The aftermath of the Civil War. Captain America is dead and buried, his country and her heroes torn and staggering. Iron Man, his friends lost or fallen, has been handed the wreckage of SHIELD. And, as the world slowly recovers, the secret council known as the Illuminati meets one last time, called together by the corpse of a shapeshifting alien Skrull, only to find that one of their own, too, has been replaced.
In fear of an invisible invasion, two of the remaining council go investigating, and find a few ships out by Jupiter that don't at all belong...
It's night watch on a Skrull ship, and Tony Stark and Reed Richards, neither religious, are both praying like hell that their stealth devices work.
"That's the third guard," Tony whispers. "Guess it works." He's got the Extremis broadcasting on an encrypted channel to the tiny stealth speakerbud in Reed's ear, not a decibel of audible sound; still, he's whispering in his mind. They ease five feet from an absentminded-looking Skrull, into a blessedly open stretch of corridor.
Reed's not going to speak unless it's an emergency, because his brain's not wired straight to every communications network around, so he just nods and eases his head round a corner while leaving the rest of him behind.
Two fingers pointing forward--the all-clear. And a thumb--something interesting. Tony pads carefully up behind him--he's got the stealth boots on, or the fuzzy slippers, as Peter used to call them. Not that they're fuzzy, never mind pink, though Peter had said they should be, just slick layers of modified Teflon. Still.
He misses Peter.
Ten percent of his brain is missing Peter; five percent monitors the ambient sound; the rest is jacked into Extremis, taking down every detail of every wall, every monitor. Well, most of the rest. At least five percent is permanently occupied beating himself up. Bit of a broken record, really. Waste of gray matter, but it's not like he can turn it off, just keep it to a dull roar.
The something interesting is some sort of lab. Prison lab, he gathers--then again, these are Skrulls, what would he expect? Devices of all sorts; he starts a catalogue running, data streaming down one corner of his consciousness.
The ten percent is missing a lot of people besides Peter. The Illuminati, for one, as much of a bickering wreck of a cabal they were--last time he'd been on a Skrull ship he'd had all five with him, and he'd give a lot to have Dr. Strange at his back right now. Or even Namor, the pointy-eared pretentious bastard. But they had very, very good reasons for not talking to him. Or Black Bolt, who'd always had a good reason not to talk to him, but now--well, he'd be why they were here, wouldn't he?
The term prison lab applies, another portion of his mind notices, not just because it's Skrulls and that's pretty much their default, but because there's a tall, pale body on a worktable, sealed under glass. Snow White, bleeps one corner of his associative matrix. Identity confirmed, bleeps another. Identity confirmed. Identity confirmed.
"Oh my god," Reed breathes. It's startlingly loud in the silence.
The Extremis is feeding him data, extrapolations, telemetry of incremental movements--the slight rise and fall of his chest, the pulse in the big vein in his throat. The datastreams feel like they're coming from very far away, including the one that's telling him, shock detected, please correct.
"They've got him drugged intravenously," Reed is whispering, tracing tubes with one thin, flexible finger. He's already opened the glass coffin they'd locked him in, the heavy restraints round wrists and throat and ankles. "Some sort of sedative. There's no indication that he's on life support. There's a--visual feed, it looks like, into his parietal lobe, and lines out from all over, mostly the frontal lobe. Some sort of feedback circuit. What were they doing with him?"
And for how long? Tony can't manage to voice it, even with the Extremis. His mouth feels like cotton. Yeah, fine, he admits to his own feedback circuits, he's in shock. He's entitled. Fuck you, shut down. "Can we pull it? Can we wake him up?"
"I--" Reed looks uncharacteristically hesitant. "I don't know. We'd want to dial down the neural connections slowly, so we don't shock him, but he'll be conscious pretty quickly if we pull the sedative, knowing his metabolism..."
Tony manages a nod, steps closer, looks down, runs everything past Extremis, analyzes, wonders why the hell Reed's so worried, everything looks fine, Steve's been through worse.
Dear lord, Steve.
He wants, utterly irrationally, to wake him with a kiss. But, well, never happened, never will.
He pulls off his helmet, tucks it in the crook of one arm. "Pull it."
"I don't think--"
Reed pulls it.
True to stubborn form, it takes Steve only a few minutes to start coming round. A few minutes in which Tony's finished cataloguing the room, shut down Extremis, and done his stubborn best to keep from getting drunk on hope. Hope tastes foul, he's discovered, and isn't any better for the system than the old ethanol.
He stands by the table and thinks of all those years ago. It almost makes him shake, it's almost physically painful. Except this time his helmet's off, and Steve's naked, and Jan isn't buzzing up over him, Thor isn't looming at the foot of it, and he's pretty sure they'll be fighting in about five minutes.
Steve's eyelids start flickering. Reed is phasing out the neural feeds, slowly easing pins out of his skull. Steve lets out a long, low groan, probably of pain, and his hands twitch in the open restraints.
Tony hasn't forgotten how damn beautiful his eyes are. Never mind that that he remembers them cold and hard as stones as he stood above him on the battlefield, shield cocked to kill. Still beautiful.
"Reed," Steve says, very slowly, still muzzy. "Well, I guess you found out about the Skrulls?"
"The preliminaries," says Reed. Steve moves his head, eases his hands up. Sees Tony.
He doesn't say a word. Just gives him a long, patient look, takes a very deep breath, lets it out.
Tony goes fumbling for words. He has a sudden, distinct memory of being up at a podium, in Arlington, on TV, and feeling everything sputter and die in his head in exactly the same way.
"How do I know you're Steve Rogers?" he asks hoarsely.
Steve's eyes narrow a little, but he doesn't look particularly angry. Disappointed, maybe, for some reason.
"I can't prove it. You know that. They've even perfected memory transfers by now, if the target individual is still alive. That's why they didn't kill me. But I can't prove it until you can run a full battery of tests." He looks heavily at Tony. "Unless you've got that in Extremis too."
"What were they doing with you?" Reed asks, hesitantly holding out his hand. Steve's easing himself upright, slowly, looking pained and a little dizzy. "What were the neural feeds?"
"Subconscious feedback loop. It's how they keep their agents in character. They keep the original paralyzed, semi-conscious, and feed everything the agent sees into his mind. That way they know exactly how he'd react to anything that might happen, and they feed that back into the agent's subconscious, along with their orders, to guide it."
"Good god," says Tony hoarsely. Steve is on his feet now, waving off Reed's helping hand, wobble-kneed and bracing himself on equipment lockers.
"You've been conscious this whole time?" Reed asks, a trace of intellectual horror in his voice.
"Yes," says Steve flatly. "Paralysis, not sedation. Not the happiest few months of my life." Tony doesn't even see Steve grab the weapon. He's just as fast as ever. There's a blur, and then there's Steve, standing full upright, no hint of weakness, a Skrull blaster in his hand, aiming straight at Reed with something very cold in his eyes. "Then again, you already knew that, didn't you?"
There's a deafening crack, and Reed is flickering, turning green, and falling.
Tony stares at the crumpled, alien body. Life he leads, he'd expect to get used to having the world turned inside-out a couple times a day. But some things still always shock.
"How long?" he whispers.
"Almost a year," says Steve. "Who do you think built the Negative Zone? Or ensured that Thor went out of control?"
Tony blinks, stares at him. He hasn't stopped being in shock yet. He's pretty sure he's still entitled. The barrel of the blaster is easing around to point at him. Five percent of his brain attempts to obtain useful information. The rest runs in circles screaming. Or points out just how many of those hundred ideas had really been Reeds, he'd just nodded along with them because Reed was smarter than him, and that's too rare not to respect. Or just plain hides. Hiding is good.
"And how long were you?" he asks.
"They snatched me just after I went underground." Steve takes a deep, slightly pained breath. "They ran my side of the war, undermined it, and set up my surrender."
"And mine," Tony breathes. He can't quite bring himself to make it a question. He lets the armor go; it clatters to the floor, leaving him in golden undersheath, all but defenseless. "They ran my side of it too. Go ahead."
"No." Steve's voice is very tight. "I wouldn't have killed you then, and I won't kill you now."
"I'm a sleeper agent too, aren't I? It would explain why everything's gone to shit. It's what a lot of people already think. Go ahead--"
"No, you're Tony Stark, same as you've always been." Steve lowers the gun, drops it on a lab table--it's not like he's got anywhere to put it up. "And I'm sorry. I know it would be easier if you weren't."
"Shit," Tony breathes. "Damn it, Steve. What do you want me to say?"
"I don't know. The truth?"
"I saw your body," Tony says hoarsely, turning to the wall, leaning against it, ignoring the alerts Extremis keeps bleeping in his mind. Saw it--hell, it's burned into his memory. The one thing he couldn't bear. "Skrull bodies revert."
"They treated it so it wouldn't. A whole lot of work, let me tell you. They actually transfered some of my blood to it, some of my DNA, before sending it down. They kept going on about how difficult it was. But they wanted that agent to die. It was worth it to them. And, Tony," Steve adds, very quietly. "The cameras, the visual feeds, didn't switch off after it died."
Tony closes his eyes and hides his face in his arm.
"I heard what you said, on the helicarrier," Steve goes on, "and I understand. I know it wasn't worth it. And," he says, low and firm, "I forgive you."
He might as well have shot him. It's a visceral, physical pain, an aching wrench in his heart, like the old stabs of agony he'd get from the shrapnel, before that was cleared up. It's like the months of hell he's been through are crashing through him all over again, just made worse by the echo of hope.
He doesn't deserve forgiveness. Anyone's, never mind Steve's. He can't accept it, and it hurts like fuck to try.
"No," he whispers, and it comes out strangled. "No you don't."
"Tony," Steve says carefully.
He gathers himself, scrubs the heels of his hands over his eyes as if that would keep him from crying, turns. Halfway. Doesn't look at him.
"Who else?" he asks, sounding hollow. "Who else besides you and Reed?"
"They were the power players amongst the capes. But the whole thing was set up from the outside, Tony. They had agents in Congress, SHIELD, forcing through a totalitarian draft in the name of simple precautions--"
Steve gives a short, bitter snort of a laugh. "She didn't need to be a Skrull, she came that way. They just made sure she got too much power."
"Look at what it did. I know, Tony, I was getting everything that agent saw fed to me, and some other things too--they had a camera on Sally Floyd, too, fed that to me, just so I'd get the whole picture--"
"So, yes, I know about that game with Osborn and Atlantis too. They managed to split the superhero community, weaken half of it by driving it underground and engineering the death of its leader, weaken the other half of it by binding it to a corrupt government and breaking its leader."
Tony takes a few steps closer, very slowly. It's almost impossible to face him. Steve is standing there--really Steve, he's almost sure, alive and whole, naked as the day he was born with his arms crossed and tender determination in his eyes, busily turning the entire damn war, everything he'd done in it, upside-down. Every time he'd ripped out bits of himself in the name of a better solution. All turning inside-out.
"Earth is pretty much wide open," Steve goes on, "with half the American heroes neutered and half of them renegade, and no cooperation in the international community--you don't have it in you to fend off a full-blown invasion with no closer friends than Carol Danvers, and I think we all know this. If I know you--you barely have it in you to keep living."
Tony stares at him. "I don't," he blurts, utterly frank. "It's just sheer force of habit. You said engineering the death--"
"Sharon wasn't brainwashed," Steve says, dead quiet. "Or it didn't matter if she was, maybe. She didn't have to be."
Tony closes his eyes as the immensity of it starts hitting him.
"You've been played since day one," Steve says. "Every bad position you were forced into, every dirty deal you cut--they set you up. Because they knew how far they could push you, how much you'd be willing to sacrifice for a greater cause. Shell games, Tony, you've always been good at shell games. And they knew letting you go that far--and having it result in my death--would break you and undermine pretty much anyone in a mask, no matter where they came down. You were playing right into their hands."
Tony shakes his head. "I should've known--"
"Don't you dare," says Steve sharply. "You couldn't have. Which is why I forgive you."
Tony sinks to a crouch at Steve's feet. He's pretty sure he's shaking.
"Happy," he says after a long moment.
"Was Happy. He's still dead. I'm sorry."
There's an explosion at the door.
"Oh, shit, they found us." Tony lurches to his feet, calls the armor. Nothing like a little adrenaline to knock him out of shock. Steve grabs a small round table, wrenches the legs off it, gives it an experimental spin, and sinks into a fighting crouch, long lines of muscle rippling in his legs.
"I might," he admits, "be a little rusty. Spent too long strapped to a table."
"Don't worry," Tony says into the helmet's mike, bypassing Extremis. "I've--"
He stops for a moment. A surge of raw, painful happiness nearly overwhelms him.
"I've got your back," he finishes.
Steve smiles, and sends the steel tabletop whirling into the face of the first Skrull coming round the door.
Five minutes later Tony's rocketing down a corridor, Steve wrapped piggy-back round his armor--still naked, but unflinching--blasting Skrulls out of the way. Secure lab number 2. They've got to get to secure lab number 2.
Secure lab number 2 is Reed. The real thing, he sincerely hopes. There's frost feathering the inside of the glass, which he takes a good sign.
Tony melts the door shut, hopes it'll hold them long enough to revive him.
"Monsters," Steve whispers. Cold air pours out in a wave as the coffin opens; they'd frozen him, he can't stretch properly. His wrists and ankles are a little flattened, pathetically thin, as if creeping away from the pain even while stiff-cold and paralyzed. There's ice speckling his face.
"No other way to hold him," Tony says, voice very tight, and starts getting the drugs out of his system, while Steve scrounges up pants. Ugly-ass Skrull pants, but pants nonetheless. "Well, this or stretch him to his limit. They did that last time they caught us."
"Reed and I and--a few other people. Stretched him over an entire bay. Took my armor, and that's when it was keeping me out of cardiac arrest." He smiles faintly. "I fought my way out butt-naked, just like you taught me."
Steve smiles faintly back at him.
"Susan," Reed whispers as he wakes. All that time, Tony realizes, she'd been married to a monster, and never known.
"She'll understand," he says, because it's the thing to say. He isn't sure any of them believe it.
Secure lab number 3--with Reed clinging to Tony's back, soaking up heat from the armor--is Black Bolt.
Seeing him naked had not been on the top of Tony's to-do list. Parts of him look human enough. Parts of him don't. Instead, he scans the heavy cybernetic band over his throat with the Extremis, grimaces, and lifts it very, very carefully.
"Nerve disruptor?" Reed asks.
"A meanie," Tony mutters. "Don't touch it--my armor's protecting me. This thing would freeze his vocal cords in place, all right. I really, really hope he doesn't swear when he wakes up. Or groans. Or says where the hell am I?"
"He'll know where he is," Steve says darkly.
The inhuman wakes in perfect silence, blinks warily, and points at Reed and Steve.
"They're the real thing," Tony says. "Both the Skrulls impersonating them are dead. So's yours."
Black Bolt nods at that, shakes his head as if to clear it, and sits up with quiet dignity. He looks at Tony narrow-eyed for a long moment, makes an unmistakably rude gesture, then shrugs.
"You and the rest of the world," says Tony.
Twenty-two Skrulls barge down the door. Everyone freezes for a moment, Steve's hands tightening on his half-crumpled tabletop.
"Shit, Reed, get off me," Tony starts to say--then Black Bolt is shoving his way through them, taking point with deadly determination.
Black Bolt's faint, faint whisper is the breath before the tremendous, rolling bang and the searing of air concussed into plasma.
Twenty-two Skrulls go flying.
Secure lab number 4 is Sharon.
Tony only looks over her slim, toned, naked body once. Well, twice. And change. He'd always wondered whether the blonde was natural. He lets Steve do the honors, and takes the time to tend to Reed. He's walking now, though rubber-legged. Literally, so he's warming up nicely. And expressing mild annoyance that mundane clothing doesn't stretch with him.
Sharon wakes with Steve's large hand holding hers. Tony looks over at them covertly.
"Oh, shit," she says slowly. "Oh my god, Steve, I'm sorry."
"That wasn't you," he says, very calm, very warm. "And that wasn't me."
Then he's holding her. She kisses him, brief, almost terse, with great deliberation, as if it's something she hadn't done in quite some time but felt was necessary. Tony feels a twinge in his gut that he's pretty sure is envy.
He helps her off the table; she looks from him to Black Bolt to Reed to Tony.
"Right," she says, only a little shaky. "Pants."
"Oh shit, oh shit." Sharon bangs the Skrull gunner's eyepiece, balanced oversized on her head, in sheer frustration. "Two more coming up behind us--"
Tony pulls their recently liberated getaway shuttle into a hard turn as Reed clatters away on the computer, trying to get more speed, and Steve and Black Bolt cling valiantly to anything nailed down.
"Hang on," Steve yells, and grabs the back of Tony's chair to steady himself. "Five degrees to the left. Hold course. Turn. Sharon, hit 'em now!"
There's a burst of fire, fast snuffed by vacuum.
"Nice," Tony breathes.
"Can you get in with the Extremis?" Reed asks.
"Not properly. System's too foreign--shit!" A little gunship pounds close, spraying fire.
"Easy." Steve is halfway through a long string of tactical advice when they're hit. Sharon yells, pounds buttons to fire back. The console spits plasma.
The arc catches Tony.
It crackles round the armor with one terrible electric screech--and somewhere in there Tony's screaming too--and when it fades the armor clatters in pieces to the floor. The golden undersheath gives a horrible sort of flicker--a loss of sheen, a fading of circuits--and retreats far too fast into its pores. Underneath that, it's just Tony, naked and ashen and limp, and a lot of people shouting.
"Reed, fly." Steve grabs Tony out of the chair, hunkers down somewhere safe-looking in the back with him. "No, previous heading. Sharon, save your fire, focus on their left wings. Tony." He's got him bundled bodily in his arms; he rocks him a little. "Tony."
He gets a faint, agonized moan.
"Crashed--active Extremis systems," Tony grits out. "Can't connect. Trying to reboot. I think--I'll be okay--augh."
"He'll be fine," Steve calls over his shoulder.
"This is an entirely new, unique, and rather extravagant kind of pain," Tony groans. "Seems to be part of the Getting Things Ripped Out You Didn't Know Were There product line." His eyes are screwed tight shut, his face a rigid grimace, his voice shot. Tony chooses odd times to be funny.
Steve holds him closer. "Those pain marketing people are really overenthusiastic," he says evenly.
"Good, though," Tony forces out. "Now I know this won't kill me."
Somebody taps him on the shoulder. It's Black Bolt, pointing. He looks up, takes in the view.
"Good lord. Right. Reed--" Not that he'd budge to give orders. Not that he'd let go of Tony now. He's doing full-body spasms, and one short, horrible scream.
"We're not going to make it," Reed says, sounding vaguely surprised.
"Oh shit we really aren't," Sharon yells.
"Tony," Steve says quietly, "about the camera being on after the agent died."
Tony lets out an agonized grunt and his eyes fly open.
"I love you too," Steve whispers, strokes fingertips over his pale, sweaty face, and looks back up to tell Reed to slingshot.
They make it, of course.
Six hours and a long nap on the couch later, Tony's fully rebooted, wearing pants, and dancing around Steve about as awkwardly as a teenaged girl, at least once he's seen the pages of test results from Reed and Hank proving that, yes, beyond almost any doubt, this is the real thing and not a Skrull agent.
"--and I'm not sure when we'll be able to make all this public, never mind reveal you're still alive, but this place is about as secure as can be. I've deactivated surveillance, of course, taken the usual precautions--"
Which, given that it's Tony, mostly involves talking about unrelated things.
Steve holds out a bottle. Tony blinks. "Root beer?" Steve asks.
"Oh. Sure. I'm dead thirsty after all that screaming."
Steve twists the cap off with two fingers and hands it over. "You have the best root beer. How long have you had the best root beer?"
Tony takes a long drink before answering. "Since I've been running the official Avengers with Carol. She has a root beer thing." Tony's not looking at him. Tony is looking at the wall, or maybe the corner, and turning the half-empty bottle around on the counter.
"How is Carol?" Steve asks.
"Fine, I suppose," Tony says slowly. "How's Sharon?"
"About as relieved as I am to be out of that hellhole. She asked me to wish you happy Everybody Got Naked And We Got Cap Back Day. She's acting all sulky and guilty around me, but it's not like she's the only one."
Tony's hand twitches on his root beer.
"I meant it, you know," Steve says quietly.
"Which?" Tony asks. His voice is hollow, small, as if he's holding a lot back.
"All of it. Especially things to do with you crying your guts out over my body."
Tony lets out a choking sort of noise and drops his head on the countertop.
Steve has an awkward moment, sets down his root beer, looks down at his hands, rounds the counter, and touches Tony rather gently on the shoulder. Tony twitches.
"Tony, I've spent the last--good lord, it has been almost, what, four months, hasn't it? It doesn't feel like it. There was no sense of time with how badly they had me drugged up, just images and reactions. But still, I've spent almost half a year paralyzed and strapped to a table, watching my country, my friends, my whole world fall apart. Watching you and me both hurting a whole lot of people. And there wasn't a single thing I could do about it. Not a thing. I've never felt so helpless, and I don't like being helpless."
Tony's peeled his hand off his root beer. Instead it's curled round his shoulder, almost touching Steve's fingers.
"I kept thinking, that if I ever got out of there--first I'd track down the people I could trust, tell them exactly what was going on, who was where, who was a Skrull, who was pulling the strings, because I know. And then I'd take them out, every last shape-shifting piece of trash. I'd save the world. But I'd also track down you, and tell you what--what, to be honest, hadn't even occurred to me to tell you until then. And I know you, Tony. I know how bad this all has been for you, and I know you hate yourself, and I know you expect everyone to agree with you. It's always been one of your flaws."
Tony lets out a faint, choking noise which might be a laugh, he's not sure. Steve presses gamely on. He's been in stupefied, paralyzed silence for a year; it's good just to have a voice again. He hasn't felt this gabby since his first few swashbuckling years with the Avengers, back in the day. He doesn't envy Black Bolt right now.
"But I don't. I know everything you did, I know why you did it and who manipulated you into it, who forced you into those situations. And even if I didn't, I'd forgive you. And I'm pretty sure, looking back on it, that I've loved you for years, just never realized it until you started going on about the one thing you never told me, because it sounded a lot like you were about to say you loved me, and that made me think. I know you can't accept this right now, but I still think it's better than letting yourself tear yourself to pieces without saying anything, so I'm going to give it to you anyway. And." He trails off. "And I guess that's it."
Tony's dead still, dead silent for a long moment, and Steve starts to worry that he's done something horribly, horribly wrong.
Then Tony turns with a wordless groan, lurches to his feet, and clings. Plasters himself to Steve's chest and clings like he's about six and Steve is the biggest teddy bear in the world, and shakes, and Steve's pretty sure there's tears in his shirt.
He wraps his arms round Tony's bare shoulders and just holds him.
Tony's mumbling something half-coherent into his shoulder, he thinks it might be something like you're not dead, you're not dead, you're not dead. Or maybeI'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. He thinks he catches I love you. Nothing he doesn't expect. He strokes Tony's hair with a tenderness he's only ever used with pretty girls before, and thinks, grimly, how terribly hurt he must be, to break down like this. He's seen him crying like this only twice before--in the streets when Stane had gotten to him, and that was with liquor, and, well, over what he'd thought was his body.
He hopes like hell that this is the last time.
"Okay, that's just weird," says Tony abruptly. He's cried out, red-eyed, and full of root beer, slumped on the couch with a bottle between his knees. Steve is beside him, pleasantly close.
"What?" Steve asks.
"I mean, we just--oh, dear sweet Jesus, I actually did just tearfully declare my long-secret love for you, didn't I? Shit, that's embarrassing."
"I didn't actually say it that time. And you were either not there or dead, depending upon one's point of view. Doesn't count either way."
"It worked for me," says Steve, a little bemused. "I'd say it counts."
"Fine. Whatever. We just declared our love for each other and resolved who knows how many years' worth of emotional tension. It was tearful and melodramatic. I'm going to have to go build a car to reassert my manhood."
"Of course you are."
"Or a bike. It's been a while since I've had a bike. It's been a while sinceyou've had my bike. A bike. Hello, Dr. Freud."
Steve smiles faintly. He's gotten image after image of Tony fed into his brain for way too long; he's been studying him, watching him. He hasn't seen him this relaxed, this silly, since before the war. It's a more profound relief than he'd guessed.
"But we just did that, and I haven't even." Tony's turned his head; he catches it in his peripheral vision, catches his eye.
Tony is looking at him. Looking at him. It's intense and almost hungry. Every bit of that huge, brilliant, terrifying mind--the Extremis feeds are off, he's almost sure, this is one hundred percent of Tony staring at him--focused just onhim. It makes his stomach tighten.
"Kissed you," Tony finishes.
Steve tries not to blush. "You're right. That is strange."
Tony reaches up, cups his face in one hand, leans in with tender, terrible focus, and does so. Carefully close-mouthed, at first, deepening as Steve twists and slides a hand around his shoulder. His beard scratches, and he tastes like root beer and steel, and the blood pounds in Steve's ears, and he finally feels like he's come home.