Steve woke to the sound of a jazz piano chord repeating persistently near his ear. For a moment, he couldn't remember where he was. He rubbed his eyes, blinked, and found himself staring at the glowing blue display of a digital clock. Memory came back then, and clarity with it. He was in his suite at the imaginatively named Capitol Hill Hotel, it was 4:00 AM, and his cell phone was ringing.
Steve picked up the phone and looked at the screen. Sharon. This time of night, it probably wasn't a social call.
"Steve." Sharon sounded tense. "Sorry about the time, but I figured you should know this before the hearings start up again in the morning."
"What is it?"
"Turn on CNN. It's Stark."
Somehow, that wasn't surprising. Steve set the phone to speaker, set it down on the night table, and picked up the TV remote.
The CNN screen was split between a picture of Tony, and an earnest-looking blonde reporter reading from a teleprompter.
"--four hours since being taken to the police station in the Midtown North precinct. Since then, we've been informed that the dead man has been identified as a former employee of Stark Industries, but the police have not released the man's name or any details of his current connection with Tony Stark. No word yet on whether Stark is being charged or merely held for questioning in connection with the shooting."
The still picture of Tony on the left side of the screen was replaced with a grainy video of him climbing into a police car in front of Stark Tower. The camera angle made it impossible to tell whether or not he was in handcuffs.
"What the hell..." There went his last hope of going back to sleep. "Are they saying-- did Tony kill somebody?"
"You know as much as I do." Sharon sounded tired, and Steve felt a pang of guilt. He might've been awakened from a sound sleep but Sharon, it seemed, had been up watching CNN at four in the morning. She always had bouts of insomnia when she got especially stressed, and Steve was well aware that if Sharon was stressed these days, he was likely the cause. Part of him wished he could be there for her, back in New York; but they had both agreed that some time apart was best. "I only called because--"
"I know," Steve said wearily. "They're going to bring it up at the hearings."
Steve had spent the better part of a week in front of a Senate funding committee, presenting his "vision for the future of national security" in post-SHRA America. It had been an exercise in frustration all around. Steve was expected, on short notice and painfully inadequate intelligence, to produce a strategy for dealing with an ugly nationwide crisis that had exploded while he'd been, for all intents and purposes, dead. He was also expected to be polite and reasonable -- or at least non-violent -- with men who'd actually, seriously thought that it was a good idea to put Norman Osborn in charge of national security. The committee members, meanwhile, were desperate to salvage their deservedly tarnished reputations and to disassociate themselves as far as possible from the SHRA or its aftermath. And at the center of the entire mess, physically absent yet inescapably present in every point of discussion, was Tony Stark.
To most of the committee, Tony was the perfect scapegoat. He was to blame for the civil rights abuses of the SHRA, for the Skrull invasion, even for Osborn's insane and destructive actions. The word "indictment" came up on a regular basis. Steve had objected, of course. His vision for the future, nebulous as it was, was clear on one detail and that was Iron Man's presence on the Avengers.
And yet, at the back of Steve's mind, there was always doubt. Memories kept intruding: himself and Tony, fighting in the ruins of Avengers Mansion and in the streets of Manhattan. Facing each other in a prison cell on the Raft, Steve in his shredded uniform and Tony cold and impervious in his armor. Even before he took Red Skull's magic bullet on the courthouse steps, Steve had seen Tony do things he never would've thought his friend capable of. And since then... Steve had spent weeks reading reports, watching old news videos, interviewing people on both sides of the war. The story that emerged was tangled and ugly, and even the most charitable take on it did not put Tony in a favorable light.
And Tony himself had nothing to say in his defense, because Tony himself conveniently didn't remember.
Steve kept telling himself that things were different now. It had felt so good, so amazingly right to fight by Iron Man's side against Hela's forces. And Tony had apologized afterwards, had expressed what seemed like a sincere desire to make amends. But how sincere could it be, an apology for unknown wrongs from a man who didn't remember them to a man who hadn't lived through most of them?
Steve had quashed his doubts, had argued for days on Tony's behalf, had straight-up told the committee that he would vouch for Tony's good behavior. And now Tony was... what? A murder suspect? A witness? The CNN report was maddeningly vague, and now it had switched to international news without providing anything useful.
"Steve?" Sharon sounded as if she'd been repeating his name for some time now. "Hello? You still with me?"
"Yes." Steve blinked and shook his head. "Sorry, I didn't mean to tune you out. Look, you're closer to the scene than I am. Find out what's happening and get me an update."
"Will do," she said briskly.
Steve sighed and clicked off the TV. "Thanks. Oh, and Sharon?"
"Make sure he's all right, will you?"
There was no point in trying to go back to bed after that. Steve showered and dressed, brewed himself a cup of the mediocre hotel coffee, and made a half-hearted effort to go over the agenda for the day's committee session. It was hard to focus. Steve's hands kept twitching toward his phone or the TV remote, and his mind kept tossing out names of every potential contact he had in the NYPD. He knew there was no point to it -- there was nothing useful he could do from DC, Tony was hardly alone and helpless, Sharon would call him if he was needed. And yet, the impulse to drop everything and rush back to New York would not fade.
When his phone rang again several hours later, Steve expected another update from Sharon, but number on the screen was unfamiliar.
"Rogers," he barked, and heard a distinct gulp on the other side of the line.
"Uhm. Hello, Commander. This is Fog-- Franklin Nelson. I hope it's all right, Ms-- Agent Carter gave me this number."
"Nelson." The image of a heavy-set, nervous man in a plaid jacket and bow tie floated up in Steve's memory. "You're Matt Murdoch's partner."
"Yes, sir. I'm representing Tony Stark."
Steve put his coffee cup down with a clink. "Is he all right?"
"Y-yes." Nelson didn't sound entirely sure. "He didn't want me to call you, but I see no other way. Is there... can you come to New York as soon as possible?"
"Yes," Steve said immediately. It would mean leaving the Senate committee in the lurch, but Steve was sort of glad to have an excuse to ditch them. "Where shall I meet you? I assume you're with Tony at the police station?"
"No," Nelson said, and there was that anxious gulp again. "We're on the Raft."
Nelson looked utterly miserable as he stood waiting for Steve’s helicopter to come down on the Raft’s tiny helipad. It was raining, and the wind and poor visibility made for a rocky landing. Nelson shivered dramatically at every howling gust, and huddled inside his quilted down coat. He licked his lips nervously, and wiped his hand with a handkerchief before offering it to Steve.
"I'm sorry if seem a little overwrought," he said, even though Steve hadn't remarked on his manner at all. "It's just that I really hate this place."
"I'm not a fan either," Steve told him.
The last time Nelson had been on the Raft, he'd been caught in the middle of a mass breakout. Steve's own memories of the fighting were not pleasant, and he imagined it had to be that much worse for an unarmed civilian.
Six SHIELD agents in full riot gear conducted them through the security checkpoint, assault rifles at the ready. The agents' uniforms were a slightly different design than what Steve remembered, with the SHIELD patches obviously sewn on over where the HAMMER logo used to be. Steve wondered how many of the current roster had been with SHIELD all along, and how many were hired when Osborn was in charge. There was going to be purge at some point in the near future, and Steve really wasn't looking forward to being the guy in charge of it.
Apparently, the agents were only there to serve as welcoming committee, because he and Nelson were allowed to descend to the lower levels alone, watched only by the unblinking eye of the security camera in the ceiling. Nelson, Steve thought, looked as if he would've preferred an armed escort.
"Tell me what's going on," Steve demanded. "You said Tony's been charged?"
"Yes." Nelson unzipped his coat and tugged at his bowtie. "I arranged for an expedited bail hearing, but the judge… let's just say it didn't go well."
"By 'not well' I presume you mean no bail," Steve said. Nelson gave an awkward shrug.
"It seems Mr. Stark is considered a flight risk. Considering his recent status as an international fugitive, I suppose that's not entirely unexpected. And given his technological capabilities, the Raft is the only prison considered capable of holding him until trial."
"But he doesn't--" Steve began, then caught himself. Of course. Of course Tony's loss of his Extremis abilities and the recent wipe of his mind and memory wasn't public knowledge. And of course Tony would refuse to speak of it, even to his own defense attorney, even when faced with weeks or months of solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison filled with supervillains. "Right. I get it. So where do I come in, exactly?"
The elevator coasted to a stop one level above the cell block. Two more guards waited for them there, eerily anonymous behind the tinted visors of their helmets. They examined Steve and Nelson's visitor passes in silence, then led the way down the corridor. Nelson's eyes darted from side to side as he walked, and the hand tugging at his collar trembled a little.
"I may have a solution," he said. "But it depends on you."
The guards stopped outside a plain metal door and pressed their palms against the sensor panels on either side. The door slid open with a soft whirr of shifting gears, then shut again once Steve and Nelson stepped through.
The room they entered was painted a particularly depressing shade of gray. There was a table with a steel bar mounted across it, and four chairs, all bolted to the floor, and a pair of surveillance cameras mounted at opposite corners. Nelson took the closest chair and immediately began rummaging through his briefcase. Steve paced restlessly behind him. The oppressive atmosphere of the place was making his skin crawl.
It was on the Raft, while they fought to restore order after the breakout, that Steve had decided to approach Tony about assembling the Avengers again. And it was on the Raft, after Steve's arrest, that Tony had turned his back on everything the Avengers stood for. And now, Tony was the one under arrest and Steve was the one with the weight of government authority behind him. Maybe it was a sign. Maybe they could do better this time around.
The door whirred open again and Tony came in, handcuffed and flanked by two more faceless guards. He faltered mid-step when he saw Steve, and turned to scowl at Nelson.
"What the hell, Foggy? I told you not to call him."
"Nice to see you too," Steve said.
"You also told me to get you out of here by any means possible." It was kind of amazing, really, how much more confident Foggy Nelson could sound when addressing a client. "When given conflicting instructions, I must make a judgment call. I made one. This is it."
The guards let Tony sit down, then started to attach his handcuffs to the bar above the table. Steve frowned.
"Is that really necessary?"
"Standard procedure," the guard closest to him said in a flat voice. "No exceptions."
To hell with that, Steve decided. The new rank had to be good for something. He produced his shiny new badge, with the President's signature still fresh on the ID card, and asserted authority. There was a great deal of awkward hemming and hawing, but eventually the guards removed the cuffs from Tony's wrists and marched out, leaving the three of them alone in the room.
Tony muttered something unintelligible under his breath and combed his fingers through his hair, which only served to make it stick out in tufts over his temples. He was badly in need of a shave, and the mirrored sunglasses he wore despite the dim lighting did little to hide how exhausted he looked. His tailored black suit and dark red shirt must've been crisp and stylish once upon a time, but now they looked like… well, like he spent the night in a prison cell. The RT node glowed dully through the shirt's fabric, the same bluish-white color as the fluorescent panel in the ceiling.
"Head of national security, huh?" He gave Steve a crooked smile. "I like the new uniform."
"It serves its purpose," Steve said shortly, and immediately felt bad when Tony's smile faltered. Still, he couldn't bring himself to banter, not here and now, not when his head was swarming with a thousand unpleasant associations that Tony should've shared but didn't.
Tony hunched his shoulders and slumped a little lower in his chair. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "You really don't need to be here."
"Well, I'm here now." Steve pulled up one of the free chairs and sat down across from Tony. "Tell me what happened. The news said you caught an intruder in the tower?"
Tony nodded. "He was waiting in the penthouse when I came in. I heard a noise behind me and struck out without thinking. He caught my arm, we grappled…" Tony winced and ran his hands through his hair again. "The room was dark. I didn't even realize he had a gun until it went off."
That sounded like a fairly straightforward case of self-defense. So why was Tony in custody, then?
"Who was he?" Steve asked.
"Nigel Spalding." Nelson pulled a sheet of paper from a folder in his briefcase and set it down on the table in front of Steve. "Formerly a bookkeeper in the Stark Industries accounting department."
The photo at the top of the sheet showed a perfectly ordinary-looking man with wire-rimmed glasses and a receding hairline. The information below was equally unremarkable. Nigel Spalding, age 42, single, living in Rego Park. No criminal record, no history of mental illness. Nothing that would explain his sudden attempt to kill a former employer.
"Did you know the guy?" Steve asked.
"I have no memory of ever meeting him," Tony said blandly.
"And yet," Nelson sighed, "he had worked for you for over ten years."
"Come on." Tony took off his sunglasses and tapped them impatiently against the table. "Stark Industries employs -- employed -- sixty-two thousand people in the U.S. alone. Do you expect me know all of them?"
"No," Nelson admitted, "but if you made one of them angry enough to want to kill you--"
"I hate to tell you this," Tony said dryly, "but 'people who want to kill me' are an even broader category than 'people who used to work for Stark Industries.'"
"What about 'people who can get past your personal security system'?" Steve asked. "How did he break into the penthouse without setting off a million alarms?"
"Yeah." Tony grimaced. "That's one of the first things the police asked."
"So what did you tell them?"
"The truth." Tony spread his hands. "There was no break in. The alarm system was armed when I came in. I keyed in my security code to get into the private elevator. There was no sign of tampering -- not with the alarm system, not the elevator, nothing."
"Which just means that whoever did the tampering was very good," Steve said. Tony scowled at him.
"Nobody's that good."
"That," Nelson said in a severe tone, "is exactly the sort of thing you need to stop saying. If you're going to claim there was a break-in, you can't also keep claiming that it's impossible."
"I'm claiming there was a break-in," Tony growled, "because there was one. If you don't believe me, I can get another lawyer."
"I believe you," Nelson said. "But my belief is not the point. I'm not the one you need to convince that a man you say you don't remember -- even though you employed him for a decade -- broke into your home -- even though you say it's impossible -- and tried to kill you with a gun you say he brought with him -- even though it's registered in your name."
"It's what?" Steve blurted out. Tony gave him a half-hearted smirk.
"It just gets better and better, doesn't it? And before you ask, no, it wasn't my gun. I own a flying suit of armor that shoots repulsor beams, what the hell do I need a gun for?"
"Right. I see." Steve closed his eyes for a moment and pinched the bridge of his nose. Very few things in this world were capable of giving him a headache, but Tony seemed to manage it every time lately. "Mr. Nelson, could Tony and I have a few minutes to speak in private please?"
Nelson was clearly unhappy with the request, but retreated into the hallway with a minimum of complaint. Tony watched him go, then continued to stare fixedly at the door long after it shut.
"Tony," Steve said, a bit more sharply than he'd meant to. Tony winced, then sat up straighter and met Steve's eyes across the table.
"Okay, go on. Give the lecture."
"I don't want to lecture you," Steve said. "But you must know you're only hurting yourself here. That hole in you memory means you're going to say things that aren't true even when you're trying to be honest. You won't even know what the lies are. And every time you tell the police something and they find out it's not true--"
"I know!" Tony snapped. "Trust me, I know how it looks. But I can't just go telling the NYPD that I’m missing a couple of years' worth of memories."
"Why not? Even if they don't believe you at first, you've got me and Strange and Don Blake to back you up."
"That's… really not what I'm worried about it." Tony sighed. "I know I can make people believe me. What I can't do is make them keep quiet. We could spend the next year making everyone in the NYPD and the prosecutor's office sign confidentiality agreements, and word would still get out. And once it does…" He trailed off for a few seconds, and rubbed the back of his neck with a shaky hand. "I'm kind of in a mess here, Steve. Pepper and I are trying to start a new company from scratch. She's running herself ragged on the west coast right now, trying to drum up financial backing, and it all depends on my reputation for being smarter and sharper than the competition. If word gets out that I don't even know what the competition's been doing since Starkphone One was breaking news--"
"I don't believe you," Steve said. "You're facing a murder charge, and you're worried about investors?"
"I know you don't think it's important--"
"Compared to you going to prison? You're right, I don't."
"--But Stark Resilient is currently the only thing in my life I haven't thoroughly fucked up, and I'd like to keep it that way for at least a little while longer, all right?"
"Great," Steve said, "so how do you expect these investors of yours to react when they see you on the news today?"
"I know," Tony muttered gloomily. "Right now, I'm screwed no matter what. But I have to believe this arrest is a temporary problem. And it's hardly the first time I've been accused of a crime. Once I clear this up, all the nice people with the money will come back. The memory loss, on the other hand -- that's permanent. Anyone who's spooked off by that is going to stay spooked."
"Maybe," Steve couldn't help saying, "you should've thought of that before you did it, then."
"Really?" Tony raised his eyebrows in marginally polite disbelief. "Is this the conversation you want to have right now?"
"No," Steve snapped, "the conversation I want to have is about how you're concealing important information from both the police and your own lawyer. Look, can't you at least tell Nelson what's going on? You're his client, he's not going to break confidentiality to rat you out."
"I know he won't." Tony winced and scratched at his stubbled cheek. "But he still has to prepare my defense. I don't want to put him in a position where he has to knowingly lie in order to do it. It wouldn't be fair to him."
"And letting him stumble around in the dark is fair?" It was so ridiculous Steve could've laughed, if everything else about the situation wasn't so serious. "Stop rationalizing, Tony. However many pretty reasons you dress it up with, what it comes down to is, you're withholding information about a murder investigation from the police, and you're doing it because you don't like to look bad."
"That's not fair," Tony protested, but he sounded half-hearted even as he said it. Steve resisted the urge to shake him.
"A man is dead, Tony. And I believe you that it was self-defense, but he must've gone through a lot of trouble to get at you. Now what do you think is more likely, that he did it for no reason, or some reason you know nothing about -- or that you knew something once and then forgot? And if it's the latter, don’t you want to find out?"
"I--" Tony began, then stopped, shook his head, and slumped forward with his elbows on the table and his head drooping low over his hands. "Can we please not fight over this?" He looked as if he was too exhausted to hold himself upright anymore, and Steve suspected there was more to it than a single sleepless night in a prison cell. It was hard to remember, given how many things had happened, but it had been less than two weeks since Tony had been comatose and brain-dead. He'd come out of it only to fly straight into battle, and had barely had time to recover since. This mess was the last thing he needed, for either his physical or mental health.
None of which changed the fact that he was currently making things worse for himself. Tony Stark had an amazing knack for being his own worst enemy.
They could keep arguing about it. But that would accomplish nothing except a distraction from the reason Steve was there in the first place. First priority was to get Tony off the Raft. There would be time for arguments later.
"Look." Steve reached across the table and pressed his hand against Tony's shoulder. "It's your decision, all right? I think you should at least tell your lawyer so that knows what he's working with, but I'm not going to mention it until you do."
Tony's shoulder tensed beneath Steve's palm, then slowly relaxed again. He exhaled slowly, and leaned forward a little more, pressing some of his weight into the curve of Steve's hand.
"Thank you," he said in a muffled voice. "I know you never approve when I keep secrets."
"That," Steve said, "is really not the point here. Right now I'm more concerned with getting this mess cleaned up."
"Right. Well." Tony leaned into Steve's hand for another moment, then sat up straight again with a visible effort. "That's going to be a challenge. Be honest, Steve -- you've heard the whole story now; what does it look like to you?"
"It's a frame-up," Steve said promptly. Tony looked as if he wanted to leap across the table and hug him.
"Thank you! God. You have no idea what a relief it is to have somebody get that without me having to say it."
"I don't see how anyone could miss it," Steve said in the most deadpan tone he could manage. "There's no way you would ever murder somebody so incompetently."
"Damn right," Tony said. "It's kind of insulting, really. As frame-ups go, this is strictly amateur work. And yet…" He spread his hands. "Here I am. And think on this: it took less than six hours from the cops bringing me in for questioning, to charging me, to the court denying bail. I've seen known supervillains caught in mid-crime take longer than that to get booked. They actually dragged some poor judge out of bed to have a special bail hearing at six in the morning. Someone is pulling strings here. Somebody with influence."
"Now you sound paranoid," Steve said. Tony's answering grin was all teeth.
"You know the classic answer to that, right?"
Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you. Steve knew that one all too well. And if there was one thing he'd learned from his last few days in Washington, it was that a significant faction of the U.S. Government would be very happy to see Tony Stark locked up for something that didn't involve him testifying in court about matters of national security. Still…
"You said it yourself, this is an amateur frame-up. If somebody with real power wanted to put you away, wouldn't they do a better job of it?"
"Maybe." Tony looked thoughtful. "Or maybe they just decided that speed was more important than quality in this case. Because let's face it, if someone wanted to wreck me, this is the time to be doing it. My reputation is the lowest it's been since I went sober; my finances are a mess; I have very few friends, no official standing of any kind, and the general public would be thrilled to see me locked up on any pretext whatsoever. A half-assed pile of circumstantial evidenced might actually do the job."
"Don't talk like that," Steve said sharply. However many bridges Tony might've burned behind him in recent years, it still hurt to hear him speak so casually of being alone and friendless, as if he'd learned to take it for granted. Did he really think he could be railroaded into an obviously trumped-up murder charge without anyone trying to help? Without Steve trying to help? "Whatever has happened, you're still an Avenger."
"Yeah, well." Tony shrugged. "From what I hear, that and five bucks will get you a latte these days. I mean, once Norman Osborn's been one, the cachet is kind of gone, you know?"
"I'm working to change that." Steve squashed a small pang of guilt at the thought of the fifteen senators he'd left hanging on short notice. "And I'll want your help. But let's get you out of here first." He went to the door and rapped his knuckles against the glass panel. "Mr. Nelson? You can come back in now."
Nelson looked thoroughly relieved to be nearing the end of the visit as he reclaimed his seat at the table and opened his briefcase again.
"Right," he said briskly. "So the last bail hearing didn't go as well as I'd hoped."
"No shit," Tony muttered under his breath. Nelson ignored him and went on.
"I've spoken with the judge, and she's prepared to allow a second hearing, but she won't change her decision unless we can provide some assurance that Mr. Stark won't, in the judge's own words, bugger off to Madripoor at first opportunity."
"Now there's a thought," Tony drawled. "I hear Madripoor is really nice this time of year."
"Not funny," Steve said flatly. Nelson just looked long-suffering and shuffled the papers in front of him.
"We've discussed a number of conditions you'll have to abide by. Some may be negotiable, but I advise you not to push you luck. The one non-negotiable item, however, is that you will be released into Commander Rogers's custody, and that he must be able to vouch for your whereabouts at all times."
"All right," Steve said, at the same time as Tony blurted out "No!"
"I'm afraid that one really is non-negotiable," Nelson said regretfully. "The Judge wasn't amenable at all until I suggested it. If you fight it, you might as well resign yourself to staying here until the trial."
"Fine." Tony crossed his arms and set his jaw in an all-too-familiar mulish expression. "I'll stay here then."
Nelson stared at the table as if he was contemplating bashing his head against it. Steve knew the feeling.
"Mr. Stark, I really think you must--"
"What," Steve interrupted, "are you objecting to, exactly?"
Tony didn't seem to have an immediate response to that. His stubborn expression didn't waver, but he hunched his shoulders and tightened his grip on his elbows, and carefully looked everywhere in the room except at Steve and Nelson.
"Come on, Steve," he muttered finally. "We only just started to talk again. We were alone in a room for all of thirty seconds just now before we started arguing. Do you really want to get stuck with me twenty-four/seven?"
"Considering the alternative?" Steve frowned at him. "Yes, I really do."
Tony didn't look at all reassured by this. "This is a bad idea," he insisted. "Be realistic, Steve. You just got handed the most politically-tainted job in the country, and I'm half the reason for the taint. This is not the time to be making a public display of your support for me. If you were sensible, you'd be trying to make everyone forget you ever met me."
"That's not my idea of sensible," Steve said. "And no offense, but you're not the guy whose political advice I want to follow right now."
Tony gave a small smile. "Touché."
"Please be reasonable, Mr. Stark," Nelson pleaded in the resigned tones of a man who knew he was asking the impossible. "The District Attorney's office has done an amazingly quick job getting you charged, but that only means they'll be that much longer bringing you to trial, because they can't make a case with what they've got. It's going to be weeks, maybe months before this comes to court, and in the meantime you'll have to be kept in solitary for your own protection. Is this really where you want to be?"
"No." Tony eyed the dingy gray walls as if he expected them to start closing in. "It's just that--"
"Good," Steve said. "Then it's settled."
It took three more hours of paperwork and phone calls followed by an hour in a courtroom before Tony was officially released on Steve's recognizance. The twenty million dollar bond gave Steve a moment's shock, but apparently Tony didn't mean what other people meant when he talked of being broke, because he didn't even blink at it.
There was a crowd of reporters gathered outside when they walked out of the courthouse. This was normally Tony's cue to flash his most photogenic smile and provide a few sound bites, but all he did was duck his head and hurry toward the SHIELD-provided car waiting at the curb while Steve barked "No comment!" at anyone who got too close.
It was a relief to get inside the car and slam the doors shut, blocking out the noise and the camera flashes. Tony wriggled out of his suit jacket, crossed his left ankle over his right knee, and scowled at the electronic ankle cuff he'd been fitted with before his release. The cuff had a GPS device, and was programmed to set off an alarm if Tony left Manhattan or moved more than two hundred yards from the homing device in Steve's pocket.
"Fabulous," Tony muttered, and scratched at his instep. "I can see this becoming incredibly annoying in… oh, about ten seconds or so."
"You'll get used to it," Steve said.
Tony's penthouse was still a crime scene, and Steve's apartment in Brooklyn was beyond the cuff's range, which left them with the question of lodgings. Tony had suggested checking into hotel, but Steve had been living out of a hotel room in DC for a week, and was thoroughly sick of it. In the end, he instructed the driver to take them to one of SHIELD's safehouses on the Lower East Side. It wasn't exactly luxury, but it was comfortable enough -- and a hell of a lot less likely to be swarmed by the paparazzi.
The safehouse was a third-floor walk-up on East Broadway, across the street from a small park. It was a one-bedroom, reasonably large by Manhattan standards, with a decent kitchenette and four easy escape routes that Steve could see from the front door. Tony barely gave it a glance before striding across the living room to peer into the bedroom.
"Dibs on the bed," he called over his shoulder. "You turned down the Waldorf-Astoria, you can sleep on the ugly sofa."
"That's fine." Steve dropped the small duffel bag he'd brought from DC onto the floor next to the sofa. It was, indeed, upholstered in a hideous red-and-yellow cabbage rose print, but it was also big enough even for him to stretch out on, so he figured it was an even trade-off. "You going to get some sleep now?" It was only five o'clock, but Tony must've been awake for well over twenty-four hours by now, and they hadn't exactly been a fun and relaxing twenty-four hours, either.
"Not yet." Tony sank into an armchair across from the sofa and pulled out his cell phone. "Is there even a computer in this dump? Of course not. I gotta call Reed, get some equipment installed in here. Unless…" He gave Steve a sly look. "How would you like to crash at the Baxter Building for a few weeks? I'm sure Reed has guest rooms to spare, and it'll be a lot more comfortable than this place."
"No," Steve said firmly. The last thing they needed was Tony secluding himself in a lab with Reed while they were supposed to be working to clear his name. "And do you really want to spend your time on this now?"
The look on Tony's face was all too innocent. "Define 'this'."
"Whatever it is you and Reed are working on." Steve shrugged. "I'm sure it's very important and very expensive, but please hold off on exploring the mysteries of the universe until a better time. Possibly a time when you're no longer being framed for murder?"
"Spoilsport," Tony grumbled. "I can work on more than one thing at a time, you know. I'm famous for my multitasking skills. And anyway, I can help you more with the investigation if I have a decent computer and internet access."
"All right," Steve said, "then how about you get Reed to deliver what you need, and get some sleep until then. You look as if you're about to collapse, which isn't going to help with anything."
Tony opened his mouth to argue, but what came out instead was an enormous yawn that threatened to dislocate his jaw.
"Fine," he muttered sulkily, and slunk into the bedroom, dialing his phone as he went.
Left alone in the living room, Steve pulled out his own cell phone and called Sharon to tell her to dig up everything SHIELD could find on Nigel Spalding and his connection to Tony Stark.
"Just so you know," she told him, "I've been screamed at by more politicians today than in the past ten years. Next time you want to blow off a Senate Committee on the grounds of 'national security emergency' and then show up on the news playing court-appointed babysitter to Tony Stark, you can damn well leave them somebody else's contact number."
Steve winced. "Sorry."
"Do my paperwork for the next month and we're even."
"You got it," Steve promised, and sat down to read his copy of the police report on Spalding's death.
There wasn't much to work with, this early in the investigation. The transcript of Tony's 911 call. Statements from Tony and the first officers on the scene. Photos of the body, the coroner's preliminary report, the ballistics report. A print out of the registration that established the gun as Tony's property. None of it was very informative, but it did serve to confirm Steve's initial impression of the case -- Tony had been arrested much too quickly.
There was nothing to do but wait for more information. Steve set the file aside and reached for the TV remote. He kept the volume low as he flipped through the channels in search of a news report, not wanting to wake Tony in the other room. Two sitcoms and three reality shows later, Tony's name crawled across the screen below a Fox News logo, and Steve leaned forward to watch.
A stocky gray-haired man in an Army general's uniform was glaring intently at the cameras as he spoke from behind a podium.
"--Not be trusted with weapons of mass destruction!" he announced, as the banner at the bottom of the screen informed Steve that General Bruce Babbage was calling on the government to seize the Iron Man armor. "No private citizen can be trusted with that kind of technology, let alone one with Stark's history of mental instability, violent behavior, and outright defiance of the law. Now he's a murder suspect free on bail, yet no effort has been made to neutralize this blatant threat to public safety. How long can we allow this to go on? Is our justice system for sale to the Stark fortune?"
"Well," Tony drawled from the bedroom door, "I guess that's the other shoe dropping."
So much for not waking him up. Steve set down the remote and swung his legs off the couch to make room.
"Do you have a history with this guy?"
"Only recently." Tony sat down and put his bare feet up on the coffee table. The safehouse must've come pre-stocked with some generic clothing in the bedroom, because he'd changed out of his suit into sweatpants and a plain white T-shirt. He looked calm and relaxed, but Steve knew exactly how deceptive that appearance could be. "He was the obligatory military presence when I announced the business plan for Stark Resilient. He was… not exactly pleased when I said that the plan doesn't involve manufacturing weapons or taking any military contracts. Actually, 'blindly enraged' might be a better description. He really, really wants the Iron Man tech. And hey, now he has an excuse to demand it. How convenient."
Steve frowned at the screen, where Babbage was currently explaining to a reporter why the concept of "innocent until proven guilty" should not apply to Tony Stark. "You think he's behind it, then?"
"I'd like to think that," Tony said. "He's certainly cashing in on it now. It would explain how rapidly this whole mess has progressed -- the bastard doesn't even care if I'm convicted or not, he just wants me under suspicion long enough to justify confiscating my tech. But…" He trailed off, looking uncertain.
"But?" Steve prompted.
"I really did kill Spalding." Tony gave a small, quickly-suppressed shudder. Having seen the photos, Steve couldn't blame him. The gun barrel had been pressed right under Spalding's chin when it went off, firing straight up. There wasn't much left of his skull, after that. "That's not exactly something Babbage could've arranged, is it? Even if he could somehow get Spalding to come after me -- why would he? If you want to set somebody up for murder, you plant a dead body, not a live one."
"Good point." Steve picked up the file for another half-hearted glance, but it was no more useful than it had been the last time. "We need to know how Spalding is connected to you. There has to be something more to it than just him being an ex-employee."
"Of course there is." Tony sounded bitter. "But it's gone, now isn't it? Fallen down the hole in my brain. Just like--" He bit his lip and took a deep breath, visibly swallowing back whatever he was going to say. "Just like a lot of things," he finished awkwardly.
Steve wanted to by sympathetic, he really did. But the flash of resentment that flared every time Tony spoke of his missing memories refused to fade with repetition.
"Didn't work out as well as you expected, did it?" He said before he could stop himself.
Tony gave him a guarded look. "I'm pretty sure," he said slowly, "that I never expected it to work out well."
"Then why did you do it?"
"Because it needed to be done!" Tony yelled, and there was enough desperation in his voice to make Steve wonder which one of them he was trying to convince. "Because Norman fucking Osborn was in charge and he couldn't be allowed to have the database."
"And that was really the only way to keep it from him?"
"How do you know?" Steve challenged. "You say it like you're so sure, but you don't actually remember."
"I know how I work," Tony said in a flat voice. He had shifted to sit at the very edge of the sofa, as if ready to bolt at any moment. Steve was starting to wish he hadn't brought up the subject at all, but there was no backing off from it now. "If there was another way, I would've taken it."
"Would you?" Steve really wished he could believe it. "Maybe you liked this way better."
"Maybe I what?" And now Tony did bolt, springing to his feet and striding to the other side of the room, where stumbled to a halt near the window.
"You saw me," he said in a ragged voice, keeping his back to Steve the whole time. "Before the reboot, you saw what was left. If Hill hadn't come back with that back-up, I would've been a piece of meat on a ventilator until somebody took pity and pulled the plug. You know I'd rather be dead, right?" He smacked one hand against the wall and spun around. "Why the hell would I choose that over-- over anything else at all?"
Because you've done things you didn't want to face. Because you knew you couldn't be made to justify what you couldn't remember. Because whenever there's more than one way to do something, you always seem to take the most self-destructive option. Steve was saved from having to voice any of these answers when the door buzzer goes off, announcing Reed Richards' arrival.
Reed came in bearing four large crates of computer equipment, his arms coiled around them like rubber bands. Tony's eyes lit up at the sight, and for the next hour, the conversation consisted almost entirely of technobabble. By the time it was done, one corner of the living room was taken up with half a dozen sleek-looking towers, the coffee table had been hijacked to hold two monitors and a keyboard, and the floor was criss-crossed with enough power cables to create a serious walking hazard. Reed looked ready to sit down and start working right then and there, but Tony was clearly starting to crash. He sprawled on the ugly sofa, looking barely awake, and poked half-heartedly at a Starkpad.
"Call me at the end of the week," Reed reached across the room to adjust a loose cable on one of the towers, eyes still fixed on the equations scrolling across the monitor in front of him. "We'll do a code merge and run the final calibrations."
"Sure," Tony muttered, "if I'm not doing life without parole by then."
"Oh, I'm sure it'll take longer than that," Reed said absently, then blinked as his own words caught up to him. "That is, if there's anything I can do to help…"
"Probably not." Tony looked sour. "Unless you happen to know who the hell Nigel Spalding is."
"Not off the top of my head." Reed glanced at the case file on the table. "May I?"
"Be my guest." Steve tossed him the folder. Reed scanned through it, pausing at the page with Spalding's photograph.
"Now that you mention it, he does look familiar."
"You're kidding." Tony sat up and leaned over to peer at the photo as if he expected the other man's memory to trigger his own. "You actually know this guy?"
"That's not what I said." Reed drummed his fingers against the photo. "I've just seen him somewhere before, that's all."
"Where?" Tony made an aborted move to snatch the photo from Reed, then caught himself and lowered his hand. "Think, Reed. This is important."
"Then don't distract me," Reed set the photograph back on the table and spent a few more seconds frowning at it before stretching his neck toward the nearest computer monitor. "Here, let me check something…" He typed rapidly for a couple of minutes, then let out a satisfied "Ha!" and turned the monitor so that Tony and Steve could see.
The screen showed what looked like paused security camera footage of a busy street. The timestamp in the upper right corner identified it as having been taken three days before. It took Steve a moment to place the location.
"That's across from the Baxter Building, isn't it?"
Reed nodded. "We monitor 360 degrees around the building." He leaned in and tapped the screen. "Look."
The stretch of Madison Avenue visible in the footage looked ordinary enough. There was a sandwich shop, a computer repair place, and a store selling the usual assortment of tacky "I love New York" souvenirs. As Reed let the video play, a man in slacks and a rumpled sport jacket walked out of the repair place and stopped just outside the door. The footage was slightly blurry at that distance, but still clear enough for Steve to recognize Nigel Spalding.
"He's watching the building," Tony said.
Spalding looked thinner and older than he did in the case file photo. He stood with his hands in his pockets and his posture strangely rigid, staring directly across the street at what had to be the Baxter Building's main entrance. The passing pedestrians had to swerve around him to get by. He didn't seem to notice. In fact, he seemed completely unaware of his surroundings until Reed forwarded the footage to twenty minutes later, when Reed and Tony walked across the frame, holding a silent but obviously animated conversation. Spalding turned to watch them as they passed, and took a halting step as if to follow, then stopped. A moment later, a taller man in jeans and a sweatshirt stepped out of the repair shop, spoke briefly to Spalding, and drew him back inside.
"Oookay." Tony sunk against the back of the sofa and rubbed his eyes. "That's not at all creepy."
"I think he works at that place." Reed started typing again. On the screen, more shots of Spalding popped up in quick succession, showing him at different times of day and in different seasons, always walking in and out of the same shop. The taller man cropped up at regular intervals also -- he and Spalding seemed to run the business together. "My facial recognition algorithm marks him as first starting to appear six years ago. But he doesn’t start watching the building like that until last week."
"Which is when I arrived from Oklahoma," Tony said. "Great."
"It's hardly the first time you've been at the Baxter building in the past six years," Reed pointed out. "Something about this time must be different."
It wasn't much, Steve thought, but it was their first sign that there was more to Spalding's connection with Tony than former employment.
"We need to give this information to Nelson," he said, "and to the police."
"Right," Tony sighed, "because it totally doesn’t make me look guilty as hell after I made a sworn statement saying I have no idea who Spalding is."
"It'll look worse if the police discover it themselves and find you haven't mentioned it," Steve pointed out. "And in any case, it's information relevant to the investigation. We can't just sit on it."
"We could try," Tony muttered, but it sounded more like petulance than genuine disagreement. He made no further argument, anyhow, just stared moodily at the screen as pictures of Spalding flashed by.
"You know what I'm wondering?" he said after a while. "I'm wondering how this guy went from Stark Industries to--" He leaned in to get a closer look at the sign over Spalding's head. "PC Repair Wizard. Maybe it's my ego talking, but that seems like a step down to me."
"Maybe you fired him," Reed said. "Maybe that's why he came after you."
"Six years after the fact?" Tony looked skeptical. "Seems like a long time to sit on a grudge."
"If you did fire him," Steve said, "I assume you'd have a record of it somewhere, right?"
Tony shook his head. "Stark Industries might've had a file in the human resources department, once. Unfortunately, Stark Industries no longer exists. All that's left at this point is basic financial records. I could tell you exactly how much we paid Spalding, and when we stopped paying him. But I can't tell you why."
Which left them exactly where they were before -- waiting on information from Sharon. Steve bit back a frustrated growl.
"Reed, can you forward some of these recordings to SHIELD? I want to know who that other man is. If he worked with Spalding, he might know something."
After that, there was nothing to do but wait. Reed left, promising to keep a close look at PC Repair Wizard. Tony announced that he was going to get some work done, and lasted about ten minutes before he passed out on the sofa, snoring softly into the cushions. He didn't wake when Steve draped the quilt from the bed over him. Just watching him made Steve aware of how exhausted he himself was. He gathered up his bag and retreated to the bedroom, ready to put an end to the interminable day.
Steve woke to the smell of coffee and the sound or rapidly clicking keys. Tony was already up, dressed in jeans and a dark blue sweater, typing away at the computer. There was a mug sitting next to the keyboard on his left, and a plate with a half-eaten bagel beside it.
"Breakfast's on," he said without looking away from the screen.
"You went out," Steve said.
"Uhm. Yeah." Tony stopped typing and looked up with a faint frown. "Just to the bodega on the corner. Coffee, bagels and safety razors, all less than two hundred yards away. I would've woken you if I was planning to go farther."
"I know." Steve wondered what, in particular, Tony was feeling so guilty about that he would take an ordinary conversational remark as an accusation. "Is there more coffee?"
"And more bagels." Tony waved his hand in the general direction of the kitchenette.
There was a half-full carafe in the coffee maker, two sesame bagels in a paper bag next to it, and milk and cream cheese in the otherwise empty refrigerator.
"Thanks," Steve said took a mug from the cabinet above the sink. Tony gave him a quick, tentative smile.
"Hey, I may not remember the small stuff, but I still remember what you like for breakfast."
"Nice to know you have your priorities straight." Steve popped a bagel into the toaster and leaned against the counter to drink his coffee.
Apparently, the jolt of caffeine was exactly what he needed to jump-start his brain, because it took about half a mug before he looked at Tony again and realized that something was off.
"Where did you get these clothes?"
"I--" Tony looked down at himself. "Would you believe I had a personal shopper come by while you were asleep?"
Steve glared at him over the rim of his mug. "No."
"Ah. Well." Tony ran one hand down the front of his sweater. It looked soft and expensive and perfectly fitted to his measurements -- not at all the sort of thing he'd find prestocked at a SHIELD safehouse. "I wasn't keeping a secret or anything. Not a secret from you, I mean. It's just that it's not finished yet."
"What's not finished?" Steve demanded impatiently.
"This." Tony rose to his feet.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then Tony's clothes seemed to liquefy, denim and wool melting into a sleek black and blue bodysuit. It wasn't the familiar golden undersuit of the Extremis armor, but Steve suspected it served a similar function. The faintly glowing blue markings made it look as if Tony was wearing a circuit diagram.
"Not bad, huh?" Tony spread his arms. Some of the undersuit reabsorbed itself into Tony's skin, leaving his arms bare. The rest reformed into the t-shirt and sweatpants he'd fallen asleep in the night before. "Think it'll catch on in the fashion industry?"
Steve frowned. "You said you didn't have Extremis anymore. In fact, you told the judge under oath you didn't have Extremis anymore."
"I don't," Tony said quickly. "Extremis is gone, wiped clean, not a line of code left. This is brand-new software Reed and I are working on."
"You're splitting hairs," Steve said. Already, he could feel his temper rising. Dammit, were he and Tony ever going to have a normal calm conversation again? "You're not supposed to have access to Iron Man. It's the primary condition for your bail. Whether or not you call it Extremis--"
"I don't have the armor!" Tony, too, sounded as if he was on the verge of losing his temper. "Extremis was millions of lines of code that Maya Hansen spent years on. Now Reed and I are writing a brand new system from scratch, and we've only had a week to work on it. This…" Tony rolled his shoulders. The sleeves of his t-shirt lengthened and the fabric darkened from white to navy blue with the Yankees logo across the chest. "This is our version of 'Hello World.'"
"But you're working on it, aren't you?" Steve nodded toward the row of towers at the back of the room. "That's what all this is for."
"Well, of course." Tony's tone suggested that he was stating the blindingly obvious. "But it'll be days before it's done. Getting the nanomachines to form clothing is easy -- clothes don't have to do anything except look pretty. Getting them to form complex circuitry and moving parts is a whole other ballgame. They'll be self-learning eventually, but we still need to get them started."
"Days. Great." Steve shook his head. "And what happens when you do get it working? The terms of your bail still stand."
Tony shrugged. "So I won't use it."
"Not use it?" Tony had used the suit when it was damaging his nervous system. He'd used it when he was injured and bleeding. According to Maria Hill, he once cut off part of his foot to remove an Extremis-inhibiting cuff in order to suit up and fight the Mandarin. The threat of prison would never stop him, not if he thought Iron Man was needed somewhere. "When have you ever had the armor and not used it?"
"Fine." Tony's voice went flat. "I won't work on the suit until the investigation is done." He returned to his seat in front of the computer, disconnected the keyboard and held it out to Steve with a flourish. "Here. Proof of my good intentions. Satisfied?"
"It's not about satisfying me," Steve said.
Tony kept holding the keyboard out, jutting his chin in a manner that was no doubt intended to be very grim and serious, but succeeded mostly in looking petulant. Steve didn't even bother to hide his smile as he sat down next to Tony and wrapped one hand around his wrist.
"Put that down." He gently guided Tony's arm back down to the table. "And don't be so melodramatic. First of all, I know you go into withdrawal if you have to spend more than a day off-line."
"That's not true," Tony muttered, but he sounded neither convinced nor convincing.
"Second of all," Steve went on, "I know that once the withdrawal kicks in, you're perfectly capable of making a working keyboard out of toothpicks and toilet paper, so giving me this one won't actually solve anything. And third, as I said, this is not about satisfying me. If you say you won't work on the suit, I believe you."
"Do you?" Tony tilted his head to one side and gave him a skeptical look. "Because from where I'm sitting, you're not exactly radiating faith and confidence."
"I can't speak for what I'm radiating," Steve told him, "but what I'm feeling is concern. It was bad enough when you were lying to Nelson and the cops. Now you've also lied to a judge -- a judge who barely agreed to grant you bail to begin with. At this rate, the people who want to put you away won't even need to convict you of murder. You're giving them plenty of other rope to hang you with."
"Don't say hanging. I think Babbage is trying to bring it back just for my benefit. I've been reading his e-mail all morning, by the way."
"You what?" Steve sputtered. Tony smirked at him.
"Yeah, I know, more rope. But if he's behind this, we're not going to find out by asking nicely. Also, the guys who do cybersecurity at the Pentagon are idiots and deserve what they get. I could've hacked their encryption when I was twelve. Or drunk. Or both."
"Somehow," Steve sighed, "I don't think the judge will accept 'they had it coming' as an excuse. Did you actually get anything useful out of all this egregious violation of national security?"
"For certain values of useful." Tony's eyes grew hard. "He's trying to get Stark Resilient's assets frozen pending a government audit."
"Why?" Steve said, then shook his head. "I mean, I know why -- he's got a grudge against you and he wants your tech. But on what grounds?"
"None, as far as I can tell." Tony reconnected his keyboard and rapidly scrolled through several screens of text. "Which is why he hasn't managed to do it yet. But given how many lawyers he's got on the case, I'm sure he'll come up with something. I've got Pepper handling it, but…"
Steve's phone buzzed. He took a look at the screen, and switched to speaker so Tony could listen in.
"Give me some good news, Sharon."
"Wish I could." Sharon sounded tired. "But there isn't much to go on. Nigel Spalding grew up in Flatbush, went to Brooklyn College, worked for Met Life for a few years, then took the job at Stark Industries. Stayed with SI for a little over ten years, then left six years ago. According to the records Pepper Potts turned over, he didn't receive the standard company severance package, which means he wasn't laid off. And this is where it gets interesting, because the day after Spalding leaves his job, there's a transfer of half a million dollars into his personal account, from SI's payroll account. It's there in Spalding's banking record -- but not anywhere in the SI records."
"What?" Tony sputtered.
"Is that Stark?" Sharon said. "Good. Maybe he can explain why he paid five hundred grand to a bookkeeper and didn't record the payment."
"I can tell you exactly why it's not in the records." Tony sounded outraged. "It's because it didn't happen. Six years is far enough back that I'd remember. And even if it wasn't, Pepper would remember. What does she say?"
"Same as you." Sharon sounded resigned. "Which, to be honest, isn't making either one of you look so good."
"No shit." Tony slumped forward and put his head in his hands. "Payout like that, gotta be either a bribe or a blackmail payment. So there's my murder motive I guess, not to mention Babbage's excuse to get our assets frozen. This is going to be an awesome day, I can feel it."
"Babbage is not our main problem," Steve said. "Spalding is. What did he do with the money?"
"Invested it into a computer repair shop with his brother-in-law. And yes, it's just as innocuous as it sounds." Even over the phone, Steve got a clear visual of Sharon's exasperated eye-roll. "I was hoping for a money-laundering scam or a drug ring or something, but as far as we can tell, they really do fix computers. Or at least the brother-in-law does. Eugene West. He's the other guy in the footage Richards sent. Culver University class of 2001, married to Caroline Spalding in 2002, widowed two years ago when Caroline died in a car accident. Between the two of them, Spalding and West don't have so much as a parking ticket or a late credit card payment. They're so squeaky-clean, I feel like there has to be a dark secret somewhere, but I'm damned if I know what it is."
"Right," Tony said. "Totally squeaky-clean except for the part where they apparently extorted half a million from me without me ever knowing. Have you talked to West, Sharon?"
"Not personally." Sharon paused for a few seconds. "The police interviewed him. I've just e-mailed you the transcript, along with West's file. Spoiler: there's nothing helpful."
"Keep digging. And thanks, Sharon." Steve ended the call and turned toward Tony, who was looking grim. "Okay, so how likely is it that somebody at your company could pay Spalding that money without you knowing?"
"Without me knowing?" Tony shrugged. "Pretty likely. It's not as if I handle payroll. Without Pepper knowing -- no way."
"All right." Steve leaned back into the sofa cushions and tried to focus his thoughts. Unfortunately, there wasn't much to focus on. "Is there any connection between Spalding, West and Babbage?"
"Not that I could find," Tony said. "Then again, I've been looking through on-line records, and I'm starting to think that any computerized information related to this case is not to be trusted. The money, the gun registration, the security footage in the tower -- it's a good thing West didn't realize he was being recorded from the Baxter Building, or that would be gone too."
"You're certain it's West, then?" Steve asked. It did seem like the obvious choice, but the lack of a clear motive was bothersome.
"No, I'm not certain," Tony sighed. "But we know somebody's doing some pretty impressive hacking, and West is a Culver-educated computer expert, so… I think we should talk to him."
"We?" Steve raised his eyebrows. "Whether or not West is guilty of anything, I don't think he'd react very well to having the man who killed his wife's brother show up at his doorstep."
"Well, you can't very well go without me, can you?" Tony tapped the cuff on his ankle. "Unless you want to leave me loitering around the corner. Where does he live? Is there a Starbucks on that block?"
"We can get Sharon to talk to him. Or somebody else from SHIELD. Or--"
"Or we can go ourselves," Tony said quickly. "West doesn't have to know it's me. Look."
Tony sat up straight and held his arms stiffly at his sides. His clothes melted into liquid metal again, then reformed into the standard black and gray SHIELD uniform. Steve was just about to point out that this wasn't exactly an effective disguise, when the skin on Tony's face also filmed over with a metallic sheen. The film shimmered for a moment, as if uncertain what to turn into next, then reshaped itself into a set of smooth, blandly handsome features that looked nothing at all like the real Tony. Only the eyes stayed recognizable.
"That," Steve said, "is extremely creepy."
"But effective," Tony said smugly. "So do you want to talk to West, or not?"
Eugene West was apparently the kind of guy who brought his work home with him. His Yorkville apartment contained more computer equipment than any place Steve had ever seen that wasn't owned by Tony or Reed. West had to move several laptops and an armful of circuit boards out of the way in order to make space for them to sit down after Steve introduced himself.
"I don't understand," West said in a tired voice as he peered at Steve's ID. "I've already told all this to the police. Why is SHIELD getting involved now?"
"We're conducting a parallel investigation," Steve said in his most blandly official voice. Most people would simply accept that, but West continued to look dubious.
"I thought SHIELD only dealt in national security issues."
"If Stark has gone rogue," Tony said, "then it's a national security issue."
Which was true enough, but the amount of sour resentment Tony managed to project when he said "Stark" made Steve give him a sharp look. It had to be a deliberate ploy of some sort, but the two of them hadn't discussed any specific approach in advance, which meant that now Steve had no idea what Tony was trying to accomplish or how Steve was supposed to help.
There was a time when they wouldn't have needed to discuss it. A time when Steve would've either known Tony's intentions without being told, or trusted him enough to follow his lead without knowing. Maybe Tony, with his years of missing memories, still expected it to work like that. Steve wanted it to work like that. He missed that easy understanding, the unquestioned knowledge that Tony had his back and he had Tony's. But his own memories kept getting in the way of that trust.
Sometimes, Steve could understand Tony's desire to forget all too well.
West gave Tony a curious look, but Tony didn't appear to be paying attention to him. He'd introduced himself to West as "Agent Jones," flashing a badge he'd conjured earlier from the same not-really-Extremis place as his SHIELD uniform. Now he was circling around the room, brushing his fingers over the laptops on the dining table, the oversized monitor on the desk, the random parts piled on the shelves that lined the walls. Whatever his plan was, it seemed to involve leaving Steve to do most of the talking, so Steve gave a mental shrug and got on with it.
"Mr. West, what can you tell us about your brother-in-law's recent involvement with Tony Stark?"
"Not much." West looked regretful. "I think he knew something about Stark Industries, something shady back from when he worked there. I think he confronted Stark about it when he left the company, and that's how he came away with all that money. He claimed it was severance pay, but come on, who gives nearly ten years' salary in severance pay to a bookkeeper?"
That was the story West had given the police the day before. In fact, it was the exact same story, repeated nearly word for word from the transcript Steve had received from Sharon. Even West's delivery sounded slightly rehearsed. Which didn't necessarily mean he was lying, but it did make Steve suspicious.
"You never asked him about the money at the time?"
West shook his head. "I took his word for it. Looking back, I probably shouldn't have, but we were just getting the business started, and I was so thrilled to have the funds, I didn't want to question it. Until…" He trailed off and put his hand over his eyes for a moment, as if trying to collect himself.
"Until what?" Steve prompted.
"The lease on the store runs out in six months. We've been talking about moving into a larger space, and there's a building for sale on West One-Tenth; not as good as a midtown location, but we figured we'd get good business from the Columbia students. I've been looking into business loans, but then Nigel said that we didn't need to, that he could get more money from Stark. I told him--" West's voice cracked a little. His hands were trembling slightly in his lap, even though he had them clenched into fists. He avoided Steve's eyes as he spoke, focusing instead on Tony, even though Tony was still mostly occupied with the computer equipment on the shelves. "I told him to say away from that bastard, but Nigel kept insisting that it would all be okay."
"So let me get this straight." Tony set down the half-disassembled Starkpad he'd been examining and turned to give West a sharp look. "You're saying Nigel had blackmailed Stark in the past and was planning to do it again?"
"Yes." West looked bitter. "I can't prove it, of course. But that's how Stark operates, isn't it? He buys people off."
"Except when he kills them," Tony said.
"Yes," West said in a brittle voice, "except when he kills them."
Steve still had no clear idea what Tony was trying to accomplish, but he was more convinced than ever that West was reciting a prepared story. His wording continued to be much too similar to the police transcript. People did repeat themselves when telling the same story more than once, but not that much.
"Did Nigel own a gun?" he asked, and got exactly the answer he expected.
"Nigel hated guns. Hated violence of any kind. He didn't even like action movies."
"And yet," Tony said, "he worked at Stark Industries for over a decade."
"He was a bookkeeper in the Educational Software division!" West snapped. "And even that always bothered him, that's why he jumped at the chance when I asked him to go into the business with me. He never liked having anything to do with Stark."
"But he was okay with blackmailing him and taking his money?" It was probably not the most diplomatic thing Steve could've said, but he was becoming impatient with West's performance. The man spent a lot of effort trying to paint Nigel Spalding as an incompetent blackmailer murdered by his victim. It seemed a bit rich, after all that, to try and claim superior virtue on his behalf.
"I told him not to do it!" However manufactured West's story might be, Steve felt sure that his grief was genuine. It would take a much better actor to fake the tears welling up in his eyes or the angry red blotches on his face. "I told him it would end badly and I was right, wasn't I? I told him. But he insisted on going to see Stark, and now he's--" His voice rose to a near-yell, and he stopped mid-sentence and just breathed loudly for a few seconds before continuing.
"Tony Stark destroyed my family," he said in a cold, tight voice. "I want to see him pay for that."
"We understand," Steve said, "and we're going to find out what happened."
It would've been a pretty good exit line but Tony, of course, had his own script to get through.
"I'll be honest with you," he told West, "right now, the case against Stark is looking pretty weak. We've got your blackmail story and a lot of dodgy computer records against Stark's money and connections. And juries, they like solid evidence, something the lawyer can hold up in the courtroom for a dramatic moment. So if you really want to see Stark go down, you're going to have to give us something more."
For a moment, West actually looked as if he might leap across the room and go for Tony's throat. Steve got ready to move, but West stayed where he was, watching Tony with narrowed eyes.
"Thank you for your honesty, Agent," he said quietly. "I'll let you know if I think of anything useful."
"You know," Steve said as they climbed back into their SHIELD-issued car, "if you'd told me you were trying to goad him into something, I could've played along better."
"Better? You were great." Tony leaned back in the passenger seat and let Agent Jones' bland features melt back into his own face. "Those righteous pissed-off looks you kept giving me were perfect. No way you could've faked those."
"Don't bet on it," Steve said. "I've had years of practice giving you righteous pissed-off looks. I'm pretty sure I could do it on demand."
"I can see that." Tony smirked. "You're doing it right now."
"Muscle memory." Steve turned on the engine and steered the car out into Second Avenue traffic. "So were you trying to goad him into anything in particular, or just fishing?"
"Just fishing," Tony admitted. "Though I think the odds of getting a bite are pretty good. West wants me convicted, and I just told him he hasn't done enough to make that happen. So he's going to do more, and we're going to catch him at it."
"Are we now?" Steve tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. "And how are we going to do that?"
"Like this." Tony held up his hand, and Steve glanced away from the snarl of traffic in front of him just long enough to see the metal sheen coating Tony's fingertips.
"I thought it wasn't ready yet."
"The armor isn't ready. The nanomachines that will make up the armor are as ready as they'll ever be. They've got audio and video capability, limited intelligence, and a high-speed wireless connection directly to my brain. I've left a couple of million of them at West's place, so whatever he does next, we'll know."
"Oh," Steve said, "so that's why you kept touching his stuff? And here I thought you were just incapable of walking past a computer without fondling it."
"It's as if you know me," Tony drawled, but there was a strained note in his voice that made the attempted levity fall flat. He went quiet for a while after that, staring out the passenger window, and when he spoke again there was no humor in his tone at all.
"Tony Stark destroyed my family," he muttered. "Is it me or does it sound like West was talking about more than one person?"
"Maybe." It wasn't a pleasant thought, and Steve found himself guiltily relieved that Tony brought it up himself before Steve would have to. "But it doesn't make sense. This guy clearly hates you. He's trying to paint you as a murderer. If he has something against you besides the evidence he's planted, why isn't he telling it to anyone who'd listen?"
"Because," Tony said, "that's his motive, isn't it? If he was an innocent man who sincerely believed that I murdered his brother-in-law, of course he'd be shouting from the rooftops about every bad thing he thought I'd ever done. But that's not what's going here, is it? West knows perfectly well that he's setting me up, and he's afraid that someone else might figure it out. So he's keeping his mouth shut about anything that might suggest he has a grudge."
"I'm not sure that make sense." Steve frowned. "In fact, I'm pretty sure it doesn't."
"Of course you are," Tony said. "That's because you don't know how to think like a paranoid asshole with a vendetta. You'll have to defer to my experience on that one."
"That's comforting," Steve muttered, and tapped the communications panel on the dashboard. "Rogers to Carter. You there, Sharon? I need you to look something up for me."
"You know," Sharon said wearily, "I can't decide if I should be insulted by your assumption that I live at my desk or depressed by the fact that it's true."
"You should be pleased that I consider you so reliable and trustworthy," Steve told her. "Also, you should be looking into the circumstances of Caroline Spalding's death. Your last report said 'car accident.' I want the details. Actually, I want the details on every dead relative West or Spalding ever had. I don't care if it was a seventh cousin they never met, give me everyone."
"I'll get on it," Sharon promised. "By the way, the full autopsy report on Spalding came in a few minutes ago. Do you want it?"
"Yes!" Tony said quickly before Steve had a chance to answer. Sharon's amused huff was clearly audible even over the tinny dashboard speaker.
"I'll send a copy to both of you. Carter out."
A moment later, Tony's Starkpad pinged softly from inside his jacket. He pulled it out and scrolled rapidly through screen after screen while Steve drove.
"Huh," he said after a while. "This actually explains a few things."
"Great," Steve said. "Enlighten me."
"Nigel Spalding had pancreatic cancer." Tony scrolled back through a couple of screens, peering intently at the long columns of text. "I'm not up on the medical jargon, but apparently it was too advanced to be treatable. And according to the bloodwork, there were no traces of chemotherapy drugs in his system, only painkillers."
"So he was dying." That did potentially explain a lot, though not in any way Steve cared to think about. "And he probably knew it."
"Yeah," Tony said grimly. "And apparently he decided that suicide by Tony Stark, with bonus murder rap, was a better way to go. Dammit!" He snapped the Starkpad's cover shut with a great deal more force than necessary. "What the hell did I do to these guys?"
Steve had no answer to that.
The rest of the drive passed in tense silence. Tony was rapidly sinking into one of the black moods Steve had learned to recognize and hate over the years, the kind that have led, at different times, to everything from nervous collapses to drinking binges to suicidal battle tactics. Or memory wipes. Tony always managed to come up with new and exciting ways to self-destruct when he thought he deserved it.
"Go on," Tony snapped as he followed Steve back into the safehouse, "say it. You know you want to."
Yes, definitely one of Those Moods. Steve fought down a weary sigh.
"No, actually I don't know. What am I supposed to say? Is there a script?"
"Damn right there is." Tony shifted his SHIELD uniform back to sweatpants and a t-shirt as he paced around the living room. "This is the part where you tell me how I brought this on myself. How if I hadn't done… whatever it is I did to West and Spalding, all this wouldn't be happening in the first place, and if I hadn't wiped my memories we could've figured the whole thing out by now. I fucked up, okay? I know this is my own fault, you don't need to say it."
"Well, that's good." Steve resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Seeing as how I didn't say it. If you must beat yourself up, I can't stop you, but please don't try to blame it on me."
"You are. And for the record, if I was going to say something to you, I'd say that we have no idea what you're supposed to have done, and until we know it's a bit to early to be laying blame. And I'd say that while wiping your memory was a terrible decision for about a hundred different reasons you should've thought about, I don't think 'somebody might frame me for murder' is one of them. It's really not the sort of thing you can predict."
"Oh, I don't know." Tony looked sour. "It's happened before, after all."
"Point," Steve conceded. "But we got through it then, and we'll get through it now."
"Well, I wish we could get through it faster." Tony stopped his restless pacing and slouched against the kitchenette counter. "Dammit, why doesn't West do something? I hate all this waiting."
"Are you actually watching him now?" Steve asked. Tony nodded.
"I've been watching him since we left his place. But so far, all he's doing is sitting in his living room and drinking crappy blended whisky. This is not helpful."
"What were you expecting?" Steve asked. Tony shrugged.
"I was kind of hoping that he'd call Babbage and the two of them would have a long, highly incriminating conversation about their nefarious plans. But I suppose that's too much to ask."
"Well," Steve said, "putting aside the fact that it's never that easy for us, do you really still think Babbage is in on it?"
"Yes," Tony said, without much conviction, then sighed and shook his head. "No. Much as I'd love to pin it on him, I think this is West and Spalding's personal project. Babbage is just trying to take advantage because I pissed him off." He huffed out a short, humorless laugh. "I suppose I should be glad that all the people I've pissed off aren't collaborating. I'd be doomed for sure."
"Not if I could help it," Steve said sharply.
Tony gave him a thin, brittle smile. "From what I've been told, you were near the top of the list of people I've pissed off before you--" He broke off abruptly and ducked his head, staring fixedly at an invisible spot on the counter. "Before you were killed."
"Tony, stop." Steve started to reach across the counter, but let his hand drop when Tony flinched back. "We're supposed to be moving past this, remember? I'm not dead, and I'm not-- all right, I can't say I'm not still angry about some things. But I really don't want to harp on any of that right now, and I wish you wouldn't either. We've got more immediate problems to worry about."
"…I'm sorry." Tony pushed away from the counter. "You're right. I need to be working, not standing around feeling sorry for myself."
"That's not what I--" Steve started, but Tony was already planting himself in front of the computer, and his eyes held the familiar work-obsessed gleam that mean there was no use talking to him for the next few hours. "Never mind. Can I borrow your Starkpad?"
Tony waved his hand without looking away from the monitor. "Be my guest."
Steve pulled up Spalding's autopsy report and scrolled through it, but aside from the revelation about Spalding's illness, there was nothing there he hadn't already known from seeing the crime scene report. He wondered if Tony's guess was true, if Spalding had really come to the tower intending to make Tony kill him. Somehow, the thought was more disturbing than the thought of him trying to murder Tony and dying in the attempt. There was an extra level of hatred there that made Steve's skin crawl.
A soft chime alerted him to a new e-mail -- a single short paragraph from Sharon on the details of Caroline Spalding's death. Steve could feel his heart sinking as he read it. This was going to make everything so much worse.
Tony didn't seem to hear. He had what looked like an exploded diagram of a repulsor gauntlet rotating on the screen of one monitor while lines of code scrolled rapidly across another. He barely seemed to notice Steve coming over to sit next to him, until Steve put one hand on his arm to get his attention.
"Hmm?" Tony finally looked up with a distracted expression that shifted to sharp concern when he saw Steve's face. "What's wrong?"
Everything. Steve handed him the tablet. "You need to read this."
How much of his missing memory had Tony filled in since his awakening? Steve didn't know. He'd seen Tony surfing the internet, reading news articles and watching video clips, asking questions of anyone who would answer them. Pepper would've told him things, and James Rhodes, and possibly Maria Hill. Steve knew Tony was aware of the details of the SHRA, of the superhero civil war and the Skrull invasion. But had he gone farther back than that? Had he seen the reports of rogue Iron Man drones wreaking havoc all over the globe? Did he know what Jason Ho had done to him, and to the world, using Extremis?
Selfishly, Steve hoped that Tony did know, that it wouldn't fall to him to explain. But that hope quickly died as he watched the color drain from Tony's face.
Caroline Spalding had been in a taxi stuck in traffic in Times Square when the Hulkbuster drone attacked. She and the driver had both been buried under the rubble of a collapsing office building. It had taken the rescue workers three days to recover the bodies.
"I don't understand." Tony was staring at the tablet with a horrible blank expression, as if his brain was failing to process what he was seeing. "How could this… when did this happen?"
Steve started to answer, but Tony was still talking.
"It had to be after Extremis, or I'd remember, but there's no way Extremis would malfunction like that, I must've had safeguards, I couldn't have messed up the code like that, how could I--"
"You didn't mess up the code," Steve said. "This kid, Jason Ho, he had a sending device of some sort. It triggered an implant in your brain that allowed him to control Extremis. He's the one that made the drones go rogue, not you."
"That doesn't make sense." Tony's blank expression did not change but his hands tightened around the tablet's edges until his knuckles went white. "What implant? Extremis wouldn't allow--"
"It was there before Extremis." Steve hesitated for a moment, then reached over and pressed one hand against Tony's back. As gestures of comfort went, it seemed hopelessly inadequate, but he had no idea what else to do, how to make the words he was about to say more bearable. "It was done when you were in Afghanistan, by Professor Yinsen. Jason Ho was his son, that's why he had the sending device. You never knew until it was activated."
"No." Tony's breath hitched. Steve could feel him starting to shake. "That's wrong. You must have the story wrong somehow."
"I'm sorry," Steve said helplessly. "I'm only--"
"Yinsen saved me. He died for me. He would never--"
"Tony." Steve slid his hand to the back of Tony's neck and let it rest there, trying to project strength and calm he himself did not feel. "I'm sorry. But I'm only repeating what you yourself told me. Jason Ho is dead. You're the only one who got to talk to him before he was killed. You're the one who told me about the implant, and about Yinsen."
The tablet clattered to the floor at Tony's feet. Tony jumped a little at the sound and looked down at his hands, which were shaking so badly they were almost convulsing.
"Sorry." Tony pressed his palms flat against his thighs, but only managed to stay steady for a few seconds before his fingers curled into claws and began trembling again. "They shouldn't be doing that. I've programmed them not to do that."
"I don't think you can program yourself not to be upset." Steve picked up the Starkpad and placed it on the table. "Or at least I hope you can't. But listen, you know this wasn't actually your fault, right? You're not--"
"Don't." Tony lurched to his feet. His knees started to buckle as he stood, but he recovered himself and staggered across the room, keeping his back turned toward Steve. "Don't try to say it's not on me. How many dead?"
"I don't know."
"Bullshit! How many?"
"I honestly don't know, Tony." Steve fought to keep his voice even. "Outside of New York, the hardest hits were in Russia and Saudi Arabia, and they weren't exactly anxious to talk to us afterwards. I don't have the numbers for you."
"Fine." Tony took another halting step, listed sharply to his left, and had to steady himself with one hand against the wall. "How many in New York then?"
Steve took a deep breath. "Six."
"Six…" Tony started to turn, but his legs collapsed under him, and he crumpled to the floor with a soft gasp.
"Tony!" Steve jumped to his feet. He'd taken Tony's earlier unsteadiness for an emotional reaction, but there was clearly something wrong, something physical, Tony really was convulsing now, thrashing around on the floor and coming perilously close to cracking his skull against the wall.
Steve dropped to his knees and pulled Tony half-way into his lap, trying to hold his upper body steady while Tony drummed his heels against the carpet. "What's happening?"
"Don't… know…" Tony gritted out. His clothes dissolved and reformed around him once, then again and again, changing colors and textures several times before finally reverting to the black undersuit. A drop of blood trickled from his nose. "Hurts…" He strained one last time against Steve's arms, then abruptly went limp, though his eyes stayed open.
Steve's phone was in his pocket. He pulled it out and was scrolling through to Reed Richards's number, when a stab of pain in his right side made him loosen his hold on Tony. A moment later, Tony was on his feet again, surprisingly steady, considering he couldn't stand thirty seconds before. There was a knife in his hand, which presumably explained the bleeding slash just below Steve's ribs.
"What's going on?" Steve rose into a defensive stance, keeping his gave focused on Tony's face rather than the knife. The cut in his side hurt, but he could tell it wasn't deep enough to be serious. "You still in there, Tony? What are you doing?"
"I'm not doing this." Tony's eyes were wide and desperate. He swiped the knife at Steve again, but his movements slow and jerky, as if he was straining against an invisible hold. Steve dodged, and circled around to put the coffee table between them.
"Who, then?" This wasn't mind control, whoever was doing it. Tony was clearly aware and fighting. "Can you tell?"
"West." Tony's face contorted with painful effort. The knife in his had dissolved into a silvery blob and vanished, only to reappear again a few seconds later. "Fuck. He's got control of the nanomachines."
"I don't know." Tony made a short, aborted stabbing motion with the knife, the point of the blade aimed at Steve's throat. "But I can feel him. He's like a ghost in the system, or malware, or-- watch out!" Even as he yelled, he was vaulting over the table, launching himself at Steve in a flying tackle.
There wasn't much room to dodge, so Steve held his ground until the last moment, grabbing Tony's knife hand just as the tackle connected and twisting as their combined weight carried them both backwards onto the couch. The maneuver got him another cut, but it was just a shallow scratch across his palm. He barely felt it as he pinned Tony face down on the couch with his arms twisted behind his back.
"Can you shut him out?" He demanded.
"Not exactly." Tony was breathing heavily, and fighting against Steve's hold with surprising force. He was going to get his arm broken if he kept at it, but Steve didn't dare let go. "I can shut down the whole system, though. Leave him with nothing to work with. But you'll have to find West and get him secured before it'll be safe for me to wake up again, so don't take too long, okay?"
"What do you mean, shut down the whole system?" Steve had an unpleasant memory flash of Tony comatose in a hospital bed, with a ventilator doing his breathing for him. "We're not going have to reboot you from backup again, are we?"
"Not this time." Tony let out a harsh laugh. His nose was bleeding heavily now, a thick red stain spreading on the sofa cushion. "Just call Reed, tell him to execute protocol 27-b. It'll be fine."
"What will it--"
"Gotta go now." Tony gave one last, silent shudder and went completely still. By the time Steve flipped him over onto his back, he wasn't breathing.
How many times, Steve wondered bleakly, would he have to go through this? How many times would he sit in a hospital room next to Tony's lifeless body, not knowing if his friend would ever wake up? It was just over a week since he'd held this vigil in Oklahoma. The infirmary in the Baxter Building was a lot cleaner and better lit than the basement in Broxton, but Tony's slack, empty face looked just the same. The fluorescent lighting, the soft ping of the heart monitor, the antiseptic smell -- all of it set off a dull ache in Steve's chest, as memories of past fears layered over the present. When he shifted his chair closer to the bed and took hold of Tony's hand, he could remember every other time he'd ever done it.
It wasn't fair. They were just starting to be friends again, after all the fighting, after they both effectively came back from the dead. Steve knew it was petty and irrational, but he found himself furiously thinking that the universe owed them some time, dammit. A chance to work things out in between emergencies. Was that really too much to expect? It's not as if he was asking for centuries.
"He'll be all right, you know." Reed spoke up from the other side of the room, where he'd set up his fancy workstation with the holographic displays and the ominous looking wires connecting the control panel to Tony's skull. Steve reflected that he must be looking pretty awful, if Reed Richards looked away from his work long enough to comment. "This isn't like the brain erasure. He didn't erase anything this time, he just shut down."
"Then what's taking so long?" Steve snapped.
"I'm only following Tony's protocol." Reed turned back to his displays, unruffled by Steve's display of temper. "He shut down because the control module for the nanomachines has been hacked. I'm running a full diagnostic to make sure the hacker hasn't left any nasty surprises in the code before I reboot."
Module. Code. Reboot. Steve bit his tongue until he could trust himself to speak calmly. "I really wish you and Tony would both stop talking about him as if he's a computer."
"Technically," Reed said, "most living creatures are computers. Incredibly complex biological machines. Tony is just more customized than the rest of us."
"Wow, that's comforting." Steve slumped a little lower in his seat and tightened his grip on Tony's fingers. "Just… wake him up as soon as you can, will you?"
"Actually, now is a good time." Reed swept his hands over the control panel with a flourish. The heart monitor began to beep louder and faster, and the holograph that had been hovering above Tony's head flared brightly for a moment before blinking out of existence. Tony let out a loud gasp as his eyes snapped open."
"Tony?" Steve leaned forward, and Tony immediately turned toward him. Tony's eyes were clear and sharp, with none of the disorientation that most people normal showed when regaining consciousness.
"Steve. Are you all right?"
"Am I all right?" Steve stared at him. "I'm not the guy who just came out of a coma. Again."
"No," Tony said, "you're just the guy I tried to stab to death. Sorry about that, by the way."
"Not your fault," Steve said quickly. Tony looked unconvinced.
"I was goading West, you noticed it yourself. I just didn't expect to goad him into that."
"Well, that's not exactly something you could predict, is it?" Steve managed a smile. "Even futurists have their limits, I guess."
Apparently that was the wrong thing to say. Tony winced and closed his eyes, turning his face toward the far side of the room.
"Sorry." He tried to pull his hand from Steve's grip, but Steve held on.
"Not. Your. Fault. Anyhow, we're both all right and Sharon is taking a team out to pick up West, so it all works out. Just… let's not do this again, okay?"
"Fine by me," Tony said wearily.
Steve decided to take that as a promise.
"He's a technopath," Reed Richards said, gazing through the one-way glass into the room where Sharon was interrogating Eugene West. "The DNA test has come up positive for the mutant gene. It seems Mr. West is one of the few who has retained his powers."
"Lucky for him," Steve said dryly, and stepped closer to the glass. Sharon was about to get to the good part, and he wanted to hear it.
West sat stiffly in his chair, with his handcuffed hands on the table in front of him. On the other side of the table, Sharon looked relaxed to the point of boredom, but Steve knew her well enough to see how alert she really was.
"You think you covered your tracks so well," she was telling West, "but altering computer records doesn't alter physical reality. We found the man who sold you and Nigel the gun, and he has identified both of you. We found the bank that loaned you the money you claim Nigel blackmailed out of Stark. They still have your paper application on file. We know you planted false information. We know Stark was framed."
"So that's it, is it?" West's face twisted in contempt. "Stark just gets away with it? My wife is dead, all those other people in Times Square are dead, and all Stark has to do is spread some money around and suddenly everyone believes it wasn't his fault? How much did he pay you?"
"Interesting, isn't it?" Reed murmured. "West and Spalding could've easily murdered Tony and covered their tracks. Really, once West had control of the nanomachines, he could've made Tony have an aneurism or a heart attack and no one would've known. But they didn't want him dead, they wanted him in prison for murder. If not Caroline Spalding's, then Nigel's. Or yours."
"Were you all in on it?" West was picking up steam now, leaning forward over the table until he was practically yelling in Sharon's face. "Were you listening and laughing when Stark showed up at my house to gloat? Or did you actually think I wouldn't recognize him?"
"Tony is going to be very embarrassed," Steve said wryly. "He thought he was being so clever with that disguise."
"It's hardly his fault," Reed said. "He couldn't have known he was dealing with someone who could sense each individual nanomachine in the room."
West and Sharon were still talking, but Steve decided he'd heard enough. He excused himself to Reed and took the elevator back to the landing pad, where a helicopter was waiting to take him from the Raft back to Manhattan.
The penthouse in Avengers Tower was no longer a crime scene, but Tony had shown no inclination to return there. He had a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria now, larger than any apartment Steve had ever lived in, with a postcard view of Park Avenue from the floor-to-ceiling French windows. Tony was standing in front of the fireplace, sipping a glass of seltzer water and staring at the vase on the mantelpiece with far more attention than it warranted.
"Hey," Steve said quietly.
Tony turned around. "Hey." He put the glass down and held his arms out to his sides. "You're just in time. Watch this."
There was a series of soft metallic clicks as Tony's clothes shifted into the Iron Man armor. It looked subtly different from the previous versions Steve remembered, sleeker and even more compact than the Extremis armor, but the red and gold colors were reassuringly familiar.
"Looks good." Steve grinned. "Welcome back, Shellhead."
Tony lowered his arms and let the armor disappear into the black undersuit. He was smiling, but it looked a little forced.
"So. What's happening with West?"
"He's in custody," Steve said. "Sharon's interrogating him, but it's hardly worth the effort. Now that he knows your name is cleared, he's not even bothering to defend himself. He's too busy telling anyone who'll listen why he did it."
"Can you blame him?" Tony said bitterly. "He had a good reason, after all."
"Don't." Steve was filled with an all-too-familiar desire to grab Tony by the shoulders and shake him until he saw common sense. Since actually doing that was not an option, he settled for marching across the room to Tony's side and letting himself loom, just a little bit. "Listen to me. What happened in Times Square wasn't your fault. West thinks it is because he doesn't know the full story. But you didn't kill any of those people. Jason Ho killed them, while you risked your life to protect them. I know you don't remember, but I was there." Steve closed and the memories flooded in, all too vivid. Times Square turned into a war zone, shattered metal and glass everywhere. The screams of frightened civilians, the taste of smoke and dust in his mouth, the pain of his ribs cracking under the pressure as the Hulkbuster drone grabbed him in its massive claws and squeezed… "Did you know you saved my life, Tony? That drone was going to kill me, and you stopped your own heart to bring it down. It took thirty-seven minutes for the paramedics to revive you. If it wasn't for Extremis, you would've been dead."
"And if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn't have been in danger." Tony shook his head. "Of course I stopped my heart to save you. What else could I have done?"
"Stop it." Steve clenched his hands until they started to ache. "I hate watching you do this, over and over again. I can't afford to lose you, not now. Not when I'm this close to getting the Avengers up and running again."
"You are?" Tony looked startled. "I didn't even know you were thinking about it."
"I've been doing a lot more than thinking. I've discussed it with the President, and with a Senate committee." Steve took a deep breath. He'd been planning to wait until the Committee's official approval before he said anything, but that would likely take weeks, and he didn't want to wait anymore. "There will be a new team, and I want you on it."
Tony went perfectly still for a few seconds, then narrowed his eyes.
"All right, what's the catch?"
"Catch?" Steve blinked at him. He hadn't expected instant enthusiasm for the idea, but he hadn't expected suspicion either. "Why would you think there's a--"
"You don't trust me." Tony spoke with the kind of exaggerated calm that came from tight self-control. "You've been making that perfectly clear ever since you got here. I can't do or say a single thing that doesn't make you angry. Why would you want me on a team when you don't trust my judgment or my actions -- when you don’t even trust me with the armor? Is this just your way of keeping me on a short leash?"
"Of course not." The mere thought of ever using the Avengers like that, as a weapon in pursuit of a personal grudge, made him ill. "How could you think that I would--" But even as he asked the question, Steve found himself considering their last few conversations from Tony's perspective. The last two days hadn't been good for them. Steve was anxious and short-tempered, Tony was closed-off and defensive. If he'd been viewing Steve's concern as distrust and suspicion all this time… Steve shook his head. "It's not what you think."
"Isn't it?" Tony glared at him. "What is it, then?"
"If I've been angry, it's because you keep scaring the hell out of me." Steve struggled not to shout. It felt as if he'd spent most of two days shouting at Tony, and it was clearly making things worse. "You care more about your stock options than about your own safety. You do things that could get you sent to prison, and you act as if they're nothing. They you nearly get yourself killed -- again -- and you act as if that's nothing, too."
"It wasn't nothing," Tony said impatiently. "It was necessary. West was trying to use me to kill you. I couldn't let him do it."
"And now you're doing it again. Don't talk as if you're expendable, Tony. You're not."
"It's not a matter of being expendable," Tony said in a flat voice. "It's a matter of taking responsibility. If I put you in danger, it was my responsibility to get you out."
"Is that how it always works?" Steve thought he should he should feel angry, but he couldn't muster up the strength for it. Not now, with days of endless worry pressing down on him. Not when he had yet another image of a dying Tony to haunt him every time he closed his eyes. "Your responsibility to sacrifice yourself, your responsibility to enforce the SHRA to hunt your friends, your responsibility to erase your own mind. Is this how you justify everything you've done these past few years?"
"Yes!" Tony yelled, but for all the conviction in his voice, there was doubt in his eyes. Steve just looked at him, waiting, and after a minute Tony hunched his shoulders and turned his head away, unable to meet Steve's eyes. "I don't know!" he whispered in a choked voice. "I don't remember. Everyone around me wants to tell me what I've done, but no one can tell me why, and I want to -- I have to believe I was doing the right thing. Or what I thought was the right thing. But it seems like every day I find out yet another thing that I made happen, or let happen, and some of them make perfect sense but others just make ill, and there had to be reasons, otherwise I would never-- but I don't remember!" The last word came out as a sob.
Steve moved without thinking, taking an instinctive step toward Tony and reaching out. Tony swayed forward at the same time, and suddenly he was in Steve's arms, his face tucked against Steve's shoulder and his fingers clenched in the fabric of Steve's uniform shirt.
"I'm sorry." Tony's breath was warm against Steve's neck. "I wish I could remember. Then I could explain everything so that you would understand. But it's all gone, forever, and I don't know how to stop you being angry at me."
"It's all right." Steve let his arms curl tighter around Tony's waist. "I don't need you to explain, Tony. I'm not holding a grudge. I just need to be able to trust you, going forward."
"You can," Tony breathed. "I swear. I'll be good, I'll do whatever it takes--"
"No." Steve pulled away a little, took hold of Tony's shoulders and held him at arm's length. "That right there is the problem. I don't want you doing whatever you think it takes, I want you to talk to me before you do anything drastic. To yourself of to anyone else."
"Right." Tony nodded, looking a little dazed. "Okay."
"I'm not just asking this for personal reasons, Tony. If you won't consider your safety for my sake, then consider it for the good of the team.
"The Avengers. Right." Tony frowned. "You know, I'm still not sure if that's a good idea."
"I don't care if it's a good idea," Steve growled. "I'm sick and tired of fighting against you, or without you. You said it yourself just a few days ago, we're better when we work together."
"Actually," Tony said, "What I said was, I'm better at anything I do when I'm doing it next to you."
"Yeah, well." Steve pulled him close again. "It works both ways."
For a while, they just stood there leaning against each other, and the more time passed, the more Steve could feel the tension draining from this spine. Because things weren't perfect, and they probably never would be, but dammit, everything was just so much better when he and Tony weren't fighting.
"I want to make this work," Tony muttered, his voice muffled by the curve of Steve's shoulder. "Not just the Avengers, but us. I know I've fucked up a lot, but if you're really willing to move forward… Tell me we can do this, Steve. Please."
"We can," Steve promised.