Life came back as bone-deep cold and a choking flood of salt water.
Steve gasped and flailed, running his toe into the bottom. A wave threw him forwards into more rocks, and he tried to catch hold before the leather and mail dragged him down. His gloved hand connected with something jagged and he grabbed on and hauled, pulling his torso up onto a ledge. Another wave roared over him, slamming his legs against the rough stone and trying to tear him free of his hold.
Kicking down, foot scrabbling on the algae coated rocks until it wedged into a fissure, he waited for the next wave, then threw himself up the rock face. The water surged around him carrying him forwards, before slamming a log into the back of his head so hard that he saw stars and almost forgot to grab on again.
He scrambled up again and hauled himself up onto the next ledge, away from the surf. Rolling onto his back, he stared up at the swirling fog above him and wondered what the heck was going on.
The last thing he remembered was blood, pain and Sharon's voice sounding very far away, while the sirens seemed unbearably loud. He remembered thinking, I'm dying, and, Please, God, don't let it have been Tony that did this to me, then... red-black nothingness... followed by sea water.
Steve levered himself up onto his elbows and looked down at his body. He'd figured out pretty early in that he no longer had gaping bullet holes in his chest and stomach. He hadn't noticed until now that his costume was likewise undamaged. He even had his cowl, which he hadn't seen since Tony arrested him.
A wave hit the rock below him, sending a bucket of spray into his face. Rubbing his eyes clear, he spat blood and brine onto the rocks before rolling to his knees.
He seemed to have come ashore at the head of a narrow cove. Cliffs of black rock lined either side, with scrub and tree roots creeping over the edges. The dark tops of the conifers faded into the fog, and he could only just make out the outer limit of the cove. The channel funnelled the waves, increasing their power until they struck the slimy ledges he'd crawled onto. Above him, the shelf sloped up to a small, driftwood-strewn beach at the edge of a forest.
Gravel crunched under his feet and under the beached log he slumped on once he was safely out of the reach of the surf. He'd begun to shiver, and he could feel the metal in his costume leaching the warmth out of his skin. Pulling it off proved more difficult than he would have thought; the beating he'd taken in the water had pushed the mail though the lining and into his skin in places. Also, his fingers didn't seem to work quite right any more, and he couldn't seem to untangle it at all. Eventually, he managed to yank the whole thing over his head, taking his cowl, gloves and a certain amount of skin with it.
Steve stared down at his chest, letting the mail fall from his hands. It made a dull clinking sound as it hit the gravel.
He'd always had scars; even being a fast healer he still picked them up from serious wounds, but this was...
This was incredibly disturbing.
He could see a small circle of smooth skin on his right shoulder and another more ragged patch above his navel. They looked old, like they'd had a couple of years to heal, and the scars he remembered from before seemed fainter still.
The healed remnants of two straight incisions started at his shoulders and joined in the centre of his chest, continuing down to disappear under his belt buckle. Tracing his fingers along it, not quite believing what he was seeing, he felt a slight ridge of flesh, evenly indented by stitch marks. He dipped his fingers under his waistband, finding that the line ended just above his crotch.
They cut me open, he thought, his vision dimming. I died, and they cut me open.
Then he threw up.
He didn't have much in his stomach, mostly blood and sea water, and he wound up doubled over, head between his knees, retching weakly. I guess this means that my internal organs aren't in plastic bags in someone's freezer, he thought dizzily, so that's probably good. His brain felt a bit like someone had soaked it formaldehyde, though.
He tried to spit again, but his mouth was too dry. Straightening up, he spread a hand across his stomach, trying to soften the burning pain. He hated being sick.
Looking up at the fog, he wondered if he might be dead. Maybe this was some kind of afterlife. Only it didn't seem to be heaven, and, even though he'd made mistakes over the years, he couldn't imagine that he'd end up going to hell. If this turned out to be Valhalla, he was going to find Thor and have serious words.
And if he was alive, where was he? This seemed like his Earth, but not somewhere he recognised at all. For that matter, when was he? How many years had he missed this time?
He sighed and automatically reached out to run a hand along the rim of his shield and found only air. He had never gotten used to not carrying it with him, no matter how many times they'd been separated over the years. He wondered what Tony had done with it; if he'd read his letter; if he'd even cared.
Which added another problem to what seemed to be becoming a near-insurmountable heap. Steve had no idea if he was still technically under arrest for treason or not. He could very well find himself back in a cell the second the government realised he was alive, if they didn't know already.
Maybe he was in a cell, and this was that horrendous virtual reality thing Reed and Tony had built into the Negative Zone prison.
None of which would be an issue if he didn't get up and find some shelter before he died of hypothermia. If he didn't warm up soon, he was going to start thinking like the Hulk: World Bad! Cap Smash!
Steve had just bent down to retrieve his costume when he heard something rustle in the bushes behind him. Instinctively, he spun and dropped into a crouch behind the log, bare hands coming up defensively. He really missed his shield.
He probably wouldn't have needed it in this case, at least. The Avengers had only had to deal with golden retrievers as a serious global threat that one time, and that had involved quite a bit of alien influence.
The dog bounded down the beach, barking happily, and immediately tried to lick his hand. "Easy," Steve said, relaxing slightly. The dog had no collar or tag, so no clues there, but it did seem groomed and well-fed. Its owner probably wasn't far off. He patted its head absently, still scanning the woods.
He frowned and made a decision.
By the time the shaggy-haired man in the bright-orange wind breaker and matching gumboots had come into view, Steve had buried most his costume under a log. His boots and trousers had enough scuffs and slime on them that he figured they wouldn't give him away immediately; he wasn't taking them off, regardless.
The dog ran back to its master, tail wagging frantically, but the man had stopped dead in his tracks.
"Hi," Steve said tentatively.
The man blinked and shook his head. "Where the hell did you come from?" he demanded. "You look like you washed in. Jesus, did you wash in? Are you okay?"
Steve evened the gravel out a bit more with his foot. "Uh... yeah," he said, and hoped that he wasn't as obvious a liar as Clint had used to say he was. "My... my boat sank. I think I'm mostly okay, but I sure could use a hand."
"Wow," the man said, pulling a small radio off his belt. "Was there anyone else on board? Should I be starting a search? Shit, there's not much light left, and choppers can't fly in this muck."
Holding up a hand, Steve shook his head. He perhaps hadn't anticipated how quickly his cover story could spin out of control, but it had been the only thing he could think of. "No, I was alone," he said. "It all happened so fast; I don't even know what went wrong," which might have been the truest thing he'd said so far. "The name's Steve, by the way, Steve Hunter.
The man took his hand automatically, shaking it firmly. "Pete Nowiki, Canadian Coast Guard," he said, "Are you sure you're okay? How are you even alive? Usually this is where the bodies come in."
Steve shook his head again. "I think I'm in shock, and really cold," he said. "I really could use a hot shower."
Nowiki peered into his eyes, hand shifting up his to feel the pulse point on his wrist. "You actually don't look that bad," he concluded, letting go of Steve and starting to strip off his wind breaker. "Here, wear this for now. My truck's only ten minutes up the trail; do you think you can make it that far?"
"Thank you. I think I'll manage." The jacket was about four sizes too small, and didn't close across his chest, but its fleece liner retained some body heat, and Steve thought it felt like the most luxurious thing he'd ever worn. Too bad he was getting it covered in blood and slime. As he followed Nowiki and the dog up the narrow trail through the woods, he asked, "Where is this, anyway? You said Canada, right?" Canada was good; last he'd heard, it didn't have anti-superhero laws.
"Oh, right, I guess you wouldn't know, sorry," Nowiki said over his shoulder. "I'm from the search and rescue station out of Cedar Harbour, British Columbia. Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere."
The wrench slipped, and Tony swore, absently sucking his scraped knuckles,though he they would heal by morning. He really didn't understand why Rick didn't just get a new outboard; it would easily work out to be cheaper than Tony's bi-monthly repair bills. Well, glaring at the thing wasn't going to get this corroded mess apart. He ducked under his bench for an impact wrench.
When straightened up, he came face to face with Danielle Evans, who had again managed to get into the shop and slouch on his stool without him noticing. He never could tell how a six-foot-seven mechanic who had to weigh a good two hundred and fifty pounds could do that."Figured you'd still be here," she drawled. Everything Dani said seemed to take at least half again as long as it would for most other people, and twice as long as Tony.
Tony hooked the wrench up to the compressed air and started pulling bolts. "Yeah? How so?" he said.
"Well you're always here, aren't you, Boss," Dani yelled over the noise. "If I didn't know you rented the old Pendray cabin, I'd think you lived in here."
Which was fair. He even had a cot in the cramped office, though he currently had massively overdue month's end paperwork spread all over it, so he really would have to go to the cabin if he wanted to sleep tonight. "So, is this an intervention or something?" He asked. "Are you going to drag me away and feed me soup and hot chocolate and tuck me in?" Everything unfastened, he started to disassemble the carburettor. It was full of junk, of course. "What the hell is Rick using for gas?"
Her dark eyes almost vanished into her round cheeks as she laughed. "I hear moonshine," she said. "If you work yourself to death, I get the shop, so I'm not stopping you. I just wanted to know if you'd heard the latest off the kelp line."
"No, but I'm sure you'll tell me." It wasn't like there was any escaping gossip in this town. He felt pretty sure all of Cedar Harbour had known he'd bought out Paul Lawson's repair shop before he'd decided to do it. "Did another tourist go missing or something?" He hoped not. It was getting pretty late, and shoreline searches in the dark really sucked, especially when it was foggy.
"Nah," she said, waving dismissively, also in apparent slow motion, "One of the SAR techs found a shipwrecked sailor out at Second Beach; a real one, too, eh."
"As opposed to the fake shipwrecked sailors we get sometimes," Tony said, snapping on a pair of latex gloves and reaching for a can of solvent. "I hate those."
Dani batted his shoulder playfully, rocking him on his feet and sending a squirt of liquid across the metal surface of the bench. "No, like not just a kayaker or a fisherman or something. Maggie Charles says he says he was doing one of those crazy around the world solo sailing trips, when his boat went down."
Tony dropped the rag he'd picked up for the spill, and turned to face her fully. "Weird," he said.
"Yeah, he must have been taking the scenic route to get all the way up here." She bounced on the stool a bit, causing it to creak alarmingly. "I haven't even told you the best part."
"I can't wait."
"He washed up in a rock channel in a moderate surf with only a few scratches, wearing leather pants and pirate boots but no shirt, huge scars all over his chest." She ran her hands over her own massive chest to emphasise the point. "He has short hair, no beard and is built like a heavyweight boxer, which must have been a trick living on a small boat for sixteen months. He says his boat sank, but no one's found any seat cushions or junk like that on the other beaches. You know how fast the scavengers come out when a boat's down."
"Has anyone looked up the vessel name to see if it's registered?"
Dani's eyes shone. Clearly, whoever this was would pretty much make her year, no matter he turned out to be. "The Midnight Racer? Maggie did, but no luck." She shrugged. "He says he was out of New York, so..."
"Yeah." Given how many times everything there ended up blown sky high, records of anything back east tended to be incomplete. Tony wondered how anyone could live like that. "Isn't that the name of some old radio show?" It seemed like he knew it anyway, though he couldn't seem to place how. The feeling had grown more than familiar over the last year, and he hated it. He hated the sick sense that he shouldn't, like he should feel glad that he didn't know, even more.
She shrugged again. "I wouldn't know," she said. "So what so do you figure: pirate, fugitive on the lam, suicidal millionaire, or drug smuggler?"
Not many choices for this town; they usually would have come up with at least a dozen or so options by now. Still, the news hadn't had much time to circulate yet. Personally, Tony would lay money on the last one. A lot of gangs used deserted stretches of coastline like this to bring hard drugs up from the States. "I refuse to commit without having met him, but let me know what the odds are down at the Bird's Eye, huh."
"Will do," she said, sliding off the stool and somehow landing without a sound. "You could come find out yourself."
Tony turned back to the carburettor, shaking his head. "No, I want to finish this tonight," he said. He hadn't set foot in the town's only bar in the year he'd lived here, and today wasn't going to be the first time.
"Suit yourself, Boss," Dani said, running a calloused hand over his buzz cut and lightly squeezing the back of his neck. "Don't forget to sleep sometime, eh?"
"I thought you said this wasn't an intervention."
She laughed at him and walked out.
The wind had picked up, clearing away the fog, and the white caps caught the faint light of a setting crescent moon.
Steve shuddered, not entirely from the cold, and pulled his borrowed jacket more tightly around him. At least this one closed across his chest. The coasties at the search and rescue station had been very generous. The clothes and a bed for the night they'd given him, made him feel even worse about the house of lies he'd built. He doubted that he'd be able to maintain it much longer, which might or might not end up being a problem.
It all depended on how this next meeting went.
They'd chosen a deserted beach for a rendezvous point, not the one Steve had washed up on, but a wider patch of sand about a twenty minute walk out of town. It had seemed best to everyone not to have any witnesses or civilians potentially getting caught in the middle of a fight.
Saying that trust was not running high could be considered an understatement.
Steve just hadn't known what else to do. He'd asked as many questions about what had happened in the two and a half years -- two and a half years, Jesus -- that he'd been gone as he felt he safely could, but had mostly gotten a lot of provincial politics and something vague about the US having gone to hell. He had the impression that the Canadians didn't think that had been too far of a trip, but that they didn't want to provide details lest it seem like gloating. "Omega Flight and some Americans" fighting off mutant spotted owls at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Vancouver had been the only superhero-related news in the lot.
In the end, Steve had just given up and borrowed a phone, and now here he stood.
Out over the ocean in the distance, he saw the stars of Orion dim and turn red as something passed in front of them. He didn't move, sure that they'd been watching him long before they made an obvious approach. Looking a little vulnerable might do him some good in the end anyway.
Falcon landed gracefully about ten paces down the beach from him, Ms Marvel by his side. They both wore masks, and Steve couldn't see their eyes in the darkness. The lines of their bodies looked tense and ready for a fight. The sand muffled their footsteps as the approached, the sound buried under the roar of the surf. They stopped just out of arm's reach.
"Hi, Sam," Steve said. "Carol." He was trying very hard not to tense up at the sight of her; strange how quickly he'd learned to see an old friend and teammate as a threat.
They exchanged a glance, then Sam pulled what looked like a palm pilot off his belt and passed it to his companion. "You'd better do this," he said to her, "It always seems to flake out on me."
"It's a portable Skrull detector," Carol explained, "Reed and Braddock finally managed to invent one." Steve nodded, and she activated the machine and pointed it at Steve, which caused it to start beeping and flashing coloured lights.
Sam bounced on his toes and peered at the device. "What's it say?" he asked.
"Give it a minute, will you," Carol answered irritably. "It's not as fast as the base unit."
It beeped a few more times before settling on a steady glow. "Is red good or bad?" Steve asked, suddenly worried himself. While listing potential disasters, he hadn't even considered that he might not actually be who he thought he was.
Eyes wide with shock, she showed him the screen. "IDENTITY 98.7% CONFIRMED," it read, "STEVEN ROGERS." Then she let out what could be described as a squeal and threw her arms, Skrull detector and all, around his neck. The next thing he knew, her lips were warm and wet on his, and he couldn't breathe because Sam had wrapped both of them in an embrace and was holding on as tight as he could. Steve laughed and tasted salt on his lips as Carol broke the kiss and sniffed noisily next to his ear. He thought he heard her whispering that she was sorry, but couldn't tell for sure.
When they finally broke apart, Sam gave him another squeeze on the shoulder. "Damn, partner, it's good to have you back," he said with feeling, and Carol nodded emphatically, wiping her eyes.
"Thanks," Steve said, wishing that he felt as sure about it as his friends seemed to. He met Carol's eyes, adding, "I'm just glad we're on the same side again, old friend." If the world had changed so much that he couldn't trust Sam Wilson to look out for him, then he didn't want any part in it anyway.
Sam's grin faltered, and he again glanced at Carol before saying, "There aren't really sides any more. I mean, the Avengers are still split... six" he paused and wiggled his fingers, "no... five ways, and we're not exactly having weekly love ins yet, but..." he trailed off, looking unsure.
"It's more damage control, than anything," Carol explained, "During the worst of it, just about everyone who was ever a member or even an adherent of the Avengers was active somewhere. It wasn't practical to have just the one team based out of New York, and maybe one in LA. We found out, the hard way, that smaller teams placed strategically across the country had better intel and reaction times. And, well, it keeps the people who still aren't speaking to each other a few states apart. It's not quite the Fifty State Initiative, but it works."
Steve gaped at her. "What the hell happened?"
Sam didn't seem to want to touch that one, and Carol hesitated, collecting her thoughts. At last she said, "Between the SHRA, the Hulk attacking, the Skrulls invading, the global economic meltdown, and the Green Goblin running most of the military and security forces, the government just sort of... collapsed. President Obama tried his best, and he's doing a wonderful job with the reconstruction now, but, at the time, it was just too much all at once."
Which pretty much summed up Steve's state of mind at the moment as well. He thought again of his letter, how he'd asked Tony to take care of his country for him, and again felt his chest tighten at the betrayal. Maybe it hadn't been a fair thing to ask of one man, but Tony had always done so much for them, for him. It had always seemed to Steve like he could do anything. Why not this, the one thing that he'd asked? Maybe Tony hadn't read the letter.
He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder, and looked up to see Sam watching him, concern in his eyes. "Hey," he said gently, "There's good news too. I shouldn't have let Carol fill you in. The team's talking about changing her name to Ms Gloom and Doom. By the team, I mean mostly Clint, because he's back, and Bobbi, and Thor too. The SHRA is effectively dead. Bucky's being doing a great job being you, I mean Captain America; you'll be so proud of him. The UN finally took SHIELD back and put Fury in charge again. You really missed the worst of it."
"Missed" being the key word, Steve thought, then cursed himself for being arrogant enough to assume that things would have gone differently had he been there. He put his hand over Sam's reassuringly. Then he turned to Carol and asked, "Who did we lose?"
She didn't flinch. "Bob Reynolds and Stephen Strange," she said, tone flat. "That we know of, and no one's seen Tony Stark in over a year. We haven't seen a body either, but we're assuming he's dead. He wouldn't have missed all this."
Steve nodded numbly. He expected that pretty soon he was going to feel something about that, but right now he just couldn't do it. Too much all at once, he thought. He let go, and shrugged free of his friend, saying, "I... I need to... look I'm going to sneak back to bed, and..." He shook his head. He had no idea what he was going to do.
Sam stepped forward to follow him, but changed his mind part way, turning the motion into shuffling his feet awkwardly. "Let me give you a ride back to Vancouver," he implored. "I only told Carol and Bucky about your call. I didn't want to get everyone's hopes up, but they'll want to see you."
"You can't imagine how much we've missed you," Carol added. Steve had a pretty good idea though. "The Olympic Committee gave Omega Flight and us a whole hotel," she frowned, pinching the bridge of her nose, "Well, they put us up in part of a hotel, but everyone else moved out after the second attack. There's more than enough room for you anyway."
"Please come, Steve," Sam asked again. Noticing Steve's hesitation, he added quickly "Or I can stay here. Whatever you want."
Steve backed away another step. "I can't go with you," he said. "I'm not even sure why, but I really need to stay here and figure things out. I don't even know why I'm back, and with everything you've said..." Again words abandoned him. He settled at last on concluding, "I need time to think, Sam. I'm sorry. Maybe I'll be better after some sleep."
Sam looked at him for a long time, studying his face in the faint moonlight. They'd known each other for a long time, and, of all the people still among the living, Steve would trust Sam to know if something was wrong with him. He didn't seem to think there was though, because he finally nodded and stepped back. "Okay, partner," he said. "We'll meet you in town tomorrow. I'll bring you some clothes and ID. Just a warning though, I'm pretty sure Bucky is already on his way over, and nothing will stop him once he hears it's really you."
Carol pressed the Skrull detector into his hand, the proof of his identity still lighting up the screen. "Here, it has a team communicator and a bunch of other stuff on it too. Call us if anything at all happens tonight."
"Don't worry about the one point three percent," Sam added, "It never scores much higher than ninety-eight. Reed designed it, and it still says he has a one in thirty chance of being an evil clone." Steve couldn't see more than a flash of white teeth in the darkness, but even then the smile seemed half hearted. "Do you want us to walk you back?" he asked, voice sobering.
"No," Steve said. "I'll be okay. I'll see you tomorrow." He turned, as though starting up to the trail, but stopped after they left. He stood on the beach and tried not to think of anything at all, staring out over the water until the moon sank into the wave. Then he turned and started to walk back.
In the back room at the coast guard station, Steve only managed a few hours of sleep. He woke with a start some time before dawn, and found himself staring at the ceiling unable to remember if he had dreamed or just felt too on edge to rest properly. He had no hope for dropping off again now, and eventually turned to poking at the communicator that Carol had left him.
It turned out to also have satellite Internet access, and a bunch of other features that he couldn't identify, even after flipping through the help files. Browsing the web didn't turn up much more information than Carol and Sam had already told him, at least not anything reliable.
After randomly jumping through news sites, which seemed to expect him to know what happened already, he gave up and decided to ask Sam for more details in the morning. He was about to the machine away, when he thought of something. Opening a search engine, he typed in "Tony Stark."
"NO RESULTS FOUND," it told him.
He stared at it. That couldn't be right. He tried typing in "Anthony Edward Stark" and a few variations thereof, but they all came up with zero results. "What the hell," he muttered. That kind of search should have come up with something; the man had appeared in thousands of magazines and news articles over the years. Even if it wasn't related to his friend, he should have had a few results; it wasn't an incredibly rare name. "Stark Industries," and any of the other company names got him nothing, and "Stark" on its own led to an online dictionary. He tried looking up a list of Secretaries of Defence, but that just had a blank space during the year that Tony had held the position.
"Iron Man" turned out to be more interesting, as besides the entries about a triathlon, he could find some references to the hero. None of them made mention of Iron Man's identity, and they seemed a lot more complete in the last year. Clearly, someone had the armour and was using it to do some good, though not on the Avenger teams, but no one seemed to want to speculate as to who that might be.
He did find Rhodey and War Machine, and an obituary for Happy Hogan, but no reference to Tony in either one. Looking up Virginia Potts, Steve found that she was running a corporation called AES International, which didn't mention any previous incarnations, or a specific employment history for Pepper.
Someone had erased Tony Stark and his avatars and concerns from the Internet.
Steve killed the web browser and booted up the satellite phone.
It took him ten minutes and a three way call to Carol -- who had just been attacked by animate trees -- to convince Pepper Potts that he was in fact Steve Rogers.
"So, hi," Pepper said, finally. "Good to see you again. It's been a while."
"You too," Steve said, "Though it doesn't seem that long for me. How are you doing? You look good." From what he could see on the small screen, she really did.
She smiled faintly. "Positively glowing, I'm sure," she said, as if it were an old joke. "I'm okay. Running this damned company is going to be the end of me, I'm sure, but I like it a lot more than I thought I would."
"I'm glad to hear it," he said. She had largely run Tony's various financial endeavours a lot of the time anyway. He could imagine that doing so without having to worry about the Avengers, the UN, the US government and her boss the alcoholic, heart-damaged superhero with a computer in his brain, all at the same time would save a lot of heartache.
She paused, gazing at him reassuringly for a moment before stating, "So I guess you're calling about Tony, huh."
Steve nodded. "Yeah. I am."
"Why?" Her voice sounded sharp, colder even then when she thought he was an evil clone calling to harass her.
"What?" he asked, taken aback.
"You've been back for less than a day, and you're already calling me looking for the man most people blame for your death." She shook her head. "Before I tell you anything, I want to know why."
"Pepper... I" He stopped and closed his eyes, though he could still feel her glaring at him. "I don't want to fight him, Pep. The war's over. We both lost," he said at last, looking directly into the tiny camera. As angry as he still felt, he couldn't deny that the world had again moved on without him. Again he would adapt and move with it. "I just... I asked him a question, back on the Raft, and he never answered it. I died not knowing. It may have been years for you, but, for me, I fought with my best friend only days ago. I just want to know the truth; not the lies he told me; not the story he spun for the press; the real, honest-to-god reason. Please. I need to settle this."
Pepper sighed, a long, ragged sound. "I think maybe you're the only one he would have told," she said. "Lord knows he never said much to me, though I may have had a better idea of what he was up against than he ever realised, even at the end." He couldn't see if her eyes were brighter or not, but she was blinking a lot more rapidly now. "He left a message for you, in case you came back. It was maybe the only optimistic thing he did in that last awful year. I hope it can answer some of your questions."
He didn't like the sound of that at all. "Pepper," he asked gently, "What happened?"
She closed her eyes, and he could see the tiny glint of a tear on her cheek. Her narrow shoulders shuddered once, but, when she looked at him again, she seemed as calm as the eye of a storm. "Tony killed himself," she said.
She waited for Steve to acknowledge that he understood her, but he couldn't. He couldn't make his mind digest what she said. He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it again a moment later, shaking his head.
Realising that he couldn't ask, Pepper continued. "He wasn't drinking; it was just... it was too much, even for him. He ran some sort of formatting thing that shut down his brain." She sounded cold again, bitter. "Only Rhodey, Maria Hill and I know. The rest... well, I wasn't going to give them anything else to hurt him with, so I told them I didn't know where he was, and let them think what they wanted. Not long after that, the virus kicked in. It seems to be able to wipe out any mention of Tony on any computer connected to the Internet, and only Avenger tech and some SHIELD stuff has been able to fight it. He erased himself."
"Oh, Pepper," he said. "I'm so sorry."
She smiled brittlely. "Yeah, well, you should be," she snapped. "You and your damned war."
"Of course not. Neither of you did, did you?" She had to stop then, and he remained silent as she took a deep breath. "Sorry. I didn't mean to drag all that up again. I'll just send you the message, and you can call back if you need anything else, okay?"
He must have said something, because she nodded, and a moment later her image flickered and disappeared. The message in its place asked him if he wanted to accept a file.
Steve stared at it. The query started blinking different colours and bouncing slightly on the screen, so he pressed "Yes," whereupon it chirped happily. He felt fairly sure that wasn't a feature Reed Richards would have included.
When the file finished transferring, he set the machine down and walked to the window, peering through the blinds. The room faced away from the harbour, so all he could see in the first glow of twilight was a largely empty parking lot, and, across the gravel road, a scruffy grove of spruce trees.
Tony's dead. He tried the idea in his mind, but couldn't make it fit. Tony's dead; he committed suicide. That made even less sense.
Some part of himself said that he shouldn't be surprised, that Tony Stark had never really proven himself to be a paragon of mental stability. He took risks, big ones, ones that Captain America on his wildest day probably wouldn't have seriously considered. Steve knew Tony valued his life less than the lives of his team mates, even less than those of strangers. He knew that Tony had honestly tried to drink himself to death at one point. He hadn't touched a drop in years, but he seemed more afraid of the damage he could do under the influence than the risk it posed to his health. He knew that Tony took responsibility to for the whole world on his shoulders, and that he'd been even worse about that since he'd "upgraded" with the Extremis.
Maybe it made sense, but Steve still couldn't imagine Tony actually giving up like that. If for no other reason, the man seemed convinced that he was the only one who could do the job right, and thinking about how badly everyone else would screw it up if he were gone made Tony want to cry. And as often as Steve had seen Tony guilt-ridden and depressed, nothing, even the problems he'd created for himself, seemed to keep him down for long. How many times, even since Steve had known him, had he rebuilt his company from scratch? No matter how much he grieved the initial loss, he had always come back, seemingly even more determined than before.
How could he have just quit like that, especially when the fighting had been so bad? Steve felt a flash of anger, and again wondered if Tony had ever actually cared, or if he'd just been putting on a show the whole time. Maybe the man Steve had actually come to hate during the war was the real person. In the end, Tony hadn't seemed to feel much past pride and anger. If he'd read Steve's letter, then how could he have done that? Perhaps it wasn't a fair thing to have asked, but Tony was supposed to the one to keep America on her feet when Steve was gone. Steve had come back not three years later and the whole country had gone straight to hell.
He glanced over his shoulder at the bed, knowing that the communicator he'd left there probably held at least some of the answers. He just wasn't sure he felt ready to listen. He knew he hadn't been during the war. He had an amazingly intense desire to punch something right now, and he didn't want to destroy Carol's equipment. He thought about taking off and going running, trying to work away some of his emotions in the sounds of boots pounding on gravel.
He realised, however, that as much as he didn't want to listen, he couldn't not know, either. He'd loved Tony once, and he owed that memory something.
He didn't hesitate this time, just sat down and punched the button. He had made his decision; he wanted to get it over with before he talked himself out of it again.
The image wasn't any larger than the one of Pepper had been, though it focused more tightly on Tony's face, only showing the edge of the gold underarmour at his throat. Still, Steve could tell that Tony had looked better. His skin looked pale and drawn, and though his hair and moustache were neat, something about him seemed neglected, unkempt. Steve couldn't tell what the gleam in his eyes meant, but it seemed off, not at all like the light when fought or talked about his precious machines. Steve wished he could see his hands. When Tony spoke, his voice sounded strained, but it wasn't the lifeless slurring that Steve had come to expect from his depressive periods. It wasn't even close to the cool arrogance he'd displayed during their last meeting.
"I don't really expect that you'll ever see this, Steve," he said, "But hey, if you do, congratulations on being alive, and on me being dead. Two points for good guys everywhere." Steve growled, and, in the picture, Tony held up a hand, fingers just sliding into view. "Don't be mad at me, Steve. Well, I guess that's a lost hope, after everything I've done, but please don't be mad at me for this. It really is for the best; I promise."
Steve decided that if he never heard anyone say those words ever again, he would die a happy man. Jesus, Pepper, he thought, how could you let him decide things like this? The man's lost his mind.
Tony continued, "I'm sure by now someone's filled you in on everything that's happened, and that you're even more pissed at me than you were back on the Raft, if that's possible." He lowered his eyes, but didn't falter in his manic stream of thought. As his head tilted, Steve caught a flash of machinery behind him. Something was attached to the back of his neck. Steve felt his gut twist. "I think the only two people on the entire planet Earth, and probably in the universe, who don't want me dead right now are Pepper and Maria Hill, and I guess I can see why.
"The thing is, though," he added, looking directly at Steve. "I still believe that I did the right thing. It all went to hell and, clearly, I screwed up massively, but knowing what I knew at the time, I think I made the right choices. Which is the problem, isn't it? You asked me to look after a country that's been more or less running for over two centuries, and after one year of doing my damnedest to respect your wishes, that country is pretty much toast. I give it two months, on the outside, before the government collapses." Which was about right from what he'd been able pick up between Sam and the 'Net. "So, obviously, you should have sent that letter to Sam or Hank or someone not me, though Hank turned out to be a Skrull, so maybe not him. I hope you'll give me that I did okay by Bucky, or that I did as much for him as I could, considering that he really just wants me dead too. I guess today's his lucky day."
Steve wasn't sure he really trusted Tony's definition of "doing right by" someone, especially not when it combined with Bucky, who hadn't been stable last time they'd met. Still, Sam had said Bucky was okay...
Tony shook his head sharply. "Which is neither here nor there. The point is that I've lost everything, again, and this time I don't have it in me to rebuild. Even if I did, even if I could, right now I'm more of a liability than an asset to Team Hero. If I make one more mistake -- and I will, because I haven't been on my A game since... well, for a long time -- that psychotic bastard running the world will nail me, and, with what I have in this head of mine, everyone else will pretty much be hooped. So I am, to quote the lovely Ms Hill, taking myself off the board. I'm damned no matter how I go at this point, and Hell can't be much worse than what Earth's like right now." He shrugged, that little twisted grin on his lips again. It made Steve shiver.
"I expect this is only really making you angrier, which I didn't intend. I wouldn't have left this at all, but you asked me a question the last time we talked, and I never answered it -- I don't think telling your dead body counts. So here we go: I supported Registration because it was the will of the American people, and because I believe that the principle, if not the motive, behind it is right. I never lied to you about that."
"Like hell," Steve muttered. He'd known Tony for over ten years. He knew when he was trying to pull one over on him. He'd spent half the war thinking the man who used to be his best friend had either gone crazy or been replaced by an alien, again.
"I didn't tell you the whole truth, either," Tony continued. "I was scared, and I didn't know what else to do. You have no idea of what I was up against, working on the inside, the kind of pressure I had to deal with. I needed your help, but I was too proud to ask for it, and you were too pissed off at me to offer."
Tony ran a hand through his hair. "After the worst happened, and you died, and it was my fault, I visited the memorial in Arlington. I wanted to say what I couldn't at your funeral. When I was standing in front of that awful statue I made them build, I saw two visions of what might have been. They were clear as day, more real than I felt right then, and I absolutely believe them. If I hadn't supported Registration, if I hadn't done as much damage control as I did and sold my soul to the people pulling the strings, it would have gone a lot worse. The government would have found a way to betray and slaughter pretty much everyone we know. I tried to warn you that we couldn't go against the entire country, no matter how strong our convictions, but I guess I didn't do a very good job. I know that I saved lives by betraying you, even if they weren't the ones most important to me. Don't worry; knowing that doesn't help me look in the mirror in the morning."
His voice had shifted from manic and chattering to deliberately serious. Steve had no doubt that he believed every word of it. "On the other hand, if I'd supported registration and asked for your help, honestly asked, and told you the whole truth, we could have ended the war before anyone died. We could have built an America that you would have felt proud to serve again.
"That was my real mistake in all this: I thought I could do it all on my own. I thought that I was strong enough, fast enough, smart enough to push registration through, and that I could win quickly and cleanly, and you'd just... I don't know. I kept thinking that we could actually talk like we used to. I kept thinking that you'd understand, that you'd somehow see that it wasn't so bad working in the system. I didn't want to drag you into all of that mess, the politics and the lies. Maybe I was even trying to protect you, play the villain to your white knight. I've always been good at that. This way, only one of us is damned, at least.
"I'm sorry, Steve. I know you probably don't believe me, and I can't blame you, but I really am. I wish more than anything that we could have fought this together. I said at your funeral, your real one, that you were my rudder, the one I could always count on to keep me on the right path. I didn't listen to you; I didn't trust you, and it destroyed our partnership and one of the dearest friendships that I've ever had. I think it may have destroyed the country too, because I really can't imagine that any of this last year would have happened if you were here."
For the first time, his voice wavered, and broke a little. "Fuck, 'I'm sorry' doesn't really cut it, does it? I don't expect your forgiveness, and I'm not doing this or leaving this message to make amends or ask for pity. I know that can't happen. I just... I wanted to say goodbye, and I wanted to tell you that you mean more to me than you ever imagined, more than I thought anyone ever could.
"So that's it I guess. I love you. I'm sorry. Goodbye." The screen went blank.
Steve put his fist through the wall above the bed.
At around half past six in the morning, just as the sun started to touch colour to the highest clouds, disaster struck.
Tony had rolled out of his bed in the loft, groped his way downstairs, lit an element, and punched the start button on the coffee grinder.
He stared at the silent machine in horror. It was probably the second most valuable possession he had -- well, the truck was technically worth more, but -- he'd ordered it special from Europe only six months ago. How could it not be working?
Pressing the button repeatedly, taking all the beans out, and plugging it in somewhere else didn't help, and after ten minutes, he had to concede defeat. He was going to have to go and down at least a pot of that boiled weasel piss the café served. Maybe then he could claim to be caffeinated enough to take on the finest in Italian engineering.
He sighed deeply, tucked the machine under his arm, and headed out into the dawn.
The clear air bit into his bare cheeks, and Tony shivered and buried his hands deeper into his pockets. He absently wondered why he couldn't seem to let his hair grow out in the winter like a lot of the local men did. He'd even tried when it started getting cold in October, but the beard had just looked wrong. Somehow, seeing himself in the mirror on day five had made his stomach had twist in revulsion, and he'd shaved immediately.
That feeling, the inexplicable nausea and compulsions, had grown painfully familiar over the year since the dark-haired military woman had dropped him off on the shores of the Pacific. He'd learned pretty quickly what to avoid: cities, computers, alcohol, trying to remember his dreams, and any number of other seemingly-unconnected things. He never knew when something could become an issue.
One patch of forest looked much like another to Steve, but he felt pretty sure that he recognised the massive stump with the saplings growing on it. "I think this is the turn," he said, peering down the faint trail that branched off beside it.
"You think?" Bucky asked, tone suggesting that he thought Steve should be omniscient.
"I was in shock at the time." He wanted to add that it had been dark and foggy too, but decided it would sound too defensive.
He couldn't quite seem to find a balance with Bucky, which was really starting to get to him. Even when his old sidekick had been vengeful and maybe still a little brainwashed, they'd snapped right back into being partners as soon as they'd had to work together. Now... well, as Sam had misspoken, Bucky was him now, and Steve couldn't quite work out how either of them felt about that. It wasn't that he wasn't glad to see him, but Steve half wished they had a monster or something to fight together. He wished, at least, that Sam was here to run interference, but he'd called to say that the rapidly encroaching old growth forest was taking longer than he had thought it would, and that he'd come when he could.
Bucky, for his part, had put on the military façade Carol had worn the night before. On the walk from the trail head, he'd recited the events of the past year in a clinical detail that really didn't do much to dispel Steve's growing feeling of unreality. Maybe Bucky could only bring himself to talk about the relentless cycle of disaster like it was something in a mission report, but to Steve it seemed as though he were making it up, or it was a story that had happened to people he didn't know. After ten minutes, Bucky had seemed to sense his unease and had fallen silent.
Steve knew the beach from the shape of the cliffs, but it looked startlingly different. The trees shaded the gravel, but the first of the morning sunshine sparkled on a limitless blanket of silver and blue outside the channel. Even though the surf had dropped a bit, he still had to wince as one of a larger set of waves thundered into the rocks, tossing a log into the air. He could see why Nowiki had been so stunned to find someone had crawled out of that alive.
He'd wanted to retrieve his costume before a wild animal or someone's dog dug it up, and to talk to Bucky away from the many ears of Cedar Harbour. Mostly, he just couldn't help feeling drawn to this place. He still had no idea why he was even alive, let alone in Cedar Harbour. He hadn't said as much to Bucky, but he somehow felt that he would find answers if he returned to his point of origin.
Instead, he found his shield.
It rested close enough to a big log that he hadn't seen it from the trail. The tide had erased most of yesterday's tracks, and he couldn't see new ones anywhere near it. It simply sat on top of the gravel and seaweed, looking for all the world like someone had very carefully placed it on the high tide line.
They both stared at it for a moment, and Steve noticed that Bucky's real hand slid back to the artist's case slung over his shoulder before he said, "I'm guessing that wasn't there yesterday."
Steve shook his head. "And it didn't wash up. I found out the hard way exactly how well it floats." A cluster of small purple crabs scuttled out from under the shield when he picked it up. "This feels like one of Tony's replicas," he said after giving it an experimental swing. "A pretty good one too."
He passed it to Bucky, who spun it between his hands, saying, "I wonder if it's the replica from your exhibit in the Smithsonian." Then he shook his head. "No. D.C.'s been a war zone, but I'd know if anyone had messed with it. That and I think the word pretty much got out after Wolverine beat the ever-living shit out of the last guys who tried to loot the place."
Of course they put me in a museum, Steve thought, not sure if he should feel embarrassed or exasperated. Taking the shield back, he launched at the cliffs. It ricocheted off both sides of the cove before spinning back towards the beach. He'd misjudged the angle though, or the differences in the weight and balance had thrown him off. Instead of coming to him, it embedded itself in a log with a thud. He wasn't sure how sensitive a subject his next question was, but he had to know. "Did they... did they bury me with one?" he asked. No one had mentioned his funeral so far, aside from Tony, who had hinted at him having more than one.
Bucky shrugged, turning to look out over the sea. "I only saw it on TV, and it was a closed casket," he said. "Sam said something about burying you as Steve Rogers, in army greens, so maybe not."
Steve nodded and concentrated on freeing the shield from the wood. He really hadn't thought things could get more awkward between them, but wow. Shield acquired, he started to dig up his costume. "Is there anyone in Washington you would trust to check and see if whatever they buried is still there?" He asked, then added, "Discretely. I don't want the word out that I'm back until we have a better idea of what's going on."
"I'll make it happen," Bucky promised. He turned back from the water to face Steve, and frowned. "Look," he started to say, but hesitated, eyes flicking between the shield Steve held in one hand and the newly-resurrected costume in the other. "Look, I didn't mean to say anything right away. You haven't even been back for a day, and maybe you haven't even..."
Steve draped the battered mail over his shield arm and put his free hand on Bucky's shoulder, quieting him. "It's yours now, Buck, all of it," he said softly, meeting his eyes. "Sam tells me you've done America proud, that you've been a true Avenger even when they weren't calling them that. That's what Captain America is for, and you've more than earned the job." He felt pleased at how evenly that had all come out. He thought he sounded like he hadn't been agonising over it all night, like giving up the real shield didn't hurt worse than losing an arm.
Or maybe not. Bucky turned his head away, blinking. "Thank you," he said, voice hoarse.
Steve nodded, satisfied, and let his hand drop. "We should go. I don't think we're going to find anything else here."
"So, what's next?"
"I'm not sure," Steve admitted, frowning. The duffel bag they'd brought didn't quite stretch to enclose the shield, though it did cover most of it and somewhat hid the shape. After a moment of tugging this way and that, he tossed the costume on top of it and just tucked the whole mess under his arm as best he could. "I was thinking of staying in Cedar Harbour for a little while longer. I need to know what brought me here."
Bucky led the way back up to trail. "I guess I'll get a motel room for us, then."
"You don't have to get back to Vancouver?" Steve asked, "That Ent Invasion that Sam and Carol told me about this morning sounded pretty serious."
"I'm sure that Omega Flight and the rest of the Avengers can handle it," Bucky said. "You need me more."
Which was probably true enough, so Steve didn't argue.
As he entered the forest, Bucky looked back, a small grin playing at his lips. "The fifty-foot statue of you in Arlington has a shield, but I think it's made out of concrete."
Steve tripped over a tree root. Bucky obviously knew that he would have infinitely preferred a place under the immutable rows of white stone to all that. "I guess they made a pretty big show of it, huh?" he muttered through his hands. He could feel the heat in his cheeks.
"Yup," Bucky said. "We're pretty sure it was mostly Stark's idea, which I thought was a bit rich, considering you were only dead because he'd arrested you for treason. He couldn't even handle giving your eulogy. Sam did a nice one, though; I can probably dig up a copy if you want to see it."
"I think I can live without that," Steve said. Some years ago, he'd made a personal rule never to watch the coverage of his own "deaths." He dropped his hands, shaking his head in despair, and started walking again. At least Bucky seemed to be acting a little more like Steve thought he should, ever the teasing younger brother. He felt a little of the weight of his decision slide away. He would work something out; he always did.
Bucky didn't take up his recitation on their return trip, but the silence between them felt comfortable. They'd always had this back in the war, the long marches when even his teenage sidekick had run out of things to say, and they just walked, not saying anything because nothing needed to be said.
Predictably, the Time and Tide Café did little to improve Tony's mood. Kirstin had the early shift this week, and absolutely refused to stop laughing at him and the coffee grinder. If he felt the least bit inclined to be fair, which he currently did not, he would admit that, after the way he'd decried her coffee as the source of all evil, it was pretty funny. He must have looked pretty pathetic though, as she took pity on him and dropped an extra strong pot in front of him a minute later. The carafe covered Jon Yang's missing person poster, which suited Tony fine as he was tired of seeing it everywhere anyway.
Instead, he stared morosely into his cup, and wondered if he had always been a coffee snob. He knew the subtleties and origins of the flavours the same way he seemed to know how to take just about anything apart and put it back together better. Except for Rick Warburton's outboard engine, which he suspected of being evil. Sure he had a couple of mechanics certificates with his name on them, or at least, with the same name as his Canadian birth certificate and passport, but nothing to explain why he could build a V8 engine from scratch. Nothing explained why he could picture microcircuits in his head, or why doing so made him want to throw up.
The roar of a motorcycle, probably some kind of Ducati, echoed over the water. Looking out over the deck, Tony saw of flash of black and silver as something shot past a gap in the trees across the bay. It was going a lot faster on the gravel than most people would consider at all safe.
"Idiot tourists," he muttered.
Kirstin, who apparently had ears like a bat, took it as an attempt at coherent communication and came over to stand by the window. "Worse," she said, "It's the shipwrecked drug dealer, or whatever he is, and his biker gang boyfriend."
Tony looked up, noticing, now that he had drugs jump-starting his brain, that she wasn't wearing a bra and with the way the morning sun caught in her purple hair and that little cotton shirt... He swallowed and turned back to his mug, asking, "Boyfriend? When did he get a boyfriend?"
She laughed. "I don't know when they got together or anything," she told him, "But Julie came by to hang out before she headed out to that crappy fish farm. She said that she saw this sweet bit of hotness in black leather roll into the SAR station an hour ago, like before dawn even, looking for Steve the Pirate, if that's his real name. Apparently, there was this huge long hug, and they touched a lot. The new guy, who is tragically gorgeous, spent the whole time gazing at Mister Pirate like he was Angelina Jolie with all her clothes off or something. They hung out for like ten minutes, and then both jumped on that bike and tore off down the Cape Road."
He knocked back the dregs of his current mug, trying not to taste anything, and poured himself another. "If hugging someone you supposedly haven't seen in a really long time equates to an epic romance," he said, "then a lot more of the population is gay than reputable scientists have suspected."
"If you say so," Kirstin said, snorting. "It looks like you'll see for yourself pretty quick though. I bet I'm right." As the bike turned the last corner and pulled into the parking spots, she slid over to the till and tried to give the impression that she'd been standing there, looking bored, all morning. Tony didn't feel that she looked all that convincing.
The riders both wore gleaming black helmets, but only the slighter one had leathers. Tony supposed the one on the back must be the alleged shipwreck victim, though from what he could see under the heavy jacket, the man looked more like a gladiator than the boxer Dani had described.
As he swung off the bike, two things happened at once. Tony knew with absolute certainty that this man was neither a drug dealer nor a pirate, and something in his head started screaming, Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out!
Mindlessly, he dropped his mug and bolted out through the back, almost knocking Kirstin over on the way by, and ran like hell.
It wasn't until he'd slid to the floor of his cabin, back against the bolted door, that he realised he'd left his jacket and coffee grinder in the café.
"Nice coffee grinder," Bucky said, smiling up at the young hippy taking their orders. They'd claimed the seats nearest the floor to ceiling windows overlooking the harbour. The machine he referred to -- which looked like it would have done NASA proud -- sat next to a battered jacket on the next table.
The waitress wrinkled her nose. "If you say so," she said. "It's broken anyway. The dude who runs the mechanic shop abandoned it here."
"I'm surprised he let it out of his sight," Bucky said, then proceeded to feed her what Steve strongly suspected was a line about a caffeine obsessed friend and an adventure involving a safe and exploding beans. Though unless the Avengers had massively changed since he'd been a member, the story probably didn't need much embellishment. Bucky had his hand on the edge of the table by now, not quite touching her leg, but close enough that she could probably feel the warmth radiating off it through her torn jeans. Steve wondered absently if she'd noticed that the former Winter Soldier had left his other hand gloved.
He also wondered when Bucky had started flirting as a means of gaining intelligence, or when he returned to it, he supposed. He'd never been as bad as Toro during the war, but the boy had turned his charms on for a number of French and German girls. From the little he'd seen of him in action, the Winter Soldier had seemed to prefer sneaking around and beating people up. Time spent with Clint and Jessica Drew had obviously done him some good. Mostly, Steve felt glad no one expected him to hit on a girl young enough to be his great granddaughter.
The young lady in question smiled and leaned forward. Steve dropped his eyes and focussed on the sea chart under the glass tabletop, tracing the lines of the coast with a finger. Cedar Harbour lay in the shelter of the first of a chain of small islands that stretched along the coast to the northwest. Beyond them, a narrow inlet cut deep into the coast of the main body of Vancouver Island. He found the beach he'd washed up on down the coast to the southeast, where only the curled lines of reefs stood between the shore and the open Pacific.
The chart covered an area of about fifty by forty nautical miles. Aside from a couple of lighthouses and another small town up the inlet, Cedar Harbour marked the only human habitation on it.
On the far corner of the table, a poster with a black and white photo of a smiling young woman covered the legend. Steve had to lean into Bucky's space to get a good enough angle to read it. Nicole Blanchard had disappeared near Coos Beach several months before. "This is the second sign like this I've seen here," Steve said.
"Eh?" the waitress asked, not looking too pleased at his interruption.
Bucky nodded, simultaneously kicking Steve under the table and keeping his eyes fixed on the waitress'. "I noticed that too," he said. "Isn't that odd for a little town like this? I mean, back home in New York, we use those things as wallpaper, but I'd always heard how much safer Canada was."
She straightened up sharply, moving her hand away from Bucky's. "Yeah, sure," she said. "It's kind of freaky timing, close together like that, but it's not like we have a mass murderer hiding in the woods or something." She smiled like it was supposed to be a joke, but it seemed forced. "The mounties came down and checked it all out. Some people just don't know how not to get hit by a wave or get eaten by a cougar or whatever. Tofino loses a couple of tourists every year." She yanked a notepad out of the back pocket of her jeans, and asked abruptly, "So do you guys want breakfast, or are you just going to stick with coffee?"
Now Bucky glanced over at him, meeting his eyes briefly. Steve could tell they both had alarm bells ringing, both from multiple disappearances in a town of maybe two hundred people, and the waitress's closed reaction. He didn't let it show though, turning back almost immediately and saying casually, "I could eat. Steve?"
"Sure," he said, "but it will have to be on you. I still don't have a wallet."
When they'd ordered, and the waitress had retreated from earshot, Bucky leaned forwards, eyes glowing. "So what's the plan?" he asked.
Steve sipped his coffee, then grimaced and emptied a couple packages of sugar into it, which didn't really help. "Well, keeping a low profile and doing some subtle snooping isn't going to do us much good here. I think they're already pretty suspicious and just about anything we do will only make it worse."
"Whose fault is that?" Bucky asked, snorting. "A sail boat, Steve? Really?"
"I was in shock!"
Steve waved him away. "I don't want to ask Carol to bring in an official Avenger team just yet, though I may try that if we don't get anywhere. I think we should hole up and do some research, find out who went missing when, and if anything else is odd about this place."
Bucky nodded. "I can get the RCMP records through Omega Flight," he said. "SHIELD's been pretty tight-fisted with information lately, and between Stark and Osborn not a lot of records made it out of HAMMER, but Nat'll tell me if they've seen any blips recently."
Steve wanted to ask what he meant by all that, but this wasn't the place. He suspected the place would be somewhere where they could both yell. A lot. He kept his voice low, asking instead, "Have you had an update on how the Avengers are doing with the invasion of the old growth forest? I wouldn't mind getting Sam and his birds back as soon as he can be spared. The man's a wonder at surveillance."
"I know," Bucky said, "I haven't had much in the way of updates, it sounds like they're still in the thick of it." He tapped his ear casually, staring out over the still water of the harbour. "Clint said something about the owls being back a while ago, but I'm not sure if he was serious."
Steve brushed his fingers over Bucky's steel ones. "It means a lot to me that you're here helping me out, Buck," he said. "I know how hard it is to sit out a fight."
"There isn't any place I'd rather be, Cap."
Tony didn't know how long he sat curled against the door, shaking. When he finally pulled himself together, slowing his heart rate if not his spiralling thoughts, he realised that sweat had soaked though his shirt. His skin felt clammy. Numbly, he stripped and stumbled into the shower.
What the fuck was that? he wondered, turning the water to scalding. The only time in his year of memories that he could recall feeling anything remotely like that had been when Dani passed him a beer. He didn't remember it, aside from the overwhelming emotion, but she told him later that he'd turned absolutely white and dropped the bottle as it touched his lips. He hadn't even heard it shattering on the floor.
This had felt a dozen times more powerful and even trying to think about what had happened made his hands tremble. Maybe, he thought, it's better that I don't know. Steve the Pirate, not his real name, wouldn't stay long, and Tony could easily keep out of his way for a couple of days. He could just let this go and slide back into his life. I want to.
Only it wasn't just the familiar combination of nausea and revulsion this time. The man he'd seen -- the man he'd recognised -- had utterly terrified him. Something inside him knew and feared him.
He shivered again, and realised that the cabin's minuscule hot water tank had run out. He let the water continue to fall on him for a moment, trying to clear his head, then turned off the tap. Standing in the stall letting the water drip off him, he realised that just staying locked in here forever wasn't going to work.
If he recognised the stranger, he must know him somehow, which made it pretty likely that the stranger knew him. Maybe he was even looking for Tony, and even if he wasn't, he was still dangerous, both to Tony and to the town.
Hiding wasn't going to cut it this time. Running didn't seem like a good option either. If this man had found Tony here, of all places, then he could probably find him no matter where he went. He had enough shadows that he knew he didn't know about without having to worry about something he did. Or something. Being over thirty but only having a little over a year's worth of memories created problems that English grammar wasn't really equipped to handle.
Besides, this place still felt right. The first thing he remembered was wandering. He'd travelled up the coast for weeks, hitching from one town to the next, never quite sure what he was looking for, only that he felt something calling him. Stepping out of the cab of a logging truck beside Cedar Harbour's sole stop sign, he'd felt something new. It had taken him a couple days to figure out that it wasn't a difference he felt: it was an absence. He no longer felt the compulsion to move on after a night in a new place. He had no idea why, but he decided that this was where he was supposed to be. It made as much sense as anything else that had happened to him.
Damned if he was going to give that up.
The pounding on his door made him jump about a foot in the air, and drop the towel he was drying his hair with. He had to fight down the urge to hide, even when a familiar voice bellowed, "Tony? It's me, Dani! Kirstin called me. Are you okay in there?"
Tony relaxed marginally, and shrugged into a robe before going to unbolt the door. "Morning, Dani," he said, letting her in, "I'm glad you're here. I need your help with some research."
"So what did Maggie say?" Tony asked twenty minutes later, bouncing on the balls of his feet
Putting the phone back in the cradle, Dani shot him a dark look. "Why didn't you call her?"
"She's not my cousin. What did she say? Cough it up already, come on." They were at her place now, and he actually had room to pace.
She sighed and leaned back into the armchair, flipping up the foot rest. "That this morning when she called the Rescue Co-ordination Centre to follow up on her original report the duty officer told her to 'take no further action in regards to that incident.'"
Tony frowned, getting to the end of her living room and looping back trough the kitchen to avoid the office. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"No more searches, broadcasts, inquiries, or paperwork relating to it. When she asked why, the officer told that he didn't know either. The order came from Back East, and the file's closed."
"That's weird, right? That sounds weird." He still felt off, sick somehow, but also oddly hyperactive, like his adrenal system was gearing him up for a fight.
"I feel tired just watching you, Tony. Sit down," Dani ordered. He ignored her. "Maggie says it is strange. When a boat goes missing like that, she's supposed to look for it, do notices to mariners and stuff. It's either her or the local RCC commander's decision about when to call it off. She's run that station for ten years, and Ottawa's never interfered in daily operations before."
"Okay. Right. And you haven't heard anything else about him?"
"I already told you everything I've heard, and I hear everything," she said. She'd worked for him long enough that she didn't sound particularly irritated, though she did look somewhat concerned. "I've never seen you wound up like this. Do you know this guy?"
Tony shook his head. "No, I'm pretty sure I don't, but think I recognised him. I know he's important, and really dangerous. I think he's..." He jumped as the phone rang. "I'm not here."
"It's my place, why would you be?" Dani picked up the phone. Her shoulders tensed a moment later, and she sat up straighter in her chair. She mostly listened or said yes or no, so Tony couldn't get much of what was going on. When she put down the phone, she looked as serious as he'd ever seen her. "That was Maggie again," she told him. "Karen Nowiki just called Pete in as overdue. He was supposed to be back from a kayak two hours ago, but no one's seen him since he left the harbour." She got up, coming to stand in front of Tony just as he was about to start pacing again. "They're starting a search. The whole station's going out."
Tony tilted his head back to look her in the eye. "I was just starting to say that I'm pretty sure that our shipwreck guy is involved in whatever happened to the missing people," he said.
"Pete's overdue, not missing," she snapped. Tony knew that the Nowikis were also local people, and that Dani had known Karen since kindergarten.
"Pete," Tony replied, "Could probably kayak before he could walk, and he's been a SAR tech for at least five years. The surf isn't up that much, and he knows the area better than I know my own garage. Is it possible that he has suffered a random boating accident? Yes. Is it remotely probable? Not so much."
She stood silently for a moment, looking through him, and then nodded. "Too many people are gone," she said. "Accidents don't make sense any more. But, Tony, why this man? He just got here."
"I don't know," he said, closing his eyes. He tried to remember exactly what the man getting off the bike had looked like, but recalling the scene only served to overwhelm him in a wash of nameless emotion. He must have swayed slightly on his feet, because he felt Dani's hands on his shoulders, steadying him. "I can't explain why," He said, "I don't know how I know, just that I do."
"That doesn't sound like you."
He shrugged her hands off. "Yeah, well, that's not surprising. I have no idea what I'm supposed to sound like. Look, I've got a plan, but I need your help."
The inevitable argument about Tony didn't turn out to be nearly as long or loud as Steve had predicted, possibly because it took place in one of Cedar Harbour Motel's dozen thin-walled rooms. He also thought that neither of them the heart for it. Bucky didn't want to drag up what he clearly felt to be ancient history, and Steve still felt too crushed to really lash out.
They had mutually, and silently, agreed both that the topic need not be mentioned again and that Steve should go take a long walk. He'd left Bucky talking on the comm with someone he didn't recognise but felt sure he wouldn't have associated with when he was Captain America.
Steve recognised that he was in what Clint would have called a moralising snit, but he felt like he had a right to it. Anyway, experiencing an emotion other than confusion, fear or a numb sense of loss made him feel like he might just be alive and real.
There really wasn't much to this town; they'd ridden past the coast guard station, gas station, general store, slipway, and a lot of docks. From the map, he didn't figure he'd find much more past the café and motel.
He didn't get more than a hundred yards out of the parking lot when a woman on the other side of the road waved him over. She was Native American, a hair taller than him and a fair bit heavier. Her shirt had holes from welding sparks all through it. "Hey," she said, "I was just coming to find you. We need to talk."
"Um..." Steve said. He definitely would have remembered seeing her before, and he hadn't. "What about?"
She frowned. "You are Steve Hunter?"
"That's right," he said, still feeling vaguely guilty about the subterfuge. "I didn't catch your name."
"Dani Evans." She held out a hand. Her grip probably would have crushed anyone without enhanced strength. "I heard you were asking about the missing people. You're right: there's something strange about the whole thing."
Steve nodded he'd figured as much from the waitress' response. He had also figured that the townspeople's distrust of him would exclude them from asking for his help."Why talk to me?" he asked. "Why not go to the cops?"
She didn't quite look over her shoulder, but Steve saw her eyes slide along the road. "The mounties won't help; we've tried, but something's wrong there too. It's hard to know who to trust anymore." She sounded real, and scared, but also determined. Steve found himself liking her. Then she met his eyes again, and told him, "And I know who you are."
"What?" Steve said, involuntarily.
"We can't talk out here," she said, hand on his sleeve now, "My shop's just around the corner. I'll tell you everything there." She must have seen him glance back at the motel, because she added, "Please, just you. I don't know your friend."
She didn't know him either, of course. However, Steve knew that people trusted Captain America, which made her not wanting to talk to Bucky kind of funny. He thought again about how difficult separating Steve from Cap had always been. He almost felt too old to do it again. Sighing, he said, "Okay, but I'm leaving him a note." In playing with the comm unit this morning, he'd figured out that it also sent texts. Steve took a moment punch in and send one, before he started to follow her down the road. He definitely felt too old to wander off with no back up in a creepy small town that disappeared people.
"Nice gadget," she said.
They didn't say anything else until they reached the small fishing supply shop and mechanic bay. She hadn't overstated the proximity; Steve figured he hadn't walked more than three hundred yards. Only another of those spruce groves separated this lot from the motel.
The sign on the main window read "Closed," and, aside from the repair shop's open garage door, Steve couldn't see any lights of signs of life anywhere in the building.
"My office is back here," Dani told him, leading the way into the dim interior.
The door slammed down behind Steve the moment he crossed the threshold. He barely had time to process that Dani dove forward and sideways. Then something came at him from the side, and he found himself down and rolling as well. A bulky engine block hooked on a chain hoist whistled through the air where his head had been.
Steve came up in a crouch, back to the firmly closed door, and to the right enough to avoid the swinging arc of the steel block. He really felt like an idiot for not making a point of scrubbing the salt and sand out of his costume so he could wear it under his clothes. He should have at least taken the faux shield when he went out.
Before he had time to scope out the shop any better, he heard the double click of a shotgun chambering a round. Had Dani, off to his left, been the only person with a gun, he could have dived father right, and maybe found cover and weapons in the doorway. The problem was that he could see another figure in the shadows that way, and it held some kind of rife.
He didn't bother shifting his stance, he was pretty clearly unarmed as it was, but he tried not to sound as angry as he felt. "I came here in good faith," he said, "I don't mean any harm to this town."
"Really?" the figure on his right asked, not lowering his gun. "Then where the hell is Pete Nowiki?"
Steve recognised the voice instantly, but somehow his brain didn't quite know what to do with that information. It wasn't until the man stepped forward, letting sunlight from a crack in the blinds reveal his features, that Steve whispered, "Tony?"
God, he's supposed to be dead, Steve though dizzily. He left a suicide note and everything. Has everything since I got back been another of his damned tricks? But no, Sam had said Tony was gone; he wouldn't lie to Steve. Unless he didn't know. Tony had faked his death before, but never for this long. He would have found a way to tell Pepper at least. This probably isn't actually Tony, Steve decided. It's a Skrull or an LMD or something. If the woman knows who I am, she probably knows this is the best way in the world to distract me.
"Where is he?" the thing that looked like Tony asked again. He either hadn't heard Steve or was ignoring him.
Steve pretended to focus all his attention on the man, trying to look as though he was ignoring Dani entirely. "I don't know," he said, voice low and calm. "I haven't seen him since the coast guard station last night. Is he missing?"
"Of course he's missing," he snapped. "So are six other people over the last year and a half. I know that you..."
Steve didn't give him a chance to finish. While the woman's attention wavered to "Tony," he took the second of distraction to leap into the air. Grabbing the links of the chain hoist as it swung towards him, he pushed off of the garage door and twisted in mid air. By the time the woman had started to bring her gun up to follow him, he'd already let go and launched himself at her.
His foot connected with her hands, knocking the shotgun to the floor. She turned and stepped back, but by then he'd hit the ground and rolled to his feet. It took him all of ten seconds to spin and get her in an arm lock. He had to take another three to re-secure her after a steel-shod toe connected with the inside of his ankle. After a moment of pressure, he relaxed the arm across her throat, asking, "Are you going to hold still now?"
She grunted an affirmative, then subtly tried to block his view as he looked over her shoulder.
"Tony" had shifted closer to the garage door, trying to get a clear shot around Steve's human shield. He had his hunting rifle pointed at the floor. "Don't hurt her!" he demanded. Steve didn't think he'd ever heard any version of Tony sound that desperate and unsure in the middle of a fight.
"I don't want to hurt anyone," Steve said. "You attacked me, Tony." He wanted to see what reaction that name would get.
"So you do know him," the woman said. "You didn't say he was so damn fast."
"I told you he was dangerous," the man said.
Steve's words overlapped as he said, "I thought you said you knew who I was." He had begun to suspect that he had massively misread the situation.
He felt her muscles shift as she tried to shrug. "I lied," she told him, not sounding the least repentant.
Okay, he definitely needed more information, like what the hell the thing that looked and sounded like Tony was.
The woman in his arms shifted, tilting her head back. Steve realised that he had tightened his hold again, and made himself relax. "Sorry," he muttered.
"We can make a deal," she said. "You let me go, and Tony puts down the gun, and we all start over."
"Tony" shook his head. "Then we'll both be unarmed, and he'll still be a freak who can kill us with his bare hands."
Steve forced himself not to flinch at that description. Not that it wasn't true, but Tony, the real Tony, had never called him that even in his worst moments. "I have a better idea," he told her. "I'll release you, and he can decide if he wants to keep the gun or not, but only if I scan both of you first."
"What for?" she asked at the same time as the man said, "With what?"
"The gadget on my belt is, among other things, a Skrull detector."
The tip of the rifle twitched as, if the man really wanted to raise it defensively. "Or, you know, a laser designed to kill us horribly," he snapped. "I think I'd rather take my chances with the hostage situation."
"You're not the hostage," Dani pointed out.
"Fine," Steve said, "I'll give the hostage the potential weapon, and she can point it at me first." When the man hesitated, he added, "The other option is choking her out, taking that rifle away, and then scanning you both while you're unconscious." He really had got to the end of his rope on this one.
Dani wriggled her wrists in his grip. "I like the first one," she said.
It took a bit of shuffling, but she ended up with the Skrull detector in her freed right hand, pointing awkwardly behind her. Steve wasn't sure what Sam had been worried about, as the process seemed pretty much point and click to him: easy to explain.
They all waited tensely as it cycled through its scan. When the woman turned it to see the results, she almost dropped it.
"Steve Rogers?" she squeaked. "We are so fucked."
"Who's that?" the man asked, but Steve could see shudders running though his body. He wondered how he could hold the rifle, his hands shook so badly.
The woman flipped the scanner again and restarted it. "It was Captain America's real name," she explained while watching it scan, when the man didn't acknowledge the significance of that, she elaborated, "Big shot superhero from the States, flag costume, supposed to have died about two years ago? Jeez, Tony, you really don't watch the news, do you?" The machine beeped and flashed red, and she held it up for Steve to see. "Look, almost ninety-nine percent sure to be human. My name's still Danielle Evans. You can enter it in the database later."
Steve barely noticed the result. The man looked like he was about ten seconds from passing out. He'd gone absolutely white, and his eyes, which already stood out because of that god awful buzz cut, were wide and staring. The gun fell from his hands and clattered on the floor.
Dani noticed at the same time Steve did, and tried to yank her left arm free. "Let me go!" She yelled. "I need to help him."
A good part of Steve's mind was screaming the same thing at him, because, God, did that look like Tony, but he forced himself not to move. Tightened his grip, and made his voice hard, "Not until he scans human," he said. And he won't, he added to himself. He can't. God, but what if it is Tony and something is wrong with him? Seeing his old friend like this, weak and in pain, seemed to override pretty much all the anger and resentment Steve had felt towards him during the war. He dropped the arm from around Dani's neck, and snatched the scanner out of her hand.
"He's not a Skrull," she protested. "Why would one be here? We never even got any the first time."
"We'll see," Steve said. The machine seemed to be taking forever this time, even longer than it had on the beach. He wondered if that meant something about the object of the scan, or if he was just imaging the difference.
"He gets these fits sometimes and..." She broke off when it blinked red. "Holy fuck!"
The screen read, "IDENTITY 97.5% CONFIRMED: ANTHONY EDWARD STARK."
"Oh God," Steve whispered. Then, Tony swayed and his knees started to fold. Steve was around Dani and easing him to the ground before she had even realised that he'd passed her the scanner. "Easy Tony," he said softly. "I've got you. It's okay. It's really me. I'm back now."
Tony tried to pull away, curling into knees. Steve could feel the tremors running through his muscles. He tried running his hands over Tony's arms, to calm him, but it only made him flinch more violently. He'd lost a lot of muscle mass since Steve had seen him last, but at least he looked like he was getting a square meal now and then. His face seemed softer, but he also had a lot more lines around his eyes and mouth than he'd had two and a half years ago. Still, Steve knew the feel of this man, unconscious, wounded or dead in his arms, far better than he would have liked.
Dani tugged on his arm, trying to pull him loose. "Stop it," she said, "You're making it worse. Here." She knelt in front of Tony and pulled him against her. "What is going on?" she asked plaintively.
Steve reluctantly let go, rocking back on his heels. "I don't know," he admitted. "I thought he was dead."
"I thought he was a mechanic from Toronto named Antonio Rossi," she said. "I guess we were both wrong."
Steve tried to decide which of his thousand questions she could answer, and which of those was most important. "Why did you two think I was behind the missing people?" he finally asked.
"I don't know; he said he just knew you were connected." She stroked Tony's back gently. The shakes seemed to be quieting. "He said he recognised you, and that you were dangerous. Then Pete disappeared, and..."
"He didn't seriously think that I..." Steve started to ask then cut himself off. Of course he hadn't, or at least Tony Stark hadn't thought that Steve Rogers was murdering the locals. For one, Tony Stark never would have pulled such an amateur stunt as that on anyone, least of all Captain America. Also, Tony had hardly seemed to recognise him, or he had recognised him, but not known who he was. It was Steve's name that had sent him to the floor in the first place. Something had gone horribly wrong with him. Pepper had said something about Tony trying to wipe out his brain. Obviously, he hadn't entirely failed. "What a mess," he concluded.
Tony groaned into her shirt. "I think my head is going to explode," he mumbled.
Steve reached out a hand, wanting to rest it on Tony shoulder, or stroke his ridiculously short hair, or do something, but ended up withdrawing it. "I thought you were dead," he said again. "We need to get you back to the States, and let the Beast or Mr. Fantastic get a look at you." He decided that what he really wanted to do was hug Tony and maybe never let him go. This wasn't the man he'd been fighting two years ago, which suddenly felt like an age to Steve. This was his friend.
"Not without finding Pete," Tony insisted. Pulling away from Dani, he sat up. Then he winced and pressed a steadying hand to his temple. "Though, some aspirin or something would be good."
Steve sighed. Apparently, some things about Tony didn't change, with or without memories. "There's a computer running your brain, Tony, and I'm pretty sure it's gone haywire," he said. "I don't think that painkillers are going to cut it."
Tony shrugged slightly. "I managed to get through the last year without even knowing that I had a computer running my brain. I'm sure that it won't kill me today." Bracing a hand on the floor, he tried to get his feet under him, but wobbled. "Here, Dani, help me up."
"That makes no sense," She protested, but rose and reached down for him anyway. She turned to Steve as she was lifting him up. "Why does he have an electronic brain?"
"Because it made him better," Steve said, trying not to sounds as bitter as he'd always felt about the Extremis. "Tony, you should sit down before you fall down."
Dani had to keep a hold on his arm to prevent him from doing just that, but Tony, swaying slightly, didn't move. "We need to find Pete," he said again. "It's probably too late for the others, but he just disappeared this morning."
"I should tie you up and get Ms Marvel to ship you straight back to New York," Steve said, wanting nothing more than to get back to somewhere familiar, if not safe. Tony would hate him for it, but he wasn't exactly in his right mind anyway. He could die. Hell, Tony had wanted to die. Maybe he still did.
Still, Steve owed Nowiki, and, if he stayed, finding him without local help in the form of Tony and Dani might not even be possible. He didn't want to force Tony to abandon a friend, especially when he didn't seem to have that many anymore. Steve wasn't sure who he could trust to look after Tony in this state. It really didn't make sense, but if whatever the Extremis had done to him hadn't killed him yet, it quite probably wouldn't in the next few days. He sighed. "Which is exactly what I'm going to do if you show the least sign that whatever this is getting any worse." He shook a finger at Tony, who had opened his mouth, probably to protest. "Don't think hiding symptoms will work either. I know you, Tony."
"Whereas I don't have the faintest clue who or what you are, besides a pain in the ass," Tony grumbled mutinously. "Oh, and you're threatening to kidnap me, and being near you makes my head hurt. I can't even look you in the eyes without wanting to run away. Why the hell should I trust you just because a little beeping machine, that you own, says you're some dead superhero?"
Dani intervened before Steve could think of anything useful to say. "If he wanted to do something to us, he could've pretty easily before. Pete is still missing, and we need all the help we can get."
Steve wondered if he and Tony could ever again be in the same room without needing a mediator. He suddenly felt immensely tired, like cold water had sapped his strength. "I should call my friend," he said, "Before he shows up armed and wondering where I am."
"This is so fucked up," Tony said, sounding resigned. That they could agree on, at least.
Rogers' friend showed up armed anyway, and carrying a couple of bulky packages over his shoulder. He looked at Tony, raised an eyebrow, and asked Rogers, "Is he for real?"
"Apparently," Rogers said.
The newcomer sighed. "Figures." To Tony he said, "Not that I've missed you, but where the hell have you been?"
"Here," Tony snapped. This guy really wasn't doing much for the splitting pain in his skull, though it had abated slightly since he'd fallen. The staggering compulsion to run had also receded, though not disappeared, but his hands still shook from it. "I suppose you're a superhero too."
"Steve?" the man asked reproachfully.
Rogers grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck. "Tony... uh... seems to have some kind of amnesia," he said. "Tony, this is Bucky Barnes, who is indeed a superhero."
"Great," Barnes and Tony said at the same time, and in the same tone. Tony glared at Barnes. Barnes glared back. Rogers sighed.
"Here it is!" Dani called from Tony's office. "You need to organise more." She emerged holding a binder in one hand and a roughly folder sheet of paper in the other. "Would you clear that junk off," she asked, waving at the cans of oil and bits of engine covering the bench in the middle of the room. Tony winced as Rogers swept it all up and dumped it onto the other bench with a clang. She spread the paper open on the metal. It turned out to be the chart he'd had in his office, now with holes in the corners from tearing it off the wall.
It already had circles and scribbled notes where each of the previous people had disappeared, as far as he knew. "I've got all the information we could put together here," Tony said, tapping the binder. "I can't find any connection between any of the disappearances, aside from the location, lack of bodies and the fact that they were all alone. Any one of them would seem totally normal on its own, just boating accidents and stupid tourists, but all together..."
Barnes was flipping though the folder now. "This is pretty much all in the RCMP records," he said. "Though they have criminal record checks for half the town. Nothing significant there, either."
Frowning at the dates on the map, Rogers noted, "They're accelerating. The last disappearance wasn't even a month ago." He closed his eyes, a little furrow appearing in his brow. "I can't see any pattern, other than that."
"I can't find one either," Tony admitted.
"How does any of this help Pete?" Dani asked.
"It doesn't," Tony said. "We're just bringing the newbies up to speed."
Barnes snorted, and Rogers' frown deepened. "We're comparing intelligence," he corrected. "I assume there's a search on already?"
Dani nodded. "Maggie will have the SAR station and half the town out looking. The big helicopter's probably on its way over from Comox Air Force base."
"Then we're better off here trying to figure out the source of the problem than just being more bodies in the search."
Tony caught himself nodding in agreement and stopped. It wasn't that Rogers was wrong, but he didn't feel comfortable with how easily he'd taken charge. He especially didn't like how he seemed to slip into following Rogers, considering the man still scared the shit out of him. He bent over and sketched a red circle around Second Beach, then wrote "Rogers" and yesterday's date. He paused, pen hovering. Adding "drug dealer" might be satisfying, but he didn't want to corrupt the data.
Their fingers brushed as Rogers took the pen from him, drawing a question mark. "I don't know how I ended up here," he said. "What about you?"
Tony shrugged. "I hitch-hiked," he said, ignoring Barnes' smirk. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"I don't know," Rogers admitted, "But if one assumed-dead superhero randomly showing up in the middle of a missing-persons case is unlikely, two is almost impossible."
Well that didn't make any sense. "I thought Barnes showed up because you were here," Tony said.
Rogers frowned. "He did. What..."
"You're the other superhero, Tony," Dani interrupted.
"Oh," Rogers said.
"No I'm not," Tony snapped, because there was no way on earth that was right.
"That's what I said." Okay, this Barnes guy was starting to get on Tony's nerves. He wondered what had caused all that animosity.
"Bucky," Rogers said reproachfully, "Tony Stark's been Iron Man for over a decade. He helped found the Avengers." He didn't add "so show a little respect," but he his tone implied it heavily.
Tony's stomach lurched again at that name. "I'm not..."
"Right," Barnes said, not sounding the least bit repentant. "Then he got you killed and royally screwed the Avengers and everyone else in the country."
"We've already had this argument," Rogers told him. His voice sounded soft and tired. "Let's move on." He circled Cedar Harbour's main intersection. "So when was this, and why did you decide to stay?"
Tony decided that it would probably save time it he gave up on trying to convince everyone that he wasn't this Stark. He didn't have any real evidence, or even any clear memories to contradict it. He just felt absolutely convinced like he wasn't that person, but even thinking that as a justification sounded lame, so he kept it to himself. He just hoped that they didn't expect him to turn into the Tin Man, or whatever, and save the world. "About this time last year," he told Rogers. "I don't remember the exact date. I liked it here. It felt right."
Rogers wrote that date, "Stark" and "Compulsion" under the circle. Then he frowned and added "Compulsion" next to his name too. "That wasn't long after the second disappearance," he noted.
"The mounties didn't look into the first few cases that closely," Dani said. "They both seemed accidental: small boats caught in a storm. It happens."
Barnes had his own computer out. Tony felt a faint buzzing sound in the back of his mind again. It sounded a bit like a crowd of people talking loudly, only from very far away. He remembered why he usually avoided complex electronics. "It doesn't look like they did much follow up later either," Barnes said frowning. "Most of these reports look very preliminary, even the recent ones when they should have been suspicious."
Rogers circled the bench to peer over his shoulder. "I don't think we can count on any of these being accurate," he said. "Do you think the local police are corrupt?"
Tony and Dani looked each other. He could tell she was thinking, bloody Americans, but she said, "We don't like them that much on the reservation, but I've never heard of them screwing up anything to do with tourists."
"Well we don't have time to start an entire police investigation over," Barnes said, "Not if we want to find your friend alive. No one will talk to us anyway, unless you want Evans and Stark to do it."
Rogers shook his head before Tony could say anything. "I don't think sending a civilian and a cyborg with a malfunctioning brain out to question potential murderers is a good idea."
"Agreed," Tony said. Rogers stared at him, mouth open a little, as though he had started to respond then cut himself off. "What? I'm not stupid, and I'm not a superhero, no matter what you say."
For a moment, Tony thought that Rogers looked like he wanted to cry, but he shook his head sharply and said, "Well, Bucky, I guess we're back to your plan." Barnes raised his eyebrow questioningly. "Sneaking about gathering intelligence; we'll have to leave off the part with cover of darkness and high explosives for now though."
Barnes grinned and said, "Pretty much, only now I throw a hunk of metal at things instead of just shooting them. Most of the time." He patted the lump in his jacket at that. Tony wondered if that was legal. "What targets?"
"Where the first two people disappeared," Tony said suddenly, then he blinked. He had absolutely no idea why he'd spoken up. "Um..."
But Rogers was nodding. "Right," he said. "I was thinking the same thing."
"Well you're going to need us," Dani said. "Both those spots are out in the islands." She tapped her finger on the relevant marks on the map. "Unless your bike can fly, you don't have a way to get out there."
Rogers didn't look happy about that, but he admitted, "Local knowledge would be good. I take it you have boats?"
"This is coastal BC," Tony said, "everyone has a boat."
Steve kept glancing over at Tony as he steered the aluminium skiff out of the harbour. He seemed to be steadily ignoring Steve, eyes moving between his controls and the water around them. Having Tony beside him filled him with a wash of conflicting feelings. His presence felt welcome and familiar, but at the same time he felt anger twisting him, both at the last time they'd talked on the Raft, and Tony's message. That lead to worry and guilt, which lead to another wave of protective affection. On the whole, he couldn't decide if he wanted to hug Tony or throttle him. He had a feeling both moves would be equally welcome right now.
Tony had said, rather tersely, that it was about thirty minutes from the town to the fish farm in the islands, the last known location of the second victim. Steve had brought his costume to clean and mend along the way, which he was now trying to use to distract himself from the man next to him. He'd tried clearing the scales of salt and grime, but the choppy sea outside the harbour now prevented finer work. Instead he concentrated on clearing the slime off the leather sections, and on not feeling like he was on a first date from hell. It didn't help that the narrow seats forced them to either sit so close they were touching legs, or in different parts of the boat entirely. Steve didn't want to be up in front of the steering console where he couldn't see Tony or what he was doing.
About the dozenth time his attention slid over to Tony, he caught Tony looking back and glanced back down. Tony didn't. "You actually wear that?" he asked, "Like in public?"
Steve frowned. Close to ten years of working with Clint Barton had taken the sting out of most comments about his costume, but Tony had never said anything of the kind. Probably because he'd had a childhood obsession with Captain America's World War Two records. "Yes. I do," he said, not succeeding at all in sounding like he didn't care. "On and off for more than sixty years, actually."
Tony gaped, then the skiff hit a wave wrong and jarred badly, and he had to turn back to steering. "Is Tony Stark secretly ninety years old too?" he asked.
Letting the costume drop to the deck, Steve turned in his seat. "Eighty-seven," he corrected, though he knew that Tony was only trying to get a rise out of him. "And no, you're not. Tony, why don't you believe you are who I say you are? It's got to make more sense than an ordinary mechanic having no connections to the world and such an improbable kind of amnesia." If he could just get Tony to start trusting him... but no, Tony hadn't trusted him when he'd still remembered a decade of friendship, why would he now? "Never mind," he said, and turned to stare at the rocky coastline as they motored past. They'd passed a few boats on the way out, mostly headed to the search area to the south, but he couldn't see anyone now.
He thought that Tony had let the subject drop, but a few minutes later, he said, "Every time I think of your Stark or Iron Man, I feel this urge to either throw up or run away." His voice sounded so soft that Steve had to lean in to hear him over the engine "Everything about you and your life feels wrong to me. Maybe it does make more sense, but I think I'm literally incapable of believing it."
Given what he'd said on the video, Steve had to wonder how much of that was the Extremis messing with Tony's head, and how much was just how Tony had felt about himself at the end. It occurred to him then that maybe forcing Tony to return to his old life would only bring back that fevered gleam in his eye. "Do you like living in Cedar Harbour?" he asked. "Before I came, I mean."
"Yeah," Tony said, but he had a little line of concentration between his brows, like he had to really consider it. "It's a good place; I have my own shop, and people seem to like me."
"But were you happy?" Steve persisted.
"I don't think I even know what that means," Tony said. "I wasn't un--"
The skiff shuddered and jerked to port. Steve clamped his right hand on the gunwale beside him and the other under the edge of the seat. Tony rose to his feet to better brace against the sudden movement, both hands on the wheel now.
"Did we hit something?" Steve asked.
"Maybe a..." Tony started, but the boat shuddered again, this time jarring to starboard. "I think something's hitting us!" he yelled. He jerked the wheel over and gunned the engine, which should have thrown them port and forward, but somehow didn't.
Instead, the boat bucked so violently that Steve found himself propelled up over the console into the forward section. He twisted in mid air and only just managed to keep from hitting the inner hull face first.
"Sorry," Tony shouted over the straining outboard. "I think we're caught, or something. It's like I'm pulling against a fixed line." Steve scrambled to his knees, unsure how Tony had kept from being tossed with him; more used to boats, he supposed. "I'm going to try coming about," Tony warned him, "Hang on!" He spun the wheel in the opposite direction, but that had little apparent effect. They weren't even bouncing around anymore, apparently held fast. The engine started to emit a high-pitched whine, and Tony throttled it back.
"Can you see anything?" Steve asked.
"No," Tony yelled. "What the fuck?"
Steve got up to a crouch and started to slide back towards the console, left hand on the gunwale. He could see his pack and the fake shield tied down behind Tony's seat, and very much wanted to have it before whatever happened next.
He just about made it.
He was amidships when Tony's yell of, "Rogers, get down," sent him back to the deck. He caught a flash of brown out of the corner of his eye, and rolled over to see a tentacle far too big to belong to any normal sea creature.
The appendage flailed for a second, seeking blindly, then seemed to tune into his presence, maybe sensing his body heat, and reached towards him. Rolling sideways, he came up against the side and scrambled aft, again trying to reach his shield. He could see the edge of it behind Tony's feet, which were now lifting off the deck.
Steve heard a strangled cry, and looked up to see Tony suspended by his neck, hands scrabbling at the tentacle pressing against this throat. Another wrapped around Tony's torso, tightening as Steve watched.
He threw himself forward, and caught the edge of the soft case surrounding his shield, only to have it torn from his grasp as something grabbed his ankle and yanked him back. He kicked at it with his free foot, managing to scrape it off long enough to get a good grip on the case. Even with the unfamiliar bindings, it took only a moment to tear the shield free.
By that time, the tentacle on his ankle had regained its hold, and metal screeched on metal as it dragged Steve back feet first. It grabbed his free leg as well, and, before he knew it, he was upside down in the air
Praying that he had the balance right, he threw the shield. It wavered a little off path, but still flew true enough to slice through the tentacle holding Tony's neck, before arcing back towards him. He had to fold his body up and reach to the side to snatch it out of the air, but it wasn't a bad shot.
He used the momentum to swing up and slash at the limbs holding his legs. They tried to twist away, swinging him out over the water, but he managed to get a hold on one with his left hand. The flesh felt slimy, and had enough give that he had a difficult time hanging on. As he swung the shield at one, it let go of his ankle, and attached itself to his face, suction pads pulling painfully. The tip slid up his cheek, seeking out his eyes.
Swiping behind him as hard as he could, Steve struck the tentacle leading to his face with enough force to knock it away, if not sever it. The suction pads ripped away, taking a fair bit of skin with them. Now that it was in front of him, he swung again, slicing it clean off.
That was when it dropped him in the ocean.
He caught another glimpse of Tony as he fell. He still had a tentacle wrapped around his chest, and appeared to be stabbing it with a screw driver.
The plunge into the frigid water just about knocked his breath out of Steve. The salt water stung the abrasions on his cheek and his eyes when he forced them open. A dark shape lurked in the shadow of the skiff, arms reaching up around the starboard side and stern. Steve thought it looked like an octopus, only much larger than it should be.
He knew it would probably try to hold him under and drown him, so he kicked down towards it before it could get another hold on him. He kept his back to the hull, and shot towards it. He knew that he didn't have the strength to do any damage by throwing the shield underwater, and he didn't have a knife. Even Tony's screwdriver would be welcome at this point.
The creature saw him and turned. Steve felt the hull above him shudder as it dropped Tony to bring the extra tentacle towards him. It trailed a stream of blue-green blood as it came, adding to the murk already filling the water. Its eyes looked so human that Steve wondered if it might be sentient, and the parrot-like bill at its centre had a razor edge..
Steve took his only shot, grabbing a leg with one hand -- his fingers already growing numb from the cold, lungs burning for air -- and yanking the body of the creature towards him. At the same time, he pushed off the bottom of the boat, and started to swing his shield arm forward.
Before he could connect the blow, he felt a set of tentacles he couldn't account for.
He only had a moment to realise how badly he'd miscalculated before his head struck the hull and everything went black again.
Tony rolled to his knees, gritting his teeth as the movement jarred his ankle. It had gone over when that thing dropped him to the deck, and now it felt sprained.
Leaning against the seat, he straightened and tried to look over the side without actually going near it. He'd felt several impacts on the underside of the hull a moment before. Now, both the skiff and the water seemed unnaturally still. "Rogers?" he called, then felt like an idiot. Of course, he couldn't hear, he'd fallen in the water, whereupon the sea monster had probably eaten him. He couldn't possibly have stayed alive underwater without air this long, no matter what he was.
Whatever was going on, Tony would have to get out of this himself. This would probably be easier if I could remember being a superhero, he decided.
He had just turned to the outboard, trying to spot check for damage from where he was, when the skiff shuddered again. "Shit," he whispered, and gripped the screwdriver more tightly in his hand. I should have looked for a knife, he thought, too late. Hell, I should have brought the rifle. The thing just felt so unnatural in his hands that he'd left it in the shop.
A brown tentacle crept over the gunwale near the starboard beam, followed by another closer to the bow. The boat tilted under the weight, and he shuffled back a bit, still on his knees, but knew he had nowhere to go. If Captain America's extremely athletic heroics hadn't defeated whatever it was, he was pretty much screwed. It didn't attack though, instead lifting another two arms up between the first two. Rogers' limp body hung from these for a moment, before they dropped him back into the skiff.
He hit the deck with a crash.
Before Tony could decide what he wanted to do, he heard the scream of rending metal behind him. He spun, striking his ankle against the seat, but only caught the last of the outboard as the creature tore it off. He had to drop to his belly as an arm reached past him and ripped out the steering console and radio as well. Another thing he should have thought of before it was too late.
Or maybe it was creatures. He saw at least four legs here as well, and Rogers had taken out a couple before he went down, which made at least ten, plus whatever was still under water bracing against the hull. If it was, in fact, some sort of octopus derivative -- that was abnormally large and could function like that out of the water -- then there were at least two involved.
All the tentacles retreated from view. Another moment of stillness followed, the boat rocking in the low chop, then it started to make way again. As far as Tony could tell, they were still on their original course for the fish farm. Tony suspected that if he peered over the side, which he had absolutely no intention of doing, he would see the hull wrapped in tentacles, and the creature, or creatures, propelling them forwards.
Nothing he could do about that. Tony got back up and crawled forward to see if Rogers was still alive. He lay unmoving on his back, limbs askew, blood trickling down his face, shield twisting his right arm. He looked very much like a corpse. However, when Tony pressed a finger to his neck, he could feel a faint but steady pulse. From this close, he could also see Rogers' chest rising and falling slightly.
He tried to remember the first aid course Maggie at the SAR station had bullied him into taking last year. That he was breathing was obviously good. Bleeding all over the deck probably not so much. "Rogers," Tony said again, "Wake up!" One of Rogers' cheeks had an ugly abrasion across it, but he smacked the other one lightly. "Come on, you need to wake up and be heroic for me." No such luck. He couldn't find the communicator device he'd had either. Rogers must have lost it in the sea.
He poked around a little more and found the source of most of the blood. It had mixed with salt water, and darkened Rogers' thick blond hair to auburn in places, plastering it to his skull. The main cut seemed to be above his left ear, and the bleeding had already slowed. Tony let it be for the moment.
Realising that soaking wet and cold probably weren't good either, he unbuckled the shield and started to peel Rogers out of his jacket. It wasn't until Tony rolled him over that he remembered the whole c-spine thing. Fuck, he thought, oh well, too late now. He kept going, struggling against limp muscles and wet fabric.
He felt a lot less freaked out being in such close proximity to the man than he had an hour before. Perhaps that was because he was already so terrified by the attack of the giant octopodes. He didn't have the emotional energy leftover for less lethal things.
Finally, he got the jacket, shirt and undershirt free, and rolled him back over. What Tony saw made him gasp. A patchwork of bruises, half-healed abrasions and scars covered Rogers' sculpted torso, extending down his arms and below his belt. Rogers had been so... well superheroic, Tony supposed, that he'd quite forgotten he'd crawled out of the surf not twenty-four hours before. Tony stared, eyes tracing the y-incision down his chest, and decided that if this was the cost of being a superhero, he wanted even less to do with it than he had before. He wondered if his unmarked skin meant that Rogers and Barnes were full of shit, or if something else was wrong with him. He had always healed abnormally fast.
He reached out to touch Rogers' sternum...
Autopsy tables are strangely bloodless, considering. Tony looks down at what is literally a shell of the man he loves. He wants to turn away, to go throw up somewhere private, but he forces himself to stay, to observe. The Extremis had started to record the procedure in every detail, but he'd switched as much of it off as he could. Steve hated that part of him. He can remember this on his own for Steve. Tony will never let himself forget what he'd done.
...Tony snatched his hand back, and squeezed his eyes shut. "What the fuck was that?" he whispered, but he knew the answer already. If nothing else, he could tell by the blinding pain in his temples, which had returned and redoubled. "I don't want this to be real," he told himself. It didn't help.
Not thinking about it didn't really help either, but he tried to focus on helping Rogers. He hesitated before working the belt buckle open, but the saturated jeans really had to go too. Tony was just glad Rogers was wearing briefs under them. The jeans had been tight enough on him, even dry, that he hadn't been sure.
Stripping completed, he opened his shirt and wrapped them both in emergency blankets from the first aid pack.
Lying in the bottom of a boat attempting to convey body heat to a man who looked and felt like a drowned rat didn't turn out to be the most romantic thing he remembered doing. Tony shifted around until he ended up sprawled over Rogers' chest, their legs tangled together, and his head resting awkwardly on a broad shoulder. He didn't remember having given too much thought to the issue before, but muscles ended up being uncomfortable things to have pressed against one. Maybe he was just doing it wrong. It wasn't like he'd had much practice, that he knew of.
The creatures seemed to still be pulling the skiff towards the fish farm. At least Tony couldn't think of anything else on that course, unless there was something on the back side of the island that he didn't know about. He figured that, at this speed, they had about twenty minutes before they got there. Unless Captain America woke up and saved them all, he was pretty much stuck until they got closer to land.
At least listing every small discomfort and thing that could possibly go wrong did something to distract him from the image of the man under him lying gutted on a metal table. Even the growing pain of his ankle couldn't take away the memory of what it felt lose everything. He pressed his face into Steve's neck and tried to pretend that none of this was real.
Steve woke up with a splitting headache, alone in the dark. He opened and closed his eyes, but it didn't seem to make any difference to the quality of light. It was only when he tried to wave a hand in front of his face that he realised that they were tied behind his back. His legs were also chained and tied into something on the floor. He was glad that whoever had tied him up had left out the collar that some villains seemed to love. Also, he was dressed in only his briefs. Oh, well, villains with a fetish for undressing him were better than ones with an obsession with chaining him like a dog, he supposed.
He rolled over to his back and levered himself into a sitting positing, grunting as discovered that he'd managed to bruise or pull almost every muscle. He peered around, but still saw only darkness. A flash of panic hit him as it occurred to him that he might be blind; he remembered the tentacles on his face... but no, he'd pulled them off, hadn't he?
Frowning, Steve tried to remember what had happened. He'd been underwater, then something... there'd been another octopus thing behind him. He remembered that now. It must have knocked him out, because he didn't recall much after that.
There was something about Tony... oh, god, where was Tony? He called his name, but his voice came out a choked whisper. "Tony?" he tried again, a little clearer this time, "Are you there?"
No one answered.
No Tony then, or, if he was there, he wasn't aware enough to respond. Steve didn't think he could hear anyone else breathing though. He refused to consider the idea that Tony might be dead. Again.
He remembered something else though, a sensation of warmth, of skin on skin. He closed his eyes uselessly, trying to picture it, but nothing came to him besides a feeling of warmth and familiarity. It had felt like those lazy times in the first few years of the Avengers, when Tony had lain sprawled on top of him, arms around his chest. Steve would bitch about how he couldn't breathe, but Tony just laughed into his neck, and wiggled his hips in a truly distracting manner.
They hadn't shared a bed like that in years though. Steve must have hit his head harder than he thought. He shivered, chilled by the room and the darkness.
Giving up on the memory, Steve turned back to his bonds. A bit of straining showed that the manacles on his wrists weren't going anywhere, and he didn't have his costume so no lock picks. The floor felt like cement, and the eye ring seemed to be well and truly anchored. He tried throwing his weight against it, but only succeeded in taking the skin off his ankles.
Sighing, he lay back down and tried to feel out his surroundings. After some rolling about, he touched cement walls on two sides. He didn't find anything useful like a hairpin or the replica shield though. It seemed to be one of the cleaner cells he'd been incarcerated in, even if it did smell faintly of dead fish.
Finally, he settled on the floor near the base of his chains, knees drawn up in an attempt to sit comfortably and conserve warmth. He had briefly considered pretending to be unconscious, but decided it wouldn't do him much good at this point. He stared into the dark, and tried not to worry himself into a panic about where the hell Tony had got to.
He couldn't tell how much time passed before the door opened, but the sudden light blinded him when it did.
Steve had to struggle not to flinch away from it, so he squinted his eyes almost shut and peered through his lashes. At first, he couldn't make out more than a shadow against the rectangle of light forming the doorway. It looked humanoid, at least, and perhaps a little smaller than an average human.
As he stepped forward and away from the light, he came into clearer focus. Steve blinked again. As far as he could tell, the man was a normal human, and not an especially remarkable one. He stood maybe five and a half feet tall, and looked desperately in need of several square meals. He'd let his mouse-brown hair grow out but never trimmed it, and though the lines around his eyes made him look forty or so, his ginger beard grew in fuzzy patches. He wore four layers of torn denim and plaid, and smelled strongly of raw fish.
"I am Oswald the Omnipotent!" he said grandly, "You will kneel before me!"
Steve laughed at him. "Right," he said, not pointing out that he was already sitting on the ground, tied up and in his underwear.
Oswald didn't seem fazed by his refusal to cower, saying, "You won't be smug like that for long, Captain America. You have no idea what I'm planning. Soon the whole world will kneel for Oswald the Omnipotent!"
Steve had admit, though not out loud, that the guy actually made him kind of nostalgic. He hadn't run into an honest to god monologuing wannabe super villain in years. Well, not one this silly, anyway. "Really?" he asked, putting on a show of looking the guy up and down with a sceptical expression. "How do you figure that?"
Pulling the layers of flannel around him, Oswald tried, and failed, to look down his nose imperiously. "I'm not falling for that. Your tricks won't make me tell you my plans. No, you'll have to wait, and fear!" He spun on his heel and stalked away.
Now that his eyes had fully adjusted, Steve realised that he was inside an abandoned freezer Outside the air-tight door, he caught a glimpse of brush and tree trunks. He wondered if he was on the mainland, or one of the islands he'd seen on the map.
Oswald slowed as he reached the door, possibly torn between wanting to make a dramatic exit, and having the chance to taunt Steve further.
Steve bit his lip. The disbelief thing usually worked pretty well. Oh well, time to try something else. "Wait," he called. "What happened to Pete Nowiki?" He didn't mention who he really felt concerned about in case he had somehow escaped this little creep's attention. Since he was following the script, he added, "You'll pay for it if you've hurt him." Reminding himself that Oswald had probably killed six people and was currently working on seven, eight and nine helped him keep a straight face. It was easier than fighting MADOC, at least.
It worked: Oswald turned back, though he took a moment to position himself in the doorway so Steve had to squint into the light again. "Oh, don't worry," he sneered, "Your friend is fine, for now anyway. My minions must work on him before the sacrifice. If you're a good boy, and ask nicely, I'll even let you watch the fun bit later."
Steve remembered Nowiki all on the beach in orange rain gear and shaggy hair, and felt his gut twist. Suddenly he didn't need to play along; he'd had enough. "Why are you doing this?" he asked.
Oswald shrugged and grinned lopsidedly. "I'm sure you can guess, Captain America," he said, voice dropping its attempt at grandiose tones. "Why do any of us do this? Wealth. Power. Fame. When I die, people will know who I was."
"There are better ways to do that," Steve said, though really, he knew there wasn't any point. He'd had this argument with a hundred villains, and he could only ever remember winning it that one time with Molecule Man.
"But not easier ones," the man said, then added on seeing Steve's expression of derision, "Hey, at least I'm honest." He stepped forward, careful not to get in Steve's reach, but trying to loom. "Now, I want you to kneel, and call me by my true title."
"Go to hell," Steve snapped.
Oswald was getting better at sneering; maybe he hadn't had enough practice before. "Do it," he said, voice still sounding too rehearsed to really nail commanding. Now, however, it had a note in it that made Steve shiver. "Do it, or I'll take it out of the hide of your poor, messed up friend from the boat: the Invincible Iron Man!"
Steve kept his face still, saying only, "Iron Man is dead, and you're deluded."
Actually stamping his foot, Oswald demanded, "You think you could hide Tony Stark here? You think I didn't know who he was the moment he stepped into town? Who do you think has been keeping him from noticing all those memories that keep trying to work their way up to the surface? Who do you think kept anyone else from recognising him? From recognising you? I've had him in my hands for a year!" He paused, then, when Steve said nothing, shrieked, "I know everything! That's why I'm called Oswald the Omnipotent!"
Steve blinked, but didn't correct the lapse in vocabulary.
"Now," said Oswald, tone switching back to something like normal. "I want you to kneel."
Steve swallowed and considered his options. He had no evidence that anything the delusional creep said even resembled the truth, but could he really afford to take the chance? He wasn't exactly in a dignified position as it was. "Fine," he muttered, and rolled forward onto his knees. He kept his back straight and stared steadily up at his captor. "Will there be anything else, Oswald the Omnipotent?"
Oswald shook his head, a small but gleeful grin tugging at his lips. "No, I think I'm good."
"May I please see Iron Man?" Steve asked. He hated begging, especially to the likes of this, but he needed to know if Tony was okay. If it appeased Oswald's ego enough to make him slip up, it would be more than worth a little pride.
Oswald hesitated, eyes darting around the room. "Um... no," he said, "I think you're better off imagining what I'm doing to him." Then he turned and left with a final, "Good afternoon, Captain America."
This time, Steve didn't give Oswald the satisfaction of yelling clichés after him, no matter how much he wanted to.
The door closed with a heavy thud, followed by the clicks of multiple latches.
When Oswald returned an indeterminate amount of time later, he brought minions. He even introduced them as "my minions." They were blank-faced and obedient enough that Steve didn't question the designation. He did not, however, feel especially intimidated by a girl in her late teens and a wiry logger type in his mid fifties.
Then Oswald handed the man a Beretta, and told him to shoot the girl if Steve tried to escape or otherwise refused to co-operate.
"Wait, dammit!" Steve yelled, but the man didn't hesitate, holding the gun steady. "You're sick, you know that right?"
Ignoring the comment, Oswald screwed up his face in concentration, lips moving silently. Steve watched him carefully, but didn't notice an effect. Oswald stomped his foot, and swore softly, before returning to his task. About a minute later, a pink glow surrounded the anchor attaching Steve's manacled feet to the floor. It faded in and out several times before disappearing entirely. "Follow me," Oswald ordered. "Remember, if you try anything, the girl will die."
Steve nodded and did as he was told, stiff muscles and chain between his feet causing him to shuffle slightly.
His cell turned out to be a room in a larger cement building in the woods. He could hear the low hum of refrigeration mechanisms behind the other doors, and realised that he could have been a lot worse off. As it was, the chilly forest air made him shiver so badly he had to clench his teeth together to keep them from chattering. Oswald either didn't notice or ignored his discomfort.
The minions stayed about ten yards ahead of him, and the man's aim didn't waiver. Steve noticed, as they made their way along the pathway at the edge of the building, that their movements were slow and even slightly clumsy. He mentally added it to his very short list of advantages.
Steve jerked against his chains and turned his face away as they rounded the last corner and came to face the water. The sun was behind him, and low enough that he figured it had to be getting late in the afternoon, but it still gleamed on the water of the channel between the island and the mainland.
Steve realised that this must be the salmon farm that he and Tony had been headed for in the first place. They'd come out on top of a low rock cliff above a broad cove. Cement steps led down the side to the facilities at the base. The rock kept dropping off sharply under the water, as a gangway led off from the bottom of the steps to a grid of walkways and small sheds on the water. The floating structure formed something like a waffle pattern.
Several boats were moored along the edges, but Steve couldn't find the skiff. The damn octopus things had probably scuttled it, hoping to pass off his and Tony's disappearance as another maritime accident. Hopefully Bucky and Dani hadn't run into anything eight-legged and nasty on their own. He'd definitely missed at least two check ins by now. Theoretically, all he had to do was keep everyone alive for long enough for the cavalry, as represented by the Avengers, to show up.
Unless something had happened to Bucky as well, and then he was pretty much out of luck.
Keeping himself between his minions and Steve, Oswald started down to the harbour. Some kind of black slime covered the steep stairway, and, with no way to balance, Steve had to struggle to manoeuvre down them. Oswald hung onto the chain handrail.
They stopped at the edge of the float, and Oswald gestured grandly as the water below them. "My life's work is all here!" he proclaimed. "See?"
Steve obediently peered into the depths. He could see the edges of mesh tacked onto the insides of the square spaces made by the network of rotting wooden walkways. The little sun that made it into the cove cast deep-green shadows on most of the area. Silver flashed in the little patches of light, and, as he watched longer, he realised that what he had thought were ripples and shadows were the bodies of hundreds of salmon swimming in slow circles. Each square was a separate fish pen. Oswald waved his arms, and muttered, and one swam closer to the surface, turning on its side for Steve's inspection. It looked like a pretty normal fish; if normal fish had glowing red eyes.
"What's wrong with them?" Steve asked.
Oswald sent the fish away again with a wave. "Nothing's wrong with them," he snapped defensively. "They're perfect. With these fish, I can control half the people on in BC. Soon I'll have the entire west coast and Asia at my feet."
Steve frowned at the salmon. They looked largely harmless to him, though a memory worried at the edges of his mind. "Are they... uh... attack fish?" he asked.
"Of course not. That would be silly!" Oswald said dismissively. "They control your mind! Anyone who eats one, or touches someone who eats one, will be wide open for my diabolical powers!"
Steve blinked, suddenly remembering the trout incident of several years ago. That was actually moderately original. Since 1941, he'd only run into mind-altering fish a couple of times. "Huh," he said. It did explain the lack of police investigation, and Tony's general dizziness since his arrival.
"Follow me," Oswald said, gesturing him further onto the docks. He'd obviously forgotten that he wasn't telling Steve all his plans, and Steve wasn't about to remind him. They made their way around one of the small sheds, Steve's bare feet skidding slightly on the damp boards. He guessed that Oswald had fed his salmon to the health and safety inspectors at some point along the way.
Steve leaned in as Oswald opened the door to the shed, enjoying the heated air flooding out. In the centre of the cramped space sat an iron cauldron. Pink flames flickered over its surface, illuminating the windowless room. Inside the cauldron, wrists chained to the rim, sat Pete Nowiki, naked and scared but alive.
"Whatever you want..." he started to say to Oswald, then broke off. "Steve? Oh, man, not you too."
Hopping around Oswald, Steve started towards the pot. "Get him out of there!" he ordered. Pete's skin looked unhealthily flushed already, and burns darkened his skin under the manacles.
He brought himself up short when Oswald clicked his tongue and glanced significantly back at the open door. Outside, the man still held the gun to the teenager's head. "One more step, I dare you," Oswald said, grinning to himself. Steve got the feeling that he wanted to have the excuse to test his powers. Oswald wanted to see if he could make a person in his thrall kill another. "Don't worry, Captain; I've done this lots of times. It's not nearly hot enough to boil him alive." He stepped over to the cauldron and passed his hand through the pink fire. "Hardly like the real thing. I'm just getting him all set for the sacrifice."
Pete tried to stand but the chains didn't let him get more than his shoulders out of the musky water. "You have to get me out of here!" He pleaded. He had oil or something glistening in his hair and trickling over his brow. The drowned rat look made him appear even more vulnerable. "Please."
Steve met his wide grey eyes, and tried to convey some kind of reassurance. "I'm doing my best," he said. "Hang on, friend."
Oswald chuckled and patted Steve's shoulder with a proprietary confidence. "You're not going to save the day this time, Captain," he said. "This guy doesn't even have an hour before I give his blood to the salmon. My powers will be stronger after that, too. What are you going to do to stop me?" Steve stayed silent, which didn't seem to bother him in the least. "And don't expect rescue. That Evans woman is under my power, and soon your boy replacement will be too. As for Iron Man," he laughed again. "Well, he's hardly a threat now, is he?"
The bonds didn't allow a whole lot of movement, but Steve's shoulders slumped marginally, and he glanced down. Bucky's a survivor, he told himself, and if learned anything with the Avengers, it was never to underestimate Tony Stark. He just wished that he had the real Tony here watching his back, the one who remembered who Steve was.
"Wait, did you say 'Iron Man'?" Pete asked, perhaps realising that being cooked in a pot wasn't the only unusual thing about the conversation.
Oswald ignored him. He had not, Steve realised, said a word directly to Pete since they'd come in, preferring to focus his attention on Steve. "I wish I'd got you later, after you'd been back longer," he said. "I want to be known for taking Captain America and Iron Man out, but I guess your friend will do for that."
Not wanting to leave Pete out entirely, Steve summarised, "Tony Rossi is Iron Man, and my real last name is Rogers, sorry." Pete shrugged. Turning to Oswald, he asked, "Is that why you brought me back? Just for the sake of killing me?" That felt better than Red Skull resurrecting him to save his own life, but only marginally.
"No! You're here to beat me," Oswald said, sneering at Steve like he didn't know anything at all. Which might have been true in this case, but Steve found it difficult to take considering the source.
"They're so scared of me that they called Iron Man to stop me, but I messed up his mind, made him weak. Then when I wouldn't stop, they resurrected you and pulled you out of the water to help him fight me. It won't work. They won't get it back, and I'll show them in the end!"
Steve really wanted to ask who "they" were, but could hardly admit that he didn't know whose champion he was supposed to be. Pete almost saved him by asking himself, but Oswald continued to pretend he wasn't there. "They think they own it or something, but I found it fair and square. If they don't like what I'm doing with it, tough. It's mine now!" He patted the glowing cauldron lovingly, then jerked his hand back as it burned him. He kicked it, snarling, "Stupid goddam thing! You're mine, get it?"
The whole story had started to make more sense to Steve, though Pete still looked deeply confused. Steve didn't think any less of him for it; he just hadn't run into enough sacred artefacts with the ability to bestow magical powers to know better. Steve could make a pretty fair guess that "they" were the ones who were supposed to own the pot. He filed it under "mysteries: solved." Now all he had to do was rescue the hostages, break the spell on everyone, capture the villain and find Tony. Possibly not in that order, and preferably after getting untied.
He glanced at Pete's bonds and concluded that they were formed of unbroken steel and fused in place. Dammit. "So..." he started, "This sacrifice--"
The explosion was loud and close and had given no warning. It jarred the floating walkway hard to the side.
Steve grinned: he knew a Tony Stark rescue when he heard one.
With nothing to brace himself on, Steve hit the plank floor. He used the confusion to roll back onto his shoulders and pull his chained wrists under his feet. Leading out of the momentum of rolling forward again, he launched off his feet into a hand spring. He hit the ground in an awkward crouch next to the logger-type minion, and snatched the gun out of his hands before he could get his bearings.
The young woman was faster, landing on his back and trying to reach around for the gun. Silently apologising, he drove his head back into her face with just enough force to dislodge her. He braced his hands on the deck, kicked back, and heard a splash as she tumbled into the water. Bringing his feet back to centre, he shoved the man into a fish pen as well.
Armed and minion-free, Steve turned back to the shed. A dense stream of smoke blew across the farm, reducing visibility and making his eyes water. It seemed to rise from one of the boats tied alongside, but he couldn't be sure.
Stretching out his legs, he carefully fired at the chain between them. The rotting boards took most of the shot, but it weakened the links enough to for him to snap them with his own strength. He couldn't do much about his hands though.
He approached the door at an angle, pistol in both hands, trying to move without rattling the loose ends of the chains. The caution paid off as he peered around the frame, ducking low and hopefully out of even Oswald's line of sight. The wizard had one hand on the rim of the cauldron and the other held out towards the door. Pink flames crept up his arm, soaking into the skin of his neck and face.
Steve only had a fraction of a second to recoil back out of sight as a fireball the size of a tire blasted towards him. "You think you can stop me?" Oswald shrieked. "I've got the power of the whole God-damned ocean behind me! I can't lose!"
Rolling across the entrance, Steve squeezed off a quick shot at Oswald's hand where it connected to the cauldron. No luck: the bullet just evaporated into the wave of power. The same wave coalesced towards him, singing his back as he scrambled away. Figured, he'd never had much luck with guns anyway.
"Bullets can't hurt me!" Oswald crowed, which Steve already knew, thank you. "I am the Invincible Oswald!"
From behind the door frame, Steve snorted. He'd tried to convince Tony a few times that it might not be a good idea to call yourself that when you really, really weren't.
Another explosion rocked the float, and this time Steve saw one of the boats go up. The smoke thickened, smelling of exhaust and melting plastic. Oswald responded with another fire ball, even though Steve wasn't anywhere near the door any more. He heard a grunt behind him, and realised that the minions were starting to pull themselves out of the water.
He had no idea how many more were on the island, nor what Oswald could do juiced up like he was now. Nor, for that matter, what kind of trouble Tony was getting into.
"God dammit," he muttered. Fine, time for Plan B, which he didn't quite have yet.
Keeping low, he bolted around the side of the shed towards the ramp up to the mainland. Another man with a gun in his hand was just starting down it. He caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see Tony next to the only surviving boat. A stocky woman with a mullet had a hand around his throat, and was swinging a fist at the side of his head.
Steve took half a step towards Tony, then he saw the position of Tony's hands -- the same one Steve had showed him in the gym years ago -- and grinned, turning away. He just about ended up in one of the fish pens himself as he dove to avoid the man on the ramp's shot. He leaped across the corner of the pen as he came out of the roll, and zagged to the side on landing. The guy obviously had no idea of what he was doing as he started down towards Steve instead of holding his highly defensible position.
Steve tore off a section of mooring rail and lobbed it at his attacker, spinning as though he was throwing a shot put. The man tried to fire at the board as it flew towards him, but his aim was off, and the wood caught him full on at the bottom of his ribs, knocking him flat. He struck his head on way down and didn't move after he landed.
Steve glanced back at Tony just in time to see him flip his opponent over his shoulder and into the water. He remembered teaching him that move too. "Come on!" he yelled as Tony hesitated, eyeing the unexploded boat. Steve ran up the ramp without pausing to look back. He bore right over the fallen man and didn't break stride as he snatched up his gun as well. He heard Tony's boots pounding against the wood behind him, like he knew he would.
When they got past the freezer house, he slowed down, gesturing for Tony to take the lead.
"I used to enjoy blowing shit up, didn't I?" Tony asked as he ran by, limping badly.
"You bet," Steve said and followed him into the woods.
By the time Tony got to the hollow in the forest he'd found before, the adrenalin rush had pretty much worn off. He slumped onto the ground, back against a tree, with a sigh and proclaimed, "Honey, we're home."
Steve knelt between his splayed legs, intense blue eyes studying him. "Are you okay?" he asked.
Tony shrugged and looked down, uncomfortable. "Fine, I'm fine, just winded," he said, babbling a little, "I'm not really used to this kind of thing. Well, I guess I was before but..."
The flow of words didn't seem to allay Steve's concerns, and Tony trailed off as he bent closer to peer at his neck. Belatedly, Tony realised that he must have a hell of a bruise from where the octopus thing had grabbed him. His ankle was pretty much about to kill him too, but he wasn't going to mention that to the superhero in front of him. God, seeing him chained and nearly naked and still fighting was like seeing mythology take life.
He could feel the warmth Steve emitted, and, despite his own sweaty exhaustion, he wanted nothing more than to lean into it. The chains on Steve's wrists clinked as he brought his hands up, resting one on Tony's shoulder and the other flat over his heart. Tony closed his eyes.
They sat together in silence, as their breathing slowed and hearts stopped pounding.
When he opened his eyes, he realised that he was eye level with the scar on Steve's shoulder. Hesitantly, he raised his hand and touched the hard skin there. "I did this, didn't I?" he asked. "I'm sorry." He remembered the vision of Steve dead and cut open and started to let his hand drop.
Steve caught it in his own. "No. You didn't," he said, voice steady and sure. "An enemy I made before you were born hired assassins to shoot me. It had nothing to do with you." He ducked down to bring his face into Tony's line of sight. "Tony, Oswald said he was suppressing your memories somehow. Are they starting to come back now?" His eyes were wide and hopeful.
Tony felt a pang in his chest realising how much this man must miss his friend, must miss him. "Maybe," he admitted. "I've seen flashes of things, images of you from before, but nothing concrete. Thinking about it doesn't seem to hurt as much, either."
"Good. That's good," Steve said. "I've seen you in pain too much already." He shifted back into a crouch, and let go of Tony. He ran both hands over Tony's right hip and down his leg, fingers probing gently as they went. Tony shuddered at the contact. Then Steve got to his bandaged ankle, and Tony gasped. "How bad is this?" Steve asked sharply.
"It's fine," he snapped, pulling it away, and scrambling up against the tree. "I managed to jury-rig a generator, electrocute the octopodes, swim to shore, hike to the fish farm and rescue you on this ankle. I think it's good." He felt bad about having to abandon Steve before his skiff got to shore, but it wasn't like he could have carried him, and he wouldn't wake up. In any case, they were both free now.
Steve rose with him, brows drawn together. "Tony, I've seen you fight off an alien invasion with cracked ribs, a broken femur and internal bleeding," he said. He stepped closer, right up into Tony's space. He really is quite tall, Tony thought "Just because you're running around doesn't mean you're fine."
The rough bark of the spruce tree dug through Tony's jacket and shirts as he backed up against it. He felt the familiar twist of nausea and fear in his gut, and pushed it angrily away. Now was not the time for a magical/electronic brain/whatever induced freak out. "Yeah, well, we have better things to worry about right now," he said, edging forward so that his nose ended up about an inch from Steve's.
"We always seem to," Steve grumbled, but he stepped back anyway. "All right, but once we've rescued Pete and nailed Oswald, I get to be as maternal as I like." He rattled the chains between this wrists. "Now, let's get these off."
Maternal? Tony wondered, but he didn't ask. Instead he turned to the hollow under the far side of the tree and started pulling things out. "You probably don't want to risk shooting anything," he said, setting aside his backpack and reaching back in, "but I threw this ashore before I bailed on the skiff."
"My shield!" Steve exclaimed. Tony was pretty sure he saw him bounce with glee. "You saved it. Of course you saved it; you always do."
Tony didn't ask how many times Steve had lost the thing. "I figured we should have one weapon between us," he said, "Though those guns you picked up should even things out."
Glancing up from intensely fondling his shield, Steve frowned. "The people working for Oswald don't have any choice. He's using his magical powers to coerce them." He said that like it was a totally reasonable, even normal, sentence. Given the day they'd been having, it didn't feel that extraordinary. "We have to find a way to capture Oswald and take out his power source without hurting them."
"I hate magic," said Tony with feeling.
Steve grinned at him in a fond way that Tony had already learned to associate with nostalgia. "That's the spirit," he said, and went on to fill Tony in on what he'd learned, while Tony knocked his chains off with the edge of the shield. When he'd finished, Steve had only a single link suspended from each manacle, and celebrated his freedom by stretching luxuriously. His muscles rippled.
Tony's mouth watered. "I um... saved your pants," he said. "From your outfit that is. The shirt was too heavy to swim with, and all your street clothes were soaked." He'd stripped as well and shoved everything into a plastic bag inside his backpack before he'd jumped over the side.
"Oh," Steve said, surprised. "You took my clothes."
"You were freezing," Tony tried not to sound defensive. "Sorry," he said again. Would Steve be angry at Tony for undressing him?
He didn't seem to be. "No, no, it's fine," he said easily, "It's not like you've never seen me naked. I'm just glad it wasn't Oswald." He dug through his backpack until he found the scuffed and torn leather pants of his costume. "Did you happen to save... oh good, shoes!" He produced a pair of soggy running shoes.
Tony watched him wiggle into the tight leather pants out of the corner of his eye, and wondered in exactly what context he'd seen this man naked. Steve seemed pretty straight and narrow, but one never could tell. As Steve finished tying the laces, he said, "I want to know about your Stark." Which wasn't what he really wanted to ask, but it was close.
Steve glanced up through his lashes and grinned. "Fishing for compliments, Tony?" he asked.
Tony looked away, studying the shifting afternoon light on the leaves of the undergrowth. He remembered what Barnes had said about him being no hero. "Am I?"
Steve stood, swinging the pack onto his shoulders as he rose. "I don't know how to answer that," he said, serious now. "I don't know how to sum you up." He turned back the way they'd come, but didn't start walking.
Fuck it, he was going to have to ask. "Then what was I to you?" he persisted, circling to face Steve.
"You're my friend," Steve said without hesitation. "You were there when I woke up, and you've stood by me though some of the worst times of my life. We didn't always see eye to eye; we had some terrible fights over the years, but almost up until the end you always came through for me. Those last few months, well..." he shook his head and stepped around Tony and out of the hollow. "I was so sure that I was right and you were crazy, but I don't know any more. We should have talked."
"Friends," Tony muttered, limping after him. "Right." Well, there goes that theory, he thought.
He hadn't thought that Steve could possibly have heard that, but he said, "Oh, that. No. We weren't... weren't sleeping together, if that's what you wanted to know." He kept his voice low, and Tony had to almost walk on Steve's heels to hear. "We tried that a long time ago, when we first knew each other, but it never really went anywhere."
Tony contemplated the shift of muscles in Steve's back and shoulders for a moment, and concluded that his former self probably was crazy. "Good to know," he said, and let the subject drop.
Steve slammed the freezer-room door, latching it and bending the bar so that no one lacking enhanced strength or serious tools could open it. "I think that's most of them," he said. "I saw a few more on the docks, but I don't have any way to get them without tipping Oswald off." He turned to Tony, who was leaning heavily on the wall, trying to take the weight off his ankle. "Are you ready?"
Tony nodded. "As I'll ever be, I guess." He zipped up the pack and slung it over one shoulder.
Hesitating, Steve started to offer, "I can..."
"No you can't," Tony cut him off. He had an indulgent smile on his lips. "Go be a hero, will you?"
Steve wanted to kiss Tony more at that moment than he had in years. Instead, he put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Be careful, I mean it."
"You too," Tony said, lifting his hand to cover Steve's.
They paused, unsure what to do next, then Steve hoisted his shield onto his arm and started his run for the docks.
At his best speed, Steve couldn't quite compete with an professional sprinter, but he could come pretty damn close, especially now that he had shoes. He made it around the corner, down the ramp, and onto the docks in a matter of seconds. The woman that Tony had thrown in the water tried to block him, but he leaped and flipped, going right over top of her.
He barely broke stride on his landing, barrelling towards the shed. People were shouting now, and Oswald had to know. Steve didn't have much time. He had to get around to the entrance and start drawing fire before Tony got in place.
A pink fireball blew right through the wall in front of him.
Steve only had a moment to bring up his shield, and the force of the impact drove him to one knee. Dammit, this was too soon. Nothing for it though. Holding his shield in front of him, he dove forward, hoping to slip through the hole in the wall before Oswald had time to generate another shot.
No luck. The next one knocked him off his trajectory and into the deck with bone-jarring force. Steve rolled to his left, then took a half step back, right before Oswald took out the section of wall he'd been heading for.
If nothing else, the wizard wouldn't have much cover very soon.
Trying to keep to some semblance of the plan, Steve started for the door again, keeping low and scuttling sideways.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Tony on the docks, ahead of schedule, tipping the minion back into the water. So far, he had a good section of intact wall between him and Oswald, and Steve planned to keep it that way.
He took a risk, hurling his shield through one of the gaps in the wall, then throwing himself to one side. He seemed to finally be getting the hang of this the new shield, too. It arced into the shed, missing Pete, and Oswald unfortunately, then out through another hole and back into his hands. He snatched it out of the air and tucked into a roll before he hit the ground.
Steve used the momentum to clear the corner of the building, and get around to the door. Which gave Oswald a pretty clear shot at him, but theoretically, all he had to do was not get roasted and hold his ground for a few minutes. As the next fire ball impacted on his shield, driving him a step back, he realised that a few minutes could be a very long time indeed.
Still, he couldn't help feeling that things were going fairly well.
Only then he heard a roar. It sounded like a hundred unsynchronised snare drums in the middle of a thunder storm, and seemed to build all around him, echoing off the cliffs. At first, Steve thought it was some new magic, or even an illusion, but it seemed like an awful lot of power. More than had been in play up until now. He peered over his shield at the wizard.
Oswald was staring at something behind Steve, eyes wide. At the same moment, he heard Tony shouting something, but the cacophony drowned out the words. Steve didn't want to fall for something that old, but he couldn't help glancing back. He got a flashing impression of the horizon being somewhere it shouldn't be, and a whole lot of white.
He had just enough time to throw himself down and grab onto the solidest-looking mooring rail. Then the world tilted sideways and dropped as the water pulled out of the bay.
For a moment, nothing moved, as if the ocean was holding its breath. Only the roar was still increasing.
The dock pitched violently towards the shore as the tsunami flooded into the cove. Steve heard a rending of wood and steel as the pens tore free of the ramp leading to shore. He pulled himself under the shield, covering his head and shoulders as water, flotsam and no small number of fish swept across the deck. He had a bubble of air this way, at least, but he wasn't sure how long that would hold out. His lungs had already taken a lot of abuse today.
The movement of the dock slowed, pitch reaching about forty-five degrees, then jerked back, the entire structure shifting sideways and down again.
The change in direction flipped him over. He only had a moment to realise that the railing he was holding into wouldn't stand the strain, then it cracked and gave way.
Steve ended up in what had been one of the fish pens, hanging onto the side of the net and trying to keep his head above water that didn't seem to know which way was up. Or maybe he didn't know which way was up. He was finding it difficult to tell.
On one of his glimpses of the surface, he saw the block-like freezer building on the shore receding into the distance. Then an edge of the pens struck the rocks at the entrance to the cove, and held fast. The water kept moving though, and the pull of it against his body tore his net free of the wood.
He had enough time to gasp another lung-full of air before the pull of the water dragged him down. The sound under the surface was every bit as loud as it was above, and he couldn't see an inch with all the dirt and debris the wave had picked off the shore. The net started to coil around his legs, and he bucked and kicked at it.
He fetched up against another section of the net and grabbed hold. Steve tried to claw his way back to the edge of the dock, but kept just gathering more net to him. It took him a moment to realise that he was going the wrong way. Only when he flipped in the water and took two handfuls of net "below" him, did he start to make progress.
The sound of blood pounding in his ears had almost drowned out the rush of water. His lungs felt like they would explode by the time he reached the surface. He gasped and choked as he half-inhaled a wave. His fingers scrabbled on the slimy wood for a moment before he got a good hold and pulled himself over the edge. As he coughed up sea water for the third time in less than twenty-four hours, Steve seriously considered joining whatever Avengers team was operating out of the South West.
The pens had torn free of the rocks and spun out into the ocean, large chunks of foam mixing with the brush broken trees that drifted alongside. The floats still rocked slightly, but not enough to throw anyone off. The tsunami had torn the roof off the shed, but left the walls, plus or minus a few holes. He couldn't see what was inside from this angle. He didn't see any minions either. Or Tony Stark.
Well, as distractions went, that had been pretty bloody effective. He doubted that Oswald had done it, and he sure as hell hadn't. He wondered again who Oswald's "they" were, and what their capabilities might be.
Steve kept low as he headed for the remains of the shed. He'd somehow ended up on the wrong side of it again, and really needed to get near enough to a hole to see what was going on.
He ran into Tony, who was hugging a beam just around the corner, before he got that far. "Are you all right?" Steve asked softly. Tony looked more or less okay, though soaked to the skin and shaking badly.
Tony carefully unwound his arms, wincing as he did, and not putting any weight at all on the ankle now. "Fine. I lost the pack somewhere in there though."
Steve shrugged. Like that mattered. "We'll manage," he said. "Any idea what that was?"
"Other than the obvious? No." Tony tried to step away from the wall, but a dip in the deck sent him tipping forwards. His hands caught Steve's shoulders, cheek smacking into Steve's collarbone.
Steve thought it would have been nice if they weren't both wet and freezing. For now, he turned sideways and slid his left arm around Tony's waist. "Come on," he said, "We'd better find out before something else happens."
They crept towards the hole the first fireball had made, again stooping, though more from the awkwardness of balance now. Tony didn't seem to want to entirely rely on Steve to support him, and kept throwing them off. His ankle had to be either severely sprained or outright fractured by now, and Steve wished he'd lay off. He'd known Tony for too many years, and in too many states of mind, to expect that he would though.
Inside, the cauldron hadn't moved. Steve didn't know how it had achieved that, as it wasn't attached to the deck by any obvious means. Most of the water had sloshed out, but Pete was still shackled inside it, looking more scared than ever, but alive.
Oswald had fallen to his knees, and clutched the rim of the cauldron tightly. "You can't get me. You can't get me. You can't get me," he chanted to himself. He had a faint pink glow surrounding him. Steve suspected that it was some kind of protective field: Oswald's clothes and hair were the only dry things left on the whole fish farm. He wanted to throw his shield, but couldn't decide if it would get through the barrier. It was the only weapon they had now.
"Didn't you say there were more flames before?" Tony asked, breath tickling the Steve's hair as he whispered into his ear.
He was right, the flicking around the cauldron had grown much fainter than it had been before the wave hit. Steve couldn't remember how that had compared to the first time he'd seen it though. "Maybe he's draining it for power," he suggested.
"Or maybe he's just turned the cooking option off so he could fight the tidal wave," Tony countered with his usual optimism.
"We still need to get rid of it, whatever it is," Steve said.
"After we get Pete out," Tony amended.
"Right," Steve said. "Hang on." He stepped away from the wall, leaving Tony leaning against it, took careful aim and threw his shield. The metal disc flew perfectly straight, careening off the point where Pete's bonds connected with the cauldron, and then right back into his hands. Steve grinned.
Pete pulled his hand loose, and ducked down into the cauldron, disappearing from sight save for his other wrist.
Oswald turned before Steve had a chance to strike again. "Why is everyone picking on me?" he demanded. He held out his hand, and the pink glow spread to enclose the centre of the shed, cauldron and all.
"Damn," Steve muttered, but he threw the shield anyway. He had to find out if it would get through the field at some point. It didn't, stopping short as it touched the perimeter and falling straight to the deck with a thud.
Beside him, Tony swore softly and with a good deal more fluency.
Oswald had started on one his tears again, the theme of which seemed to be that neither Steve nor the original owners of the cauldron could stop him, no matter what they tried. Tony met Steve's eyes, and mouthed, "Distract him," before shuffling towards the back of the shed. He kept one hand on the side to steady himself.
Steve watched him go out of the corner of his eye, not wanting to tip Oswald off. He didn't like the way Tony favoured his ankle now. The pain must have gotten too bad for him to macho through. Still, Steve didn't have a better plan at the moment. "It seems to me," he said, voice easily riding right over Oswald's, "that if you were in fact omnipotent, you would have been able to stop that wave from destroying your farm. Most of your fish have escaped. How do you plan to take over the world without them?" Steve realised that the field had started to pale, growing almost transparent.
"This is just a small setback," Oswald snapped, then he broke off and started muttering, gripping the cauldron even more tightly. The air surrounding him solidified into a deep pink again. "A small setback," he repeated, "I can make more, and it will be easier this time. I won't make so many mistakes. I won't let them grow a wave where I can't see it and send it at me. Bastards. They think they're so smart, but I still have this, don't I?" And he was off again. Keeping him distracted wasn't the most difficult thing Steve had ever done.
The impact of the wave and the crash against the rocks had pretty much done in any structural stability that the salmon pens had still possessed. Tony had seen the gaps and weaknesses and how they all connected immediately. When he had peered through the hole in the side of the shed, he'd realised how the shift in the bracing beam outside and the buckle in the deck under the cauldron tied together. All it needed was one good blow at just the right spot.
Tony eyed the planking under his feet again, resisting the temptation to kick it, which would really hurt at this point. There had to be something to use as a tool.
He missed his backpack. There'd been a hatchet in there, and a gun. He wasn't sure he could do much without them. Maybe he should have got Steve to do this part too, only that wouldn't have worked; Oswald had already seen Steve, so he had to stay. He really hoped that Oswald was using all his power to keep the field up, and didn't have enough to spare to start throwing more fireballs at Steve. God, he shouldn't have thrown his shield again.
Tony would have to work this out on his own. He cast about and settled on a small beach log drifting beside the remains of the farm. A trailing strand of net had snared it, holding against the edge of the farm as they spun slowly away from the island. Tony winced and froze as it thudded against the deck when he pulled it on board. Inside the shed, Oswald's voice didn't falter, so Tony kept started moving again.
Once he had the narrow end of the log wedged into the gap that had formed between two floats, all he had to do was lean heavily against it. Or not. The nails creaked in the rotten wood, but didn't pull loose. Grimacing, Tony stepped back onto his good foot and attempted to throw himself at the lever. The wood turned out to be more flexible than he'd guessed and bounced him back instead of forcing the float apart.
He had to put his whole weight at once, plus a good deal of momentum, onto the wrong ankle to keep from flying back into the side of the shed. Clamping a hand over his mouth, he managed to stifle everything but a high-pitched whimper, though tears of pain nearly blinded him. A small sob wrenched its way out of his chest.
Glaring at the log, he decided that there was no way this thing was going to beat him. He threw himself at it whole-heartedly this time, committing his entire body to the motion. The wood cracked at the impact, and, for a moment, Tony thought the lever would snap.
Then, with a horrendous groan, the pens separated into two floats. One side drifted away more or less whole. The other, the one with the shed and everyone on it, started to fragment, no longer having the supports to maintain its cohesion.
The log did give way then, and Tony sprawled across the deck. It took him a moment to realise that he was on the wrong deck, and that Steve was starting to drift away. He scrambled to his knees and got turned around just in time to see the shed pull apart and collapse in on itself. The float he'd last seen Steve standing on started to spin off, now only attached by the rail at the far end.
He couldn't see Steve at all. He suspected that he had thrown himself into the collapsing building as it went down. Goddamn superheroes.
Tony tried to launch himself across the widening gap, but by pushing off one side he only drove the sections further apart. He missed his landing, roughly belly flopping onto the far side, legs splashing into the water, and had to roll sideways to pull himself the rest of the way up. He paused to catch his breath, which turned out to be a good thing, as Oswald took that moment to blow the shed off of himself.
A wave of sound and pink-tinged air expanded from the centre of the rubble, pushing the walls out, and up. Tony threw his arms over his head, but nothing sizeable fell near him.
By the time he looked up, the cauldron had already started to slip into the gap between the sections of the shattered farm. It seemed slow at first, but then everything happened too fast for Tony to follow properly.
Oswald screamed, and clung to the metal rim, but something flared magenta, and he let go suddenly. Steve burst up from under a jumble of wood, his side bloody. The deck tilted further, sending the cauldron over the edge. Pete tried to jump out as it went down, but couldn't get his wrist free. The cauldron disappeared under water, taking Pete with it. Steve scooped up his shield and dove after them. Oswald stopped screaming.
Tony got to his feet and started towards Oswald. Somehow, the pain in his ankle didn't seem to matter anymore. His boots squeaked and squished as he ran across the deck, weaving around and over the gaps and unsteady rubble. His attempt to tackle Oswald turned into a barely-controlled collision, but he still managed to land on top.
They struggled for a moment, but Oswald wasn't strong, and Tony had these freakish combat reflexes that he really hadn't known about before today. It didn't take long to get Oswald's arms pinned down with one hand and pick up a sturdy-looking board with the other. "Make that pot of yours let Pete go or I'll bash your skull in," he said, meaning every word. He knew that Steve wouldn't stop until he succeeded or drowned.
Oswald stared at him, wide-eyed. "But... but you're Iron Man," he said "You're an Avenger, they don't..." He seemed more stunned than scared.
Tony flattened his lips into something like a smile. "Not so far as I remember," he said. "Besides, I've been told Tony Stark wasn't much of a hero."
"But..." Oswald started again, then stopped when Tony squeezed his wrists warningly. "Okay, but you're not going to like it." He shut his eyes and mouthed a spell.
Only then did it occur to Tony to wonder if Oswald had enough energy left for one of his fireballs. If he did, letting him do magic right now might could go horribly wrong.
But Oswald either didn't have the power or didn't have the creativity to try anything. After a moment, his lips stilled and his muscles relaxed a little. "There," he said, "Done, but don't say I didn't warn you."
"Whatever," Tony muttered, and eased up. Dropping the stick, he flipped Oswald over and bound his hands together with his belt. Oswald would probably be able to wiggle out, if given the chance, but it would hold for now. He had better things to worry about.
Tony kept one hand on Oswald's shoulder to keep him from getting any ideas, and leaned closer to the edge. The float bobbed and shifted under him, but didn't tip enough to spill them off.
"They've taken them," Oswald said, voice edging on hysterical. "They'll take us all now."
"Shut up," Tony snapped, shaking Oswald roughly.
The water in the gap between the fragments of the pens was surprisingly calm, the sections of float sheltering it from wind waves. He couldn't see anything, even with no algae or sediment clouding the sea. Fans of light and shadow stretched down and blended into featureless gulf below them. He tried not to think about how fast Pete in the cauldron or Steve with his shield would have sunk by now. Too far, he knew. Equations of resistance and buoyancy crept into his mind, numbers flashing in front of his eyes. He dismissed them with a thought, not wanting to know, or to deal with further proof of what he was.
He wondered what he would do now, stuck on a raft with this demented little dweeb. He supposed that the coast guard would find them eventually. If Dani had been right, they already had search helicopters in the area. Hell, the whole town was probably on the water, looking for Pete. He wondered if the tsunami had hit Cedar Harbour as well, or if whatever caused it had somehow kept it localised. It could very well have killed everyone he knew.
Tony felt his stomach twist, and gritted his teeth, forcing the pain down, focusing instead on how much his ankle hurt. He stared down, morbidly focusing on his own distorted reflection. His bare face and brutally short hair seemed as wrong now as the beard once had. For a moment, he saw himself differently, still clean shaven, but blond now, and a woman with long dark hair and an older man in the reflection behind him. He didn't look back, knowing it wasn't real, and a moment later, a ripple shattered the image.
Another ripple followed, and another. The water quickly grew too rough to see anything at all in, even the bottoms of the ruined nets below. Tony looked up, trying to figure out what had changed. It took him a moment to realise that the gentle drift had accelerated. What had started as a lazy rotation of the cluster of floats now became a whirl. The horizon drifted past with increasing speed as the ruined pens started to spin.
Tony looked back. Oswald had his face pressed against the slimy boards, eyes squeezed shut. He'd clenched hands so tightly his nails punctured his palms, and now a thin line of blood trickled down his wrists. Tony leaned in and heard a high whimper emanating from his firmly closed lips.
Tony started to reach down again, planning to shake his shoulder and tell him to stop, though he really didn't think that Oswald had much to do with this. Splashing from the far side of the float startled him before he could move, and the deck rocked under him. He looked over in time see Pete tumble over the edge of onto the planks, gasping and coughing. Tony turned, wanting to go to him, but then the entire float dipped alarmingly, and Tony shifted to the far edge, pulling Oswald with him to counter the weight.
He saw the shield before anything else, then another arm followed, and Steve hauled himself up after them. He seemed in rather better shape than Pete, not vomiting sea water at least, but still sprawled across the deck, legs still in the water.
"Are you okay?" Tony didn't know what else to ask, though obviously it was a stupid question.
Steve coughed and muttered something about Arizona. Then he rolled over, pulling himself the rest of the way up, and put an arm around Pete's shoulders. "It's going to be okay," he said. "I told you I'd do my best." Pete nodded miserably, not able to catch his breath long enough to respond. "So you got him. Good job," Steve added, looking at Oswald. "I saw the cauldron glow for a minute before it let Pete go, did you make him lift us up too?"
"What?" Tony asked. He decided to leave Oswald on the edge and crawl over to Steve.
"Even after we broke free of the cauldron, we were sinking fast," Steve explained. He reached out to Tony with his free hand, squeezing his shoulder. "I tried to grab Pete and swim up, but the currents were too strong to pull against, and I know I wasn't going to make it before I ran out of air." Tony moved closer, turning the touch into a sideways hug. Tony could feel Steve's freezing skin through two layers of saturated, freezing clothing. "Then I felt a sudden up wash that carried both of us right to the surface. It didn't feel natural."
"I don't think Oswald has any powers anymore," Tony said, letting his head rest on Steve's shoulder for a moment. Even with the salt water and impending hypothermia, this felt right. He didn't remember ever feeling safe, not that that was saying much for him, but this might be something close to it. Still, they weren't out of this yet. He pulled away enough to sit up, but didn't break contact. "There's something else out there, something big, and I think we're about to meet it."
"Yeah," Steve said, "I figured we would eventually."
The remnants of the pens were spinning faster now, and the formation had spread into a large ring, with empty water in the centre. That water hadn't started to sink yet, but ripples had formed across it in a shape that Tony associated with whirlpools.
"We had better get everyone as far away from the edge as we can," Steve said. He let go of Tony so that he could pull Pete along with him. Tony reluctantly turned and crawled the twenty or so feet over to Oswald on the far side. The wizard hadn't moved, still lying splayed on the deck, every muscle vibrating with tension. Had everything not been as damp and slimy as it was, Tony probably wouldn't have managed to pull his dead weight over the ruins of the shed into the middle of the float.
Steve had already helped Pete over, and was talking to him softly. Tony let Oswald flop back down harder than he really needed to, making sure to keep himself and Steve in the middle, separating the wizard from his victim. "What do we do now?" he asked. He looked out at the horizon as it glided past. They'd drifted midway into the channel between the islands. Even without the sea's odd behaviour they wouldn't make it back to shore on their own. Well, Tony and Pete couldn't anyway. Steve probably could, if he left them.
Steve shook his head minutely. "Watch and wait, I think," he said. "These types aren't usually long in showing up."
"This happens a lot, then?"
"Sure," Steve said. He was trying to rub some warmth into Pete's arms, but Tony knew he couldn't have much to spare. "Well, not exactly like this, but I know the types well enough. We've dealt with enough of them over the years. You should know: people with power love to make an entrance." Tony opened his mouth to retort, but before he could, Steve pointed behind him. "Look!" he said, "See, I told you."
Tony followed his arm. Instead of sinking down, the water at the centre of the whirlpool had started to rise off the surface, looking like the reflection of a waterspout. It grew without a sound, gathering bits of flotsam with it and turning into an almost-solid pillar. As he watched, the debris formed into a shape. The nets draped like the skirts and shoulders of a robe, with seaweed making something like a face under the hood. It looked more like a child's driftwood doll than an animate being, except that it moved, and, impossibly, spoke.
"That creature is ours!" The voice rose up from the water rather than the figure of weeds, which had extended its "arm" to point at Oswald. Tony had a difficult time associating the voice and the motion as coming from the same source; it really felt like watching a poorly dubbed foreign film. He glanced around to see if he could spot the puppet master, but, if there was one, he didn't see it above the surface.
Steve looked at the figure steadily, which had to make him a little dizzy. The horizon was starting to blur behind it. "The surface world is our jurisdiction: He's a human who has committed crimes against humans," he said. Tony liked his tone then. It sounded confident, dependable. He had a feeling that he'd do pretty much anything Captain America asked him to do if only he used that voice. He probably had, he supposed.
The water figure shifted, ripples cascading down the sides, billowing the nets as though in a wind. "It stole our relics. It killed our servants. It enslaved our subjects. We require justice." It didn't sound either male or female, or even human, as it had little timbre or inflection.
Oswald twitched, then squirmed against the deck as though he wanted to get up. Tony put a hand in the middle his back and held him down. As delighted as he would feel to see Oswald hang himself even higher, he wanted the rest of them to get out of this alive.
Steve had got to his feet to face the figure, keeping a hand on both Pete and Tony's shoulders. He glanced down at Tony before saying, "You brought us in as your champions. We recovered your relic and captured your enemy for you. We have a right to try him among our own people. You will still have justice." Tony wondered if Steve realised how much the cant of his words had shifted to match the creature's, then decided that he was probably doing it deliberately.
The water spun faster, increasing the figure's height. Tony thought he saw one of the red-eyed salmon swim up into it. "If the debt troubles you," the voice said, tone not changing, "We are able to return you to the state we found you in. You will remember nothing of this."
"Hey..." Tony started to say, he'd lost enough of his memories, thank you very much, but then realised that it wasn't talking to him.
Above him, Steve made a choking sound and tightened his grip on Tony's shoulder. Tony looked up, alarmed. The scars across Steve's chest were losing their slick white colour, spreading and turning to a rough, angry red.
Tony pushed himself up, sliding under Steve's arm in an attempt to support him. "You're killing him!" he shouted.
The figure didn't move, but the voice answered, "We know. We pulled him from the ice and restored him to life. We brought him here. He is ours." Tony didn't expect to ever feel bad for Oswald, but if this was how they treated their champion...
"You brought me here, didn't you?" he asked. "Am I yours too?" Steve started to lean more heavily on him. He'd let go of Pete to clutch his chest. Tony wasn't sure how long he could support both of them on one good ankle.
"We brought you," the creature admitted. "You did nothing. You are of no consequence."
"Right," Tony said. Good to know where he stood, he supposed. "What about Pete here? Oswald nearly killed him. What about all the people in Cedar Harbour who Oswald mind fucked? What about the families of the six people he sacrificed? They're never going to know what happened." He left out Oswald mucking about in his own mind, as the thing apparently didn't give a shit about its champions. "You keep talking about wanting justice, but you only mean for yourselves, damn the rest of the world. Then when someone who was willing to die to help you complains, you turn into bullies." That's right, Tony, antagonise the bastards, he thought. That'll help. Oh well, Steve had tried being reasonable.
"You are of no consequence," the voice said again.
Steve's legs collapsed under him, pulling them both down. "Tony," he gasped as they fell.
Tony managed to catch them both by falling to one knee and bracing his free hand on the deck...
The impact of the first volley of bullets forces him back a step. Fuck, it's hot. He feels like he'll drown in his own sweat before he gets out of the compound. He can't hear for the ringing of metal on metal, and the crude faceplate cuts off his peripheral vision. Picking a target directly in front of him, he reaches out and pulls back the catch on his weapon systems. Fire shoots out of his hand. The men's screams pierce the armour and the ringing in his ears. He smiles grimly, remembering what their hands did to his flesh.
...his head snapped up, glaring at the creature. "No. I'm Iron Man," he snapped. "And Antonio Stark. I used to be one of the most powerful people in the world, and if I survive this, I will be again." Out of the corner of his eye, he could see blood starting to well from Steve's shoulder and stomach, and he talked faster. "You can kill Captain America here, and maybe no one will come after you. God knows they won't for my sake. You can leave us alive and take Oswald, and we probably won't be able to do much about it, though we won't like you much for it. But if you treat us fairly, we'll remember it. If you knew me enough to bring me here, you'll know that I can be a hell of an ally." That was his best shot, he figured. The thing had him on his knees, but he wouldn't beg, not outright, at least.
The voice didn't answer. Tony held his breath, listening to the rush of the water and Steve's ragged breath against his ear. The bleeding seemed to have slowed, if not stopped, and Tony could only hope that whatever the hell he was talking to was waffling.
At last, after Tony had exhaled explosively and slumped a little, the voice said, "Agreed. We will see this creature face your justice. Your companion will live. When you are again strong, we will come to you." The sea figure raised something like arms over its head, and then let them drop. The entire pillar of water and debris fell back into the sea. The splash washed over the deck, rocking the float a little.
As the ripples faded, it seemed almost as though it had never been there. The pens stopped spinning, releasing the pieces to drifting away from each other, and the regular bob caused by the wind waves resumed. Even Steve's wounds had closed again. Only the blood on the deck remained to show that anything had happened at all.
Tony turned them both, sitting down and pulling Steve's head and shoulders into his lap. He brushed a piece of seaweed out of his sodden blond hair. "How you doing?" he asked.
Steve seemed to be catching his breath still, but still gasped out, "I've been worse."
"You've been dead," Tony said.
"True, but I'm not this time," Steve replied, sounding surer now. "And Tony?"
"Your first name is Anthony."
...when he's had a chance to catch his breath, and collect enough of his thoughts to imagine the beginnings of the implications of what he's just done, he rolls towards the edge of the bed. If he picks up his clothes -- assuming he can find them -- and dresses in the bathroom, he can probably sneak out unnoticed. In the morning, when they've both had a little space, he'll write this off as another of Tony Stark's flings. They might not speak to each other for a while, but it won't do any serious harm. That will only come if he stays. He's just sliding his feet over the edge of the bed when a hand catches his wrist and pulls. He tries to pull away, but the grip seems to be unbreakable. He starts to protest, but his companion mutters something fierce and indecipherable into the pillow. Unable to escape, he sighs and rolls back into bed, curling back into the warm space he'd occupied before...
By the time the air force search and rescue helicopter picked them up half an hour later, Steve felt that he'd pretty much recovered. From the chest wounds at least, though exposure just about got them in the end. Especially Oswald, who no one seemed that interested in sharing body heat with.
Tony hadn't said much since his argument with the sea people, or whatever they had been. Now he lay quietly strapped into the stretcher across from Steve, not even trying to shoo away the fussing medics as they wrapped him in blankets and warming pads and fed him heated oxygen. They'd been through hell, and Tony deserved the rest, but his silence bothered Steve.
Being in a confined space with Oswald wasn't his favourite thing in the universe either. The former minions they'd picked up off the island and other bits of wreckage seemed to feel the same enmity. And the flight commander had ordered her first officer to stand guard over Oswald's stretcher. Steve, having dealt with mind-control too many times, could sympathise. At least the wizard seemed to be a former wizard, though no one was taking their eyes off of him.
The techs had promised that they were just about done their sweep and would head back down to the nearest major hospital soon. The sea people, it seemed, had pretty much confined their tsunami attack to the island, which had puzzled the hell out of the rescue coordination centre at first. Then one of the medics had recognised Steve, and the engineer had recognised Tony, and everyone started nodding knowingly and looking at them like this was all their fault.
The big helicopter dropped and slid smoothly into auto hover, stopping to pick up someone else. Steve ignored the bustle near the open side door, and focused on Tony again. He had his eyes closed as though trying to sleep, though the medic wouldn't let him, but couldn't seem to lie still. As Steve watched, his body twitched slightly, and a spasm of something like pain crossed his face. Steve tried to wiggle out of his cocoon of blankets and equipment, but the medic pushed him firmly back down before scurrying over to Tony.
"What's wrong with him?" a familiar voice asked above him. Steve tore his eyes away from Tony, who he couldn't really see behind the medic anyway, and looked up to see Bucky standing over him. He had a red welt with little round sucker shapes along his throat and jaw, and a black eye coming in on the other side, but looked mostly okay. Behind him, the techs were just pulling the rescue basket with Dani Evans through the door.
"I don't know," Steve answered. "I think... I think maybe he's remembering."
"Oh, God," Bucky said, and Steve could see profound sympathy in his eyes as he watched.
Steve squirmed again and managed to get free. "Don't let them stop me, Buck," he said as he climbed off of the stretcher. He wasn't sure exactly what happened next, but he knew he made it to the seat next to Tony without interference. He rested a hand on a blanket-wrapped shoulder, feeling the muscles shudder even through the insulating cloth. "Easy, Tony," he said, comforting tone hindered by having to shout over the noise of the engine. "I'm here, and I won't leave you."
Tony didn't look at him, or even open his eyes, but he seemed to relax a little when Steve stroked his cheek with a finger.
Maybe the crew saw that he was doing some good, or the former Winter Soldier just had them all scared, because they let Steve sit there relatively unmolested for the rest of the flight. It felt good to have Bucky at his back again. About half an hour out of Canadian Forces Base Comox, someone dropped a blanket over his shoulders, but Steve didn't take his eyes off of Tony long enough to notice who it was.
"So by then, we'd just about got the walking trees and giant owls rounded up and herded back onto the North Shore Mountains," Mockingbird was saying. Steve couldn't see much of the background over the comm he'd borrowed from Bucky, but she seemed to be slouching in the co-pilot seat of an updated quinjet. She'd taken her glasses off and looked exhausted. Steve thought her new costume had been white, but now a variety of grey and black smears hid the colour. "Then a bloody huge mountain blew up, so now we're evacuating Whistler. We'll try to make it over as soon as things are stable enough to hand off to Omega Flight and the armed forces. I don't know. Might be a while."
"I understand," Steve said, "We're okay here for now." He already knew about the previously dormant volcano suddenly becoming active. The helicopter that had evacuated them to the local hospital had had to hastily refuel and head out to help on the mainland.
Bucky had gone with them, finding himself unable to stay out of a disaster zone of that scale. The idea of sitting on the sidelines made Steve's palms itch, but he couldn't go. Tony needed him.
Well, Tony had told him to get lost, only less politely, but he was in bad shape. Steve had turned his back on Tony when he'd rejected Steve's help once before, in that flop house all those years ago. They'd both ended up deeply regretting it. He wouldn't leave again.
Or he was trying not to, at least. A tiny and formidable doctor had managed temporarily exile him from Tony's side while she x-rayed his ankle. Now he was sitting in a plastic chair that wasn't nearly big enough, checking in with the Avengers. "It's good to see you again, Bobbi," he said. He'd never really got to know Mockingbird, but he'd heard enough about her from Clint to know that having her back and fighting could only be a good thing.
Mockingbird smiled and opened her mouth, probably to say something along the lines of "you too, Cap," when Clint leaned in from the pilot's seat to say, "I was planning to ask you to join our new team. We're calling it... gah, Birdie! Watch the ribs! Okay, I'm calling it the the Undead Avengers. Then Jan beat you back, and, since we capped the membership at six, you're out of luck. Sorry."
Steve had missed that smug bastard grin, but he wasn't going tell him that. "Who's flying the quinjet?" he asked instead.
"I am, obviously," Mockingbird said. She looked down. "But things are going to get a little tricky, so I'm signing off now. Good luck, Cap."
"You too," Steve said. "Stay safe."
The screen went blank, leaving Steve alone in the hallway. He stared down at the small device in his hands, wondering what was going on in Vancouver, and halfway wishing he could be there.
"Ankle's broken but it's not too bad," the doctor said.
His head snapped up, though he could just about look straight into her eyes sitting down. He hadn't even heard the door to the lab open. The cold water must have sapped more energy out of him than he'd thought. He didn't know how much longer he could go without sleep. Depending on how he looked at it, he hadn't gotten more than a few hours of sleep in either the last thirty hours or in the last two years. "Um..." he said.
"I'm sending him off to get a cast." The doctor, whose name Steve didn't remember, looked him up and down appraisingly. "We can't spare a private room for Mr Stark, but we've got a nice double occupancy one open."
Steve rubbed a hand over his salt encrusted eyes, which only seemed to make them ache more. "Who's the other patient?" he asked tiredly. He really didn't want to deal with strangers right now.
"You are," she said. He opened his mouth to say something, and she raised her hand warningly. "Either check in or get out. It's bad enough having half the RCMP on Vancouver Island guarding that wizard guy's room. I don't need superheroes roaming the halls on top of that."
"Fine," Steve muttered. "This had better not take long."
Fortunately, it didn't. The sea people had pretty much patched him up again, and aside from a mild case of hypothermia, some scratches and deep exhaustion, she couldn't find anything wrong with him, and assigned him to bed rest. He made it to their room not long after Tony did.
The last of the day's light shone through the broad window, lighting the austere wall in soft orange. Traces of it caught on Tony's face as he lay curled in a ball as best he could with one leg covered in plaster. He had his back to the door. Steve walked around the bed to look at his face. Anyone who didn't know him well would probably think he was sleeping -- after all they'd been through, he should have been. Steve had seen Tony both authentically sleeping and faking sleep enough times to know the difference though.
Steve sat in the chair next to the bed, a vaguely comfortable padded seat this time, and carefully took Tony's hand. It stayed limp, but Steve saw something flicker across Tony's face. The emotion passed too quickly for him to identify, however. "Hey," he said softly.
Steve wasn't sure if he'd get a response, but eventually Tony opened his left eye enough to squint up at him. "I thought I'd made you go away." he growled, sounding weary and plaintive.
"No such luck," Steve said, steadfastly not reacting.
Closing the eye, Tony took a deep, shuddering breath before looking up at Steve and saying. "I can't do this with you here, Steve."
"Are you sure you can do it without me?" he asked. When Tony didn't say anything, he kept talking, trying to keep his voice low and soothing. "This isn't weakness. You don't have to hide from me, and I won't leave you. I've already seen you at your worst, Tony, and your very best."
Tony's hand tightened briefly around his, but it felt more like a spasm than an acknowledgement. Steve squeezed lightly back, and Tony pulled free. "I'm sure I'll care what you think of me later," he said, voice gaining strength with emotion, "or not, but right now that's not the problem."
Unsure what to do with his hand now, he left it on the bed rail. "Then what is?" Steve asked. He didn't think he quite kept the pain out of his tone this time.
"You being here," Tony told him. "You're making it worse."
"I don't understand."
Tony sighed, frustrated. "I'm not really remembering more than images and feelings, one little piece at a time. Sensory cues seem to trigger which ones I get. Being in a hospital bed is bad enough, but whenever I'm near you, the images are harder." He smiled, faintly and without humour. "I guess you really have seen the worst in me."
Steve closed his eyes and tried to ignore how much that hurt. The last thing he wanted to do right now was cause Tony more pain. He'd been through too much these last few days as it was. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'll go. Is there anyone I can ask to sit with you? Maybe Pepper, or..." he trailed off, realising that Tony really didn't have anyone else left. "Pepper could probably be here in a few hours if I called her."
"No," Tony said miserably. He had his eyes closed again, and his whole body shook as though he was in pain. "That would probably be just as bad."
"I..." Steve started to say.
"Just go!" Tony snarled.
Steve nodded and stood, then, on impulse, he leaned back down. "Not all your memories of me are bad," he said, and kissed Tony lightly on the lips. The contact felt dry and impersonal, and Steve winced and pulled away. "I'll be over there if you need me."
He pulled the curtain between the beds closed, and lay down, staring up at the ceiling. He knew that he should sleep, doctor's orders and all that. Like Tony, his memories wouldn't let him.
He must have drifted off eventually, because he woke up later as his bed shifted. He started, then realised who it was and relaxed. Someone had lowered the lights for the night, and he couldn't make out the expression on Tony's face as he perched on the edge of Steve's bed. He stayed balanced there for a moment, neither of them saying anything, and then he leaned down. It took a bit of rearranging and one very sharp elbow in Steve's ribs, but eventually they both fit on the narrow bed. Tony had a leg thrown over Steve's and one hip on the mattress, but his upper torso and head were right on top of Steve, arms circling his chest. The bed frame creaked in protest, but held.
"How are you doing?" Steve asked. He wasn't sure what was going on with Tony's mood swings, but decided to go with them.
"How do I look?" Tony moaned into his shoulder.
"Too dark to tell."
"Oh, well. Hopefully not as bad as I feel." Tony said. His breathing felt wrong to Steve, too shallow maybe, and not very even. "I think my head is going to explode."
Steve slid his right hand up and tried to get a measure of Tony's pulse under cover of caressing his neck. That felt a little fast, but not too bad. He decided not to call the doctor. She'd probably gone off shift by now anyway, and he didn't want to explain the cyborg issue to someone new. He stayed silent, stoking Tony's back and trying to will some of his own strength into his friend.
"I don't have a lot of happy memories, do I, Steve?" Tony asked after a few minutes.
"No, I guess you don't," Steve told him.
"I thought that it was you, but it wasn't. I don't even think it's this place. I just... other than one or two moments, it's all so terrible." Tony's fingers wiggled against Steve's side, trying to work between his body and the mattress so that could pull them into a tighter embrace. "I don't want to remember any more, but it keeps coming back."
Steve wanted to tell him that he just wasn't remembering right, that the Extremis was screwing him up like it always did, but it felt like a lie. Honestly, he didn't remember Tony being happy a lot. Mostly when he was working on his machines, or when he was celebrating a victory. In the old days, he would kick back with the team for group downtime, but he couldn't remember a lot of that in the last few years, even with the restarted Avengers. "Do you want me to tell you about some of the good times?" He asked at last. "Maybe it will help you remember."
He felt Tony nod slightly, stubble catching on Steve's shirt. He didn't say anything else, so Steve started talking. "When we first met, the Avengers lived all together in your mansion. Or we didn't really: I suppose everyone had their own homes, except for me. Still we all spent so much time there that it felt lived in, like a family home. The Norse God Thor was a member of the team then, and he loved to drink mead. One night, after we had fought all day against..."
He talked for a long time, telling story after story in the slow, measured pattern he'd learned from listening to Thor. Tony started to relax a little, though he still tensed occasionally, and his breathing deepened and evened out.
"...All that time after we made love in a meadow, I had a pink flower stuck in my hair. I didn't realise until Hawkeye pointed it out, when we got back. It must have been there for..."
Without warning, Tony's entire body stiffened. Then his arms flew out and his back arched, and Steve barely had time to grab more securely him before he fell off the bed. Tony's mouth opened but no sound came out, and his eyes flew wide. God, his eyes were glowing electric blue!
"We need a doctor!" Steve yelled, trying to hold on to Tony as he convulsed again. His cast struck Steve's ankle and then the bed rail, and Steve only saved him from cracking his skull on the other rail by getting his hand in the way. "Somebody help me!" he cried. Tony coughed up something that was dark and probably not blood.
The lights came on. "What's going on?" The doctor from earlier either hadn't gone off shift after all or was back, because she tore into the room, a nurse on her heels.
"I don't know," Steve said. He had one arm around the small of Tony's back, holding them together as best he could, and another protecting the back of his head. "He was just lying here, then he started convulsing, and his eyes are strange, and I... I don't know what to do."
The doctor looked for a moment like she didn't know what to do either, then she unfroze and said, "You're doing the right thing: keeping him from hitting his head or hurting himself. Keep hanging on, but don't try to immobilise him." She turned to her nurse, starting to say "I need you to--" but then all hell broke loose.
The all the lights in the room went out, then the monitor machines came on, all indicators flashing and alarms blaring at once. Steve's Avenger's communicator started emitting a high-pitched wail.
"Ow, hey!" The doctor yelled, voice almost lost in the cacophony. She fumbled at her belt, hands lit by her glowing pager screen, until she tore the device off, dropped it, and kicked it across the room. It exploded in a shower of sparks. "What the hell?"
"Tony," Steve said, trying to retain enough calm not to yell in Tony's ear. "Tony! You've got to stop!"
The noise continued, and Steve could hear alarms starting in other rooms. "The computer in his brain is messing with the hospital equipment," he yelled. "You've got to make sure everyone attached to something important has manual backups ready!"
"Do it! Go!" the doctor ordered her nurse, who made a dash for the door, tripped over an IV pole, scrambled to his feet, and bolted out. "Can you make him stop?" she asked Steve.
"I don't know how," he told her. Tony's convulsions were becoming more rapid, his hips grinding into Steve's in a gruesome parody of intercourse. The lights started to flash on and off in time with his movements. "Maybe a sedative--"
As abruptly as it started, all the noise stopped.
It took a moment for Steve to realise that the only sound he heard was his and Tony's ragged breath and pounding hearts, and the ringing in his ears.
Tony's body was still so stiff that Steve worried that he would tear or break something just from the tension, but, suddenly, he went limp sprawling over Steve. The all lights went out and stayed that way.
"Oh, god," Steve whispered, "Tony..."
The doctor beat him to pressing two fingers to Tony's neck. "He's alive," she announced. "Pulse is too fast, but it's strong and steady." She listened to his chest for a moment before adding, "So's his breathing. I need you to help me lay him flat on the bed. I want to do a lot of tests right now."
Gingerly, Steve eased off his death grip around Tony and started to work his way out from under him. "Will he be okay?" he asked.
He caught a movement in the darkness that might have been a shrug. "I'll be able to tell you more when I figure out what's wrong with him," she said. "Right now, I don't know."
Tony felt the numbers first, streams of information, read outs, and queries all fighting for his attention. The first thing he did was turn ninety percent of it off, dismissing anything that didn't relate to vital statistics.
The second thing he did was to reach out for his armour. It wasn't there, so he stretched his thoughts further out. He'd just started to up link to the nearest communication satellite via a hack through the Avenger's communicator next to him, when he realised that there wasn't any point.
His armour was gone. For that matter, he'd thought the Extremis was too, after what the Skrulls and Osborn had done to him. He had nothing left. He was supposed to be dead. He wanted to be dead.
Why was he in a hospital in -- he looked it up -- some place he'd never heard of in Canada.
Tony opened his eyes, looked down, then closed them tightly.
There was no way that Steve Rogers was dozing in the chair next to his bed. It wasn't possible. It was another goddamn Skrull. Tony was hallucinating. Shutting down the Extremis had fried his brain. Oswald had caught him and thrown him in his own VR simulators in the Negative Zone. Something. It wasn't Steve.
He connected to the Avengers' records through the comm, hacking his way through the new security, absorbing everything that had happened, right up to date. He did the same with the new SHIELD. Then he checked it all against news sources. It all matched. His mind scrabbled over the data, trying to make it fit with something, anything, that he could comprehend.
Taking a deep breath, he tried to steady himself, and focused back on his own memories. He'd been in the hidden lab, hooked up to the machines. Pepper had left. He made the message for Steve, and then hit the finalisation on the brain scrambler. Hill had come back in, bruised and bloody, then... then everything had faded out, and hurt, a lot.
The next thing he remembered was standing on the side of a back road in rural Canada. Hill was there too, inside a car. She gave him a bag, and said, "Well, I guess I'm going back to fight your damn war. Take care of yourself, Tony," and then she'd driven away. He'd wandered then, living off the money and fake ID in the bag, until he got to Cedar Harbour and settled there. Until Steve had arrived, and Tony had almost shot him. Then they'd defeated an evil wizard together, and Steve had fought next to him like they were friends. He had kissed Tony.
Tony looked again. Steve was still there, head back at an uncomfortable-looking angle, mouth open, snoring slightly. He'd got burgundy scrubs from somewhere, but they were a little small on him and clung in all sorts of places that Tony couldn't help looking at.
The bed creaked as Tony sat up, and Steve's eyes flew open. He blinked for a moment, then focused on Tony and grinned. "Hey," he said, voice as warm and friendly as it had been in the old days. "It's good to see you awake."
"Um..." Tony realised that his mouth was open, so he closed it, but couldn't think of what to say. "Steve..." he whispered at last.
Steve's smile faltered. "You've come back to yourself then?" he asked.
Tony nodded numbly. Of course. Steve had been treated him like a comrade because Tony hadn't remembered, and Steve had felt sorry for him. Then their lives had been in danger. Now that they were safe, he would pull away. Steve wouldn't want to be close to him again.
Impossibly -- everything felt utterly impossible right now -- Steve reached out and took Tony's hand. "I'm glad that's over. You scared us pretty bad last night." When Tony failed to come up with a response to that, he asked, "How do you feel?"
He'd promised himself that if he ever had another chance, he'd tell the truth. "Confused," he concluded after a moment's thought.
Steve smiled at him fondly. "Welcome to my life," he said, squeezing Tony's hand.
Tony reached up and wrapped his other hand around Steve's and hung on. Christ, it felt good to be able to go to him for support again. It couldn't last; Steve had to be treating him kindly because Tony was sick and Steve felt sorry for him. Soon, he'd had have to live without this again, and he desperately didn't want to. He should say something, end it, quick like ripping a bandage off, but instead he closed his eyes and held on tighter.
Steve did it for him. "I got your message," he said. Tony stayed silent, so he added, "The one you left me before you tried to kill yourself." He sounded like he was angry but trying not to show it. Tony opened his eyes and studied Steve's face. He would have looked calm, if not for the slight line between his brows and a tic in his jaw muscle. "When you're feeling better, we're going to need to talk, and by 'talk' I probably mean 'yell at each other a lot.' Right now, I want you to know that I'm going to try to listen this time. If we both do, maybe we can work things out without anyone else dying."
"That would be good," Tony said. Though he didn't quite understand why Steve was bothering. Tony had read the news, and he knew that he didn't have anything to negotiate with. He wasn't a power anymore; Steve could get by in this new world just fine without ever speaking to him again, let alone making amends. Which meant that if he was talking to Tony because he wanted to, which was... inexplicable at best. Tony wanted to say something else, but couldn't think of anything that didn't sound incredibly pathetic. Then the doctor came in and started poking both of them, and he didn't get a chance.
The doctors kept on Tony for the rest of the morning, though by the end of it he'd talked them into taking his cast off, and giving him some scrubs to wear. It was nice to have the Extremis back online again, even if he was still working out the hows and whys.
When the nurse finally wheeled him back into his room -- he didn't even know where to start with that one -- he found that Steve was gone. Instead, Dani was leaning back in the chair facing the door, hands behind her head, feet up on the bed.
"I sent Pete in to distract your guard dog," she said once the nurse had glared her into sitting up straight so Tony could get back into bed. "I figure we'll have about two minutes to talk."
Tony felt a stab of guilt that he hadn't even really thought about Dani and Pete being here too. Studying her now, he realised that she had a black eye, and abrasions around both wrists. "What happened to you?" he asked.
She looked down for a moment, face flushing, then met Tony's eyes again. There was fire there. Tony blinked. He'd known her for a year and he couldn't remember ever seeing her truly angry before. "That sick little freak made me attack your friend's side kick. He had to put me down before I hurt him."
"I'm sorry," Tony said, "I know better than most what it feels like to have someone fuck with your head." He wanted to reach out and take her hand. It had helped when Steve had done it for him, but wasn't sure it would be welcome.
Dani sighed, putting her whole body into the movement."Yeah, I guess you do," she said. "Do you ever stop feeling like you have slime under your skin?"
Tony shook his head. "No, you just kind of get used to it." Or kill yourself dramatically, but he wasn't going to bring that up. "I know this isn't going to be much use, and you're going to get pretty sick of hearing it, but it wasn't your fault." She gave him a look that suggested that that actually made her feel worse, so he changed the subject. "So do you still want the shop?"
Her brows came together, and she bit her lip. "You're not staying then? I guess you really can't, can you?"
"No," he admitted. "There's not much of a place here for Tony Stark, let alone Iron Man."
"Do you want to stay?" she asked.
Tony thought it over, remembering Steve asking him if he was happy in Cedar Harbour. Putting it in the context that he now had, he supposed that he had been. "I think I would if I didn't know what was out there," he said, "But not now. I can't." It wasn't what she'd asked, really, but he couldn't think of anything better.
"I'm buying the shop off you," she said. "I've been saving up since before you came. I would have got it off Paul in another year, if you hadn't showed up."
"Okay, I'll charge you what I paid for it," Tony agreed, because as much as he wanted to just give it to her, he knew how different owning it fair and square would feel. "We can work out the details once I figure out if I officially exist or not." He'd devoted part of his attention to picking away at his self-effacing Internet virus, but it seemed to have mutated since he wrote it. "Depending on how that works out, I may need the money anyway."
"Tony Stark: Working Joe," Dani said, she'd relaxed a little now, but didn't smile.
"It won't be the first time," Tony said. He leaned forward slightly, and put a hand on her knee. "Thanks for putting up with all my shit."
"Lord knows someone had to," a familiar voice said from the doorway. "He wouldn't survive otherwise."
Tony's head snapped around, eyes widening as he saw Pepper standing behind him. Her formidable business suit didn't quite hide the glow above her heart. "Pepper!" he said. "That was fast!" Especially since he hadn't called her yet, something else he felt guilty about.
He levered himself up so that he was sitting on the edge of the bed, legs over the side. Dani scooted her chair over to make room for Pepper as she walked around the bed to stand in front of him. "I have my sources, as always," she said. "I would have been here sooner, but I was in Berlin when I heard."
She didn't comment on having to fly around the world for him, again. Or tell him all the ways his last stunt had pissed her off. Or burst into tears. Tony wasn't entirely sure what to think for her non-reaction, other than he hated it. "How much trouble am I in?" he asked.
Her left eye twitched. "Tony," she said slowly, "You can't even begin to imagine."
He nodded. There were not enough shoes and dresses in the world to make up for some things, and she owned his company, so it wasn't like he could give her another raise. "I've got some catching up to do," he told her. "You up for helping me?"
Pepper shook her head despairingly. "God, you're such an idiot," she said, but then she leaned down and wrapped her arms around his neck.
Tony returned the embrace, pulling her into his lap and resting his head on her shoulder. She'd changed her perfume since the last time he'd seen her, but not the soap she used. She had the smoothest skin he'd ever touched. Suddenly, he felt like he was back in the early days of Iron Man, before she'd known his secret. He'd been so in love with Pepper then that he could barely look at her and Happy together without wanting to weep.
He didn't think he could blame the tears that he had to blink back entirely on his unsettled memories. He sniffed loudly.
"You have to promise me, Tony," Pepper said into his ear, voice low and fierce. "You have to promise me that you'll never do that again." Her hand gripped the back of his neck, and he felt her pointed nails digging into his skin. "I've buried you three times now, and I know that I'll do it again someday. But it can't be by your own hand. You can't ever do that to us again."
Tony pulled her so tightly to him that she must have had trouble breathing. She didn't say anything. "I..." he started. He had a million reasons why he could never commit to that, a hundred people he would die to protect, even now, but he couldn't finish. "Yeah, Pep. I promise," he told her instead, and right then he meant it.
He wondered, as he held her, if he would remember it next time the world seemed too much to take.
Things happened rather quickly after that. Maria Hill showed up carrying a speciously familiar briefcase, and Pepper and Tony had to keep Steve from hitting her. Then the Avengers managed to get the evacuation under enough control to hand it off, and came over en mass. Carol and Steve had to stop Clint from hitting Tony.
The doctor declared Steve fine, couldn't figure out what was going on with Tony, and told them to seek more specialised advice somewhere far away. She might also have added said something about "Before they blow up the hospital," but it was under her breath, and Steve claimed he didn't hear it.
With the remainder of the games well and truly cancelled, the Avengers didn't really have any reason to go back to Vancouver. Members of a number of different teams had joined Carol on Olympic security, but everyone wanted to see Steve, so they all headed back to New York instead of dispersing. Tony made them go by way of Cedar Harbour to drop the locals off. He also wanted to wear something other than hospital scrubs.
He spent the hour-and-a-half flight to New York watching everybody hug Steve, and wishing that he'd taken Pepper and Hill up on their offer of a ride home.
Steve was surprised when Tony showed up on his doorstep at three in the morning two days after they got back to New York. They hadn't been alone together since the hospital in Canada, and Steve had felt pretty sure that he would have to track Tony and tie him to something solid before they could talk.
But here he was, looking very much like his old self in a suit and a tie that probably cost more than most people's entire wardrobes. His hair hadn't come in yet, but it looked like he was trying to grow a goatee again.
"Hey," Steve said, holding the door open with one hand and tugging down his t-shirt with the other. Now that he got a chance to look at it, he realised that he'd managed, in his rush, to put in on inside out. "Haven't seen you in a while."
Tony hesitated slightly before crossing the threshold. "Yeah, sorry I missed that party, I uh..." he didn't say that he'd been busy, or that he hadn't wanted to start a fight, or that he felt that his attendance would been tempting the Gods of Random and Disruptive Explosions too much, but he clearly wanted to. "You know," he said instead.
Steve nodded. "Yeah," he answered, and he did. He led Tony into the lounge, which still felt kind of creepy, though not because someone had come into his home and rearranged everything. Rather, he knew that pretty much every American hero -- including Jess and Luke and their toddler -- had lived here at one point or another in the last two years, and things really hadn't changed at all. He was going to have to talk to Bucky about appropriate levels of hero worship, again. "Sit down, do you want water or... Tony, it's the middle of the night."
"Sorry, this is important," Tony said, standing stiffly in the middle of the room. "Where is everybody?"
Steve shrugged, leaning against a support pillar, close enough to talk easily but not at all in Tony's space. "Most of them don't actually live here anymore, and Bucky's over at Natasha and Sharon's. I think." He'd been giving Steve a lot of space since that last blow out they'd had. He might actually have run away from home; Steve was going to give it another day before he decided. He certainly wasn't going over to extract him from his former lover and her current lover's apartment. Any of the three of them took a lot of emotional energy right now, and in combination they were far more than he could handle. "Do we need to assemble?"
"What? No." Tony shook his head vehemently. "I just heard some news coming down the wire that you should know about before it breaks in the morning papers."
"Which normally you would have..." Steve stopped himself. He really shouldn't be thinking about him and Tony like they were normal again, like everything was fine. "What's so important?" he asked.
"The press finally figured out that the Olympic Meltdown wasn't the only story in Canada last week, and I think that 'Captain America Returns from the Dead' is going to lead for a while now."
Steve sighed. He'd fight and die for the First Amendment, but some days... "What about Iron Man?" he asked. "Or did you manage to keep that part out?"
"No, that'll be in there too," Tony replied easily, and it kind of bothered Steve that Tony didn't rise at Steve's implication that he would suppress free speech. "It's going to come out eventually. I've been trying to come up with a coherent response for days now." Suddenly, he collapsed into the couch, shoulders slumped. "I really don't know how to play this. I've dealt with the media my whole life, but this time I've got nothing." He rubbed both hands back over his stubbled hair, then looked up at Steve. "Scarier still, Pepper's got nothing."
Steve suspected that Ms Potts had quite a few things to say, but decided not to mention it. He walked over to the couch and sat next to Tony. He wasn't really used to being the one to offer advice. Even before it had all gone to hell, Tony had usually tried to handle everything all the time. He moved over to sit next to Tony on the couch, their legs not quite touching. "You've still got a couple of hours. I'm sure you'll think of something." Steve tried not to wince at how unconvincing that had sounded.
"What are you going to say?" Tony asked.
"Probably that I'm glad to be back. I want to put the past behind me and work with my friends. And that I'm going to be Captain America again." Steve frowned and rubbed the back of his neck. "Bucky quit," he added in explanation. "Someone has to do it, and Clint already told me where to shove my shield." He'd also started a pool as to what Bucky was going to choose as his new identity, which was going to be a source of violence between Ronin and "Princess Sparkle-Poo" very soon. Steve glanced sideways at Tony, who was looking down again. "We should co-ordinate, talk to the press together," he said. "The last thing this country needs right now is to think we're fighting again."
Tony didn't meet his eyes. "Right. What are we going to say? 'We've very sorry for tearing the country apart and leaving the planet wide open for an alien invasion, but every thing's okay now, so don't worry, we'll save you'?"
That pretty much summed up what Steve had planned to put in his statement, so he shrugged, and said, "Why not? It's true isn't it?"
That made Tony look up, probably mostly to see if he was serious. "You're going to tell reporters something because it's true?" he asked.
"Well, yeah, don't I always?" Steve grinned. "It's probably why I never do that well with them."
"The media always loved you," Tony said with an expression of immense fondness. Then his smile faltered and crumbled, and he asked, "Is it the truth, though? That you're sorry, and you want to work with me again?"
"It is." Steve took a deep breath, and tried to remember how he decided to say this. "Tony, what you did was wrong, and the way you did it..." Steve closed his eyes, remembering the pain and blood and burning rage. He really had thought that that machine had taken Tony's mind. "The way you did it would have been unforgivable if I'd given you any choice. You weren't the only one with power, and I could have used mine to stop, and I didn't, not until it was too late."
Tony nodded slowly. He opened his mouth a couple of times, then closed it again. "How can we ever trust each other again?" he asked at last. "If we're going to work together, we need that, and I can't imagine..." he broke off. His shoulders hunched down, and to keep looking at Steve he had to tilt his head back. He held himself like a man who expected a blow.
The posture made Steve want to shake Tony violently. He bit his lip and tried to bring their eyes in line again, which wasn't easy for a man his height. "You trusted me to have your back when you didn't even remember who you were," he said. It seemed like enough to him, but Tony didn't say anything. Steve realised that he had an advantage in this: he'd seen the recording of Tony's last words. He knew how Tony felt, but the reverse wasn't at all true. "I trusted you then, too," he said, trying to make him understand. "I looked at you back there, and I didn't see the man who betrayed me and who I tried to kill. I saw one of my oldest friends fighting beside me. When you take away everything else, I know I can rely on you." He reached out lightly ran his finger over the back of Tony's hands as he held them clenched together in his lap. The fine muscles trembled under his touch. "I can do this without you. If you don't want to try again, if it's just too hard this time, I'll understand. I just... I miss you when you're gone. We're so much better when we're together." Which was really all he could think to say. He waited.
"I promised Pepper that I wouldn't try to kill myself again," Tony told him, which didn't seem on topic, but at least he was talking.
"That's good," Steve said, trying to sound encouraging, but mostly feeling stunned.
Tony studied their hands where they touched. "I don't know if I'll be able to keep it, but I'll try for her sake. She deserves better than the shit I put her through." It wasn't a point that Steve was going to argue. No one in the world deserved what Tony put them through, especially Tony himself. "I can't promise you that we'll never end up on opposite sides again, Steve. It's happened too often, and we've both had our reasons every time."
No matter what sense they make later. Steve thought about the possible futures from Tony's message, how everything could have worked out. "I'll promise you something," he said slowly, and Tony's head snapped up. "I promise you, if there is a next time, I'll actually talk to you instead of just yelling, and I'll do my best to listen."
"I can do that," Tony said. "I can try my best, at least."
"Well, your best has always been pretty spectacular," Steve told him, grinning. "It will be good to have you back, Avenger. There may be hope for this country yet."
"Thanks, Cap." Tony got off the couch. Steve could almost see him draw into himself as he straightened his back and rearranged his jacket and tie. "We should work out the details as quick as we can, and I'll get Pepper... damn, she'll be in bed, and we won't make the early editions now anyway." He frowned, thinking. "How do you feel about press conferences?"
Steve had always hated them. "Whatever you think will work," he said. "Seeing us together would be better than just a statement anyway." He stood as well. Tony, it seemed, had got what he came for and was on his way out.
"Good, I'll set something up for mid-morning, then." He stepped back, towards the way out. "Get some sleep. As soon as it's late enough, we should start calling everyone to warn them, and meet with Pepper to finish getting our stories straight."
"I don't think I could sleep," Steve said. "Too many things to decide. I'm going to make coffee, so why don't you stay, and we can work it out now?" He couldn't quite keep up with the shifts in Tony's mood, and he didn't want him to go before he figured them out.
Tony glanced at Steve then at the door but didn't move. "I..." he started. Then he blinked, and smiled. "Yeah, sure. Thanks. I appreciate it." Steve felt pretty sure that was the same look Tony was going to give to the reporters later. It was his professional "I don't want to deal with this, but Pepper/Cap/the board/Fury is making me" smile. Steve hadn't seen it directed at him in a long time, maybe not since Tony had moved to the West Coast after he'd got back on the wagon.
Filling the kettle, Steve turned on the stove and started looking for coffee beans. Someone -- probably Carol -- had installed a large gleaming cappuccino machine. He hadn't learned use it. "So what have you been working on?" he asked. "Building new armour?"
He didn't look behind him, but heard Tony come over to lean against the kitchen island. "Yeah, as always, I guess. I'm going to have to arm wrestle Hill for my name back, so I better make it good. I have a lot of tech to catch up with, plus sorting out what the Skrulls did to my code, though a lot of that's patched already."
"How is the Extremis doing?" Steve asked cautiously.
"Oh, fine." Tony sounded casually dismissive to the point where Steve suspected he was faking it. "It seems to have mutated past all that on its own."
Steve decided not to say what he thought about the computer in his friend's head evolving independently -- they'd already had this argument, several times -- and concentrated on fussing with the filter. "What about AES?" he asked instead. "Are you planning to take the company over from Pepper or start something of your own?"
Tony snorted. "I'm waiting to see how the public takes me being alive at all. I wasn't a popular guy at the end there." Steve glanced at the coffee machine, seeing the room reflected on its surface. Despite his relaxed posture, Tony looked tense. "Still, they welcomed the goddamn Green Goblin into public life, so there may be hope for me yet."
The details of Norman Osborn's rise to power still left Steve deeply confused, and he didn't really want to comment on it until he felt he understood. The silence stretched into something awkward, and he'd run out of things to do before the water boiled. He braced his hands on the counter and stood in silence.
"Nice weather for this time of year," Tony said after a long pause. Steve turned to look at him at last. Tony's lip twisted up and his eyes looked blank and hard. Steve wasn't sure which one of them he was mocking, probably both.
"Tony..." he started to say, but Tony shook his head and raised a hand to cut him off.
"I can't do this, Steve," he said, sounding a little desperate. It was unfair, as Steve had no idea what they were doing, and said as much. "Look, maybe we should try just working together for a while," Tony added, which didn't make things clearer at all.
"You don't want to be friends?" Steve asked. "I thought..." He stopped, clenching his hands into fists. He really hadn't been thinking at all. He'd just assumed, since Tony didn't hate him and wasn't crazy, that things would go back to the way they were before. After all, why not?
Tony gripped the edge of the counter like it could somehow protect him. "I can't be your friend just so Captain America and Iron Man can get together and Save the United States of America. Your devotion to God and Country may know no bounds, but mine does."
Steve gaped at him. Tony actually... oh, of course he did, didn't he? Had he actually heard anything at all Steve had said? Behind him, the kettle started the whistle. Without looking, he moved it off the heat and switched the element off. With just as much deliberation, he strode around the kitchen island, took Tony's face in his hands, tilted it to the right angle, and kissed him firmly on the mouth.
For a moment, Tony didn't respond, possibly frozen in shock, then he pulled away. Steve let him, dropping his hands to Tony's shoulders. Tony's eyes were wide and a little wild.
As kisses went, it hadn't been that satisfying, closed mouthed and unacknowledged. Tony looked like he was about to protest, so it obviously hadn't properly got Steve's point across either. "Have I ever been that good at games, Tony?" he asked before Tony had a chance to muddle things further. "This right here, you and me in my kitchen in the middle of the night, this isn't about politics or heroes or who we are in public. This is me wanting to be with you. Are you interested or not?"
Tony licked his lips. "I'm interested," he said. He brought his hands up to grip Steve's hips. "Of course I am. I just thought--"
Steve squeezed Tony's shoulders. "For once, stop thinking and trust me."
This time when Steve kissed him, Tony responded, thoroughly and enthusiastically.
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