Everything was so frustratingly new. The buildings, the people. Carol didn't even recognize her own apartment. The little girl who wore her uniform and lived down the hall from her was foreign to her. The nice old lady who started a conversation every time she walked past was a unfamiliar. Her teammates, her friends, even her damn cat might as well all be strangers. It was like witness relocation into the Truman show: everyone pretending like they knew her, like they had a storyline and a past all set up with her, but everything new and strange.
The person she was told was her friend, Jessica, was proving to be an invaluable help to Carol. At least with this one person, Carol could confidently say she was starting to feel affection and positive emotions towards, because Jessica had undertaken the job of carting Carol around the world, reintroducing her to her whole life. Carol was certain that her old-self would never have wanted to be this much of a burden to someone, but she was immeasurably grateful that this Jessica had decided she was worth the effort. Carol only hoped she really was worth it, and could pay her back at some point in the future. Once she figured out the sorts of things Jessica liked and could come up with a suitable gift.
This day was apparently bring-your-amnesiac-former-superhero to work day, because Jessica was showing Carol around the “Avengers Tower”. AKA “Stark Tower” AKA HQ for the Avengers. Carol memorized the route from her apartment building to the tower dutifully, then started memorizing all the different floors of the tower. Training rooms, R&D, the war room. Jessica brought her to the rec rooms last, presumably because she wanted to let Carol relax there for a while, get to know the area. And socialize, which is what Carol found herself doing with the various Avengers who were milling in and out of the rooms.
There were three younger members of the team in the kitchen when she entered: Bobby, Isabel, and Sam. They appeared to be close friends—Bobby and Sam going way back, according to what information Jessica whispered in Carol's ear. Isabel was a newer addition. Bobby and Sam were mutants, but Isabel was a corn-fed farm girl who just so happened to stumble upon the technology of a Smasher, a superguardian. She spent much of her time in space, handling that whole aspect of the job. Carol nodded and filed the information away, though jobs, powers, and areas of influence were all information that she could get from a dossier. What Carol really soaked up was the interpersonal relations. That's what she couldn't get just from reading a file—not more than the basics, at least. And from what she was seeing, Bobby and Sam were close like brothers. Isabel was starting to be: a kid sister adopted into the family by the two boys. It was sweet, Carol supposed.
According to Jessica, Carol wasn't close with any of them. That was a relief. It was so much worse, seeing people's expectations of you reflected in their eyes as they talked, then slowly fading away as Carol failed to live up to those expectations in the ensuing conversation. Isabel, Bobby, and Sam were easy. They didn't expect Carol to be any more than an older, wiser Avenger. Some almost-leader for them to look up to. Carol didn't like that aspect of it all very much, but it was easier than her supposed friends looking at her with those sad eyes.
Tony Stark, Iron Man, stepped into the kitchen after a little while. He shooed the younger Avengers and went straight to Carol, clasping her hand tight in a warm, sincere welcome.
“How you holding up?” His blue eyes stared straight into hers.
Carol knew she and Tony had been friends, before. Not like her and Jessica, or her and Wanda, but close. She wasn't sure why, but she had been told that was the case. So she decided honesty was probably the best policy, if this man was supposed to be her friend.
“It's tough,” she admitted. Carol glanced around the kitchen they were standing in and brought a hand up to rub at the opposite arm. “Being reintroduced to places that are supposed to be familiar. Talking to people I'm told are friends but are strangers.”
Tony smiled, and Carol couldn't read the expression exactly, but she thought maybe it was sympathetic. Maybe even empathetic? Had Tony had a bout of amnesia himself in the past? It seemed unlikely, but she was standing around talking to superhumans who were her work colleagues and friends. Not much could be classified as unlikely, after that.
“It'll get easier,” Tony promised. “It just takes time. And, by the way: the old you would have threatened to sock me in my jaw for suggesting something that trite.”
Carol grinned, just a little. “The me-right-now kinda feels the same way.”
Tony grinned. “See? You're still the same in there. Same operating system. We just gotta give you all the flashy surface information: all the apps.” He leaned in closer, putting what was probably supposed to be a friendly hand on her arm. It felt like a hand on her arm: nothing more, nothing less. “And don't hesitate to ask for help, okay? What spare time I've got, I'd be happy to go over whatever you want to. Even if it's just shooting the shit about the new F35-As or something.”
Carol nodded. Tony's offer was sincere, but from what she knew of him from his dossier his caveat of “what little spare time I have” was a genuine concern: the man had enough responsibilities for ten lives. He didn't have the spare time to waste on some little lost Avenger. Carol smiled and accepted his offer, but never intended to take him up on it. She felt bad enough monopolizing Jessica's time, and they were supposed to be best friends. And Jessica didn't run a billion dollar company and the Avengers.
Tony talked to her for a few more minutes, Jessica helping fill him in on anything Carol couldn't answer. Then he grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and headed to the living room. Before Carol could turn to Jessica and suggest they find somewhere else to go, Carol heard Tony's voice come in from the living room. “Hey! Where've you been hiding?”
Carol frowned and ducked past Jessica to peer out after Tony. His voice sounded completely different than it had talking to her. It was inflected with a kind of light, a kind of happiness that was night and day from how it sounded not two minutes ago. Carol peered out past the threshold between kitchen and living room.
Steve Rogers, Captain America. That was the person Tony was talking to. Carol recognized him from his dossier, though she hadn't reintroduced herself yet. Steve was smiling at Tony, and Tony back at him, and the look on Steve's face was clear: the rest of the world outside of Tony Stark had fallen away. Carol could blast a hole through the wall of Stark Tower and Steve wouldn't have noticed.
It was so obvious it almost felt like getting her memory back. But then Carol looked harder at Steve, trying to dredge up memories, any sort of flicker, any little bit of feeling about the man. And there was nothing. Just that same yawning pit of emptiness, that severed connection inside her head and her heart where all these complicated little relationships were supposed to be.
Jessica appeared next to her. “Steve Rogers. Captain America. You and him are friends and colleagues. He's a good guy: you like him. Well. Everyone likes him. Even most the villains—trust me on that one, don't ask how I know. But he's kinda... well. You like him, but, and don't take this the wrong way: you feel inadequate around him. But don't worry: we all do.”
Carol looked Steve up and down. Watched the way his body leaned into Tony. The way Tony leaned into him. They were the closest of friends, at the least. At the very least.
“What about Tony?” she asked.
Jessica snorted. “Are you kidding me? Tony the worst of all. Tony would invent a way to move heaven and earth if it meant getting Steve's approval. Well. Except.” Jessica trailed off. “You might want to look up the 'Superhero Registration Act' as some of your nightly reading. It was their worst fight to date. And you sided with Tony, for the record.”
Carol didn't know what this Act was, but from Jessica's tone it had led to something awful. Carol watched as Steve laughed and shook his head at something Tony said, his eyes flickering down and then back up, coyly smiling at Tony from beneath long, blonde lashes. Tony looked vaguely abashed, but pleased with himself.
“I guess Steve doesn't hold a grudge?” Carol asked. She didn't exactly want to insert herself into a situation with a colleague who hated her for past wrongs she couldn't even remember.
“No, no,” Jessica reassured her quickly. “It's... It's Steve. Steve doesn't hold grudges. Unless you kill Bucky. That reminds me: if you see a guy with a robot arm and the attitude of a surly teenager: don't kill him.”
With one last smile and friendly arm squeeze, Tony continued on his way into the living room and left Steve alone. Carol extracted herself from the kitchen at that, stepping forward to reintroduce herself to him.
“Carol.” Steve said the name like a eulogy. Carol felt suddenly and inexplicably like she wanted to go home and have herself a good long cry. Instead, she clenched her jaw and nodded at him.
“Steve. How are you?”
Steve looked so damned sad. If he would just stop giving Carol those all-American puppy dog eyes, she could get through this whole conversation a lot easier. He started forward like he wanted to envelope her in a hug, but settled for firmly clasping her on the shoulder. Carol thought maybe she wouldn't have minded that hug, and not because the guy was built like a Greek god (not just because the guy was built like a Greek god) (wait, they had an actual Greek god on the team, didn't they?) (note to self: check and see if they'd had a Greek god on the team, tonight).
“I'm fine, Carol. How are you holding up?” His gaze shifted to Jessica, obviously looking to her for the answer, even though he asked Carol.
“Fine,” Carol spoke for herself. She titled her chin up, wishing she was a few inches taller. She could stare down your average guy, no problem. It was all these damn supermen, six foot at their shortest. Ruining her good stare.
“I'm adjusting,” Carol continued. “It's a lot of information. A lotta life to try and get caught up on. Jessica's been a huge help.” Carol thought maybe she wanted to lean forward and mock-whisper a question to Steve, like “Maybe you can help me think of a gift for her later.” But then she hesitated, not sure if that was like her to do. Or, even worse: if it was too like her old self, if that action would just inspire another wave of loss and mourning to go through these people who were close to her—old-her. So Carol kept her mouth shut.
Steve nodded, patting her on the shoulder again. “That's good to hear. You've got a good support network, Carol. You might not know it, but a lot of people care about you. Including me. If you need anything-”
Carol nodded curtly. Everyone had been offering their meaningless promises of time and talking, every day she went through this. She didn't need to hear it again, even from a guy so damn earnest about the offer. Especially from him.
“I'll keep it in mind. Thank you. Steve.”
Tony's voice interrupted any further conversation, thank goodness. “Hey! Steve! Have you-” Tony himself stepped over to them a moment later, smiling quick at Carol and Jessica but then turning his focus on Steve. Carol thought probably no one could command Tony's focus quite like Steve. And vice versa.
“Hey, I've been meaning to ask you: how much of Kubrik did we get through? Did we do The Shining?”
Steve's smile was soft and indulgent, totally different from the standard nice-guy, sympathy smile he'd been giving Carol not two seconds earlier. Carol half expected Steve to reach up and run a hand through Tony's hair, to thumb a soft caress over his cheeks. It was almost jarring that he didn't.
“We did The Shining. And I don't want to watch that Vietnam one—you know how I am. But there was another one, right?”
Tony preened at the response. “2001. Oh, perfect. You got three hours to kill?”
Steve rolled his eyes and made a show of checking his watch. “I don't, but I suppose you're going to convince me that I do?”
“You definitely do,” Tony nodded sagely. “I'll get the popcorn. You queue it up.”
Steve headed to the living room with a small shake of his head. “But remember: this is our one this month!” he called after Tony, who was bustling around the kitchen.
“This week,” Tony mumbled to himself, clearly pleased by the way his afternoon was going.
Carol glanced at Jessica for confirmation that her feeling like an interloper at this moment was warranted. Jessica nodded her head out of the kitchen, away from the living room. Carol followed her, only to find herself hiding out behind a half-wall with a clear view of Steve settling in on the living room couch. Jessica nodded at Steve and spoke in a whisper:
“Steve just lost his long-term girlfriend, Sharon, a couple weeks ago. She was a SHIELD agent. You knew her but weren't close,” Jessica filled Carol in.
Carol glanced between Tony and Steve, now cuddled together close on the couch, bowl of popcorn in Tony's lap.
“That's moving kinda fast, isn't it?” Carol asked. She didn't know if it was or wasn't fast. She had heard.
Carol had thought her comment was an innocuous one. But Jessica turned and stared at her, confusion evident. “What's moving fast? That... he's in the field again? It's Steve, I mean-”
Frowning, Carol shook her head. “No, that...” she nodded over at Steve and Tony. “For Tony and Steve to be a couple. That's fast, right?”
To Carol's surprise, Jessica's face wobbled for a moment, then broke into a huge grin as she started laughing uproariously. Carol frowned and took a step back. Jessica had been patient with her up until now. She knew she was asking dumb questions ninety-eight percent of the time. She knew she didn't remember common-sense things. Jessica had taken it all in stride... until now. Carol felt betrayed. At least, she thought that's what this feeling was. Jessica had been proving herself to be a good friend, a invaluable ally. Now she was laughing at Carol.
But then Jessica reached out and grabbed at Carol's wrist, black hair flying around as she shook her head. “It's not you!” she gasped out, apparently reading Carol's mind. Well. She had the advantage: she had years knowing Carol to learn how to read her expression. Everyone had that advantage over Carol, these days.
Tugging on her wrist, Jessica pulled Carol close, body still shaking with laughter. “They're not a couple, Carol,” Jessica explained as she caught her breath. “Steve and Tony. They never have been.”
Carol glanced at the men, then back at Jessica. “Are you sure?”
Jessica arched an eyebrow at Carol, still vibrating with laughter. “Oh yeah. Trust me on that one: if those two every hooked up, the fallout with destroy the world.” Jessica cocked her head, index finger tapping on her chin. “Or we'd be the most unstoppable Avengers team ever? But probably only for six months, tops. Those two break up more often than, uh. Insert pop culture reference here.”
Carol shrugged and smiled genuinely. “I wouldn't get it even if you'd thought of one,” she pointed out.
Jessica nodded her head towards the elevators. “Alright, lunch time. I've got a date scheduled with Jessica and Luke.”
Carol thought about this for a moment, running over the team dossiers in her mind. “Power Man and Jewel?”
Jessica snorted a little bit as they stepped onto the elevators together. “Sure. Make sure you greet them like that, too.”
The doors slid shut on Carol's frown. “I can't know why something's a bad idea if you don't tell me,” she complained.
Luke and Jessica (Jones) were very much in love with each other and their baby. Carol logged this information away in her mind, along with the dossiers on powers and public-knowledge histories of the two superheroes. Jessica (Drew) had told her on the way over that Carol had been close with these people. She'd cooed over the baby when it was born, helped babysit sometimes over the next year. She'd attended their wedding, a couple years back.
Carol looked at the baby and saw something that looked like every other generic baby she'd ever seen. Luke talked about his friend Danny and Carol knew that she was supposed to know him too, but it wasn't until mention of a mugging they had stopped that Carol made the connection between “Danny” and “Iron Fist” and the Heroes for Hire. She had read about him.
During a lull in the conversation, Jessica Jones leaned forward and placed her hand over Carol's. “Is there anything you want to know?” she asked kindly. “It would be like old times, actually. Since you used to come to me for information if you couldn't track it down yourself.”
Carol frowned. “Really?”
Jessica laughed and sat back. “Sure. Hey, even Steve and Tony buzzed me once, when the Young Avengers were just starting out. I hold the coveted position of a reporter and a direct connection to the superhero community.”
Luke Cage's expression said he was thinking about some very direct connections he had with his wife, but he didn't say anything. Carol thought maybe a lifetime ago, when she was old-her, Luke would have said what he was thinking. Or Carol would have guessed and said it for him, embarrassing him. Now Carol just kept her mouth shut and zeroed in on Jessica Jones.
“Actually, speaking of Steve and Tony-”
Jessica Drew groaned and stabbed at her salmon. Luke and Jessica Jones glanced between them.
“What?” Jessica Jones asked.
“Carol thought there was something going on between Steve and Tony,” Jessica Drew explained. When Luke and Jessica Jones didn't seem to be getting it, Jessica Drew formed a circle with her index and thumb finger on her left hand, then stuck her index finger from her right hand through the ring. Repeatedly. Luke exclaimed “Oh, damn!” and almost fell backwards out of his chair, while Jessica Jones slapped a hand to her mouth to suppress her giggles.
Jessica Drew laughed and dropped her hands, but not before winking rakishly.
“I don't think it's crazy,” Carol grumbled. “The way they were looking at each other...”
Luke shrugged. “Probably no different than how they normally look at each other. Stark's got rich-boy daddy issues from here to Malibu. Steve gets stuck being the focus of them.”
Carol shook her head. “That wasn't it. It wasn't hero-worship, and it wasn't just Tony.”
Jessica Jones smiled softly at Carol. “I'm sure Steve was looking at Tony lovingly. But... that's just Steve. That's how he looks at everyone. You'll remember soon enough.”
Carol shook her head again, jaw clenching. Just because she had amnesia didn't make her an idiot. Didn't make her blind. Though apparently twelve years of memories with the Avengers was making everyone else blind to whatever was going on with Steve and Tony.
“I know what I saw. Steve showed up and Tony's entire person changed. Body language, tone of voice, focus. Everything was centered on Steve. And when Steve was talking to Tony, he was a completely different man, too.”
Luke shrugged. “Yeah but that's just... them. They've always had their own thing.”
“They love each other,” Jessica Jones granted Carol. “They have since the early days. But not romantically. As far as I know, they're both heterosexual.”
Luke snorted into his iced tea. “Holy shit, a gay Captain America. That'd be the day.”
His wife elbowed him sharply in the ribs, evoking a yelp and an immediately apologetic look. “It's not outside the realm of possibility,” Jessica Jones corrected him with a glare. “But it's true that there's no precedent for it. For either of them.”
“Except all that Henry stuff back before Tony was sober,” Luke mused. He turned to Jessica Jones, gesturing with his fork. “Did you ever hear anything about that?”
Jessica rolled her eyes. “It was all rumor. I never heard anything concrete. If anything happened, I'm sure it was in the context of some kind of wild orgy. Not a one-on-one scenario.”
Carol frowned down at her filet. She didn't need information about the bisexuality, or not, of Steve and Tony. She wanted her colleagues to just look at the two of them. Gay, straight, bi, whatever: they were clearly pining at each other, and apparently had been for years.
Jessica Drew touched Carol's elbow softly. “Even if they were in-love in love with each other, remember what I said about their last big fight?”
Luke's expression clouded immediately. Jessica Jones stared pointedly down at her salad.
“If the two of them ever started dating? They'd end up blowing up New York the first time Tony forgot to put his dishes in the sink.”
Carol shook her head. Maybe she was wrong about what she thought she saw when Steve and Tony came together. But the rest of the Avengers had obviously been living with Steve and Tony's denial so long that they couldn't be relied on to be objective observers.
It was up to Carol, then. Operation Figure-Out-If-Steve-and-Tony-Are-In-Love was her new mission, while she worked to get her memories sorted out. If that panned out, Operation Get-Those-Two-Dorks together could be her follow-up mission.
Over the next week as she interacted more and more with her former teammates in an effort to force her life back into some semblance of normalcy, Carol had plenty of opportunities to observe Steve and Tony interacting with each other. And every time, no matter how brief the encounter, only served to convince her further that these two men were deeply in love with each other. Either the other Avengers were completely oblivious, or collectively turning a blind eye to the men's pining. If it was this obvious to Carol, who might as well have been a stranger since she had no useful memory of how to read the two men, it had to be obvious to everyone else.
On Tuesday, any Avengers who were available had dinner together at the Tower. Rather than position themselves at opposite ends of the table, as Carol had thought they might as kind of co-leaders of the team, Steve and Tony were squished tightly next to each other, knees actually bumping (Carol had purposefully dropped her napkin so she could go under the table and check) all throughout the meal. Their heads were ducked close together, wrapped up in a conversation all their own. At one point Carol saw Tony actually use his fork to flick a pea at Steve, who responded by reaching under the table and doing... something... that made Tony yelp and call a forfeit to whatever game they were playing.
Jessica continued to insist the two men were not in a romantic relationship with each other. Carol stopped trusting her, and any other Avenger's, judgement on the matter of Steve and Tony and their tragic love for each other. Obviously, this needed an outsider's perspective. Miraculously, an outsider's perspective was the one thing Carol was actually useful for right now. And if there was a way to put her lack of interpersonal knowledge to good use, if there was just one way this whole stupid circumstance could do some good, then Carol was going to take the opportunity.
On Wednesday, Carol only saw them interact in passing. She was flying again, testing out the range of her powers above the city. Iron Man buzzed her, laughing through the comm in her ear as he ducked and rolled away. Carol mock-glared and shouted back “You wanna go, Tinman?” because she thought it sounded like something the old-her would have said. Iron Man was laughingly saying something back to her—it sounded like the beginning of an insult to her hair, which c'mon, her hair was one of the few things Carol was certain she consistently liked about herself, Tony Stark didn't know what he was talking about—when Steve Roger's voice interrupted the both of them over their comms.
“Sorry to break up the fight—you can thank me later for saving you from Carol whooping your keister, Tony—but I need Iron Man to pick me up. If he's not too busy antagonizing the wrong superhuman.”
Beneath her, the Iron Man armor straightened up and darted away immediately, without so much as a wave.
“Where are you?”
“Just at the apartment,” Steve reassured Tony. “Just wanted to see-”
The comms cut off. Switched to a private line, Carol figured. She resisted the momentary temptation to follow Tony and watch him pick up Steve. Carol wasn't about to spot them going on some super-secret date. They weren't together, that much was at least clear from the last few days. She knew this mostly because, honestly: if they were in a secret relationship, they would hide their feelings for each other a lot better. No two people who stared at each other with such blatant love and longing could possibly be engaged in a secret relationship. It was clearly some kind of cosmic joke, their mutual unrequited love.
On Thursday Carol went to Avengers Tower by herself, to see what she could get up to without Jessica shadowing her every move. To Carol's surprise, she almost stumbled over a sleeping Tony in the kitchen, one hand clutched around a cup of coffee, the other holding a StarkPad tightly to his chest. He was sprawled out across the kitchen island, precariously balanced on a barstool.
As Carol deliberated over whether she should wake Tony or maybe carry him to his bedroom—or at least the couch, since she didn't actually know where his bedroom was—Steve saved her the decision by entering the kitchen.
Steve took one look at the scene and immediately strode over to Tony, eyes soft and expression fond. He pried the coffee cup out of Tony's hand and set it far enough away to be safe from accidents. Then he placed one hand on the StarkPad, the other brushing through Tony's hair and down to the back of his neck, where it came to rest, squeezing softly.
Tony mumbled and didn't wake, though he shifted slightly. Steve leaned closer, finally prying the StarkPad free and setting it aside. His hand came back up to cup Tony's cheek.
“Hey. Come on. Shellhead. Time to get up.”
Tony's head lolled against Steve's hand, rubbing against it like a cat begging to be pet. “Winghead,” he mumbled.
“How many hours did you get last night?”
“Mmm,” Tony mumbled, not answering. His eyes were still closed, head still rubbing his cheek gently against Steve's palm.
This was obviously some form of answer for Steve, because he followed it up with: “How about the night before?”
“Three?” Tony mumbled.
“That's what I thought.” In one easy movement, Steve scooped Tony up into his arms and started out of the kitchen with him. Tony didn't even open his eyes.
As he passed by Carol, Steve smiled boyishly and shrugged as well as he could with an armful of billionaire. “This is normal,” he reassured Carol. “Happens at least once a month.”
Carol nodded and smiled in what she hoped was a familiar and friendly way. But after Steve passed her by and was well on his way down the hall with Tony, Carol let her smile drop and her mouth fall open in utter exasperation.
How had the Avengers not staged an intervention for the two of them? Their love was interminable.It was unbearable. For the good of humanity, Carol needed to form a plan.
On Friday, intergalactic war was declared and the Avengers were assembled. Carol watched as Steve and Tony spoke together to the group, explaining the situation and delving deeply into strategy. The two had obviously had extensive conversations already about what was to be done—Carol wouldn't be surprised if the second one of them knew, he had gone to the other and they hadn't separated since.
This was when it was most clear, to Carol. In their off hours, sure, Steve and Tony were clearly in some sort of long-term denied romantic relationship. But here, as Captain America and Iron Man: that was what made Carol realize she needed to do something. They were meant to lead this team together, meant to lead the world together. Carol thought maybe she was supposed to be there too, to be by their sides rousing the troops, but not right now. Not until she knew who she was again, knew who everybody was to her again.
But there was one thing she could do. One thing that this stupid situation could let her do. And damn it, she was going to do it.
On Saturday, they were off to war.
Steve and Tony gave their speeches. Carol did hers, too. She knew it was right: knew that she was supposed to be making a speech with the two of them. But she was an outsider, still.
And damn it, she was going to use that outsider status for the good of everyone.
After the speeches, but before the launch, Carol inserted herself next to Steve. Tony was standing behind her, talking to some of the other Avengers who were about to lift off. Steve was tense, that was obvious even though Carol still hadn't gotten used to reading her friends' body language again. Steve was always pretty easy to read, she was learning.
Putting on as blank and innocent an expression as she could, Carol leaned into Steve and said: “If you need a minute or twenty alone with Tony, I'm sure I can distract the troops for you.”
“We've gone over everything we need to, but thank you, Captain.”
Steve's response was way to formal. Carol kept the frown off her face and tried again.
“Well, if you two need some personal time. You know. I can cover for you guys for that, too.”
Steve's eyes went wide as he finally got the implication, before he settled into a flat-eyed stare. It was entirely ineffective given how ruffled he looked. “I know you're having a hard time without your memories, Carol, but Tony and I are not-”
Carol shrugged, going for casual. She thought she pulled it off, but it was hard to tell these days. “I wasn't saying you were. Just if you guys wanted some time to confer on some things. Things other than plans. You know. Personal stuff. We're going out into the space battle to end all space battles, after all. Now's probably the time to say anything you might regret not saying if it all goes to hell.”
Steve's eyes slid over Carol's shoulder, to focus on what was quite obviously Tony standing behind her. Carol did her best not to roll her eyes or smile or react in any way that wasn't a poker face. It was sadly easy.
“Maybe I should take a minute,” Steve conceded, drawing the words out.
Carol nodded and punched him lightly on the shoulder. “See you in the hanger,” she said with false bravado.
But Steve wasn't paying attention to her anymore, so she didn't have to fake it. He was already stepping past her, eyes focused on Tony. His jaw was clenched tight, hands rolling his helmet between them over and over again. Tony was talking to Isabel about something, Iron Man armor mostly off, smile quick and easy with the young woman. But as soon as Steve entered his field of vision Tony's eyes drifted away from her and focused on Steve. It was obvious everyone else in the room fell away once the men's eyes locked.
Carol wondered how it had taken a memory-wipe to make it so bleeding obvious. She wondered how no one else, all these people who had known the men for years, saw it. Because it was status quo? Because seriously: over a decade of this, this puppy-dog, longing glances, intimate touches, and no one had noticed anything? The worry that maybe they had and Carol was breaking some kind of unmentioned agreement between every Avenger who wasn't Tony Stark or Steve Rogers was still a possibility. Carol snorted to herself. Then again, if that was the case, then good. Whoever decided to keep their collective mouths shut about how much these two men obviously wanted to be with each other deserved to have his or her grand plan usurped. It was about time.
Steve's neck bent as he spoke into Tony's ear. Tony's body swayed into Steve's, easy closeness present in every micro-movement. Steve's hand was on Tony's elbow; Tony's hand was slipping to Steve's waist. Isabel was already fading away to go run over to Sam and Bobby, who greeted her with open arms and easy smiles. Tony didn't even notice, already turning away with Steve, letting himself be led somewhere more private. Carol nodded to herself. Good. Maybe they'd finally get their heads of their joint asses and do something.
Closer to twenty minutes than one minute later, Steve was rushing through the hanger bay to slip into the shuttle with Carol. One look at his flushed face and softly disgruntled—but happy, very happy, pretty much completely stunned with happiness—expression told Carol everything she needed to know. She might not remember how to read Steve like she used to, but hair that sweaty and messy after twenty minutes alone with Tony Stark was a clear sign written in a universal language.
“Get everything 'talked out' with Tony?” Carol asked.
Steve's eyes stayed straight ahead, focused on the closed doors of the hanger bay. Carol didn't laugh at the way a muscle in his jaw jumped.
“We had a short discussion,” Steve replied after a moment. His eyes flickered down to the console, fingers skimming over switches before settling back on the arms of his chair. “We'll need to continue it when we get back.”
Slyly Carol glanced over at Steve. “Twenty minutes not enough time?”
A beat of silence. Carol thought she might have merited a punch to the nose for that one. But after a moment, Steve simply said: “You might not remember, but Tony can be... longwinded. Uh.” And Carol could definitely read that expression: that was clearly a blush dotting Steve's fair skin. “Or. Uh. Conversations with him take. A while. Uh.” Steve rushed to touch a hand to his ear, activating his comms. Carol ducked her head to hide her smile. Steve started checking in with the team, making sure everyone was in position.
His last check-in was with Tony, too careful in its casualness: “Hope for the best, Tony. Plan for the worst.”
Tony's reply came through loud and clear, laced with something Carol thought she might have known at one point, but didn't anymore: “Be safe, Steve. Win.”
Carol didn't look over at Steve for that—didn't think it was her right to see how those words affected him. She kept her focus straight ahead, piloting the ship away from Earth, taking Steve away from Tony. Steve would get back to him, soon enough. Carol would make sure of it.
When the battle was won and the war just starting, the Avengers dragged themselves back home to Earth. Carol stepped off the ship just behind Steve, and found herself almost bowled over by a pile of Tony Stark, racing into Steve and clutching tight to him. They didn't kiss, but Carol didn't miss the way Tony's hands gripped tight at Steve's uniform and refused to let go even as his knuckles turned white. Or the way Steve stared straight into Tony's eyes, expression honest and serious rather than sad and longing like it had been before. They had their shit sorted out—or at least, were well on their way. And if the way the rest of the Avengers pointedly ignored Steve and Tony disappearing for the next three hours before the team debrief was anything to go by, the rest of the Avengers had picked up on their changed relationship, too.
Never let it be said that Carol didn't know how to make the best of a bad situation.
Wipe out her memories? Fuck it. Carol would find a way to make that into a new superpower. Even if that superpower was only good for hooking up two of her dumbass friends.