Title: What Tomorrow May Bring
Author: simmysim (LJ | Comment)
Rating: PG
Pairings/Characters: Steve Rogers/Tony Stark, some Avengers and some Bucky and some Fantastic Fours and some Hulks.
Universe: 616
Betas: dorothy1901, dieewigenacht, onewayfreak. This is the first time I ever attempted a fic of this size and it would not have happened for these people and if they weren't goddamn ROCK STARS. You don't want to know what a mess this would've been without them.
Warnings: Relatively Skrull and Dark Reign compliant. Boy kisses.
A/N: :D
Summary: Months after his return back to life, Captain America and Iron Man are kind of estranged, but problems with SHIELD and Tony's life in general get them to work together and fall in love. <333

Art by lilpocketninja (1) and by Oddwildflowers (1)

06/15/09 0032 -5
"This is Carter. Leave a message."

"Sharon -- it's Steve."

He dithers, then. Once beyond stock greetings, he finds himself teetering on the edge of a minefield. He's crossed it every night for a month now, and it hasn't gotten any easier. Thirty calls, thirty non-answers, thirty messages.

He doesn't try for deep or moving speeches; he just . . . wants to make contact, which probably ends up as little more than streams of consciousness. It's the fact that a call is made that he feels is important. He's not trying to force the issue, and he hopes she realizes that. He just . . . can't do nothing. His messages are there, if she wants to listen. If she doesn't, her phone has a delete function.

In his first messages, he tried to avoid anything SHIELD related, mission related, but, honestly, it's the safest topic he has, and the pause has gone on way too long already. He forces himself to blurt out something, anything, and predictably settles on the day's SHIELD fiasco.

"I told you yesterday about Sin  we found her, and Crossbones." The easy part, obviously, Sin she has the same partiality for mass murder as her father and none of the finesse. Where Sin goes, a grossly high mortality rate is sure to follow, which isn't exactly inconspicuous. Catching and restraining her, however, can be tricky.

Very aware this isn't a secure line, he chooses his next words carefully. "It went badly. We almost lost people."

Like virtually all SHIELD field missions, lately. Casualties are a given in this line of work, but the numbers have been mounting on nightmarish. They've redone communications from the wires up twice, and sweeps for bugs are now daily routine. Agents have taken to calling it 'HAMMER's curse.'

If they had captured Norman Osborn, there probably wouldn't be this lingering fear of him, of the influence he had. But he's dropped off the map completely, and his name haunts the agents, a label for the constant, inexplicable failures, and they latch onto it happily. Soldiers will have their superstitions, he knows this, but it makes Steve feel frustratingly useless to hear this particular one that only happened because of his absence.

"It's --" odd, working with SHIELD, but without Sharon. In a bad way, a wrong way; the liaison that replaced her, Agent Reyes, is a nice enough kid, but not quite the capable, intelligent agent he'd grown used to having his back . . . and this is going down all sorts of gloomy, possibly guilt-tripping paths, so he just sighs.

Different topic. Anything. "I pulled out an old sketch book -- one from the war. I showed it to you once, I don't know if you remember. I want to finish a few of the pieces; you told me you'd like that. I sort of like the unfinished look, but I think I'll try it, with a few. The ones of the London skyline. I liked the start I had with those."

There's no one on the other end, so it's silent when he stops speaking, and there's no one else in his home, so the silence stretches there, too. He feels suffocated by it for a moment. He holds the phone to his ear a beat longer before hanging up, without saying goodbye.

And he sits in the silence.

The first months of his return, he'd been swallowed by a violent amount of noise and bustle, by his friends and acquaintances and the public in general -- the "Capmania" had turned into a genuine, terrifying obsession in Steve's absence and Bucky's time with the shield.

But the people he cared about the most were palpably distant from him. All barely holding up under the weight of their own baggage, he couldn't dump more on them.

Old friends had gotten back to rebuilding their lives. Thor was-- and is -- still needed to build his new Asgard. The hopelessly splintered sects of Avengers -- Steve couldnt, and can't, align himself with one or the other, which had hurt and alienated Hank and Clint.

Bucky hadn't said anything. Taking the few belongings he cared about, he left the apartment the day Steve moved back in, and Steve knows the best thing, only thing, he can do is respect the distance Bucky felt the need to create, but it's painful to watch, and frustrating. The New Avengers, which Steve would've been more than willing to give his home as a headquarters to, followed Bucky's lead and found somewhere else to set up.

Jan had been killed in battle, but at least he'd been told of that with tact, Hank taking him aside and delivering the news gently. Carol had been murdered and her name usurped, and it was mentioned to Steve in passing by the woman who did it, which was only slightly better than how he found out about Jarvis -- who had died, and Steve only heard when he ran into Tony and -- and if anyone knows what Tony is up to these days, it isn't Steve. He'd been curt, avoided eye contact, and shook his hand as though Steve was some business partner, some salesman; barely breaking his stride, he was off again.

SHIELD is still Fury-less, and now Sharon-less, the missions are essentially exercises in failure, and even the new agents have started commenting on Steve's rough treatment of the terrorists they do manage to snag.

Sam and Bucky -- both have a lot more to worry about than keeping Steve company.

His home will always be the mansion. Which is gone, and he should really be over that by now.

It's not as bad as that, really. There are good points, but it's hard to think of them in a silent, empty home, after a one-sided conversation with an answering machine. It's a different world, with different messes, and the people -- person that should be helping him catch up is probably deleting his messages without listening to them.

"Cap?"

Considering his mood, Steve would like nothing more than to pretend not to hear the voice, carry on to bed, but unfortunately, he's not a twelve-year-old. He sighs, pressing his communicator into his forehead as he answers. "Agent Reyes."

"I thought I should update you in person  considering," the agent says, knowledgably, as if the fact that SHIELD communications are riddled with leaks is a secret between the two of them. When Steve first saw the kid, he assumed he was fifteen years old. He was only off by five years, and wasn't surprised to find out he'd graduated less than a year ago.

"Come in," he says. Steve is very careful with his tone when Reyes reaches his living room, because the last time he spoke too sharply, he flinched every time Steve so much as sneezed for a week. "It's past midnight," he says, flatly.

"Right," Reyes agrees, in a tone that makes it pretty apparent Reyes doesn't realize why Steve brought it up. The kid is sincere and well intentioned, and it was cute, at first. If Steve didn't have to work with him, he's sure he would've stayed as such. But after a week, it got old. While he's proficient in hand to hand, the kid is so green it hurts, and Steve often feels like a babysitter. He has an idea that this assignment is someone's idea of a punishment. "There's still no update on Sin, she's totally off the grid. But I had a theory about what happened todaythe mission."

He sounds so utterly sure that Steve finds himself hoping that Reyes might've actually solved the mystery.

" Osborn.""

Or not. "I thought we talked about that already."

"Not the curse," Reyes says. "Don't you think it's a little odd that Osborn just vanished? Without a trace? No backup plans?"

"Yes," Steve says. "But we're relocating the Helicarrier constantly, we've searched it, we've practically rebuilt it. He didn't leave anything behind." Frustrating and hard to believe, but it is what it is.

"That we can detect. It hit me today  what did Osborn work with, that our scanners were unable to find?" Reyes can't wait longer than a moment to answer himself, "Skrulls."

"Mister Fantastic just updated the Helicarrier's systems," Steve says. Not that it's impossible to render one of Reed's inventions obsolete, but it usually takes longer than a week. And stowaways from an attempted hostile takeover wouldn't really have the tech required. He says as much to Reyes, who wilts in a way that could be comical, if it weren't for the hour.

"Well  Cap," he says, sounding slightly lost. "Something happened today."

"I know."

"That wasn't just a leak," he persists.

He's right. Sure, Sin and Crossbones had obviously been expecting them, known exactly where they were coming in, how many agents they had, what artillery they were carrying. But the team had been assembled spur of the moment, a group of SHIELD agents with decades of field experience. Loyal, good men and women. And even if he did suspect one of them, Steve had been with them from briefing to debriefing. There just hadn't been time.

Maybe it really is hyper-advanced Skrulls, disguised as table lamps.

"Look, Reyes, it's after midnight," he says. Reyes nods. "And . . . I have to get to bed."

"Oh, right! Sorry. Right. I'll talk to you "

"Tomorrow," Steve prompts, escorting him to the door. There'll be another disaster they'll be trying to explain tomorrow.

*

0610
"Monday! A glowing, possibly radioactive 'goop' began leaking out of the top floors of the Baxter Building, dripping onto pedestrians below. No side-effects reported as of yet, but the Fantastic Four's representatives urge those exposed to report to a local E.R., for further safety instruction. No word on whether the substance was gamma or not.

"Wednesday had citizens of New York City being watched! What appeared to be a large eyeball was seen hovering over Lexington, and the vigilante mutants known as X-Men disposed of it  but not without causing upwards of nine thousand dollars in property damage.

"Most viewers are probably well aware of the super human activities of Thursday and Friday! Citizens experienced quite a bit of frustration when a man calling himself 'The Tweaker' began intercepting cell phones and local television channels, announcing his intentions of taking control of New York, and expressing interest in the rest of the United States as well. No one has come forward to take credit for dispatching this nuisance, but we at KCTY thank you, as does the rest of the state, we're sure!"

Steve listens with half an ear, most of his attention on reading the Health and Science section of the Yangtse Evening Post. What he already knows, he heard from more reliable sources than Lois and Linda in the morning, and what he doesn't, he'll still hear about from more reliable sources. Still, it can be helpful to know where general public opinion sits.

"There were three more robberies of local credit unions on Saturday, committed by -- or, more accurately, through -- re-animated corpses of recently departed citizens. Chief of Police, Jake Berenson, asked us to repeat, there will be no arrests or prosecutions of the undead, and he would like to apologize to the families of the departed for any damage done to the bodies caught in the line of action."

Steve stretches as he stands, until his back gives a satisfying pop. The sun's just beginning to rise, and there are two sites Sin's likely to show up at in the next few hours, already getting swarmed and prepped by teams. Steve's waiting for a call from Reyes. Considering SHIELD's luck as of late, if Steve were to pick one in advance, she'd be at the other. Or at some third, utterly unrelated city, just for the fun of it.

He's on-call until then, ready to meet Sin at her next appearance within minutes, which equals living beside his communicator. He rinses out his mug, looks out at the dark purple sky and considers the advantages of taking the north side on his morning jog; it's longer, but then he'll get to circle the park.

"Which brings us to today! A brand new week of Super Human activities, one that got an early wake up call in the business district! At three am this morning, the top five stories of Stark Tower exploded."

Leaving the faucet running, he turns back to the news anchor and her eerily bright smile.

"Experts on-site predicting little to no injuries, thanks to the early hour. Stark himself was in the building at the time of the explosion, but was seen in the Iron Man armor, and is assumed to be alive and unhurt. Let's go to Jim on the street. Jim?"

"Thanks, Lois," the grizzled, bushy eyebrowed reporter says. "It's actually the first time the downtown skyscraper has been attacked, and what an effective attack it was. As you can see by the footage, it was a very localized blow."

It cuts to a jerky, live helicopter view of the tower. Localized is right. The top five floors have vanished completely, cleanly cut from the rest of the building; Steve's only seen this sort of destruction with concentrated beams of energy. It looks as though a giant had simply taken a knife to the top few floors. Desks on the floor below, with stacks of reports still stubbornly held to them by paperweights, are plainly visible.

The oddest bit, though, is the Sentry Watchtower. Whatever holds it there obviously has nothing to do with the building it once clung to, as it still floats in the exact same spot, visibly unaffected.

Steve reaches out without looking, shuts off the faucet.

"I hear there's something unusual about the debris, Jim?"

"Indeed there is, Linda. The citizens of New York were spared harm by the apparent viciousness of the hit, literally turning everything, from the walls, to Stark's personal belongings, to dust."

"Is there any way to tell if there will be further attacks, if we should be advising our viewers to stay home today?"

"We really don't have much information -- we're reporting everything as we get it. We can't even verify that this was an attack," says Murray. "The Fantastic Four, ten blocks down, have been unavailable for comment. All we know is that what remains of the upper tier of Stark Tower is now dust, powdering the streets around me."

"And there's still no word from Stark himself?" A picture of Tony, parallel with one of Iron Man, slides up. Stanch supporter of recently abolished SHRA is written across the bottom, for no apparent reason whatsoever.

"None," the eye on the street confirms. "But this is not an unexpected move on Stark's part; he's become notorious for going underground in the face of this kind of upheaval. Of course, we hope he's safe from further attacks, wherever he is."

"Of course," Lois agrees, shuffles a set of paper, and turns to address a screen to the right. "For those of you keeping track at home, investigators have just confirmed there are no reported causalities or injuries. Stark Tower, while once the headquarters for the super powered team Avengers, the top three floors have been at the personal use of Stark himself for the past year, after the recent Skrull invasion and Osborn disaster disbanded the official, longstanding team."

"And if I may add, for a little guy I've got at home," Linda says, winking at the camera. "The New Avengers had no ties with Stark, so Captain America fans can sleep easy."

Steve isn't with the New Avengers, but it is nice to hear from Linda that he's apparently safe for the time being.

"That's right," Lois picks up again. "And of course, Steve Rogers has no comment, continuing his media silence since his return in early November of last year." And of course, they use this opportunity to put up that photo from the first few hours of his official enlistment in the Army back in the 40s, no doubt dug up by some demented intern. Fresh from the serum, Steve looks all of 15 in it, dazed and half- smiling in what he's been told is an endearing way. They hadn't even tried calling him, as far as Steve knows. But they're right; Steve wouldn't have anything enlightening to share about this.

He's a little surprised that Tony getting caught in explosions is still newsworthy, to be honest.

"How about Iron Man fans, would you say? Do you think this will significantly impact Stark's role in the suit?"

"I wouldn't say so," Linda says. "Iron Man's never been stopped by this level of personal destruction before."

"Good to hear," she says, then laughs. "And I'm being told we've run over! When we come back: The Undead, precautions you can take to make sure your dearly departed doesn't come crawl --"

Steve switches it off, finishes tying his right shoe and hopes Tony knows what the hell he's gotten himself into.

Jogging out his door, exiting the hologram masking the entrance hall as brick -- and enhanced reflexes are the only thing that stops him from plowing Tony Stark over.

The man smiles shakily in the face of Steve's outright shock, leaning heavily on the wall. "Hey, Cap."

"What--" but then Tony's eyes roll back into his head, and he drops forward, so Steve stops, catches the dead weight with a grunt. He's probably not listening anyway.

*

0730
Steve can't stretch out on his couch. It's huge, granted, but Steve is huger, and his neck cricks, or, more often, his feet end up propped on the armrest. Tony is a perfect fit. He's out entirely, limp and unmoving where Steve set him, in a sleep that's tiring to even look at.

He's wearing a Buffalo Bulls shirt that's too small, sweatpants that are too big and bright white, brand new sneakers; pretty obviously not his first choice. Steve imagines he was ejected from his armor by force, somewhere near a gift shop. He couldn't very well go home to change.

It's a scary thought, a man like Tony being forcibly reduced to those kinds of options.

A terrifying thought, Tony actually looking for help -- that there's something intimidating enough to force Tony to swallow his pride, admit he can't solve every possible crisis on his own. To look for Steve's help, when the man's made it pretty clear he'd like nothing to do with him.

Speculating on specifics is pointless, though. Linda and Lois probably know more about Tony's life than he does. The last thing Steve heard, Tony was holing up in his tower, rebuilding the Stark empire that Osborn so effectively toppled, paying little attention to anything else.

Despite what their friends seem to believe, Steve hasn't been angry at Tony since coming back. It's impossible to look at the man and not see past, stupid mistakes, regrets, but enough time has passed. Mostly, he's bothered by the last time they'd met, the way Tony's eyes had shifted, unable to rest on Steve's form for longer than a second when they last met.

Still, Tony in need of help -- actually asking for help -- trumps that.

There's no better way to say, 'hey, I'm trying to positively reinforce this whole not trying to control everything in your life deal' than a can of heated ravioli, especially if the person you're talking to is Tony, and he's just woken up, because that man tends to require ridiculous amounts of food directly upon waking, and you're Steve, with a ridiculous amount of canned ravioli -- apparently SHIELD had seen fit to stock Steve's home for him when he came back. Better than the first time, and that freezer full of microwave dinners.

Tony starts stirring -- low, short groans and shoulders shifting -- just as Steve crosses the space between kitchen and living area, and has just enough time to change the still muted channel from yet another replay of Tony's Human Torch impression -- a few people had caught it on their camera phones -- to cartoons before the man sits up, hair an utter mess, eyes still closed.

He blinks twice, like it hurts, settling on a squint as he peers blurrily around at his surroundings in obvious confusion. Steve knows the exact moment he wakes up, eyes widening in near-comical panic. Yeah, given the state Tony had been in, he's not surprised he can't remember those last few steps to Steve's doorstep.

"Good morning," he says, and sets the plate of warm meat and pasta on the coffee table. Panic is diverted briefly; Tony's eyes fix on the sight. His mouth works once, before Steve nods. "Go ahead."

Tony's legs slide off the couch, one at a time, forcing himself upright. He mutters a groggy thanks, and attacks the food with his customary desperation. Steve politely turns his attention to a cartoon that seems to have no discernible plot beyond a whale and little blond boy existing in an ill-defined oceanfront area.

The clink of plate set on the table draws his attention back to Tony. He's blinking, still out of it, but more human looking than not now, running a hand through hopelessly messy hair. Cheap red sauce is staining the corners of his lips orange, just a dab or two in his moustache, and he looks about as far removed from wealthy, sophisticated socialite as possible.

"What happened?" Steve asks, not sure if the sudden surge of affection he feels for Tony is in his voice, not sure if it's worth hiding.

Tony's eyes dart to the side; the food cleared his head, the confusion is gone. A sort of heavy embarrassment takes its place. He's looking pretty much anywhere but at Steve. Annoyingly familiar.

"It's a long story."

"Who's after you? Someone is tracking you, right?"

He shakes his head. "Not-- obviously, but not right now. But I'm -- I really shouldn't have come here, I'm sorry."

"Why did you come here?" Blunt. But Steve is beginning to suspect his earlier assumption was wrong, and it's hard to be happy, or patient, or friendly about it.

Now that Tony's not armored in a slick suit, not on, now that Steve's looking at him for longer than a minute -- he doesn't remember Tony ever looking quite this bad. He looks old. His face is pale and gaunt, dark moustache and goatee stick out almost garishly. His eyes are bloodshot, face seemingly fixed in a permanent look of pained concentration.

"I was really out of it," Tony says. His hands are clasped tightly in front of him, as if this were an interrogation.

It kills the barely lingering warm feelings, and annoys Steve. The last thing he wants to hear, the last thing Tony should be worried about giving, is calculated answers.

"You weren't just out of it, Tony, you didn't happen to collapse at my front door, I know you better than that," Steve says. "You're after something --" that sounded bad, he didn't mean that. "You need something."

He could've gone on, but Tony's hands abruptly unclench, go to his face, rubbing at his eyes.

"I was -- really out of it," Tony says again, apologetically. "I hadn't slept in days, I'd just gotten knocked around pretty hard. I barely laid down when-- barely--" he sighs shakily. "I was just -- I was confused. My armor-- the armor is totaled. I wanted . . . I thought you'd know what to do."

Steve clamps down hard on any warm feeling that resuscitates. He thinks of it in distant, clinical terms; yes, Tony is a teammate, he would always be welcome at Steve's home. And fair's fair, really, Tony opened his home without question more than once for Steve.

But Tony hadn't come to him for help. He came for a reprieve, and wouldn't have done that if he'd been thinking straight. Steve wants to demand the ravioli back.

"I've got a few things to do today. You can sleep on the bed," he says. He'd slept two hours at best, not nearly enough to make up for days. "We'll talk when you wake up."

Tony smiles, and it's fake, and says, "Sure."

And Steve smiles back, and they both pretend Tony will still be there when Steve gets back.

*

0849
Steve's mind usually works in idle circles during jogs, like chewing gum. Working through various problems, stories he's read. Walking through each step of a previous battle, privately cheering for especially clever moves and twists. Regretting the ones not quite fast enough, comparing the two, coming up with improvements.

Today, it buzzes frantically.

He goes north, hardly notices the extra distance, or the lake that he traveled it for. The conversation replays, and he replaces what was said with rants. With apologies. Imagines Tony's reactions, ridiculous and indulgent realizations that he was wrong, that he's missed Steve, too, that it's all been a misunderstanding. That he and Steve can work together like they used to, and he stops that train of thought forcibly before it gets too embarrassing or painful.

Maybe he should wake Tony when he gets back, and as soon as he thinks it, it becomes cemented in his mind. There's too much left unsaid.

The false brick in the alley on forty-ninth street has been rotated  it's not quite Christmas morning anticipation, but it's up there, a very welcome distraction -- and sure enough, a note is waiting for him.

6am. Need to talk.

*

0901
"Ever meet Pepper Potts's kids?"

"Pepper has kids?"

The last Steve had heard on that was a horrific miscarriage, some complication that meant she'd never be able to have children. He's probably a little underdressed for the coffee shop in his jogging sweats and t-shirt, but no one looks twice when he takes the seat opposite Bucky. "You know you can call me, right?"

Bucky just stares, blinking calmly. "Yes," he says, finally.

Sam said the wish Bucky made to bring Steve back had left him more Winter Soldier than not, but it's not true. Steve refuses to believe it, it's not cold, mechanical detachment in those eyes. It's . . . well, detachment, but calm, mildly confused detachment. It's not the James Barnes Steve knew, but he obviously spent enough time with the knowledge the Cube gave, who he was, is, to fall completely back into Winter Solider with it gone. And even when Bucky was in deepest, Steve knew who he was, is, still had lingering remnants.

He decided to 'retire' from the whole mess of it once handing the shield back to Steve. A decision that made a lot more sense once Steve realized Bucky didn't know what retiring actually meant. He is independent, both from SHIELD and any specific government, but he's shown virtually no interest in starting a normal life.

Off the grid, he goes where he feels he's needed, and him taking an interest in this, in Tony, isn't exactly promising, but Steve can't help but be grateful for his presence

"She and Hogan adopted siblings ten years ago," Bucky continues. "Girl and a boy. Hardly anyone in your circle knows about them."

"I take it you know who I ran into today."

"I asked Potts about it," he says. "Her exact words were, 'I wasn't going to put them at the risk of being important to Tony Stark.'"

The urge to argue is frustrated by the fact that Pepper is nowhere within hearing distance, and she has something of a valid point. "Did someone hurt her kids?"

"No," Bucky says. "Ten months ago a Stark car came to their school and picked them up. Dropped them off in front of Stark Tower and had them wait in the lobby. Potts hasn't spoken to Stark since. She had been explicit that he have nothing to do with them."

"Why--"

"The order came from Stark himself," Bucky continues. "And when she asked, he didn't give any reason for it. Didn't bother with an excuse."

"She talked to you about this?"

Bucky nods. "She seemed . . . relieved to get it off her chest," he says this in the cold, confused voice he gets every now and then, when he talks about emotion. Like he's not quite sure how it works, not sure about his own conclusions. "Stark hasn't spoken directly to War Machine in a year. Refuses to take his calls, and deletes all texts and emails from him without reading them."

"Where are you going with this?"

"He's isolating himself," he says. "Methodically."

Despite everything, Steve can't help the stab of pride. Gathering solid intelligence on Tony Stark is notoriously tricky; what Bucky's done required quite a bit of skill and even more patience. He's adapted to this time and place faster and better than Steve had, even today. "How long have you been watching him?"

"Since the first SHIELD mission shut down. Very few people are capable of that level of interference," he says. "His activity corresponds with the SHIELD leaks. When Stark is busy, they're accomplished, when he's got down time, there are leaks."

"Tony isn't a mass murderer."

"Stark Industries--"

"Helped in war efforts. This isn't war. And Extremis is gone, even Tony isn't capable of getting in and out of SHIELD data feeds without leaving fingerprints anymore," Steve says.

"Stark said he lost Extremis during that invasion, and then went on the run. There's never been a third party examination to prove Extremis is gone," Bucky says. "Ever been to Stark's place in Malibu?"

"No."

"Denver or Tokyo? Toronto? Los Angeles? They're all flattened."

Steve breathes out through his nose. "Someone is attacking him?"

"He's shredding a paper trail," Bucky says, shaking his head. "Hiding something. It was a Stark satellite that fired on Stark tech, on Stark property. There's no investigation, because he hasn't reported any of it. There's been no retaliation for the attacks. And somehow, they all happen when there will be absolutely no casualties."

"You said that Tony helped you while I was gone. Saved your life."

"He did," Bucky says. "This isn't a grudge. Working with him . . ." He stops, frowning. Still keeping his gaze calm and steady on Steve, though, and it reminds him of a processing computer. "If SHIELD is on his radar for some reason, do you really doubt he'd exercise any restraint bringing it down?"

"SHIELD, not her agents," Steve says. "Tony can tell the difference between the two. And he wouldn't do that to Pepper."

"If he thought that he knew better, he would," Bucky says. "Stark was pushed to a lot of limits while you were gone. He might not be the Iron Man you remember."

Problem is, that's exactly the man Steve remembers. As much as he harps on Steve about his unattainable idealism, it's Tony who refuses to compromise on matters like this, once he's convinced he knows best. He can be just as hardheaded, just as blind to a need to bend as Steve, if not more. Tony often tries to bring down entire mountains with nothing more than his stare; the amazing thing being that most of the time, it works.

And yes, Steve can easily see Tony sacrificing his relationship with Pepper if he's somehow convinced himself it's his only option.

He gives a frustrated groan; what on Earth has Tony gotten himself into?

"Sir? Excuse me, Mister Rogers?" Steve looks up; Agent Reyes shifts awkwardly under his gaze. "I checked your home, and you weren't there, then I checked your usual jogging path, but you weren't there either--"

"And then you found me," Steve says. Maybe it wouldn't be rubbing him wrong if it wasn't supposed to be a replacement for Sharon's efficiency. Maybe it'd actually be amusing. "Why didn't you just call?"

"Radio silence except for emergencies, sir," Reyes says.

It not being an emergency, Steve relaxes. The dawdling isn't quite so exasperating then, and Steve nods. "Give me a minute."

"Right," Reyes says, as though it's an order, and finds a seat as far away from the pair as possible, clasping his hands in front of him.

"You're being followed," Bucky says, suddenly.

Steve nods; he'd noticed the lingering shadows a week ago, probably only because Frank Castle wanted him to. "It's this Sin and Crossbones situation."

Apparently crooked politicians rank close enough to mobsters for Castle to sit up and take notice when they start getting mowed down in public. Although, to be fair -- it's probably the innocent families getting caught in the middle that grabbed his interest.

"I don't think Sin was bought off," Bucky says.

Steve has to agree. The whole thing is a little odd, but. . . "It makes more sense than them having an interest in the New Jersey Mayoral election. And Mayor Dodd is benefiting from their targets . . ." he shrugs. They'd searched for other links, any possible ties to Red Skull, supernatural involvement. Nothing. It really appears to be nothing more than an especially dirty and bloody thug for hire job. More of the same for Crossbones, but Sin tends to need a bit more to hold her attention.

" . . . I don't have anything else to tell you," Bucky says, awkwardly.

Steve tries hard not to think about the clever young man that had been his partner, wiser than he had any right to be, his wicked sense of humor, the easy conversations they had. Because it shows on his face when he does, it makes things worse. He tries, and fails, to not think of the sacrifice that Bucky made, that left him this shell. The people who made him like this to begin with. Robbed him of a life.

"That's fine. We don't have to talk."

Bucky stares, then looks down at the coffee mug in his hands. At the street. Back at Steve. "This is really uncomfortable."

"You can leave if --" Steve stops to watch Bucky stand and walk out of the shop. "I guess we'll talk later."

"Sir?"

"I'm all yours, Reyes."

"It's Sin, they've made their move."

"How is that not an emergency?" Steve asks, already up and moving.

Reyes eyes go round, either realizing his mistake or just his usual reaction to Steve's frustration, following after him. "Well -- we weren't supposed to contact you, over the radio, before a mission -- the -- the problem, they didn't want it leaking to Sin that you're coming--"

"When did it start?" Steve asks, jumping into the driver's seat of the SHIELD car Reyes brought.

"Fifteen minutes ago, sir," he says, sliding in the passenger's side. Fifteen minutes. This can't be happening.

Resisting the urge to tell Reyes to get out and just wait there, he lifts them both into the air.

*

0935

 Crossbones and Sin generally aren't thugs for hire. But they're not exactly principled, and no doubt easy to buy off. When opponents of a certain Mayor Dodd, up for reelection against Councilmember Gawrych, began getting indiscriminately mowed down by the pair, it wasn't hard to figure out what had happened.

It's kind of hard to swallow that Dodd had been unaware of the mass destruction Sin tends to cause when he hired her, the piles and piles of bodies she leaves behind, but somehow, he must've been oblivious to how very public she is about the entire thing. Entire families are left bullet-riddled, bodies still resting where they'd been when she and Crossbones  kicked in their doors, barely given time to react. Pools of blood in front of the television, staining mattresses of beds shaped like race cars, around a dinner table. Backyard swing sets. Indiscriminate.

SHIELD doesn't share its intelligence with the media, but they've started putting the pieces together on their own by now, and in one shortsighted, arguably pure evil move, Dodd managed to commit career suicide, and fund the murders of children too young to read. Steve tries not to think about which would bother the man more.

The pair of them have been heading east, steadily, and it's a pretty sure bet they're going to show up at Councilmember Gawrych's estate. SHIELD had them evacuated, but Gawrych had insisted on staying behind as proper bait -- Sin wouldn't waste much time around an empty house, and she probably wouldn't stop until she got to him. Not necessary, but it is useful. And, coincidentally, a brilliant publicity stunt. If Gawrych survives. If SHIELD does their job. If there isn't a leak.

He makes it to the hot spot in less than ten minutes. The suburban neighborhood has already devolved into a war zone, and Steve doesn't throw that term around lightly. The hastily abandoned street is covered with SHIELD agents in full riot gear, an obscene number of Sin's lackeys, bullet holes and a few fires.

Steve watches a teenager with a bald, glistening head and an anarchy symbol tattooed onto his shoulder fumble with a bazooka that's more likely to hurt himself than any of the well-equipped agents, then winces at a not entirely unexpected explosion.

Even with their inexperience and utter lack of protection, Sin's got the numbers. They've made it to the house, and are holding their position.

Steve tracks down the highest ranking agent there -- a level five -- Agent West, who's handling the situation remarkably well.

"Good of you to join us," he greets, voice tense.

"Status," Steve says. "You're not allowed to tell me Gawrych is still in there."

"Gawrych is still in there," says West. "Five of our men are with him, they secured the basement. A few injuries but nothing serious on our side. A few fatalities on their side -- hard to keep track. They swarmed, Cap, too fast to pull Gawrych out."

They hadn't expected an entire army of inept bigots. This is bad. SHIELD's descended below having information leaked; the black hats are out- maneuvering them.

A truly aggravating aspect of fighting Sin that they should've seen coming. Steve should've been there for the planning of this -- the daughter of the Red Skull, pin-up of every white supremacist -- she's got literal hordes of willing bodies to hurl at them, to be handed weaponry entirely too advanced, given no training, and tossed in front of highly skilled SHIELD agents. It works for a while, too. Throw enough spaghetti at a wall, you'll make a mess but some of it is bound to stick.

"Where are our targets?"

"We've got confirmation on Sin inside, but no one's been able to spot Crossbones."

"Maybe he called in sick."

"I doubt it, sir," says Reyes.

Steve stares, then nods. "These kids are untrained. We want to try to disarm them before they kill themselves and anyone close enough to get caught in it. I'm going in. When it thins out, call down for the backup assault team, try to avoid casualties--"

When he doesn't want to be seen, it's all but impossible to spot him.

Now, he wants to be seen.

Across the street, leaning against a black, well-used mustang, stone-faced and armed, is the Punisher.
He breathes deep. Twice. Pinching at the bridge of his nose.

"Is he still there?"

"Yeah," says Reyes.

A third time. He'd known today was going to be hectic.

Steve's grip on his shield tightens as he approaches -- Castle refused to strike him before, but Steve hadn't been standing between him and murdering someone then.

"You're not murdering these people, Castle," he says. Close enough now, though, it doesn't seem like that was on the Punisher's mind -- immediately, anyway. He's got a rag in one hand, carrying only one weapon. Steve's never seen him jump into a fray without being armed to the teeth. Literally.

"No argument there," Punisher says, polishing his weapon of choice  the last time Steve saw a genuine De Lisle carbine was in Europe, during the war -- seeming almost bored. "Your boys can clear the way."

"You're not killing Sin, either."

He bares his teeth in a wolfish smile. "She's not my target."

" . . . Gawrych?" Steve says, and it all snaps into place, with painful obviousness. "Gawrych hired Sin."

"He wants her to make this attack look good. And he's going to get exactly what he paid for. I'm here in case you stop her from putting a bullet between his eyes," he lifts the polished black metal, barrel to the sky; it's gorgeous in the light "I'll finish the job she started."

He doesn't ask how Castle knows Sin would turn on her employer. She's borderline psychotic and, quite frankly, a brat. It's the obvious conclusion.

"Do we engage?" asks West, looking at Punisher with wide, horrified eyes.

"No," Steve says, turning his back on Castle, who leans against his car, watching. Waiting. "Stay on target. I'll be the only one engaging him."

"Sir -- Captain --" Reyes points; Sin's on the roof.

"Hey Brock!" she's yelling, in a tone that has to be purposefully obnoxious. A wave of SHIELD bullets make it about a foot away from her body, then disappear in a ripple of blue energy. Repulsor tech. She's going to have be taken down hand to hand, then.

"Guess who finally decided to show up? After you went all the way to Brooklyn to give him a wake up call and everything." It takes Steve a moment to realize she's speaking into an ear piece -- something that comes through the other end makes her smile even wider.

"Brock says it's alright, Cap! It wasn't a wasted trip! He says he found something to entertain himself."

Crossbones.

At his home.

Tony hadn't slept for days, there's no way he's awake and gone and safe, and he has a clear vision of the man in the exact position Steve left him, deeply asleep as Brock kicks in the door 

Steve surges to Reyes, who yelps in surprise as Steve nabs his earpiece. "This is Rogers, backup assault team, redirect. I repeat, assault team redirect to hot spot on 84th Brooklyn!"

Stewart, the assault team leader, confirms the order immediately.

"Oh, Cap doesn't like that. He must have some really good toys hidden in there, Brock." She smiles. "He says he won't leave a stone unturned!"

"You're gonna need those numbers, Rogers." It's Castle, speaking quiet and calm to his left. "She's just gonna slip away again. Another family is gonna die."

Damn it. Damn it.

Castle actually smiles. "Go rescue your friend."

"Leave Sin and Gawrych to you? No," Steve says. Unacceptable. People think these kind of situations are judgment calls, about calling one life more worthy than others, but it's not. It's about doing the right thing, even when it physically hurts. And what he's about to do is definitely going to hurt. "Assault team, do you copy?"

"This is Stewart."

"Cancel that order. Stand-by for back up. Castle," he grits his teeth. "You're on Crossbones."

The Punisher's eyebrows actually fly up in surprise before settling back to the default. "I don't take orders from you."

"It's up to you, Frank." Punisher's face stays blank. Maybe Steve's wrong, maybe killing has become more important to him than protecting.

"Trust me enough for that, Captain?" he finally says.

"I trust you to move. Now."

And he does. Grabbing a duffel bag and forgoing his own car for one of SHIELD's, he's a speck against the sky seconds later.

Steve does trust Castle -- to be fast and ruthless, to let any possible grief he might have with Tony lie, and -- more than he trusts the entire back up team -- he trusts him to be able to take down Crossbones.

It makes sense to assume Punisher has some sort of bloodlust, but Steve knows the man better. Castle doesn't get a thrill out of killing, out of a challenge or hunt -- at least, not for scum like Crossbones. He doubts Castle's excited by the prospect that Crossbones will put up a better fight than Sin, or a bloated councilmember. A kill is a kill, scum is scum to Castle; Steve's sure he's too numb, too deadened, to derive any particular pleasure from one over the other.

Tony went to Steve because he knew he'd be safe.

Clenching teeth and refusing to let his breathing grow out of control -- in, out, in, out -- Steve barrels through the war zone of a front yard, leaving a handful of bald lackeys stupid enough to try and stop him on their backs. Crowded around the basement door, a group of lackeys have picked up the couch, using it as an impromptu battering ram. To the basement or to the roof -- getting Sin out will end this faster. Up the stairs.

One stab. Tony's a sloppy fighter. He over-commits to his strikes, hesitates on his dodges. He waffles. He's too used to his armor.

One stab, that's all it'll take, one motion of Brock's arm.

He reaches the roof as another, presumably accidental, explosion rocks the front yard, just in time to see the giddy grin that brings to Sin's face.

In a fair, one on one fight, Steve could take Synthia easily. She's undisciplined, her effectiveness is product only of her enthusiasm in killing -- even Juggernaut shows some restraint when barreling down a crowded street of innocents. Sin sees each loss of life as a bonus.

But Sin is smart enough to stack the deck before starting any game. Not only has she taken the high ground, she's surrounded herself with suicidal lackeys, literally jumping on Steve as he climbs, forcing him to cause real damage before letting go: cracking ribs, snapping fingers, howls of pain. It's slow-going. It's, quite honestly, a pathetic display.

One stab.

Steve knows Brock Rumlow. He won't drag it out with someone like Tony. He'll use the dagger. Fast, painless. He pull it out as he approaches Tony on the bed. Cover his mouth, and blue eyes will barely have a chance to open in surprise before thin, sharpened metal presses against his neck. And slices.

Castle won't have time.

Why did he leave him alone? He knew Tony didn't have his armor. He knew people were after him. He should've asked Bucky to keep watch.

"-- what do you mean, worse than Cap?" Sin's demanding as Steve makes it onto the roof, shooting behind her, presumably at Steve, but not bothering to aim. Testing a theory, Steve hurls the body of the nearest goon in Sin's direction. The groaning man bounces off the force field with another ripple of blue; she barely glances up.

Something other than fists, then.

She's fast, bounding down onto the detached garage with surprising agility. His shield arches beautifully, knocking Sin's legs out from under her with a satisfying clunk, and she falls between the two buildings with an even more satisfying yelp, arms flailing.

He bolts after, dropping down, and is actually surprised to find her limp and unconscious on the ground -- it didn't seem like it would be that easy.

"That scream mean Sin's down?" a familiar voice says in the earpiece still tucked in Sin's ear.

Steve's stomach twists, and he surges forward, grabbing the commlink. "Rogers. Yes, she's taken care of. Status?"

"Hn," Castle grunts, then dithers, which is more confusing than worrying. "Crossbones is down."

"Obviously."


"Stark is alive."


"Stark's status?" He plucks up his shield from where it's wedged in an otherwise lovely flowerbed, gripping the edge tightly. 'Alive' covers a lot of ground.

"Very alive. Not hurt."

"What is it, Castle?"

He clears his throat. "Your house was hit."

"Repeat that?" Steve watches four agents rounding on the unconscious Sin at his feet, readying restraints usually only reserved for metas.

He sounds disgruntled. "Come see for yourself."

It's not relief that Tony's alright as much as stunned incredulity -- he can handle it if his house is ripped apart.

"Cap?" West is staring at Steve, hand on Gawrych's shoulder. "Do you need a backup team to that second site?"

"No, a containment team. Crossbones is down."

"No SHIELD casualties!" Reyes smiles, approaching, giving a double thumbs up. "The bad guys are down, the good guys won!"

"I guess we did," Steve says, the fact slowly dawning on him. It's just a little hard to notice at first. "Almost, anyway. Reyes, get Gawrych on the Helicarrier. Keep him under guard. There should probably be an investigation on his involvement --"

"Excuse me?"

He ignores the councilmember. Castle's thorough in his hits, if nothing else. "-- and make it fast, Punisher's probably on his way now."

"Punish-- The Punisher?" Gawrych sputters, looking pale, and Steve goes to see what remains of his home at the sound of Reyes attempting to calm him.

 

*

0955
Nothing, actually, is what remains of Steve's home, Punisher didn't exaggerate. It was hit. Where it should be -- where it had every right to be, and had shown no displeasure of being previously -- is now a wide, open space. Indented where the foundation used to sit, one of his emergency exits now a tunnel that vanishes under the street.

Castle's gone, although Steve hadn't expected him to stick around. The longer he waits, the harder time he'll have getting Gawrych dead and buried. And other self-imposed obligations to maim and murder, Steve's sure.

More notably; "You're naked," Steve blurts.

Indeed, Tony is there, sitting next to a hogtied Crossbones, and they're both completely nude.

Whatever hit Steve's home obviously destroyed fabrics and concrete indiscriminately. Tony's composed as you would expect, sitting discreetly as possible, and Steve approaches; gaze steady on Tony's face.

Tony has a gorgeous body. It's something any artist can appreciate:  long, slender limbs, wide shoulders, tapering hips. An ideal form, the kind literally propped up on a pedestal for worship, carved into stone for posterity.

And he's seen it before -- this particular body, Tony's bare torso and legs -- but there's no way to look at Tony's body without acknowledging that it's attractive. And acknowledging that, just now, when he feels like this, feels wrong. Feels almost invasive. So, he doesn't look.

He just sheds his battle-worn shirt. It's sweaty and grimy, but it'll be better than nothing when the agents arrive.

Tony shrugs it on, standing, batting at some dirt that clings to his legs. It barely reaches mid-thigh, but it works.

Steve actually feels pretty calm about the entire thing -- relatively speaking, on the scale of one to ten on losing everything you own, he's probably registering on a pretty solid four -- until he hears Tony's voice.

"Thanks."

It snaps something in him, pulls the whole situation out of surreal; Tony could've died. He didn't, he's standing in front of Steve now, looking more awkward in Steve's shirt than he did naked.

Relief, but it's only there for half a second, it snaps immediately to anger, at a level that surprises even himself.

"I thought you weren't being followed." It's colder than he thought it would sound. He likes it, though, and a small part of him likes the flinch it inspires.

Immediately, "I'll pay for--"

"You were in there, Tony." He'll mourn his possessions eventually, on a case by case basis. When he begins looking for a dog-eared book, only to remember it's gone. Paintings. Journals. Letters. But now, all he can think about is how Tony nearly got himself killed again, and how Steve nearly had a hand in it. How he knew it was a risk, and he lied about it. Steve could've -- probably done nothing about it, but he could've known. "I sent men here. The Maria Stark Foundation couldn't reimburse me for that."

"I wasn't in danger. Neither was Castle. Or Crossbones, as much as that'd be worth."

Steve gestures wide at the open square of space that used to be his home.

"The LDDT targets and breaks down non-organisms only. Any potted plants you had would've been fine, too. The worst that could happen was a three story drop. And . . . seeing the Punisher's genitals."

"And you knew that?"

Tony's about to lie. There's no real tell, a person would've had to know Tony -- well, years, to interpret that shift of weight correctly. It's the same stance he takes when bracing himself for a blow on the battlefield.

Then he stills. His arms, and gaze, drop.

"I designed it, Steve."

Steve watches carefully, wants to refuse to get his hopes up again. His voice is unnecessarily gruff. "Straight answers, Stark."

"There's supposed to be a safety . . . after shooting, it deactivates for a ninety hours. It's in the design, even I couldn't override it," he says. "I wasn't so out of it that I would've showed up at your door if I'd known it was possible. I apologize, as much good as that does now."

Steve's quiet, watching Tony closely. He used to think he could read him; now he's not so sure. "You couldn't override it, or wouldn't?"

"I didn't do this," he says, a quiet but firm denial.

"I believe you," and he'd logically decided as much, but only realizes how much he really means it once it's out of his mouth. "I'm just trying to figure out what we're up against."

He knows it's possible, of course, but it's always a very disquieting thing to Steve, when they fight someone smarter than Tony Stark.

"I've got this."

"Obviously. That's, what, seven residences you've lost in the past year?" Steve says. Then, the only argument he can think of that Tony won't try to shoot down; "I have a right to be in on this. You came to my door."

Tony's lips tighten.

"What are we up against?" Steve persists, unshaken. "Because I don't believe this is all your doing, and you're not going to be able to shove me away."

He's tired of getting pushed to a comfortable distance, knowing his presence causes pain to people he cares about, and the best he can do is watch from a distance. Sitting on his hands as they struggle, and hurt, because he died to begin with.

Tony has no excuse to shove him away.

"I . . . suppose if I had to override it, I could probably come up with something," he says. "But this goes beyond just one satellite."

"Where's your closest back-up armory?" he asks.

Sad smile. "I can't get in the armor while this thing is in my head."

"What thing? Extremis? And you were in the suit when the tower was hit," Steve says.

"Not Extremis, not  it's complicated," Tony says. "I had precautions built into that model; it took weeks, and ludicrously expensive materials. I don't have the time or resources to rebuild it now."

"Something is targeting lasers at you from space, you can't even put on your armor," Steve says. "And you wanted to handle this alone?"

Crossbones snickers at their feet, a hairy, nude reminder that this really isn't the place, and Steve very carefully does not look down.

Spotting the familiar silhouette of a SHIELD Containment crew bird, Steve turns, gesturing for Tony to follow.

*

1020
Tony sits lightly at first, as though Sam Wilson's couch is going to bite.

As they talk, Tony seems to simultaneously loosen and tighten. Forget their surroundings enough to slide back on the couch, but cross his arms in defense, then bring up his legs as added protection.

The borrowed clothes hang on Tony. Sam's legs are longer, and he's thicker, bigger in general, entire body packed with muscle -- the kind of result that looks like Sam had access to serum, or some other meta means, but is just hard, dedicated work.

Sam could never understand why Steve admires him for that.

Even with the belt, the jeans slip down far enough that Tony ends up rolling up the cuffs, which he's now fingering the frayed edges of almost idly.

He's sure Sam would be fine with them seeking sanctuary in his home, but raiding his dresser -- and Steve vows to pay him back for every article touched, just from that comment Tony made when peering in the underwear drawer ("Can't say I'm surprised, Sam seems like the kind of guy who wants his boys cradled.") -- for spare clothes, because a uniform meant for one really doesn't stretch between two very effectively.

And so, he learns what Tony Stark was up to this summer.

The destruction of his vacation home in Malibu reeked of Zeke Stane. But the attacks kept coming, in pricks, really, subtle and restrained -- Stark Subsidiaries having their licenses revoked, impossibly delayed funding, both coming and going, red tape slowly winding around Stark Enterprise's ankles, personal information leaked, money leaks, constant money leaks, nickels and dimes, adding up --

"I lost the mansion," Tony says, unable to meet Steve's gaze. "Some private estate bought the property out from under me, I haven't been able to follow the plans for it. There's nothing of value to anyone else there. Hopefully they're just going to bulldoze it. Make a parking garage."

Steve's not going to pretend he likes the idea, but an old, half demolished building is the least of their worries at the moment, and he refuses to let it show how much it bothers him  mentally stowing it away with the rest of his lost belongings. Letters and mementos and photos all just physical evidence of memories and feelings that can never be blown to pieces or bought out under his feet.

Still, he feels a particularly hard jab of loss at the random memory of the rec room, Iron Man and Hank debating schematics of the villain's weapon in Star Wars. When Hank had half-laughing accused, 'For a man whose job is wearing a tin can, you certainly know your stuff,' and you could hear the smile even through the distortion, 'You don't hang around a blowhard like Stark without picking up a few things!' They'd all been so young and stupid and too good to be true.

"You don't suspect the estate that bought it?" Steve asks. "Your father had that world war three relic buried down there for who knows how long, we had no idea, they could know something we don't."

"I'm sure. And they could've challenged my private landmark hold on it when I didn't have the money to defend it. They're just opportunists that bought up the land when it was put up for sale," he says. "And I don't suspect Stane anymore either." After all, no one came by to gloat. But Tony had been so sure that the best course of action was to outlast the impulsive kid, wait for Stane to grow cocky, tip his cards, by that time his home in Tokyo had been demolished.

But whenever Tony started trying to follow the trail, he'd get blatant, hard hits. SE's processors suddenly swarmed with viruses, power cut. "Opening my door to look was just letting them in." Beefing  up his anti-virus protection would work -- for a week, two at best, then they'd find a way around it. Tony went on a more physical offense.

"I was over the Atlantic when my armor locked up. It started going through the activation routine -- running through basic motor functions," bending the arm joints, knees, testing the shoulder's range of motion; Tony's body, trapped inside, manipulated along with the armor. "Making sure the systems function. It's only supposed to happen when the armor gets another --" he stops. "Whoever it was, they found a way to hack into the armor, give it another command center. I just sat there and watched," he says, and clenches his jaw.

He's still not sure if the armor's protection managed to fight it off, or if they just backed off.

Either way, he rocketed home, and didn't put on the armor again.

"Until I finished the improved defense systems."

All the models of the armor Tony had made up to that point had capitalized on connections, being able to access information from any point, relying as little as possible on outside hosts. The systems were so worlds away from everything else operating, he hadn't had to worry about someone finding holes. You don't put a barbed wire fence on the balcony of a seventeen story high rise.

Tony's not sure if whoever this is had anything to do with Jarvis's death, but, "That'd be some impressive odds. It's reusing connections I made with Extremis," he says. "It was the same hospital where Happy was treated."

"I thought Extremis was gone," Steve says. It had been the first news he heard about Tony that had made him smile, after coming back.

"I can't access Extremis," Tony says. "But it did permanently restructure my brain. I'm . . . a computer with the power cord unplugged. This . . . thing, person, figured out a way to make a connection without having to turn me on."

"That's horrifying," Steve says, frankly. "It can't be healed?"

Tony shrugs. "I'm not broken."

"Except your brain can be hacked into," Steve says. "Are you a computer now?"

"That was an analogy," Tony says, blandly. "And psychics have always been able to 'hack' into minds. The brain isn't all that different from a processor to begin with, they handle information and commands in remarkably similar ways."

Steve stares; not so much that Tony's saying it, or that there's some truth to his words, but that he obviously believes it's just that simple.

"Extremis fundamentally changed your brain -- it reprogrammed you. Do you even know how much it did, how much it could still do--" He shakes his head, forces the tirade to a stop. The only way this could get less productive is if he brought up SHRA. "What are your leads now?"

Tony rubs at his forehead. "It's hard to say. No one's really gaining anything from this. Whoever it is, they aren't after Stark Enterprises, they had plenty of chances to make a grab for that. Or after my tech, they could've taken that. They . . . they have a chance at millions of dollars, and they go after an old man in a hospital. Whoever it is, they really hate me. Unselfishly. Making me miserable is worth more to them than personal gain. Ty Stone is dead. Best guess is Osborn. He's got enough money that he wouldn't be interested in more, and he's got the resources. But this is a lot of restraint, even for him."

"Osborn would have reason to ruin SHIELD," Steve muses.

Tony winces. "What's happening with SHIELD?"

"Someone using Extremis-level tech has been sabotaging missions."

"You thought it was me," Tony says, and isn't accusatory at all. It's bland. Resigned.

"No," Steve says, firm, and is frustrated when Tony doesn't look entirely convinced. "I know you're not a monster, Tony," he says. "Bucky was open to the idea that you were doing it -- all of it."

"Destroying billions of dollars worth of my own property, piece by piece?"

"You didn't report any of the attacks, or look for help."

"No, I wasn't painting targets on the backs of local authorities."

"I was thinking more of your network of superhero friends. One of the Avengers. Me."

Tony stares, thumb and pointer finger working at some frayed fabric. Then he glances at the back door, the dust covered television, the pictures. It had been stuffy when they first entered, dark and obviously abandoned. Tony had waited by the door, arms stiff at his side, as Steve went through, opening windows, letting some air in.

He'd only entered when Steve pointedly waved him in, painfully out of place -- Sam hasn't ever made it a secret how he feels about Tony, and apparently the hostility has transferred to his home and belongings.

"Where is Falcon?"

Allowing them in his home, Steve has no doubt. Tolerating commentary on his clothes, possibly. But there's no way he wouldn't be cross with Steve sharing the fact that what messed with Bucky's head also played havoc with Sam's, reverting him back to Snap in a big, ugly way. Made him a whole other person: angry, ruthless. Diving into local gang politics with a bloody, aimless splash.

Thankfully, the alter ego was subdued, and afterward, Sam decided to settle the issue, once and for all.

Steve's not entirely sure what that entails, just that it's something he apparently has to do on his own, and -- selfishly -- is taking much longer than Steve would prefer.

"It's personal."

Tony keeps staring out the balcony door, nodding. "You know, I was surprised when you didn't join any of the Avenger groups."

Steve shakes his head. "It didn't feel right. Hank is doing fine on his own, and I would've just ended up bumping heads with Clint."

"You were one of those kids who just went home if the other boys wouldn't play by your rules, weren't you?"

"What? No, I --" just realized that's a joke. Tony's weak smile widens at Steve's sheepish expression. "You haven't been playing, either."

"I've been busy," Tony says. "And, after Carol . . . without Jan, without Thor, without you . . . "

"It didn't feel right?"

"Not right now."

There's a pause, the companionable silence so familiar, slipping right back into old, easy feelings. Steve doesn't think about it. "I wish you had come to me sooner."

"I gathered," Tony says.

"Did you think I wouldn't listen? Wouldn't help?"

"Steve, when you died, it --" Tony stops, unfolds himself and stands.

"What?"

Tony nods at the balcony.

*

1145
One would think, in this line of work, Steve would get used to ridiculous costumes, but he still gapes at the sight.

Maybe it's just the fact that three massive, hairy men have appeared on Sam's third-story balcony, more than that they're wearing near-blinding colors. Maybe it's a mix of the two. They're wearing the sort of over-the-top design you'd find at a Renaissance Fair: bright colors, puffed shoulders, tights and a golden crown with long, flowing strings. They're well made, though; maybe something you'd find on a movie set, then.

The trio stares in at the pair, one tall enough that he has to bend to do so properly, and the shortest -- relative term, he's easily 6'5 -- raps lightly on the glass before poking his head in.

"Ho there! May we enter?"

Steve steps to the side, and the trio does. "If you're looking for Sam, he's not --"

"Nay, our search for the Avenger called Iron Man has led us across all paths of the world," says the man in the middle, tall and fat, with a startlingly red beard and, as if that weren't enough, wearing bright pink. "He has a myriad hearths and towers, we have searched them all."

"Plentiful but weak," says another one. "Each was found long collapsed into dust."

"Shells of a kingdom," another agrees gravely. "Our quest has led us here!"

"How?" Steve asks, growing tense. Granted, luck didn't seem to be on his side today, but they just walked through the door. Not even the gossip chain from the neighborhood Steve grew up in could've spread the news that fast.

"As was said, we traveled many roads, to no avail," says the fat one. "We returned to our home to convalesce, and our comrade, who can pierce through the shrouds of nine worlds, provided us this location."

"Ah," says Steve, relieved. Piercing through the shrouds of nine worlds would do it.

"I begin to suspect the Iron Man we seek stands before us."

They stare expectantly at Steve, and Tony steps quickly forward.

"I'm Iron Man," Tony says.

Seemingly just noticing that he was in the room, the trio fix their gaze on him, jaunty expressions melting to disappointment. They obviously don't think much of the oversized sweater and bare feet. Steve winces; Tony has looked better.

"The Iron Man that fought beside a god? You kept pace with Thor?" says the blond, and Steve realizes, really, it's only the one in pink dressed ridiculously, there was just so much of him, he was all Steve could really process. Now that he steps forward, arms spread, the other two's darker, plainer outfits come into focus. Still old-fashioned cuts and boots, but much more practical -- warrior's gear

"Perhaps," says one, suddenly perking, "he's a human that has the strength of a god by birth, or takes flight, or changes shape!"

"Not a mutant," Tony says. "I'm a normal, mundane mortal without my armor."

"The enchanted armor, yes," says the fat one. "You must fetch it, we will wait."

"Afraid that's impossible," says Tony. "Who are you, again? Asgardians, I'm assuming, but . . . "

"Of course, of course, I am Volstagg the valiant," says the redheaded, round-stomached man, large hands cradling his impressive girth.

"Volstagg the voluminous," the dark one snorts.

"Volstagg the enormous," the blond adds.

"Lion of Asgard, to men with good sense and pedigree," huffs Volstagg, and if Steve's not mistaken, a little bruised by the teasing.

"Fandral," the one with a remarkable resemblance to Tony, if Tony were blond and 6'7, says with an extravagant bow. "And this is Hogun. And you are keen eyed; we, indeed, hail from Asgard." Steve's not sure if he's being sarcastic; he certainly sounds sincere, but there's no way he can honestly believe their height, and bright, ridiculous outfits are discreet? "Thor is our lord. We have reason to believe you wronged him deeply."

His voice lowers to a rumble by the end, and the slightly ridiculous, comical mood evaporates instantly. Steve had catalogued their weapons the moment they entered, but now can't take his gaze away from each hard, well-worn blade on their hips. And strapped to their backs, and thighs, and ankles.

"You are . . . shorter than we were led to believe," Hogun notes, cocking his head to the side. "Truly, do you possess no other skills than donning enhanced metals? And you kept pace with Thor, and the man who can grow boundless heights, and the lady who can produce the like of lightning out of her own hands, and the most accomplished soldier of your people? You are the man of iron and wit?"

"It's really awesome armor," Tony assures them. "Which is out of commission at the moment, so if you're looking for a fight, it's going to be short."

Steve honestly wouldn't last much longer than Tony against three well-armed Asgardians with a grudge, but he doesn't think about it when Volstagg reaches down, gripping the hilt of his axe. He steps forward on instinct. Tony hadn't even processed the Asgardian's movement, starting at Steve's sudden shift, directly in front of him.

Volstagg pauses at that, eyes crinkling in laughter. "Warrior's tic and nothing more, good man. We are sporting enough to give forewarning before our reckoning. I take it you are willing to battle on behalf of your . . . ill-prepared comrade?"

Is he? If it comes down to that, yes; Tony wouldn't survive a minute. Better Steve, who could last ten. "I won't be much more of a challenge, but yes."

"Steve--" Tony protests.

"And you are?" Fandral asks.

"Steve Rogers. Captain America."

"Thor sent you?" Tony suddenly asks.

"Our heritage bid us forward, and morality acted as our compass," Fandral declares, stepping forward, almost chest to chest with Steve, and tall enough that it does nothing to block his view of Tony, behind them both. "Your atrocities are an offense to all Asgardians, and every mortal, dead or quick, who stands beside us!"

"But first!" Volstagg announces, putting a hand on both Steve and Tony's back companionably. "All civilized men call truce long enough for a feast before battle!"

*

1335
Eating, being a great deal more peaceful than a godly reckoning, is quickly arranged. The three of them aren't just unimpressed with Sam's lack of selection, but genuinely depressed. Thankfully, the Lunch Box Buffet is just around the corner.

Hogun and Fandral both have to duck to make it through the door. Volstagg, larger than life, has to bend, squish and eventually force his way through, sideways. The customers, well acquainted to the havoc that tends to accompany gigantic people dressed in bright colors, thin out as the Asgardians take their seats, murmuring to each other in vague approval at the plastic plants and bland wallpaper.

"The portions are small, but little and often makes much," Volstagg declares, from behind six over-piled plates.

If Steve had any doubt about their heritage, watching them eat seven consecutive helpings would've put it to rest. Their appetite is frankly astounding, and sloppy, and takes three tables to contain. Steve would laugh, if he could forget the blades. They look like a pack of wolves, digging into a recent kill.

"They're the Three Stooges of Asgard," Tony breathes, so soft that even as close as they're sitting, Steve wouldn't be able to hear without his enhanced senses.  The gods don't so much as twitch. "They're harmless. Relatively."


Steve leans as though reaching for some sweet and sour sauce, close enough for his lips to brush against Tony's ear. "Hearing someone isn't dangerous in comparison to Thor isn't that comforting."

"They won't kill anyone," Tony clarifies. " . . . Intentionally."

"We should contact Thor," Steve says.

"Going by our last conversation," Tony says, "I doubt he'd care."

"Man of iron and wit!" Fandral calls, sitting back, propping his feet on the table, picking at his teeth. The smallest of the three, it makes sense that he'd have his fill first. "Tell me, in your own words. What is clooney?"

Tony stares blankly before Volstagg says, "No, Fandral, that is the gallant doctor. I believe the word you're after is Clooneying."

"Cloning?" Tony guesses, then processes that. "Oh. Cloning. You don't know what you're reckoning, do you?"

Hogun glowers. "Men have invented many words to describe using their science for wrongdoing."

"Cloning duplicates a living being. It's like making an artificial twin," Tony says. "It's . . . well, morally questionable."

"And you made a twin of a god?" Volstagg says, deep, rumbling voice sounding surprisingly childlike in a sort of wonder.

Steve says nothing, fiddling deliberately with his chopsticks and watching Tony's expression. He's read up on this incident since coming back, all public record now. Curious to see what Tony will say.

"Not . . . quite. It was a cyborg -- a machine. A robot. Like my suit of --"

"We know what cyborg is, Iron Man," Hogun says, darkly.

"Of course."

"Was it a computer, or was it a god?" Fandral asks, shrewdly.

"Well," Tony says carefully. "As you know, a cyborg is a mix of the two."

"Did it have a soul?" Volstagg asks.

Hogun snorts. "This man wouldn't be able to say if he has one inside himself."

"Did it have a mind, Iron Man?" Fandral asks. "Did it have a heart? In my time, I have learned a man needs both to have a soul."

"No," Tony says, and is quite carefully not looking in Steve's direction. "I used Thor's hair to generate an accurate genetic map; without it there would've been months of guesswork, we didn't have months. We created its mind, its heart, everything--"

"With science," Hogun says.

"Yes, science."

"You sound unrepentant," Fandral says. "You speak of how this process is monstrous, yet of its uses in the same breath."

"I'm being upfront," Tony says. "If I thought I'd done the right thing, I wouldn't be here, willingly signed up for a sound beating from the three of you."

"You used the Son of Odin's face -- his self -- as a mask of intimidation against his own comrades," Hogun says. "Our lord used to speak highly of Iron Man's nobility. That is a scheme worthy of our wretched brethren Loki."

"It was a mistake," Tony agrees. "I've made a lot of them."

"Perhaps you should list them, and we shall soundly beat upon you for each one," Volstagg suggests merrily. "By your scheduling, you are a busy man after all."

Steve winces, and can't help but remember when he would've been all for that idea.

"Have you spoken to our lord about it?" Fandral asks. "Have you made amends?"

"How do you make amends for that?" Tony asks. "I knew what I was doing was unforgivable, I knew it as I did it. I thought it was worth it."

"I should hope this battle of brothers you were willing to go to such depths, such depravity, to win, was worth it."

"It wasn't."

Hogun nods. "When you become a monster, even against a great evil, you cannot win. You become the next evil for the next man to knock down."

Tony pointedly avoids their gaze, stealing a quick, almost guilty glance at Steve before focusing on his chopsticks. He was willing to become that monster, Steve realizes. He'd been well aware of the slippery slope he was heading down, as long as he was the only one would fell. He's hit with a familiar mix of frustration and affection.

"But I don't understand," Volstagg says. "Why do you attack us, if you hold no ill-will toward our lord?"

Tony exchanges a glance with Steve. "Attack?"

"Thor himself confirmed the beam of dispersion came from a creation of yours," Fandral says.

Tony's gripping the table, hard. "What did it hit?"

"Asgard!" Volstagg says emotionally, obviously bothered by the memory. "Of course your science creation is too weak to cause true damage against the home of gods, but some of our most favorite possessions became one with the air right before our eyes!"

"I assumed I was his only target," Tony says, pretty obviously thinking the same thing as Steve; where else has Osborn been shooting that thing?

But then, "Bucky would've told me if other people were getting hit," Steve says, thinking out loud. "I think this is new."

"Am I correct in guessing that you're unable to control your creation?" Hogun asks, gaze darting between the two of them. "Someone else is wielding it?"

"An enemy of ours," Steve says.

A soft chime at the door as it opens. The three gods stare, eyes comically wide; hands caught in a cookie jar.

"Is this how you presume to represent Asgard? To follow your lord's wishes?"

Steve had forgotten how exactly Thor's voice could sound like thunder.

He looks miles more out of place than the three warriors. He has a level of nobility they lack, and it makes him standing in the middle of a Chinese buffet, hands in fists at his side, head nearly scraping the ceiling, more ludicrous.

The room, already thinned, empties quickly.

"Was this not," Thor demands, voice rumbling, echoing, bringing its rage along with it, filling the room, and Steve can't blame Tony for stiffening at his side, "discussed to your satisfaction, Hogun? Fandral? Volstagg? The penance of Tony Stark is mine to collect, alone."

"We are free men," Hogun says, "We --"

"You are first Asgardians."

"My lord," Fandral says, easily, but has the decency to bring his feet down from the table. "We grow bored without sport. It was in jest, we would not enter real battle with any mortal as weak --"

"Short," Hogun coughs.

"And short as this."

" . . . I'm only three inches shorter than him," Tony says.

"Hn, the Captain has presence! He has weight," Volstagg says. "You are . . . small."

"You use science to make metals fight for you," Hogun adds, which isn't particularly relevant, but apparently bothers him, and they are airing their grievances.

"Enough!" Thor bellows. "Was that my order? For Asgard to bring jest to Stark?"

"It was to stay in Asgard and leave this problem unrectified."

"The son of Odin's final word was to stay in Asgard," Thor says. "I would say that rectifies it. Do you say otherwise?"

The room is surprisingly quiet, before Hogun coughs, "With respect to your wishes, what would the Son of Odin say if I would like to fight Stark?"

"He would be angered."

"I will face his anger."

Steve surges up at that, "Thor, he'd kill him --"

"I will only . . . bat him around a little," Hogun says, with a dismissive swish of his hand.

Thor stares at Hogun. "You're willing to face my wrath?"

"For the sake of my lord's honor."

Thor grips his hammer, then nods. "I will allow it."

"Thor!" Steve stands up from the table, going after the god.

Thor grips his shoulder. "Trust me, Captain."

"Steve," Tony says, standing. "It's alright."

"No, Tony," Steve says. "You have every right to be mad, Thor, but keep it between the two of you -- how many of your subjects is Tony going to have to be beaten by before you decide to rectify it yourself? Don't forgive Tony, fine, but at least settle--"

"Steven Rogers," Thor says. "These are my subjects. Trust me."

They exit the buffet, and Volstagg manages to squeeze through the door by the time Tony finishes negotiating the bill.

There's whole acres of wide, empty farmland near Albany, land that would take an hour get to, were they not in the presence of Norse Gods

Within minutes, Steve is watching Fandral, who's apparently warmed to Tony, giving combat advice with wide, exaggerated demonstrations of different sword maneuvers, which Tony watches closely.

"You may have my blade," Fandral offers graciously, handing off a sword that nearly reaches Tony's shoulder, thin and sharp. Tony's arm flexes just holding it at his side. "Hogun favors headlong attacks, he hits like a gladiator, and he feels very little pain until after battle--"

"Thank you," Tony says, looking a little pale.

"And you may have my shield, little man of iron," Volstagg says, dropping two tons of metal at Tony's feet. "It's not your preferred metal, but it will stand to task."

"Why the formality?" Steve asks Thor, as they watch along the sidelines, and knows it sounds bitter. "Why not just let Hogun bend Tony over his knee?"

"This is a test," Thor says.

"And you're bringing Tony into it because?"

"It's a test for him, as well," Thor says, then, calling to the men in the field, "On my say!"

Fandral gives Tony an encouraging, if a little too vigorous, pat on the back, then he and Volstagg join them on the side. Hogun stands on the opposite end of the field, large, dark frame still, and the sight of the horseman's pick in his hands is a relief. It certainly looks nasty, but it's easily controlled by someone of Hogun's strength, and patently non-lethal.

"Prepare thyself!" Thor calls, raising his hammer.

Tony braces for impact, and Steve can make out his eyes closing tight from his position on the sidelines. He should've gotten him a mouth guard.

Thor's hammer smashes into the ground, a massive crack that turns to a roar of thunder, echoing in the valley, and the ground beneath his hammer surrenders, denting deeply and splintering out wildly in all directions.

Hogun surges forward, pick raised. He's turned it blunt end forward, and Steve realizes he's going to hit Tony with the flat side, send him tumbling across the field--

"Thor?" Tony asks, sounding utterly bewildered.

Thor is standing in the middle of the field.

Hogun pulls up from slamming headlong into the lightning god, but just barely.

"That was not my word, Hogun," Thor says, sounding faintly amused.

"M-my lord?"

"I will combat thee on behalf of Iron Man," he announces, raising his hammer.

"Thor--"

"Join Steven, Stark," Thor says, eyes trained forward. "While I bat Hogun around a little."

Hogun smiles. "We shall see."

*

1619
Even with his enhanced reflexes, Steve can't follow the majority of the battle. He could hear it, certainly, smashes of metal on metal, but except for moments of stillness-- Hogun is slammed into the air, smashing into the ground  they just move too fast to see.

It started raining about midway through the battle, each strike of Thor's hammer echoing loudly, darker and darker clouds gathering above them, and by the time they finished, it was pouring.

"They fought magnificently," Fandral assures him once they make it back to the city, he and Volstagg taking turns detailing certain hits that were beyond Steve's mortal capacity to make out. Hogun, who had to know he had no chance, lingered toward the back, glowering, and is now standing in the corner of Sam's home, glowering.

"Are we to wait forever to return? Is this the wrath I was promised?"

"Pay him no mind, Captain. Hogun habitually greets defeat with the face of a small girl," Fandral says, and smiles widely at Hogun's snarl. "But the pair have been in deliberations for quite some time now."

Steve tips back on his chair, and can make out two figures in the hallway: Tony, arms wrapped around his middle, and Don Blake, leaning against the wall.

It's the defensive body language from Tony that gets him to stand, move closer. Tony hadn't seen much use in asking Thor for help, but Steve had said it couldn't hurt -- he should've suspected a lecture.

But Don's voice is calm and non-accusing. "-- forgave Mister Fantastic. He's having a harder time with you cause -- well, Thor's proud. He hates being proven wrong."

"What?" Tony asks.

"He thought he could trust you."

Tony says something at that, too quiet to make out.

Don pushes himself off the wall, grips Tony's shoulder. "Give it time."

Steve expects to see a frown when they finish, when Tony turns toward him, but is surprised by one of the brightest smiles Steve's seen from Tony since -- since far too long.

"Last time we met, he told he'd forgotten the time we spent as a team because it shamed him," Tony says. "I'll give it time. I can give it time."

"So, that's a yes?" Steve asks Don.

"After these jokers get back to Asgard," Don says, jerking a thumb at the three warriors. Volstagg stands, and Steve winces at the rather large, worryingly deep imprint of his backside in the chair. Maybe he'll be funding a few new pieces of furniture as well as the wardrobe.

"It has been a good day," Volstagg declares. "New companions, a glorious reckoning and a full stomach. We should make a habit of such adventuring."

"I'm sure Thor will have something to say about that," Don says, leading the Asgardian out of the apartment with light pats on the back.

Hogun and Fandral bid farewell from the balcony, and the door closes, leaving behind n a surprisingly quiet apartment.

Tony clears his throat. "Where were we?"

"Osborn hacking your head."

The rain's let up from the earlier battle, the sky's a gorgeous, clear sunset, and the lightning crack, as much as he expected it, is a little startling.

"Right," Tony says. "One of the additions I made to the armor he ruined was a tracker. All I've really got left is a physical assault; my hands are tied here, technologically speaking."

With that doorway into his head, yeah, Steve can see that. "Where did the money lead?"

"Nowhere, there was nothing to find. Osborn might as well be a ghost."

"That doesn't make for a very promising assault."

"Is this the satellite that vexes you?" Thor asks, outside the window, hoisting a mess of metal and wires the size of a minivan above his head.

Tony blinks, then leans close to look at the serial code running along the side. "That -- well, did, yes. Thank you."

Thor nods. "Where shall I dispose of it? I believe it contains lethal parts that make it unsuitable for pedestrian removal."

"It can't go back into space like that, just dump it on Stark property, they'll recycle --" With a grunt, Thor's off. "--it."

"That's one down," Steve says. "Two thousand and something to go and Osborn won't have anything to work with."

"While picturing Thor attacking every Verizon and NASA satellite currently in orbit is amusing, I had something a little more direct in mind."

*

1845
"I'll pay you back."

"I believed you the first time you said it. It's alright."

Arms laden with electronics, Tony backs into Radio Shack's door, holding it for Steve, weighed down with just as many boxes and bags. It's not heavy, but it's awkward, a bunch of tiny, entirely too expensive devices, and they barely make it to the car without dropping anything.

"Ever use one of these before?" Steve asks, when Tony slips into the driver's seat while his back was turned.

"I made one once," Tony says. "But that was a while ago." Not too long, apparently; after a minute of fiddling, the engine turns over, and he's got them in the air.

"I notice we're going east," Steve says. "Making Sam's place behind us."

"We're not going to Sam's place," Tony says. "If this works, wherever we're at is probably going to end up a scorch mark."

They land in the parking lot of a small, obviously abandoned office building. The sign's been taken down, but weather has beaten the letters AVP into the wall itself.

"This used to belong to a cult. I liked the location, bought it after taking them down," Tony tells him as they unload the car. "Don't have the key on me, could you get that?"

Steve unlocks the door with a high kick, and they maneuver past an obvious receptionist area to where emptied cubicle walls still sit. The open, bare windows let the dark oranges of the setting sun lend the whole thing an almost surreal feel. "This was a cult?"

"A very well organized one," Tony says, dropping down cross-legged, opening boxes, ripping open plastic wraps with his teeth. "Their secret lair was lined with filing cabinets."

Steve sits across from him, grabbing the packages wrapped in the thicker, impossible to open plastic and ripping. "How long do you think this will take?"

"Two hours? Maybe three," Tony says. "You can go, if you want. This part is probably going to be pretty boring." But he's got a sort of gleam in his eye as he looks over the spread components. Eager to take on the challenge.

Just a few hours ago, Steve probably would've taken that. Instead, he settles against the wall. "I've got nowhere else to be. What does this do, exactly? You've been a little-- " not vague. Vague, Steve could've followed. "Too specific."

"Osborn, assuming it's Osborn," Tony says, "knows my tech. He's been impossible to track; he knows all the traps I've got set. I'm going to make a system he's unfamiliar with, and hopefully . . ."

"We'll know where he's operating from."

"And we can go there and punch things," Tony nods.

"Won't you have to get a signal to do that?" Steve asks. "Let him in your head?"

"You can see why I was reluctant to do this on my own, before."

"And you're going to build this out of spare parts from Radio Shack?"

"You wound me, Steve," Tony says, then grunts, cracking open the plastic casing around the GPS. "I could've done this in high school."

"I don't doubt it," Steve says. "You're the smartest man I know." It just hits him sometimes, how incredible everything Tony makes actually is. It's easy to take for granted, after a decade or so.

"Reed Richards is smarter," Tony says.

So Steve's been told, and he supposes he's not one to argue, but from what he can tell, Reed is more interested in the theoretical -- which isn't to say he doesn't apply it, but if you want to talk about how far an explosion will extend, how to contain it, how to make it -- you go to Reed. Tony Stark's the one that actually blows things up. It's practical application, says Tony. It's the difference between endless lists of equations and fevered hand gestures that narrate expulsion and weight displacement, and an actual ship rocketing off into the air.

Tony smirks at him from over the bundles of wires, cannibalized alarm clock and GPS system. Steve's reminded of fourth grade science, Miss Kane turning off the lights, closing the windows and using nothing but a wire and a lemon to light up her desk. It had seemed like magic. He'd had such a crush on her.

"The smartest man I can have a prolonged conversation with," Steve amends. His communicator buzzes, and how he feels about this must be on his face, because Tony snorts out loud.

"Rogers."

"Cap," says Reyes. "Punisher boarded the Helicarrier."

Steve stands, already moving for the door. "I'm on my way."

"No, wait-- he's gone now."

" . . . Is that all?"

"Yes, sir."

"Thank you for the status report."

"Reyes out."

Steve closes his eyes, pressing the comm to his forehead, and Tony snickers. "He's a little green."

"I gathered," Tony says. "I think he was bragging."

"Bragging?"

"Hey, living to tell that you were in the same room as Castle is impressive."

"Yeah. Well. He's not quite the liaison Sharon was."

Tony's smile fades, staring intently at the piece, twisting the screwdriver. "I take it she's not on active missions?"

"She is. Just," he sighs, "not with me. I think she's in Cuba."

"And you're not on a plane to go talk to her?"

"She wants space," he says. "We're . . . in contact."

"How's she doing?"

"I guess contact is too strong a word. She hasn't returned any of my messages."

"There's the Cap I know. Let me guess, you're calling every other day?" He smiles at Steve's expression, then winks almost flirtatiously, so he can't be too annoyed. "Hand me those?"

"I'm not trying to pressure her," Steve says, passing a bundle of wires. "Just let her know I'm there."

Tony hmms, wiping both hands on his jeans then diving back in. "You two got really close," Tony says. "Closer than --" He stops abruptly, focusing hard on the device in front of him, as if losing his train of thought in some wire, some chip, but his gaze is still, and Steve knows he just thought better of where that was going. Yes, they had gotten closer than they ever had before. Sharon gave a lot up for Steve. And yes, being reminded of it just now is painful. "Is it still there?"

"She says that it wasn't real," Steve says.

Tony's eyebrows fly up, but he stays silent, patient.

"Right now, I'm more concerned with being her friend," Steve says. "I don't think that'll change anytime soon."

Tony nods. There's a long silence, save the clinks and shifts from Tony and his project, eventually broken by his communicator's buzz.

Reyes again. "Rogers," he says.

"Reyes. I forgot to mention, there's been a really good trend with the missions so far today, non-emergency communication has been temporarily okayed, and that's why I called before, with the news about Punisher."

"Thank you, Reyes," Steve says, and closes the communicator. Tony's not snickering, but he is smiling again. "I really think this is someone's way of punishing me."

"It's entirely possible," Tony says, then squints in the dying light. He grabs the desk lamp, tosses it to Steve, who catches it easily. "Could you?"

Ripping open the pack of AAAs, he could. He switches on the light, maneuvers behind Tony, seeing for the first time the complexity of the device he's been making, aiming the beam it at Tony's nimble, quickly working fingers.

"Is there anything I should be keeping an eye out for?" Steve asks, after a moment of watching Tony's fingers work at rapid pace.

". . . Outside of bad guys?"

"For signs that Osborn's started messing with you," Steve says. "Like . . . I don't know. A noise?"

All at once, Tony stops. Glances behind him. "How do you think this works, exactly?"

"I don't, really, I just assume there'd be some outside sign that something is happening in your head."

"Like a noise. A beeping noise?" Tony says, eyebrows arched in amusement and mouth curled in a small smile, chin in his palm, elbows on knees. "Would I be saying it in monotone, or would a piece of metal protrude from my ear and start sending out signals?"

"I can't believe you're picking on a man from 1940 about technology. That's not very sportsmanlike."

Tony snorts, going back to fiddling. "As if you weren't on AOL with the rest of us, vivien-leigh-plus-cap-forever-17." He shrugs, then, "I'm not sure. I don't think so. No one's been around when it's happened, so I can't really say. You don't have to worry until I hook this up, though; they have to know where we are before they can aim."

"But then how did he know you were at my place? I assumed he was just tracking you, you used to do that with satellites all the time."

"I'm assuming the location was discussed over SHIELD communications, which Osborn is apparently monitoring," Tony says. "And Osborn had that decommissioned and destroyed when he took over the world. I'm also assuming he didn't replicate it, as we're both still alive, and not two scorch marks."

Steve winces; he'd practically said his address over that compromised connection. "I thought your satellite didn't harm living things."

"I've got a lot of satellites, Steve," Tony says. "He was using the LDDT to smoke me out. If he knew my exact location, I doubt he'd mess around as much. This is going to give him my exact location. He's probably not going to use something non-lethal."

"Tony--"

"If you're about to tell me it's a bad idea to have ammunition floating above innocent people, and how easily it can go wrong, trust me. I've kind of got that," Tony says. "I should've started pulling some of these down when Ultron hijacked the weather manipulator." Yeah, Steve heard about that whole adventure from Hank.

"That one is decommissioned now, too," Tony says at Steve's expression.

Steve just shakes his head, standing. He doesn't want to argue about this, and Tony doesn't need to hear it. "I think I'll get some food. You hungry?"

"Starving," Tony says, but is focusing on his device once again, mouth tight. Probably has more to say, but isn't going to force the issue.

Steve's only gone a moment; there's a chain of fast food restaurants within walking distance. Tony's resting against the wall, device finished  actually polished, there's a real gleam despite its otherwise makeshift appearance -- in front of him by the time he gets back, though. His head is tipped back, eyes closed, and one opens when Steve enters. He smiles, grabbing his bag of obscenely greasy fast food. "Thanks."

Steve nods, mouth full of his own burger as he settles next to Tony.

Tony can eat like a refined man, with small, polite bites of delicate cuisine; Steve's seen him do it at countless official functions. But alone like this, he makes a monster of his cheeseburger, taking it apart, squeezing each packet Steve brought of ketchup, mustard and relish onto the bun, and Steve hands over his onions without being asked. Tony would add more, if it were at all possible, but the condiments table had been thin.

He raises an eyebrow at the fries Tony adds in a neat row, sticking to the mustard/ketchup/relish goo; that's new.

"Peter got me hooked on this," Tony says the name with forced nonchalance, then finally takes the first bite of his burger, as Steve takes the last of his. The fact that Peter will probably never speak to Tony again is uncomfortably loud in the silence.

Steve clears his throat, desperate to break it. "You finished with the, uh . . ." he gestures toward the pile of electronics with his foot.

"The Osborn Sodomizer," Tony says around the food. "Just need to press the green button."

"That was fast."

"Almost two hours." He closes his eyes when he takes a bite, moans, and it makes Steve hungry again just watching. Tony licks each finger before using a napkin when he finishes, and the sight is so comfortable and companionable it distracts him enough that he actually needs a minute to figure out what Tony's referring to when he suddenly starts speaking again, tone just mildly defensive.

"I wasn't going to abuse it. Any of it," he says, looking stubbornly forward. "These precautions I set up, the satellites and . . . I know the risks. I'm not making excuses, I'm just saying every time it's gone wrong, it's because of Ultron, or a malfunction, or Osborn--"

"That's not--"

"No, I'm saying . . . I'm not losing it. Going mad with power. I need you to know that."

It makes a part of Steve ache that Tony feels the need to say it. "I know you're not. I don't think you were even tempted," he says. "But Tony, that kind of power, in the hands of one man, even if he doesn't want it, accountable to no one and the only man to shoulder it if it goes wrong," Steve says. "It shouldn't be on your shoulders, just because you have the right intentions. It's -- that kind of responsibility is like fire, Tony. If you handle it too much, you end up scarred and . . . numb."

"That argument could apply to my armor just as well. Or the serum."

"Your armor doesn't have nukes, does it?" Steve asks. "Tell me you don't have that level of destructive capacity orbiting the earth."

"Not quite," Tony says, but it's close enough to quiet him, and Steve doesn't regret a word he said, but he does wish it hadn't made him tense at Steve's side.

"If it had to be anyone," Steve says, after a beat of silence,"I would want it to be you. I just don't think it has to be anyone."

Tont only picks at his fries, and gives a very weak defense when Steve starts stealing them, finally surrendering them by curling in his leg, giving Steve unblocked access.

"Alright," Tony says, pressing the green button on the Sodomizer. "Now we wait."

*

 

2210
"I was supposed to meet Rick for dinner today," Steve says idly, using some abandoned office supplies to doodle, first a picture of Frankenstein's monster-esque bars stuck on Tony's neck, sending out signals with little beep beep beeps. Then his hand. A half closed fist, then fingers spread. Twirling a pen between them, then clasped together. He's currently eyeing the pair now, doodling their loosely curled position.

Arm bent over his face, Tony nods, lying on his back and near asleep enough to assume Steve requires a response.

"I think I prefer this," Steve decides after a moment.

Tony snickers. "I can show a gorgeous blond a good time in my sleep."

And a few minutes later, that's exactly what he's doing. Breathing hard and heavy, passed out on the floor.

Steve's filled more than half of the scrap paper with doodles, and wishes for one of his sketch books--which he remembers, with a grimace, are all gone.

The first commission Steve filled -- paid for and everything -- was just out of high school. A series of patriotic heroes, the ones inspired by red, white and blue, on their way to fight in Germany in droves. He was given canvasses as tall as himself, as much paint as he asked for, and was unbearably eager. The end results were amateurish to say the least, but at the time Steve, and the group commissioning them, had been pleased.

Large, boldly standing Sky Wolves, Whizzers and Red Ravens lined an entire walkway of the local sports arena, along with about a dozen American flags.

Miss America had been one of his subjects. She was young and pretty, and didn't wear a mask; a lucky thing because her eyes were particularly captivating. She was one of the first caped heroes to head over to Germany, and needless to say, Steve was infatuated. She, like Steve, had spent her life weak and asthmatic and, unlike Steve at the time, a freak accident granted her super strength and the ability to fly. And, like Steve would, she used those abilities to help the troops. He absorbed any information he could get on her, newsreels and interviews printed in housekeeping magazines, a mix of desperate admiration and physical attraction.

In embarrassingly teenage fashion, the Miss America portrait ended up displaying this . . . admiration, in a blatant emphasis of her curves. Not so much as to call it obscene, but it was definitely the most popular portrait. He'd thankfully matured a bit by the time he got the chance to work side-by-side with Madeline.

If he were to redo the paintings today, they would've all been in separate action poses, ones that fit their powers and styles, fluid and moving rather than awkwardly gang- pressed into the same fists-on-hips, Bold Hero position. Miss America would've been in the air, and the emphasis would've been on those eyes. Smiling wide and proud.

He knows how to capture a person properly now, how to find those features that make someone unique and bring them out on paper, make it obvious to those who might miss them at first glance. Which might be why he can't seem to stop sketching Tony's hands.

Steve finds Tony attractive; Tony's an attractive person. He's been able to appreciate it for years, but as with several teammates he's found appealing over the years -- he rubs shoulders daily with a lot of healthy, fit people -- it's never been appropriate to act on, and he's never dwelled seriously.

As he adds a quick sketch, the curves of the side of Tony's face, he finds himself dwelling.

Idly.

His most successful relationships have always been with women who fought beside him as Captain America.

Picturing it, idly, surprisingly doesn't feel all that different from time spent with Tony before, just an added layer of exhilaration, something that makes him grip the pen tighter, smile a bit as he continues his drawing, outlining an eyebrow, a sultry gaze.

Compared to Tony's past relationships, Steve's have been downright boring; generally beginning with an upfront, realized attraction, brought on by a string of pleasant dates, combat that had driven them close. A smile from across the room. Ending with about as much fanfare. He still considers most women he had a relationship with friends; he's had to burn very few bridges.

And while Steve's never passed judgment, Tony's relationships always seemed a little less . . . simple. Not that Tony complained, but when a night spent with a woman turned to more, dependency issues always seemed to crop up, intimacy issues, boundaries in general. Either his ladies were trailing behind him like some disciples looking for his approval, or he was jumping through endless hoops for them. A game, almost, one Tony doesn't actually enjoy all that much. Something he just endures, and then a half smile and a shrug, as if to say, what else is there?

His exes also seem to have a troubling habit of ending up insane. As much as Clint likes to joke that it's an inevitable reaction, Steve's sure they start out that way; there's just something about that that seems to attract Tony. It's a subject Steve's wanted to broach with Tony a few times, but is at direct odds with respecting his privacy and decisions.

Steve wished Tony cared more, though, that he used better judgment when getting serious with someone. That he could at least tell a borderline psychopath from someone who would treat him properly, wouldn't depend on mind games.

Steve wouldn't mind being that someone, he realizes. Idly, of course.

But then, Tony probably wouldn't be seriously interested in someone like that, and it surprises him how disheartening the thought is.

The Tony Stark on paper is staring up at him with a careless grin, a dare.

He'd kissed Sharon even when it seemed like she could barely stomach the sight of him. But maybe he has more to lose with Tony.

A shift, Tony's sitting up slowly, and Steve pulls back from his thoughts as if scorched, feeling caught and surprisingly guilty.

"Good morning?"

Tony doesn't respond. Instead, to his horror, Tony lets out a moan, deep and satisfied and shuddering, and suddenly Steve is miles away, somewhere warm and private, drawing more of those noises out of Tony's throat.

A shake of the head and he's back in the abandoned office building.

Tony's settled on his haunches, head tipped back, pupils blown and eyes half lidded. He's clearly not awake, still loose and relaxed, and for a moment, looks like the Tony Steve remembers -- fresh faced and - really, with his hair so disheveled, cheeks so defined - beautiful. But the immediate, constant worry, of course, taints it.

"Tony?" Steve asks, sitting up. And Tony had laughed at him for suggesting a noise.

"Steve," Tony says in a low, content- sounding hum, voice practically rumbling. "We need to run."

Tony doesn't resist but is unhelpfully limp, stumbling along at his side, and they're entirely too close for Steve's liking when the building explodes, hot and jagged against his back.

*

2235
Three blocks away, and Tony is still more dazed than not, blinking slowly in the passenger's side, watching Steve curiously as he makes it back to the car. "Where'd you go?" he asks.

"I was calling a fire station. I said that when I left, remember?" Steve says, but Tony just stares blankly. Eerie. "You alright?"

Tony continues blinking, digesting that slowly, then he nods, distractedly.

"What happened, there?"

"I accessed . . ." He clears his throat. "For a second, while it was in my head, I accessed Extremis. I think they left it open for me, I fell for some trap  I'm . . . uh," he huffs. "I don't really feel . . . " he groans, head dropping forward listlessly. "But I managed an emergency lockdown. We should be safe for the next five hours."

"What sort of trap? A virus?" Steve demands. What is it doing? Slowly eating at Tony's brain? "Could they be tracking us now?"

"It's  no, they can't, I had blocks set up, Osborn couldn't introduce any . . ." he brings both hands to his face, rubbing at his eyes. "Oh." He's frozen, hands pulled down enough for Steve to make out his eyes, which are wide. "I'm drunk."

It's a surprisingly calm statement. "What?" Steve asks, taking to the air, because he really needs something to do with his hands, some kind of distraction.

"He fucked with my head," Tony groans, leaning forward and covering his face again. Steve hesitates for a moment, then rests his hand on Tony's neck; the skin is hot to the touch, damp with sweat.

"Should we go see Hank?"

"No, no," he says, immediately, straightening, as if proper posture will be enough to trick Steve into believing he's fine. "It'll wear off. Did you save the Sodomizer?"

"It really needs a new name," Steve says, handing the device over, and Tony grabs it with both hands in obvious relief.

Despite Tony's reassurance, his condition only gets worse as they fly. His fingers are clumsy as he fiddles with the device, and what's probably worse than the actual chemical imbalance is Tony's reaction to it; he's clearly close to losing it, breathing hard and shifting restlessly.

"Look," Steve starts, ready to tell rather than ask about visiting Hank, but Tony's grabbing at his arm, pointing off to the side.

"Steve," Tony says. "There's construction."

His question of what, or why it seems to bother him so much is answered when he leans over to get a better look, angling the car to provide some illumination from the headlights. Sure enough, the grounds of the Avenger's Mansion is littered with construction equipment, a distinct house shape in the middle of forming.

"That's not a parking garage."

"No," Tony says, sounding numb. "That's the mansion. They're rebuilding it. Some obsessed fanatic probably bought it up, is rebuilding it so they can get off on wearing other old shit of ours they bought and pretending to be a superhero."

Steve almost wants to land and poke around. He can't stop looking down at the building -- it's practically complete, it looks like all that's left are details, a paintjob, the glass for the windows, railings and doors.

A tremendous CRASH interrupts him, however, and the car shakes violently under his hands, Tony swearing in surprise. It's the kind of impact that takes years of training to work out; without it Steve would've been at a loss to place its source, because it certainly felt like the world at large had simply started shaking the car like a kid with a snow globe.

He does have that training and experience, though, and it's telling him that they hit something beneath them, scraped against a building, but the projected skyline in the dashboard confirms he's well clear of the city below.

"What--" Tony asks, unbuckling his seatbelt to get a decent look behind them. There's a sickening crunch, and the car shudders, losing altitude in violent, angry jerks, and Tony flies up in his seat. The sudden motions finally get to him. He's always been a sick drunk, and Steve grabs the back of his shirt on reflex, keeping him from falling out as he vomits over the edge of the car.

"Shit--" Tony says suddenly, flinging himself back, slamming into Steve's side, scrambling to regain his drunken balance. Steve immediately sees why; a large, green hand is coming up from over the side, the metal of the door bending and cracking under its grip, finally popping open under its weight. Steve struggles to keep the car upright as Hulk clings to it in midair.

"Bruce?" Tony asks, and the expected, heavily browed face appears, but there's something slightly off, and Steve finally places it: his hair is shaggier than Bruce's is, as Hulk, and paler brown than his usual black.

"That's not Bruce," Steve says, raising their elevation, to avoid scraping the Hulk off on one of the high-rise buildings.

"WANT!" roars the Hulk, now lifting its leg into the car, and Steve wrenches the wheel to the side to compensate, but they still end up flying sideways. Tony's too slow in his drunken state; he grabs wildly for the arm rest, the seatbelt, Steve's arm, but can't get a decent grip, sliding out the open door.

Steve curses silently, reaching after him as much as he can while keeping one hand on the wheel. Tony's managed to grab onto the now-open car door, and dangles about three hundred feet above the city.

"WANT FLYING CAR!" the Hulk demands, raising one fist.

Steve tears his gaze away from Tony's weak grip on the door to look where they're heading.

"It's all yours!" he says, releasing the wheel and diving out the passenger side, grabbing Tony around the waist as he goes, dropping through the air in a controlled fall.

He lands, one hand on the back of Tony's head, the other around his waist, pulling him close enough to roll to a stop as one on the hotel roof. The flying car, holding the still roaring Hulk in the backseat, plows into the side of three foot thick billboard, immediately crunching into useless piles of metal, flinging the Hulk through the sign.

"You alright?" Steve asks. He'd instinctively stopped the roll with himself on top, shielding Tony's body from the potential explosion.

Tony's eyes are round, and his hands grip Steve's arms like he's trying to brace himself, despite laying flat on the gravelly roof of the Hilton -- obviously still reeling. "Did you grab the Sodomizer?"

Steve's lips tighten.

"Shit," Tony says. Closes his eyes, then looks over Steve's shoulder at the massive hole in the billboard, the scattered pieces of burning car. "Shit," he says again. He seems to become aware of the way he's holding onto Steve, then. His grip relaxes, and his hands rest flat and warm against Steve's upper arms, then slowly slide off, a sort of lingering caress.

The almost intimate touch is at direct odds with Tony's suddenly pained expression, gazing up at Steve's face.

"What is it? Are you hurt?" Steve asks, pulling up and off the other man like he should've done whole seconds ago; even getting nicked by a corner or bumping against the ground at the rate they were falling could do serious damage. But Tony winds a quick arm around his neck, pulls him back down, tucking his face in Steve's neck, and he feels the scruff, the long lashes twitch, and grow suspiciously damp. "Tony?" he chokes out.

"I'm sorry," his voice is tangled in emotion, painfully human. "Steve. You--not even my parents. But I didn't kill my parents, so maybe that helped."

He could shake him off easily, just by standing. Tony wouldn't be able to hang on. They really should be moving. The Hulk could decide he wants them now that the flying car is gone. Tony could be wrong about the block he put out, they could get evaporated by a blast they'd never see coming. And Tony's not in his right mind, either, he probably wouldn't appreciate Steve taking advantage like this, listening to  to whatever this breakdown is.

It's something he obviously kept away from Steve for a reason.

"It's okay," he forces out. He's sure it is, too, just . . . Tony drunk and Tony unable to control himself, it's something he'd rather deal with clinically, from a distance. Not press up against, get any level of . . . pleasure out of.

"Every day, it hurt. Even when you came back, it still . . . " his deep inhalation is wet and shaking. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

The gravel digs into his elbows and palms, and if he just relaxed against Tony, it'd stop, but he can't bring himself to. This isn't happening, Tony didn't want it to happen, he didn't want to get drunk, he wouldn't want Steve to remember this.

Tony's other hand comes up, resting on Steve's chest, above his heart. Steve's not sure what he gets out of this, but a second later he's sniffling, releasing Steve's neck, wiping at his face and nose when Steve finally climbs off.

"Sorry," he says again, combing at his hair, but this time it's gruff and Steve just nods.

"We should probably find out what that whole green monster thing was about."

Steve wants to tell him to stay behind, try and sober up; he's of no use like this. But honestly, he's not willing to let him out of his sight. They make their way to the neighboring roof, Tony actually slumping against him in the elevator down, and he needs a healthy amount of encouragement to make it into the next hotel, up that elevator, and Steve more or less manhandles him up the service ladder to the roof.

Steve braces himself as he opens the door, pulling his shield out, although they're probably not lucky enough that the Hulk decided to just hang around until they decided to join him.

"Reed!" Tony says.

Mister Fantastic, stretching to pick through the flaming remains of their car and -- he's worked with Susan for years now, and it's still a little disarming how utterly gorgeous she is, it takes Steve a beat to even notice the large green monster that had attacked them is being held three feet off the ground up by a force field.

"Sue, how are you?" Tony says, and it's only a little slurred. Neither of them seem to notice, greeting them pleasantly.

"I see you found our car," Steve says, relaxing his arm, restrapping his shield.

"Oh, thank goodness," Sue says. "We were worried that our friend here might've maimed some SHIELD agents. Johnny," she says, into a communicator. "You can come back, we found the driver."

"Although, I should've figured," Reed says. "This has Stark fingerprints all over it." He holds up the Sodomizer, which looks cracked and beaten, but thankfully, not entirely broken. "What exactly are you making here, Tony? It's fascinating."

Tony's almost swaying on his feet, but he manages a run of technological babble that impresses Reed well enough, and the two are immediately off in a conversation that Steve can't even begin to follow.

"Sue," says Steve.


"Steve," she says with a smile.

"Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend there?"

"Oh, of course. Steve, this is Ollie. Unwitting volunteer for Reed's gamma experiment number six," Sue says in a lightly reproachful tone, and with a glance at her husband, but he's too engaged in his conversation with Tony to notice. "A few people were exposed, none of the others have actually Hulked out. He managed to take Ben by surprise and escape."

"How's Ben?"

"A headache, but he's fine," Sue says, then gives Tony's back a narrow sort of look. He's leaning rather heavily on the ledge of the building; it could easily be exaggerated nonchalance, or exhaustion, but she clearly isn't fooled. "He's not--"

"He's not," Steve says, immediately. "It's a long story."

She gives him another look, but Ollie stomps and she frowns, distracted, the force field visibly brightening. "Well, it's good to see the two of you talking. I've missed the Avengers."

"There are four teams of them," Steve points out.

"I know," she says, flatly.

"Sue," Reed calls. "I believe I'm going to be working in the lab tonight. Tony and I are going to repair his device, it's" He stops to watch Tony grip the ledge of the building and vomit, deeply, over the side. "--well, perhaps not."

"Tony?" Steve asks, when the man has a hard time pulling himself upright, staying slumped against the wall. By the time Steve gets there, puts a hand on his back, Tony's passed out.

*

2316
Tony doesn't have energy to actually resist, but he seems rather displeased with the situation.

"Where did Reed go?" he grumbles, directly into Steve's back, the rest of him utterly limp over Steve's shoulder.

"He's going to work on your  on the Sodomizer. You're going to sleep this off. And if you don't sleep it off, we're calling Maya Hensen."

"Maya's dead."

"No, she's not."

"Ah. Did you tell them I'm drunk? Does Sue know?"

"I told them everything. They know you had nothing to do with it."

"I should be helping Reed."

"You should be sleeping this off."

Tony looks like he's going to be sick a third time when Steve sets him down, as gently as he can. He wobbles on his feet, then collapses against the bed, but only because it's directly behind him. "This is Sam's place," he says.

"Yes it is." Steve doesn't bother undressing him except for his shoes, and Tony battles the sheets on his own, admirably. They end up half wrapped around his body, and he seems content with that.

"Sam hates me."

"Sam doesn't hate you."

"Thor doesn't like me," Tony says. With a surprisingly intense fervor, he adds, "I hate Hulks."

And then he passes out, the energy that inherently follows Tony Stark around going with him, shutting off like a light switch.

*

2350
Fatigue hits Steve for the first time when he sees the clock; almost midnight. He's not supposed to get tired anymore, the serum was supposed to get rid of that, and maybe it did. Maybe this is just mental, Steve thinks he should be tired; so he convinces himself he is.

Knowing that it's probably all in his head doesn't stop his yawn, though

The first thud is quiet enough that Steve assumes Tony's woken and stumbled into something. But it repeats, thud. Thud, again and again, slow and steadily increasing in volume. He places it as coming from outside, maybe a block or two away.

It reminds Steve of a drumbeat, and whatever it is -- it's on the move, getting closer; soon loud enough to rattle the glasses in Sam's cupboard.

Thud. Thud. Thud, it's become more of a slamming whump, the louder it gets.

He goes to the window, not sure what to expect; a slow moving car with ridiculously loud bass? He reaches the slightly vibrating glass panes just in time to see Bill Foster.

Walking down the street.

At three stories, Steve's eye level with Bill's shoulder, and he sees in particularly gruesome detail what decomposition does to a fifty foot corpse; the gaping wound in his chest has widened and weakened, dark, wet chunks falling with each step. A piece of cheek swings, loose and held on by threads, before breaking free and falling with a soft slap on the street below.

Whump. Whump. Whump.

Steve watches the body drag itself down the street. He's reaching for his shield when a small figure darts into view. Spider-man is bounding back and forth from Sam's building to the one across it, forming a web in the body's path.

Bill hits it and pauses, before jerking free and continuing. Spider-woman soars into view, hoisting Luke Cage, who winds back, and then bounces off the corpse harmlessly, back into Jessica, and they fall to the street, rolling.

Pete winds his web around Bill's neck, then drops down, where She-Hulk and Wolverine grab hold, and plant their feet . . . before being dragged down the street.

Steve watches for a moment, then drops his arm. They've got this.

*

06/16/09 0304 -5
Steve is too tense for honest sleep; he closes his eyes and falls into a sort of in-between doze, the bedroom around him blurring to an obscure shape, but never fully fading. It's not terribly restful, but it's saved his life on more than one occasion, and he's learned not to fight it when his nerves are too keyed up for anything deeper.

He wakes fully upon light footfalls, the sudden figure in the doorway.

"Tony?" he asks, voice thick with sleep. Or, half sleep. "What is it? You -- you alright?"

Tony stills; he'd obviously expected Steve to be asleep. He shakes his head. "Yeah, I'm human again. No hangover. I was just . . . checking."

"That I'm still breathing?" Steve laughs, still groggy.

"Yes."

He sits up, effectively sobered. Most of the people he's been around have gotten accustomed to the fact that he's alive again; he'd forgotten he ought to tiptoe around the subject.

Sometimes it's hard to keep in mind that he died at all; he was alive before, and is alive now, the death between is a vague, cold memory that might as well have been a bad dream.

"I woke you up," Tony says, apparently still asleep enough to state the obvious. A moment of silence, and then Tony runs a hand through his hair, rubbing the back of his neck. "I should've said this earlier. But I missed -- talking to you. I didn't want to ruin that. I'm sorry you died."

"So am I. It's more my fault than yours," he says. Default line. Steve's heard the same speech from about everyone involved with the attack -- from the judge who was supposed to hear the case, to a card from Hill -- except the people who actually did it; Red Skull and company.

Tony's actually annoyed at that. "I need to say this, Steve."

I'm sorry, I'm sorry, plays in his head, that strangled voice, and Steve shoves it away. It didn't happen.

"What were you supposed to do?" Steve asks. "I'll debate you on your insanity during the fight, on hunting me down to begin with," and would, but just now feels like a rather inappropriate time. "But I'm not going to forgive you for something you could've had no way of knowing--"

"I'm supposed to know," Tony says, sharp. "I could've -- could've upped your guard. Made the whole -- ordeal less public."

Ignoring the fact that Steve doubts anyone could've made it less public; "Am I hearing," he says, "that the reason you ignored me for eight months is because you decided you're to blame for not seeing the future? Calling yourself a futurist doesn't actually make you clairvoyant."

"I kept you away because I murdered Happy, and something used my head to kill Jarvis, and I'm not making the same mistake a third time."

"So you cross lines with Pepper, alienate Rhodes, push me away, and everyone wins?" Steve asks, and Tony stiffens. Steve probably isn't supposed to know about that.

"I'm tired of apologizing to corpses," he says. "Steve. I knew you had enemies. I could've done more. I could've hovered. I didn't. Because it would've been overkill, it would've made me look bad, it would've been uncomfortable for both of us. But you still would've been alive. I'm sorry I didn't."

It's really, no better than the apology on the roof.

 

"I have enemies now. I had the same enemies before that day, I'll have them as long as I carry that shield -- I accepted that, I carry it anyway," Steve says. "Tony. It's more my fault than yours."

Tony half laughs -- "You were captured--"

"I surrendered! I knew, and I know, what I'm getting into," Steve says, standing, striding over to Tony, who's retreated from the doorway to the opposite wall. "I'm beginning to think that you're still trying to cope with my death, while everyone else has figured out that I came back eight months ago."

Tony's face is unreadable. Not blank, but tense, eyes dark with an emotion Steve can't name. He's pressing himself hard against the wall as if trapped, which doesn't make sense at all, and Steve only cottons on when his eyes flicker down to Steve's bare chest, briefly. It's a look of intent. Brief and pained.

Oh.

That's what he got out of that drunken touch?

Too wound up, too caught up in trying to look anywhere but at the man in front of him, Tony misses the widening of Steve's eyes as he processes that.

Steve takes another determined step forward, a familiar sort of excitement building in his chest; the sort that comes when he's about to freefall off a great height.

"I've been here almost a year, Tony. You hadn't looked me in the eye twice before today."

Tony swallows, hard, and this time it's not just his gaze that shifts; his head turns to the side. It does very little to hold Steve off, if that's what he's after. Still close enough to feel the heat from the other man's body, see the imprint left on his cheek from sleeping hard without a pillow, to smell his sweat, the ages old aftershave. Engine oil, general metallic scent; the first thing that made Steve suspect Iron Man and Tony were one and the same, a lifetime ago.

He leans in, forearm against the wall, above both their heads. Showing all his cards. It was just one look -- he could be wrong, but he's lost, and lost, and lost, he'll bet it all if it means gaining this.

"Tony. Look at me."

A long, shaky exhale, and Tony does face him, although his eyes still flit across Steve's face, stubbornly refusing to lock. Even this bad, worn down and tired, eyes still red rimmed -- Tony's gorgeous. This close, it's hard to ignore how he parts his lips, then bites down on the bottom, slightly plusher of the pair.

Tony finally looks up then, in time to see Steve's lingering gaze.

His mouth goes slack.

Steve takes the plunge.

The goatee scratches more than Steve thought it would, and he likes it more than he would've thought, the constant reminder of who this is. Tony breathes, hot and dry against Steve's still closed lips. And this time it's Tony bringing their lips together, a desperate, broken moan, eyes closed tight.

Very aware of what this is, what he's doing, and how rash it is, how idiotic, Steve opens his mouth, deepening the kiss. Wrapping his free arm around Tony's waist, pulling him away from the wall, against him. Warmth, Steve's missed this, deeply, comfort and Tony; he groans, suddenly realizing what he thought was a mild hunger was near starvation, finding it difficult to pull away, even for air.

"Had a nightmare," Tony tells him between progressively deepening kisses, new angles, new scratches, new bumps and scrapes of teeth. Tony's arms are wrapped around Steve's back, fingers digging into his shoulders. "You were dead."

"I'm not," Steve reminds him, hoping it will be enough.

"You were dead--" Tony persists. Steve nips at his lip in light admonishment for continuing such a topic, after finding this, and gets a moan in response. "Steve," he says again, voice low with emotion.

There's no rush of realization, it was with a clear head that Steve bent, and pressed their lips together, but there is a steadily building feeling of euphoria; his chest filling with it, excitement, and he funnels it into yet another kiss, another series of scratches against his jaw and upper lip, nails against his shoulders. This is real, this is still happening, Tony wants it; maybe they'll never have to stop.

"I didn't save you."

And maybe not.

He doesn't pull back, but stills, lips brushing against Tony's as he says, "I came back."

"How?" Tony asks.

He pulls back at that, to get a decent look at Tony's face -- eyes still closed, lips wet and parted; Steve has to consciously resist going in for a second attack.

No one told him? Then again -- it had been more Sam and Bucky's story to tell, they'd always been there, given their direct approval before sharing it.

"Bucky made a deal," Steve says, vaguely.

"I read as much in the Bugle," Tony says. "You're not about to tell me I don't have more clearance than J. Jonah Jameson."

He does deserve to hear more, but it would be better if they wait until morning, because Steve can't think of a single way to start that won't be a little much after the conversation they just had, and he suddenly has a wide array of much more pleasurable ways to occupy himself, as long as Tony agrees to stay pressed against him like he is.

Wordlessly, he swallows, and sighs, and steps back, cocking his head. This is too long a story to be told standing in a dark hallway.

*

0345
There's a knock on Sam Wilson's door.

Keenly aware that if it's possible for Asgardians to find them, other, less jovial and pleasant company could do the same, Steve grabs his shield before opening the door.

"Hill?"

Maria Hill is standing in the doorway, in a slick black jumpsuit, staring expectantly, and ludicrously, all Steve can think to ask is, "You signed back up with SHIELD?"

She ignores him completely, forcing her way through to Tony.

"It's almost four in the morning, Maria," Tony says. "How did you even find us?" And then she punches him in the face.

"Wha--" he starts to say, but she follows it up with a roundhouse, and Steve barely dives forward in time to block it, grabbing her leg and sending her crashing into Sam's coffee table. "What the hell, Hill?" Tony asks, wiping at his chin, his lip split and bleeding.

She gets up without a word, and when she surges forward to attack again, Steve grabs both of her fists in his, pulling her close, an effective pin against his chest. "What's gotten into you?" Steve asks incredulously as she jerks in his grip, kicking wildly.

"Beating me up would have a lot more impact if I knew what it was about," Tony adds.

She says nothing, expression fixed in a mild scowl as she continues to struggle, trying her best to tip Steve back, but he's planted his feet.

"Oh," Tony says, mildly. "She's a life model decoy."

"What?" Steve asks; the body in his arms feels warm, feels soft, but he knows how life-like they're made now. "How do you know?"

Tony nods behind them; a second Maria Hill enters through the still-open door, then a third, and a fourth.

"So, Osborn found a way around that satellite lock," Tony says conversationally, backing into Sam's kitchen.

"It's a nice change of pace," Steve admits. Now free to use deadly force, he slams Hill's head into his knee, dropping onto her -- its back, and it cracks under his weight.

The two new Hills are cornering Tony, and three more Hills come in at once, blocking Steve from giving any assistance, but he's holding his own well. If only LMDs actually felt his strikes  as it is, the best Tony can really do is duck and dodge and block.

"What were you saying, though," Tony asks in a grunt, blocking his Hill's hits, stabbing somewhat wildly at its neck with the knife he grabbed. "How you came back."

"Last year," Steve says, ramming one from behind, which goes tumbling forward into a second, and they both slam into the wall, cracking plaster. "As you remember it, Peter's aunt died."

Smashing the Hill that just won't stay down gives him a pretty good excuse to not turn, not see the expression on Tony's face. There's no way Tony feels as bad about it as Peter does, but he wouldn't be surprised if it's close.

"The night she died, Mephisto went to Peter and made him an offer, to save May."

Tony looks sick, obviously losing his focus with the Hill he has left. "It must've killed him to turn that down."

"Duck," Steve says. Tony drops, and his shield soars through the air, knocking the Hill into the wall, slicing its midsection. "He didn't."

"Since May is still dead," Tony says, and three more Hills jog through the front. Steve brings up his arm, shielding his face from an explosion of glass as a fourth breaks in through the balcony door. "I'm assuming Mephisto reneged. Jesus Christ, how many did she make?"

"Fourteen by my count. And not quite. Apparently, magic of that degree leaves traces. Strange was investigating it, and could tell it had -- he called it Life and Death magic?" Steve slams a Hill into the wall with his shield, and it sizzles, falling, effectively decapitated. "Given the time frame, Strange assumed my life was the one traded. He contacted Bucky, who was able to track down Mephisto and break the contract he made with Peter. But when I didn't come back -- Mephisto offered him another deal," Steve disarms a Hill with a kick, than grabs it by the arm, whirling it into a second wave of Hills. "In exchange for everything that the Cosmic Cube gave him and those he knows. His sanity. Sam's . . . sanity. Sharon's . . . I'm not even sure, she won't tell me. And I woke up in the middle of the Arctic."

"That's . . . horrible, Steve," Tony says, immediately, then quiets. His jaw works, tensing, as it usually does when he's thinking hard in terms of emotions instead of electronics, and Steve waits.

"Nice follow through," he says, as Tony knocks a Hill back, then uses the momentum to swing it around, slamming its head into the wall.

"Thanks." He takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry I didn't think of a way to bring you back." It has the air of a long, closely-held confession, coming out in a sort of rush. "James shouldn't have had to give that up. He didn't do anything wrong. I'm -- I gave up. On you. I'm sorry."

Steve stares, and a Hill lands its fist in his gut because of it. He grunts, grabs it by the arm and flings it out the already busted glass doors, down three stories. "That doesn't count as giving up; I really was dead."

"James found a way to bring you back."

He slams a Hill headlong into Sam's television, and they both sizzle and fry, and Sam should be pleased. He was wanting a flat screen, anyway.

The room is so full of eerily silent Maria Hills at this point, Steve can barely make out the top of Tony's head bobbing as he moves.

"You alright?"

"I could use a hand," Tony says. "You know, I've had nightmares like this."

The LMDs make a satisfying crunch when they go down, crackling and popping, and the sound follows him across the living room.

"I would rather be dead," Steve says, appropriately serious, once he reaches Tony, "than have Bucky broken like he is. I would rather be dead than see you that way. I hate that that was the cost of me coming back. It took months for the guilt to fade enough to do anything. If I thought it'd do any good, I'd -- not be here."

Tony's silent. Smashing a chair over a Hill's back seems to help. "What did Peter give up in the first deal? What was Mephisto trying to do?"

Steve clears his throat. Uppercut, jab, shield to the face, and a Hill is sizzling on the floor. "Break up Peter and MJ's marriage."

Tony processes that with a blank expression, stepping backward as a Hill lunges, then holding it still for Steve to smash to the floor. " . . . Why?"

"He, uh, hated their happiness."

Tony's eyes narrow in thought, hurling a Hill off his chest. "I would've assumed he had bigger things on his plate."

Steve shrugs, and whacks the last of the standing Hills with an almost lazy wave of his arm. "Mephisto's never really aimed for the stars."

They wait for a moment in expectant silence, but the doorway and balcony stay empty. They both take in the wreckage of Sam's once- cozy apartment. The endless pile of crackling, busted- up bodies cover some of the damage, but not enough to hide the busted furniture, punctured walls, smashed windows and balcony door.

"Sam's going to be ecstatic," Steve says.

"What?"

"I just volunteered to fund a whole new . . ." Jesus, even the kitchen is wrecked, "house."

"I'm not as well off as I once was, but I can still cover this without it making a dent, don't worry."

"Sam won't take your money."

"We don't have to tell him," Tony says, wiping at a slowly bleeding cut on his cheek.

"What gave you that?" Steve asks.

Tony gestures behind him, a knife planted deep in a cabinet. "That was nearly my head."

Steve steps closer to look at the cut, notes that it's not deep, and then becomes distracted by the high cheeks, the expression, the lips and lashes and caught breath. His hand lingers on Tony's face.

Tony leans into the touch, but his expression is drawn. "You know what you're doing, right?"

Steve hesitates. "What's that mean?"

Tony had felt like he meant it in the hall; Steve's well aware of Tony's reputation, but -- well, it's probably foolish to judge the level of someone's commitment on a kiss, but Steve finds it hard to believe this would just be a fling to him.

And . . . it'd been a great kiss.

"You're -- you said that you've felt alone, lately. You know that I'm not Sam or Bucky or Sharon--" Tony stops at Steve's expression.

"I'm very well aware," Steve says, "that you're not Sharon Carter."

"This isn't small. I can't do this if it's small," Tony persists, so Steve maneuvers him against the wall, and kisses him again. It seems to settle all of Tony's complaints, he falls into it with enthusiasm, but still, it should be said. He wants to say it, wants Tony to hear it.

"I mean that. I mean this, I meant it, and I'll mean it again if you want me." A horrible thought strikes him, how had he not thought to ask? "You're not . . . seeing anyone currently, right?"

Tony laughs, and says no, and surges up and -- bites down hard on Steve's lip.

"Augh--"

"Fuck--" Tony's shaking his leg; a Hill, barely functioning and missing one eye, dragged itself across the floor and grabbed his ankle.

Steve punts, and the decapitated head flies across the room, body dropping, hand relaxing.

"We should get moving," Steve says, the image sufficiently sobering.

Tony nods, licking at his lips. "I really shouldn't have dumped all this on Reed."

"I don't think he'll mind. He acted like we were the ones doing him the favor," Steve says, maneuvering around the pile of LMDs to get to the bedroom, to his Captain America uniform. Reed had been thrilled when Steve suggested he work on it by himself, which had surprised Steve, somewhat. "Didn't you say you could've made that in high school?"

"The point was a system Osborn isn't familiar with. It's new. It's not the best thing I've ever made, but Reed doesn't often see something new. He likes new."

It takes Steve less than a minute to change, and another full one to make it around the sizzling arms, legs, heads and torsos, out into the hall of the apartment complex. Tony's solved his own shirtless conundrum with one of Sam's track jackets, zipped to just below his neck.

Sam lives on the top floor, which is always so convenient when jumping from rooftop to rooftop, but now means Steve can feel Tony's gaze hot on his neck for three flights of stairs. "Yeah?" Steve asks.

"It's just that when all my fantasies come true in one effortless swoop, I'm usually trapped in virtual reality by a psychopath or experiencing a lucid hallucination," Tony says, lightly.

"This  you wanted this? Before?"

"You have no idea," Tony says, and he's on the step above Steve, a good head taller, and he cranes his neck up for the kiss, pulling Tony down into it.

"Why didn't you say something?" Steve asks, tugs him down to his step, chest to chest, feeling each inhale, exhale, the shift of his body weight when Tony leans forward, into him.

"It just . . . didn't seem like a possibility," Tony says, pulls free, down a step and dragging Steve with him. "I'm not even sure it's happening now."

On the second story landing, Steve does his best to assure Tony that it is happening, here and now, and it takes them much longer than it ever took Sam and Steve to reach the bottom of the stairwell.

*

0510
The sun's just started to rise, the air's pleasantly cool, and two Maria Hills lie sizzling in the street. Steve hadn't gotten much sleep, and they're being hunted by a revenge obsessed maniac, but Tony walks two steps ahead of him before turning to smile at Steve, and he's pretty sure there's nothing this day could bring that he can't handle.

"I barely even remember talking to Reed last night. On scale of one to ten, how admonished should I act?" Tony says, rezipping the jacket, fiddling with the zipper.

Before Steve can answer, You weren't that bad, really, Tony's fingers drop, going slack, and he falls, limply, to his knees.

"Tony?" Steve asks, then again, more insistent, "Tony?"

Tony's mouth works silently as if possessed, too fast to be full words, ignoring Steve completely. His expression is smooth and empty, and he offers no resistance to Steve's hands on his shoulders, jerking him slightly, swaying with the movement.

The last word, Steve gets, the curve of Tony's noiseless lips, he can read it clearly. Execute.

It's a slight, growing heat that prompts Steve to turn around, just in time to see the bright red pulse of energy rip through the sky, pummeling into Sam's apartment. It explodes, blackened and burning wooden debris raining down on the two of them.

Sam's neighbors, in varying states of consciousness, now have an extra, wall-sized window, and Steve can see some of them blink awake in confused disbelief.

Steve throws Tony, still limp and unresponsive, over his shoulder, and moves.

*

0519
"We need that Hensen woman, Reed," Sue, still working at the ties around her robe, says.

The doors to the Fantasti-lab slide open smoothly, noiselessly, and Mr. Fantastic stands before a group of -- unnaturally large, muscular people, seated on plastic folding chairs, presumably unwitting volunteers of Reed's gamma experiments one through ten.

"Just a minute," he says, the pen in his hand moving furiously against the clipboard in the other.

"Reed."

And suddenly Reed only needs a second. "I believe Maya Hensen was last seen in Asia," he says, setting aside the clipboard and stretching over. "I've uploaded all the information into the on-flight computer, if you want to wake Johnny."

It's only then that he notices Tony's body, frowning. "This way," he says, directing them deeper into the lab, and his arms have already prepared the examination area by the time the rest of his body gets there, fingers moving deftly on a keyboard that only appears in a bright spot of color where he touches. Tony, still limp, eyes still glazed and blank, lies where Steve sets him on the table. "Did his condition improve at all?"

"He was fine after he woke up until a few minutes ago. The lock he had on his tech must've timed out." The weight gone from Steve's arms, they feel empty and unnaturally light, and he struggles for a moment with what to do with them, before crossing them pointedly across his chest. "He blew up Sam's apartment."

Steve only witnessed one of them himself, but the other attack on Tony's mind lasted moments, and he was fine almost directly after the attack on Steve's house. They hadn't even been aware of the attack in Oklahoma. Not like this, and the idea that Osborn is in there, found a way to stay, is unbearable. Steve explains this as best he can.

"I see," Reed says, and Steve's sure he's actually listening, it's just that he sounds utterly detached, is monitoring five screens and is typing on two different keyboards simultaneously. "I've activated every signal disruptor available here, Tony should be waking in a moment."

"Were you able to fix that device? Did you get anything off it?" Steve asks. "I'd really appreciate that location." He'd really like to know which direction to punch.

"Ah!" Reed says happily, and his right arm winds up, over the computer he's manning and out of sight. "Tony explained that he didn't intend for it to be a long term system, and there were some minor and not so minor issues with the information relaying processes, but I think if we put some real effort into it we could be looking at--"

"Reed," Steve interrupts, mildly pained.

"I mean, yes. I had to create an entirely new processor to even read it," Reed says, with obvious relish, his right hand returning, with what appeared to be a smallish, slick-looking calculator. He hands it to Steve without glancing up. "But it's functional."

Steve looks at the device, its small screen displaying a blinking Processing. "And?"

"It's still reading," Reed says, both his hands continuing their frantic movements. "The location it recorded will appear on that Fantasti-held once it finishes."

A soft chime, and automated imitation of Sue's voice, "Initial Scan Complete," drags Reed's neck to a screen with a sketchy outline of Tony's body on display.

"Hm. Interesting. Preliminary scans show no signs of foreign interference."

"That makes no sense." Could Osborn's tools really be that advanced? Tony had told him he'd more than likely got his tech from the Skrulls, so he supposes it's possible. But if Reed's scanners couldn't even pick it up, what chance did Tony's two hour RadioShack device stand of tracing it?

And  "Does that mean your signal disruptor isn't working?"

"Hopefully not," Reed says, brows drawn down in thought. "The complete scan should give us some idea. Although that Extremis woman would be an immense help in speeding the process along, this is all rather new to me." He sounds sufficiently entertained.

Steve takes turns staring uselessly at the handheld's screen, and Tony's still open, glazed eyes, and it does about as much good as you'd expect.

He doesn't jump, but tenses, at the hand on his back, the familiar voice. "Captain America."

"Jack!" Steve says, startled.

"How have you been?" Jack of Hearts asks, taking his hand. The purplish-black sheen that once covered half of him has spread; his entire body is now that same inky, polished color. It gives him a strangely exotic look, although the solid white of both eyes is slightly unnerving. He must've been truly out of it to not have noticed the man as soon as he entered the lab; he's not exactly inconspicuous, and an Avenger, and had died. Twice.

It's probably the courteous thing, to take the few steps away from Reed's workspace for their conversation, but Steve still frowns when taking the handful of steps that put Reed and Tony out of his eye line.

"I know I'm a little behind, but --"

"Yeah, I came back. Same week as you, but," Jack shrugs. "Jack of Hearts doesn't make front page when he's competing with Captain America."

"You should've looked me up," Steve says, trying to convince his body that it's time for pleasantries, not smashing -- well, something. Anything. Not being able to get how quickly the smile on Tony's face had melted to that blank, hollow stare out of his head probably isn't helping. "What are you doing here?"

"An experiment of Reed's went bad, exposed a lot of people. They're experiencing side effects of gamma radiation."

"And you can absorb gamma radiation."

"With a touch of a finger," Jack smiles. "Lucky for them the exposure was weak enough that it shouldn't come back after I'm through."

"You're looking," a lot happier than Steve had ever seen the man, positively giddy in comparison. "Better."

"Mister Fantastic and Pym figured out a way to stabilize me," Jack says, a half smile. "No more fourteen hour days in a concrete cell, just," he points to a metal band on his wrist. A small display shows bright red, digital numbers counting down from forty-five minutes. "Wait for this to charge and I can use my powers, and not self-destruct. As soon as this finishes, I can help the rest of these guys."

"Congratulations," Steve says, and genuinely means it. Tony had devoted a lot of his resources toward trying to help Jack when they were on a team; Steve can't wait to tell him.

"Cap," he says, suddenly very serious. "I've been working on something since coming back, and I'd like you to be the first to see it. It's a sort of thank you, for all you guys, the Avengers, did for me. It's not finished -- what?"

Steve's staring avidly at the device Reed handed him, which has switched from Processing . . . to Standby. The location spills across the display a second later, and Steve mouth works once in confusion.

"Reed," he says, turning back, having the decency to throw behind his shoulder, "Get back to me about that project, Jack. Reed." Reed's pouring over read outs when Steve approaches. He's not sure if Tony made the mistake getting the information or Reed did translating it, but, "this thing is saying Norman Osborn is here. Right under our feet, in Baxter Tower."

Reed's forefinger and thumb, stretched to resembling pinchers rather than fingers, nabs the device and carries it out of sight. "No. It says that Tony is in Baxter Tower."

" . . . Come again?"

"It's not Osborn causing this," Reed says, finally lifting up from his data, holding out the evidence for Steve too see for himself, as though he'd be able to make any sense of it. "It's Tony."

As much as he trusts Reed's intelligence, Steve doesn't believe it for a second. "If it's not Osborn, it's someone else using him. Tony wouldn't--"

"This all could've been taken care of months ago if Tony had come here to begin with," Reed continues easily. "It's not Osborn, or anyone else, which is why Tony didn't wake up after I blocked all signals. The orders are coming from Tony's mind. It's Tony. It's Extremis," Reed says. "Simply put, Extremis is a kind of computer program, and Tony is a computer--"

"I've -- I've heard that. A lot."

 

"By its established program," Reed says. "It doesn't have a higher function, it receives commands -- Tony's thoughts -- and executes them, like any tool. But the program's changed."

"Changed how?"

"It's . . . changed," he repeats, sounding distracted. "A deviant, latent code. It's giving a series of commands, and is using Tony's mind to execute them."

"Commands?" Steve asks, feeling sick. He'd been uncomfortable with Extremis, certainly, and while Tony's casual dismissal of his concerns had been annoying, it'd also been reassuring, in a way.  Proof that there was more to it than Steve fully understood, that Tony had a reason to believe it was harmless.

"Simply put, it appears the one it's operating on now is some kind of panic button. A self-destruct," Reed says. "I would assume this is a failsafe, if the subject was to, well, lose it on the group that developed this. The subject would interpret 'self-destruct' as jumping off a bridge, or stepping in front of a train. Tony's . . . mind could be interpreting the command as this. But it's hard to give a definitive word, Extremis was in testing stages when Tony injected himself. This could be a malfunction. Maybe the prolonged use simply taxed the program? It could be a manifestation of self-destructive tendencies; the program could've started being unable to differentiate between subconscious Id urges, meant to be ignored, conscious thoughts, commands.

"My money is on failsafe, though."

"Is . . . Tony still in there?" Steve asks.

"Yes, of course. It's just one line of code."

"That's making him destroy everything around him."

"A very troublesome line of code."

 

"Can you take it out?"

"That's . . . harder to put simply," Reed says. "Extremis is a part of Tony, down to his cell structure. He was remade, if you remember. Every part of it, even that one line of code, is in his every cell. I'm currently working on a program to purge the code, but a continual problem is . . . well, taking out a piece of foundation without making the entire tower collapse, if you will. And, considering how advanced the technology is we're talking about, even if I successfully purged it, Extremis would no doubt eventually fill the hole with a similar directive," he says. Then, with a touch on the shoulder that feels extremely mechanical, "Don't worry, Captain, Tony will be fine."

"But Extremis isn't going anywhere."

"Tony is Extremis. Maybe one day there will be technology that will allow us to go down to a microscopic level and rip apart cells that make up a living being without destroying it, but you won't find it in the Fantasti-lab, today," he says. Then stops. Considers. " . . . Although . . ."

"We found her, Reed!" Johnny Storm, rushing into the room. Behind him is a blonde -- behind him is Maya Hansen with dyed hair. Her scar is gone. Johnny's always been obvious when he's interested, and Steve momentarily amuses himself imagining Maya's face when Johnny inevitably hits on her. "Maya Hansen, Mister Fantastic."

"Oh good, this will be much faster with you here," greets Reed. "Tell me, do you think your program failed accidentally, or was that intentional?"

Maya scowls, and Steve actively dives for his comm when it buzzes for his attention.

"Rogers."

"Reyes. Captain. There's-- kind of a situation happening."

"Is it an --"

There's an explosion. It's not loud, obviously miles away, but it still lights the entire room from the gigantic bay windows, bright orange. Steve moves closer.

The Helicarrier is hovering over New York City, bay doors open wide and generally looking as though it were giving birth to countless litters of black, SHIELD issued jets and cars.

"Whoa," Johnny breathes.

"Uh. Status?" Steve asks.

"We don't know. Everything's shut down. The jets switched on autopilot, the cars took off on their own. The Helicarrier is locked down, no one can get off. We're calling all reserve agents, all hands, all the Avengers -- Steve, the holding cells opened. We've got some sickos up here, we've got Sin and Crossbones and an evil Iron Man from another dimension--"

"Reyes," Steve says. "Breathe. You have them outnumbered, I've seen you at hand to hand combat, you can hold your own. I'm going to get up there as soon as I can but --"

The lights in the lab flicker, and then go out. Steve watches as the rest of the city darkens all at once, as though some gigantic plug powering the entire city was pulled. There's a soft click, and the communicator in his hands dies.

"Reed?"

"Give the backup generators a minute," Reed says, mildly.

"Like, a literal minute?" Johnny asks, a beat later. "They're usually faster than this."

"Hm," Reed says, then stretches up and up. "I'll activate the standby backup generators; I should've done that to start with, they'll feed into local hospitals."

"Tony's doing this," Steve says, staring at the Helicarrier.

"I'm afraid I'd agree," Reed calls down.

"Uh, Reed, don't you have like, twelve blob monsters in cages in here? That could be escaping right now?" Johnny says.

"The standby backups take a moment to warm up, Johnny," Reed says. "The scope of the destruction is what makes me question your conclusion, Maya."

"You realize Extremis was originally a military funded operation?" Maya says somewhat hotly, hands on her hips, tipping her head up to continue their conversation.

"Yes, of course."

"It's not self-destruct. It's just . . . destruct."

A second explosion, louder this time, and Steve backs out of the lab. "I have to go. Keep me updated."

*

 

0554
The pavement of downtown New York City is still new from the last time something overpowered and angry slammed its fist into the ground, the sidewalks and streets pristine and smooth like an overnight snowfall no one's trudged through yet. From behind his shield, Steve watches a series of cracks web the pavement under the force of a flying car diving full speed into the center of the street, exploding in a fiery ball, glass exploding out from the buildings on either side.

Steve grits his teeth under the heat of it, forcing himself forward; a mix of disgust and relief when he sees one of the buildings destroyed was a daycare center that would've been filled a half hour later. He doubts there will be many other lucky strokes because of the hour; early mornings are when the city starts coming to life, and the citizens have become so inured to these kinds of attacks, he wouldn't be surprised if he'll have to bodily fight some of them on this evacuation.

He can't say he's surprised to see a large amount of pedestrians just a street over, continuing their morning routine despite the jagged shadows cast by the spastic light of a fire plainly visible.

"We're evacuating the area!" Steve hollers, "Please head--"

They stare, they hesitate, and SHIELD's jets operate pretty much silently when compared to other types of aircraft, but they're jets, and the sound is deafening when one soars overhead, entirely too low, riddling the office buildings on either side with holes.

They move.

It's a very easy thing to get overwhelmed in a situation like this; every direction Steve looks reveals a new emergency to be taken care of. There are streets of people that still need that final push to start evacuating, potential injuries, he knows looting has already started, and there are prisons getting swallowed whole by convicts who have realized the power's out.

But Steve is facing east on 87th street, so he'll keep facing east on 87th, moving forward until backup arrives.

There's a team of SHIELD agents in full riot gear setting up a makeshift base on the corner that visibly cheer at Steve's approach.

"The Avengers are here!"

"Sorry, just me. Status?"

 

"Prince," Agent Prince, a tallish woman with long dark hair and height says, taking Steve's hand. "SHIELD's mapped some vulnerable locations in case of emergency evacs; schools, hospitals, shelters --"

"That are being hit?"

"Yes sir, they seem to be the rogue equipment's primary targets," she says. "We're blocking off the areas, but the jets are shooting up anything they can get a decent aim on, and every time we blow one out of commission, another just flies in to take its place. And I hear they're having a hard time keeping government sanctioned teams out, the last thing we need is this catching, taking over tanks and then nukes. Excuse me, sir."

The agent turns, blasts a round into a flying car barreling in their direction; it drifts to the side, skidding into a building, into the street, ripping to pieces and starting several fires.

"Situation on the Helicarrier is unknown. And we need people on evac," she continues. "Every time we get a bystander out of the way, another one just pops up to take its place."

"Do we know the situation at Rykers?"

"No. There are three teams on the way there, but we've got no way of contacting -- excuse me, sir," she says, hoists a rocket launcher onto her shoulder.

As awful as it sounds, given his utter uselessness back in Reed's lab, there is something satisfying in moving as fast as possible, saving lives, hollering at the top of his lungs, sending his shield flying with enough force to rip cleanly through metal.

He's useful down here. In battle, a man doesn't think about a friend's dead weight in his arms, or the evil computer program devouring his brain. He just moves.

Steve sees him coming out the corner of his eye; he's just so certain the man will move that he doesn't bother to step out of the way, too busy hoisting an older woman to her feet. He is wrong, and a body barrels directly into his side, sheer enthusiasm almost knocking them both over.

"Gawrych," Steve says, steadying the councilmember before he falls on his ass; from the look of surprise on his face, he'd somehow missed Steve standing there. Choking the grip of a pistol he clearly has no clue how to handle, rumpled and sweating, a general mess, and it doesn't take long to figure out exactly what happened. He tightens his grip on the back of the man's shirt. "It's going to be hard to give 'on the run from SHIELD custody' a positive spin."

"Try false imprisonment. Their files are wiped," Gawrych laughs. "You've got nothing on me, I'm a free man, so you'd best remove--" And then he drops, utterly limp in Steve's grip, and it takes him a moment to process the bullet hole in the back of the man's head, because a shot fired from De Lisle is quite literally silent; cocking it back makes more noise.

"Damn it," Steve says, glancing up, and -- yeah, the Punisher's dropping down the fire escape of the building across the street.

Another day, another day when the city isn't under attack, when a flying car isn't headed directly for a pair of screaming students, Steve vows, and he knows it won't make contact, but flinging his shield in the general direction of Castle makes him feel just marginally better. Castle ducks, the disk ricochets off metal handrails and back into Steve's hand, and he surges forward, knocking the students down, rolling -- not far enough.

Not going to make it, no time to move, no room, Steve braces himself in front of the kids, probably a useless effort, the flaming heat is bound to reach them, but he's seen bigger miracles happen -- he grits his teeth --

But the impact doesn't come.

Steve glances over the edge of his shield, and all he can see is the back of a hand the size of Rhode Island.

"Need an assist?" Hank Pym's voice, magnified as it always is at this size, booms over the sound of metal crunching, screeching, bending as he crumples the car in his hands like so much paper.

Considering how many times a day Steve's life is precariously close to ending, his knees feel surprisingly weak as he climbs to his feet, the students scurrying to safety.

"Come on, Hank, I'm sure Cap had that," Cassie Lang, thirty feet tall and leaning over another building, says with a smile. "You were just about to dazzle us, right?"

"I was just about to dazzle you," Steve agrees.

"Yeah, none of those agents knew anything either--hey, Cap," Amadeus Cho says, jogging around the corner. "It sounds like a hack job on steroids to me."

"It's a little more than that," Steve says.

The Mighty Avengers collectively turn to look at him, but before it can be asked, and Steve is thankful for every delay, because he's really not sure how to word this, another team quite literally flings into view.

"Know the great thing about having friends as tall as skyscrapers?" Spider-man says. "It makes meeting up so much easier! Sorry about that, kid." Cassie winces, picking at some webbing that landed on her cheek as he darted by. "And you know, I'm always sad when I don't wake up in a blind panic at five in the morning because of a white alert, so this is looking like a pretty good day."

"What are we looking at, Cap?" Clint asks, as the rest of the New Avengers filter onto the street; She-Hulk apparently joined the team in place of Bucky, and at some point along the line, it looks like Quicksilver left the Mighty Avengers and was replaced by Wonder Man. The sight, a massive group of teammates that Steve would trust with his life crowded onto one street, as heartening as it is, gives Steve pause.

He has their undivided attention as he pauses, takes a starting breath in. "Extremis--"

Immediate dissent. "That's Stark's toy, right?"

"I thought we were done with that," Hank says. "I thought the Skrulls disabled it permanently."

"Does this mean Stark lied about something?" The level of venom in Peter's voice is disconcerting. "I can't believe it."

"He didn't lie. He said it was out of commission, and it was," Steve says. "It's reactivated, and malfunctioned. It's using Tony. It's been steadily increasing the attacks on him, and--"

"His penthouse yesterday," Cassie says, eyes widening.

"Yes," Steve says. "And now it's taken full control."

"How does a computer program take control of a person? Extremis never did that before," U.S. Agent asks skeptically, uniform already ripped at the shoulder, skin underneath the bright red of an energy burn, and Hank bends low to explain it to him.

"It's Wanda all over again," Simon says, sounding surprisingly numb, tipping his head up as a jet blasts overhead.

"No, it's --" eerily similar. And as it hits him, Steve realizes they're lucky Tony hadn't actually snapped, that it's an artificially-powered break down; it's not as though they hadn't been aware of what was happening. It's a wonder, Steve realizes, he hadn't started drinking. "We'll worry about that later."

"And we're sure it's this program, not just Stark?" Luke asks.

Steve gestures at the burning elementary school behind him. "Do you really need me to answer that?"

Luke shrugs. "Just saying."

 

"Where is Tony?" Hank asks. "I should lend a hand."

"Reed's got help, they're working on it in the Baxter Building," Steve says. And as much as he would love to throw every bright mind at the problem, "but we need heavy hitters down here, Hank."

The already tense conversation falls into an awkward pause, and everyone reflects on how Hank is chairman of his team of Avengers, and Steve is very much not; then Hank nods, once.

"Sorry we're late!" says . . . a member Steve doesn't recognize, of a team Steve doesn't recognize.

"Trust me, we didn't miss you," Bobbi says.

"Uncle Hank, we should've shrunk. Then they couldn't've found us," Cassie says in a soft tone, and Steve's not sure if she's aware that it carries over the entire block, given her size.

"Who are these guys?" he asks.

"We're the Stealth Avengers."

"It's Dark Avengers," Clint says. "Changing your name doesn't magically make you good guys."

"We got rid of the bad apples," says Moonstone, who Steve places now that she's finally worked up the decency to shed the Ms Marvel suit, back to her slick white one. "Unless you're going to say it's impossible for a former criminal to reform, Ronin."

Clint opens his mouth and Steve quickly steps in. "Right. And who are you?"

A second team of misfits Steve's never seen before in his life appears; mostly teenagers with street clothes.

"The Young Avengers. I'm Melter," says Melter, a young man wearing a Spider-man T-shirt says, stepping forward.

"We art the former Dark Young Avengers," says Enchantress, who's apparently taken to speaking in an obviously fake Asgardian accent. "We have yet to conjure a new appellation."

"You're like, forty," says Peter.

"And you're twelve," sneers Charcoal, a large monster of a man, an ex-villain Steve could've sworn was dead. "Once again, the great Avengers are heroically cleaning up a mess one of their own screwed- up teammates made. Don't get all high and mighty with us."

Steve opens his mouth, but it's lost in the immediate flood of rebuttals, and he's pleased to hear more than one expressing the same sentiment as Cassie's rather eloquent, "Bite me, Iron Man's a hero."

"Told you it was Stark."

He stiffens at the sudden voice, soft and low next to his ear. "Bucky," he greets, then processes what he actually said. Possibly a joke, but his expression gives away nothing.

"Rykers is a mess," Bucky continues. "They need backup. I'm going to see what I can do about the power out."

Steve nods. "Do you need a hand?"

He honestly can't tell if Bucky's considering or just unimpressed. Then he nods. "Alright."

Steve turns back to the mess of arguing, splintered heroes and villains. This is chaos. Steve grips his shield, "Avengers!"

They stop -- a promising sign.

"Cho. You, Jocasta and Bucky are getting the city's power back on," Steve says.

"Are we?" Cho says. "That's awfully impressive of --"

"Hercules," Steve says. "Agent, She-Hulk, Wolverine. You're going to Rykers, assist with the escaped prisoners, at least until the power gets back on.

"Spider-woman, Wonder Man and --" Steve stops when he gets to Hank; that's not the Wasp costume he's been donning recently. It's not Yellowjacket's or Goliath's or Ant Man's, either. "Hank. You three get up on the Helicarrier and stop these things from coming down, assist the agents up there.

"The rest of us will focus on evacuating, and the jets." Everything else SHIELD is throwing at them only has one go; once a car is smashed, it's smashed. Jets have multiple rounds of ammunition, they need to get them on the ground.

There's another pause, the New and Mighty Avengers look to their respective team leaders, and finally Clint coughs.

"You heard the man!" he says. "Luke, you're with Bobbi, Peter with me. Let's go!"

"Except you six," Steve says, pointing at the Dark Young Avengers with his shield.

"What?" Enchantress asks.

"You kids are going to go home," he says. A brief staring contest. "Now."

 

"Come on, guys," Melter mutters, sounding truly dejected.

"Fascist," sneers a young woman, what little hair not buzzed close to her scalp bleached blond, in a startling display of ignorance. But they comply.

"Vision," he hears Hank murmur, "Make sure they actually leave."

Vision nods, and fades from view.

*

 

0705

"Uncle Tony?" Cassie's paused in mid-stride, staring into the distance.

"That was fast --" Spider-man stops. "Oh. Wait."

Specks, dotting the horizon, smaller than the rogue SHIELD jets and cars, every make and model of Iron Man Tony's ever put together approaches rapidly. There's quite possibly hundreds, blasting down almost idly at the streets below, handfuls every now and then breaking off, out of sight, targeting something in apparent need of destruction.

"New plan!" Clint yells. "Everyone throw everything they've got at the army of Iron Men!"

Swearing tightly, Steve dodges an incoming car, and, taking a wild stab, hurls himself inside as it skids by. Fumbling a minute, he gets his hands on the wheel and -- it responds. Steve pulls it up, taking it higher.

Stabbing at the communicator in the car's dash, he makes contact with Reed's lab.

"Reed? You there?" Steve says. "It'd be really nice if you could start that purging thing you were talking about!"

"It's just started," Maya finally answers, the signal weak enough that her face flickers, voice thick with static.

"And we're reasonably positive he'll survive the process," Reed adds.

"Why are they still attacking?" he asks, currently using evasive maneuvers on a trio of pursuing Iron Man armor, then a steep, sudden dive to dodge a jet's stream of energy blasts.

"Tony wasn't controlling each move, he sent out one order, it would take a second order to stop them, which Tony is incapable of now that--"

"Got it," Steve says. "When will we know if it's working?"

"Extremis should be purged completely within the next thirty minutes, we'll know then."

"Minutes?" Tony had told Steve in detail about the bleeding out, the disgusting scab cocoon, the bizarre dreams. "It took hours before."

"It was working from scratch then," Maya says. "I gave it a blue print it can just revert to. A last save point."

"It really is the most remarkable project I've seen in months, Captain," says Reed's head, floating by behind her.

"He won't remember the last few days," she continues. "But he'll be fine."

He doesn't stop steering, he doesn't stop moving, he's still aware and functional, but numbness hits him. "What?"

Maya blinks at his tone. "Why? Does he have information you need?"

"Yesterday --" Steve needs yesterday. "He can't forget yesterday."

She purses her lips. "I said a few days as a precaution," she says. "It's impossible to pinpoint what he'll forget and remember, what will be distorted. Extremis cycles through memories a few times before it becomes fixed, like a conventional brain does. Anything that's still cycling isn't going to be permanent, and isn't going to be able to be transferred. I can't do any more than that."

"Right," Steve says. Ends the transmission.

He'll remember. Steve's sure.

Then again, it was just a few hours. Possible to recreate, now that Steve knows that it's there to be found --he tells himself, there was nothing particularly exceptional about that nightmare Tony had had, the dark hallway, that apology. But of course, as he thinks it, he can't help but analyze each step, each word. What had been the tipping point? Or was it another time entirely, in the abandoned offices? Something that had been slowly growing in Tony's head, starting months ago? Years?

He'd obviously been willing, but Tony has a new attachment to go along with each escapade. But -- Steve wouldn't just be one of the many. He said as much. Steve relaxes slightly when he recalls that, replays it in his mind, clings to it.

And if he doesn't remember, Steve will just remind him.

He wrenches the car up and back, and allows gravity to do its thing, dropping like a rock out the now upside down vehicle. Two of the suits dodge in time, but one flies into the grill, and the explosion warms Steve's back as he falls.

It's a bit higher than he'd anticipated in his distraction, an impossible height to roll off, super serum or no. He pulls himself into a crouch, shield under his feet, it's going to have to absorb the impact, which leaves himself painfully open for the two remaining suits, now circling closer. Without Tony to man them, the suits seem to be more for show, slow and ineffective, but Steve's not exactly a small target. Eventually, they'll get lucky.

"What the hell," a familiar voice, and a familiar grip on his wrist hoists Steve up, "did you do to my apartment?"

Steve lifts his shield, and wants to laugh in relief. "Welcome back, Sam."

"Yeah, thanks," he says, flatly, swerving to evade repulsor blasts.

"The apartment is a long story."

"Does it have to do with how everything with a computer is suddenly going evil and attacking people? Cause I'm pretty interested in that story."

"Extremis --"

"Never mind, I think I've heard this one before," Sam says, dropping Steve on a roof, landing lightly beside him

"I'll explain later," Steve says, firmly. "How about you? You're-- you figure yourself out?"

"As much as I'm going to," Sam says. "Choices, you know? Choices make --"

A series of primal, guttural roars bring their attention up. It's blocks away, but Steve can still recognize which floor of Baxter Building that is, and the green figure that's busted through the supposedly unbreakable glass that's now standing there. It jumps down the forty something flights. Six, seven, eight similar figures follow, and Steve sighs, already bounding onto the next roof.

"I'll explain later," Sam says.

It's almost an embarrassingly strong thrill that he gets, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, propelling himself up and over ledges and swinging off signs, when he can look to the side and see Sam's familiar figure cutting confidently through the air beside him.

It takes less than a minute to arrive. The Hulks, wonderfully simple beings that they are, attack the first things that hit them -- "Donna CRUSH plane!" roars one, slamming a massive, meaty fist against the weakening energy shield, over and over, eventually dropping from the sky as the engine is ripped free, thrown across the street. Two more Hulks are plucking Iron Man suits from the sky, pulling the armors apart arm by leg, then crushing the helmets.

Jack of Hearts soars down. "Hey, sorry about that!"

 

"What happened?" Steve asks. The group in the tower wasn't nearly this Hulk-ified.

"Apparently it's not quite as simple as Reed thought. But I should have these kids fixed in a minute--"

"Are you kidding?" Peter asks. "They're doing great, leave them --"

A Hulk, having stumbled over a piece of debris, falls to the ground. Getting to its feet, it releases an unholy roar, shattering the few panes of glass still intact, grabbing the chunk of metal and hurling it as hard as it can in their direction. The three of them diving frantically out of the way, it explodes through a badly battered car, into an abandoned grocery store, then out again, showing no signs of slowing down.

"Fix them," Peter says. "Fix them now."

"Working on it!" he says, swerving out of sight, following a particularly loud Hulk.

"Spider-man, Bobbi," Clint barks. "Get up there and see if the Fantastic Four need any assistance!"

Peter finishes webbing an Iron Man suit to a lamppost, then flings by, nabbing Bobbi around the waist and slinging up and out of sight without a word.

"You know, the eerie thing about this," Clint says, as Steve flings his shield at Tony's white and red armor -- which catches it. Steve curses under his breath, pitching himself to the side as the armor chucks it directly at his head. "Tony could've done this at any time. When he had Extremis, he could've unplugged the entire world and bombed it."

"But he didn't," Steve says, rolling to his feet. Paling when he realizes what his shield plunged into when he dodged -- deep into the back of a flexing, eyes rolling with rage, Hulk. It reaches around with wild, undisciplined gropes, brushing against the metal disk planted in its back and howling with pain and outrage.

Steve tries not to think too deeply about it as he surges forward, jumping onto the monster's back and yanking it out with a wet shunk. He rolls off, not fast enough for the Hulk to have missed him, to not get blamed in its primitive mind for causing it that pain. It locks on his figure with heaving, snorting rage.

The armor flies closer to his left, and Steve barely has time to chose between a large fist to his stomach or a repuslor burning through his stomach. He blocks the repulsor blast, and the Hulk knocks him off the ground, across the street, into a wall, with dizzying force. Steve drops, gasping for air, head spinning, and dust and bits of broken concrete on the street around him jumping with each step as the Hulk charges.

*

0814
The most recent model of Iron Man armor is quiet, but it has a distinctive hum when it hovers, when it approaches. A purr, almost, and the sound manages to cut through the general mayhem of the battle, and Steve's --

Never been so disappointed to see War Machine.

"Tony's not in any of these, right?" Rhodes asks by way of greeting, landing heavily in front of Steve. He winds back his fist, and these Hulks aren't made of quite the same stuff as the original; when Rhodes smashes its face, it stumbles back, dazed, and drops.

"Thanks," Steve says, forcing himself up. Pain doesn't distract, doesn't have the cutting edge it used to, but it can still slow him down. This time when he chucks his shield at the armor, it sinks in, and the armor shakes, sizzles, and falls from the sky. "No, he's out of commission. They're empty suits."

Rhodes nods. "Hold on." Planting his feet, he grows eerily, perfectly still, the gold glow of War Machine's eye slots dimming. Now that he knows, Steve can hear the difference. War Machine's armor is similar, but it's a bit louder, an actual whir, which quiets as well.

Steve hears the soft whump, and it's invisible, but he feels the slight shift of . . . something that War Machine releases, radiating outward. The hordes of Iron Man armor, one by one, lock up tight, arms snapping to sides, legs snapping together, dropping out of the sky.

"Now," Rhodes straightens, the armor whirring to life again. "What's 'out of commission' entail, exactly?"

Steve takes a breath, "Extremis --"

There's a sharp buzz, and it actually takes him a moment to place it, frowning in surprise, opening his comm.

"Reyes?" he asks, holding a hand to Rhodes. "What's -- Status? You alright?"

 

"Steve, Cap, you should've seen me, there were some Avengers up here--"

 

"Reyes."

 

"I mean, we're fine. Power's back," and as he says it, the streets around them come to life with a sudden burst of noise, dozens of small chirps and buzzes and hums, deafening, but only for a moment, then it settles back into the regular background noise of the city, a spirit that the previous silence lacked. The dull plastic of a Coca Cola advertisement turns bright, neon red, stoplights and signs, alarms from the various buildings that have been utterly demolished sluggishly howling. "What's the status down there?"

"We're . . ." Steve pauses, watching a Hulk scream with rage, kicking at a suit of Iron Man armor that refuses to respond. "Getting it under control. I don't suppose you can do anything about these jets."

"We're working on it, Hank Pym is up here and he's looking at the systems."

"Rhodey."

 

There's that hum. Tony lands lightly, in a version of the suit Steve's never seen before. There are numbers scribbled onto various seams of metal, equations, obviously a prototype.

Reyes voice continues, Steve only listens with half an ear, watching Tony in what has to be a disturbingly intense stare. "Thank you, Reyes," he says, and closes his comm.

"Steve," Tony greets, is that nod stiff because of his armor?

"Tony --" He takes an aborted step forward, wanting to reach out, blurt out something that will inevitably sound painfully juvenile, considering the time and place.

Thankfully, he's saved by War Machine's, "I guess I'm good enough for you to talk to me now?"

"You have every right to be angry," Tony placates.

"Funny thing? I'm not," Rhodes says, and it's hard to tell for sure with the armor, but he actually sounds sincere. "I've hung around you long enough that at this point, getting totally ignored is like getting a Christmas card. Just another way of showing you care."

It's always odd, listening to War Machine and Iron Man speak to each other; the voice distortion is basically the same, but the tempos and body language are so wildly different, it's like listening to someone with multiple personality disorder carry on a conversation with himself.

"So, you done acting like an ass?"

Tony nods.

Rhodes gives him a searching look, then nods back, curtly.

 

"You all right?" Steve asks, the clears his throat, voice surprisingly gruff, even to his own ears.  He wants to see Tony's face, see him speaking, alive, get the image of him lying limp and comatose out of his head, but now is nowhere near the time.  "Did -- did they fix you?"

He sighs. "Extremis was purged without any significant complications."

 

A victory cheer would probably be in bad taste. "And you're filled in?" he asks, instead.

"Helicarrier's operational again," Tony says, nodding. "Ryker's and the state penitentiary are stabilizing, and the director managed to keep the National Guard out of the city. War Machine and I can finish off the stragglers, and we can call it a day."

"After you, boss," Rhodes says, and Iron Man launches up and away in an arc, War Machine close behind. Steve watches the pair of them burn through the air, Iron Man passing a jet, visibly disabling its shield and War Machine mows it down without so much as pausing. 'Stragglers' is putting it lightly, they're tearing through millions of dollars worth of SHIELD property.

"You and Stark kissed and made up, then?" Sam asks, dropping down beside him.

"You could say that," Steve says, evasively. Redwing eyeballs Steve closely on one side, Sam on the other, and there's a long silence. "Are you two talking about me?"

"Yep."

 

"That's very rude."

"Destroying someone's apartment is rude," Sam says. "You realize you're sleeping on the couch and I'm getting your bed, right?"

"About that," Steve says, hand on the back of his neck, somewhat sheepishly.

"Cap--" Sam barks a warning, and Steve glances up; the Hulk before has gotten to its feet, charging at him like a bull.  Steve barely has times to lift his shield, bracing himself for an impact that --

"IwanttoshieldCapmakehimsafe--"

-- never comes because a teenager just appeared out of nowhere and gave him an enchanted force field. The Hulk slams into it with enough speed that he bounces backward, stumbling to the ground, obviously dazed.

"Thank you, Wiccan." Steve stands upright, as the second, slightly smaller figure of Hulkling attacks the creature on the ground before it can recover.  

"Where do you need us?" Patriot asks, the transport spell's smoke fading slowly around him and his team, they glance around the wrecked city. Steve exchanges a look with Sam; he's not going to send them to Rykers, and everywhere else . . .

 

"I believe you're just in time to help clean up."

 

"I think there are a few other Hulks left, but," Cassie shrugs, hoisting a fallen billboard off the street, onto a roof. "You had to wake up early for the exciting parts."

 

"We came as soon as Vision told us about it!" Hulkling protests in a grunt, struggling to maintain the chokehold he has. 

 

"Hey, Cap," Patriot says.  "What's going on with the mansion?"

 

"I hope you guys aren't planning to replace it with something else," Wiccan adds, trained eye on Hulkling's skirmish, but he's obviously bothered by the idea.

"What are you talking about?" Sam asks. "The Avengers Mansion?"

"It's been blocked off, there's all this construction going on," Wiccan says. "I used to go there to hang out."

"I thought Iron Man had it declared a landmark," Hawkeye says.

 

"I did."  Iron Man lands on a nearby roof, his voice broadcast loud enough for them to pick up, continuing to blast upward. "A privately owned landmark. Unfortunately, I lost the rights on it."

"Wait, so  they could be building anything on there? Like some hotel?"

 

"Unfortunately."

 

They look so collectively disheartened, and Steve probably shouldn't be surprised that it bothers them, too, but it does.  This feels like something that only he and handful of others should be upset about.  Similar to what he felt when walking down the streets of his old neighborhood, the streets and homes he remembered torn down and rebuilt, or some cases simply gone.

 

It's strange, going through it multiple times hasn't made it any easier.

 

He'd been kidding when he mentioned clean up, but it turns out to be a welcome distraction and the Young Avengers are helping clear the streets of rubble, bracing various compromised buildings by the time Peter and Johnny come by to collect the Hulk that Teddy's subdued.

 

Eventually, he manages to pull Tony to the side, unable to wait any longer. Impatient to hear how much time Tony lost.

 

The conversation they had feels more and more distant with each second, the possibility of Tony forgetting what he'd said, what he'd felt, and an absurd fear of someone, stumbling on it first, seem uncomfortably possible.

"Cap," Tony says, lifting the faceplate. Steve's actually startled; he'd gotten so used to the haggard, worn man. A bright-eyed, well-rested and apparently remade Tony is disarmingly gorgeous.

Steve considers him for a moment, arms crossed.

"Steve?" Tony asks again.

"What's the last thing you remember?" he asks, finally; upfront is best.

Tony looks Steve up and down, seems put off by the stiff posture, answering woodenly, at first. "Maya told me I lost some time. Hours. The last thing I remember," he huffs a little, eyes darting to the side. "The tower had exploded. My armor was ruined. I was practically delirious, looking for somewhere to collapse, a place I'd be safe."

"You came to my place," Steve says, disappointment hitting so hard it's almost numb.

Barely anyone contacts him on anything other than his SHIELD communicator, or various Avenger communicators, it takes him a second to place the sudden, tinny song -- he fumbles with the cell phone in his pouch. "One second," he says, strangling on the words; Sharon's number is on the ID bar.

"Hello? Sharon?"

"It's a missed call," Tony supplies, almost offhand, just as Steve pulled the phone away, to see if she'd hung up. "That ringtone. It means you got the call earlier and you missed it. Call her back, we'll talk later."

"Wait," Steve says. If it was an emergency, she wouldn't have used his phone. But she had, probably because he'd been too caught up to call her hours before, and he feels a faint stab of guilt, hoping she hadn't thought he'd given up on her.

Tony does wait, his hand flying up to the faceplate, fingers moving nervously against it. Without thinking, Steve steps forward, catching Tony's wrist. He isn't going to start hiding from him, not now.

Confused, exhausted and desperate, it was Steve's door Tony collapsed at. Where he knew he'd be safe. It wasn't just chance, Steve's sure of that now. More sure every second, after Tony's confused glance at his hand, his expression taking on that trapped look, the one from the hall.

"We spent a lot of time together, today," Steve says, stepping closer. "A lot happened."

"I destroyed a lot of property," Tony says, with a self deprecating nod.

"Tony--"

"Steve!" Jack. Jack dives down next to them, practically buzzing, Steve drops his hand, which he only just realizes was still on Tony's wrist. "And Tony, both of you, perfect. I just finished helping the Fantastic Four, so I can show both of you at the same time."

*

0915
"Originally, I was going to give it to the Young Avengers. I figured you've all got your own places now, they'd be better than this, you know, more advanced. Cause I went off the old floor plans, I didn't have them update anything," Jack is saying, arms out as he leads them down the familiar halls. He's right, it's eerily, perfectly similar. The same mahogany woods, the same tall doorways, the same layout.

It's the Avengers Mansion, down to the last shiny, copper knob.  "Anyway, I was thinking," he says. "Now that Tony's brain went insane and blew your houses up, maybe you guys would want it."

"You're Hart estate," Tony says, nodding to himself, eyeing the ceiling. "Of course he's Hart estate, how did I miss that?"

"Getting slowly tortured by the computer in your brain might have had something to do with it," Steve points out, unable to stop moving down the hall, touching a door, opening another. The library, the study. Unfurnished, and there's still the smell of freshly cut wood. The walls are unpainted, and there are still foot prints of construction workers scattered across the floor. But . . . it's home.

"I told you about that?" Tony asks.

"You told me everything, Tony," Steve says, walking back to stand in front of him. And then again, "Tony."

 

"Alright, obviously," Tony starts, face tilted down, like he can't stand to look at Steve head on, stepping back. "Something happened  yesterday. I don't know what kind of lies I told you--"

"You didn't."

"Steve, you wouldn't be looking at me like " he gestures, practically accusatory, at Steve's face. "Obviously I  I was compromised enough yesterday," he says this with clear, sheer disgust at his imagined, weak self. "To lie to you, tell you whatever you wanted to hear. I'm going to apologize now, and you're going to forget it happened, and  Steve, seriously, stop looking at me like that."

"Like what?" Steve asks, knowing it's probably not fair to use that teasing tone.

Tony's jaw flexes, obviously unsure how to classify Steve's gaze, or maybe just not wanting to word it himself, take the responsibility for releasing it into the air.

"Like I'm glad you're alive?" Steve offers.

"Like you trust me."

 

"I'll just . . ." Jack trails off awkwardly under their combined, surprised stare, hands up as he escapes down the hall.

 

He'll be embarrassed later, refusing to be distracted now, advancing slightly, and this time Tony doesn't fall back.   "Why should I stop? I do trust you."

"Because it's not real," Tony says. "I would rather have you honestly distrusting me than tricking you into it."

"The only thing you did yesterday was tell the truth," Steve says. "That's all I've ever wanted from you. You told me about your satellites, and you apologized for killing me," something they'll have to discuss again. "You apologized to Thor."

"Did I apologize for SHRA?" Tony asks. "Because that was a lie."

 

"No," Steve says. "You didn't say anything you didn't mean."

"You can't know that."

"I know you, Tony. You tried to make me think I didn't, but I do. You came to my door because you knew I could help you," Steve says. And he did, and he's practically giddy with the realization that everything he's been lacking is coming back to him, piece by piece. "You told me that you wanted me."

"That's--"

"And I want you."

It's rare to see Tony's so thrown off his guard, his expression as he stumbles to process this is practically endearing. "It--no," he finally decides on, eloquently.

"We had something, the start of something," Steve says. "It was real. And we could have it again. I want to have it again."

 

He likes thinking of Tony in that light. He likes the warmth of it, and a pride, almost, that comes with it, like wearing America in his name, knowing Tony, all that Tony entails and does, was his, even for those few hours. He'd liked that, he'd really, really liked that.

"This is very surreal, Steve," he says, after a lengthy pause.

"I can't imagine." If he had been the one to forget, and Tony was the one trying to bring it together? Or would he just let it go? Resigned, he realizes, yes, Tony would. He'd probably see it as doing Steve a favor. And maybe Steve wouldn't be as receptive to hearing it, without experiencing yesterday firsthand. But he pushes those thoughts aside, because that's, thankfully, not what happened. "You said you want me," he repeats.  "And I think you still do."

 

"It's not about what I want," Tony says.  But he's weakening, it's obvious how much wants it, and Steve wonders how long it was there for the taking. If it was always this obvious.  It sounds like surrender when he asks, "What, exactly, did we do?"

 

Steve's decided to answer demonstratively, seeing as it worked so well the first time, and he's developed a taste for it in the short time he had it, but Tony dodges his attempted kiss, turning to the side, expression tense.

 

A slight huff of disappointment, Steve doesn't pursue but staying close.  He's suddenly very aware of the armor encasing Tony's flesh, head to toe, cool and solid and unyielding between them, and how, any second, Tony could decide to close the one window of vulnerability over his face, take off into the air and Steve would be stuck, frustratingly earthbound, just watching him drift away and out of sight.

 

"If you honestly don't want this," he says, quietly, "say so and I won't bring it up again. But if you're doing this because of some martyr complex or you think I'm confused . . ."

 

"It would blow up in our faces."

 

"In the past day you've made me happier than I've been for months. Don't make me give that up, not because it could go wrong," he says.  "Please, Tony."

 

That's really not fair of him at all, and Tony has yet to say anything when Steve's damn communicator buzzes, effectively reminding the both of them that there's a reality beyond the three feet of the space they currently occupy.

 

"Rogers," he answers, without taking his gaze away from Tony's face.

 

"It's Reyes," he says, voice wound tight.  "We need you on the Helicarrier.  It's Sin and Crossbones--"

 

"I'm on my way."

 

"And Punisher," Reyes practically chokes.  "And the crazy Stark."

 

"I'll be right there," Steve says, and Tony's armored hand presses against his shoulder before he can pull away.

 

"This is a bad idea," Tony says, mouth tight.

 

Their first kiss was better.  Tony parted under him like he was receiving a gift, lingering, this time it's tense and aggressive, like he's proving a point.  It's over quickly and Steve feels like he was just sampled; like Tony had taken a quick bite for taste.

 

Tony's nodding to himself, licking his lip as the faceplate goes down. "Let's go save the Helicarrier."

 

Iron Man's arm around his waist, they lift off the front lawn of the mansion.  It's unfinished and rough around the edges, but the foundation is there, the frame is solid, it's only a matter of time. For the first time in months, Steve finds himself looking forward to tomorrow.