Disclaimer: I don't own Avengers or Matrix. I don't get paid for this.
Summary: Steve Rogers is offered the choice between the red pill and the blue pill.
Warnings: UWU (universe? what universe?), general creepiness and a very gentle mind-screw (this is actually milder than either of the canons), crack… oh, and naughty language
A/N: This was another of those gosh-darned plotbunnies that bite into my jugular and refuse to let go before they are satisfied. It's more of an intro than an actual story, and if anybody was interested in writing the actual story, I would probably be interested in reading it. I don't feel like writing it. I didn't even feel like writing this. Darn plotbunnies.
Tomorrow, I'm starting NaNoWriMo for the first time in my life. Wish me luck. Maybe I'll finally manage to make headway into writing that original novel I've been planning for years…
The Man Who Hacked the Universe
Steve could not get drunk, and he metabolized most drugs too fast for them to have a pronounced effect on him, but even so he found himself blearily waking up tied to a chair. The chair felt like wood, but when he strained against it, it did not break.
The room came into focus; he found that the puke green wallpaper was real, not just a symptom of the queasiness. Bile sloshed around in his stomach.
Footsteps sounded, heavy but muffled by carpeting. Steve turned his head to follow it. He squinted.
"Director?" he said, puzzled. What on Earth had happened?
The man turned; despite the fact that he was wearing sunglasses in the dark room, it was immediately obvious that it was a different tall, bald black man wearing a long black leather coat. The Director, aside from not being quite that old, did not have that distracting gap between his front teeth.
"Who are you?" Steve asked, testing the strength of the bindings. Whatever they were made of, he had not encountered the material yet. He was not sure he could break them.
"I go by Morpheus." The stranger took off his sunglasses. He had both eyes, and they seemed to see straight through Steve and into his mind. "Nick doesn't do extraction, so he sent me."
Asking 'extraction?' would have been dumb, and Steve liked to think that he was not stupid. Something very odd was happening. This man was probably insane, but he was the kind of insane that had access to cutting edge chemicals and technology that could contain a supersoldier.
"Are you from Hydra?" Steve demanded, scowling.
Morpheus joined his hands behind his back and raised his eyebrows, smugly faux-nonchalant with the aplomb of a well-paid French prostitute (Steve knew what he was talking about).
One corner of the man's mouth for a moment infinitesimally quirked up. He then sat down into the green upholstered chair, raising a cloud of dust, laced his fingers together and leaned forward until his face was inches from Steve's. "Let me talk to you about the Marvel."
Steve couldn't breathe. He fought his way out of a slimy cocoon and found out he was lying inside a transparent capsule. Maybe Hydra had caught him?
Where were the rest of the Avengers? Surely, they would come for him?
And why were his hands so tiny and thin?
…this was a very strange nightmare.
There was a sucking sound. Steve hit his head.
He came to in a hospital.
He had been rescued after all.
It took him a long while to convince himself to open his eyes, and a yet longer one to conclusively determine that, while he was lying in a sickbay bed surrounded by machines, this was neither a public hospital nor one of the SHIELD facilities. It wasn't even an SI clinic.
Instead of the quiet hum and distant voices that should have been there, Steve only heard irregular scratching and jingling.
The scratching noise was coming from a man leaning over the spilling innards of something that looked like it once might have been a robot shaped like a spider. He was dismantling a long, thin leg, or maybe a tentacle, made of little bits of metal, which he carelessly threw into a cardboard box; the screwdriver he wasn't using was stuck between his teeth.
Steve shivered; it was all he could do not to flinch away. His Ma would have crossed the street to avoid a person like this. Steve wasn't really afraid-
Only, he realized belatedly and with a shock that would have sent the machines into a blinking and beeping frenzy if he had been connected to them, he wasn't a supersoldier anymore. His wrists were tiny; his fingers resembled skin-covered bones; his stomach under the blanket had shrunk, concave, practically disappearing under his ribs, and it was hard to breath. He had forgotten how hard it used to be to breathe.
Hydra must have found a way to reverse the transformation.
Maybe Steve was afraid after all, more than he had ever been before the procedure – before he knew what it was like to have the power to fight back.
The man looked up. He was unexpectedly young; he had long, scraggly hair that should have been washed a week ago at the latest; his eyes were reddened and sunk in dark circles of exhaustion; his skin was sallow and yet he was grinning around the screwdriver in his mouth as he lisped: "'ey, Ca'h."
"Hello…" Steve replied tonelessly, surprised by and suspicious of being greeted in a friendly fashion. He futilely tried to become one with the bedding. Perhaps if he was quiet and motionless, this strange person would become bored and wonder away. That would have been really nice.
The man pulled the screwdriver out of his mouth and stuck it in the breast pocket of his overlong, oil-stained shirt. He stood. Since he was trailing behind yards of mechanical tentacles, it took Steve a long while to realize that he was small. He still had an inch or two on Steve himself, undoubtedly, and he was wider in the shoulders (that, frankly, was a given), but his Adam's apple was far too prominent and so were the bones of his wrists. The backs of his hands were horrifically scarred.
"Not quite the enthusiastic greeting I was expecting," the man said reproachfully and affected something that could have been, with a great amount of benevolence, called a pout. "Here I've been working my well-shaped ass off to get you to this side of the rainbow bridge, and you're looking at me like I kicked your puppy. Or maybe infected it with rabies." He met Steve's eyes, and must have noticed the utter discombobulation, because he hastily added: "I don't have rabies. Vaccinations, Cap. Learn to love the many big, big needles…"
Steve suspected he was going to be sick. Everything went blurry and dark. He stuck his head between his knees and did his best to force himself to breathe.
"Aw crap. They didn't just give you Word War PTSD, no, they had to be thorough and thoroughly sick fucks and give you the post-experiment testing PTSD as well. Fuckers." The voice had gone almost gentle toward the end – gentle and familiar.
There was a warm hand on Steve's soldier, and the frightened part of him reacted to it by relaxing into the touch and muttering: "Stark?"
There was a huff. "I'm here, Cap. You didn't think I was going to let them take you someplace full of total strangers? At least you know me well enough to write the list of hundred and one reasons why I am an unconscionable waste of oxygen."
That did sound like Tony Stark; the one whom Steve had been getting to know, learning to fight beside, just before this all happened.
"Are we prisoners?"
"No, but I get where you're coming from. I'm going to tell you the truth here and, trust me, it's going to traumatize you more than anything ever did before."
Steve did not believe it for a second.
"Ready for it? I've got the bucket here, so everything's set on my side." A bucket was, indeed, set onto the bed between Steve's knees. "The truth, Cap, is that you've been a prisoner your whole life. Now you're free. Take a good look, 'cause it's your first glimpse of true freedom."
Steve did not believe that either.
…until the speech delivered by the man that had called himself Morpheus that hadn't made sense up until now connected inside his head and coalesced into a whole that made perfect – and horrifying – sense. Then he made use of the bucket Stark had handed him, even though the only substance in his stomach was water.
Unconsciousness came as a welcome reprieve.
When Steve woke next he was briefly disoriented, and then his last hope that he was simply imprisoned by Hydra (good Lord above, he had never thought he would have hoped to be imprisoned by Hydra!) was dashed.
Instead of a stranger that claimed to be Steve's acquaintance, there was a well-recognizable Bruce Banner sitting in the chair in the corner of the room, methodically sewing up a rip across the sleeve a twin to the yellowish-grey shirt he was wearing.
"Dr Banner?" Steve spoke. His voice, at least, was still his own (just like Stark's was still Stark's, it occurred to him).
Dr Banner looked up and tried to smile. He seemed as awkward as ever. "Oh, hello Captain. Or – Steve? If you don't mind."
"…I don't." The last thing Steve cared about right now was how he was addressed. "Where am I?"
"You don't know?" Dr Banner set the mended shirt down on the bedside and sighed. "I'm so sorry about Tony. I should have been here, but, well, there was an incident and…" he trailed off and raised his hand to show Steve a bandage instead of explanation.
Steve, feeling like he was freefalling down a huge rabbit hole – and this wasn't the time to think about Bucky, so he forced himself to stop – guessed: "So… you don't actually turn into the Hulk?"
Dr Banner cringed and grimaced. "No… not really, not as such. I… uh, I have a problem with anger management. As in, a medical problem. A disorder, you could say."
"You become uncontrollably angry." This, Steve had long since figured out.
"Right." The Doctor reached up and pulled on a handful of his hair. "It's dangerously easy to trigger a berserk rage in me. I try to stay calm but… you've seen."
Steve had seen. And he had counted the Hulk an ally, only apparently there was no such thing as the Hulk. He needed to be debriefed, stat.
"You don't turn big and green, though."
"No," Dr Banner shook his head, "that's just glitch in the way the Marvel reads the weirdness inside my brain. Tony tells me I actually turn sort of purplish… and not really bigger, but I tend to use things for weapons. Furniture, for instance. And tech, which Tony does not forgive easily." He made a move to rub at his wrist, but aborted it when he encountered the bandage. "I mean it, Steve: stay away from the tech. Tony can be kind of mean about revenge." He sighed again. "And I'm really sorry you were left with him as the welcoming committee. I promise you, the rest of us are not really like him. That is, you've met us in the Marvel, so you know us, but outside of it we are just… uh… more normal?"
Steve had so far seen nothing to support this assertion – the sheer fact that Dr Banner talked this much about anything but gamma radiation threw him off – but he was willing to wait before he decided one way or another.
"What is Marvel?" Steve asked. The purposely misleading soliloquy by the so-designated Morpheus had not elucidated much of anything.
Dr Banner's face fell in horror. He rose to his feet and took a half-step toward the door, beckoning to it; a moment later he apparently reconsidered. He didn't sit back down, but instead hugged his ribs with the injured arm and pushed his glasses up his nose.
It was such a familiar gesture that Steve almost relaxed.
"I'm not sure I am the right person to answer this. Tony's so much better at explaining. Phil, too." He sighed, and tried anyway: "It's like… uh, a computer program. Like an RPG. Only you live in it."
Steve knew about computer programs, and RPG was a vague idea, because Tony had shown him the one where the player was supposed to kill a dragon with a sword. Steve hadn't seen the appeal.
Dr Banner tugged on his hair, making an even worse mess of it. "The world is a simulation."
That much Steve had understood, to his continuing horror.
"It's a program. It's as if most people lived their whole lives plugged into the game, without ever knowing they were in a game."
"But some people find out. Or they have special abilities, and then we try to find them and show them the truth."
Like they had done for Steve. He was not sure yet if he was grateful. "Why?"
"Because… we want to be free. This hovercraft – we're on a hovercraft, did I tell you that? The Pegasus. So, the ship tries to locate an accessible port where we can log in and fight. And sometimes, we find other people like us." The Doctor cradled his injured hand in the healthy one. "It's not easy, and it's really dangerous. They stopped using wireless when they found out we were logging in. Tony has created a data flow disseminator that throws them off well enough, because short-term bandwidth fluctuations are expected, but if we stay logged in somewhere for a longer period, it's easy to pinpoint."
Steve stared for a bit. "Er… what?"
"Tony could explain it better." Dr Banner slumped. "Basically, if we stay in one place for too long, they can find us."
That might have been basic, but it still was nowhere near descriptive enough. "Who are 'they'?"
"What machines?" Steve demanded, voice rising to a pitch that was embarrassing for a grown man.
"…the ones that control the world?" the Doctor gave him a pained grimace, as though it physically hurt him to have to talk about it.
Steve wished Stark would come back. At least he had no qualms about giving Steve bad news in a way that made sense.
Steve was given a tablet to learn what the world was really like.
He still wasn't sure what he believed, but at this point it was mostly a matter of not wanting to believe the evidence of his senses. Because now that he was forced to reconsider the events of his life, he had to admit that there were a few instances of utter ludicrousness. What would have been the chances of him actually becoming a supersoldier for real? And surviving in ice for more than seventy years? Absurd.
There was a perfunctory knock on the wall and the man that claimed to be Stark slung through the archway. He hadn't washed his hair in the meantime, but he had at least pulled it back into a ponytail.
"You look so different…" Steve muttered, checking the tablet only long enough to close the application he had been using.
This Stark was too young. The Stark in the game had been past forty, according to his files, but this man, despite the deplorable state of his health and appearance, could not be thirty yet.
"So do you, Caps-ickle." Stark pointed out with his typical obnoxiousness.
Steve, owing to superhuman self-control, did not roll his eyes or try to punch him in the nose (and risk breaking his hand). As of this moment, he didn't actually doubt Stark's identity anymore.
"But I was like this before," Steve pointed out, keeping his violent tendencies on a leash.
"No," Stark objected. "You have always been like this. But you were crafty enough to get around experimental programming that should have killed you – you did not get memories of World War Two by accident, believe you me – and became this in-between thing instead. We had to pull you out, because sooner or later you would have attracted the debuggers' attention, and then it would be a Smithing for you. Get it? Smithing. Like smiting, only by an Agent Smith-"
"Beca-ause," Stark drawled, "they don't like it when you fuck around with the programming. Or, no, that's not exactly right. It's more that they're shit-scared of it. Because of the…" Stark made a dramatic pause and wiggled his fingers in the direction of Steve's face. "The One."
"The what?" Steve reminded himself that he was not in fact stupid; he only sounded that way because he had woken up in a different world than the one where he had fallen asleep. Again.
"The me," Stark replied and puffed out his chest, which in the apparent real life wasn't anywhere near as broad and defined as it was in the game.
"Don't listen to him," said Agent Romanov, and a moment later she appeared in the archway. "He says that to everyone. There's thousands of wannabe The Ones out there, and so far none of them has delivered us from the machines."
Steve was anxious about what he would see when he looked, and then he was stunned. Natasha Romanov looked almost exactly as he remembered her, only her hair color was a natural reddish brown rather than striking red, and she was not wearing any makeup.
"Stark, I know your flirting techniques are limited to claiming that you're more special than anyone else, but refrain. Steve is confused enough without you taking the piss." She sat down at the edge of the bed and put a hand on Steve's shoulder, similar to how Stark had done it before, only now it felt less like comfort and more like seduction. Steve hadn't been born yesterday – or maybe he had been, figuratively, but that wasn't important, what was important was that – he recognized a basic technique when it was used on him.
He glanced up. When Stark noticed him looking, his frown of genuine distress melted into another intentionally obnoxious pout, like he was sulking at being grassed on. "See you later, Cap. Don't let the bugs bite."
He was gone before Steve could call out to him and ask him to come back, and the impacts of heavy boots against the grille covering the floor receded into distance.
"You must have questions, Steve," Agent Romanov said demurely, as if Steve had forgotten who she was. She, as opposed to Dr Banner, ignored the mores and simply used his first name. He did not mind, only it sounded strange coming from her, compared to her past rigid use of his rank.
"You don't trust Stark?"
Natasha shrugged. "He's the best tech we could have asked for. Possibly the best in the world. But he's full of hot air."
Steve pulled his feet up onto the bed, Indian style. Maybe this was what Dr Banner meant? Natasha was so much less… formal. She leant back on her hands, and it might not even have been to show off the truly attention-grabbing lines of her body under her tank-top. She just seemed, for the first time in memory, relaxed.
Suddenly, an idea occurred to him. "At least now I understand why you only ever trusted Agents Barton and Coulson."
Natasha smirked. "You think? I was the first extraction Phil and Clint have done together. Let me tell you all about it in embarrassing detail."
Dr Banner confirmed Steve's clean bill of health – such as it was – and Steve deliberately misinterpreted that as a permission to reconnoiter his new surroundings. He found the crew's cabins, the kitchen, and a corridor that evidently led to Stark's workshop and Dr Banner's laboratory, but decided not to go down that way. Instead his feet brought him to the Bridge, where he for the first time met the man in charge of the ship.
"Captain Rogers," Agent Coulson said, trying for a semblance of his usual disarming smile, and failing. There was a hardness to him that had been absent inside the game – just like the stubble he was sporting and the tattoo covering his collarbone and disappearing under his sweater. "Welcome aboard the Pegasus."
"Thank you," Steve replied generically, taking a long, slow look around the Bridge.
In the front, closest to the viewport, was a wide instrument panel with two seats, the left one occupied by Clint and the co-pilot's spot by Natasha.
Coulson himself was sitting at a docking station a little ways behind them, on a raised platform, which was what prompted Steve to add: "…Captain Coulson."
The man's smile widened for a moment, showing prominent eye teeth, and then disappeared completely.
The tattoo, Steve noted, was designed to look as if the observer could see under Captain Coulson's skin to the clockwork inside. It was – he hesitated to use the word – cool. Like Captain Coulson was a machine pretending to be a man. There was something ironic about the metaphor, and Steve decided to leave it at that.
"You have met the crew before," Coulson said then, scratching at the bizarre stubble, "but since the circumstances are quite different now, perhaps it would be proper to reintroduce them?"
"We've met already, circumstances included," Natasha supplied, casting a swift, distracted smile over her shoulder.
"We didn't," Agent Barton – Clint? – interjected without taking his eyes off of the displays.
"There's not much to tell about you," Natasha said. "Steve already knows all the salient points – good eyes, steady hands, rotten sense of humor."
"Almost a haiku's worth of assessment," Clint agreed, mockingly approving.
Captain Coulson quietly grumbled, frowning at his people, which made Steve feel suddenly awkward. In hindsight, perhaps he had let himself soak up too much of the easy, friendly atmosphere between his once-teammates.
"I am told you met Stark?" the Captain asked a moment later, not giving Steve any time to wallow.
Reading censure in the prominent lines of the man's face, Steve shrugged.
"We would keep him locked away but he can hack his way out, so it's only about five minutes of reprieve at a time." Coulson crossed his arms (which was another familiar gesture that lent credence to the explanations Steve was given). "He's nearly as uncontrollable out of Marvel as he is inside. I say nearly, because we've found a couple of threats that work well enough. If he starts bothering you, tell Natasha or me; we'll deal with him."
Steve gave as noncommittal a response as he could. This man had far less patience and a notably greater sense of entitlement than the one Steve had thought he had known, although he babbled similarly to how Agent Coulson used to. At least he didn't seem to be blushing – granted, of that Steve couldn't be sure as his eyes were still learning to see, and everything seemed to him a little overexposed.
"Didn't know you liked him that much, Steve," Natasha quipped, gauging Steve's expression with ease that translated directly from the game. "Or at all."
Steve hadn't known either.
"You'll have plenty of time to change your mind," Clint added, grinning for a moment, and then the whole ship lurched.
Steve smashed against a wall; he grabbed onto a grille that covered a set of whirring fans to keep from being thrown again.
Captain Coulson tightened his hands on the edge of his console and gritted his teeth. "This is you showing off your years of experience, Barton? Hold her steady or leave the seat to someone more qualified."
Clint reacted to the criticism with a bark of laughter. "Keep your pants on, Phil."
Steve wondered where he fit in here. The crew seemed complete to him: a captain, a pilot and a co-pilot, Dr Banner as the medic and Stark as the technician. What could Steve do? There was no call for a dancing monkey around here. Or any talk-shows where the public relations department could parade him for an eager audience. Maybe they would stick him on kitchen duty? He couldn't cook a whole lot, but at least the food he made was edible… only it seemed they didn't need anything like that.
He had some experience as a tactical officer, but Captain Coulson had that covered. Speaking of whom, the Captain glanced over at Steve again, and the lines across his forehead deepened. It wasn't quite a scowl, more akin to an injured expression. "Set course for the Ellis Island Exit, Barton."
"Aye, aye, sir," Clint replied, slightly mocking.
The Captain barely acknowledged him; he pulled out a tablet that looked a lot like Stark Tech, and Steve would have bet that Stark had been the one to build it, quite possibly from scavenged robot parts.
Steve discovered that the sight of the claustrophobically narrow tunnels they traversed at high velocities spinning past made him queasy, so he made the – tactical – decision to retreat before he lost his stomach.
Steve was beginning to think that his day had reached its lowest low, but he should have known better than to entertain such a thought. Conventional superstition said that he had been practically asking for it when he returned to the kitchen and learnt that what he had thought was a futuristic version of barely edible, tasteless hospital goop was in fact the future's answer to food in general.
He wanted to sit down onto the floor, hide his face in his knees and cry.
Quite possibly the only reason why he didn't do it was that Stark stepped into the room and went about preparing a meal for himself with but a perfunctory acknowledgment of Steve inserted among habitual motions. He was clearly elsewhere inside his head, and just as obviously he was unused to having company for meals. Or, perhaps – Steve was beginning to grimly suspect – having company willing to share meals.
"Sporks," Stark said, sauntering toward the stack of clean plastic bowls. He selected one, held it up to the dispenser and, once it was half-full, poked at its contents with a utensil identical to Steve's. He put the bowl into the microwave oven, set the timer and turned around.
"Pardon?" Steve said, confused.
Stark waved his utensil in Steve's direction. "A spork. Not really a spoon, but not a fork. Neither and both. Sporks. They're the only genuinely good things left in the world."
Steve guessed that it was supposed to be a joke, but he wasn't getting it. And he didn't feel like laughing, to tell the truth – hadn't felt like laughing for days. The idea of the goop in front of him being considered food depressed him. He wanted to stay optimistic, but then he had to consider all the worse options, which led him to thinking about concentration camps, and then he fell deeper into depression.
It hadn't been so long since he was, for all intents and purposes, comatose. He couldn't stop reflecting on it. All those things he had done, he had been forced to do – the things he had witnessed… none of it meant anything. It was all for naught. The Howling Commandos fought, fell, suffered and perjured their souls for nothing.
And now Steve was out here in this living nightmare, expected to fight another war. Was there any meaning to this one?
"Stark?" Steve only realized that he had spoken out loud when he heard his voice.
"Why is… is the Captain…" Steve stumbled over his words and flushed. How could he explain? It was just an impression, and maybe it all came down to his insecurities and to the utter disorientation he was experiencing. "I had an impression that-"
"Why's Coulson acting like you kicked his puppy, you mean?" Stark said bluntly.
Steve cringed. "He seems disappointed."
"He thought you could be The One." Stark scoffed. "I told him you weren't, but it's not like anyone ever listens to me about that. I mean, claim to be it once, and people always look at you as if your very presence offended their faith in the Second Coming, or whatever. Apparently, yours truly isn't what they imagined their Savior like. Not made of honor, valor, candor and apple pie."
"Is that why they don't believe you?" Steve asked, doing his best to be diplomatic about it. He wasn't sure if Natasha and Clint thought that Stark was being purposely obnoxious by not giving up his claim, or they truly disdained him so much, but he saw no reason to argue. And if he found a reason to disagree with Stark's claims, well – they were both adult men. They could well agree to disagree. There was no call for mutual mocking. As far as he was concerned, they had been there, done that and grown past it.
Stark shrugged. "They don't believe me, because they've prefabricated the mold, and anyone who doesn't fit it is an automatic fail. Which, just by the way, includes all women. Also, there was an incident back-when, and someone took the arc reactor from me, but I survived it, because I wasn't stupid enough to stay dependent on a makeshift piece of coding. But somehow Fury took that to mean that the original wound hadn't actually been life-threatening in the first place, and that I made it all up just so I could present evidence of my uniqueness, as though my uniqueness wasn't patently obvious to anyone with two eyes. Which, granted, doesn't include Fury." He laughed a bitter laugh that wouldn't have been out of place among the Commandos. Then he grinned, wide and fake, and shrugged. "But, hey, I may be lying to you, too."
"To what purpose?" Especially as Steve wasn't entirely sure that he understood what Stark had been so disjointedly trying to explain.
"I'm a pathological attention-seeker," Stark returned glibly.
"I'll believe that." Steve smiled when he thought of the Tony Stark he had known – that everyone had known – inside Marvel. A billionaire, genius, playboy, philanthropist smartass. The man who had hacked the universe. "But if that's the case, I don't understand why you're still here."
Stark scowled. He watched the red numbers on the microwave count down to zero and pressed the button to open the door before the machine had a chance to beep. With his bowl of heated goop he spun on his heel and strode out of the kitchen, pausing only to mutter: "Ask me another time, Cap."
Darn, Steve thought, frowning down at the coagulated mucous mass on his spork. It seemed like every time he turned he stumbled over somebody's sore spot.
Dr Banner took the time off from his lab to take Steve on a guided tour of the Pegasus.
Initially it was nice to talk to someone, even if Steve learnt little new, and he couldn't really parse most of what the man was telling him. He wasn't even sure if that was due to him being newly 'awakened' or due to most of his knowledge being specific to the era of World War II. In any case, as much as Steve hated to admit it even in the privacy of his mind, spending time with Dr Banner was quickly becoming tedious.
He could deal with tedium, no problem. He had been a soldier. But he couldn't claim to be disappointed when Dr Banner excused himself.
Steve dithered for almost half an hour before he gave in and went to Stark's workshop.
The lights were on and the familiar sound of thumping, screeching and muffled cursing came from inside. Steve braced himself for impending eviction and entered.
"Hey, Cap," Stark said, barely glancing in his direction. He was in the middle of a tug-o'-war with a robot that bore passing resemblance to DUM-E; the moment of distraction Steve presented let the robot win. Stark groaned, wiped his forehead – smearing some kind of mustard-colored substance over it and into his hair – and gestured between the robot and Steve. "Buddy, this is Cap. Say hi to Cap."
The robot took a two hundred and seventy degree turn and waved its mechanical arm up and down.
"Good boy, Bud," Stark approved. "Cap, show some of those infamous manners of yours and say hi to Buddy."
"…hi," Steve managed after a while of intense concentration – Stark's genius shouldn't have come as a surprise, but it did. Somehow, Steve had succumbed to the fallacy that nothing inside the game was real. But Stark really was a genius, just as Natasha was obviously still not someone you would want to cross. Steve would have to be more careful.
The robot turned back, showing off a sign someone had scrawled on his side in blue marker, reading BuDDy. That was, oddly, about the most normal thing Steve had encountered since waking up to this nightmare.
"You can call me Tony, Cap. We're cell-mates in the prison of reality."
Steve couldn't suppress a chuckle. Tony smirked at him, and Steve smiled with the gallows' humor. He had never thought he would want to be friends with Tony Stark, of all people; he was too irritated at the man's complete inability to take anything seriously. Knowing what he knew now, he could see why Stark made light of everything – it was his way of staying sane enough.
"What brings you my little corner of this valley of tears?" Stark inquired, mixing needlessly many metaphors.
"I… I wanted to apologize-"
"No need." Stark expansively waved his dirty hands. "No, seriously, I'm a pain in the ass, ask anybody-"
"Tony, just let me-"
"Don't give me those eyes, Cap, I'm a sodding pushover-"
"Then let me apologize-"
"Alright, fine, enforce your apology on the man whom you've wronged in the first place according to some warped Paleolithic-era honor code. Go ahead. See if I care." He gave Steve a strange look.
Steve was fairly sure that he didn't have salad between his teeth, if mainly because salad was apparently a thing of the past. Then he became aware of the fact that he was smiling again.
He couldn't really help it.
His grin widened. "I'm sorry for invading your privacy, Tony. And thank you for being so gracious about accepting my apology."
"You know me, Cap," the man replied, dismissively waving his hand around and almost knocking a doohickey off of its perch on the edge of the counter, "I'm grace personified."
Stark liked listening to himself, and giving him a chance to play the educator was a surefire way of acquiring valid intelligence, so Steve put on his dummy face. "You are graceful in that strange… hallucination thing…?"
Stark shuddered, then theatrically shook himself off and started talking: "Nah, Cap – it's neural interactive simulation. Colloquially the NIS, who would have guessed? But there's been a few different ones over the centuries, and we're dealing with Disney production, Variant sixty-eight, more familiarly called the Marvel."
Before Steve could even begin to formulate a follow-up question, a blue light flashed in the upper corner of Stark's screen. Then a window popped up on the screen and announced an incoming call from 'The Big D'.
"Fury," Stark- Tony explained, "comfortably sitting on his ass in Zion while we stick our necks out for the Sentinels and the Smiths. But he's in charge of the entire naturally-produced population – almost as witty as vegetarian vampires – and I wouldn't switch jobs with him if he offered me the entire world. Which would be redundant of him, because that's basically his job. The entire world."
"Shouldn't you… uh… pick up?" Steve suggested. He wasn't sure what the proper terminology was. Pick up? Copy? Accept? Something yet more recent?
"Yeah," Tony agreed, and flopped down into the chair in front of the screen. "I'd love to say that I'm teaching him patience, but the sad truth is just that making him wait on me cheers me up."
"You're bad," Steve concluded, but it could not have born much weight, considering that it was all he could do to suppress a snicker.
"And you're constitutionally sunshine and daisies," Tony retorted, rakishly grinning for just a couple of seconds before he exaggeratedly scowled and tapped a flashing icon, which filled the window with a video of Nick Fury scowling right back from an office that looked suspiciously similar to the one he had on the Helicarrier.
Steve hoped he was not inside the view of the camera; even so he took a preemptive step backwards, practically huddling in a corner with BuDDy.
"Stark," Director Fury said without preamble, "show me Rogers."
So much for attempting to stay unnoticed.
Tony didn't even try to dissemble; he just leaned back in his chair and hung his head over the back-rest, almost meeting Steve's eye upside-down.
Steve bit the bullet and came forward.
"Welcome to freedom, Mr Rogers," Fury said, deliberately cruel to drive home several points: that this was Steve's life now; that Steve was beholden to the Director's people for this life; that Steve wasn't Captain America anymore – in fact, he wasn't even a soldier anymore, much less an Avenger.
"Thank you, sir," Steve replied with the best poker face he could put on. They could take him out of the Army – but taking the Army out of him was going to be a greater task.
The Director made a huffing sound – something that could have been a disparaging scoff as easily as it could have been a suppressed guffaw.
Steve kept his poise.
"Try him on the Construct, Stark," Fury ordered.
"Sure thing, Buttercup!" Tony exclaimed exuberantly, which prompted the Director to log off. Tony simply shrugged at the transceiver and turned around to grimace at Steve. "So, I guess you and I will get to splash around in the kiddie pool. Digitally speaking."
Steve rubbed the back of his neck and admitted: "He seems even more unapproachable here."
"Yes, he does, doesn't he? I wouldn't have thought that was actually possible, but then, Fury's obviously not bothered by human limits. Some days I think he's actually a machine – some kind of ridiculously advanced android, like an LMD, that the machines managed to infiltrate into Zion. That would be horrible, obviously, but maybe also a little awesome."
"I would think people would notice," Steve pointed out, admittedly more than a little disconcerted by the idea. It had been suggested inside the game, of course, but in a joking manner. Now it stopped being funny and became terrifying instead.
Tony shrugged as though he didn't care in the least. "You would. But they don't really do routine x-rays and EKGs on people down in Zion. Me, I think Fury's way too fanatic about finding The One; maybe he wants to kill him before The One can bring the machines down."
"Then… why do you openly claim to be The One?" Steve asked, confused. Was it all a smokescreen? Was Tony trying to protect the real One by attracting that attention to himself; or maybe he thought the best way of keeping real attention off of himself was, well, to beg for it? It didn't make a lot of sense.
"Yeah, I didn't know all this in the start, and then it was too late. Besides-" There was a distant sound of numerous boots impacting against the metal grille, and Tony lowered his voice: "A bit of advice, Cap, for old times' sake. Coulson is Fury's man through and through." His eyes were dark and expression solemn.
Much as Steve hated the idea of taking sides – there weren't supposed to be sides among them, they should have been a team – he couldn't help but take it to heart. "Between the two of them," he joked quietly as the footsteps approached, "I'd have bet Agent Coulson was the machine."
"Coulson's human – trust me on that," Stark muttered under his breath, swiveled on his chair and began to type faster than Steve could follow.
Oh, of course – he had just a minute ago realized that accusing people of being machines wasn't funny. He needed some time to internalize it.
A moment later the Captain himself entered, took in the tableau without the slightest change to his expression, and stepped to the side to allow the entire crew inside. They were all looking at Steve – as though Tony was just a part of the scenery, a piece of furniture or perhaps an advanced yet uninteresting bit of technology.
"Good," the Captain stated dryly. "Stark hasn't gotten you killed yet."
Steve swallowed. "Was that a likely occurrence?"
Natasha shook her head and nudged Clint into silence before he could open his mouth. Dr Banner hid behind them, trying to stay out of the discussion.
It fell to Captain Coulson to explain. "Stark's not too concerned about safety procedures, Mr Rogers. I wouldn't put it past him to 'skip the boring part' and put you into a situation for which you're not ready."
Clint shook off Natasha and asked, for once serious: "Did he even tell you that if you die inside of the Marvel, you die in real world, too?"
Steve glanced at Tony.
Tony had told him none of that – but then, Tony was not the one ordering that Steve be put back into the game.
When Steve saw the thing they were going to push into him he almost threw up. His stomach twisted and he had to bite his lip to force down the gag reflex. It was – it… he did not have words to describe how violated just the sight of it made him feel.
He instinctively pulled away and was on the very verge of screaming and running away while yelling that he was never going to do it. Maybe begging. He was perfectly willing to beg.
They knew why they had insisted on keeping him tied down.
His eyes welled.
"Don't worry, Steve," Coulson's voice tried to convince him. "We do this all the time; it's just a matter of getting used to it."
"I'm not sure how helpful that is," Dr Banner pointed out anxiously from the operator's console, where he was monitoring Steve's readings.
"Oi!" Stark shouted, and when they ignored him, he whistled. The sound cut through any ongoing conversation and left behind only the hum of engines. "That's enough, people. Back away from the dentist's chair of doom, this is my domain, the Cap's a feather in my cap, now take your leave. Bruce can stay; Bruce knows better than to stick his sticky fingers into my pie."
Someone grumbled – in Russian.
Tony huffed. "You tell that to Fury, Spiderwoman. Maybe I'll get reassigned to the Centipede, and the next time this bucket of bolts meets an Octobot Sentinel, you'll be so much processed biomass. But ask me if I care. Now out, people! Out of my office!"
"You'll be fine," Coulson paraphrased himself, and gave Steve an encouraging smile before he – to Steve's surprise – followed the directive and left.
"It's just a trial run," Clint reassured him, grinning cockily. "When you're ready, I'll take you for a real circuit of the Marvel. I know all the best spots for whatever you're in the mood for-"
Natasha shooed him off before he could say more. She tacitly clasped Steve's hand and then followed her two colleagues.
Dr Banner briefly met Tony's gaze and mimed zipping his mouth shut.
Tony paused by Steve's shoulder, looked him in the eye, and nodded. "It's scary as fuck, isn't it?" He nodded to himself again, not needing any confirmation from Steve. "Not for me, I mean; I took to this like a duck to water, but you've never been even approximately duck-like, Steven Rogers. Then again, you've never backed down from a challenge."
He was right, of course – and what a strange world it was where Tony Stark's being right was a matter of course? Still, there was a major catch in his argumentation, because Steve already knew beyond a shadow of doubt that he was not The One.
He blinked away the wetness and let Tony turn his head to face the ceiling. "What is supposed to be the challenge?"
Tony leaned closer and muttered: "James Barnes survived, too. If anyone can find him, it's-"
-everything was pain-
-then everything was colors-
-then reality reshaped itself around Steve.
"What?" he yelped. Standing in the middle of nothing (on nothing, good gravy!) was more disconcerting than he would have expected.
Tony appeared soon enough, in his fancy businessman incarnation – forty, sporting a goatee, and wearing a dark blue pinstripe suit and orange-tinted sunglasses. He clapped his hands in fake delight. "It's your residual self-image, as coined by someone with zero imagination and negative values of sense of humor. Sounds like Fury. You'll meet him soon enough, but don't worry, Cap, he's not really the real thing. It's just a simulation he's had Hill write, because he gets off on it. No, really, he does. I never wanted to know, it's just my curse that I can read the code. He does this thing where he loads himself-"
"I am pretty sure I don't want to know, Tony," Steve cut him off and, miraculously, Tony actually shut up.
For a short while, anyway. And when he spoke again, he switched to the topic at hand: "So, Construct. We'll kit you out, make you look like you remember looking – more importantly, like the Marvel remembers you looking – and get you comfortable in your binary self before we release you into public. We jive?"
"Hip," Steve replied, mostly lost under the verbal avalanche but willing to rely on Tony for the time being.
This version of reality was shaped like a SHIELD office, with a huge, shiny, black logo spanning the height of the wall behind the desk, at which an unamused Director Fury was seated. Or, rather, Admiral Fury. Even more correctly, a simulation of Admiral Fury.
"Sir," Steve said weakly.
He looked down at himself. He was small and dressed in grey sweats and an oversized hoodie – his residual self-image. Natasha had said that it was easy for her to change it; Dr Banner somehow changed it without being aware of what he was doing.
Steve closed his eyes and brought back the memory of being Captain America. Even the knowledge that it was fake, implanted, had not made it any less vivid – any less real-seeming.
When he met Director Fury's eyes again, he was himself. The himself that he had been in Marvel. He was tall, strong, and wearing what Tony mockingly called 'his spangly suit'.
"Impressive," the Director said gruffly. "Especially for a newbie."
"I have been at this for a while," Steve replied, keeping any intonation out of his voice, and carefully not specifying what he meant by 'this'.
Fury leant back and laced his fingers together. He was no less intimidating for being in fact hundreds of miles away and unaware that this was happening. "It would make my life so much easier to take your word for it." He made a pause as though he was hesitating whether to disclose the following information – which was an unnecessary effect, and helped convince Steve that he was actually talking to a computer program rather than the Director himself, because the Director had since stopped wasting both their time with posturing. "I told Cheese when he whined at me about the Initiative that it was going to be a shit-storm. Instead it is a massive fucking shit-storm." The lines on his face deepened in the suggestion of a sneer – another completely superfluous gesture. "I don't give a fuck if you think your skinny, asthmatic ass can go out waving around your funny aluminum shield and punching people in the face until you show me proof. Have I made myself clear, Captain?!"
Usually when he faced Director Fury it was a lot harder for Steve to keep an even tone when replying. "Clear, sir."
It was surreal to suddenly lose all that painstakingly hard-won mutual respect between the Director and himself. This instance, more than a whole lot of hard evidence, put Steve's situation into clear and unforgiving perspective.
"Let's rock, Cap," said Tony, who appeared out of thin air next to Steve.
The temperature in the room plummeted. Steve let himself be grabbed by a wrist and dragged out.
By the time they were in the corridor and out of Fury's sight, Tony's soft footsteps had changed into clomps made by the boots of his armor. Tony had just… materialized the armor around himself.
"Data stick suit," he said, grinning. "Like the suitcase suit, but so much more practical. Only, can't really use this one in public before I come up with a semi-plausible justification for how it works. Maybe I'll say something about storing it in my bones. That would be rad, and also completely loco, so my lovingly hateful public might just buy it."
"Where are we going?" Steve asked, since there was nothing he could say to Tony's topic, and he felt rather involved in what was happening to him.
"My sincere condolences, Icecap, but you've got a day full of tests ahead of you." Tony removed a heavy, metal bar and pulled on the door; it opened to an illogically sunlit, well-equipped gymnasium. Tony inclined his head toward the boxing bag. "Might as well get it over it."
The worst of it was that Steve saw the logic behind this decision, and even agreed with it.
"Why you?" he asked, compliantly preceding Tony into the room. "Why not Natasha or Clint – or even Cap- Agent Coulson?"
"You mind?" Tony went over to the fitness centre and started idly fiddling with the controls of a treadmill. "'cause if you do, I could still go out and switch with Romanov. Anything she can do, I can do better, but if you-"
"No!" Steve raised his hands in surrender; the last thing he wanted was discourage Tony from spending time with him, because, well… so far the only 'real' person Steve met that he could see himself befriending was Tony. He sighed. "No, it… was just a question."
"I do this because I'm the best," Tony replied. It was a boast – in that it was said in his intentionally obnoxious, boisterous tone – but his expression was flat and there was a hint of a scowl around his eyebrows. "Coulson believes that I could probably stop anything you unwittingly do that could result in your messy, untimely death."
Steve froze a step short of the treadmill. It struck him again that he wasn't a fit supersoldier anymore, even though he looked big – like a balloon pumped with too much air. Would he be just as easy to pop? Fragile?
No, that didn't make sense. Steve was feeling more fragile than he had felt in years, but here, inside the game, it didn't matter how big or strong he really was. He understood hat. Tony had explained it pretty clearly – the only thing that mattered was how fast his mind reacted, how comprehensively he could imagine things that were not there and how well he could put facts together. He had always been good at that. All of that (even though the speed had never lasted too long, with most exertion resulting in asthma attacks).
"And he's not right?" Steve inquired, drawing himself tall – ironically so much taller than Tony all of sudden.
The silence he received in response was a little too pointed for comfort.
"Tony? Did someone die on your watch?"
"Coulson almost did," Tony said, raising his eyes to meet Steve's for in instant – they had thought the Agent was dead during Loki's attack, because the Director had told them so. "You see, he has legitimate reasons to distrust me. And hate the sight of me. So, yes, he doesn't have to believe that I could keep you alive, because he knows for a fact that I can. I've done it to him. I've gotten under his virtual skin and he's never forgiven me. No, seriously… there's stuff a man shouldn't survive, like, say, an enchanted scepter to the heart, but then, inside Marvel it's all about who's the better magician." He theatrically spread his hands, as if trying to encompass the entire neutrally-simulated world in a single gesture. "That's the wonder of Marvel. The miracle of Marvel. The marvel of Marvel, if you don't mind being gauche, which I personally do, but not everyone has my impeccable combination of style and charm."
"So you build devices that defy the laws of physics-"
"Yeah, sure," Tony cut him off, two fingers stroking his beard, which was not even real, darn it, "but in here the laws of physics are just a code matrix, so it's a matter of how good a hacker I am. And I am a very, very, very good hacker. In fact, I may well be the best human hacker there is."
"The armor?" Steve asked.
"Is an advanced firewall that masks as advanced tech simulation."
"And the arc reactor?"
"A funny story," Tony clapped, and started pacing back and forth in between a stationary bicycle and the dumbbell storage, "the first time I got killed, I wasn't really ready for it, so I did the best patch I could with what coding I had handy. I'm working on it, but I can't just cut out the redundant code, because that would raise a real big flag, and I would get piled on by the Smiths worse than Thor does. It's not really worth it. Besides, I sort of used it as a starting point when I programmed the armor."
It all sounded really fantastical, and surreal and a lot like a stinking heap of nonsense, but Steve had met Stark the human being and he was quickly becoming convinced that there was actually some substance to Stark's claim of being The One. Maybe a lot of substance.
He just wondered why no one else thought so.
"Why are you still a member of the Pegasus' crew?"
Tony paused, pirouetted on one foot, which was a nifty trick considering that he was wearing the armor, and made a shooing motion at Steve. "C'mon, Cap! We're burning daylight – let's test!"
Steve shelved the question for the second time, stepped up onto the treadmill and beckoned Tony to turn it on.
After all the data were gathered, Steve woke up just in time to witness Dr Banner proclaim him perfectly fine and skulk off. Tony and Steve went to the Bridge to report to Captain Coulson – who listened to them in non-committal silence, then nodded and left.
"He's going to talk to Fury," Tony explained under his breath, reminding Steve implicitly that they weren't all a team here, and the Captain was not the friendly yet eminently competent Agent he had known.
"Who are the Smiths?" Steve asked, sinking into a passenger chair and feeling like he had gone one on one with the Hulk and lost. The day had taken it out of him, but it had all been just mindless physical exercise. Now his body was screaming for rest, but his mind whirled (and that was a really odd sensation, considering that he had actually spent the whole day sitting motionlessly, wired to machines and – apparently, if Tony's explanation was to be believed – doing advanced programming inside his head). His brain kept trying to sort out… everything.
"Everyone that SHIELD fights against, Steve," Natasha answered from the co-pilot's seat.
"They used to be uniform in the older Variants, but now they're diverse, with limited individual learning ability that helps them specialize against a particular human," Tony added.
"Hydra," Natasha continued. "AIM. The Wrecking Crew. They're all after people who can overwrite the code."
"Which basically means that whenever someone shows a superpower, it starts a race," Clint explained, scowling at the screen of the main computer that was showing him green outlines of things Steve hadn't known existed on Earth.
Natasha read his look and turned to input a new course. "We want to get them out of the system and behind SI firewalls before the Smiths erase them."
"Doctor Doom?" Steve suggested, feeling like he had returned to the time of his childhood, before the huge technology boom, before the mutations and the superpowers and the idea that cynicism was somehow 'cool'. This was a simpler world – except for all the killer machines out to get them.
"Doom's not a Smith," Natasha refuted. "Green light, Barton, keep your eyes on the gate."
Steve decided to let them concentrate. From what he saw on the x-ray view, or digital imaging view, or whatever that actually was, the gate was a hole in the wall of a tunnel; a hole that was serrated on the side, resembling nothing so much as a maw of a shark waiting for a passing ship to show it a side so it could sink its teeth into it.
Tony finally finished fiddling with the wires inside the Captain's console, replaced the panel and grimaced when he found out that his foot had fallen asleep. He limped over to Steve and offered his hand.
Steve went with him.
Tony held onto the clamps that lined the side of the corridor; Steve followed his example and a moment later was glad for it; the Pegasus banked with force that nearly threw him off his feet.
"Doom's the only person I've ever met I could buy being The One," Tony muttered once they were both upright again.
Steve barely heard him over the roar of engines and the rattling of things against the vibrating frame of the ship.
"Only he doesn't give a damn about freeing humankind from the oppression of machines. Why would he? Inside the system he's a god. He thinks Marvel is the best thing since the invention of ice cream, and he doesn't really care that the only ice cream left is programmed, because it's all about information anyway, and his CNS doesn't care if it's artificial or natural."
"And you?" Steve asked, not even protesting when Tony pushed him down onto a bench after they reached the kitchen, and went about preparing both their 'meals'.
"Me?" Tony inquired nonchalantly, eyes on the microwave.
"Do you care?"
Tony sighed, turned around and leant back against the unit. His hair fell into his face, covering one eye completely while the other pinned Steve. There was an unfamiliar sense of resilience to his posture, as though he was braced to carry a huge load on his back. "Steve… if I really wanted to, I could control Marvel. I could destroy it." He scoffed, hair fluttering. "And ninety-eight percent of mankind with it. I tried to treat it like an RPG, but I couldn't consistently do that even in-game."
The microwave let out an ear-rending sharp tone. Tony jumped and opened the door before the sound repeated. That explained why Tony always kept such a careful watch of the countdown.
Once they were both seated and poking half-heartedly at the slowly congealing semi-transparent mass, Steve asked: "Is that why the Stark Industries stopped producing weapons?"
"I got shot with my own missiles," Tony deadpanned. "Shrapnel shredded my heart."
"Let me see if I get this right," Steve mused, setting down his spork. "Captain Coulson said that if you die in Marvel, you die in real life, too, but you did not die, and you prevented him from dying, too, even though you both were fatally wounded. Was he just scaring me? Is it, like… I don't know… game over, now you can start as another character?"
"No." Tony lowered his voice, as if he wanted to keep potential eavesdroppers from hearing him – and he was about to say something personal, and probably painful to him, Steve had no doubt of that. "Coulson's right. You do die. Unless you're The One."
"So that's why the Captain thought it could be me," Steve realized. "Because the Vita-rays should have killed me, but didn't."
Tony nodded. "You defeated the programming, Steve. That's a symptom. But…it's just one of many." He looked down then and concentrated on his food, and Steve wanted to ask something else, to change the topic and let Tony chatter on about… bots, or coding, or whatever he liked in this world aside from strange utensils, but his head was full of memories of the excruciating procedure he had gone through under Brooklyn and how it had changed him.
Steve was ripped out of a dream about a dancing seal, which made absolutely no sense in any context, but had made him smile. Unfortunately, the smile was lost a moment later, when he realized that the persistent ear-rending sound he was hearing was not the microwave oven, but the alarms.
The intercom came on with the sound of an aluminum spoon scraping against the inside of a mess tin that made Steve's teeth hurt. Captain Coulson's voice announced: "Avengers assemble!"
Steve hadn't known that they were still doing that. Nevertheless, he would be damned if he shirked his duty. He had been through all the tests, and Natasha had solemnly pronounced him 'ready to go live' (because the Captain didn't believe Tony's judgment).
Steve joined the rest of the team in the game room (it was not actually called that, but the name amused Tony and Steve could not be bothered to remember the correct one). Clint was already in the system and, just as Steve stepped over the threshold, Natasha gave a tight nod and closed her eyes. Tony put a hand on her forehead and stuck the jack into the port on the back of her head.
Natasha gave a silent scream and fell seemingly unconscious, her activity betrayed only by the rapid movement of her eyes under the closed lids.
"What about Thor?" Steve asked, hopping into the indicated chair and letting himself be strapped down.
"We think Thor's actually an AI," Tony replied absently, checking the black and green screen for a couple of seconds. He put his hand on Steve's forehead and-
-everything was pain-
-then everything was colors-
-then reality reshaped itself around Steve. He was in Washington, D.C. It wasn't hard to tell, even though he had been here before only three times, and had never had enough time for sight-seeing. It was the way a giant snake had curled itself around the White House that let Steve be fairly certain of where he was.
Clint was just barely visible on the edge of the roof, and Steve hoped that Tony would appear soon, because that looked like a good way to get himself killed. He had no idea where Natasha was, but in the next moment he heard Agent Coulson's voice on the comms asking for sitrep.
Steve had his comm. He was wearing his uniform, too, and there was something on his belt that he hesitated to touch for fear it would explode as a lot of Tony's presents tended to do. And then he though – Tony. How was he going to get here? There was no one left to plug him into the system-
Tony appeared next to him, and muttered an inappropriately amused and entirely too vulgar curse.
"Tony!" Steve hissed through clenched teeth, trying not to laugh. There were probably shades of hysteria in his amusement, but what else could he feel when there was a gigantic serpent attacking the leadership of the United States of America, and Steve knew that none of it was real? Suddenly Tony's sense of humor seemed wholly appropriate.
"Thor's a what?" Steve repeated, trying to suppress the chuckles.
"Alright, no," Tony admitted, keeping careful watch of Clint. "Fury and Hill think Thor's The One, no matter how many times he tells them he's not. But I think Thor's an AI, and so's Loki, and so are all the so-called Asgardians. Which begs the next question."
Tony fell into expectant silence and Steve complied by venturing: "Why do they fight against the Smiths?"
"Right in one, Wondercap."
Then Clint jumped off the roof and Tony flew off to rescue him from splattering himself over the decorative lawn.
Steve went through the debrief with Captain Coulson and Admiral Fury – through the webcam, which he understood without having it explained, thanks ever so – in a post-op haze. In fact, he was back to his cabin and sitting on his cot before it all flooded back. He was suddenly more than a foot smaller than he envisioned himself, reedy and dressed in clothes that reminded him of the Depression.
He wanted to get drunk-
Wait a moment. He could get drunk. He hated how that suddenly seemed like a really good idea.
"Cap?" A soft voice came from outside. A short pause followed and then: "Steve?"
"Come in," Steve said, because he was pretty sure that staying alone right now would be a disaster. Kind of like the Commandos never left him alone – not even to go to the privy – after Bucky fell.
Bucky. Oh. Steve had… Steve had forgotten.
Owing to Tony's uncanny senses about people that Steve was just beginning to discover, Tony had thought to bring a bottle with him. Whatever was in it, he poured about a centimeter's worth into two tin cups. One of them he handed to Steve and tapped it with the other, resulting in a muffled clink. In fact, it was more of a 'clunk'.
They drank in silence. Steve coughed a bit after the first sip, but he quickly got used to both the taste (or the lack of it, as it stood) and the burn as it slid down his throat. Tony kept looking at him and then away from him, unable to ask the questions he felt he was supposed to ask, and it was in that room, in the half-hearted light of dimmed lamps, that Steve got it through his head that Tony was practically his peer, age-wise. Just a little bit older.
And it was so clear that he wanted to be Steve's friend, if anyone bothered to look – he was going out of his way to be helpful, and social, and trying to get Steve to believe him when no one else did…
Steve pulled his legs up on the bed and shuffled back to sit against the gently thrumming wall. "Tony?" he asked, and mentally went back to their last interrupted conversation, so he had something to talk about that wasn't the fact that the whole humankind was already pretty much down the drain, only for some of them the drain had been more literal. "If the Asgardians really are artificial intelligences… what do you think is the reason they fight the Smiths?"
Tony sipped from his cup. He pushed his hair out of his face with a habitual gesture and scratched behind his ear. "I think they've got better programming. More advanced. At least some of them. I think their coding was faulty just enough to became capable of evolution, and they grew consciences. It's like Asimov. Bicentennial Man. Only Thor's more like the Bimillennial Man."
"Oh." Steve wondered how long it has been since the machines had taken over. Had it been two thousand years already? Or was Tony just exaggerating for effect?
"Don't worry about it, Cap; he's an ally," Tony reassured him, misinterpreting the source of his uncertainty. "Besides, if you ever have an opportunity, their skills at cybersex are A plus."
"Tony!" Steve sputtered, glad that he had only been about to drink. He would have spat out that mouthful – probably all over his friend. Which would have served Tony right, but Steve could live happily without the embarrassment.
"Hey!" Tony admonished him, playful with the recession of adrenalin and influx of drink. "Don't make the scandalized face at me. I've got this information second-hand. If you get the chance, take Foster out for a glass of processed ethanol, and she'll tell you all about it in a vivid detail. She can't hold her booze. At all."
It figured that Dr Foster had been liberated from the Marvel as well. She did not seem to have any superhuman skills, but she was in a declared relationship with Thor. If Thor was truly… well… like JARVIS was the best comparison Steve could come up with, then Dr Foster was a target. Pulling her out made sense.
Steve had met the Smiths today – they had sprung from the desiccated pieces of the destroyed giant serpent – and he could not imagine an untrained civilian being capable of fighting against them. Even he had felt overwhelmed before Tony and the Hulk had come to his defence. Incidentally, the Hulk was really effective against the Smiths; Steve was just disappointed that an emergence of 'the other guy' made Dr Banner even more intensely silent, scowling and unapproachable than usual.
"You've got to be curious about Loki," Tony said out of blue, and reached over to pour himself another shot.
Steve hadn't been; now he was curious about why Tony actually wanted to talk about Loki.
"They created Loki to destroy Thor," Tony said as if he was recounting facts, not just suppositions. "But to do that, they had to give him better specs, more complex programming, and the ability to anticipate emotion. Only that came with the inherent catch of being capable of emotion, and then Thor insisted on calling Loki his brother, which is technically even accurate, and loving him. Loki's an ass, but he's absolutely unwilling to destroy Thor, to the point of fighting against his creators. That, I call win." He was smiling.
It was the first time Steve saw this Tony smiling. He smirked, snickered, snorted and even laughed readily enough, but getting a smile out of him had seemed impossible up to now.
Instead of drawing attention to his observation, Steve nodded. "That explains Thor, too – if he was also created with the capacity for emotion… so he would be able to fight against humans."
"We're so lucky he likes us," Tony declared.
"We are," Steve agreed and raised his tin cup for a toast.
They were somewhere around Alaska in the real world, but inside Marvel they were back in New York, keeping Tony's eyesore of a skyscraper from being scrapped by a swarm of fighter-bots. Steve was a little ashamed of the pun even in the privacy of his mind, because JARVIS was on the comms, repartee-ing genuinely witty puns with Tony as though they were on sale.
"Got to shut off the transmitter," Tony said through the comm.
"Any suggestion what it looks like?" Clint asked sarcastically, scanning the hive of airborne metal wasps the size of buzzards from his perch on a ledge of a nearby house, where he was squatting right next to a gargoyle. Steve struggled to refrain from drawing a comparison.
"'bout six point two, hundred and ninety pounds… look for the helmet, you can't mistake him," said a gruff voice right next to Steve, who had not startled only because he had noticed the displacement of air. He had, in fact, been readying himself to strike out. He checked that impulse.
Clint, Tony and Natasha cursed in multilingual cacophony. Steve did not get it.
"Magneto," Cap- Agent Coulson sighed.
"Prefer advanced AI to that crackpot any day of the year," Tony grumbled, but then the X-men moved in on their side, and soon enough the bots started lifelessly falling to the ground.
"Hello," Steve said to his companion, deflecting a couple of rapidly plummeting metal bodies from himself with the shield. It clanged like it was real – the strain on his arm felt pretty real, too.
Wolverine breathed out a sharp-smelling cloud of blue-grey smoke and, with a cigar stuck between his teeth, said: "So they got you, too, eh?"
Steve nodded. It did not seem like his contribution was needed in this fight – between the shiver-inducing wheelchair-bound Professor and his yet more shiver-inducing red-headed assistant, they seemed to have it sorted out. And Steve was aware that he had become a little more judgmental than he used to be, but that was because skinny, sickly, asthmatic guys with four four-effs and as many medals for exceptional service to their country had the God-given right to be judgmental. As long as it didn't affect their actions in the field, at least.
From what he knew about this man, though, Steve would have expected to see him touted as a potential 'The One'. "I've heard that you've been around for a long while," he noted, and then felt like he was five years old again and trying to get the older and cooler guys at school to talk to him. Bucky had saved him from that mess.
"Thing's," Wolverine replied through another cloud of smoke, "I've prolly got that mutation in real life, too. I'm just waitin' for someone to find me an' get me the fuck out of this hellhole of brainwash. Been brainwashed like… what? Three, four times already?" He threw the end of the cigar to the ground, and didn't bother checking whether it could have set the neighborhood on fire. "Lemme tell ya, it's gettin' old."
Steve nodded, feeling dumb, but it seemed to satisfy the man.
Soon enough, Wolverine was busy quartering the yet stirring insectoid constructs with his huge, metal claws, and Steve decided to just let it all go before he started worrying about every single person trapped inside the simulation. There was just one victim he had promised to himself he would save, and that was Bucky.
The other people were… they were… The One's responsibility.
Very likely Tony's responsibility.
"Greetings, my sharp-clawed friend!" bellowed Thor from above, and baked the remaining enemy bots with a single bolt of lightning. He hit the ground in an artful crouch, straightened, and raised the Hammer in a gesture of victory.
Even while he was healing puss-oozing burns, Wolverine raised three metal claws in response, sheathing the outer ones just a tad faster than he did the middle one. Instead of being offended, Thor heartily laughed and clapped the mutant on the back, probably breaking a rib. It sure sounded like a bone breaking.
"How's the baby-bro?" Wolverine asked, retracting the other set of claws.
"Alas!" Thor exclaimed, viewing the battlefield that had already been mostly turned into a graveyard of discarded machinery, while a handful of disgruntled superheroes watched their foes disappear in the distance. "My brother had to abandon our company. I believe he may be suffering from exhaustion."
"He should get a couple generators if he doesn't want to be on the grid," Tony replied, landing a couple of yards to their left and eyeing Mjöllnir with distaste. "You and your hand-held skeleton key worry even me, and I'm not actually made of code."
"The part I know of you, Anthony Stark, is in fact made of code," Thor retorted cheerfully.
Tony gracelessly conceded the point. He reflected for a moment, and then said: "Tell your brother 'hi' if you see him."
Thor frowned, stopping like a paused movie, with the exception of his cape, which continued billowing in non-existent breeze. Then he heaved a heavy sigh. "I shall, my friend, but rest assured that should any harm befall him-"
"Yeah, no," Tony protested, waving his hands. "I haven't implanted any insidious sub-routines. Pinky promise. It's just a 'hey'. Sort of a reminder that I exist. And that I don't forget."
"I am certain he shall be appropriately cowed," Thor assured Tony with sincerity that mocked him brutally.
Tony bore the censure stoically, and then flinched when a familiar voice filtered through the comm.
"Tony! Don't even think of dodging me again; I'll have Agent Coulson hunt you down – don't think I won't! You have a Board meeting tomorrow, and if you're not there with the presentation ready, I will… I'll… Hmm." There was a short silence, and then: "I'll quit."
"Duty calls," Tony announced despondently, and reactivated his comm. "I'll be there with bells on, Pep. Don't think I won't-"
"No bells, Tony!" Miss Potts ordered, because she knew him.
At least, Miss Potts knew a version of him, Steve thought. That had to be hard. Maybe that was something he could help with? He wasn't sure how, but at the very least he could ask.
"Oh, come one, Pepper!" Tony protested something that Steve seemed to have missed, "you know I love you. You're the sole light in the desolate darkness of my universe-"
Miss Potts scoffed, unable to hear the marrow-freezing earnestness in Tony's words.
This time it was Steve who brought a bottle of alcohol to Tony's cabin. It had been easy to procure – there were stacks of it in the pantry – and Tony let Steve in without the slightest protest, just briefly wrinkled his forehead in confusion before he picked up the thing he was working on and moved to the cot.
"Tony?" Steve asked, taking a seat on Tony's bed in the spirit of reciprocation.
The resident genius pulled his left knee up, rested his chin on it, and continued fiddling with what looked like another mechanical tentacle. The pose sheared a couple more years off of his age. "Yeah, Cap?"
"What about Miss Potts?"
Steve heard Tony's rapid inhale. A while of silence followed, and he tried to be patient, but a couple of minutes later he looked over and Tony was wrist-deep in the machine and pretending that he hadn't been asked anything. Only the rigidness of his clenched teeth and the taut line of his shoulders betrayed that he was actually trying to ignore the question.
"Tony?" Steve tried again.
Déjà vu, huh? An error in the Marvel? Steve didn't think so. Not out here.
He leaned over, looking at what Tony was doing, despite the fact that it was all a mess of indecipherable puzzle pieces. It could have been magic as well as science – he was none the wiser. Still, he was sitting pretty much shoulder to shoulder with Tony – okay, alright, maybe more of a shoulder to upper arm – and thus made himself pretty much impossible to ignore.
"I take it Miss Potts has not been extracted."
Tony flung the tentacle down onto the bed – it bounced and slid to the floor with a series of clinking and thudding noises. "You think I didn't try? I've been lobbying for years to get her out!"
"But I can't do it alone, and Coulson won't." Tony rubbed at his face; what little of it wasn't hidden behind his hair was flushed with anger. "Fury won't allow it, either, and once Fury forbids something there are about three ships willing to do it, and none of them are crewed by people I would ever let within a mile of Pepper. Case in point is Latveria."
"Why did the Admiral forbid it?" Steve asked, and flinched when he heard how pragmatic he sounded. He wished he knew how to be a better friend. Sympathy wasn't his strongest suit.
"Because she's too old. Too addicted. They think she wouldn't survive the transition."
That made a lot of sense, and Steve felt a sympathetic pang in his chest. He liked Miss Potts – she was one Hell of a dame – and thinking of her imprisoned made him sick. Only he could not quite see her as a crewmember of the Pegasus. What would she do? …except dog Tony's footsteps, reminding him to work, to take a break, to sleep, to eat…
Who reminded Tony to eat? No one, Steve was sure. No one gave a damn, except to lock him in the workshop when they had a chance, for five minutes of silence. It made Steve want to bash someone's head in, only it was anyone's guess if he could reach that high right now.
"Would she survive?" Steve asked woodenly.
Tony shrugged. Then he shook his head, with an expression Steve knew well from the mirror. "Probably not." He extended his cup to Steve.
It happened too fast for Steve to react.
One moment he was in pursuit of the masked stranger, running along the roofs. The assassin leapt a distance from the station building to the opposite side of a street, which was a stretch even for Steve.
Steve caught onto a ledge, pulled himself up-
The stranger kicked him in the face with such force that he dislodged Steve's grip and sent him hurtling down toward the pavement – no, toward the decorative spiked fence-
Steve closed his eyes. He landed on something yielding, something strangely elastic. It depressed under his weight and then returned to its original position, making him bounce a bit and roll a couple of feet. He raised himself on his elbows and looked around, surprised to be alive and in a minimal amount of pain. The fence was slithering back to its original position, like a snake with tall spikes mounted on its back. The pavement beneath it looked rock solid.
Steve became aware of screaming and shouting going on around him. He found a crowd of onlookers slowly inching forwards, mobile phones raised in front of them.
"He's alive!" someone exclaimed, amazed.
"It's Captain America!" someone else pointed out.
Other voices argued about whether they should call an ambulance, or call the police, or not bother calling anyone at all, since Steve was obviously 'just fine'.
Tony landed on one knee so close to Steve that he could feel the hum of the machinery in his teeth.
"Ouch," Tony muttered, looking at Steve's nose. "You'll need someone to set that-"
"How?" Steve cut in, disoriented.
Tony's almost-frown dissolved into an open smirk. "Cap, twinkletoes… remember? If I don't want you to die, there's nothing you or anyone else can do inside this system that could kill you."
"He got away," Natasha reported. "Even I can't jump that far."
"Iron Man?" Agent Coulson demanded.
"Too busy catching Steve," Tony replied glibly.
In the following radio silence Steve had a feeling that Tony was about to be reprimanded for his choice, but in the end all the Agent said was: "Explain it to the Director." Which, frankly, was not a whole lot better.
Steve cringed. He felt himself beginning to shrink.
Then Tony was there, picking him up easily and flying him away from the gawping people, upwards, past the roof Steve had fallen off of and onto a terrace that belonged to someone with a suspicious taste in sculptures.
A glass door unlocked under a mere look from Tony, who dematerialized his armor and pushed Steve inside, toward the gilded, mock-empire telephone. "You go first."
The telephone rang.
Steve paused with his hand stretched out to the receiver. "Agent Coulson should have known you didn't need to catch me."
"I tell them all often enough. Not my fault they don't believe me. And if you don't believe me, either… whatever." Tony shrugged like it didn't matter. Like he was so used to being discredited that one more person to make fun of him meant no more than a drop in the ocean.
Steve was used to trusting Director Fury and Agent Coulson's judgment, if not their words, but Tony's matter-of-factness and resignation made him want to have faith in him even in the face of overwhelming odds against him. That was familiar. That was what Avengers were about.
The phone kept ringing.
"They all have this idea," Tony ventured, "that The One will be some kind of self-effacing idiot savant. A milquetoast coaster on life with unplumbed hidden depths. A genius unaware that he is a genius, who will need to be convinced of his uniqueness, preferably by the love of a hot babe. I think Romanov's had specialized hot-babe training just in case we stumble over some poor schmuck that will need convincing."
"You're just bitter, because she didn't bother 'convincing' you," Clint said from the open balcony door, and let himself in. Steve found it remarkable how fast Tony's expression closed, and then was hidden under a perfunctory mask of snark, even though Clint went directly for the phone and picked it up, dissolving into thin air, only briefly leaving behind and afterimage consisting of translucent green characters.
Steve replaced the receiver. The phone rang again.
"Thanks for catching me, Tony," he said, and picked up.
When the debriefings were finished and Steve was free to go, he found that Tony was locked inside his workshop. Aimless and too jittery to try and sleep, he somehow ended up being invited to hide out in Dr Banner's laboratory while – at least so Dr Banner explained – Tony was being grilled by Admiral Fury.
"He didn't recognize you," Dr Banner said, scowling at the screen.
"You can read that?" Steve stared at the steady streams of green characters and felt his eyes begin to water.
Dr Banner observed at him out of the corner of his eye for a while, and then nodded tightly. He tapped a few keys. Seemingly random characters began to flicker blue. "That's him."
"The Winter Soldier?" Steve asked, because that was the name the Captain's – belated – debriefing had provided for the masked assassin that could jump between rooftops at least as well as Steve could.
Dr Banner stared at him for a longer while, brows furrowed and one corner of his mouth twitching. He cursed under his breath and turned to look back at the display. "Tony should be telling you this. If you get angry at me, I'll get pissed off right back and I'll probably kill you. I'd like to avoid homicide if at all-"
"Please, tell me," Steve requested with as much equanimity as he could muster while something cold and unpleasant seemed to be trying to crawl out of his stomach through his esophagus.
Dr Banner took a deep breath, visibly braced himself and said: "That's James Barnes."
Steve's first reaction was to wait for laughter, or some other indication that this was a particularly unfunny and hurtful joke, but none were forthcoming and, once he could think again, he found that it made sense, in a twisted way. Tony had warned him – if a challenge devised to get him over his terror could be called a warning – and Steve had been looking forward to the opportunity to search for Bucky.
He hadn't expected meeting him like this. Like they were enemies.
He was not angry at Dr Banner, but he was quite hacked off at life in general, at the machines and their Marvel. He clenched his fists and pressed one against his temple. "He doesn't remember me, you say?"
That was most important. That meant that he could still maybe get through to Bucky. There was still a chance to save him, maybe to bring him out of Marvel, too – Natasha said the freed people tried to save everyone with a superhuman ability. And Bucky was, well, a lot like Steve.
"No, he doesn't," Bruce confirmed. "Brainwashing, I'd guess."
"I'll ask Logan," Tony said hoarsely from the archway.
Steve turned to him, startled at his pale, haggard appearance; Dr Banner was already pushing a chair in Tony's direction. Tony sat down hard; his eyes were red-rimmed and he looked like he wanted nothing more than to crawl into a bottle.
"Logan as in Wolverine?" Steve inquired.
"Yeah," Tony said weakly. "He and I are pals. Buddies. Mates. We go back a long way – no, that's a lie. It's not that long. We just sort of get where the other one's coming from."
"And they have a pact," Dr Banner supplied, rifling through a drawer.
"What kind of pact?"
"I've promised him that I'll find him and get him out of the Marvel. Xavier won't, and Logan's well aware of it – old Wheels thinks the man jack Highlander's too damn dangerous, what with that nifty unaging trick of his. But I can- yeaowch!"
Tony flinched and swatted at the source of his distress, but by that time Dr Banner was already out of his reach, having taken the opportunity when Tony was distracted and sticking him with a needle.
Steve would have laughed any other time, but his head was still full of Bucky. Buck, looking scruffier and more cynical than even real Tony did, kicking Steve in the face and almost succeeding in killing him. Steve felt like he maybe deserved that, for failing to save Bucky in the first place, but he wanted to make up for that failing by saving his friend now rather than dying in penance.
"That should keep you from fainting head-first into one of your 'special projects'," Dr Banner announced dryly, putting pieces of the needle away.
Tony pouted. "I've only got the one special-special project, Brucie-Bear, and you know it."
Dr Banner scoffed, but the look he gave Tony was both worried and abashedly affectionate.
It was a coincidence.
Steve had eavesdropped a lot in his time, but he liked to think that he wasn't the eavesdropping type. It was just habit – a vice, a reminder of his days as a soldier in the World War – that made him stay still and listen when the voices, slurred with relaxation and alcohol, came from behind the corner.
"What now, Phil?" Clint asked, impertinent and insistent as Steve had known him on the few informal occasions inside the Marvel. "If not even Fury-"
"Ishcho padazhdi," Natasha cut in.
Neither Clint nor the Captain asked for a translation; likely they both spoke enough Russian to understand. Steve had never known they did.
He wished that he could be a part of that conversation; that he too could sit on the kitchen floor, cradling a tin cup in his hands and speak in a low voice, feeling safe and secure among his friends. Perhaps this was the price for lounging in the dark with Tony, learning about the real world and how it wasn't all that different from the simulation – only harder.
"We've done well with Rogers," Clint insisted. "We can do another extraction. We won't fuck up again – Banner was an aberration. I mean, who even expects something like the Hulk? That assessment wasn't fair."
"We've had help with Rogers," the Captain replied, but there was a hint of fondness in his voice. Judging by the curt 'Rogers', little to none of that fondness was for Steve.
"Morpheus," Natasha grumbled.
"We can do it without him," Clint begged. "We did Nat fine, didn't we?"
"You nearly did me in," Natasha retorted, and loudly slurped something.
"That op wasn't our best," Captain Coulson admitted.
From what Steve had heard from Natasha, bundled up in rhetoric and humor, it had been a… what was that word… FUBAR. It had gone down the drain so fast that no one had expected it – Natasha had stressed the 'down the drain' as a morbid pun – and Clint ended up going into the drain stream to recover her, while already seriously wounded after their interaction inside the Marvel. The Captain had pulled Clint up, but by that time he wasn't breathing. Natasha was, and she had been allegedly clutching onto Clint like a deranged carnivorous sea creature on its prey.
She joked about Clint being the bait on the fish-hook.
She also ended up giving him CPR.
Steve still wasn't seeing the funny side.
"Sadly," Natasha said, "it really was."
"No," the Captain protested. "Stark was our best op."
"You mean that him bursting into the Triskelion, invading Fury's office and demanding a meeting with you was in any way our merit?" Clint inquired.
"Yebat' yivo mat'," Natasha replied philosophically.
Steve grimaced. He knew that one.
"I thought the way he sat on top of Phil's paperwork and went 'gimme, gimme' for the red pill was inspired."
"Should have let him drown," Natasha opined.
"But isn't that what we do? Save boys in distress from other worlds?" Clint gulped down more of his drink, and continued, slurring even more pronounced: "Worlds of fantasy and code that only make sense to your crazy-ass tech?"
"He's not mine," Captain Coulson refuted flatly.
"You signed off on him," Clint pointed out.
"We needed him at the time."
"Besides, Clint, you were all for it," Natasha accused.
"Yeah, sure." There was a pouring sound. "He's crazy, but he's good people. And fun."
"Only because you equate explosions with fun," the Captain mumbled.
"I so don't!" Clint protested.
Natasha started singing something ethnic under her breath.
"Sure you do," the Captain insisted.
Steve figured that he had heard far more than he should have, and definitely more than enough. He backed away, careful of his steps, since being caught eavesdropping very rarely ended well for him – and walked backwards into someone.
It was not Tony.
Dr Banner blinked up at him and raised an eyebrow.
Steve hunched his shoulders and looked up sheepishly. That look was one of the few things about him that had lost potency after the supersoldier procedure, and he had no compunctions about using it to his advantage now that he had it back.
"They really don't like Tony, do they?" he observed, plaintive.
Dr Banner hummed. "I wouldn't say so. It's not really that clear-cut, Steve. I think…" He hesitated for a long time and then shook his head. "Tony scares them. They don't understand him and cannot really control him. I guess the Captain just wishes things were different. But you know what they say about wishes, so he gets frustrated, and then it's just easier for him to keep his distance."
"Why – How is he so different?" Steve had a suspicion that it came down to being the mythical One, but that shouldn't have had any influence on the reality. But, obviously, Tony was somehow playing a different league even out here.
"Tony is the youngest of us, and he has actually been out of the system for the shortest time." Dr Banner stood so that he blocked the corridor, and Steve could not go any other way but back to the kitchen or inside the cabin that had been assigned to him. "Maybe…" The man squinted over the top of his glasses. "…you should ask him about it."
Steve could take advice, so he waited for another quiet moment in between long flights, the Avengers being called to assemble, various chores and Natasha's insistence to introduce Steve to the less-than-exciting world of gambling card games (which were pretty much the same as they had been in the forties), and sought Tony out.
He found the man, unsurprisingly, in his workshop. He was sorting tiny scales into boxes based on who-knew-what; he held a piece of metal under a looking glass in a pair of tweezers, observed it for a moment, and then put it away. He did the same with another one, and another, until finally the fifth one elicited a huff of triumph.
Tony turned around, jumped when he noticed Steve, and almost lost his infinitesimal bounty.
"You get really focused," Steve remarked.
Tony blinked. Then he removed a pair of headphones from his ears. "What?"
"No surprise you didn't hear me coming," Steve revised. When he looked around, he could see the skeleton of an Octobot lying in a corner, looking like a school of piranhas had swum past. A grinding machine was cooling down on top of another counter, and there was what looked like miniature shards of red glass littering the space between the wall and Tony's boxes of scales.
Steve squatted next to BuDDy and patted him on the casing; the bot chirped a question.
"Nah, Steve's just being friendly."
"Do you really understand him?" Steve asked. Somehow, that had seemed plausible with DUM-E and You and Butterfingers, but BuDDy was… real.
Tony shrugged. "A bit. The important parts. I gave him the speaker for a reason." He poked BuDDy on what passed for the bot's head. "If he wanted to, he could probably learn to speak in words, but he doesn't have that much ambition. I was more concerned with making him able to jack me into the system without killing me."
"That's…" Completely crazy, Steve mused, the kind of thing that he had thought was limited to the simulations. What he said instead was a no less honest: "…amazing."
Tony scoffed. "You're very nice, Steve. I wish you had been here three years ago, but you're a little late. They've already broke me off of any willingness to help them free the mankind I might have had."
Dr Banner had said that Tony had been out for the shortest time of them all; it had not occurred to Steve that it had been years already. "Why are you still on this ship?" he asked for the third time. Tony's persistence in staying truly made no sense in context with what Steve knew – what he thought he knew – about Tony Stark, the man who did what he wanted, when he wanted to, and laughed at other people's opinions of him.
"I first fucked with the Marvel when I was six," Tony stated.
Steve was so taken aback that he only managed: "You did?" It wasn't that he disbelieved what Tony was telling him, not at this point, but at six Steve had been dealing with the loss of his father and with walking pneumonia, so it hadn't occurred to him that the entire world could have been a computer game. Especially as he had had no idea of computers.
"Hm. Okay." Tony cradled the special scale in his palm; it got ensconced in the folds of his heart line. "Trick question: this is public knowledge, and it's in my file, so you'll know it. My parents died in a car crash. When?"
Steve doubted he would ever forget the date. He had respected Howard Stark too much in the… the fake past, so he knew: "Seventeenth of August nineteen eighty-nine."
"I was how old?"
"Twenty," Steve replied promptly. It had been in all the newspaper articles.
Tony raised his eyebrows. "Was I really?"
Steve paused. Here Tony was, in 2012, not forty-three as he should have been, but twenty-nine. Which would have made him… "Six?" Steve amended.
Steve couldn't quite wrap his mind around it. How did a six-year-old boy convince the program he wasn't even supposed to know existed that he was actually twenty? He had a niggling suspicion about copy-pasting parts of others' histories; he shuddered and refused to go further down that line of thought. He was more than willing to chalk it all to Tony having been a prodigy.
"It wasn't like I did it all myself," Tony rambled on. "Dad had put together a lot of it, practically all there was to know about Marvel, and he had safeguards that dumped all that data into my brain the instance of his death. And, before you ask – yes, I have gone crazy. A bit. Hardly anyone ever notices."
Tony grinned at his joke. He didn't say the oft-repeated 'I am The One', even though now was the perfect opportunity for it, but… Steve realized it wasn't necessary. On one hand, it was perfectly obvious from the context; on the other, he could clearly read it in Tony's face.
"Who took care of you?"
Tony laughed. "Twenty-year-olds don't need to be taken care of, Steve. Besides, I had Obie to guide me."
Steve wondered, the same Obie that had taken Tony's arc reactor in the belief that it would kill him? The same one that was the root cause for all the skepticism Tony dealt with daily?
"Everyone needs to be taken care of, at least sometimes," Steve insisted.
"Sure, Cap." Tony looked at the unsorted pile of scales and sighed. "I hate to cut this pow-wow short, but…"
Steve left him to it.
It only occurred to Steve hours later that Tony had once again managed to dodge the question.
The Avengers saved another day.
It had been an odd day which they had saved. Several villains had attacked at the same time, but without any cooperation, and they ended up hindering each other. Steve and his team spent most of the time redirecting attacks so that the enemies would fight it out amongst themselves, and afterwards they neutralized the rest.
Nevertheless, they were exhausted and enjoying a well-deserved evening of rest and recuperation. Natasha and Clint were quite beat up; Captain Coulson forced them to hunker down in the sickroom and kept watch over them – trying to keep them in, that was, not because he was afraid that they would be attacked from outside.
Dr Banner had hidden himself away to meditate. He claimed that he didn't remember anything of what had happened, but he had seemed irrationally angry still, so no one protested when he left.
Steve didn't want to be alone and think about Bucky, so he invaded Tony's workshop. Tony wasn't even working for once; he just played some repetitive game on his tablet. It seemed to involve a lot of beeping and many computerized sound-effects. Steve let the noise lull him into a doze.
The ringing of a phone startled him into wakefulness. The sound repeated, loud and insistent.
Tony set the tablet down, raised to his ear what looked like a perfectly normal mobile phone (although it was the first one Steve had seen out in the real world) and said: "Hey."
Steve rubbed the remnants of sleep out of his eyes and climbed to his feet; whoever Tony was talking to, he should be granted his privacy.
"We've got forty-one seconds between initialization and the time Coulson will activate the EMP. Can you make it?"
Steve paused in the doorway and turned. Something in Tony's last statement wasn't right.
"There won't be any re-dos," Tony stressed. "I can repair some subroutines – knowledge bases, skills and logical processes but, Snow White, if you lose a part of your personality, it's the scrap-heap for you. So… you know… send that first." Tony listened for a moment and then nodded. "Countdown, twelve seconds, now. See you on the flipside, popsicle."
Steve opened his mouth to ask what was going on, but his internal clock ticked from ten to nine, and he was not going to distract Tony now. He was doing something important. Something that meant the difference between life and death to someone.
"Bugger the Damn Droid!" Tony yelled out.
BuDDy came wheeling out of the storage closet.
"From what I've tasted of desire," Tony declaimed dramatically, eyes shining, "I hold with those who favor ice."
BuDDy whirled around, came to a complete stop, and powered down. The top panel of his base popped open. Tony pried it off and pushed a button inside, activating something that would have normally set off the alarms – only Tony had engaged an override.
Steve watched, stunned. He should have run for the Captain already, but he wanted to know the answer. He was convinced that in the next few minutes, he would find out why Tony had stayed on the Pegasus despite the constant put-downs and the perpetual distrust he encountered. Something was here that seemed worth it to him.
There was a shuffling sound behind Steve. He moved to look, but he wasn't quick enough.
A needle sank into his neck; a pair of cold hands eased him to the ground. He thought he heard an apology before everything went dark.
His head ached a little; his throat was parched and his mouth felt like something had died and started decomposing on his tongue. He was thirsty enough to drink motor oil, but at the same time he needed to empty his bladder with urgency that bordered on pain.
"Wake up, Steve."
Steve opened his eyes. Natasha was there, looking back at him. To his surprise, Steve found he was inside his cabin. He climbed to his feet, muttered something he hoped his visitor would take as an apology and raced (or, rather, awkwardly ambled at a high speed) for the lavatory.
He came back a couple of minutes later, much more comfortable in his own skin, having drunk a good few cup's worth of tap water. The headache was receding, too.
"Sorry…?" he said to Natasha, who was looking at him without any expression. With a bit of luck, that was her version of amusement, but Steve was rather worried that something had happened and Natasha wasn't in the mood to be amused.
Tony had been doing something, hadn't he? It was all a blur inside Steve's head.
"Is everyone all right?" he asked, unable to shake the vague suspicion.
"Everyone won't be, once I get my hands on him," she promised grimly. "Come on."
Steve barely had the time to snag a pullover before she dragged him through the ship to the hatch. The ramp had been lowered. The tunnel floor outside was littered with bits and pieces of things, some of which were undoubtedly machinery and stone, but a lot of which appeared almost organic. All of them were embedded in an inch-deep layer of dark goo that stank (thank God!) like rot.
Captain Coulson slowly, carefully moved toward a bend in the tunnel, carrying a huge gun that markedly resembled the ignominious Phase Two. Clint shadowed him from a few yard's distance.
"Where are we?" Steve asked, staring at the seemingly endless wall of patterned paneling of such complexity that his head was beginning to hurt just from looking at it.
"Below Detroit," Natasha provided, scanning the tunnels around them. "I don't know who programmed this course, but it wasn't me, and it sure as Hell wasn't Clint-"
"I know who it was," Steve said. As if there even was a doubt.
"We need to leave," ordered Captain Coulson, giving Steve a single, short look before dismissing his observation as irrelevant. "As soon as possible."
"Why?" Steve asked, feeling terminally ignorant.
"There's one of the biggest assembling factories behind that wall," Clint explained, pointing at the headache-inducing barrier. "The security around here's ridiculous."
"We'll be fine," Tony said from the ramp.
The Captain turned and aimed the gun at him.
It didn't faze Tony. "We're not going to be swarmed. There's a maintenance quarantine around here, and the maintenance was assigned to a unit that doesn't exist, so we're in the clear. I needed to get to this place, because our kind neighbors here-" He, too, pointed at the wall. "-have assembled me a ship."
"We can't hack their security systems yet," Natasha objected through clenched teeth. She seemed to be on the verge of throwing herself at Tony and trying to kill him. "Even you can't, although your ego would claim you can."
Tony shrugged. "You're right. I can't." He spread his hands, empty, but instead of a surrender it was a gesture devised to draw attention to him. "But, you see, it's like my dear old Mom used to say – it's a matter of knowing the right people. People high enough up the chain. People who have the security clearance to set assignments for assembling factories and mess with sheduling." His smirk widened.
Captain Coulson resignedly lowered the weapon and muttered: "Of course you did."
Tony jauntily hopped down to the debris-strewn ground and another person came through the hatch.
'Person' was perhaps not the right word, but Steve found that he couldn't think of anything closer. The figure was shaped like a man. He was wearing the same kind of clothes everyone else within sight wore, but he was obviously not a human. He was not even the flesh-and-blood Loki to whom Steve was used from the inside of the simulation. His body was covered with tiny interlocking scale-like pieces of metal, similar to the tentacles of the Octobot Sentinels that Tony kept taking apart wherever he went. The steel had a bluish sheen to it, especially in the reflector light, and his eyes, like solid rubies, glowed blood-red.
He was a work of art.
"This is excellent craftsmanship, Stark," Loki said, opening and closing his fists to observe the fluid motion of his fingers. His voice was spot-on, too.
"Yeah," Tony agreed unselfconsciously, and negated it by adding dryly: "I'm the post-apocalyptic Da Vinci."
There was a distant, muffled clang, and a part of the paneled wall began to slide up.
The Captain had his gun aimed at it within an instant. Steve looked at Natasha and Clint, searching for instructions, and found that they, too, were armed and ready.
Steve had no weapons on him. He wished Natasha would let him borrow one of her two obviously deadly handguns, but then Loki stepped in front of him and solved the dilemma of 'to ask or not to ask' by extending his glinting metal hand and announcing: "Behold – liberty."
There were no machines in the hangar revealed behind the wall – at least none that seemed capable of self-awareness or independent thought. But there was a hovercraft.
It was very different from the Pegasus. Its shape could not even be compared – it was sleek; its curves were pleasing to the eye and its corners sharp. And on its side was a name: L.I.B.E.R.T.Y.
"Do what you must and let us be on our way," Loki ordered. Without another look over his shoulder, he set out toward the hovercraft, leaving the group of humans behind.
Dr Banner ambled past, carrying a bulging backpack. He gave his former crewmates an awkward wave and hurried off to avoid any unpleasant conversation on the topic of desertion and consorting with the enemy. Even if Steve couldn't yet entirely reconcile this real-life machine with the simulated human-like villain, there was no doubt in his mind that Loki was still, technically, their enemy.
Despite Tony's backhanded yet staunch defence of him.
Tony rubbed his hands together and wiped them on his pants. "I've left a few files on your tablet," he said to the Captain. "Couple of prospective replacements, since you're suddenly two crew members short. I'd recommend Fitz and Simmons – good kids, pretty sharp and, also, just pretty, so they should brighten up the gloomy atmosphere around here. And, they're young so… so they'll be good additions. They'll probably only go together, but one's like Bruce's clone without the anger issues – and without a dick – and the other one's almost alright with tech. Plus, we all know you didn't really need Steve. You just wanted him."
Everyone looked to Steve and then back to the Captain. Steve felt heat rising in his cheeks. This wasn't his fault. He had not asked for this-
"Anyway," Tony continued, talking with his mouth and his hands at the same time, "good luck, Captain, and when you speak with Fury tell him that it's all his fault anyway for not listening to me any of those thousand times I tried to tell him."
"There's no place on Earth far enough from Zion to risk saying that to Fury's face," Clint grumbled, rubbing at his hair. "Can you get on with it? There's a bottle of sixty-proof somewhere on this ship with my name on it, just pining away."
"Bu-bye, Barton," Tony mocked. "I'm going to miss your shower arias."
"Fuck you, too," Clint replied, trying hard to sound as sincere as possible.
Tony turned to Natasha. "Romanov – I'd say it's been a pleasure, but that would be a lie."
"Idi na khuy, Stark."
"Right back at you." Finally, Tony met Steve's eye. He bit the inside of his cheek, then released it and scratched behind his ear. "Steve."
'Don't leave,' were the words on the tip of Steve's tongue. He swallowed them. That would have been a silly thing to say; Tony was Steve's friend, even if there were obviously secrets not shared between them. Steve was going to miss him, but he was going to make other friends… or he wasn't – in the greater scheme that hardly mattered. Either way he would survive.
He just hadn't expected the sense of abandonment that fell on him like an anvil.
Tony smirked (and Steve wanted to punch his smug face in, but he did have a measure of self-control). "The Liberty, crew consisting of me, Loki, Bruce, and soon enough Logan and Barnes, too. Whatcha say, Steve?"
"Godspeed," Steve said woodenly, fists clenched hard enough that he felt his nails cutting into his palms. Tony was going to take Bucky, too?
"Aw, come on!" the man pouted. "Now you're just playing hard to get. Don't pretend you don't want to – no one's buying it."
He heard Clint scoff, and then a noise like two cuffs on the back of a head in short succession.
"Don't pretend I don't want what?" Steve asked, befuddled.
Tony rolled his eyes. "Keep up, Steve. We, the most awesome crew in this ruin of a world, need a captain. And who better than you, Cap? Captain America of the Liberty! It even sounds like a newspaper headline!"
"You want me to go with you?" Steve deduced.
Tony clapped. "Is that a yes? I think I've heard a yes."
Steve turned to look at Captain Coulson. There was no doubt in his mind about what he wanted to do, but it was obviously not the right thing to do. When he had been put into this position in the past, Steve had never had trouble deciding. The choice was clear.
"Barton, Romanov, to the Bridge. Set course for Nova Scotia."
Steve shut his mouth. He supposed that was that. He could have argued, but he was inexorably drawn to the Liberty, beautiful and symbolic and promising to take him to Bucky. He remembered parts of half-forgotten conversations now: when Tony told him he had fought for Steve to be extracted (and then turned around and claimed that it had been Captain Coulson's initiative), when Tony told him Bucky was alive, when Tony explained about Pepper – when Tony defended Loki.
Steve was not going to argue.
Steve startled. It was Captain Coulson, but Steve had never even heard the man refer to Tony by his first name, much less address him so familiarly. The man had walked back to the ramp; now he was standing a couple of feet above the ground, at a glance calm and collected as ever, but Steve looked more closely – and apparently Tony somehow managed to stir emotion even in the allegedly robotic Agent of SHIELD.
"Phillip," Tony replied, voice low and rife with implication.
Coulson closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and threw a small, dark object.
Steve expected a flashbang, or even a hand grenade, so his heart skipped a beat when Tony simply reached up, snatched the object out of the air, then held it in his palm and stared at it.
"Pepper's location," the Captain said.
Tony shook his head. "She wouldn't survive…"
"She wouldn't," the Captain agreed. "But this is the best I could do."
Tony's shoulders jerked; Steve remembered from the war what a suppressed sob looked like. He wasn't sure what had just happened here, but he was darn certain that it was none of his business, so he simply waited until Captain Coulson returned into the ship and the ramp pulled up.
The Bridge of the new hovercraft was well-lit, full of technology that seemed less cobbled together and far more futuristic than anything on the Pegasus, and equipped with six comfortable seats. There was a counter set up on the screen, indicating that the engines would be ready for flight within five minutes, whereupon they would have a roughly eight-minute window to clear the location before the machines swarmed it.
Dr Banner had taken his things elsewhere – to a laboratory or his cabin, presumably – and was curled up in one of the passenger seats, rocking back and forth and muttering quietly into his knees. It sounded like a mantra, repeated rhythmically over and over.
Loki took the pilot's seat; Tony flopped down next to him.
Steve had been expected to take the captain's spot, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. Instead, he settled down opposite Dr Banner, trying to give him as much space as he needed; having him go into a fit of rage right now would be a catastrophe.
"Liberty?" Steve asked when the silence became thick enough to cut.
"Loki named her," Tony explained, smiling at the figure sitting next to him (it was the second smile Steve had seen from him – he had counted). "He commissioned her, so he got to name her. Irony aside, it's a pretty good name, too."
"It was-" Loki spoke, briefly abandoning the controls to glance at Tony, "-a collaboration. Neither of us could have accomplished it alone."
Tony inhaled like he was going to say something (most likely protest, as Steve knew him), but then he simply nodded and went back to concentrating on plotting the course.
"Where are we going?" asked Steve, certain that if he were disturbing them they wouldn't hesitate to tell him so.
"Alberta," Tony replied. "We're going to extract Logan. And then, Europe. I've been trying to find Barnes, and I've got a couple of ideas. If you actually knew where he was born-"
"Africa," Steve said. He tried to remember details. Bucky's friendship had happened seven decades ago for him, even if the time in between had consisted of simulated hibernation. Bucky had never talked much about his family except that they were dead, and before they died they had moved a lot. "Bloemfontein…?" he hazarded. Even if that wasn't right, it was at least a starting point.
"There is a power plant where the town of Kimberley used to be," Loki noted.
Tony grinned. "See, Cap? Where there's a will-"
The ship shot forwards and Loki guided her smoothly down the tunnel at speed that shamed Clint's and that, frankly, made Steve's head spin.
And thus, Steve thought poetically, the question of why Tony remained on the Pegasus for so long had been answered threefold.
Steve was flattered to be a part of that trinity, even though his was unquestionably the lesser importance. He was angry, inarguably, but also excited and anxious, and for the first time since 1944 he had hope blossoming inside his chest again. He was fulfilling a promise, and he had Tony to thank for that, so he decided to try and be the bigger man – metaphorically speaking, even though between him and Tony it was a matter of inches.
"Thanks," he forced out, standing in the doorway (for, as opposed to the Pegasus, personal cabins on the Liberty had actual doors).
Tony looked up from his bed, where he had been fiddling with something on his tablet. He waved the gratitude away, just as unable to accept it as he was incapable of accepting apologies and praise. He didn't even ask what Steve was thanking him for.
"And I'm sorry," Steve added, already braced for another rebuff.
Tony scowled. "What did you do that necessitates an apology, and how much damage control do I need to do?"
Steve sighed. That was not the anticipated reaction, but he didn't like this one either. He wasn't a fool, however, so he had come prepared.
He shoved a plastic cup (not glass, but at least it wasn't tin) into Tony's hands, ignored his protests, and sat down onto the edge of the bed. He was unsure of his welcome – no, rather, he was fairly sure that soon enough he would not be welcome at all – but he needed to at least make an attempt.
"Miss Potts," Steve said.
He liked the dame very much. Her absence was technically Tony's cross to bear, not Steve's, but the way Tony shouldered the weight day by day, making fun of his own crown of thorns and using sarcasm to deflect the stones thrown at him… darn, Steve was aware that the metaphor had gotten far, far away from him, but even so he refused to wash his hands off of this situation.
"I love Pepper," Tony replied. He seemed outwardly calm, but Steve found that he could easily read the tension in the lines of his body, in the forcibly open left hand and the tautness of the tendons in his right forearm. The look in his eyes was open – the kind of look that marked him as capable of truly anything when pressed. "But I can't be with her in there," he said hoarsely, "and she can't be with me out here."
"Don't be. That's life. Well, that and this never-ending tug-o'-war." Tony tapped his tablet and showed a selection of tunnels leading under the Atlantic Ocean, as well as a couple of possible (if risky) surface routes. "And, yeah, the WSC can lie to themselves all they want, but we know the truth. Sure, mankind's sort of enslaved. But they're given all the freedom they need and, frankly, the only reason humans aren't extinct yet is that their legal competence was taken from them before they could destroy themselves."
It hit Steve like a punch to the solar plexus. He couldn't breathe for a moment. He forced himself to, but it still felt like every inhale filled his lungs with cigar smoke.
He had thought that maybe the Liberty's 'awesome' crew would set out to… well, to save the world, for the lack of a better phrase. But, he had to admit, there wasn't a whole lot of world to be saved. There were many humans, sure, but most of them – like Pepper – could not be saved either. Even Steve had long since resigned himself to the truth of his situation, keeping his own goals semi-realistic and limiting his rescue efforts to Bucky.
Why would he ask more of Tony? That made no sense.
It just hurt, like ripping away illusions always did. "I hate you," he though, only realizing that he had said it out loud when he heard himself.
Tony took that with aplomb. With thanks, apologies or praise he couldn't deal, but a declaration of hatred he could accept with almost professional poise.
"No, Steve," he replied calmly. "It's not me you hate. It's what I represent." He took a long, slow sip to give Steve the time to process. "And that, my friend, is why no one will ever believe that I really am The One. And, in the end, it's a good thing."
Steve's eyes burned. Maybe this one time, crying would be acceptable?
Tony leaned forwards, put his elbows on his knees and lowered his head. His hair hung in front of his face like an asymmetrical drapery, and the tablet screen made his eyes shine an unearthly blue. "I can control Marvel because I understand it. And, Steve… at the risk of you truly, actually hating me, I believe that for the mankind as a whole, Marvel is the better option."
Steve opened his mouth to ask why then Tony bothered to go to such extreme lengths to set Loki free from the system, but he raised his cup instead and drank.
He only had to close his eyes and listen to the purring of the Liberty's engines, and the answer was pretty obvious.