

To his surprise, Romanoff was by his side first. A splatter of oil cut across one cheekbone. She gave Steve a businesslike nod and adjusted an electrical device strapped to each wrist. "Lead the way, Captain."

Steve glanced around in a quick headcount. The rest of the STRIKE team were engaged in their own side battles. No one had so much as acknowledged his command – he'd have to deal with that later.

"Ladies first," he said, not intending to show her his back.

She smirked, holstered her gun, and led the way.

They spotted a group of a dozen or so ragged-looking prisoners all moving together towards the eastern helipad. The only way on and off the ocean rig was by air, and sure enough, a transport painted in garish red and gold sat squarely in the middle of the helipad.

Spotting the group, Romanoff stopped dead in her tracks. "CLINT!"

One of the distant figures in prisoner’s uniform whipped around to look at her. They stared at each other across the distance for a moment before he turned and headed onto the transport.

"No!" Romanoff surged forward, but was stopped as repulsor blast exploded not a foot away.

“Hands to yourself, lady. These are my guests.” Iron Man came swooping out of the low, rainy clouds, firing at them both.

Steve flung his shield. It struck Iron Man’s side, knocking the villain back. But Iron Man recovered and returned fire, making Steve scramble for cover.

Romanoff cursed. "They're getting away!"

Sure enough, the transport was lifting into the air with a high engine whine. The entire group of escaped prisoners aboard.

Iron Man gave a cocky solute and followed.

 


****

 

 

It took the rest of the evening to subdue the remaining prisoners, find where they had stashed the prison guards (the library, and most were unharmed) and get the final headcount.

Iron Man had left with no less than fifteen inmates – most of those on SHIELD's most wanted, traitors to the States, and three rogue agents. There was even a disgraced scientist jailed for human experimentations: Doctor Bruce Banner.

The thought of a man like that set loose in the Resilient Isles chilled Steve all the way through.

 

 

 

****

 

 

The only good thing out of that mission was that Steve found himself with a new sparring partner – and perhaps, even, a friend.

Natasha never gave a full answer why she was in SHIELD headquarters more often than before. Scuttlebutt from around (always overheard – no one dared to speak to Captain America in confidence, no matter how many times Steve reached out) was that Romanoff was trusted less than a starving fox locked in a henhouse. And that one of her former partners had been a part of the Raft breakout.

This last point, Steve knew had to be true. She’d called out to him, and whenever he tried bringing him up to her, it was met with a not-so-obvious redirects, and a new, painful trick in sparring.

Steve shouldn’t have found himself seeking her out for company. But, perhaps they were more alike than he wanted to admit. Both were outcasts in the tight, professional SHIELD community.

The STRIKE team tolerated, not welcomed, him. He and Rumlow were the co-captains, but Rumlow was the one they followed.

They aren’t the Howling Commandos, he told himself for perhaps the hundredth time, and felt the ache in his heart from it. There was no man like Bucky to watch his back, no gruff Dum-Dum, sly Jacques, Gabe who’d been smart as a whip and the second-best shot behind Buck…

He missed them so damn much.

But having Natasha around to spar with, and occasionally talk with, was… nice.

Natasha, sly and mysterious as ever, was also surprisingly perceptive.

“I hear Stark’s making an appearance,” she said as she made a quick rabbit-punch, causing Steve to dance back a few paces on the mat.

He reeled, and tried not to show it, but she followed him close, trying to get inside his guard.

“Tony Stark?” he asked, as if he didn’t know, as if his heart hadn’t leapt to his throat at the sound of the name. It was ridiculous, how bad he had it.

Their coffee meetings were short and infrequent, and they’d never gone out on that ‘outing’ but he was still in Steve’s thoughts, despite his best efforts.

She raised an eyebrow, and he managed to manage to block her foot as she swung up in a side-kick. He wasn’t moving at full speed, but then again, neither was she.

A couple blocks and punches in silence later, Steve decided to give up the dumb act. “You know him?”

“Investigated him,” she answered. “Posed as an assistant once – it was the only time I was ever caught.”

Again, he danced back, surprised, and again she followed his retreat, not allowing him to back to safety. “SHIELD was investigating Stark? Why?”

“Irregularities,” she answered. He hit her with a one-two punch, and suddenly it was she who was on the retreat, swaying effortlessly away. He didn’t follow, though. Only dropped his hands.

For once, his heart wasn’t in the fight.

She took his signal to break, and relaxed out of her ready position.

“There were questions,” she said, “about his time in Afghanistan.”

“He… was in the war?” Steve asked, thinking back to his history lessons.

“Captured by insurgents after launching a new generation smart-rocket.”

“Stark doesn’t create weapons.” Steve had gleaned that during several of the more terse meetings between Fury and Hill.

“Not anymore.” She squinted at him. “You really didn’t know any of this? Hasn’t anyone taught you to Google-stalk?”

“Natasha,” he said disapprovingly.

But she was slipping an arm under his and leading him out of the gym. “I guarantee he’s done the same to you, not there’s anything to see,” she added.

You think? A hopeful part wondered. He shoved it aside. He wanted to ask what kind of ‘irregularities’ prompted the assignment, but knew that if Natasha could tell him, she already would have. “Did you… find anything? While you were his assistant?”

“No. He was the cleanest subject I’ve come across.”

“You don’t sound happy about it,” he noted.

“No one,” she said. “Is totally clean.”

 

 

****

 

 

She showed him the finer points of ‘Google-stalking’, and made a point of leaving after Steve found Tony’s first press appearance after his rescue. He was beaten and thinner, but his eyes… his eyes had that same haunted, exhausted look Steve had seen right after Iron Man had hijacked the cruise ships. As if Tony had been worn down to a nub, and was on his feet by grit alone.

Steve rewatched it, a little sad, but mostly admiring. This was a man who had fought his way out of a situation that would have killed others, and had stitched himself back together.

He was no well-kept rich boy. There was steel in his spine.

Curious, but a little guilty, he searched for videos after the Chitauri invasion. There were none to be found. The only press releases from Stark Industries had been text-only. It seemed since then Tony had taken on a relatively low profile.

It struck him as odd, though he couldn’t put a finger on why.

Steve’s stomach was grumbling some hours later. Closing his laptop, he forced himself to take a break for the night.

He made his way to the commissary, and out of habit glanced over at his usual table.

Tony sat there, idly tapping on his smart phone.

He looked better than Steve had seen him in some time. The tired bruises under his eyes were gone, and there was a hint of a healthy tan as if he’d finally found time to get some sun.

Tony glanced up to meet Steve’s gaze. His lips curled into a smile that shot a warm thrill to Steve’s toes.

“I’d heard you were in the building,” Steve found himself saying as he walked over, “but I wasn’t sure if you’d hang around.” If he knew Tony had been here all along he wouldn’t have wasted so much time on his computer. He could have kicked himself.

“I’ll do a lot for a cup of good coffee,” Tony said, indicating half-empty cup at his elbow. It was so bitter Steve could smell it from across the table.

“I bet.” Steve quirked a smile and let his gaze roam daringly over the other man. “You’re looking more relaxed. You finally hire additional help?”

He waved a hand back and forth in a so-so gesture. “Never been busier, but I’m making a point of taking on my problems in smaller chunks. Delegation is a magical thing.”

They talked shop for a few minutes. Tony, apparently, had been called in to consult on a theoretical EMP device strong enough to take out Iron Man.

“There’s no way to target a weapon. You couldn’t do it without also taking out your own electronics. Tricky if you’re firing it from a quinjet.”

“I bet.” Though, privately Steve thought it might be worth it if he were the only one in the jet. He could (and did) survive without a parachute.

Tony’s phone chimed, and he glanced down at it, frowning. He tapped something back and put the phone away with a roll of his eyes. “My new driver’s caught in traffic.”

“Leaving so soon?” he asked, a touch disappointed.

“No rest for the wicked, Cap. But according to the rush-hour, no.”

“I have my motorcycle,” he blurted.

Tony stared at him for a few moments, then blinked. “Do you have an extra helmet?”

A few minutes later, Steve straddled his motorcycle. He’d hardly had the opportunity to use it – all the food and supplies he needed were at headquarters. But the engine rumbled to life with a purr. Tony spent a few moments securing his briefcase with a borrowed strap before his arms wrapped securely around Steve’s waist, his chest pressed warmly into his back.

Tony leaned forward and said, "Gun it."

Steve felt a grin – a real, true smile – cross his face. Twisting the gas, he dropped the motorcycle into gear.

He had never been a cautious driver, but weaving in and out of the heavy LA traffic had never been so fun. Tony leaned with him, helping to balance and counterbalance with such effortlessness he had to have been a rider himself a time or two.

Tony’s laugh was loud and carefree as they sped between cars and up, off the highway onto a twisty side street. Steve's laugh joined his own.

With the sun warm on his back, the bright blue overhead sky, and the points of contact between them so warm it was hot, for the first time in a long time, Steve didn't feel like some part of him was back in the frozen Atlantic, or down in a ravine in the alps or – God help him – wandering the devastated streets of Brooklyn.

All of Steve was here, in the present, and it was joyous and freeing.

He was a touch disappointed when Tony directed him up the last side street, past rich mansions with wrought iron fences.

They rumbled up to a security gate, and Tony reached out to place his hand on a panel touch screen.

It lit and the gate opened inward.

Tony's Malibu house was... modern, Steve decided after a stunned moment. Chalk white with sweeping lines, it was perched on the very edge of a sea-cliff. Half the building seemed to be windows, and he wondered if Tony Stark had a bit of an exhibitionist streak in him. Of course, there weren't any neighbors visible to see.

The building spoke of wealth, yes, but also a certain amount of elegance he hadn't expected. Steve wondered if Tony had designed it himself.

Steve parked in a garage that could – and did – hold multiple cars. He let Tony dismount first. Immediately his back felt cold.

"Thanks for the ride," Tony said, pulling off his helmet. His hair was mussed, and Steve fought the urge to reach over and smooth it down again. "Come on up, have a drink. Me casa, su casa... even though I don't spend much time here anymore. Pardon the dust."

"You don't have a whole team of maids and butlers?" he asked as he tugged off his own gloves.

"Nah. Just one, and he's not much into cleaning."

He followed Tony up a glass set of stairs, and into a spacious... well. He'd call it a formal room, except it seemed to be a combination of kitchen, dining, living space and entryway.

"We call it 'open concept' nowadays," Tony commented, crossing the cavernous space to what looked like a wet bar. "Coffee? Or something stronger?"

He frowned. "You're not having more coffee."

"Me? No, I'll get my sleep." He set down his briefcase with a click. It sounded oddly heavy for such a slim case. "All part of being the gracious host." He gestured to one of the windows which apparently doubled as a TV, "You don't have to leave – watch whatever you want. Netflix and chill... ha."

Steve squinted, unsure what Tony was even talking about. His body language was all over the place, part frantic, part nervous, rambling... and he was rambling, Steve realized.

"You know, I think I'll take that coffee," he said cautiously, feeling out the situation. "Black. One sugar."

"Coming right up, sugar." Having a job seemed to settle Tony a little, and he practically rushed over to a machine with approximately a hundred buttons.

Meanwhile, Steve took a seat on the couch and let himself think over the situation. Really think it over. He'd been hoping for a date, and anything more seemed like a daydream. Yet, the way Tony was acting... and it wasn't like Steve hadn't had experiences with men, but those had always been in back alleys, shameful groping in the dark.

Tony returned, steaming mug in hand. Steve took it from him and set it on the coffee table. Then, gathering his courage, he drew Tony down.

"If I'm misreading the situation," he said lowly, and watched Tony swallow.

"No." Tony followed him down, and to Steve's surprise and delight he gracefully placed one knee on either side of his lap, hands firmly on Steve's shoulders. "I'm usually more suave at this."

"This?"

"Seduction."

"I'm not," Steve slid a hand up his side. "Call me old fashioned."

Steve closed the slight distance and kissed him. Tony seemed to let out a long breath, almost a sigh, and opened up beautifully. He must have eaten something with coconut, and the smell of his skin was vaguely metallic. Not unpleasant, just unique.

Tony made a soft noise in the back of his throat, hands clenching into fists at Steve’s shirt. He opened up, the kiss going from sweet to dirty. Arousal sparked through Steve’s spine. It was Tony who drew back, offering an apologetic small peck on Steve’s bottom lip.

“This is a bad idea,” Tony murmured, lips lingering so close to Steve’s that his facial hair tickled.

“You’ve said that.” Steve slid one palm back to cup Tony’s ass. It was as firm as he’d imagined. “I still don’t believe it.”

“You should. I have… baggage. I’m a handful. More than the handful you have there.” He could tell Tony was trying to be serious, but he arched back into the touch like he was starved for it.

“I’m no peach, myself,” Steve admitted.

Tony’s eyes widened. “Are you kidding me? You’re—"

“Please don’t say ‘Captain America’.” That was all everyone at SHEILD ever saw. It was a big reason, he suspected, why he was always set apart.

Tony’s smile was a touch soft, as if he understood. “I was going to say, ‘So good and sweet it makes my teeth ache. No,” he shook his head. “You’re Steve Rogers, and I’m--”

“Brilliant, dedicated, and,” he swallowed, “I’m not so sweet, Tony. I…I want you. Do you want me?”

“I’m too old for you.”

That wasn’t a no. Steve’s heart leapt. “Afraid you won’t be able to keep up?”

Tony closed his eyes as if gathering himself, and Steve knew he was about to call a halt to this. He braced himself for the coming heartache, determined to take it stoically. Maybe they could still salvage a friendship out of it.

Then Tony opened his eyes and kissed Steve, hard, with no hesitation at all.

He hadn’t been looking for a way to let Steve down gently. He’d been readying himself to jump into the deep end of the pool.

And Steve… Steve happily followed him.

 

 

****

 

 

Later, tangled together on Tony's bed, Steve had a chance to think. Tony had dropped off to sleep, looking peaceful in the sheets. Steve, too, had napped, but he wasn't as tired and his body didn't need as much rest. Plus, he wasn't running on a deficit as he suspected Tony currently was.

Tony always seemed to be running, trying to squeeze more hours in the day than any sane person had the right. It made Steve feel both fond and protective of him.

This is a strange new world, he thought. A man like Tony in the forties would be expected to have a wife, but no one had so much as said boo to him.

Tony slept with his undershirt on, had insisted on keeping it on the entire time. When they'd moved from the couch to the bed he'd said, somewhat shamefaced. "The shirt stays on. There’s… scarring. It’s not pretty."

"Because of Afghanistan? Romanoff told me."

"The little minx," he said without heat.

"Tony, I don't care about scars."

"Humor me," he said, then drew Steve into another kiss. Then... then there hadn't been much time for thought.

Now, laying together, Steve realized he heard something unusual. A low, thrumming whoom, whoom, whoom. So faint that at first, he thought it was background electronics. Steve tilted his head and realized it was coming from Tony, from his chest.

Pacemaker, he realized. He'd seen a show on one once, playing late night in the commissary.  

There was no reason to be ashamed of it, but Steve had grown up sickly. He understood the bone-deep need to show the world he was healthy and able.

A man like Tony would have his pride.

Steve looped an arm around his waist, and even in his sleep Tony shifted back against the warmth of his body. Steve pressed a soft kiss to the back of his neck, and rested his head against the luxurious pillow. He didn’t mean to, but he was asleep within minutes.

 

 

****

 

 

Iron Man hadn’t shown his face in over four weeks, and Steve couldn’t be happier.

Whereas his days used to stretch between training, gym, and long interminable meetings occasionally broken by meals taken alone… now stolen moments with Tony were a bright spot in an otherwise monochrome day.

True, they couldn’t see each other every day – or even every other day, sometimes. Tony commonly had to travel between Stark Industry offices on both coasts “to keep R&D on their toes”. And Steve had his own missions – Iron Man wasn’t the only villain in the world.

But there were texts and emails, once Tony showed Steve how to encrypt for privacy.

Nearly a month to the day after the motorcycle ride, they were laying in Steve’s too-small bed, together. Steve was trying to catch his breath, feeling a little the way he used to back when he had asthma. The things Tony could do with his mouth…

Tony lay propped on one elbow, watching Steve with a satisfied expression, the tips of his fingers running a trail over Steve’s chest, down nearly to his groin, and back again.

Steve loved those hands, the strength and quickness in them. The way they could make him feel, and how crazy it made Tony when he captured them when they made love.

Breath back, Steve grabbed Tony’s fingers in his own. “You’re looking a little smug, Stark,” he mock-growled.

“So smug,” Tony confirmed. “I had a productive day at work, Fury’s not on my ass, and I got to do filthy-fun things with my boyfriend. You’re like the muscle-bound cherry on top of my ice-cream sundae.”

Steve chuckled. “You're ridiculous.” Before Tony could answer Steve hooked a leg under Tony’s knee, and easily flipped their positions, him on top.

Tony’s breath caught. Then his dark eyes glinted. “Wait, I forgot something, hold that thought.”

He wriggled out from under Steve (easy to do since Steve was mostly holding himself up on his arms to keep from crushing Tony) and to his carry-pack he’d set in the corner. Steve got a delicious view of his bare ass. It was just as good as he’d imagined it in the meeting room all those months ago.

Tony dug around in the pack for a moment. Turning, he flipped something at Steve who caught it in mid-air.

“A watch?” Steve asked, looking down at it. It was a handsome piece; classy, and resembling the style popular in the forties with the hint of brass. The round screen was a digital representation of an analog face.

“StarkWatch,” Tony said, returning to the bed. He took the watch back and smoothly fastened it over Steve’s left wrist. “It will sync to your phone, your computer, has a mini-halo protector, is waterproof and bulletproof. You could drop a building on this baby, and it’ll keep on ticking.”

“Metaphorically ticking.” Steve tapped the face. “It’s actually digital, isn’t it?”

Tony’s smile was a touch sly. “It couldn’t be a StarkWatch otherwise.”

Of course Tony would try to improve a watch. Steve rolled his eyes, though just a little. He softened it with a kiss and an honest, “Thank you.”

Tony hummed. “I like seeing my gear on you.”

Truth to be told, he liked wearing it. Deepening their kiss, Steve moved his arm to Tony’s back, making sure to press the band into his skin.

Tony shivered, and for some time after, there wasn’t much talking between them.

 

 

****

 

 

For the first time in quite a while, Steve was woken by an alarm. It wasn’t Iron Man, it was a mad scientist gone rogue, and for once Steve felt like he was on firm footing. After all, HYDRA scientists weren't exactly stable people, and he and the Howlies had foiled their grandiose plans for years. 

He suspected that these particular mad scientists had been given the heads up, however. The lab itself was virtually empty by the time he and the STRIKE team got there.

Signaling that he was moving forward, Steve ducked into a room.

Something's wrong, whispered a fleeting thought in the back of his mind. Something felt off about the whole thing.

Rumlow signaled for the team to be split into two -- his half would take the top, Steve's the bottom levels. Steve and the eight others fanned out through the room -- lab equipment sat humming on counter tops, centrifuges full of tubes, with no one around to collect the results.

It was all… very clean. Like a stage play. As if these were props.

Lowering his shield, Steve walked to a microwave set in the corner and glanced around it. It wasn't even plugged into the wall socket.

His StarkWatch pinged. He frowned, glanced down at it. Instead of the normal clock face, a single message scrolled across.

SHORT RANGE MISSLE INBOUND.

Tony? How in the world did he manage that? Steve touched his earpiece.

"This is Rogers. Evac the building! Repeat: Evac the building!"

There was no reply, just a slight hiss of static.

Steve dashed out to the hallway. It was empty. Where were the rest of the STRIKE team? They’d been right behind him.

The watch beeped incessantly as if in warning. But he couldn't leave without warning his men.

Unless… No, they couldn’t have already known…

The next door didn't budge. He kicked it, hearing the hinges creak. Bits of plaster fell down, but the door held. He struck again and again, the beeps on the watch becoming more urgent. The display now showed a little white dot approaching a red center-point. He glanced down at it in horror as it connected, then brought his shield over his head.

The whole world felt as if it were shattering around him. The blast was so loud it was a force, not a noise, and Steve felt himself falling as the very floor gave way under his feet.

Weight crashed over him, around him, and he couldn't draw breath...

He was on his back.

Steve blinked, something stinging his eye. Sweat? Blood? He couldn’t see, his shield was lord knows where, and there was a heavy weight bearing down on his chest. It hurt. He drew in a shallow breath, hooking fingers under it -- felt like a beam -- and tried to lift.

It didn’t budge.

"Help," he gasped.

There was no reply other than settling stone.

He lay in the dark -- he wasn't sure for how long. Minutes. Hours. He tried to calm his breathing, not knowing how big of a space he was in, how much air was trapped inside. Not knowing if the STRIKE team were dead or alive.

He could barely breathe.

Suddenly, the watch flared to life. The face of it was cracked down the middle, the screen shattered so he couldn't see what was supposed to be displayed. But the brief illumination was a comfort, even if all he could see was rubble and a space smaller than he'd feared.

Then there was the sound of shifting stone. Someone digging him out. SHIELD crews had arrived.

Another shaft of light pierced the darkness – this one from above him. He could see clear blue sky, and the sight made his eyes water.

Then the light was covered as something moved in front of it. And Steve found himself staring at a red and gold mask, and a pair of backlit blue eyes.

"Well, well, well," Iron Man said, "what do we have here? No, don't get up on account of me." And with an effortless looking push, knocked some of the rubble out of the way.

"You killed… my team." He could taste metallic blood on his tongue.

"They're safe." He cocked his head. "For now."

"Why are you here?" Steve demanded, or tried. His voice was thready.

"Don't you recognize a kidnapping when you see one?" Iron Man asked. "Now stay still for me. This beam is going to be tough."

Then the beam moved and pain shot through his chest, as if something had been pressing down on the nerves, and was now released. The sound he made was short of a scream only because he didn't have air.

"Hold on, Cap," Iron Man said. "Almost there."

"Shove it… where the sun… don’t shine..." he rasped, but lent the rest of his strength to the beam to push it free. If nothing else, he wasn’t going to lay there and be crushed to death.

"You kiss your mother with that mouth—Jesus." The last bit seemed to be a bit of an accident. Steve looked down. At least three of his ribs were clearly caved in, making an obscene dent in his chest.

How am I alive? He thought wildly, The serum has to have some limits.

"Okay, okay, this is… just hold on." One of Iron Man’s gauntleted hand hovered over Steve’s chest and Steve prepared himself for the blast. But Iron Man only held the gauntlet steady, as if scanning him. “The internal bleeding is bad. You need a trauma center… I’m sorry, this is going to hurt.” Then Iron Man's arms were under sliding under him. Lifting up bridal style.

Now Steve did scream as he felt bits of bone grind together.

"I know, Steve. Just… hold on. You're almost out."

Iron Man was almost babbling, but every movement was agony, and Steve couldn't think straight.

He heard the whine of Iron Man's repulsers, knew he was in the air. Probably on his way to Iron Man's island nation. Bruce Banner’s human experimentation labs.

Steve couldn't allow that. He pushed at the metal chest, ineffectively. His arms felt like they weighed one-hundred pounds apiece.

And things were starting to get fuzzy around the edges. Iron Man was still speaking, telling him, almost begging him to stay still. Remain calm.

Steve couldn't keep track of…

Air rushed past his face, and he could see blood on his hands, taste it rolling around his tongue.

Exhausted, he rested his head against Iron Man's chest, smelling coconut. His enhanced ears picked a deep, soothing, 'whoom, whoom, whoom'.

Tony, he thought swaying over the line between wake and unconsciousness. I’ll never be able to tell Tony how much he means to me… that I love him.

Then he felt no more.

 

****

 

 

One of the gifts of the serum was that there was little or no disorientation when he woke up.

Instantly, Steve was aware he was on a bed – a softer mattress than he preferred. Not his own.

He could hear the whirr-click of machinery overhead, feel the slightly tacky residue of medical-grade stick gel on his chest.

He could smell, too, the faint whiff of coconut and metal.

He took a carefully measured breath free of pain. Readying himself to fight.

Opening his eyes, he saw not a prison cell or Iron Man’s advanced robotics hospital room, but the popcorn geometric tile of the SHIELD medical bay.

"Welcome back," said a smoky voice beside him.

Steve glanced over to see Natasha Romanoff sitting next to his hospital bed. She reached over, brushed some imaginary piece of fluff from his hair. "You had us worried, Cap."

"Iron Man?" His voice cracked from disuse.

She frowned. "STRIKE team fought him off before he could fly you away."

The lingering scent of coconut and metal. A familiar ‘whoom, whoom, whoom.’

"... Tony?" he asked, muzzily.

She shook her head. Her lips pulled into a half smile. "He’s going to be upset you chose now to wake up. He’s been at your bedside for days. Fury finally had to ban him from the base to get him to rest."

And it clicked.

The realization rolled over him in a slow wave. A tsunami that was as inevitable as it was devastating. Steve squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head against it, and as if from very far away he heard Natasha go on, that none of the other STRIKE team were caught in the building collapse – there was something under her words, but it was eclipsed by dawning horror.

And shame.

Hadn’t Tony looked exhausted just when Iron Man had been at his busiest? Wasn’t he always off on one business trip or another, jetting around the world without explanation? He knew exactly when and how to find Steve – had no doubt been using him for intel all along. A convenient alibi. Iron Man had always been one – no, three -- steps ahead of SHIELD, in technology and plans. There was a mole in the office, and it was their tech consultant.

SHIELD’s tech consultant, who’d no doubt developed the communicators which kept glitching on Steve at inconvenient times, leaving Steve alone. Isolated. Perfect prey for Iron Man to swoop in and grab.

Steve sat up, making various machines beep in protest.

"I'm leaving."

For once, Natasha looked completely taken aback. "Lay back down, Steve. They had to rebuild part of your rib-cage—"

"I heal fast," he said, and it was true. He could move, though it wasn’t without pain. His chest was still a mass of bruises, though the sutures were clean and laid flat against healed skin. They looked weeks old, not days.  He started tugging off sensors, making some of the machines shrill higher.

A nurse stepped into the room, but Natasha quickly waved her away.

She leaned close. "Steve, we'll get to the bottom of this, but you need to play this smart."

He snapped his head around to look at her. She knew?

"I'm going to pin Rumlow to the wall for this," she said.

Rumlow? He was the furthest thing from his mind. “It wasn’t STRIKE’s fault.”

Her lips pressed together. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but they abandoned you. We still don’t know the origin of that missile—”

Of course they didn’t. Tony was Iron Man. Or he was working for him.

“I didn’t receive notice to evacuate until it was too late.” He was surprised at how matter-of-fact his voice sounded. “I’m going to have a talk with our tech consultant.”

“Stark?” Her eyebrows furrowed, but she had always been quick on the uptake. “What are you saying?”

Not answering, Steve raised his hand to pull away the last sensor, then stopped. A wristwatch was attached to his left wrist -- fully repaired. Tony must have replaced it.

No doubt it held a tracker. Perhaps even a heart-beat monitor of its own. How else had Iron Man known where to locate him, and that he was still alive under all the rubble?

“Nat,” he said, “I need a favor.”

She sat back, waiting.

“I need a laptop and a way out of here without the doctors stopping me.” Without them telling anyone who might be listening. Steve held up his left hand. “And I need you to wear this.”

 

 

****

 

 

The drive was painful, but Steve had lived with near constant pain of one sort or another until he climbed out of the Vita-Ray machine. He could push it to the background.

Rumbling his motorcycle up to Tony's Malibu security gate, he checked the clock on his phone. Five minutes until the timed email was sent out. He gave it a max ten minutes past that until the full might of SHIELD showed on Tony's doorstep.

He hit the intercom, and there was a pause. Then Tony's voice, faintly surprised. "Steve? What the hell are you doing out of the hospital?"

The watch was a tracker. He thought I was still at SHIELD.

"Solving a mystery," Steve replied.

"What's that?"

"How a man can be two people at once."

There was dead silence from the other end. Feeling the seconds tick away, Steve said, "I'm coming in, Tony, whether you want me to or not."

"This is a really bad time," Tony said.

But the gate opened.

He rumbled the motorcycle into the garage. After parking, he dismounted (ignoring the flash of agony that lit through him as he twisted wrong) and turned away from the stairway that led to the living room. Instead, he went to the workshop door. Tony had once called it his own private sanctuary. Well, it was a sanctuary he was going to breach.

Removing the shield from his back, Steve took a bracing breath and struck it, edge on, against the darkened glass.

Hot fire lanced through his ribs, but the blow caused cracks in the glass to spider web out. Steve struck again and again -- five piston blows in as many seconds. Jagged cracks splintered up and down, and with a shattering crash, the glass dissolved into cubical pebbles. His boots crunched as he stepped in.

And right there, only a wall away from where he and Tony had once made love, was an Iron Man suit.

It stood on a pedestal, clearly half-finished with the wires and electronics spilling like guts. Beyond, Steve made a quick count of at least eight more, ranged along the walls in various states of completion. Holographic displays lit the status of each, along with a dedicated wall focused on Resilient Isles -- temperature, weather, and a scattering of infrared heat dots probably signaling individual people Tony was tracking.

Tony himself sat in a nearby chair, his shirt off.

There was some scarring, but the most prominent feature -- the thing that made Steve halt in place -- was the soup-can size hole in his chest.

"As I said." As casual as you please, Tony lifted a cylinder device from a box. It glowed a vivid blue in his hand. "This is a bad time. You have no idea what I went through until I developed micro Palladium blood filtration. But the core of these babies only lasts a week at a time." With barely a wince, he shoved it into his chest and twisted. The device flared to life.

It was as if Tony didn't have a heart at all.

Steve realized he was just standing there like a total buffoon. Rooted to the spot. "You're Iron Man."

"Yeah, I am." Tony’s voice was soft, and for a second Steve thought he caught a glimmer of moisture in the corner of one eye. Pulling on a black shirt, he rose from the chair with hands outstretched. "Take a seat, Cap. You look like death warmed over. I’ll explain everything."

"Explain?" Steve repeated. It felt like his voice was coming from very far away, like ice were creeping around his heart.

At least it dulled his aching ribs.

Tony gestured with a flick around the room, all of its futuristic equipment. "I never set out to be the bad guy. I still don't think I am. Mostly."

A sharp spear of anger broke through the ice. "You enslaved people to work on your island!"

"Refugees, not slaves. Huge diff. And they don't mine the vibranium -- I have robots to do that. I don't even know where that rumor got started. Look, I'll show you the live feed. They're happy, well fed, building a community, and those who want it are getting an education—"

"What about New York?" Steve demanded.

Something dark flitted across Tony's face. "SHIELD was trying to bomb New York into a nuclear wasteland. I was trying to save it—"

“By stealing the weapon that would have stopped the Chitauri before they spread out of the city.”

“Manhattan was my home,” Tony snapped.

“And Brooklyn was mine.”

Tony slammed his hand down on his desk. “You don’t get it. You weren’t there. How did that portal open up, Steve? We are decades away from proving the equations to an Einstein-Rosen bridge, and suddenly a stable one rips a hole in the sky over my tower?”

Steve said nothing, but watched as Tony turned away, rubbing over the glow in his chest as if it pained him.

“Ever heard of Puente Antiguo? Cute little town in New Mexico. It was wiped off the map, and the locals who survived claimed it was ‘space aliens’. SHIELD investigated and came back with artifacts – all untagged, all lost. Six months later, the Chitauri invaded New York.” Tony stabbed a finger in Steve’s direction as if to make a point. “Someone was fiddling with something they shouldn’t, opened a doorway, and let them in.”

If this was true… but how could it be? Steve took a step forward. “You have proof SHIELD was involved?”

He could see immediately that Tony didn’t. A look of frustration crossed his face. “Why do you think Iron Man’s been targeting SHIELD ‘research’ facilities?” He made air-quotes around the word. “It sure hasn’t been for SHIELD’s state-of-the-art tech.”

"So that’s your excuse for attacking SHIELD facilities, attacking my team -- me.”

"I never killed," he said quickly, as if that counted. "SHIELD did enough of that to cover up--"

"You lied to me this entire time." Steve’s voice come out in a snarl. "You used me."

"No! Well, yes, I admit the first time I took you out to lunch you were kinda my alibi to throw off Fury. I did feel bad about the sonic paralyzer. And,” he winced, “in full disclosure there may have been a tracker or two. Very discreet. But Steve, sugar--"

He didn't want to hear any more of it. The convenient omissions. The lies. "Tony Stark," he said, hearing his voice as if it were coming from far away. He didn’t know if it was anger or the fact he should probably still be in the hospital. "I'm placing you under arrest for terrorism and crimes against humanity."

A half smile flickered over Tony's face, as if he wasn't sure Steve were kidding or not. "Steve—"

"Are you going to come quietly, or are we going to have to fight?"

The tone of his voice must have caught Tony's attention. "This is bigger than you and me."

"Yes," Steve agreed. "It is." He took another step closer, reaching for SHIELD-issued handcuffs he’d attached to his belt.

Tony's eyes flickered to an Iron Man gauntlet sitting by the table.

Steve didn't give him time to reach for it. He threw his shield, striking the gauntlet and setting it clattering across the floor. With a grunt of effort, Steve barely caught his shield on the rebound.

It hurt, but the ice around his heart – the numbness – helped.

"Listen," Tony said, backing a step, and Steve took vicious pleasure that all the humor was gone from his face. He was finally taking Steve seriously. Maybe for the first time since they’d met. "Something rotten is going down at SHIELD. You don't have to believe me, but I'm almost there. I just need a little more time. I can prove it to you. A mountain of evidence. I promise. Just give me a chance to prove it."

"No. No more games, Stark."

Tony was still backing away, and Steve moved to close the distance.

He didn't expect one of the armors to disconnect from its charging station and step in front of him.

For one shining moment Steve thought he'd somehow gotten it wrong. That Tony wasn't Iron Man, after all.

The hope was exquisitely painful.

Then Tony barked, "Belay that! Jarvis, I swear I'll pull you offline and sell you for parts."

The armor's eyes glowed for a moment, then powered down.

"Who's Jarvis?" Steve demanded, looking around. Did he have a partner in crime?

Tony just stared at him, his eyes full of emotion. "I didn’t want this. I tried to distance myself. At the end of the day…  I love you, Steve. Remember that."

And damn it all, that hurt. "You expect me to believe you?" Steve demanded. "After everything you've—after all the lies?"

Something beeped, and Tony took the opportunity to push a holographic button. Instantly, multiple camera views of the house showed on the screens. Swarms of SHIELD agents were converging onto the grounds, and several quinjets hovered in the air above the mansion. It looked like Steve's mass email had gone through.

"Perimeter breach," said an efficient, British voice from somewhere overhead. Oddly, Steve was reminded of voice-activated computer he'd seen on an episode of Star Trek.

"It's over, Iron Man," Steve said. "Are you coming quietly, or do I have to drag you out of here?"

Tony actually slumped. Steve took the last step, and quickly, not allowing himself to think about what he was doing, captured Tony's hands behind his back and locked them with cuffs. Hands he had admired, had gripped in the height of their passion.

"If you do this," Tony said, twisting to look back at him over his shoulder. "I'm not getting out of SHIELD alive."

Steve straightened him back around. He couldn’t look at Tony’s face. "I expect you're going away for a very long time."

Tony shook his head, closing his eyes. Taking him by the arm, Steve started to escort him out.

Then Tony looked up at the ceiling and said. "You know what to do, J."

Steve froze.

"The clean slate protocol?" asked the British voice.

Tony swallowed. "Might as well. Give us thirty seconds?"

"What's—" Steve started.

Around them, the room fell into red light. All the screens went blank, replaced by a timer starting at 00:30.

"Thirty," said the British voice. "Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight."

Tony twisted around again in Steve's grip and with a bitter smile said, "We gotta go, Cap. This whole place is about to blow."

He stared, but the timer was counting smoothly down and he realized all over again he wasn't dealing with Tony Stark, civilian. He stared at the man he had thought he might have loved, and for the first time thought he saw a glint of Iron Man in the back of his eyes.

He pushed Tony into a stumbling run.

The stairs were agony, and Steve made a short step, tripping halfway up. He landed exactly wrong, hard on his chest. White flashed in front of his eyes and he heard Tony’s cry of alarm. The other man had stopped, turned back, and was bent to try to help him up with his hands still cuffed.

“Go,” Steve rasped.

“Get up!” Tony yelled.

Part of Steve wanted to curl up and die right there, but he grabbed onto Tony’s arm for balance. His legs did most of the work, hauling him up, but he had to heavily lean onto Tony.

Agents in black had already entered the living room, having destroyed the floor-to-ceiling windows to get inside. They froze, guns raised, when Steve came gasping up the stairs, half-draped on Tony.

"Clear the room!" Steve yelled.

Tony stumbled over a piece of broken furniture. They both almost went down again. The screens around them were also counting down the time. Ten seconds. Nine.

Steve took a breath and shoved Tony a step ahead. Even with his broken ribs, he was the more fragile of them both.

Seven. Six.

They were out of the house, but he didn’t know what was far enough. He kept the count in his own head as they staggered across the landscaped grounds: Four. Three. Two One.

The concussion from the blast knocked Steve off his feet. He landed painfully hard against Tony, knocking them to the ground. Instinctively, he shielded Tony's body with his own, shield above them both. Several smaller blasts followed the first, fire blooming out in every direction. The very ground rumbled under their feet.

Then, to Steve's horrified eyes, the flat roof collapsed. The supports anchoring the home to the cliff crumbled, and they watched, silent, as the elegant Malibu house cracked into pieces and fell into the ocean.

 

 

****

 

 

“You understand, these are very serious allegations, Captain,” Alexander Pierce said.

“I understand,” Steve said.

“That is an understatement,” one of the holographic councilor’s snapped.

Three days after Iron Man’s arrest, Steve had found himself attending his own hearing. He should have expected it – of course his relationship with Tony Stark would bring up questions about his competency.

Deep inside, he’d been asking himself those same questions: He’d been played like a fool.

He’d been testifying in World Council’s holographic meeting room for more than half the day. The other members of the Council “sat” around the table as if they were really there. Only Pierce and Fury attended along with him in flesh and blood.

“Do we know for certain he wasn’t more than just a pawn in Iron Man’s plans?” one of the other holographic men asked.

“Captain Rogers has been more than forthcoming.” Fury rested a hand on Steve’s shoulder.

Too worn to react, Steve only stared out into the middle distance. Forthcoming was not the word he would have used. He had been forced to recount the entire scope of his relationship with Tony Stark—Iron Man, from beginning to end. The first hour had been humiliating. After that, he’d gone numb all over again.

To his dull surprise, Pierce spoke up. “Stark surely gained more state secrets as SHIELD’s tech consultant than he did in pillow-talk. Our teams are dredging the ocean floor as we speak. We’ll be able to reconstruct exactly what he knew.”

“What of his island nation?” the third holographic man asked. “We should strike now. Without Iron Man to protect—”

“We are working to discover what defenses he may have left behind,” Pierce answered smoothly. “Iron Man has not been cooperating with our interrogators, but give us time. He’ll crack. They all do.”

The tips of Steve’s fingers curled inward to make a fist. Fury gave him a pointed look. He forced himself to relax.

“We still need to review testimony of Colonel James Rhodes,” the female hologram said, “He claims Stark cut off their personal and professional relationship as of two years ago, but I think—”

“May I remind you,” Pierce continued, “this hearing was called to discuss Steve Rogers.”

“Rogers acted the moment he suspected Stark was Iron Man,” Fury said. “And our evidence backs up those claims.”

“By his own testimony, he was sleeping with the enemy,” one of the men snapped. “That is poor judgment that does not befit a SHIELD operative.”

Fury’s voice held the barest edge of sarcasm. “You want to throw Captain America in prison?”

There was a pause in the room and Steve realized he should speak, make his case to save what was left of his career. The words were dust in his mouth. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he didn’t have the will to fight.

“Imprisonment is extreme, considering his long-standing history of loyalty and service,” the woman hologram said. “But he should not be on active duty.”

“Agreed,” Pierce said. “Perhaps we should adjourn for now, and reconvene after we’ve reviewed the testimony from Rogers and others who’ve had contact with Stark.”

They’re going to quietly retire me, Steve thought.

The room darkened as the holograms faded away. Steve, Fury, and Pierce rose from their own seats.

Pierce turned to Steve. “Captain, you know the tenuous position you are in. You’re free to move about for now, but keep your head down and your mouth shut. It’s a cliché, but don’t leave town.”

“Yes, sir,” Steve said.

He had nowhere to go, anyway.

Fury said nothing, but Steve didn’t think he imagined concern burning in his one good eye.

He wondered how many other careers would be shattered in the fallout. He’d never met Colonel James Rhodes though Steve suspected anyone who’d once called Stark a friend would be closely scrutinized.

Alone, Steve made his way down the hallway. He was not surprised to see Natasha waiting for him outside the doorway to his quarters, leaning against the wall like she had all the time in the world.

"Come with me," Natasha said.

"Where?" he asked dully.

"I think we should talk. Over burgers," she said. "And fries."

"Really, Tasha, that's not what I had in mind."

"What you had in mind was to lock yourself in the gym and beat your own knuckles bloody. Truthfully, has that helped?"

He didn't answer, because they both knew the answer. It had only driven him into his own head, and that was the worst place to be right now.

So he consented, showered, and changed. Soon, they were riding in her sleek, black sedan. He didn't know all the car models these days – Tony would know, and his heart caught a little on that thought.

She drove down familiar streets, as if knowing without being told that he couldn't leave the city, or be out of SHIELD's view for too long.

They ended up at a greasy burger place. She ordered for both of them – cheeseburgers and a malt. Thankfully, she didn't engage in small talk, respecting his need for silence until after the waitress dropped off their food.

He stared at it, not hungry in the slightest.

"Sometimes, you only think you know a person," she said, and bent to sip her malt.

"Now that's funny, because you seem to know everything."

She smiled, straw between her lips. "Did I ever tell you how I came to SHIELD?"

He thought back. "You used to work for the KGB."

She wiggled her hand in a so-so gesture. "Close enough for government work. I was young, doing bad things for the wrong people, making a name for myself in all the worst ways. Then, here comes this Agent – not only an American, but as American as they come." Her lips twitched. "Iowa, corn-fed ex-carnie." Then with a shake of her head she seemed to snap into the present. "He showed me I could do better things. Use my skills in a way that mattered. He brought me in."

"What happened?" Steve asked tiredly, knowing something was coming. Natasha never showed a bit of herself, her true self. She was clearly leading to some sort of point.

He was so tired.

"We went on dozens of missions together – had each other's back too many times to count." She looked at Steve. "I trusted him. I'm not sure if you know exactly what that means for someone like me."

She paused again. This time Steve held silent. Not wanting to ask again, to push.

She took another sip, and when she spoke her voice had a slightly ragged edge. "One day, I'm on a mission in Russia. I get a call from Coulson – you never knew him. He died in the invasion – and he told me that my friend had been compromised." She shook her head. "Coulson wasn't kidding. Eighty-seven agents dead, and it was Clint's arrows that took out the helicarrier."

Steve leaned back in the seat, understanding. So this was the man she had called out to during the prison break. He'd been one of the agents who had gone rogue at the worst possible moment before the invasion. There had been rumors they'd actually sided with the Chitauri, though Steve found that hard to believe. Most thought they’d simply been paid off, and picked the worst possible time to act.

"Fury pulled some strings and let me get five minutes alone with him, afterwards. And you know what Clint told me?" Natasha continued. "That it hadn't been him, inside his own head. Of course, how was I supposed to believe that?" She pushed the rest of her malt away. Then leaned forward, hands flat on the table. "He was locked in the Raft Prison, and I never saw him again."

"Until Iron Man broke him out."

"Until Iron Man broke him out," she confirmed. Then she reached in her pocket and withdrew a piece of creased paper. "Last week, I received an email from a dummy account with the subject 'Budapest'. It was an inside joke. It had this."

She laid it flat between them.

"That," Steve said after a moment, "looks an awful lot like the cosmic cube that killed the Red Skull."

"Clint said that this was what was responsible for the invasion."

Steve shook his head. "I don't see how."

"I think it means that there's more to the invasion than what we were told."

Almost violently, Steve remembered Tony saying, "Who is the one organization that deals in alien tech?"

"Tasha, I know where you're going with this, but Tony— Iron Man broke Clint out. How can you trust that anything he tells you is the truth?"

She sat back. "That's the question, isn't it? Is the friend you've known the real man, or is it the monster? I know which I'd like to believe."

"Choosing to believe something isn't like you.'

"What can I say? Clint's always had the ability to make me question my choices.”

Then she pressed something across the table. It was a small metallic button. "Stark gave this to me a few months back. Once it's activated it can jam signals and blind cameras within a small area. I know you're not supposed to go see him, but only you can know which is the man and which is the monster."

He looked at it, shocked. "Natasha..."

She didn't give him a chance to argue. Rising liquidly from her seat, she pressed a kiss to his forehead. "You don't have to use it today. He'll be down in the brig until you're both gray.”

I’m almost one-hundred years old, and I don’t have a gray hair yet.  

Almost a hundred, and lost love three times in three different ways. It was enough for a man to weep.

“Think about it,” Natasha said softly. “This gift is for you."

He didn't answer, but his hand closed around the button.

At the end of the day, Steve wasn't much for sitting around and thinking about his options. It was either go see Tony for the last time, or chuck the jamming button into the river.

Whatever else Steve was, he knew he wasn't a coward. If there were answers, he was going to get them.

  

 

****

 

 

The elevator down to the brig sub-level seemed to take a long time. It wasn't as if Steve had many opportunities to come here. This was where “enhanced interrogations” happened. A smooth modern phrase for an old-fashioned barbarism. He tried not to think of that in the context of Tony.

He'd entered Fury's code to get down there. Even if this did end up working, it would alert anyone who cared that Steve was making this trip.

The elevator doors finally opened to sub-level five. A cold metal hallway lit by colder florescent lights.

He had the jamming button in his hand, the button already pressed. Sure enough, when he looked over at a nearby camera the normally blinking light was a steady red.

Choosing to take that as a positive sign, Steve walked down the hallway. He'd been there once before, when depositing one of the miscreants who had been dealing in Chitauri tech some months back. There were five cells, he remembered. Each was separated by a foot-thick slab of concrete, and was guarded by its own individual guard.

Today, the hallways were so empty he heard his footfalls echo around him.

All the way down, he tried and failed to come up with an excuse for what he would say when someone asked why he was here.

It turns out he didn't need anything at all. There were no guards.

Every prison cell was empty.

Tony was gone.

Steve stared at the last cell, feeling a cold sense of dread work its way up his spine and settle over the back of his neck. Tony was supposed to be here.

Had he escaped? No, not without anyone noticing.

He moved over to one of the nearby active computer panels and typed in a query on the whereabouts of the prisoners. It returned that all prisoners were currently accounted for.

Well if that was the case, there should be guards on staff.

Frustrated, Steve pressed his hands to either side of the screen, bowing his head.

The jamming button he’d held in his palm stuck to the panel with a click. It was magnetized.

The computer screen flickered and a progress bar flashed across the screen. It was... uploading something. A virus.

Steve almost ripped it away. Had he been playing right into Iron Man’s hands again?

But the virus' name was J.A.R.V.I.S.

"Belay that! Jarvis, I swear I'll pull you offline...," Tony had said. He’d had some kind of technology that made the Iron Man suit jump between himself and Steve, hadn’t he?

Steve stood tense as the progress bar completed. The screen looked... normal, afterwards. Curious, eyebrows furrowed, Steve typed the query again. He had a hunch.

This time, a different screen showed up. One that showed the prisoner Tony Stark had been transferred to a separate facility forty-eight hours ago. The destination was only a set of longitude and latitude coordinates. So Steve brought up Google and plugged it in. Then he sat back and stared at the result.

The destination was Camp Lehigh.

 

 

****

 

 

Camp Lehigh was run down and old. A lot like how he felt inside. 

"What's the plan, Cap?" Natasha asked. 

His fingers tightened on the steering wheel. Once he’d filled Natasha in on the situation, they’d made a bee-line to SHIELD’s garage and ‘liberated’ Fury's black SUV, Natasha having disabled the onboard voice controlled computer. He would apologize to Fury later, if there was a later. 

"Break in," he said. "Find Tony. Get answers."

"Short and sweet. I like it." She paused. "You know, once word gets out of here you're going to be on SHIELD's list. You'll be just as much of a fugitive as Iron Man."

He paused before answering. “I don’t like the way things aren’t adding up. Tony told me he suspected a conspiracy at SHIELD. He may be wrong, or lying again, but…”

As had become usual, she filled in what he didn’t say. “This isn’t the SHIELD I know. It hasn’t been since after New York.”

“Then I’ve never known the SHIELD you did,” he said, and added, “Besides, it won't be the first time I went AWOL for a friend. It worked out well the last time."

She smiled. "I heard."

Getting out of the car, he turned away from the weedy running track, memories of his former self before the serum watching himself like a ghost. What would that boy from Brooklyn think of Steve now? He would be impressed by the cover, sure, but would he be by the man inside? Somehow, Steve didn't think so.

Back in Brooklyn, you didn't turn you back on a friend. It wasn’t as if Steve had ever been pious about following the rules. Every time he and Bucky had shared a bed, they’d been breaking a dozen laws.

His smaller, younger self wouldn’t be impressed how Steve had turned in his own fella, without allowing Tony to prove himself.

There were yet more painful memories waiting for him just inside the door of a bunker that should not be there. It was clear that this had been used as a headquarters of sort for the first incarnation of SHIELD. Portraits of the first board of directors still hung on the wall. He shifted his gaze from Peggy and Howard. 

"You're sure it said Stark was transferred here?" Natasha asked in a low undertone.

"Somewhere," he said, looking around. There was a crack of... light under the bookshelf? 

Suddenly, the door to a bookshelf swung open on soundless, oiled hinges.

Rumlow stepped out. 

For a moment, they stared at each other. Rumlow was carrying a plate full of coffee cups. Hilariously, he threw one of the cups at Natasha. Then he dove towards a button that was clearly an alarm.

Here we go, Steve thought, throwing his shield. It slammed into the wall just in front of where Rumlow was reaching.

The man cursed, falling into a roll and reaching for his thigh holster.

Quick as a snake, Natasha was on him, wrestling him down as if she didn't weigh a fraction of his weight. He punched her in the face, but she got his shoulders to the ground and zapped him hard with her widow’s bite.

He grunted a sound that was probably supposed to be a shout for help. Steve was there first, clamping a hand down on his mouth.

Rumlow bit, but Steve's gloves were of Tony Stark's design. Human teeth were not going to cut through.

Tony…

"Where is he?" Steve demanded. “Where’s Tony Stark?”

Rumlow fierce glare met his own. The lips under his hand curled into a sneer. Steve removed his hand a fraction to allow Rumlow to speak.

“They let me do it, you know,” Rumlow husked. “I asked them for the pleasure of breaking your boyfriend. I did it the way the files said they’d done it in Afghanistan. Just dragged out a bucket of water, and he actually started to cry.” He licked his bottom lip. “But I didn’t let him off that easily.”

Steve slammed Rumlow between the shoulder blades. The man grunted and sagged into semi-unconsciousness.

Natasha voice seemed to come from far away. "He’s was just stalling, Cap.”

“I know.” Straightening to his full height, Steve jerked his head to the half open bookshelf and the stairway visible beyond.

It was as if something inside him were on the edge of shattering, and he couldn’t let it. He had to be strong. Peggy… Bucky… Tony… He’d left them, let them die, got them hurt each in their own way.

“Steve.” The tone of Natasha’s voice made it clear this wasn’t the first time she’d said his name. He turned to her, and she blinked at the expression on his face.

“Will you be all right?”

No. Steve looked down at the unconscious man and reached for a little sanity. "You know, I'm starting to think those close calls with the STRIKE team weren't a coincidence."

Natasha raised an eyebrow.

Steve admitted, "I didn't really think they were, before. I just hadn’t wanted to believe."

"When I came over to SHEILD, I thought I was going straight," she admitted, also looking down a Rumlow. “It's not easy to admit that you might be in the wrong line of work."

"No," Steve said. "I'm not in the wrong line of work, but I may be working for the wrong people." With that, he stood holstered his shield. “Keep an eye on him, Natasha. I’m getting Tony.” And then headed down the narrow hidden staircase.

The way down was short and ended in an open underground bunker. Steve had only a moment's taken the rows and rows of equipment — some sort of tape machines stacked against every wall, and computer monitors that were thicker and grainier than he was used to seeing. Older?

Tony stood at the opposite side of the room, one wrist chained to a desk, half his face swollen so badly an eye was shut, yelled, "Steve! What are you doing?!"

A man in a lab coat drew a pistol. Steve hurled his shield to knock it away. Aside from Tony, there were no others. Rumlow must have been the muscle.

Turning, Steve strode to Tony, only to stop when the other man gestured frantically for him to go back. “Get out of here!”

“I’m here to… rescue you?”

Tony seemed to sputter for a second. “I don’t need—for fuck’s sake Steve, I’m Iron Man! I’m nowhere that I didn’t want to be.”

Steve got a sinking feeling. “You let yourself be arrested.”

“Yes. Well, no. But I figured: lemons into lemonade—”

Steve didn’t think about it. He closed the small distance between them and put a hand on Tony’s shoulder. Tony stopped, and stared up at him, his eyes full of emotion.

“Why?” Steve asked softly.

“I told you I’d get proof.” The eye that wasn’t swollen gleamed with triumph. “SHIELD is… this goes deeper than we’d imagined, and I’m almost there. I convinced them to give me access to some of their databases.” He seemed to shake himself, put a hand on Steve’s chest, and carefully pushed him away. As if Steve was the breakable one. “It won’t take long before they realize they only have the tiger by the tail. Go. Scat.” He made a shooing motion with his hand.

“If you think I’m leaving you in Rumlow’s hands—”

Then Tony froze. His eyes flicked over Steve’s shoulder and a look of horror passed over his face. “Shit. Too late.”

Steve started to turn, but something hard struck him from behind hard enough to drive him to the floor. Rolling, Steve looked up to see … an Iron Man armor?

No. It was clear the thing wasn’t a suit. It was pure metal, no less than seven feet tall, and somewhat skeletal in form. From the back of its skull, it trailed a glowing wire very much like an electrical cord. It stared at Steve with glowing red eyes and opened a hinged jaw in a parody of speech.

“Rogers, Steven. Born, 1918.”

He knew that voice. That accent. But how—?

“Zola,” Tony said, “you haven’t finished uploading into the artificial mainframe. Stand down.”

The robot casually backhanded him. Tony was lifted off his feet and crashed bodily back over the computer bank, stopped only by the handcuff that kept him chained.

“Tony!” Steve gasped, and was relieved when Tony groaned and rolled over. He’d feared the robot had snapped his neck. Staggering to his feet, Steve turned his attention on the robot. “Zola? Arnim Zola died years ago.” It had been one of the first things he had checked when they’d given him files.

“Wrong.” The robot that sounded like Zola turned to him. There was no expression in its metal mask of a face, but Steve sensed contempt. “Look around you, I have never been more alive. In 1972, I received a terminal diagnosis. Science could not save my body, my mind, however, that was worth saving on two hundred thousand feet of data banks. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Stark, I have become… what is the word?” It glanced over to Tony, who had crawled painfully back to his feet and stood hunched over the keyboard, shaking. He did not meet its gaze. “Mobile.”

Steve jerked sharply into a roll. The Zola-bot raised one metallic hand. Its palm glowed with the same deadly power as Iron Man repulsers.

Steve lifted his shield, and the flash of energy hit it dead on, knocking him down again. It should have blown a hole straight through him.

Steve flung his shield. The Zola-bot caught it in one hand. With a flick, he tossed it aside. “HYDRA has once again arisen, Captain.”

That moment was enough for Steve to scramble to his feet, reeling. Had everything since he’d woken up from the ice been a lie? “HYDRA is gone. It died with the Red Skull!”

The Zola bot lurched forward. “After the war, SHIELD was founded and I was recruited. The new HYDRA grew. A beautiful parasite inside SHIELD. You have helped our cause every bit as much as Johann Schmidt. You gave us the one man who could transfer me into this new body.”

Horror rolled through Steve. He risked a glance over, but Tony was still hunched over his computer system, furiously typing.

“You’re wrong,” Steve said. He looked around the room for a weapon, anything. Except for the banks of old-style computers, it was depressingly clean. “Iron Man makes his own rules.”

“He took some convincing -- though less than some. But even Stark has to admit HYDRA has created a world so chaotic that humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom to gain its security. Once the purification process is complete, HYDRA's new world order will arise. We won, Captain. Your death amounts to the same as your life; a zero sum.” The robot took one more step and raised its glowing palm again, Steve dead in its sights.

Suddenly, Tony broke in. "I'm sorry, were you still monologuing?”

Both Steve and the Zola-bot turned to him. Tony had straightened to his full height, one finger hovering over the keyboard. His smirk was knife-deadly. “Or were you done?" He tapped one button and half the Zola-bot's lights went dark, including the palm repulsor. "Yeah, I think you're done."

"You!" The robot barked. It staggered to the side, unsteady, as if systems were shutting down and it was trying to compensate.

"You really thought I wouldn't build in a kill switch?" Tony voice went cold. "Take it from one villain to another -- you're too old for this game."

The Zola-bot lurched forward. In one startlingly quick movement it bowled past Steve, shoving him into a bank of the computers.

His newly healed ribs screamed. Hand holding his side, Steve rolled awkwardly to his feet. The bot was almost at the chained and staring Tony.

"No!" he yelled as the bot seized Tony by the throat.

From his angle, he could just see Tony reach down and twist the glowing light at his chest.

A beam of energy shot out, blasting through the Zola-Bot's chest at the place where his heart would be. The bot collapsed as if his strings were cut and both fell heavily to the floor.

Three heartbeats later, Steve was there. The robot was a hunk of lifeless metal, but it had pulled Tony down to the floor. His wrist was still chained to the desk, and it was clear the shoulder had been wrenched from the socket.

"Damn," Steve swore. With one sharp tug he broke the handcuff. He sat Tony up.

"Steve," he gasped. “Zola was never going to leave this room alive. I was stalling them for the intel. I wouldn’t set that thing loose—"

"I know. I know.” This close, he could see day’s old bruising on Tony’s throat, and the skin under his collar. Rumlow and the rest thought they’d cowed him into agreeing to build the Zola-bot, but people had always underestimated Iron Man.

Tony didn’t seem to think Steve believed him. “I had to know, had to learn how deep the HYDRA rabbit hole went.”

“Shh. It’s okay. I know. I need to reset your shoulder. This is going to hurt for a second. Then it'll be better."

"Steve—"

"Deep breath," he said, lining up the joint. "On three, okay? One--"

He popped the shoulder back in. Tony howled in pain, cutting it off with a curse.

"... The ol' don't tense up trick," Tony sounded breathless. "Never should have fallen for that."

Steve's smile was tremulous. "I'm sorry," he said, meaning so many things. He cupped the unbruised side of Tony’s face, hating to see how the skin was gray from pain. "Hand to God, Tony. I've been a fool."

"Join the club,” Tony gasped, leaning into the touch. “I should have… I didn’t know how to tell you I was Iron Man. Procrastination. Bad habit."

Steve opened his mouth to speak, but Tony stopped him.

"Listen... Zola wasn’t wrong. HYDRA is in SHIELD. They practically are SHIELD. The rot goes all the way..." he took a wheezing breath, "to the top. Pierce. Know him, in the World Council? He’s HYDRA. He’s the one who authorized the nuke over Manhattan – trying to cover up their involvement with the tesseract."

“The cosmic cube?”

Tony’s nod was a jerky movement. “They were trying to weaponize it, activated it—practically rolled out the red carpet for an alien pseudo-god to bring an army of Chitauri.”

Only then did Steve realize Tony’s skin wasn't graying from pain. The shirt he'd been wearing was blackened and charred around the light in his chest -- and that light was weak, and flickering.

“Tony…”

But Tony was still speaking, "... Didn't know—couldn’t know, until they threw me down in this pit. It’s… conspiracy seventy years in the making. They've used the invasion to pass new legislation, got nearly all the power they want." His fingers curled in Steve’s jacket as he snarled. "Don't let them win."

"We won’t,” Steve promised, trying not to stare at the flickering light. “We’ll do it together. Iron Man and Captain America.”

Tony made a soft laugh that ended on a wheeze. His fingers released, not because, Steve thought, he wanted but because he didn’t have the strength.

“Might have to take a raincheck on that.” Regret choked his voice. “Sorry, Steve.”

He remembered last time Tony had promised a raincheck. Steve glanced again at the device in Tony’s chest. “It shouldn’t be doing this, should it?”

“M’Battery’s run out,” Tony murmured. “I knew I had one good shot…” He glanced over at the remains of the Zola-bot. “I’m glad I took it. He… needed to be put down.”

He remembered seeing Tony replace a part of the device in his lab. “Do you have a spare?”

He shook his head and closed his eyes.

“Stay with me,” Steve commanded, hand pressed over the fading flickering light as if he could will it to continue. “What do I do? Tell me how to fix this!”

He slit his eyes open. His gaze looked fuzzy, and his lips were edging blue. “Bruce Banner has… spare core… on the Isles.”

Half a world away.

“Part of the quinjet’s power runs on arc reactor,” said Natasha. “If we plug you in, will it work?”

Steve whipped around, not having heard her come down the stairwell. She was staring at Tony, a little pale, but seeing her so composed edged his inner panic away.

Tony’s gaze flicked from Steve to her. “Not for long… It’s dirty power,” he said, then with a tired leer added, “I’ve had dirtier.”

He wriggled as if to stand up. Steve shifted an arm under his back and his legs and lifted him bridal style instead. “How fast can we get to a quinjet?”

Natasha smiled. “There’s one hidden under a camouflage tarp at the roof. Thank Rumlow for telling me.”

Tony seemed to drift in and out of consciousness as Steve hoofed him up the three flights of stairs. There was, indeed, a quinjet at the top. Not the latest model, but at a glance Steve saw it was powered by reactor-tech. That must be what was in Tony’s chest.

Natasha opened the jet’s hatch and Steve laid Tony as gently down as he could inside. “Tony,” he said, holding his hand, “stay with me.”

There wasn’t an answer. Steve checked and could barely feel a pulse in his neck.

Natasha fiddled around with a panel by the engine and withdrew what looked like a power cable. She knelt by Steve.

“What do we do with it?” Steve asked.

An unsettled look crossed her face. “You’re asking me?”

Which meant she wasn’t sure. And every moment they wasted was one where Tony’s heart failed.

With a yank, he tore the remains of Tony’s shirt down the middle and exposed the dead reactor. He’d seen Tony turn it clockwise in the lab, so he took the edges, pressed in, and rotated it counter-clockwise.

It came free with a slight sucking sound, smelling of coconut of all things. Carefully, Steve lifted the soup-can size device out, noting it trailed a wire.

“I hope this isn’t grounded,” Natasha muttered. She took a knife out of her ankle holster and cut the plug from the extension cord. Then she stripped the three wires to expose their copper cores, careful not to touch two at one time.

She hesitated. “I don’t know if this is going to work. The amperage alone...”

Steve nodded and carefully took the stripped cord from her. If anyone should do this, it ought to be him. It had been his fault he was in this mess.

He wound two wires around similar looking connections on the bottom of the reactor. Then, holding his breath, touched the third to the casing.

It sparked. Tony’s eyes flew open.

“What the Hell?” he gasped, looking around wildly.  Then his gaze settled on Steve’s hands. He made a noise in the back of his throat and reached for it, wincing and cursing as he moved the sore shoulder that had been dislocated.

“Easy,” Steve cautioned, not trying to hold back a laugh of pure relief. “Let me help. What do you need?”

“I’m plugged into a reactor strong enough to power a jet into low orbit,” Tony said, struggling to sit up. “I feel like I’ve snorted all the cocaine. Here, hold it like—yes. Put one finger here. I’m going to move this wire—no, don’t touch that unless you want to be jet-powered too.”

He bossed Steve around for a few minutes and had Natasha dig around for spare electrical tape in a mechanic’s box tucked overhead. After winding it around the connectors, he seemed to relax.

“Tony?” Steve prompted.

“This is a Band-Aid. There’s enough built in to buffer my body from most of the voltage, but I can’t count on that for long. I need to get to the Isles.” He opened his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” He took a deep breath. “You’ve been so brave. And I… I was a coward. I didn’t want to hear what you said, didn’t want to consider I might be on the wrong side. So I’m coming to the Isles with you.”

“If you do, they’ll label you an international criminal. They would have locked Rhodey away and swallowed the key if I hadn’t ghosted him years ago. They’ll do worse to you.”

“I’m not working for HYDRA. And I told you, we’ll take this on together: Captain America and Iron Man.”

Tony gazed at him, his expression soft. He blinked a few times. “That has a nice ring to it.” Then he glanced at Natasha. “Barton’s family are all there. Safe. It’s one of the stipulations he made before he agreed to be my lieutenant.”

“Well,” she said, “it’s about time I saw my Godchildren.”

Again, Tony looked briefly overwhelmed. It occurred to Steve that he’d been alone for a long time, ever since the invasion.

Steve squeezed his hand. “Nat, can you fly this rig?”

In answer, she looked to Tony. “Is it safe to fly while you’re plugged in?”

“It… might be better, actually.” He looked down at the jury-rig. “This is a rush, but I don’t think my heart’s beat this fast since my twenties.”

“All right.” She nodded and made her way to the cockpit for the pre-flight check.

Tony didn’t speak again until after the jet took to the air. But he did shift around until he was leaning against Steve. Careful of both shoulder and arc reactor, Steve looped an arm around him.

“I wanted to bring you there so many times,” Tony confessed.

He felt himself smile. “That might have been hard to explain.”

“Well, naturally, it would start as a kidnapping and end with you totally being okay with imprisonment in luxury… You’ll love Bruce. He’s a riot when he’s not an uncontrollable rage monster.”

“Sure, Tony.”

This close, Steve could see the pulse-point in his neck was thundering.

“He hosts a bi-weekly yoga class,” Tony continued. His fingers on his good hand were beating a rapid time against the exposed arc reactor. Steve covered Tony’s fingers with his own, remembering when he’d done the same when they were making love. He remembered handcuffing his hands during the arrest, too.

“Tony?”

“Hmm?”

“Any more big secrets I should know about?”

There was a pause. “I snore.”

“Tony.”

He sighed and leaned back to rest against Steve’s chest. “I’m self-centered, egotistical, workaholic. And I might have delusions of grandeur. Also, I’m technically a dictator of my own illegal nation.”

Steve tilted his head down and spoke in Tony’s ear. “Don’t talk like that about the man I love.”

Tony huffed a laugh, then winced as it jostled his arm.

“And,” Steve said, “you forgot to add brave, whip-smart, and self-sacrificing.”

“Oh, go on. No really. Go on.”

“I was lost before I found you,” Steve confessed. “It was worse when I let you go. I should have given you the benefit of the doubt.”

“I love you, too,” Tony said, fingers tangling with Steve’s, “and I should have found a way to tell you the truth so you didn’t have to make that choice.”

Despite the fact his heart seemed to be galloping like a racehorse, Tony looked exhausted. Letting him rest in his arms, Steve gazed out the small port-hole window to the sky beyond.

HYDRA was back – had never left, really. He might have been working for a corrupt agency for months.

But he knew where he stood in the world, now. And he knew where the world stood with him. He had a brilliant man by his side who loved him and who he loved back, and a stanch friend in Natasha. Hell, he even had a young nation to help build.

For the first time since he’d come out of the ice, Steve looked forward to the challenges to come.

 

****

Several months later

****

 

 

Around the world, from hundreds of millions of TV's, smart phones and computer screens, a familiar three-tone alert buzzed. Almost as one, in small restaurants, business meetings, and living rooms, and a million other places, people stopped what they were doing and turned. Some with irritation, others with excitement and hope.

Iron Man's familiar visage flickered up on the screens.

“Hello World,” said his computerized voice, “thanks for joining me today on the bi-weekly state-of-the Earth address. I’ll keep my part short: Economies are up, preventable deaths are down—except for you, Sokovia. Your failed government and I will be having words, soon. But,” he clapped his metal hands together, “for the first time, I have a guest speaker.

Most of you in the West have heard a lot about him recently. He’s been a thorn in the US government’s side – they tend to get upset when you defect from their corrupt secret agencies. I’ll let him tell you all about it. So here he is, the Resilient Isles’ favorite World War II vet, Captain America.”

The camera panned to the right in time to see a man dressed in a navy blue uniform decorated with a silver star, give Iron Man a droll look.

“Hello,” he said, a little more stiffly than Iron Man, but at the same time, more dignified. As he faced back to the camera, he squared his shoulder and raised his chin. “As Iron Man said, some of you may already know me, but just in case…” He paused, glanced down as if making a decision, then unlatched the buckle on his leather cap. Those observant in such things would note a simple wedding band on his left hand.

Captain America slid the helmet and attached mask over his eyes to reveal his handsome face and wheat-blond hair.

“My name is Steve Rogers, and I have important information about an enemy we all face, one that has lived in the shadows for too long. They call themselves HYDRA…”

 

 

 

~ End ~