Routine, Tony thinks. Routine is important. That's what they always say, isn't it? Routine gives you stability, structure. It gives you normality when nothing is normal anymore. It gets you through the grief. He's the new director of SHIELD. He has a schedule to keep. He still has a world to protect. He committed to this. He has to stay committed to this. He's sacrificed too much not to. He can't think about what he's sacrificed. He shuts his eyes and wobbles, his bare hands braced on the edge of the sink.
Extremis helpfully slides his schedule for the day into the blackness, golden words in an inky void. Tony ignores them.
He spits toothpaste into the sink, opens his eyes, and regards his blurry reflection in the fogged-up bathroom mirror. Water drips from his hair to his shoulders. The mirror starts to clear. Extremis ought to make him look good, but even a healing factor can't do anything about his hollow-eyed gaze. He looks dead. He thought he was going to be. He was supposed to have been a martyr for the SHRA.
It should have been him.
Right. Routine. He got out of bed. He showered. He shaved. He brushed his teeth. He should eat something. He's not hungry. Someone on the helicarrier will probably give him coffee. He can pretend to drink it. He's going to put his armor on, and he's going to fly up to the helicarrier, and he's going to-- he's going to--
Say it. Say it, coward.
"I'm going to see Steve's body," he tells the mirror. His voice is rough. The sentence ends in a sob.
It's been exactly twenty-one hours since Steve died. He's made a clock. Extremis keeps it ticking. Every second, he gets farther and farther away from Steve.
The mirror is clear now. Tony can see the reflection of his own soulmark, high on his chest: an achingly-familiar shield with its ringed star, in the familiar colors: red, white, and blue. The whole thing is done up in circuitry, concentric little nodes and wires between the rings of the shield, dots and vertical striations, like they might come alight somehow. More circuitry bisects the shield, quarters it, extends across Tony's chest like creeping mechanical veins.
What a fucking joke.
Soulmarks are as old as humanity: the sign of your own soul and another's, etched on your skin, since the day you're born. Everyone has a soulmark. It's not always two souls twined. Sometimes it's three or four. Nature's not monogamous like that. But Tony's soulmark is a classic paired mark. His half of it, he knows, is the circuitry atop the shield. He's never known what it is. It's not something he's invented. It looks sort of like a repulsor assembly, but not exactly. Whatever it is, he's not there yet.
He knows that in the world of superheroes, that's not uncommon. Sometimes it takes you a while to figure out why your soulmark represents you. He'd been playing chess with Reed once, and Reed's sleeve had ridden up and shown Tony the soulmark on the inside of his wrist: Reed's gloved hands and elongated arms surrounding one of Sue's invisible force-projection orbs, like a wreath. Reed caught Tony looking, laughed fondly, and said, yeah, that didn't make any sense to either of us until the cosmic rays.
The other half of Tony's soulmark is unmistakably Captain America's shield. But Steve isn't -- wasn't -- his soulmate.
That's the thing. Soulmark doesn't mean soulmate.
No one ever said the universe was fair. To be soulmates, your soulmarks have to match. Identical marks, identical places on the body. About half the world never finds their soulmate. Non-reciprocal soulmarks is the technical term. What that means, in practice, is that Tony has Steve's shield on his chest along with his own mark, but Steve doesn't have Tony's circuitry with his shield. The other half of Steve's mark goes -- went -- with someone else. Ridiculously common, really. Fodder for a thousand tragic novels and Lifetime TV-movies.
Not that Tony ever saw Steve's soulmark. But he knows. It can't be him.
The stories all say you're supposed to know when you meet your soulmate. They're supposed to feel special. You know they're The One. But Tony had a crush on Steve long before he ever met him, and finding Steve alive in the ice was already the best day of his life. For Tony, caring about Steve has never been diagnostic. Sure, he loved Steve more than anyone else he'd ever known -- but maybe his soulmate is still out there, and he'd love them more? So it doesn't prove anything, loving Steve.
Besides, if Steve had ever thought it was him, he would have said something. He is -- was, goddammit -- a traditionalist, down to the bone. If he'd ever suspected anyone of being his soulmate, he would have gone after them. But Steve had never said, and he'd been old-fashioned enough that he'd never shown anyone his soulmark, or where Tony figured his soulmark must have been; Tony had never seen him shirtless.
And just because Steve's soulmark had been on the same half of his body as Tony's is, that doesn't prove anything either.
Steve would never have wanted him.
And of course there's the most damning reason: surely if Steve had been his soulmate, none of this would have happened.
Tony bites his lip hard and looks at his mark in the mirror again, and then, with a thought, summons the undersuit to cover it up, a patch of glimmering gold that he keeps on his skin these days whether he's wearing a SHIELD uniform or not. Before Extremis, he used to use heavy-duty concealer; he had, his whole life, even under his shirts. His classmates would have mocked him if they'd known he had a dead man's shield on his chest. And then, later, they'd found Steve, and keeping the secret had been so much easier than the inevitable rejection. And now he's here, and this way he can almost pretend it doesn't exist.
Maybe his soulmate is a Captain America fan. Maybe his soulmate is the next Captain America.
Either way, no one's going to be happy to have him.
"Quit whining, Director," Tony tells the mirror. "Stay committed."
It's been twenty-one hours and three minutes since Steve died.
Tony suits up. He flies to the helicarrier. He dismisses the guards.
Steve's body is lying there, on a table, still dressed in the uniform he'd worn to his arraignment, the uniform he'd worn to their last fight. Half-healed wounds are visible through the rents in the fabric. His shield, balanced on his chest, is still spattered with Tony's blood. His eyes are closed, his skin pallid and waxy. He's so very still.
Tony did this to him.
His indrawn breath echoes in his helmet.
He says his piece.
He says everything he wanted to say, everything he'd spent these months of fighting trying to get out, everything Steve stopped him from saying because Steve fucking heard exactly what he wanted to hear, because he'd already decided what Tony was doing and why Tony was doing it before Tony could even open his mouth.
By the end of it he's crying.
He didn't want this. He never wanted this. He wants Steve back. Steve can hate him forever. He just wants him back.
It's not going to happen.
Tony rises unsteadily to his feet. His vision is blurry, warped, as he stares at the glare of the lights above reflecting on Steve's bloodied shield.
This is his last chance for closure. It's terrible, but then, everyone knows Tony's a terrible human being. This way he'll know. He can move on. He can shut the door. His futurist's mind can stop imagining a future that could never have been. He'll have proof.
The cameras are off. No one else will know. It'll be Tony's secret.
He lifts Steve's shield away and leans it against the side of the table.
Underneath the shield, Steve is a wreck. The blue scale mail of his shirt is broken on his right shoulder, the gaping exit wound of Crossbones' bullet, a through-and-through. The leather over his stomach, red and white, is stained brown, messy with dried blood. Even a super-soldier couldn't survive three point-blank gut shots. Sympathetic, sickened pain nestles in the pit of Tony's stomach.
Tony reaches out with one clumsy, gauntleted hand. He knows how the mail unfastens, in theory; he's never done this before. He'll never do it again. Steve would never have let him. Steve would never have wanted him to do this.
He works the hooks of the mail open from Steve's neck, all the way across Steve's left shoulder, until there's enough give to move the entire piece. Slowly, Tony folds the mail back and down, down, down.
He knows exactly where to look: on Steve's chest, on the left side, over his heart. That's where the soulmark will be. That's where it won't be, because Steve isn't his soulmate. Nothing will be there, because Steve isn't Tony's soulmate, because Steve's mark is somewhere else on his body, because it's for someone else.
Tony just needs to know. He needs to confirm it. He needs to be sure. Then he can finally lay this to rest, this one last question, this final worry. He can start to heal.
In one decisive motion, he pulls the flap of Steve's uniform shirt all the way back, baring half his chest to the light.
The soulmark is livid against Steve's ashen skin: Steve's shield, with Tony's circuitry around and atop it. The twin to Tony's soulmark. Identical. A perfect match. Red, white, and blue shines on gray pallor.
Horrified, Tony stumbles backwards. His stomach roils. He wants to be sick, but there's nothing in him to be sick with, just the burn of acid in his throat that Extremis tamps down. He's outsourced all his control. The void of grief within him opens up wide and swallows him whole, like stepping out of the Quinjet and plummeting down into the dark, repulsors never firing.
God, oh God, they were soulmates. All along, they were soulmates, and Tony never knew.
Steve was his soulmate, and Tony killed him. He killed his own soulmate.
He fumbles for Steve's shield and drops it on the floor; he cringes at the sound. He makes himself step forward, refasten Steve's uniform with shaking hands, balance the shield on him again. Leave no trace. No one will know. No one will know except Tony, and it'll eat him from the inside out, but he deserves this, he deserves this, he deserves all of this.
He wonders if Steve suspected. If Steve knew. If Steve, too, had decided that it wasn't worth it.
He runs down the corridors of the helicarrier. He's stumbling, shouldering confused SHIELD personnel aside. He remembered, just barely in time, to put the helmet back on, so they can't see his face. He can hear his ragged, hitching breaths echoing in his ears, but the speakers are muted, so no one else can.
"Director?" one agent asks, concerned, as she flattens herself against the wall. "Director, is there an emergency?"
"No." The armor distorts his voice enough that his emotions are hidden. "I just-- I need--"
He needs a drink. He needs a goddamn drink, is what he needs. Through all of this, I never took a drink, he'd told Steve's body, not five minutes ago, self-righteous, prideful, because he hadn't thought it could get any worse. He'd survived Steve's death sober. Surely nothing could be any worse than that.
He should have known better than to tempt fate.
The craving rips through him, the thirst he's never forgotten after all these years. He pictures himself as an open wound, raw, bleeding. He could make the pain stop. He could make it all go away. It would stop hurting. He could open a bottle and he wouldn't have to think, he wouldn't have to feel, and there would be nothing except blessed numbness. Anesthesia.
Steve's not here to judge him for it anymore.
He can't, he tells himself, even though everything in him wants to. If he disappears into the bottle, he's never coming out. He has to stay in control. People's lives depend on him. He couldn't save Steve, but he has to keep everyone safe. If he's not running Registration, someone will get the bright idea to run Project Wideawake, and more people will die, and it will all be his fault. He can't let anyone else die. He can't take that drink.
He draws himself up. "Can someone send Ms. Marvel to my office?"
"Right away, sir," the agent says.
This isn't how it's supposed to work, but then, nothing is how it's supposed to work, anymore. He takes the stairs up one deck and turns down the corridor to his office, hating himself with every step. He's Carol's AA sponsor, for God's sake. He's supposed to be the stable one. The inspiration.
He can't call Henry. Henry knows about wanting to drink, sure, but Henry doesn't have the background for the rest of it, doesn't know about what the war did to him, doesn't know how close he already came to having a drink on the night Happy died -- only Sue knows that -- and definitely doesn't know how he felt about Steve. Besides, Henry's not here, and a voice on a phone isn't going to be enough to stop him.
He staggers into his office -- God, it's like he's already drunk -- and slams the door behind him. It rattles.
The couch isn't that far. The desk isn't much farther. Across the room. He can make it. He takes another step, and that's when he remembers the booze.
Fury used to keep a bottle of scotch in the lower-left drawer, and Tony will bet anything that Maria hasn't cleaned up after him. He can picture it now, half-empty, glinting amber. He can practically taste it. He's salivating. He's at the nonexistent mercy of the worst of his flaws. He's nothing but a drunkard.
He can't. People will die.
Steve's already dead.
"Fuck," he says, his voice thick with tears, and he falls to his knees, alone in his empty office. The armor hits the deck with a sound like he's knocked over a kitchen rack. Knives out.
He's not quite aware of thinking it off, but he must have, because the outer armor of the suit falls away, sliding off him in its heavy crimson pieces. He leans forward, doubles over. The faceplate lands between his hands, braced on the deck. He's surrounded by pieces of metal, like he's survived another explosion.
Behind him, the door opens and closes. Heels echo on the deck. Carol. Tony doesn't look up.
"Oh, Tony," Carol says, under her breath, and then, louder: "What-- how-- what can I do? What do you need?"
I need him not to be dead, Tony thinks, but he knows if he opens his mouth he's going to start crying again. I need him back. I need one more chance. Carol can't give him that. No one can give him that. He hears himself sob. He's crying again.
Carol must already know that she's not going to get an answer; the next thing Tony feels is her hands on his shoulders, gloves sliding over the golden undersuit, as she urges him up. He can't remember the last time he touched another living human being.
"Hey, Tony, shh," Carol murmurs. She doesn't try to tell him it's okay. Tony appreciates the honesty.
She has him on his feet, and he's leaning on her. She's a lot stronger than he is. She leads him toward the couch, picking past the remains of Tony's armor, and he sits down heavily, losing his balance and landing with a thud. She sits down next to him, much more lightly.
He hiccups pathetically. His fingers are tingling. Extremis says something alarming at the edge of his field of vision about his oxygen saturation.
"Fury used to keep a bottle in his desk," Tony says, and he watches Carol's eyes widen behind her domino mask. "Bet you anything it's still there. And I-- I just needed someone to sit with me, because if I-- if I'm alone I know I'm going to--"
He can't make himself finish the sentence. It feels like writing a suicide note.
Carol pulls him into a hug. Her hair smells vaguely floral. Freesia, maybe. He lets the undersuit melt away on his hands. Her skin is warm. Someday Tony's going to code out the part of him that needs human contact. It's a weakness.
"I can help you pour it out if you want," Carol says, and Tony shakes his head violently, knocking his skull against Carol's shoulder, because he didn't want to make it worse for her. God, he's so selfish. "Or I can get someone else to."
"No, I just-- no," Tony says. He can't say what he wants. He can't have what he wants. "Just stay?"
"Okay," Carol says. She sounds hurt and helpless and Tony's greedy, so greedy, and he should let her leave. "Okay."
She pets his hair. He's disgusting. No one should touch him. Neither of them say anything for several long minutes, until Tony forces his breathing back under control.
"I went to see his body," Tony says, and he doesn't know why he's telling Carol this. He shouldn't be telling anyone this. It won't help. "I went to see him just now and I-- I talked to him for a bit and then I had to see. I had to know." It's a terrible justification. He's guilty. He's guilty of everything. "I had to see," he repeats.
He knows he's not making any sense. Carol draws back and squints at him. "Had to see what?"
So much for secrecy. It doesn't matter anymore. Nothing matters anymore. Tony sits up enough to get his arm free, to slide it across to his chest, to draw the undersuit away with his fingertips, peeling back the golden coating to reveal the horror beneath, like the opposite of a miracle.
He sees when Carol sees it, because her eyes go wide. The shield is a symbol every Avenger -- hell, everyone in the world -- knows on sight. There's no question in her mind who it belongs to. Tony feels like an idiot for ever having doubted this.
"Oh, Tony," Carol whispers. "Oh, my God, Tony. I'm so sorry." She looks like she's going to cry now. All Tony can do is hurt the ones he loves.
"I didn't know," Tony says. "I didn't know. Not for sure. I thought it couldn't be him, but it was. It was." Tears are trickling down his face again, flowing, wetting his beard. He can't breathe.
Carol tries to shush him. There are tears starting to stain her mask.
"What kind of monster murders his own soulmate?" Tony's voice is shaking.
Carol's hands tighten on him. "Tony, no," she says.
That doesn't really answer his question. That's okay. Tony already knows.
The year that follows Steve's death is hell. It would have been terrible in the best of circumstances, if all Tony had been contending with had been trying to find a reason to wake up every morning knowing that he's never going to see Steve again. He's never going to be able to apologize. He's never going to be able to tell Steve that he's sorry, that he loves him, that he wasted so much time fighting with him about so many things that are meaningless now. That they're soulmates.
He wakes up crying. He sees ghosts. Sometimes they're Steve.
If that had been everything that Tony had to deal with, that would have been the best case scenario.
But because he's Tony Stark and this is his goddamn miserable life, the Skrulls invaded, which he mishandled badly enough that it cost him his job at SHIELD, and now Norman Osborn wants the last copy of the SHRA's superhuman database. The one that's in Tony's head.
He hasn't come this far just to give up now. If Osborn gets that database, people start dying. If he gives up, everything he's done will have been for nothing. Steve already died for this.
He remembers Steve standing in the mansion, staring him down. No one's identity becomes public knowledge unless they choose, Tony had tried to tell him.
Come on, Tony, Steve told him, flinging his hands wide. Ultron. The Mad Thinker. Doctor Doom. Machinesmith. We have dozens of enemies who could hack into a government database without breaking a sweat.
Tony wants to laugh. Steve had been right. Tony just hadn't been listening. And now the Green Goblin -- well, the former Green Goblin -- is going to bring them all down if Tony can't manage to destroy that database.
So he's here at Funtime, Inc -- because never let it be said that Tony doesn't have a sense of humor when it comes to the best locations to commit suicide -- trying to convince Pepper and Maria to help him reduce his brain to sludge. After Extremis, his brain is, essentially, a hard drive. Tony wants to take the platters out of the drive and go at them with a sledgehammer.
"It's the biological equivalent of zeroing out my cells," Tony says, as he tries to explain the deletion process. Neither Pepper nor Maria look especially thrilled about this. "The good news is that everything -- every state secret, every plan, everything Osborn wants -- will be obliterated." He half-smiles. "The bad news is, I will be too."
That's when they get really upset.
In the ensuing argument, Maria offers him her own gun to blow his own brains out with. In context, it's sort of sweet.
He won't remember anything. He won't remember the fighting. He won't remember Steve dying. He won't remember that he killed him. He won't remember that Steve's his soulmate. Oblivion is everything Tony ever wanted. A blessing. He won't have to live with this. Sure, Steve will still be dead, but whatever version of Tony comes out the other side of this will never know what they could have been to each other. A gift to his future self.
Hell, maybe his future self won't even remember Steve.
Pepper is silent, thin-lipped. He didn't tell her about Steve, but he knows that she has a dead man's soulmark on the nape of her neck. Happy died because of him. He'll forget that, too.
Maria tries to storm out, and Tony takes this opportunity to talk her through the brain deletion instructions that he's thoughtfully wired into the door panel.
"It wants to know if I want to execute," Maria says, frowning.
Last chance to back out.
He already knows Pepper will do it if he asks her, but he needs both of them. If he goes through with this, his memories will start leaking away, until he becomes a blank slate. Perfect. Pure. Healed.
"Type y," Tony tells her, and then he convulses in the chair as the first of the charges hits him.
It's better this way. He doesn't need anything he knows anymore. All his life has ever brought him is pain.
He won't be sorry.
Tony's kneeling in the middle of a desert. He doesn't know what desert. He's wearing armor. It's gray, bulky, heavy, dented. Old, his brain says, but he doesn't remember what that means. He thinks he might have worn this armor before. He doesn't remember when. He thinks of another desert. It might be the same desert. He doesn't know.
There's a man in front of him in another suit of armor. The man is hitting him. It hurts. He wishes the man would stop hitting him.
He knows that the man is bad. He doesn't know why. He was supposed to keep running. He remembers that. He tries, but he can't keep running. He stands, he falls, and then the bad man picks him up out of the sand and hits him again. The armor rings out with the impact of metal on metal.
The bad man talks. He's been talking, while he hits him. Tony's been trying not to look at him. Tony's been trying not to think about it. That part's easy. The words don't make any sense. Words are hard.
"You know what I hate most about you, Stark?" the bad man says. He sounds very angry. "It's not that you were the smartest guy in the room. It's that you liked it so damn much."
The bad man rips off Tony's helmet and Tony is left blinking up at him in the sunshine. The bad man's suit of armor is red, white, and blue. There's a big white star in the middle of his chest.
Steve, Tony thinks.
He remembers a tall, handsome blond man smiling at him. He smiles back at the memory. It's a happy memory. It makes him feel all warm and fizzy inside. He likes this memory.
The bad man isn't Steve. Steve would never be a bad man. Tony knows that.
Maybe if Tony wins this fight, he will get to see Steve again. Steve will smile at him again. Tony will like that.
"So what do you have to say for yourself now, smart guy?" the bad man asks.
Tony doesn't know what the right thing to say is. Tony doesn't remember anything. He's not a smart guy. Blood is dripping down his face.
If he wins, he can see-- he can see-- he doesn't remember who he can see again.
"I win," Tony says.
The bad man howls at him like an angry dog and raises his hands. His palms are bright with energy, the light that hurts Tony when it touches him. The light looks like something that will take him to another place. Maybe the other place will be better. Maybe in the other place no one will hurt him anymore. Maybe his soulmate will be there.
My soulmate, Tony thinks. I can see my soulmate. Steve is my soulmate.
The light grows brighter.
He doesn't remember anything after that.
He's in a desert. His parents are there. Then Stephen Strange is there. It's a weird fucking dream. And then, of course, he wakes up in a basement in one of Stephen's goddamn magic circles, and Ghost is right next to him and trying to kill Pepper, so it must be Tuesday.
He sends Ghost packing by using his own summoning device against him. He's unsteady, wobbling, and when he looks down at himself he realizes he's not wearing a shirt; someone's covered up his soulmark with one of those disposable medical privacy bandages, not even the classy kind. Still, it was polite of them to try.
And also in the middle of his chest there's a giant blue light. He can't really see his skin in the dimness, but there's some kind of scar pattern around it, raw-edged. He's glowing. So that's new.
Tony stares around the room. Maria stares back, gun in hand. Stephen is sitting against the wall, breathing hard. Pepper's not looking at him. Rhodey is lying on the floor, one hand over a bullet wound.
Tony's clearly missed a few things lately.
He wonders where the hell the Avengers are. He reaches out through Extremis, trying to grab the team comms, hoping for Steve or Jess, or, hell, even Logan -- but there's nothing. No Extremis.
Okay. So there have clearly been a few changes while Tony was unconscious. Extremis is on the fritz or something. He can fix it. That's what he does.
His chest hurts like hell.
It's going to be okay. He can get through this. Everybody's still breathing. Everybody's going to be okay.
Tony's first hint that something weird is going on is when it turns out he's in someplace called Broxton, Oklahoma. And they don't even go to a hospital. They go to a motel. Not that Tony's a big fan of hospitals, but even he's wondering why they've turned the -- ugh -- Sooner Hotel into a triage center. Also, there's no free cable or continental breakfast.
He's expecting to see either Stephen again or -- given the way his life seems to be going right now -- Don Blake, but he gets neither. The doctor's name is Lisk. Tony's never met him before. The guy has a lot of questions. Tony's not really in the mood. He has things to do. A company to run. A team to lead.
Tony looks down at himself and hooks a finger into the neckline of his hospital gown. Now that he's in the light, he can see a little more clearly what's become of his chest. The giant bluish light in his sternum isn't just flat. It isn't featureless. The glow is strongest in the center, but there's a ring around the center, a ring with little striated nodes. There's an outer ring too, past that one, concentric vertical bands of light and shadow, with dots on the outside.
Oh. That's what's on his soulmark.
He pulls the gown down a little more. There's circuitry spidering across his skin. Exactly like his soulmark.
Well, at least there's something good in all this weirdness. He'd been wondering if he'd ever figure out what his soulmark meant. Apparently this -- the RT node, the doctor called it, made with Tony's repulsor technology -- is significant to Tony's soul. Okay. He can work with that.
He does wonder where it came from, though. He's never made anything quite like this.
Lisk catches him looking. "Ms. Potts indicated that, in her experience, the dermatitis you're experiencing near the implantation site is only temporary, Mr. Stark. The circuitry should apparently fade in a few days." He grimaces in the way Tony associates with doctors who desperately want their job to be normal. Tony has always been an unusual patient.
What would Pepper know about it, though? Sure, Pepper and Maria said this thing is running his brainstem, but Lisk is making it sound like Pepper has hands-on experience with the RT. That can't be right. Tony can't have been out more than a couple of days.
It'll be okay. He needs to start working soon, though. He's really missing Extremis. There's probably some kind of bug. He can track it down and then get back to the Avengers. Steve didn't sign up to run the team by himself, after all. The team's just gone public and the media's probably going crazy. For God's sake, the Daily Bugle had already come snapping at their throats when they'd barely done more than announce the new roster.
Tony clears his throat. "So, doc, when can I get back to work?"
"I'd like you to undergo a more thorough examination first," Lisk says. He coughs and glances back at the door like he's expecting someone. He continues a little more quietly. "And I thought you might want to know that Captain America is around. I just saw him. He told me he'd be interested in talking to you, if that's... a thing you're willing to do."
Lisk's voice is slow, hesitant, pitch arcing up at the end ever so slightly: a question. Like he thinks there's some reason Tony wouldn't want to talk to Steve. What kind of question is that? Tony always wants to talk to Steve.
"Of course I'll talk to him," Tony says, as Lisk squints suspiciously at him. "Send him on in."
After another few seconds of that same weird stare, Lisk disappears. Tony hears voices in the hallway, indistinct. But even without being able to make out the words, he knows the pleasant, even baritone of Steve's voice. Something tense within Tony starts to uncurl, as the familiar warmth of the thought that Steve is here and it's all going to be okay now spreads through him.
There are footsteps in the hallway and then, finally -- it's Steve. Steve's standing there in the doorway, in full uniform, cowl up, every inch Captain America. Except, Tony realizes, he doesn't have his shield. What the hell? This is definitely the weirdest thing Tony has seen all day, weirder than the glowing light in his chest or the fact that Extremis is broken or the way the doctor was side-eyeing him for no reason whatsoever when he told him Captain America was here. That shield means more to Steve than anything. Tony's watched him spend years toting it around in portfolio cases while unconvincingly attempting to have a civilian identity. He doesn't leave it behind. He just doesn't. There's no way Steve is going to show up here in fucking Oklahoma and leave his shield halfway across the country in New York.
Come to think of it, why are they in Oklahoma?
It doesn't matter. Everything's okay. Steve's here now.
"Steve!" Tony says. He can feel the grin spreading across his face as his heart lifts. God, it's so good to see him again.
Steve doesn't smile back.
He's standing there stiffly, awkwardly, and Tony can feel the smile dropping off his own face, an icy ball of fear precipitating in his gut, like his body's reaching for an answer his mind can't give him yet. What the hell is going on?
"Steve?" Tony says again. His voice wavers with uncertainty.
Steve's still not smiling. "I'm glad you're doing okay, Tony," he says. His voice is as guarded as his stance. It's not the way he talks to Tony. It's not even the way he talks to reporters. It's the way he talks on the rare occasions when someone's successfully made him do something he didn't want to do. Like he's here on orders and he hates it.
"Steve?" Tony asks, like a goddamn broken record. "Are-- are you okay? Is everything all right?"
Steve stops, then, and a different emotion cracks his uncomfortable facade: confusion. His eyes narrow. He looks at him, actually, a lot like the doctor had looked at him -- like something about Tony's reaction doesn't make sense. Like Tony shouldn't be happy. Just like Steve's not happy either.
Steve's gaze darts around the room, and he pauses for a few seconds, like whatever he came to say isn't what he wants to say now and he's caught without a backup speech prepared. The awkwardness stretches, excruciating. Tony doesn't know what else to say.
"I'll admit I wasn't expecting you to want to put it all behind us like this," Steve says.
His voice has that terrible, quiet tone just this side of angry that he sometimes gets when he's trying very hard to stay calm. Tony can't remember the last time he heard it directed at him, and he hates that he can feel the fear quivering in him because they're not like this. They're not. And Steve's not making any sense. Put what behind them?
"What do you mean?" Tony asks.
Steve ignores his question, which is also weird and upsetting. "And maybe this isn't the right time to talk about it," Steve says, and he breathes out hard. "I'll admit, I understand the impulse. I wish we could let it all go. But if I don't say it soon I feel like it'll only be more difficult." He grimaces. "I know we left things in a bad place, and I don't-- I don't want to lay any blame here. I'm not proud of what I did. Where it all ended up. You have to know that much. I just wanted to clear the air." The words are sharp, snapped, gruff.
Jesus, it sounds like he's offering a peace treaty at gunpoint. What the hell is wrong with him?
"I don't understand," Tony says.
They weren't fighting. Steve's not mad at him. He's not mad at Steve. The last time they ever really disagreed was that whole Mentallo thing. Tony apologized and Steve accepted his apology, so they're good, right? And besides, that was a long time ago. Is that what Steve's mad about?
No, wait. Maybe they were on a mission? Yeah, that makes sense. Whatever knocked Tony out and put them in Oklahoma. Maybe something went sideways. Tactical disagreement. Why doesn't he remember? Why is Steve acting like this?
Even if Tony made a bad call in the field, that doesn't merit this.
Steve squints at him again.
"I mean," Tony says, because he feels like Steve wants him to say something but he has no clue what, "I know that sometimes we've had our differences, Cap, but we've always done a good job working through them, right?"
Eyebrows raised, Steve mouths the words working through them to himself like Tony has said something patently unbelievable, and, okay, that really stings.
"That's not how I'd characterize our views of the SHRA." Steve's voice is a bare few degrees above absolute zero. The back of Tony's neck prickles, like his body wants to be afraid of Steve, and that's even more terrifying.
"The SHRA?" Tony manages to ask. His mouth is dry.
He can't imagine anything more irrelevant than the Superhuman Registration Act. That godawful bill. Mutant Registration on an overdose of steroids. It's never going to pass. Tony's been hoping it's going to die in committee. The thing is, he doesn't even know how Steve knows about it. It's still being drafted. Very hush-hush. The last time Tony had heard the name, it had been the middle of a closed-door Cabinet meeting and he'd still been the Secretary of Defense. Steve shouldn't have heard of it.
"Of course the SHRA," Steve snaps, too loud, and his voice rings out. Tony wants to recoil. "What else could I possibly be talking about?"
This is just bizarre.
"How do you even know what the SHRA is? It hasn't even been introduced in Congress!"
"Is this some kind of joke?" Steve growls, like Tony's the enemy, like if he had his shield it would be raised, and Tony doesn't understand any of it. Why is Steve doing this to him?
Tony is seriously considering asking Steve what number Earth he thinks this is when Steve's gaze fixes on the glowing light in his chest and his face goes ashen-pale and everything just... stops.
Tony glances down at the mess in his chest, and when he looks up, Steve is staring at him, wide-eyed, shame and horror writ large across his face.
"Oh, my God," Steve says, under his breath, soft and broken, and this is even worse than the rage. "Oh. Oh, no. And I-- oh, God. I can't do this."
Tony has no idea what's happening. "Steve?"
Steve looks up and meets his eyes. Steve's throat works. "Tony, what's the last thing you remember?"
"The Avengers," Steve croaks, and a ripple of pain passes across his face, like the name hurts him. "What were we-- what were we doing?"
Everything in Tony starts to plummet, because there's only one reason anyone asks questions like what's the last thing you remember and he already knows he has the wrong answer. "We were just announcing the team," Tony says. "Properly announcing it, I mean. You and me. We had the Daily Bugle over at the Tower, and Jameson pitched a fit about Spider-Man being on the team, and then they ran a terrible hit job anyway and--"
He stops. Steve's face is grayer and grayer. Steve's gaze keeps drifting down to the RT and back up. It feels like Steve's eyes are burning a hole in him. Tony resists the impulse to check his soulmark. He's wearing a shirt. It's still covered.
"That's not right, is it?" Tony asks softly.
Steve shakes his head. The rest of him is shaking, too, trembling with something that might be anger and might be-- Tony doesn't know what it is, but he knows that Steve doesn't want to be here, and that's awful enough.
"You need to see a doctor," Steve says. It's an order. "Right now."
He's gone from the doorway before Tony can even open his mouth to ask him to stay.
He's missing two entire years of his life.
Lisk asks him all the questions that no one has had a chance to so far -- what day he thinks it is, what year he thinks it is, who he thinks the president is. At least he gets the last one right.
The last thing Tony remembers, actually remembers, is sitting down and directing Extremis to make a backup and-- nothing. Whatever happened after that, it's not coming back. Ever. He wiped his own mind, Lisk says, and he must have had a reason, God, he hopes he had a reason, because right now nothing is making sense and Steve's not talking to him. Why wouldn't Steve stay? If Steve were here, he'd feel so much better.
"Can you tell me what happened?" he asks.
Why did Steve run? he wants to ask. What did I do?
In answer, Lisk proffers a laptop.
"You have... a lot to catch up on, Mr. Stark," he says, and then he leaves the room.
Tony opens the laptop, opens the browser, and then pauses. Two years. Jesus, anything could have happened.
He remembers that Steve had mentioned the SHRA.
Tony pulls up the newspaper archives, types in Superhuman Registration Act, hits enter, and shuts his eyes as the results load. Magical thinking. Like it will be any less real if he doesn't see it, like he's never fucking learned object permanence. Like he can control whether it will be there by looking at it. No one who called him a control freak was ever lying.
He opens his eyes and sees a litany of horrors.
SUPERHEROES OUT OF CONTROL: 600 DEAD IN STAMFORD, CT TRAGEDY.
SUPERHERO REGISTRATION BILL IN CONGRESS: CAPTAIN AMERICA PROTESTS.
SHRA IN EFFECT AT MIDNIGHT: TONY STARK VOWS TO IMPRISON RESISTANCE.
There's a picture of him in the armor, smiling, unmasked -- Jesus God, everyone knows he's Iron Man now? -- and he's quoted as saying that he hopes that soon Captain America will see reason.
He fought Steve. He fought Steve.
And then it gets worse.
AFTER HEAVY FIGHTING, CAPTAIN AMERICA SURRENDERS.
There's a picture of Steve, bloody, handcuffed, being led away.
Not this, never this. They were good, they were good, how did he do this, why did he do this, why did they fight--
And then-- and then--
CAPTAIN AMERICA ASSASSINATED.
Tony's vision blurs. He covers his mouth with his hands.
He takes shaky, gasping breaths through his fingers. Steve's alive. Steve's alive. Steve's okay now. He came back. Whatever happened, Steve's okay now.
But they fought. They fought and Steve died and it was Tony's fault and no wonder Steve doesn't want to see him, no wonder Steve doesn't want to talk to him ever again.
Out of morbid curiosity, he clicks on his own name in the search engine and finds a headline reading TONY STARK: FUGITIVE. He guesses that explains why they're in Oklahoma.
But at least he knows why Steve walked out that door.
He wouldn't want to be around himself either.
Tony's been preparing for amnesia his entire life, really.
Oh, he doesn't mean this the way another superhero might mean it. He doesn't have contingency plans for amnesia the way he does for all the other bizarre things he's regularly encountered as an Avenger, all the ways he might have to hack into his own systems or fight a mind-controlled teammate.
He means it from the very marrow of his soul, from Tony Stark the bitter, broken drunk.
Back in the day, when the drinking had really just started to get bad, he'd go to parties -- good parties, elegant parties, back when he was still being invited to them -- and he'd get absolutely hammered to a degree far, far beyond socially acceptable. And he'd black out. He'd wake up in the morning -- if he was lucky, at home -- with very little memory of the preceding night's events. But other people would remember him. He'd be in their anecdotes, in their society columns. Tony would stare at blurry pictures of himself, face flushed, tie askew, tumbler of scotch sloshing in one hand, and he'd look in his eyes and try to remember doing what everyone told him he'd done.
By all accounts, he was never an unpleasant drunk. Charming, everyone told him. Witty. Fun to be around. He had nothing to apologize for. He wasn't morose or angry or, God forbid, handsy.
But he'd apologized anyway, apologized for things he'd never remembered doing, called the hostess from the night before and offered to replace the potted plants he'd knocked over and broken. Small things. No one had ever been that upset with him.
Of course, then it had gotten worse.
AA had reinforced that particular lesson: making amends. Even if he doesn't remember doing something, Tony still apologizes. If he hurt someone, he apologizes. He's not too proud to admit that it's hard, but it's worth doing. He never wants to be the man he was before, the man who disappeared into a bottle. He thought he was safe from this. He thought he knew how to cope.
Registration is an unknowable void. It's two years of blackout-drunk without the liquor. Tony Stark, the meanest drunk of them all.
Tony finds pictures of himself in a SHIELD uniform. In one of them, he's standing next to Carol and smiling, but his gaze is hollow and dead, a soldier's thousand-yard stare. He built a fucking prison in the Negative Zone. He'll never know what he was thinking.
He'll never have Extremis back, apparently. Tony starts covering his soulmark with concealer again, just to be sure no one will see it. That's one complication his life doesn't need, especially if anyone sees it and thinks it's Steve. It isn't Steve. It obviously can't be Steve. He knows now that he was wrong to think it could be. Soulmates don't do what they did to each other. What Tony did to him.
So he starts making apologies. He tries. He doesn't remember what he did and never will. This is his life now.
He can't even begin to know how to talk to Steve.
Granted, it's not so bad when they don't have to talk to each other. Norman Osborn besieges Asgard. And Tony suits up and fights at Steve's side, and for the length of the battle, everything feels almost normal. They know how to put aside their own disagreements when there are bigger problems; it's one of the first things anyone learns as an Avenger. He hears Steve's voice crackling over the comms, issuing orders, and it's just so right that Tony nearly forgets that he's ruined their entire friendship for good.
And he definitely isn't allowed to forget that the day they both go to the ruins of Asgard to try to help Thor.
Steve's determined to take everything the wrong way, to twist Tony's words, to keep fighting this war that Tony doesn't remember. That's always been a problem for Steve: letting go. Steve snaps at him, you let Norman Osborn have the keys to your armory and he didn't-- Jesus, he didn't even know.
How can Tony apologize for any of it when his sins are unending?
And then they're scattered across the Nine Realms, him and Steve and Thor, and a miracle happens: the two of them start to get better.
Tony's stripped naked and captured, running away from a dragon, and that's when Steve, of all people, shows up and saves him. Just like the old days. Especially with the whole being-naked part. This was how Steve found out he was Iron Man, once upon a time, Tony thinks, as Steve turns toward him.
Tony has gotten himself forcibly removed from his armor enough times over the years that he's not particularly self-conscious about nudity, but the way Steve's eyes rove over him this time seems different, somehow. For the life of him he can't tell if Steve wants him -- he always thought Steve might, he always hoped Steve did -- but for half a second there's a flare of something in Steve's gaze that turns him inside out, makes him feel raw and exposed, seen and undone. It isn't how they used to be, it isn't anything like that at all. They used to have boundaries and borders. They used to hold back. They can't do that anymore. They've forgotten how. If Tony touched Steve now he thinks it would be like holding his hand to an open flame, and, God help him, he'd do it.
And then Steve's gaze pauses for just an instant on Tony's chest, just to the side of the RT, and Tony's poor heart nearly stops. There's no way Steve can know he's looking at Tony's soulmark. Tony covered it very thoroughly with makeup; he keeps it covered for occasions just like this. Steve can't know, because if he knew where Tony's soulmark was then he'd be Tony's soulmate, and he isn't. He can't be. Tony repeats this to himself, firmly. He resists the urge to look down and make sure the concealer is all still there.
Steve blinks and glances away and the moment is broken. There, Tony tells himself. It didn't mean anything, after all.
"Boy, am I happy to see you, Steve," Tony drawls, hiding behind humor because there's nothing else left. "I take back almost everything I have ever said," and he says it like he's pretending he doesn't desperately mean it.
Steve doesn't play along -- but then Steve turns around and saves him from a horde of actual ogres thirty seconds later, and maybe that's worth more.
When it's over, when they get back to Earth, Steve draws him away from the chattering crowd of superheroes and says I'm sorry. And Tony gives his own apology in return, for everything he didn't remember, everything he'll never remember. He just wants Steve back. I'm not half as good at anything as I am when I'm doing it next to you, Tony tells him.
Steve reaches out and sets his hand on Tony's shoulder. It's a perfectly proper touch. Decorous. A normal way anyone might accept one of their close friends' apologies. An especially good friend like Steve might nod firmly, might pat him a little more heavily just to make sure everyone knows how innocuous the touch is, might say some brief word of assent. That would be normal. And then Tony looks into Steve's eyes and he can see the precise moment when Steve decides he doesn't give a fuck about being normal anymore.
Steve draws Tony into his arms, holds him close, and doesn't let him go. The embrace goes on well past the point of propriety, and Steve still doesn't let go. Tony can see the other superheroes looking at them, their expressions shifting from approval to awkwardness, like they know they shouldn't be watching. This is too intimate to do in public. Hell, this is too intimate to do in private. Tony doesn't think anyone has ever held him like this, not even anyone he's slept with. No one's ever held him as much as he's hungered for, but it's like Steve knows what he needs, deep down inside him. Tony holds him right back, and Steve doesn't move away, and it's perfect. They fit together in a terrifyingly close way. Tony doesn't know what to call it. He doesn't know if there are words for this.
They aren't soulmates, Tony reminds himself, even more firmly. They can't be soulmates. Whatever soulmates feel, it can't be this. It has to be something different from this. But, oh, God, this feels like the first time since-- maybe since fucking Afghanistan that his own body has ever felt whole and right, now that Steve is touching him.
This isn't what they were before. Tony isn't sure this is something anyone has ever been before. But this what they are now. And maybe, maybe they're going to be all right.
Steve summons them all to Avengers Tower -- Thor, Spider-Man, Clint, Logan, Bucky, Jess, and Tony. He stands at the head of the table, head up, proud. He's not in any kind of uniform; to Tony's eye, he's wearing something that looks like modified SHIELD field gear, a dark blue unmarked jumpsuit with leather gloves and his omnipresent belt pouches. It's deeply strange seeing Steve here, like this, in a room where someone else is Captain America. It's even stranger to know that this state of affairs -- Bucky with the shield -- was apparently entirely Tony's idea.
The speech is familiar from the years they've spent putting Avengers teams together, over and over again. Steve talks about how the world needs them. How they'll be the face of a new era. He tells each Avenger why he picked them, complimenting them each in turn, from Thor's nobility and strength all the way around the table to Tony's clear view of the future. Tony meets Steve's eyes, and his stomach flips over. He can't seriously want Tony to be on a team with him, can he? Sure, maybe they're not at each other's throats anymore, maybe they're-- whatever they are to each other, Jesus, Tony has stopped even trying to label any of these feelings-- but none of that means they should be teammates, does it? Can Steve really want to work with him?
"Can I talk to you for a second?" Tony asks.
As the rest of the putative new team breaks off into groups, Steve nods and lets Tony pull him off to the side. His face is easy, open, relaxed. Unguarded. Like he can't even conceive of what Tony thinks the problem might be here. He's smiling, a bright smile, and Tony knows him well enough to know that he's coasting on the sheer joy of a new team.
He's so goddamn handsome like this. Now is really not the time for that thought.
He can't want Tony for an Avenger. Can he?
Maybe he's asking out of some kind of obligation. Steve gets funny about that sometimes, caught up in the way he's decided things just ought to be. Maybe it honestly didn't occur to him that the team not having Iron Man on it was an option. Steve doesn't have to work with him if he doesn't want to.
Tony clears his throat. "Steve, I don't have to be on your little team here."
Steve just blinks at him once, confused. "Of course you don't have to." His hands spread wide, encompassing the room. "But it's the Avengers. I thought you'd want to."
He sounds perfectly earnest. Like he can't imagine why Tony is trying to be kind and give him an out here.
Time to be blunt.
"I'm talking about me and you," Tony tells him.
Something uneasy flashes in Steve's eyes. Regret. Something that might be fear, but that can't be right. Steve's never been afraid of him. Steve would never be afraid of him. And then the glimpse of -- whatever that was -- is gone, and Steve's just looking at him, patiently, like he still doesn't understand why this could be a problem. "I know," Steve says.
Tony holds out his hands. "We don't agree on... just about anything anymore."
The conversation is not going to go anywhere good if Tony says you can't really forgive me for getting you killed. No matter what that was between them in Asgard, they still have to go back to their real life.
The statement, as mild as it is, makes Steve prickle. "That's not entirely true."
Tony wants to laugh. "See, we don't even agree about that." He takes a deep breath. This isn't going to be good enough. Steve deserves honesty from him. He meets Steve's eyes. "When I look at you, all I see are all the mistakes and all the--"
Pain reflects all across Steve's face, a ripple of tension, like they're awful mirrors of each other. He won't let Tony carry this guilt alone like he should, damn him. "Tony--"
"I'm not saying it's going to be that way forever," Tony offers, but Steve doesn't look mollified. "I can do something else."
There's even more anguish in Steve's eyes now. God, maybe Steve really wants him here on the team again, like he says he does. Maybe Steve really wants to work with him. Maybe everything Steve said in Asgard was true. Maybe they've healed.
If Steve holds out his hand, Tony will take it. That's always been true.
Steve visibly steels himself, stands up straighter... and smiles. "I want you on this team. It's your house."
It can't get any plainer than that.
He remembers Steve's arms around him in Asgard. He can feel his heart start to lift. This is it. They're really going to do this. They're really going to be friends and teammates again, just like they should always have been.
"We'll kill each other," Tony says, selfish, hungry for Steve's reassurance. Tell me it'll be all right. Tell me we still have a chance.
That same unease flashes through Steve's eyes and then disappears. "No," he says, firmly, in answer to Tony's protest. "We'll be fine."
He says it like he's trying to convince himself, and Tony has that same awful thought again: it's like he's scared. But he can't be. Steve can't be scared of him. He just can't.
Tony opens his mouth. He doesn't know what to say. He doesn't know what Steve needs to hear, but he'll say it, he'll say anything Steve wants. He can be there for him. He can be better than everything he doesn't remember.
Steve cuts him off. "I'm not running the team."
"You're not?" Tony echoes. That doesn't make sense. Why would Steve put a team together and not even offer himself up as chair?
"I have an entire country to worry about." Steve's voice is matter-of-fact. Of course he does. Tony knows that. Steve took that top-cop job; he's been running some kind of black-ops secret Avengers team in the broken detritus of SHIELD, doing what he can with those left behind after the fall of HAMMER. But of course Steve's going to come home and be a real Avenger, be on the team even if he's not running it, be here at Tony's side, right where he should be--
And that's when Tony gets it.
Steve's not going to run the team because Steve's not going to be on the team at all. Steve's going to keep on running that black-ops team instead. That whole speech, all that praise, everything he said to try to get Tony on the team -- he wants Tony on the team, all right, but he doesn't want to work with him. He doesn't want to be Tony's teammate. He doesn't want to be Tony's friend.
It's only through years of practice that Tony keeps the heartbreak from showing on his face. He can already feel the terrible hollow ache gnawing at him, the void in his very self that he's never been able to fill with liquor no matter how much he's tried. The space in his soul where a soulmate would fit, except Tony doesn't have one of those, does he? No one's going to love him. Certainly not Steve.
Tony remembers the last team, the team they made together. He remembers standing on a helicarrier, Steve at his side, Steve's hand on his shoulder, the two of them smiling as they looked out at the oncoming dawn. Their future. Their new team. The two of them together, always. And then somehow Tony ripped them apart, and he'll never know how it felt. He'll never remember why he wanted to. He hopes to God it was worth it. It must have been, back then. But he did it all anyway and this is what he has to live with. Steve doesn't care about him. Steve doesn't trust him. Steve doesn't think Tony belongs at his side. Tony will never get that back.
This is Tony's fault.
"Who is going to run the team?" Tony asks. He makes the question sound reasonable. Normal. As if of course he knew Steve wouldn't be here and he's fine with that. It doesn't matter anyway, if Steve's not here. He can give Clint the team for all Tony cares, he thinks, viciously. It's a terrible thought, because he knows Clint's proved himself with the West Coast Avengers for years and is probably more qualified than any of the rest of them. Tony's not feeling very charitable right now.
Steve grins like he's got a secret. He's always had a shit poker face. "Best person for the job."
Tony realizes that maybe there's some hope left here after all. Maybe Steve cares about him enough to offer him the position. He's been chair enough times; they both know he can hack it. "Me?"
"No." Steve shakes his head, and as Tony's last hope withers and dies, Steve actually laughs, laughs in his face, like he thinks it's just so funny that Tony could ever think he's worthy of Steve's approval now. "Ha. No."
Tony's struggling hard to keep his expression composed. His eyes are hot with tears, his body tight with rage and shame under the armor. He's got to get out of here soon. He's going to lose it. He can't stand here and take this. He's known he's never been good enough his whole life, he's never been good enough for anyone he loves, but he never thought Steve would actually want to tell him so. Steve was supposed to be better than this.
Why is Steve doing this to him? So Steve doesn't want to be on a team with him, but that doesn't mean Steve should stand here and just treat him like dirt. What the hell is wrong with Steve?
Of course, the answer to that is obvious -- it's still all Tony's fault.
Steve chucks his thumb behind him. "Her."
That's when Maria Hill steps in. She's greeting the team, Tony thinks; he can't really hear her over the roaring in his ears, the pounding inside his head.
Maria and Steve both look expectantly at him.
"I'm very okay with that," Tony lies, with a smile. It feels like the last smile he has in him. Scraping the bottom of the barrel.
He can't beg Steve to stay with him. He doesn't deserve that. This is what he deserves.
"Answer to her as you would me," Steve says, which is frankly just insulting, like he thinks Tony doesn't know how to take orders after a decade as an Avenger. For fuck's sake, Tony's been an Avenger longer than he has; Tony considers telling him so, and then he promptly feels sicker as he remembers exactly what happened the last time he pulled rank on Steve. "This team, your team -- this says to the world: we have it covered," Steve continues. "Something for every possible scenario."
And then Steve pats him on the shoulder. Calmly. Normally. It's nothing like the way they'd held each other after Asgard. Steve's clearly decided that that was too much, that that wasn't how he wanted to be with Tony after all. Tony can't blame him. It's terrible and weird and awful but this must be what Tony deserves. Steve would know better than he does, after all. They're practically strangers now. Steve is literally holding him at arm's length.
"And as far as you and me," Steve adds, "let's just try not to kill each other."
Steve's hand falls from his shoulder. Steve doesn't even want to be here.
This is what Tony has done to them.
Of course, Kang the Conqueror crashes the party. They can't have an Avengers team for more than five minutes without a disaster, can they? Plus, Tony has to go to the future and watch a future version of himself die. He always hates things like this.
When it's all over and the team's back at the Tower, Steve's not there. Back on Earth they'd been dealing with Killraven, Maria said, and Steve had left to take the guy into custody.
He hadn't even stuck around to say goodbye.
Okay. If that's how Steve wants it, Tony tells himself, that's how he's getting it. It's not like Tony has any control over what Steve does. He braces one armored arm against the window and tries to tune out the chatter behind him. Noh-Varr's on the team now. Apparently Steve had asked for him too. It looks like Steve wants a whole lot of people on this team that Steve doesn't want to be on.
He thinks about all the times the mansion had been wrecked, how they put it back together over and over. It had been their home. But Tony gave Luke the mansion. They're all moving on.
Goddammit, he just-- he wants Steve here.
He stares out at the city and wonders what Steve is doing now. He wonders if he's on some urgent mission with his Secret Avengers, sharing a Quincarrier with Natasha and Sharon. He wonders if Steve's fucking Sharon. They're probably back together. They usually are, aren't they? Tony hasn't asked. It's not any of his business. Steve's made it abundantly clear that there's no room for Tony in his life.
He imagines Steve's soulmark, what it must look like, since Steve is Sharon's. Half of it is Captain America's shield, of course, and the other half SHIELD's eagle. He imagines it dead-center in Steve's chest, where the star would rest, on the uniform Steve has now stopped wearing. He wonders if Steve was confused, growing up, in the years before SHIELD existed, not knowing what his mark meant. And then he woke up and met Agent 13 and, well, it has to be her, doesn't it? It has to be. And they're happy now. They're happy together. They match. They must match.
Tony grits his teeth against bitter, unworthy jealousy.
He wonders if Steve's turned in his identicard, or if the Avengers can find him when they need him. It doesn't really matter. He's not Tony's. He's not Tony's soulmate. He's not Tony's anything.
If Tony needs a friend, Steve's not going to come running.
It turns out that the uneasy peace that they've had with Amora the Enchantress since she sent Steve, Tony, and Thor home from the Nine Realms is anything but peaceful.
Tony's seeing six in the morning from the wrong side, standing in the communal kitchen alone and helping himself to a delicious dinner of breakfast cereal while trying not to think about all the days, all the years when Steve would have wandered down the mansion hallway to check on him on his way out for his morning run. They don't do that anymore. That's not his life now. He hasn't seen Steve in two weeks. Not that he's been counting.
He puts the milk back in the fridge, scoops up his bowl, and takes three steps toward the kitchen table, squinting into the dawn light.
The whole bank of windows shatters.
And then Amora is standing there, her arms crossed. Her cloak is rippling in the wind, like she's deliberately conjured up the wind to make herself more imperious. She wouldn't need to do much. They're pretty high up and, well, they're missing all the windows.
"For fuck's sake," Tony says, because it's barely morning, he's exhausted, he's sad and lonely, and there's a reason he's not the Avenger in charge of the inspiring battle cries. "I just had those fixed."
He sets his cereal bowl on the counter behind him, next to his identicard. It spills, tipping cold milk and corn flakes over his fingers. Awesome. Tony reaches into the hollow within his head where the broken remains of Extremis are and calls Bleeding Edge, lets the suit flow up over his wet hands. He guesses they're doing this.
He doesn't call the whole suit up. Maybe they can get through this without an actual fight.
Amora sniffs dismissively at the armor. "Where's Thor?"
"What do I look like," Tony says, "his keeper?" Tony's not anyone's keeper. He can't help but think about Steve. He needs to stop thinking about Steve. "He's not here."
He's pretty sure Thor's off helping fix up Asgard, but he's not really inclined to be nice to Amora right now.
"Mmm," Amora says. "I can wait."
"I'd actually prefer it if you didn't," Tony says, offering up his nastiest fuck-off-I'm-a-rich-asshole smile.
"I've changed my mind about the Twilight Sword," Amora informs him. "I'd like it after all."
Stupid fucking Asgardian magical artifacts. Tony hates magic. Tony remembers her joking with Thor, before sending them back to Earth, suggesting that he could give her the sword as payment for the journey. Tony supposes she wasn't really joking.
Even though Thor's not here, Tony's pretty confident about the answer Thor would give to that.
"Yeah, no," Tony says. "I don't think that's happening. Sorry."
Okay, so Thor would say it differently, but the basic message is the same.
Lightning-fast, Amora's demeanor shifts to rage. "Do you think I care what you think, mortal?" she snarls. "No one cares what you think! It would be much better if you didn't have anything at all in your head!"
That's one of those sentences that tends to set off alarm bells when it's coming out of the mouth of a divine, immortal magician. Tony throws himself backwards and slams the emergency signal on the identicard, just barely avoiding the blast of green light.
Amora laughs. "Not so confident now, are we?"
Tony's panting, entirely bereft of witty retorts, and that's when the second blast hits him dead-on.
His entire world is green. All he can see is green. Nothing but light. He flies across the room, twisting in midair, smacking his head solidly against a cabinet. He struggles up out of foggy dizziness and he's--
He's lying in a ruined kitchen. He's wearing what feels like half a suit of armor. There's a blonde woman, dressed head-to-toe in green, grinning triumphantly, and--
How did he get here? Who is she?
An arrow whizzes through the air, hits the woman in the shoulder, and then... explodes? It's definitely an explosion. It's loud. But she doesn't seem to be hurt, other than being knocked over. He thinks she's unconscious. He thinks she's breathing. He hopes she's breathing.
A tall blond guy wearing only purple boxers and holding a bow and arrow rushes through the doorway next to where he's lying. The guy looks around wildly, and then the guy sees him on the floor. He doesn't seem at all worried about the woman.
"Tony!" the guy calls out, concerned, crouching down beside him. "Hey, Tony, are you okay?"
Tony? Is that him? The guy's looking at him like he expects an answer. Does he know him? Why does this guy know his name?
He doesn't know his own name. Why doesn't he know his own name? What's wrong with him? Worry runs through him, a pulse of panic.
"Am I Tony?" he asks. His ears are still ringing from the explosion. His head really hurts. He can feel blood oozing down his face. "Is that my name?"
The guy stares at him for several long seconds. His face twists up. He looks... disappointed?
"Aww, no," the guy says. "Not again."
Okay. His name's Tony. Probably. He understands that much.
That's when several more people come piling into the ruined kitchen. Half of them are in pajamas and the other half are in garish, brightly-colored costumes.
The group splits up. A wiry-looking man in a red and black bodysuit is extruding some kind of webbing from his wrists, wrapping the unconscious blond woman in it. A woman wearing a red and yellow bodysuit helps him turn her so the webs cover her more thoroughly. Tony hopes this is something they should be doing. He hopes these are the good guys.
"We're the Avengers," the blond guy says. "We're superheroes. You're an Avenger too." He turns around. "Guys, Tony's having-- someone should call Hill, she's going to want to know. And Strange. Someone should definitely call Doctor Strange. And Thor. He can figure out what to do with Amora."
Superheroes? Him, a superhero?
Tony doesn't feel very heroic right now.
"The fuck's wrong with him?" someone asks, grumpily.
Tony sits up, just so he can glare at this asshole. Mr. Unfriendly here has a stare that looks like he's seen some shit in his life and this is the least of it. He's not wearing any kind of uniform. His hair's a wild mess, he's maybe five feet tall, and he looks like the word ornery was invented just to describe him. He sounds sort of Canadian.
"Amnesia," the blond guy says.
The grumpy guy harrumphs. "What, again?"
"Worse than last time."
Tony wonders exactly how unlucky he's been.
A dark-haired guy wearing long-sleeved plaid pajamas winces, brown eyes clouding with sympathy. "I'll call Strange and Hill," he offers. Tony realizes the man's left hand is made of metal. "You take Thor. And you should call Potts and Rhodes. They'll want to see him. And Danvers, maybe. I think she's still around. And the Quincarrier's on its way back to the States; I was just talking to Natasha. I can call back and tell S--"
Now it's the blond guy's turn to wince. "You really want to tell him anything about Tony?"
The dark-haired guy grimaces. "I think he's going to be pissed at me if I don't."
"Better you than me," the blond guy says, with feeling, and he waves him back out the door and down the hall. "Go on, then. Since you're volunteering."
Tony has absolutely no idea who any of these people are.
The blond guy turns back to Tony. "Come on, buddy," he says. "Let's get you to the infirmary."
The first person who turns up after Tony gets settled on an exam table in the infirmary downstairs is a guy who says his name is Jim Rhodes, and Tony hopes they're friends because Tony likes him immediately.
For one thing, Jim takes the time to explain to him everything that the blond guy -- whose name is apparently Clint -- didn't bother to mention. Tony's last name is Stark. This is good to know.
"So the Avengers right now are you, Clint, Jess, Logan, Spidey, Bucky, Thor, and Noh-Varr," he says, after providing enough physical detail that Tony can match most of them to the people he saw in the kitchen. He doesn't think he's met the last two yet.
"Are you an Avenger too?"
Jim grins. "Not right this second. Sometimes I am. You made me a suit like yours." He gestures at the bits of armor that Tony is still wearing on his arms and legs. Tony isn't sure how to take them off. He can't figure out how they're attached. "You're Iron Man. Once I was Iron Man too. It's a long story." He claps Tony companionably on the shoulder as he moves around the exam table to get to the drawers on the far side. "These days mostly I'm War Machine if I'm anyone."
Tony blinks. "Are all my friends superheroes?"
"I think most of us eventually end up being superheroes," Jim says, after a pause, like he has to think about it. He turns halfway around and gestures at the weird glowing light in Tony's chest, which Tony had assumed was part of the armor. "Like, that? The RT? Pepper -- you'll meet her soon, don't worry -- used to be a superhero and she had that. You made it for her, actually. You invented it."
Tony files this information away. He's a superhero. His friends are superheroes.
He sounds like he's a smart guy. He invents things. He builds things. He can figure this out. He can try to build a picture of Tony Stark.
The picture's not complete. Sure, he has friends, he has a job, but-- isn't there anything more in his life? Does he have someone special? If he does, why aren't they here?
"Do I have a soulmate?" Tony asks.
He's not really sure why he phrases the question like that. He could have asked about a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife. He could have asked if he was seeing anyone. They wouldn't need to be his soulmate, would they? Not everyone finds their soulmate. He knows that. He doesn't know his own name, but somehow he knows that.
Jim's sigh is almost contemplative, as he tosses what looks like a suture kit on the counter and turns to face Tony. "Do you think you have a soulmate?" He's frowning, just a little, but he sounds very careful.
"I don't know," Tony says, frustrated, because, God, how would he know? That's why he asked.
He wonders where his own soulmark is. He wonders what it looks like.
"I don't know either," Jim says, relenting. "It's not something you've ever talked about with me. You've never really wanted to share anything about your soulmark." He's shifting his weight, looking more and more uncomfortable. "Mostly you change the subject whenever it comes up."
Well, whoever Tony Stark is, he has some weird issues. Tony turns his hand over and stares at the gauntlet covering his palm and wonders again how the fuck this thing comes off.
The door opens and Jim looks up, clearly grateful for a reprieve. "Oh, hey, doc! Thanks for coming so quickly." He then pauses and seems to realize introductions are necessary. "Tony, this is Stephen. Stephen Strange. He's a doctor." Jim coughs. "Tony's got--"
"--amnesia, yes," the man behind Tony says. "I heard."
Tony twists around, expecting to see a responsible and professional doctor in a lab coat, wearing a stethoscope. He is definitely not expecting a guy who looks like Vincent Price wearing a Dracula cape. Is this a joke? Where's the real doctor?
Tony can feel his eyebrows crawling up his forehead. "Where the hell did you go to medical school?"
"Columbia University," Stephen says, briskly, as he walks around the table to stand in front of Tony. His cape swishes and rustles on the linoleum floor. He pushes half of it over his shoulder. He's wearing a weird necklace with a golden eye, which he lifts over his head. At the edge of his vision, Tony can see Jim moving toward the door, but Stephen shakes his head. "You might as well stay," he says. "It'll only be a minute."
Jim stops, and Tony waits for Stephen to get out actual medical equipment. Maybe he wants to check Tony's blood pressure or something. Instead, Stephen holds out the necklace.
"Look into the Eye of Agamotto," Stephen says. The way he says it, it's clearly an order, not a request. Tony's not sure if he should be doing anything this guy tells him. He wants to trust these people, but this is pretty fucking weird.
"And you learned about this in med school?" Tony asks.
Stephen cracks a smile. It doesn't improve his face any. "No, I learned about this in magic school."
Yeah, because that's a normal thing to say. What the hell?
"It's okay, Tony," Jim says. "He can help you with the amnesia. He's a friend. We're all your friends. I promise."
Tony nods cautiously. Okay. Fine. Whatever. He can look at this necklace. He drops his gaze, focuses on the slitted red eye, and--
Something grabs his entire brain and squeezes, an unpleasant and frightening sensation. Everything is too tight inside his head, somewhere where he shouldn't be able to feel anything. His vision sparkles, bright and multicolored, and what the fuck is this guy doing to him, stop stop stop--
Stephen pulls the eye away and settles the necklace over his head again. Tony's back to himself. He's sweating. He's panting. He doesn't like this at all.
"No," Tony says, firmly.
"I'm sorry it hurt," Stephen says. His bedside manner is terrible. "But I'm all done."
"What's the diagnosis?" Jim asks.
"Well, it's definitely magic," Stephen says, and they both pause and look at Tony like they're expecting him to say something. Tony has no clue what they want from him. Stephen shrugs and continues, "And it's definitely Asgardian. It's a standard amnesia spell. The good news is that it's short-duration. It'll fade on its own naturally in a few days."
"I'll get my memory back?" Tony asks, just to confirm he's understood this correctly.
"Absolutely," Stephen says, and then his face furrows in sympathy. "I mean, as much as you had before. It won't-- it won't--"
Pleading, Stephen looks over at Jim like he's hoping Jim can rescue him.
"It's complicated," Jim says, smoothly.
That's not much of an answer, but that has to be good news, right? He'll remember everything soon.
"Oh, and that's going to need stitches," Stephen adds, motioning to Tony's head.
Jim nods, with another grateful smile. "We can take care of it. Thanks."
Tony wonders what the hell kind of doctor doesn't even offer to stitch him up.
"Call me if he's not better in a couple days," Stephen says, and he lets himself out.
That's when Tony hears another door slam, the door to the lounge area that Clint led him through on the way here. He thinks Clint's still out there. Clint and the grumpy one. Logan.
There are heavy footsteps in the other room, and even heavier breathing, like whoever it is out there was running full-tilt to get here.
"Where is he?" a man's voice gasps out, in the other room. "Where's Tony?"
Tony doesn't know who it is -- he doesn't know who anyone is -- but the way the man's voice makes him feel is-- is-- he doesn't even have words for what it is. Familiar isn't right, because there aren't any memories there, but the sound of the man's voice is comforting, soothing something deep within Tony, even as he registers how distraught the voice is. I'm here, Tony wants to call out. It's okay. He wants to make this man feel better and he doesn't even know him.
"You know, bub," Logan says to the stranger, voice muffled through the door, "it's real funny how you refused to join this goddamn team that you wanted us all on, but as soon as Stark gets so much as a scratch, you'll drop everything and come running--"
"Shut the hell up, Logan," Clint says, almost pleasantly.
There's a ragged sigh from the exhausted stranger. "I can defend myself, thank you, Clint." A pause. "Tony's in there?" he asks.
Jim meets Tony's eyes. He looks like he's trying to communicate something with his gaze alone, some kind of urgent message, but Tony has no idea what.
"I think this is my cue to leave," Jim says, and he mouths good luck as he exits, holding the door open for-- for--
Tony's first thought, when he sees the stranger, is: I know you.
The man standing in the doorway is the most beautiful human being Tony has ever seen in his life. Despite his working memory only being about half an hour old, he knows this fact, certain and true, a knowledge buried in him somewhere deeper than conscious thought, somewhere no magic spell can remove. Tony's breath catches in his chest, and he can't look away.
The man is tall, blond, muscular; his bright blue eyes lock with Tony's. There's no denying that he's attractive and well-built, but that's not why he's beautiful. He'd be beautiful no matter what he looked like; somehow Tony knows that too. He has an utter goodness inside him, shining out of him, a brilliant flame that touches Tony, lights him up with warmth and rightness just being in the same room with him. I want you to be mine, Tony thinks, but that's the wrong thought, too possessive, and I want to be yours isn't right either. It's not that he wants to take this man for himself or give him himself -- it's that they already are each other's. It's not a matter of action. It's a state of being, as inevitable as gravity. They're already here. Tony knows him. Tony's never met this man before, but he knows him. Something inside him recognizes this man.
Tony realizes he's smiling at the man, and the man starts to return the smile. Then his brow furrows, confused.
"They told me it was amnesia," the man says, his voice dubious, "but you look like you already--" His voice trails off. "Tony, do you remember who I am?"
What is Tony supposed to say? No, but I know I like you? He can't say that.
Besides, this feeling -- this crazy, intense, overwhelming feeling -- is clearly one-sided. This guy's not looking at Tony like he feels any of this. He seems withdrawn, almost. Reserved, really, in sharp contrast to the way he had sounded outside, demanding to know where Tony was. The amazement that Tony feels isn't reflected in this man's eyes. He's just looking concerned and increasingly confused. Whatever Tony is feeling is all Tony.
Oh, right. The guy asked a question. Tony probes his own mind. Nothing is forthcoming. No memories. Not even a name.
He shakes his head. "No. Sorry. I don't remember anything."
The man steps inside the room proper and lets the door fall shut behind him. Tony finally gets a good look at him. He's wearing some kind of military uniform, dark blue with a big white star in the middle of his chest; white stripes start on either side of the star and wrap horizontally all the way around him. There's a red stripe on the trousers. He has brown combat boots and fingerless gloves to match, as well as a shoulder harness. It all looks like tactical gear, and when the man turns, Tony sees a gun on his hip.
Tony wonders if he's supposed to be afraid of this man, this man who is big and strong and armed. He wonders what it means that he isn't.
They're alone. Tony's skin prickles all over with heat. He's too aware of his body. He's too aware of this man's body. He imagines the man touching him. Kissing him.
"I'll remember soon," Tony adds. He hopes he remembers soon. He wants to know everything about this man. "That's what they said. They said the amnesia would only last a couple days."
"That's good," the man says, with honest relief in his voice. He's starting to smile again, the smile inching past the guardedness of his expression like he's forgotten he meant to hold it back.
Tony turns his head to get a better look at him -- he just wants to keep looking at him forever -- and that's when the man sees the open wound on Tony's head. His eyes flash with rage, like he wants to hurt whoever did this to him, and he reaches out like he wants to put Tony back together with his bare hands.
"Christ, Tony," he murmurs, his voice rough with tenderness and anger mixed together, "is no one taking care of you?"
Take care of me, Tony wants to tell him.
"They said it needed stitches?" Tony offers. "They just-- no one did it yet."
"I'll get someone," the man says, quickly. He's moving toward the door. "Clint's right outside. He's good. Don't worry. He gets into enough scrapes that he can probably stitch you up with his eyes closed--"
Tony wants to ask the man to stay and do it himself. He wants to ask him why he came here in such a hurry if he's running right out again. He can't ask him that.
"Wait," Tony says.
The man stops with his hand on the doorknob.
"Who are you?" Tony asks, finally. It's not what he wants to know, not really. But it's close enough.
The man smiles a sad, lopsided half-smile. "Steve," he says. "Steve Rogers."
"Are you a superhero too?"
The man -- Steve -- looks even more sad. He's gazing off into the middle distance. "Sort of," he says. He makes a noise that's not exactly a laugh. "I used to be."
He doesn't offer up his superhero name, the way Jim had said he was War Machine, had said that Tony himself was Iron Man. Tony supposes that means he doesn't have one.
"Oh," Tony says. He searches desperately for a way to make conversation, anything he can say to make Steve stay a little longer. "What do you do now?"
Steve shrugs one elegant shoulder. "Government work," he says. From the way he's dressed, it's clear he's not a pencil-pusher. It's also clear he doesn't want to talk about it. "It's classified."
He turns the doorknob, pulls the door halfway open. He can't go. Why would he come here just to leave so soon? Why won't he stay?
"Are you my friend?" Tony blurts out.
Tony knows he shouldn't ask. He's pretty sure that's not something you ask people. He wants to hear Steve say yes, of course. He wants Steve to say that he's here for him, that he'll help him with anything he needs, the way the Avengers are doing for him.
Steve breathes in, sharply, pained, like the question is a knife between his ribs. Tony can't see his face, but that's not a good sound.
"I used to be," Steve says, softly, and he doesn't look back.
It's a weird, weird day.
True, it's currently the only day of Tony's life that he remembers, so he doesn't exactly have a baseline for comparison, but it feels like a weird day.
After Steve leaves, Clint -- as Steve promised -- comes in and sews up his head for him. He wraps a bandage around Tony's head that makes Tony feel absolutely ridiculous and tells him he can come by his room and change the dressing for him later if he needs help with anything. Tony is getting the sense that first-aid is some kind of bonding experience for these people. He's also getting the sense that he lives here. But maybe he lives somewhere else too? Clint mentions that he has a company and -- Jesus, this sounds fake -- a lot of money. A lot of money. He owns this building. Apparently he's a billionaire. He's a billionaire and a superhero. Tony Stark lives a very strange and complicated life.
"It's probably better if you stay here with the team until you get your memory back," Clint says, putting the rest of the gauze away and clapping his hands together. "I'll admit that we're not the easiest people to live with sometimes, as housemates go, but the nice part of all the togetherness is that there's pretty much always going to be someone around 24/7 if you need someone."
Unbidden, he thinks of Steve. Steve is the someone he needs. He doesn't know how he can be so certain of that, when he only saw the man for a grand total of maybe sixty seconds, but he knows it nonetheless. He needs Steve. Right here.
Maybe Clint can fill him in.
"What happened to Steve?" he asks.
Clint freezes. The look on his face is both terrified and guilty. If he were a picture, Tony would caption it holy shit, I was not prepared for this question.
"Uh," Clint says. "I, uh. He's been pretty busy with work lately. I'm sure he had somewhere else to be."
It'll make sense later, Tony tells himself, but that's a supremely unsatisfying thought. He doesn't want to wait until he remembers, until it all comes back to him. He doesn't want to be patient. He wants it all right now. He wants to know everything. Something went wrong with him and Steve. He can tell that much. He doesn't know what they are to each other, but he knows that, whatever this is, he needs to set it right. And he'd like that to happen right now.
There'a a formless ache in his chest when he thinks about Steve. Steve's not here, and it hurts. He doesn't understand why he feels like this. How can he have all these feelings about a man he doesn't know anything about? He has amnesia, for God's sake. What can there be that he's remembering? And what doesn't he remember?
Steve's not here, and Clint's not telling.
Clint glances down at Tony's hands. Tony is still wearing gauntlets. "Are you going to take those off?" he asks.
"I don't know how," Tony admits. They don't come off when he pulls on them. It's like they're designed to come off some other way, which is bizarre, because how else is he supposed to remove them?
Clint squints at him like he's never considered this. "That might be a problem."
Thankfully, a redhead who introduces herself as Pepper Potts shows up, and between the two of them -- and Jim, who comes back -- they establish that he stores the armor inside his body somehow, which Tony thinks is a joke at first but apparently it isn't.
What the hell is Tony Stark's life like?
They spend the next two hours testing out various thoughts that Pepper thinks might trigger the armor to go back. At one point Jim video-calls someone else Tony doesn't know, a man with graying hair at his temples, and his explanation has a lot of words that neither Jim nor Pepper understand, which actually makes Tony feel a little better. At least Tony's not the only confused one.
"I think it can't be that complicated," the man says, finally. "You would have wanted something you can use in a combat situation."
What would he think? How would he give his armor orders?
Armor order, he tries, and then, what the fuck, it's like something wakes up in the back of his head, some quizzical thought that isn't his own, oh God oh God, this is bizarre--
Go away, he thinks, but apparently go away isn't the command.
The armor melts in his palms, liquid crimson metal. It pools and then... disappears. It doesn't hurt, exactly, but there's an unpleasant pressure, a distension. Like he ate too much, except he ate too much all over his entire body. He doesn't like how it feels. Tony stares down at his bare hands suspiciously. He looks down at the rest of himself. The armor's gone. Thank God. The light in his chest -- the RT? -- doesn't go away. That one's staying.
Tony shudders. When he looks up, Pepper and Jim are both looking at him and each other like they didn't expect him to hate it.
"I do that every day?"
Tony Stark's life is apparently insane.
Following that, he meets his butler -- because apparently he has a butler -- and actually gets some food in him from what's left of the kitchen. He discovers that he doesn't like mushrooms. He meets Noh-Varr, who is some kind of alien, and Thor, who is some kind of god. A woman in a black leotard who says her name is Carol shows up and takes him to his workshop, a room full of armor that he likewise doesn't remember.
Nothing feels familiar at all.
Nothing except Steve, and Steve isn't here.
Carol tells him he usually eats with the team, when he can spare the time, but she must see how strained he is, because she steals a few pieces of the team's pizza for him and sits with him in the workshop so he doesn't have to be entirely alone. Of course, he doesn't know her either, but this way he's only dealing with one person. They talk about movies. Oddly, he seems to remember movies. He has no idea how he can remember movies and not his entire life, but he'll take it. At least he remembers something.
"That's disappointing," Carol says, as she eats the last piece of pepperoni pizza. "Here I was thinking that you could watch Star Wars for the second first time."
"Luke, I am your father," Tony quotes, and Carol laughs.
"Yeah, exactly. Or the part where Han and Leia realize they're soulmates."
"That would be really weird, though," Tony says. "Getting to find something out for the first time again."
"It happens sometimes," Carol says. "Amnesia is fun like that."
There's a somber look in her eye that suggests that she's speaking from experience. Tony's beginning to understand why the Avengers are so blasé about all of it. "You too?"
She nods. "It's a bit different from your situation. I have... a lot of memories I don't have emotional context for. So I know what they are, but I don't know how they felt when they happened. It's like they happened to someone else."
"Oof," Tony says. "That has to be rough."
In a way, it seems like the exact opposite of Tony's situation: he has what feels like the emotional context but no memories. That's what it feels like, when he thinks about Steve.
He wants to ask Carol about Steve, but he remembers how weird Clint got. She probably wouldn't tell him anything about Steve either.
Carol shrugs, tosses her paper plate in the trash, and stands up. "It is what it is," she says. "You want to see your room now?"
His room is practically spartan, entirely bare of decoration. He wonders if there's a story there. It's weird. Carol doesn't offer an explanation, either. She just bids him good night and leaves. She says she'll be staying here for a few days, and she'll be awake if he needs anything.
But the weirdest thing -- the absolute weirdest thing about the entire day, bar meeting Steve -- is when he decides to take a shower.
Tony doesn't even notice it at first. No, first he spends what he thinks of as a very reasonable thirty seconds worrying that he's going to somehow electrocute himself with the RT, which turns out not to be a problem. The thing seems to be waterproof. He can't stop wondering if he's going to accidentally call the armor, though, which would be a terrible thing to do in a very nice shower like this one. Luckily, the armor remains dormant. Then he has a more prosaic problem: he needs to figure out how to wash his hair and not get the stitches on his forehead wet, which is its own ordeal. He ends up taking the gauze off. He is definitely going to need to rebandage that.
After that debacle, he thinks, the rest of the shower should be easy. He soaps up a washcloth, starts scrubbing, and--
Flesh-toned makeup smears over the washcloth when he swipes it across his chest.
He does it again. More makeup. He looks down at himself. Water is beading up oddly on his chest, just to the left of the RT. Now that he's paying attention it, he can feel the way the makeup is sticking to his skin. It looks like there's something underneath, something dark-edged. A tattoo?
Not a tattoo, he realizes, the thought hitting him like a bolt of lightning. His soulmark. It has to be his soulmark.
He never talks about his soulmark, Jim said. Presumably no one knows what it is except him. Tony wonders what he's been hiding.
Tony scrubs frantically, turning his skin red and raw, smearing the makeup more, desperate for the truth. Eventually he gets enough of it off that he can see what the mark is. Half of it is clearly him: it's the shape of the RT, right down to all the little nodes and dots and lines. The other half, though, is...
"Captain America?" Tony says, astonished.
His own confused voice echoes in the empty room.
The other half of his soulmark is definitely Captain America's shield. The mark is red, white, and blue, with a star in the middle. It's a little more technologically-advanced than the real shield looks in all the old pictures -- entwined with Tony's circuitry, it has odd bracing running through it. The rings on the shield line up with the rings of Tony's RT. Tony knows that shield. He knows who Captain America is. Just because he can't remember his own damn name right now, or anything about his own life, doesn't mean he's forgotten basic facts about the world. He remembers the plot of Star Wars. He remembers who Captain America is.
But Captain America is dead. He knows that. Everyone knows that. Oh, the government tried to cover it up when it first happened -- they put a few different people in the costume to keep morale up -- but eventually they admitted that the poor guy, whoever he was, had been declared MIA toward the end of the war while he'd been on some secret operation. They'd never found his body.
Obviously Tony's soulmate isn't Captain America. That's impossible. His soulmate probably likes Captain America a lot, though. Tony feels like he probably likes Captain America a lot too. It'll be good for them to have something in common, when they meet. They can't have met already, otherwise he'd know, wouldn't he? Someone would have told him he had a soulmate. His soulmate would have come to see him.
One thing's for certain: Tony Stark, whoever he is, is being an idiot. How is he ever going to find his soulmate if he hides his soulmark away? Doesn't he want to find his soulmate?
Tony scrubs off the last of the makeup and stares down at his soulmark, clean and bare, unadorned. In the light. He likes the look of it. He likes everything about it. There's nothing wrong with it at all. He's not going to cover it up again.
Some things shouldn't be secrets.
When Tony braves the kitchen for breakfast the next morning, he finds Clint and Thor already there, and the shattered windows all boarded up. Clint is eating cold pizza and drinking orange juice straight out of a carton labeled NOT FOR HAWKEYE; Thor's plate has an omelette with, Tony is conservatively estimating, at least half a dozen eggs.
"He eats a lot," Clint says, in response to Tony's incredulous stare, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.
"Aye," Thor agrees. "Thou art a most generous host."
Tony guesses he pays for everything around here. "Uh," he says. "You're welcome?"
It's strange being thanked for something that he doesn't remember doing, but Tony likes the thought that he's good to these people. That he has friends.
Tony eyes the box of doughnuts on the counter, decides that they must be for everyone, and carefully selects a jelly doughnut. He thinks he probably likes jelly doughnuts.
"You sleep okay?" Clint asks, as Tony sits down.
Tony nods. He decides not to mention what he's discovered about himself. He's pretty sure what the fuck is up with my soulmark is not appropriate breakfast conversation anywhere.
"And how about--" Clint gestures vaguely at his own forehead.
"Doing fine," Tony says. "I changed the dressing myself." It had seemed like it was healing. He's probably going to be okay. That's not the problem here.
"No memory yet, huh?"
"Nope." Tony shakes his head. "I feel like somehow you'll be able to tell."
That's when Tony sees it. Through the open doorway of the kitchen, there's a blur of movement in the hallway. Someone's walking quickly down the hall, and Tony turns just in time to catch sight of a figure in red, white, and blue. Something striped and metallic gleams on the person's back as they pass. Tony doesn't get a good look at it, but it looks like-- it looks like--
Captain America's shield.
Tony's mouth goes dry. His soulmark. His soulmark is the shield. It can't be.
"Tony?" Clint's staring at him. "Everything all right there, man?"
"Who was the person who just walked by?" Tony asks. Then he realizes Clint was facing the other way. "They were wearing red, white, and blue. And it looked like they were carrying Captain America's shield, but that can't be right..."
Clint's face screws up like he doesn't understand why Tony thinks this is something he should ask about. "Are you talking about Bucky?"
Bucky. He'd met Bucky for a couple minutes, yesterday; Jim Rhodes had said he was the man with the metal hand -- entire metal arm, apparently -- who Tony then recognized as the Avenger who had offered to go make phone calls. He seemed nice enough, Tony supposes. Tony hasn't thought much more about him since then, really. But if he is who Tony thinks he is, then that changes everything.
"Bucky is Captain America?"
Thor nudges Clint. "Didst thou not give him the names of our comrades?"
"I thought I did," Clint says, uncertainly. "I thought someone did, anyway. Maybe no one mentioned the codenames."
"He's really Captain America?" Tony repeats.
They gave other men the name and costume in the war, after the first Captain America died. Tony knows that. There's not any reason they couldn't have done it again. Tony's soulmate doesn't have to be the original, long-dead Captain America to be Captain America. Maybe Tony's soulmate has been right here all along.
Tony thought it was supposed to feel different. He thought he was supposed to know who his soulmate was. He thought it would be obvious when he saw them. In whatever is still left of his memory, he knows that about soulmates. And he doesn't think he feels like that about Bucky. He seems like a good guy, sure, but not special.
Still, Tony knows he's also operating under the influence of head trauma and a magic amnesia spell. Maybe he just can't feel the way he's supposed to feel because his brain's a bit broken right now. Maybe it will all come back when he gets his memory back, the proper way he feels about his soulmate.
It might not even be Bucky. That's the other explanation, of course. But who else can it be? His soulmate is Captain America and Captain America is right here.
Tony's not about to let this chance slip through his fingers.
Clint and Thor look at each other.
"Yeah," Clint says, slowly. "Yeah, Bucky is Captain America. But, I mean, really--"
"Okay, thanks!" Tony cuts him off. "Gotta go!"
He runs out the door as fast as he can. Bucky is at the end of the hallway, waiting for the elevator. He's wearing the full Captain America uniform. It doesn't look like the old one did in all the pictures and posters; this uniform is shiny and sleek, with black all up the sides of it. It's modern. But he's clearly meant to be Captain America; he's carrying a shield that looks just like the original one that went down with the original Captain America in the Atlantic. Someone's clearly gone to a lot of trouble to remake the shield. And minus the technological flourishes of the version that's on Tony's skin, it looks just like Tony's soulmark.
"Bucky!" Tony calls out. "Hey, Bucky, can I talk to you?"
Bucky turns around. Surprise is writ large on his face; beneath the cowl, his brown eyes widen, then narrow. He doesn't seem to have been expecting Tony. He's a little shorter than Tony always thought Captain America would be. He just seems kind of... ordinary. It's a ridiculous thought to have about a superhero, a man who is clearly highly-trained, a man who somehow has an entire metal arm. None of that is ordinary. But he still doesn't feel special.
Tony's not-- he's not feeling it. This isn't what he thought it would be like when he met his soulmate. But this is his shot.
"Actually," Bucky says, sounding apologetic, "can it wait? I'm about to be late for a meeting--"
"It can't wait." Tony's nervous, but he makes himself smile. This is the moment everyone waits for their whole lives: finding their soulmate. All other events can wait for this one. Whoever Bucky is supposed to be meeting with will understand.
He watches Bucky take this in, watches all the gears shift in Bucky's head, and then Bucky nods, briskly. "Okay," he says. "Shoot."
Tony glances around the corridor. He can't just show him his soulmark right here. Tony may be an amnesiac but he does still remember basic propriety. "In private," Tony says.
Unfazed, Bucky heads a few steps back down the corridor and pulls open the nearest door, which is apparently the pantry for the Avengers' communal kitchen. Tony catches a glimpse of industrial-size bags of rice, and then Bucky motions him in.
The shelves are crowded close and Tony has to head pretty far into the room before there's enough room for Bucky to come in behind him and close the door. Bucky yanks the cowl back and regards Tony, and Tony looks right back. Bucky's not... he's not bad-looking, really. He's fit. Muscular. Attractive enough, Tony supposes. His dark hair is mussed from the cowl in a manner that Tony thinks someone might call endearing; his alert gaze takes in the room in a way that suggests that he never stops being aware of his surroundings. There's pain in his eyes, the look of a man who has too many ghosts, but at the same time he looks kind. That's good, right? That has to be good.
He's not anything like what Tony was picturing as a soulmate, which Tony knows is an odd thing to think when he has no idea what he was picturing, but-- Bucky doesn't seem like he'd be bad. Tony just thought he would feel better than this, about his soulmate. He thought he'd feel sure. He thought he'd feel happy.
Bucky spreads his gloved hands wide. "Private enough for you?"
It's not the most picturesque setting, but it'll do. "Yeah, sure. I have a question for you."
Boy, does he ever.
"Okay." Bucky nods. "What did you want to ask me?"
Here goes nothing. Tony clears his throat. He licks his lips. He can do this. He can definitely do this. He can be brave. He's sure he's brave. He's a superhero. When he gets his memory back, he'll be glad he did this. Who wouldn't want to find their soulmate? Why the hell didn't he do this before?
Deep breath. Open mouth. Ask the question.
"Are you my soulmate?"
He knows right then, as soon as he says it, that he's wrong. The words feel wrong in Tony's mouth. This isn't it. This isn't right. But his soulmate is Captain America, and this is Captain America, right here. He doesn't know how he can be wrong, but somehow he is.
Bucky doesn't say anything at first. He takes a step back. His mouth drops, shocked, and his eyes are wide. Tony would say the horrified silence is the most terrible thing he's ever experienced, but he only has about twenty-four hours of experience, and he kind of suspects he's had worse. But this is excruciating. Tony wants to run, but he's gotten himself into this and now it's up to him to dig himself out.
"What?" Bucky's voice cracks on the word.
Tony already knows that repeating it isn't going to help. Bucky heard him just fine. Bucky doesn't really want to know what. What Bucky wants to know is why, and Tony has the answer for that. He pulls down the neck of his shirt, down to his chest. He bares his soulmark, the shield and the RT together. Has he ever shown anyone this before? He doesn't know.
There's no sound in the room except Bucky's breathing. He imagines that Bucky can hear the terrified pounding of his vulnerable heart. Tony already knows he's wrong, but he doesn't know what Bucky will say or do. This is a mess. Will Bucky laugh? Mock him? Tell him he's a lovesick fool?
"Well," Bucky says, quietly, to himself. "That explains a hell of a lot." He shakes his head. "Christ, what a clusterfuck." He swears like a soldier. Maybe he is one. Tony doesn't know the first thing about him.
Tony drops his hand. The shirt slides back up and hides his soulmark again.
Bucky looks at him. Tony doesn't know what his own face looks like, but Bucky's expression, when he meets Tony's eyes, is equal parts awkward and soft -- like he wants to be good to Tony, like he knows exactly how important this is in a way that maybe even Tony doesn't, but that somehow maybe he doesn't have a lot of practice in being gentle. Like he only has a hammer and knows that nothing around him looks like a nail.
"Okay." Bucky breathes out hard, runs his hand through his face, scrubs his hand over his hair. "I suppose the first thing you should know is that that's not me." He jerks his chin in the direction of Tony's soulmark. "I mean, I see why you might have thought so, with the information you had to go on, but none of that is me."
It's not even a non-reciprocal soulmark. It's no kind of match at all. God, Tony really fucked this up. How did this happen? He knows Bucky is Captain America. Bucky's standing here dressed in the flag and holding the shield. What other kind of soulmark could Bucky possibly have? How is Tony ever going to find his soulmate now?
"It's not you?" Tony echoes.
This is when Bucky starts unbuckling his belt.
"Didn't think I'd be doing this when I woke up this morning," Bucky mutters, as he unbuttons his fly. "At least I don't have it as bad as some people. Clint's soulmark is on his ass, and please don't ask me how I know."
Oh. Bucky isn't Tony's soulmate, and he's proving it.
Bucky pushes down one side of his pants, pulls up his uniform shirt... and there it is, slightly above his right hip. His soulmark is a star -- just a star, no shield -- with some kind of stylized hourglass inscribed in the middle of it.
"Her name is Natasha," Bucky says, with a fond smile. "We're very happy together. I know you don't remember her right now, but she's your friend."
He already has a soulmate. He's found his soulmate, Tony thinks, as he watches Bucky set his uniform to rights. That smile on his face -- that's how he looks when he thinks about his soulmate. That isn't for Tony. No part of this is for Tony.
"I knew that, didn't I?" Tony asks, slowly. His face is hot. "I must have known that."
That's why he never did this before. He never asked Bucky, because he already knew it wasn't him.
But Bucky chews on his lip like the question doesn't have an easy answer. "About me and Nat, you mean? You knew once. I don't know if you know now. It's complicated." That's the same word Jim used to describe the state of Tony's mind, complicated.
He thinks there are a lot of things that people haven't told him about himself.
"Congratulations." The word comes out of Tony's mouth, stiffly. He just wants to get out of here. He wants this terrible, embarrassing, miscalculated situation to end. "And, uh, thanks for letting me know. I hope you can--" he waves a hand-- "forgive me for the assumption. I should let you get to your meeting now. Sorry."
He turns away -- and that's when Bucky catches his arm.
"There's something else you should know." Bucky's voice is low, intense. "I know who your soulmate is."
Hope flares bright within Tony, catches in his chest, a bubble of happiness expanding to fill all available space. He has a soulmate. He has a soulmate after all, and if Bucky knows who it is, maybe Bucky can introduce them. He can meet his soulmate. He'll finally know what it's like. All he can feel is joy, bright and shining. He'll be happy. They'll be happy.
"He's going to kill me for telling you," Bucky says, under his breath, "but, Jesus, he's been miserable lately." He coughs. "I just don't think it's right for me to know and not tell you. And I think you knew anyway, before. You must have known. With your mark looking like that, I don't see how you didn't know."
"Who is he?" Tony presses. The details aren't important. He just needs to know.
Bucky chuckles. "He's Captain America."
"But you're--" Tony gestures helplessly at Bucky's uniform. "I mean, you're obviously--"
"It's not the same." Bucky shakes his head, smiling a little. "He's the original Captain America."
Tony blinks. Bucky doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would deliberately lie to someone with no memory, but-- "The original Captain America died in the war."
"Not exactly," Bucky says. "Everyone thought he had, until about a decade ago. You found him frozen in an iceberg and brought him back. You and the Avengers. He was an Avenger with you for most of the past decade, and then--" he gestures vaguely-- "a lot of things happened, and he gave up the shield, and I ended up with it."
Tony can barely believe this. "Captain America is alive?" He imagines how amazed he would have been to learn that, to know that. "He's alive and I know him?" He can feel himself smiling.
"That's one way to put it," Bucky mutters. "Look, you-- he-- the two of you-- you have a lot of history."
There's an obvious reluctance in Bucky's voice; he doesn't want to say more. He glances away from Tony. It's maybe not all good history. But how bad can it be, really? If they were teammates for so many years, they have to have gotten on well. And they're soulmates. That has to count for a lot. Isn't that the important part? And whatever Tony doesn't know right now, that doesn't matter. He knows what he needs to know. There's someone out there for him. They can make each other happy.
"When can I meet him?"
Tony feels a bit silly phrasing it like that, since apparently he already knows him and in a matter of days he's going to remember that, but... it's his soulmate and his soulmate is Captain America and he doesn't want to wait for anything at all.
"I'm pretty sure you've already met him." Bucky's mouth goes crooked. "The way he came rushing back here as soon as I told him what had happened to you, I can't imagine Steve didn't stop in and check on you himself--"
"It's Steve?" Tony breathes.
And just like that, everything makes sense, everything he's felt for the past day. The way he felt when he heard Steve's voice, when he looked at him. That's why Tony can't stop thinking about him. That's why he's so familiar. The spell took away Tony's memories, but it didn't take away his soul, and his soul remembers his soulmate.
Captain America. Wow. Tony can't believe he's this lucky. And Steve was so handsome too. Tony needs to see him again. Tony needs to see him, talk to him, touch him. And, okay, so maybe Steve had seemed a little upset when they'd met, but surely knowing they're soulmates will lift his spirits? Anyone would be happy to know that. He can make Steve feel better. He imagines how Steve would look if he smiled at him, if Tony made him happy.
Tony can't stop smiling. He has a soulmate. He really has a soulmate.
Bucky is watching him like his reaction is a test he's passed. "Yeah," Bucky says, quietly, "that right there, that's how you feel when you know you've found your soulmate. Take it from a fellow amnesiac."
Tony wonders if amnesia is some kind of Avengers rite of passage. "Oh?"
"I'm a hell of a lot better now," Bucky says. "But, yeah, some days... they'd taken away everything else, but I still remembered her. I had that much." And then Bucky's face goes tense, awkward. "But, really, there are-- there are a lot of things you don't know, about you and Steve, and it might be better if you waited--"
He can't wait. He just can't.
Bucky studies his face and then sighs, giving in. "Okay. But just-- brace yourself, okay?"
It's going to be okay. Better than okay. How can it not be? He has a soulmate. Everything's going to be good now.
"Do you know how I can get in touch with him?" Tony demands.
Bucky smiles a very small smile. It looks almost grim. "You'll never guess who I'm supposed to be meeting right now."
Tony follows Bucky into an elevator that takes him only five floors down. Apparently Steve has been around the Tower since he came back yesterday, Bucky explains as they step out of the elevator; Tony just hasn't seen him since their initial meeting.
"Look," Bucky says, awkwardly, as he leads Tony all the way down a long hall. "I just don't want you to expect-- I mean, I don't--" He sighs. "Steve's not very good with feelings. I say this as someone who's known him since nineteen-fucking-forty."
Tony squints at him. "How old are you?"
"Apparently not old enough to know better," Bucky mutters. He stops in front of a door labeled CONFERENCE ROOM. "Goddammit. I shouldn't be doing this to you."
How can he even say that? He's bringing Tony to his soulmate.
Tony lays a grateful hand on Bucky's arm. "Thank you. I really appreciate it."
"You can come find me afterwards, if you need someone to talk to," Bucky says, quietly, and then he knocks on the door.
"Come on in," Steve says, from inside, and the sound of his voice literally makes Tony's heart skip a beat. It's his soulmate. His soulmate.
Bucky opens the door, and on the other side of it, Steve is there, alone in the room, rising to his feet. He's wearing the same uniform Tony saw him in yesterday, the blue and white one. He sees Bucky and starts to smile -- and then his gaze locks with Tony's and the smile disappears. All the color drains from his face.
"Tony," Steve rasps.
Tony has no idea what to say.
Bucky holds up his hands like he's unarmed, which is sort of darkly funny when Tony realizes that Bucky is carrying at least three guns that Tony can see, in addition to the shield.
"Don't shoot the messenger, Steve," Bucky says, as Steve levels a glare at him, "but Tony here has a few things he wants to say to you. And it seemed to me like maybe you ought to hear them."
Tony takes a few halting steps forward, into the room. Steve takes the same number of steps backward, keeping a buffer between them.
Bucky exhales hard. "I'll let you two get to it," he says, and he shuts the door. Tony hears his footsteps receding.
They're alone. Steve is looking wildly around the room -- at the walls, at the floor, at anywhere except Tony. He glances over at the windows like he'd jump out to escape this if they weren't hundreds of feet in the air.
It's going to be okay. He'll tell Steve they're soulmates, and Steve will be happy. There's nothing for Steve to fear. Tony knows that. He just needs to show Steve what's between them, and Steve will understand, and then everything will be okay. This will make it all okay. How could it not?
Tony tests Steve's name in his mouth, and Steve's eyes snap instantly to his face, like it's a reflex he can't check. Like, no matter what, he's drawn to him. His soulmate. Tony will show him that he loves him. He doesn't need to remember him to love him. Tony can make this better. He can fix this.
"You wanted to say something to me," Steve says. It should have been a question, but it isn't. He sounds weary. Resigned. Like whatever it is, he's just going to stand here and take it, because that's what he knows how to do. He endures.
Tony definitely didn't think this conversation with his soulmate would go like this. He swallows hard.
"I know I don't remember much of anything right now," Tony begins. "But there's still something I know, and I think you should know it too." He smiles, putting all the hope that he has into it.
He can't do this with words. He doesn't need to.
He hooks his hand into the neck of his shirt and bares his soulmark for the second time today. Maybe the second time in his life; he doesn't know. But he knows it's Steve. This is right. Here they are, the two of them, written into his skin. Together.
Steve's staring at his soulmark. His gaze is pained. Tony hears him breathe in, harsh and sharp. He doesn't say anything.
If this were a movie, this would be the moment where the music would swell, and Steve would smile at him. Steve would show him his own soulmark, and they'd both see that they matched. They'd see that they're destined to be together. Steve would rush into his arms. They'd kiss.
Steve isn't smiling. Steve isn't moving. Steve's face is bone-white. He looks-- he looks terrified.
This isn't what Tony wanted. This isn't what was supposed to happen. This was supposed to make Steve happy.
"We're not doing this," Steve says, a desperate, hoarse denial. "This isn't happening. This can't happen."
Blood rushes through Tony's head in a roar of chaos, and then there's nothing but dizzying silence. He clutches the neck of his shirt, pulling it back more, as if showing his soulmark more forcefully to Steve will make him see reason.
The word is so small when he says it. Betrayed.
"There are things you don't know. There are things you don't remember." Steve's voice is cold, so cold, and Tony shivers. Steve is trying to frighten him. Why doesn't Steve want this? And, okay, Tony has amnesia, but so what? He remembers that he loves Steve. What else does he need?
"The doctor said I'd remember soon--"
Steve shakes his head. "Not that. There are things you'll never remember. Even when you get the rest of your memory back. There are things we've done that you'll never, ever know. There are reasons we shouldn't be together." There's a wild look in his eyes. He's a trapped animal. "Trust me. You don't know, you'll never know, but I do."
Tony can feel himself shiver again. He remembers what everyone else said about him, about his memory: it's complicated.
These are the complications.
He lets his fingers unhook from his shirt. His hand sags away.
"What things?" Tony whispers. Steve says nothing. "Please," he says. "Please tell me."
The look on Steve's face is desolate, helpless, hopeless.
"We're not good together," Steve says. "We-- we fight. We've fought. We'll do it again. And when we fight, people get hurt. We don't get along." He bites his lip. He holds his hands wide, arched back like he's trying not to clench his fists. "It's bad, Tony. Whatever you're thinking of, whatever you're imagining, it's worse than that. It's a thousand times worse. I can't do that again." His voice is tight. "I won't do that again."
Tony wants to reach out. He wants to hold him, to ease his pain. Everything in Tony is crying out with the need to touch Steve. Doesn't Steve feel this way too? "I want to be with you," Tony says, and Steve flinches. Tony doesn't know how to say this right, how to say what Steve needs to hear. "I don't want to fight you. I don't want to hurt you. I'm asking you to be with me."
Steve's mouth thins, a hard line. "You have no idea what you're asking. If you knew what I know, you'd never ask." And then his mouth twists into something crueler. "Why do you think you've never asked me this before? You must have known it was me. You've had that shield on your chest your whole goddamn life." He gestures at Tony's chest like his soulmark is a brand, a punishment. "You must have known I was your soulmate, and you've never told me. See, I know why. It's because you know the same thing I do. You know we're not right for each other. Even if you don't remember the war, you must have figured it all out a long time ago. It's not like that was the first time we've fought. We're not good for each other, and you know it. That's what you'll remember, soon."
He's scared, Tony knows. Steve's scared and he's pushing him away.
Tony can push back.
"You're wrong," Tony says.
Steve laughs, a sad, harsh bark of a sound. "Christ, you didn't even remember your own name yesterday morning and you're still fighting me. You see what I mean? This is what we do. This is what we always do."
"So there are things I don't remember," Tony retorts, frustrated. "They don't matter. I don't know why I never told you this before. That doesn't matter either. I know what's important. I remember you where it counts. I remember you right here." He puts his hand on his chest, over his soulmark. "I recognized you when I heard your voice. I recognized you when I saw you. I didn't know your name or mine, but I knew you in my soul. And I know you feel it too. We're soulmates. You can't deny that. You can't."
Steve takes a step toward him. "I wish to God I could!" The words are raw, bleeding, ripped out of him. His eyes are wide and pale. If Tony touched him he would shatter. Steve takes a gasping breath and keeps talking, fearful, angry words tumbling out of him one after another. "I know we're soulmates. But sometimes it's not enough to be soulmates. We're bound to each other. That doesn't mean it's good. It's not like the fairy tales, Tony. It just means that wherever we're going, we're going together. It means that if I drag you into hell, you're coming with me and you don't get a choice."
"I trust you."
If he could find the right words, if he could just find the right words, Steve would stay. He can fix this, Tony thinks, frantically. He can fix this--
Steve's smile is ugly. "You don't even know me."
Those weren't the right words, then.
"I know I love you," Tony whispers. It's his last, desperate gambit. He can feel tears springing to his eyes. He holds out a hand. Steve doesn't take it. "I know you're my soulmate and I love you. I know I love you more than anyone else in my entire life."
Steve swallows, and Tony can see him forcing back every last scrap of emotion, trying to push it away. "I've loved you from the moment I first saw you." His voice shakes when he speaks. "But it's not enough. It's never been enough to save us."
He moves past Tony and heads to the door. A tear trickles down Tony's cheek.
"Steve," Tony says, broken. He'll beg. "Please. Please."
Steve opens the door. Pauses in the doorway. Turns around. "This is how it has to be, Tony. This is the best way. I don't want to hurt you. If you knew what happened, you'd understand why it has to be like this. I'm sorry."
And then he's gone.
Tony stands in the empty conference room, alone, swaying on his feet. He's still crying. Tears stream down his face and drip messily off his chin. Distantly, he wonders if he cries a lot.
What is he supposed to do? His soulmate doesn't want him. The one person in the whole wide world who was supposed to love him more than anything has walked out that door and left him here. Steve carved out Tony's heart and took it with him and told him that this was the best way. If this is the way that Steve thinks doesn't hurt, Tony doesn't fucking want to know what the other ways are. He can hear himself sobbing, crying pathetically.
He's hollow and empty and aching, ripped open. He wipes his messy face on his shirt, presses smeary tear-stained fabric against his soulmark. How can he remember nothing and yet still feel everything?
He wants to run after Steve but he knows that nothing he can say would be enough to bring him back. Steve was right. He doesn't know anything. And he doesn't know where Steve is now or where he's going. He thinks the Avengers have some way of tracking each other, but no one showed him. Steve could be anywhere.
Bucky told him to come see him, but Tony has no idea where Bucky is, either, and he doesn't know how to find out.
He imagines going back up to the common area and asking one of the other Avengers, and he cringes at the thought. They'd see that he's been crying. They'd ask. What would they think of him? Do they know everything that Steve knows about him? What haven't they told him?
He thought he could fix everything. He thought it was simple, that in the end love would win out.
He was wrong.
He stands there and breathes and breathes until the tears slow, until he hopes he looks decent enough to be able to leave the room. He probably still doesn't, but he goes anyway.
In the end there's only one place he can think of -- the workshop that Carol showed him, the armory. It unlocks with his palmprint; Carol had him put his hand to the door last night. It's full of what are presumably his own armors, although there are fewer of them than Tony thinks there should be, now that he's thinking about it. Now that he's paying attention, there are a lot of spaces where armors aren't, empty bays in the shape of a man. Like the gaps in his memory.
The workshop doesn't look like anyone else's space, and that's what's important to Tony right now. All of the scrawled notes are in one person's handwriting. Probably his. The discarded coffee mugs all have the same aesthetic, emblazoned with science jokes. He wonders if someone gave them to him. He thinks it probably wasn't Steve.
There's an overcrowded bulletin board on one wall. Thumbtacked near the bottom is an unsigned pencil sketch of Tony himself, creased and folded like he's had it a while; in the picture, he's posing in a tanktop and safety goggles, a wrench in his hand, giving the viewer -- and presumably the mysterious artist -- a rather affectionate smile. It's a much happier face than the face Tony saw in the mirror this morning. It makes something warm spark inside Tony's iced-over heart. At least he must have one friend somewhere. He wonders who it is.
The workshop is useless to him, and that's all right. It doesn't matter that he doesn't know what to do with the suits of armor, that he doesn't remember the password to get into the computer system. What matters is that this is his space and the door locks and if it locks to his palmprint then no one else will get in. No one else will bother him.
He sits on a worn sofa and thumbs through an engineering textbook that he doesn't understand a single word of. He needs something to fill up the time. He needs something to fill up his life.
He's got a very nice coffeemaker and a cot in the other corner. What else does he need? He can just stay down here until he remembers his own life, and then he can stay down here some more. He wants to write his future self an apology. Apparently he had reasons for not telling Steve he was his soulmate after all. He still doesn't know what they are.
He paces the room. He doesn't know how much time passes. He's trapped. He's trapped himself here and he has nothing--
Tony sits, slumps over on the cot and stares up at the ceiling, willing an answer to occur to him.
He can't just give up. He can't. This is his soulmate. He can make this right.
And Tony might not remember anything about his life, but he doesn't think he's the kind of man who gives up. They told him he was a superhero. They told him he was Iron Man. Tony turns his head to stare at the row of suits, shining red and gold.
Iron Man wouldn't just give up, would he?
He doesn't think Iron Man would give up. He can do this. He's got to do this.
He has no idea how to do this.
And then there's a knock on the workshop door.
Tony's newfound resolve evaporates into twisted anxiety and for several blinding seconds all he wants is for whoever it is to just go away. He doesn't want to have to talk about this to anyone. He doesn't want to admit his failure. And if it's Steve he still doesn't know what to say. He already knows it won't be Steve.
He knows that whoever it is, he's going to have to get up and let them in. He waits anyway. He lies curled on the cot. He wonders how long it will take for them to leave.
"Tower, armory password," Carol's voice says, from the other side of the door, and apparently the fact that Tony didn't have to give a password to get in here doesn't mean that other people can't enter with one. "Captain America."
He made Steve his password. He made Steve his password and this is a thing that the people he knows know about him. They know how he feels about Steve. He's probably been wearing his heart on his sleeve. Bucky had tried to warn him. Did everyone know Steve would never want him?
He's starting to cry again. He manages to choke back the more audible sobs as Carol enters, heels clicking. At least from her vantage point she can't see him with the computers in the way.
"Tony?" Carol asks. "You missed team lunch, and the computer said you were down here, and I figured I'd bring you something to eat."
There's the sound of what is probably a tray clattering against a desk. Tony hadn't realized he'd missed lunch already. Time flies, huh? He didn't even finish that doughnut for breakfast before rushing off after Bucky. It's only been a few hours since then. He's managed to thoroughly destroy his own life in the span of a morning. They did tell him he was a genius.
"Tony?" Carol asks again, when he hasn't said anything.
Tony presses his lips together harder. He realizes if he opens his mouth she's going to hear him cry.
She's his friend. She must be his friend. She wouldn't be here looking for him with a lunch tray if they weren't friends. But there's friends and then there's friends who will be there for you if you're sobbing your heart out over your soulmate, and he doesn't know if Carol's that kind of friend. He doesn't want to make anyone else uncomfortable today. He's caused enough damage already.
"Are you okay?" Carol calls out. "Is there something wrong? Is it your head?" Oh. She thinks it's the amnesia, or maybe the head wound. "Where are you? Oh, God. It should have tripped the medical monitoring, and I'm not getting a seventh sense, but--" She raises her voice. "Tower, begin medical scan--"
Her heels click faster against the floor and that's when she comes around the side of the desk and sees him.
"I'm okay," Tony grits out. He grinds his teeth together so he won't actually sob, but he's curled up in the fetal position and there are tears leaking from his eyes. "I'm okay. There's nothing wrong with me."
He knows this doesn't look good.
Carol is running to his side anyway, crouching next to the cot. Her gloved fingers bite into the edge of the mattress a few inches from his arm, as if ordinarily she'd touch him but isn't sure now how he feels about it. He wants to tell her it would be okay.
"It's not my head," Tony manages to say. "Everything's fine. I don't need help. I'm sorry for worrying you. You should go."
"Yeah," Carol says, and then she must decide it's okay to touch him anyway because he feels her hand on his shoulder, "because I'm going to leave you down here, crying, genius." It sounds like something she's probably said to him before. "What happened? I can--"
Tony shakes his head. "It's nothing you can help with. I just... said something to someone and I didn't have all the facts. They-- they didn't take it well and I should have known better." Bucky knew. Tony should have listened to him. He can't stop seeing the look on Steve's face when Steve saw his soulmark. Another tear drips down his face.
"Hey, hey, no. You have amnesia." Carol squeezes his shoulder. "There's nothing you should have known better than to do, and everyone else in this Tower should know that. You didn't do anything wrong. That's on them, and if they want to make a guy with amnesia feel bad for not knowing something, then they're the asshole here. Not you." He kind of has to admit that she has a point. Something in him bristles at the thought of saying anything bad about Steve, even after what Steve did to him. He doesn't know why he feels like this. "Was it Logan? I know he can be rough sometimes. I'm not on the active team and I don't care if I get a formal reprimand, I can talk to him and tell him to knock it off."
Tony shakes his head. He pictures Carol confronting Steve, and she can't do that. She can't.
"Not Logan," Tony says.
She's going to try to guess, and if she names Steve, he's not going to be able to hide anything. But if he tells her some of the truth, tells her without naming Steve, she's at least not going to pry.
He tries to breathe and can't quite manage it. "I-- I figured out who my soulmate is," Tony whispers. "I guess I had reasons before, for not telling them, that I don't remember. And I told them they were my soulmate, and it... wasn't something they wanted to know. That's all."
That's all, he repeats to himself. Simple. Not a big deal. He can get through this alone.
Carol seems like a polite person. She's not going to ask him to name names now. She's not going to press him on it, because it's soulmate business and that's just not done. His secret is safe.
Carol's hand tightens convulsively on his shoulder, a grip just this side of pain, and Tony looks up to see her face flushed with anger.
"Jesus fucking goddamn Captain America," Carol spits out. Her tone is pure venom. "I can't believe this. The next time I see Steve, I'm going to fucking kill him."
Oh. His secret wasn't even a secret.
"I mean, I can believe this," Carol continues, righteous and wrathful, "because for God's sake that man has never had a single emotion that he knows how to deal with like a normal and reasonable human being, but that's absolutely no excuse for treating you like--"
"Does everyone know?" Tony's voice is hoarse, scraped, ruined. "Does everyone know about me and him?"
Bucky knows, now. Carol knew. Maybe they've all known for years, maybe they've all known that Steve was going to turn him down. They all knew that Steve didn't really want him.
Steve knew, Tony thinks, and he remembers the look in Steve's eyes. Steve knew about the two of them. Steve knew who his soulmark went with. Steve hadn't been surprised. Steve knew and neither of them had said.
Maybe that was how it was supposed to be between them, tacitly understood. Maybe it would have been okay if Tony hadn't gone and destroyed it all.
Carol cuts herself off then, as she realizes that Tony wasn't expecting her to know. "Oh, shit," she says, and she cups her hands over her mouth. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." She takes a breath and pulls herself together. "I don't think everyone knows," she says. "I don't think anyone else knows, actually. I've never heard either of you talk about it." She takes another breath. The next sentence is more delicate. "I know a lot of people have had, um, suspicions about the two of you for years. Your friendship has been... intense, let's say. But no one has ever said that they've known."
"But you know."
Carol nods. "You showed me your mark once. I've never told anyone else." Her voice is soft now, kind. "From the way it came up, I got the impression I was the first person you ever actually told. There were, uh. Extenuating circumstances."
Extenuating circumstances. That sounds about as bad as complicated.
"He said-- he said--" Tony tries to say, and he realizes there is no chance of him making it through any of this coherently. He takes a ragged breath. He can't even get a sentence out. "He said there were things I didn't remember that I wasn't ever going to remember. He-- he said we fought, and that was why-- that was why we couldn't be--"
He's not going to be able to finish this sentence. He's coughing, he's choking.
"Oh, geez," Carol says. "Here, here, sit up."
She nudges him up to sitting, and then she promptly sits down on the cot next to him. She puts her arm over his shoulders, rubs circles on his back. Tony guesses that she is in fact a sobbing your heart out over your soulmate kind of friend.
"I'm sorry," Tony says. "I'm really sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry for." She pats his back. And then she's silent, and when Tony looks over, she's biting her lip.
"I don't know if this will make it worse," she says, softly. "I don't know if you want to know. I don't know how much he told you about what happened. It gets bad. But the things you won't remember -- I know what they are." Her mouth quirks. It's not a smile. "I actually know a few things neither of you know." She sucks in a breath. "I love you both and I want you to be happy. And I think maybe if you knew what I know, it would make a difference."
There's another glimmer of hope, rising up within Tony. This is what he needs. This is how he's going to fix everything. He needs the truth. He needs information. Steve said there were things he didn't know, and if he learns them, he can come back to Steve and reason with him on an equal footing. This is going to work. This is how it's going to happen.
"I want to know everything."
Carol swallows hard. "Everything?"
She nods, a short, sharp nod, like she's received an order. She breathes in and out, silent again. The silence stretches so long that Tony thinks she's not going to say anything at all.
"There was a law," Carol says, softly. "It was called the Superhuman Registration Act. It required us all to give our identities up to the government. And you and Steve, you disagreed about whether it was right. And you-- you went to war."
You don't remember the war, Steve said.
"The two of you started a war," Carol says. "We all took sides, yours or his. We all fell in behind you, all the superheroes. You fought. And-- and people died."
He doesn't know what to say.
She tells him about Stamford. She tells him what it was like, pulling dead children out of the wreckage of an elementary school. She tells him about the woman who spat in his face at the funeral. She tells him about the night the SHRA went into effect. She tells him how he rounded up the resistance. She tells him about the prison he made. She tells him he cloned Thor and the clone killed a man. She tells him he went to war with Atlantis. She tells him he wanted to keep people safe. He's not seeing how any of this is safe.
Tony can see why someone wouldn't want a soulmate like that.
She tells him about Steve. She tells him how Steve opposed Registration, how he didn't trust the government. She tells him that the two of them fought in the streets.
Tony can't picture it. He doesn't want to picture it. He doesn't remember being Iron Man. He imagines himself in the suit that lives beneath his skin, hand-to-hand with Captain America. He doesn't know what it's like to fight anyone, at all. He doesn't want to know what it was like to fight Steve. He supposes he never will. Steve said he wasn't ever going to remember it. He's abruptly glad of that, and he wonders if he should be.
"It's hard to disagree with Steve," she continues. "He has this way about him where you look at him and you... just want to follow him." She winces. "Not a lot of people can stand up to him. It takes a lot of guts to tell Captain America you think he's wrong." She seems to be considering her words carefully. "You've never been afraid to do it. And I think that's one of the things he likes about you. A lot of people, they see the shield and the stars and they can't push past that. You've always treated him like an equal. You push back. A lot of people, they just look at him and they see Cap, but you've always been able to see Steve. And he can see you too, I think." She tilts her head to the side. "You-- you have a lot of armor."
He can't tell if she's trying to make him feel better. That doesn't sound like a good thing. That sounds like a brutal thing. Maybe this is how all soulmates feel, like they're two souls trapped together, too close to avoid pushing up against each other and rubbing each other raw.
"But the worst part of it all," she says, "is that you loved each other. You loved each other so goddamn much. You'd always loved each other. Everyone knew it. Even if we didn't know you were soulmates, we all knew how much you cared about each other. We knew it was killing you to do this. Both of you."
"Then why?" Tony's voice is hoarse. "Why the hell did we do it?"
Love wasn't enough, Steve told him, and Tony can feel himself start to tear up again.
Carol shrugs, a helpless motion. "The strength of your convictions. Because you both believed that what you were doing was right, the right way to help people, the way to protect the most people that you could. And you were both willing to sacrifice whatever was necessary in pursuit of that goal. If you could save a hundred lives, a thousand lives, it didn't matter if you weren't friends. It's not that you didn't love each other. It's that you decided that there were things that were more important to you than that."
He wants to ask if he was wrong. If he was ever uncertain. If he ever changed his mind. He understands, vaguely, grasping an idea much larger than himself and trying to learn the shape of it: this is what makes Tony Stark a superhero. He learned to do what was necessary. He decided that this was necessary.
The war's over. The war must be over. Maybe they can heal.
But he has the sense that there's more to the story.
"Which side were you on?"
He knows the answer before she even opens her mouth. "Yours." Her smile is rueful. "I-- I don't regret it. Even though Registration is gone now. I think it was the right choice."
"How did it end, then?" He doesn't know if he means the fighting or the law.
She draws a sharp breath, and he can tell that this is something she doesn't want to say. "We were fighting. You two were fighting. And Steve-- he surrendered. He decided there was too much... collateral damage." It sounds like she's trying to talk very carefully around something. He doesn't push. "And then you took him into custody. He was set to stand trial. And then-- one of his enemies shot him on the way to his arraignment. He bled out and died, right there on the steps of the courthouse."
Grief and terror stabs Tony, a rusty blade up and under his ribcage, and he can't breathe. He wonders if he felt this way before, when he found out.
"He's all right," Carol says, quickly. Her arm tightens over his shoulders. "He's okay. He came back. Sometimes that kind of thing happens to us. He's okay now."
Everything Tony wants to say jumbles together in his mouth. "But I killed him."
"You didn't," Carol says, and Tony gets the sense that she's had to say this before. "You didn't, I swear." She sighs. "But you were-- you were a wreck. And after he died, that was when you found out you were soulmates. That was what you told me. You saw his body."
Tony can't even imagine what that must have been like. "Jesus."
"Some days I think it's a miracle that you made it through that year," she says, softly. "We all thought he was dead, and you were... hardly even human, anymore. You stopped showing your face in public. It was like you were just a shell, just the armor, or trying to be. You told me once you were hallucinating him. It was the first time I'd seen you smile in weeks, because you got to see him again." She draws another breath. "The war was terrible. Steve knows that. But he doesn't know what it was like after, what you were like without him. And I don't think you should ever have to go through that again. You shouldn't have to be alone."
"Yeah," Tony says. "Tell that to him."
"I fucking will," Carol says, with startling vehemence.
He didn't mean for her to really do it. "No," he says. "Uh, no, wait. I can do it myself." He tries a smile. "Thank you, though. For... the things I don't know."
He doesn't have to ask why he doesn't know them. She answers that too. "You don't know any of this because you gave yourself amnesia." Her mouth pulls to one side. "When Registration ended, you knew some things that it wasn't safe for anyone to know. People would have been hurt if the information had ended up in the wrong hands. So you deleted your memories to keep us all safe."
"I wish I knew," he whispers. "I wish I had it all back."
There's an aching sympathy in Carol's eyes. "I tell myself that too," she says. "When I think about my life. But this is what we get. And I think, in the end, we know what we need to know."
"It's not enough for him. I'm not good enough for him."
"I don't think," Carol says, quietly, carefully, "that he's the one who gets to decide that."
You push back, she said.
Maybe he just needs to push.
Carol shows him how to use his identicard and interface with the Tower's computer system to track the location of any Avenger. It turns out that Steve, despite no longer being an active Avenger, does keep an identicard on him. Tony watches the little dot zip around the streets of New York and only feels a little bit like a creepy stalker. It looks like Steve's out for a run. Unfortunately for Tony, it looks like Steve's natural distance can be best summarized as the marathon, which means that he's not coming back any time soon. And Tony doesn't want to do this in public.
He can wait.
He feels like he should have a plan. He feels like the previous Tony Stark might have had a plan, might have mapped out all the ways a conversation would go. He doesn't know enough about either of them to do that. He can't predict how Steve will react. All he has is instinct, and a little more knowledge than he did this morning, the knowledge that Steve thought would make Tony want to give up on him.
Well, now Tony knows a few things he didn't know, and he knows that Steve is still wrong.
He's not giving up on him. He just isn't. Sure, he doesn't like knowing that they fought -- but do they never get second chances? Do they never get to try again? To learn from their mistakes? That's not the kind of life Tony wants.
He's going to pick himself up, and he's going to do better. Steve just needs to see that.
He waits until evening, until nightfall. Steve doesn't return to the Tower until then, about when the rest of the Avengers decide to go to sleep. Steve's spent most of the day in some sketchy-looking building on Long Island marked Quincarrier hangar -- but it looks like he's coming back to the Tower for the night.
Sitting in his room, Tony watches the tracker dot move down the hall, as Steve disappears into his own room, then into his bathroom. It stops moving; he's presumably ditching the uniform. Tony vibrates with impatience and decides to give Steve a bit to wash up. One minute. Five minutes. He finds a well-worn copy of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur in the nightstand drawer where he was half-expecting a porno mag; the book opens, spine cracked, on the discovery that Arthur and Lancelot and Guinevere are all three of them soulmates. Tony tries not to think about what this says about him as a person.
He closes the book. He walks down the hall. He knocks on Steve's door.
He doesn't know if Steve legitimately doesn't know it's him or if Steve is just some kind of gigantic masochist, but Steve opens the door. And then-- well, it's a good thing Tony didn't have a plan, because if he did have one it's not like he'd remember it now.
In his uniform earlier, Steve had been handsome like a work of art, a carefully-sculpted marble statue, wearing symbolism and power and authority, holding forth an air of command as easily as breathing. Untouchable. But now Steve is standing here in front of him in worn flannel pajama pants and a tight white t-shirt. His hair is still damp from the shower. Water beads and slides down his neck. His pale skin is flushed from the heat of the water. The man Tony met before might have been Captain Rogers, but this is Steve, and God help him, Tony thinks he's even more beautiful like this. For several blinding seconds, Tony can't think, everything within him insistent on the single all-consuming thought that this is his soulmate.
Steve's lips are parted, and he looks at him like he wants to say leave and come here at the same time.
"Please," Tony says, softly. "I just want to talk to you."
Steve licks his lips. Wordlessly, he steps backwards.
His room is smaller than Tony's, but about as barren, like he's only just moved in. There's an Avengers team portrait on the wall, featuring several people Tony doesn't know. He and Steve are near the front; Steve's arm is over his armored shoulders.
Tony closes the door behind himself. The room is still steamy from the shower. He's aware of how close Steve is standing. If he held out his hand, they'd be touching.
"I talked to Carol," Tony begins. He thinks now that maybe he should have had a plan for this.
"Did you." It's not a question. Steve's voice is rough around the edges. The room is dim, shadowed. His expression doesn't change, like he's trying not to give away anything he feels.
Tony nods. "She told me about Registration. About all the things you told me I wasn't going to remember." He takes a deep breath. "And I think you're still wrong."
The noise Steve makes is almost a laugh. "You don't remember anything about your life," he murmurs, "and you still haven't changed one goddamn bit."
"She told me you died," he says, and Steve's head snaps up. "She told me you died and that it nearly destroyed me and I don't-- I don't know if you think you're being kind, but this isn't the way." Tony's throat is tight. "I don't want to live without you. Because apparently I already tried, and I almost couldn't."
Steve pales, but recovers rapidly. "I'm not talking about anyone being dead," he says. "We're friends. We can-- we can stay friends. I'm not talking about you being by yourself. We just can't be closer than this. It's not safe."
"Why?" Tony retorts. "Because we fought? That's no reason to stay apart! That's no reason to stop trying! Look, if you don't want me, just say that you don't want me--"
"I want you so much that it hurts!" Steve practically shouts, and then his mouth snaps shut. A look of horror passes over his face. "I want to touch you. I want to kiss you. All I can think about right now is holding you and never letting you go. I ache for you. I burn for you." His expression is twisted into agony. "It's not that I don't want you. Believe me. I want you more than I've wanted anyone else in my life, with everything in me. But I can't." His voice breaks. "I can't, Tony."
"You can," Tony whispers. "I want you to."
He reaches out and sets his palm against Steve's forearm. Steve's skin is damp, warm, just this side of too warm... and exactly, perfectly right. Steve inhales hard and says nothing. He doesn't move. All of Tony's senses focus down to the point where they're touching. This is his soulmate. They were made for this. It's overwhelming and at the same time it's not enough.
It's not meant to be a seduction. He's not thinking about that. He just wants to give them what they both need. This is what they need, just like this. He just wants to touch his soulmate.
And then they're kissing.
For the life of him, Tony doesn't know who starts it. He thinks it's both of them. Steve meets him halfway, and then Steve's arms are around him and Steve's mouth opens against his and, yes, this, this is where he's supposed to be. Tony feels like his entire body is made of heat and light. Steve is warm and solid against him, holding him tight. His big hands splay over Tony's back, enfolding him. If Tony slid his hands under Steve's thin shirt he could touch his soulmark on Steve's body. The kiss turns harder, deeper, Steve licking desperately into his mouth, and Tony moans and clings to him. As far as his memory is concerned, he's never kissed anyone before in his entire life. He thinks that's probably not true, but he can't imagine any of them were better than this. This, right here, this is the man he's supposed to be kissing for the rest of his life. He knows it. And he knows Steve does too.
Steve pushes him away.
"No," he says. "Tony, no. We-- we can't do this. I'm sorry." He's breathing hard. His mouth is slick and red, his pale eyes gone blue-black in the dimness. He looks like Tony stopped halfway through taking him apart and scattered all the pieces.
"Please," Tony says. He's not too proud to beg.
Steve shakes his head. "You have amnesia, Tony. I'm not going to take advantage of you."
"You're not taking advantage--"
"You don't know what you'll think when you remember who you are," Steve says, taking a step back. "For God's sake, I don't even know if you're seeing anyone right now. And neither do you."
Tony can't find it in himself to be concerned about his hypothetical significant other. Surely they'll understand if he's found his soulmate. And, anyway, they probably don't exist -- Steve was the one at his bedside, after all.
"If I am, they're not you!"
Steve takes another step back, back and back until he bumps into the edge of the table behind him. He puts his hands on it, bracing himself. There's an agonized longing in his eyes. He looks very much like he'd still like to be touching Tony.
"I know you feel what I feel," Tony continues. "This isn't wrong. This is how we're supposed to be. You can have this. You can have me. I'm right here." He holds out his hands. "I'm right here and I'm all yours."
Steve's throat works. He's silent for a few seconds. He still looks wrecked. Undone. "Did Carol tell you how it ended?" he asks.
"Registration," Steve says. His voice is stone dragged over stone. "When we fought each other. The war. Our last fight. Did she tell you how it ended?"
Tony thinks back on Carol's words. "She said you surrendered. Because you thought you'd caused too much collateral damage."
He doesn't see why Steve's bringing it up. That sounds like a good thing to him, even. It sounds like proof that they can learn to get along, even if they've fought.
Something hideous flickers and dies in Steve's eyes. "Then she didn't tell you the whole truth." He smiles a mirthless smile. "Perfectly understandable, really. She doesn't know the truth. Not about this."
"I don't understand."
Steve fumbles around behind himself and gets his hand on a tablet; Tony watches him bring up a video of something that, from the chyron emblazoned on it, looks like news footage. He can't tell much more. And then Steve passes him the tablet.
"This is how it ended." He sounds like a judge pronouncing a sentence. "This is you and me." He presses play for him.
There's so much chaos on screen that Tony can't figure out what to focus on at first, and the camera operators are clearly having the same problem. It's a city street, strewn with rubble, in flames. Men and women in bright costumes are fighting each other, throwing each other into buildings. Bolts of energy streak across the screen like the world's deadliest thunderstorm.
And then he sees them, about half a second before the camera finds them and decides to zoom in on them. Captain America and Iron Man are fighting.
When Carol had said fighting, Tony had pictured something like an argument, maybe. He hadn't pictured this. This is hand-to-hand, vicious and terrible, their punches stronger and more powerful than an ordinary human could ever have dreamed of. Iron Man's armored fist collides with Captain America's shield. Captain America hits back, the edge of his shield slamming into the armor like he doesn't care that there's a man underneath. Something is cold in the pit of Tony's stomach.
This is something he'll never remember.
No one is holding back. And it becomes clear, as the fight goes on, who's winning. Captain America knocks Iron Man to the ground and crouches over him. Iron Man isn't moving, isn't trying to get away. His arms are above his head, the backs of his hands pressed to the pavement. He's not even blocking.
Without hesitating, Captain America brings the shield down onto Iron Man's face. They're too far away for microphones, so the impact is soundless, but Tony feels it in his gut when the shield connects.
Steve did this to him. This is something that the whole world knows about them. This is something Carol knew and didn't tell him.
He glances up. Steve's not watching the video; Steve's watching him. Steve's face is somber, downcast. Tears glimmer in his eyes.
"Keep watching," Steve says, hoarsely. "It's not over."
Tony doesn't want to watch. But he does it anyway. On the screen, Captain America hits him again and again, brutally-precise blows delivered with all his superhuman strength, and Iron Man just lies there and takes it. Tony can feel every blow, and the tablet shakes in his hands every time the shield flashes down. He wonders how much he can take.
Iron Man's helmet cracks and splits. The faceplate shears off, and then Tony is staring at his own face, covered in blood. He looks up at Captain America, his eyes dazed and unfocused, face swollen with bruising. The shield is still glinting in Captain America's upraised hands. One more blow will kill him.
On the video, Tony's mouth starts to move, soundlessly. Tony's not sure if he's speaking or just breathing. The cameras can't tell him anything.
"You won't remember this," Steve rasps, and when Tony looks up, Steve is crying in earnest, tears leaking down his face. "You'll never remember this. And no one else heard. I'm the only person in the world who knows what you said. You-- you were begging me, Tony. You begged me."
"To stop?" Tony asks. He can imagine himself doing that. He can imagine himself pleading, begging. He can imagine Steve seeing reason and surrendering--
Steve shakes his head. "To kill you," he whispers.
"I could have," Steve says, low and broken. "I could have, I would have, I was about to--"
First responders leap on Captain America and force him away. He lets the shield fall. He pulls the cowl back and holds out his hands to be cuffed. On the video, he's crying too; Tony is still lying in the wreckage.
The video ends and Steve draws a shaking breath as he takes the tablet out of Tony's numb hands.
"This is how I touch you," Steve says. His face is a mask of guilt, horror, shame, terror. "This is all I know how to do. This is what happens when I touch you. I hurt you." He holds out his hands and turns them over. "I don't know how to do anything else. All I can do is hurt you."
"Look at me." Steve's breathing is heavy and uneven. "Look at me and tell me that this is what you want. Tell me that you want a soulmate who touches you like that." He smiles a hideous smile. "You can't."
He looks down at Steve's outstretched hands and back up to his face. He tries to draw out memories he doesn't have, imagining the way Steve's fists felt, battering him. He'll never know. The picture in his head changes, doesn't stick. His mind gravitates toward his memories: how Steve's hands felt on him, just now.
And then Tony knows what he has to say.
"That's not how you touch me."
Now it's Steve's turn to be surprised. His head jerks up, and he's looking at Tony like he's stopped being able to understand English. "What?"
"You touched me just now, didn't you?" Tony asks. "You touched me and you kissed me and I promise you that none of it hurt. I loved it."
Steve's face flushes. "That's not the same thing and you know it."
"It's still you." Tony leans in. "I know you're scared. I know you think you can't be better than your worst mistakes. But you can and you are."
"It still happened."
Tony holds out his hands, willing Steve to step forward and touch him. "Then-- then I forgive you."
A muscle in Steve's jaw twitches and he tightens all over, even as his gaze is full of desperation, every word he won't let himself utter. "You can't."
"You don't even remember--"
"It takes two people to fight," Tony says. "I may not have been doing the majority of the punching there, but I'm guessing that battle wasn't entirely your idea. I'm guessing I was just as responsible. And I'm guessing that I've made some apologies of my own. And I'm guessing--" God, he hopes he's right-- "that you found it in your heart to forgive me for these things I can't remember doing."
Steve nods once, jerkily, like he doesn't want to admit it but can't possibly lie.
"Then why can't there be forgiveness for you?"
"You already forgave me," Steve grits out. "In-- in Asgard. You don't remember yet."
Tony's fingers are bare inches from Steve's skin again, but he's not going to touch him unless Steve says yes. "Did you forgive yourself?"
Steve clenches his jaw and says nothing.
"I believe in you," Tony says, softly. "I believe in us. I might not have the memories to back me up right now, but I believe that if we want to do this, we can."
"You shouldn't," Steve whispers.
Tony puts his hand over his own heart, where he knows his soulmark rests. Their soulmark. "And maybe sometimes it's been bad. I can't deny that. But we're soulmates whether we fight it or not, and I know I'd rather do this with you than without you. I know we've been good together. And I know that if we try, we can stay good. Maybe we do end up in hell, but then you know what we do? We keep going. We can do this. All we have to do is try."
Steve still says nothing, and Tony steps back.
He's said all he can say. It's up to Steve now.
"Think about it," Tony says. "If you change your mind, you know how to find me."
It's going to have to be enough.
Tony wakes much later than his alarm is usually set, when sunlight finds its way through the edges of the curtains and drags him into consciousness. He pushes himself up far enough to be able to squint at the clock, and then he makes a face. 8:47. Uh-oh. Did he forget to set his alarm?
At least he doesn't have much planned today. He doesn't think he does, anyway. He wanted to call Reed and get those numbers from the last time they put Bleeding Edge through its paces, because Rhodey is going to need a suit upgrade sooner rather than later, and--
Steve's mouth is on his, plush and hot, and Steve's arms are around him, the memory startling in its vividness--
Oh, God, he didn't.
You're my soulmate. The words echo through Tony's head, in his own voice, in Steve's.
Tony rips at the neckline of his shirt until the fabric tears. He's not wearing concealer. He's not wearing anything to hide it. His soulmark is just right there. He remembers the look of horror on Steve's face.
Oh, God, he did. He absolutely did. Of course he did.
Forty-eight hours of not being Tony Stark was apparently enough for him to forget about all the reasons he'd been planning on never telling Steve. He hadn't thought they were soulmates, hadn't thought anymore that they could be, but they're soulmates after all. That doesn't do him any good, when Steve doesn't want him--
I want you so much, the Steve in Tony's traitorous memory informs him.
But Steve said no. He remembers that, all right. Steve definitely said no.
He fumbles for his identicard, brings up Steve's location. Middle of the Pacific Ocean. Someone sure must have run out of here on a black-ops mission. Tony's one and only soulmate has panicked, run away, and is clearly planning to never, ever speak to him again.
Tony throws his arm over his eyes and wonders if getting hit in the head again would give him more amnesia.
Tony decides to man up and go to the kitchen for breakfast, because he's going to have to face the rest of the Avengers at some point again in his life, and he might as well get it over with now.
The kitchen is still a boarded-up mess, and he hopes someone else remembered to call Damage Control. And sitting at the table are -- oh, great -- Bucky and Carol. He winces.
"I hate magic," he says.
Carol's smile is huge and relieved. "Glad to have you back with us, Tony."
Bucky gestures at the pot on the stove. "Have some oatmeal?"
Tony supposes that amounts to the same thing. He scrapes some oatmeal into a bowl and takes a seat at the opposite end of the table. They're still looking at him. He clears his throat.
"I just want to say I'm... sorry about the past couple of days," Tony says. He sighs. "And in case the two of you haven't had a chance to compare notes yet, you both know basically everything I know about, uh, me and Steve. Including the parts I hadn't really wanted Steve to know, but, you know, sometimes these things happen." He tries to smile. It doesn't really work.
"You don't have anything to apologize for," Carol says, instantly. She's too kind.
"It's not a big deal," Bucky says. "I was sort of flattered, actually."
Carol gives Bucky a sidelong glance. "Okay, now I'm really wondering what I missed out on."
"Nothing," Bucky says, and thank God, Bucky wants to spare him. Carol can probably figure it out, anyway.
Tony stabs his spoon into his oatmeal. He's not really hungry. He might as well admit that he can only think about Steve right now. It's not like they don't both know. "So," he asks, "either of you happen to know when Steve left the Tower?"
Bucky nods. "Just after midnight. I was on monitor duty, so he had to go through me to get out of here. He'd put together one of those black-ops Secret Avengers missions in a hurry. Don't know where they went. Maybe Madripoor." He glances away. "He... didn't really look like he was in a condition where he was fit to be in the field, and we, uh, had some words about it. If I could have scratched him, I would have. But he's his own team leader, so unless I actually decked him, I wasn't going to be able to ground him." Bucky chews on his lip. "I did consider it."
Oh, Tony's familiar with the behavior. Very, very familiar. Steve, God help him, deals with his feelings by punching. It used to be that he'd take it all out on the mansion gym, work himself into exhaustion until he was too tired and too numb to have any other feelings. Tony tries to refrain from judging him, because it's not like his preferred coping mechanism at the time -- two fingers of scotch -- was any better.
Still, at least back then Steve only hit inanimate objects. If he's out on a mission now it's because he's breaking some heads. For the man who used to be Captain America, it's distressingly, ruthlessly violent. Tony thinks if he asked Steve, Steve would say he's become a different man since the SHRA. Steve would say that this is who he is now.
It's a moot point, because Steve's clearly never going to talk to him again.
God, Tony hopes he's going to be okay. Even if he never sees Steve again, he hopes Steve's going to be okay out there. It only takes one stupid mistake. One moment of inattention. Then it's all over. He's distracted. It would be easy. Tony can't think about that.
Tony exhales heavily. "Sorry about that," he says. "I-- I think I rattled him pretty hard. That one's on me."
You're scared, he'd told Steve, and it had been true, but he also hadn't known when he'd said it exactly how much Steve doesn't like being scared. Steve doesn't really do fear like normal people, and that tends to mean that he doesn't really know what to do with it when he's got it. And it's him that Steve's scared of.
Carol leans over, past the empty chair where Steve would have sat, and she pats his hand. "He's going to come back, you know."
"He is," Bucky says, his voice firm. "He's your soulmate. He knows where his home is."
Tony retreats to his workshop. He tells himself he has work to do, which is true, technically speaking. He did take an unplanned two-day vacation. He's also a coward, and he wants to be alone for a bit. Today he remembers how to set the door lock so that non-emergency requests for entrance go through him even if they have the password.
He brings up blueprints, suit schematics, energy-consumption data, and he tries to lose himself in all of it.
It doesn't really work, of course. He thinks of Steve's hands, Steve's mouth, how Steve left him and is never coming back--
"Focus, Stark," he tells himself. He runs his hands through his hair. He shakes his head. He can't focus.
He has definitely had worse than this. He's alive and he's sober and he's still Iron Man and he's still an Avenger. So what if he doesn't have Steve? He's never had Steve before, and he's been okay. He can keep being okay.
Yeah, says the dry voice in the back of his mind, but now you know exactly what you're missing.
"Shut up," Tony tells himself. He can do this. It's just heartache. He's still alive. It's not even an actual cardiac problem.
The door lock flashes. Someone outside wants in. They're not trying to password their way in, so either they don't know it, which is unlikely for an Avenger, because Tony has never exactly been subtle about his Captain America obsession, or-- or-- okay, actually, Tony doesn't have an explanation. He supposes it could be someone who isn't a teammate. Maybe he has to impress a visitor. He glances down at himself. His shirt's clean. He looks marginally presentable. He pastes a smile on his face and heads to the door. Opens it.
Steve is on the other side.
Steve's in one piece, and that's really the best thing Tony can say for his appearance. His uniform is spattered with blood; his hands are scraped. He looks like he came here straight from the battlefield, and he's staring at Tony with an unholy combination of sadness and exhausted terror in his eyes, like he expects everyone within reach of him to take a swing at him. He's staring through him, really; he's clearly hardly even processing.
Tony guesses that punching people wasn't as therapeutic as Steve thought it was going to be.
And then Steve blinks and focuses. The look on his face is heartbreaking. He's-- God, he's still so scared.
"I didn't know where else to go," Steve whispers. "And I thought-- I thought, if you'll have me--"
Tony wants to grab Steve and hold him tight. But he doesn't want to rush him. He has enough of his memories left to appreciate the fact that sometimes Steve doesn't actually need a push. Tony knows how to be gentle.
"Shh," Tony says. "I've got you, I've got you. You're okay. Come here."
He hooks two fingers into Steve's equipment harness and pulls, gently; Steve stumbles forward like Tony's the one who has super-strength. Christ, he's out of it.
"Didn't know if you still wanted to see me," Steve mumbles, head down.
Tony runs his hands over Steve's shoulders, and Steve wobbles in his grasp. He's a mess. But he's Tony's mess, and Tony will take him. "Please tell me an actual doctor has checked you out."
Steve nods. His eyes are dull. Yeah, Tony knows what this is like. The aftermath hits them all like this sometimes. "It's almost entirely not my own blood," Steve informs him, and his face does something that is maybe supposed to be a smile.
"Wow, Captain Walking Biohazard," Tony says, and Steve cracks an actual smile at that one, "that is my least favorite sentence ever." He starts working at the straps of Steve's shoulder harness. "Here, take this off."
It's a mark of Steve's terrible condition that Steve doesn't even protest. "Why?" He just sounds curious.
"Because you hate guns."
Tony slides the harness off Steve's shoulders, checks the safety on the gun, and then folds up the whole mess and sets it on the closest table. It really is amazing how much it improves Steve's mood, not carrying a sidearm; there's a light in his eyes that wasn't there ten seconds ago.
He gets a hand on Steve's arm -- nothing too presumptuous, not actually holding hands -- and urges him gently across the room to the couch, where Steve sits down heavily, folding in on himself.
"Okay," Tony says. "Now I'm going to get you some coffee."
"Don't need coffee."
"You're going to hold the coffee," Tony says. "You don't have to drink it if you don't want to."
Thankfully, Steve doesn't ask him why this time; Tony's not really up for explaining that it's warm and relaxing and one of the things he does for himself when he gets like this. He's also not up for saying because I want to hold your hand and I'm not sure if you'll let me.
"All right." Steve definitely doesn't sound like himself.
Tony gets out a mug, pours Steve some coffee, and discovers that the half-and-half that he keeps in the refrigerator for people who aren't him actually isn't expired. He gives Steve extra sugar. Tony blames the Great Depression for Steve's sweet tooth and tries to spoil him as much as possible.
"I notice you aren't asking me if I have my memory back," Tony says, as he turns around with the coffee. "Which I do. I mean, as much as I ever will."
Steve's mouth twitches. "I don't have to ask. You know that I like cream and sugar and that I don't like guns." He pauses. "Also, I can tell, just looking at you."
Huh. Tony passes him the coffee, and Steve's fingers brush his for longer than necessary. "You can?"
Tony carefully perches on the opposite end of the couch. He doesn't want to crowd him. Tony knows he's pushed him enough, lately.
Nodding, Steve cups the mug between his palms. With the fingerless gloves on, he can probably only feel the heat with his fingertips. He looks a little brighter anyway. "You've spent the past two days staring at me like the sole piece of information about the world that was left inside your brain was the fact that you loved me." Steve meets his eyes. "It was... let's just call it distinctive."
Oh. They're talking about this after all.
"I don't look like I love you now?" Tony asks. His mouth is dry. His head is pounding. He needs to not ruin this.
"No, you do," Steve says, softly, with the smallest of smiles, and Tony doesn't even know how to respond to that. "You definitely do. But you look like there's also room in your brain for thinking about designing a better repulsor."
He doesn't know what Steve wants him to say. Steve raises the mug to his lips and sips his coffee in silence. His eyes flutter shut. He looks exhausted. Tony should definitely not be staring at his mouth right now.
Steve exhales hard. "It was a shit mission," he says. His gaze goes unfocused, and Tony knows he's already back there in Madripoor in his mind, in the thick of battle. "I shouldn't have been there. I shouldn't have done it. My head wasn't in the game. Natasha dragged me through most of it. I made half a dozen godawful mistakes and she saved my life at least three times." He winces. "You better believe Sharon was chewing me out for it over the comms the whole time."
Tony's stomach twists. "So, uh, you and Sharon," he begins, as delicately as he can, and he's not sure if he should say anything, but if they're talking about this, that seems like a good place to start.
"There is no me and Sharon." Steve's staring at the surface of his coffee like it contains all the secrets of the universe. "There hasn't been me and Sharon for a long, long time. She did-- she did ask, back when I recruited her for the black-ops team, but I-- I-- I--" Steve stutters his way through the sentence-- "I knew about you and me by then."
He remembers how Steve hadn't looked at all surprised when he showed him his soulmark. At the time Tony had mostly been focused on the pain, but now he's wondering-- "When did you figure that out?"
"You don't know?" Steve gestures with his mug in the direction of Tony's glowing chest. "When I saw you with the RT, looking just like my soulmark." He half-smiles. "I mean, I'd suspected, obviously, but I wasn't sure until then. It always looked like something you could have invented, but as far as I knew you hadn't -- and then you did."
"Well," Tony says. "I guess that explains why you've been so freaked out about me lately, huh?"
It hadn't made any sense, the way Steve had been avoiding him. It sure does now.
"Yeah," Steve says. His smile is rueful. "Sorry. I-- I-- I didn't know what to think, what to do, anything." He frowns. "And then I was really confused because I saw, uh, rather a lot of you back in Vanaheim. And before, with the Molecule Man." God, is he blushing? "And you didn't, uh. You didn't have--" He waves vaguely at his chest.
Oh. "That was makeup," Tony says. "Concealer. I didn't want anyone to find out. I always wore it. I do seem to keep ending up unexpectedly naked. I thought it was a good precaution."
"You hide your soulmark like that?" Steve asks, and, yeah, there's some judgment coming back into his tone now. That probably shouldn't make Tony happy, but it does. "Even-- even from yourself?"
"Not now, I don't," Tony says.
He knows it's dirty pool, but he undoes the top three buttons of his shirt, enough that the edge of the mark is barely visible. Steve's gaze is fixed on the scrap of bare skin, and his eyes are darker.
Steve shifts back to set his mug on the little table behind him. "You know what our soulmark actually is?"
Our soulmark. God. Maybe-- maybe they can have this.
Tony is so caught up in the words our soulmark that it takes him a good five seconds to realize that he has no idea what Steve means. "No, what do you mean?"
"I mean that it's not the shield that you probably think it is," Steve says.
He holds out his arm, flexes his wrist, taps a control -- and the simulated vibranium matrix flares into being, a transparent shield in the air against Steve's forearm. The projection isn't solid; there's a gap all along his arm where the bracing that houses the shield actually runs, and another gap running orthogonal to it, forming a cross and splitting the shield into four right angles.
It's not just any shield on their soulmark. It's not a stylized replica of the original shield with circuitry worked into it. It's this shield. It's this exact shield.
"I didn't know if you knew I was using this again," Steve murmurs. "I took it but I haven't used it much lately. I was thinking I might start."
Tony's still staring in awe. "Hard-light, huh? Wow. That's a blast from the past."
He doesn't know how to say everything it means to see Steve with that shield, with a shield again, with any shield again. Even if Steve isn't Captain America in name, it feels like something is right with the universe to see him like this. Tony wants to thank him. Tony wants to kiss him.
Steve flips the shield off and runs two fingers over his chest, over the mark Tony still hasn't seen. "Our soulmark's not just us." His voice is rough with emotion. "It's my hard-light shield and your RT. It's us here. It's us now. And I thought about what you were telling me last night, and I got to thinking that maybe that means something. Maybe it means we're supposed to give this a try. Maybe we made it through everything else that happened to us so we could be here. Maybe we just weren't here yet."
This is real. Steve's shield is their shield, is their mark just like Tony's RT is their mark. Maybe they can have this. Maybe the universe was waiting for this.
"You knew when you saw the RT, but you weren't thinking about any of that before I decided to impart all my amnesia-driven wisdom?"
"I was scared." The statement is plain. Steve's not hiding anything now. "I was scared, and I was trying not to think about it all."
"I know," Tony says. "Just like I was scared it wouldn't be reciprocal when I was trying to hide my soulmark. Which was shitty of me." And then he thinks maybe Steve's feeling okay enough that he can tell him the whole truth, even the parts that aren't so great. "But what you did -- that was kind of shitty of you too, you know?" It's oddly freeing to tell Steve this, to know that their relationship isn't so fragile anymore, that they can take this. "You knew I had amnesia, and you only told me about the bad things. I didn't know you and you tried to scare me into thinking that we'd only ever been terrible to each other."
Steve breathes in sharply. His mouth twists. He says nothing.
"Is that really what you think of me? Of us?" Tony asks. "It's been ten years and you look back and you honestly can't think of anything good? Because, let me tell you, I have a lot of good memories."
There's the faintest trace of something that might be a smile on Steve's face. "Oh?"
He considers what to tell Steve. There are a lot of good times there. Finding Steve. Running the team with him. Sparring with him. Years of lazy Saturday nights in the mansion while Steve curled up in the library with a good book and Tony worked and watched him and tried to tell himself his soulmark didn't say what it thought it did. But none of those are what Steve needs to hear right now. Steve needs to know Steve's always been good to him.
"I don't know if you remember," Tony says, "but it was right after you'd found out I was Iron Man. And I called you up to arrange a meeting -- some kind of team business about Clint, I don't even remember the details. And I remember worrying about what to say to you now that you knew, you know? It seemed ridiculous to call you up as Tony Stark and say that it was Iron Man and I needed to talk to Captain America. But I did. It was what I deserved, I thought. Because it wasn't like I was really your friend, I told myself. Not after that."
Steve is watching him in silence.
"So the phone rang, and you picked up, and that was just what I said," Tony tells him. "Captain America, this is Iron Man. And you didn't even hesitate. You just said, Hey, Tony, let's make it Steve, okay?" He inhales. "And that-- I mean, it was such a little thing, a thing you probably didn't even think about, but that was when I knew that you were the best thing that had ever happened to me. Even if I didn't know you were my soulmate."
"I remember," Steve says, softly. "I haven't thought about that in years."
"It's not all bad," Tony says. "Maybe it's hard to remember, but it's better than you think it was. You just have to see it again, hey, Winghead?"
Steve's mouth twitches at the old nickname. "You just might have a point."
"Trust me," Tony dares to say, and then he grins. "I'm a genius. This is going to work."
Steve's mouth twitches again. He really might be smiling now. "You weren't wrong, you know. Everything you told me. Even if you didn't remember. I'm sorry for how I treated you. You weren't wrong about any of it."
Tony snorts. "I don't know, I was pretty wrong when I thought my soulmate might be Bucky."
Steve bursts out laughing.
"It was an honest mistake," Tony says. "I saw the shield and I-- yeah." He holds up his hands. "I don't even know. And I am-- I am actually single, by the way. If you were wondering."
He's been with more people than he can count -- God, he doesn't even know how Steve feels about that -- and this is the most serious offer he's ever made in his life. He's tongue-tied. His palms are sweating. His charm has deserted him. He knows Steve has never wanted the mask, anyway.
But Steve doesn't answer him directly, doesn't pick up the conversational thread. He's staring off into the distance. "Five hours ago I was in the middle of a fight in Madripoor, and I remembered what you said to me and I thought to myself that I didn't want to live like this. I didn't want to run a goddamn black-ops team. And you'd stood there and you'd been so brave and you'd offered me everything of yourself and here I was, running away, too scared to take it. And I wanted-- and I wanted--"
His voice falters.
"Steve?" Tony asks, as gently as he can.
"Do you think there's room for another Avenger on the team?" Steve blurts out.
Tony can feel himself smiling. "I think we'd be delighted."
"And do you think," Steve begins. He's trembling. "I mean, do you still-- do you want--"
"Yes," Tony says. "With all of my soul."
Steve's smile is brilliant. His fingers go to the neck of his uniform, and Tony doesn't quite realize what he's doing until he starts to unzip it, working the heavy fabric open, pulling the halves of it apart until Tony can see the soulmark over Steve's heart, the twin to his own.
"Here." Steve's voice is soft. "Here's all of mine."
Tony can't not move, and in an instant he closes the distance between them and crawls into Steve's embrace. Steve's arms go around him and it's the best thing Tony has ever felt in his entire life because now Steve is never, ever going to let go.
He'll never know all of what he's gone through to get here, but he doesn't need to know. Steve's here and Steve's alive and they're together and that's everything, everything Tony needs.
"Is this okay?" Tony asks.
He ducks his head and presses a kiss to Steve's soulmark, and Steve gasps and holds him even tighter.
"Very, very okay." Tony can feel Steve's voice rumbling as he talks. "Let me just--"
Steve's fingers work at the buttons of Tony's shirt, undoing them all the way down until he can shove Tony's shirt off and trace his soulmark with his fingers, the sensation sparking like electricity through Tony's body.
"Oh," Tony says. "Oh, Steve--"
Steve kisses him, which is when Tony discovers that being kissed by Steve when he absolutely never wants to stop is better than every other kiss he has had in his life. Yesterday Steve was his first kiss, but today Tony can definitely appreciate the fact that Steve is the best. It feels like the day he decided to be Iron Man. This is what he was made for. This is what Steve was made for. And it may have taken them a long time to get here, but they're here.
"Please," Tony breathes. "Please keep doing this for the rest of my life."
Steve tilts his head back and smiles, breathless. "Sure thing."