The thing about Tony Stark is this: he's a puzzle.
Steve's always considered himself an easy-going kind of guy. Sure, sometimes he'll get into moods -- doesn't everyone? -- and he knows he's got a temper, but he forgives easily, too, so he likes to think maybe it all balances out. He tries to think the best of people, especially new acquaintances, to give them the benefit of the doubt. He's met people he's disliked. Of course he has. But usually he tries to move on, and anyway, it doesn't happen much. He's Captain America. People like him. He likes people.
So it's more than a little strange when, two days into the future, when everything is so new, so unfamiliar, when Tony Stark holds out his hand and smiles wide and says, "Welcome to Avengers Mansion--"
And this, out of everything, in a future where he's just seen an alien turn people into statues with a ray gun, is what makes alarm bells go off in Steve's head.
You're hiding something, he thinks.
The Avengers aren't a problem. Steve understands superheroes. He understands teams. He worked with the Invaders, after all. He can already tell the Avengers are going to be something special -- Iron Man especially. They've had three missions, and Steve and Iron Man are already pairing up on the battlefield like they've been partnered for years and not a handful of months. Steve's not-so-hidden romantic streak wants to call it fate -- Iron Man welcomed him to the future, Iron Man spoke to him first, and maybe that was when it happened. Maybe this was meant to be.
So, no, the Avengers aren't the problem at all.
Tony is the problem.
It's not as though Steve has never met rich men. But if he's honest with himself, it is a bit of a hurdle. He was born with nothing, and Tony has everything -- and he knows it's not Tony's fault that he's rich, but at the same time he wonders if Tony is even grateful for all the things he has. They've asked Tony why he funds the team; he's always been evasive. So it's hardly noble of Steve, but... yeah, Steve is a little resentful.
And, good lord, the things they say about him in the gossip columns. Steve knows that half of what they print isn't true, but half alone would have had a man in scandal for months back in his day. He knows the future is different; he knows people are more... casual... now. And he knows Tony is a grown man -- and a handsome one, at that -- and whatever he does in bed is his own business as long as it makes everyone happy. It's not Steve's place to disapprove, but it still makes his stomach turn to think of someone just... using all these women and moving on to the next. Isn't Tony capable of love?
But maybe this is just what rich men are like.
Before now, he's never lived with a rich man, anyway. Maybe that makes a difference. Maybe this would never have bothered him if somehow he'd spent the thirties shacked up with a Rockefeller. But he didn't, and it's a lot to get over.
And Tony is... a very odd man. He keeps wildly varying hours. When Steve does see him, he's often running from one appointment to the next. He doesn't seem to have time for much of anything, like he needs twice as many hours in the day. He doesn't touch people, which is both bizarre and hurtful, considering that he must be all over those gals in the papers.
But every time Steve has tried to clap him on the shoulder, to do anything more than just shake his hand, Tony rebuffs him with honest-to-God terror in his eyes. Somehow a different girl every week is good enough for him, and Steve isn't. Is he afraid Steve's going to try something? Usually people assume that Captain America could only ever be straight. It seems profoundly unfair that the one time someone might finally have him pegged is because they're not interested. And yet... that's not exactly the feeling Steve gets from him. He doesn't seem afraid at all.
Tony's so aloof. It doesn't make sense.
And somehow, Tony wants to be Steve's friend.
But the absolute strangest thing about Tony is this: sometimes, it's like he thinks he already is.
It's 0300 and Steve's in the kitchen staring at his mug of warm milk and wondering if it's worth even trying to sleep when he'll have to get up in three hours anyway.
There are footsteps in the hall.
"Hi, Cap," Tony says.
His voice is soft, weary, roughened with exhaustion, and when Steve turns around he sees the man to match the voice, leaning against the doorframe like nothing else could hold him up. Tony's half-smiling, a small, fond smile. His shirtsleeves are rolled up, his hair is mussed, and he has a smudge of grease under one eye.
Something about him now seems real. The Tony who met him in the future, who shook his hand and smiled like he was smiling for the cameras -- that man instantly becomes a lie. Steve doesn't know how, or why, but he knows that this is the truth.
What he doesn't know is why Tony is letting him see it.
They're not friends.
Tony doesn't call him Cap. The Avengers call him Cap. Iron Man calls him Cap.
"Uh," Steve says. "Hello?"
The smile on Tony's face fades and surges and fades again, a circuit with faulty wiring. "I was in the basement and I heard someone walking around above," he says, and his hands tangle awkwardly together as he talks. "And I thought I'd see, you know, who was up. If you wanted company. How are you settling in, Cap? You fought Zemo, huh?" The question is almost... tender. "You feeling okay?"
"Fine." The word comes out of him stiffly. Curtly. It's like he's missed a step somewhere, like he's Tony's best friend but somehow no one told him. He didn't even know that Tony knew he'd been to South America to hunt down the man responsible for Bucky's death. "Thank you."
Tony's smile wavers and then disappears entirely. "Oh," he says, a small, hurt sound. "Okay. That's good. I, uh. I'll just-- I'll--"
He chucks a thumb over his shoulder and shuffles away.
Steve stares at the empty space in the doorway, wondering what in the world that was about.
The next footsteps Steve hears in the hall are booted, heavy, metallic, and Steve would know them anywhere. He can feel the smile on his face.
"Shellhead!" he says, delighted, the minute Iron Man is in view. "I didn't know you were around tonight!"
Blue eyes blink behind the mask, and then tighten and narrow in something like sadness. "Yeah. I've been around." Iron Man's voice sounds abashed even with the static. "I wasn't sure you'd want to see me right now. You know, what with me having violated my suspension from the team."
To be honest, Steve wouldn't even have remembered the suspension. Iron Man had ignored a call last week, citing personal problems, and he'd offered no defense. It had to be something about his actual identity, out of the suit, and Steve knew they had pledged not to pry, but, well -- you couldn't blame a guy for being concerned. Steve had offered help, anything he needed, but Iron Man had said no one could do anything, and so the team had voted to suspend him. And then Zemo had lured Steve to South America while the rest of the team tangled with the Masters of Evil, and Iron Man had swooped back in to help out.
Steve can't fault him for that. He was a hero. He is a hero.
"It's really no problem," Steve says. He reaches out and puts his hand on Iron Man's metal shoulder. "You came back to save people, Avenger. In my book, that's more important than obeying some finicky little team bylaw."
Iron Man's eyes are bright behind the mask, and Steve wonders if he's smiling. He hopes so. "Laws are important."
"Lives are more important," Steve says, stubbornly, because he's never going to concede on that one.
Iron Man raises his hand, his palm open, his repulsor dim -- not a weapon, never a weapon, not with Steve -- and he laughs like a broken radio. "You got me there, Winghead."
"Glad to hear it," Steve says.
Metal creaks as Iron Man dips his head, acknowledging the response. He pauses. There's the quiet hiss of breathing, of life behind the mask. "You okay there? I know it was a rough mission. It can't have been easy seeing Zemo again."
The words aren't the same, and the voices really aren't the same, but something about his friend's solicitous concern reminds him of Tony's earlier question, and how strange it had been that Tony had asked, that Tony knew to ask. Steve frowns, and Iron Man tilts his head in what is clearly increased concern, and he reaches up to cover Steve's gloved hand with his gauntleted one. He likes to touch Steve, even if neither of them can feel it.
"Hey, no," Iron Man blurts out. "I'm sorry. You don't have to talk if you don't want--"
"No, it's okay," Steve says. He frowns. "It's just that Mr. Stark was just here, asking me the same thing, and he-- and I--"
He knows there's a question there, but he has no idea what it is.
Iron Man cocks his head. "Yeah?"
"You like Mr. Stark a lot, don't you?"
That was nowhere near what Steve thought he was going to say; he's surprised himself. The question seems to hang there. The room is silent.
"He's my boss," Iron Man offers, finally. His mechanical voice is devoid of emotion. Steve wonders what else he was going to say first.
Steve sighs. "Yeah, but-- you do like him, don't you?"
The rest of the team, as far as Steve knows, is generally neutral on the topic of Tony. Wasp volunteered once that she'd met him a few times, and she'd made it sound like they ran in the same circles, but to say anything further would, of course, have compromised her secret identity. The only one of the team who really knows Tony is Iron Man. And Iron Man's always running off after missions to go see Tony, and he always mentions various ideas Tony has about the Avengers. So they talk. They must talk. They must be friends.
Iron Man is still silent, like he's trying to figure out what to say, or if he should say anything at all. His gaze lowers; his eyes are obscured by long, dark lashes. It's the only part of him Steve can see. Steve wishes he were better at reading him. He wishes Iron Man would give him more to go on.
"When I met Mr. Stark," he begins, "I was at a very low point in my life. I-- I didn't think I was going to live. I didn't know how much time I had left. Still don't. But who does, really?" The muted light overhead shines dully off his faceplate. "And then I put on the armor, and that-- he gave me something to live for. Something I could do. So I'm grateful to him. I'll always be grateful to him for that." There's another pause. "He's not a bad guy, you know. He's trying. He wants you to be happy in the future. I'm sure of it."
"He wants me to like him." The complaint is petulant in Steve's mouth, but there's no way to take it back. "I think. I don't know. I don't understand him."
Iron Man chuckles, more static. "You're Captain America," he murmurs. "Everyone wants you to like them." He pauses. "I could tell him to knock it off...?"
Steve eyes him. "You'd tell your boss what to do? You do want to keep this job, right?"
"Okay, fine." Iron Man snorts. "You have a point." He tilts his head down to meet Steve's gaze, and now he's the one clapping Steve on the shoulder. "Even if he isn't good at saying it, I know he wants what's best for you. You think he lets just anyone move into this place?"
He had nothing, and Tony gave him this. Stability. A place to stay. Something to live for, Iron Man had said. Tony did the same thing for both of them.
Steve thinks by that metric him and Iron Man have way more in common than either of them do with Tony, but he guesses Iron Man just really likes the guy. Somehow.
"I don't know," Steve says, and he can feel himself smile. "What do I know about Tony Stark? He might turn this place into a hotel."
Iron Man splays his hand over something approximating his heart, with a clang of metal, and Steve does laugh at that.
"You wound me, Cap!"
Steve likes Iron Man. Steve understands Iron Man.
Life goes on. The team settles in. Over the years they change members, Avengers rotating in and out, team leaders changing whenever anyone needs a break. It's a big responsibility. It's often Steve's job, and it's also often Iron Man's job. It's Iron Man's job right now. They're a small team: Steve, Iron Man, Sam, Vision, Carol, Beast, and Jan. Steve's fond of this team, and Iron Man's been doing a good job keeping them in line. It's a good day. A good week. Everything is good.
And as for Tony, well. He's around. Sometimes. Not a lot.
"Postponing the team meeting," Iron Man says, sticking his head around the edge of the open door. Steve looks up from his newspaper. "Sorry. I can do tomorrow evening instead. Everyone else said they were okay with it if you were."
Steve grins. "Hot date, Shellhead?"
"Oh, yeah, the ladies can't get enough of this," Iron Man says, laughing, as he folds his hand into a loose fist and raps on his own helmet. "Yeah, no, I have a thing. At the UN. The Carnelian ambassador wants to meet me, and the boss wants me to go as SI's official representative. Sweet-talk him, maybe. Get a contract." He pauses; Steve knows him well enough to recognize the timing of a punchline. "Hey, maybe it is a date."
Iron Man's still chuckling, and Steve lets himself imagine the fantasy of it, the way he hardly ever allows himself to -- maybe Iron Man dates men too. Maybe Iron Man would date him. It's a ridiculous thought, because as far as he knows, Iron Man doesn't date anybody. But that's why it's a fantasy. Steve pictures this dream sometimes, like taking a prized memento out of a box, putting it back in when he's done appreciating it.
Six hours later, Iron Man murders Ambassador Kotznin of Carnelia in the middle of a photo op at the UN.
It's not a good day anymore.
Iron Man has disappeared. He swears he's innocent, and that the armor was compromised to fire against his will. The police, Steve is given to understand, actually let him go. What Steve can gather from the news is that Tony's been to City Hall and turned over the armor. And Iron Man himself has gone to ground. He's not answering his identicard. It makes sense, because Iron Man's not exactly going to come by unless he's in armor, but still -- it does mean the team has additional problems.
"I know the Iron Man situation is painful to talk about," Steve tells the team, gathered around him on one of the couches, "but it is a reality -- one we've got to accept."
Beast is perched behind Steve on the top of the couch. The Avengers are hard on furniture. He's juggling. "Go on, Cap. We're listening."
Steve takes a deep breath. "Obviously, with Iron Man under suspicion of murder, he can no longer function as our leader, so as vice-chairman it's my duty to take over until Shellhead's vindicated." He takes another breath, more ragged, this time. He hates to say the next sentence, but they have to consider all the options. "Assuming, of course, that he is vindicated."
He wants Iron Man to be innocent. Boy, does he ever. But it's not up to Steve to say. He believes Iron Man. Of course he does. But he's not the one making the call here, and if Iron Man's convicted--
Well, then they'll figure out what to do from there.
"Uh-oh," Beast says.
Steve's head snaps up. Tony is standing in the doorway. Tony has been listening to everything they've been saying. Tony is... unkempt. His jacket's rumpled, shirt half-untucked, tie askew. His hair is sticking up. It looks like he's had a hell of night. Of course he has. His bodyguard's been accused of murder.
And as far as Tony knows, Captain America thinks Iron Man's guilty of it.
God, he didn't mean it to sound like that. His face hot, he scrambles up out of the chair. "Mr. Stark! I'm sorry, sir. I didn't know--"
Tony's just standing there, feet planted wide. He hasn't moved. It's odd for him to be here; it's his house, and he can come by whenever he wants, but in practice he... doesn't. He just doesn't usually involve himself personally in Avengers business. Steve supposes that it's different now that Iron Man's been accused of murder.
"That's all right, Captain." Tony's eyes are red-rimmed and his voice suspiciously thick, but even. Level. Has he been crying? "You're only doing what you have to."
Behind him, Steve hears Jan whispering to Beast that Tony is so calm, and then Steve gets closer, and he realizes--
Tony's not just calm. Tony's drunk.
Oh, he's tried to cover it up; he's brushed his teeth, chewed enough gum, and used enough mouthwash that Steve is positive that anyone who doesn't have a superhuman sense of smell can only smell the mint. But Steve's not most people, and he can smell the liquor on Tony's breath, as clear as anything. Tony's been drinking, and he's canny enough that he's been trying to hide it, and it's barely noon.
This is a habit.
So here's another thing about Tony Stark: he's a drunk.
Steve can only think of his father raging, slurring words, wasting away.
He didn't know Tony was so weak. Another moral failing, he supposes -- an extravagance to add to the girls and the fast cars and the money that never runs out. Another vice.
Tony, of course, is oblivious, and he just holds out his hand and says, as smooth as anything, "I'm sure you'll make a fine leader, Captain. By the way, may I see you in the gym for a moment? Alone?"
"Uh," Steve says. There's no reason to refuse. "Certainly."
They walk side-by-side downstairs, down to the team levels; Tony strides with an ease and familiarity in his step, like he's used to being at Steve's side, when he never is. As they walk, Tony explains everything that Steve's already heard -- in the wake of the allegations, Iron Man's disappeared. And that means that Tony is down a bodyguard. His only bodyguard.
"I'm fair game for kidnappers, terrorists, anyone!" Tony says, swinging his hands a little too wildly as they enter the gym, the first hint that he's anything but sober. Steve wonders if he's here because he wants the team to second him another Avenger in the meantime. And then Tony stops, stares, smiles a hopeful smile. "But if you could possibly...?"
He wants Steve to show him some moves.
A thousand responses run through Steve's head: You know I'd have to actually touch you, right? You know anything I can show you wouldn't be enough, right? You know I know you're drunk, right? And then, the worst thought, the one he tries not to think: Why are you asking me this? We're not friends.
But Steve opens his mouth and he smiles, and he says, "I'd be happy to give you a crash course in the defense arts, Mr. Stark. For starters, why don't you take a swing at me?" He tugs his gloves down and waits. "Go ahead. Give it your best shot."
The question serves a few purposes. It's a good opening for actual training. It will let him see how coordinated Tony actually is at his current level of inebriation. And if Tony's going to panic, or whatever it is he's going to do, when Steve finally touches him, it's best to get that over with as soon as possible.
Tony swings out, surprisingly coordinated, and Steve doesn't feel at all bad about grabbing Tony's arm and flipping him. Tony's body is pressed up against his for a split-second, nothing out of the ordinary, and then Steve drops him to the mat.
"That's your first lesson, Mr. Stark," he says, and, okay, maybe he's a little smug. "If anyone offers you a sucker punch, they've probably got a reason -- so don't fall for it."
He waits for Tony to panic, but Tony just grins up at him. His suit is a wreck, the top buttons are undone, and his hair is in his face.
"Very educational, Captain," Tony says, and Steve sees it, for an instant -- that charm. Whatever it is he has that makes the women line up. He can understand why someone might want Tony Stark.
He's definitely not immune to that smile, but-- there are better options out there.
They spend the afternoon training together. Tony's sweated out most of the alcohol by the end of it, and it's-- it could be good. It could have been the start of a friendship, if it had happened years ago. But it didn't. And it's like somehow Tony doesn't know that.
Tony thanks him, when they're done.
A frisson of guilt runs through Steve. He knows Tony wants more from him than he's getting. He knows Tony's done so much for him, just like he helped Iron Man. The least Steve can do is say something to make the guy happy. Tony's already sliding into the bottle.
"Mr. Stark," he says. "When I woke up in this era, I had no one, nothing. You gave me--"
"Iron Man," Tony says, with a strange, sad smile. "I gave you Iron Man, didn't I? And the rest of the Avengers."
"Yes," Steve agrees. He's glad Tony saw where he was going. If Tony had never made the suit, never hired Iron Man, Steve would never have had all of his friends. He would never have had all of this. "Iron Man. He's been a good teammate and a good friend. So thank you. I'd never have met him without you."
"Any time," Tony says, and he looks away.
Tony's on his way out the door when Steve stops him.
"Mr. Stark," he calls out, and then he blurts out, "Tony."
Tony turns around, smiling, hope brimming in his gaze, and for the life of him Steve can't figure out why. "Hmm?"
"I have a message for Iron Man," he says.
He watches Tony's face fall. It happens in minute twitches, and he's still smiling, but the smile doesn't reach his eyes. Is he disappointed? What in God's name did he expect Steve to say?
"Tell him I know he's innocent," Steve says, but this doesn't bring the light back to Tony's eyes. Whatever Tony wanted him to say, it wasn't that. "And tell him if he needs anything, ever, I hope he knows I've got his back."
Tony shakes his hand. "That'll mean a lot to him, Cap."
He says it like it's a rote phrase, like he doesn't mean it, like whatever Steve said it was the absolute wrong thing.
When Tony shuts the front gate behind him he's weaving a little.
Steve wonders if he's going to have another drink.
He doesn't see Tony for a while after that.
The armor malfunction -- and therefore the death of the Carnelian ambassador -- turns out to have been the work of Justin Hammer.
Jarvis quits, comes back, and generally doesn't want to talk about it.
Tony never says anything personally to Steve about it, but Steve never smells alcohol on him again, and one day he gets up to find that the bar in the mansion has been emptied overnight.
At least Tony's doing something good with his life.
"Make yourself at home!" Holding his hands high, the Molecule Man cackles. "Let me take your things!"
That's when Steve's shield disappears out of his hands. Next to him, Thor's hammer is gone, and he hears the Silver Surfer bemoaning the loss of his board.
Iron Man doesn't say anything.
"So," Steve says, a few minutes later, when they've all escaped the Molecule Man's crushing machine and are ensconced in relative safety on the floor below. "I can't help but notice that one of us is luckier than the rest of us."
The Silver Surfer is staring at him, confused, and Thor-- Thor is apparently Don Blake when his hammer's gone, and Steve wasn't expecting that-- but Iron Man looks down at himself and laughs static.
"I guess that experimental forcefield worked after all," Iron Man says. "Whew. He couldn't disintegrate the armor. Good thing, too."
"Yeah," Steve agrees. "You're the only one of us with a weapon."
"That too," Iron Man says. There's relief in his deep blue eyes. "The other reason is that it's laundry day, and you do not want to know what I'm wearing under here." He winks.
"Shellhead!" Steve chides, although a rebuke is really not the way he would have wanted to answer that. But they're in public. It wouldn't be appropriate. And anyway, Steve's taken. And Iron Man has a secret identity.
The thought occurs to him, then, that if Molecule Man had taken Iron Man's armor away, there would be no secrets now. It could just as easily have gone the other way. Steve would be standing here, and he'd be looking at the face of his first friend in the future, for the first time.
It's not that it's never crossed his mind, but it's something that also leaves his mind quickly. It's not as if Iron Man's face or name would mean anything to him. He's just one more Stark International employee, isn't he? When Steve thinks about it, he tries to make Iron Man's life as prosaic as possible. His name is John, Bill, Fred. He has two children; his family lives in Hoboken. He was an ordinary man, a security guard, before Tony found him, before Tony elevated him to this. None of that matters. It can't matter, because Steve is never going to know.
He's Iron Man, and that's what counts.
It's good enough for Steve.
Tony's first serious brush with alcoholism might have been kept quiet, but when Tony falls off the wagon, everyone knows it.
Tony's dating Jan for a bit, which Jan breaks off; she says, privately, to Steve, that she shouldn't have tried dating anyone so soon after Hank. Then Tony's dating this gal named Indries Moomji, and when she leaves him, he's just-- gone. Back down into the bottle.
It's not really Steve's problem. Sure, he feels bad for the guy, but Tony's an alcoholic. And they're not really close. The Avengers keep looking at him like they expect him to do something. There are whispered comments after meetings. Tony hasn't been to the mansion in weeks. What do they want Steve to do about it?
Tony pulled himself together last time. It's all up to him, isn't it?
Anyway, today is a rare day that Steve doesn't have monitor duty, but Bernie's at the library studying for the LSAT, so that means Steve has their Brooklyn Heights apartment all to himself when someone knocks on the door.
Iron Man's on the other side, and Steve can feel himself grinning. He hasn't seen Iron Man in ages. Iron Man had called to quit the team last week, and Steve has really been hoping for an explanation.
"Shellhead!" he says. "Come on in! What can I do for you?"
But Iron Man just stays there on the threshold. "Cap," he says. "I've got a problem, man, and I need your help."
Something's wrong here. Iron Man doesn't-- he doesn't talk quite like that. And he's standing wrong, like he's ill at ease in the armor, and he never does that. He must be really worried.
"What's the matter?"
"No one can find Tony," Iron Man says. "SI needs his signature before five o'clock, otherwise some cat by the name of Obadiah Stane takes over his entire company. I was thinking maybe he--"
He breaks off and mimes drinking.
Steve hasn't seen Tony since Jan convinced him to help her track him down last week. He was in one of his penthouse apartments, glass in hand. I don't need your help and you don't need mine, Tony had snarled. The Stark Foundation will pay the Avengers' bills with or without me! So, if you'll kindly get out of my life--!
Yeah, Steve can't say he's in any hurry to go back to that.
"I don't know what you want me to do, Shellhead," Steve says, helplessly. "I don't know that there's anything I can say to him."
Iron Man holds out a hand, imploringly. "He likes you, man."
Steve's laugh is a harsh bark.
If Tony likes him, he has a funny way of showing it. He has too many boundaries and none at all at the same time. And Steve knows well enough that if Tony wants to drink himself to death, there's nothing he can to do stop him.
And then Steve stops and stares. The eyes behind Iron Man's mask are... brown.
"You're not Iron Man," he says, flatly.
The diction. The stance. That's not his Shellhead.
His shield's a few feet away, next to the coffee table, and he's already reaching for it--
"Whoa, whoa!" The impostor raises his hands. "I'm not the original Iron Man, no. I'm another one of Mr. Stark's employees. A couple weeks ago--" when he really started drinking, Steve fills in-- "he calls me into his office, says he's firing Iron Man, asks me if I want the job. I said yes. It took a while to make it all official, and I took a team leave so I could... figure out all of these circuits." He waves at himself.
Steve gapes. How the hell could Tony do that?
He hopes Iron Man's okay. Jesus, if he ever sees Tony again he's going to give him a piece of his mind. The man has been his loyal bodyguard for years, and Tony does this?
Steve wonders if there's any way to get in touch with Iron Man, just to see if he's all right.
The new Iron Man is watching him nervously. "You all right there, Cap?"
"Fine." Steve grits his teeth. "I think you'd better go look for Tony on your own, though. I don't think... I'd have anything nice to say to him right now."
Christ. Tony's ruining himself and his company and Iron Man. People depend on him. Iron Man depends on him. Steve can't believe anyone could be so selfish.
"Okay," the new Iron Man says, a little warily. "I'll-- I'll do that."
The morning paper the next day has the sort of headline that Steve was now expecting to see: CORPORATE TAKEOVER: STARK INT'L SOLD TO STANE. Obadiah Stane is quoted several times about his plans for the company.
Steve guesses Tony didn't show up in time.
Tony could have stopped this, and he chose not to. He was too busy getting plastered to care.
There's a smaller article in the local news section, about Firebrand attacking a Bowery flophouse. All the occupants were safely rescued by Iron Man.
At least the new guy is settling in.
He misses the real Iron Man something fierce, though.
Steve's on the other side of the room when he hears the phone ring; he does a handspring all the way across the room and rolls over his bed.
"Captain Ame-- I mean, the Captain speaking," he says, and he realizes after he says it that this is his private line and anyone with the number knows who they're getting, but old habits die hard. Like his damn codename. The phone cord stretches and tangles back on itself, wrapping around his wrist.
"Hi, Captain," a familiar voice says, distorted a little by thousands of miles of copper wire. "This is Tony Stark."
Tony's in California. Tony's sober now; the new Iron Man -- well, the new Iron Man at the time, because Tony has apparently had him replaced again -- had told the team as much, and the Avengers' gossip network is unmatched. Steve's glad to hear it, but he hasn't talked to Tony since that day in his penthouse when he was three sheets to the wind and screaming at him and Jan to get out of his life.
He wonders if Tony remembers that. He wonders if Tony is calling him to apologize.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Stark?" Steve sprawls back on the bed, and then shoves himself up as a distressing thought occurs to him. "Is it-- are you calling about Iron Man?"
The man in the suit now is apparently the original Iron Man; the rumors had said that much. God, Steve hasn't seen him in months. And the worst part is that he isn't likely to, because he's disappeared again. Tony, with an unflinching and overwhelming obsession for control to make up for his months of dissipation, has been sending him on missions to take back his technology, stolen from him by the Spymaster and sold to Justin Hammer.
Steve's been keeping tabs on him via the West Coast Avengers. Iron Man's taken out Stilt-Man. The Controller. The Beetle. And the Stingray, a government agent, who, it turned out, wasn't using Tony's tech at all, at which point SHIELD got involved and got Tony to fire Iron Man. (Steve had winced. They were really going to take it out on Iron Man for catering to Tony's insane whims?)
Steve had thought that would be the end of it, but then SHIELD's Mandroids -- also built using Tony's technology -- had ended up mysteriously disabled. Fury had said that Tony had said that he had nothing to do with it, that it was all Iron Man, that Iron Man had bugged SHIELD and spied on them. Tony had given Fury something he claimed was Iron Man's personnel file. Steve read it cover-to-cover. Iron Man's name is apparently Randall Pierce. Steve thinks that must be a lie. It feels like a lie.
Why the hell is Iron Man going along with this? It's obviously Tony's doing. But why wouldn't he do something if Tony outed him? Isn't he upset? Why is he just rolling over and doing whatever the hell Tony wants? And why won't he come back to the Avengers? Back to New York?
Steve's not working for SHIELD -- Steve's not working for anyone anymore -- but he knows they have orders to shoot Iron Man on sight.
It's all a mess.
There's something else going on here.
"Actually," Tony says, "I was calling about you."
Steve blinks. "Me?"
"Yeah, you." The words have a bit of a laugh to them, an odd, sad fondness; he thinks Tony's smiling. "I heard about that business of yours, the government saying you can't be Captain America anymore. It has to be rough, huh?" There's a pause. "I-- I like to think I know a bit about that. Not being able to be... someone you've been for a while." His voice is hollower now.
Is-- is Tony calling just to make small talk? God, is he trying to talk about the drinking?
"It's not so bad," Steve says, cautiously. "I'm managing."
There's another pause. "Anyway," Tony said, "I had the idea I could help you out. You still need a shield, right? Even if you're not Captain America."
Steve blinks. Of all the things Tony could have said, he hadn't expected that. "I-- I guess so...?"
"Well, I'm offering," Tony says. "If you come to California, to SE here, I'll whip one right up. You can come try it out."
Back when Steve had first joined the team, Tony used to try to give him things. Upgrades. A newer uniform. He'd made this bizarre transistor-powered magnetic attachment for Steve's shield, and Steve had tried it twice, hated it, and then, very quietly, removed it. Tony had stopped trying to give him things after that. But maybe this is how he apologizes.
"Yeah," Steve says. "That-- that would be swell, Mr. Stark. Thank you."
"My pleasure, Captain," Tony says, and he knows Tony is smiling this time.
The shield is perfect. Too perfect, really.
Steve knows it the instant he takes the thing for a few test throws in a lab at Stark Enterprises. Oh, it's not his shield, but it's good. It's really good. Tony put a lot of effort into this.
It feels like the day he met Tony; there are alarm bells ringing in his head again. He wonders if Carol would have called it her seventh sense, if Spider-Man would have called it his Spidey sense. It's not actually his power, but... something here is wrong. There's something he isn't seeing. There has to be a catch.
He figures out what it is when he's handing the shield back.
Tony won't take the shield from him.
"Tell you what," Tony says, with a smile. "Keep the shield on sort of a permanent trial basis, okay? No charge."
Steve realizes that he doesn't want this. Whatever this is that's happening, he doesn't want any part of it.
He tries to demur. "But I couldn't!"
Tony pats him on the shoulder, because Tony touches people now. Tony touches him now. Tony's still grinning.
"Nonsense," Tony says. "Once word gets around that your shield was made here, it will be the best publicity SE has had in months!"
That's when Steve gets it, when Tony tries to make it sound like it's for business reasons. Purely pragmatic reasons. That's it. It's not because he's nice. It's for other reasons. That's why he did it.
This isn't about the drinking. This is about Tony's technology.
He's still trying to get his technology back. And whatever he's doing, whatever he's planning to do next, he knows Steve won't like it. He knows Steve's going to have to try to stop him.
He's trying to buy Steve's goddamn silence.
Steve closes his hands tight over the rim of the shield, and he smiles back, baring his teeth.
He hopes he's wrong. He prays he's wrong. He doesn't want to do this.
But Steve knows who else has Tony's tech: the Guardsmen of the Vault. And that means they're next up. They're the good guys. Is he so blinded by this twisted need for control that he can't tell the difference anymore?
It doesn't matter. Steve has to stop him. It's the right thing to do. Even if-- even if Tony is sending Iron Man to do his dirty work for him.
The Colorado air is cold in Steve's lungs, and what's left of Steve's heart starts to shred itself to pieces when he sees a red and silver figure standing in the middle of the entrance to the Vault, surrounded by the unconscious bodies of the Guardsmen. The armor on most of them still looks functional, so Steve guesses Iron Man hasn't had a chance to apply any of Tony's negator devices to destroy the technology yet.
Steve steps out from behind a pile of shipping crates.
Iron Man turns around. There's a negator -- a brick-sized metal box -- in one of his hands. The armor is unfamiliar, but the eyes behind the mask are the same familiar blue -- and they're glassy and wet. Iron Man is blinking back tears.
"I didn't want you to get mixed up in this," Iron Man says, very softly. "Please, Steve. Just go."
Steve raises the shield Tony gave him. "You know this is wrong, Shellhead. But it's not too late to stop. You haven't done anything that can't be fixed. Put the negator down and come with me. We can still do this the easy way."
Iron Man laughs, a hiss of slow, sad static. "I've got to, Cap. You don't understand."
"I understand enough," Steve says. "Mr. Stark is-- he's-- he's ordering you to do this. He's ordering you to break the law for him. He's made you into a criminal. He gave up your name to SHIELD. Your secret identity." He ventures the name. "Randall."
"That's not my real name," Iron Man says. The words are quiet. It was another one of Tony's lies.
Steve never thought he sounded much like a Randall anyway.
He lowers the shield and holds out his hands, imploring. "I don't understand why you're doing this. You can tell him no. You can walk away. Come with me. I'll make it okay. We can make it all okay."
Iron Man laughs again and shakes his head. His faceplate gleams in the light. "I can't."
"Is it the money?" Steve asks, a desperate idea clawing to the forefront of his mind. "Whatever he's paying you-- God, Shellhead, I have money now, I have that back pay, however much you need, whatever you need-- anything, anything at all, you can have it, just come with me--"
The faceplate tilts down, another negation. "It's not the money."
Iron Man says it too fast. There has to be something else here.
"Is he hurting you?" Bile rises in Steve's throat. "We can-- I can-- we can protect you, the Avengers. If it's blackmail, if he has something on you--"
There's another sad laugh. Iron Man is turning the negator pack over and over in his hand. "Maybe I like him," Iron Man spits out, with bitter vehemence, with more anger than Steve's ever heard from him. "Maybe I just like him. Did you ever think of that one? No, of course not." The tilt of Iron Man's helmet is rueful. "You can't stand Tony Stark. You can't imagine anyone would want to be his friend. I suppose I should have expected that."
Jealousy coils around Steve, constricting, looping tight, and he has a terrible thought, one he's never wanted to entertain, one he's never even thought of, because how could they, because how dare they, but it would make everything make sense--
"Are you sleeping with him?" Steve grits out. His voice cracks with rage halfway through the question.
There's dead silence after he asks it.
He knows people expect a certain kind of... innocence... from Captain America. Captain America doesn't talk about sex. Captain America doesn't join in any of the Avengers' teasing. Captain America pretends to be ignorant of any and all innuendo.
Well, Steve's not Captain America anymore.
"Jesus fucking Christ," Iron Man says. His filtered speech is so slow that the blasphemy is garbled, broken up into choppy little electronic sounds. The negator device slips in his hand; he nearly drops it. "How-- why-- what the hell, Steve--"
"Are you sleeping with him?" Steve repeats, and this time his voice stays steady.
Iron Man is still, frozen, like he's deciding exactly what response to give -- and then his head goes up, metal glinting proudly in the light. His eyes narrow. "If I said I was," Iron Man says, considering, putting forth the statement like it's some kind of scientific hypothetical question, "what would you tell me?"
That I wish to God you'd picked me instead, Steve thinks, and he snaps his mouth shut. He has to think of something else to say.
"I'd tell you that it's your body," he begins, "and it's your business what you want to do with--"
"Gosh," Iron Man says, voice oozing sarcasm, a sardonic tone he's never heard from him before, "thanks for your goddamn permission--"
Steve slaps the edge of his shield with the palm of his free hand. It doesn't ring out like vibranium, but it's loud enough that Iron Man quiets down.
"Mr. Stark made me this shield," he says, tightly. "And he gave me this shield to shut me up. So I wouldn't come here and find you and stop you." He swallows hard. "He can be a kind man, a generous man. I'm not saying he's not. I'm certainly grateful for the things he's done for me, for us, for everyone. But he does what he does because he wants what he wants and screw anyone who gets in his way." His voice cracks again on the obscenity. "He wants everything and everyone to be under his control, exactly as he pictures it. That's why he's doing this, hunting down his technology. That's why he's making you do this. He's not stable. He's a flawed man. He's a drunk looking for a new addiction, and he's found it. Control. And he's never going to stop. He's not capable of it."
There's a very quiet noise from Iron Man. It might be a sob.
"So if you're sleeping with him," Steve says, his throat raw, "I hope to God it's worth it. I hope he's the amazing lay that everyone says he is. I hope he makes you brilliantly, wonderfully, ecstatically happy. Because he has you exactly where he wants you, doing exactly what he wants you to do. And if you do this for him, you're going to end up in SHIELD custody. You're going to lose everything."
Iron Man breathes out, a ragged and distorted sigh. He tilts his head, considering. "And what would you say to him?"
Steve's clutching his shield again. "I think that's between me and him."
"Ah," Iron Man says, almost wearily. "Of course." He straightens up again. His eyes are still too wet. "Not that it would be any of your business if I were, but I'm not sleeping with him. For your information. Captain." Each word is bitten out.
And now Steve's just standing there staring, because what else could be worth this? Iron Man passed mere loyalty a long time ago. No job is worth this.
"I don't understand." Betrayal seeps into him, a slow and sure poison. "If it's not sex, and it's not money, and it's not secrets--"
Iron Man laughs. "I didn't say it wasn't secrets." He tilts his hand palm-up. The repulsor glimmers, a veiled threat. "I know a lot of his. He knows a lot of mine. I trust him. I trust that he's doing the right thing. Isn't that something you can understand? Trust? Decency?" He snorts. "For one thing, he doesn't demand to know who I'm fucking. I find that positively heartwarming."
Steve screwed this up. But he has to keep going.
"So trust us," Steve says, one last desperate appeal, because he can't say trust me. "Trust the Avengers. You're one of us. Be one of us. You can do the actual right thing. This is what you have to do. Don't let him make you take the fall for this."
There's another pause. Iron Man's grip on the negator seems to slacken, and for an instant Steve thinks he has him back--
"But you don't trust him," Iron Man says, the sentence so quiet that even Steve has to strain to hear him. "Do you?"
Steve blinks at him. "Does it matter?"
Iron Man's holding out a hand, and yes, God, yes, Steve has him, Steve's saved him, everything is going to be okay--
And then Iron Man's hand presses against his shoulder and electricity crackles down Steve's nerves.
His legs go out from under him. He can't do anything but breathe and watch, sprawled on the floor, as Iron Man presses the negator device to the nearest Guardsman's armor.
"Yeah," Iron Man says. "It does matter, actually. He does what he has to as well, you know. I guess that's something the two of us have in common. I guess we both do what we have to."
Steve's going to remember this moment for the rest of his life.
This is the first time Iron Man picks Tony Stark over him.
Somehow there are no consequences.
There's no jail time, no SHIELD holding cell, no nothing. Iron Man... fakes his own death. Apparently they're all supposed to be convinced. Apparently that's supposed to wipe the slate clean.
He leaves the shield in Tony's office. He doesn't want to find out what he'd do if he had to give it back to him face-to-face.
Tony calls him up and asks to meet at what turns out to be a scenic overlook on the Pacific Coast Highway. It's ridiculous. Tony's wearing a hot pink vest that says SUPERSTAR. It's even more ridiculous. Steve thinks about the fact that Iron Man must have told him everything Steve said to him in Colorado and he feels shame curdle in his gut.
"It doesn't matter who's in the Iron Man armor," Tony says, like he doesn't know that Steve knows the name Tony gave SHIELD was a lie. "What's important is that I control him."
Steve knows then that Iron Man can't have told him everything -- or maybe even anything -- because this right here is their exact problem, being held out like it's a virtue.
"That means that sooner or later, the two of you -- and the two of us -- are going to end up on the same side," Tony adds. "It might be wise to keep our disagreements confined to the civilian world. Might help keep people alive."
Steve is very good and does not say then it might be wise to stop sending Iron Man to destroy government prison facilities for you. He swallows hard and smiles and says, "I'm a practical man, Tony. I like to think I'm a just one as well."
They shake hands.
"If it comes to that," Steve says, "I'll lay my life on the line for Iron Man." What else is he supposed to say? As Tony pointed out, there are no other options. They do have to work together.
"You can trust Iron Man at Cap's back," Tony says, smiling.
Steve guesses that's worth something. "Thanks," he murmurs. "I would have liked to hear it from Iron Man."
The smile is wiped off Tony's face. "Yeah," he says. "I know."
So Steve comes back to the Avengers, and Iron Man comes back to the Avengers, and they... don't talk about it.
He doesn't know how to bring it up, and clearly Iron Man doesn't either, and they just... don't. They pretend. Like it's the beginning, like it's the founding, like they're still friends like they've always been, like nothing has ever come between them. You're going to end up on the same side, Tony had told him, and that's just the thing -- the knowledge he can't unknow, the bite of the apple. He knows now that it's possible for them not to be on the same side anymore.
It's wrong, it's frightening, it's goddamn terrifying, and he doesn't know what to do.
He wants to blame Tony for this. If Tony hadn't pulled Iron Man into the mess with the Guardsmen, they never would have known this. But he knows that can't be true. It would have been inevitable anyway, somehow, the cracks, the fractures. They were never as perfect as he's always wanted them to be. He pushes on.
And then he knows all at once that they should have talked about it, that now it's too late, because the Avengers are standing on Hala, ruined Hala, broken by the Shi'ar Nega-Bomb. It was all the Kree Supreme Intelligence's fault. The bomb was meant to jumpstart the Kree's evolution. He's guilty. And half the Avengers want to kill him for it.
"We cannot kill," Steve says, voice raised, railing at Sersi, the latest of the Avengers to try to convince him that murder is justifiable. "We are not judge, jury, and executioner! It's as simple as that!"
A repulsor blast scores the dirt in front of Steve. A threat. It's happening again. They're not on the same side. And there's still nothing Steve can do about it.
"Okay, that's enough," Iron Man says. His mechanical voice is harsh. "I'm the only original Avenger present... and I'm pulling rank, Cap."
It's terrible. It's awful of Iron Man and it's petty, so petty, that he thinks that a few more months on the team, after all their years as comrades, means that he has the right to make this call. He's never done this before. He should have just shot Steve. It would have been kinder.
"I don't agree with you," Iron Man continues. "The Supreme Intelligence is a machine, a soulless piece of hardware that we will destroy so that nothing like this will ever happen again. Who's with me?"
Numb, betrayed, Steve watches the team -- his Avengers, his team -- cross to Iron Man's side, fall into formation behind him, and walk off to commit murder.
He used to feel like he knew Iron Man. Everything but his identity, he knew. They were Avengers. They believed the same things. Iron Man would never have wanted to commit murder. But it seems like Steve was wrong. He doesn't know how they're going to come back from this one.
Steve holds a team meeting to talk about what happened on Hala. About insubordination. About betrayal.
Apparently under the impression that what he needs is cheering up, Clint drags him out of his room to what has to be the scummiest dive he's ever seen. The window reads Laughing Horse Bar. Steve wonders if this is the kind of place where the patrons get their heads shoved through the glass. He wonders if that's going to be him.
Clint gets them a pitcher of extremely mediocre beer. Steve mostly doesn't drink, because Captain America's not the kind of guy who drinks. It seems deeply unfair that he's breaking his self-imposed vows for shitty beer, but it's clearly been that kind of a day.
He wonders how much it would take to get him drunk. He wonders if it's worth trying.
Clint's trying to get him to quit the Avengers, and damn him, he's actually considering it.
There's a man in the doorway of the bar. His charcoal-gray suit is several hundred dollars too nice for this place.
It's Tony Stark.
Steve wonders if there's something he's trying to prove. If Tony wants a goddamn medal for opening himself up to temptation. It irks him. Everything irks him.
"Mind if I join you?" Tony says, and he sits down without being asked. His smile is a little guilty. Practiced. "I'm sorry. I know Iron Man said there was a team meeting. It's my fault. I had Stark Enterprises business in LA and I'm afraid I kept him too long." Tony licks his lips. "He-- he sent me to make his apologies. Clear the air."
Steve doesn't understand why Tony does this. It's like he forgets he isn't one of them. He's an honorary Avenger, sure, as much as anyone can be -- but only Iron Man is an Avenger. Iron Man's boss isn't. And yet he keeps butting in.
Clint glances between the two of them and coughs in a way he probably thinks is discreet. "I'm gonna go shoot some pool," he says. "Excuse me." And, thank God, he gets out of the way.
"With all due respect, Mr. Stark," Steve says, frostily, "it really is an Avengers matter. I'd prefer not to discuss it with you."
He refills his mug from the pitcher. Beer sloshes. He watches Tony's gaze track the motion, eyes glinting with a hideous, ravening thirst, like there's nothing in the room but the drink.
Steve sips his beer. It's one of the lousiest things he's done in recent memory, but he's not feeling particularly kind tonight. Tony's staring at his hand, his mouth, his throat, a terrible need writ large on his face. Steve imagines offering him a sip. Undoing everything.
And then Tony swallows hard and it's all gone, pushed back behind a mask, and he smiles, smooth and easy. Snake-oil salesman.
"If you won't accept his apologies," Tony says, his eyes clouded with what is surely perfectly-calculated regret, "then maybe you'll accept mine."
Steve blinks. "Yours?"
"I know we talked about what happened with the Guardsmen, what I did-- what I sent Iron Man to do." Tony's mouth works. "And I know I tried to apologize, and I didn't really do a great job, but this is me trying again." He runs a hand through his hair. "I-- I believe the ends justify the means, and I know you don't-- I mean, I guess, you never have."
He sounds just like Iron Man, Steve thinks.
"No," Steve says, shortly. "I've never believed that."
Tony winces. "I know that we never got off on the right foot, you and I," he says, very quietly. "I don't know how, and I don't know why, but I know that whatever I do, I keep... compounding it." He sighs. "And I know I get these ideas in my head, and I can't stop, and then sometimes the only way to achieve the end I need is to ask Iron Man to do it for me."
"He was innocent," Steve says. He doesn't say you forced him.
Tony's smile is crooked, sad. "Not as much as you think he was."
Steve has no idea what he means by that.
Tony doesn't believe he was wrong, does he? That's the thing. He's never going to believe he was wrong.
"I got carried away," Tony says, gaze averted, and Steve thinks that's putting it mildly but maybe that's the best he can do. This is the apology he gets.
"It's all right," Steve says. "It happens to everyone." Clearly it even happens to Avengers. "And I-- I'm glad you've got such a loyal employee. We should all be so lucky."
He wonders, not for the first time, what this man has done to merit Iron Man's admiration.
"I'd like bygones to be bygones," Tony says. His smile is soft and a little sad. "I know I don't deserve another chance--"
Tony holds out a hand. Like he can manipulate him into giving him another chance, and apparently he can. It's like he thinks handshakes fix everything. They don't.
Steve shakes his hand anyway.
When Steve gets back to the mansion, he's barely in his room, door still open, when a familiar armored shape appears in the doorway.
"So," Iron Man says. "I hear I missed a meeting."
Steve sits down on the bed. He smells like beer and cigarette smoke. The sheets are going to reek. He lets his head tip down. "Doesn't matter," he says. "So did everyone else."
Iron Man steps forward and holds out his hands like he wants to comfort Steve, like he's forgotten he's a murderer. Steve hasn't read the reports from Hala. He doesn't want to know who struck the Supreme Intelligence down, who dealt the final blow, if it was Iron Man.
Steve's vision blurs as he looks back down, as he stares at his hands in his lap.
"Would you say Mr. Stark knows you pretty well?" he hears himself ask.
Iron Man's voice is both careful and confused, mask tilted as Steve looks back up at him. "I was... under the impression that you'd rather not talk about him with me." He pauses. "But... yeah. Yes. He does."
He has a point. But Steve needs to know this.
"He told me once that I'd always have Iron Man at my back," Steve says, very quietly, and Iron Man bobs back, gleaming crimson in the dimness, like he's wincing. "You know what I didn't have, on Hala? You at my back."
"Steve," Iron Man says, quietly, distraught. In the dark, Steve can't see his eyes behind the mask.
"Some days I feel like I can barely do this, with you," Steve says, and Iron Man makes a small, stricken clicking noise. Steve takes a breath. "But I know I can't do this without you, Shellhead. I'm so sorry."
Forgiveness isn't easy. It scrapes at him, stings raw and shameful on his nerves. Sometimes the right thing never is. Sometimes the old advice pops into his head -- would you rather be right, or would you rather be married? and God, it feels like a marriage sometimes, like waking up at Iron Man's side was a vow he never knew he was making until he did. They still come back to each other.
"Steve?" Iron Man says, low and wondering.
Steve pushes himself to his feet and holds his arms open.
Hugging Iron Man isn't like hugging anyone else. The armor digs in, sharp and angular, and Iron Man is too tall and too broad to fit into his arms. But they manage it anyway. They stand there in the dimness. Steve feels like he's grabbed their friendship with both hands and is trying to hold on. Iron Man's holding him back, just as tightly.
"When the rest of the team woke up," Iron Man says, his altered voice harsh in Steve's ear, "and we realized we'd left you on Hala, and the bomb had gone off-- I-- God, I thought I'd lost you for good. I-- I never want to feel that way again."
"I don't want to lose you either," Steve says, face pressed against Iron Man's gauntleted shoulder. He doesn't want to lose him to death. To different opinions. He never wants to look across the battle line and see Iron Man there on the other side. It'll be all over.
"I'll try, Winghead," Iron Man says. "I'll try."
Steve shuts his eyes. His face is hot. In the dark, Iron Man won't see him cry.
He'll take it.
Things get better after that. Sure, they fight a lot of villains, and sure, Iron Man is brainwashed by Kang and dies in his arms, but for Avengers that's basically just Wednesday. He comes back. They all go to an alternate dimension and come back. Everyone always comes back.
They put a new team together, him and Iron Man, at the mansion, a team made up of the best of them. They beat back Ultron. They beat back Kang. And Steve's happy. It feels like he hasn't been happy in a long time. This is what they were always supposed to be like.
They're on the same side, and this is how they're going to stay.
The Bloodwash gas is burning Steve's lungs, and he can't breathe, he can't breathe, he can't breathe--
He hears the sounds of combat around him, T'Challa tangling with the Red Skull, and he hopes T'Challa has this in hand because he's dying, because there's nothing he can do but lie here and die.
And then Iron Man is crouching at his side, cradling Steve in his arms.
Get away, he wants to say, but he can't speak. Get away, Shellhead, it's contagious, you'll die if you touch me--
The eyes behind the mask are agonized. Steve is struggling to keep his own eyes open. He can hardly see anymore. Iron Man is saying something, but the words are garbled in Steve's ears. He doesn't understand them.
His eyes fall shut.
He hears a noise he's never heard before, but he knows what it has to be. A metallic click and a soft hiss. Iron Man's helmet is unlatching.
Gauntleted hands tilt his head back, clear his airway, and then Iron Man's mouth is on his. Iron Man's bare skin, finally touching his for the first time in a decade. A beard -- a beard? -- scratches at his face. Iron Man's mouth is hot and urgent. It's almost a kiss.
Iron Man has exposed himself to the disease. This is going to kill both of them.
Steve can't open his eyes. He can't see anything anymore. He's dying and he'll-- and he'll never know--
He blinks, and the mansion infirmary's ceiling comes into focus.
"Oh, thank God," Iron Man says, from next to him, and Steve only has to turn his head a fraction to see the gleam of the armor.
He flails out a hand, reaches for Iron Man. After some hesitation, Iron Man reaches back. Steve's bare hand nestles into Iron Man's gauntlet.
"I-- you--" Steve begins hoarsely. It all feels like a dream. "You-- you saved me?"
"Yeah, Winghead." Iron Man's voice is fond, but at the same time there's a clipped tenseness, a nervousness, the artificial sounds cutting off too fast. "Good old mouth-to-mouth. That was me. You started breathing again, I got my helmet back on, we both ended up with the Bloodwash antidote."
Steve half-smiles and squeezes Iron Man's hand. "Yeah, I-- I felt when you-- with your mouth--"
He's pretty sure they've drugged him with something. He's too doped up to care about the words that are coming out of his mouth. He loves Iron Man. So what? It shouldn't be a secret.
There's a familiar fuzzy static laugh, the one Steve would know anywhere. "What, are you sorry you missed the makeouts?" He says it like he doesn't expect the answer to be yes.
"I'm sorry I missed the chance to see your face," Steve says. The words are sudden, too real. Even drugs can't excuse that.
He wants to know. If he's honest with himself, he's always wanted to know.
Iron Man is silent for a long time.
"You're not missing much," he says, finally.
And then they lose the mansion. Boom.
They lose Wanda, they lose Clint, they lose Jack, they lose Scott. Wanda's gone. The other three are dead and gone. They have no home. There's nothing left. How can they be Avengers now?
Tony loses his job, too, when the whole mess kicks off. He was Secretary of Defense, after the Red Skull, because God help him, he's gotten some kind of taste for political power. He was drunk on the floor of the UN, threatening the Latverian ambassador on live television. And then he has the gall to say that it wasn't him, that Wanda did it, that it was magic, that it wasn't his fault. As if his moral failings could be anything but his fault.
Steve doesn't believe him.
No one believes him.
Six months later, there's a massive supervillain breakout at the Raft.
There is no Avengers team to save the day, because there are no Avengers anymore. But there are people there, good people, so they fight the good fight. That's what they do. Luke Cage. Spider-Woman. Spider-Man. Even Daredevil shows up. Steve was supposed to be heading to a security conference, but he's there anyway. They're not a team, but they fight on, because they do what needs to be done. They always have. They always will.
Steve has been thrown backwards off the top of the building, and he's falling through the night air and wondering how far away the ground is, when a hand grabs his wrist.
"Hey, Steve," Iron Man says, pulling him up through the air, up to safety, pulling him close as they soar together. "Long time no see."
Steve smiles for the first time in half a year.
It's not so much that they put a team together, as it is that the team put itself together, and that he and Iron Man lead it. It feels right. It feels like fate. The universe meant this for them.
He stands on a helicarrier with his arm thrown over Iron Man's shoulder, looking into the oncoming dawn.
Everything is going to be perfect.
The mansion is still in ruins, so Tony offers them a place to live, the way he always does. Even after all these years, Steve has no idea what he's getting out of this. He finds he doesn't really like the Tower; the mansion was at least a home, albeit a grandiose one. But he's never wanted to live in a skyscraper, lording it above everyone else. He wonders if Tony is even capable of understanding that.
Steve gets an apartment in Brooklyn. A refuge, maybe. The team's great, but he doesn't want to live with them all the time. Besides, Iron Man's been a little off lately since the last round of suit upgrades. Steve doesn't quite trust the new suit. Something about him is different now. He moves too fast, talks like he knows too many things, and it's all just... very slightly sideways. He stopped a man's heart last week. He was twenty-two minutes late to a call to assemble, the other day, and Graviton nearly flattened the team before Iron Man showed up. The funny thing is, Iron Man had insisted he wasn't even late. Multi-million-dollar armor and he can't set the clock?
And then there's a bombing in Philadelphia, and it turns out--
It turns out Bucky's alive, after all these years.
It turns out Bucky's responsible.
He comes home one day to find that someone's slipped him a top-secret KGB file about the Winter Soldier program, about everything they did to Bucky, brainwashing him, ripping his humanity away.
He sits on his couch, spreads the file across the table, stares at the broken pieces of a man's life, and starts to cry.
Someone knocks on the door.
Is it his mysterious informant, back with more files? What could they possibly tell him that would be any worse? He guesses he has no choice. He grabs his shield as he unlocks the deadbolt with his other hand, and he pulls the door open.
Iron Man is on the other side.
Iron Man is weaving on his feet, the lights from the hall wavering back and forth on his armor as he moves. In this version of the armor, Steve can't see his eyes anymore -- they're just glowing golden slits. He resents the way Tony's been remodeling Iron Man's suit lately, making him sleeker, smoother, more like a machine than a man. He can't tell anything about the man in the armor by looking at him anymore. He misses Iron Man's eyes.
There's an awful noise from the suit's speakers, a screech that resolves, finally, into a human sound.
Iron Man is crying.
"I killed them," he says, thickly. "Oh, God, I was so arrogant. I thought it couldn't be me. I killed them all."
Steve stares. His shield falls from his hands and hits the floor. "What-- what's going on? Killed who?"
His first thought is of Bucky, the Winter Soldier. Brainwashing. Compulsion. Not again. Not everyone. Not Iron Man again. They just got through this, with Kang. God, it isn't fair.
"I killed them," Iron Man repeats, like he didn't even hear the question. "I can't-- I can't go to the Avengers, I can't go to Mr. Stark, they're going to look for me at the Tower, I didn't know who else to trust, SHIELD's going to hunt me down like a dog and I deserve it--"
"Come in," Steve says, stepping back as Iron Man takes huge stumbling steps inside. He bolts the door again behind him. "Jesus Christ, Shellhead, come in. Come here. Whatever this is, we can fix it, okay? I've got you."
Iron Man gets about three steps in before stopping and slumping where he stands, a robot out of batteries, and the sobbing noise from inside the armor is louder. There's a terrible wheezing noise. Steve's beginning to wonder if Iron Man can breathe in there.
He bends down and grabs the box of tissues, holding it out before he realizes that Iron Man will have to unmask if he wants them, and now Steve's just standing here awkwardly with his arm held out.
Iron Man raises his head.
"You can," Steve says, uncertainly. "You can, uh. I have a bathroom. Over there."
"Thank you," Iron Man says. Even the mechanical voice is raspy. He grabs the box and disappears down the hall into Steve's bathroom. The door shuts.
There are muted ringing, clanging noises -- he's shucking at least part of the armor -- and then Steve hears him crying again, muffled through the door. Helmet off, he has no filters now. It's the first human sound Steve's ever heard him make in all these years, and his heart aches for him.
Are you okay, he wants to ask, but he knows Iron Man isn't, and he knows Iron Man would have to talk to him, and he knows that's not something Iron Man does.
He wonders what Iron Man sounds like.
The crying slows. The water runs. Iron Man's wiping his face off. He pictures Iron Man looking at himself in his mirror. He wonders what Iron Man looks like.
Metal clinks against metal again, and then Iron Man emerges, armored again, tissue box proffered in his hand.
Steve offers him a glass of water with a straw, and a place on the couch, and he promptly sits down next to him.
"Gorlovich," Iron Man rasps. "Kellard, Tanzerian. Karzai and Lemar, just now. Oh, and a fucking Air France 747, let's not forget that. What is that, a few hundred more civilians? I didn't even know it was happening, until the last one. No missing time, subjectively -- but you were right, I was missing twenty-two minutes." He makes a racking sobbing noise again; the pauldrons of his armor heave. "It was all me."
"Who are they?" Steve ventures, when Iron Man says nothing else.
Iron Man snorts. "Well, they've all got ties to Mr. Stark. I can tell you that much. They were Ho Yinsen's murderers."
It comes back to Tony. It always comes back to Tony. This is what Iron Man's loyalty gets him. It gets him used, co-opted, perverted, twisted, forced to commit crime upon crime -- and yet, he still works for the guy.
Steve frowns. "You're sure Mr. Stark can't help you? If they're targeting people connected to him, it seems like maybe he ought to be involved."
There's a sigh. "Believe me, if he could do anything, he would."
Steve feels like they've all been here before.
"This is like that thing, isn't it?" Steve asks. "With the Carnelian ambassador?"
"God, I hope not," Iron Man says, under his breath. "That was one of the worst months of my life, when I started--" He coughs and looks up. "Anyway, no, that was different. That was the armor itself being manipulated. I was completely conscious at the time. That wasn't like this. I've-- Mr. Stark checked. The armor's perfect. Flawless. It has to be."
Steve wants to ask if he's sure it's not Tony doing the manipulating. He's pretty sure that would get him punched. But even if Tony would be willing to take out a hit list to avenge his friend's death, he wouldn't take down a jet airliner of civilians. There's still a line here. He hopes.
Iron Man would kill. If he thought he had a reason, he would kill. Steve still hasn't forgotten the Supreme Intelligence.
But whatever this is, it clearly wasn't Iron Man's idea. And he wouldn't kill civilians, either.
"Well, if it's not the armor, it's you."
Iron Man's laugh is a mechanical wheeze. "Gee, thanks."
"Brainwashing, right? Mind control?"
He stares at Bucky's file, still open on the table. They both know that brainwashing is possible. They both know that it happens to Iron Man a lot, actually.
Iron Man tilts his head at the open file, and Steve wishes he'd thought to close it. He can't handle anyone, even Iron Man, rummaging around inside him right now. Everything is too close to the surface.
"Bucky's alive," Steve says, and he shuts his eyes in misery. "But he's-- but he's--"
"You're sure it's him?" Iron Man's voice is stunned, wary. "I mean-- you've been wrong before."
He hears the hope in Iron Man's voice. Iron Man wants to believe too, for his sake. He's always been kind.
"It's really him. They brainwashed him. Wiped his mind. Made him into an assassin." Steve's voice is flat, but in another breath he finds strength within himself. "But I'm not giving up on him. I'm going to find him. Find him and help him. He's innocent."
There's a pause. Iron Man tilts his head down.
"And how about me?"
Iron Man's words are hopeful. This is where Steve ought to say something reassuring. Tell him he believes in him. That he's never giving up on him either.
Then he thinks about Tony. About how all these men killed Tony's friend. About how Tony sent Iron Man after the Guardsmen. About how Iron Man would do anything for him, even if maybe he didn't want to.
He opens his mouth. No words come out. He hesitates for a fraction of a second. It's enough.
"Fuck," Iron Man says, very precisely, and Steve is too late. "I can't believe this. You think-- Jesus, Steve, you really think I--" He stops. "Not me. God. You think Tony did it. You honestly think I murdered everyone on that list because he wanted them dead. You think he hacked the armor and lied to me about it. You think he made me do it."
"No," Steve says, desperate, and he means yes, maybe, I don't know. "I-- no, I--"
But Iron Man's pushing himself to his feet. Steve rises to meet him, even though it won't do any good.
"I care about you, Shellhead," Steve says desperately. This is going all wrong.
"You live in his fucking house," Iron Man snarls. "For ten years, you live in his house and you eat at his table and you take his goddamn money and you tell me you think he'd murder hundreds of people on a whim. You care about me so much, maybe you could try caring about him just a little, huh?"
Steve just stares.
"I don't know why I even bothered coming here," Iron Man spits out, low and miserable. "I thought we were friends."
Steve's standing there helplessly. "We are--"
"You can call SHIELD," Iron Man says. "Tell them you've seen me. I don't care. I'm gonna go get my head examined before I murder someone else, if it's all the same to you. I guess you only really care when it's Bucky, huh?"
The door slams shut behind him.
He ends up going up against Iron Man, of course, because Iron Man's still being controlled. By Ho Yinsen's son, apparently. Steve guesses he owes Iron Man an apology. He hopes to God Iron Man doesn't tell Tony.
He has massive suits, Argonauts, Hulkbuster suits -- Steve supposes Tony has been busy -- and they're all trying to take Steve out.
Steve doesn't know what Tony's done to Iron Man, but he's stronger now. Faster. Maybe even faster than Steve. The other suits definitely are.
One of the suits is choking the life out of Steve when it stops. All of the suits stop. And Iron Man falls to the ground. The suit's eyeslits dim, showing only reflected glass; he still can't see Iron Man's eyes. Iron Man isn't moving. Steve's coughing and gasping for breath, his lungs still struggling for air, and Iron Man's not moving--
Steve picks him up, cradles him in his arms, runs his hands over the suit. There are no obvious catches, no releases, no emergency eject buttons -- just smooth metal.
If there are armor overrides, he doesn't know them.
God, if he could only touch him--
Anything could be happening. He could be dying. He could be dead. Steve wonders how they're ever going to know. He wonders if they'll let him see Iron Man's face for the funeral.
Half an hour later, when the medics are picking through the rubble, crowding around Steve, Iron Man gasps, hoarse and mechanical, and sits up.
"Shellhead!" Steve says, scrambling to his side. They might have been fighting, but he doesn't-- he couldn't ever want Iron Man dead. "What the hell happened?"
"I stopped my heart," Iron Man says. He sounds dazed, but determined. Like this was the only way out. "Don't worry. I fixed it."
What in God's name did Tony do to him? He's done something to him. He must have. No ordinary human could survive that. Tony must have been experimenting on him, Steve thinks, and the thought makes his skin crawl. Someday Steve's going to find out what the hell Tony has been building in that workshop of his. There are too many secrets here.
And then Stamford happens.
When the news comes in, Steve can tell that it's going to be one of those dividing moments in his life. Rebirth. Pearl Harbor. The Avengers. There was a before, and there's an after, and everything's going to be different now, in ways he can't even imagine.
The New Warriors were practically kids. Half-trained. Definitely not ready for Nitro.
The death toll is in the hundreds. Mostly children. The Avengers help pull tiny bodies out of the rubble. It's one of the worst things Steve has ever had to do.
And on the news shows, the talking heads start talking, breathing words they've never before mentioned for anyone but the mutants. Regulation. Registration.
Steve's slumped over, alone, on a couch in Brooklyn, changing channels, flicking through the news programs, when he comes across Tony's face. There's no winning smile this time. He's staring into the camera, serious and somber, eyes hooded.
"Obviously I can't speak for the Avengers themselves," Tony is saying, in response to what has to have been a question from the host, "but as the team's primary funder since their inception, I have to think I'm at least partially responsible for the creation of an atmosphere in which teenagers think putting on tights and going toe-to-toe with supervillains is a viable career path." He winces. Unlike so many of his other expressions, this is real. He's not putting this one on for the cameras. His hand is clenched tight around his water glass, held barely in frame.
Steve pushes himself upright; he can feel his muscles coil like he's ready for battle. How-- how can Tony think he knows anything about what it's like to be an Avenger? How can he not be grateful for what they've done for him, for the world? Hell, Iron Man's probably saved his life a hundred times by now -- how can he turn around and say they shouldn't be doing this? If they stand down, it's sure as hell not going to make the supervillains stop. The breakout at the Raft showed that much. The world needs them.
The host frowns. "You're talking about... the Avengers being disbanded again?"
But Tony puts up a hand. "No, no, no!" he says, quickly. "Of course not. I'm just saying that, given all the talk about Registration, well. I'd be in favor of that. A system to ensure that everyone with powers is properly trained, that no one is going up against threats they can't handle. We can't have another Stamford."
Christ. You teach a fella hand-to-hand one time and he thinks he knows all about how to run and train a superhero team. Steve grits his teeth. He doesn't need Tony Stark swanning in and telling him how to do his job.
"So this Superhuman Registration Act currently being drafted...?" the host prompts. "They're pushing hard on Capitol Hill, you know, to get this through as fast as they can. And they seem to be agreeing with you."
Oh, there's that winning smile again. "I haven't seen the bill yet," Tony says, and he sounds like he never really quit being Secretary of Defense when he talks like that. "So I can't comment on it, you understand. There are a variety of ways Registration could be implemented. But I think the basic idea is sound. If they ask for my input, of course, I'd be happy to provide it. I know Congress is a few weeks away from a vote."
"There are rumors," the host says, leaning in, pressing him for answers, "that you're being considered to head the organization that would be formed to implement Registration, working in partnership with SHIELD."
Tony smiles, tight-lipped, and makes a zipping motion across his mouth -- he looks happy to be there, Steve supposes, but the light fades ever so briefly from his eyes. There's some kind of story here. Does he not want the job?
"Now, that, I really couldn't say," Tony says. "I have to keep some things a secret."
Steve flips the TV off and throws the remote across the room.
Steve spends the next week thinking that maybe things are going to go back to normal. He tries to focus on the positive things in his life, such as they are. Thanks to a Cosmic Cube, Bucky is himself again, even if he's avoiding Steve.
They can't possibly pass the SHRA. They've all seen too many timelines where everything goes to hell. They've seen mutants with collars, herded into camps, guarded by Sentinels -- they can't possibly want that for everyone. Oh, that's not what the op-eds and the talking heads are focusing on -- they're talking about the training, the idea of finally having a real system. Regulations.
They had a system. They don't need this. Everyone giving up their names to SHIELD is a disaster waiting to happen.
This can't pass. They're going to come to their senses. How can they possibly want to curtail the people who are responsible for making sure their family, their city, and their goddamn planet don't get flattened? They need superheroes. And superheroes need to be able to do their jobs.
He's just going to put his head down, do his duty, and wait for it to blow over.
Two weeks before the SHRA is set to go to a vote, Maria Hill summons Steve to a helicarrier six miles above New York. It's a conversation that starts with Maria saying I'm told that twenty-three of your friends are meeting in the Baxter Building right now to discuss how the super-people should respond to the president's big solution.
She asks him to help round up the people who won't comply. He refuses.
Okay, so maybe he raises his voice.
But, still, it's a conversation. God knows he's disagreed with SHIELD before. He's going to walk away. Go home.
His first hint that maybe the SHRA is actually something he needs to worry about is when the room of SHIELD agents aims their tranq guns.
For God's sake, it's not even a law yet.
The conversation ends with him diving through the helicarrier window and catching a ride all the way down on the back of a fighter jet.
Yeah, Registration is going to be a problem.
He doesn't know where else to go, so he holes up in his apartment until morning. No one followed him. He's sure. It's a long night. He doesn't sleep. He does a lot of thinking.
He can't endorse the SHRA. He can't. It's wrong, and it's not going to help anyone, and if that means going against the law, then so be it.
In the morning, he calls Iron Man. Sure, things have been a little tense between them since the Argonaut, but Iron Man has his back. They always come back to each other. That's not going to change. It can't.
"Shellhead!" he says, desperately, as soon as the comm connects. "Are you free? I-- I have to see you. As soon as you can. Please."
"Cap?" The filtered voice is full of concern. "Steve? What's wrong?"
He shouldn't say it over comms. If Tony's maybe going to be working for Registration, if Tony's working for SHIELD -- he designed all the Avengers tech. He knows all the backdoors. "I can't tell you like this. Can you meet me somewhere?"
There's a pause. "Not right now," Iron Man says. "I can't-- I have a meeting in ten-- I mean, Mr. Stark has a meeting in DC. I have to be there with him. But after, okay? I can go supersonic or suborbital; I'll be back in New York fast. Two hours. I'll meet you. Where?"
Steve digs his fingers into the arm of his couch and considers his options. SHIELD definitely knows where he lives; Nick and Sharon were here when he needed to deal with what was going on with Bucky. SHIELD has less access to the Tower, but if Tony's working for them -- Steve doesn't know if he is, yet -- that could change rapidly. But right now the Tower sounds more secure.
"Avengers Tower," he says. "Team conference room. I'll head over there in a bit."
"Okay," Iron Man says. He sounds... unworried. Not quite relaxed, but confident. It's the voice Steve is used to hearing from him on the battlefield -- when something bad is going down, but the Avengers have it under control. "I'll see you there. Stay calm, okay? Whatever's happening, we've got this. Together."
Steve disconnects the call and he already feels better. The world may be going crazy, but Iron Man's with him. The SHRA won't be able to stand up to the two of them.
He gets cell signal for an instant when the train goes aboveground across the bridge, heading into Manhattan. He flips his phone open to check the news, and then shuts his eyes in misery and ponders getting off the train at the next station and heading home, because the headline is everything he feared.
BREAKING NEWS: STARK TO RUN REGISTRATION.
The SHRA still hasn't gone to a vote yet, but that meeting in DC that Iron Man said Tony was at was a closed-door Cabinet meeting with the president. And whatever they said, the upshot, based on the press release, is that it's Tony's show -- Tony, Reed Richards, and Hank Pym. But mostly Tony.
Tony's palling around with superheroes, the way he's always done. But worse.
And here Steve is, walking right into Tony's house.
He can't arrest you yet, Steve tells himself. It's not a law yet. His palms are sweating. It doesn't need to be legal to be possible. It's not like Tony would let that stop him. He knows Tony has enough money and connections to make anyone disappear. Hell, he keeps getting mixed up with Madame Masque, with the Maggia.
At least Tony's probably still in DC.
Steve's pacing the conference room in the Tower when Iron Man shows up, ten minutes late, edging past the empty chairs to join him near the head of the table. They're alone. Steve looks down the length of the table, at the inset Avengers logo, and then out to the bank of windows and the sunny sky beyond. It feels impersonal, all glass and steel, like a business meeting. Not the way the mansion had felt, warm dark wood and soft lights, a place people lived, a place they loved. He knows there's nothing anyone can do, but he resents it.
Well, they'll all be out of here soon enough. He doesn't have a lot of space, but unless Iron Man's told him -- and why would he have? -- Tony doesn't know where he lives; Steve was trying to keep it quiet. He can certainly play host to a few Avengers for a few days until they find safe places to stay.
He'll be happy to put Iron Man up as long as he needs. Wherever Iron Man lives, he suspects Tony knows about it. Steve will probably have to move, anyway. SHIELD does know his address, and that's going to be a problem.
"Hey, Steve," Iron Man says. He extends a gauntleted hand, clapping him on the shoulder. His helmet tilts; his eyes are still glowing slits, unreadable, but at least he sounds concerned. "Sorry I'm late. So what's got you so rattled, huh?"
Iron Man's hand is still on his shoulder; he guides him down to a chair. Steve sits down hard, like there's no strength left in him. He didn't realize how tired he was until now.
This is going to be a mess. He doesn't want to go on the run. He's been fighting since he was twenty and sometimes it feels like it's never going to stop. But he has to keep the team safe. Breathe, Avenger. No time to rest. Keep moving.
"It's the SHRA," he says, and next to him, Iron Man goes dead silent. "I thought it was going to be like all the other red tape we've been tangled up in over the years. You know, the government makes a fuss, eventually we trim the team or we add whoever they want us to add. Or I get a new codename," he adds, remembering being Nomad and the Captain. "Or they give us a liaison and we spend a few months doing what Gyrich tells us and grousing about it. And we all play along until the next time Ultron wants to destroy everything. And then it's the same as always, because then they realize that we don't need these regs, and that maintaining them is getting in the way of us doing our jobs." He swallows hard. "But I went to see Hill yesterday. She brought up Registration, and I swear to God, Shellhead, she was about to have me shot when I said no. I had to jump out of the damn helicarrier to get away."
"Yeah, I heard about your disappearing act," Iron Man says, low and harsh. It's a hairsbreadth shy of a condemnation. "Your name came up. In the meeting."
They were talking about him? Iron Man was in the meeting? Steve wonders what they were saying. What the president had to say about him. What Tony had to say about him. He sighs. "This one's different. I don't think it's going to go away. I don't think they're messing around this time."
Iron Man is staring straight ahead, motionless, a suit of armor keeping vigil. "No." His voice is a low murmur. "They're really, really not."
Steve takes a steadying breath. He tries to remember how it used to feel, the old days, leaping out of a quinjet with Iron Man beside him, the bone-deep certainty that they could take on any problem together. They can still do this. It's just that the problems have gotten more complicated.
"All right." Steve steeples his fingers together and stares down at his hands. A plan. They've got this. All they have to do is... go on the run from the government. "Maria asked me for the names of people she thinks are likely to resist, and unfortunately I gave up Daredevil and Luke, so our priority should be to get Luke to safety first, especially because of his family. Jess and Dani need to be somewhere secure. The rest of the team can move out later. We've got two weeks. We can find them safehouses SHIELD doesn't know about." They're going to need to abandon their identicards, too. Over the years he's figured out that Iron Man's pretty handy with mechanical things, even if he's no Tony Stark. "If you know anyone who's good with communications tech -- or, heck, maybe it could be you -- we're going to need alternative comms." He flips his identicard on the table. "I'm going to assume these are compromised." He sighs again. "I mean, I'm planning to denounce the act publicly, of course; if you stand up with me we might change a few senators' minds, but I think it's best to assume at this point that the SHRA is a done deal, and we need to start running the resistance."
He realizes, with an awful, creeping sense of dread, that Iron Man hasn't said anything.
Iron Man hasn't agreed with him.
No, he thinks, dazed, as the familiar crushing weight of betrayal presses down onto his chest, grinding him low. God, no, you can't. Please don't let this be what it sounds like. You were my first friend in this time. You were supposed to be on my side. We were doing better. Why are you doing this now, when I need you more than ever?
The room is silent.
"Um." Iron Man coughs, a short bark of static. It might even be a laugh. "Actually."
He's not looking at Steve. He doesn't need to say anything more. This is all Steve needs to know. It's over.
"You can't," Steve says, anguished. Tears well up in his eyes, and anger runs hot through his veins. He wants to punch something. The table. The wall. The window. Maybe he'll jump out. Maybe he'll hit the ground. "Don't do this to me. Please."
There's another eternity of silence.
Steve can feel his heart breaking.
"It's not personal." Iron Man's head dips down. He still can't bear to look at him. "It was a hard decision. Believe me. It's bigger than you. Bigger than me. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think it was the right thing to do." There's a static hiss, an exhalation. "What we have, what we had -- it's not working. You know in your heart that it's not. We can't let Stamford happen again."
Isn't that what Tony said on TV? Is Iron Man taking notes from him now? Jesus.
"All the Registration in the world isn't going to bring those kids back." He has to know this.
Iron Man's head levels out again. "No," he says, low and measured, like he thinks he's being reasonable, "but it can stop it from happening again. Have you even seen the proposal? We're going to have teams, everybody trained up, so that if you want to go up against a villain there will be every assurance possible that you know what you're doing. We could never have done this with the Avengers alone. We're not big enough. We couldn't have cast a net wide enough. But all of us -- together, we can do it right. A system built from the ground up. No catastrophes. No more."
It's a goddamn campaign speech. Yep, he got that straight from his boss, didn't he?
Steve sees red. His hand curls around the edge of the table, hard. The glass cracks in spiderwebs. "And how's Registration going to stop you from blowing up a jumbo jet the next time someone hacks your brain?"
Iron Man's head snaps up, mask swiveling toward Steve. His eyes are an accusing golden glare. "That's fighting dirty, Steve." The filtered voice is tight. "I used to think that was beneath you."
"Maybe I learned it from you," Steve retorts. He feels like he can't breathe, like he's gasping for air, like he's in battle and about to go down. "So you want to talk about why you're really supporting the SHRA now?"
There's a quizzical set to Iron Man's head. "Excuse me?"
"Cut the bullshit," Steve says, and he knows Captain America doesn't talk like this, and he doesn't care. "We both know you do every goddamn thing that Tony Stark tells you to."
There's a strange sound from Iron Man then, a staticky, choking laugh, as he throws his head back, as his hands splay wide. Steve wonders if he's being mocked.
Iron Man sighs. "I can't ever win with you, can I?" he murmurs. "I take out the Guardsmen, and you're telling me he's forcing me to commit crimes, you're telling me that I should do what SHIELD wants. Now here I am on the up and up, following the will of the American people, working with Tony, with SHIELD -- and this isn't good enough for you either? Who died and made you the arbiter of right and wrong, Cap? What the hell is wrong with him this time, huh? How is he not good enough now?"
Can't Iron Man see the problem?
"It's all the same thing with him. Don't you get it?" Steve leans in. "It's all about control. Back then, he wanted all his technology. Last year it was a Cabinet post. Now he wants to run Registration. He wants that list of names. He wants to have everything, to know everything, to keep it all under his thumb. You're included. He's an egomaniac on a goddamn power trip. This time it just happens to be legal. It's not as if he would care if it wasn't."
The noise Iron Man makes is jangled, discordant, a typewriter hitting the end of the line. "Have you ever thought about asking him why he does what he does?" he asks, softly. "Have you ever thought about even trying to get to know him? Or did you just get this image of Tony Stark in your head and decide that was all he was ever going to be?"
"I know who he is," Steve insists, low and stubborn. "I know what he is. I've known a thousand men like him. My own father was like him. The only difference is that he's got more money than most. I know exactly what kind of man he is, and I don't see why I should sit here and let him play with my friends' lives because he wants to feel like he's worth something now that the drink's not telling him so, now that he's not pouring liquor down his throat. Hell, if it would save everyone else's lives, I'd hand him the goddamn bottle myself, without thinking twice. At least that way he'd only destroy himself."
Steve's words echo, and he thinks maybe he's gone too far, but it's too late to take back.
Iron Man jerks where he sits, stricken, wounded, like Steve is attacking him personally. "Well," Iron Man says, very quietly, to himself. "That answers that."
"But I guess it doesn't matter what I think," Steve concludes. "Because when it comes down to it, you always pick him."
"Right now," Iron Man returns, "I have to say he's a lot kinder than the alternative." His jerks to the side, a little quirk of movement. "He's still not fucking me, by the way, if you were wondering. Though it's a great theory. Keep it up. We'll make a futurist of you yet." His voice drips patronizing condescension.
Steve's nostrils flare. "I don't need to take this from you."
"No, you don't. And you're not going to." Iron Man rises to his feet, unsteadily. His suit glows golden across the glass of the table. "Get out. You're not welcome here anymore, Captain."
Steve stands up. This is the way it ends. "Ten years, huh?" He can feel his mouth curve, a sad and mocking smile. "We had a good run, I'll say that."
"We did," Iron Man says, and for an instant Steve sees it, a glimmer of their old friendship, bright for an instant and then crushed underfoot. "I'm sorry it has to be like this."
He meets Iron Man's eyes. Well, his eyeslits. It's like he's not even human anymore.
"If there are people who need help," he says, "I'm going to save them. And I'm not going to let any goddamn law tell me what I can and can't do about it. Don't get in my way."
He pushes past Iron Man and walks out the door.
He doesn't look back.
The SHRA passes.
The superhero community takes sides.
Steve goes underground.
He watches Spider-Man unmask on national television at Tony's whim, to prove that Registration is safe. His hands clench into fists.
It feels like it did when he woke up from the ice: the world has changed. There's no going back now.
There's an accident at a chemical factory. A fire has trapped three hundred people inside. Steve knows that if his team is caught, they'll all be in custody, but he doesn't hesitate for an instant when he orders Cloak and Wiccan to teleport them in. He's not going to just stand back and refuse to save lives because he's worried about the consequences. This is still his job.
The teleport drops them in, and Cable is frowning as he monitors local networks. He says there's none of the expected radio chatter. And then he stares at the factory sign. A division of Stark Industries.
"Get the hell out of here, boys!" Cable yells. "It's a trap!"
There are darts in Cloak and Wiccan's backs, and they fall to the dirt.
Steve looks up at the SHIELD helicopters closing in, and that's when Iron Man and his forces walk forward.
"Of course it's a trap," Iron Man says. "How else were we going to get you all in one place?"
Steve doesn't much care for being trapped.
As the other Avengers exchange words, he opens his belt pouch. Slips out the EMP device. Palms it.
If Iron Man's going to play dirty, he doesn't see why he shouldn't play right back. The rules have changed. They were changed when Iron Man walked to the other side. When he led heroes against the Kree Supreme Intelligence. When he sucker punched Steve and left him frozen on the floor, watching as he took out the last of the Guardsmen.
It's Steve's turn now.
"The public doesn't want masks and secret identities," Iron Man says.
Iron Man's helmet is on, his faceplate down. No one has ever seen his face. No one will ever know who he is, except Tony, who is running Registration, who already knew. Convenient, that. He's a goddamn hypocrite.
Steve balls his hand into a fist and primes the EMP. The little device vibrates. Twenty seconds.
"You've known me half my adult life, Cap," Iron Man says, and Steve thinks maybe he's never known him at all. "You know I wouldn't do this unless I believed in it with all my heart."
They both know exactly why he's doing this. They both know who's pulling the strings here. If Tony Stark weren't such a coward, he'd be here himself.
Iron Man steps forward. Holds out a hand. "We don't want to fight you. Just give me the chance to tell you our plans for my twenty-first century overhaul."
Steve looks at Iron Man's hand.
Someday, in the future, if there is a future, they're going to look back and say that this is where the war started. This is where Captain America betrayed Iron Man's trust. But they'll be wrong. It started years ago, in the middle of a prison in Colorado, when all Iron Man had to do was walk away.
He still remembers Iron Man's wide, stricken eyes staring at him from behind the mask as he sank to the ground, immobile, as Iron Man's electricity crackled around him. Iron Man looked sad. Like he was sorry.
They broke then, even if they never knew it.
Iron Man's palm is flat, open. He's unarmed. He'll never see it coming.
How the hell does it feel now? he thinks, savagely, and he shoves the EMP into Iron Man's hand.
Iron Man convulses, wreathed in blue lightning, and Steve punches him in the face.
He's not sorry.
He's not unreasonable, though. He does at least try to go to Iron Man's parley at Yankee Stadium, but they're interrupted -- and besides, Iron Man only wants to know about Tony's injured chauffeur. It's hardly something that should matter to either of them.
When he gets the second message, he knows it's not a trap. Iron Man wouldn't try anything. Not at the mansion.
Even if the identicards still worked on the outer gate, Steve's wouldn't. He grabs the bars, pulls himself up, and vaults over. One of his gloves catches on the ornamental, pointed tip of a bar, hidden behind the metal sign atop the gate, and he nearly falls. Sloppy. Slow. Iron Man's always managed to get in under his skin, to find a way past the uniform. It strikes Steve as incredibly unfair.
The paving stones up to the steps are cracked and blasted black under his feet. This used to be his home. Their home. Now, like everything else, it's a battlefield. Tony could have rebuilt it for them. God knows it's been destroyed before. It's not like he doesn't have Damage Control on speed-dial. It's not like he doesn't own Damage Control. But, no, Tony just wanted to herd them along into his bright-metal future, into a building he built, and Steve resents it.
His body remembers this. Down the path, three steps up, open the door. The door is unlocked. One of the hinges is broken.
The inside of the mansion is a ruin. There are holes in the floor, holes in the walls, split joists and broken drywall. The only light is from a hole ripped in the ceiling, ripped through three floors all the way up to the roof. Dust motes dance in the light.
"I wasn't sure you'd come," Iron Man says.
Iron Man is standing at the far end of the room, next to the spread-out pile of broken stairs, next to a table. A team portrait, hung askew, is on the wall behind him. Steve wonders if he hung it there deliberately. A last-ditch appeal to sentimentality.
Yeah, that's not going to work.
Steve shrugs. The shield on his arm glints in the light. "You know how it is," he says. "There wasn't anything good on TV."
The staticky cough might be a laugh.
He slings his shield on his back. No tricks. Not this time.
"I thought we should talk one last time," Iron Man says, spreading his gauntleted hands wide. "I thought we could try to come to an agreement. Before anything goes too far."
Steve raises an eyebrow. "Your people cloned Thor and he killed Bill Foster and you think maybe you haven't gone too far yet?"
Iron Man holds up his hands like this is a hijacking. His palms are dim. "Steve, I-- this is-- okay. All right. Things have happened that I regret. That wasn't supposed to happen. But I think we both know this could get a lot worse."
Steve lets his head tilt to the side. He folds his arms. He doesn't say I'm listening. But he knows Iron Man knows.
"Steve, please," Iron Man says, and his hands now are held out, imploring. "You-- you have to know what you mean to people. You know you're... a moral compass. A guiding light. You know that most of the people on your side are there because you are. Not because they believe in your cause. But because they believe in you. The resistance is you." He steps closer. "Join me. Help me. Work with me. I know Registration isn't how we've done it before. But it's the best way to go. I honestly believe that. Sure, we've never had it before. Maybe you didn't even need it. I'll admit that. But maybe it's not for you. It's for some kid who wakes up one day with powers and decides to stop the nearest villain from knocking over the corner store. It's for everyone. You were trained. You've had years of experience. Hell, you've trained us. Maybe everyone else deserves the same help you got. The same help you gave us."
It's a compelling speech. He can admit that. But Iron Man knows -- they both know -- that this isn't the only thing going on.
Steve breathes in and out. He finds, to his surprise, that he doesn't want to punch Iron Man. "I could make you the same offer, you know."
"Hmm?" The mechanical voice sounds surprised.
"You say the resistance is me," Steve says. "But Registration, you know that's you, too. Tony Stark isn't one of us. He's not a hero. He has no skin in the game. And his lieutenants, who's he got, Reed and Hank? They're scientists. You're a fighter. You're a superhero. If you turned, you'd take a hell of a lot of people with you, and you know it." He half-smiles. "But we both know you care about Tony more than anyone else."
For an instant it seems that Iron Man's glowing eyes flicker. A trick of the light, maybe. "It's not like you think it is, Steve."
Steve looks at Iron Man. He looks at the portrait behind him. In the picture, he's standing next to Iron Man. He thinks about Tony with his arm around Spider-Man. He thinks about Peter Parker pulling his mask off and blinking into the cameras. He thinks about Bill Foster's body.
He doesn't want anyone else to die on his watch.
He's not too proud for this.
Maybe Iron Man's right. Maybe they need a change. Maybe training is the way to go. Maybe he just can't see it clearly because Tony Stark ruins everything. Maybe they can stop fighting. Maybe he just needs Iron Man to keep talking.
"You make some good points, though." He tries a smile. He licks bone-dry lips. "What if-- what if I said I was thinking about it? What if I said that you... could convince me?"
Iron Man stares at him, motionless, like he can't believe what he's hearing. Steve wonders if he's reading his heart rate, his breathing. Checking for lies.
Iron Man's stance is cautious. His hands are half-raised. "Then I suppose I'd ask," he returns, like this is all in the realm of the hypothetical, "what I could do to convince you."
"One question," Steve says. "The truth."
"Anything." The reply is fervent. A prayer. "Anything. I swear."
Steve unhooks his shield. Sets it down on the table next to him. Holds out his hands, palms upraised. Open. No games. No lies. Not anymore.
"Who are you?"
And Iron Man... starts to laugh. The static of his vocal filters is harsh and jagged, cutting out, descending into noise that Steve now recognizes as sobbing.
"God," Iron Man says, softly. "You would ask that. Oh, God, you would. Jesus. How is this my life?"
He staggers back to the table, finds the chair, and sits down hard. It creaks. His body curves over the table, a movement that should be impossible in armor, as he hisses with sobbed static. He's crying.
Steve doesn't know what to say.
After a while, Iron Man puts his head up. "You know, you've never asked me that before." His filtered voice is thick. "I-- I used to think it didn't matter to you."
"It didn't," Steve admits. "It didn't matter to me. But now, with Registration, with everything -- you're standing for accountability. For transparency. And no one knows who you are. Not even the Avengers. Hell, even when I had a secret identity to the public, it was never secret to you. You've known my name from the beginning."
Iron Man tilts his head in acknowledgment. He makes another pained clicking noise, like a tape ending.
"Your boss talked Peter Parker into outing himself to the world and yet you're still a mystery. Even to us. Even to me. It doesn't matter to me who you are, what you look like, what your name is," he says, and Iron Man laughs, and Steve can't think about how much he used to want to know, about how much he dreamed about it, about the day Iron Man's lips were pressed against his. "But it matters to me that it's a secret. I just think," he says, and he swallows hard, and he wonders if he's going to cry, "that it's fair. That you should put your money where your mouth is." He tries another smile. This one is wavering. "I won't tell anyone. I just-- I want the truth. For me. After all these years."
Iron Man stares up at him and says nothing.
"I-- I-- I--" Iron Man says, and Steve waits for it. I can't.
But Iron Man stands up. Walks over to Steve. Puts one heavy hand on his shoulder. Steve wonders if this is a threat. Get your hand off me, he wonders if he should say. A repulsor ray, full-blast, would go straight through his shoulder. Probably take out his arm.
Iron Man's hand slides up his shoulder, up his neck, over his throat, up to his face. His hand is cupping Steve's cheek almost tenderly. The metal presses into his jaw. The repulsor array is warm, a point of heat against his skin.
"I know you're in love with me," Iron Man says, very quietly, and Steve can't breathe.
This wasn't the truth he wanted.
"Here's a story," Iron Man says. "A secret. You won't like it." He meets Steve's eyes. "I used to be in love with you too." He laughs static. "I tell myself I used to be, at least. I like to think it helps me get over you. It doesn't, really. I used to feel better about it, anyway. I used to imagine unmasking for you. I used to imagine you smiling. I used to imagine touching you. I used to imagine I could make you happy."
"Please," Steve whispers, and there are tears in his eyes. He feels like he's the one with the secret identity. There's nothing left to hide. Iron Man knows it all, and he's offering everything and nothing.
And then Iron Man steps away. "But I know I can't."
"I can't," Iron Man repeats. "And I know you think you want to know, but you don't. I'm sorry."
"Your face," Steve says, desperate, bargaining, beyond shame. He'd get on his knees and crawl in the dirt if Iron Man asked him to. "No names. Just-- something, anything. Please."
Iron Man shakes his head. The faceplate is impassive.
"If I joined," Steve says, and he's shaking, tripping over the words. There's no pride in him. He'd be a traitor for this. He wishes he'd never known this about himself. "If I joined you, what would I have? Would I have access to the superhuman database?"
"You'd have everything Mr. Stark has." Iron Man sighs a humming sigh. "You'd also be working very closely with him. You might want to keep that in mind. I know how you feel about him."
"Your identity is in the database," Steve says, very quietly.
Iron Man pauses. Wobbles. Freezes, like he's a program that's hit a glitch. "No. It isn't."
And there it is, Steve supposes. All his pretty words are lies. Iron Man's not even registered. Why should he be? Tony knows who he is, after all. It was never really about the law. It was always about doing what Tony wanted.
He should have known better than to ask for the truth.
"Well," Steve says. "You've made your choice, then."
He picks up his shield.
"The next time I see you," he says, "I'm not holding back."
They wage war.
Tony -- or Iron Man, Steve's honestly not sure who's running the show anymore -- brings in supervillains. There's a lot of skirmishing. They get Peter on their side.
And now they're planning a prison break. No one deserves to be locked up in the goddamn Negative Zone unless their name is Annihilus, and Steve wants to cringe inside at the thought that he could have allied himself with someone who believed that 42 was a good idea. He knows Tigra's from Tony's side. She's been spying on them. But they slipped Teddy Altman in, shapeshifting as Hank.
It means Steve's not surprised when he shows up at the entrance to 42 and finds Iron Man standing there, with all his heroes -- and villains -- behind him.
Steve's side opens the cells.
And then they're all falling out of the sky by the Baxter Building. Thank God for Cloak.
They're on the ground. The battle's raging around them.
And then he sees Iron Man.
He had a plan for this. He gestures, and Vision phases his fist through Iron Man's body. It's the EMP all over again; electricity crackles. Iron Man stumbles backwards, and Steve follows. He's got him. He's going to take him down.
It's going to be over.
Steve swings out, hard, as hard as he can. He's never hit Iron Man this hard before, but his new armor is so goddamn special, isn't it? He can handle it. The edge of his shield catches the side of Iron Man's helmet.
Iron Man groans static. He staggers.
Steve hits him again.
Iron Man drops to his knees.
The unibeam housing and repulsors are flickering back to life, too soon, but Iron Man isn't raising his hands. Steve sees the opening, and he takes it.
He hits him again.
Iron Man topples to his back in the rubble, hands outflung, palms pointed at the sky. His harsh breaths are half-mechanical, half-human; the filtered tones break into their component frequencies and then cut out entirely. Steve can hear the man underneath the mask.
The eyeslits dim and go dark. Steve can make out the shape of Iron Man's eyes just beyond them.
There's a crack in the faceplate.
No secrets now.
Steve raises his shield with both hands and brings it down. Metal crunches against metal and then, wetly, drives into flesh. Fragments of the faceplate shine around Iron Man's head in an obscene halo. Steve can finally, finally see his face. And Iron Man--
And Iron Man is--
One of his eyes is bloodshot, red through the sclera, the flesh around it already swelling with bruising. Blood slides from his nose, soaks his beard. There's blood in his mouth, blood on his split lip, blood on his teeth, blood dripping down his chin. His breathing is harsh, whistling, labored.
And he smiles.
"Surprise," Tony rasps.
Steve wants to be sick. He should have known. God, oh God, he should have known.
He spent ten years insulting his best friend to his face, telling him he was never good enough, telling him he was nothing more than a drunk, telling him he could never be a hero, could never be better than the worst thing that had ever happened to him, could never even be his friend--
There's no coming back from this. It's all over.
His hands are shaking. The shield is still raised.
He's a monster.
He's starting to cry.
Tony coughs, a wet noise. Tony's gaze isn't focusing.
"Here's another story," Tony says. His voice is hoarse. Steve's spent a decade wondering what Iron Man sounds like. "I knew a guy once. Used to be in love with him. He gave me some advice, a long time ago. He taught me to fight. And he told me, if anyone offers you a sucker punch, they've probably got a reason. That was after I hit him. He knocked me flat. That was after he told me-- after he told me--"
Tony smiles again. The edge of the broken helmet cuts his mouth open. Bright blood wells up.
Steve can't feel anything where he thinks his heart is supposed to be. There are tears dripping down his face. One of them lands on Iron Man's-- on Tony's armor.
He didn't know.
"Give it your best shot," Tony whispers.