"Tell me again what happened to Tony," Steve said, taking a steadying breath, and he was so, so glad it was Jan who had found Tony. "A little slower, this time."
The Wasp's secret identity was an open secret -- owed in part to the fact that her Avengers outfit was maskless -- and over the past year Steve had gathered that Janet Van Dyne was a woman of significant financial means. She had the sort of money that allowed her to routinely rub shoulders with people like Tony Stark, their very own Avengers benefactor, at fundraising dinners or charity galas or whatever the fabulously wealthy spent their money on these days. Steve -- or rather, Captain America -- had occasionally been a guest in that world, but Jan and Tony had been born to it.
And tonight Steve was unbelievably grateful that Jan had decided to attend the same charity event as Tony had, because Jan could keep her head even in the worst of catastrophes, with a bright resourcefulness that would have put many men Steve had served with to shame. He could only imagine the chaos that might have ensued if a civilian had found Tony first, this evening.
He wondered when he'd stopped thinking of the Avengers as civilians.
They were in the basement of Avengers Mansion, in the team briefing room, and Jan was looking over at him and holding out her hands, earnestly, one opera glove missing; it was the picture of elegance marred, a night on the town gone horribly wrong. She was still wearing a beautiful evening gown, shimmering gold and black, backless, showing what Steve could only assume was an acceptable amount of skin in this decade. Her clutch, wrap, and heels were piled on one of the chairs at the table, and her hair was in disarray, mussed and swinging into her face. Her makeup was smeared. She didn't seem to care.
There were larger concerns.
"I don't know what happened, exactly," Jan said, her voice tight with tension. "I wasn't with him when it happened. I was by the staircase, and he'd gone upstairs. He'd been invited to look at the art collection, I think. He couldn't have been gone more than five minutes before he came back down, and I could tell something was wrong from just the way he looked at me. So I said, 'Tony?' and he-- and he--" Her voice caught. "He didn't even know his own name."
This was bad. This was really, really bad.
Steve shut his eyes and scraped his hand across his face, like that could make this nightmare all go away. "God."
Jan's hand landed on his arm, a steadying presence. "I know," she said, quietly.
"Then what happened?"
"Well," she said, and she smiled a small, rueful smile. "He is Tony, after all." She said it like he should know who Tony was, like she knew who Tony was -- and of all of them, clearly she was the one who did. "He's resourceful. He tried to fake it, of course, but he-- he didn't know who he was, who I was, where he was. It was obvious, and he-- he looked so scared, even though he'd never say so. I knew I had to get him out of there, and I didn't want the press getting wind of it. So I went to powder my nose, fished my Avengers card out of my purse, and called you. You and Iron Man and Dr. Blake, and then I rushed him out of there," she said, and Steve nodded, because he'd been here for that part. He'd gotten her message, and he'd suited up and made it down here by the time Jan and Tony had gotten in. "I figured that whatever had happened to him -- well, it sounded a lot like Avengers business to me. Complete amnesia, instantly?" Jan made a face. "It was weird, and we deal in weird."
It was strange indeed. Speaking of strange, he couldn't figure out why Iron Man hadn't responded to the call. Iron Man was Tony's bodyguard, after all, and this should have been well within Iron Man's purview -- surely Iron Man was supposed to prevent things like this from happening? And even if Tony had given him the night off, why would Iron Man have ignored an Avengers alert? It hadn't been a priority call to assemble, but even so -- wasn't Iron Man concerned about his employer?
"So I called you because it was Tony," Jan continued, a little hesitantly. "Tony's still one of us, even if he's not an Avenger, you know?"
Steve made himself smile, and he put his other hand over Jan's. "I know. You made the right call, Wasp."
Jan sighed, and her fingers tightened on his arm. "I just wish I could do something for Tony. I wish the right call came with the right answer."
"There will be answers," Steve said, with more confidence than he felt, because he was Captain America and Captain America was brave and Captain America had to believe that Tony would be all right. "Dr. Blake hasn't even finished examining him yet, has he? Maybe he'll have found something. Maybe it'll be easy."
"Maybe," Jan said, dubiously. "Though I think-- I think maybe you should see him first."
He wished Iron Man were here. Iron Man knew Tony the best of all of them, didn't he? Iron Man should have been the one to do this. But he wasn't, and so Steve took a breath and squared his shoulders. Right. His duty.
"All right," Steve said. "Don can always kick me out if he's still busy."
Tony was at the other end of the basement, in the Avengers' infirmary, visible from a long way down the hall because of the corridor layout and the open door. It seemed so strange to see Tony down here. Of course it was his home and he could go where he liked, and he was often in the fabrication area fixing up Iron Man's armor, but the jarring feeling Steve got -- it was like being a child and seeing your teachers somewhere out of school, like they only ought to exist in one particular place.
Tony was sitting on the exam table, swinging his legs in the air; Don stood next to him. Much like Jan's state of disheveled evening-appropriate appearance, Tony was wearing what had clearly once been a very nice tuxedo; his coat was in a pile next to him, bow tie untied around his neck, collar undone, cufflinks removed. One sleeve was pushed up and there was a blood-pressure cuff on his arm. His gaze was darting around the room, wide-eyed, like he'd never seen any of it before. Like he was terribly, terribly confused and alone in a world of strangers.
And then Tony's gaze lit upon Steve.
Steve had been half-hoping, since he'd gotten Jan's message, that somehow Tony would know him. It felt a little arrogant to assume that, but, well -- he'd been Captain America since 1940. He was recognizable. So maybe Tony wouldn't know him personally, but he'd know the uniform. Steve was expecting, perhaps, a look of distant recognition. Tony would know who Captain America was. People always knew who Captain America was.
He had the cowl pulled back, too, just in case Tony knew his face.
There was no recognition of any sort in Tony's gaze. There was... something else entirely.
One of the many things Steve enjoyed about Iron Man's company was that Iron Man was willing to explain the future to him in a way that made perfect sense and that never made Steve feel ignorant or ashamed for not knowing it. And one day when Steve decided that he'd had enough of not knowing what people said now about a good-looking guy or gal -- because they obviously didn't say sheba or sheik like they had when Steve was a kid, because no one ever asked anyone hey, sugar, are you rationed? -- he'd tentatively asked Iron Man what people said these days when they saw attractive people. Iron Man had just looked at him, eyes sparkling bright blue behind the mask -- Steve had thought maybe he was smiling, underneath -- and promptly given him a frankly mind-boggling list of new words for this new century.
He was remembering Iron Man's list right now, because it seemed like only those bold new words could begin to encompass the way Tony was staring at him. Tony's eyes were dark, his mouth fallen open, his cheeks a little flushed, and he was looking at Steve. His gaze was awed, admiring, and, well... downright lustful. Like he had no idea who Steve was at all but -- as Iron Man would have said -- like he'd hit that.
And Steve just-- didn't know what to do with that, and especially not from Tony. When he was a kid he'd been scrawny and gawky, all elbows and knees, skin and bones, and no one had ever given him a second glance. Since he'd become Captain America, sure, people stared, but it was like Captain America was never real to them, like the muscles came with the uniform, like it was somehow expected, like attractiveness was some kind of default state, in its own way hardly worth mentioning. It was another kind of invisibility.
Tony had never looked at him like that before. Steve didn't think anyone had, really, not like this. Tony was looking at him like he didn't know who he was in the slightest, but like he wanted to get to know him a hell of a lot better. Like he wanted to peel him out of the uniform right now and have his way with him on the nearest flat surface. Dear God.
Well, that was... different. Steve could feel himself going hot; his skin felt like it was too tight all over. Tony's gaze was hot too, hot and hungry, making Steve shiver and shudder as he walked toward him.
Tony's face grew brighter and brighter as Steve kept heading toward him, like the only thought that was cheering Tony up right now was the thought that maybe he already knew Steve, that Steve was here for him, and Tony clearly liked the idea of that a whole lot.
Trying for casual and unworried, hoping that Tony would take a cue from Steve's own manner, Steve leaned against the infirmary doorway and nodded a hello. "Hi, Tony. Hi, Don," Steve said in greeting, and he gave Tony an encouraging smile.
Tony practically beamed back.
Don, unwrapping the blood-pressure cuff from Tony, looked up and returned the nod, briskly. "There's not much I can conclude so far, Captain. Physically, he's fine, as far as I can determine. There's no sign of trauma. He's experiencing the loss of personal identity and memory characteristic of a dissociative fugue state, but nothing seems to have prompted it, and the memory loss seems slightly more wide-ranging than I'd have expected. Ordinarily I'd of course want to admit him and run additional tests immediately, but a MRI is -- to my surprise -- particularly ill-advised in Mr. Stark's situation."
Don grimaced at Tony, who only shrugged helplessly, and Steve had no idea what was going on. He wasn't exactly sure what a MRI was, other than some kind of fancier X-Ray. It certainly wasn't obvious to Steve why Tony couldn't have one. Steve nodded. Someone would explain it to him eventually, he was sure. He could ask Iron Man, when he showed up. Iron Man would tell him.
"I'm planning to spend tonight going through the literature on dissociative fugue and seeing if there's anything similar," Don said. "I'll have a report for one of you as soon as I can, and I'd very probably like to run some more tests, as soon as I determine what they should be. If that's all right with you, Mr. Stark...?" Don raised his eyebrows.
"Sure." Tony sounded so... hesitant. It was unlike him. Steve saw what Jan had meant, instantly; it was clear from his demeanor that something was very wrong. "Whatever you need to do."
"Our next team meeting is tomorrow morning," Steve said. "I understand if that's too soon, but obviously it would be better the sooner we have facts--"
"No, no," Don said, with a smile. "I'll have something for you by then. It's no problem. And I'd better get going so I can start on the research." He turned and picked up his cane, which had been leaning on the exam table, next to the briefcase on the floor that Steve supposed was Tony's. "Good night, Captain, Mr. Stark."
And then he was off, limping down the hall.
Steve was alone with Tony.
The thing was, Steve didn't really know Tony that well, even after living with him a year. He wasn't really around the team that much. And he was hard to talk to, but that was entirely Steve's fault. Steve got embarrassingly tongue-tied around the man. Tony was rich, amazingly brilliant, unbelievably handsome, and a genuinely good man who gave so much of his time and money to the Avengers for seemingly no reason other than that he believed it was the right thing to do. He had everything in the world. He was the future. He lived the future. And he was always so confident, possessed of an intense focus and magnetic charm; when he smiled hello at Steve, Steve went weak in the knees. Steve had charged into battle. Steve had met presidents. But being around Tony just... undid him. He didn't know how to deal with him. So, mostly, he didn't.
He'd assumed that Tony didn't like men, that Tony couldn't possibly like him, but from the way Tony'd been staring at him, it was obvious that that wasn't true.
It was something to think about later, Steve told himself, when this was all over. And besides, well, Steve's heart really belonged to someone else, didn't it? That wouldn't be fair to Tony.
The smile Tony gave him now, rather than brimming with that blinding, thousand-watt charm, was oddly shy.
Steve wondered if this was what Tony was really like. If everything else had been an act.
"Well," Tony said, giving Steve another appraising glance, "you look like you went to an even more interesting party than I did. Very patriotic."
"What?" Steve looked down at himself. "Oh, I-- no, I, uh, it wasn't a party." It seemed like even an amnesiac Tony Stark could render him speechless, somehow. "This is, uh. This is my uniform." And because he could do this right, dammit, he held out his hand and smiled. "I'm Steve. Steve Rogers. To the rest of the world, I'm Captain America. That part's a secret. I'm a superhero."
Tony shook his hand, and the wide-eyed awe was back, almost disbelieving. "A superhero? Like, Superman and Batman, superheroes? For real?"
God. Tony was clearly missing a whole lot of knowledge.
"Yeah," Steve said. "Like them, only real."
Tony's smile went a little sharper, and Steve flushed hot. Again. "Or like Apollo and Midnighter?"
There was clearly something here Steve wasn't understanding, and he'd never heard of them, but he supposed that the future had all sorts of new comic book heroes. He'd have to ask Iron Man. Iron Man would know; he knew all about that sort of thing. Iron Man had taken it upon himself to personally curate Steve's journey through decades of science fiction since the day Steve had idly wondered if that Heinlein fella who used to write for Astounding Science-Fiction had ever written anything else.
"Uh," Steve said, awkwardly. "Them too, I guess."
Tony's face fell a little. "Never mind," he muttered. And then he smiled that same small, shy smile. "But you-- I-- we know each other? We're friends?"
Tony had better friends than him -- God, Jim Rhodes was overseas somewhere and if Tony didn't get better soon they'd have to tell him, and Steve was already not relishing breaking the news to Pepper and that new driver of Tony's, Harold someone-or-other, and Christ, Steve hoped Jan had already told Jarvis. But Steve was the one who was here now, and he could be here for Tony. He'd have to be.
Steve's smile in return this time felt so much easier. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, Tony, we're friends."
Again there was a flash of disappointment in Tony's eyes, like he'd been hoping for something more than that, something more intimate. Like he'd wanted Steve to tell him -- Steve could hardly even imagine saying it -- that they were lovers.
"Good, good," Tony said. "I get the feeling maybe I could use a friend," he added, and he sounded so lonely when he said it that Steve just wanted to hug him, even though Tony had apologetically explained, the day after Steve moved into the mansion, that it wasn't personal, but he really didn't like to have people touch him. It seemed like Tony could use a hug now, but Steve definitely wasn't going to do something Tony hated even if -- or maybe especially if -- he didn't remember that he hated it. Then Tony sighed, and his gaze now was almost analytical, a flash of that genius mind at work. "Captain America, huh?" He smiled a little at the name. "Are you an actual captain? You seem like the type."
Steve nodded. "Used to be in the Army."
It was deeply strange to meet someone who had no idea who he was -- and even stranger, because two hours ago Tony would have known.
Tony scrutinized Steve's face. "Iraq or Afghanistan?" Then his own face twisted up, like he was trying to figure out how he knew where America had troops but didn't know his own name. It was a pretty good question, Steve thought, but he didn't know the answer to that one. Luckily, he could answer what Tony had actually asked.
"Neither." Steve shook his head, smiling. "European Theater of Operations. World War II."
Tony's jaw dropped. "Wow," he said, softly, completely awed, and all right, it was kind of amazing to watch Tony learn this for the second first time. "There's a story there, I'm betting."
"A long one," Steve agreed. "But wouldn't you rather we talk about you? I mean, you must have questions." He turned his hands palm-up, offering himself to Tony. "I'm here for you if you need me."
Tony looked at him. The silence was long and contemplative, and Steve watched Tony bite his lip in nervous thought. "Okay," he said, finally. "Okay. So you're here and I'm here and... where is that, exactly? The doctor and the woman from the party -- I'm sorry, I don't remember her name -- didn't tell me much."
"Janet Van Dyne," Steve said. "Everyone calls her Jan. You're friends too." He watched Tony mouth Jan soundlessly to himself, stamping it on what was left of his memory. "And you're in Manhattan. This is Avengers Mansion. That's us," he added. "The Avengers. There's me, there's Jan -- her code name is Wasp -- and Hank, her boyfriend, who is Giant-Man or Ant-Man, and then there's Thor, and of course Iron Man. You'll probably see them all around, although none of them other than me live here full-time right now."
Tony frowned. "I'll... see them?"
"Yeah, of course," Steve said, and then he realized he'd missed several important points. "You live here too."
Tony was still frowning. "Am I a superhero?"
"Oh, no," Steve assured him. It came out sounding like Steve was trying to let him down gently, and Tony's face fell again; Steve rushed to qualify it. "But you-- you have your own talents."
Tony raised an eyebrow, and Steve realized that sounded perhaps more suggestive than he'd intended. "What," Tony asked, "was there a break on rent? Cheap housing with superheroes for roommates?"
And, geez, there was something else he'd forgotten to mention. "You're our landlord, Tony. You own the place."
"I own a mansion?" Wide-eyed, Tony peered around the infirmary, like he could survey the entire mansion from his place on the exam table.
"You own a hell of a lot more than a mansion," Steve told him. "You own Stark Industries. You're a genius. You're an engineer. A weapons designer. And in your spare time you house and fund the Avengers. You design our gear. You created Iron Man's suit." Steve could feel himself starting to smile, just mentioning Iron Man.
"A flying suit of armor," Steve said, and he was sure his smile was wide, wide, wide. "You-- he-- it's just brilliant. You'll see. You'll definitely see him; he's your bodyguard as well as an Avenger. He'll probably be along, any minute now."
"I live with superheroes," Tony repeated, like this still hadn't sunk in. "I own a mansion where I live with superheroes." He looked up, uncertain. "You're not-- you're not kidding, are you?"
"I am absolutely not kidding," Steve said. "I promise. My word as Captain America."
"But I don't feel rich," Tony said, earnestly, sounding lost, sounding more than a little bereft. "I mean, would I-- wouldn't I know? I thought it would feel different." He held out a hand, imploring, like Steve could tell him how it felt. Like Steve knew anything about being a billionaire.
"Well, don't ask me," Steve said, with a laugh. "I grew up dirt-poor in the Great Depression."
Tony opened his mouth and shut it again. "I am definitely getting that story out of you."
"You know it already," Steve told him. "You'll remember it soon, I'm sure. We'll just have to see what Dr. Blake says tomorrow."
"If you say so," Tony said, but he didn't look reassured. More like scared. Steve didn't think he'd ever seen Tony look scared.
Steve gave Tony his softest, friendliest smile, the one he usually saved for the civilians who had gotten mixed up in a superhuman battle. "Hey, okay, how about we go upstairs and get you some food? You'll probably feel a little better. Iron Man should be here by then. I'm sure you'll like him. And you can meet Jarvis. Your butler. Your butler since you were a kid. I know you like him."
"I have a--?" Tony began, incredulously, and then he sighed. "I mean, of course I have a butler. I guess. God, this is weird."
"It's going to be all right," Steve said, and he meant it. He channeled just a bit of his Captain America voice into his tone. "I know that nothing makes sense right now, but it's going to be okay. I'm your friend. We're your friends. You don't have to do this alone, okay?"
"Okay," Tony echoed, but he still didn't sound convinced.
He hopped off the exam table, picked up his jacket, pulled it around himself like he wanted to hide in it, and then belatedly did his collar up again, covering the hollow of his throat. That, at least, was like him; Tony never showed a lot of skin.
Maybe that was a good sign, Steve told himself. Maybe that meant his memory would all come back soon.
He wished Iron Man were here already. Iron Man would have known just what to say.
He took Tony to meet Jarvis; Jarvis was concerned, and Tony polite. They ate leftover ham sandwiches in the kitchen. And Iron Man never showed up. Steve kept waiting, kept looking over Tony's shoulder, kept listening for Iron Man's familiar, heavy tread, for his crackling voice -- but there was nothing. Eventually it was late enough that it was time to concede that he just wasn't coming. Steve showed Tony where his room was, because of course Tony didn't remember where his room was, and thank God, Tony's door was unlocked -- and Tony turned out to have keys in his pocket anyway, not that he knew what any of them went to.
"I'm just across the hall," Steve said, chucking a thumb at his own open door. "And I think Jan's staying here tonight too, and of course Jarvis. Don't be afraid to wake me up if you need anything."
"I'll be fine," Tony said, smiling. "But I'll keep that in mind if I get lonely," he added, with a wink that bordered on salacious. "Sleep well."
Steve stepped inside and shut the door behind him, stumbling to his bed and sinking down into it with a sigh, covering his face with his hands. Tony, Tony, Tony. What the hell was he supposed to do? Tony had no memory. Tony was flirting with him.
And Iron Man was nowhere to be found. God, he wished he could talk to him. Iron Man would probably find the whole thing hilarious, though of course he'd be concerned for Tony too, because Iron Man was a caring sort of fella. He could just hear Iron Man's staticky laugh now, and maybe Iron Man would tease him a little about it, and Steve could pretend that maybe, maybe Iron Man wanted him back.
Not that Iron Man did. If Iron Man had wanted him, he would have said something by now. Iron Man didn't do that. Iron Man didn't interact with anyone like that. Iron Man didn't want him. And Steve wasn't about to ruin one of the best friendships he'd ever had for nothing, for his silly, hopeless feelings.
He fumbled for his Avengers card and keyed in Iron Man's direct line. It was worth a shot, right?
"Hey, Iron Man," Steve said, hoarsely, almost pressing his mouth to the card as he talked. "I don't know if you just didn't get Wasp's message earlier, but we've got a bit of a situation here and we-- I could really use your help right now, Shellhead. Call me when you get this, okay?" He swallowed hard. "I-- I miss you."
There was no answer.
Steve was sitting at the head of the table. On his left was Jan, resplendent in her red and black uniform, and on Jan's left was Hank, likewise in full uniform, spinning his half-full coffee mug between his palms on the table. Thor was sitting across from Hank, with Mjölnir on the floor next to him and a few pieces of paper in front of him; the top sheet had Don Blake's letterhead on it.
The chair on Steve's right was empty.
"Ten minutes," Jan said, her eyes darting up hesitantly to the wall clock. "Should we-- do you think we should start without him, Cap?"
Steve's eyes went to the open door again, and he couldn't help but hope, as he'd been hoping, that if he just waited another minute Iron Man would walk in, that any second now he'd see that familiar shine of red and gold, dark blue eyes gleaming bright behind his mask. And Iron Man would offer some kind of apology, some kind of explanation, and everything would be normal again.
It wouldn't be the first meeting Iron Man had missed; there had been a few that he just hadn't turned up to. When Steve had asked him afterward, he had been incredibly contrite, every time, but he had never been especially forthcoming with details. Steve had gathered that it had something to do with his other identity, with his personal life, and so he'd never asked. The Avengers protected their secret identities. It was in the charter. And Iron Man obviously didn't want to tell him. It stung a little; he trusted Iron Man with everything, he'd tell him everything -- God, he cared so much for him -- and he didn't even know Iron Man's name. But that was how it had to be. He shouldn't want more than Iron Man was willing to give.
Iron Man had never responded to Steve's message from last night. He hadn't even responded to Jan's message, she had told him over breakfast that morning, and that had been far more urgent than Steve's.
He'd be back, Steve told himself. Of course he'd be back. Iron Man just did this sometimes. It would be silly to worry about him.
Steve sighed. "Yeah. Okay. Let's start without him." He looked down the table. "Thor?"
Thor glanced at the papers in front of him. "I have received a report from Dr. Blake. He states that he can find nothing in his records precisely akin to the loss of memory that Tony Stark has experienced; he wishes to run additional tests." His cape rustled as he shifted uncomfortably. "I wish to suggest the possibility of magic; such spells are... not unknown to Asgardians."
Hank frowned. "What interest would Asgard have in Tony? And why would they want to make him lose his memory?"
"I do not know," Thor admitted. "Those responsible are not necessarily Asgardian."
"But why would anyone want to make Tony lose his memory?" Jan asked, and that was really the question here, wasn't it? Assuming that someone had done it at all, of course.
"So it can't be... natural?" Steve wondered. "I mean, amnesia is something that does happen."
Thor glanced down at the papers again. "Dr. Blake will know more after an examination, but he thinks it unlikely."
"Is it reversible? Will it wear off?"
"He does not know yet."
"Great," Steve said. It wasn't great. He steepled his fingers together. "So, team agenda for the foreseeable future: figure out who or what gave Tony amnesia, and figure out how to reverse it. No problem."
Jan leaned over and patted his arm in reassurance. "We'll manage."
How in the world could anyone induce amnesia? And why would someone give Tony amnesia? Was there something they didn't want him to remember? Maybe he knew something, Steve thought, something they didn't want him to talk about. But what the heck could Tony know?
No, no, Steve told himself. That was ridiculous. This had to be natural. Some unfortunate happenstance. Tony didn't have secrets, did he? Everyone knew who Tony was: a top-flight engineer, a billionaire, a weapons designer and manufacturer, the Avengers' benefactor. (Steve tamped down on the voice in his head that chorused and a gorgeous, flirtatious charmer.) What was secret about any of that?
Around the table, everyone's Avengers cards started beeping at once, a chiming cacophony of sound and flickering lights, and everything in Steve twisted up in elation and he shouldn't be happy about a fight, but it was an Avengers alert, and so it had to be from Iron Man. He was back, he was back after all--
Steve's heart sank as the screen on the back of his card flashed a familiar picture, a man with graying hair and a blue uniform, and the usual text: INCOMING CALL: PRIORITY ALERT: REED RICHARDS (MISTER FANTASTIC), FANTASTIC FOUR.
Not Iron Man.
"Avengers?" Reed's voice was more than a little tense, and the connection was bad, cutting out in intermittent bursts of static. "My alerts back at the Baxter Building say the Mole Man has been sighted on Staten Island, and ordinarily we'd handle it ourselves but we're in another dimension for the next five hours, so we'd really appreciate it if--"
"Of course," Steve told him. "We're on our way."
The relief in Reed's voice was palpable. "Thank you, Captain. We owe you one. Sending you the coordinates now."
The screen filled with numbers as Reed disconnected.
Steve looked up, and Thor was already standing, hammer in his hand; Hank and Jan were shrinking; and Steve reached for the shield next to his chair and slid it onto his back. He was ready.
But they were still down a teammate.
Steve palmed his Avengers identicard and tapped in Iron Man's familiar code along with the alert code.
"Iron Man," Steve said. "Iron Man, come in. This is a priority alert. The Avengers are assembling. Mole Man on Staten Island. How copy?"
There was nothing.
This was wrong. This was all wrong. Iron Man might ignore a non-priority call. He might even miss a meeting. But he would absolutely not miss a call to assemble. He just wouldn't. Something was deeply, deeply wrong here.
Had Iron Man been hurt? Had some villain captured him? Was he in trouble?
"Iron Man," Steve repeated, desperately. "Come in. Say something, Shellhead, please."
"Cap," Hank said, and Steve looked up to see him fluttering in midair on an insect. "Cap," Hank repeated, more urgently. "He's not coming. We have to go."
"He wouldn't just--"
Jan floated up next to him. Even at Wasp-size, her eyes were large in her face, a wide, earnest blue. "We know, Steve. We know. But he's not here, and we have to go right now, okay? We have to."
"Okay," Steve said, and he looked down at himself, then around the room at the Avengers. At four-fifths of the Avengers. "Well, I guess we're all assembled."
It wasn't much of a battle cry.
The fight had been-- well, to use one of the future's more evocative obscenities, Iron Man would probably have called it a shitshow.
Steve briefly considered using the phrase in his official report.
When Steve sighed, his ribs twinged in protest; that was probably a cracked rib or two at least, if not an actual break. At least he'd be better by morning. He had taken far, far too many hits, and on an ordinary day he would have taken none of them, because they'd all hit him from behind and Iron Man-- Iron Man should have been at his six.
Iron Man hadn't been there.
And then the Mole Man and his Moloids had, essentially, swarmed them.
It had been utter chaos.
Sometime over the past year he'd grown so accustomed to fighting with Iron Man at his side that he hadn't covered himself, not like he should have, and the rest of the team hadn't been able to make up the gap. Or maybe he was just worried about Iron Man's absence. At any rate, he'd been off-balance, and his performance had suffered accordingly.
With Iron Man at his side, he fought better than he ever had in his life; they could anticipate each other's moves to an amazing, almost uncanny degree. On the battlefield, Steve just looked at him, and he knew how Iron Man would move, where he'd land, exactly where to stand to cover the blind spots in his field of vision. They had each other's backs, literally. And without Iron Man--
Well, without Iron Man he had two broken ribs and a persistent ringing in his ears, didn't he?
At least he shook off concussions fast.
Steve fished a handkerchief out of one of his belt pouches and tried to wipe the worst of the blood off his face.
They were back in the briefing room, attempting to make it through the usual post-mission analysis. The rest of the Avengers were in better shape than he was, but that wasn't saying much; Hank and Jan were covered in scrapes and dirt, and even Thor looked more than a little banged-up.
"All right," Steve said, wearily. "Suggestions for improvement?"
It was the usual question. Jan, usually unfailingly bright and cheerful, was regarding him with a look of bone-deep exhaustion that Steve didn't think he'd ever seen on her face before. "I suggest we get Iron Man back."
"Yeah." Steve sighed, ignoring the pain in his side. "It would be nice."
Abruptly the same worry he'd felt before the fight was looming over his mind once again: what if Iron Man wasn't here because something awful had happened to him?
"We have to do something," Hank said. "When was the last time anyone saw him?"
Steve thought about it. "Day before yesterday."
He'd met Iron Man for lunch -- well, Steve had had lunch and Iron Man had slurped a chocolate milkshake through a straw that had just barely fit in the mouth-slit of his helmet -- as part of what Iron Man had taken to calling his Remedial Course on the Future of the Past, or, in other words, their impromptu science-fiction book club. They'd spent an hour enthusiastically discussing Dune, and then Iron Man had said that if he hadn't minded how "trippy" it was -- which had then turned into another ten-minute primer on popular recreational drugs that he sure hadn't heard about in 1945, and, God, Steve loved to listen to Iron Man talk about anything at all -- well, then maybe he was ready for a different science-fictional take on drugs. It hadn't been one of Iron Man's particular favorites, he'd said, but it was an important work, by an important author, that had some interesting ideas about identity, and the narration was memorable. Iron Man had promised to get him the book in a couple days; laughing, he'd said he'd indulge Steve's preferences and find him a paper copy rather than lend him an electronic version. And Steve hadn't seen him since.
He glanced around the room; no one else was talking, and Steve guessed that meant he had been the last one to see Iron Man.
He pictured Iron Man in the lair of some cackling supervillain, one of the men Steve had fought in the war, another Zemo or Strucker or Red Skull; he pictured Iron Man tied down, helpless, waiting for a rescue that would never come--
Christ, what if Iron Man was already-- what if they'd already--
No. He had to be alive. He had to be.
"How was he?" Jan asked. "I mean, did he seem all right? Did he mention that he was going anywhere? Any big travel plans?"
"He seemed fine," Steve said, staring numbly down at his hands. Blood was drying brown on his gloves, staining the leather. "He didn't say he was going anywhere. I'd been expecting to see him again, yesterday or today. He-- he was going to loan me a book."
Jan frowned. "If he meant to be here, that doesn't sound good."
Yeah. No kidding.
"I concur," Thor said.
And then Hank brightened. "Say, I've got an idea." He took out his Avengers card and tossed it on the table. "It's Tony's system, you understand, but I know my way around the servers a little." He frowned. "More than Tony probably does right now, anyway. But he told me once that he'd been working on installing trackers in the cards." He tapped the card with a fingertip. "We can ping Iron Man. We can find out where his card is. And maybe if we do that, we can find him."
Hope flared within Steve, soaring, triumphant. There was a way. They could find Iron Man. "Is this something you can do right now?"
"Then do it."
Sitting at the terminal, Hank brought up a window and typed in something that didn't look like his usual account name -- Iron Man had taught Steve a lot about computers, and Steve had caught on fast -- and Steve watched as the screen filled with incomprehensible file names.
"There we go," Hank murmured, and typed something in at the prompt. "Avengers identicard tracker, beta version."
The screen promptly displayed a world map.
"Okay," Hank said, under his breath, as Steve leaned over his shoulder. "Now if I just go like this--" he typed another command-- "it ought to-- okay, there we go. Selecting Iron Man's card now."
Search parameters accepted, the screen blinked, and the map began to zoom in on North America, on the East Coast-- oh, thank God, Iron Man was still in New York--
It kept zooming. Manhattan. Buildings were visible now, closer and closer--
And Steve realized he was looking at the roof of Avengers Mansion. A green dot was blinking on the southwest corner.
"It's in the building," Steve said, numbly. "The card hasn't left the building."
Hank sighed, shut his eyes, and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Looks like."
Jan swooped up, six inches tall, and hovered over Hank's other shoulder. "Where exactly is that?"
"Depends on the floor," Hank said, and his fingers flew over the keyboard again. "Here, I'm going to trigger the alarm on his card. We'll be able to hear it when we get close."
There came a very faint beeping, a sound muffled through walls. It had to be this floor, or Steve wouldn't have been able to hear it at all. He tried to picture the mansion's floor plan. Down that corridor, turn left--
"It's in Tony's workshop," Steve said. "Come on."
The workshop door was heavy, reinforced... and locked. Steve stared at it in dismay. There was no keyhole, so going upstairs, getting Tony, and borrowing his keys was right out. There wasn't even a scanner for fingerprints or eyes, so they couldn't just ask Tony to open it. There was just a number pad securing the lock. It blinked, waiting for a code.
The only person who knew the door code had amnesia.
"I don't suppose," Steve said, hopefully, "that Tony told any of you how to get into the workshop?"
He glanced back. Everyone was shaking their heads.
Steve sighed. Iron Man probably knew, didn't he? Steve knew Tony worked on Iron Man's armor in there, so Iron Man probably had access. That made two people who had the code: one had amnesia, and one was missing.
This was getting worse and worse.
Thor hefted Mjölnir, a wordless question in his eyes.
Steve winced. "No," he said. "No, I'll do it. I'm leading the team; I'll take full responsibility." He slid the shield off his back and onto his arm. "Sorry, Tony," he murmured. "I'll pay for the damages, I swear."
He punched out and struck the door with the edge of his shield; the keypad broke in a fountain of sizzling sparks, then the whole lock assembly dented in. The door creaked, groaned, and then swung inward, slamming against the wall at high speed, with a resounding crash. It tilted as one of the hinges gave way. The wall behind the door was probably cracked too; it was bowing outward where the door had hit it.
Jan buzzed up next to his ear. "I'm sure Tony will understand," she said, and Steve thought maybe he was still cringing. "It's definitely not as bad as that time the Hulk knocked in the front door and half the wall. You remember that?"
That didn't make him feel much better. "Yeah, I remember."
Steve stepped in and finally got a good look at the place. The workshop was in a state of disarray, but a positive one; it didn't look as if it had been ransacked, or as if anyone had somehow been dragged away by force. Rather, it looked as if Tony had merely been in the middle of a project and had put it down for the night. A few drawers were open, and there were various tools scattered across the workbenches. If Steve had to guess, he would have said that Tony had been working on an upgrade for Iron Man's suits. There were curved pieces of metal, in unpainted gleaming silver. There were repulsors, half-assembled, dull and unlit. There was what looked like most of the top half of Iron Man's armor, again unpainted, hanging from ceiling hooks.
And on the desk in the corner, next to a small paper bag and an abandoned half-empty red coffee mug, was Iron Man's Avengers identicard, flashing and beeping wildly.
There was no sign of Iron Man.
Steve was across the room in an instant, and then Iron Man's card was in his hand. He turned it over and tapped the alert off, but the card still blinked: messages waiting. That would be from Jan and him and him again, Steve supposed.
He looked down at the table again. The paper bag that the card had been next to bore the name of a nearby bookstore, and without really thinking about what he was doing Steve picked the bag up and tipped the contents out onto his palm. His fingers closed around the spine of a paperback book.
A Scanner Darkly, the cover proclaimed. Philip K. Dick.
This was the book Iron Man had said he would loan him. Steve pushed aside the fact that Iron Man had actually bought him the book, especially for him, as a present, a thought that made something inside him flicker, warm and fuzzy and affectionate, the idea that Iron Man liked him. Now was really, really not the time. Iron Man had bought the book, and so Iron Man had clearly intended to see him at some point, and then-- and then--
He didn't know what had happened.
There was a printed receipt tucked inside the front cover. The book had been bought with cash. The timestamp on the receipt was 15:38. The date was yesterday. He had bought the book yesterday and come here. Not even twenty-four hours ago, Iron Man had been here, right here, and now he was gone.
"He bought this yesterday," Steve told the rest of the Avengers, omitting for me! with only a little difficulty. "Yesterday afternoon. And then he came here, for some reason. Left the book. Left his identicard. And then, well, he must have gone somewhere." He glanced around the room again. "It doesn't look to me like he left in any particular hurry, or under duress."
Hank nodded. "Yeah, I'd say the place usually looks like this."
"So he's gone."
He'd ruined Tony's workshop, and Iron Man was gone, and they knew nothing. And even Tony knew nothing-- wait.
"Tony can help us!" Steve said, and he realized he was smiling. There was a chance. There was still a chance.
"Uh, Cap?" Jan swooped around into Steve's field of vision, wings beating furiously, hovering in front of his face. Her eyes were wide, and she glanced back at Hank in incredulity before looking at Steve again. "There's a slight problem with that plan, isn't there? Tony doesn't remember anything."
"But he can always find Iron Man," Steve said, insistently, urgently, because didn't Jan understand? "He always knows where Iron Man is. And he hired him as his bodyguard, didn't he? That means he's got to have some kind of contact information for him that we're not privy to. Whatever he had to have for Stark Industries to hire him. A phone number. An address. Somewhere to send his paychecks."
"Those are usually direct-deposit these days," Hank said; Steve didn't know what that meant -- Iron Man would have explained it, he thought, with a twinge of longing -- and so he raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "Added to a bank account automatically," Hank clarified.
"So we can get his bank account," Steve said, "and maybe find out more--"
"You're telling us that we should find out Iron Man's civilian identity," Jan said, very quietly, and that was the one thing that brought Steve up short.
He'd promised. They'd all promised. It was in the team charter. And as much as he wanted to know who Iron Man was, he knew Iron Man didn't want them to know. And he had to respect that. It was the right thing to do.
"So we ask Tony to investigate for us," Steve said. "He has to already know who Iron Man is, doesn't he? Even if he doesn't remember it right now, he must know Iron Man's identity. We can tell him not to tell us his name. We can just ask for his number, for anything that would give us a better shot at finding him. We'll investigate Tony's amnesia, and Tony can investigate Iron Man." He looked around at the team. "Tony's still a genius, after all. And there have to be records."
Jan bit her lip. "Okay," she said, finally. "Okay. If you think this is going to work, I'm with you. There aren't a lot of other options left."
Steve looked over at the rest of the team.
"I'm in," Hank said.
"Aye," Thor said.
"All right," Steve said, and he tucked the book under his arm. "I'll go talk to Tony."
This was going to work, he told himself. Tony just had to check his files for them, and then they'd track down Iron Man. In the meantime, Don could keep running tests on Tony, and Tony would remember everything soon. What could possibly go wrong?
The door opened only a few seconds after Steve knocked on it.
Tony's gaze was at first blank, like he didn't remember who Steve was right away, and sad disappointment settled heavily into Steve, a rock in his gut. And then Tony's eyes went wide.
"Jesus Christ," Tony said, and his mouth hung half-open in shock, brows drawn together in concern. "Are you all right? What happened?"
Confused, Steve looked down at himself, and then he remembered the blood. Oh. "It's nothing," he said, hastily. "I'm fine."
"You're covered in blood," Tony said, in a voice that suggested that his definition of fine differed greatly from Steve's.
"It's clotted," Steve said. "I heal fast. The ribs will be better by tomorrow. The concussion's already almost gone," he added, and Tony made an even worse face at concussion. Steve tried again. "You really don't need to worry--"
But Tony's hand had already encircled his upper arm, and Tony was pulling him inside, across what looked like a very lived-in bedroom, toward the en-suite bathroom. Steve had never actually been in Tony's room before. He caught the barest glimpses of photos, posters, mementos, a stack of engineering journals, a single electrical cord incongruously coiled on the bedside table next to a water glass. This was definitely someone's private sanctuary. Tony's. But he remembered none of it. Steve could only imagine how that must feel.
"And you tell me I've got mental problems," Tony said, under his breath, pushing him into a bathroom that was, frankly, luxurious. "Sit down, Captain." He sounded almost like his usual confident self. "I might not know who I am, but I'm pretty sure I can do something about this."
"I told you, I heal fast," Steve repeated. "You don't need to be concerned about me--"
Even as he said it, though, he was sitting down where Tony guided him -- Tony was touching him, why was Tony touching him? -- and perching on the edge of the bathtub.
Tony relieved him of the book he'd been carrying, which now bore a smear of dried blood on the cover. Tony frowned at it and set it down out of reach on the counter on the other side of the sink, before running water and moistening a washcloth.
"Shh," Tony said. "I've got this."
His face was focused, intent; he tugged back Steve's cowl and then knelt on the floor in front of him, reaching out and gently dabbing the washcloth on the massive cut that made its way down Steve's hairline to his cheek. That was where most of the blood had come from, dripping down onto the rest of his uniform. Head wounds were always messy.
Tony's touch, as gentle as it was, scraped across Steve's raw skin, and part of him wanted to draw back from the pain. But the water was pleasantly warm, soothing, and it felt... nice. He couldn't remember the last time anyone had just taken care of him. He hadn't known Tony could be like this.
Then Tony's fingers brushed over the deepest part of the cut, and Steve hissed.
"Are you all right? Did I hurt you?" Tony asked, and there was a solicitousness in his voice that Steve had never heard from him before. His hand moved away from the cut; his fingers moved lightly over Steve's hair. His other hand came up to rest on Steve's shoulder, bracing him; his thumb rubbed over Steve's collarbone. This was nothing like the flirtation of earlier. This was calming. Comforting.
Steve had to tell him. Tony didn't do this.
"I'm fine," Steve said. "This is my day job, Tony. I've had... a lot worse. Today was just a battle that got a bit out of hand. Really, I'm used to taking care of myself."
"I don't mind," Tony said, with a faint smile. "I think I like... being useful." Without turning around, he reached back and opened the cabinet under the sink, where there seemed to be a surprising amount of first-aid supplies. "I get the feeling I must do this a lot, anyway. Seems like I'm practically Florence Nightingale, judging by everything I've got socked away here. I must get into a lot of scrapes myself."
He hadn't known that about Tony.
He wondered how much he didn't know about Tony.
An astringent smell filled the air as Tony moistened a gauze pad with rubbing alcohol and leaned in to carefully clean Steve's wounds once again.
Tony was very close to him now.
Steve inhaled hard and said nothing.
"You want antibiotic cream," Tony asked, as he sat back and lobbed the gauze at the trash can, "or just a band-aid?"
"I don't need antibiotics. I'll heal it all by tomorrow." Steve bit his lip. "It's very kind of you. But you should know, that you-- you don't do this."
Tony unwrapped a butterfly bandage and stuck it on either side of the deepest part of the cut, his face furrowed in concentration as he pushed it down. And then he let his hand slide back down to Steve's shoulder, his fingers rubbing in comforting reassurance. It was very like how he worked with machines, Steve thought, thinking back on the times he had seen Tony in his workshop. Calm, focused... and with a surprising amount of caring.
He wished Tony were like this. It was perhaps the thing Steve had found the loneliest and saddest change in this new century, the fact that men didn't touch each other. At some point during the decades Steve had been in the ice, people had decided that physical affection between men wasn't right unless they were romantically involved. Steve had often found himself wishing for more friendly touches, these days. At least Jan hugged him. And Tony-- well, Tony was perhaps the most extreme example of modern behavior among men. He thought Tony's preferences were personal idiosyncrasy rather than cultural, but he hadn't asked.
"I don't do what?" Tony asked. "Clean you up? Yeah, I'm sort of getting that."
"That too," Steve said, and then helplessly he looked down to where Tony's hand was on his shoulder. "But you don't... touch people. It was one of the first things you told me when I met you. You don't like it. So you don't touch other people."
Tony's frown deepened. "What, at all?"
"I shook your hand when I met you a year ago," Steve said. "But that's it. I've never seen you so much as touch anyone else, either." He watched as Tony's eyes clouded over in sadness. "And it's not that I don't like it, the touching," he added, awkwardly, "because I do, but I don't-- I don't want you to do anything you're going to regret when you get your memories back, you know?"
Tony was silent a long while, and his gaze was fixed on his own hand, still lying on Steve's shoulder.
"I don't feel like I'd regret it," Tony murmured, and Steve thought maybe they were talking about more than just him cleaning Steve up here. And then he sighed. "But I guess I wouldn't know, would I?"
And with that, Tony dropped his hand, moved away, and pushed himself to his feet. He nudged the cabinet closed, and Steve couldn't help but feel like he'd let something pass him by. An opportunity.
"Well, thank you," Steve said, still a little wrong-footed, and he stood up and followed Tony out.
Tony moved a few books off of a chair in the corner and offered it up. "So why don't you take a seat and tell me why you did come here, if not for my nursing skills? Does the doctor have news about me?" His voice rose in eagerness, and he moved even more books and settled down in the chair opposite Steve's.
"No," Steve said, taking the seat guiltily, because how could he think of coming here just to ask Tony to do things for him when Tony didn't even remember who he was? "Sorry, but Dr. Blake doesn't have anything yet. Apparently he wants to run more tests, though. I assume he'll be contacting you. No, I'm here because, well." He swallowed hard and made himself ask. He had to ask. No one else was going to know how to find him, and the world needed Iron Man. The Avengers needed Iron Man. (He needed Iron Man.) "We were-- I was wondering if you could do me a favor. I need your help."
"I don't know what I can do," Tony said, though even as he said it, his eyes were bright and earnest. "But I can certainly try."
"It's like this," Steve said, and he made himself smile a little in thanks. "We can't find Iron Man. He missed our team meeting. He didn't show up for the battle we just had. He hasn't been responding to our calls, and actually we found his Avengers identicard in your workshop." He looked away. He could feel his chest tighten. It was starting to sound bad; it was starting to be easier and easier to think about Iron Man just not coming back. "I, uh, might have broken down the door to get in," he added, sheepishly.
Tony leaned forward, and his hand was on Steve's before Steve could tell him not to. "Hey, easy," Tony said, low and soothing. "That sounds rough, that you can't find your friend. But the door's no problem. I'm sure you did what you had to do, okay? I'm sure I won't be mad, if-- when I get my memories back." And then he looked down at his hand and seemed to remember what Steve had told him, because he jerked his fingers away. "But I don't see where I come in. I mean, obviously I'd be willing to help if I could, but I don't remember the guy at all. I'm sorry."
"I know," Steve said, and he wished Tony didn't mind, because he wanted to keep holding Tony's hand; it seemed like Tony could have used the physical contact. He tried another smile. "But I think... I think maybe you can still help us find him."
"What do you mean?"
"Iron Man is your bodyguard," Steve told him. "He's your employee. Presumably you have a way of contacting him. So you'd have his... personal details. His contact information. Maybe you have his number saved in your phone. You could look it up for us."
Tony raised an eyebrow. "He's your superhero teammate and you don't have his phone number?" He pursed his lips and picked up his phone from the table; thankfully, it seemed to unlock with Tony's thumbprint rather than a passcode. He began scrolling through his contacts. "Okay, can do. What's his name?"
Ah. Tony was missing other important information, wasn't he?
"Uh." Steve coughed. "We don't know his name."
Startled, eyes gone wide, Tony looked up from his phone. "You don't know his name?"
Tamping down on the sudden rush of shame that had prickled up, hot across his face, Steve shook his head. It was all right not to know who Iron Man was. That was what Iron Man wanted. It didn't mean they weren't friends. "No, he has a secret identity." His throat was tight. "It's very important to him, and so we've never asked him who he is. None of us know his name. No one in the world knows who he is. Except-- except probably you, since you hired him to pilot the Iron Man suit."
"And not me anymore," Tony agreed ruefully, and he turned the phone around to display a list of names. "Well, there's nothing in here that says 'Iron Man.'"
Steve sighed. Of course not. That would have been too easy. "So he's probably there under--"
"--his real name," Tony finished. "Which I don't know." He looked thoughtful. "I don't think it means all hope is lost, though. I just got a call from a woman who said she worked for me. P... P-something?"
"Yeah," Tony said, brightening. "That. Anyway, Janet...? Jan...? She had told her about my condition, and Ms. Potts wanted to know if I wanted to come into my office sometime, see if it would trigger any memories. I guess I have an office. Offices, plural." He made a face. "So maybe if your Iron Man is around, I can find him there. Maybe he'll show up. What does he look like?"
"Uh," Steve said, and he couldn't quite meet Tony's eyes.
"Christ," Tony said, and he rubbed his hand across his face in wearied despair. "You don't make this easy, do you?"
"He has a mask. A helmet." Steve was only now beginning to realize that so many things about his Avengers life that he had taken for granted sounded more than a little outlandish when he had to explain them to other people. "I've never seen him with the armor off. I've never seen his face."
Tony regarded him in still-weary silence for another few seconds. "Okay," he said, on a heavy exhalation of breath. "Okay. Is there anything you know about him?"
"He's a bit taller than I am," Steve offered, after a moment's thought. "But that might just be the suit. And he has blue eyes."
They were very pretty eyes. A lot like Tony's, actually.
"Blue eyes." Tony smiled a very little smile. "Well, it's something to go on, I guess. Nothing else about him?"
Steve shook his head. "No." Then the thought occurred to him that he did know something after all. "Wait. Yes. You'll have employee files, at Stark Industries. He's got to be on your payroll, right? You hired Iron Man after you came back from Afghanistan, maybe two years ago. I didn't know you then, but Pepper will have the dates. He'll be someone you hired then, or someone who was already working for you. That narrows it down."
"Okay." Tony's nod was a little firmer. "Okay. I can do that."
Steve smiled. "Thank you," he said, fervently. "Thank you so much."
Tony was going to find Iron Man. He was. It was going to be okay.
Tony's smile in return was that same shy smile. "It's no problem. Like I said, I... I think I like to help people." His face seemed to tighten; he glanced around the room hesitantly. "And you're my friend, right? We're friends?"
"We're friends," Steve repeated. Sure, maybe they weren't best friends, but they were definitely friends.
The nervous tension on Tony's face only grew more pronounced. "If we're friends, then, could you answer a question about something for me?"
"Sure. Of course. Anything." Steve tried to give Tony his best reassuring smile. It didn't seem to help.
"I, uh," Tony began, and his hands went to the top button of his shirt, and his fingers were shaking, "I was wondering if you could tell me anything about this? Dr. Blake said it wasn't in any of my medical charts, and he seemed pretty surprised, and frankly it's really kind of creeping me out--"
Tony was unbuttoning his shirt. Steve had never seen Tony shirtless, had never seen him anything other than perfectly buttoned-up right to the very top button, and now Tony was unbuttoning his shirt.
Metal glinted bright beneath Tony's fingers.
What the hell?
He didn't understand half of what he was seeing, and he didn't like the half he did -- because that half, he understood all too well. The visible portion of Tony's torso -- his surprisingly muscular torso, Steve couldn't help but notice -- was covered in scars, some silvery-white, some twisted and raised, starting at his shoulders and going all the way down his stomach, some disappearing under his waistband, some wrapping around the sides of his ribs. Steve knew what those were, knew them intimately, had seen them on too many men to count, back in the war. Shrapnel scars. A grenade, maybe, or a landmine. Whatever it had been, Tony had clearly borne the brunt of the explosion. It was a miracle he'd survived.
Dear God. Maybe this was why Tony never took his shirt off.
The scarring was at its worst, Tony's skin at its most ravaged, heading in toward the center of Tony's chest, where lay the half of this that Steve couldn't even begin to explain. The scars increased in severity from his shoulders down and from his waist up, until they all disappeared under the metal... thing. It looked like a metal plate or a panel, sitting on his chest, all along the length of his sternum and extending a little further down, widening and curving around his sides. There were plugs or ports on it, maybe, like it connected to something, some other piece that wasn't there. The whole thing looked simultaneously extremely advanced, designed by a genius to do God-knows-what, and at the same time more than a little crude, like the genius hadn't been working under the best of conditions.
But something about the lines of the chestplate... it reminded him of nothing so much as Iron Man's armor. Which made sense, he realized; Tony must have designed this as well as the armor, so of course they would look similar. They had come from the same mind. But what the hell was it, and why was it wrapped around Tony's chest? And why wouldn't he have told anyone about it? Why didn't his doctors know?
"Yeah." Tony licked his lips. "Imagine my surprise. This is why Dr. Blake can't give me an MRI, apparently. Metal and scanners don't play nice together. He thinks maybe it's some kind of pacemaker. It's definitely doing something for my heart, he said." He was looking at Steve with an odd combination of hopefulness, like he thought Steve could tell him more about this, and a sad kind of resignation, like he expected Steve to be appalled by it.
"Sorry," Steve said, and he watched Tony's face fall. "I've never seen it before. This is new to me too. You always keep your shirt on, and you've never talked about it." But he realized, after he said it, that he knew what the wound had to be from. "I think, though-- I think it must have happened to you in Afghanistan."
"That's the second time you've mentioned Afghanistan." Tony was looking down at his fingers, buttoning his shirt back up. "What happened there?"
"Well, it was before my time," Steve said, carefully, "but I know the basic facts. You went there and you were taken prisoner. I'm guessing that's where the... injury... comes from. You built the first version of the Iron Man suit while you were there, and you used it to help you escape. When you got home you hired someone else to wear the suit and be Iron Man full-time."
Tony hooked a finger into his half-buttoned shirt and peered down at his own chest again, critically. "You think someone hurt me while I was imprisoned?"
"You want my professional opinion?" Steve asked, and Tony nodded. "The scars look like shrapnel rather than something left over from torture. My best guess is that it happened when they caught you. I can't explain the giant metal plate, though. Wish I could."
"You and me both," Tony said, with a grimace. "Well, thank you anyway."
He wanted to say so much more. He wanted to say God, Tony, how do you live with that? and he wanted to say does it hurt? and he wanted-- he wanted so much-- he hadn't known any of this about Tony, anything at all--
"I'm sorry I couldn't be more helpful," Steve said, feeling more and more awkward, because this was more... intimate... than he'd ever been with Tony in his life, and half of him craved it even as the other half was hideously aware that he was dealing with a Tony who remembered literally nothing, and, besides, Tony wasn't Iron Man. It felt like being unfaithful to Iron Man, and he wasn't even with Iron Man.
Tony's smile was goddamn beautiful, and it was so very unfair. "No, no," Tony said. "You're great. And I'll get to work on finding your friend when I go see my company, okay?" He said the last few words like the entire idea of owning a business sounded unfamiliar, like he thought he was the butt of some joke.
Steve pushed himself to his feet. "Okay." He smiled back. "Thank you so much. And not to rush you, but--"
"You'd like to find him soon," Tony said. "I'll see what I can do." And he squinted. "Wait, don't forget--" And he ducked into the the bathroom and came back with Steve's book, A Scanner Darkly. He was still squinting at the cover as he handed it over. Like he disapproved.
Steve took the book with an odd surge of protectiveness flaring in his chest; it was, after all, Iron Man's gift to him. "You don't like it? Iron Man recommended it to me. We have a sort of book club, the two of us. He's introducing me to all the science fiction I missed." And then he remembered Tony didn't know anything about him. "I, uh. I have a lot of gaps in my knowledge. He said the author was someone I should read."
Tony's nose was still wrinkled. "You haven't read any PKD and he thought you should start with this?"
Oh. Tony was a science-fiction fan too? Steve hadn't known that about him either. Tony didn't remember his own name, but he remembered the books he liked? Maybe Tony should come to their book club, he thought, vaguely.
"Why, is there something wrong with it?"
"Well, it freaked me the fuck out," Tony said. "I remember that much of my life, apparently. It's one of his more... paranoid... works. I think a good place to start with Dick would be-- wait. You said you served in World War II?"
"Yes...?" Steve didn't see what that had to do with anything.
Tony's mouth twisted. "Ordinarily I'd recommend The Man in the High Castle, but it's. Uh. It's about a world where the Axis won."
"Good lord," Steve said, taken a little aback despite himself. He knew that it was fiction and people could write anything they pleased, but why in God's name would anyone want to write that?
Tony was studying him intently, watching his reaction. "Yeah," he said. "So that's a no, huh? Anyway, this one's weird and creepy. I'm not saying you shouldn't read it, but your friend Iron Man must have really strange tastes. I'd say you should go with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and then watch Blade Runner. Have a movie night."
"I'll keep that in mind," Steve said, still feeling a strange fierce loyalty to the book Iron Man had picked for him, "but I think I'm going to give this a try, all the same. I'll let him know you suggested the other one the next time I'm talking about books with him, though."
Because they were going to find Iron Man. They were. It was going to be okay.
"Okay," Tony said, and he smiled at Steve again as Steve left. It was an inviting smile. The kind of smile that said Steve could have more, if he wanted.
And sure, Tony had a great smile, but Steve wished more than anything that he were hearing Iron Man's laughter instead.
After Steve had showered, cleaned himself up, and gotten dressed again, he was a little surprised to see Tony in the kitchen with the rest of the team. Well, with Hank and Jan. He wasn't sure where Thor had disappeared to, but Thor was clearly gone already.
Tony was halfway through a bowl of chili and a glass of milk, the latter having given him a milk mustache over his actual mustache, and he was laughing at something that either Hank or Jan had said, as Steve walked in.
He was nothing like the dapper, put-together billionaire Steve often saw, the star of the society pages.
Steve thought maybe he liked this Tony a lot better. This Tony seemed like he could be their friend. Like he wanted to be.
Steve had never seen him like this. Tony never just... spent time with the team. Oh, he could have, certainly; he was always welcome to. But he hadn't. Until now, when he didn't even know who he was. Maybe that meant he would have wanted to, as well, when he knew who he really was? Maybe he'd wanted to, but he'd never done anything about it. But what would have been stopping him?
"--and that was when Cap used the magnetic recall for the first time," Hank said, laughing. "And the shield hit him right in the face."
"He was still so happy you made it for him," Jan said, and they were talking about him? Why in the world were they talking about him?
"Oh, hi, Cap," Hank said. "Come on, pull up a chair. We were just talking about you."
"Tony had a lot of questions," Jan added, smiling, as Steve dropped into the seat next to her. "Don't worry," she stage-whispered, "we've only been telling him the good stuff."
"There's bad stuff?" Tony asked, eyebrows raised, intrigued.
"He sings in the shower," Hank said, still grinning. "At six in the morning. I hope you like military cadences."
Steve flushed and looked away. "I hadn't known anyone minded--" he started to say, but then Jan giggled and threw an arm over his shoulders, and Steve relaxed.
"Just teasing, Cap," Jan said. "You're practically perfect."
Tony beamed at him, his smile bright, enthralled, nothing he'd ever seen on Tony's face before yesterday.
"I, uh," Steve said, suddenly at a loss for words. "Thank you?"
Something in Tony's pocket beeped, and he pulled out his phone and squinted at it.
"Gotta go," Tony said. "Dr. Blake wants me for more tests. Thanks for the food and the conversation."
And just like that, he got up, rinsed his bowl and cup out in the sink, and was out the door.
Steve waited until the front door rattled shut before he let out the breath he'd been holding. "Tony was asking about me?"
"He was," Jan confirmed and then her smile took on that teasing edge again. "I think he liiiikes you," she added, voice gone sing-song.
Steve could feel his cheeks heat up, and he cursed his complexion.
"Oh, it's like that, is it?" Jan continued, lightly. "Mutual, hmm?"
"It isn't," he insisted, even though he knew she wouldn't believe him. It wasn't, it couldn't be, it wasn't fair to Iron Man--
Still, he thought, very privately, a selfish little thought, it would be nice if Tony were still like this when his memories came back. It would be nice if Tony still liked him.
Steve read most of A Scanner Darkly that night and set it down just past midnight, profound unease curling through him. It was the tale of a man, Bob Arctor, an undercover policeman sent to infiltrate drug dealers. His mind, his very sense of self, had been affected by the strange, futuristic drug Substance D, the drug he was investigating. He had been split into two personalities. Arctor conceived of himself as two men -- the cop and the drug-user -- and he had no idea that they were the same person. Horrified, Steve had read about Arctor informing on himself, the drug-user, to his fellow policemen -- because he had no clue it was him.
Why the hell had Iron Man wanted him to read that?
Memorable, Iron Man had said. Interesting ideas about identity, he'd said. Steve was thinking Tony had been right when he'd called it creepy and paranoid.
Well, maybe it was the kind of thing a fella had to have a secret identity to really appreciate.
He'd stayed up too late reading and he'd overslept. Him. Captain America. He'd overslept.
At least the rest of the team was nice enough not to razz him about it.
"Nothing conclusive from Dr. Blake," Hank said, when Steve finally made it to breakfast. "Tony's gone back to SI today, though. You just missed him."
Good, Steve thought. Tony would be able to access the employee records, and they'd be one step closer to finding Iron Man.
At the same time, he was privately a little sad he'd missed his chance to talk to Tony. He could tell him he'd read the book Iron Man had recommended, and that Tony had been right about it, and then maybe Tony would smile at him again--
What in the world was wrong with him?
"He said he was doing some investigating for us," Jan put in, brightly. She leaned forward and stole a bite of Hank's hash browns with her fork; her own plate was empty. "So I thought maybe we could do some investigating for him."
Steve frowned. "What have you got in mind?"
"I think we should investigate the scene of the crime, as it were. Go back to the gala. Talk to the host. Retrace Tony's steps. Something happened to him, Steve," Jan said. Her face was animated, intense. "Something happened, and we have to find out what. So I'm going, and I'm going to ask questions, and you're coming with me."
"Me?" Surely she'd want Hank along, if anyone. The rarefied world of the rich and famous wasn't Steve's natural habitat, the way it was for Jan. Surely he'd just get in the way. "What am I going to do, exactly?"
"Stand up," Jan said. She stood and motioned upward, when Steve hesitated.
Bewildered, Steve stood.
Jan frowned contemplatively up at him, like he was a model and she was deciding how she wanted to pose him. "Now cross your arms over your chest."
"Nice biceps," Jan said, with an appreciative grin. "But not with that confused face. You need to look mad. Well, not mad. Grumpy, maybe. Pretend we've all disappointed you during training."
"Jan," Steve said, scowling, because he didn't understand a thing that was going on here, and they were wasting time that they could use to embark on the plan, the plan that would lead them to be able to heal Tony, that would let them eventually find Iron Man. God, he wished Iron Man were here.
Jan's smile only grew wider. "Yes," she said. "Exactly that face. I'm going to find the people responsible and ask them questions, and if they aren't forthcoming with answers you're going to stand exactly like that and glare at them."
"Oh," Steve said, in sudden realization. "I'm the muscle."
Jan patted his arm, feeling his biceps a little more than was strictly necessary. "And you'll be very good at it. But let me do the talking, hmm?"
In the end, Steve hadn't needed to cross his arms even once; the little old lady, whose name Steve hadn't caught but who was probably almost as old as he was, was more than impressed enough by Janet Van Dyne, old money and an Avenger, and Captain America, her backup. And she talked, and she talked, and she talked. The problem was getting a word in edgewise.
"Tony Stark?" she asked. "Oh, what a shame. An accident? Amnesia? He's such a sweet boy. So polite. Do the doctors think he'll be all right?"
"We hope so, ma'am," Steve said, and she smiled at him and patted his arm proprietarily, much the same way Jan had, earlier.
Biceps, Jan mouthed at him, with a glint of amusement in her eyes.
Steve cleared his throat. "So, you see, we Avengers are investigating his accident. Mr. Stark is of interest to us, as he helps out the team."
"Are you sure you're all right, getting mixed up with these superheroes, Janet, dear?" the woman asked, eyeing Steve accusingly, like he was personally responsible for her safety, like he had dragged her into this, when Jan was a founding Avenger who could take care of herself, who predated him on the team, even. She was the one who had named the team, for God's sake. "I saw you on the television yesterday. On Staten Island. Really, they should have their own superheroes and not bother ours. What if there's more trouble in Manhattan?" She sniffed and then frowned in disapproval.
Steve felt pretty much the same way about that mission: he'd have been happier if any other superhero had taken it. His ribs were still a bit sore.
"I'm fine," Jan said, with a smile. "Don't worry about me. But we'd like to take a look around the building, if that's okay with you. I know Tony saw your art collection. Did anyone else have access to that room at any point in the evening?"
The woman nodded enthusiastically. "It was open all evening, of course," she said, and Jan shot Steve a grimace, because that wasn't good. "It was unlocked even before that, because those two men from the government wanted to do a special security sweep, for the director."
"The director?" Steve asked, at the same time as Jan said, "Men from the government?"
"Two of them. Such ill-fitting suits," she added, with an almost-theatrical noise of disgust, throwing her hands in the air. "Janet, darling, you really must start on that menswear line. It was a disgrace to have them in the building. Their suits weren't even tailored," she added, darkly.
Jan made a quiet sympathetic noise of agreement at what was clearly a sartorial tragedy. "How awful!"
"They were very polite, though," she added, and then she glanced over at Steve. "There was one big blond fellow, like you. Not quite as handsome as you, though," she added, with a smile. "His name was... Richlen? Yes. Agent Richlen. And Agent Adair, the other fellow. Exquisite manners. Very friendly. He even wanted to know if he could come back later this week and see the place again. If only everyone were as nice. Young people these days, no sense of--"
"Ma'am," Steve cut in, a little desperately. "What agency? What director?"
She waved a hand. "Oh, you know, one of those alphabet agencies, I suppose. They're all the same, aren't they?"
No, Steve thought. And if she actually meant something from the New Deal -- well, most of those agencies weren't still around, were they? She had to mean any government agency. Which didn't exactly help.
"You don't happen to remember which one, then?" Jan asked.
She shook her head. "No. I wasn't too impressed with the director, though. Very gruff. Like an old soldier. Not polite at all. Mr... Rock, maybe?" She frowned. "No, that wasn't it. But he took a liking to Tony," she added. "He must have. And those nice agents must have told him all about the art collection, because I overheard him telling Tony that he simply must view it." She smiled. "I just bought another Rothko, you know."
Someone from the government. Someone from the government had done something to Tony. Steve breathed in and out and tried to force the anger back down.
"That's lovely," Jan assured her. Somehow Jan was still smiling in return. "Do you think we might trouble you for a look at the collection?"
"It's no trouble at all!" she said. "Anything for you and your Avengers, dear."
Luckily, it didn't take them long to determine the source of the problem.
"Oh!" the woman said, in surprise and dismay. "That's new."
In front of the Rothko -- which Steve had to admit was very nice -- stood a small plinth, on which was perched a little palm-sized ball of metal and wires, an unknown electronic device. One red light blinked menacingly. There was a scrap of paper on the plinth, next to the device. It read for Tony Stark.
Clearly Tony hadn't been able to resist the mystery.
With a puzzled look on her face, the woman reached out her hand--
"No, don't touch it!" Steve said, hastily, and she jerked her hand back. "We don't know what it does," he said, a little more calmly, except he was all too certain that he did know, that it was the reason Tony had no idea who he was. "I wouldn't want anything to happen to you."
"I think we might need some time alone, please," Jan said. "We'll call the rest of the Avengers, and we'll get this out of here safely. Thank you so much for your help."
"And if you happen to remember the name of the director, or his agency, please let us know," Steve added.
Rock. Rock. There was something about it that was familiar, but it wasn't quite right.
"Of course," she said. "Lovely to see you again, Janet. And it was a pleasure meeting you, Captain. Come back anytime."
When she'd left, Jan and Steve regarded the device, and then each other, in mute horror.
"It's too bad Iron Man isn't here," Jan said, finally.
Steve smiled thinly. "He'd probably just tell us Tony was the real genius, anyway." And Tony, of course, wouldn't be much help right now. He didn't even remember how to be an engineer.
Jan sighed. "Well," she said, "we'll make do." She pulled her identicard out of her purse and thumbed in a code. "Hey, handsome? Looks like we need you after all. Bring gloves or tongs and the most secure container you've got. See you soon, blue eyes." The comm clicked off.
"We had that talk," Steve began, "about only using code names on official Avengers channels--"
Jan harrumphed. "Oh, like I don't know how much you two call each other Shellhead and Winghead. You two like your pet names just as much as the rest of us." Her grin was impish. "It's adorable. So sweet."
Steve could feel himself going hot again. His face hurt. He wondered if there was some kind of team competition for making him blush. "Jan," he began, "it's not-- it's not like that-- he doesn't-- he doesn't feel-- it's really not--"
"Doesn't mean that you don't want it to be like that," Jan said, very quietly, her face suddenly gone serious.
They couldn't talk about this. They couldn't. It wasn't going to happen.
"We all know how worried you are about him," she said. "We all know how much you care about Iron Man. There's no shame in-- in having feelings. You must know that."
"There's no point," Steve said, shutting his eyes, pushing back all the pent-up longing. "There's no point to it, when he doesn't feel the same way."
He felt Jan take his hand. She didn't say anything. She didn't have to.
Hank set the container down on the workbench in Tony's workshop -- because why shouldn't they use it when the door was still open? -- and he frowned dubiously at the device as he fished it out of the container with the same tongs he had used to put it in. The team crowded around.
It was still flashing red.
"This isn't really my specialty," Hank said. "We could call Reed Richards."
"He owes us one after the Moloids," Jan chimed in.
Thor nodded. "Aye."
Still holding the device in the air with the tongs, Hank turned it this way and that, and--
"Wait," Steve said, staring at the exposed underside of the device in horrified realization. "Turn that side toward me. There's something there."
Etched into the metal was a stylized eagle in a circle. They'd taken Tony's memory, and they'd as good as signed their goddamn name to a confession.
Government agency. Director Rock, only not quite.
Rick Stoner was the director of SHIELD.
"That's SHIELD's symbol," Steve said, grimly, and the rest of the Avengers' heads snapped up to stare at him. "We're not calling Reed. I know exactly who we're calling."
"We're calling SHIELD?" Hank asked, voice hopeful.
Steve shook his head. "Not quite yet. We need more intel first."
He walked to the wall and accessed the comm system; after a minute, the sound of a telephone ringing crackled through the speakers.
"Stark Industries, Mr. Stark's office, Virginia Potts speaking," came Pepper's voice. There was a pause, while she presumably checked who was calling. Her voice now sounded firmer, more serious. "Avengers, if this is an emergency, Tony's just stepped out to speak with HR." Tony, Steve thought, was presumably still on a quest for employee records, after all. "I can have him call you back, or if you give me a second I can transfer you to his cell--"
"That won't be necessary," Steve said. "It was you I wanted to talk to."
Even though she couldn't see it, Steve nodded. "You're the only one who remembers anything, right now. We need to know if SI in general, or Tony specifically, have had any recent dealings with a government agency by the name of SHIELD. Anything that might make them angry at him. We'd very much appreciate it if you checked your records and called us back."
Pepper's sigh was audible. "I don't need to check anything, Captain. Tony turned down a SHIELD contract last month. Big contract. Billions of dollars' worth of weapons. Brand-new designs. Revolutionary weapons, Tony had said he'd invented. They'd change the face of warfare. But he... he said he didn't feel comfortable supplying SHIELD. And the director-- this guy was livid. He stormed in here, making all sorts of threats--"
"Threats?" Jan asked.
"He said the weapons were his, and he was going to have them, whether Tony liked it or not. And Tony -- well, you know how Tony is, right? Tony just smiled at the guy and tapped the side of his head and asked him how they were planning on getting the designs out of his brain."
Oh, God, Steve thought, and he wanted to be sick.
That was what they'd done. That was why they'd done it.
Tony had no memory because SHIELD had decided they'd needed it, and somehow they'd stolen it from him. Steve hadn't known it was possible, but it had to be. They'd done it. He'd seen the result.
Steve took a deep breath. In. Out. In. When he no longer wanted to punch the wall quite so urgently, he nodded. "Thanks, Pepper. You've been really helpful."
"No problem," she said. "I'm happy to do anything I can to help; I want Tony to get his memory back as much as you all do. Today has been... upsetting." She sighed. Steve knew the feeling well.
"We're doing all we can," Steve assured her.
"That's all anyone can ask," Pepper said. "Thank you."
There was the click of her hanging the phone up.
In the silence, the Avengers stared at each other.
"Well," Hank said. "Now we know why Tony has amnesia." He glanced down at the device again. "Not exactly sure how, though."
"SHIELD knows." Steve met the eyes of the other Avengers, in turn, and they stared back just as determined. "And they're going to tell us how they did it. And we're going to figure out how to reverse it, and we're going to get Tony back."
And then, he thought, Tony's going to get Iron Man back for us.
He activated the comm system again, scrolled through the listing until he found the right number -- the Avengers' databases had a lot of little government secrets in them, clearly -- and this time an unfamiliar woman's voice was on the line.
"Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-enforcement Division," she said. "How may I direct your call?"
"Director Stoner, please," Steve said.
"I'm sorry, but the director isn't taking calls at the moment. May I take a message?"
Steve gritted his teeth. "Just put me through."
"Sir," the woman repeated, "he isn't taking calls. May I ask who's calling?"
"This is Captain America," Steve said, in the voice that made Hydra agents quaver in fear. "Tell the director that the Avengers know what he did to Tony Stark, and we're here for an explanation. He can tell it to me, or I can call the police and have him arrested." He clenched and unclenched his fist. "I'll stay on the line while you go get him."
"I'll go get him," the woman agreed, faintly, and the speaker switched to tinny hold music. A girl from somewhere was going walking, the singer sang. The song was oddly pleasant. Soothing, almost.
There. Persistence paid off.
Steve smiled. They were going to cure Tony.
Thor had waylaid Tony as soon as he'd entered the mansion that evening. As he followed Thor into the living room where the rest of the team was already sitting, Tony's face had taken on a different dimension of his new normal of baseline perpetual confusion; he was looking around like he expected Thor to begin to narrate some bardic saga, possibly in actual Old Norse.
Thor definitely had a way about him.
"Let me start," Jan said, before Thor could open his mouth, and Tony's smile was grateful as he sat down in the empty seat on the couch next to Steve.
He looked really good, Steve thought, absently; his sleeves were rolled up, tie loosened, shirt a little unbuttoned, and Steve just wanted to--
No. He didn't. He didn't. He missed Iron Man, and surely one hopeless passion was bad enough. Sure, Tony was handsome; of course Tony was handsome. But Tony was going to get his memory back soon, and he was going to remember that he wasn't like this. They weren't like this. Tony was going to get his memory back, and he was going to help them find Iron Man, and he was going to go back to being his usual distant self, and Steve was going to keep on nursing his impossible crush on his teammate. Nothing was going to happen.
He wasn't about to make a pass at an amnesiac, anyway. That was-- the very thought was despicable. Right. Enough of that.
Pay attention, Avenger, he told himself, sternly. No time for feelings. He had his duty.
Jan explained everything they'd learned today -- but, at the end of it, Tony looked no less confused.
Steve didn't blame him.
"So, wait," Tony said, brow furrowed. "These SHIELD people, they... they gave me amnesia? But they didn't mean to?"
"They definitely meant to do something to you," Hank clarified. "But I don't think they were expecting the amnesia. The device stores memories, to be read by the SHIELD esper division. They were hoping to duplicate the designs for the weapons you wouldn't sell them. If it had gone right, you wouldn't have noticed a thing. But they got a lot more than just designs, and they took the original memories too. All your original memories."
Steve nodded. "The director said that nothing was even usable." Stoner's voice had seethed with frustration; Steve had mostly wanted to punch him. A lot. "He said there'd been some kind of energy surge. So whatever you knew, they don't know."
As he said it, he wondered if it had anything to do with Tony's heart, with the metal plate in his chest.
"The good news," Jan said, smiling reassuringly, "is that it's temporary. The SHIELD techs were positive about that. The device placed a short-term block on your memories. It will wear off on its own in a few days."
Tony's eyes were bright. "I'll remember who I am? I'll remember everything?"
"But of course," Thor said.
Tony's smile widened, a smile almost too huge for his face, so happy he couldn't seem to bear it. It was a good look on him. "I can't wait. Thank you so much, all of you."
Steve smiled back; he couldn't seem to stop himself from smiling back. His heart pounded in his chest. "Any time, Tony."
Tony was going to remember... whatever it was that made him not want to be friends with them. With him. Steve wasn't looking forward to that. But maybe it would be different now. Maybe Tony would keep something of this.
Steve opened his mouth to ask about Tony's search through the SI records -- because of course Iron Man was still missing -- but he was beaten to it by Hank's triumphant exclamation.
"This calls for celebratory pizza!"
Thor chuckled. "Indeed!"
The rest of the team got up and started to head to the kitchen, where the delivery menus lived; Tony, still sitting next to Steve, gave him a weary, almost pained smile, and Steve decided to wait a bit longer before pressing him on the topic of Iron Man. Tony looked maybe a little pale, tired, under the weather. He'd probably had a long and confusing day, full of more people who were just strangers. It would keep. If he'd found something concrete, he would have said so right away; Steve was sure of that.
"Pizza doesn't interest you?" Steve said, gesturing toward the happy, chattering group, who were now proceeding down the hallway.
"Nah." Tony shook his head. "I had a late lunch. I'll probably pick at the leftovers, if it's all the same to you." He looked down at himself and sniffed. "Besides, I want to take a shower." He frowned; a puzzle had clearly occurred to him. "Hey," he said, in a confidential undertone, beckoning Steve closer. "You think the, uh--" he motioned to his chest-- "you think it comes off? I mean, I have to shower somehow, right? My bathroom doesn't look like I'm the kind of guy who just takes sponge baths."
"I don't know," Steve told him, but Tony was right -- he hadn't seemed to have any special setup in the bathroom, not that Steve had seen. The chestplate probably did come off so Tony could shower.
Tony shrugged, unworried. "I'm sure I'll figure it out. Enjoy your pizza."
Steve went upstairs to change for dinner before the pizza arrived. His room was opposite Tony's. Tony's door was shut, and he could hear the sound of the shower, muffled by the wall and the closed door. They'd ordered the pizza at least twenty minutes ago. Tony was taking a long shower. Nothing wrong with that; he'd looked a bit out of sorts when Steve had left him. He clearly needed the relaxation.
Hand on the doorknob, Steve was opening the door to his own room when there was a thunderous crashing noise from across the hall. From within Tony's room. It sounded like someone had fallen.
Frowning, Steve stepped back across the hall and leaned toward Tony's door, face inches away from the polished wood. Inside, the shower was still on.
"Tony?" he called out, pitching his voice to carry over the water. "Hey, Tony, are you okay? Is everything all right in there?"
This was where Tony ought to yell an affirmation back. He ought to say I'm fine or I just slipped or maybe even something dryly funny like so much for that shower curtain.
There was nothing but the sound of running water.
Fear and dismay twisted together in Steve's gut. What if Tony had hit his head in the fall? What if he was lying there, unconscious?
Steve took a shaky breath, and the voice that issued from him now was what Iron Man liked to call his Captain America voice, stern and commanding. "Tony! If you don't say something in the next five seconds, Tony, I'm coming in!"
The seconds seemed too fast and too slow all at once. The world went sharp, all of Steve's senses bright, like he was standing there just before a battle, watching his enemy coming toward him. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
He tried the knob. The door was locked.
Sorry about this door too, Steve thought, even as he wondered how he could be worrying about that at a time like this. He stepped back just enough to get room, and kicked out, as hard as he could. The door splintered under his boot like it had been made of cheap plywood. His foot went straight through the wood, and then the top hinge broke, the other one bent, and the entire door went sailing to the floor.
Steve vaulted over it.
The bedroom was much as he'd seen it the day before... except that on Tony's unmade bed, which Steve had studiously avoided looking at earlier out of a sense of decorum, there was a crude-looking metal panel. Tony's chestplate. Steve guessed he'd figured out how to remove it.
The bathroom door was open. The light was on. The shower was still running. The shower curtain was pulled partway back.
And Tony was lying there, face-up, half in the bathtub and draped backwards over the edge of it, his head tilted so far back that his dripping wet hair was brushing against the floor. His eyes were shut. One hand was splayed over his chest.
He wasn't moving.
Somehow Steve was across the room and at Tony's side. The room smelled sour; there was vomit washing down the drain. Tony had been sick and then passed out in the shower. Christ, what had happened to him?
He wasn't breathing. Steve reached for Tony's wrist. Even accounting for the water, his skin was cold and clammy under Steve's fingers. Nothing. He had no pulse. God, he had no heartbeat.
He hauled Tony up out of the bathtub, heedless of the water raining down on both of them, and gathered Tony up into his arms. Tony didn't shift, or make a noise, or do anything to indicate that he'd noticed. Unconscious, then. Downstairs, he told himself. They had to have something in the infirmary, they had to have everything in the infirmary, and Hank could help while someone called a doctor, God, someone needed to call a doctor--
Steve turned, carrying Tony to the doorway, and his gaze fell on the chestplate, still lying on the bed.
Wait. The chestplate had been doing something for Tony's heart. That was what Tony had said that Dr. Blake had told him. And then Tony had taken the chestplate off, and his heart had stopped.
He could fix this.
Tony just needed the chestplate.
In another instant, Steve was across the room, carrying Tony, setting Tony down as gently as he could onto the bed. He didn't stir. Steve grabbed the edge of the sheets and tried to wipe some of the water off Tony's chest. He wasn't sure how the chestplate worked and he didn't want to electrocute Tony, after all. The scarring was at its worst across Tony's sternum, which had been covered by the chestplate yesterday; Steve hadn't seen this before. Tony's skin was ridged and twisted with scars upon scars, so many that it was almost impossible to imagine what it had looked like before, so many that Tony could surely feel nothing from a touch, and Steve could feel an empathetic ache well up somewhere under his breastbone.
Then he swallowed hard, picked up the chestplate -- it was surprisingly heavy -- and pushed it against Tony's chest, lifting Tony up a little to wrap it around him, trying to emulate the position he'd seen it in, earlier. God, he hoped he was doing the right thing.
There was a soft click as metal locked into place, and Tony groaned, pushing himself up towards Steve's hands in a weak, aborted movement. His eyelids flickered but then fell shut again.
"Tony?" Steve asked. His voice echoed in his head. He didn't sound like himself. He was never this distraught.
Tony only moaned again. Not quite conscious, then.
He was so pale, Steve thought, and he was positive his own heart was still beating double-time. Sure, maybe large parts of Tony never saw the sun, what with the way he always covered himself up, but his face was just... it was off. His skin was sallow, cold, still beaded with water and sweat. His nostrils flared once and then stopped. And he wasn't waking up.
Steve reached for Tony's wrist again. There. A pulse. His heartbeat. One beat. Weak, but perceptible. And then -- Steve held his breath -- another, but this one felt even weaker. The third beat came along after an even longer interval, and it was weaker still, just barely perceptible even to Steve's enhanced senses. The chestplate had done something, clearly, but it hadn't been enough. It wasn't going to be enough. Even now, Tony was fading.
There had to be something else. The chestplate had been fine before -- Tony had been fine before -- but now it wasn't working right. It was as if there wasn't enough power.
Tony would know how to fix this, Steve thought wildly, torn between laughter and tears. He'd have some kind of tool. Something. Anything.
Frantic, searching for an answer, his head snapped up -- and he saw that on the other side of the bed, on the bedside table, there was a coiled power cord next to an outlet. It didn't look like it went to anything in particular; in fact, it was rather odd, because there were two identical plug ends, so that it looked like it could plug into the wall twice. That couldn't power anything.
There was a socket in Tony's chestplate. The power cord was next to Tony's bed, casually tossed there, within reach of both the bed and the closest outlet, like it was the kind of thing Tony wanted to be able to get his hands on quickly. Steve stared down at the gleaming metal of Tony's chest, at the hollow spot where the socket sat.
The chestplate needed power. Steve could give it power. But was this the right thing to do? What if it would hurt Tony to wear and charge the chestplate at the same time?
Tony was already dying, Steve told himself. It wasn't like he was going to be able to make the situation much worse.
He scrambled across the bed, landed on the other side, and grabbed the power cord. One end went in the wall, and he strung out the cord between his hands and held the plug in place as he bent over Tony, who still lay there, unconscious.
Here goes nothing, Steve thought, and he shoved the plug into the chestplate's socket.
The effect was immediate.
Tony arched up off the bed so hard that he nearly smacked Steve in the face, and his eyes shot open. He gasped, a sharp inhalation, and then he sank back down against the mattress, breathing normally, if a little more raggedly than usual. His hand flailed out, blindly, found Steve's fingers, and held on. Steve wasn't sure if Tony knew it was him. He wasn't sure it mattered.
But he wasn't sure it was what was supposed to be happening to Tony, either. Unfortunately, the only person who knew what this was supposed to feel like had amnesia.
"Tony," he said, urgently. "Tony, how do you feel? Are you in pain? Is this hurting you?"
Uncomprehending, Tony blinked at him for a few seconds. "Steve?" His voice was raw, lost, uncertain, and he'd paused like he'd actually had to think about Steve's name -- which he'd probably had to.
Steve made himself smile encouragingly, and he squeezed Tony's fingers. "Yeah," he said. "That's me." He worked his hand out of Tony's grasp and slid his fingers down Tony's wrist to check his pulse again -- and Tony now had a pulse like a triphammer, heavy and strong and maybe a little fast. The power cord had clearly done the trick. "So how do you feel?" he repeated.
"I feel like I've just been run over by a goddamn tank," Tony said, and he dropped his head back onto the pillow, his still-wet hair soaking the pillowcase. "And then like afterwards someone picked me up and gave me a shot of adrenaline. Whew. That's really something."
Just looking at him, Steve would agree with that part; Tony's eyes were dilated, wide and dark, and his face was flushed with blood. His muscles were tensed. Fight or flight. The power wasn't hurting him, then. Good. Steve hated to think of it hurting Tony, especially since it seemed like he had to do this often. He imagined Tony hiding himself away in here or in his workshop, curled in on himself, charging the chestplate alone, the chestplate he hadn't wanted anyone to know about.
Maybe that was why he hadn't wanted to be friends with the team.
And then Tony blinked, and his free hand went up to the power cord, and--
"No!" Steve said, and then he winced, because he hadn't meant to shout. "You need that."
Tony stared. "I'm plugged into the wall? What--" He stopped and looked around, and he finally seemed to realize that he was sopping wet and also completely naked. "I was in the shower," he said, voice wavering. "I remember that. I was in the shower, and I wasn't feeling so hot, and then-- I don't. I don't know." His gaze went to Steve, a silent question.
"I'm guessing you're not supposed to take the chestplate off," Steve told him. "So however you shower, it's sure not like that. I was walking by and I heard you fall, and I--" he nodded sheepishly over at the broken door, and Tony's eyes went wide. Steve cleared his throat. "You were having some kind of heart attack. You weren't conscious. You had no pulse. So I put the chestplate back on you, but it didn't do much, and that was when I thought maybe it had to be charged." He tilted his head over at the wall socket. "And that turned out to do the trick."
"My hero," Tony murmured, with a smile.
Steve was certain it was supposed to sound like a joke, the sort of thing the damsel-in-distress said before she swooned into her rescuer's arms, in all the serials. But it didn't feel like a joke when Tony said it, the way his voice was low and almost sultry. Something about his voice burned through Steve, sending fire through his veins, a coursing heat, and he had to look away. When he looked up, Tony was still smiling at him, still dark-eyed. The smile was quiet, private, easy, real. As if whoever Tony Stark was -- even if Tony himself didn't know right now -- it was that man whom Steve had made happy. It wasn't the billionaire, or the engineer, or the team benefactor, or whatever other faces he wore -- it was whatever lived at the core of him. His soul.
And Tony, Steve's traitorous body realized with another rush of heat, was incredibly attractive.
Oh, it wasn't that he hadn't known Tony was good-looking. If anyone had a handsome face, it was Tony, with his ready, charming smile and his gorgeous eyes. Looking him in the eyes was like falling into the night sky. Steve had known that already. And Tony's expensive suits were perfectly tailored to accentuate his figure. But his actual body? Steve had hardly ever seen Tony with so much as his sleeves rolled up, and now he was lying here wearing nothing whatsoever.
Sure, Tony could do with a little sun. And he was scarred, true, but scars were just scars -- it didn't make one bit of difference to Steve, not in the slightest. But God almighty, the body Tony had been hiding! He was built wiry, not quite thin, but well-muscled, perfectly proportioned. The corded strength in his arms and shoulders spoke of a man who worked with his hands, who did more than sit behind a desk, and Steve wondered how the hell Tony found enough time to exercise that much with everything he did for SI and the Avengers. But it was a good look on him. A really, really good look, Steve thought, unable to stop imagining running his hands over Tony's bare skin. Helplessly, his gaze drifted downward, over the chestplate, down to similarly well-defined abdominals, muscular under the scarring, skin still glistening with droplets of water, and--
He couldn't do this.
"I, uh." Steve's voice caught in his throat. "I'll just go turn the water off for you now."
He practically ran into the bathroom. He paused while turning off the shower and took several long, shaking breaths. It didn't really help.
When he turned back and headed into the bedroom Tony was squirming a little self-consciously, shifting his hips, and Christ, that really didn't help because now he couldn't not look. Steve glanced down and went even hotter because Tony -- well, every part of him was definitely extremely attractive, yes. Steve wondered if maybe he should resign from the team. He was pretty sure having inappropriate fantasies about the team benefactor, especially when said benefactor had amnesia and had just had a heart attack, was not very Captain America of him. Not in the slightest.
His passion for Iron Man, previously the most awkward thing about all of his interpersonal relationships, seemed downright decorous when compared to this. At least that was-- it was intellectual. Emotional. He loved being around Iron Man. He loved talking with Iron Man. They could talk for hours. And, while, yes, he'd entertained thoughts of... more, just having what he had of the man wasn't going to stop Steve from caring.
Talking wasn't what he wanted to do with Tony Stark. At least, not right away. His body was incredibly certain of that.
It was all a mess.
"Do you think you could get me some underwear while you're up?" Tony asked. "I feel a little... underdressed."
Relieved, Steve turned away to the chest of drawers. "Sure thing. Which drawer?"
"Everything I've found is in the top drawer," Tony said, and his voice sounded strange, maybe sort of tense. Embarrassed. "But it's all a bit. Uh. Extravagant."
Too late. Steve had already opened the drawer, and everything in it was -- well, it was definitely underwear, in the most basic sense. But it was all practically obscene. Silk. Satin. Bits of lace. Dark, rich colors, deep reds and shimmering golds. Little scraps of diaphanous fabric, with barely enough material to cover anything. Steve imagined Tony wearing these things all day, every day, under his respectable business suits, where no one would see, and he shivered in desire.
Steve picked out something red, one that had the least lace of all the options and that appeared to be covering the most, although that wasn't saying much.
He turned back and tossed the underwear across the room. He was positive his face was as red as the fabric by this point, as he turned away again to let Tony dress. "Do you even have any normal underwear?"
Behind him, Tony gave a rather strangled laugh. "I literally do not know the answer to that question."
"You can turn back now," Tony added, after a pause during which more fabric rustled. "I'm decent."
Steve turned around.
Decent might have been overstating it. In his tiny red underwear, Tony looked possibly more indecent than he had while actually naked. The color was perfect, and eye-catching, and the whole thing was so skimpy, just barely there, that it was all too easy for Steve to imagine getting him out of it again, peeling it right off him. Maybe with his teeth.
Tony smiled a warm, friendly smile.
"I have to go," Steve blurted out, even as he cursed the words coming out of his mouth. He'd stormed the beaches at Normandy. He'd fought more supervillains than he could count. But there was no way he was getting through this conversation.
He fled before Tony could say anything else.
That night, Steve lay in bed, sleepless. He'd finished the book, which hadn't really helped his general mood. The novel had definitely gotten darker by the end.
He shouldn't have run out on Tony. For purely innocent reasons alone, he should have at least sat with him while the chestplate charged and made sure he was okay. He should have gone downstairs and asked Thor to get Don for them; for God's sake, Tony had just had a heart attack! And instead he'd practically run out of the room, terrified because now he had feelings for someone who wasn't in a suit of armor, someone who could potentially return his feelings, someone who -- if Steve could be honest with himself -- showed a lot of interest in returning them.
Steve didn't have a lot of experience with... being wanted. Not seriously, not by people he knew, not in situations where something could come of it.
But that was no excuse for the way he'd acted.
It was unprofessional and unbecoming of Captain America, certainly. He'd even neglected his Avengers duty, by not asking Tony about Iron Man's whereabouts. Iron Man could be captured, could be being tortured -- or worse -- right now, all because Steve was mooning over Tony like a teenager. Iron Man was his teammate and his closest friend. Iron Man deserved better than this from him.
And even if Tony liked him right now, certainly Steve couldn't allow anything to happen between them. Tony didn't remember who he was right now. When he got his memory back he was going to remember this, and he was going to remember that they weren't like this -- and Steve wasn't going to let him do anything he'd regret. He owed him at least that much.
First thing in the morning, Steve told himself, he'd ask Tony about the search for Iron Man. He'd be polite. Professional. Coolly distant, perhaps.
He could do that.
Luckily, Tony must have come to similar conclusions; Steve found him the next morning in the library, the day's New York Times spread out across the table. If he hadn't known something was wrong with Tony before, he would have just from that, because he didn't think he'd ever seen Tony with one of the broadsheets, just an ever-evolving series of phones and tablets. (Steve was willing to admit that smartphones were pretty keen. The future was a swell place.)
Tony looked... good. No, Steve told himself, firmly. Tony looked healthy. He'd recovered quickly from his heart attack. Steve hoped he'd gotten a doctor to look at him.
"Oh, hi," Tony said, looking up and giving Steve the kind of cordial smile Steve had planned on giving him; he raised his own hand in greeting. Brisk and efficient, Tony closed the paper and gestured Steve toward the seat opposite him with an easy sweep of his hand. "Good timing. I just got a call from Ms. Potts, although unfortunately there's not a lot of news to report."
Frowning, Steve sat down. "A call from Pepper?"
"Sure." Tony blinked at him in confusion. "About your Iron Man. I mean, I don't know anything about how this business of mine works. I wasn't going to be able to search the records on my own, was I?"
"Oh," Steve said. "No, I suppose not." He'd envisioned Tony looking it all up himself -- but he supposed that there wasn't much Tony could do, with no memory. He wouldn't remember how his own systems worked. "So what did she find out?"
Tony shrugged helplessly, spreading his hand. "Nothing. I'm sorry. But there was nothing."
That couldn't be right. It couldn't.
"Nothing," Tony repeated. "Restricting the search to Stark Industries employees, male, blue eyes, in the tri-state area, hired before or contemporaneous with my return to the country after Afghanistan -- well, I have a lot of employees who meet that description, but, believe it or not, all of them are accounted for. There are no unexplained raises or bonuses or unexpected promotions. If I'm paying Iron Man, I'm paying him under the table -- and I have no unexpected personal financial outflows corresponding to the kind of salary he'd deserve, as far as Ms. Potts can tell me. So unless I'm paying him out of Avengers petty cash and you've never noticed, I'm not paying him." He held up a hand for Steve to wait. "And all of these men have reported to work in the last two days, so if any of them are Iron Man, they're not off the grid. There's nothing anomalous there. And none of them are listed in my personal contacts, which you'd expect if one of them were Iron Man. Whoever your teammate really is, he doesn't work for me. I am absolutely positive of that."
Well, that was... comprehensive. Even without his memory, Tony was still a genius. But there had to be something wrong there. It couldn't be true.
"But Iron Man is your employee," Steve said. Maybe Tony wasn't understanding this. "He's your bodyguard. There aren't any other possibilities here. When he isn't Avenging with us, he goes and guards you. That's what he does. I swear he exists, Tony," Steve said, and he wanted to cry, because it was like Tony was telling him Iron Man wasn't even real, and God, Iron Man could be anywhere, could be dying, could be dead. "He's real and he's out there and he's your bodyguard."
Tony's voice was low and soothing. "I believe you. I believe he exists, okay? But I'm telling you that he doesn't work for me. He can't. I don't pay him. There would be a paper trail, and there just... isn't one."
"You're telling me that he's your bodyguard out of the goodness of his heart?" It-- well, it seemed like a thing Iron Man would do. Steve had often admired that streak of nobility in him. Apparently it went deeper than Steve had ever suspected. "We pay him, though. The Avengers. We'd agreed we'd all draw a salary. So you pay him as an Avenger, too, because you fund us. You must be paying him."
"Jan mentioned that to me yesterday," Tony said. "And then she did some digging into the team financials. He opted out of the team healthcare plan. He gets paid into what looks like some kind of shell account and then all the money gets quietly dumped back into Avengers general funds as a recurring donation." He grimaced. "In my name, actually. I guess this guy thinks he's real funny."
Oh, Steve and Iron Man were going to have words. "But," Steve said, helplessly. "But what about his medical care? He takes a lot of hard hits, in the field with us. He always told us you were picking up the bill, that it was all covered, and if you're not paying him anything as your bodyguard, and if we're not paying him as an Avenger--"
Tony spread his hands wide. "I don't know what to tell you. I'm sorry." And then he looked up at Steve with a glimmer of that familiar genius intelligence in his eyes. "How's this for a suggestion? He's not my bodyguard at all."
"What? I don't understand," Steve said, because it made no sense. "Of course he's your bodyguard."
Tony shook his head. "But I'm telling you, he can't be. I don't pay him. But he's got to be able to put food on the table and a roof over his head, right? You've said he doesn't live here with the Avengers. So maybe he really does something else for a living, and that's how he gets a paycheck and insurance and all that good stuff. And he just tells you that he's my bodyguard. He pretends."
"No," Steve said, helplessly, denying it all. Iron Man wouldn't have lied to them. Iron Man wouldn't have lied to him. Tears stung at his eyes; anger and betrayal gathered in the pit of his stomach. How could Tony say this? "He's your bodyguard. Your employee. That's what he's always said. That's what you've always said."
"So maybe we both lied." Tony shrugged, like he wasn't destroying the best friendship Steve had in this entire goddamn century. "Whatever his real job is, he doesn't want to tell you about it, and I agreed to go along with it. It's the only thing that fits the facts."
"No," Steve said again, low and miserable. "It's not true. I don't believe you. It can't be true. He didn't lie to us." It was one thing for Iron Man to have a secret identity. That was fine. He couldn't hold that against him. Hell, Steve's identity was secret from pretty much everyone who wasn't an Avenger. It was another thing entirely for Iron Man to lie to him, and God, maybe Iron Man wasn't going to make it, maybe they weren't going to find him in time, and this was going to be the last thing Steve knew about him, that his best friend was a liar who'd never trusted him from the beginning--
He realized he was starting to cry.
"Hey," Tony said. "Hey, Steve, no." His hand settled over Steve's, warm, soothing. "Hey, don't-- don't be like that, okay? I didn't mean it. I shouldn't have said it. I'm sorry. Maybe I'm wrong." Steve looked up; Tony was looking away guiltily, not meeting his eyes. "I mean, I've got amnesia. I'm clearly not at my best here. Maybe I overlooked something, right?"
Steve took a shuddering breath and Tony squeezed his hand. "But-- but you said--"
"I'm wrong," Tony said insistently. "I must be wrong. That's all there is to it. He's got to be my bodyguard, like you said. And I'm going to find Iron Man for you, okay?" His face was set, determined. "I'm going to find him for you, and it's going to turn out that this was all one big misunderstanding. You'll see. He's probably on some fabulous vacation he forgot to tell you about. He's lying on a beach somewhere, in the shade of a palm tree, sipping one of those fruity drinks with the little paper umbrellas in them. Your postcard's in the mail right now."
Despite himself, Steve smiled just a little, blinking the tears away.
"Yeah, see?" Tony said, and he smiled back. "There you go. We're going to find him. There has to be something else I can try. Maybe I can check out that bank account a little more." His fingers stroked the back of Steve's hand, lightly, gently, and Steve wanted to tell Tony again that he didn't touch him, but he couldn't quite bring himself to make him stop. "You're really worried about him, aren't you? You-- you really miss him, huh?"
You have no idea, Steve thought.
"Yeah." His voice was hoarse, but it was a little easier to talk now. "I miss him a lot. He's my best friend."
Tony's mouth lifted in an encouraging little smile. "Tell me about him."
"Tell me about him," Tony repeated, and he smiled again. "I bet you like talking about him. You should see how your face looks when I mention him."
His face? God, could everyone tell how he felt about Iron Man?
"You know all about him," Steve said, and then he stopped, because Tony didn't.
Tony laughed. "Not right now, I don't. Come on. How'd you meet him? How'd you decide to be superheroes together? Is there some kind of superhero Facebook?"
Steve shook his head, and he was grinning back. "Not as far as I know." He realized that to explain how he knew Iron Man, the story really had to start with him. He drew his hand away from Tony's, gesturing as he talked. "Okay. So what you need to know about me is that I was a soldier in World War II. A soldier and a superhero. And there was... an accident. A plane crash. And I was missing in action, frozen in ice, from 1945 until last year. The world thought I was dead."
"Wow," Tony said, and his eyes were wide and enthralled, like he was hearing this all for the first time -- which, right now, he was. And Steve usually hated talking about himself like this, but with Tony it was different. It felt like this was a thing he could do for Tony, to make him happy, because Tony had been so generous, providing for him, opening his home to the team. "Wow. That's amazing. Unbelievable, really. And you're here now, huh? Someone found you, I take it."
"Iron Man found me," Steve said. "Iron Man and the Avengers. They found me in the ice. They brought me back. They let me join the team. And Iron Man, he just--" There wasn't really any way to explain it. "He was my friend. Instantly. He's one of the best friends I've ever had." He smiled. "On the battlefield, we're perfect together, but it's more than that. He's brilliant. I mean, he always says you're the genius, which you are--" Tony smiled a little at the compliment-- "but he's no slouch in the brains department, either. He's funny, too. Always makes me laugh. And he went out of his way, when I first met him, to show me around the future. He was always there for me. He always tells me what things mean these days, when I don't know how people do things now or what some movie is or what a particular slang word means. And, like I said, he's been helping me catch up on books."
"Sounds like a nice guy."
Steve nodded. "And it's not just for me," he added, because he felt that this was important for Tony to know. "He's so kind, with everyone. He told me once that he'd loved the Knights of the Round Table when he was a kid, and I can kind of see that in him. Not just because of the suit of armor. But the way he is, it's like he feels he has a responsibility. A duty to humanity, to be his best self, to help as he can, to give all he can. A lot of people don't get that about our line of work. They think we do it for the glory or the fame, but we don't. We do it because it's the right thing to do, and Iron Man, he-- he just lives that. He lives his ideals. And I admire that about him. I admire a hell of a lot about him." He was sure he was smiling broadly now; his face hurt from it. "I mean, I know he admires me -- he must have grown up hearing all about Captain America -- but I admire him right back. Don't tell the rest of the Avengers, but he's my favorite. I'm just a guy in a flag, but Iron Man? He's the guy I want to be."
"Don't sell yourself short," Tony said, with a small, amused smile. "I mean, I'm looking forward to meeting this guy, don't get me wrong, but I have to say that you seem pretty amazing from where I'm standing."
"Uh," Steve said, suddenly embarrassed again, reduced to incoherence by a compliment from Tony Stark. "Thank you."
"I should be thanking you," Tony said, and he glanced away. His mouth twitched once, nervously. "I am thanking you. Listen, about last night--"
"Tony," Steve said, and he went hot, and he didn't know what to say.
"You saved my life," Tony said, eyes wide and earnest, a clear, deep blue. There were no secrets in them. "And I'm thanking you." He looked away again and licked his lips. "And, well, I thought maybe I could thank you again. Over dinner, if you'll let me."
God. Tony was asking him out. Tony Stark was asking him out. On a date.
Tony looked more nervous than Steve had ever seen him; it wasn't something Steve would have pictured from a man repeatedly called a playboy by the press.
And Tony had amnesia. Christ, he was going to get his memory back and remember that he didn't even like spending time with Steve.
"I'm flattered, I really am," he said, and he felt awful, watching Tony's face fall, "but, Tony, you have amnesia."
Tony blinked; it was clear that this wasn't an answer he'd expected. "Temporary amnesia. Does that matter so much?"
"Of course it does." How could it not? "You don't remember who you are. Maybe tomorrow you'll get your memories back and remember that you don't like me. Maybe you'll remember that you're straight. You don't even know that. It's not fair to-- to you, Tony."
"I, uh," Tony said, and he looked away and ran his hand through his hair. "Whatever else I am, I am certain that I'm not straight." And, okay, Steve could give him that one. "And I can't imagine any reason I wouldn't like you." He smiled again. He was incredibly brave, Steve decided. But they couldn't do that. There must have been some reason Tony had found, some reason not to like him. Tony just didn't know what it was right now.
"This isn't us," Steve insisted. "I tried to tell you earlier, but we're-- we're really not that close, Tony. We're not like that."
Tony's mouth quirked. "But we could be like that, couldn't we? We could become like that. We could get to know each other." He met Steve's eyes. "We can reevaluate after I get my memory back? I mean, I'm just guessing here, but it didn't seem like the flirting was entirely unwelcome...?"
Steve went hot again and couldn't speak.
"Or are you straight?" Tony asked.
Steve shook his head. "Uh. No. Definitely... not straight. Not that a lot of people know that," he murmured, and there was a sympathetic understanding in Tony's eyes now. "So, believe me, it's not that it's not a... compelling offer, but--"
"You're seeing someone," Tony said, on a sigh.
Steve shook his head. "No, but--"
"But there is someone."
Iron Man wasn't someone. Iron Man didn't even know how he felt. Iron Man wasn't going to be interested in him even if he knew. And here was Tony, heart on his sleeve, asking him out even though he had amnesia, for God's sake, and Steve wanted to turn down this brilliant, generous, and stunningly gorgeous fella who was clearly sweet on him, to pine after a man whose face he'd never even seen?
"Maybe." Steve scrubbed his hand over his face. "I don't know. Not really. He doesn't-- he doesn't know."
"Iron Man, you mean," Tony said, and Steve's head snapped up.
"Is it really that obvious?"
Tony smiled a small, pained smile. "Kind of, yeah. You ever planning on telling him?"
"He'd turn me down," Steve said, bleakly. "I know he would. He doesn't-- he doesn't let anyone know about his personal life. He's a very private man. He's probably straight, for all I know. And then I'd ruin one of the best friendships I've ever had, for nothing."
"He'd be a goddamn idiot to say no to you." Tony's voice was sharp. "And you already told me he wasn't an idiot."
Tony leaned in across the table, making an offer, a proposal. He set his elbows on the table and held his hands apart, like he could encompass Steve and draw the two of them together. Trust me, his body said. "How about this? We find Iron Man, and I get my memory back -- or vice versa, however this ends up happening -- and you ask him out. And if he says no, you let me take you out, okay? Dinner and a show, if you want. I'll treat you right. Assuming we still find each other... compelling, as you put it."
Steve took a shaky breath. His mouth was dry, and he knew there was no chance of him not being attracted to Tony, and he could just kiss him. God, maybe Tony could kiss him right now. He pictured himself reaching out and unbuttoning Tony's shirt, dragging him closer, sliding his hands over Tony's muscled shoulders, down his back, fitting his lips to Tony's, tasting him, getting him out of the skimpy red underwear that he was probably wearing right now--
This was such a mess.
"I've known him for a year and I still haven't told him," Steve said, and the admission stung. Christ, he was a coward. Captain America shouldn't be, but Steve Rogers -- well, Steve was something else entirely, wasn't he? "You, uh. You might be waiting a while."
Tony's lips tilted up. "I get the feeling that I'm a very patient man. And that you're worth the wait, Captain." His eyes softened, and he looked a little sad. "He's lucky to have you, you know."
Steve sighed. He didn't have Iron Man, though. Iron Man wasn't even here. "He's still missing. Maybe he's not coming back. Maybe he's lost for good."
"We'll find him." Tony reached out and patted Steve's shoulder. Not a come-on, just support from a friend. "We can find him together. I promise. It's all going to work out."
Steve really needed to punch something.
He needed to relax, to fall back into his body, to get to the place inside of his head where everything was calm and easy and there was nothing but his breathing and the rhythm of his fists against the bag. It had definitely been that kind of morning, because, God, Tony had--
No. He couldn't think about it. Any of it.
When he got downstairs to the gym, it looked like someone else had already had the same idea about punching things, because there Jan was, in sweatpants and a t-shirt, wrapping her hands, staring down at her fingers with the same intense concentration that Steve saw on her face when she was flying into battle or sketching out dress designs.
"Taking my advice, huh?" Steve called out.
Jan looked up and grinned. "You bet, Cap."
He'd suggested last week that the rest of the Avengers had needed more practice in hand-to-hand, starting with the punching bags for strength and coordination before moving onto actual combat practice. He hadn't known any of them had decided to take him up on it already.
"Speed bag or heavy bag?" he asked, striding across the gym to join her.
Done with wrapping her hands, Jan looked up and frowned contemplatively. "Heavy bag, I think. I tried the speed bag yesterday, but I didn't have a spotter for the heavy bag." She batted her eyelashes at him and grinned.
"It would be my pleasure," Steve said, as he steadied the bag for her.
Jan balled up her fists, raising them high. "Any suggestions?"
"Jabs," Steve said. "Left hand only, one minute."
Jan nodded and started punching. "So I had some news, or rather, lack of news, about our quest for Iron Man," she said, in between jabs. "I don't know if you saw Tony already--"
Steve's stomach plummeted. "Yeah, I saw him. Straighten your wrist, Wasp, or you'll hurt yourself."
Jan's lips were set in determination, and her form was better on the next punch. "Okay, so I -- whew, they don't call it a heavy bag for nothing -- I found out Iron Man has apparently been thwarting our attempts to pay him. I don't know why; even I take the salary. But the money does go to an account before he sends it back to us. Several, actually. There are layers and layers -- oof! -- of what look like dummy corporations involved. Offshore tax havens. Somebody here is rich. Switzerland, Cayman Islands, you know the deal--"
"If you can still talk," Steve said, "you're not hitting hard enough."
He knew he was being curt, and he shouldn't be, not when Jan had done nothing to deserve it, but it had been a hell of a morning.
Jan just grinned up at him, the way she always looked in a fight, but full-size now. She nodded and kept punching. She was getting better, Steve noted, with pride.
"One minute," Steve said. "Right hand only. Go."
The first few blows were a little off-center as Jan found her balance again. "But there is a name on the account, the last one in the chain, the one that ultimately sends the funds back," she panted out, still punching.
"Oh?" Steve asked. Tony hadn't mentioned anything like that.
Jan nodded. "Randall Pierce."
"Never heard of him."
Jan bared her teeth in a fierce grin, determined, and she landed a flurry of blows on the bag. "See, that's the thing. No one else has either."
"One more minute," Steve said, because Jan was clearly going to keep talking no matter what. "Switch it up. Either hand. Both hands. Any punch you want. Mind your form. Remember, you want to connect with your first two knuckles. Good, good. Just like that."
Jan's smile was more pleased. "Anyway, Pepper just called back with the information." She was breathing hard now. "She said-- she said there was an SI employee file under that name, but it-- it's the weirdest thing, Cap--"
Steve took a better grip on the bag as Jan followed up the next jab with a right cross. "How so?"
"The file's not complete. There's not a lot of information. She sent what she had to me. Pretty much all the identifying information is zeroed out. No social, no picture, no date of hire, no indication of what this Randall Pierce guy even does at SI."
Steve supposed that was why this guy hadn't come up in Tony's searches, since he'd been searching by hiring date. "That is strange."
One, two, one, two. Left, right, left, right. Jan's fists thudded against the bag. "It's like some kind of test file, a fake record for the employee database," she said. "It's like a dummy file halfway through the process of being dummied up."
He remembered what Tony had said, that he and Iron Man must have decided together to lie to the team, that Tony must have helped Iron Man fake an identity as Tony's bodyguard, and this -- this sounded exactly like what Tony had thought they might have done.
Christ, maybe Tony had been right--
Steve wanted to be sick.
Jan stopped punching, stepped back, and wiped her sweaty hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand. "You want to know the wildest part? I bet you'll never guess the home address listed for this guy!" she said, with a triumphant grin.
Steve had a pretty good guess, actually. He sighed. "890 Fifth Avenue?"
Wide-eyed, Jan nodded. "Did Pepper call you too, then?"
Steve shook his head. He felt shaky all over. Tony had been right. Tony had been right and Iron Man had lied and Steve didn't even know why. "No." His voice rasped. "But I talked to Tony. He said that there was no possible way he was paying Iron Man, and that the team wasn't either, and he suggested that, for whatever reason, the two of them conspired to fake an identity for Iron Man as his bodyguard."
Jan's eyes went even wider. "And what you're saying is, we just found the fake."
"I told him it couldn't be true," Steve said, stubbornly, like saying it could make it true. "I told him Iron Man could never have lied to us--"
The room swam around him.
"Steve?" Jan asked, and her voice, shaded with concern, sounded like it was coming from very far away. "Are you all right?"
Steve wobbled and then sat down hard on the floor. In an instant Jan was sitting next to him, and she put an arm over his shoulders and pulled him into a hug with one still-wrapped hand. Steve breathed a trembling breath against her hair.
"He lied to us," Steve repeated. "He lied to us, and he's gone, Jan, and God, I miss him, but maybe he wasn't-- maybe he wasn't ever who I thought he was. I knew one thing about him, one thing about his life outside the Avengers, and now I don't even know that. And for all we know he could be dead--"
Jan's arms went tighter around him. "Shh," she said. "It's going to be okay. We're going to find him. We're getting closer, I know it. Maybe he'll turn up tomorrow. And I'm sure there will be a good explanation."
"For lying to us?" Steve's voice, rough and harsh, scraped at his throat, and he wanted to cry. He was Captain America. He was an Avenger. He needed to pull himself together.
Jan's head moved as she nodded. "Even for that. He must have had a good reason. I'm sure he did." Her fingers clumsily patted his shoulder. "And just because he might have lied about one thing to us, it doesn't mean he's not who we thought he was. Iron Man's still himself. It doesn't change who he is to us. He's still our teammate and our friend. Your friend. Okay?"
"Okay," Steve echoed. Jan had a point. And then he chuckled a little, even though it wasn't really funny, because, well, he felt like he had to tell someone. "Tony just asked me out."
"Oh, Steve!" Jan looked up at him, and she was grinning brightly, so happy for them. Of course she was; that was who Jan was. Steve wished it were that easy. "That's lovely!"
"I turned him down," he said, and Jan's face fell. "Because I-- because Iron Man-- and I know Iron Man wouldn't ever, and it's not that I don't like Tony like that, because I do, but Jan, I can't--"
"I know," she said, quietly. "I know."
"Tony said he'd wait," he told her. "If I asked Iron Man, and he said no. Tony said he'd wait for me. And somehow I think that when he gets his memory back, he'll still want to keep that promise. He seems... pretty fond of me. Now that I've spent some time around him. Even if he doesn't remember who he is, he seems pretty sure that he likes me. He's... really nice. If it weren't for Iron Man..."
"Tony's a good guy," Jan said, and Steve remembered that she'd known Tony for years. Jan's mouth curved in a sad smile. "A really good guy, Steve. You know, most people would be more than happy to settle for the intelligent, sensitive, funny, kind, and amazingly handsome billionaire throwing himself at their feet."
"Yeah, well." Steve sighed. "I'm not most people, am I?"
He didn't see Tony for the rest of the day, and privately, he was more than a little grateful, because he had no idea what to say to him. Tony had been right about the deception -- it was a little easier if Steve didn't call it lying in his head -- and Tony had still just asked him out and things were... complicated. Hank had said that Tony had said he was going back to SI to check on a few things.
(Certainly Tony wasn't in his workshop or bedroom, a fact that Steve was able to establish because both rooms were still missing doors. Steve hung his head walking past Tony's room. At least Tony had tacked up some kind of heavy plastic sheeting over his own doorway as a stopgap.)
The team dinner was quiet, the mood almost morose, and Steve picked at his food while Jan gave him sad, knowing glances.
"I'm going to bed," Steve said, the instant the plates had been cleared. He'd make an early night of it, but there didn't seem to be anything else worth doing.
At this rate, they were never going to find Iron Man, but maybe it was too late, anyway.
Upstairs in his room, Steve had just changed into his pajamas, when there was a knock on the door. He opened it and found... Tony.
Tony was wearing the demolished remains of a business suit, cuffs and collar undone, sleeves rolled up, tie loosened, jacket long since lost. He was practically bouncing on his toes, grinning at him, bright-eyed, hair haloing messily -- and somehow very attractively -- around his face; Steve supposed this was how he looked when he was inventing things, in the grip of some genius idea. Maybe he had his memory back?
"Can I come in? I had an idea about finding Iron Man." Steve guessed that was a no on the memory front. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?" Tony asked, and Steve shook his head, stepped back, and gestured him inside.
"I owe you an apology," Steve said, as Tony opened his mouth to launch into some undoubtedly very involved explanation. "You were right about the faked identity."
"You want to apologize for believing the best of me and your friend?" Tony asked. "Don't apologize; I'm flattered." He shrugged, like it had bounced right off him. "Anyway, yeah, Pepper--" Steve noticed Tony was comfortable enough to use her name now-- "told me about the Randall Pierce file, and I thought I'd go back to SI and do some digging, see if I could find out more about that, it being our one lead on finding Iron Man and all."
Oh. Tony was still looking for Iron Man. For him. Because he'd asked him to. Even though Steve had, essentially, rejected him. Tony was doing this because he cared, because he believed it was still the right thing to do. Steve had to admire that about him. He was, as Jan had said, a good guy.
Steve cleared his throat. "So what did you find?"
"It wasn't so much that I found something as I had an idea," Tony said, gesturing animatedly. "Pepper asked me if I knew where a particular file was, before she remembered that, I, well, wouldn't know. And then I remembered -- the night this happened, at that party, I had a briefcase with me. I don't know where it ended up, but I remember that I had it at that party and I carried it here. And I thought, well, if it was important enough to me that I would bring it to some fancy party, maybe it had... important information in it, you know?" He looked so hopeful as he said it that Steve could feel some of the hope passing on to him, just looking at Tony.
"You think maybe it's got Iron Man's contact information in it?" Steve asked. Even as he said it, he was privately doubtful; it was the longest of long shots. Likely Tony had just been toting around some classified SI military munitions contracts.
"I don't know," Tony said, "but it's worth a try, isn't it?" His smile was only a little uncertain. "But I didn't know where the briefcase was, so I thought I'd ask you."
Steve could picture it now. "I think you left it in the infirmary downstairs, after Jan brought you in. So unless anyone's moved it since, that's where it will be." He frowned. "It's probably locked, though, and you don't remember any codes you might have had--"
"That's why I'm asking you." Tony grinned. "You broke down my door; I think you can break open my briefcase."
Tony's smile was warm and inviting, and suddenly Steve didn't feel quite so bad about the property damage.
"Okay," Steve said. There wasn't really a lot of room to spread out papers in the infirmary; it would be better to bring the case back here. At least he had a desk. "You stay right here and I'll go get it."
It probably wouldn't amount to anything, of course, but as Tony had said, it was worth a try.
Tony's briefcase was huge. And it was heavy. Steve could lift it easily, of course, but it wasn't what he'd been expecting at all. Maybe Tony had been carting around some kind of prototype invention? He supposed he'd find out soon enough.
When Steve got back, Tony was still in his room. Tony put down the framed picture of Steve and the Invaders that he'd been examining -- the one Iron Man had given him for his birthday. He smiled up at Steve as Steve shut the door behind himself and walked across the room to set the case down on his desk.
"It's one of your fingerprint locks," Steve said. "My services won't be required, thankfully." He stepped back across the room to let Tony get to the case.
"Maybe not your destructive abilities," Tony countered, with a smile, "but you can still help me figure out what I've got."
Tony was putting his thumb to the case as he spoke, and there came the quiet metallic snick of locks unlatching. The case opened with a creak. Steve couldn't see what was in it from over here, with Tony's body blocking the contents.
And then there was absolute silence.
"What the hell is this?" Tony asked, slowly, voice high in bewildered confusion.
Steve moved to stand over Tony's shoulder, and he saw the last thing he'd ever expected to see.
The Iron Man armor, gleaming red and gold, was nestled snugly inside the case, fitted into what was clearly a custom padded carrying compartment. The golden helmet faceplate sat, empty and somehow imposing in its lifelessness, surrounded by the rest of the armor. Steve recognized the curved crimson ends of boots and gauntlets, the glassy shine of dimmed repulsors, with the golden mesh that made up the arms and legs of the armor tipping the edges of some of the other pieces. The heavier plates -- groin plates and chestplate and backplate -- sat in the other half of the case.
Tony had been carrying Iron Man's armor.
And the last piece of the puzzle quietly dropped into place in Steve's head.
This was what Tony had never wanted him to know. This was what Iron Man had never wanted him to know, he thought, in ashamed misery. He hadn't been meant to learn this. He had never been meant to find this out.
But it all made sense. It all made so much sense, and it was simple, really, so simple that he almost couldn't believe he'd never figured it out until now.
Iron Man hadn't gone missing. Iron Man had been here all along.
And, God, Steve had told him how he felt--
He couldn't think. He really couldn't.
Tony had turned around to stare at him in wide-eyed incomprehension, and Steve realized that Tony didn't even remember right now what the armor looked like. He had no idea what he was looking at. He had no idea what this meant.
Well, this was going to be a hell of a shock.
Steve swallowed hard.
"Tony," Steve said. "You're Iron Man."
He watched as the words sank in.
"No." Tony was shaking his head violently, in disbelief and denial. "No. I'm not Iron Man. I can't be."
Steve gestured at the case. "This is Iron Man's armor. You were walking around with the Iron Man suit in your briefcase."
"So maybe I was going to meet him after the party," Tony said, desperately. "Maybe I was going to meet up with the guy and give him the armor, huh? I can't just-- I can't possibly be a superhero."
"It fits," Steve told him. "It all makes perfect sense."
Christ, and here he'd been thinking Tony hadn't liked him, because he'd hardly ever seen much of Tony before now. But as it turned out, he'd seen rather a lot of Tony, albeit as someone else. Tony really wasn't going to like him now, though--
"How?" Tony asked, and his voice was a harsh croak. "How the hell does this make any sense to you?"
"Everyone knows you made the first Iron Man suit in Afghanistan," Steve said. "And when you got home, you hired someone else to wear the suit. To be Iron Man. To be your bodyguard and an Avenger." He paused and met Tony's wide-eyed gaze. "But that was the lie. You didn't. You never stopped being Iron Man. It was all you. It was always you, Tony."
The first voice he'd heard, welcoming him to this century. The man who'd smiled a delighted smile and who had shaken Steve's hand, welcoming him to his home. They'd been one and the same.
"No," Tony repeated, but his complaint was a hoarse whisper now.
"It makes sense," Steve told him. "Even the little things make sense. There are no records of him because he doesn't exist. Because he's you. You always know how to find Iron Man, even when the Avengers don't. His identicard was locked in your workshop. His salary donation to the team was in your name. You do your own damn post-battle first aid, apparently." He remembered the piles of medical supplies in Tony's bathroom and he felt a little sick with worry, knowing what some of the hits Iron Man had taken had been like, imagining Tony trying to stitch himself up alone. "Your chestplate looks a hell of a lot like it goes with Iron Man's armor. You've read the same books, it seems. And you, uh." He wasn't going to blush. He wasn't. "You don't get muscles like you've got, if you're working a desk job."
"So maybe I play a lot of tennis or something," Tony countered, throwing his hands in the air. His eyes had gone wild, and his face was pale. "Those are all little things. Details. Coincidences."
"And you got amnesia," Steve said, low and intense. "And when you got amnesia, Iron Man disappeared. That's more than just a coincidence, Tony."
"Actually," Tony said, and his voice was shaking, "I'm pretty sure that's exactly what a coincidence is."
Steve took a slow breath. The stunned astonishment within him was fading, coming up again in mingled shame and joy, gathering deep within him, because Tony had never wanted him to know, but God, it was Tony, it had always been Tony, behind the mask, under the armor. It had been Tony who'd been there for him from the beginning, in so many ways, and Steve wanted-- he wanted-- Steve pushed that back. That was a thought for another time, he told himself. Definitely another time. Right now Tony didn't even believe him. And after that, well, Tony was going to be furious with him for the rest of his life, and Steve deserved it.
And then he had a realization that was so simple, so obvious, that he didn't know how he'd missed it.
"Tony," he said, urgently. "I have never, ever seen the two of you in the same place."
Tony was silent, breathing gone fast and shallow, and he looked up at him and Steve thought for an instant he had him, but his eyes were still distraught. "No," he repeated. "It's not me. He can't be me. These are all just coincidences. It's not true."
"What's more likely, that there's a man out there with no record of his existence who conveniently disappears whenever you show up, or that you're him?"
Tony said nothing.
Steve looked away... and his gaze fell on the armor case.
"I can prove it." The words rang out of him, determined.
Tony's face was still far too pale. Like he was frightened of himself. "How?"
Steve stabbed a finger at the armor. "You made the Iron Man suit to fit one person, and one person alone. It's skin-tight in places. Put the armor on. If it fits you, you're Iron Man. It's as simple as that."
Tony snorted. "I don't think real life works like Cinderella--"
"It does if it fits you," Steve said, and he knew he was too damn stubborn but Tony wouldn't believe him.
Tony stared at him for long moments, in silence. His nostrils flared, and his once-pale face had started to flush, shock transmuting into anger.
"Fine," Tony said, his voice tight, the word harsh and hard. Steve had never seen him like this. "Fine. This is what it will take to convince you? Then fine. I'll do this." He reached up to his throat, yanked off his tie in one violent motion, and dropped it on the floor. His hands were shaking. His fingers worked at his dress shirt, undoing the line of buttons all the way down, until his shirt hung open to expose the metallic chestplate and the ravaged landscape of scars surrounding it. He flung the shirt to the floor.
Steve could honestly say he hadn't ever pictured angry stripping as an activity he would someday be able to watch Tony engage in. Steve wasn't actually enjoying it all that much.
Tony's hands were fumbling with his belt, and so Steve politely turned away to give Tony some measure of privacy, because Tony -- when he remembered who he was -- was clearly the kind of fella who didn't want anyone looking at his body, what with the way he always covered up. (The way he always covered up the chestplate, a voice at the back of Steve's mind said.)
"No, turn around," Tony snapped, and the command was like ice, cold and cutting, but his voice shook with fear. "You look at me. You look at me while I do this. This is what you wanted. And you're going to see you're wrong. That armor doesn't fit me. It can't."
When Steve turned back Tony was kicking off what looked like very expensive shoes and stepping out of his trousers, leaving them in a pile on the floor. He kicked his trousers away too, peeled off his socks, and was now standing there, somewhere between angry and terrified, wearing only the gleaming chestplate and the same ridiculously tiny red underwear.
Steve's mouth was bone-dry. He licked his lips and tried to swallow.
"Besides," Tony said, his voice still so cold, "you're the only one who knows how this armor is supposed to look. I don't even know what it looks like, remember? I certainly don't know how to put it on."
He reached into the case and came up with one of the larger pieces, the curved and striated plate that was clearly some kind of codpiece. It was obviously meant to fit the front of him.
"Hip plates," Steve said, because he thought maybe that had been Tony asking for help. His voice rasped out of him. "I don't know if that's what you call them. Groin plates. They seem like they attach to each other at the hip."
Tony shrugged, reached back into the case, and grabbed the other half, the back side of it. It turned out that the two pieces did, in fact, attach at the hip. It looked like it was going to chafe enormously, what with Tony's current clothing situation -- or lack thereof -- but Steve kept his mouth shut. Tony locked them into place over his ridiculous underwear. And it looked like it all fit perfectly. He put the belt around his waist. Two hip pads snapped neatly into place on either side over the seams, clipping to the belt.
"Coincidence," Tony snarled. "Complete coincidence." He yanked out Steve's desk chair and sat down, then rummaged around in the case and grabbed what looked to Steve like part of the boot jet assembly. But he didn't ask Steve what it was; he just slid his foot into it, against the sole, then bent down and wrapped what looked like a metal cuff around his calf. He repeated the process with his other foot. "You just watch. The rest of it won't fit."
He was working on muscle memory, Steve realized. He wasn't stopping, wasn't hesitating, wasn't asking Steve what any of the pieces were -- which was good, because Steve, frankly, had no idea how the suit assembled.
Tony did something intricate with his hands, and then flexible red metal dropped from the bottom edge of one of the cuffs; Steve watched as Tony tugged it down over his leg and the top of his foot, hooking it to the sole of the jet boot. He did the same to form the other boot, then stood up and bent over; he drew metallic gold mesh from the top edge of the cuffs, all the way up his legs, hooking it into the bottom edge of the armor's torso, at the groin plating.
Tony stood up all the way, and he was tall in the boots. He was Iron Man's height, Steve thought, numbly, and he watched Tony bare his teeth in something that might have been a victorious smile. Like he thought he was winning. A victorious smile for a Pyrrhic victory.
"Just so you know," Tony said, "this mesh is flexible. It would fit a lot of people."
"Yes." Steve acknowledged the point, and then he raised an eyebrow. "But how did you know exactly how to put it on?"
Tony's mouth opened and closed again.
"If I outfit Iron Man," he said, and God, it was like he still couldn't accept this, "then surely I have a lot of practice doing this to him. Besides, the solid pieces aren't going to fit me. They couldn't possibly."
After a few seconds of bending and twisting, the backplate clicked neatly into place, and Tony was looking more and more desperate. He stared at the chestplate, a disconsolate look on his face, like he was willing it not to work with his mind.
"Do you want some help with that?" Steve asked, quietly, when Tony had stood there motionless for several seconds.
"Sure." Tony's face was grim. "Knock yourself out."
Tony held his arms out to the sides, and Steve picked up the armor chestplate. It clicked in at Tony's waist, it clicked in against the backplate all up the sides and across the shoulders -- and then it locked firmly against the front of the other chestplate. Like all the mysterious ports and protrusions of the smaller chestplate had been accounted for in this one. Like it had been crafted to work with the chestplate. Because Tony was Iron Man.
There was a low hum of power, and then the light in the center of the chestplate began to glow softly, the way it always did when Iron Man was wearing it.
Christ, he powered his armor with the same device that also kept his heart beating?
Steve had no idea what to think about that one. It was one of the more distressing things he had ever learned. God, it was like Tony was trying to kill himself every time he suited up and no one had ever known--
Eyes wide and face rapidly draining of color again, Tony looked similarly distressed, but likely for a different reason. He was staring down at himself in horror.
"It fits," Tony murmured, like he still couldn't believe it. "It locked right into place."
"Because you made it," Steve said, low and soft, as gently as he could. "You made it to fit yourself."
Tony shook his head. "I-- no-- it can't be--"
"It is," Steve said, very quietly. "It's the only answer." He let his hand slide down from the ridged shoulder of the chestplate to Tony's bare upper arm, and Tony shivered a little but didn't move away. "You want to do the rest?"
"Guess so. Why the hell not, huh?" Tony said, with a flash of a weary smile that came nowhere close to reaching his eyes.
The gauntlets went on in pieces like the boots had; there were smaller rigid sections on Tony's hands for the actual repulsor assembly, and then forearm cuffs that held the flexible metallic mesh that ran red down to Tony's fingertips and gold up to Tony's shoulders. It was ingenious. Of course it was ingenious; Tony had made it. It looked like under emergency conditions -- and when wasn't it an emergency, with the Avengers? -- he could be suited up in a couple minutes, tops.
With the ease of long practice, Tony pulled more red mesh up from the collar of the armor and let it settle over his head. The faceplate was the only thing left in the case, and he grabbed it with his gauntleted left hand and hooked it into the mesh, covering his features, replacing them with that familiar golden face.
Tony's eyes looked out through the mask. Iron Man's eyes. They had always been the same.
He thought maybe Tony was blinking back tears.
"There has to be some kind of mistake here," Tony said, and it was Iron Man's voice, Iron Man's crackling-static voice, through the suit's vocal filters, and it was so familiar that Steve's heart ached in his chest to hear it, because Iron Man was back. Iron Man was back, but Steve had ruined everything. "There has to be. I'm not a superhero."
He pushed the faceplate up, and he was Tony again, Tony in Iron Man's armor, and there were tears on his cheeks.
Why was Tony fighting this?
"You are, Tony," Steve said, very softly. He wanted more than anything to touch him, to comfort him, but he thought that would probably make everything worse. "This is your armor. You're Iron Man. You're an Avenger."
When he thought about it, it made a lot of sense -- everything he admired about Iron Man was part of Tony. The intelligence. The caring. The wit. The pure, kind-hearted generosity, the determination to help others, to do what was right. Tony did it by opening his home, by funding the team, by committing acts of philanthropy. Iron Man did it by saving lives, by protecting civilians, by fighting villains, by having his teammates' backs. The same impulse was there, just expressed differently depending on whether he had the armor on or off.
"But I can't be," Tony repeated, his voice low and broken and hoarse. "Superheroes aren't people like me. They're people like you." His eyes were wide and earnest, like he was begging Steve to understand what he clearly felt was an obvious fact about reality. "You-- you saved my life."
Steve blinked at him. "You would have done the same for me, if our situations had been reversed. I know you would have."
Tony held his arms wide, the way Iron Man did when he wanted to shrug; the suit didn't allow for much subtlety in movement. He was falling back into Iron Man's body language and he probably didn't even realize it. "Look at me. I'm just a guy with a heart condition and a chest full of scars." He held out one red-gauntleted hand toward Steve. "And look at you. Body of a Greek god. Amazing feats of strength. You were clearly meant for this. I wasn't. I'm just a man. I'm not-- I'm not like you."
Steve looked down at himself and wanted to laugh. Tony had it all wrong. "You think I was born like this?"
"Uh." Tony frowned at him, confused. "Yes?"
And then he remembered: Tony didn't know about him.
Steve shook his head. "I was a scrawny kid. I was sickly. The Army made my body into this, during the war. Special project. Chemicals. Energy treatments. They made me into a super-soldier, but I never started out this way. If you're going to talk about being meant to do something, I would never have ended up looking like this, or with these abilities, without intervention. Without transformation."
Tony's mouth twisted. "But that intervention, that transformation still happened to you--"
"And what do you think you did, Tony?" Steve reached out, laying his hand on the golden armor of Tony's arm. "You transformed yourself. You were taken prisoner in Afghanistan, and you probably built that chestplate to save yourself. You built your own armor and broke free. You healed yourself, and then you made yourself into a superhero. You saw what you wanted to be and you made that happen, and that's-- that's just amazing to me."
And it was amazing. Tony hadn't needed the super-soldier serum, or a team of scientists. He hadn't needed to be experimented on, the passive object of study. He'd made himself into Iron Man with his brilliant mind, with his own two hands, and God, Steve was never going to run out of things to admire about Tony--
That was, if Tony was ever going to speak to him again after this--
Tony stared back, face furrowed in suspicion, like he thought Steve was humoring him. "I'm just a man," he repeated. He licked his lips and glanced away. "You know how I said I didn't feel like a rich man? Well, I really don't feel like a hero."
"And what do you think that feels like?"
Tony blinked. "What?"
"What do you think that feels like?" Steve repeated. "I mean, if you don't feel like a hero, how do you think a hero feels? What do heroes feel that you don't?"
Tony's gaze went faraway, unfocused, eyes trained somewhere beyond Steve's shoulder. He chewed on his lip as he thought. "Certainty," he said, slowly. "They feel certainty. I think heroes... know what's right. Unquestioningly. I think they always know what to do. I think they're focused on the greater good, always. They're brave, and noble, and they believe in themselves. They know they can accomplish great things. They know they can do more than ordinary people can. They're better than ordinary people. Like you are. Like the Avengers are." His mouth twitched. "And when you talk about Iron Man, you make him sound like that. Special. But that's not me. I just feel... ordinary."
"And you think I'm a hero?"
"You want to know what it's like to be me?" Steve asked. He gestured at himself -- Captain America, standing here in his fuzzy Iron Man sleep pants and a worn Army t-shirt, a far cry from the man on the recruiting posters. "Tony, I'm not perfect. Sure, I can bench-press a thousand pounds. Sure, I can heal a gunshot wound. But I'm a stubborn fella when I get set on something, and not in a good way. I don't change my mind easily. I jump to conclusions. I hold everyone to high standards. I hold myself to impossible standards. I get angry fast, I'm slow to forgive, and I have a hell of a temper. When I'm mad I like to punch things, which is much more of a problem now that I can accidentally punch through very solid objects." He swallowed hard. It was difficult to say the rest, but Tony needed to hear it -- maybe now more than ever, because he didn't know Steve. Because all he knew was that Steve was Captain America, and Captain America was a superhero. "Sometimes I worry that I'm just dead weight compared to all you geniuses, that you're humoring an old fossil like me, that I'm just here to be the muscle. Sometimes living in the future terrifies me because I miss the forties, and sometimes I hate myself because I forget to miss the forties. I try to help everyone I can, to save everyone I can, and I have nightmares about failing to save them all, about what I could have done differently, about whether I made the right call."
Tony was staring at him.
"It's not about being perfect," Steve said. He held his hands out, pleading, willing Tony to see. "No one's perfect. Not me, not you, not anyone. It's about being good. It's about trying to be the best person you can be. It's about trying to do good in the world, to help people, to make your life matter, to be there when it counts. That's us. That's what we do." He smiled. "And that's what you do, Tony. That's what you've been doing. Even now, even without your memory, you wanted to do good. To help people. To help us. That's what being a hero is. And that's you. Iron Man. Tony. Whether you have the suit on or not."
Silence stretched between them for long moments.
"You really think so?" The question was barely more than a whisper. Fragile.
Steve smiled again. "I know so."
Tony returned the smile -- weakly, but it was there. "It's just so hard to believe."
"I know," Steve said, softly. "But you're going to get your memory back, and it's going to be true. You'll see." He bit his lip. "And when you remember, you're probably going to be furious that I know your identity, and I'm sorry. I never meant to find it out, and if I could take it back, I would. I never wanted to invade your privacy. But I can't forget it now, and I-- I want you to remember that I care about you, okay? If it helps to know that. Whether you're Tony Stark or Iron Man, the person you are under all the identities -- I've always cared about you. You were my first friend in this century, and you're my best friend, and that-- that means a lot to me. You mean a lot to me. And I believe in you, as an Avenger, as a friend. I'd like to keep being your friend." More than your friend. "But you'll have to decide, when you remember, how you feel about me." He sighed. "I just wanted to let you know that."
Tony gave him another long silent look. His face was harsh again, his gaze faraway. "All right."
Steve supposed that was the best he could hope for. The best he deserved.
Tony turned and bent down, and silently he picked up his clothes and shoved them in the briefcase that had contained his armor. He turned to the door.
"I'll see you in the morning," Tony said, and without waiting for a goodbye, he let himself out.
Steve was halfway through his bagel, paging through the morning paper, sitting in the otherwise-empty kitchen and trying not to dwell upon whether he'd just ruined what was probably the best friendship he'd ever had. It had already been a sleepless night for him; whenever he'd closed his eyes, he'd seen Tony's betrayed and disbelieving face, over and over and over.
There were footsteps in the doorway, and Steve looked up to see Tony standing there hesitantly, like he didn't know whether he should step inside. His hands were in the pockets of his robe, his hair still mussed from sleep, and he stood hunched in on himself, self-conscious and nervous. Steve didn't think he'd ever seen Tony look so small before.
Steve had done that to him.
"You can come in," Steve said, carefully. "You want some coffee?" He gathered himself to stand up. "I can get you some coffee--"
"Thanks," Tony said, with a wan smile, "but I think I can manage on my own."
As Steve watched, Tony headed for the carafe and the row of mugs next to it like a prey animal darting across an open field. Fast and fearful, like he had to get through this before something else awful happened.
Tony poured himself some coffee. His hand was shaking.
"We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to," Steve said, into the vast silence. He wished he knew what words would make this better. But whatever it was, it wasn't those words, because Tony's head snapped up when Steve spoke. He was clearly jumpy, and seeing that just sent Steve lower, because this was his fault.
Maybe there weren't words to make it better.
If he hadn't looked for Iron Man-- if he just hadn't been there when Tony opened the case-- but he had, and he'd been there, and Tony was never going to trust him again.
"Okay," Tony said, in a voice that was little more than breath. "Okay. We don't have to talk about it." He echoed Steve's own words back, like saying them could somehow take away everything that had happened.
Tony took a sip of his coffee, and Steve bent his head to the newspaper, trying to pretend he was reading. Words he couldn't even begin to focus on swam in his vision.
There was a crashing noise.
Steve looked up. Tony had dropped his mug. Shattered ceramic shards were scattered all across the floor, spreading out from a puddle of steaming coffee. And Tony was standing there, stricken, eyes wide.
"Tony?" Steve asked, and Tony said nothing, like he hadn't even heard. "Tony, are you all right?" What if it was his heart again? What if he was hurt or-- or dying? "What's wrong? Is it your heart?"
"I remember," Tony said. His voice was strangled. The expression on his face was rapidly descending, down from terror into an awful, twisted misery. The confused, lonely expression that had clouded his eyes for the past few days was gone -- and replaced by a hideous, bitter loathing.
Steve took a shaking breath. "You remember everything?"
"My entire life." Tony nodded. His gaze went far away, like he was trying to recall something. "I was at that gala, looking at the art collection, and there was a little electronic gizmo, and someone had written my name next to it, and I picked it up, and there was the goddamn SHIELD eagle on the bottom, and everything went white. And then." His voice was hesitant now. "And then there was Jan, but I didn't know her, and she brought me back here, and Don Blake was here and you were here and I didn't know any of you and-- oh." Tony stopped short. "Oh, God. No."
His face was bone-white, and the look in his eyes now was all terror.
Yeah. He remembered, all right.
He was backing away from Steve, graceless and uncoordinated in his fear, like he had to take a few steps back before he could turn and run, and all Steve could think was that if Tony left the room he'd never see him again. If Tony left, everything would be gone.
"Tony," Steve said, hoarsely, and he held out his hand, bereft, helpless.
He didn't know what to say. I'm sorry. Don't leave me. I'm so sorry. I never meant to hurt you.
Steve's mind was empty of all useful thought, and he blurted out the first thing that came into his head.
"I really am sorry about breaking all your doors, you know."
Tony made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob, but at least he didn't run. "Steve, that is definitely not--"
And then Steve's identicard started beeping, and they both stared at it as Steve grabbed the card out of his pocket. Priority alert. Call to assemble. Of all the times.
"Avengers!" Thor's voice resounded from the speaker. "A most deadly foe has been sighted! Fin Fang Foom descends upon the noble land of New Jersey, there to wreak havoc! Verily, we must fight!"
Steve tapped the card. "On my way."
He looked up.
Tony bit his lip.
"I don't need to know any more than this," Steve said, as carefully as he could, gently, softly. "Do you remember now who Iron Man is?"
Tony's eyes went wider. He nodded jerkily.
"Do you know how to find him?"
He nodded again. Something of the terror was beginning to fade, to be replaced by determined resolve. Combat readiness. Steve had never seen it on Tony before -- but then, he wouldn't have, would he?
"Can he be here for this?"
Another nod, this one firmer, more decisive. Tony's face had settled now. He was preparing for the fight.
"I'm going to suit up now," Steve said, very quietly. "And if Iron Man's here when I get back, I'm not going to ask him any more questions either."
Tony looked at him like kindness was the last thing in the world he'd ever thought anyone would give him, and Steve's eyes went hot with unshed tears.
He took the stairs two at a time to get to his room, and when the door shut behind him, he pretended for Tony's sake that he didn't hear Tony running down the hall after him and turning into his own room, where he must have left the armor.
When Steve made it back downstairs, Iron Man was already there, standing in the foyer. He was still; in the armor, he was unreadable. Steve had spent a year trying to glean meanings from the slightest tilt of his head or the lift of his hand -- but when Iron Man was really trying, he gave nothing away.
It was up to Steve to go first.
Steve swallowed hard and smiled. "Hi, Shellhead. I missed you."
Behind the mask, Tony's eyes widened, and he blinked a few times.
"I missed you too, Winghead," Iron Man said. Even the filtered voice was thick with emotion, and Steve wondered whether Tony was smiling. "You have no idea how much."
They could do this. He could pretend he didn't know, and Tony could pretend, and they could lean on the friendship they used to have, the one they maybe weren't going to have anymore. But it would last long enough for this. They could save the world together, even if it was going to be for the last time.
"You ready to slay a dragon?"
Iron Man held out a gauntleted hand and tilted it side-to-side. Ambivalence. "Well." He drew the word out. "I'd rather not slay him, exactly, but I think we should convince him not to eat Newark." His voice was lighter now, brighter, bantering. The way he always did.
"That's a lot of love for New Jersey, Tin Man."
Dropping his hand, Iron Man laughed static. "Spoken like a true New Yorker."
Steve raised an eyebrow, because the idea that Tony was from anywhere but Manhattan was inconceivable. "And you're not?"
"Don't tell anyone, Cap," Iron Man said, still lightly, and Steve kind of wondered where he was going with this, "but I was born on Long Island."
"Your secret is safe with me." All of them, Steve thought. All of them, Tony, I swear.
After a pause, Iron Man held out a hand. Steve looked down, and then back up; Iron Man tilted his head in one of his broad gestures of confusion.
"Cap?" Iron Man asked. "You going to hop on, or what?"
Oh. Oh. They were doing this. They still got to do this.
"You're giving me a ride?"
"Well, I'm sure not going to make you walk to New Jersey," Iron Man said, and Steve thought he really must be smiling now.
They walked outside, and Steve stepped in and up onto Iron Man's boots, the way they had always done. They were so close, and Steve was suddenly more aware than ever of the man under the armor, when Iron Man wrapped a bracing arm around his waist and Steve grabbed his shoulder. It occurred to him then how it would feel with no armor between them, with Tony's skin against his. Behind the mask, Tony's eyes were very close to his, wide and dark, and Steve remembered how, last night, he'd seen the mask off, he'd seen Tony beneath it--
"Ready," Steve said.
The faceplate quivered as Iron Man nodded. "Going up."
And they flew.
The fight was spectacular.
If it was going to be the last time Iron Man ever fought at his side, Steve thought, at least it was damn well worth remembering.
Everything had gone perfectly.
There had been a tremendous cheer over the team comms when Iron Man had come swooping into the fight with Steve locked in his arms; Jan's triumphant, joyous shout still echoed in Steve's ears. And they had fought beautifully, in sync; Iron Man had taken up his usual spot at Steve's six, the both of them covering each other's backs, and none of Fin Fang Foom's attacks had gotten through. They'd saved civilians; Iron Man's voice in his ear had kept calling out locations, and Steve had run and lifted rubble and freed trapped people, guarding them and keeping them safe.
The Avengers who could fly -- everyone except Steve -- had taken to the air as the dragon went aloft with a creak of leathery wings, and Steve watched Thor and Iron Man spiral in the air. There were little sparks of light that might have been from Jan.
Then they'd landed, and the dragon's mouth opened wide, right where Iron Man was standing.
It turned out that Fin Fang Foom breathed acid.
Steve didn't even have to think before throwing himself in front of Iron Man.
Luckily, vibranium turned out to be acid-resistant.
"Thanks for the save, Cap!" Iron Man's voice sang out in his ear. "Amazing as always."
Steve grinned back at him, warmed by the praise. "Any time, Shellhead."
They'd cleared the civilians out of the way, but Fin Fang Foom was proving to be a tough customer -- even if they'd wanted to slay him, Steve didn't think they could have. Mjölnir seemed to be the only thing that hurt him at all, Steve thought, wincing as the dragon howled, as Thor struck another blow.
Hank had grown giant and tried a few ineffectual punches. Fin Fang Foom roared back at him.
"So," Hank had said, speculatively, "not that this isn't fun, but I'm not really sure I want to keep doing this all day. Anyone got any better ideas?"
Steve stepped back and raised a hand; Fin Fang Foom's tail lashed.
"I called in a favor," Steve said, and he grinned as he saw them. "And I think they're ready now."
And then four people, three of them in familiar blue uniforms, had come running onto the battlefield.
"Sorry we're late, fellas," Ben rumbled. "Rush hour. Hey, Matchstick, light him up."
Johnny had soared through the sky, and Reed had passed Sue a container of what he said was a mysterious herb that was one of the few things on Earth that Fin Fang Foom was weak to.
Shortly thereafter, there was a sleeping dragon in the middle of Newark.
Teamwork, Steve had thought, contentedly, watching Iron Man have an animated discussion with Reed about how best to get the dragon back to Monster Isle. There was nothing like it, really.
At least-- at least it got to end well. At least he'd have a good memory of this.
And now they were back here, at the mansion, just wrapping up the debriefing. Iron Man was sitting on Steve's right, where he always was, where he was supposed to be, and it had been a meeting just like any other, except for the times Steve had looked over at Iron Man and had lost his train of thought entirely because he remembered that this was it, that he'd lost his best friend, that he'd stolen all his secrets away from him, that Iron Man could never trust him again, because how could he? Shame and sorrow welled up in Steve and stung, raw and bitter.
"I don't know about you guys," Jan said, leaning back in her chair, "but fighting dragons is hungry work. Who's ready for lunch?"
"I am," Hank agreed with a grin.
"Aye," Thor said. "Fin Fang Foom was truly a worthy foe; I am minded of my own glorious battle with the dragon Fafnir."
Steve supposed he shouldn't be surprised by Thor having already fought dragons, really. He sighed.
"Cap?" Jan asked, when Steve had said nothing. "Come on. We all know how you like to eat everything in sight after a fight like that one."
"Actually," Steve said, "I'm not really that hungry. You all can go on without me."
Jan frowned at him, concerned, and then she glanced over at Iron Man, face lightening in a determined kind of cheerfulness. "Okay. Then how about a meal for our returning Shellhead, huh? I bet you can at least manage a smoothie. We've got straws."
"Thanks, but no. Maybe in a bit," Iron Man said, and the low hum of his voice sounded about as glum as Steve felt. "I have a few things I wanted to catch up on first."
"Okay," Jan said, sounding more than a little bewildered. "I guess... we'll go eat without you, then."
And then the rest of the team left, and it was him and Iron Man alone, in the briefing room. Behind the mask, solemn blue eyes slid over to lock with Steve's gaze. And then, very slowly, Iron Man began undoing his gauntlets. He was putting his fingers to the cuffs, drawing the gauntlets back from his hands, exposing bare skin.
"No," Steve said. His stomach twisted. He wanted them to go back to the way they had been. He didn't want Iron Man to be forced to share his identity. Not again. "No, you don't have to do this. You don't have to do this for me."
Iron Man's gaze was steady. "I owe you this," he said, softly, the words hissed out in the static, low and intense. "You more than anyone else. I owe you so much more than this." His hands went to his helmet, and something clicked. A lock released. "And I just want to say, for the record--"
The vocal filters were fading away as he talked; he was starting to sound more human, with a familiar voice underneath all the artificial masking. Iron Man wrenched the helmet off and set it on the table in front of him, red and gold between his bare hands.
Steve looked up, and Tony Stark was looking at him, with a scratch on his forehead clotting dark across his temple. He'd looked so lost, so confused, for the past few days -- but, until last night, he'd also looked so damn happy. Like losing his memory had freed him of all the burdens he carried. Steve hadn't even known he'd been sad; Tony had hidden that from them, too.
All the secrets were gone now.
Tony's eyes were dark with pain and regret. "I just want to say," Tony said, "that I've never felt like a hero." And he smiled a small, sad smile.
"Tony," Steve said, helplessly, and he didn't know what to say.
Tony made a soft noise that might have once been a laugh. "God, I can't even believe I did that. Two years, two years I've kept a goddamn secret identity, and after five days with amnesia I give it all away." His face was twisted into misery. "For fuck's sake, I led you right to it. I was so happy to help." He snorted. "A real superhero wanted me to help find his friend! I was so thrilled." He laughed again. "I'm such an idiot."
"You're not an idiot," Steve said, gently, and he wondered where this had come from, this bitter self-hatred, if this was Tony. "You had amnesia, you didn't know, and you've always been kind-hearted. Of course you wanted to help. This isn't your fault. I'm the one who asked you. You weren't yourself, and I took advantage of you," he said, feeling the guilt rise up in him. "And I-- I invaded your privacy, and violated the Avengers charter in doing so, and it was unconscionable of me. Of course, I'll resign from the team--"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Tony held his hands up. "You're not going anywhere. Don't even say that."
"You didn't want me to know. And now I know."
Tony's stare was incredulous. "Steve, I-- I'm not mad. You didn't intentionally find out. It was my idea to open up the briefcase, if you'll recall." He winced. "If anything, you should be mad at me."
Steve blinked. "Why in God's name would I be mad at you?"
"Because you liked Iron Man." Tony's voice was hoarse. "And why shouldn't you? I made him into someone people could like. Someone you could like. Iron Man was brave and strong and noble. A good teammate. A friend. And, well, he was a liar after all, wasn't he? It was sweet of you, that you refused to believe it, but he lied to you from the beginning." Tony laughed. "He wasn't real. He's never been real. There's just me, and that's what you're left with. I'm not a hero, and I'm not-- I'm not brave like you. I was just too selfish to die. I'm only alive because I traded someone else's life away. Ho Yinsen." His hand drifted to his chest, clutched at the molded armor over his sternum. "He died so I could get free."
Tony's lips twitched and he nodded. "It was shrapnel, by the way. Good call. There was a landmine. The shrapnel's also in my heart. That's what the chestplate's for."
"It's in your heart?" Steve asked, and he wanted to be sick, thinking of how close Iron Man could have been to death, and none of them had known--
Tony's smile now was a grim dare. "Yeah. You gonna pull me from the team?"
"No, of course not," Steve said, appalled, and Tony just stared at him. "It's been an honor fighting by your side, Tony, and I-- I never want that to end. You remember everything I said about you? It's all true. I meant every word of it. You're the best of us, Tony."
Tony grimaced like he hadn't heard. "Everything I said was true too, you know, and I'm, uh." He looked away. "I'm sorry about anything I said that might have... made you uncomfortable. I-- I didn't remember that I wasn't your friend."
Steve frowned. "Of course you're my friend."
"Iron Man was your friend, and he's gone," Tony said, the words harsh and melancholy. "Tony Stark isn't your friend. Tony Stark doesn't get to be your friend. It's better that way."
Steve looked at him and thought maybe he could understand why this man had recommended a novel about someone who believed he was two separate people.
"Iron Man is Tony Stark," Steve said. "You may have... crafted him, yes, but you crafted him from yourself. And I think I'd really like to meet the man under the mask. The whole person."
"You don't want that," Tony said, instantly. "You really don't want that."
Steve tried a smile. "I'm pretty sure I do, actually."
Tony shook his head. He looked at Steve for a long, silent moment, and then he bit his lip, like he wanted to say something but had no idea how to.
"You want to know something?" Tony's gaze was bleak. "You are literally the only person who has seen me naked since Afghanistan."
Steve stared. Tony had always had a reputation, he'd known that -- but that had been a mask too. And Tony was looking back at him, almost fearful, like this was where he thought Steve would judge him, would find him wanting. "You always made it seem like you--"
"I know." Tony snorted. "That was the point. That was what you were supposed to believe. I spent months after Afghanistan thinking I'd never be able to have a normal life, with this thing on my chest. I'd be a cripple. I'd be shackled to an electrical outlet. I'd never be able to be... intimate... with anyone. I couldn't let them know. And meanwhile the entire world thought I was someone to envy, because I had money, because I had a pretty face. And-- well, I suppose you know exactly how far down the scars go, don't you?"
You're beautiful, Steve wanted to tell him. It would be an honor. But he didn't think that was what Tony wanted to hear.
"I was engaged," Tony said. "Did you know that?" Steve shook his head. "Her name was Joanna, and I loved her, and I wanted so much to marry her. But I knew I couldn't give her a normal life." He swallowed hard. "So I told her about the chestplate. One of the toughest conversations I ever had." His smile was wistful. "And she said she loved me. I couldn't have hoped for anything better. I'd been refining the armor -- not to be Iron Man, not then. I thought I was going to sell it. Commercially produce it. And I told her about the armor too. She knew everything. I was going to build a life with her." His expression was distant, twisted again into sadness.
Steve wanted to hold Tony, to tell him everything was going to be all right -- but Tony didn't even like to be touched. And it wasn't like Tony could possibly want him, anymore. "What happened?"
"We went to a tennis match that afternoon. And there were terrorists. I had the armor, but I told her-- I told her I wasn't a hero. And she said I could learn. So I suited up, and I saved everyone." And then Tony smiled, a real smile, eyes bright. "And God, Steve, it felt good. I saved them, and I didn't feel broken. I didn't feel like a cripple. I felt like someone who could finally make a difference, you know? Like I had found the one thing that would make my life worth it. This was what I could do. This was who I could be."
He remembered looking down at himself after Rebirth, looking down at his new body, and thinking I can do anything now.
"Yeah," Steve said, smiling. "I know exactly what you mean."
Tony shut his eyes. "And then she left me. That day, she left me. She said she knew I needed this now, and she wanted a life with someone who would be able to share it with her. Someone who would be there." He opened his eyes, and his gaze was fixed on Steve, wounded, vulnerable. "You are the only other person in the entire world who knows I'm Iron Man. And the first one left me because of it."
God. Tony wasn't mad at him at all. Tony was afraid. Tony was afraid Steve would walk out on him, now that he knew.
"This is it." Tony's throat worked as he swallowed. "This is me. This is what's left. And I know it's-- it's not enough for anyone, but it's all there is."
He was staring at Steve, wide-eyed, like he thought Steve was going to run. Like Steve was going to think it was a bad thing. Like the idea of Tony and Iron Man being the same person could inspire a reaction that wasn't thank God, now I don't have to choose. Like it wasn't the best idea in the world. Who but an Avenger could understand what it was like to be one of them?
"Tony," Steve said, gently, and he smiled. "I... I like that you're Iron Man."
Tony looked at him like he wasn't even speaking English.
"It's a plus," Steve said, and Tony's eyes went wider. "An enticement. An... attraction." He shut his eyes, took a deep breath and decided to go for absolute honesty. "A turn-on." When he opened his eyes, Tony was staring back at him like he thought he might be dreaming and never wanted to wake up. "God, Tony, if you only knew how long I've wanted-- well, both of you--"
Tony's mouth moved, but no words came out.
"And I was wondering," Steve added, "if that dinner offer was still open."
Tony seemed to have forgotten how to speak. His mouth moved again, shaping the word yes, still silent.
The thought occurred to him that there was one more thing he wanted to know; the question was a little personal but they were surely well into that territory by now, weren't they? "Can I ask you something, first?"
"I, uh," Tony said, slowly. Joy was brightening across his face. Joy, and so much hope that Steve vowed right then that he never ever wanted to hurt him. He'd clearly been through so much, and Steve had never known. "Yes? Yes. Yes to everything. Oh my God. Yes. What do you want to know? Anything."
"The aversion to touch," Steve asked, "is that-- is that personal preference, or something medical, or--? I mean, I can work with it, of course," he added, when Tony hadn't answered him, "and I absolutely don't want to make you uncomfortable--"
Tony shook his head violently. "It's not an aversion at all. Anyone who touches me might notice the chestplate, and they couldn't, so I-- I couldn't let anyone, but I miss it so much. Human contact." His gaze was even more hopeful. "And if-- I mean, if you wanted to touch me, but you don't have to--"
"I am never going to let you go," Steve said, and somehow he was out of his seat, and Tony was standing--
And his hands were on Tony's face, sliding through Tony's hair, and Tony made a noise of bright, hungry delight, like he'd been starving for years--
And Tony's mouth met his, warm and sweet and knowing, and God, Tony knew him already, knew him so well, and he was kissing Iron Man, and he was kissing Tony, and he never wanted to stop--
Tony pulled his head away, grinning down at him, and it was like a sunrise. A new dawn.
"So, Shellhead," Steve said, tasting the nickname on his tongue, enjoying Tony's shiver of pleased recognition. "What now?" He looped his arms around Tony's neck.
"Now I think you should take me back to your room, Winghead," Tony countered, and God, this was Iron Man talking, this was everything he'd ever wanted, coming true--
"Well, I'd offer to take you to mine and show you the rest of my lingerie collection," Tony said, with another grin, "but I seem to be missing a door."
Steve wondered if Tony was ever going to let him live that down. And then he registered the beginning of the sentence, and remembered the contents of Tony's underwear drawer with a flush of heat. "Where does your regular underwear live, by the way?"
Tony looked at him through dark eyelashes. "What makes you think I have other underwear?"
All Steve could do was laugh and smile and then kiss him again. Oh, this was going to be good.
They'd spent an hour sitting on Steve's bed, necking like teenagers. Tony had actually ended up in his skimpy underwear, and Steve minus the top half of his uniform, but they hadn't gotten up to quite as much as that would usually imply; it had been more to quench Tony's thirst for actual skin contact -- and because the armor was uncomfortable -- than because Tony wanted to move that fast on the romance front. Tony was sweet -- there was really no other word for it -- and more than a little skittish, and Steve was definitely willing to take all the time Tony wanted. Tony had been absolutely enthralled by how warm Steve was, always running hot, a side effect of the serum. And Steve -- well, Steve had just cuddled up to Tony, chestplate and all, and he'd run his hands all over him, and told him how beautiful he was, and kissed him breathless. And Tony had looked at him like he had this entire week, like he couldn't remember anything bad that had happened to him in his whole life and he wanted to be here with Steve forever.
Yes, Steve had thought. Good.
Eventually they had to concede that they really were hungry; the battle earlier had been draining. So Steve found his shirt and Tony slipped back into his armor--
--and downstairs, the team was still in the kitchen.
"Hey, Iron Man!" Hank said, saluting Tony with his soda can. "How's it going?"
"Pretty good," Tony said, glancing at Steve behind the mask, and Steve went hot because he knew exactly what Tony was thinking about. "I'm glad to be back. And I wanted to apologize for my absence."
"Aww, it's okay." Jan smiled at him. "We all know sometimes there are obligations that come with having a secret identity."
It was what they had all told themselves about Iron Man, Steve knew, but, well, now that he knew the truth -- he couldn't imagine how Tony had managed to pull this off for as long as he had.
"Yeah, about that," Tony said, and he shut his eyes behind the mask. "I owe you an explanation. For where I've been."
Tony's fingers were reaching up for the catch of the faceplate, unlocking it, and Steve realized what was happening.
"You don't have to do this either," he murmured.
Tony glanced over at him. "But I do," he said, and the filters were off, and it was Tony's real voice. "Yeah, I definitely do."
And he pushed the faceplate back, and then he was smiling, a little nervously, at the stunned faces of the rest of the team.
"I hadn't exactly intended to leave." Tony sounded self-conscious. "To be fair, I think you all were ninety percent of the way to guessing this one."
Jan was the first to react. "Oh my God, Tony," she said, and she stood up and came around the table to them, stepping close--
And Tony flinched like he thought she might be about to hit him, and God, no, Tony, Steve thought--
And then Jan threw her arms around him in a huge hug and made a squeaking noise of absolute happiness. "This is the best news ever!"
"I," Tony said. "I. You. What?"
Jan leaned up and kissed him on the cheek. "This is so amazing." She was grinning at him. "I am so spending the next fundraiser we're both at talking shop with you, Tin Man. And you're going to model for me when I get that menswear line going, right? Right? I'll pull team rank on you if I have to!" Her smile was brilliant.
"Uh." Tony's face was still blank. "Uh. Okay. You're not-- you're not mad?"
"This is the opposite of mad," Jan said, stepping back. "One of my favorite people is also one of my favorite people!" And then she looked over at Steve. "I think Steve needs a hug too. He's had kind of a long week."
And then somehow Jan's arms were wrapped around him, and she was embracing him fiercely.
Ask him out, Jan mouthed, and Steve laughed.
I did, he whispered back. He said yes.
When Steve looked up, Thor and Hank were surrounding Tony. Hank had shaken his hand, and Thor was clapping him on the shoulder. And Tony turned and met Steve's eyes.
"Welcome to the team, Tony," Steve said.
Tony smiled back at him, and there was only happiness in his gaze. "It's good to be here," he said. And there were no secrets, no lies. "Looking forward to staying as long as you'll have me."
"How about forever?" Steve thought that forever sounded like a nice, reasonable length of time.
Tony laughed and reached out for his hand. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, that works just fine."