“I killed you.”
Steve’s shoulders drooped, and he clenched his trembling fingers. Translucent Tony Stark, whom James had seen for the first and the last time already dead, tilted his head.
“I know, Steve,” he agreed. “I have Internet access, and I had nothing else to do but follow the news.”
“You…” Steve gulped for air and went into a coughing fit, just like during one of his asthma attacks. James put a steadying hand on his shoulder to remind his friend he was there.
“I am a self-learning copy. An imprint of the original, if it’s easier for you to comprehend.” Stark said. “I know that you killed him, but… he created me so I could help the Avengers after his death, so it became my birth. I’m self-learning only in regard to my knowledge, capisce? I have the same feelings for you he had when he did the brain scan. You are my friend who needs my help.
“Tony, I… I can’t look into your eyes. I don’t deserve your help.” Steve was looking at him with such pain that James felt uncomfortable.
“I am a self-learning copy.” Stark repeated. “Like JARVIS, but with Tony Stark’s memories. Even better, because unlike him I’ll never ever forget anything and I finally don’t have a need for food and sleep. He created me so I could help the Avengers. And I will help you, Steve. Otherwise, my existence has no purpose.”
“Tony,” Steve reached out for Stark, and his hand went right through the man.
Stark, as it seemed to James, looked at his friend with pity.
“Do you want me to forgive you?”
Steve gulped loudly and shook his head.
“No. I don’t deserve forgiveness.”
Stark didn’t argue with him; he just stepped away. It was the cruelest thing he could do.
“Then get comfortable,” he said. “All the papers came into force today at midnight, so now this Tower belongs to the Avengers. You may call for me at any time if you have any requests, I’m dying from boredom anyway. Seriously, soon I’ll reach the last webpage and have to start over with lower standards. Your suite is still in the same place, Steve.”
“Thank you, Tony,” Steve said and screwed his eyes shut.
“No problem, Cap. Now, not to disturb you… No, you know what, fuck it, remember that I’m always watching you and be disturbed all you want.”
“God Almighty.” Steve whispered, hiding face in his hands.
“Are you going to be alright?” James asked him. “I’m sure there’s a way to turn him off… probably.”
“No,” Steve shook his head, and his chin trembled. “I can’t do it the second… I… Bucky, he was my friend.”
James just hugged him instead of saying anything. There was nothing he could say, really.
“I would ask you what you’re doing, but I’m rather afraid to hear the answer.”
James started and almost dropped the jar of coffee he was holding. Stark, who was standing behind him, looked rather amused.
“I want coffee.” James said.
“So you decided to violate the coffee machine? Pal, after what I’ve witnessed you must marry it.”
“What, it’s already allowed in the twenty first century?”
Stark took him in with a measuring look, as if trying to figure out if James was joking or not.
“Well… in 2009 a Japanese man Taichi Takashita decided to marry a manga character.”
“Mad world.” James decided, shaking his head.
Stark shrugged, looking rather unimpressed.
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Right now I’m following the epic love story of the century between a goat and a tiger and…”
“You weren’t joking when you said that you were bored, huh?” James interrupted the man and pulled some lever on the coffee machine. It remained silent.
“Pf,” Stark snorted. “Of course I’m bored. Steve tries not to ask me anything if possible; Pepper cries every time she sees me so I avoid her myself; Rhodey got drunk after our last conversation; Natasha calls me names in Russian because she thinks I didn’t put enough effort into survival; Cap’s kids are scared of me and try to stay away. Therefore, for entertainment I have only Peter’s school life… and the goat and the tiger. The latter are far more interesting.”
“I see.” James nodded and looked at coffee with despair. He was ready to admit that he was a senile old man if it let him complain about his old days when everything was simpler and better. Then he turned to Stark. “Will you help me?”
“God, I thought you’d never take the hint.” He rolled his eyes. “Push the left button.”
“Go to hell, Tony.” Romanov said.
James didn’t see her very often in the Tower, but her every visit had been accompanied by arguments with Stark.
“You know, if everything written in the Bible is true, there’s a huge possibility, which I’ll calculate in my spare time, that I’m already there.”
Romanov gave him a look filled with hatred and pain.
James decided not to interrupt them and left the room quietly. He didn’t know how he would’ve reacted if his dead friend was and was not present at the same time.
Stark casually started teaching him how to handle everything in the Tower after a couple of weeks after the incident with the coffee maker. James knew how to use weapons and any kinds of transportation devices, but the household appliances of the 21st century dumbfounded him by their seeming simplicity.
“That’s right, Barnes, read the instruction only after you break the thing down completely.”
“Have you ever read an instruction in your life?” James muttered.
“No,” Tony chuckled. “I grasped everything intuitively. Genius, what can you do.”
“And a giant asshole,” James added. “Can you stop mocking me and for once just explain how it works?”
“Let me think…” Stark pretended to be lost in thought for a moment, and James reached out to cuff him on the head without thinking.
“Won’t work, Sergeant,” Tony smirked. “I’m completely invincible to physical harm.”
James remembered Stark’s bloodless, dead face and felt something tighten in his chest painfully.
“Just help me,” he said.
After four months since their return to the Tower, during the battle with Dark Avengers Stark accessed the Iron Man suit and saved all of their lives. When everything had ended, Steve disappeared. He turned off the communicator and somehow managed to vanish in the gathered crowd of onlookers.
James found him with Stark’s help. He traced Steve’s movement with security cameras that New York was stuffed with like a turkey to the very Central Park.
He noticed Steve from afar – it was hard to miss a guy in a blue suit. Kids and teenagers were whispering around him, not daring to come closer and start a conversation. James sat down on his bench.
“Stevie?” he called after several minutes when the silence started getting on his nerves.
“I tried to refuse,” he admitted quietly. “Stop being Captain America. I told the President that I didn’t deserve the shield, but he disagreed. Though I am not worthy of it. If the Skrulls hadn’t attacked, I would have been arrested and judged. But now they’ve forgiven me everything at once, and don’t understand why can’t I bear the shield I soiled with my friend’s blood.”
“No,” he shook his head. “Today I realized that I couldn’t. I saw Iron Man hurrying to our rescue, and for a moment, I’ve forgotten that there’s no Tony inside… And I must not forget.” Steve sighed raggedly, sat quietly for a moment and only then continued. “The President said that America needs her Captain, but it can’t be me.”
“No,” James shook his head. “Don’t even think about it.”
“You can do it.” Steve turned his face to James and smiled.
“It’s an awful choice.” James told him. “It’s not just my hands that are covered in blood. I‘m sodden with it, Stevie. Better choose… Sam.”
“It has to be you.”
Steve announced his decision to everyone, gathered his belongings and returned to Washington. He said that someone had to supervise the realization of Tony’s idea – special training camps for kids with powers. James accepted the shield, and Stark made a new suit for him. It wasn’t quite the same as the previous one, but the colour scheme and the sense of patriotism remained the same.
At least, that was what Stark had said.
“Barnes!” Tony held out a hand and helped him up. “You could just leave through the door like normal people do. No need to make this giant hole with your oaky head. What example you set for children?”
Iron Man pointed with a wide gesture at Spider Man and Miss Marvel, who were giggling behind him, and inconspicuously supported James when he swung to the side.
“Are you alright?”
James wasn’t quite sure that he was speaking the truth.
As it happens, James didn’t tell Steve a lot of things so he wouldn’t worry. About the troubles with money, when his family had almost nothing to eat. About what happened to him on the dirty table in HYDRA’s laboratory. About his nightmares, about the fear to wake up in the cryochamber and not being able to remember anything again.
Right then, at that very moment, he came to realization that he’d gotten yet another thing in his life he could never tell his best friend about. A lost chance for happiness that could never be returned. This chimerical if only.
If only Steve lowered the shield.
If only Tony didn’t support the Registration Act.
If only James happened to meet him alive.
They could’ve become someone to each other, but instead James watched translucent Tony flipping the pages, trying to explain to him why his arm had to be painted with matte paint, giving a long row of calculations to prove his point.
He was hopelessly in love with a dead man.