"The good man is the man who, no matter how morally unworthy he has been, is moving to become better." - John Dewey
The explosion shook a three-block radius, almost entirely razing the surrounding buildings to the ground.
Luckily, the area was relatively deserted, and no injuries were reported in the wake of the explosion. Officials were quick to follow that the explosion had no dangerous after-effects—although a number of news stations were still quite distressed about the possibility—and the area was still safe for those who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Regardless, the disaster was covered by every major news station, some more informed than others. Immediately, the speculation began on the possible cause of the explosion, citing unsafe chemical storage regulations and sparking a nationwide outcry for reform.
The explosion was on a Thursday. Schools closed for the weekend. Curious teenagers harassed the men and women in uniform they saw leaving the scene. Some noticed the eagle logo stamped on the vans, others snapped pictures. Despite this, the public’s attention was a fickle thing, and by the end of the week, the explosion was already becoming a passing memory.
Three hours after the explosion, Steve received a call. The infinity gauntlet was gone.
"How is it gone," Steve shouted. A few of the lower-rank SHIELD operatives in the room shifted nervously. They were watching him warily, their hands a little too close to their holsters for comfort, but Steve didn’t care. One of the most powerful weapons in the world was stolen from a secret storage facility, and SHIELD never even knew what hit them. "Who took it?"
When SHIELD had insisted that the Avengers turn the Infinity Gauntlet over to them for storage, Steve had trusted that they understood the gravity of the situation, the importance of keeping the location secure and secret. Any number of supervillains would have killed to get their hands on a weapon like that, and any one of them, if given the chance, would be a formidable opponent. It had been a hard-fought battle the first time, and somehow, miraculously, they’d pulled through.
Steve honestly wasn’t sure they were capable of stopping someone with that kind of power second time.
But he sure as hell wasn’t going to lose any of his people because SHIELD screwed up.
"Captain Rogers," Maria said plainly, "maybe you should sit down."
"That's not an answer," Steve snapped, pushing the chair away from him hard enough to bang it against the table.
The other Avengers shifted uncomfortably, expressions ranging from worry to unease to anger. They'd all dealt with the infinity gems before. They knew how dangerous each of the gems could be alone, but together, and in the wrong hands—
God help them.
Carol rested one hand lightly on his arm, and Steve allowed himself a moment to breathe harshly through his nose. He needed to calm down.
"Show him what you showed us," Photon said, her arms crossed in front of her chest. Steve glanced at her, looking for some kind of hint, and she just nodded toward the envelope Maria slid in front of him.
Steve took the first photo from the top of the stack, a blurry image caught in the instant of a fiery explosion, a haze of smoke just enough to obscure the barest shadow of red and gold. He inhaled sharply and clenched his fist.
Steve could scarcely believe what he was looking at, the monstrosity looming before him that had crawled out of the water like some kind of C list movie monster. The automaton towered over even the nearby buildings, its claws opening and closing menacingly.
He couldn’t fathom what they were designed to do, other than plow through city streets dealing as much damage as possible. And frankly, with the kinds of supervillains that the Avengers encountered on a near weekly basis, that was probably exactly what it had been designed to do.
Some days, Steve missed the relative normalcy of the forties. Days like this were not one of those days.
“Carol,” Steve shouted over the wind, barely containing his grin, “Drop me on the shoulder!”
“You got it, Cap,” Carol said, already swooping down to drop him off. As soon as his feet touched metal she veered upwards, pulling a fist back to strike the automaton squarely on the jaw. The entire thing swayed backwards with the hit, but the shoulder was plenty wide enough to keep Steve from dropping off the side.
Steve ran up the length of the shoulder, heading for the seam between the neck and the torso. If he could find the controls to this thing, sever something important while the flyers kept the thing distracted, he would be about to stop it.
“Oh, shit,” Steve heard over the comms, and immediately he turned to scan the sky for Falcon. He found him almost instantly, heading back toward the harbor. Back toward—
A second automaton, identical to the first, was trudging its way out of the water. Steve watched it for a second, distracted, eyes away from the target.
(He should have known better, really, than to allow himself to get distracted.)
He didn’t see the giant arm swinging around to grab at him until it was too late to duck, the pincers closing loosely around him—they weren’t built for fine motion, but they did the job, effectively pinning him for the two seconds they needed to for the spring in the shoulder to engage, flinging Steve off the thing’s back and out over open water.
Sam was too far away.
That was the first thing that really went through Steve’s mind. There was no way he was going to make it in time to catch him, and both Captain Marvel and Photon were occupied with the second enormous automaton that had risen from the harbor, its joints making wet, mechanical sucking sounds as water spilled down its outer hull.
It was a long way to the water from where the first automaton had thrown him, and it was going to hurt like hell.
Steve threw out his arms, trying to twist mid-air, to put himself into a position better suited into a high dive into water. Feet first would hurt a hell of a lot less than an uncoordinated fall, with a lot lower chance for damage, and at least then he could rejoin the fight before—
Steve managed to turn a fraction in the air, not enough to right himself, but enough to catch the flash of red out of the corner of his eye, a moment before it caught him.
It, in this case, happened to be another robot. This one was much smaller than the two gargantuan creatures attacking the city, only barely larger than a normal-sized man. It caught him under the arms, pulling down into a wide arc to slow his descent before pulling up abruptly to hover a few feet above the surface.
"Fancy meeting you here," the robot said, and the amused note to his voice, even with the synthesizer from the speakers, made Steve pause. Maybe he wasn't a robot after all.
“Thanks for the save,” Steve said.
The man shrugged, jostling Steve a little. "Don't mention it, Cap."
Steve had never seen him before, and as far as he knew, he wasn't anyone SHIELD had ever mentioned in a debriefing. Was he a new superhero?
He must have asked that out loud, because the man laughed, a burst of static sounding through his speakers. "Close… but no cigar," he said. "You can call me Iron Man." He lowered Steve down to only a few feet above the water, and then dropped him altogether. Steve made a big enough splash to get the bottom of the man’s jet boots wet, and he quickly kicked to the surface, sputtering and swiping the water from his face.
Steve could see that Carol had noticed them and was already on her way over, and Iron Man noticed her too.
"Now if you'll excuse me," Iron Man said, looking distractedly over his shoulder. "I'm on a very tight schedule."
And then just like that he vanished, streaking off across the bay.
It wasn't until later that Steve learned that Iron Man had beaten them to the scientist responsible for the destruction—and the technology controlling the automatons vanished with him.
The infinity gauntlet disappeared, and Iron Man with it. No matter what SHIELD tried, they couldn’t track his whereabouts, and eventually, they had to face the reality that the wouldn’t be finding Iron Man until he made his next move.
Hopefully, it wouldn’t be too late.
Steve stopped at the kiosk on the corner near his apartment. He bought a newspaper, politely declined the man’s offer to sell him one of the magazines along the back rack, and then bought a bag of pretzels instead to appease him.
He usually liked to take the paper with him to the park when the weather was this nice, but this soon after a big fight alongside the Avengers, someone was sure to recognize him as Captain America, and he wasn’t really in the mood for the attention that would bring.
Instead Steve tucked the paper under his arm so he could fish his wallet out of his back pocket and pay the man, and then he headed back to his apartment.
His apartment was much larger than one person could ever need. For his first few weeks out of the ice, he hadn’t really had a place of his own to stay. Eventually he’d been offered the choice between several of SHIELD’s safe houses in New York, something he suspected had been Jan’s doing, but had never been able to confirm. Steve picked the apartment in Brooklyn, partly because it was familiar, but also because of all the floor plans he’d seen, this apartment was the least over-the-top.
It still felt empty, with an extra guest bedroom and an enormous kitchen and bath, and Steve had rattled around in it for months before Jan and Sam had ganged up on him and forced him to decorate.
He tossed his keys on the table and pulled the curtains open before setting down on the couch. Their battle with the automatons had made the front page, and Steve scanned the article quickly. It didn’t look like the Daily Bugle had managed to photograph anything particularly extraordinary from the fight. They led with an image of Photon and Warbird dragging one of the robots up by its arm. All in all, it was a flattering photograph, which was all he could really hope for when it came to the Bugle.
The article didn’t mention anything about Iron Man. Steve skimmed through the rest of the newspaper, checking quickly to see if the story might have been continued on another page. He wasn’t surprised to find nothing. It had been a longshot to begin with. He’d asked Jan about Iron Man earlier, and she hadn’t known much more than Steve did, other than that he’d only just recently appeared.
That did give him idea, though. Steve drummed his fingers of the table, considering, but… he didn’t have anything else to do today, and he didn’t really want to sit around, alone, in his too-large apartment either.
Mind made up, Steve grabbed his keys again and headed back for the door. He knew the library held on to old issues from a number of different newspapers, and with a little luck, he might find something useful.
“Rogers. I have an assignment for you.”
The Avengers didn’t actually work for SHIELD, and while they did offer them their assistance, it wasn’t actually the director’s place to give Steve assignments. Steve knew better than to point as much out to Maria Hill, so he followed her, curious to see what she had to say.
“Your new friend just blew up a factory in Long Island,” Maria said. “I want you to take your team and find out what we’re dealing with here.”
“My friend?” Steve asked, even as she handed him the file. He flipped it open, and the leading photo was a candid shot of Iron Man, catching Steve mid-fall. The Bugle probably would have killed for that photo. “Very funny,” Steve said. “Do you know why?”
“That’s what we want you to find out,” Maria said. “He’s a fairly new face, so we aren’t sure what to expect yet. The leading theory is that he’s some kind of anti-capitalist extremist. He’s attacked three big-name corporations so far, and he’s showing no signs of stopping.”
“And all three of the attacks revealed his targets to be either conspiring with criminals, or a shell corporation for something larger,” Steve pointed out, citing the scattered newspapers he’d managed to find at the library. They painted an interesting, if blurry, picture of Iron Man, once he’d made it through the obviously biased papers. Maria narrowed her eyes at him.
“You’ve done your research,” she said. “Though I can’t say much for your sources. You need to stay away from the conspiracy theories, Rogers. The man is clearly a menace.”
“You need to stay away from the Daily Bugle,” Steve countered, and she glared at him. “Jameson’s not much better, sometimes.”
“I want the Avengers to look into this,” she said, ignoring the barb, “See that it happens.”
“Yes sir,” Steve said, already heading for the door. The file listed an address for a factory belonging to Cybertek Systems Inc., so that was where they needed to start.
When the Avengers arrived at the scene, Steve was expecting calamity. What he found instead was rather tame compared to the report he’d read. It wasn’t literally razed to the ground, but even from hundreds of feet in the air as they took the Quinjet in for landing, Steve could see that it would need an enormous amount of reconstruction to get it back into working order.
The factory was missing a majority of its west wall, and the front doors had been blown inward in what Steve assumed had been Iron Man’s idea of a dramatic entrance.
There were fire trucks and ambulances in the parking lot. The building was still smoldering, and Steve could see that the firemen were watching it carefully should the blaze flare up again. The paramedics looked like they were preparing to leave, packing up lazily in a way that told Steve there were no patients waiting for them inside the trucks.
Maria warned the man in charge that the Avengers would be coming to investigate, and according to her report to Steve he was less than thrilled to have them. Steve could understand a little degree of wariness, especially with a team of people with superpowers coming to his factory not long after having the place destroyed by an armored supervillain.
The company’s supervisor, Clayton Burr, was a squat, unpleasant man who seemed absolutely determined to keep SHIELD (and the Avengers) off his property. Steve and Sam shared a look, and Jan had hardly been able to keep the grimace out of her smile when she went to speak to him, and Steve quickly offered to talk to him instead.
“There you are,” he snapped. “What the hell kind of operation do you think we’re running here? You think you can just send your people in willy-nilly blowing up my factories without a warrant, or.. or—”
“I can assure you Sir, he’s not one of ours,” Steve said, cutting him off sharply. The man sputtered, clearly unaware of that fact, but recovered quickly. Steve saw Jan’s eyes narrow over Clayton’s shoulder, and she slipped away quietly to let Steve do the interviewing alone.
“No, clearly he’s actually competent,” he snapped. Steve managed to contain his sigh, watching as Jan made her way toward a couple of factory workers standing just outside the building’s demolished wall.
“Do you have any idea what he could have wanted?” Steve asked.
His expression soured at that. “There are millions of dollars worth of technologies in this factory,” Clayton said. “He could have been after any of it.”
“Did he take anything?” Steve asked. Iron Man had been in and out much too quickly, so he’d either immediately found what he was after, or he’d realized that there was nothing in the factory for him, and beaten a hasty retreat. From the glimpse of the building that Steve could see through the enormous hole in the side wall, he was willing to put his money on the latter. The place was in a disarray, filthy with scorched burns and rubble, and Steve was willing to guess that the extra, superfluous damage was a result of frustration.
“I’d rather handle the investigation within the company, if you don’t mind,” he said defensively. He glanced back to where Steve was looking inside the building, clearly nervous.
Steve did mind, actually, but he didn’t think that saying as much would ingratiate him with the man. “Listen,” Steve said. “If you can’t give us anything, we can’t help you. So let me ask again: do you have any idea at all what Iron Man could have been after, or where he could be headed next?”
Burr stared at him stubbornly, and Steve sighed. “Well, if you change your mind, let us know.”
Steve stomped off to the next group of workers, but it was clear that someone had gotten to them first. If they ever knew anything at all, they’d been informed them to keep their mouths shut. Steve didn’t manage to extract anything of use from any of them.
Judging by the other Avenger’s faces when they reconvened inside the Quinjet, they hadn’t had much luck, either.
“Well that was a waste of time,” Monica said.
“Yeah, where are we even supposed to start?” Sam asked, sounding frustrated.
“Why don’t we ask Jan?” Steve said.
Steve turned to glance over his shoulder at her, and she managed to keep a straight face for a moment, before finally breaking into a mischievous grin.
“Okay, how did you know?” she asked, reaching into her pocket to pull out a folded piece of paper.
Steve had noticed her disappear for a few minutes while he was talking to Burr. It wasn’t hard to guess what she had been up to, especially after he’d seen her grow to her full height just outside the building and casually slip back into the group. Steve simply grinned and gestured for her to explain.
Jan unfolded the paper she’d swiped from the man’s office, and then flipped it over in her hands.
“According to this, there’s another factory upstate that’s been making the same exact products. This is a requisition order requesting that their surplus supplies and workers be trucked over. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen their equipment.” She pointed through the gaping hole in the wall, to the factory within. “The machines practically man themselves. That seems like a lot of work, money, and resources moving upstate for prosthetics they’re supposed to be old-hat at making.”
“They were moving something else,” Carol suggested.
“Most likely,” Steve said, “whatever they were moving was exactly what Iron Man was looking for. Carol?”
“I’m on it,” Carol said, sliding into the pilot’s chair.
“Good work, Jan,” Steve said. “We should hurry.”
If Iron Man had just attacked Burr’s factory only to realize that his target had been shipped upstate, and Burr knew this, then no doubt the other factory was scrambling to up their security details in anticipation of another attack. Steve pulled the maps of the building’s area up, spreading them out in front of him while they made the flight. It wasn’t a large building, and there wouldn’t be a lot of places for...whatever it was Iron Man was after to be kept.
At top speed, it was only a matter of minutes before they were approaching their destination. The building was suspiciously quiet when they touched down, especially considering that Steve had expected their security to have increased incredibly after Iron Man’s previous assault.
Carol landed just beside the building, and Steve popped the hatch on the jet almost before they had touched dirt. The cargo door was standing open, no one in sight. Monica flew in ahead, pulling up short once she’d reached a stack of crates dropped haphazardly on the floor, like they’d been in the process of being moved when something had interrupted. One of them had broken open upon the fall, its contents spewing across the floor.
“Jesus christ,” Monica said. The open crate was stacked full of weaponry, high end, military grade, and very, very illegal. She flew quickly over to another stack of crates, ripping it open, and raised the contents for the rest of them to see: identical to the first box. “This just got a hell of a lot more complicated.”
There were crates just like this one stacked floor to ceiling as far as Steve could see. Did all of them contain weapons, like this one did? God. This was supposed to be a robotics factory. Prosthetics. How much of their production costs were actually going toward paying for these?
“I was wondering if you were going to make an appearance.” Steve jumped, whirled toward the voice, and found himself face to face with Iron Man. “Avengers,” he said. “Cap.”
“What’s going on here?” Steve asked.
“Oh, you know...” he said whimsically. Iron Man stared at him, then cocked his head to the side as though considering. He glanced around the room. “Just cleaning up.”
He raised one repulsor glove, and Steve flinched, realizing what he was planning to do. He brought one arm up to cover his face. Monica was faster than all of them, and he had him around the waist in an instant, flinging them both back through the open doorway. Carol and Jan were not far behind, followed by a blindingly bright flash—and then Iron Man fired.
All hell broke loose.
The explosion was deafeningly loud and burned searingly hot, and Steve shielded his eyes from the blast. His ears were ringing, and though he couldn’t hear it, he could feel the walls collapsing in on themselves in the main factory.
When the smoke cleared, Iron Man was gone.
“What the hell,” Steve coughed, “just happened?”
It took SHIELD days to track Iron Man down after the theft of the infinity gauntlet, and every second they went without news only managed to set Steve on edge. When Iron Man finally resurfaced, it was in one of the fringe warehouses in New Jersey that SHIELD kept stowed away mostly for storage. As far as Steve knew, there wasn’t anything particularly valuable kept in any of them, but Iron Man’s motivations didn’t concern him this time.
"Iron Man," Steve growled, stepping from the shadows into the harsh light of the main warehouse overheads.
Iron Man didn't fully turn to look at him, didn't have to with the panoramic view of his HUD. He just glanced to the side, the slightest twitch of his helmet to acknowledge Steve's presence, before he stood gracefully and cocked his head to the side. He'd blown a hole straight through the roof with one quick burst from his gauntlet, and the sunlight streamed in through the rend in the ceiling, glancing blindingly off his armor.
He should demand Iron Man return the gauntlet. Normally Steve would tell Iron Man that he was under arrest, that he was coming with Steve back to SHIELD, and they'd banter like old friends.
But things had changed, and Steve was starting to wonder if they’d ever been friendly at all, or if Iron Man had only been taking advantage of him all this time, if he'd simply dropped the act when Steve had been run through his usefulness.
"Why?" Steve asked, because he'd never known Iron Man to do anything like this, and—he needed to know. “What were you thinking?”
Iron Man was silent for a long moment, watching the data stream across the computer display.
"There are things you don't understand," Iron Man finally decided. “And you might, some day, but certainly not if I can help it.” He was uploading something onto his armor. Steve could see the images and files flitting across the screen behind him, and Iron Man glanced back at him before the screen blinked once and went dark. "It was fun. While it lasted."
“Fun?” Steve shouted, suddenly angry. “Was all of this just a game to you?” Iron Man didn’t respond, unusually impassive. "Do you even understand how powerful that gauntlet is? What it's capable of?" Steve asked.
"I was counting on it," Iron Man said, and even with the voice modulator, the words sounded hollow. "I'd hoped—" He trailed off, shook himself once, and said, "Well. It doesn't matter now. Suffice to say, you won’t have to worry about the gauntlet anymore."
And then he was in the air, jet boots firing so explosively that in an instant Steve was left alone, a scorched streak burned into the floor in his wake.
Normally, when Iron Man got away, Steve didn't feel this empty.
Steve kept low among the crates of machine parts as the pilot rattled off his number and flight plan, awaiting confirmation. They were approaching the Helicarrier already, Steve assumed to deliver these parts and the scientists that were chatting pleasantly in cockpit, unaware of the influence that their pilots were under, or that they were about to be under, as soon as the plane opened into the hangar. They were young, no doubt brilliant, but naive.
Steve knew that he could stop the plane, prevent the pilots from returning immediately, and they would eventually come back to themselves.
Purple Man’s influence relied on pheromones and vocal instructions—as soon as a person was cut off from that, they began to shake loose from his control. Steve wasn’t clear on how Purple Man had gotten into the Helicarrier, but he’d managed to make it all the way to the environmental controls before anyone had realized he was inside. By then, it was too late.
He’d personally told Steve his plan in those first stomach-roiling minutes that he had been under his influence. Purple Man was either too arrogant to believe that Steve would be able to shake his influence, or unaware that Steve would remember what he’d heard afterwards. The goal was world domination—unsurprising, really, for the types of villains they encountered recently—by developing the technology needed to boost his own abilities to a global scale.
Steve’s only solace at this point was that it was clear Purple Man didn’t yet know how to do it. As long as he was forcing SHIELD's scientists to work, Steve still had time.
Purple Man has severely underestimated the amount of time it would take for Steve to come back to himself, and he’d made the mistake of sending him to oversee the collection of resources and scientists that could help him. Either due to sheer willpower or his advanced metabolism, their flight had been hardly two minutes out before the grogginess took over as Steve came back to his senses.
Unfortunately, the three other SHIELD agents accompanying him hadn’t been as resistant, and Steve had only barely managed to make sure that the plane was landed safely. By now Killgrave would certainly know what had happened, but Steve was hoping that the same arrogance that had led him to telling Steve his whole plan would keep him believing that if Steve did return, he would be able to get him under his influence once again.
He felt the wheels touch down in the hangar, and used the resulting noise to shift around and out of direct view of the cargo doors. Now came the hard part. Ideally, Steve would be able to slip inside without immediately attracting attention, and stay out of sight for as long as possible while making his way toward the environmental controls.
Steve was fairly certain that if he could shut down the air circulation and the internal and external broadcasting, he could cut Killgrave off from the majority of his victims. Maybe then, he would be able to bring the other Avengers around. He grit his teeth and reminded himself that it would do no good to search for them. Until he could actually get through to them, he had to assume they would be okay.
Steve crept down, so that he was barely inside the plane, and peered into the hangar. There were SHIELD agents scattered throughout, but no Avengers, and it was clear that he wasn’t going to successfully get inside the building without someone spotting him. Still, he may be able to get inside without someone realizing that he had turned sides, especially if Killgrave hadn’t yet had the chance to inform the entire compound that he was a possible traitor.
Mind made, Steve picked up the nearest box, steeled himself, and began walking with purpose in the direction that the rest of the agents were walking. No one seemed to notice him, but that didn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t going to, only that they hadn’t yet had the chance. Steve dropped the box in the stack with the rest, and then headed as casually as he could toward the labs.
There, he could cut through the building and hopefully make it to maintenance. Sneaking through maintenance conduits would be a lot easier than picking his way through a crowd, and that way he could hopefully avoid conflict with the other Avengers as well. Steve didn’t delude himself into believing Purple Man wasn’t keeping them all up to speed on Steve’s status—he was sure to have convinced them Steve was the enemy by now, especially since Steve ran a large risk of then turning the other Avengers as well if he make them distrust him.
Steve had almost made it to the doorway, when someone stopped him. “Captain,” they called, grabbing him by the arm, and Steve barely resisted the urge to sprint.
“Take this to the bridge,” he pressed an open-topped crate into Steve’s arms, filled with random parts. “Doctor McLain knows what to do with them.”
“Of course,” Steve said, keeping his voice steady. He waited for him to turn before turning away himself and slipping into the nearest room. Steve dropped the box on a bench top and cut across the room to exit out the opposite door.
The hall Steve ducked into way empty, and he did his best to appear purposeful strolling through an empty hallway, into a lab and out the other end. The lack of foot traffic was the first indication that something was wrong that Steve had encountered so far, other than the overt feeling that something was pressing down on him, willing him to relinquish control. He was fairly certain Purple Man didn’t know he was here yet, or he would have sent the other Avengers after him, but it was only a matter of time.
Steve hadn’t expected Purple Man’s powers to be quite so strong, especially now that he was aware of his influence, but Steve could still think clearly, and knew enough to keep from falling back into his control again.
Steve ducked into a side hallway to let a group of three past. They were clearly headed toward the hangars, two scientists and a pilot, and Steve wondered if they were being sent out for more recruits.
Steve had nearly made it to maintenance, the risk of being spotted eliminated almost entirely once he had, when he heard a familiar voice on the other side of a door ajar. Steve sprinted back the way he’d come, ducking round a corner the moment he heard the door swing open.
“If Cap comes back, he’s going to try to stop us,” Sam said. “You know he will.”
“I can’t believe he’s turned,” Carol said. “He was one of the best guys I know.”
“Dude’s been fighting the good fight for over forty years. I’m not surprised that he’s resistant to the idea of peace. I swear to god, when he’s made up his mind, a ten-ton boulder would be easier to move. But I’m not about to let him stop us when we’re this close.”
He wanted to try to talk to them, to help them remember who’s side they were really on, but he couldn’t risk it. Steve slunk back, and forced himself to leave his friends for the time being. It was the right decision—the only way to help them now was to break the Purple Man’s hold on them.
Steve stepped back into the nearest doorway, gently trying the knob, but it was locked. If Carol came around the corner into the hallway, she might not immediately see him, but unless she stopped there, there was no way he wasn’t going to be caught. He could hear Carol’s footsteps coming closer, and mentally prepared himself to get the first strike.
She had just come into view, her eyes focused down the hall and away from him, when Steve heard Killgrave’s voice, small and distorted, from back the direction that she had come.
“Falcon,” he said, and Carol paused, looking back toward Sam and away from Steve. Steve grit his teeth, and tried to keep his focus on the task at hand, and not on the voice itself, compelling as it was even with Steve aware and actively resisting him. “It seems Iron Man has decided to drop in for a visit. Hangar one. Go greet him, will you? Find out what he wants.”
Steve cursed internally. Iron Man? How many other villains had already learned that Purple Man was in control of SHIELD, and how long would it be before more of them took advantage. Carol disappeared from view again, and Steve could hear her and Sam’s retreating briskly in the other direction, toward Hangar One. He couldn’t afford to follow them—had to take advantage of the momentary distraction.
Steve had just let himself into auxiliary control when the Helicarrier shook, the sound of an explosion far too close to have come from anywhere other than just a few hallways away.
The door slammed against the back wall, rattling the computers on the desk and setting Steve’s teeth on edge. When he turned, he expected to see Carol or Monica, obviously under Purple Man’s control but still more than capable of keeping Steve from achieving his goal.
Instead, he saw Iron Man, smoke still streaming from his suit, and he pulled a hand up immediately when he saw Steve, weapons charging. Steve wasn’t sure how he’d managed to get this far, shake off whichever Avengers Purple Man had sent his way, or what kind of alliance they’d struck that had brought him here in the first place.
Steve suspected that Iron Man hasn’t ever seriously fought the Avengers in the past—his strategy was more along the lines of keeping them distracted until he could make an escape—but he didn’t doubt that he was at least a match for Steve. If the rest of the Avengers came to join him, well. Steve was self-aware enough to know that he’d never stand a chance.
“Don’t do this Iron Man,” Steve said. “I don’t want to fight you. I’ve got more important things to do.”
“Sorry, Cap, but it’s for your own good,” he said, and Steve immediately began to bring his shield up, ready to deflect the blast. “Once you’re back to your senses you’ll thank me.” He fired, but Steve was too fast, deflecting the beam and dodging back behind the main controls. Something about what Iron Man had said struck him, and he paused, still ducked behind the computer.
“What do you mean, back to my senses?”
“Purple Man is controlling you, Cap. And everyone in this building. I know he’s probably ordered you to guard that computer but I need to—“
“Shut down the vents, I know,” Steve offered, and Iron Man dropped off mid-sentence. “I’m not under his control.” He hesitated, and then decided to take a leap of faith, standing cautiously. “I’m not guarding anything. I’m here to override the environmental controls.”
Iron Man stopped, lowering his gauntlets. “Oh, thank god. I was really not looking forward to zapping you. Now let’s hurry,” he said, flying over to one of the computers. When the security clearance request popped up, Iron Man started for it, but Steve brushed him away, quickly typing in his password. It accepted him without any struggle.
“Well,” Iron Man said, “That was a lot easier than I expected.” He was already accessing the controls for the building, and Steve could see that the vents on the first three levels had sealed off.
“You’re very good at this,” Steve said.
“Thanks. Practice,” Iron Man said. He had tripped the biohazard warning, and the vents sealed automatically as a result.
“No, I mean very good at this. Why do you know how to—”
“How are you not under Purple Man’s control?” Iron Man asked, quickly changing the topic. Steve could hear the grin in his voice. Steve gave him a look, but answered his question anyway.
“Willpower, and a high metabolism, mostly.” Steve replied. He watched Iron Man access the flight deck systems and remotely lock out access to the jet bays. “You might as well open all the hangar doors, hopefully it will air out faster.”
“Hopefully,” Iron Man said. “It looks like Purple Man has rerouted all control to the bridge. He knows where we are.”
“Fine,” Steve said. “We’ll just have to keep the people he sends our way distracted until we can get them to snap out of it. Once we do, I’ll lead a team to retake the bridge.”
“I’m going to head to Communications and block internal and external communications. If he can’t give them orders, it might be easier to snap your friends out of it.”
“Good luck,” Steve said. He mentally mapped out his route—it would take him roughly ten minutes to reach the bridge from here, judging by the number of men he expected to run into. Iron Man would fare better, with much less resistance along the way. Steve turned to stop him before he could leave. “And Iron Man?” he called. “Thank you.”
Iron Man mock-saluted him, and then blasted down the corridor, the noise surely drawing every man within earshot to follow him. Steve split off in the other direction, heading toward the bridge. After six minutes, Steve could see that Purple Man’s control was slipping, and he knew that the environmental controls were down. It was only a matter of time.
At least Purple Man wasn’t stupid—by the time Steve arrived, he was already prepared to surrender. There was nothing left to do but set things right.
Steve found Sam in the medical bay, a few hours later, once he’d managed to find a doctor that could outfit Purple Man with the power dampener needed to transport him to prison. He felt a lot better now that he was safely contained in the Raft.
Sam was lying on a cot, an arm slung over his eyes. Jan was sitting on the opposite bed, feet hanging off the edge, her head between her hands. When Steve walked in, she glanced up, and then groaned, dropping her head back into her hands.
“How are you even functioning?” she asked. “I feel like I’m hungover.”
“A hangover would be preferable right now,” Sam said without removing his arm.
“They just got the air circulation back online,” Steve said. “Once the last of the pheromones are clear, I’m sure you’ll feel a lot better.”
Steve glanced up when Maria entered, then back at Sam. “In the meantime, if you think for a second I’m letting you live this down, you’re nuts. ‘A ten-ton boulder would be easier to move’? Really? I’m hurt.”
“Oh, god,” Sam said. “You can’t hold me accountable for what I said under the influence of Purple Man.”
“Oh, but I can,” Steve said.
“Captain,” Maria interrupted. “I see we have more than you to thank for taking down Purple Man.”
Steve stalled. He’d completely forgotten about Iron Man in the struggle. “Is Iron Man still here?” he asked, fleetingly hoping that he’d jumped to conclusions too early when he didn’t find any sign of him in communications.
Maria scoffed. “He’s long gone,” she said. “And before you get it into your head that he’s some kind of hero—he made off with half of SHIELD’s restricted files.”
“Shit,” Steve said.
“Yeah,” Maria said. “Shit.” She sighed. “Next time, when you decide to team up with a supervillain in our headquarters, keep an eye on him.”
Steve nodded, but he found he was...surprisingly okay with how things had turned out. Iron Man hadn’t needed to help them, and if he’d worked with Purple Man, he would have gotten more than a few files. Without his help, things could have been a lot worse.
Maria was a smart woman. She’d probably already realized the same thing.
Iron Man executed five attacks in as many days, tearing through his targets—more SHIELD than private companies, these days—and leaving destruction in his wake. His apparent targets were random, seemingly unrelated, and he was always gone before the Avengers arrived on the scene.
It seemed Iron Man was done talking.
Steve had been able to see the fire from his apartment, and he’d quickly pulled on his uniform and made his way to the scene, but not before calling Sam. He wasn’t sure that this was going to be a situation worthy of the Avengers just yet, but it was always a good idea to have backup, even if it ended up that the New York Fire Department had the fire well contained when he arrived.
There were plenty of gawkers already gathering, and Steve couldn’t help the growing irritation when they turned their attentions on him. It was one thing to watch the building go up in flames but another thing entirely to physically block his advancement toward the scene of an emergency.
He could already tell, if the crowd was anything like these people, that the first responders weren’t going to take kindly to a costume being there, and normally Steve wouldn’t get in their way. It was usually worse to try to help where you weren’t wanted than it was to stand on the sidelines.
Steve was expecting to be brushed aside, but the moment Steve, arrived one of the firemen waved him over.
Iron Man was already inside.
They didn’t think that he was the cause of the fire, since he’d arrived after even they had, but it was clear that they were suspicious. Steve couldn’t blame them. If the only information he had to go on was the late night news, Steve would be pretty nervous around Iron Man, too.
Someone had seen him enter through a third-story window, but he hadn’t come back out. That was several minutes ago, and they were wary to send their people to the higher floors now that the supervillain was inside. The firemen were continuing to try to contain the fire from the outside and below, but that was all they were able to do, with someone like Iron Man potentially putting all of their men in danger.
Steve had no such qualms. "Keep up the good work," he told the volunteer before going inside himself.
The first two floors weren’t terribly difficult to navigate. The smell of smoke was thick in the air, but it seemed that the flames hadn’t reached this far. The worst of the damage was on the upper floors, and while that didn’t bode well for the structural integrity of the building if those floors decided to come down, it at least meant that he made his way through the first few rooms without much trouble.
His skin felt hot and tight in the heat of the fire, and Steve could feel the sweat dripping down his forehead, and the back of his neck where the cowl met his suit. He coughed and covered his mouth as well as he could. The suit protected him from the heat, mostly, but the smoke was another matter, and while it hadn’t been quite as bad on the first two levels of the building, it was billowing in thick, acrid plumes from somewhere on the third floor.
As the saying went, where there was smoke, there was fire, and though it was a little more literal than Steve would have liked in this situation, he was willing to bet that Iron Man would not be far from the source of the flames.
He wasn’t disappointed.
Steve found Iron Man in one of the alcoves outside the third floor offices. The room was hazy with smoke, and the once-beige carpet was now something much closer to black with soot. He looked like he was trying to get inside one of the offices when Steve rounded the corner. Steve coughed, trying to clear the grit from his lungs, and Iron Man turned, startled.
“Jesus,” Iron Man said when he saw Steve. “You idiot. What are you doing here?”
“What, you’re not happy to see me?” Steve asked.
“I didn’t say that,” Iron Man said. Steve laughed, and then had to fight back a fit of coughing.
“I’m doing same thing you are, if I had to guess,” Steve replied, his voice already growing chalky and rough from the heat and smoke. “Do all supervillains make a habit of rescuing kittens from burning buildings, or is that just you?”
“Do all heroes charge into burning buildings without an oxygen tank, or is that just you?” Iron Man countered. Steve could practically feel the disapproval radiating off Iron Man, and for a moment he was sure the man was considering whether he could get away with flying Steve out of the building and leaving him on a rooftop somewhere.
He turned his back on Steve again, clearly focused on the task at hand. “There’s a man trapped inside this room. Help me with this,” he said, “before you pass out from smoke inhalation and I have to drag you out, too.”
There was a large support beam leaning half-against a doorway. Steve could see that from the way that it had fallen, the beam had destabilized and come loose, but not entirely broken. It was still bearing the load of a good portion of the ceiling, as far as Steve could tell, but they wouldn’t be able to move it entirely without bringing the ceiling down on top of them.
“I’ll hold this up, and you go inside,” Iron Man said, and then added, “and be quick about it. The air conditioning in this tin can isn’t as good as I’d like it to be.”
“I’m sure it’s better in there than it is out here,” Steve said, moving into position beside the door.
“Only just,” Iron Man said, and then, “Get ready.”
Iron Man gripped the sides of the pillar, firing his jet boots on low power. The ceiling shuddered and spat flecks of dust and debris on them as he slowly shifted the support closer to its original position. Once he’d pushed it back as far as it would go, he’d left Steve just enough room to get around them through the door.
It took three well-placed kicks to shatter the lock, splintering the wood in the frame and causing it to hang somewhat loosely on its hinge. Steve pulled the door open and another wave of smoke hit him. He coughed violently, and Iron man turned, looking as concerned as the impassive helmet allowed him.
“I’m fine,” Steve confirmed before he could ask. He pushed the door the rest of the way open and stepped inside. It was a tiny corner office, and Steve could see that while the fire hadn’t spread into the room yet, it was certainly burning inside the walls. An electrical fire, maybe, caused by faulty wiring somewhere, could have caused the fire to spread unnoticed for long enough that the fire became unmanageable even before anyone had the chance to evacuate the building.
Smoke leaked through the cracks in the wall where the insulation didn’t quite hold, and the walls on all sides burned hot enough that Steve could feel the heat at a distance. It wouldn’t be long now before the fire ate through the rest of the walls, or perhaps the floor beneath them, and the building’s structure was compromised too much to stay standing.
The room itself was just a normal office building, and Steve was struck by the thought that Iron Man must have come deliberately in response to the fire. There was nothing he could have possibly wanted from this place. Steve smiled.
There was a man lying next to the window, and Steve rushed over to check on him. He crouched and pressed his fingers to the man’s throat, and sighed in relief when he found a strong pulse. The window was cracked open, though it was one of the kinds that didn’t open more than three inches without locking it place. It certainly wasn’t enough to escape through, but the fresh air had probably saved his life in all of this smoke.
Steve shook him, trying to rouse him, and then decided quickly to give up on that pursuit. There wasn’t enough time to try to wake him, not with the smoke slowly pressing in on them from within the walls, so he stooped down next to him and slung the man’s arm over his shoulder, lifting him into a fireman carry. He gave the room another quick once-over before deciding that there was no one else that he was missing. He stepped back toward the exit, and then shouted in surprise as his foot punched through a weak spot in the floor, swallowing his boot half-way up his calf. He could feel the heat intensely through the leather of his pants, and he quickly ripped his foot free and sprinted the last few feet out of the office as the floor creaked ominously, shuddered, and then finally settled once more.
“Are you all right?” Iron Man asked. He sounded concerned, had probably heard Steve’s shout from the other room and been unable to see what had happened. Steve nodded, brushing the concern off. He wasn’t injured, though it had been a close call. The added weight of the man on his shoulders had been too much for the floor to take, but he hadn’t thought to check his footing after safely walking across the floor the first time, on his way into the room. He’d need to be careful when he retraced his steps to the entrance.
Iron Man nodded in his direction when Steve rejoined him outside the door. He lowered the support carefully back to where it had been resting against the door, not even straining from the effort despite how much such an enormous pillar must weigh when supporting the floor above them. Iron Man scanned the room then, pausing every ninety degrees to stare at the walls.
“There’s no one else on this floor,” he said. He turned to look up, at the ceiling, and after a moment added, “There are two more on the fourth floor. I think that’s the last of them.” He turned back to Steve, noting the way that Steve’s breath heaved in his chest, dragging a cough out of him occasionally. “Maybe I should take the two of you down to street level first,” he said, eyeing Steve with something that might have been doubt or concern.
“No,” Steve said. There was a fire ladder on the opposite side of the building. Steve had passed it on his way inside, and he knew the way back to it. “I’ve got this. You go.”
“Watch yourself,” Iron Man said. He rose to take off down the hallway, navigating the smoke-filled rooms much faster than Steve could ever hope to, likely thanks to the sensors on his helmet. Steve watched him go, but only for a moment, before he headed back toward the ladder.
He made good time, mindful of how long the man on his shoulders must have been inhaling smoke, as well as his own limitations. Steve beat Iron Man to street level, but only by moments. Once he reached the ground, the man slung over his shoulders was quickly carted off to one of the ambulances lying in wait.
Iron Man came out of the building just as one of the firefighters tried to steer Steve back further from the blaze, a shower of glass announcing his arrival as he blasted himself an exit. He lowered the two people down to the street, one under each arm as though he was carrying sacks of flour.
He set them down on the ground, very gently, and it was clear that both of the women were unconscious from smoke inhalation, just as the man had been.
The paramedics didn’t dare approach the women until Iron Man had taken off into the sky again, soot streaked and burning hot, and when he did Steve couldn’t help but notice the wave of relief that seemed to wash over the volunteers that he had finally gone.
Eventually, the excitement wound down, especially once Steve informed them that there was no one left inside, and that they could focus on containing the fire and keeping it from spreading—something that was already well under way. The crowd of spectators who had gathered to watch quickly dispersed once they saw that the fire was no longer actively burning, and that all the heroes and villains had gone without any fuss.
It took a little prodding, but Steve finally let one of the EMTs shoo him over to the back of an ambulance, once the others were properly treated or loaded into ambulances and taken away. One of the volunteers forced an oxygen mask on him and made him sit while they tended to another more serious case that had yet to be taken to the hospital.
It didn’t take Sam long to find him, but by the time he arrived, several minutes after he’d called, the firemen had already declared the building evacuated and set to putting the fire out in earnest. Sam didn’t seem surprised at all to see that Steve had gone on ahead into the building without waiting for him, but he did raise an eyebrow as Steve told him the whole story of what had happened. He glanced very pointedly around the area.
“So I see you let Iron Man go,” Sam said.
“I didn’t let him go,” Steve said indignantly.
“Right,” Sam said, nodding sagely. “You just didn’t try very hard to catch him.”
He wasn’t sure what Sam expected him to do, anyway. Iron Man had jet boots that could take him away faster than anyone save Monica or Carol. If he wanted to get away, he was going to whether Steve had anything to say about it or not.
Steve couldn’t deny that Sam was right, though—he hadn’t even gone through the motions of trying to take Iron Man in—so he stayed silent, focusing on taking measured breaths like the paramedics had asked him to.
“You all right?” Sam asked after a moment.
“Fine,” Steve confirmed. He pulled the oxygen mask away from his face and took a couple deep breaths, just to prove it. When Sam seemed satisfied he replaced the mask, if only to ward off the dirty looks the paramedic was shooting his way when she noticed that he’d taken it off.
“I guess we’ll let you off easy, this time, since you’re injured” Sam teased. Steve rolled his eyes as Sam continued, “Even though everyone knows that you wouldn’t have tried any harder to catch him if you were fighting fit and he was superglued to your—”
“Shut up,” Steve laughed, shoving Sam off the back of the ambulance. Sam laughed, but Steve sobered somewhat, when he added, “Iron Man saved those women.”
“What are you talking about, man?” Sam asked.
Steve gestured toward the where the other ambulances had been parked, despite the fact that the women in question had already been taken away. “He was already here when I get here. He helped me clear the building.”
“Well, that’s something,” Sam said. He turned to watch a tearful reunion between a bystander and one of the building’s occupants. “I just don’t understand that guy,” he admitted after a moment. “It’s like he doesn’t remember which side he’s on half the time.”
Steve nodded, and said, “I’m not so sure he’s on a side at all.”
Steve could tell, just from the way that Iron Man moved, that something was off about him.
His movements were stiffer than Steve was used to. He’d been fighting—for lack of a better term—with Iron Man for a long time, and he knew better than anyone how Iron Man moved, how he fought, and how he dodged. Normally, Iron Man was graceful, especially so in flight, and watching him now, the way he turned full front and passively stared Steve down with cold, glowing eyes, Steve knew that something was different.
“Iron Man?” he asked, creeping closer to him. He looked around the room, looking to see if any of the other storage units looked disturbed, looking for some sort of ulterior motive that Iron Man might have for being here, but he found none.
When he’d been alerted that Iron Man was raiding an explosives stockade, he hadn’t wanted to believe it. Now, the proof was right in front of him.
“Captain America,” Iron Man said in acknowledgement, or maybe just the barest of recognition, because it was usually Cap, or even Steve, but rarely was it ever Captain America.
Well, if this is how this was going to go, then Steve was fine with that. He was hardly in the mood for witty banter.
“Put the case down,” Steve said.
“This is a dangerous area,” Iron Man said, as though reciting from a cue card. “You should not be here.”
“You don’t really give me much of a choice,” Steve said. The contents of these cases were extremely volatile, and they both knew it. Steve couldn’t imagine that Iron Man could want them purely for their destructive power, though surely that was the reason that the materials were so heavily guarded. Iron Man didn’t go for raw destructive power, usually.
But then, Iron Man didn’t usually stare at him with such cold, empty eyes, either.
The armor’s faceplate had never seemed so unemotive. Iron Man was always full of energy, even behind the hard metal mask, the synthesized voice, Steve had always felt that he could really see the person behind the suit. Now Steve was having trouble reading him, almost as though the man wasn’t truly there, and Steve found himself wondering if he could have been wrong about Iron Man, if there really was more than one man behind the suit, or maybe even if the suit could operate separate from the user.
“Put the case down,” Steve repeated, almost shouted, but Iron Man made no move to comply.
“These material are needed,” Iron Man said. “I can’t afford to leave them behind.”
And with that he turned, ignoring Steve completely in favor of making his way to the exit, as though he was insignificant, not even a blip on Iron Man’s radar, and in that moment Steve saw red.
He flung his shield, hard, with the throw aimed perfectly for Iron Man’s arm. The blow struck the suit directly on the wrist, and the resounding clang was so loud it set Steve’s teeth on edge. He could actually hear the vibranium sheer through the outer casing of the plating on the wrist, and Iron Man’s gauntlet fritzed, spitting sparks. His hand flew open, the mechanisms articulating the fingers likely misfiring with the burst of feedback from the shorn open wires, and the case fell from his hand.
Steve had only a moment to regret the action, watching the case fall from his hand to the floor and remembering, belatedly once the deed was done, how volatile the contents could be, had they already been armed.
It landed on the ground with a dull thud. Nothing happened.
Steve breathed a sigh of relief, thankful for the protective casing that SHIELD had invested in to keep the materials contained in a shock-proof environment. He had only a moment to marvel at the ingenuity, though, because Iron Man whirled immediately on his heel and fired a short burst from his repulsors, aiming low.
Without his shield, Steve was forced to jump back and out of the way rather than try to avoid and deflect. His shield had ricocheted off the far wall, and he tucked and rolled, now, trying to reach it before Iron Man’s next attack.
Another attack never came. By the time Steve had sprung to his feet, shield ready for another blow, Iron Man had already scooped the case up from the floor and was gone.
“I don’t think SHIELD has as much on Iron Man as they think they do,” Steve said. He was scrolling idly through SHIELD’s file on Iron Man, which contained pages upon pages of conflicting criminal profiles.
Sam shot him a look over the top of his phone, and then turned back to texting whomever it was on the other end of that conversation. Probably Leila, if his besotted expression was anything to go by. Normally Steve would be ribbing him by now, but he actually wanted Sam to listen to what he had to say, so he withheld the teasing momentarily.
“No, I’m serious.” Steve hit the page down button a few times, flipping through reports. “Half of these reports are conflicting. The other half are inconclusive.”
“Well, if you actually bothered to read the report instead of hunting for conspiracies, you’d know that the leading theory is that there’s more than one person inside the suit,” Sam tapped a quick message out on his phone before adding, “I think the profilers know how to do their job.”
Steve scrolled to the bottom of the page, the conclusion, which seemed to be the only thing that any of them could agree on. Extremely dangerous. Do not engage.
“Well, I think they’re wrong about him. Or them,” Steve added, despite the fact that he felt like he knew Iron Man, and Iron Man knew him. Maybe there were more than one person behind the suit, but Steve was confident that he’d only ever met the one man.
Sam sighed, and rolled over on the couch so that he was actually facing Steve now.
“What exactly is it that you two get up to during your little tea parties?” he asked.
“Tea Parties?” Steve asked, ready and prepared to explain that they were not tea parties, Iron Man was his mission, but Sam cut him off.
“Nah, I’m serious. Because if the dude is brainwashing you, it is your duty as my friend to tell me, so that I know before he says the trigger word and you go crazy and try to kill us all.”
“We just talk, Sam,” Steve said defensively, scrolling very pointedly through one of the SHIELD scientist’s summaries of what was—and wasn’t—understood about Iron Man’s tech.
“Do you talk about brainwashing?” Sam asked. “Are you considering a life of supervillainy?”
“I’m being serious,” Steve said, fighting annoyance even though he knew Sam was teasing him, “He’s a good man.”
“Steve. Man. He’s a supervillain,” Sam said. “Admittedly, the guy’s got weird priorities, but you can’t really overlook all the destruction and mayhem.”
Sam had a point, but...
“I still think SHIELD is wrong about him,” Steve said. Sam rolled his eyes, already wandering back to his phone, and Steve sat for another moment with his hand hovering over the mouse, the text Extremely dangerous. Do not engage. highlighted in grey.
He hit the delete button, and then closed out the program, pulling up the news instead.
These materials are needed, Iron Man had said. He’d stared through him like he hadn’t even recognized him.
Iron Man had destroyed weapons, once. He’d been doing the right thing—Steve believed that. Now, going through an inventory of exactly what Iron Man had stolen, he wasn’t so sure.
Steve lost his shield.
He’d been infiltrating a submarine that had been taken over by Hydra terrorists, and in the midst of the fighting he’d lost it. It had sunk too quickly for him to reach it, not without endangering the lives of the submarine’s crew, so he’d been forced to leave it behind. SHIELD had searched for it, but with no luck.
He’d been stuck without it for weeks, and Steve felt as though he was going into battle missing an arm.
It left him irritable. He felt naked without his shield, even using the hard-light replica that SHIELD had commissioned an outside manufacturer, just for him. As he always did when he was in a foul mood, Steve threw himself into his work. There was only so much paperwork for him to do, and it wasn’t as though a new threat would just magically appear just because he had nothing left to occupy him, so he was forced to go home.
He let himself into his apartment and stared. The supervillain sitting on his balcony was hard to miss.
(At least he hadn’t broken anything).
Steve went to open the window, and Iron Man eagerly greeted him.
“Finally!” Iron Man crowed. “You work too much.”
Steve stuck his hands in his pockets, raising his eyebrows expectantly. He wasn’t wearing his uniform, but Iron Man didn’t sound like he was here to cause trouble, so Steve turned fully to face him—and stopped dead.
“Is that my—?” Steve reached out, bewildered, for the shield that Iron Man held in front of him. He would have been able to tell that the shield was his, just from the weight of it, the balance, and when he took it from Iron Man he could tell instantly that it was the genuine article.
He’d thought that it was lost for good, SHIELD had told him that it was a lost cause, the ocean too big and the resources too limited to search. Steve couldn’t help the swell of emotion as he hefted the shield up and slid his arm through the straps, he was just so relieved, and grateful, and he… well, he couldn’t even say that he couldn’t believe Iron Man would do something like this for him, because Steve found it a lot easier to believe than he might have thought. He cleared his throat and smiled brightly, trying to regain some composure before he got too lost in his own head. He was not going to cry over something so ridiculous.
“The one and only,” Iron Man said, sounding quite pleased with himself. “I noticed it was missing, so I did a little digging… well, diving. You should thank me—you have no idea how much this is worth on the black market. Or maybe you do… not that I need the money. Either way, out of the goodness of my heart,” Iron Man said, stressing the sarcasm on the word, “I’ve decided to return it to you. And here you’ve kept me waiting forever, just to deliver it.”
Iron Man glanced quickly over his shoulder, and Steve followed his gaze to the building across the street, where he could see the curtains of one apartment just barely peeled back with bony fingers. “Which reminds me: I can’t stay long. I’m pretty sure the old lady in the apartment across the street called the cops on me a few minutes ago.”
“You could have brought it to me,” Steve teased, “instead of hovering outside my apartment and scaring the hell out of my neighbors.”
Iron Man laughed, shaking his head. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “Fly myself to SHIELD Headquarters? Shall I arrest myself as well, and save you all the trouble?”
“They wouldn’t have arrested you,” Steve said, not really believing the words himself, and not expecting Iron Man to, either. Knowing SHIELD, it was actually pretty likely that they would have decided that Iron Man had stolen Steve’s shield, not rescued it from the bottom of the ocean, and added that to the laundry list of oh-so-diabolical crimes in Iron Man’s file.
“I guess this is the part where I tell you I’m taking you in,” Steve added, not taking his eyes off the shield. The straps had held up well, even at the bottom of the ocean, but it looked like most of the paint had eroded off.
“Or I could just give you and the shield a minute alone,” Iron Man teased. He stepped back from the window and rose a few feet into the air, clearing the balcony to hover over the street.
“Iron Man,” Steve called, before he had a chance to fire his jet boots. “Thank you. I—this means a lot to me.”
Iron Man looked at him for a moment, and Steve liked to imagine he was smiling.
“Anything for you, Cap,” he said, flicking him a little mock-salute before jetting off into the sky.
Photon was down, some kind of mounted canon in the suit that had knocked her out of the sky with a streak of light like a falling star. Steve dropped into the sand beside her, yanked off a glove to check for a pulse, and only let himself breathe after he felt the steady thrum beneath his fingers.
Iron Man was fighting more viciously than Steve had ever known him to—although a small part of the back of his mind couldn’t help but notice that Iron Man still hadn’t killed, hadn’t even threatened to do so, despite the fact that most of SHIELD held no such reservations.
Monica was unconscious—no doubt, Iron Man had identified the strongest threat, as he was now busily ignoring the rest of the Avengers as he tangoed nearly one on one with Carol. The Avengers were winning this battle—they had him outnumbered and outgunned—but Iron Man looked unconcerned. He simply dodged and pushed his way through the fight, only trading an occasional blow but, mostly, being infuriatingly difficult to hit.
The computer at the warehouse Iron Man had raided was completely wiped by the time anyone arrived to analyze it, and Steve wasn’t surprised. Whatever Iron Man had taken, there was no way of knowing short of tracking the man down themselves.
It took SHIELD three days of hopeless searching before they had managed to track him to their current location. Iron Man had just popped up in the middle of the Mojave desert. It was all too easy, laid out too plainly for them to find, but Steve didn’t voice that opinion, knowing already that he would be the only one who held it, and that the others already just considered him irrational when it came to Iron Man.
So Steve had rallied the Avengers, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that Iron Man was simply stalling, laying out breadcrumbs for them to find and follow.
Whether he was trying to lead them to something or away remained to be seen.
Steve watched Sam cut Iron Man off mid-flight, watched him swerve to avoid a collision, losing just enough velocity that Carol finally caught up to him. The kick caught him full in the chest, and even the flight stabilizers did nothing to keep Iron Man from shooting back to the earth, landing in a crater only ten meters from where Steve had paused to check on Monica.
Steve reached immediately for his shield when Iron Man stood up in the cloud of dust, shielded from the fliers’ view by the plume of sand and grit, but clearly unharmed. Steve pulled his shield back for a throw, intending to catch Iron Man just as he fired his jet boots again, but before he could, Iron Man stopped. The move was almost jerky, as though he’d been caught off guard, and although he paused for only a fraction of a second, Steve could see his head cocked slightly to the side, as though his was listening to something, or someone.
Then he was off like a shot, so fast that only Monica might have been able to catch him.
Carol immediately gave chase, and Steve let her pursue for a quarter mile before he called her back. The SHIELD vans had already pulled into the area by the time she touched down again.
“Whatever he came here for, he got it,” Steve said when she dropped beside him.
“What’d they find?” Carol asked, and Steve shook his head.
“Nothing yet,” he said.
“Then how do you know—”
“I saw him. He… paused. Or, hesitated. The way you or Monica do when you’re listening to one of us on the comm. I think he was working with someone. Just biding his time, keeping us distracted, until he got whatever it was that he wanted.”
“Steve,” Carol said. “We had him on the ropes. He was outnumbered. I think it’s more likely he realized his armor would only hold up for so long and decided to cut and run.”
Steve sighed, considered pursuing the issue. “They’re taking Monica to the LA base. Why don’t you go with her.”
Carol’s eyes narrowed—she knew that he was deflecting—but something about him must have told her that he wasn’t in a mood to argue, and she nodded, heading off in the direction of the medical team, but not before punching him in the shoulder.
“Don’t hang around here too long,” she said. “We’re going out tonight. I think we all deserve it.”
Steve nodded. “I’ll catch the next transport,” he said.
The data SHIELD’s geek squad pulled in was like nothing any of them had seen before, readings for some kind of spatial anomaly that was nearly off the charts, stretching for miles and seeming to converge on the single point they’d encountered Iron Man at when they first arrived.
No one could tell Steve whether Iron Man had caused the disturbance or whether he’d simply found it, although it was clear that they’d all already drawn their own conclusions.
If Iron Man had caused these anomalies, no one could tell Steve how he’d done it. If he hadn’t caused them, then what exactly he’d wanted with the strange, entirely secluded area remained as much a mystery.
The rest of the Avengers had already gone their separate ways, and Steve was getting ready to join them, no closer to an answer now than they’d been when the fighting had begun. They hadn’t even managed to learn what it was that Iron Man had stolen in the first place and it seemed that every investigation was only dredging up new questions. Steve let out a frustrated sigh as another fleet of officers with new equipment and renewed enthusiasm pulled into the area.
What the hell were you up to? he wondered.
The Avengers received an alert of a supervillain attacking a building in Midtown, ten minutes after six in the morning, and none of them were particularly happy about getting the call. When they’d first arrived on the scene, the police had been quick to inform them that Iron Man was already inside. He’d entered, clearly, through the twenty-second floor, and the evidence of that entrance— as well as a large, gaping hole in the side of the building—covered the sidewalk and street with pulverized glass.
The entrance point, they thought, was random, since there was nothing on the twenty-second floor but copy rooms and cubicles. Everything worthwhile was on the top ten floors. Because of this, they were uncertain how to proceed, or even what Iron Man was targeting.
Steve resisted pointing out that Iron Man never did anything at random, and that if he’d entered through the twenty-second floor, it was for a reason, even if that reason was merely to confuse whoever may pursue him.
“Carol, Monica, check the top floors. If what he’s after really is up there, stop him. Sam, follow him inside. Jan, go with him.”
“Right,” Carol said, and then, “Need a lift?”
“I’m going in through the front door. If for some reason he heads down instead of up, I want to head him off.”
“And you’ll call us, if he does,” Jan said, tapping her ear, even as she shrank down enough to fly.
“And I’ll call you if he does,” Steve agreed to a retreating audience, everyone already eagerly pursuing their role in the plan. Iron Man had a nearly fifteen minute lead on them, and it wasn’t at all unusual that they’d arrive just in time to realize that they’d been too late.
Something told Steve that that wouldn’t be the case, today. The entrance from the random floor, the glass scattered in the street, it all seemed so heavy-handed and uncoordinated. Steve had a strong suspicion that whatever Iron Man was after, he hadn’t planned to get it today, and if Steve hurried, he might be able to catch him in the act.
“Twenty-second floor is clear,” Sam said, at the same time Carol and Monica reported the top two floors as clear as well. Steve stepped into the lobby of the bottom floor, and immediately the sound of a soft dinging drew him toward the elevators.
The elevator doors stood wide open, the elevator car nowhere in sight. Steve approached it, glancing up and down the shaft, before he reached out to grab the cable in both hands. This was probably the point where he should call the rest of the team, Steve knew, as he pushed off the floor and started a rapid descent, only the gloves on his hands preventing the cable from sliding too quickly between his palms.
Steve noticed too late the doors standing wide open, nearly ten floors down, and he ended up having to climb one and a half floors to get back to where it had been. These sub-basements, Steve knew from the intelligence they’d pulled on the trip over, hadn’t been on the building’s floor plans.
He would marvel at Iron Man’s ingenuity, wonder after how he had found out about this place or even what he knew to be hidden down here, but Steve had grown accustomed by now to Iron Man finding out about the illegal goings-on in New York almost before SHIELD did.
SHIELD would say that he was just taking out the competition, absorbing their assets into his own and, as the new recruits often put it, building an Evil Empire. Steve wasn’t so certain, which was also the reason that he had yet to call in to inform the team of what he’d found, even as they continued to sweep the higher floors and grew more and more convinced between themselves that Iron Man had already come and gone.
A light flicked on around the corner, and Steve jogged up to greet it.
“Iron Man,” Steve shouted.
At the end of the hallway, the man in question, on his way through a doorway, paused. Steve had secretly been hoping that he would get a chance to speak to Iron Man alone.
“Cap,” Iron Man said, the acknowledgement as pleasant as if this were a chance meeting in a supermarket. “Good to see you. We can probably skip the old catch-me-if-you-can banter today, I’m on a tight schedule.”
“Don’t do this anymore,” Steve said, and Iron Man turned to look at him for a long moment.
“Sorry, Cap,” he said. “but I can’t quit now.”
Steve had been thinking about their encounters quite a bit over the past few weeks, and he’d been considering this for longer, but he hadn’t had the opportunity to appeal to Iron Man before now.
“I mean it. Quit this—whatever you’re doing. You could come over to the good side.” Steve ignored Iron Man’s scoff, and started down the hallway, slowly. He was more than a little gratified when Iron Man didn’t immediately jet away. “You’re not a bad person, Iron Man,” Steve said. “I think you could change.”
“Oh, you’re not like the other supervillains,” Iron Man teased. Steve wasn’t surprised when Iron Man laughed, but he wasn’t dissuaded, either. He could see—had seen for a long time now, in fact—that Iron Man wasn’t cut from the same cloth as the other supervillains the Avengers battled on a daily basis. Ever since they’d first met, and Iron Man had saved him from a nasty fall, Iron Man had continually reconfirmed that he wasn’t a bad person, and he didn’t want to see anyone suffer.
Sometimes good people did bad things, and Steve believed that they could atone for those choices.
Steve didn’t know what it was that had turned him to villainy in the first place, but he was convinced that it was just as likely that Iron Man might have become a hero instead, had circumstances been a little different.
“You’re not like the others. And I meant what I said. Join the Avengers. I’ll vouch for you.”
“I know you would, Cap,” Iron Man said, fondly. “But I think it’s a little too late for that. And anyway, if you want to stop me, you’ll have to kill me.”
The way Iron Man said it sounded almost carefree, mocking the overly-zealous villains the Avengers sometimes ran into, but the mere thought of it made Steve’s stomach roll.
“I don’t believe that for a second,” Steve insisted. Iron Man always did this—any time Steve felt like he might be able to reach him, he pushed back with all the stubborn defiance he could muster. Steve wasn’t going to let it discourage him. “It’s never too late. You think you’re the first supervillain to switch sides? You could get a fresh start.”
Iron Man laughed again, the sound a burst of static through the speakers that sounded nothing like the sincere, carefree laugh Steve had come to enjoy. “Working with a team would just cramp my style,” he said, “and anyway, I’m no—”
Hero, Steve was sure he would have said, had the explosive charges Iron Man had already set not taken that moment to detonate, ripping through seven of the ten sub-basements, and sending an avalanche of rubble between them, cutting Iron Man off from view and boxing Steve in.
The charges were perfectly placed so that Steve made it out entirely unharmed, and Steve was sure that Iron man had carefully calculated their placement. By the time the team managed to dig him out, Iron Man was long gone, and no one had seen him go. Steve didn’t mention their little meeting, apologizing only for not mentioning the sub-basements, and although it wasn’t a pleasant conversation, it was much better than the conversation that would have ensued had they known that he’d been within ten feet of Iron Man, even had a conversation with him, without taking the time to call the rest of the team.
Despite the damage (and what was presumably Iron Man trying to clean up after himself), there was enough evidence of the illegal weapons manufacturing that Cordco had been running as a side business to put away a lot of bad men for a very long time.
They were two days into trying—and failing—to track Iron Man, before someone suggested that maybe they should be tracking the spatial anomaly instead of Iron Man himself. It was a long shot—after all, they had no confirmation that Iron Man was at all connected to these disturbances. It was just as likely that he’d grown curious, and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It was also the best lead they had.
So they didn’t pull the teams out of searching for Iron Man—that was still priority number one—but a new taskforce was set to designing equipment that could detect and provide coordinates for any anomalies with a ninety-five percent similarity to the one they’d already encountered.
The hit came in a couple of days later, long enough that Steve was beginning to lose hope that this plan—already a shot in the dark—was ever going to succeed. He didn’t let his hopes rise until he was nearly on top of the area that Iron Man was supposedly going to be. It was a small town, population five-hundred, in the middle of rural Iowa. Hardly the place for a supervillain’s evil plan, which only supported Steve’s favorite theory that Iron Man wasn’t controlling these anomalies, only trying to—what? Stop them? Or harness them for something else?
He’d taken the infinity gauntlet for something, and whatever it had been, SHIELD hadn’t been able to retrieve the gauntlet. It clearly hadn’t done whatever Iron Man was hoping that it would do, either. He was at a loss.
Steve just wished that Iron Man would tell him what it was he was trying to prevent, what harsh reality it was he thought he was shielding them against. Then again, maybe Iron Man had brought someone in to help, and he’d just decided that the Avengers—that Steve—wasn’t suitable, wasn’t trustworthy, wasn’t something enough for the job.
He was clearly talking with someone on those rare occasions that Steve caught him distracted. Maybe Steve was just full of himself, deluded into believing that Iron Man was anything more than a villain, a thief, out to help himself and watch the rest of them scramble to keep up.
When they pulled up on the scene, Iron Man was standing on the red-painted roof of a clearly abandoned barn, staring at the sky expectantly, as though waiting and watching for something that none of the rest of them could see.
Steve caught the faintest glimpse of an orange glow, not the usual repulsor, projected in the space above Iron Man’s right hand. It blinked out of sight immediately when Iron Man’s head swiveled in their direction, finally noticing the Avenger’s approach.
Iron Man seemed surprised to see them, which only confirmed Steve’s suspicion that Iron Man had been orchestrating their meetings prior to this occasion, only allowing them to catch up to him when he welcomed a meeting, and staying just out of reach otherwise.
The other explanation, that Iron Man had an informant within SHIELD that had been feeding him information, wasn’t something that Steve was willing to consider. He tried not the remember their last meeting, the way Iron Man seemed to be listening to someone on the other end of his communicator , working behind the scenes.
"You shouldn't be here," Iron Man said, and although he was speaking to the entire group, Steve couldn’t help but think it was directed only at him.
“Funny, I was just thinking the same about you—“ Carol said, but Steve motioned for her to hold back, just for a moment. He wanted to at least try to talk.
"Tell us what’s going on," Steve pleaded, hoping that just this once Iron Man could trust him enough to tell him the truth.
“Come on, Cap. You know better,” Iron Man said simply. “Nothing is ever that easy.”
“Please, Iron Man. I want to believe that whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it for the right reasons,” Steve said. “But we can’t just go on faith when you have something as powerful as the infinity gauntlet in your possession.”
“I don’t have it,” Iron Man said.
“What do you mean, you don’t have it,” Sam called out.
“It broke. Vanished. Wasn’t good enough,” Iron Man said, sounding for all the world that he wished it weren’t true. “I’m sorry.”
“I have faith in you, Iron Man,” Steve said. “That you’re a good man. That whatever you’re doing, it’s not too late to stop it, or—”
“You’re wrong,” Iron Man said, abruptly, harshly. “I’m not your pet project, Cap. Quit trying to save me. I already told you, I’m a lost cause.”
“I don’t believe that,” Steve said.
“You would if you knew what I’ve done. What—what I’m planning to do,” Iron Man said.
“You don’t have to do this to yourself, Iron Man. Whatever it is, whatever sacrifice you think you have to make, there’s got to be another way.”
“You don’t even know what’s going on. I wish…” he paused, head swiveling around to stare off into the fields behind them, “I have to go.”
“The hell you do,” Carol said, jumping into the air the moment Iron Man turned away. She was faster on the start, she would have caught him, too, if Steve hadn’t called her back. For a moment, Steve wasn’t sure that she was going to listen, and when she landed beside him, he could tell that she wasn’t happy.
“Just this once,” she promised. “I’ll let him go. For you. But we’re past talking, Steve,” she said. “That time is done. You tried—and damn it, I know you’re an idealist and I know you want to believe in the good in people, but sometimes, you need to take the loss.”
“He said it himself, Steve,” Sam said. “He can’t be saved.”
“What is this, SHIELD: Beekeeper’s Division?” Iron Man asked, cutting an arc with his repulsor. It seemed like every minion they cut down was replaced by three more, and although they were hardly a threat, their sheer numbers was starting to grow irritating.
“They’re not ours,” Steve said. He threw his shield, taking out three agents in one ricochet, and re-caught it deftly “We thought they were with you!”
“I don’t do evil minions,” Iron Man said, “and if I did, they’d be more competent than this.”
“Here I thought you were cheating on us,” Steve said.
“Never,” Iron Man replied, with false gravity. Steve laughed, slamming one of the yellow-suited men into the wall beside him. Iron Man let out another repulsor blast, and an opening in the group cleared, just wide enough for Steve to release his shield in an arc, breaking the locking mechanism on the door and sealing the entire lot of them into the far-section of the bunker.
They’d have to send a SHIELD team to collect them later, and there was always the chance that they had an alternate exit and would be gone by the time that they’d come back for them, but Steve couldn’t bring himself to care now that he’d bought himself some time to breath.
“Ah, alone again,” Iron Man teased. “Funny, usually after this many dates, things have gotten pretty serious. And here we don’t know anything about each other,” Iron Man said. From the tone, Steve could almost imagine him batting his eyelashes in an over-exaggerated display of flirting. It had been meant to be teasing, of course it had, but Steve ignored that, went straight for the point.
“Then why don’t you tell me something about yourself?” Steve said, and that got Iron Man’s attention. Steve could spot the amusement in his posture, his tone of voice, when Iron Man prompted.
“Like what?” Iron Man sounded curious, and encouragingly, not defensive. He was in a good mood, at least, and Steve was going to try to take advantage.
“Tell me your name?” Steve said, hopeful despite himself.
“Too easy,” Iron Man said, immediately. “But points for optimism. Try again.”
“How about: what are you here for?” Steve asked instead—still useful information, although not the information that Steve really wanted to know.
“Oh, nothing,” Iron Man replied breezily. Steve narrowed his eyes, not quite believing him, and Iron Man laughed. “Really! I just saw the commotion. Wanted to know what was going on. But hey, I’m sure I could find something to steal, if that would make you feel any better.”
“Not really, no,” Steve said. “Although now that you’re here, I’m going to have to bring you in.”
Iron Man laughed, jet boots already whining as they powered up. “You can damn well try.”
It was the same script they’d always followed. Captain America confronted Iron Man. Iron Man runs, and Steve gives chase. Somehow, Steve and Iron Man had always ended up alone together.
But more and more, Steve saw the brief flash of hesitance before he was gone.
Steve plucked at the torn edges of his sleeve, but it looked like he hadn’t managed to tear completely through the reinforced armor to reach his skin. The Avengers had arrived on sight just in time for the charges that Iron Man had left behind to detonate the upper two floors of the building. The heat and shock wave from the blast had very nearly knocked their jet out of the sky. Steve had lost his footing, then, but thankfully he had nothing but a torn sleeve and a bruised ego to show for it. The building, on the other hand, was a wreckage of brick and metal, and Steve felt his stomach drop at the sight.
Carol was an excellent pilot, and had managed a… mostly smooth landing, but it had taken them nearly a half an hour after the fact to determine that the building had, in fact, been empty when the explosion occurred.
Steve had breathed a sigh of relief at that. He hadn’t thought that Iron Man would do something like that with people still inside, but the confirmation was a relief none the less, especially considering his erratic behavior over the past few weeks.
When Steve arrived at headquarters, he was almost immediately informed of another Iron Man sighting, this one in Jersey City, coinciding almost completely with the one that the Avengers had just returned from.
With the timing of the two incidents, it was plausible, thought very, very unlikely, that it had been the same person inside the suit in both incidences. Steve suspected that this wasn’t the case, though he couldn’t explain why Iron Man would be resorting to this more and more now.
This was Iron Man’s third attack this week, and he didn’t need to listen to the reedy young man giving him the report to know how it had gone. Iron Man, in and out in the course of mere minutes, had torn through the labs, gutting them of their valuable materials, and disappeared again before they even had enough time to build a response.
Steve sighed, frustrated. This wasn’t how Iron Man usually operated. Sure, he was efficient—Iron Man had always had a knack for cracking security codes and firewalls that would have brought a lesser man to tears, and he was rarely deterred by heavy shielding or security systems. But Iron Man was rarely so… so clinical about it all.
Maybe Steve was just projecting some of his own frustration onto the situation, but this just didn’t seem like him at all. He had always had a sort of… flippancy in the way he’d operated, a playfulness about him that made tracking him down almost fun.
Before, the Avengers always seemed to catch up to him just in the nick of time, as though he was trying to give them a fighting chance, and somehow he and Steve always ended up bantering and exchanging blows before Iron Man managed to make a dramatic getaway.
In the last incident, three technicians had been badly burned when an instruments panel had overloaded from the strain of whatever Iron Man was doing to their systems. He hadn’t so much as blinked. Iron Man had just efficiently gotten the three of them to safety, and then made sure to release the security lock-out he’d initialized on the building so that the medical teams could reach the three agents, before beating a hasty exit through one of the skylights.
It wasn’t like the Iron Man that Steve had known, fought with, and fought alongside in the past. Steve found himself remembering the cold, lifeless Iron Man that he’d encountered during the explosives heist. Could this be the same man? Could either of them be the man that Steve had known for so long?
He didn’t want to believe it could be. He wanted to believe in Iron Man, whatever he was doing.
Steve ordered the report to be put on his desk with the others. He wasn’t sure how helpful it would be, but he had to try to search for some connection, something to make all of this erratic behavior make sense.
As far as the profilers were concerned, this was the natural progression of a man coming to the end of himself.
Steve couldn’t accept that. He wouldn’t accept that. He pulled the first of the files on his desk closer to himself, and turned to the first page.
He had to have a reason for doing it. Breaking into any SHIELD facility was a high-risk endeavor, even if it had paid off for him thus far. Last time, Iron Man had stolen the infinity gauntlet. Now, his entrances covered his intent, each attack causing so much damage and mayhem that it would take days to sort through the wreckage to see what's he'd taken.
It made Steve feel powerless, frustrated. Most of all, angry. Angry at having his world view challenged, and angry with himself that he couldn’t accept the change, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary: that Iron Man was a bad man, a supervillain, and he’d been playing Steve for a fool all along.
Still, Steve couldn’t help but notice that the damage, though widespread, was almost always cosmetic and almost surgical in it’s precision. He couldn’t help but notice that, despite millions of dollars in damage and stolen tech, Iron Man’s kill count was still planted firmly at zero.
“Just play nice,” Jan said, smiling politely to a pair of older women walking past who, unbelievably, seemed to recognize her, despite the fact that Jan insisted that she hadn’t been truly inside the high-society circles in years.
SHIELD had been hearing some low-level rumblings of a possible heist that Iron Man was planning to pull against one of the patrons at this gala. Admittedly, there were quite a few big names here that even Steve recognized, some more than others, and many of them very high-profile.
Only Jan’s well-known name and her charm had even landed them invitations to this party, with Steve as her plus-one. They’d gone in with the instructions to lay low—after all, if Iron Man didn’t show up, it wouldn’t do any good to have SHIELD busting up a perfectly respectable fundraiser.
It made Steve feel a little more secure to know that Sam and Monica were waiting just outside, ready to provide backup.
It didn’t make his collar feel any less tight.
Jan slapped his hand away. “Stop fidgeting,” she said. “Just a few more hours, and if Iron Man hasn’t shown by then, he probably isn’t going to show at all,” Jan hummed to herself, scanning the crowd. “The host isn’t even here,” she said offhand. “So if he’s the target, then Iron Man might not show anyway.”
“Who’s the host?” Steve asked. “Is it unusual that he wouldn’t show?” Maybe Iron Man had gotten to him already, though he seriously doubted it.
“Tony Stark, “Jan said. “And no, not really. He doesn’t actually attend most of his parties. He usually shows for the fund raisers, though…” She shrugged. “Then again, that was a long time ago, so really, I don’t know.”
“Tony Stark,” Steve said slowly, turning the name over on his tongue. “I know that name.”
Jan snorted, and grabbed two champagne flutes off the tray of a passing server. “Who hasn’t heard the name, Steve? His company’s practically cornered the market on all things electronic.”
Steve sighed, and accepted the drink when Jan offered it. He set it on the table, beside them. “No, not from the papers. From SHIELD files. They’ve been keeping an eye on him.”
Jan shrugged. “He used to be an arms dealer,” she said. “Maybe he’s not as clean as his PR team would like us to think? Or maybe SHIELD just has a vested interest in the next model smart phone. It doesn’t matter either way. We’re just here to stop Iron Man.”
“If he even shows,” Steve said.
“If he even shows,” Jan agreed. There was a heavy pause between them, and when Steve opened his mouth to speak, Jan sighed heavily, as though in anticipation of what he was about to say.
"Have you ever noticed that there's a lot of overlap between the places Iron Man targets, and the people on the top of SHIELD's watch list?" Steve asked.
"Evil minds think alike?" Jan suggested playfully.
According to SHIELD’s intelligence, Iron Man had been turning his repulsors on the business partners of Roxxon Oil Co. for weeks. The last three of Iron Man’s targets had either been suspected shell corporations for the company itself. SHIELD had investigated, wondering if Iron Man’s recent interest was the result of a business deal between the two going sour, but they’d come to a dead end. Whatever the connection was, it wasn’t because Iron man had any stake with the company.
"Maybe," Steve said noncommittally.
"Steve," Jan said, more seriously this time. She leaned up and ran her fingers lightly through his hair, pushing it gently back from his face. "I know what you're trying to do. Just...don't get your hopes up, okay? Or you'll start seeing things that just aren't there."
“I just noticed a pattern, that’s all,” Steve assured her, although she didn’t look convinced. Jan was sensible though, and Steve trusted her to keep her head about her when making tough judgment calls. She would listen to reason. He continued, wagering, “...and I can’t help but wonder what his motives are. Maybe he’s not as bad as—”
Before Steve could finish, the com rattled, and Monica’s voice cut clearly through the low buzz of party chatter. “Cap, Wasp—” she said, “Hate to pull you out of the party early, but Iron Man’s been spotted on Long Island. Sam and I are going ahead.”
“We’ll meet you there,” Jan said, one hand pressed to an ear, and Steve didn’t miss the confused and interested looks of the small group of partygoers beside her. She turned to Steve, who was already straightening to go, and gave him a look that screamed I-told-you-so.
Steve laughed, despite himself, “I didn’t realize it was illegal to be in Long Island.”
“No, only to fly around in a killer, weaponized suit,” Jan replied, already sprinting toward the exit like her six inch heels were nothing. Steve didn’t bother to point out what he was thinking—that it couldn’t be a killer suit, considering that SHIELD had never had one single recorded kill from Iron Man in all his years of operation.
Iron Man had already cleared out, long before Sam or Monica arrived, let alone Steve and Jan, and despite SHIELD’s best efforts, they couldn’t determine what his goals had been. Jan did hear through the grapevine that Stark had eventually shown up to the fund raiser, barely an hour before the party had wrapped up, and that despite this, Iron Man never made an appearance.
Steve wandered through the halls at his leisure, lost in thought. All he could seem to focus on for the past couple of months was the problem with Iron Man. What he was up to, why Steve hadn’t been able to figure him out, or at the very least anticipate his actions.
Walking helped, at least somewhat, to clear his thoughts and organize them. And since Steve was reluctant to wander too far, he’d taken to walking the halls of Headquarters, at least until it grew dark and Steve couldn’t justify staying away from home any longer. Steve had just finished one of his cycles of pacing and decided that he should just head home for the night, when someone called his name. The last person that Steve expected to catch him on the way out the door, so late on a Friday night, was Maria Hill.
“Director,” Steve said, “What can I do for you?” He took in the expression on her face, the oddly disheveled look to her, as though she’d run to catch up to him. There was a stress to her posture, a tick in her jaw that set Steve on edge and preparing for bad news before she’d even had a chance to open her mouth to speak. Whatever had happened, it wasn’t good, and Steve was positive that he knew the topic of their soon to be conversation.
“I need you to come with me,” Maria said. “We’ve had a break in the Iron Man case.” Of course they had, Steve thought. That went without saying, mostly, because that was all SHIELD seemed to be focusing on any more. He couldn’t help but shake the feeling that Maria had been withholding information from the Avengers but that, at least now, she’d decided to finally bring him into the light.
She led him through the halls, past the offices and the training rooms and into the higher clearance areas—analysis and sciences. She stopped short to pull out her prox. card, letting them both into one of the labs.
“We’ve finally managed to figure out what it is that Iron Man is building.” Maria then turned to the men in the room.
“Get out,” she said.
There was a beat of pause, before the room emptied completely.
“And how long have you had this information?” Steve challenged, not accusatory, simply matter-of-fact.
“A few days,” Maria said, equally matter-of-fact, but we’ve only just confirmed what we suspected. She reached out to turn a screen toward them, typing in her access code. The blueprints that came up on the screen were unmistakable, and Steve sucked in a breath.
“He’s building a bomb?” Steve asked.
“Not just any bomb,” Maria said. She typed in a few files, and a map of the United States came up, zooming out to display the earth. “This is the bomb he’s building.”
At first, Steve wasn’t sure what it was he was looking at, the screen nothing but a blinking dot on a map, but then the pinpoint on the map, designated as ground zero, quickly swelled to engulf the country and then the world. The simulation ended there, and the casualty toll blinked stark in the bottom corner.
Steve stared at it a moment, not quite comprehending, until Maria reached out to turn the screen off again.
“This thing is a world-killer.” Maria said, “We never imagined he’d be capable of something like this, but...God knows, if he chooses to set this thing off, we’ve got nothing that will stop it.”
“But why would he do this?” Steve said, unable to tear his eyes from the screen, to reconcile the man who’d been so careful never to harm anyone with the man who would build a bomb that could destroy the world and be willing to use it. “It would destroy him, too.”
“We don’t know. Maybe he’s not planning to use it. Personally, I think he’s just crazy—“ She held up a hand to cut him off before he could begin, “which I know is an opinion we don’t share. The honest truth is, it doesn’t matter. Iron Man has been raiding SHIELD storehouses to build a weapon of mass destruction, and we have to believe that he’s not only willing but planning to use it.
“Are we certain that this is what he’s planning?” Steve said. “Could you have made a mistake? He hasn’t contacted anyone with his demands. Maybe you’re misinterpreting—“
“Captain,” Maria said, “With all due respect, we know what was taken, and we’ve come to the conclusion that there is only a small number of things that could be built with those pieces. Could he be leading us on a wild good chase? Yes. But that doesn’t change the fact that SHIELD had now elevated Iron Man from menace to World’s Most Wanted. I’ve released standing orders to capture, incapacitate or, failing that, kill on sight—“
“What happened to the right to a fair trial—“
“We’re an international organization,” Maria said, “and frankly, if he manages to set that thing off, there are going to be about seven billion people denied their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of fucking happiness, and I’m not about to let that happen.”
She sighed. “I called you in here on a courtesy. I know you’re invested in this case… but there’s only so much compassion and faith can do when we’re dealing with a madman.”
Concrete was crushed and shattered around him, and Iron Man grabbed Carol by the calf, throwing her full-bodied into Monica behind her. The entire building was coming apart around them, pillars having long lost their integrity in the midst of the explosions.
SHIELD had arrived on the scene nearly twenty minutes ago, ready to confiscate the stolen weapons and technology that their intelligence had told them was stockpiled here. What they hadn’t expected to find was Iron Man, already hard at work destroying the best of the technology. SHIELD couldn’t understand why a supervillain would want to destroy perfectly good technology and weapons, except that maybe he had something better, more efficient, and wanted to keep the competition weak.
The alternative, of course, was that he wanted this technology out of the wrong hands as much as SHIELD did, which wasn’t entirely unreasonable, considering that the right person with the wrong technology could be disastrous for the city, regardless of whether the public considered you a hero or a villain.
Inexperience and ignorance were dangerous to everyone.
Still, SHIELD couldn’t stand by and allow Iron Man to destroy this technology. Their orders had been to retrieve whatever they could for study. To develop countermeasures, Steve had been told, despite the fact that he didn’t believe a word of it. He knew what SHIELD wanted with weapons and advanced technology and, frankly, they were better off destroying it.
An overloaded missile streaked over Steve’s shoulder, missing by a mile, and Steve knew that there was no way Iron Man had been aiming for him. The guidance system on his armor should have allowed him to hit Steve with his eyes closed—no, Iron Man was merely trying to destroy the rest of the technology under the guise of fighting the Avengers, and it was clear that everyone knew it.
Steve saw Monica notice the missile, saw her bring a hand up a beam of hard light charged to intercept, it, and realized, almost in slow-motion, that she didn’t see him there just a few feet below and hidden amongst the dust and smoke.
She fired, and the missile shrieked high pitched and tortured for less than a fourth of a second, and then it detonated, taking most of the wall and ceiling around him with it. Steve brought his shield up to block the debris, but the missile must have destabilized the entire building, because there was no blocking the onslaught of concrete and steel coming down from above.
Distantly, Steve could hear Jan screaming, though if it was in person or over the comms only, he couldn’t tell. It was far away and hollow, like at the end of a tunnel or the edge of a dream, and logically Steve knew that the missile exploding was very loud, and his ears were probably suffering from the assault.
Steve didn’t know how long it was before he regained consciousness—couldn’t even be sure that he’d lost consciousness in the first place, but when he finally came back to himself, he was pinned beneath a beam, pressing down on his chest and constricting every breath. Steve tried to wriggle an arm around to pry himself free, but it was nearly pitch black, only pinpricks of what he hoped was sunlight but was probably emergency lights from within the bowels of the building peeking through the concrete. He could barely see a hand before his face, let alone what he needed to manipulate to get himself free.
Steve was just getting ready to resign himself to being trapped, was attempting to regulate his breathing, trying not to panic, when the little crevice he was inside flooded with light. The beam lifted off him a moment later, and a flood of pain so intense washed over him that Steve could barely contain the scream. His arm was broken, that much was certain, although judging by the ease of drawing a breath, his ribs had escaped relatively unharmed.
Steve blamed the nasty growing bump on his head, the wound that was no doubt contributing to the blood dripping sluggishly over his forehead and into his eyes, for how long it took him to realize that it wasn’t Sam or Carol or any one of the Avengers that had freed him.
"I've got you, Cap," he said.
Steve took a minute to breath, blinking confusedly at the man he’d been fighting only minutes before.
"What…what are you doing?" Steve grit out, allowing the harshness he was feeling to bleed into his voice. Jan was back there somewhere in that mess, and right now Steve wasn’t feeling particularly forgiving.
"I never meant for you to get hurt," Iron Man said, and he sounded so genuine that Steve blinked in surprise. "I never meant for anyone to get hurt.” Steve didn’t know what to make of that.
“Wasp?” Steve asked instead.
“Fine, probably,” Iron Man said. He eased Steve down to lean against a flat expanse of rock. “Infra-red is picking her up outside the structure, so I’m guessing she slipped free. She’s worried sick about you, if the pacing is any indication.”
“’m fine,” Steve said, as though that could somehow placate her. Iron Man pushed the hair back from his face, surprisingly gentle for someone who could blow hole through a tank with the same gauntleted hand that was cupping Steve’s cheek, turning his head so Iron Man could get a better look at him.
“You’re concussed,” Iron Man decided. “Relax.”
“Can’t,” Steve said. “I’ve got to,” he made a feeble attempt at grabbing Iron Man, but he just backed out of reach. “I’m not trying. To take you in.” Steve said, though he could barely focus. “I just need you to help me up.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Iron Man said. “You shouldn’t be moving at all. I, on the other hand, can’t be here when your friends make it down here. Which, judging by the rate of the debris sifting down, with be any minute now.” He was already digging through the opposite end of the room, away from where Steve had determined was “up”, and had cleared a hole large enough for the suit to fit through.
Steve could see a hallway behind him, still well-lit with emergency lights.
“Your shield is behind the rubble there,” Iron Man said, indicating what used to be the left wall, “about ten meters in, but be careful not to move any of the girders in the debris, they’re weight bearing, and they’re supporting this entire area.”
“You’re leaving,” Steve said, and Iron Man nodded.
“I’m leaving,” he said. Then he hesitated, watching Steve, before he added, “I’m sorry, Cap. I really didn’t want anyone to get hurt. But some things don’t belong in anyone’s hands. Even the good guys.”
“Says the guy in the flying battle suit,” Steve said.
“I’m hypocritical like that,” Iron Man said. “Us bad guys get to do that.”
“You’re not a bad guy,” Steve mumbled, but Iron Man was already gone, jetting down the hall and around the corner to, presumably, an escape route.
When Maria called Steve in to speak with her, again, Steve knew it had something to do with Iron Man.
“Intelligence managed to pick this up outside of Perm, fourteen hours ago,” Maria said casually.
Steve picked the photo up from the desk. There are four figures in the picture other than Iron Man, and all of them are partially shadowed, turned away from the camera. Only Iron Man was easy to make out amongst the group, the blue light of his repulsors like a starburst in the late evening light.
“I thought your man had the Lone Rider thing going for him, Steve,” Maria said.
So had he, but apparently Iron Man was full of surprises. Steve tried to study the other four figures, trying to glean any sort of recognizable feature from them, but there was nothing to be seen. No doubt Maria’s best had already poured over the photos, the camera, and every satellite image pulled from every angle they could possibly muster from the incident.
Steve recalled that day in the desert, when Iron Man had appeared to be listening to someone remotely. He wondered if any of these men in the photo had been the one to speak to him then. Did they know Iron Man’s identity? Or were they just as clueless as Steve was, fighting to understand Iron Man’s erratic behavior in these last few months and powerless to do anything about it?
There had been another spatial anomaly in Russia last night, and no doubt this group had been there to witness it. Steve wanted to know why, but he could only guess.
“He’s kept you reeling for weeks. Don’t think I haven’t noticed. He’s become erratic, and that’s never something I want to see in a man who’s stolen both an Infinity Gauntlet, and enough explosives to destroy a planet all in the same year,” Maria said. “So tell me, Captain, where do to plan on drawing the line?”
Steve grit his teeth, refusing to rise to her bait.
“I’ll let you know when I get there, sir,” Steve said.
Steve had been home for over an hour, settled on the couch with a book and a sandwich at his elbow, too lazy to cook dinner but too guilty to order anything for delivery, when he first heard the tapping. At first, he’d brushed it off as the trees tapping against his window in the breeze.
It had taken another thirty seconds of insistent tapping before Steve remembered that his apartment building didn’t have any trees. He was suddenly overcome with the unshakable feeling of being watched.
Steve dropped his book on the couch, jumping to his feet and all at once going for his shield. When he turned to the window, he wasn’t certain what he’d been expecting, but Iron Man hovering just outside, greeting him with a wave was the very, very last thing he’d anticipated. Steve stared at him a moment, dumbfounded, as though the image would disappear if he acknowledged it, and after a few moments Iron Man reached out to tap on the window again.
Steve jumped, and when he realized that he had his attention, he pointed upward. Iron Man flew out of view, and it took Steve a long moment to realize that he wanted Steve to meet him on the rooftop.
Of course, when the Avengers—not to mention SHIELD—found out about this late night visitor (and they would... they always did) Steve was going to catch hell. He’d probably never hear the end of it. Even as he was pulling on his shoes, and slipping his arm through the straps on his shield, all Steve could think was that he should call the others.
Maybe he could just call Sam, Steve considered, as he climbed the stairs that led toward the roof access. Carol would get here faster, but she was a lot more prone to overreacting. He didn’t even know why Iron Man was here, what he wanted, how he’d… actually, how had he known where Steve lived? He’d moved since the last time Iron Man had shown up unannounced (and not because of Iron Man, but because Steve’s apartments in general seemed a lot more prone to exploding that was strictly expected).
His new address wasn’t exactly common knowledge. Still, Steve supposed as he pushed the door open and stepped out onto the roof, if Iron Man had found him once, he’d find him again. Hell, if he could find secret, classified SHIELD bases, finding Steve’s apartment should be a walk in the park.
Iron Man was perched on the edge of the roof, arms hanging non-threateningly at his side. In one hand, Steve could see a folder that he hadn’t noticed him carrying earlier, and instantly his curiosity was renewed.
“Why are you here?” he asked, deciding to forgo the questions about how he’d known where to find him entirely.
“I have something that I think SHIELD would be interested in,” Iron Man replied.
“Uh huh,” Steve said, “For trade, right?”
“A gift,” Iron Man said.
“Ah, a gift. In exchange for what, exactly?” Steve prompted, because he had to be after something, otherwise why would he come here, risk Steve calling the other Avengers to come after him. Maybe he’d been banking on the fact that Steve wouldn’t call them, too curious as to his motives, but Steve liked to believe that he wasn’t quite that predictable.
“Don’t worry, there’s no catch,” Iron Man said. He moved away from the edge of the roof, seeming to have decided that Steve was willing at least to hear him out. When Steve gave him an unimpressed and clearly disbelieving look, Iron Man sighed.
“A couple nights ago, I was approached by another—private interest group—“
“Supervillain,” Steve supplied, “No need to embellish.”
“The worst kind of supervillain,” Iron Man agreed. “They wanted a partnership. I was given, well, enough information to go on, at least, in an attempt to get me to join them.” Iron man held out the file for Steve to see. “Hydra. I understand you’re familiar with their work.”
Steve was, intimately so after all of the encounters he’d had with the organization before he was frozen, let alone after. Still, Steve couldn’t shake the obvious hesitance he had with the situation, primarily, the fact that it seemed uncharacteristically naive of Hydra to hand over sensitive information before they’d secured Iron Man as a partner, and Steve just couldn’t picture the organization he’d know being so careless.
He didn’t know how this could be a trap, but it made him wary, to say the least. He knew Hydra better than that. He told Iron Man as much, and he agreed.
“But I can be very persuasive,” he said, “and I had to make sure that the information I got was worthwhile.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Steve asked.
“I don’t work with supervillains,” Iron Man said, “least of all Nazis. And frankly, I’m offended that they even approached me for the job.”
“Some people would point out that you are a supervillain,” Steve said, reaching out to take the papers Iron Man offered him.
“But not you,” Iron Man said, sounding pleased with himself as he handed Steve the file, and Steve couldn’t help but smile at the assertion. “That’s why I came here. I knew you’d believe me and, well. I knew you wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to go off punching Nazis.”
“You know me so well,” Steve said. He tucked the file under his arm, considering.
Iron Man shrugged. “Besides, when word gets around that I rolled over on Hydra to SHIELD, these kind of offers will evaporate before they even hit the table. Which is exactly how I like things.”
“You’re not worried about the backlash?” Steve asked, suddenly concerned for this supervillain, this man he’d never even seen . Iron Man laughed, shrugging the concern off with practiced ease.
“Please,” he said, “if I can dodge SHIELD, I can dodge Hydra. Especially once SHIELD starts cutting off heads.”
Steve nodded. “Well, good luck,” he said. Steve paused, before adding, as casually as he could broach the subject, but already certain of the answer that was coming. “You know, we could still use another man on this. Always useful to have someone inside. Someone they might not suspect to—“
“Let me stop you there, Cap,” Iron Man said. “I may not work with Nazis, but I’m not too fond of SHIELD, either. But nice try. You’re certainly persistent.”
“I’ll keep asking, as long as you keep listening,” Steve assured.
Iron Man paused for a long moment, “Keep asking, and maybe someday my answer will change,” he said. “Good night, Cap.”
Steve flushed and grinned. Iron Man had only ever turned down his offers outright, before.
“Good Night,” Steve said. “And thank you, for coming to me with this.”
It was early—hardly past noon—and yet he was exhausted.
Steve bit back a curse when his elbow collided with his coffee cup, knocking it over and spilling the last lukewarm dregs of the mug over the edge of his desk.
He ran a hand through his hair, tugging at the strands in frustration. He hadn’t been home in almost three days—had been working overtime quite a lot, lately—and it was beginning to show. He grabbed a discarded napkin and did his best to sop up the mess.
He needed to take a step back. He could admit that.
Steve cleaned up the mess almost methodically, and even as he was packing away the remainders of the work he’d had spread across his desk, Steve half-expected some great breakthrough to strike him.
He didn’t shake the feeling the entire walk back to his apartment, feeling just one half-step behind inspiration. He knew it wasn’t fair to himself, that he was just overtired and stressed. A good night’s sleep would do him good and besides, Iron Man hadn’t made an appearance in nearly two weeks.
He wasn’t going to miss anything by going home tonight, and staring at the same three pages to try and draw new meaning wasn’t helping anyone.
Steve let himself into the apartment, not bothering to turn on the hall light as he toed off his boots and tossed his keys into the bowl by the front door. He was sliding out of his jacket when he paused, listening.
The apartment was completely silent, but something about the darkness beyond the living room gave him pause, and he strained in the silence to see anything that might be off. His eyes finally fell on the curtains, fluttering slightly from some breeze outside, and Steve immediately went to pull his shield from his portfolio.
He’d left the window closed.
Steve edged down the hall as silently as he could, shooting a brief glance down the hallway leading to the bedroom and bath before treading lightly into the living room.
The lights were off, but Steve could clearly make out the shape of a silhouette through the darkness, sitting and leaning heavily against the armrest on the sofa. The shape didn’t move when Steve entered the room, and so he took another few cautious steps forward and around the side of the couch, shield raised, in order to get a better look.
Steve’s foot hit something solid in the dark, and it skid a few inches across the floor in front of him. The figure on the couch didn’t react, and Steve fought his curiosity for a brief moment before stooping to pick it up.
His thumb swept over the mouth slit of Iron Man’s mask in his hands, and Steve nearly dropped the thing in surprise. He shot an arm out to the wall, searching for and finding the light switch.
There was a man sitting on Steve’s couch, head tipped back against the seat cushion and eyes closed, as though asleep, and now that the light was on Steve could see him more clearly. He had thick dark hair, disheveled and matted to his skull in the back, where he looked like he’s taken a hard blow. The blood had dripped down the back of his neck, where it stained the edge of the collar on his crisp white dress shirt. He didn’t move when Steve turned on the lights, but he did take a deep, measured breath before clearing his throat and peering at Steve through squinted eyes.
He looked incredibly familiar, but Steve couldn’t place where he’d seen his face before. He was handsome, and Steve was certain he would have recognized him had he ever met the man in person before. His eyes were piercingly blue, and nearly the same shade that the repulsors on his armor glowed. Somehow, that was when it really hit Steve, the absolute absurdity of it, that he’d spent years chasing this man around the world only to find him sitting on his couch on his way home from work.
It wasn’t the first time Iron Man had found his way to Steve’s apartment, but it was the first time he’d let himself inside, and it was sure as hell the first time he’d decided to strip out of his armor once he’d gotten there.
Iron Man’s voice sounded strained, a small smile tugging at his lips, and then winced as he tried to sit up straighter, curling over his hand pressed to his side. “You should install better locks on your windows,” he said. “Or have them barred shut. You can never be too careful.”
Steve dropped his shield at the edge of the sofa. It wasn’t too far out of reach, but he didn’t think he would be needing it right now.
“What—” Steve stopped himself, not even sure where to begin, and dropped down to kneel next to him. Steve peeled his hand back from the dish rag, and Iron Man didn’t even try to stop him as he exposed the long, swelling gash on his hip.
“What happened?” Steve decided on, because Iron Man looked terrible, and his armor should have been able to protect him from this, but it looked like it was in pieces, some parts bent terribly out of shape or missing entirely, and Steve had heard absolutely nothing of a confrontation with Iron Man, or any sort of confrontation at all.
A little laugh bubbled up in Iron Man’s chest, tugging the corners of his mouth into a mirthless grin, and Steve couldn’t help but stare at those lips, framed by a meticulously-groomed beard. Steve hadn’t imagined Iron Man with a beard, but it looked right.
“We fucked up,” Iron Man said, trying to sound matter-of-fact, and failing.
“Okay,” Steve said soothingly, sliding his arm behind Iron Man’s shoulders and gently tugging him to his feet. “Let’s get you help.”
“Don’t call anyone,” Iron Man said, and although Steve would have expected him to sound worried, to him Iron Man mostly just sounded tired. Resigned.
Steve should be calling this in. Iron Man was on the absolute top of SHIELD’s most wanted list, and he was certain that Maria would not look kindly on him keeping this from them.
Well, whether they knew now or in a few hours hardly mattered, and Steve wanted answers.
He nodded, and said, “I promise.”
Iron Man sagged, relieved, and allowed Steve to guide him down the hall. When he reached the bathroom, Steve tugged him inside and helped him sit.
The contents of Steve’s first aid kit left a lot to be desired. He rarely found himself needing it—most anything that needed medical attention in his line of work needed a lot more than a first aid kit’s bandage, and with Steve’s reflexes he rarely found himself needing the thing for clumsy accidents.
Now, as he pulled out the roll of bandages and the small brown bottle of hydrogen peroxide he’d kept stored beneath the sink, he wished he’d been a little more careful in stocking the thing.
He peeled back the dish rag that Iron Man had been using and tossed it into the trash can by the sink; it was a lost cause. Next he dabbed a generous amount of hydrogen peroxide onto a small swath of bandage and ran a thumb soothingly over Iron Man’s hip before gingerly beginning to clean the wound.
Iron Man hissed through his teeth, fingers tightening into fists at his sides, but he stayed still and let Steve work. Iron Man glanced at his watch.
“Tell me,” Steve said quietly, keeping his eyes on his work in front of him as the bandage turned from white to pink to red.
Iron Man was silent for a long moment. "We couldn't do it. We’d looked through all the options, tried everything, and this was the only way, but. We couldn’t,” he said, then: “I’m sorry.”
Steve had no idea what that meant, so he just nodded, a subtle motion, and waited for Iron man to continue. When he didn’t, Steve sighed.
“Why won’t you talk to me?” he asked.
“Because it doesn’t matter anymore,” Iron Man said.
“Who did this?” Steve asked.
“A superhero,” Iron Man said, and when Steve frowned a little at that, he added, “Trust me—it’s no one you know.”
Steve knew most of the heroes that were out there, vigilantes and SHIELD-sanctioned, so he wasn’t really sure how that worked. “And here I was, worried you were cheating on me with another hero,” Steve said.
“Never,” Iron Man said sincerely.
The blood in the wound was partially dried, and once Steve got it mostly cleared away he could see that the cut was much more superficial than he’d initially feared. Now that it was somewhat cleaned up it was bleeding a little more freely, fresh red drops welling up in the deepest parts of the gash. Steve could see that the skin had been torn unevenly by something, possibly a chunk of shrapnel from Iron Man’s own armor, given the state of it, and he winced sympathetically at the thought before pressing a clean bandage over the spot.
“It’s not bad,” Steve assured him, and Iron Man hummed disinterestedly. He seemed...out of it, and Steve suddenly recalled the blood matted in the back of Iron Man’s hair. “You hit your head. Weren’t you wearing your helmet? ”
“It’s fine,” Iron Man assured him, while Steve prodded around the outside edges of the wound to see for himself. It did look okay, just a little graze on the scalp, but that didn’t mean that whatever blow had done this hadn’t given Iron Man a concussion.
Steve leaned back, trying to get a good look at the dilation of Iron Man’s pupils, and saw that he was looking at his watch again, worrying his lower lip between his teeth as he watched the seconds roll by.
“You keep glancing at your watch. Are you going somewhere,” Steve asked, trying to lighten the mood, “or am I just boring you?”
Iron Man looked up at him, seeming startled, and Steve wondered if he’d miscalculated when his face crumpled into something dark and so sad.
But just for a moment, because then Iron Man’s face twisted from sad to something else, something wanting, and he leaned forward to kiss Steve, all warm and fierce, crushing their lips together gracelessly. Steve flinched back, surprised by the suddenness of it, and then before Iron Man could get the wrong idea and pull away, Steve brought his hands up to rest on his his cheek, cupping his face and kissing him back for all that he was worth.
Iron Man gripped the back Steve’s shirt, dragging him closer, and Steve obliged him, but kept a couple of inches between them, not wanting to hurt him by getting over eager.
They finally broke apart, chests heaving, and Steve glanced between Iron Man’s eyes and his lips.
Iron Man glanced at his watch.
“Nothing happened,” he said breathlessly, his voice full of wonder and apprehension, and Steve stopped dead.
“Nothing—excuse me?” he said, and Iron Man looked up at him, looking just so damn confused and completely oblivious to the put-out look on Steve’s face. He pushed Steve away, climbing to his feet with one hand pressed over the bandage on his side to keep it in place as he staggered out of the bathroom.
Steve followed him, curious now. Iron Man looked like he’d completely forgotten that Steve was there, now, shoving several pieces of armor across the floor as he picked up his helmet. He punched something into one of the sensors, and it whirred to life,
“What was supposed to happen?” Steve asked, because he didn’t think that Iron Man had been talking to him.
“We’re alive,” Iron Man said, and Steve frowned.
“Did you think we wouldn’t be before?” he asked, somewhat alarmed by the absolute wonder in Iron Man’s voice when he said it.
Iron Man glanced up at him, then, then down at the helmet held loosely in his lap.
“I guess I owe you an explanation,” he said slowly. “It’s—you deserve to know, after everything—”
“Proximity alert,” a smoothly synthesized voice chimed from within the helmet. Iron Man’s head snapped down, staring at the screen inside the HUD. “Identified: Falcon. Identified: Captain Marvel. Identified: Photon.”
“You…?” Iron Man’s face just—crumpled. “Fuck,” he said, and then as quick as the hurt and betrayal appeared it was gone, his face suddenly as blank and expressionless as the helmet he wore.
He threw the helmet on, and as soon as the eyes began to glow the armor pieces strewn across the floor began to rattle and rise from the floor, shooting forward to wrap around him smoothly. As quick as Steve could blink, the armor had fully assembled around him, and the repulsors on his jet boots began to whine.
“Iron Man, I didn’t—“
He didn’t wait for Steve to finish, shooting out the window and shattering the glass where his elbow clipped the window pane. Steve ran after him onto the apartment’s fire escape, and he watched as Iron Man blasted between Captain Marvel and Falcon, off like a shot.
He heard Carol swear viciously when she saw the supervillain blasting his way out of Steve’s apartment, and then she turned to go after him.
“No!” Steve shouted, stopping her before they could damage Iron Man’s trust irreparably. “Let him go!”
Carol looked like she was very strongly questioning Steve’s judgment. She down flew to land on the balcony next to him, and he stepped aside to let her and the others into the apartment.
“What the hell was that?” Carol asked. Steve shook his head and glanced at the sky where Iron Man had disappeared somewhere into the city. He closed the widow—or what was left of it—behind him.
“I honestly don’t know,” he said.
“Steve,” Sam said. “You know I trust you man, but I am seriously starting to question your judgment here, because—”
“Iron Man used it,” Monica said. “He detonated the bomb.”
“He—how? When?” Steve asked.
“Just now. Minutes ago. We just got a massive reading on SHIELD’s sensors,” Monica said. “The EM spike was so massive I could feel it from headquarters. But that’s not even the weirdest part,” she continued. “It was just there for a second—just a blink, and then suddenly everything was gone in a flash. No residual radiation. No trace at all.”
“Not to mention that we’re, you know,” Sam said. “Not dead.”
“It couldn’t have been Iron Man,” Steve said firmly.
“Steve, come on,” Sam said.
Steve held up a hand to stop him. He knew what this must sound like, but he needed them to listen.
“No, think about it. He was here,” Steve said, and he steadfastly ignored the quirk of Sam’s eyebrow as he pressed on, “how could he have caused such a massive explosion, and then still been here to break into my apartment and bleed all over my couch?”
The three of them were silent for a moment, digesting that. Sam was the first to speak.
“Okay man, I gotta ask—bleeding on your couch?” he asked.
Steve sighed, knowing how ridiculous it sounded and eternally grateful for how much Sam was willing to put up with from him.
“He was already here when I came home, beat all to hell and talking about having messed up. He kept apologizing,” Steve recalled. “He kept glancing at his watch, too, like he was waiting for something to happen, and then after he… and then, just before you showed up, he looked confused, like he’d been expecting something terrible that never came.”
“What did he want?” Carol asked after a moment.
“He didn’t get a chance to tell me,” Steve said, looking over to where the glass littered the carpet.
“I think,” Sam said, “we need to find Iron Man, and find out what’s really going on here.”
In the end, it was Iron Man who found them.
It was less than six hours later, in the center of the courtyard at headquarters with a ring of twenty guards armed with semi-automatic weapons and a healthy dose of wary distrust for the whole situation, that the Avengers came onto the scene.
He looked perfectly at ease amongst the armed patrol of SHIELD agents, wearing one gauntlet and holding the other at his side, so that one hand was bare, and when he saw the Avengers approaching, he ever so slowly raised his uncovered hand in greeting.
His palm was glowing.
(That was new).
Maria gave Steve a long, hard look, conveying wordlessly that she blamed every bit of insanity that was about to unfold entirely on him, and gestured for them both to follow her inside.
Iron Man turned wordlessly to follow her, and Steve quickly caught up with him.
“Iron Man, I want you to know, back...uh,” He glanced at Maria, and then decided to hell with it. She probably knew already. “Back at my apartment, I didn’t break my—”
“I know,” Iron Man interrupted.
“Promise—You do?” he asked.
“I know now, anyway,” he amended, sounding slightly guilty. “I might have tapped your comm signal.”
“Oh.” Well, that was good, then. He’d been worried when Iron Man flew off that he’d think Steve had betrayed his trust, but, “Wait. How long have you been tapping into my comm, exactly?”
“Boys,” Maria interrupted. “Put the lead on. There’s work to do.”
The Universe was collapsing around them, earth the focal point to this disaster, and they’d been none the wiser. He listened as Iron Man explained how every incursion risked the destruction of the universe, he he and his allies had been preparing to do the unthinkable—destroy another Earth, billions of lives in exchange for preserving their two universes.
Steve held his breath as Iron Man explain that he and his allies had realized, at the last moment, that they couldn't do it. He realized that Iron Man had come to his apartment, had sought Steve out in what he’d thought were his final moments, all of them resigned to their fates.
All, apparently, but one.
Steve listened as Iron Man explained everything, finally, and felt sick. An entire world destroyed, so that they may live. He’d been carrying this all this time, trying to fight the end of the world, while the Avengers opposed him every step of the way.
He wanted to ask Iron Man why he hadn’t just told them everything from the start, but he knew that could hardly be considered productive now. The timer in Iron Man’s palm projected another four hours and thirty six minutes.
There just wasn’t enough time for hurt feelings and what-ifs.
“I think we can help each other,” Iron Man said. “I think that I’ve found another solution to the Incursions. No more bloodshed. With SHIELD’s resources, and the Avenger’s help, we can put an end to all of this, once and for all,” he promised, “and then we can finally put this whole mess behind us.”
“And your compatriots?” Maria asked.
Iron Man shook his head. “They’re good people, just trying to help. They don’t need to be involved in this,” he cocked his head to the side, considering, “If all goes according to plan, this should be the last you ever hear of them.”
Maria digested that for a moment, and then nodded, once. The couldn’t afford the resources for a witch hunt.
“So, let’s hear this solution,” Carol said.
Iron Man turned to the group, considering his words carefully for a moment before speaking.
“You have to understand that we had the best intentions,” Iron Man said, “and it all just—but I’m not here to apologize for my mistakes. We tried everything, every peaceful solution that we could think of, and then when that didn’t work, we became… less peaceful. I suppose in a way, it’s good we did.”
“The bomb,” Monica filled in, and Iron Man nodded.
“It’s ironic. The answer to solving all of this peacefully was right in front of us the whole time, in the form of a bomb capable of destroying a planet,” Iron Man said.
“When he detonated the bomb, he didn’t just destroy the planet we were about to collide with,” Iron man said. “Something happened in the rift. It wasn’t just that the other planet had been destroyed. The Incursion Point didn’t just vanish. Something about the explosion reversed it entirely.”
“So what exactly was it,” Monica asked. “How do we stop it?”
“I don’t know,” Iron Man said. “There’s too much data to sift through, and we only have four hours. Maybe if I’d thought to look for it before the explosion was set off, set up the right equipment… but it’s impossible to say. The only way is to recreate the incident.”
There was a deafening silence in the room, and then Carol slammed her fist down on the table.
“If you think for a second that we’re going to blow up another Earth for the sake of some data that may or may not help, you are out of your damn mind,” she said.
Iron Man shook his head. “Not a world,” he said. “If we can make a smaller version, and fly it in to detonate it inside the rift, the explosion should be able to have the same effect.”
It would be a suicide mission, Iron Man had to know that, and yet he said it without any hesitation.
“So, who’s playing courier?” Sam asked.
“I am,” Iron Man said. “My suit has many of the components that the previous bomb incorporated already built in. Hopefully it will be enough to reverse the incursion point alone. If not… well. Let’s hope it works.”
“Why does it have to be the suit?” Steve asked. “We could just—build another bomb, on a smaller scale this time. We could send it into the rift with drone, or—”
“There just isn’t enough time,” Iron Man said. “Two hours isn’t enough time to build something that would work completely from scratch, and we don’t get a second chance. We can’t afford for it to not work.”
“You can’t just—” Steve shook his head. “There’s got to be another way!”
Iron Man pulled him aside, leading him gently with hand on Steve’s arm, and apologized in a low voice.
“Remember when I told you why I could never join the Avengers?” Iron Man asked. “Well, I’m going to work with you now. There’s only one way, Cap. I can do this.” He squeezed Steve’s shoulder lightly, a small comfort for how cold Steve felt. “You have to let me do this.”
Steve squeezed his eyes shut. He didn’t want it to go this way. But what choice did he have?
“I’ll link my sensors up to SHIELD’s computers,” Iron Man said. “You should be able to determine what exactly caused the incursion to shut down, and make something in time to stop the next one without… without losing anyone else,” Iron Man said.
Steve knew he was right.
“Iron Man, if this is going to work we’ll need everything,” Steve said. “No more secrets.”
“Then it’s settled.” Iron Man glanced down at his palm, reminding everyone very clearly just how little time they had. “We’ll need to work quickly.”
“Just one more thing,” Maria said, stopping him before he could take his leave. “Who are you?”
Iron Man turned back to her. “It won’t matter in a few hours, anyway.”
Maria regarded him shrewdly. “Fair enough,” she said. “Dismissed.”
Iron Man left half an hour before departure, and when he returned he downloaded the coordinates for the Incursion site directly from his armor onto the Quinjet’s main navigational systems. They had two hours to spare on the clock. Steve’s expression soured once he’d seen how far north the incursion point was taking them, but Carol just kicked the heat up a few extra degrees to compensate and pressed on.
From there, it took only half of Carol’s attention to keep them on course, and the rest of her attention was spent trying to size Iron Man up.
Even with the impassive faceplate in place, Steve could tell that Iron Man was doing the same. After so long spent seeing them as his superhero nemeses, no doubt he was having a hard time reconciling working with them now.
The rest of the Avengers gave Steve and Iron Man a wide birth, and for that Steve was grateful. Steve found himself searching for something to say, but everything that he could come up with now just seemed—trite, in the face of what they were headed towards. What they… what some of them wouldn’t be coming back from.
“I’m not okay with this plan,” Steve said in a low voice. “And I— I know it’s your choice, but. That doesn’t make it right.”
Iron Man listened to him but said nothing, simply nodded in acknowledgement, and turned to watch the sky whip past the windows.
Things had been simpler, back at the start.
“Oh my God.”
Steve started, wobbling, and nearly lost his balance entirely when he couldn’t move his feet to stabilize himself, which would have just been pouring salt into the wound, considering that his ego was bruised enough as it was. He had honestly hoped that the Trapster’s paste would eventually break down enough that he would be able to free himself without ever needing to call in the Avengers or SHIELD for assistance.
The Avengers had likely bagged the Trapster by now, and were probably wondering where Steve was, but he hadn’t been about to call them unless they absolutely needed to know that he’d managed to get himself glued to the roof of the jewelry store the Trapster had been about to rob.
At this point, as Iron Man dropped down beside him looking obviously tickled by what he’d found, Steve was wishing that he’d just bitten the bullet and called this in.
“Is it my birthday?” Iron Man asked, and Steve got the distinct impression that he was taking pictures. “Because I cannot believe that the Trapster managed to pull one over on you.”
“So are you here to, what, finish the heist?” Steve asked, just to see Iron Man scoff.
“You have to know that robbing jewelry stores is beneath me. I know you’ve read my file by now.”
“Uh-huh,” Steve said. He had, cover-to-cover, the night after they’d met. Although SHIELD’s analysts had insisted that Iron Man was dangerous, Steve hadn’t seen nor heard of him doing anything particularly insidious—other than flying over Manhattan or Long Island with some mysterious purpose. “Then you’re here to, what? Capture me? Or are you just here to mock me?”
“Nah,” Iron Man said, and then he paused, “...Well, it is pretty funny. But I was just flying by. I thought I’d give you a hand.” Iron Man raised a hand, literally, and Steve could hear the repulsor whining as he leveled it on Steve’s feet.
“Whoa, wait—” Steve said, but Iron Man fired before he could finish his sentence. Steve had expected it to hurt, to destroy the roof and throw up dust the way Iron Man’s repulsors should have done. Instead, it almost tickled.
“Relax,” Iron Man said. “A repulsor on the lowest setting. Should have you out in a minute, and I even promise not to tell the Super Friends.”
Steve was going to thank him, but what came out instead was, “I just don’t get you.” Iron Man lifted his head at that, though he didn’t stop in the gentle barrage on the paste currently trapping Steve to the roof, so Steve continued. “The first time we ever meet, you save me from falling. I find out after the fact that you’re a supervillain, that you’re dangerous, and yet—”
“And yet,” Iron Man prompted, sounding amused.
“And yet the next time I see you isn’t at some grand heist or evil scheme. It’s here, on the roof of a jewelry store, helping me again. What kind of supervillain helps superheroes?”
“The interesting kind,” Iron Man replied. “And for the record, I’m not the one calling Iron Man a supervillain.” His repulsor dropped off, and his hand fell to his side once again. Steve tugged experimentally on his boots, and he could feel them loosen considerably, more like he’d stepped in a large wad of chewing gum than the previous feeling of being sealed in concrete. Iron Man pointed to his boots. “You should be able to tug yourself free. And I’d hurry... it sounds like your friends are headed back this way to look for you.”
Steve didn’t ask how he knew that, only made a mental note to inform SHIELD that Iron Man had accessed their secure comms.
“Thanks,” Steve said. “Am I going to see you again?”
“Oh, for sure,” Iron Man said, laughing openly. He fired up his jet boots, hovering a few feet off the ground.“You haven’t seen the last of me by a long shot.”
Carol set the Quinjet down gently, but the ice still creaked ominously under its weight. Steve shivered involuntarily, and tugged the clasps of his thermal body armor a little tighter, as though that could somehow help to ward off the chill.
Of course it had to be here in the arctic tundra, where he’d already lost so much, that everything came to an end.
“I should warn you. The other worlds aren’t always friendly,” Iron Man said, just before the Quinjet doors opened. “And in an infinite number of universes, you can’t just prepare for another team of Avengers. You have to be ready for anything.”
“The device needs six minutes to warm up. This won’t be easy, but no matter what happens, that portal needs to be closed before the timer runs down,” he nodded to the team’s fliers. Iron Man turned toward Steve, and the movement was somewhat jerky, with none of his usual grace. Steve wondered if he was scared “Just… make sure you’re on the right side of the rift when that happens.”
“Iron Man,” Steve said, and he stopped, turning the faceplate to him to show that Steve had his full attention. The device looked bulky and spider-like wrapped around the sleek lines of the armour, seeming to jut out from the exposed mechanical parts and wiring beneath Iron Man’s chest plate like a tumor. It looked wrong, to see him like this, and to know that this was the way Steve would be forced to remember him.
There was so much to say, but there just wasn’t enough time. It was pointless, maybe, regretting all of the time that he’d wasted, but knowing that couldn’t scrub the bitter taste from his mouth. He swallowed, and in a voice that was much more held together than he ever thought he was capable, he said: “I always knew that you were a good man.”
The hatch dropped then, blasting the hold with a wall of bitterly cold air and sweeping little swirls of snow across the deck plating.
“That makes one of us,” Iron Man said.
Steve sucked in a harsh breath, not at the bitter cold of the wind, but at the scene that lay beyond the jet. The sky was a red. The color seemed to bleed into the landscape below, creating an eerie off-color image in the snow. Great, jagged spires of ice jutted up throughout the landscape, ragged and crumbling where the enormous sheets of ice scraped past each other like frozen tectonic plates. Despite the howling gale around them, the tundra seemed almost eerily still, as though even the fierce wind whipping past was not bold enough to disturb the macabre image of a blood-red tundra.
In the sky, at the heart of the incursion, Steve stared up at another planet Earth, and in that moment he felt so, so small.
Iron Man didn’t spare the sky a second glance, and Steve wondered how many times he’d seen this image before. It was strangely beautiful in a way, Steve thought. Not a bad image to be that last one you see.
“Every planet is different, but one thing’s for sure. Once they know we’re here, they’ll fight back for all they’re worth,” Iron Man said. He turned back to the rest of them. “Good luck.”
“Wait—” Steve said, suddenly desperately grasping for just another few seconds. Time. They just needed time.
Iron Man still, turning to oblige him as though it was Steve who was in the position to make requests, here.
“You kissed me,” Steve said.
Iron Man’s shoulders slumped, as much as they could wearing the armor. “Yeah,” Iron Man said, his voice soft through the speakers. “I guess I did. I’m sorry about that.”
“Don’t—don’t be sorry,” Steve said. “Just…Can I see you,” Steve asked quietly. “Before you go, can I see you one last time?”
Iron Man regarded Steve for a long moment. “That’s not poss—” Iron Man trailed off, then, finally said, “No. Don’t make this harder than it needs to be.”
And with that Iron Man took to the sky, and for a moment all Steve heard was the roaring of the wind in his ears. All he could see was the little form of Iron Man, getting smaller and smaller as he headed toward the other Earth.
“Something’s coming,” Monica said.
At first, there was stillness, and then suddenly the sky was speckled with lights. Steve watched them as they streaked through the air, leaving little glowing trails in their wake. Monica and Carol both took to the air after Iron Man, and Steve waited and watched.
They were coming closer, the lights in the air melding together to paint a streaks across the sky, rapidly approaching. A few broke off from the rest, to follow Captain Marvel and Photon, and Monica blasted one out of the sky without even flinching.
They were so bright they were difficult to look at directly, and Steve resisted the urge to shield his eyes from them, bringing the shield up. They shone with a bright, iridescent light from their skin, or what looked like their skin. Steve couldn’t actually tell what they were. They looked humanoid, but their movements were jerky and their gaze unfocused, like they weren’t entirely present in the fight.
Their features were sharp and angular, their eyes, huge and oily black, were the only parts of them that didn’t seem to glow.
Steve swung his shield, cracking one across the jaw and sending a shower of sparks across the ice. Their skin—or hull?—was warm, almost hot to the touch, and it melted the snow into slush where it fell. The thing shuttered and then exploded into a burst of sparks and heat, leaving a cold pool of water on the ground where it had once been.
Not human then. None of the others flinched, and one swept past Steve to swipe it nails across his shoulder, digging hot like knives into his skin and tearing clean through the scale mail where they touched.
Jan blasted it with her stingers and flew to land next to him. They were fast and agile in the air, and Steve could see that Sam and Jan were having difficulty keeping up with them. With Jan covering his back, Steve took a brief moment to stare up at the sky, searching for Carol and Monica. It was no use—the sky was filled with light, an artificial aurora, and he lost them in the noise of the fight.
He had to assume they were okay. There was nothing that he could do for them here, other than keep the ones on his end busy.
Sam slammed his boot into the place between one’s shoulder blades and rode it down to the ground, and Steve tossed his shield, bouncing off it’s skull before striking two others and finally returning to him. All three burst into another shower of sparks, and Sam took off again, shaking cold snow melt from his boots as he darted into the air.
Steve could see more of these things, just beyond the rift, sailing through the air on glowing halos.
Steve saw the flash before he heard the noise—so blindingly bright that it whited out the landscape for a moment, and Steve spun around, creatures suddenly forgotten, and stared up at the sky. The explosion was enormous, and the ground shuddered beneath him as huge chunks of ice shook loose and crashed down from the icy pillars surrounding him.
Steve watched, stock-still as the rift seemed to wobble and fade around the edges. And then it was gone, and the eerie red of the landscape winked away, and the quiet “no” that escaped was carried away on the wind.
The lights flickered when the portal closed, and then one-by-one they began to wink out, dropping from the sky like shooting stars before bursting into a spray of sparks. The last of them went down, and Steve finally paused to draw a shaky breath. He dropped his shield in the slush, and the harsh wind was already freezing the water lapping at the smooth metal surface.
Steve stared up at where the portal had been, and something twisted in his gut, something guilty and vicious because he’d been focusing on the fight, ever the soldier, and he hadn’t even been paying attention, hadn’t seen—
Jan landed in the snow next to him, kicking the slush off her shoes. The ground crunched quietly beneath her feet. She reached out to touch his arm, tentative. Her hand was warm, even exposed to the bitter wind, maybe from her stingers...
“Are you okay?” she asked.
Steve watched Carol and Monica finish off the last of the creatures struggling to fight now that they were cut off from whatever controlled them on their world, lights winking out one-by-one until the sky was left empty and dark.
“Fine,” Steve said after a long moment. The lie was heavy on his tongue. “You?”
Monica was leaning on Carol for support as they landed in front of the Quinjet. Sam followed close behind, wobbling on one singed wing, trying to keep his balance in the wind.
“It’s cold,” Jan said, tugging on his arm. She stooped to pick up his shield from the snow, and pressed it into his hands. “Let’s go inside.”
Steve went home.
The drapes flapped, caught by the wind blowing through the broken window. There was glass on the carpet, on the balcony too, and the first aid kit was still spilled across the bathroom floor where he’d dropped it.
He dug the dustpan out of the hall closet and swept up the glass.
They held a funeral. It was small, and they had no body to bury. It felt wrong.
They told no one. It was better that way.
Iron Man stopped making his appearances, and slowly, slowly, he faded from public memory.
Maria spent the morning briefing Steve on new facilities for Incursion—and general Multiverse—research. He’d requested being placed as a liaison between the scientists in charge and the Avengers. It had seemed the right thing to do at the time. He’d… it was important that the job was done right, and Steve thought that it was best that he was the one to do it.
When he’d walked into the offices and immediately come face to face with a full three dimensional render of the Iron Man suit, looking just as Iron Man had just before he’d flown into the rift, he’d severely questioned his decision.
It wasn’t a matter of whether or not he was ready. He wasn’t sure that he could ever be, and certainly not while the wound was still so fresh. He’d let Iron Man down. That didn’t mean he couldn’t make sure that his sacrifice counted.
Steve had just finished reading through the list of SHIELD personnel that were being transferred to the project when Maria handed over the model to the committee head and started toward the door, motioning for Steve to follow.
“We’ve got four days until the next incursion, according to that countdown timer,” she said. “Which means that you and your people are going to be working almost around the clock.”
“I was aware of that when I volunteered,” Steve said.
“Good,” Maria said. “Because this may be our only chance, and just because they know what they’re building doesn’t mean it’s going to get done in time unless—”
Steve reached out a hand to stop her, and gestured down the hall.
“Who is that?” he asked, taking great effort to keep his voice level.
Maria followed his gaze, and then rolled her eyes when she saw who Steve was talking about. Clearly, she had already had an opinion about the man.
“That is Tony Stark,” Maria said. “He’s coming on as a new consultant, looking into the Incursion problem. He’s smart enough, but mostly a pain in my ass...why?” She turned, and saw that Steve was no longer standing over her shoulder. She whirled back around, and found him again, now heading down the hall, “...Captain?”
Steve stopped in front of Tony, deaf to everything else, and Tony watched him approach, not betraying any sort of recognition, or at least not outwardly, but the way he shoved his hands into his pockets as Steve approached gave him away.
“You’re…” Steve began. He swallowed. “You’re here.”
Tony shrugged, nonchalantly if not for the fact that he seemed to be practically brimming with nervous energy, and gave Steve the first genuine smile that he’d seen from him.
“I’m looking forward to the fresh start,” Tony said.
“You’re—I. What the hell is going on?” Steve shook his head, and Tony smiled as though he’d said something else entirely, and reached out to shake Steve’s hand, as though they were making an introduction.
“If we’re going to talk,” Tony said, voice pitched low enough that no one could overhear, “Let’s go somewhere private. I didn’t go through all that trouble to keep my secret identity a secret just to blow it in the victory lap.”
Steve found himself nodding dumbly, hardly able to comprehend what was in front of him. Iron Man—no, Tony—here in front of him. Back from the dead. He led Tony down an empty hallway. When he reached the end he paused, the clear sound of Maria’s boots clicking after them, curious no doubt, on why Steve had left her without so much as an explanation.
He grabbed Tony by the jacket, and dragged him into the nearest conference room. He shut the door behind him quickly but quietly, and flipped the lock, and it was only then that he realized that he still had a hold on Tony’s jacket, pinned against the doorway. He met his eyes, and for a moment he grasped for what to say.
“If you’re going to get grabby, I have some suggestions on—”
In the end, he didn’t say anything, closing the last couple of inches between them for a kiss, cutting him off so that the end of the sentence dissolved into a moan that sent a thrill up Steve’s spine. Tony leaned in eagerly, one hand coming up to settle on his hip, and Steve threaded his fingers through Tony’s hair.
“Okay—” Tony said, and Steve cut him off again with another quick kiss before he could continue. “This is not how I was expecting this to go. Not that I’m...complaining...”
He trailed off and leaned it was another this. This hadn’t been what Steve was intending, either, but then suddenly they were here and Iron Man was right there alive and cracking jokes in Steve’s arms and—
“I thought—you let me think you were dead,” Steve said. He saw some of the mirth slide from Tony’s expression, and the hand on his waist tightened its grip almost unthinkingly.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and he really did sound sorry. “It had to be that way. If anyone got suspicious, I would have faked Iron Man’s death for nothing and exposed myself as a supervillain.”
“How?” Steve asked. “How did you survive—“
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Tony said again. “There was no one in the suit. I was never in any real danger.”
“I don’t understand,” Steve said, although he was beginning to.
“Iron Man the supervillain would have never been able to reform his image. But I realized that maybe Tony Stark could build a new identity. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for second chances. I couldn’t let this one pass me by.”
That was true, just as it was true that if the public ever found out Iron Man’s identity, they would be just as likely to call for his head than to offer him a chance at redemption. SHIELD may be a little more receptive, especially on Steve’s recommendation, but only just. Tony probably knew as much—had probably even used that as a defining factor in his decision to let Iron Man die, and he probably didn’t need Steve offering his two cents.
“God damn it, Iron Man. Tony,” he corrected, and Iron Man frowned, guilty. Steve sighed, and tried to reconcile the part of him that was hurt that Tony would lie to him about this with the part of him that was just happy that he was alive. “They’re going to be pretty damn suspicious if they walk in on us now,” Steve said, instead. “What will you do, now?”
“Honestly, I think your director is on to me,” Tony said. “If she didn’t know before, she certainly suspects now. Seems she’s salvaged one of Iron Man’s old armors, and she wants me to reverse engineer it.”
“What did you say?” Steve asked.
“Well, I said yes,” Tony said. “I have—friends, who can help...and I thought... Well, I thought we could try this.” Tony wagged a finger in the small space between them, and Steve realized that he still had Tony pressed up against the door at almost the same time that he realized that Tony really didn’t seem to mind.
“Tonight?” Tony prompted, hopeful, and Steve realized that he’d been waiting for Steve give him an answer. “I’d really like to get to know you, for real this time.”
“It’s always been real,” Steve said, and Tony rolled his eyes.
“Like normal then,” he said. “Just two normal people on a normal date.”
“I’d like that,” Steve said, and he leaned in again to press their lips together for a second time, for a fresh start.