All beauteous things for which we live
By laws of time and space decay.
But O, the very reason why
I clasp them, is because they die.
—William Johnson Cory
“I miss you. Sometimes I wake up and I forget you’re gone, and I’m halfway down the stairs to the workshop before I remember that I’m not going to find you there.”
It felt wrong.
“And I never…I thought I had more time.”
Steve was tired of burying empty coffins.
It was exactly sixty-two days after the Battle of New York before Tony spoke to Steve again.
Admittedly, Steve spent a little more than a month and a half of that in the wind. He couldn’t blame the guy. Steve had woken up with seventy years’ worth of changes to catch up on, and between SHIELD and Loki he hadn’t really gotten the chance to see, really see, the America he represented every time he donned his Spangly tights.
There were a total of two and a half Avengers-worthy incidents while Steve was away (the half being someone who had failed to see the flaw in the logic of attacking Stark Industries with an army of metal-cannibalizing robots. Made of metal. Tony had gotten a good laugh out of that, and the Avengers had quickly turned the remaining robots into slag. No muss no fuss. The other battles had gone just as smoothly. The team had seen no reason to call their fearless leader into action for any of them.
Honestly, they were hardly a team. It wasn’t that they couldn’t work together—they’d had teamwork down to a science since fighting the Chitauri. They just weren’t around each other enough for them to really come together. It took Thor almost as long to return from Asgard as it took Steve to return from his road trip. Bruce had, with Tony’s help, quietly slipped off SHIELD’s radar.
Clint and Natasha were around often enough, but never together, and their visits were just regular enough to make Tony suspect that they were SHIELD-sanctioned, which was just rude, by the way. He didn’t need a babysitter (no wonder Bruce had been so eager to vanish). As for Tony, as much as he wished it wasn’t true most mornings, he did have a company to run…
Well, okay, that was mostly Pepper, but he did have to keep the board happy, all while maintaining the Iron Man armor and keeping R&D supplied with an ample amount of projects to work on.
But Tony didn’t do anything by halves, and that included their little boy band. The Fantastic Four, the X-Men…the way Tony saw it, all of the other (arguably) cohesive superhero teams had one thing that the Avengers lacked, and that was a home. If watching the Hulk eat his Wheaties every morning was what it was going to take to make the team work, Tony could work with that.
Tony had JARVIS take note: the tower was getting a new name.
After that it was just a matter of calling up all of the schematics for their quarters. He didn’t really need them—he’d had the layout of each of the rooms pretty much decided since he’d seen what the Chitauri had done to his tower—but he had never actually gotten beyond planning and building the floors. No time like the present. Tony hired an interior designer to furnish them at the same time that he sent out the invitations to the rest of the Avengers.
Even though they hadn’t heard from him in a month, Tony had JARVIS track Steve down as well. It took him two days to locate him in a small town in Montana. Tony had JARVIS leave a message at the front desk of the hotel he was staying at, dropping Tony’s name just to make sure the invitation got through.
He tried not to take it personally when Steve never responded.
So the Avengers moved in over the next few days (to fully furnished rooms—Tony only hired the best).
While Tony made sure they all had their own space to retreat to, the evenings spent on the couch watching trash television or in the gym watching Natasha beat the shit out of anyone who would let her (at a safe distance) was much better than the professionally distant attitude they’d maintained before.
It seemed like Tony was right to invite them. And of course he was. Genius, remember?
It worked. For a while.
But then Steve returned from his coast-to-coast sojourn and promptly shut himself up somewhere in Brooklyn. Tony didn’t know exactly where Steve’s apartment was. He didn’t bother to find out, either. He got the message. It didn’t stop him from crawling out of bed (or his workshop, it was really a tossup most mornings) for breakfast, or making time for flopping down on the couch in the living room every couple of days. Though none of them mentioned it, he could tell that the other Avengers wondered about Steve. Tony tried not to think about it too much.
It went on for two weeks.
It was nearly 3 o’ clock, still a little early for dinner, but Tony had been down in his workshop since very early this morning, and Pepper had accidentally let slip that she would be coming by with paperwork for him to sign when he’d talked to her yesterday. That was reason enough to make himself scarce for a few hours.
Not that his leaving would deter her, but he couldn’t make it too easy for her, could he?
“JARVIS, I’m going out,” Tony said. He waved a hand through the hologram of Quinjet specifications in front of him. He was working on improving the armor—the jet went down way too easily when Loki shot it with his scepter, and he needed to find a good balance between plating and maneuverability—but he could use the break. The lights on the table blinked out.
“Progress saved, sir,” JARVIS said dryly. “Shall I inform Miss Potts?”
“Nope. Don’t wait up,” Tony said. The weather was nice out today, and he could definitely see the appeal in getting some fresh air. He grabbed his suit jacket off the back of his chair, ignoring the row of keys hanging on the wall in favor of the elevator.
“Very good sir.”
Tony could hear the disapproval in JARVIS’s tone, and he laughed. “Hey, I built an AI, not a babysitter,” he said.
He pulled the sunglasses out of his coat pocket and put them on. A quick glance in either direction showed no signs of Pepper. Satisfied that his escape wasn’t going to come to an untimely end, he started toward the café Happy liked a couple blocks down the road.
Tony almost didn’t see him, hunched over one of the patio tables in front of the diner.
“Cap?” Tony asked.
Steve started, looking up so fast it made Tony’s neck hurt to watch. He looked a little panicked, but only for the briefest of moments. The expression was gone the moment he realized who had called him. Steve was wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, with Empire State University screen printed across the front. The entire getup made him look strikingly young…well, his age, really, if you discounted all of the time he’d spent on ice. Steve’s hood was up, despite the balmy weather.
Tony rubbed the back of his neck, realizing his mistake. “Right, sorry, you’re incognito, I get it, been there. Uh. Talking to Tony Stark isn’t doing you any favors, I should just—”
“No,” Steve cut him off, “you don’t have to. I’m not really, most of them already know who I am, anyway.”
“Oh,” Tony said, “okay.”
Apparently Captain America was frequenting a diner in Manhattan that just happened to be a million miles away from his apartment and a stone’s throw away from the tower.
Like Tony wasn’t going to look into that.
“What are you doing here?” Tony blurted.
Steve glanced down at the table in front of him, hand reflexively shifting to cover the napkin he was sketching on. He shrugged and tried, “I just…like the view?”
“You live in Brooklyn,” Tony said.
Steve gave him a funny look. “Well, yeah, I mean the view’s not so bad there either, but—”
“No, I mean,” Tony cut him off, “when you got back from, whatever, sightseeing in the twenty-first century, you went back to Brooklyn.”
“Yes. Because I live in Brooklyn,” Steve said slowly. He gave Tony a half confused smile, like he was waiting for a punch line.
Tony cleared his throat. “Right. I know that. You know what, I should…” He turned, giving his watch a cursory glance but not bothering to check the time.
“Oh. Okay,” Steve said, sounding a little disappointed.
Tony could have left, right then. He could have gone and bought himself something to eat and continued to avoid Pepper for another couple of hours before she ultimately found him and force fed him projects to sign off on, like she always did. Except…
“Just,” Tony whirled back around, unable to control himself, “just, I need to know, did I—why haven’t you come by the tower?”
“Well, it’s your home, I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to just barge in uninvited,” Steve said.
“Uninvit—wait. Cap. You were invited, you are invited, didn’t you get my message?” At Steve’s blank look, he prompted, “Middle of nowhere, Montana?”
Steve’s winced, his cheeks coloring with residual embarrassment.
Tony leaned forward a little, suddenly very interested. “What?”
“I…might have gotten kicked out of that one.”
“You might have?”
“Well, no, that was definitely one of them.”
“One of them?” Tony asked. “Captain America got himself kicked out of more than one hotel? What could you possibly have done?”
“Technically it was Roger Stevens who got kicked out…” Steve trailed off, shrugging sheepishly at Tony’s unimpressed stare. “I may have started a fight. Or two. Really, the Montana one wasn’t my fault. There was this guy giving this dame some trouble, and he wouldn’t leave her alone, so…”
“They kicked you out for defending a lady’s honor. How noble of you.”
“Actually, I think they kicked me out for putting him through the moose head they had mounted on the wall.”
For a moment, Tony stared at him. Then he burst out laughing. “I would have loved to see that,” he said honestly. Then, a little quieter, “There’s a place for you, at the tower. If you want it.”
“I’d like that,” Steve said.
Tony didn’t expect it to be that easy. Honestly he didn’t expect that Steve would want anything to do with him, so when Steve showed up in front of the tower with a duffel so small Tony couldn’t possibly imagine how Steve had managed to fit his entire Brooklyn apartment inside, well. He tried not to look surprised.
It still caught him off guard when he found Steve in the kitchen the next morning, cooking pancakes and whistling cheerily; and honestly that should just not be allowed, because no one should be that happy so early in the morning.
He said as much, but Steve just gave him a funny look and asked what kind of pancakes he wanted.
Tony might have been wrong about Steve disliking him. It wasn’t his fault. It was a reasonable assumption. Tony could be a real asshole, he wasn’t going to delude himself about that, and after everything he’d said on the Helicarrier he wouldn’t have blamed Steve for holding a grudge.
Instead, Steve seemed to want to go out of his way to spend time with him. He did it with the rest of the Avengers too—training with Natasha and cooking with Bruce and horrible television with Clint and Thor—but with Tony it seemed was…different? Maybe that was just his self-centered nature rearing its head, but Steve had this way about spending time with people that seemed almost tactical, like he was trying to meet some sort of self-imposed Team Bonding Quota. It never quite seemed that way, with Tony. He was positive that Steve didn’t realize he was doing it.
When JARVIS first announced that Steve was requesting access to his workshop Tony had figured it was his turn. But instead of trying to drag Tony out of his workshop into the sun, or down to the gym to spar, Steve stood indecisively in the doorway for a moment before asking if his being in the workshop would be distracting. Tony had just shrugged and gestured to the couch, figuring that Steve would eventually get bored and leave.
Steve just smiled brightly and made himself at home. At first Tony was hyper-aware of Steve’s presence, but after a while it faded into a comfortable silence between them, with only the sound of Steve’s pencil on paper to remind Tony he was there at all. Steve never did get bored; he just sat there sketching until he finally decided that it was time for bed. Though Tony would never admit it after all of Steve’s nagging him to go to bed, Tony didn’t mind the company all that much.
The next time Steve came down to the workshop, the door was already unlocked.
Steve didn’t mean for it to happen, but eventually it just became habit: Steve would spend a few hours each day down in Tony’s workshop, sometimes chatting or watching a movie but usually just providing each other some quiet company. The shop was Tony’s sanctuary, Steve knew, and he was inordinately pleased to find the door unlocked in silent invitation. Tony never asked what Steve wanted, and while he was happy to chat, Tony was just as happy to leave Steve to his thoughts.
It was nice.
Except, the more that happened the more he found his thoughts were drifting to Tony. He was through his sixth page of sketchbook paper before he finally admitted to himself that repeatedly drawing Tony might not, strictly speaking, be for anatomy study purposes—although he wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to study Tony’s anatomy, either.
The thought had hit him quite suddenly, and Steve hopped up from the couch with a quickly stammered excuse. Tony looked at him oddly but didn’t argue, and Steve wondered how red his face had been as he retreated to his floor to sort himself out.
That night, he convinced himself that he was being ridiculous, overreacting, and he eventually talked himself into going back to the lab. Steve walked into the workshop to find Tony stretched out on the sofa, a tablet resting on one knee. He’d gotten one look at the soft, carefree expression on Tony’s face, and it had felt like his stomach had dropped out on him.
So maybe he was in a little deeper than he’d been willing to admit.
He had to tell Tony. He knew that. He just…the thought of it made his stomach clench uncomfortably. Steve imagined all of the possible outcomes, and he wasn’t pleased with how little faith his imagination seemed to have in him.
He would tell Tony. He just needed to wait for the right time to do it.
The right time ended up being the next week, and then the next. Every time he considered being an adult about it, he found another reason to push his own self-imposed deadline back. A mission. An injury. A business trip. Steve let each week pass until months of pining and restless thoughts eventually brought Steve standing uneasily in the living room.
He gave himself one last chance to come up with a decent excuse, but nothing came to him. Finally, Steve squared his shoulders, and started for the stairs.
“JARVIS, where’s Tony?” Steve asked.
“Sir is in his workshop,” Jarvis said.
Steve nodded, taking the steps two at a time. When he reached the bottom of the steps he peered through the glass. The lights were on, but there was no sign of Tony. If it weren’t for the music he could hear faintly through the door, he could have believed that the lab was empty. He punched in his access code.
Steve braced himself for it, but he still winced when the door slid open and the pounding volume of the music hit him. He didn’t understand why Tony worked like this—he was going to go deaf, for one. Tony claimed that it helped him think, but as far as Steve was concerned, her could hardly hear himselfthink.
He glanced around the room and found both Tony’s workbench and the couch empty. Eventually it was Dummy who helped Steve find him, over on the far end of the workshop hidden from the waist up beneath the Audi. For one terrifying moment Steve thought that Dummy was holding the car up for Tony, hunched over clamped onto one of the jack points on the car.
But then Dummy noticed him and turned to, well…not quite wave, really just bob his claw up and down. When he moved Steve could see the jack. Dummy seemed to remember himself a moment later and quickly went to grab onto the car again. Steve chuckled, stepping over the discarded tools on the floor to stand over Tony.
“JARVIS?” Steve said, and the sound was swallowed up by the music. He raised his voice, almost to shouting, “JARVIS, can you…?” Steve waved a hand at the ceiling, where he assumed the speakers were. JARVIS got the message, and after a moment the volume dropped. The sudden quiet left Steve’s ears ringing.
Tony didn’t stop working, “Just put them on the table, Pepper, I’ll get to them later. Probably. I’m…”
“Busy?” Steve tried. Tony paused, and Steve could hear a wrench clink as it hit the ground before Tony was rolling out underneath him, grinning. Tony was wearing an old pair of jeans and a t-shirt. The shirt was gray, but whether it was by design or not was impossible to tell. Grease stains painted stripes along his forearms where they’d rubbed against the undercarriage of the car. His hands were black.
“Steve!” he said. “Hey, no, not busy, I’m just…tinkering.” Tony shifted up on his elbow, suddenly Steve was acutely aware of how he was pretty much standing on top of him. Tony didn’t seem to notice, which just made the whole thing more distracting. He didn’t need this right now. Steve stepped to the side quickly, and Tony took that as invitation to sit up the rest of the way.
“Dummy’s working hard,” Steve said, slipping his hands into his pockets.
Tony patted Dummy’s wheel affectionately. “Yeah, he’s helping.” Dummy chirped in affirmation, and Tony snorted, “Don’t let it go to your head.” Tony leaned over and fished a wrench out from underneath the car, tapping it lightly against the palm of his hand. “So,” he said, “what’s up?”
Steve hesitated, resisting the urge to wring his hands only by shoving them deeper into his pockets. He’d been planning this for days. He refused to blush. “Well, I was wondering…if you would like to get something to eat,” Steve said. Then, not wanting Tony to mistake the invitation for nagging, he clarified, “with me.”
Tony wiped his hands on his jeans, but both were so grease-stained it didn’t make much of a difference. Tony shrugged, tossed the wrench at the toolbox where it clanged loudly against the side. “Sure. I just need to grab a shower,” Tony said. “I know Thor has been begging Tasha to go with him to that new French cuisine place on Madison. I’ve tried to tell him the portions aren’t gonna be big enough, but he’s got his heart set on it...”
“Well, actually, I was thinking maybe—” it could just be the two of us. he didn’t get to say.
The Avengers alarm went off. Tony was up off the floor before Steve could get his communicator out. He patted Steve on the shoulder. “Looks like food has to wait,” he said.
Steve nodded reluctantly, trying not to let his frustration show. He flipped the communicator channel on, responding with a very flat, “What.”
Tony raised an eyebrow at him but said nothing, already commanding JARVIS to prep his suit.
“Assemble in the hangar. Wheels up in ten,” Natasha’s voice came through the intercom. “I’ll explain on the way.”
Steve resisted the urge to sigh, and the even more powerful urge to say forget it and convince Tony to skip the mission. Thor was back from Asgard, and a team with Thor and the Hulk would be more than enough to handle almost any threat imaginable—
No. He had a duty to fulfill. Steve left Tony to his armor so he could suit up. Normally his suit was already in Tony’s workshop, constantly getting repairs and upgrades. Today it was still in the training room where he’d left it after running the gauntlet with Thor.
Steve was the last one to assemble, and everyone had already boarded the Quinjet by the time he arrived.
“Geez, Cap, did you stop to knit a sweater first?” Clint said. He was in the pilot’s seat, looking inordinately proud at having stolen the spot, and Tony was sitting forlornly in the copilot’s chair. He flipped a switch to start the jet and, when Tony petulantly refused to open the hangar doors, reached over him to flip that switch too.
“Okay, Widow. What’s going on?”
“Suspicious activity in South Africa.” She said, “SHIELD’s been keeping a close eye on the area. A couple of weeks ago, AIM was sighted in Botswana. They weren’t doing anything as far as we could tell, but we decided to err on the side of caution.”
“And now they’ve been sighted in South Africa?”
“That would actually be preferable,” she admitted, “Last night we were able to pick up a new signal. One nearly identical to the Tesseract.”
“The Tesseract is safe in Asgard,” Thor said. “I would have been informed had it been lost again.”
“She didn’t say it was the Tesseract,” Clint interrupted. “She said nearly identical. Geek Squad doesn’t know what it is. I don’t know about you guys, but I think that’s worse.”
“Do we think it’s AIM?”
“The reigning theory is that someone, but most likely AIM, either found a way to recreate the Tesseract and made an artificial one—”
“Unlikely.” Thor said, “It would take a powerful sorcerer to recreate the power of a cosmic cube.”
“—or there are more of these cosmic cubes than we originally thought.”
“Everything we know is in the files. Clint and I have already read them, but I suggest you all read them before we get there. SHIELD orders are to gather intelligence and not to engage, but seeing as the Avengers aren’t operating under SHIELD—”
“No. I think it’s good to avoid engaging the enemy until after we know what they’re up to.”
“If they’re up to anything at all.” Tony pointed out. He had dropped his faceplate during the conversation, presumably to look through the files during the flight. The Quinjet practically flew itself—Tony designed the thing, after all—so there wasn’t much to do once they were in the air, especially for the copilot.
Steve swiped a thumb over the screen on the back of the seat in front of him. It activated immediately, and he pulled up the files for today. There were a few pieces of intelligence on AIM that he’d read a thousand times before, and the blueprints for a mine that had been the location of the signal. The mine had supposedly been abandoned in the seventies, and the blueprints were dated even before that, so Steve didn’t know if they would be of any use.
Beyond that there were pages of technical data that would probably take the rest of the flight for him to read. He could skip them—it was mostly technical jargon to him anyway—but there was nothing better to do and he certainly wasn’t going to spend the rest of the flight letting his mind wander.
No, it would be much better to get into the team leader mindset now, and worry about recovering from his failure (but not rejection! He had at least that to be thankful for) at asking Tony on a date.
Steve stared at the screen as it flipped from camera view to infrared and through ten other settings. Whoever had categorized this mine as abandoned had obviously never flown over it. They weren’t even being subtle, and there was no mistaking the peculiar beekeeper’s outfit that was characteristic of AIM.
Hundreds of trucks and equipment were making their way back and forth across the screen, hauling materials, other machinery, and tons upon tons of ore.
“What could they be mining for?”
“Diamonds, maybe. Or gold or platinum or—”
“Rhodium,” Tony said. “It would make sense. It’s got similar properties to iridium, and if they didn’t want anyone to know they’ve got a cosmic cube, mining for rhodium might be easier than buying enough iridium for what they need.”
“So you think they actually have another cosmic cube in there?” Steve asked.
Tony looked uncertain. “I think they have something,” he said. “We won’t know until we see it.”
This complicated things little. And as much as Steve wanted to believe that this was a false alarm, all signs were pointing to the contrary. If AIM did have another artifact like the Tesseract the Avengers needed to eliminate the threat.
The Quinjet was designed to be nearly silent, and Clint was keeping them high enough that they wouldn’t be noticed, but as soon as they tried to land or get inside, they would be overrun. He didn’t like it, but—
“Tony, if we get inside, can you track where the signal is coming from?”
“Piece of cake.”
“Then we need a distraction,” Steve said. “Bruce and Clint should stay up. For one thing, we want to be able to make a quick exit if we need to, and I don’t want to use the Hulk unless we have to—”
“Seconded,” Bruce said.
“—so that leaves Thor and Natasha.” Thor grinned widely at the assigned task, and even Natasha seemed pleased. “Clint can give air support where needed, but mostly we just need you to draw their attention while Tony and I slip inside. The longer they think they’re holding us off, the better. If you get the chance to follow us in, do it, but if you need to pull back Tony can get us out of there himself.”
He folded the screen on one of the seats down so that it was laying flat like a table, and traced an X on the very edge of the blueprint. “Try to draw them this way.” He made another mark on one of the labeled ventilation shafts across the map. “We’ll enter here and locate the cube, if there is one.”
The door opened slightly, and a rough wind immediately swept through the cabin. Thor spun his hammer, grabbing Natasha lightly around the waist, and dropped out of view. A few moments later, a roll of thunder swept over the sky. No sooner had it stopped than a jolt of lightning streaked the sky, striking one of the larger cranes. It sparked, and the dry grass kicked up into a steady blaze beneath the machine. Tony whistled in appreciation as he stepped up to the open door for a better view.
“Well, Captain, I think that’s our cue,” Tony said.
Steve put an arm around his shoulders, and his fingers found the familiar groove there to hold on to. There were probably better ways to fly than standing on Iron Man’s boot, but right here, right now, Steve couldn’t think of a single one. He gripped his shield tightly in the other hand, hugging it close to his chest.
The wind was much stronger outside the jet, and Tony took them fast and low toward one of the mine’s ventilation shafts. It may have been abandoned for nearly half a century—probably less, judging by the amount of activity here—but the ventilation shafts, if nothing else, should still be open.
They reached cover without anyone shooting at them, and Steve didn’t hear any indication that they’d been spotted—although with the wind roaring in his ears, he couldn’t be sure. Tony put him down just on the outside of a hole that had been grated over. The edges were rusty, and in some places the iron had been completely eaten through, and so wasn’t difficult to peel back an opening large enough for them to fit inside.
It would be a tight squeeze, but Steve didn’t see any other way to go. Steve slipped the shield onto his back—it would be a tight enough squeeze without having to juggle the shield as well—and then helped Tony pull the grate the rest of the way back.
“I’m not picking up anything unusual. I don’t think they bothered with very tight security. Probably never thought they would need it.” Tony paused, and then added, “Whatever we’re looking for, it’s further inside.”
“I didn’t think it’d be that easy.” Another explosion, much larger than the first, rocked Steve forward on his toes with the impact. A few pieces of loose shale slipped into the hole, clattering away toward the bottom of the tunnel. Steve opened the Avenger’s channel, “Try not to bring this place down while we’re inside.”
It took a moment for a response, but eventually Natasha, sounding not the least bit out of breath, replied, “Try not to be inside when we bring it down.” Tony chuckled, and Steve couldn’t bring himself to feed her the lecture on professionalism. To be fair, she definitely didn’t need it.
Steve grabbed a hand hold on Tony’s armor again, and Tony started to lower them down. The jet boots were relatively quiet for what they were capable of, but that meant nothing in the complete silence of the ventilation shaft. There was no doubt that whoever was waiting for them on the other end of this tunnel would hear them coming and be ready.
The light from the boots was more than enough to see by, and eventually the tunnel began to curve, ever so slightly, deeper into the mine. Steve was just beginning to wonder if they’d chosen the wrong entrance when he realized that the tunnel was getting lighter.
Steve could just pick up the faint sound of voices, although he couldn’t make out what they were saying. Tony paused in his decent, obviously having heard the sound as well, and then all at once cut the power to the boots. They dropped like a stone, and Steve nearly lost his grip in the sudden change.
When they crashed through the grating on the other side, they landed in small stone room that had been sectioned off from the rest of the tunnel. Originally, this would have been used to drill the ventilation shaft and to serve as an emergency exit. AIM had put it to a different use, packing the room with computers and tech that Steve didn’t recognize.
There were four AIM foot soldiers staring dumbly up at the grate when they crashed through. Two of them were pinned beneath the falling grate—and the Avengers on top of it—and the other two, struck dumb by surprise, were quickly and quietly taken care of.
Steve stood completely still, the front of one AIM agent’s uniform still fisted in one of his gloves, listening for the sound of reinforcements, but if anyone had heard their entry or either agent’s shout of surprise, they weren’t quick to investigate. Eventually, Steve relaxed, dropping the soldier next to the others.
“That was reckless,” he chastised. Tony shrugged, already poking through the computer terminals. They were password locked, of course, but nothing that JARVIS—or even Tony alone, given enough time—couldn’t handle. Steve stood guard at the door, running his fingertips over the edge of his shield as he waited for Tony to finish. The AIM soldiers had had on them a couple of identification cards, and Steve had relieved them of those and their keycards immediately after finding them.
“Steve.” Tony stepped back from the computer, tilting the screen toward the doorway so that he could see. “Look at this.”
Steve glanced at the screen and immediately recognized what he was looking at. The cube was unmistakable, and just beneath it, the schematics for what Steve could only describe as a modern version of a Hydra weapon.
“Is it here?” Steve demanded. He glanced back at the doorway, and then stepped up for a closer look.
“We’re on sub-level 1. It says the cube is kept in sub-level 2. But that’s dated a month ago.” Tony indicated the point on the screen that he was reading from, and pulled up the map beside it.
Steve glanced over the map, memorizing the fastest and (hopefully) safest route. “Then we’ll have to hope they haven’t moved it,” Steve said. He stopped to listen at the door, before cautiously opening it. The hallway was clear. “Let’s go. Elevator’s to the right.”
“Or we can go through the floor,” Tony said, pointing back in the other direction.
“And if the cube isn’t where we think it is, we’ll have an entire base fighting us every step of the way. Tony, no.” Steve said, “We already tested our luck getting inside, we’re not going to push it further.”
“If we’re caught looking for the elevator, the same thing is going to happen,” Tony pointed out.
“We don’t know how stable this place is. We’re not going through the floor.”
“You’re not going through the floor, maybe. I, on the other hand, don’t have all—”
Steve grabbed the armor, jerking him back before he could start down the hallway. The faceplate came up, and Tony leveled him with a glare that could melt iron. “We don’t have time for this,” he hissed. “Why can’t you ever follow my orders?”
“Why can’t you ever listen? Just because it’s your plan doesn’t mean it’s the right way to go. Just—”
“Hey!” They jerked apart, turning toward the noise. There was a lone AIM agent standing at the end of the hall, and when they pulled apart and he actually saw who it was that he’d interrupted, he took a nervous step back. “Oh shit.”
He stepped back further, but Steve was already throwing his shield. The man managed to get a hand around the alarm on the end of the hallway at the exact moment the shield hit him, and Steve could tell before the alarm went off that his throw had been a second too late. The shield ricocheted back to him and Steve caught it. When he turned to glare at Tony, Tony was grinning, and it only made Steve’s blood boil.
“Through the floor it is,” Tony said. He fired up the boots before Steve could respond, rocketing off down the hallway. Steve took after him, and he could already hear the elevator working and the people shouting.
The hallway was room after room of computer terminals and equipment storage. Tony was nowhere in sight, but Steve knew approximately where he would have gone if he planned to cut through the floor to the room below. The hallway was suspiciously empty, and Steve prayed that was because this part of the mine was mostly used for storage, and not because AIM was planning something.
Eventually, Steve came across door that was slightly cracked, the high-pitched whine of a laser barely audible over the claxons of the alarm system. Steve slipped inside, pulling the door shut behind him, just as Tony finished his first pass at cutting through the floor. A cartridge popped from his right arm, and he switched to the left, retracing the nearly perfect circle he’d already cut into the floor.
About halfway through the second pass, the floor shifted. It dropped a few inches before wedging itself into place again, and Tony paused his cutting. “Ready?” he asked.
“We’re not done discussing this,” Steve warned. He stepped into the edge of the circle, pretending that Tony wasn’t grinning at him behind the helmet, and shifted his grip on the shield. “Go.”
Tony brought both hands up, repulsors whining, and fired at the edges of the ring. The stone broke free immediately, and Steve had to shift his stance to keep his footing while it fell. For a second, he was surrounded by nothing but stone walls, and then the walls lifted away to reveal a lab.
Steve dodged off the falling ceiling and into the room. He had just enough time to case the room before the ceiling crashed to the floor and shattered, throwing dust and stone in every direction and covering his and Tony’s entrance in a thick cloud of dust. Steve counted nineteen men, mostly scientists but all armed, all wearing the AIM uniform. All but one.
Steve immediately broke for the back of the room, where he’d seen a doorway partially hidden behind stacks of crates. After years of fighting, he’d learned enough to realize that the man who looked out of place was probably an important man to interrogate, and also the first man to make a run for the door.
Steve ran into two agents on his way across the room, but the majority of them were preoccupied. As it turned out, it wasn’t a very fair fight when the armor had infrared and visibility was zero. Judging by the occasional blue bolt of energy that came singing out of the cloud, the AIM agents had taken to firing blindly in hopes of hitting something.
The dust was beginning to settle at the edges of the room, enough that Steve could make out the business suit making a break for the door. Steve threw his shield, slamming the door shut a few inches in front of the man. It ricocheted off the door, and Steve had to jump to catch it on the rebound. When the door slammed shut the man stumbled, unsure what to do, and Steve took advantage of the hesitation to leap over the guard rail.
The man smiled disarmingly, raising both hands above his head in a gesture of cooperation. Steve didn’t recognize him, but he was a generally unremarkable person—average height, average build, grey hair, grey eyes. The kind of person he could run into every day for a year and still overlook.
The smile had the opposite effect on Steve; he didn’t trust the man. For good reason, judging by the company he kept.
“Well, of all the people I thought I might meet today, I think it’s safe to say Captain America wasn’t on the list.” He kept the same toothy grin.
The sight of it made Steve’s skin crawl, but he wasn’t actively trying to fight him, and the dust had already begun to clear. Steve could make out the majority of the scientists lying prone beneath a layer of dust—most of them had been subdued by Tony, and the handful that hadn’t had raised their hands in surrender as well.
Tony hovered for another moment before cutting power on the jet boots. The landing kicked up another little flurry of dust that quickly settled, and each subsequent step sent out a small little plume. Tony walked over to a large machine in the middle of the room. It was powered down currently, and Steve could clearly see the cube fixed into the center of the machine.
Steve raised a hand to his earpiece, opening the Avenger’s channel. “We’ve got the cube.”
“We’re on our way,” Natasha said, “we’re already inside.” Steve had already suspected the AIM soldiers were being occupied somewhere else on the base, judging by the lack of reinforcements here.
“Take your time,” Tony replied. Tony was peering at the cube as though trying to figure out how to remove it. Steve watched him puzzle over it, and when Tony noticed him watching, he flipped the faceplate up and grinned. Maybe, if the sight hadn’t sent Steve’s heart fluttering, he would have remembered to chastise him for taking the armor off before the mission was complete.
When the businessman reached into his jacket, he was expecting a weapon. Steve should have reacted sooner—thrown his shield or tackled him or done something. Steve should have been watching him, and maybe he would have been able to stop him from flipping the switch on the remote control in his jacket pocket.
Instantly the machine whined to life. Tony half turned toward the machine, his helmet already coming down, and the half surprised, half put out look on his face—like it was a minor inconvenience, like it wasn’t going to change everything—would be frozen in Steve’s mind forever, the subject of recurrent nightmares.
The concussion from the blast was unlike anything Steve had ever experienced. Hot white light filled the room. Steve could feel the skin on his neck heat and crack, more painful than any burn he’d ever experienced, and Tony was right in the center of it. The concussion hit him a moment later, throwing him back against the cavern wall, and no helmet could have protected him from the sickening crack of his head against stone.
Later, Steve would be told from the comfort of a S.H.I.E.L.D. medical cot that there had been nothing left in the center of the room but the shadows burned into the floor.
They would show him the security footage recovered from the site, and the interviews from the agents they’d managed to capture. When Steve asked about the man in the business suit, Natasha had looked confused. There had been no one matching that description on site, in any of the footage, or among any of the AIM soldiers they’d captured.
“You hit your head pretty hard, Steve,” Clint said. “We’re not saying you made him up, but you did just come out of a coma. Maybe you should give it some time, sort out your thoughts.”
He could have protested. He wasn’t confused. He knew exactly what he’d seen. Instead, he sat up, putting his feet on the floor for the first time in days, and although they didn’t seem happy with the idea, no one tried to stop him.
Steve trailed his fingers over the expensive marble, tracing each letter of the inscription.
Anthony Edward Stark
Friend, Visionary, Hero.
The ground was still soft where the grave had been filled in, without a hint of mud, even though the funeral had been days ago. The sky was clear, and the forecast said it would be dry and sunny for the rest of the week at least. Steve didn’t know how to feel about that, but he thought that it was so very Tony for the weather to remain bright and sunny through his funeral.
Steve had been to a number of funerals in his life. This wasn’t the first time (not even close) where he’d failed to protect one of his men, and they’d died for his failure. It was the first funeral since he’d been unfrozen.
He felt completely lost. The team relied on him to be their leader, but he had always relied on Tony to be their unofficial co-captain, to keep him in line and call him on his bullshit. He’d always valued Tony as a teammate, but he’d never told anyone how important Tony had been to him.
Steve started at the voice, and turned to see a man less than two feet away. Steve had no idea how he’d crept up on him, but he couldn’t imagine he’d been trying to be quiet. His eyes fell on the man’s uniform and he saluted almost on instinct.
“Colonel Rhodes.” Steve recognized him from the funeral, as a pall bearer and also a speech; but even without the unofficial introduction, Steve would have been able to pick Rhodey out of a crowd purely from all the stories Tony had fed him late at night, when Steve had been down in the workshop with Tony and had managed to attract his attention long enough to start a conversation.
The thought of those late-night chats sent a pang through Steve’s chest, settling uncomfortably in the line of his shoulders. When Rhodes offered a hand to shake, he accepted it, but the weighty feeling didn’t leave him.
“Jim is fine.”
“It’s good to meet you, officially,” Steve offered. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Rhodes’s expression turned pained for a moment, like he could tell exactly what Steve was thinking of, but he just nodded. “I don’t want you to think I’m replacing him,” Jim said. “I’m not.”
“No. I know you’re not. There’s a place in the team that needs to be filled, and we both know that he would have wanted you to fill it for him,” Steve said, “He couldn’t have picked a better man.”
Tony tore into consciousness, kicking at thin air and gasping for breath. He couldn’t breathe, wasn’t getting enough oxygen, and for a moment he could feel the blood seeping into his lungs, filling them up and drowning him—
He clawed at the shirt on his chest, desperately trying to tear it away as though being able to see the shrapnel lodged there would somehow save him, and the sudden swash of light was so bright it was blinding, glowing blue and electric and not at all like any weapon of his.
He gasped, blinking away the brightness, and stared in awe at the blue ring in his chest. What on earth—
His head snapped up, and for the first time he actually saw the stars surrounding him. Stars. He was on a stone landing, a set of stairs winding both up and down away from him for as far as he could see. He could see a number of similar platforms suspended seemingly in air. There was a stone obelisk in the center of the landing, nearly the same height as a man. If there had ever been any markings on the thing, they had long since worn away.
This wasn’t Afghanistan. This wasn’t earth.
Was he dead?
“Hello?” Tony called. He expected the sound to be muffled, swallowed up by the darkness surrounding him. Instead it echoed as though bouncing around the halls of a cathedral, and then the echoes faded away into silence.
Tony pulled himself into a sitting position, and then pushed himself to his feet, all the while straining his ears for any sort of reply. He waited a minute, and then two, but nothing came.
He was alone.
Tony started up the stairs, taking them first slowly then two at a time. He ran until he was gasping, until it felt as though his heart was going to beat its way out of his chest. He had to be getting close to the top. Tony glanced over his shoulder, curious how far he’d come, and froze.
The stone obelisk stood on the landing, five steps below him. He whipped his head back around to the front, and it was as though the world had reset; the stairs twisted endlessly upward from where he stood at the bottom.
Tony Stark was nothing if not stubborn. He tried again. He walked for hours and hours until he was positive he couldn’t walk anymore, until he looked back and found himself on the landing once more. Then he started walking again.
He started counting the steps.
He lost count.
The stairs coiled upward, with uneven slats instead of risers and one long row of steps, decoratively offset from the rest of the staircase. He walked until the steps blurred together. He refused to look back, terrified he’d find the landing again.
Tony blinked and almost walked into the obelisk. In front of him, the staircase stretched endlessly.
Steve took the stairs leading down to the workshop slowly, trying to give himself time to pull it together. He hesitated in front of the glass. It was dark inside. Tony had turned the lights off when he had responded to the call to assemble. Before, if Tony wasn’t around he had felt as though he was intruding. The workshop was Tony’s space, and it didn’t feel right entering without him. Now, though?
Now it felt like a betrayal.
“JARVIS? Do they know?” Steve asked. Tony’s bots were smart. They were bound to know something was wrong already.
“They do not,” JARVIS replied, “I felt it best to wait until after the funeral, should they choose to cause a commotion.”
Steve nodded, though he wasn’t entirely sure that was the reason. He didn’t know how JARVIS worked, exactly, or if it was even a possibility for the AI, but Steve thought that maybe he just didn’t know what to say to them.
“Let me tell them?” Steve asked.
The access panel on the wall flashed green in response, and the door clicked open for him. Steve pushed his way inside, blinking as the lights flicked on for him. You and Dummy were in the corner charging, and they perked up when the door opened. When they saw it was Steve instead of Tony, You turned its attention away again.
Dummy rolled right up to him, chirping happily. He grabbed Steve by the front of the shirt and tugged gently, and Steve let himself be led over to the little kitchenette. There were at least a dozen mugs and cups lined up on the counter, all full to brimming with coffee.
Dummy ignored them all, going to fetch a clean cup and fill it with coffee from the pot. He offered it to Steve.
“No, thank you,” Steve said. Dummy hovered for a moment, giving Steve a chance to change his mind, before he rolled to the other end of the line of cups and set it down. It looked as though he’d been at this for a while, preparing a new cup every time the coffee grew cold. Steve’s heart clenched in his chest, because Dummy was doing this so that Tony would have a cup of coffee waiting for him when he came home.
“Dummy, I need to tell you something,” Steve said, “and it’s very important that you understand.” Dummy turned, waiting patiently for Steve to continue. He placed a gentle hand just below his claw, and blew out a long breath. “There was an accident. On our last mission. There was a power source—a battery—and it went critical, and…and Tony didn’t make it.”
Dummy sat motionless for a moment. Then he turned back to pour a fresh cup of coffee.
Steve took it from him gently. Dummy tried to take it back, and Steve stopped him. He tried to put it into simpler terms as gently as he could.
“Tony’s gone, Dummy. Do you understand that? He’s not coming back.” Dummy whined low, turning to look from the door to Steve. He stared for a long moment before whirling around. He picked a wrench up from the floor and set it on the bench top, then rolled over to put a coffee cup into the sink with a loud clatter. Steve watched him picking up the workshop floor, confused, before he realized what he was doing.
“Hey. Hey, stop.” Steve put out an arm and caught him around the support strut, and Dummy reluctantly rolled to a stop, “You don’t need to, put the torch down, Dummy, listen to me. It’s not your fault.” Steve took a slow breath, rattled by how hard he was finding it to keep it together. He tried again.
“He died, Dummy,” Steve said. “Do you understand what that means?”
Dummy rolled out of his reach and around the bench. He rummaged around for a moment before coming back with something. He pressed it into Steve’s hand, chirping triumphantly. Steve flipped it over. It was a battery.
“Dummy,” Steve said, “this…he’s, humans don’t work like that. You can’t just recharge him. He’s gone, or…broken.”
Dummy stared at him again, processing. Then he rolled away, around to a shelf on the far wall. He started pulling boxes off the shelf, rummaging through them before throwing them on the floor. Steve followed him. Dummy shoved him away, just lightly, to keep him from stopping him as he continued to pull boxes from the shelf.
Steve picked up one of the boxes Dummy had pushed aside. It was full of back-up disks, labeled with “You”, “Dummy”, and “JARVIS” along with a date. Some of them dated back months, even years. A few of them were brand new, dated only weeks ago.
“Dummy, stop!” Steve said. Dummy went to push him again, and Steve stopped him. “There’s nothing you can do. There is no backup. I can’t—fix this.”
Saying it out loud was hard, and Steve found himself sinking to the floor. His eyes were hot, and he buried his face in his hands. Dummy rolled forward and nudged his shoulder, and he lifted his arms up to wrap around the bot. They probably looked absurd, sitting there on the floor, but Steve didn’t care.
Tony was gone. It was one thing to say it and another entirely to realize what it meant—he’d never see him again. There would never be another night spent watching movies, or morning eating breakfast together or sparring, no more flushed excitement when Tony invited him to galas or silent hours spent sketching and enjoying each other’s company, no more witty jokes and brilliant smile.
None of it. And it was all his fault.
He needed to do something. There was nothing he could do to bring him back, nothing even close to enough to make this right. Steve pushed himself up to his feet, and his gaze landed on Tony’s bench top.
He sat down at the main computer and slid a hand over the panel to wake it up. It flickered to life seamlessly, humming quietly while it booted up. The keyboard in front of him was glass, covered in shortcut symbols Steve didn’t recognize and that Tony had assured made programming much quicker. He pushed it aside and grabbed for a normal one.
“JARVIS, I need your help with a project,” Steve said.
“Shall I save it to the Avengers’ mission files?” JARVIS asked.
“No. Save it to my server,” he said. Tony had set him up with a private server when he’d first showed him how to use the Tower’s computers, including JARVIS. Up until now he’d had no real reason to use it since the day Tony had demonstrated it to him.
Steve had been sitting at the kitchen table, laptop set in front of him and a bowl of cut fruit sitting to the side for breakfast. Natasha had come through earlier that morning for a cup of coffee, up almost as early as Steve was every day. She saw him sitting at the table reading the newspaper and mentioned offhand that everyone got their news online nowadays.
So when he’d finished with the paper he’d gone to fetch his laptop. Admittedly, when he’d done so he’d hoped he could get at least one of the pages to load.
Steve huffed in irritation, resisting the urge to slam the laptop shut and be done with it by spearing a piece of fruit on his fork rather violently.
“Wow. Morning, sunshine.”
Steve started and turned around. Tony was standing in the doorway, watching him with a bemused expression. He was surprisingly bright-eyed for so early in the morning, so Steve suspected that he hadn’t yet gone to bed.
“Wake up on the wrong side of the icebox this morning?”
“Good morning, Tony,” Steve said. He chose to ignore the other comment in favor of going back to his laptop. Which was still refusing to load.
“Hey, okay, what’s wrong—oh. Is that? It is, it’s Internet Explorer, my god Steve why are you using Internet Explorer?”
“It came with the laptop?” Steve said, “Is there another option?”
“Is there—Steve. What the hell are they doing at SHIELD? This is Twenty-first Century 101. You are not actually the millionth visitor, Incognito is your friend, Internet Explorer is only good for downloading another browser…”
Tony took the laptop from in front of him and pulled up a chair, having completely forgotten why he came up to the kitchen in the first place. Steve let him—he wasn’t going to fight him for it—and instead got up to pour himself and Tony a cup of coffee, figuring that was why Tony had originally graced him with his presence. He set Tony’s down at his elbow, then reached over to pop a piece of melon in his mouth.
Tony blinked down at the coffee like he wasn’t quite sure where it came from, then turned on Steve with a blinding smile. Tony shoved the computer back in front of him, now with BBC News fully loaded on a browser Steve didn’t recognize.
“Come on down to the workshop some time, I’ll teach you the basics. If you want, I mean,” Tony said. “Just, y’know, after I sleep for a couple days.”
Steve waited all of a day before taking Tony up on that offer. The first thing that Tony had done was get rid of Steve’s laptop and replace it with a StarkTech computer, and then they’d pulled a couple of chairs up to Tony’s workbench and set to work. It took Steve less than an hour to master all of the “basics” that Tony had lined up for him. Some of it he’d already known, just out of necessity with living in the twenty-first century. Mostly he was a fast learner.
By the time they were done for the day, Tony was quite happily demonstrating how to hack into SHIELD’s databases. Outwardly Steve disapproved, but Tony just waved him off casually, like this was just a normal Tuesday for him. Even then, Steve couldn’t help but admit that the information would come in handy.
Now though, he just wished he didn’t need to use it this way.
Tony came awake slowly, like he was rising through a thick fog. He was on the floor in the workshop, and he didn’t remember anything about how he’d gotten there. God, how much had he drank?
All he remembered was that dream, the obelisk and the stairs and the heavy shadow over his mind like a cloak, making it impossible to think. To remember who he was. Finally Tony stirred, propped himself up on one elbow and winced in anticipation of the horrible hangover that was sure to come with a blackout.
Nothing happened—there was no headache, he wasn’t even sore from falling asleep on the floor. He was just…numb.
“JARVIS, time?” Tony asked. When there was no immediate reply, he tried again, “JARVIS?”
That wasn’t right. JARVIS was never offline, least of all in Tony’s workshop. Tony fought down the immediate urge to panic. The first step to figuring this out would be to get off the floor. Tony rose unsteadily to his feet, and though he glanced up hopefully toward one of JARVIS’s cameras, the room remained dark. It was strange. Everything felt muted and cold, and it was quiet, the kind of silence that rung through an empty room so loudly that you couldn’t think.
He was letting his imagination get the best of him.
Tony blinked a few times, letting his eyes adjust to the dark. A soft glow radiated from his workbench, and his gaze snapped around to it. He never left his computer on—there were way too many valuable projects on his private server for him to even think about it.
Steve was hunched forward over in his chair. Tony could see the tension coiled in his muscles, and he typed more furiously than Tony had ever seen him. Tony leaned in, trying to get a better look at the screen. Steve was pulling up SHIELD’s files, glancing at the photos and closing them almost just as quickly.
“Cap?” Tony asked. Steve ignored him and continued typing. Tony frowned, stepping around so that he was more directly in his line of sight. “Hey, why the hell did you just leave me on the floor? Steve.”
He reached out to shake Steve’s shoulder, and his hand passed right through.
For a moment, Tony just stared. His gaze flicked rapidly between his hand and Steve, and he took a quick step back, as though he would be able to separate himself from the madness of it by putting some distance between them.
“Steve?” he said again, this time almost a shout. Steve didn’t react. “What the fuck…”
Tony spun around. Dummy rolled over, not by him but through him, as though he wasn’t even there. He stopped next to Steve, whining low and quiet, and laid his claw across Steve’s lap. Steve didn’t say anything, just brushed a palm over his support strut and continued working.
A sharp intake of breath drew Tony’s attention, and suddenly the typing stopped. Tony turned back around to see what had caught Steve’s attention. He was staring at the screen, wearing an expression of anger and something else Tony had never seen on him before. He stepped closer, needing to know what had put a look like that on Steve’s face, and froze.
He knew those eyes.
Tony had seen that man, just a moment before the machine went critical. Tony watched Steve for another few minutes as he collected files and security information. Along the edge of the screen he’d aligned tab upon tab of security camera footage and screenshots of the man from all over the world. Most were dated within the last few years, but some went as far back as the late nineties.
“What are you up to, Steve?” Tony asked.
Steve didn’t answer.
Tony was staring at the night sky.
He wasn’t in his workshop. It was too dark. Tony could always smell the oil, the singed circuitry and endless cups of cold coffee on the bench tops.
Tony expected to be hung over, but he lay blinking at the stars for several moments and no pain came. He hazarded pushing himself up into a sitting position, and he went easily. He should have had some difficulty—he weighed almost eight hundred pounds after all…but no, that wasn’t right. He was in great shape. At his height he wouldn’t even weigh a quarter of that. Why had he thought eight hundred?
His body felt light.
He tried not to feel like he was missing something.
He was on the landing of a stairwell. It curled upward, seemingly unsupported by anything, until it disappeared into the inky blackness above him. There were structures floating in the sky, rock islands amongst a sea of stars. There were hundreds, some large platforms and others so small and fragile they looked as though they would crumble to dust if he touched them.
He felt like he had done this before.
He tried to remember why he was here, or even where here was, but he couldn’t. It was like a part of him was missing. Probing back through his memories was like groping blindly through a haze, a chilling chasm where a part of him no longer resided.
Tony’s legs were unsteady beneath him as he tried to stand. Maybe there was something wrong with the hydraulics? Tony shook his head. He was probably tired. Some of the floating islands looked close enough that he could touch them, but when he took a step forward he found that he wasn’t any closer to them. They didn’t move, no more than the moon moved when he wandered below. He took several more steps, but they didn’t move.
He stopped at the edge of the stairs and looked down into the abyss, and felt the overwhelming urge to jump. He wasn’t suicidal (he didn’t think he was suicidal…he didn’t know what he was anymore). He wanted to fly.
He backed away, suddenly not trusting himself. Tony craned his neck to look upward and wondered where the stairs lead to, or even if they lead anywhere at all.
Maybe this was purgatory.
That thought gave him pause. He turned around, looked to where the stairs wound downward into the darkness.
Steve was spending more and more time in Tony’s workshop. He started with a face, but soon he had a name, a history, an entire life built up from newspapers and surveillance and yearbook photos, and the more he looked the less he felt he knew.
This man was unremarkable. Average grades, average looks. He never amounted to anything fantastic, but never failed, either. Up until about five years ago he was living in Vermont, working a nondescript job. After that, he vanished without a trace, and that was where the trail stopped.
Steve searched for hours for anything he could find on the man, and the more he looked the more he came to realize that it would do no good. He wasn’t sure what he expected to find. Maybe it would have been easier if he had found something truly evil—if he was a Nazi, a crime lord, anything—but as far as these files told him he was nobody. Just a man.
It pissed Steve off.
He wanted to know how this man—this murderer—had managed to remain anonymous for so long. He wanted to go track down everyone who had been in Smith’s life up until now and shake them and ask how it was that there wasn’t a single person who had seen him for what he was.
Once he realized that there was nothing in Smith’s past to learn about him, Steve set to tracking the man down. With JARVIS’s help he hacked into SHIELD’s mainframe to access the same program they’d used to locate Loki in Germany.
It would do him no good if Smith didn’t come out in the open, but it was a start.
He set JARVIS to running the program and then retreated to the elevator. He wanted nothing more than to go up to his room and sleep (or try to…he’d never needed much sleep before but lately restful nights had been few and far between). Instead he mashed the button that would take him to the gym. He needed to put in an appearance outside of his own room and Tony’s workshop, for the team’s benefit.
They were worried about him.
It made Steve guilty, the way they were all so careful with him. They never questioned it, when they caught him coming out of Tony’s workshop, but the looks they gave him were so full of sadness that Steve was forced to turn away.
They didn’t ask him if he was okay, and he was grateful for that. They already knew the answer, anyway.
He felt selfish. They had all lost a friend too. He was their leader. He should know what to say. He’d done this before, during the war. But this was different. No matter how dangerous their lives were, Tony had been right: the Avengers weren’t soldiers, and somehow that made coming to terms with his death that much harder.
The elevator dinged quietly as it slid open, and Steve immediately headed for the heavy bags. He didn’t want to think anymore.
Tony followed Steve. He didn’t really have a choice. It seemed as though every time he faded into existence again he was with Steve. He could only go so far before everything started to get fuzzy around the edges, and then the world would fade away again, leaving him alone in the darkness.
So apparently he was haunting Steve, specifically.
He tried not to think about it.
He stood in the middle of the gym, counting Steve’s punches. He wondered how often Steve sparred with the other Avengers. He doubted he had since, well. Watching Steve move around the tower made him unbelievably sad. Tony hadn’t realized how often Steve smiled until he’d stopped. And that was his fault. But no matter how much it hurt him to watch, he didn’t want to go back.
He was different there. Some days, he was fresh from Afghanistan. Others, he didn’t know what he was, or why he was there.
Most of all, he didn’t know Steve.
He could feel the memory clouded in his mind, a heavy fog of his thoughts, and his skin itched with the need to remember. But every time he felt as though he was getting close to figuring it out, whenever he was on the brink, he could feel himself slipping, slipping, and the gym and Steve began to fade.
His vision went fuzzy around the edges and he tried furiously to blink away the tears, but it tunneled further. He felt airy, and a sudden panic seized him at the familiar sensation of fading between existences. Tony desperately didn’t want to go back. Back to the world where everything was dark and cold, and where his last memory was being nearly killed in Afghanistan.
He needed to remember. It would always be better to exist in between worlds, watching from a distance, than to forget.
When Tony woke up, he wasn’t alone.
He wasn’t on the ground this time. Instead he was standing on the steps, one foot raised as though he’d been climbing upwards. Someone was there, just a few stairs separating them. The machine didn’t move, standing impassive some twenty feet up above him. It remained half-turned, gaze fixed somewhere off to the left of the stairwell.
The same blue light glowed in its chest as in Tony’s.
Tony had never seen anything like it, all sleek metal clearly shining red and gold, even in the blue lighting. And yet, it felt familiar, and the moment he saw it, his brain supplied suit. It honestly didn’t look like a suit. It was too compact, all the circuitry and joints would have to be a work of art to keep it that small and still fit a person inside, and even then, without something of an enormous power source, it would be downright impossible. Even though logic was telling him that it couldn’t be a suit, that a drone or even and AI would be much more likely…
He wondered if there was someone inside it right now.
Tony stopped, unwilling to go any further. If he took a few more steps, he was sure that he could be face to face with the machine’s gleaming mask. It refused to look at him, didn’t even seem to notice he was there. For a moment he felt as though if it walked up to it, he could finally understand, finally remember something…as though this metal man could somehow take him away from here.
Tony squeezed his eyes shut, and when he gathered the courage to look back, it was gone.
Eventually Clint joined him in the gym. He stepped up next to the punching bag and grabbed either side to steady it. Steve raised an eyebrow for a moment before continuing with his workout. Clint watched him silently for a moment, the muscles in his shoulders quivering with the effort of holding the bag in one place. After a long stretch of silence he glanced around the side of the bag to look at Steve’s face.
“Coulson said that someone has been digging up intel on AIM,” Clint said.
Steve punched the bag again, two quick jabs in rapid succession.
“And it wasn’t anyone with SHIELD. No one has been authorized to look into it,” Clint said. Steve didn’t respond, so he continued on just as casually, “They tried to trace it back to the source, find out who was so interested, but it was a dead end. Whoever it was, they were very good at hacking. Clearly learned from the best.”
“That must have pissed them off,” Steve said.
Clint shrugged but otherwise ignored the comment. “I haven’t seen anyone get the best of SHIELD’s Geek Squad since—”
Steve’s fist slammed into the bag with enough force to slide Clint and the bag backwards several inches. Clint swayed on his feet with the force of the blow before seamlessly regaining his balance. Steve’s arms dropped to his sides, and Clint’s followed. They stared at each other and for a moment neither broke eye contact. Finally Clint looked away, bringing his hand up to scrub over his face.
“Be careful, Steve,” Clint mumbled. Steve didn’t say anything. The archer sighed and stepped back. “This thing that you’re doing? It gets ugly, fast. Just…I’m not going to tell you to stop. But maybe you should think about what you’re after, here.”
He didn’t wait for a response, and Steve waited, arms limp at his sides, until the door swung shut behind him, before he reeled back and split the punching bag in half.
Tony wasn’t sure when it happened. After what seemed like hours of walking he finally stopped, blinked slowly, and turned around.
The stairs were gone.
A packed-dirt road stretched out in front of him. The road was framed by sand on either side, and even though when he looked up he saw stars, he could still feel the phantom heat of the desert sun beating down on him. He stared down the path, and he knew that even if he kept walking, he would never make it to his destination.
He raised a hand up to his chest to rest over the light, and began to walk.
Tony walked for almost a mile before he spotted it, just a glimpse of something off to his right. Tony froze, turning as quickly as possible and praying that the shadow wouldn’t disappear. For a moment, he couldn’t make out what the shape was out in the desert. It looked like another obelisk, and Tony glanced back at the road, wondering for a moment if it would still be here when he came back, before he marched off into the sand.
Suddenly the figured moved, its head swiveling toward him, and instantly he realized that it wasn’t an obelisk, it was the armor. Such an overwhelming sense of recognition hit him that Tony nearly stumbled. He stopped, feet planted firmly in the sand, and the suit turned as though to regard him.
“Hey!” He quickened his pace, trying to force the thin air into his lungs. The figure continued to stare, not showing any sign of response. “Who are you?” It didn’t seem to have heard, and once Tony realized that he wasn’t going to get a response at all, he broke out into a run.
“What do you want from me?”
The machine stepped back, craning its neck to stare out over the dunes.
“No,” Tony shouted, and the armor fired its jet boots. Tony ran over stumbling through the sand and barely kept from tripping. He reached the spot where it had been standing just as it disappeared.
“Come back,” he shouted into the emptiness. And then, because he knew he wouldn’t be heard, “You piece of shit!”
He dropped to his knees where the jet boots had left a delicate pattern in the sand. “Who are you?”
After talking to Clint, Steve wasn’t in the mood for making his token appearance any longer. He headed up to his room for a quick shower instead, and then pulled on a pair of sweats and tried to lie down.
It didn’t work. His mind was reeling with what Clint had said. Steve knew Clint had a point, and he was just looking out for him.
It still left him restless, and after trying and failing to sleep he finally gave in and got up. He grabbed his sketch book off the bedside table, then after a moment of indecision headed toward the elevator. He punched the button for Tony’s floor, and it whispered silently as it descended.
He settled on Tony’s sofa and began to sketch. He started aimless, sketching the vase on the counter, the New York skyline, but after a while the drawings started to take shape. The curve of Tony’s jaw, the mischievous glint in his eye. He was drawing from memory, all of it; and it hurt, the same way it had with Peggy and Bucky, that he’d never draw the real thing again. He wished Tony were here. He wished he’d been able to say all of the things he’d wanted to.
His pencil traced slowly across the page, and the night ticked over into morning.
The door to the elevator slid open and Steve stood suddenly. He could feel his ears burning, as though he’d been caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to, and he pushed the feeling away. He had just as much right as anyone to be up here.
Pepper strode out of the elevator, heels clicking loudly against the hardwood. At first she didn’t spot him, making toward the back of the floor where Tony’s room was. He probably should have just let her walk past and slipped into the elevator when she left the room. Instead he took a step forward and cleared his throat. She jumped, hand flying to her heart in surprise.
“Steve! What are you doing?” she said.
He shifted nervously, not really sure what to say. “Miss Potts. Sorry,” he said quickly. He shook his head, “I should go…”
“No, just—” Pepper caught him on the arm, “Would you like some coffee? I could…I could use the company.”
Steve nodded and she let him go. He trailed behind as Pepper headed toward the kitchen. The room looked hardly used, since the Avengers usually gathered upstairs to eat meals together. There was a mug on the counter, and Pepper grabbed it without a second glance and moved to put it in the sink. She paused, an unreadable expression crossing her face before she set it down again. Instead she stepped over to the cabinet where Tony kept his coffee and pulled it down. She turned on the coffee machine and exchanged the filter with the practiced ease of years of experience luring Tony out of bed for early morning meetings.
Tony had scarcely gone a day without mentioning Pepper, now that Steve thought about it. Of everyone he knew, Pepper was probably one of the only people who wouldn’t question why he was here if he told her.
Steve blinked rapidly, trying to get himself under control.
“Steve?” Pepper asked. She laid a tentative hand over his. Her expression was so openly understanding that he felt his eyes burn, and she squeezed his hand lightly, “Are you all right?”
“I never told him,” Steve said. He didn’t look up from his hands.
At first she didn’t understand the non sequitur. It took her a moment, a beat of silence before a sharp intake of breath.
“Oh, Steve. Were you, all this time…and he…” She couldn’t seem to form a complete sentence, her voice taking on an edge of hysteria. She stared at him in shock, and he waited silently for her to finish the thought. Instead Pepper wrapped her arms around him, and his arms came up on impulse to pull her closer. He could feel a wet spot forming against his neck, and he tilted his head back, trying to hold his composure.
“I was going to ask him to dinner,” he said.
“I know. You—he would have—” She choked, and Steve’s chest twisted into knots. He’d never seen her like this, and he hated it. “I miss him,” she whispered.
Steve nodded not trusting his voice, and when the little tremors in her shoulders turned to full blown sobs, all he could do was hold her tighter.
As soon as Steve stepped from the elevator, JARVIS greeted him by pulling up the largest screen. It was a grainy image of a truck standing in the snow on what appeared to be a toll road. In the corner in flashing red, the words: 57% match blinked. A second picture appeared a moment later, and the number jumped to eighty-one.
“Captain, there’s been a development.”
Steve jumped the three steps into the workshop and reached out with one hand to enlarge the image. “Why didn’t you call me?” he demanded.
“The image came through less than a minute ago. You were already in the elevator.”
It was a portrait, grainy and uneven at best, but Steve didn’t have a doubt in his mind that this was the same Michael Smith.
“Where was this taken?”
“The van was pictured just outside of Moscow, heading east,” JARVIS replied. “Shall I load the projected coordinates into the Quinjet?”
“Do it.” Steve turned to get the uniform he kept in the lab—the same one he’d been wearing the first time he’d confronted Smith. Finding him again would be like finding a needle in a haystack, but if Smith still had the cube, he might be able to get close enough to pick up a signal to track off the Quinjet’s scanners. Steve wasn’t sure what he was going to do when he found Smith, and he didn’t want to think about the after. All he knew for certain was this time, he wasn’t going to get away.
When Steve got to the hangar, the Quinjet door was already open. Natasha was standing in the doorway, making no move to get out of his way. The last thing Steve was in the mood for was an argument, and she certainly wasn’t going to stop him from leaving. Instead, she surprised him and rolled her eyes.
“It’s cute that you think you’re going alone,” she said.
Steve climbed the stairs to the jet, and found all the Avengers suited and waiting for him. Even War Machine had taken the copilots chair. Steve hadn’t even known he was at the tower.
“Don’t look so surprised, Cap,” Clint said. “If you hadn’t wanted us to know what you were up to, you would have told JARVIS to keep it a secret.”
“Tony was our friend, too,” Bruce said, “and if you think I’m staying with the jet this time, you’re crazy.”
“Likewise,” Clint said. “I’ve got a whole quiver of arrows with those bastards’ names on it.”
“Get in line.” Steve grabbed the nearest chair, and the Quinjet doors hissed shut behind him.
Steve could feel the tension in his muscles, practically vibrating with energy. He clutched the Quinjet’s armrest to keep from fidgeting anxiously. He needed to be patient. Reasonable. He was already pushing it, he’d be damned if they were going to declare him unfit for duty now.
This was the first time that Tony had ever woken in the middle of an Avengers mission. They seemed to be few and far between since his—murder? Tragic accident?—and Tony had yet to come back to himself in the middle of an operation.
Instantly, Tony recognized that this mission was different. Tension hung heavy in the air, and although the entire group was staring at the visual display—the satellite image of mountain range, nothing Tony recognized—they were completely silent. Tony saw Rhodey a moment later, and he was torn between the ache of jealousy at being replaced, and the pride at being replaced by the only person on the planet who deserved to replace him.
When the hangar door opened, Tony realized that they’d landed the jet. Whatever they were planning, it was going to be the entire team, Hulk included.
“Let’s go,” Steve said, startling everyone out of their own heads. Tony watched the fingers flexed in his gloves, the way he always got when he was aching to hit something, and felt a little chill at the dark look on his face.
They hadn’t even bothered to hide the jet, or make a sneak attack on the base. Whatever it was that they were planning, it was going to be fast and not at all covert. Tony followed Steve up the mountain, having no trouble keeping pace when he didn’t have to worry about obstacles or running out of breath.
The heavy, crashing footsteps of the Hulk followed close behind him, and Tony realized why a moment later, when the trees started to fall away and Tony could really make out the mountain face and the huge, metal doors set into the stone.
They were the sort of doors that would take hours to weld through, and whoever was hiding behind them obviously thought that they were safe. There weren’t even any anti-intruder weapons mounted to the outside (that Tony could see, in any case) because they were so confidant.
“Hulk.” Steve had barely raised a hand to point before the Hulk leapt at the door, fingers prying between the thick iron plates and peeling them apart like wet tissue paper. He ripped the second layer of doors completely from their hinges, flinging them back into the trees.
Tony hadn’t seen them this way since Coulson’s death, and a moment later he realized why. Whatever guard detail the enemy had set were quickly abandoning their posts, but not fast enough for Tony to miss the familiar AIM uniform.
He realized with a start that this wasn’t just any mission. They were avenging him.
“Cap,” Rhodey said, “straight ahead.” He didn’t have to elaborate. The hallway was featureless for its entire length, before ending at a simple, iron door. Steve pressed past the entrance and the AIM agents scrambling to get out of his way. Thor kept pace beside him, and when they reached the door, they didn’t even bother to see if it was unlocked—Thor pulled an arm back and slammed the hammer into the center of the door.
Iron and rock exploded inward, flying in every direction, and Tony spotted the man perched casually against an empty workbench, as though he’d been expecting them all. Tony recognized him immediately as the man Steve had been researching with JARVIS for weeks, his eyes full of mirth but just as chilling as in the photographs.
“Captain, what a pleasure it is to see you again.” He paused, regarding the group, before his eyes settled on War Machine. “Oh, look. You’ve brought another one. Well. Let’s hope things end differently this—”
Steve’s fist collided with his face. He could feel the man’s nose shattering on impact, knocking him back against the wall. He obviously hadn’t expected it, hadn’t thought Steve capable of that kind of unprovoked violence.
He’d made him capable.
Steve didn’t get the chance to hit him again. Thor grabbed him and hauled him back. Smith leaned farther against the wall, sliding down to the floor, and let out a wet, nervous laugh. It was pathetic, and Steve snarled.
“Do not sink to his level, Steve,” Thor warned. He reluctantly let go of Steve’s arm.
“Yeah, Steve,” he said, “killing me won’t bring him back. You’d need the cube, for that.”
Steve narrowed his eyes, hands tightening again into fists. Tony stepped between them, even though he knew Steve couldn’t see him. He couldn’t watch this.
“Don’t let him bait you, Steve,” Tony said. “You always do this. Just let it go.”
“What are you talking about?” Steve demanded. Tony let out an irritated noise.
“Ignore him, Steve. We’re here for the cube,” Natasha advised.
“Go on,” Rhodey said. “Hulk and I are more than enough to watch this piece of shit.”
“Listen to them, Steve,” Tony said. He knew he couldn’t hear him, that it was ridiculous to think otherwise, but the second he said it Steve stepped back, grip loosening just a fraction, and Tony’s heart skipped a beat in his chest.
At the end of the hallway, they reached another iron door. Natasha stepped up, charging one of her Widow’s Bites. Steve gripped the shield a little tighter, watching Thor do the same, and Clint nocked an arrow on his bow. When she jolted the panel it snapped angrily at them, and the doors slotted open.
Immediately the AIM agents on the other side began to fire. Steve deflected the first energy bolt through the door, sending it back the way it had come, and Thor threw his hammer into the onslaught. The firing paused just long enough for the rest of them to dodge into the room.
Tony had to remind himself that he wasn’t actually there, and that he didn’t need to worry about being hit. It didn’t look like the Avengers needed to worry, either. They swept through the room with cold efficiency, and none the playful banter he’d grown accustomed to.
Thor let his hammer fly again, sparks crackling through the air. It caught one of the AIM solders in the arm. The gun sparked violently, sending little strings of electricity into every corner of the room. The resulting chain of overloading weapons caught Tony off guard, and he flinched away from the noise despite himself.
When it died down a second later, most of the agents who were still conscious were clutching their arms, little spider-web burns crawling up their wrists, and others had fallen to the floor in order to avoid the onslaught.
“Is everyone all right?” Natasha asked, dropping one of the last agents to the floor with a swift kick to the abdomen. Tony saw her pause, counting the responses. When Steve didn’t respond she whirled around, and Tony followed her gaze, heart hammering in his chest. “Cap?”
Steve was standing very still, leaning over something with his back to her. She frowned slightly when he didn’t even react. “Cap?” said again. He flinched as though she’d screamed it at him. Steve turned to look at her as though he was learning she was there for the first time. He held the cosmic cube in his hand, clutching it tightly. The cube glowed brightly, casting eerie shadows across his face. She took a step toward him, stopping when his grip tightened.
“I…” He shrunk back a step, as though afraid she was going to spring forward and take it from him.
“Steve,” she said, and Tony could see in her expression that this wasn’t Natasha asking, this was the professional spy. This was the Black Widow. “I need you to give me the cube, Steve.”
Her voice was low, not threatening but still commanding, and the sound of it directed at their Captain caused the rest of the Avengers to turn. They kept a careful distance, Clint nocking an arrow but leaving the string slack, and Thor’s hammer held at his side. Steve glanced between them.
“I could bring him back,” he said. If he caught Natasha off guard, she didn’t show it.
“You can’t alter reality, Steve. You know that,” Natasha said.
“I can’t,” he repeated. It sounded like a question, like he wasn’t entirely sure anymore. She took a careful step toward him, then another, emboldened when he didn’t back away this time.
“This isn’t you. The cube wants to be used. It’s dangerous.”
“I should put it down,” Steve agreed. She nodded, but he didn’t seem to notice. “I should…” The cube began to glow more brightly, energy sparking off it dangerously. “I…”
“Steve!” Tony shouted, because it was getting out of control, feeding off his emotions and growing more and more unstable. Finally Steve jerked back, and the cube clattered to the floor. It glowed blindingly on impact, a quick flash of light in the dim room, and it hadn’t even finished bouncing before Natasha scooped it up and jammed it into the containment case, snapping the lid shut.
“God damn it,” Steve hissed, scrubbing a hand over his face. “God damn it!”
“Steven…” Thor said, stepping closer. His hand shot up and Thor stopped. He wasn’t deterred, though, his expression understanding. “We can handle these villains well enough,” Thor said, “if you cannot—”
“No! No, I’m…fine, just,” Steve took a shaky breath. “Just fine.”
No one seemed convinced, but they didn’t press. Tony followed Steve closely for the rest of the encounter while they rounded up the villains and sorted through their tech for anything immediately important. When SHIELD cleanup arrived half an hour later, each of them equal parts disapproving and impressed, the team immediately turned the remainder of the AIM agents over.
Steve was surprisingly easy to convince to leave, after he’d personally overseen that Smith was turned over to one of the level ten agents.
When they arrived back at the tower, Steve immediately retreated to his room, and for once Tony didn’t want to follow. Tony stepped quietly into the room like he didn’t want to disturb him, as though it mattered, as though anyone could hear him anyway.
Steve was stripping out of his uniform, flinging the pieces into the corner of the room, and jerkily pulling on jeans and a shirt. Every motion was angry, filled with tension and resentment and regret.
“Come on, Steve. This is good,” Tony said. “You got him. It’s time to—” He choked on the words, unable to bring them out. Steve picked up the shield and threw it, embedding the thing into the wall, ten inches deep. Tony jumped at the sound that tore from Steve’s throat.
Steve was crying.
“Oh, no.” Tony said, “Steve, don’t.”
He couldn’t watch this. He—
Tony stepped back toward the door, passing through to the other side. As soon as Steve passed out of view, vertigo washed over him, pressing in on every corner, threatening to take him back again. When Tony came back to himself again, he’d stumbled back into the bedroom again. This has to be hell, he thought, as he watched the glass from a picture frame splinter between Steve’s fingers, watched Steve fall apart in front of him, unable to do anything, and it was all his fault—
Tony screamed, “Stop mourning me, for fucks sake!”
“Oh, god,” Steve said. He dropped the picture, and the glass exploded from the frame, peppering the floor when it hit the ground at Steve’s feet. Tony’s eyes went wide, flying to the frame. Had he—
Tony looked up at him, and their eyes met. Steve was looking right at him. He ran a hand over his eyes and leaned back against the bed. The picture frame went ignored at his feet. Tony stepped forward, into Steve’s line of sight, but his gaze went straight through.
“You saw me,” Tony said, tiny and disbelieving. It wasn’t a question; it sounded more pleading than anything else, but Steve didn’t respond at all to him. The expression on Steve’s face was heartbreaking—all the pain from a moment before, but beneath it… panic. Confusion.
He looked ill, and Tony followed him into the bathroom, wondering if he would throw up. He went to the sink instead, turning on the tap and splashing water on his face.
“I know you did, Steve. Just try to…” He reached out to touch him, but his hand went right through.
Steve was leaning heavily on the sink, refusing to look up. Tony let out a frustrated noise. “Shit. How did I—?” He phased through the sink without thinking, and the words died when he saw Steve’s face. He looked confused. Terrified. Tony stood between Steve and his reflection. “Come on, Steve.” He tried to will Steve to see him. He didn’t know how he’d done it the first time. How was he supposed to do it again?
Maybe it was anger, frustration, grief. Or maybe he was just imagining the whole thing—too long spent in solitude and too many regrets weighing heavy on his sanity. He could feel the familiar tendrils of the other world curling in his mind, but he wasn’t ready to go back. Not yet. He tried to fight it.
“Please see me. Look at me, Steve.” Tony said, leaning forward urgently, “Please. Give me something.” Tony tried to reach out, to touch his cheek. His hand passed through.
Everything faded away again.
Steve clung to the sink like a lifeline, trying to will himself to calm down. He wasn’t behaving rationally, and he knew that, but he could have sworn that he’d just seen—
That was the last thing he needed right now. It was the product of a long and stressful mission. Emotions running high, and… and he wasn’t crazy. He just needed rest. Steve nearly laughed at the thought. There would be no sleeping tonight (not that he’d been sleeping well, previously).
A knock at the door startled Steve from his thoughts. He glanced in the mirror, and was relieved to see his own haggard face was the only thing staring back at him.
Steve swiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. He was shaking, and he was sure that he wouldn’t be able to hide the wavering in his voice. He gave himself a moment before answering by going to pick up the shards of glass from the picture frame. He set them on the dresser along with the frame and photo, where he wouldn’t step on them. When he finally pulled the door open, Natasha was waiting patiently for him.
“SHIELD wants us to come in.” She sounded apologetic, but Steve was happy to have something to occupy his thoughts. “HQ’s had Smith for an hour, but they just got the cube. They called in Dr. Selvig, but even without an expert they can tell that it’s… behaving strangely.”
“When did this start?”
“Just now,” she said. “It’s been giving off strange readings for the last couple of minutes, and then we got a huge surge in energy. It died off completely—even the strange readings—about when I called you.”
Steve glanced back to the spot in front of the bed. There was nothing there—of course there was nothing there, that would be crazy, wouldn’t it?
“Steve?” Natasha asked.
Steve forced himself to answer, “And what does that mean?”
“It means we need to talk to Smith, and I figured you would want a part of that.”
“I’m not sure that’s wise,” Steve said.
Natasha leveled him with a hard stare.
“Steve, you did what every one of us wanted to do. And he deserved a hell of a lot more than he got.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “There’s a transport waiting to take us to S.H.I.E.L.D. Clint and I will meet you in the hangar in five.”
Steve threw his uniform back on and grabbed his shield on the way out the door.
Clint seemed surprised to see him when he arrived on the hangar, but he slid over in the helicopter to give Steve room to sit without comment. Steve didn’t miss the questioning look he sent Natasha’s way.
The pilot brought them directly to the Helicarrier, and gave them directions to the room they were keeping Smith. Hill met them on the helipad, her mouth set in a thin line. When Clint asked if she was there to escort them, she scoffed and broke away without comment. If Steve hadn’t suspected something strange before then, he certainly would have been tipped off when they arrived at the interrogation room to find Fury waiting for them.
“Romanoff,” Fury snapped. Natasha turned around calmly, as though she’d been expecting this, and fixed him with an impatient look. “When I called you in in, I gave you specific instructions. What part of Don’t bring Rogers did you misinterpret?”
“The part where that was a good idea,” she was quick to reply, cutting off any remark that Steve might have given. Fury seemed to realize that it was a losing battle anyway—the damage had been done, and there was no reason to get further on their bad sides—and stepped back from the glass.
“See what you can get out of him,” he said, “and keep him in one piece.” The last part was aimed pointedly at Steve, but he was already making his way to the door. Steve gave Natasha a grateful look, and she just nodded mutely and gestured him forward. The interrogation room was small and brightly lit. No attempt had been made to hide the fact that the entire right wall was a one-way mirror.
Smith wasn’t smiling anymore. He was shackled hands and feet to the table, a somewhat excessive gesture considering how many agents had been set to watching him. Apparently, SHIELD took cape killers very seriously.
Most of the blood had been cleaned away and his nose set, but the majority of Smith’s face was a mottled black and purple mess. His nose was angry red around the edges, and obviously swelling. It probably hurt to smile, and Steve couldn’t even bring himself to be ashamed that that put him in a better mood.
Natasha and Clint followed in after him a moment later, although Steve was certain this time that it wasn’t to ensure that Steve not do anything rash. The silence stretched on, punctuated occasionally by the sound of Smith’s shoes scraping against the tile floor.
“Why are you here?” he asked eventually. “I already gave you my files. You have the cube and my machines. What more could you want?” He whined the last bit, like a petulant child.
“We’ve read the files,” Natasha said. “You’ve done quite a few experiments on the cube. We’ve got an expert on the way, but you’d certainly save us some time if you answered a few questions. Your cooperation will be taken into consideration.”
“Sure. Shoot.” He leaned back slightly, but the shackles tightened before he could even lean back against the chair, and he straightened again. She pulled a printout of the readings they’d been receiving, sliding them across the desk but still just out of reach. He leaned forward in interest, scanning the paper.
“We’ve been getting some interesting readings from your cube. Mostly while it’s attached to the machine you built.”
“Oh, is that all.” He sounded bored now, and Steve tightened his grip beneath the table to remain calm. Suddenly, the expression changed from boredom to intense interest, his eyes flicking over each of them. They fell on Clint.
“Have you seen him yet?” He paused, turning to Natasha. “No? How about you?”
“What is the machine for?” Natasha demanded.
He scanned her expression, and the same uneasy feeling came over Steve as when he’d first met him. He finally turned to Steve.
“How about you?” he asked. His eyes narrowed, a slight smirk pulling at the corners of his mouth. “You have, haven’t you?” Steve struggled to find his voice. He was just toying with him, he was insane—
Natasha grabbed him by the jaw, fingers digging into the bruised and swollen cheekbone, and wrenched his gaze back to her. “The machine, Smith.”
“You’ve seen what it’s for…well.” His eyes flicked over to Steve, though his head didn’t move in Natasha’s grip. “You have, anyway.”
“What do these readings mean?” Clint prompted again.
“Why don’t you ask your expert?” He grinned, and Steve was out of his seat before he could think. Clint stepped between them, dropped a hand firmly on his shoulder, and started steering him toward the door.
“Come on, Tash. He’s a nut. I don’t even think he knows how it works. He probably just paid for the thing.” Natasha let him go and stepped back from the table. Steve shook off Clint’s arm, heading for the door.
“I said you could bring him back. Doesn’t anyone want to know how?” he called after them. Steve’s expression hardened, but otherwise no one responded to the question. Smith shrugged as much as the shackles would allow. “Well. You know where to find me, if you change your mind.”
Steve excused himself the second the door closed behind them, pausing only to grab his shield from where he’d left it, and they let him go. He needed some air, and he went up onto the flight deck to clear his head, but no matter what he tried to do he couldn’t get what Smith had said out of his mind. Natasha and Clint had disappeared, probably to debrief, and they hadn’t seemed bothered by what he’d said.
He’d asked if he’d seen him.
No matter how hard Steve tried, he couldn’t think of another meaning. If he was crazy, or stressed, seeing images that were completely the product of his own mind then… how had Smith known? He could have been toying with him, of course. He most likely was.
Smith was a killer. He couldn’t be trusted.
Yet Steve still found himself outside the interrogation room a half an hour later. He hit the isolation button when he entered the room, which would already have sent an alert to the bridge as all the cameras were shut down remotely, and turned to the two agents who were guarding the door.
“Leave,” Steve said. The two agents glanced at each other uneasily.
“Uh, we can’t just leave.”
“I wasn’t asking.”
“You can’t just—we’re not Avengers, Captain. You can’t give us orders—”
“Son—” Steve interrupted him, “don’t argue with me. You’re either going to wait in the hall or you won’t, but in both scenarios, you won’t be overhearing this conversation.” They hedged for another moment, uncertain, and Steve could see on their faces the moment they caved. He locked the door behind them. He wasn’t going to waste any time—he wasn’t certain if they would just wait for him to finish, or if they would go inform someone, and he wasn’t going to wait around to find out.
Smith didn’t look surprised to see him.
“Tell me how,” Steve said.
“How, what?” Smith prompted.
Steve snarled. He reached over the table, fisting the front of his shirt and jerking him forward against the shackles.
“I’m—kidding,” Smith said. Steve reluctantly released his shirt, and he settled back into the chair.
“You said we could get him back. Explain.”
“I saw the funeral you had for him. Very touching.” He began rubbing at lightly red wheals on his wrists. “Too bad he’s not dead. Kind of loses some of its sentimentality that way.”
“You’ve got ten seconds before I re-break your nose,” Steve said, “among other things.”
“Okay—okay, Jesus. Just put the cube in the machine—correctly, this time, or it’ll—”
He made a little explosion noise, fanning his hands out.
“—like it did the first time. I should never have let those idiots set it up. Anyway, just turn it on, and Bob’s your Uncle. You can pop in and grab him, and as soon as you do it’ll pop you right back out.”
“I know,” he sounded inordinately proud. “Genius, isn’t it? So simple.”
“You want me to blow up the Helicarrier—”
“Not if you put it in right—”
“And kill myself in the process.”
“You won’t. Oh, well,” he amended, “you will kill yourself, but no explosions involved.” He leaned forward, “If you go in there, trying to save your friend, you will die in the process. I know that for certain—that’s why I’m telling you how to do it.” He tapped his fingertips on the table.
“Why would you tell me that it’s a suicide mission?”
“Because I have the feeling that you’ll try anyway.”
Steve didn’t acknowledge the statement, because if he had, he would have had to admit that he was right.
“And what is the correct way to put in the cube?”
“Well, it would be easier to just show you—”
“Not a chance.”
“I doubt you can do it without me there to—”
“I’m a fast learner.” Steve walked over to the doorway where a yellow legal pad was hanging on the wall, and tore off a page. He put that and a normal golfer’s pencil in front of Smith. “Write it down.”
Smith eyed the paper, looking like he was going to protest further. Eventually he grabbed the pencil awkwardly between his fingers and scratched out basic instructions. Steve grabbed the sheet and the pencil from his fingers and made for the door.
When he left the room one of the two agents was still standing outside. The other was nowhere in sight. He shuffled into the observation room as Steve passed, shooting Steve a look of curiosity that doubled in intensity when he saw Smith unharmed.
Steve made for the research labs. It was well past two in the morning, but this was one of SHIELD’s largest labs, and he knew perfectly well that there would be scientist and agents at all hours of the morning. It would take more than a simple request to get these people to leave. On the way down, he memorized the instructions, taking special care to imprint the pictures in his mind, and then shredded the paper.
Steve was just about to circle around to the back entrance when a familiar face emerged from one of the neighboring labs. Bruce looked somewhat surprised to see him, but he waved him along all the same.
“Fury done with you already?” Bruce asked, “or did he send you down to get me?”
“I haven’t met with Fury yet.” Steve said. Bruce pulled the door to the lab open, and Steve followed him inside. There were four scientists huddled around the machine and the cube itself, inspecting them both. Still more agents where gathered around two different computer terminals, mumbling to each other. No one paid either of them any mind, but Steve knew he wouldn’t be able to empty the room without doing something drastic.
“So what do you need?” Bruce was pulling up files with his fingers. Each page was a little flicker of color and symbols that were quickly banished to the edge of the screen. Steve looked at the machine over his shoulder.
“I wanted to see it for myself.” Steve didn’t miss the knowing look Bruce sent his way, but Bruce didn’t comment and Steve didn’t see any need to acknowledge it. He had more pressing matters to attend to, like trying to determine how he was going to empty the lab so that he could access the machine without alerting all of S.H.I.E.L.D. of his goals.
“Bruce,” Steve said, “do you think I could take a look at—”
“Rogers!” Shit “What the hell are you doing down here?” Fury was standing in the doorway, two seasoned agents to either side. He looked very unhappy, and Steve didn’t think for a second that Fury hadn’t heard about his private chat with Smith. “I think it’s time you debrief.” It wasn’t a request.
Steve briefly entertained the idea of running, or at least trying to spin this to his advantage. Chances were slim to none if he wanted no casualties, and equally important, to keep the machine intact and undamaged. Fury nodded toward the doorway before stepping aside. Steve squared his shoulders and followed.
They had been sitting in this stupid boardroom for nearly twenty minutes already, and Clint was getting ready to jump out a window if it meant he could get out of here faster. They’d gotten through the usual what happened, how did your teammates preform, anything unusual interrogation within the first three minutes, and the rest of the time had been spent discussing Smith. Or, more accurately, discussing Smith in a thinly veiled attempt at discussing Steve.
And if that hadn’t irritated Clint enough, they’d actually been interrupted part-way through the briefing, which meant that he and Natasha were stuck waiting for this guy to explain to Fury that he doesn’t know how to wipe his nose without the director there to hold the tissue.
The agent glanced in Clint’s direction, as though he could sense him thinking about him. When he saw that Clint was staring, he leaned in a little closer, as though afraid he would overhear. Clint sat up a little straighter, his interest piqued, and tried to listen in. He was almost immediately rewarded for his trouble. He could have sworn he’d heard “Captain Rogers” somewhere in that report. When Fury glanced back their way, Clint returned to picking at his nails. Natasha hadn’t made any indication of having overheard them, but knowing her, she’d probably caught more than he had.
Fury stood up, pining them both with a look.
“Don’t think I’m letting you off. I expect both of your reports on my desk tonight.” Clint’s groan followed him out the door, and before the agent could follow him out, Natasha was out of her chair, pinning the door shut with her foot.
“Now, what’s this I hear about Captain Rogers?” she asked.
He looked uneasily between them.
“I don’t think—”
“I’d noticed. Talk,” she interrupted.
Clint snorted, kicking his feet up on the table. When the agent glanced toward him, as though asking for assistance, Clint just raised an eyebrow and settled further into his chair.
“You’d better tell her what you told Fury before she stops asking nicely.”
“The captain came by to speak with Smith after you left. He shut down all the monitoring equipment, and then made us leave. A couple minutes later he headed toward the East Wing. I was just filing my report,” he added the last bit hurriedly, like he was afraid they would blame him for selling out their comrade.
“Oh, we understand,” Clint said. He hopped up from his chair, and Natasha pulled open the door. “And you’re going to have to file a report on this, too. If I were you, I’d take my time filing that report.” They left the room, shutting the door behind them, and starting down the hall.
“Do you think he’s following a lead?”
“He’s following something. Whatever it is, he doesn’t think Fury would approve.” She paused. “Do you think it has anything to do with what Smith was saying earlier?”
Actually, that had been exactly what Clint was thinking. Instead, he hedged, “I don’t know. All I know is that I want to help.”
“Fury’s not going to let him off just because he’s Captain America,” Natasha said.
Clint nodded. “Maybe especially because he’s Captain America,” he said.
Natasha stared off down the hall, in the direction of the holding cells. “Maybe we should see if we can find out what he was up to.”
They found Bruce in the lab, chewing over the newly acquired data from the cosmic cube. It was giving all kinds of strange readings, and he was having trouble determining whether the cause was the machine or the cube itself. When Clint mentioned Steve he didn’t seem very concerned.
“Yeah, he came by. And then Fury and four others came and led him off,” he shrugged. “I thought it was a little strange that they needed that many people, but I figured Fury was just tired of him dodging his attempts to debrief. He didn’t fight them, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Did you see which way they went?”
“Toward holding,” Bruce said immediately. “Is something wrong?”
“We don’t know,” Clint said. “We’d like to find out, but I think we need to talk to Steve to do that.”
“And for that, you probably need a distraction?” Bruce suggested. They shared a look.
“That could work very nicely,” Natasha said.
Bruce nodded. “I’m going to go make a phone call. We might need Thor’s knowledge of the Tesseract after all.”
“You do that,” Clint said. “We’ll talk to you later, Bruce.”
Steve sat for over an hour with his eyes fixed on the far wall, unmoving, and refusing to acknowledge the one-way mirror at his back. He didn’t leave his seat either, despite the fact that he could probably break himself loose with enough determination. The way things were, he wasn’t going to be getting a second chance.
Steve tried to focus on the fact that Smith had probably been lying anyway—Fury had probably saved him from vaporization at best—but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was telling the truth. More importantly, he couldn’t shake the memory of Tony standing in his bedroom, looking as startled as Steve had felt.
Steve had blinked, and Tony was gone. Now, the image seemed to be burned into the back of his eyelids. Had Smith not mentioned something, Steve probably would have dismissed it as an apparition of a grief addled mind.
But Smith had mentioned it, and more than anything Steve had to know if what he’d said was true. The door clicked open then, and Steve resisted the urge to look toward it—or do something even more drastic. After all, if he didn’t give them a reason to hold him, eventually they would have to let him go. He’d find a way to clear the lab, and then—
“What were you doing, Steve?”
Despite his best efforts, Steve’s head jerked around. The last people he’d been expecting to see were Clint and Natasha. Natasha sat on the corner of the iron table, and Clint turned the chair around to sit in it backwards beside her.
“What, Fury can’t ask me himself?” To his surprise, Clint beamed at him, and even Natasha had a small, amused smile.
“He’s a bit busy,” Clint said. “Bruce hulked out in the west hangar. Who knows what set him off. Between that and the sudden thunderstorm doing its damnedest to fry our systems, Fury’s pretty much got his hands full.” He drummed his fingers on the table once, and then sighed. “Look. Whatever you were doing—if we can help, we want to.”
When Steve opened his mouth to argue, Clint stuck a hand in his face. “Don’t even tell me what I can and can’t do. If I decide to follow you, that’ll be my decision, but I’d like it to be an informed one.”
When Steve hesitated, Natasha added, “We know you went to see Smith. On that note, we also know that Fury’s only going to be distracted for so long, so spill.”
“I talked to Smith. He told me how to work the machine and—” When he hesitated, Natasha rapped his knuckled, and Steve huffed out a breath. Steve wasn’t surprised that they looked skeptical. Eventually, Clint ventured, “Does this have anything to do with what Smith’s ‘Have you seen him yet?’ nonsense?”
“Yeah, it does.”
“What did you see?”
Steve sighed. “You’re going to think I’m nuts.”
“I already think you’re nuts,” Clint countered. Natasha elbowed him, and he added, “The good kind.”
“I saw Tony.”
Steve couldn’t help but feel grateful that Natasha didn’t openly judge or question him, even though it was certifiably insane not to.
“My room. Right after we got off mission. I looked up, and he was right there. I think—it looked like he saw me see him. But before I could react, he was gone. And then you came,” he glanced at Natasha, “and I had to put it aside. I thought I’d finally lost it, until Smith started talking like he knew exactly what I’d seen.”
“And he told you, what? How to work the machine?”
“He told me Tony isn’t dead,” Steve said, “and he told me how to get him back.” They shared a look, one that normally would have been unreadable, but Steve could easily identify surprise and curiosity. Clint got up, turning the chair back around, and pulled a set of keys from his pocket. He dropped them into Steve’s palm.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Steve fumbled with the cuffs, pushing them off the edge of the table once they were unlocked.
“That’s it?” He should probably know better than to ask, but the question came out before he could stop himself. Natasha gave him a look that said that she thought he ought to have known better than to ask, too.
“He was our teammate too, Steve. We were friends. And you’re our leader. If you think you can bring him back, I’d bring the whole Helicarrier down trying.”
“Which, we might,” Clint added, laughing, “if we don’t give Bruce the all-clear soon.” He nodded toward the door, but they were already heading out. When Clint passed through the observation room, he grabbed Steve’s confiscated shield.
“Thanks,” Steve said, slipping his arm through the straps.
Clint shrugged. “It belongs with you.”
The cube glowed under the fluorescent light. The machine made no noise, and Steve wasn’t immediately certain if that was because it wasn’t on, or because it had been modified to be silent since he’d last seen it. Steve picked up the remote off the workbench and pressed one of the triggers. The machine clattered to life, but didn’t do anything further. It was making a staccato, clanking noise that didn’t sound healthy at all. Clint and Natasha seemed to agree, judging by the way they were watching the machine as though it would blow at any moment.
He circled around to the cusp of the machine. It looked like the business end of a laser, and the tip crackled quietly with energy. He could hear someone pounding on the lab door, trying to gain entry. Neither Clint nor Natasha were paying it any mind, which was enough to convince Steve that they wouldn’t be getting inside. He turned the remote over in his hand, hesitating.
“Now what?” Clint stepped around the machine. Steve didn’t comment on the wary looks he was sending the machine and the cube inside it. Steve walked over, inspecting the cube. Smith had said it was oriented wrong. Steve felt along the seam where the cube joined the machine. It wasn’t even close to a perfect seal. Was that what he’d meant? Steve gripped the cube and tugged at it experimentally.
“What are you—” Clint flinched when Steve reached out and cleanly snapped the cube out of its place. He rotated it, and then snapped the cube back inside. Immediately the loud clanking noise was replaced by a quiet hum. There were many more switches and buttons on the side of the machine than Smith had illustrated, but Steve was fairly confident in switching them all to the proper positions. When he finished, he stepped back, inspecting his work.
“Okay, that’s it.” He twirled the remote between his fingers.
“He told you how to do that?” Natasha asked. “And you trust him?”
“I don’t really have a choice.” They knew it was true.
“Okay,” she said at length. “Tell us what to do.”
Steve passed her the remote, and stepped in front of the machine.
“When you’re ready,” he said, “Press both the triggers.”
Steve clenched his shield more tightly in his hand when he saw her gripping the remote. “Good luck,” she said, and before Steve could talk himself out of it, she pressed the second trigger.
The beam struck him in the chest, enveloping him in white-hot energy. He gritted his teeth, expecting the pain to come next, but it didn’t hurt. His insides felt uncomfortably hot, like he was brimming with energy that was moments from spilling over.
Steve blinked, and the machine was gone.
He was in a field. Blue grass spread out as far as he could see, eventually disappearing in an unnatural mist in the distance. The sky was bright with stars, untouched by the haze that settled over the ground. Planets hung in the sky, huge and unfamiliar and appearing almost close enough to touch. They were framed by the large, craggy platforms around them.
The sudden shift knocked the wind out of him, and he went down on one knee to steady himself. He didn’t pass out, but it was a close thing. His head was reeling, and Steve forced himself to breath slowly through the nose until the ground stopped spinning.
When he looked up again, the sky had moved, as though someone had gathered the planets up like jacks and scattered them again. Steve frowned at the large orange planet that had just appeared in front of him. There was no way he would be able to orient himself by the stars if they were going to be shifting around on him. He pulled himself to his feet, turning in a slow circle. The landscape was huge and flat, disappearing into distance uniformly in all directions. There was none that looked particularly promising, and he wondered if this was what Tony had been left to, wandering for weeks over an endless landscape. If that was the case, Steve had a lot of ground to cover.
He turned to where he’d dropped his shield in the grass when he’d landed and secured it over his arm. And then he chose a direction and began to walk.
Steve heard it before he saw it, the familiar sound of Iron Man’s repulsor boots. He spun around just in time to watch him streak by. He landed solidly on the ground several yards away, righting himself slowly.
“Tony!” Steve shouted. The noise echoed, fading quickly to leave only silence in its place. He showed no signs of hearing him at first, but then his head turned slowly. Iron Man’s eyes glowed brightly.
He’d never been bothered by the suit before. It set a lot of people on edge, because they couldn’t see Tony beneath the armor, but to Steve that had never been an issue. Tony in the armor had a body language of his own—he way he stood and how he angled the helmet and how he held himself—that was just as easy to read as anyone else. Armor or no, Tony was one of the most expressive people Steve knew.
Now, as he stared down the armor, he could tell that something was wrong. The armor seemed to sense it, too, because the moment Steve realized something was off Iron Man raised one gauntleted hand and fired.
Steve sprung out of the way, pulling his shield up to cover his head. The repulsor beam streaked past him by inches, and it was so hot he could feel the heat. The smell of ozone hit him and Steve sucked in a quick breath before bounding forward. Iron Man wasn’t pulling any punches—at full power, a serious hit from one of Iron Man’s repulsors would be devastating at best.
He couldn’t throw his shield. Iron Man could dodge it easily, and out here in the open there was nothing for him to bounce it off. If he missed he wouldn’t be getting it back. Steve ran forward instead, shield drawn up to his chest in anticipation of another shot from Iron Man’s repulsors.
None came. Iron Man turned as though something had its eye, and then it fired its thrusters full blast.
Steve sprinted after it. He could see the light of the arc reactor through the fog, and he kept his gaze focused on it as he ran. The grass whispered against his boots as the light blinked out. His boots hit stone and he stopped.
He stared down the maw of a cave. He’d expected something else—the mine, maybe—but not this. He’d never been here in person, but he immediately recognized the place. He’d seen the pictures in Tony’s file, and even with the destruction he’d seen in the pictures he could recognize the cave from Afghanistan.
The place was abandoned. Crates were stacked three high around the edges of the cave. Tents were pitched to protect no one from a non-existent sun. It looked like a set from one of the movies he’d made when he first became Captain America, everything carefully placed, organized with almost too much precision to be real. He felt as though touching something would make it fall over, a cardboard cutout in the background of a scene.
Something echoed through the cave, and Steve’s head snapped up at the noise. He was met only with silence and the unnatural darkness that steeped from beyond the cave’s opening. He stopped to listen. He could hear something clanging deeper into the cavern, the noise muted as though far away. He followed it. When he glanced back the entrance was gone, replaced by a large steel door. From what he could see, they were bolted from the other side.
Steve turned back, gaze following the passage to where it curved out of sight. He expected it to be dark, but even though there were no light fixtures on the wall he could still see. He moved forward slowly, staying alert. Just because there was no one outside didn’t mean he’d be so lucky in here. The clanging was getting louder the further he walked, and finally Steve turned the corner to see where the noise was coming from at the end of the passage.
There was a door hanging slightly ajar, and Steve could see the light spilling through the crack. His heart was in his throat as he walked forward, pushing the door lightly with one hand. It creaked softly and swung inward.
Tony was standing with his back to the door. He had a hammer and a pair of goggles, and he froze when he heard the door. Then he sighed, tossed the hammer down on the table and ripped the goggles off. He turned, wearing the same impatient look he’d seen the inventor give Pepper when she tried to force paperwork on him, but Steve could see the tension in his shoulders, and the way he hunched forward defensively. He brought a hand up to his chest.
Before he’d even turned he was snapping, “What do you…” he trailed off when he saw Steve, the hostility disappearing from his face. He stared for a long moment, squeezing his eyes closed and opening them again before finally, quietly finishing, “…want.”
Steve couldn’t help himself. He surged forward into the room, overwhelmed with the urge to hug him, touch him and confirm for himself that Tony was actually here, right in front of him and in one piece. Tony sprung back, making a little distressed noise and flinching as though he expected a blow. Steve stopped immediately, his stomach rolling when he saw how Tony was looking at him with a mixture of confusion and alarm, like he wasn’t sure what Steve was going to do to him.
Steve didn’t know why they hadn’t gone home yet. Smith had said that all he needed to do was find Tony, but now that he had they were still here. It was possible that he had lied, but if he had there was nothing Steve could do. He had to assume Smith told the truth, so the only explanation was that he’d done something wrong.
“Tony?” Steve said. Tony didn’t answer, but he seemed to relax somewhat when Steve said his name. He looked no less confused, though, and Steve felt something cold settle in his stomach.
He had to ask, “Do you…do you know who I am?”
Tony’s eyes narrowed, like he wasn’t sure whether it was supposed to be a trick question.
“Captain America?” Tony guessed. Steve nodded numbly while Tony hummed in thought. He turned and picked up whatever he’d been working on with a pair of tongs and dropped it into a bucket of water at the side of the bench. Then he turned back to Steve and fixed him with a look. “Am I dead?”
Steve shook his head. “We all thought so, but no,” he said. “You’ve just been gone. For a while.”
“To Afghanistan,” Tony filled in.
“Further than that,” Steve said.
Tony seemed to take that at face value. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and smirked, and the look was so familiar on him that it made Steve’s chest ache.
“And you? Were you just gone for a while, too?” Tony asked.
“A lot longer than you,” he said truthfully. “You know that. You just don’t remember.”
That brought the frown back to Tony’s face, and he pulled away. Steve let him go, and Tony backed up to the workbench. He picked up the hammer resting there.
“I have work to do,” he said.
Steve put out a hand to stop him, but Tony just shook him off.
“What are you working on?” Steve asked. Tony shook his head and used the tongs to pull a long strip of metal from the fire and lay it out on the bench top. “What are you working on, Tony.”
“I don’t…” Tony looked up at him, as though asking himself that question for the first time. His mouth worked silently, like he was grasping for the answer. He made a frustrated noise, “It’s none of your business, anyway! I don’t even know you.”
“Yes you do, Tony,” he said, “Think hard.”
“No, I…” He pressed the heel of his palm over his eye and grimaced, the hammer still dangling loosely in his grip. His head snapped up, eyes wide. “Cap!”
Steve’s breath caught, thinking that Tony had remembered, but then the note of panic in Tony’s voice registered a moment before the whine of a repulsor.
Steve didn’t turn around, just grabbed Tony around the waist and threw them both to the side. He brought his shield up as the bench top exploded over them, showering them with debris that rained down white-hot on top of them. Steve sat up immediately and hurled his shield. It caught the armor in the shoulder, putting it off balance long enough for Steve to haul Tony to his feet. He pushed him roughly behind a stack of crates, extending his arm fully and just barely catching his shield as it rebounded.
“Stay down!” he shouted. He put some distance between himself and Tony, trying to draw the armor’s attention away. The armor followed him, repulsor raised, and fired twice. Steve deflected both with his shield, jumping off a cot and bringing his shield down on the armor’s helmet.
It staggered under the blow, head twisted around at an angle that would have been impossible if someone had been inside it. Steve took the opportunity to hook a leg under its knee and overbalance it. Iron Man fired its jet boots before it hit the ground, and it shot forward and knocked Steve aside.
“What the hell is that thing?” Tony shouted. Steve chanced a glance in his direction. He had his smithing hammer in his hand, but he looked like he knew that it wasn’t going to do him any good.
“You don’t know?” Steve asked. He didn’t look to see Tony’s reaction, instead turning his attention back to Iron Man. The armor had righted itself again, and was standing perfectly still. Steve had fought alongside Iron Man often enough to know what was coming next. The armor raised its arm, fist closed.
“Get down!” Steve shouted, bracing himself with his shield. He could feel the force of it even after the vibranium absorbed some of the impact. The explosion was deafeningly loud, and Steve flew backwards. He twisted in the air to keep from braining himself on the wall, taking the hit with his shoulder instead. He landed hard on the ground, next to the workstation Iron Man had blown to pieces. He could feel the heat of the burns on his skin. The walls of the cave trembled, threatening to come down on top of them, and dust shook from the ceiling for one heart stopping moment before it settled again.
Steve rolled over, coughing on smoke and dust. He could taste blood in his mouth, and he hoped that he wasn’t coughing that, too. Tony appeared over him after a moment.
“Jesus Christ,” he said, “Jesus Christ.” He was grabbing fistfuls of his uniform shirt, trying to pull him up to sitting. Steve said his name, but Tony didn’t stop, so he grabbed his arm and shook him, once. Tony dragged his gaze up to Steve’s face.
“Tony, you need to shut it down,” Steve said.
Tony stopped tugging on him, glancing over his shoulder, trying to catch of glimpse of Iron Man through the smoke. He looked back to Steve, incredulous.
“Me? How the fuck am I supposed to do that?”
“You should know,” Steve said. “You built it.”
“I…no, I didn’t—” Tony protested, “Steve, I didn’t.”
“Tony, what did you just call me?” Steve asked. Tony didn’t have the chance to answer. A repulsor fired up behind them, a bright blue streak through the smoke, and Steve pushed the two of them in opposite directions. The shot scorched a dark hole into the wall between them. Iron Man surged forward, grabbing Steve’s arm and slamming him against the wall. Metal fingers wrapped around Steve’s neck, and the shield slipped from his grip and clattered to the ground. Steve brought a hand up to where the armor’s shoulder met its neck, trying to rip the plating off.
“Fuck—” Iron Man brought its hand up, level with Steve’s head, charging. “Tony!”
Tony grabbed Steve’s shield from the ground and with two hands smashed it against the armor’s helmet. The blow hardly affected it at all, the helmet just barely jerking to the side. Still, Iron Man froze. Its repulsor powered down slowly.
It turned to look at Tony for the first time.
He dropped the shield and stumbled back, but Iron Man was too fast. It didn’t bother with the repulsor, cracking him across the face with one armored gauntlet. The metal was hot from firing so many shots at such high power, and the blow knocked him off balance. He fell backwards into the remnants of his workbench. His foot caught on the bucket of water on the floor and it tipped over, spilling filthy water across the cave floor.
Steve shouted, trying to wrench himself free of the armor’s grip. Iron Man only pressed forward, pinning him to the spot. Steve gasped, Iron Man’s grip tightening around his throat. It looked at Steve, eyes burning brightly, before turning its attention back to Tony. It raised one hand, palm forward.
Tony didn’t notice. He was still on the floor, struggling to regain his footing. When he looked up, he didn’t look afraid. He looked mystified, his gaze flicking from the armor’s faceplate down to its hand. Steve followed his gaze. Tony was holding the crude faceplate of the Mark 0 in his hands, still dripping wet.
“I’m—I am Iron Man,” Tony said it quietly, almost to himself, then again, looking at the armor as though for conformation. “I am Iron Man.”
The armor shuddered as though struck, and it tossed Steve to the side violently, bearing both repulsors down on Tony.
“Total armor override: Captain America,” Tony said. Iron Man froze, repulsors powering down, and just as its eyes dimmed, it vanished. “Steve. Are you okay?”
Steve rasped, trying to respond, but he couldn’t form the words. Tony dropped beside him, looking all kinds of guilty, and Steve cleared his throat to try again.
“Captain America?” he managed.
Tony looked confused for all of two seconds.
“Oh, well,” The tips of his ears were reddening, and Steve was suddenly struck by how perfect he was. Five hours ago, he’d honestly believed he would never see him again, and now here he was kneeling next to Steve in a puddle of murky water, and Steve had never wanted to be somewhere more in his life. “It’s just an override. First thing that came to mind. I—”
“Tony.” His mouth clicked shut. “I’m really glad you’re not dead.”
“Uh. Me too,” Tony said.
“I’m going to do something really stupid now.” Tony’s forehead wrinkled in confusion, and he opened his mouth, but Steve didn’t give him the chance to speak. He just twisted his fingers into Tony’s hair, wishing he wasn’t wearing gloves, wishing he could feel it between his fingertips, and kissed him.
“Oh my god.” Tony went rigid next to him, and Steve immediately pulled away, his hands going lax. They’d barely pulled apart when Tony surged forward again, climbing nearly into Steve’s lap and kissing him for all he was worth. Steve cracked his head against the wall from the force of it, and let out a little grunt.
“Sorry, sorry,” Tony said. His hands found their way into Steve’s hair, smoothing over the back and lacing through the short strands.
“Don’t care—” Steve said, between kisses. “Just—I thought you were dead.”
“I’m sorry,” Tony said. Steve’s grip tightened on his shoulders.
Tony smiled at him and leaned forward so that their foreheads were nearly touching, but whatever he was saying, Steve couldn’t hear.
“What?” Steve tried to say, but no sound passed his lips. When he glanced back at Tony, the cave had grown lighter, the colors washed out. Steve tried to hold onto Tony’s arms, but his fingers swiped through him as though grasping smoke and everything went to white.
“We’ll be back late.” Steve was pulling his jacket on, standing in front of one of the hallway mirrors. “Call us if anything comes up.”
“Don’t call us if anything comes up,” Tony said. He was perched on the arm of one of the sofas, already dressed in a combination of a thousand-dollar suit and sneakers—which should have looked ridiculous, but on Tony looked perfect. “I don’t care if the universe is ending. Galactus and Kang could be doing duking it out on the front lawn. Don’t call us.”
“Okay Mom, okay Dad,” Clint said. He was upside-down on one of the sofas, a bowl of popcorn balanced on his stomach. The rest of the Avengers were crowded around the television as well, but they were all completely invested in the show. “I promise we won’t burn the house down. Now get out of here before the keg shows up.”
“That’s not funny, Clint,” Steve sighed, finally walking into the living room, and Tony jumped up off the couch. When he walked over, Steve slipped an arm around his waist.
“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” he replied. Bruce shushed him, kicking the bottom of the couch for emphasis, and Clint immediately shut up.
“Ready to go?” Tony was already pushing him towards the elevator, and Steve let himself be led.
“Sure, I’ve been ready,” he said.
Tony rolled his eyes. “So, where are you taking me?” he asked.
Steve tugged on his arm just before Tony could press the elevator call button. “One second.” He ducked into the hallway, disappearing into the kitchen.
“Oh, for god’s sake, Steve. You look fine. I’m pretty sure we’ve missed our reservations by a month or two and—what are those?” Steve ignored the question—more of a demand, really—and pressed the bouquet into Tony’s hand. “Why did you get me flowers?” he asked, more meekly this time.
“Because,” Steve said matter-of-fact, as though it were obvious, “I want to do this right.”
“That—is really—” A wolf-whistle from the couch cut him off, and Tony scowled, slamming his hand against the elevator button. He set the bouquet on the table beside it and pulled Steve into the elevator, flipping the bird in the general direction of the couch while the doors slid shut. Then he dropped his hand to rest on Steve’s hip. “Steve, you traveled through time and space to rescue me from an evil version of myself. I’m pretty sure flowers are a moot point.”
“Nah, it was only space. No time involved.” Steve said, “And I didn’t get the chance to do this, the first time.”
“First time? When was the—” He stalled, “Wait a minute. Were you. In the lab?” Steve shrugged, and Tony grinned at him. “Well, then. I guess we finally got out dinner.”
Steve grinned back. “I guess so.”