Steve stared at the window in the room where the nurses took his blood samples, trying not to noticeably look like he was paying attention to where it was going. If he couldn't escape, he could at least destroy the samples. He was so intent on looking like he wasn't looking, he almost missed the fact Dr. McDonnell came in.
She stood in the doorway, hands clasped in front of her. Her brunette hair was brushed back, cut in a short bob. Steve realized with a start that she had probably been modeled to appeal to him, and didn't that leave a bitter taste in his mouth?
But he couldn't let on that he knew something was up. So he swallowed down the bile and smiled. "Dr. McDonnell. How are you today?"
"I..." she started, looking down. A spike of anger replaced the bile as he recognized the manipulation for what it was. Now that he was thinking clearly, he could see the signs of insincerity. She was just a little too much the naive young doctor to be believable, and too shrewd in responses to calm him.
He couldn't let on that he knew, however, so he forced a smile to remain on his face as she stammered on. "I-I came to apologize for..."
"It's alright," Steve said, unable to stomach hearing any more. "You were upset. That's understandable."
"It still wasn't-"
Steve heard the very familiar whine of a repulsor blast. He spun around, the name on his lips as his heart nearly stopped. "Tony."
But it wasn't Tony. He had a brief glance of gold and blue before he was blasted against the wall. The breath left him as he slammed against the hard concrete. His stomach burned, and he put a hand over the wound as screaming reached his ears over the roaring of his own hurt. When he finally staggered to his feet, the other nurses and doctors had cleared out. All except for Dr. McDonnell, who being restrained by armored arms with a powered-up gauntlet aimed at her head.
"Let her go," Steve said calmly, holding up his hands to show he was unarmed. He really wished he had his shield, but he couldn't waste time thinking of what he didn't have. "Your name is Michael, right? Just put her down and we can talk."
The face plate of the armor turned his way, the eyes dark. There was no arc reactor in the suit, Steve realized with a start. The blue and gold armor was sleek and smooth, uninterrupted by the light Steve was so used to seeing. It made the armor look menacing, but it was the darkened eyes that sent chills through Steve's spine. They looked bleak and dead, with no hint of the person behind them.
Dr. McDonnell screamed as Michael held her tighter. "Let go!" she cried, tears running down her face. "Captain, please..."
Steve took a step forward. "Michael, please let her go. We can talk-"
"You're Captain Rogers?" the mechanized voice of the armor said. Steve recognized the voice instantly, though it held none of the usual inflection. When Tony spoke in the Iron Man armor, you could always hear Tony behind it. Tony's sarcasm, Tony's warmth, or Tony's worry, every word was obviously Tony under the metal. The few times he'd had JARVIS piloting the armor, Steve had always been able to tell.
Steve had heard that SHIELD initially wanted to keep Iron Man's identity secret, but anyone with half a brain would have been able to see through that ruse after spending five minutes with both of them. It was just as transparent as Superman's glasses if you knew where to look.
But there was nothing in this armor, not even JARVIS. The words were just as dead as the eyes, as if the person inside was nothing more than a machine. If there was a person inside, and it wasn't just someone piloting the suit remotely. The lack of humanity disturbed Steve in ways he couldn't explain, and the feeling was compounded by the ache that searched for the friend he knew in that familiar voice.
"Answer," the armor said, putting the repulsor closer to Dr. McDonnell's head and pulling Steve from his thoughts.
"I am," Steve said, taking another step towards them. There was nothing nearby with enough weight that he could throw to knock Michael off balance enough to let go of his hostage. He may not like Dr. McDonnell or the people she worked for, but he couldn't let her get hurt.
His best bet was to grapple, but that was dangerous for both him and Dr. McDonnell. He wasn't dressed for battle either. "Is something wrong?" Steve asked. "I'd like to help you, if I can. Just let her go and-"
He was cut off by the whine of a repulsor blast, barely managing to roll aside in time for it to miss him. The motion made the wound in his stomach burn, but he ignored it.
Another repulsor blast followed. Steve was running out of time and options. He couldn't keep dodging if he wanted to get close enough to take Michael out. But when he waited for the next blast, it never came.
Steve looked up to see the gauntlet pointing at him, shaking almost imperceptibly. "Michael?" Steve asked. It felt a little presumptuous, taking liberties with Michael Stark's name, but 'Mr. Stark' hurt too much to think about, and some times a more personal approach helped with someone on the edge.
When Michael still didn't respond, Steve tried again. "Michael, I want to help you. Something's wrong, isn't it? Let her go and we can talk."
Michael's words when they finally came were just as dull and machine-like as the rest of them had been, but the meaning was anything but. "Please. Stop me."
Steve went cold. It had to be some kind of mind-control. Control that Michael was fighting and losing. He shouldn't have missed by the margin he did when Steve avoided the repulsor blasts, and he hadn't killed yet. Whether that meant the control was weakening or Michael was having a bout of strength, it might not last for long. Michael may have had no choice but to eliminate the one person who could stop him.
If this was real at all. Steve had no doubt there were recording devices here. Tony had the best security he could on the armor, but if they could get a copy of his voice print... They have some weird technology to keep him from leaving, so it wasn't impossible that they could recreate his voice patterns well enough for a recording to work. It was a risk, one that was too costly either way.
"Captain, please!" Dr. McDonnell said, tears running down her face.
He was between a rock and a hard place and both sides were moving to crush him. "I..." he said, taking a step back. "Michael, please. Let her go and-"
"Stop me," the dead voice said as the repulsor by Dr. McDonnell's head whined threateningly.
The wall behind Steve exploded, and he ducked to avoid the debris, coughing up dust as he protected his head. Nothing hit him though, and when the crumbling noises stopped, he tried to wave away the smoke.
Then he heard Dr. McDonnell shriek. "Dr. McDonnell?" he asked, stumbling forward as the air finally started to clear.
"Kor'la'vin! Give them back!" Steve heard a mechanized voice say. A mechanized female voice. Unlike Michael's, there was obviously a personality underneath. As the last of the smoke faded, he saw an Iron Man... Iron Woman suit painted a rusty red with a dark grey as a secondary color. The arc reactor in the chest shone brightly, a jewel red color that looked warm. Some part of him felt relieved at the light, despite the differences. It wasn't Tony, but the reactor glowing brightly had always meant Tony was safe. Alive.
"You..." Iron Woman said, her back now to Steve as she stared at Michael Stark. "How dare you... What are you trying to do to Michael's memory!?"
Dr. McDonnell screamed again. "Captain! There's two of them now! Help!"
"Captain?" Iron Woman looked back, seeing Steve for the first time. "Oh my god," she said, her hand coming to where her mouth should be under the face plate. "You're Steve Rogers. That's... But how are you here? How are either of you here? What-"
Steve's head snapped back to Dr. McDonnell as Iron Woman was slammed against the wall with a yellow energy blast.
Dr. McDonnell was aiming a gun at Iron Woman, and her skin turned a familiar shade of greyish-blue with pointed ears. Michael stepped back, disappearing as she snapped her fingers. "I almost had the codes this time," the Skrull said. "Still, if I eliminate you now, I won't need the codes."
It really had been all a lie. Rage raced through Steve's veins. The Skrull's attention was on Iron Woman, who groaned but didn't get back up. It was easy enough to sneak behind her, but when he tried to knock her out, his hand didn't connect. He stumbled forward when his momentum met no resistance, not even touching the Skrull as he went right through her body.
"What?" he said, jumping back as soon as he regained his balance. He looked down at his hands, shivering at the thought of passing through the Skrull. "How did you do that?" he demanded. As far as he knew, Skrulls didn't have the ability to become intangible.
"Your face when you realize you're not even real never fails to be entertaining," the Skrull - Kor'la'vin - said, her lip tilting up in malicious amusement.
He couldn't bring himself to try hitting her again. He took a step back as she stepped forward, then held his ground. He refused to flinch as she reached up to his cheek, but he couldn't feel her fingers as they traced down to his lips. "I learned after the first few times to turn off your ability to affect the real world at the confrontation. You tend to be violent."
"How many times?" Steve asked, fisting his hands at his sides to keep from ineffectively pushing her away. He felt sick. This wasn't the first time she'd done this? How was she erasing his memory?
"Oh, it's been a great many times by now," she said, putting her hand through his chest. Steve couldn't help but jump back this time, breath caught in his lungs as she laughed. "You're more clever than they gave you credit for by half, and the program still had some... kinks to work out. You can somehow tell instinctively when the data is false, so dates were problematic. Figuring out how much encouragement you needed was a hassle as well. If there's none at all, you sit and mope. If there's too much, you figure things out too quickly. I think this was the closest I've gotten to convincing you. I was going to have Michael 'kill' me this time, to see what kind of reaction that would get."
He'd been toyed with. She had been messing with his head for God knows how long now, and for what? To find out the codes? He wanted to look behind at Iron Woman, but her best chance was for him to keep Kor'la'vin busy. "Why?" he asked. "Why did you do this? What's... how come I can't touch you?"
"I just wanted the codes," Kor'la'vin said. "Iron Woman was proving to be too troublesome to my generals. If I had known it would be this easy to take her down, I wouldn't have bothered."
She looked towards the fallen armor as Steve cursed her drifting attention. The reactor was still glowing, but the person inside didn't move. Then she started to walk towards the armor, laughing as she went. Steve felt helpless. There was nothing he could do to help Iron Woman, whoever she was.
"As to what you are," Kor'la'vin continued. "You're now an obsolete hologram based on the recorded memories of Steve Rogers. A hologram that is going to watch as I finally kill this nuisance as punishment for being so stubborn."
A hologram? How... He wasn't even real? Steve looked down at his hands in shock, unable to wrap his mind around it. How could he not be real? And they'd made him to... Steve felt physically sick. He'd been made with the sole purpose to hurt Tony, or whoever now had the armor.
She hauled the still unmoving armor up, holding the weapon right up to the faceplate. "Don't!" Steve shouted, desperately searching for something he could do. But he didn't have his shield, and he couldn't touch anything. He was... He was just a hologram, no matter how sick the thought made him. "Iron Woman, you're not done fighting! Get up, Avenger!" he tried.
"Good night, little girl," the Skrull said.
Before she fired, there was a welcome repulsor whine. Kor'la'vin screamed, falling back as Iron Woman stood on her own, her left arm hanging limply at her side. Her other hand was raised, the repulsor ready to fire. "Dream on, bitch," she said. "Now tell me what you did to Kes and Leon!"
Kor'la'vin hissed, her hand covering a large, bloody spot on her stomach. With her other hand, she touched her ear. "Pull me out of here, now!" she shouted.
"No!" Iron Woman said, shooting the spot where the Skrull had disappeared. Was that what happened to Michael? Were they the ones controlling him?
"No..." Iron Woman repeated, falling to her knees. He could hear this odd breathing sound from the armor, which Steve realized with a start was hitched breathing and quiet tears. He started to reach out to her, then he remembered he wasn't real. He wasn't... Not like she would have felt it through the armor anyway, he thought, feeling more hysterical than he should be. He had to focus and... and do what, exactly? He might not even be alive. Nor did he know what year it really was. He was just a ghost made up of numbers and bits of code that had been created to betray Tony's legacy.
He sat down on the ground, pulling his legs against his chest like he used to when he was younger. Bucky had always berated him for it, saying it made him look even smaller, and Steve had gotten annoyed enough that he stopped the habit all together. But right now he wanted to be small again, unnoticed by the rest of the world. Forgotten to history, instead of being created to hurt one of his best friends.
If he wasn't real, then why did it hurt so damn much?
Steve looked up at the female voice. Iron Woman had the helmet off, revealing a girl who couldn't be older than fifteen or sixteen-years-old. She was dark-skinned with her hair straightened and pulled back into a neat bun. Her eyes were red and wet, but she wasn't crying anymore.
There were so many questions about what was actually going on, but Steve stayed quiet, the words stuck in his throat. He looked down again, closing his eyes.
"Sir?" she tried again. "Are you alright?"
"Does it matter?" Steve asked in return.
"I..." Iron Woman said, sounding very young and uncertain.
"I believe it does, Captain," a very familiar voice said. "It's very good to see you again, Sir. It's been a long time."
"JARVIS?" Steve uncurled a little, deciding the voice was coming from Iron Woman's armor. "How...?"
"An AI is not mortal, Captain," JARVIS replied, his voice far more human than Steve remembered, and much warmer. It was incredible. "I continued to watch over the children after you and Mr. Stark were..."
JARVIS paused, somehow expressing a level of grief that Steve couldn't help but marvel at. He wondered if Tony would be proud of how JARVIS had grown. Then he chided himself. Tony would be over the moon. And if JARVIS was feeling grief, then that meant... "Children? You mean Tony's kids?" he asked, hoping that would change the subject. Because as amazing as hearing how far JARVIS had come was, he didn't want the AI dwelling that grief, especially not when it matched so clearly with his own.
JARVIS didn't reply, but Steve felt a hand brush through him. He jerked back, looking around frantically. He didn't see anyone though. "What?" he asked.
Iron Woman looked just as startled as he was. "JARVIS? What's going on?"
"My apologies," JARVIS replied, a frightening amount of cold fury in his voice. Steve was reminded painfully of Tony's anger when one of the Avengers or his inner circle got hurt. "It appears that Kor'la'vin has blocked quite a lot of your memories concerning the Avengers. She has also mislead you on a great many things."
Steve had a feeling that was an understatement.
"What do you mean, JARVIS?" Iron Woman asked. "How is he even here anyway? The first Iron Man and Captain America died over five hundred years ago. The only reason I know what he looks like are the portraits at Kes and Leo's house. I mean, Michael being a hologram, that they could make, but the Captain feels... well, like you."
Five hundred years. Five... Steve swallowed, pushing the thoughts away as JARVIS started to explain. "Kor'la'vin has been using the recorded memories of Steven G. Rogers that were stolen in 2298 in order to recreate the voice patterns of a code that would shut down any version of the Iron Man armor. She also blocked the memories past April 23rd, 2014, leading you to believe that you were never recovered from Hydra."
Steve felt his breath catch in his throat. He had been found? But the articles... He'd read them, and they felt real. The Skrull said that he'd always been able to tell if the data was false. "The dates... It was never written down," Steve muttered to himself. He'd been told that he'd never been found, not in any of the articles. That's why there had been no dates and no digital clocks. He would have known. "JARVIS, when was I found?"
"Four months later, Captain," JARVIS confirmed. "Mr. Stark refused to stop looking."
A light on Iron Woman's arm lit up, projecting a picture for both of them to see. It was the picture of Tony that Dr. McDonnell had... that the Skrull had shown him of Tony, smiling at someone outside of the frame with a look that Steve had longed for. But this time, the picture was bigger. It'd been cut off, Steve realized. His mouth went dry as he stood and moved closer. Steve was in the other half of the picture. There was a wedding band that matched Tony's on his hand. Tony had been smiling at him.
"Tony," he choked out, wishing he could touch the picture like he could a photograph. They had taken this from him, these memories. He'd been married and they'd stolen that away from him. They'd stolen that all away just to turn him into some kind of code designed to hurt the man he'd come to love the most.
Steve's hands fisted at his sides. "Turn me off," he said quietly, closing his eyes. If JARVIS could have fixed this, he would have with that brush into Steve's coding. The fact that he still didn't have them meant this wasn't going to be fixed. He wasn't real, and this wasn't a fight that he could even try to stand up to. He wasn't even alive anymore.
"Captain?" Iron Woman said, looking lost.
"I'm a hologram, right?" Steve said. "A computer simulation that was made to hurt people. Just turn me off and don't turn me back on again."
"Captain Rogers, you're more than-"
"I'm not needed here, JARVIS. Let me go back to sleep."
There was a long silence as Steve waited for a reply. Then with a sorrow that Steve had never heard before in his voice, JARVIS answered, "As you wish, Captain. Miss Rhodes, there is a power source on the east side of the building that is the most likely place to store the crystal with Captain Rogers's memories."
"But I can't... You're asking me to kill him?" Iron Woman... girl, really, she was far too young. She reminded Steve of the kids who'd lied about their age to walk into hell in World War II. She looked at him with dark eyes that were full of grief. Steve felt guilty, asking someone so young to do this. But he couldn't keep going on like this either.
"I died a long time ago, Miss Rhodes," Steve said, thinking back to Tony's best friend who liked to tease Steve about making an honest man out of Tony. Colonel Rhodes had been a good man that Steve respected. And now there was a fifteen-year-old girl with his eyes standing in front of him. "Please. I was never meant to be here. I'm not real, not like JARVIS is. I'm just a bit of code put together to find out how to hurt you. Just let me sleep."
She looked like she was about to start crying again, but she nodded. "Okay," she said, walking towards the door. Steve followed after her as they searched in silence. The hospital looked dark and deserted, and Steve wondered how many of the nurses and doctors had been holograms like himself. How had he never noticed? Had he been that far out of it that he couldn't tell the difference between real and machine?
Of course he hadn't. He wasn't even real himself. Steve swallowed around that truth, wondering if the ache where Tony and his friends should have fit was real or a code. He didn't want to feel it, not when it left him empty and raw, a fresh wound bleeding out until there was nothing left but the cold husk that had to keep moving. He couldn't do that again, not when he barely managed to pull through the first time. He was obsolete, and he no longer had things that tied him here.
Finally, they came to a wall on the eastern section of the building. It looked like a normal wall. "It's on the other side?" Rhodes asked. She powered up a repulsor.
"I recommend against that course of action, Miss Rhodes, as there could be delicate equipment on the other side," JARVIS said dryly.
"Oh. Sorry," Rhodes said, lowering her arm.
"What do you think, JARVIS," Steve asked, only just remembering that he couldn't put a hand on her shoulder. "How can we get in?"
"I believe the door is covered by a hologram. Perhaps if Miss Rhodes were to feel along the wall, we might be able to find the access panel. I apologize for not finding a more specific location, but there is something interfering with the suit's sensors. I will put in the access codes once we find the panel."
"I... right," Rhodes said, putting her hand out. The sound of metal against the concrete of the wall was a dull scraping, and Steve tried not to think of a more familiar red and gold that he could almost see if he looked at her out of the corner of his eye. Wishful thinking.
"You said..." Steve started hesitantly. "Michael Stark, he's dead?"
Rhodes nodded, still searching the wall. "Michael Stark-Rogers, yeah. Over 200 years ago. We all know the armor, and no one has used those colors since. It wasn't his fault."
Steve felt like his breath had been taken away. Stark-Rogers. "He was controlled," Steve said, glad that he'd at least gotten something right.
"By Kang," Rhodes confirmed. "He was - he stopped it in the end. He sacrificed himself to save everyone. He was a hero, no matter what that bitch told you."
Steve closed his eyes, mourning for someone whom he'd missed completely. A hero. That man who had offered nothing but good to the world, twisted until the only option left was self-sacrifice. He wondered if self-loathing ran in Stark blood, and if it had been misplaced atonement as well.
But with a name like Stark-Rogers... "Tony and I adopted?" Steve asked, another punch to the gut. Another thing the Skrulls had taken from him.
"Ms. Potts agreed to act as a surrogate," JARVIS replied. "You refused to let the genetics of the serum be passed down, as there were too many risks involved and your natural genetics would not allow a child a high quality of life. But Mr. Stark was a baseline human with a hereditary leaning towards alcoholism. You convinced him that it would work out. You had two children. James Edwin Stark-Rogers, and Margaret Virginia Stark-Rogers."
Steve closed his eyes, wondering what it would have been like to hold his son or daughter for the first time, or to see them set off on their first day at school. Tony would have...
"I found it!" Rhodes said. She spread her hand against the wall and it opened, revealing a large room filled with machines and computers. It was all alien to Steve, but he thought he recognized some of the Skrull markings. He stepped inside, half-expecting to find himself back in the place he'd woken up in - Reset, his mind supplied - but the Skrull technology apparently covered the whole building. They must not have thought to restrict him from a place he couldn't see.
Steve wondered how that worked. He hadn't been to this part of the building, but he hadn't exactly been able to see through the wall either. If he could tell when data was false... Then again, when the data was spoken, he'd believed it well enough. His normal senses weren't above deception, since Michael had seemed real. Perhaps because it was data he recorded himself rather than data on a tablet that was already stored? Tony would know.
Except Tony really was dead.
There was a large, multi-colored crystal on one of the panels, and he could make out the letters that ran along the base. 'Steven Grant Rogers.' "That's..." he said.
"Indeed, Captain," JARVIS said. "That is where the memories of your human body were recorded and stored. It was stolen in 2298 by unknown thieves. It's been a long time that you've been away from home. But if I may say so, being a hologram made up from these memories does not make you any less real."
"Sorry, JARVIS, but I can't... Not this time." Steve wouldn't be able to take it out. He knew that instinctively. He turned to Rhodes, the only person who could. "Please," he said quietly. "Take it out."
"Don't turn me back on either," Steve said. "I'm not... I'm sorry. I know this is a terrible thing to ask, but I've lived my life already. I don't need to drag this out again. Take the crystal out, and never put it back in again."
Rhodes's eyes were wet, but she nodded. "I'm sorry," she said as she raised a trembling hand to the crystal.
"It's okay," he assured her. "This is what I want. I'm obsolete here, not even real. I'm not needed."
"That's not true. You could-" she started.
"The world doesn't need Captain America anymore," Steve said finally.
Rhodes hand rested on the crystal. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "That's not true," she said again, her voice barely a whisper. "We've always needed him."
That was the last thing Steve heard before oblivion overtook him.
* * *
Steve was floating again. Once again, he lacked a body to actually float, but it was the closest he could come to describing the experience. This time, however, he understood what it meant, since the Skrulls weren't around to erase his memories. This was what it was like to be a computer like JARVIS. They were turning him on again, and it had only been five months. September 14th, 2522, little over 500 years since his death. Couldn't they just let him sleep?
There was what Steve could only call new data in front of him. Well, not in front of him exactly, but he was able to open and look at it, in whatever weird ways that computers worked. Tony would know. But Tony was dead, and so was the real Steve. Steve debated opening the data, but he decided if all he was going to do was be maudlin, he might as well check it out.
The packet contained a lot of information about the five hundred years since he... since the real Steve Rogers died. Innovations, the Stark-Rogers family tree, the evolution of the Avengers. Steve ignored all of that for now. He could go back to it later. What mattered now was the information the Skrulls had left out.
The other Avengers' lives were more or less the same. But Tony's... Five years after they'd started dating, Tony had tried to propose. He apparently had taken Steve to the same shabu shabu restaurant where they had one of their first 'official' dates.
Steve hadn't actually realized Tony was courting him, not until Tony's hand brushed across his a little too intimately. Steve looked up in surprise and Tony immediately pulled back. "Hey, that's okay too. We can keep things secret in public. I don't mind. We just haven't had much time alone together recently and I... You know what, never mind. You're right. It's good to be secret," Tony babbled.
Leave it to Tony to completely forget to tell a person they were going on a date rather than just having lunch. Steve had no doubt if he'd said something about it now, Tony would be completely baffled and certain that he had asked properly. The problem was what did Steve want to do about it?
Steve didn't let on that this was a revelation though. He sat in his room that night, thinking over the past dinners and times he'd hung out with Tony. The next morning he went to Tony's office and brought him his favorite coffee from a few blocks away. "Sorry about yesterday," Steve said, leaning over the desk. "I hadn't really thought about it, and I was surprised. But I've been thinking things over, and I think I'd like everyone knowing."
The look of surprise on Tony's face was a little heartbreaking. "Steve, you-"
Steve didn't wait for Tony to finish his sentence, instead walking around and stealing his first kiss. When Steve pulled back, Tony had one of the most brilliant smiles Steve had ever seen on him. "That okay with you?" Steve asked, his heart pounding.
"Yeah. Yeah, A-Okay, Cap," Tony replied, cradling the coffee against him. Steve looked back as he left and saw Tony staring down at it with a small smile. Steve resolved to see those smiles as often as possible.
Steve pushed the memory away, knowing that thinking about the way Tony's lips had felt against his would only make things worse. He continued with the data. The proposal itself was recounted in an interview that Steve stared at and didn't touch for a minute, then he played the video.
"I was really nervous," Tony admitted, waving his hands about with Steve's arm slung over his shoulders. "I mean, how do you propose to Captain America? With apple pie and fireworks? Except Steve hates fireworks and he's always exasperated when I bring up apple pie and bald eagles-"
"Tony," Steve said, with the aforementioned look of exasperation. "You're being ridiculous."
"Then he does that, and how is that not supposed to make you nervous?" Tony said, crossing his arms in front of his chest. Steve leaned over and kissed his temple, earning him a small smile. "Anyway, Steve had to take a call, but I accidentally dropped the ring in the soup. I was trying to fish it out when Steve came back saying that there was an emergency and the Avengers were needed. I barely had time to tell the waiter to save the pot for when we came back."
"Then you got yourself badly injured and snuck out of the hospital," Steve said, pulling Tony closer. There was a look of reproach in Steve's eyes, and a barely hidden fear. "You scared me half to death. Don't do that again."
"It was the ring, Steve. It was important!" Tony said, taking hold of Steve's hand and squeezing it gently.
"Not more important than your life," Steve replied, but he squeezed Tony's hand back. "I was so furious when I finally found him staring at his phone in front of the restaurant. I started to yell at him, but Tony was so out of it that he was ignoring me, which only made me angrier."
Tony looked sheepish at this. "Sorry, honey," he said, snuggling a little closer. "But anyway, JARVIS finally got through to the owner, who rushed over since I was refusing to leave until I spoke with someone."
"Normally I would just drag him away, but Tony had found one of his older armors and he was staying put. He was too out of it from blood loss for me to try anything."
"I did say I was sorry?"
Steve shot him a look that Tony just smiled cheekily at. "When the manager got there and said they had found the ring, I was so shocked. But Tony didn't even look at me. The manager handed over the ring and as soon as Tony had it, he fainted dead away, armor and all."
"It was important," Tony muttered, his cheeks coloring faintly as Steve's expression softened. "So then the next time I woke up, I started panicking because I couldn't find it. And this smug bastard was already wearing it. So I-"
Steve stopped the interview playing. He stared at the two of them, with matching rings. They both looked older, having seen years that Steve didn't remember. He could hardly even think about marriage right now. Yeah, he wanted something long-term and he hoped that Tony was that person, but neither of them were anywhere near ready for a step like that last he remembered.
He skipped through the information on the kids, not sure if he was ready for that yet. He got to the file on his death and felt a sense of the surreal. It was like he was Tom Sawyer, looking in on his own funeral. He was surprised to find that the articles were already familiar. They were the articles on Tony's death that the Skrulls had given him, but they weren't just articles about Tony.
Steve had fought beside him. He'd had Tony's back, up to the very end. Steve looked through the photos of the grim scene. Tony was older than Steve had ever seen him, with laugh lines and bits of grey at his temples. He'd look distinguished if it weren't for the fact he was still wearing ridiculous red and gold armor. The armor itself was practically molded to Tony's body, punctured and twisted, one leg obviously shattered. His eyes were closed, and the reactor was dark, but he was cradled in Steve's arms, his head against Steve's shoulder.
Steve also looked older, in a uniform that he didn't recognize. He had his shield in front of them, warding off any other attackers. There was a blood mark on Tony's forehead that looked like it had come from Steve's bloody lip rather than from a wound. There was a spear or weapon of some sort in Steve's other shoulder, going straight through, but Steve's face looked peaceful. They'd protected the city, and he'd had Tony's back up to the end. He wasn't alone.
If Steve had a body, he'd be weeping. As it was, an ache settled in his wires. It reminded him of how much he'd missed. This was his life they had stolen from him, giving him an empty hole where the memories were supposed to be. They had taken this from him, and Steve just wanted to be left alone.